Study Guide

Sailing into the Unknown

by M. L. Rosenthal

Sailing into the Unknown Analysis

Sailing into the Unknown (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

When M. L. Rosenthal enters the first leg of his Sailing into the Unknown, he carries with him and his reader as crew member the words from Ezra Pound’s “Canto 47”: “Knowledge the shade of a shade/Yet must thou sail after knowledge.” Knowledge, for Rosenthal as he looks at the work of three modern masters, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats, becomes understanding that arises from “an openness to what’s there, a [giving] of love when love is indeed called for.”

The premise that seems to underlie Sailing into the Unknown, as well as the author’s other critical efforts, is that the intrinsic life of a work of art should not be made minor by terminology or eviscerated by the academic knife. Assuming that he is not begging the question, one watches to see how he avoids this. Agreed: to keep the vitality and delight that play in a poem, one must not strain its passion and mystery through a net of intellectuality. He mostly sticks to his own guns, and to the guns of Rilke, Cummings, and Lawrence, who urged a little tenderness and respect “for the grace that shines within” poems “that demand a living mirror of grateful recognition.” Rosenthal says that any fool can see Whitman’s weaknesses, for instance. This insight takes no particular ability; one suspects that any fool can also see Whitman’s shining graces.

Sailing into the Unknown makes an insistent plea for criticizing at levels above delving and nit-picking. This plea makes Rosenthal required reading. However, he never says one should throw out the baby with the bath water of critical excess. As a result, his book is noteworthy for its concentration on the qualitative achievement of these poets, Pound often having the edge. Rosenthal gives him more attention and colors him favored, if not superior. He looks at the impact of these poets’ explorations into the unknown and hazardous waters of the new genre, the modern poetic sequence, upon the nerve endings of subsequent travelers on poetic seas. In doing so, he insists upon recognizing the extraordinary part played by feeling and tone, and on the improvisatory ingredient in their works, looking as well at their felt influence on poets who followed: Joyce, “the great prose poet of the age”; W. C Williams; Black Mountain poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley; William Empson; and Philip Larkin.

Writing from the base of his own experience as a poet, Rosenthal makes a case for reading with love and with some of the lucid essentiality associated with a sea voyage, where instincts and intuitions take the place of maps and instruments.

The explorations of the lives of these poetic sequences occupied some years of planning before completion of the book. It begins with a statement of beliefs. Poets are their poems. The poet’s death is to be kept from the poem, to paraphrase Auden in his poem on the death of Yeats. The poet creates something transcendent, alien, which takes hold, invades, scattering briefly one’s learned and comfortable system of language. Another belief here stated is that to hear a poem purely is to have access to a distillate of intimacy, “however vulgar or refined, free from external information.” Diverse states of feeling may merge which give birth to mystery and indefinable pressure from deep within the work. Here the poet lives in his poem world, “mind entire,” a world in which he works out with reality. Now to see these beliefs in practice, in “Canto 47,” Pound delineates the fusion of the past and the present, sees the human element in process. These fascinate Rosenthal: Pound’s seeming love affair with method, his bouts with structure, and the integration of politics into his poetry. With Yeats, the attraction is his experimental use of conventional forms; and with Eliot, Rosenthal plunges into the balance of his sense of the absurd with sensibility, and concurrently his affirmation, if unwillingly, of the Christian faith. At the same time, the “idiosyncratic life and force” in the poems can only be explored looking at each poem individually. In this way, the virtuosity which surpasses craftsmanship can work on the reader and can...

(The entire section is 1710 words.)

Sailing into the Unknown Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Choice. XV, September, 1978, p. 874.

Library Journal. CIII, April 1, 1978, p. 755.

New York Times Book Review. April 2, 1978, p. 14.

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, October, 1978, p. R118.