Riders on the Earth

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1782

Archibald MacLeish is, above all, a humanist; a positive response to the human condition underlies all his work. There are other lyric poets gifted with an epic imagination, and there are others whose work is notable for deep insights and precise imagery, but few indeed rise to the same level of faith in human worth and purpose. Even his Imagist poems of the early 1920’s, intended to be pure works of art with no meaning beyond their own context as constructions, transmit a deep awareness of life: thus they are infused with a relevance not often found in abstract compositions, and the reader finds identification in them.

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This preoccupation with the value and importance of our common experience is one very important factor in MacLeish’s eminence as a citizen of his time. Certainly no other American artist of our era has so successfully combined his art with an active career in public service, and the variety of responsible positions entrusted to him is almost bewildering.

A veteran of World War I who had been promoted to Captain while on active duty in France, he interrupted his successful career in law to establish himself as a poet. He later worked on the staff of Fortune, was admitted to the U. S. Supreme Court Bar, taught at Harvard, was Assistant Secretary of State, held various other posts in the federal government, and served as Librarian of the Library of Congress during World War II. In addition, he assisted in drafting the UNESCO Constitution, and later represented this country on the UNESCO Executive Council. He held the Boylston Professorship at Harvard from 1949 until his retirement in 1962.

That his involvement in national and international affairs did not interfere with his work as a poet is confirmed by the many awards and other forms of literary recognition that came to him during this period. He received every major American literary prize and won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature on three occasions.

MacLeish’s poetry has always been inseparable from his own experience of life as he has lived it. Unlike many poets, he did not establish a unique personal style and then develop it in a vacuum. Instead, his work has evolved with the man and his times; his contemporary utterances are always contemporary, and they always relate to a real existence in a real world. Largely for this reason, MacLeish is never left behind as the times change: he is always our most sensitive and articulate spokesman for the more humane principles of liberal intellectualism. It follows that his statements are often political in nature, but only in the broadest sense of the term. Their emphasis is on the individual’s relationship to society as a whole.

MacLeish’s essays, like his poems, are lyrical and full of insights into the nature of our own lives and times. Riders on the Earth is a representative selection of examples written during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and many of them explore the agonies of that tormented period. MacLeish startles the reader with shrewd perceptions and with the remarkably clear perspective he was often able to maintain. Only rarely does he allow himself to become dependent upon intellectual stereotypes, thus making them all the more striking when they do appear.

MacLeish dwells at some length upon the Nixon phenomenon and sees it as an isolated episode of total corruption in an otherwise honorable era. This is a popular myth that grows less tenable with the passage of time. Clearly an overblown and decadent government cannot assume that form overnight, or even during the course of a single administration. In order for it to be revealed in all its naked ugliness, several required factors must occur simultaneously. Decades of corruption and abuse must reach their recognizable peak at a time when the chief executive happens to be a person unusually susceptible to temptation and singularly lacking in charm; and this must occur when his political opposition dominates both the Congress and the organs of communication. All presidents lie, sometimes because they want to and sometimes because they have to: deceit and manipulation are an inescapable part of the political process. The President is in jeopardy only when a sufficiently powerful opposition is bent on holding him up as a dreadful example. On the rare occasions when this does occur, there is a brief but welcome return to some semblance of honesty in government, and the nation benefits accordingly.

MacLeish is on much firmer ground when he examines a runaway technology that continually tempts us into ventures impossible for us to control, or even understand, and that demeans and dehumanizes us in the process. He concludes that in our unquestioning pursuit of material progress we have lost all confidence in our own worth as human beings. To MacLeish, artists are the prophets of their times and their works are an index to the true state of society; and he sees twentieth century art as an accurate reflection of our deterioration. The trend has been from positive to negative, from zest for living to alienation and fragmentation, and finally to the cult of absurdity.

Although he subscribes to most liberal intellectual doctrines, MacLeish does not do so automatically, and his humanism and basic independence are both asserted in his total rejection of existentialism. To MacLeish, existentialist absurdity is the antithesis of life and purpose: it is the philosophy of annihilation.

