Edgar Bowers Bowers, Edgar - Essay

Bowers, Edgar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bowers, Edgar 1924–

Bowers is an American poet. His verse has been compared to Hart Crane's and John Crowe Ransom's in its naturalistic concerns and structure. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

The psychological response to loss, to death in particular, is the theme of several of Edgar Bowers' poems in his first book, The Form of Loss. (p. 611)

[Implicit] in most of Bowers' work is the attempt to understand the Judeo-Christian religious heritage from the point of view of eighteenth-century rationalism. Unlike many today, however, he regards Christian ethical values neither as conventions to be assumed for convenience nor as nostalgic vestiges to be emotionally explored and rejected, but as an emotional reality with which neither his rationalism nor any twentieth-century psychological scheme has, as yet, successfully dealt. Hence, there is a psychological uncertainty in a few poems on Christian themes, such as "Palm Sunday" (in The Form of Loss), that mars them. For the most part, as in the second of the "Two Poems on the Catholic Bavarians," the religious heritage never represents something irretrievably lost—and hence purely evocative—but presents a problem to be grappled with. His problem is … the understanding of his own nature in relation to his heritage. The limitations of eighteenth-century rationalism and of the response of nineteen-century neoplatonism to it … increasingly concern Bowers…. Both the language and the experience of the poems in his second book, The Astronomers (1965), constitute a remarkable development. The Romantic extremes of self and nothingness are placed in a religious context in "A Song for Rising," and the sequence "Autumn Shade" records in detail the accession to the isolated consciousness of a reality that defines and encompasses it. In this context a means for successfully handling the problem of loss, which is conceived in "Autumn Shade" in terms of personal failure, is furnished. (p. 616)

Helen P. Trimpi, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1973, by Helen P. Trimpi), Vol. IX, No. 3, Summer, 1973.

Edgar Bowers's Living Together is a major publication, gathering his previous poems, some of which, including "Two Poems on the Catholic Bavarians," "An Afternoon at the Beach," and "The Astronomers of Mont Blanc," are in my judgment among the best American poems, and adding new poems. The title poem defines, with ghostly and lucid agony, how an absence becomes a presence, and its masterly variation of sound and pause is essential to the defining. All the new poems, except one polemical epigram, concern solitude: human communion despaired of, at times paradoxically or briefly reached; solipsism (more precisely, philosophical problems caused by the selfhood of the observer); and the opacity and indifference of nature…. The beauty of structure, rhythm, imagery, and diction of his poems belies the doubt, isolation, and valuelessness he writes of and presumes. Value, knowledge, beauty, faith—and an epistemology that makes them impossible—are his recurrent subjects, unsolved but explored with subtlety, dignity, and pain. (p. 397)

Paul Ramsey, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1974 by The University of the South), Spring, 1974.

The poems of Edgar Bowers [in Living Together] are so carefully and honestly made that it is ungracious to carp at them. And yet, some of the time, I do…. I for one have absolutely no objection to iambic quatrains. Think of Hart Crane. Of John Crowe Ransom. But [some of Bowers'] correct lines somehow do not move. Or consider all of "Chorus for the Untenured Personnel" (and I do like the title and the thought):

         If we are on probation, what's our crime?
         Original sin, mysterious want of grace,
         The apple that we ate in a happier time
         Of learning, friendship, courtesy, and wit—
         Our innocence! For see, the gorgon's face,
         The discipline of hatred, our true text.
         We read, in darkness visible, the X.

But what a mouthful of abstractions, and oh that saving apple, the only solid thing to bite on! So again, in five lines of "From William Tyndale to John Frith," we find "sweet threats," "malicious love," "dangerous fear of violence," "illusion's goodness," "worldly innocence," "just persuasion's old hypocrisy." Is it too carnal of us if we remain unmoved by these airy oxymorons? But if not moved, still admiring, since the intelligence and its expression are there. (pp. 461-62)

Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1974.

Because Edgar Bowers writes most commonly in terms of the relationship of intelligence to the natural world of sun, ocean, plants, and animals as well as to his own emotional nature and physical being, he is confronted with certain problems that arise from intelligence itself. The intellect has a strong tendency to try to reduce real being to only the "intelligible" in the Neoplatonic and post-Cartesian sense—that which participates in intellect's principle of oneness—and to deny real being to that which is not intelligible in this sense. It does this in part because it hopes to attain rational certainty in that way. But in so doing it runs the risk of misunderstanding the more complicated nature of reality. For while what is intelligible in this sense surely may be real, what is not so intelligible may also be real, and there are varying degrees of intelligibility in reality. (p. 48)

Bowers' early poetry seems to be influenced by Neoplatonic symbolisms of light and dark in which certain kinds of light are used metaphorically for the intelligible—that which implicitly alone has real being—and "darkness" for the other realm of experience—that which, because it is sensory and changeable, seems to lack real being. (p. 49)

It is, on the one hand, evidently possible for the purely intelligible to be apotheosized as deity, as in the fundamental Neoplatonic position, while, on the other hand, certain powerful feelings about natural events (as in the Romantic poets) or certain more obscure emotions (as in Romantic Christianism) can be so apotheosized. God may be pure Intelligence or pure obscurity. Reactions to these options lie behind the experiences of alienation from divinity explored in "Grove and Building," where divinity is seen as the pure intelligence of "unshadowed being," and in "Adam's Song to Heaven," where "Heaven" is the "Ghostly abyss wherein perfection hides." Reactions to the options also affect "Palm Sunday" and "An Answer," where divinity is conceived as the ambivalent object of the purely emotional responses of the heart to Christian symbols. Bowers, quite rightly in my view, looks suspiciously upon divinity conceived in either of these limited ways. Moreover, seen in his terms, man's intellectual responsibility is to principles of reason alone, since the allegiances that religious faith would claim, being founded solely on emotion, seem not above the suspicion of self-deceiving "guile." His poems both in content and in form are a constant affirmation of this responsibility and the difficulties of it. They achieve cumulatively great power from their constant return to the central issues of contemporary human experience—which is not to say that some of the poems are not more successful than others. (pp. 51-2)

