R(ichard) P(almer) Blackmur 1904–1965
American critic, poet, and editor.
Despite his relatively small number of published works, Blackmur is regarded as an imaginative and influential critic and a significant contributor to the New Criticism movement.
In his critical writings, Blackmur consistently emphasized the importance of language: "[The] only kind of meaning poetry can have requires that all its words resume their full life: the full life being modified and made unique by the qualifications the words perform upon one another in the poem." Blackmur did not develop or follow a particular critical theory. Rather, he chose a distinctive approach to each work of literature by examining a writer's individual style and using an appropriate method of analysis. Blackmur's work is also characterized by his use of complex sentences and convoluted syntax.
His first book, The Double Agent, is a discussion of the merits and limitations of a number of distinguished poets, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens. Language As Gesture, Blackmur's next work, is considered his finest collection of pure literary criticism because of its concentration on technique in poetry. This volume also points toward the social criticism Blackmur developed later in The Lion and the Honeycomb and in his essays on Henry Adams.
(See also CLC, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 11-12, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
In The Double Agent, R. P. Blackmur characterizes his method as primarily technical, and states, with a humility which is insistent, that this method "does not tell the whole story either. The reader is conscientiously left with the real work to do." This qualification is to be accepted only when we have clear in mind what that real work is. Blackmur uses his method upon many of the best contemporary writers of verse and the results are usually such that aspects of the text have been opened up, illuminated, and even augmented by the critic. But, this being said, one must also observe the serious abstraction, incompleteness, and omission involved in Blackmur's whole method. Such an attempt at correction is given point by the fact that Blackmur's method is spreading (one's hope is that this will continue), his method is likely to be a model for both poets and critics, and his criticism (without exaggeration and so far as one can judge of such matters at an early date) will surely be of lasting value. (p. 351)Specifically and primarily, the method can be described as that of taking hold of the words of the poem and asking two very important questions: (1) Do these words represent a genuine fact, condition, or feeling? (2) Does the combining of these words result in "an access of knowledge"? Knowledge in the full sense, one must add, for something must be made known "publicly," "objectively," in terms which any intelligent reader, with the proper effort, can grasp; as distinct from terms and language used "privately," "personally," "subjectively." Now of these two questions, it is the first that Blackmur emphasizes and the second which he often neglects. The discrete parts—sentences, phrases, single words (which are sometimes counted)—are the main object of his attention. The way in which they combine is sometimes an afterthought (though this is less so in the more recent essays). In the essay on Lawrence, Blackmur lists some of the formal resources which Lawrence did not use:
The ordering of words in component rhythms, the array of rhymes for prediction, contrast, transition, and suspense, the delay of ornament, the anticipation of an exactly situated dramatic trope, the development of image and observation to an inevitable end—the devices which make a poem cohere, move, and shine apart.
The significant thing to note is that Blackmur does not especially concentrate on these devices in his specific acts of criticism, nor does his scrutiny attend to the large forms of composition. The list, too, is otherwise inadequate (perhaps necessarily so as merely a passage in an essay). In his concern about how the equivocal character of words is used, meter, for example, is entirely ignored. This is not a too great omission when a poet like Stevens is the subject, but it would seem a serious one when not only writers like Shakespeare and Milton are in question, but also in a comprehensive judgment of Eliot in whose verse the rhythm is so important a part of the meaning. The list which Blackmur gives could be increased a hundredfold…. [One] can maintain that Blackmur's use of technique is too limited, granting however that it may be adequate to certain poets.
The primary burden of Blackmur's method, however, is much more central to the art of poetry and it provides him with an unquestionable canon for deciding whether a poem is "successful" or not. To repeat what cannot be repeated too often, a poem is successful when its words represent its substance. (pp. 352-54)
This seems to me to be Blackmur's essential canon, however differently he might wish to see it stated, and it is a canon which I accept. But an important difficulty infects it as it is used by Blackmur, for it does, it seems to me, involve a separation of form and content,...
