Northrop Frye

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854

The title of Daryl Hine's The Carnal and the Crane … comes from a ballad in which two birds (carnal in this context means corneille, crow) discuss the Incarnation. The double entendre in the word "carnal" suggests the theme of the dialogue of soul and body as well, and in connection with "crane" one very astute critic, Mr. Milton Wilson, has murmured the name of Hart Crane. Abandoning speculation, we find The Carnal and the Crane also a carefully planned book, leading up to and moving away from a central poem called "The Return from Unlikeness," a group of three dialogues on the Nativity. I take it that "unlikeness" is here used in its Augustinian sense of remoteness from God, by way of the conclusion of Auden's For the Time Being, so that a return from it, which the Incarnation makes possible, would be the achieving of a total identity, a universal homecoming in which everyone, including Judas Iscariot, goes to his own place. (p. 76)

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Mr. Hine's fallen world is an underworld of death and rebirth, many of its features derived from the sixth book of the Aeneid. It is associated with autumn and winter, the hunting season and "The air grown perilous with falconry," when Orion, the hunter and the winter constellation, lover of Aurora and type of cyclical rebirth opposed to the dialectic of resurrection, presides over both love and death. It is the world of "Avernus," where Aeneas, in one of the most eloquent poems in the book, wanders talking to the shadow of the silent Dido, and where sex is represented by the wound of Adonis. It is a world full of ferocious birds and beasts of prey, a "flood of animals" like those Dante fled from, including the wolf who "is time," and which in the aggregate are Cerberus, the watchdog of death, whom the friends of the fat boy assume to have swallowed him. We reach this world by being ferried over the Styx by Charon, who also haunted Mr. Hine's earlier Five Poems. But a more concentrated look shows that Avernus is really a water-world under the Styx, the world that has never recovered from the deluge. (pp. 77-8)

[This world is] the pool of Narcissus: what goes on in it is the dreamy reflection of reality into which Adam fell, the hypnotized imitation of life by the ego. Marriage, for instance (see "Epithalamium," one of the most equivocal poems in that genre I have ever read), introduces lovers to an Elysium which is the reflection of Eden, but full of serpents and bitter fruits. What the flood did the fire shall overthrow, and the redemption of this world by Christ is usually symbolized by fire, the fiery furnace and the burning bush that burn without destroying, and in which reflections find their own true forms…. (p. 78)

There are great inequalities in the success with which Mr. Hine expresses all this. "The Return from Unlikeness" seems to me a poetic exercise, not a realized poem, and I have no hesitation in calling "The Entombment" a positively bad poem, because no mediocre poet can be positively bad. I doubt if any Canadian poet has potentially greater talents than Mr. Hine, and few in recent years have struck out more vivid and haunting lines, lines that can become part of one's permanent reading. As we eavesdrop on the murmuring dialogues going on in the poet's mind, every so often a voice speaks … with oracular simplicity and power. But these lines are often embedded … in a context of rather soggy verbiage. (pp. 78-9)

It is disturbing to find that, after the "fat boy" poems have reached some kind of synthesis, the final poem, "The Farewell," is still muscle-bound and squirming, and one feels the truth of the poet's remark:

           Only gargoyles leaning out of dogma,
           elements of doubt in faith's alloy,
           deny the gravitation of belief,
           defy the forts and pass the last frontiers.

But it is not the gravitation of belief that is the difficulty of using religion as metaphors for poetry: it is rather (apart, of course, from the superficial temptation to easy resonance) the rigidity of the construct from which the gargoyles lean. Christianity is held together by doctrine, compelling the poet to the struggle of digesting abstractions…. More important, the modern religious poet is apt to confuse inspiration with a state of grace, and feel that it is safer to renounce the full authority of poetry and keep ironically swimming around with all us other poor fish…. Facilis descensus Averno, and Mr. Hine clearly has no interest in being facile. He has a grotesque wit, of a kind that takes the stock example of vulgarity, the replica of the Venus of Milo with a clock in her stomach, and expands it into "Venus big with time," and we may look forward to a poetry of released powers and flying gargoyles. (pp. 79-80)

Northrop Frye, "Letters in Canada" (originally published in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 3, 1951), in his The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (copyright © Northrop Frye, 1971), Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1971, pp. 1-127.∗

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