The philosophical assumptions of Bowers' poems are: first, that essential being and phenomenal being are two different orders of reality. Second, that that which is essential (one, eternal, and self-identical)—such as divinity and the dead—permanently is. Third, that that which is phenomenal (multiple, temporal, and subject to change)—such as our personal lives and the world known to our senses—merely exists temporarily. Corollaries of these assumptions are: first, that if we human beings "exist," then pure being does not exist, for its essential qualities exclude the qualities of existence, which are change, multiplicity, and corruptibility; in other words, pure being is existentially neutral. Second, in its purity from the contamination of existence, essential being may appear to us to be either "nothing" (irrelevant), or unreal, or only a projection of our own consciousness, for in our sense of being (phenomenal existence) it is not. Third, we in our separateness from essential being—in the sense of eternal being—are not and therefore may appear to it to be "nothing" or only insubstantial reflections of itself.

Assumptions such as these, though not so expressed, directly affect Bowers' conceptions of and attitudes toward divinity and the dead. For example, the divinity who is rejected in "Adam's Song to Heaven" is the old essentialistic Neoplatonic pure Being who is one, eternal, and self-identical, and who seems utterly alien to us unless construed as a pure object of mind mirroring our mind narcissistically, while we exist as multiple, changing, and evanescent existent beings…. Alienation from such a divinity is an understandable attitude. The "Heaven" in question carries with it all the cold, indifferent, totalitarian qualities of the Hegelian "Absolute" and the Neoplatonic "One," deities most would not hesitate to reject. But it is not the "Heaven" of Ben Jonson's "To Heaven."….

Bowers' Adam speaks to "Heaven" which is the deity as conceived by the fallen Adam of the poem. The figures of Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, though taken from Revelations, have been adapted to Neoplatonic and Gnostic religious feelings and cosmology. Yet [the poem] may be understood and appreciated from the point of view of Christian experience as [an] accurate [statement] about the unredeemed condition of the fallen angels and fallen man. (pp. 65-6)

[There] is in Bowers' later poetry an attempt to move out of the inherited polarized duality of intelligence and nature, with its implicit roots in philosophical essentialism, toward an understanding of the function of intelligence in the total context of being. This results in some of his most interesting and difficult poems: "Of an Etching," "In a Darkness," "The Mirror," "The Dream," "The Centaur Overheard," the "Autumn Shade" sequence, "Living Together," and "Insomnia." Several of these poems explore the problem through the question of personal identity and in terms of various "images" of the self—images which are for the most part ideal constructions of the poet's "essential" being that are made by his intellect. The problem deliberated is how to relate the ideal constructs to phenomenal experience, and how to deal with the fact that the ideal construct, because it partakes of essential (true) being, seems more truly to be than the phenomenal experience which, because it merely exists, seems not truly to be. In none of them, with the exception of "Autumn Shade," does Bowers explore the option of a self who would participate in a kind of existence that transcends both the ideal self construed by reason and the phenomenal self that experiences its material life. (pp. 67-8)

The most extensive exploration of the problem of the essential self and the phenomenal self and a concluding resignation of the problem is recorded in the sequence "Autumn Shade." Although Bowers seems generally to conceive the problem in terms analogous to contemporary Existentialist terms, there is an illumination recorded in section 9 of "Autumn Shade" which suggests a possible full resolution in truly existential terms through which the selves would participate in the same fully existent order of reality. In this section the intellect, who is the "I" of the poem (recalling the intellect of "Oedipus at Colonus" who measured "archaic fugitive defect"), through the medium of the "specter" records a vision of a future whole man in whom essential and phenomenal being might be conjoined in one order of reality and who would perceive other beings as participating in the same order. For the new condition he uses light in an entirely new symbolic way, employing "substantial light" to represent existential being…. Yet the insight is momentary, almost illusory, and the conclusion of the poem is a return to nearly the original dilemma in which one kind of being entails the absolute sacrifice of the other, i.e., light must exclude shade, intelligence must exclude nature, because each belongs to a mutually exclusive order of reality—in one of which essences are and in the other phenomena exist.

The resignation expressed at the close of "Autumn Shade" and dealt with in some of the more difficult poems, such as "Living Together," "The Dream," and "Insomnia," is a kind of resolution, apparently, in contemporary Existentialist terms wherein essential being is put aside, rejected, or demoted for a kind of experience which is called "existence," but is only that aspect of being that is purely phenomenal or, loosely speaking, sensory. The "other" of the contemporary Existentialist is not existential in the Thomistic sense but is a construction of the purely phenomenal, and it is imaged in section 9 as a shadow, or specter, or some kind of shadowy being, because the Existentialist still clings to the basic assumption that either essence or existence is really real; that is, that both kinds of experience cannot subsist in the same order of reality. But the split between essence and existence is not healed by allowing the specter to emerge as specter in the daylight and by living with it, because this does not really grant reality to the natural self. The natural self is still only a phantom, an apparition, and is not acknowledged to be existent in the same order of reality as the intellect. The natural self must be acknowledged as participant in the same order of reality as the intellect for it to cease to haunt the intellect. (pp. 69-70)

Helen P. Trimpi, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by Helen P. Trimpi), Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1977.