Richard Eberhart Eberhart, Richard (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eberhart, Richard 1904–

Eberhart, an American poet and playwright, is best known for his antiwar poems. His intense religious and moral convictions inform all his work. (See also CLC, Vol. 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Denis Donoghue

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Visionary Farms is a drame à thèse which owes a great deal to the expressionist tendencies of the early plays of Eugene O'Neill, Thornton Wilder, and Elmer Rice. It is not in any important sense original; it does not enlarge the range of dramatic art; but it provides an opportunity of examining an interesting alliance between modern dramatic verse and those non-representational procedures which have been developed in the theatre in such plays as The Hairy Ape. (p. 223)

The theme of The Visionary Farms is not "money" but the larger motive of "Progress," which Professor [Richard M.] Weaver has described as the "god term" of the present age…. It is probably the only term which gives the average American or West European a concept of something larger than himself, which he is socially impelled to accept, and for which he is ready to sacrifice.

The context of The Visionary Farms is largely determined by such considerations: its "scene" is a climate of feeling in which Progress is cultivated without restraint from any other values. (pp. 223-24)

If The Visionary Farms is a drame à thèse it is such with a difference, for Mr. Eberhart has not presented a realistic enactment of the ruin of a commercial empire in 1919. Rather, he has dramatised his impression of the inevitable conclusion of the cult of Progress. The play, technically related to America in 1919, is visionary in the sense in which one applies the word to such works as R.U.R., The Trial, Brave New World, and 1984. (It will be understood that these comparisons are descriptive, not qualitative. Qualitatively, The Visionary Farms is nearer to John Hawkes than to Kafka.) … The Visionary Farms does not study anything. Rather it envisages, in fear and solicitude, and enacts this vision.

The technique by which Mr. Eberhart dramatises his conception includes among its most active features these two: distortion and simplification. The two procedures cooperate in the quasi-expressionistic structure of the play. The characteristic form of distortion is a gesture, not toward the baroque, but toward the rudimentary. If one examines the presentation of character, time, and incident in The Visionary Farms one finds that in each case the distortion takes the form of cutting away the circumstantial details which the physical laws impose on normal living. For instance, all the characters in the play are one-dimensional. To describe "Hurricane" Ransome as symbol of Progress-mania is not to give special attention to one feature from a fully rounded character; it is to name the only feature, the only dimension, which is there. There is nothing more to him. The audience is not encouraged to see him as a whole man, but rather as a bloodless symbol, logical conclusion of a grotesque cult. He is Man, from whom all levels of existence other than the predatory have been cut away by greed. (pp. 224-25)

The treatment of time in The Visionary Farms exhibits similar distortion. Taft telephones the State University to send down a chicken surgeon; the surgeon arrives within a few seconds…. Distortion of this kind has, of course, a dual function. In addition to "interpreting" the action it also evokes in the audience responses quite different from those envisaged by a realistic play. It is an indication that the probable is not to be relied on, that we are in a Kafka-like world.

Similarly, in the treatment of the...

(The entire section is 1455 words.)

Babette Deutsch

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Richard Eberhart's] concern has steadily been with the incredibility of the actual. His war poems, lyrical in spite of their fierce concision, speak concretely and eloquently of the incongruousness of the concepts of man and of war. He writes with stunning impact of the mindless butchery, the small cruelties, and the greater horror as

         The Earthquake Opens Abrupt the World,
         Cold Dreadful Mass Destruction.

But in the midst of animal anguish and moral disaster he is alive to the dreamlike vision of anti-aircraft seen from a distance: "a controlled kind of falling stars," and he is not afraid to call attention to "the beautiful disrelation of the spiritual." (pp. 415-16)

Babette Deutsch, in her Poetry in Our Time (copyright © by Babette Deutsch; 1963 by Doubleday; reprinted by permission of Babette Deutsch), revised edition, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 415-16.