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[Most] readers will agree that Mr. Blackmur's practice in The Expense of Greatness is not dangerously moralistic. He does state that "the material of the writer is morals" …, but he always demands that the writer actualize, render, fully express and not merely impute or invoke, not depend upon the good will of the reader to supply the concrete experience. The excellence of his criticism lies in his acute analysis of the writer's craft, his precise demonstration of just where and how the writer succeeds or fails in his job. Although he appears to have got his norms chiefly from Yvor Winters and T. S. Eliot, he has made them thoroughly his own. (pp. 816-17)
Yet Mr. Blackmur's scope is also limited. He is very fastidious about what is eligible for literary criticism or "susceptible of critical enjoyment." His exclusiveness is most apparent when he deals with novels. This one, he will say, effectively "communicates attitudes" but does not "produce" them; this one is "vivid, pertinent, and eloquent" but offers no opening for the "critic of imaginative form"; and so he keeps dismissing fiction that is "excellent of its type" but not really Art. His fine distinctions are legitimate within limits, but the question is whether even the greater novels can get inside these limits. He acknowledges, indeed, that stature cannot be measured by exclusively literary standards; he takes Yvor Winters to task for putting Edith Wharton above Henry James—her competence is nowhere equal to "the vast crowd of unforgettable human beings" created by James. This quality of greatness, the elemental creative power, may not be susceptible of fine analysis. Nevertheless in practice Mr. Blackmur not only slights but tends to forget these elementary matters, to judge solely by technique or imaginative form. He can therefore remark casually, without further comment, that Hamlet, Lear, and War and Peace are "profound failures." And his approach seems especially inadequate to the solemn responsibility he lays upon writers at the end. They have not only to render the actual with supreme fidelity; in the modern world they have also to provide "the values that enlighten the actual," "the bread and wine of conviction" that church and state are no longer able to administer. They would then indeed earn the room and board that Mr....
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[The] special quality of a critic like R. P. Blackmur … can be understood only when one realizes that [in The Expense of Greatness] he writes the kind of criticism, superb though it be, which is possible only in an age that has no literature and no confidence in literature. As a critical performer—and the best criticism has reduced itself to a series of performances—Mr. Blackmur is almost appallingly brilliant. There has probably been no other critic in our time who has displayed so devouring an intensity of mind, so voracious a passion for the critical process. Yet with all his power there is something monstrous about Mr. Blackmur, a perfection of skill, an obsession with skill, that is something different from and something less than the quality of the greatest critics. In practice Mr. Blackmur's use of criticism affords us only the highest and most significant insights; but he is so over-industrious a technician of insights that one wonders if his interest in criticism is not more compelling than his interest in literature.
People who are too quickly repelled by Mr. Blackmur's extraordinary style miss the point. If he writes things like "the agen-bite of inwit," or refers to a dictionary as "a palace of saltatory heuristics," it is not because he means to be difficult, though it must be admitted that Mr. Blackmur's prose usually suggests a pleasantly eccentric Yankee craftsman at work. What is important is that he has...
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With a critic like Richard P. Blackmur, who tends to use on each work the special techniques it seems to call for and who at one time or another has used almost every type of criticism …, the difficulty of placing any single way of operating as his "method" is obvious. What he has is not so much a unique method as a unique habit of mind, a capacity for painstaking investigation that is essential for contemporary criticism, and that might properly be isolated as his major contribution to the brew. (p. 239)
As a logical consequence of [Blackmur's emphasis on words], a good part of Blackmur's research is verbal. His study of Cummings, for example, announces the intention of studying Cummings's...
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In Language as Gesture, two years ago, R. P. Blackmur brought together a number of those invaluable essays on modern poetry which he had been writing for various literary journals since the late twenties. Language as Gesture represents Mr. Blackmur's major performance as a purely literary critic. It was a performance unmatched in its way, crucial for the literary taste of our generation and exemplary in any generation—even that of Dryden, for example, or of Edgar Allan Poe. As much as any one critic could, Mr. Blackmur was the man who established the genre of poetic English literature in his century, and who identified its chief exponents (Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Stevens and the others). Now Mr....
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The Lion and the Honeycomb, for its insights, its omissions, and its rejections, is one of the most significant literary studies since John Crowe Ransom's God without Thunder (1930). (p. 537)
Mr Blackmur is exceptional in as much as he has gone to the bother of pondering and describing the context in which he performs his act of critique. He has even included this scenic element in his subtitle: Essays in Critique and Solicitude. The object of this solicitude is the common human enterprise (describe it as you will, providing that each of the three words gets its due). The cause or source of the solicitude is 'the new illiteracy'.
