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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1081

First published: 1931

Type of work: Literary history and criticism

Critical Evaluation:

The subtitle of this volume, which has by now become a minor classic in American criticism, explains the author's purpose: to write a "study in the imaginative literature of 1870-1930"; and the dedicatory note, addressed to Christian Gauss of Princeton, explains the author's conception of "what literary criticism ought to be," that is, "a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the setting of the conditions which have shaped them." The book is, however, more limited than the subtitle might seem to indicate; it is actually a history of the Symbolist movement that began in France and spread to England and finally to America. The writers to whom Wilson directs his attention are Yeats, Valery, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Rimbaud, although dozens of others are dealt with in greater or lesser detail.

The importance of the book becomes more apparent if the date of publication, 1931, is kept in mind, for we then realize to what an extent it was a pioneer work. In 1931, Proust, though certainly known in this country, was read by only a few, and most of the critical articles dealing with his novel were in French. Maurois' A LA RECHERCHE DE MARCEL PROUST did not appear until 1949. Joyce's ULYSSES was still unprocurable in the United States, for the famous decision of Judge Woolsey that permitted its publication was two years in the future. Matthiessen's THE ACHIEVEMENT OF T. S. ELIOT was still further off—1935. Rimbaud and Valery were not, and still are not, much read in America. At the time Wilson was introducing a group of writers who were, for most readers, merely names, the exception being Yeats, and he was associated chiefly with THE LAND OF HEART'S DESIRE and a few early poems.

Wilson begins his history with a discussion of Neoclassicism in the eighteenth century, the era of the "geometrical plays of Racine and the balanced couplets of Pope." When this "conception of a fixed mathematical order" came to be considered as a constraint on the human spirit, we find ourselves in the Romantic period, at which time the poet, looking into his own soul, saw "fantasy, conflict, confusion," and yet considered this vision as a truth superior to the mechanistic view held in the eighteenth century. Then came the scientific discoveries of the middle years of the nineteenth century (the most famous of which Darwin described in ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES), which reduced man from the heroic being constructed by the Romantic imagination to a mere animal among other animals. From this point of view arose the literary movement known as Naturalism, associated chiefly with the novels of Zola, which maintained that man was merely the product of his heredity and environment and that, therefore, the plot of a novel was as inevitable in its working-out as was a problem in mathematics. In poetry, there was in France the school known as the Parnassians, whose aim it was to write poems that were purely objective descriptions of historic events or of scenic effects. The imagination, as we perhaps loosely call it, was rigorously excluded by the Naturalists from the novel and by the Parnassians from poetry.

Edmund Wilson traces the course of the Symbolist school, which was perhaps an inevitable reaction against the impersonality of Leconte de Lisle and Heredia, from its orgins in the work of Poe—first translated into French by Baudelaire—to its full development in the hands of Mallarme and Valery. Its aim "was the poet's task to find, to invent, the special language which will alone be capable of expressing his personality and feelings." The need of symbols by means of which the poet can attain this objective is obvious; equally obvious is the danger that such symbols may become so private as to render the poem unintelligible. The poet is now talking to himself in his special language. From this time on, unintelligibility is the charge most commonly brought against poetry.

Wilson next discusses the individual writers already listed, although they draw further and further away from the Symbolist movement that was the start of the book. The early Yeats, of course, found a storehouse of symbols convenient to his hand in Irish mythology; he later added further items from his dabblings in cabalistic imagery. In the case of Eliot, Wilson shows his descent from a different branch of the Symbolist movement, that of Corbiere and Laforgue, both of whom influenced the early work of the American poet. Then came THE WASTE LAND in 1922, with its complicated and unfamiliar symbolism drawn from the Grail legends. As for Proust, Wilson considers him to have been "the first important novelist to apply the principles of Symbolism in fiction." With Proust we encounter the influence of Wagner, who, Wilson maintains, played as great a part in the history of this movement as did any poet. In REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST the symbols are "characters, situations, places" used in an elaborate "symphonic structure" that takes the place of the narrative of the conventional novel. And the enormously involved Homeric symbolism of Joyce's ULYSSES is, today, familiar to students of contemporary literature, though it was by no means familiar in 1931 when the only copies of the novel available were those smuggled into this country from France.

The reader of this book is constantly aware of Wilson's perceptiveness as a critic and interpreter of literature, his ability to untangle the skein of influences and cross-influences involved in the movement he is describing. Further, Wilson has always displayed great common sense; he was not so dazzled by the eminence of his subjects as to be oblivious of their shortcomings—the unnecessary elaboration of ULYSSES, for example, or Joyce's use of technique for its own sake. Only in dealing with Eliot's ASH WEDNESDAY did Wilson seem to go astray. Quite typically of the period, he could not accept the sincerity of Eliot's Anglo-Catholicism. It had to be "artificial" at a time, the early 1930's, marked by the high point of secular humanism in this country.

Last, but by no means least, the book is an example of the "old criticism" that in the best tradition of literary scholarship got its job done simply and directly without the use of a jargon so esoteric as to require a glossary for its comprehension. AXEL'S CASTLE is a clear, lucid, and important book, considered by some readers to be the best that Edmund Wilson has written.

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