Philip Booth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

What I first admire about The Quarry, reading it whole, is how totally it is Richard Eberhart's. No matter what my response to single poems, I read them all as being demonstrably Eberhart's in rhythm, diction, and risk. However native this integrity, it's more than a negative virtue in the world of programmatic poetry where Eberhart's skilled juniors too often write what read like interchangeable translations of some Imagist Eskimo. It's no wonder that the Programmatic Poets, currently bent on murdering whatever elders are tall enough for parricide, have neglected knifing Eberhart in his always vunerable back. The virtues of Eberhart's poems, like their flaws, are simply too individual to be imitated. The self-defined Beats, by Kenneth Rexroth's example, once flirted with sanctifying Eberhart, but for the wrong reasons: they saw him merely as the single "academic" who seemed handsomely careless of traditional forms. Since the once-New Criticism denies the very possibility of a naive (or non-ironic) poet, Eberhart has been as curiously immune from serious consideration as he has been exempt from attack. Given our existential modes of criticism, and those multitudes of poets so existentially influenced, there's been small room for reading a poet whose primary perceptions are religious. I have no idea as to what church Eberhart may possibly belong, but I am sure beyond doubt that he is fundamentally a religious poet, and that at his best his religion and poetry are one. (p. 63)

Eberhart's poetry implicitly argues, I take it, that "the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance; that … harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end; that … inner communication with the spirit thereof … is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological, or material, within the phenomenonemal world." That great mouthful is, of course, from those Conclusions which climax The Varieties of Religious Experience. [William James'] definitions of religious inclination strike me as precisely defining Eberhart's first concerns. (p. 64)

[I refuse] to review Eberhart in any conventional way; I'm inclined to pursue The Quarry with as little "existential judgment" as possible. Such judgments, James says, derive from questioning "what is the nature of it, how did it come about? what is its constitution, origin, history?" The question of the nature of a book is impossible to avoid, and such a question will, understandably, underlie most reviews of The Quarry. But insofar as only this question gets asked, the reviews will merely confirm each other's prejudices, and will do Eberhart only Mississippi justice. It is, for instance, already a cliché of criticism that Eberhart publishes too much, that he is his own worst editor, that his poetry is egocentric, abstract, technically careless, and mindless to such glib rhyming as "finest beliefs" with "mankind's griefs." All this may or may not be true, but it is no more or less true in The Quarry than in any number of Eberhart's earlier books. Whenever it might have been when critics could tell Eberhart how to write somebody else's poems, that time has long since passed. Eberhart's long integrity deserves, rather, asking of The Quarry James' second set of questions: "What is its importance, meaning, or significance now that it is once here?" The answer to this, James says, is not an existential judgment, but a "proposition of value."

It seems to me that a proposition of value is exactly what Eberhart's best poems repeatedly propose. It's no tautology to say that what they propose is their value. Eberhart's intent, within and beyond his best work, is to propose moral possibilities in a universe so complex that even its grandeur is all but incomprehensible. How to live, believing in God, is no small proposition. That such a proposition seems largely dated to most mid-century poets is of no concern to Eberhart; he is that most timeless of rare birds, a religious romantic. When he succumbs to his dramatic temptations, and prints poems like The Quarry's "Father and Daughter" or "Father and Son," the devil has clearly got hold of his coat-tails, and I find myself blindly embarrassed…. No matter how historical the meters of these poems, Eberhart fakes-out his primarily speculative voice when he tries to dramatize it; his diction in such cases strikes me as being absurdly inhuman. When he prints his unmeditated addresses "To Bill Williams," "To Auden on His Fiftieth," and "To a Poet Who Has Had a Heart...

(The entire section is 1904 words.)

M. L. Rosenthal

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Young Richard Eberhart] held a number of jobs connected with slaughterhouses and meat-packing, which may well have contributed to the death-obsession in his poetry, though there was a more crucial experience as well. A poem written in his late forties, "Fragment of New York, 1929," is a superb instance of the persistence of these early impressions. Certain reverses arising from a monumental embezzlement by the Hormel treasurer—the subject of Eberhart's play The Visionary Farms—all but ruined the family [his father was vice president of that company] when Dick was eighteen. At about the same time his mother died of lung cancer….

