Delmore Schwartz Essay - Critical Essays

Delmore Schwartz Poetry: American Poets Analysis

Coming of age in the intellectual climate of New York in the 1930’s, Delmore Schwartz could hardly have avoided the twin influences of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, whose ghosts meet to analyze the hero’s motives in Coriolanus and His Mother. Freud argues for Volumnia’s primacy in the formation of Coriolanus’s psyche, Marx for Rome’s. Finally, mother and city merge into a symbol of the past which neither Coriolanus nor the poet can escape. The model is elaborated in one of his best essays, “The Two Audens,” which appeared in the first issue of Kenyon Review in 1939. In the essay, Schwartz defined the Marxist Auden, the poet of contemporary social concerns, and the Freudian Auden, who reported the “intuitions of psychic life.” While Schwartz preferred Auden’s latter persona, it is clearly the interplay between public (ego) and private (id) selves that fascinated him.

However, it was Eliot who was Schwartz’s “culture hero,” the seer who discovered new forms and a new idiom for the modern world. Schwartz’s ambition was to provide for the 1930’s and 1940’s the image of the times that Eliot had etched for an earlier generation. So long as Schwartz maintained a degree of Eliot’s intellectual objectivity, his poetry, especially that of In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, brilliantly fulfilled his program, but he was compelled to treat the history of his times as inseparable from the history of himself. Thus Genesis is largely vitiated by Schwartz’s obsession with the minutiae of Hershey Green’s life, which is still bogged down in adolescence after two hundred pages of verse. James Atlas argues that Schwartz’s background militated against the adoption of Eliot’s poetic manner—authoritarian, aloof, detached—and that Arthur Rimbaud (whose Une Saison en enfer, 1873; A Season in Hell, 1932; he quirkily translated) and especially Charles Baudelaire provoked his rhetorical flights of grief and rage.

Baudelaire, Eliot, and another of his literary heroes, James Joyce, embody Schwartz’s obsession with the social alienation of the poet, although Eliot was firmly ensconced in the literary establishment by the 1930’s. The titles of such essays as “The Isolation of Modern Poetry,” “The Vocation of the Poet in the Modern World,” and “The Present State of Poetry” hint at the poet’s marginality. Schwartz’s alienation as a poet, deepened by his Jewishness, often took the form of a paranoia that he found increasingly difficult to suppress in his poetry.

Most of Schwartz’s poetry is based on a varied but traditionaliambic pentameter line that tends to lengthen and loosen in his later work. Images of snow—pacifying, concealing, obliterating—and light—dazzling, clarifying, transcending—permeate his poetry. No matter how they are structured and whatever imagery they employ, Schwartz’s poems relentlessly explore his intertwined themes: the nature of the self, the alienation of the poet and Jew, the burden of the past, and the defeat of human aspirations. A discussion of his best poems most conveniently follows the order of their appearance in Summer Knowledge.

“The Ballad of the Children of the Czar”

“The Ballad of the Children of the Czar” imagines two events occurring simultaneously in 1916: The czar’s children play with an erratically bouncing ball in their father’s garden; six thousand miles away the two-year-old Schwartz eats a baked potato in his high chair. Simultaneity is reinforced by the mention of the poet’s grandfather, who, after suffering in the czar’s army, hid in a “wine-stinking barrel” for three days in Bucharest, and escaped to America where he “became a king himself.” However, the poem is no parable of freedom—quite the opposite. The czar’s children cannot control the ball which rolls beyond the garden’s iron gate; their frustrated howls are echoed by the infant Schwartz whose buttered potato slips from his hands. Next year, the Russian Revolution will seal the fate of the czar’s children, prefigured in the loss of their ball. A lost ball, a dropped potato: Humans can neither arbitrate their happiness nor control their fate. Children of czars and immigrants alike are victims of inherited history, which is at once irrecoverable and inescapable. Ironically, the very ubiquity of the past underlines humanity’s fatal inability to change it. The poem recalls Aeneas bearing old Anchises on his back as they flee burning Troy; so must all children bear their fathers’ weight, the burden of which they can never unload.

“In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave”

“In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” expands Schwartz’s discussion of the limits of human knowledge. Underlying the poem is Plato’s parable of the cave, where chained prisoners face a wall on which they can see only shadows cast by firelight. So are all men chained, argues Plato, by their limited knowledge; they are doomed to take shadows for the reality that lies in the sunlight outside their cave. Schwartz, lying awake in bed, sees reflected headlights sliding along his wall and hears the hammering of carpenters, the grinding of truck traffic, and finally the milkman striving up the stairs, his bottles chinking. Perplexed, still woozy from sleep, he greets the morning, which heralds the mystery of beginning again and again.

Schwartz takes over Plato’s distinction between appearance and reality, but reverses the conclusions of the parable. An actual bedroom replaces the symbolic cave, and the intensity and immediacy of the narrator’s impressions contrast with the shadowy and fragmentary perceptions of Plato’s chained prisoners. Moreover, the narrator sidles between bed and window, between sleep and wakefulness; Plato’s men are perpetual sleepers, condemned to watch an eternal shadow play. The poem’s conclusion points equally to human limitations, although in a different manner. The world in time—that is, the world apprehended by the speaker—is the real world. Schwartz has met Plato’s dilemma, not by resolving its dualism but by denying its existence. “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” thus confirms the validity of human perception even as it fixes its boundaries.

“Far Rockaway”

“Far Rockaway” takes its title from the public beach where New Yorkers cast aside the “rigor of the weekday” with their shoes. The radiant seashore, the swaying light, the “passionate sun,” and the glittering sea are positive images which, in the poem’s first four stanzas, propose freedom not only from weekday care but also perhaps from time itself. The fifth stanza, however, introduces “the novelist,” a detached observer, an introspective man whose concern is “the cure of souls” first cited in the epigraph of the poem, where it is attributed to Henry James. In a series of rhetorical questions, the intruder reduces weekend joy to trivial escapism: a “cure” for the body but no surcease for the soul. Day’s radiance yields to a “haunting, haunted moon.” The lesson of the master, suitably opaque, may be that sensual abandonment, the summum bonum of the masses, is a delusion and is, in any case, impossible for the detached artist, forever on the boardwalk, never on the beach.

“Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses”

A variation on this theme occurs in “Tired and Unhappy, You Think of Houses,” wherein another outsider imagines a cozy family scene, which, for him, must remain a “banal dream.” Turning away to the anonymity of the subway rush, he is “Caught in an anger exact as a machine!” Still another instance of the artist’s social alienation is expressed dramatically in “Parlez-Vous Francais?” This time the scene is a barbershop, which,...

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