Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The “Arrant Bubble” of Quietude

Some Flowers

Ron Silliman (c. 2007): “A word about naming. Naming really matters.”

And (c. 2002): “Edgar Allan Poe was involved in the great disputes of the 1840s between the Young Americans and the Boston ‘school of quietude,’ a chasm that remains largely uncrossed to this day.”

And (c. 2004): “The phrase itself was coined by Edgar Allen Poe in the 1840s to note the inherent caution that dominates the conservative institutional traditions in American writing.”

And (c. 2007): “The phrase I’ve chosen, School of Quietude, is a term that has its roots in the correspondence of Edgar Allan Poe, who had to deal with the direct ancestors of this very same cabal of poets back in the 1840s & didn’t much appreciate the experience either.”

Select’d Silliman refs to the naming of the nefarious “cabal.” Albeit, if one examines Poe’s Essays and Reviews (Library of America, 1984), one uncovers five items of “quietude,” none exactly fitting the claim:

1ly. Graham’s Magazine, October 1842. A Rufus Dawes poem call’d “Geraldine” (“a most servile imitation of the ‘Don Juan’ of Lord Byron” and “a mere mass of irrelevancy . . . where the continuous lapse from impertinence to impertinence is seldom justified by any shadow of appositeness or even of the commonest relation”). Second stanza:
Around that hermit home of quietude
      The elm trees whispered with the summer air,
And nothing ever ventured to intrude
      But happy birds that caroled wildly there,
Or honey-laden harvesters that flew
Humming away to drink the morning dew.
Quoting several stanzas, Poe concludes: “Here is an air of quietude in good keeping with the theme” and the poem’s “queer tone of philosophical rhapsody.”

2ly. Godey’s Lady’s Book, November 1847. Regarding the “very marked idiosyncrasy” of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Poe delivers a short argument that aligns “commendable originality” (with an imply’d warning against the singular routine shtick of the johnny-one-note—Faites attention, vous les flarfistes et faiseurs des tripes conceptualistes!) with the popular, and criticism’s “hackneys” with the try’d:
In one sense, and in great measure, to be peculiar is to be original, and than the true originality there is no higher literary virtue. This true or commendable originality, however, implies not the uniform, but the continuous peculiarity—a peculiarity springing from ever-active vigor of fancy—better still if from ever-present force of imagination, giving its own hue, its own character to everything it touches, and, especially, self-impelled to touch everything.
        It is often said, inconsiderately, that very original writers always fail in popularity—that such and such persons are too original to be comprehended by the mass. “Too peculiar,” should be the phrase, “too idiosyncratic.” It is, in fact, the excitable, undisciplined and child-like popular mind which most keenly feels the original. The criticism of the conservatives, of the hackneys, of the cultivated old clergymen of the “North American Review,” is precisely the criticism which condemns and alone condemns it. “It becometh not a divine,” saith Lord Coke, “to be of a fiery and salamandrine spirit.” Their conscience allowing them to move nothing themselves, these dignitaries have a holy horror of being moved. “Give us quietude,” they say. Opening their mouths with proper caution, they sigh forth the word “Repose.
(Echoes of “Nevermore” in that sighing “Repose.”) One pictures with no untoward stretch Silliman’s plucking that cautionary “quietude” out of the clergy’s murmurings, a thing to wield against its own. Per contra, though, is the “post-avant” in the Manichean schema, then, he who courts with success “the excitable, undisciplined and child-like”? Ah, yes, the “fiery and salamandrine” Silliman!

3ly. Graham’s Magazine, February 1842. Poe reviewing Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. Charles Dickens, a Brit. Mr. Silliman trucks none with Brits. An impossibility, comme origine. For us compleatists though, here’s the stub: “The idea of persecution by being tracked, as by bloodhounds, from one spot of quietude to another is a favorite one with Mr. Dickens. Its effect cannot be denied.”

4ly. Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1845. One of Poe’s “Marginal Notes”:
        Scott, in his “Presbyterian Eloquence,” speaks of “that ancient fable, not much known,” in which a trial of skill in singing being agreed upon between the cuckoo and the nightingale, the ass was chosen umpire. When each bird had done his best, the umpire declared that the nightingale sang extremely well, but that “for a good plain song give him the cuckoo.”
        The judge with the long ears, in this case, is a fine type of the tribe of critics who insist upon what they call “quietude” as the supreme literary excellence—gentlemen who rail at Tennyson and elevate Addison into apotheosis. By the way, the following passage from Sterne’s “Letter from France,” should be adopted at once as a motto by the “Down-East Review”: “As we rode along the valley, we saw a herd of asses on the top of one of the mountains. How they viewed and reviewed us.”
A possible source of Silliman’s “quietude”? Only if one assumes a “tribe of critics” exists, or is the source of anything . . .

5ly. Southern Literary Messenger, January 1837. Quoting a William Cullen Bryant piece (one of its “passages of purest ideality”):
                                                                    The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietude between—
The venerable woods—
“The original conception is of the very loftiest order of true Poesy.”