It is not surprising that a poet so strongly motivated by positive impulses expresses marked aversion to the unpoem, the nonplay, the antihero, the nonpainting, and total noncommunication. As he points out in one of those acute observations characteristic of him, the existentialist concept of life as meaningless absurdity is a purely intellectual exercise and has no relationship whatever to life as it is actually lived.

While there can be no doubt that the existentialist movement in literature does constitute a complete reversal in attitudes from belief in the value of human life and achievement to unequivocal denial of any such meaning, it may be simplistic to equate this with the growth of technology. Still, MacLeish’s arguments are persuasive. He points to buildings that are technological triumphs but are utterly sterile in human terms, to machines that in some respects outthink their inventors, to pervasive mechanisms that have gradually imprisoned us all; and he reminds us that rioters of the 1960’s did not attack courthouses but instead vented their rage on supermarkets and other examples of soulless efficiency.

This concern with mankind’s renunciation of mastery over its inventions and the need to rediscover our sense of purpose is an underlying theme that binds together the otherwise unrelated essays in Riders on the Earth. Another is MacLeish’s optimism—his faith in our ability to rediscover the value of life.

One of the most revealing essays is a fragment of autobiography in which the author examines his decision to abandon a successful legal career and write the poems he felt must be written. He discusses the creative process, but it is evident that to him, as to others, this phenomenon remains a mystery. The creative genius cannot identify the source of its inspiration, and in most cases does not even question it. It is said that although Mozart spent much of his time in aimless and apparently irresponsible activity, some major work was composing itself in his brain at the very time when his mind seemed farthest from composition; when the work was completed, he sat down and wrote it out almost automatically. This is probably an accurate impression of his genius as it was seen by others, but neither they nor Mozart could have explained it. Whatever its true nature, the creative process is one upon which little light is likely to be shed—and those who have studied it intensively are unable to give a more satisfying explanation than Mozart’s would have been. Like all great artists, MacLeish creates because he is impelled to do so, and to him the act of creation is one with the act of living.

As might be expected, MacLeish is an independent spirit. Major artists are usually individualistic and independent people. Many of these essays, written during a time of upheaval as they were, examine various aspects of the revolutionary urge. MacLeish concludes shrewdly that Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence remains the only truly revolutionary document, embodying as it does a manifesto intended to establish individual freedom for all men. As he points out, all the other supposedly revolutionary movements have ended by creating police states, thus merely exchanging one form of bondage for another.

MacLeish also examines the universities and pinpoints their greatest failure with an insight as accurate as it is simplistic: they have ceased to produce educated people and are turning out specialists instead. And, in a related vein, he provides a deeply moving defense of libraries and their uphill battle against the dark age that always threatens us.

Several essays consist of brief sketches that provide very informative glimpses of artists MacLeish has known. His discussion of Pound is understanding and sympathetic, and it views perceptively the naïveté characteristic of intellectuals. It encapsulates neatly the paradox of a man who was the principal inventor of modern poetry but who was at the same time greatly deluded in regard to the political struggles of his time. His portrait of Mark Van Doren effectively refutes the popular notion that there is no correlation between the quality of work and the quality of its creator. There is also a fine tribute to Frost, who like MacLeish was an independent soul of major stature who cannot be pigeonholed and whose place in literature is unique.

Riders on the Earth is a satisfying and stimulating collection, replete with wisdom; brilliant and eminently quotable passages abound. And yet, as one critic has noted, there is something distant and ephemeral about the work. The writing is graceful and the statements are both important and beautifully made, but one has the impression that they are overheard rather than transmitted directly. It is almost as though they come from another plane. Clearly, MacLeish passed his eightieth birthday in full possession of his powers. He has participated in the entire evolution of poetry in America for sixty years and his influence upon it has been profound. The perspective he has gained is perhaps unparalleled. This may explain the quiet, almost detached effect that is conveyed by the book as a whole. He urges us to rediscover life and with it our own destiny, but he is no firebrand. He merely lays the challenge before us.

We too are individuals, and the choice is ours.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6

Sewanee Review. LXXXVI, October, 1978, p. R126.

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