Richard seems to have been very close to his mother, and tended her during her terrible illness. The experience became a powerful element in his sensibility. It forced the relationship, and left the young man with a surfeit of death-horror, a vision of life's morbid depths against which his instinct for affirmation carried on a recurrent struggle for many years. See, for instance, "The Day-Bed," written several decades later. The images of "a bright shape, a green new dream" with which it ends can never quite overcome the tormenting memory that sets the poem going…. (p. 26)

[Joel H. Roache in his biography, The Progress of an American Poet,] suggests that Eberhart's career involves a shift from alienation to affirmation, and that it symbolizes, in general, the basic nonalienation of American poets in this century. But Eberhart, like every poet of sufficient distinction, is a unique set of complexities and motives; his poetry, like most poetry, has grown around both his wounds and his healing visions. "Alienation" can be positive—it has a hundred meanings to go with its negations. "The scene is bad, so be of good heart" is one of the lessons we can learn from this poet's inspired and politic career. It is a lesson more encouraging, of course, to survivors than to victims. (p. 27)

M. L. Rosenthal, "Steps to Status on the Literary Ladder," in Saturday Review (© 1971 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 6, 1971, pp. 25-7.

Calvin Bedient

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If one] cut away the puffed romantic locks [from Collected Poems 1930–1976] …, there would be almost nothing left. Too many self-congratulatory poems, in any case, on the superiority of being a poet—the reader feels like a bored voyeur. (p. 363)

The writing is almost never happy. Typically American in this, Eberhart struggled all his life for an individual manner, mixing gaucheness and gracefulness in an unstable, not quite convincing way. Consider again the celebrated last stanza of "Fury of Aerial Bombardment":

   Of Van Wettering I speak, and Averill,
   Names on a list, whose faces I do not recall
   But they are gone to early death, who late in school
   Distinguished the belt feed lever from the belt holding pawl.

Was his true gift after all for the impersonality of these lines? How Latin, incidentally, their restrained sinuous rhetoric and ammoniac pungency. We might have had a Housman with contemporary grit; instead we have a vague son of Blake. (pp. 364-65)

Calvin Bedient, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1977 by The University of the South), Spring, 1977.

David Perkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Throughout his career Eberhart has written essentially two kinds of poem. One is the lyric that assigns symbolic values to images and explores the implications thus activated. In "New Hampshire, February," for example, two frozen wasps are brought indoors. As the speaker breathes on them, they come to life. They "withdraw to ice" again when he stops. He feels like God…. But one wasp blunders onto the kitchen floor and the speaker, equally by accident, steps on it:

             And so the other is still my pet.
             The moral of this is plain.
             But I will shirk it.
             You will not like it. And
             God does not live to explain….

Usually the success of such poems lies more in the imaginative materials than in the performance the poem makes. But at his best Eberhart's imagination freshly expresses the difficult complexity of the human situation in general. In general—for even when his metaphors or symbols are concrete, the object of concern is not. His subject, in other words, is less some particular instance or embodiment of life, agony, death, art, love, joy, God, and so forth, than the abstraction itself. And in many poems, such as "Meditation Two" or "Sanders Theater," even the ghost of a dramatic occasion has vanished, and there is straightforward meditation. To sustain attention in this mode presents an utmost challenge. Since the thing rendered is simply the poet's thoughts, associations, and mental processes, there must be some extraordinary quality of language and rhythm, or maybe some profundity of reflection, to distinguish the poem from the ordinary range and movement of our own thoughts. There must be something to justify and sustain the peculiarly heightened attention we bring to the reading of poetry. Eberhart excites such attention all the more by the naked and passionate sincerity of his concern. Hence the prosy character of his expression seems the more anticlimactic…. (pp. 730-31)

David Perkins, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by David Perkins), Vol. XIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1977.