The phrase is belligerent. It...
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Despite his habitual doodling with other men's idioms … in the hope that something critically significant will occur, Mr. Blackmur has achieved institutional status among the company, not inconsiderable in numbers, for whom "words alone are certain good." He can pursue and isolate any subtlety provided it is sufficiently encased in language. His virtues are clearest [in Language as Gesture] in the very early essay on Cummings, where Cummings' way of turning terms into flat absolutes—"flower" isn't a flower but a cant term for anything the poet happens to hold in esteem—is subtly anatomized into twenty-four pages of scrupulous sentences in which we never lose confidence. And he is excellent—disregarding...
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[It is with] style that one naturally begins in talking about [Blackmur's] work. Style is the data of a writer's sensibility; and though there is a notable identity of style throughout Blackmur's work, the changes observable in it over the years direct one's attention toward very interesting changes in the quality of mind and sensibility that the style expresses and clothes. Blackmur's early essays—those published in the thirties—were no doubt properly thought of as "Jamesian," or more Jamesian than the norm, in manner. They were "sensitive" rather than journalistic or academic or ploddingly methodological, they tended toward a certain prolixity, and their sentences were reluctant to come to rest without...
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[What] disturbs me in reading Mr. Blackmur is the feeling I so frequently get that he is deliberately refusing to reduce his meaning to simple terms—that, on the contrary, he is inflating it, surrounding it with a nimbus of uncaught and uncatchable meaning, rather than let any possible nuance escape him. It would be altogether too crude, of course, to suggest that this is done merely to impress the less intelligent reader, that it is an 'act', as we say, put on because the reader will not think he is reading first-rate criticism unless he finds it hard to understand. It is deeper than that; it is really, at a profound level of sincerity, a dislike of too overt statement, of a subject-matter that jumps too...
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Once we have grasped the nature of Mr. Blackmur's dialectic, the function and the value that he attributes to the symbolic imagination becomes almost self-explanatory. What Mr. Blackmur wants, what the internal logic of his sensibility impels him to postulate, is a dialectical balance that maintains the proper relationship between his two terms [unity and chaos]; and in the essay on Babbitt he defines "the religious imagination" in a manner that explains what this relationship must be. (pp. 238-39)
[The] religious imagination creates an order that does not exclude disorder or a unity that does not exclude chaos. But since for Mr. Blackmur, as he has made clear on a number of occasions, the religious...
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Like Henry Adams, R.P. Blackmur was largely a self-taught man of letters. Unlike Adams, Harvard class of 1858, Blackmur did not go to college. I mention this biographical detail only because it may have something to do with the reason why [Henry Adams] is so personal rather than conventionally academic. It testifies to an extraordinary affinity with Adams, also evident elsewhere in Blackmur's criticism.
In Blackmur's essays, especially those on modern poetry collected in The Expense of Greatness (1940), Language as Gesture (1952), and The Lion and the Honeycomb (1955), he updates Adams's social themes. More significantly, he found in Adams reinforcement for his innate...
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[R. P. Blackmur's] themes were grand, and he worked his language hard in their service, but if all else failed or was felt as failure he still loved words for their own sake, and cared for the creative possibilities of a word. He had inventive powers to match the care. Only the maximum resource of language satisfied him, and he believed that words become an idiom of the imagination by not stopping before their appropriate limit. Words, by themselves or left to themselves, have every character short of idiom: idiom is what we put into our words, or what we bring them to, even at the risk of driving them beyond their official relations and properties. Think of … this paragraph from his essay on Madame Bovary:...
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It may be said that Blackmur started his career in the ideological climate of the eighteenth century and ended it in that of the nineteenth. In other words, he began as a Classicist with Romantic elements in his criticism and ended as a Romanticist with Classic elements. Since Blackmur himself was not a systematic theorist it is difficult to be precise about any theory he might have had, but I believe that the poetic theory distilled from his essays on various poets illustrates the eighteenth-century Classicism in his critical thought while his essays on the critic's job and on literature and Henry Adams illustrate the progressively Romantic orientation he took as his career progressed. (p. 152)
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