J. V. Cunningham Essay - Critical Essays


J. V. Cunningham’s small but distinguished corpus of poetry (he preferred to call it verse) challenges many modern assumptions. In an age dominated by freer forms, he devoted himself to meter, fixed stanzas, and—more often than not—rhyme. His poems are taut, plain, and philosophical, with the feeling tightly controlled. The proportion of general statement to sensory detail is high, as is that of abstract words to concrete and imagistic language. Although he eschewed the self as the focus of lyric, he had a highly proprietary attitude toward his poems, insisting that they belonged essentially to him rather than to his readers. He appeared quite content to reach a relatively select readership capable of appreciating the subtlety and precision of his work. In both theory and practice, he went his own way, often in contradistinction to, sometimes in defiance of, the norms of twentieth century lyric.

The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham

As a scholar trained in the Greek and Latin classics and in English Renaissance poetry, he brought the predilections of his favorite literary periods to his own verse. His classicism emerges in a number of ways. Cunningham’s favorite form, the epigram, was perfected in Latin by Martial in the first century c.e. and in English by Ben Jonson early in the seventeenth century. More than half the poems in The Collected Poems and Epigrams of J. V. Cunningham are termed epigrams, while a number of others have epigrammatic qualities. Although he called only one of his poems an ode, a number of others fall within the tradition of the Horatian ode. He frequently imitates—or rather seeks English equivalents for—Latin stanzas and meters. It is no accident that his favorite stanzas, like those of Horace in his odes, are quatrains, sometimes with the contours and movement of the Roman poet’s Alcaic meter, and couplets, which were Martial’s and Jonson’s preferred way of rendering the terse and witty statements of epigram.

Another aspect of his classicism is his fondness for Latin titles such as “Agnosco Veteris Vestigia Flammae” (I recognize the traces of an old flame), “Timor Dei” (the fear of God), and “Lector Aere Perennior.” The last of these illustrates his penchant for allusion, as it appropriates a famous Horatian phrase about poetry being a monument more lasting than bronze and applies it to the lector, the reader of the poetry. Wittily manipulating a Latin commonplace about the fame of poets, some basic concepts of medieval Scholasticism, and Pythagoras’s theory of the transmigration of souls, Cunningham argues that the poet’s immortality inheres not in the poet, who, except as a name, is forgotten, but in the reader—in each successive reader for whom the poem comes to life again. Adapting phrases from Horace is one of his favorite ploys. Horace wrote odi profanum vulgus (“I hate the common crowd”); Cunningham, “I like the trivial, vulgar, and exalted.” He also appropriates the old but relatively rare Latinate word haecceity, meaning “thisness,” to express his own theory that the preoccupation with any particular “this” is evil.

Often, he takes advantage of Latin roots to extend meaning. One of his lines in “All Choice Is Error”—“Radical change, the root of human woe!”— reminds the reader that “radical” means root. His poem “Passion” requires for its full effect an awareness that patior (whose past participle, passus, provides the basis of the English word) means “suffer,” that patior is a passive verb (he calls passion “love’s passive form”), and that the medieval derivation passio was used not only in theological discourse, referring to Christ’s suffering, but also in philosophical discourse, to indicate that which is passive or acted on. Sometimes his employment of etymology is very sly, as in his phrase “mere conservative,” where, clued by his awareness that “conservative” is an honorific to Cunningham, the reader benefits from knowing that merus means “pure,” a fact now obscured by the English adjective’s having changed from meaning “nothing less than” to “nothing more than.”

Classical poets also manipulated syntax for emphasis in ways that are not always available to English poets, but Cunningham plays the sentence against the line variously, using enjambments in such poems as “Think” and “Monday Morning” to throw into striking relief words that might otherwise be obscured. He is fond of classical syntactical figures such as chiasmus. “So he may discover/ As Scholar truth, sincerity as lover” exhibits this reversal of word order in otherwise parallel phrases. It might be noted that Cunningham shares with many free-verse poets a liking for visually arresting enjambments and displacements; he differs primarily in adjusting them to the formal demands of meter.

What might be called Jonsonian neoclassicism favors poets such as Horace and Martial, who treat of their subjects in a cool and somewhat impersonal tone, carefully regulating—though not abjuring—feeling and striving for the general import of their subjects. Readers of Jonson’s lyrics will recall his poem “On My First Son,” which illustrates these traits well, though dealing with a heartrending experience, the death of a young son. Jonson generates not only a quiet but unmistakable sense of grief and resentment but also a corrective admonition against the moral dangers of selfishness and presumption in lamenting such a common occurrence too much. Cunningham’s “Consolatio Nova” (new consolation), on the death of his publisher and champion, Alan Swallow, exhibits many of the same virtues. It generalizes, and no feeling overflows, but the careful reader sees that the loss is a specific and deeply felt one. A similarly quiet tone and controlled feeling mark “Obsequies for a Poetess.”

A scholar himself, Jonson would have appreciated “To a Friend, on Her Examination for the Doctorate in English” and, except for the feminine pronoun and the latter-day degree, would have recognized in the title a perfectly appropriate theme for a poem, for in both classical and neoclassical Renaissance poetry, friendship rivaled love as a theme. “The Aged Lover Discourses in the Flat Style” is also Jonsonian from its title onward, Cunningham even adapting to his own sparer person some of Jonson’s physical description in “My Picture Left in Scotland.” The modern poet’s fine “To My Wife,” though more paradoxical than Jonson was as a rule, illustrates well the classical restraint in dealing with love. It is a poem of four quatrains in cross-rhymed tetrameter, the first two presenting images of landscape and the seasons, the last two modulating to quiet statement dominated by abstractions: terror, delight, regret, anger, love, time, grace.

Two more reputed classical virtues are simplicity and brevity. At first glance, Cunningham’s poems do not seem unfailingly simple, for although the language itself is not notably difficult, the thought is often complex and usually highly compressed. Cunningham displays no urge to embellish or amplify, however, and his assessment of his own style as plain or “flat” is accurate. Brevity can test the reader’s comprehension, and brevity is the very essence of Cunningham’s poetic. Of the 175 original poems and epigrams in his collected verse, the longest is thirty-six lines, and many are much shorter. It is a small book for a man who wrote poetry for more than forty years. The classical model here is perhaps Vergil, traditionally thought to be happy with a daily output of an acceptable line or two. For Cunningham, the perfection of a lyric outshines any number of diamonds in the rough.

The folly of particularity

Although Cunningham’s classically inspired challenge to modern poetry was thoroughgoing and persistent, he did modify it over his career. He disapproved vigorously of poetry that merely recounts experience or indulges in emotion, and his early poems in particular concentrate on interpreting experience and subduing emotion. An early poem, “All Choice Is Error,” sets forth a conviction that because choice signifies not merely the preference of one thing for another but also the rejection of all other possibilities, choice must be seen as evil, even if it is necessary evil. Choices restrict life, and the habit of favoring particularities in verse—a habit of twentieth century poets, in Cunningham’s view—is an especially lamentable habit. This poem develops the theme with reference to lovers’ traditional fondness for carving their initials on such surfaces as tree trunks provide. Since there can be few people who have not reflected on the folly of thus publicizing a choice that all too soon may look silly or embarrassing, it is a clever motif to illustrate his point about the folly of particularity. The poem celebrates time and the elements, which smooth the lovers’ initials. What remains is recognizable as love, but the specificity of the lovers is happily lost.

“Haecceity” carries this theme further. It is a more philosophical poem, based on the argument that the actualization of any possibility is the denial of all other possibilities. Cunningham knows that people must make choices and that morally it may be better to choose one thing over another, but at the same...

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