M(acha) L(ouis) Rosenthal Gregory A. Schirmer

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Gregory A. Schirmer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The description of a literary critic that M. L. Rosenthal offers in the foreword to his new book [Sailing Into the Unknown: Yeats, Pound, and Eliot] strikes a refreshingly poetic note in this day of increasing enchantment with elaborately theoretical and often decidedly unpoetic approaches to literature. For Rosenthal, who is a poet as well as a critic, the interpreter of a literary work should be thought of as an adventurer, someone who, like the poet himself, journeys into "the unknown realm where fantasy and keenest observation and volatile emotions unite to create a reality of a thousand dimensions."

If this description also strikes a somewhat romantic note, the criticism that springs from it is thoroughly practical. It is also generally perceptive, undogmatic, and, above all, empathic…. It is to "the poems themselves" that Rosenthal directs his considerable critical abilities, proving that close and sensitive attention to texts, even to those of three poets who have generated at least as much criticism as have any writers this side of Milton, still has something to teach us.

All this is not to say, however, that Rosenthal's book lacks a thesis. In following his dictum, stated in the title to Chapter One, that "The Poets Are Their Poems," Rosenthal does advance an argument, and one that grows naturally out of his view of the critic as an empathic adventurer. What makes the adventure worthwhile, Rosenthal says, what really counts in poetry is the intensity of experience, or, more specifically, the intensity of feeling, that good poems offer, and what distinguishes the work of Yeats, Pound, and Eliot, and what makes them so important to poets writing after them, is that they wrote poetry built around distinct centers of emotional intensity, points of heightened awareness that dominate and control a given poem, sometimes regardless of what the poem seems to be saying on a strictly rational level. Rosenthal calls this a "poetry of open process," and describes it as loosely structured, "largely presentative," and, far from being didactic, directed at "a balancing of volatile emotional states." (p. 364)

Rosenthal is … less convincing on Yeats than on Pound and Eliot, and his failings here reveal important shortcomings in his subjective critical approach and in his thesis about controlling emotional centers. For one thing, one reader's notion of a poem's controlling center may not be another's. Rosenthal argues, for example, that the main thrust of "Sailing to Byzantium" is the poet's desire, frustrated though it may be, to join the sensual world described in the opening stanza…. But it could as readily be argued that … the poem's main thrust is the desire to transcend the sensual world of death and generation. (pp. 365-66)

Rosenthal runs into similar problems in trying to rescue A Vision from the unpoetic realms of philosophy and mysticism to which it usually is consigned. His argument that "The Phases of the Moon," one of Yeats's poems that first appeared in this book, deserves to be admired in its own right and not merely as a verse crib on A Vision is, on the whole, convincing. But when he takes on the considerably taller order of demonstrating that "All Souls' Night," a poem of much less lyric intensity, "may be the most original and moving poem" in The Tower (a volume...

(The entire section is 819 words.)