Peter Viereck was remarkably consistent in adhering to certain principles throughout his career as a poet. Together, these principles make up the “Manhattan classicism” mentioned earlier; understanding them is crucial for anyone who wishes to read him.
Deeply affected by the rise of Nazism and Communism in the twentieth century, Viereck asked one fundamental question throughout his career: How did these nefarious systems arise and maintain themselves? In part, the answer lies in the particular historical circumstances of each case. In Viereck’s opinion, a deeper and more general cause underlay the events that preoccupy most historians. Romanticism is the culprit; it was Viereck’s principal aim in both his poetry and his prose to expose and combat this artistic movement.
His conclusion at once raises a further question: What did Viereck mean by Romanticism? He had chiefly in mind the uncontrolled display of emotion. Romantic artists such as Richard Wagner thought that their superiority to the ordinary run of men entitled them to disregard moral restraint in their work. What counted was that artists express themselves fully, and they need answer to no one but themselves. This approach has had disastrous consequences when extended from art to politics. Viereck rejected the notion that what is true in art can be false in politics and held that since the ignoring of moral restraint has been disastrous in politics, it must be halted at its artistic source.
Rather than be the expression of the artist’s unbridled feelings, a poem should illustrate “humanist values,” Viereck said. He did not intend anything controversial by this phrase; he had in mind the ordinary moral virtues. Although interested in religion, he did not require poets to adhere to Christianity or any other creed; he himself was not a believer.
It may appear so far that much fuss was made over very little. After all, few poets see themselves as Nietzschean immoralists. However, Viereck did not think it sufficient for poets to accept morality in their lives or even to avoid contradicting its rules in their poetry. He maintained that poets have the duty to defend and explain moral principles in their work. His didactic notion of proper poetry was rejected by most of his contemporaries, though some poets, most notably Yvor Winters, profess a similar view.
Viereck carried the point one step further. A writer should not only defend correct morality but also must assail those writers who set themselves against its unyielding requirements. To Viereck, the main twentieth century example of the betrayal of artistic responsibility was Ezra Pound. Pound’s devotion to the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini was in Viereck’s opinion the logical outcome of his poetic principles. Pound’s main work, the voluminous The Cantos (1970), advocates a repellent political and ethical position—and this suffices to discredit it as outstanding poetry. So great was Viereck’s distaste for Pound that some mention of him surfaced in nearly everything Viereck wrote.
The requirements of humanist values extend beyond content. Many twentieth century poets have curtailed or abandoned altogether the use of meter and rhyme. To Viereck, this represented the lack of discipline that is the core of Romanticism. His own poetry was almost always written in standard metrical form and displays to the full his talent for rhyme.
Terror and Decorum
These principles were fully evident in Viereck’s first published verse collection, Terror and Decorum. The opening verse, “Poet,” exemplifies Viereck’s artistic credo. In part influenced by Charles Baudelaire and T. S. Eliot, Viereck views the poet as the guardian of language, with the responsibility to maintain a tight control over it; if this task is not attended to, “lush adverbs” and other uncontrolled parts of speech may get out of hand. True to his own principles, Viereck wrote “Poet” in strict iambic pentameter, his favorite poetic form.
“Poet” displays the tensions and paradoxes of Viereck’s position. Although Romanticism is anathema, the exalted view of the poet he professes here is a key doctrine of the great Romantics. Like Percy Bysshe Shelley, to whom poets are the unacknowledged legislators of humankind, Viereck considers the poet to be a monarch. Through poets’ control of language, they can dominate the politics of their time. Further, although “Poet” calls for restraint, it itself is characterized by elaborate metaphor and personification.
The reader might so far have the impression that Viereck is a grim Savonarola, incapable of humor. This is decidedly not the case; indeed, one of Viereck’s chief weapons in his struggle against disorder is satire. He also indulges in ordinary wit; in one notable instance, he constructs a long poem from the World War II slogan “Kilroy was here.”
Although “Kilroy” treats the slogan humorously, it soon becomes apparent that Viereck has a serious message to expound. The anonymous soldier who writes “Kilroy was here” wherever he goes symbolizes the adventurer, and Viereck compares him to Ulysses, Orestes, and, in the poem’s climax, God. Kilroy displays the spirit of free individualism that Viereck holds to be the proper human attitude. Unsure of what, if anything, is the ultimate basis of the world and of values, the individual must make his or her own way.
“Kilroy,” like “Poet,” shows Viereck’s love-hate relation with Romanticism. The adventurer is a stock figure of Romanticism, but the supposed anti-Romantic Viereck devotes the poem to praise and advocacy of him. The tension in Viereck’s position extends to the poem’s style. Viereck defends strict adherence to form, but “Kilroy” is an unusual mix of genres. It begins as a humorous poem but shifts to a serious expression of Viereck’s ethics and metaphysics. It does not follow from the presence of dissonances in his work that Viereck was a bad poet. His efforts to maintain a system of belief against certain contrary tendencies in his personality add to his poems’ interest.
The First Morning
Like that of any other good poet, Viereck’s work is not all of a piece. As his career developed, his verse tended to become more lyrical. A good example of his lyrical style is “Arethusa, the First Morning,” which appeared in The First Morning. Arethusa was a sea nymph changed by Artemis into a spring. The poem pictures the former nymph wondering what has happened to her. Viereck uses her perplexity to introduce a meditation about the stages of life and the nature of consciousness. What, if anything, can one really know?
Viereck has no answer to this question. Rather, his...
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