Schwartz, Delmore 1913–1966
An American poet, playwright, and critic, Schwartz is best known for In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Summer Knowledge. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
[Delmore] Schwartz's main theme has been what he calls 'the wound of consciousness.' Although he has not been able to push through to anything like the ruthless self-revelation of Lowell or Theodore Roethke, he has again and again stated the unrelenting moral crises which make it so necessary. His poetry relates them to the inescapable demands of the 'dog named ego,' the relentless insistences of the body ('the heavy bear that walks with me'), the weight of history and the physical world around us, pressures forever scrutinized by the eye of the protagonist's pervasive guilt.
M. L. Rosenthal, in his The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (© 1960 by M. L. Rosenthal; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1960, pp. 238-39.
Whatever the details of Schwartz's life, the poems in this volume [Summer Knowledge] are in general fresh, verbally exuberant, even gay. They locate us not at the center of a tormented soul but at the edge of a quick and lively consciousness responding to an endlessly alive and changing world of things and movements….
Schwartz celebrates the day's sensual and metamorphic splendour by indulging in word play that stops just short of extravagance; at the same time he reminds us—casually, not gloomily—of the transcience of this or any other moment. The moment is stopped, held while the pattern of details is woven, and then, quite deftly, released; it is the movement of things, not the responses of the speaker, that creates emotion.
Richard A. Johnson, in Sewanee Review (© 1968 by The University of the South), Autumn, 1968, pp. 682-83.
The world had already become a place of "broken fragments" for two generations of poets before Delmore Schwartz published his first volume of poetry in 1938. He had received a legacy of spiritual doubt and intellectual uncertainty from his predecessors, and out of his struggle with those painful clichés, so characteristic of our age, he was to make a few fine poems. The kind of world he shows us in those poems is a familiar one: mass man, surrounded by nameless faces, lives in a city of steel and concrete, subject only to mechanical, impersonal forces. He may dream of warmth and happiness, but the grey city always reasserts itself. Identity is lost in the rush of time, and even human life under such conditions may almost be characterized by the phrase which Whitehead uses to describe nature—"merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly."
James F. Knapp, "Delmore Schwartz: Poet of the Orphic Journey," in Sewanee Review (© 1970 by The University of the South), Summer, 1970, pp. 506-16.
In its unwitting way the jacket copy [of the 1967 printing of Summer Knowledge ] is for once correct. We are told that we cannot read Schwartz's poems without thinking of "the alienation of the poet from our society," and we are told to regard the life and work of Delmore Schwartz as if he were "some tormented figure in a myth." And perhaps we should, if it will help to bring some issues into sharp focus. There is the testimony of poem after poem by Schwartz that he often thought of himself in a similar light, and this is perhaps all the license we need for reminding ourselves that if Schwartz is indeed "some tormented figure in a myth," that myth must surely be our orthodox myth...
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of the poet and of poetic consciousness.
Although it may sound pretentious to speak in this way, I submit that there is such a myth, and that one cannot talk sensibly about Delmore Schwartz without considering it. It was not Schwartz's myth, though he understood its import more than most writers. He had not simply culled it from Coleridge, Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Freud, Rimbaud, though he knew that all these and many other nineteenth-century masters participated in the myth and had helped to articulate it. The extraordinary thing is the extent to which the myth was realized in Schwartz's poetry. To a remarkable degree, the explicit subject of his poetry is the implicit subject of all modern poetry: the terrible difficulties of consciousness….
I think that a reading of the poems in the last half of the book [Summer Knowledge] will quickly reveal certain words recurring time after time. Among these are knowledge, mortality, reality; but the really operative words are consciousness and love. The dangers and penalties of consciousness are, if anything, even more Schwartz's obsessive subject here than in the earlier work, but there is a marked difference, and that difference is marked by the coupling of love with the preoccupation with consciousness. It would be foolish to pin much of an argument on the recurrence of a single word, especially one so ambiguous as "love," and I do not do so. But its continual presence is one indication of an awareness of the possibility of an openness and freedom, in human relations and toward living nature, that was hardly noticeable in the early work….
There is none of the certainty of vision that characterizes the great visionary poets. It was as if he had the memory of the ancient visionary wisdom of poetry, and the conviction that it was in that direction that one had to turn if the effects of the destructive myth of the isolation of consciousness was to be overcome, but little confidence in his ability to really talk that language. He was so complete a modern that the equation, to be conscious=to suffer, was for him a nearly unchallengeable formula…. Schwartz comes right up to the edge; he nearly says, if you will continue to look carefully and meditatively at the world, you will find consciousness becoming transformed into that imaginative vision which is not isolated, but at one with its object and all nature, but he cannot quite manage it. He seems aware of the possibility, but he can only conceive of a temporary cessation from suffering….
In his later work Schwartz knew at least several things, in at least one portion of his being. He knew that the myth of the poet as sufferer was, if partly true nevertheless more wrong. He knew that to make consciousness an explicitly suffering state was wrong, but that the reverse, the flight into the Dionysiac attractions of the Unconscious was not necessarily less wrong. The "love" and "joy" which appear so often in the later work were not conditions he could claim to have reached, but he knew they must be attainable. The awareness of the beauty of growth, the loveliness of life, illuminates all the darkness which is always as close to Schwartz as his very name. He reaches toward something like a Goethean vision of a beautiful life permeating all our experience, a vision which denies the separation of an inner and an outer world, which mocks the notion of consciousness as a something which sits inside the box of the skull, sadly insulated from everything "out there"….
R. K. Meiners, in The Southern Review, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter, 1971, pp. 325-35.
[It] is clear why [Schwartz] was held in such respect, for reading through Delmore Schwartz's essays is like touring the monuments of literary modernism in the company of a wise and entertaining guide. As he ranges over the cultural landscape, he picks out deep generalities and details of language, intellectual background and psychological habit which reveal "the fate of Art and the emotion of the Artist." A lucid explainer of texts and difficult ideas—it comes as no surprise that he was a great teacher—he sets to right what he believes are confusions of method or lapses in sensibility without malice or self-promotion. His polemics indeed might serve as a model of the witty correction of error. He seeks to augment knowledge, not overpower us by glittering acrobatics on the dialectical highwire. The passionate seriousness and unhurried civility of his mind, "his solicitude for all sides of every question," insure a commentary that never falls into triviality or academic solemnity.
Herbert Leibowitz, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 17, 1971, pp. 3, 33.