Selected Essays of R. P. Blackmur
R. P. Blackmur’s essays in this collection range from 1930 to 1964 and from Fyodor Dostoevski to E. E. Cummings. Denis Donoghue’s selection of essays represents not only the best work of Blackmur but also shows the variety of approaches and of writers discussed. Donoghue’s introduction is a helpful guide to the context of Blackmur’s criticism and of the special tendencies of that criticism. Many of the essays are reprinted from Blackmur’s major works, Language as Gesture (1936) and The Lion and the Honeycomb (1955), which have been out of print for some time; so Donoghue’s edition does fill a need.
Blackmur is usually labeled a New Critic. (New Criticism focuses its attention on a close reading of the work to discover its structure or “organic form”; it also emphasizes and values highly the presence of ambiguity, paradox, and irony.) He does usually ignore the social and historical aspects of the works that he discusses, and his analysis of a particular work is as close, or closer, as that of any New Critic, but he does not use the New Critical jargon of ambiguity and paradox and remains free of their excesses. In the first essay in this collection, “A Critic’s Job of Work,” Blackmur announces that criticism is the province of the “amateur” and is concerned with love and understanding rather than allegiance to a particular school or method. He rejects both the Freudian and Marxist critical schools because they are imprisoned in their method and reduce a work to its “ulterior” purposes. He also severely criticizes the work of I. A. Richards, who was one of the founders of the New Criticism. He states that Richards “wants literary criticism to become something else and much more.” Blackmur is content, he says, to analyze the “technique” of a work and help another reader to understand the work better. One of the ways he uses to reveal the technique is to compare one work to another, which also becomes a way of evaluating the work. Yet, as Donoghue points out, Blackmur’s criticism is not merely technical; he also recognizes the power of the greatest works to reach beyond technique to the “sublime,” the revelation of the ultimate that is beyond reason.
In the next two essays, Blackmur discusses two American poets with similar concerns, E. E. Cummings and Wallace Stevens. Blackmur does not rank Cummings’ poetry very high because of his persistent use of abstractions and a private language that the reader cannot penetrate. Blackmur gives evidence of the shallowness and vagueness of Cummings’ poetry by making a list of the “flower” words that appear so often in his work. On the other hand, while Wallace Stevens’ language may be as eccentric as that of Cummings, Blackmur recognizes that Stevens does not have a private language, only a difficult one. Blackmur cites a few examples, such as the word “funest,” to show that Stevens’ language is also functional. Most revealing is the contrast he observes between Stevens and T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Blackmur shows the differences between the “rhetoric” of Stevens and the visual and dramatic style of Eliot and Pound. Blackmur, however, does not make clear exactly what he means by “rhetoric” when he analyzes the poems, which, perhaps, accounts for the greatest fault of these essays as a whole—Blackmur can be rather opaque in his choice of words. Part of the problem may be that Blackmur believed that there is a knowledge which a great work of art gives to the reader but the reader cannot communicate what that knowledge is; he can only acknowledge it.
In the essays on Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson, Blackmur finds much to praise in their poems, but, as with Cummings, he judges that their language too often remains private and merely eccentric. Blackmur seems to use Eliot’s “objective correlative” (an equivalence between image and feeling) as a test of the genuineness of a poet’s language, and his focus begins with the word. Furthermore, both poets, according to Blackmur, lack a structural sense; Crane’s poems, glittering in parts as they may be, are fragments, and Dickinson is inconsistent. Blackmur states that Dickinson’s best poems are only “accidents” because of her “private and eccentric” techniques.
Blackmur is more sympathetic to Yeats’s later poems, but, once more, he sees a problem in Yeats’s use of esoteric references. The problem in some of these poems, according to Blackmur, is their reliance on “magic,” Yeats’s supernatural system embodied in A Vision (1925). Blackmur then places the burden on the reader rather than on the poet as he does with Cummings, Crane, and Dickinson. To penetrate to the poetry, so that the magic no longer matters and the reality the poem presents can be apprehended, the reader must first make an imaginative “reconstruction” and then cut away the “debris.” Clearly, Blackmur is quixotic in his methods of evaluation, and that eccentricity calls into question his strongly asserted judgments.
The essay on Eliot is almost reverential; given the fact that Blackmur used many of Eliot’s ideas, practices, and judgments in his...
(The entire section is 2118 words.)