And “school”? (“Naming really matters.”) Whence, pray tell, descendeth Silliman’s “school” (or “cabal”)? Poe’s rather point’d and opprobrious regarding the term. See a squib of marginalia out of the Southern Literary Messenger for May 1849. He’s talking about Shelley, “author of ‘The Sensitive Plant’”—he who “really disdained that Rule which is an emanation from Law, because his own soul was Law in itself”—and Shelley’s innumerable apes:
From his ruins, there sprang into existence, affronting the Heavens, a tottering and fantastic pagoda, in which the salient angels, tipped with mad jangling bells, were the idiosyncratic faults of the original—faults which cannot be considered such in view of his purposes, but which are monstrous when we regard his works as addressed to mankind. A “school” arose—if that absurd term must still be employed—a school—a system of rules—upon the basis of the Shelley who had none. Young men innumerable, dazzled with the glare and bewildered by the bizarrerie of the lightning that flickered through the clouds of “Alastor,” had no trouble whatever in heaping up imitative vapors, but, for the lightning, were forced to be content with its spectrum, in which the bizarrerie appeared without the fire.
Or there’s Poe’s mockery of schools in a review of William Ellery Channing (Graham’s Magazine, August 1843):
Mr. Channing has conceived the idea of setting up for himself as a poet of unusual depth, and very remarkable powers of mind. His airs and graces, in consequence, have a highly picturesque effect, and the Boston critics, who have a notion that poets are porpoises, (for they are always talking about their running in “schools,”) cannot make up their minds as to what particular school he must belong. We say the Bobby Button school, by all means. He clearly belongs to that. And should nobody ever have heard of the Bobby Button school, that is a point of no material importance. We will answer for it, as it is one of our own. Bobby Button is a gentleman with whom, for a long time, we have had the honor of an intimate acquaintance. His personal appearance is striking. He has quite a big head. His eyes protrude and have all the air of saucers. His chin retreats. His mouth is depressed at the corners. He wears a perpetual frown of contemplation. His words are slow, emphatic, few, and oracular. His “thes,” “ands,” and “buts” have more meaning than other men’s polysyllables. . . . His whole aspect, indeed, conveys the idea of a gentleman modest to a fault, and painfully overburthened with intellect. We insist, however, upon calling Mr. Channing’s school of poetry the Bobby Button school, rather because Mr. Channing’s poetry is strongly suggestive of Bobby Button, than because Mr. Button himself ever dallied, to any very great extent, with the Muses. With the exception, indeed, of a very fine “Sonnet to a Pig”—or rather the fragment of a sonnet, for he proceeded no farther than the words “O piggy wiggy,” with the O italicized for emphasis—with the exception of this, we say, we are not aware of his having produced anything worthy of that stupendous genius which is certainly in him, and only wants, like the starling of Sterne, “to get out.”
Nobody’d, I suspect, put Ron Silliman (like an ass) under the onus of one “painfully overburthened with intellect”—though, yes, he—he, too—may suffer the “notion” that “poets are porpoises” for all the fallacious naming games to which—to employ a favor’d “Sillimanism” (sobriquet for a pedantry—“Naming really matters”)—he’s resort’d.

There is reference—in a 1969 piece by Claude Richard call’d “Arrant Bubbles: Poe’s ‘The Angel of the Odd’” (originally print’d in the Poe Newsletter) to the “school of quietude.” Richard points therein to an exchange between Poe and Henry T. Tuckerman, the Boston editor who reject’d “The Tell-Tale Heart” with the remark: “If Mr. Poe would condescend to furnish more quiet articles, he would be a most desirable correspondent.” Poe’s reply: “If Mr. Tuckerman persists in his quietude, he will put a quietus on the magazine of which Messrs. Bradbury and Soden have been so stupid as to give him control.” (Tuckerman eventually shows up in Poe’s tiny taunt of a sonnet call’d “An Enigma”: “The general tuckermanities are arrant / Bubbles—ephemeral and so transparent— / But this is, now,—you may depend upon it— / Stable, opaque, immortal—all by dint / Of the dear names that lie concealed within ’t.”) Richard (after rather confusingly registering the day’s literary wars: “the ‘Young Americans,’ a democratic set whose main literary foes were the Boston poets of the school of quietude and the ‘raving, ranting’ Bostonians”—one wonders if the wars result’d out of simple geography—and geography’s class-fraught underbelly—and not style at all . . .) recounts how “Poe took an active part in the squabble between the ‘Young Americans,’ who were the proponents of a muscular and popular literature, and the Boston poets, who were attached to a more genteel, more traditional, more quiet conception of literature.” That appears to be where Silliman cherry-pick’d a term—and a lineage—out of the inexpugnable welter of history. If “naming really matters”—it matters most to those (the keepers and purveyors of governmental lingo provide innumerable examples) who use it to simplify and so distort.

Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849