Poetry Survey Series Post 4: Comfort by E. B. B. Browning

Comfort

Speak low to me, my Saviour, low and sweet 
From out the hallelujahs, sweet and low 
Lest I should fear and fall, and miss Thee so 
Who art not missed by any that entreat. 
Speak to me as to Mary at thy feet ! 
And if no precious gems my hands bestow, 
Let my tears drop like amber while I go 
In reach of thy divinest voice complete 
In humanest affection — thus, in sooth, 
To lose the sense of losing. As a child, 
Whose song-bird seeks the wood for evermore 
Is sung to in its stead by mother’s mouth 
Till, sinking on her breast, love-reconciled, 
He sleeps the faster that he wept before. 

Here is a poem by a young Elizabeth Barret (before she was a Browning, I believe.) She grew up non-comforist in England, sickly, tyrranized over by a brutal and authoritarian father and without her mother for most of her life. She remained faithful to her Christian profession all her life. She and her husband Robert even spent some time in Greece, helping the Christians there with their revolution against the Turks. She was not convinced by Orthodox arguments, though she found much to agree with and was influenced by Greek poetry to some extent. Her most famous poem, after “How Do I Love Thee” is “The Greek Slave” in which she writes in praise of a monument created to publicize the cause of Greek freedom.

Here, however, all that is before her. She is a young person in need of comfort from her savior.

Albert has brought to our attention the ideas of the New Criticism. Now, I know that not everybody feels as I do, but I am deeply suspicious of anything that calls itself “the new” anything. The reason is that it seems to have been a common way of talking at a certain period in the 20th century when any group wanted to pursue the aims of some particular discipline, while cutting themselves loose from all the conventions, traditions, and accumulated wisdom of that tradition. The hubris of that idea is truly astounding to me.

Anyway, I thought this poem, besides being lovely and affecting, would be a good test-case for the claims of the New Criticism. When Browning wrote the poem, our aspartame brand “Sweet and Low” had not yet been invented.

When it was invented, did that action insert into Browning’s poem a new, ironic meaning?

Or does the sensible reader simply reject “sweet and low the aspartame sweetener” as a possible meaning and move on?

In other words, are we at the mercy of our automatic associations when reading poetry? Or do we have a hand on the helm?

In my opinion, the most obvious argument against the New Criticism is that in practice on is forced to rename the incoherence that results as “irony” and in the process is forced then to re-define irony as incoherence.

Is the aim of the New Criticism, then, incoherence? One thinks of ‘That Hideous Strength’ by C. S. Lewis.

25 thoughts on “Poetry Survey Series Post 4: Comfort by E. B. B. Browning

  1. I never actually liked criticism, as an academic pursuit, that is. But the one idea that stuck with me from college classes and my own reading was that meanings and connotations are independent of a writer’s intent. To put in the other way round (which makes more sense, after the “sweet and low” point–which I agree with, and should have anticipated), when writing a poem, or anything for that matter, but especially a poem, one should be aware of potential multiple meanings or contradictory connotations, and not include words that might work against the tone or theme. T

    This of course cannot apply to new developments in language, so any poem (e,. g, “Comfort”) must be read with the general historical context in mind, although biographical information is not crucial–helpful, interesting, but not ultimately necessary to understand or enjoy the poem–if it is truly a good poem. So anyone who wants to find irony in MS Barret’s use of “sweet and low” is adding something, and thereby ruining his experience of the poem.

    About poets as “seers” or persons inspired to speak on behalf of universal human experiences, I have mixed feelings. So the question of whether readers are free to find meanings not intended by the writer is still a question for me. I think that in some cases, maybe a lot, the artist is not fully conscious of the larger result. So while I agree that the reader must, Must, “have a hand at the helm,” I’m not sure that the writer, who should be in total control of where he is going, always is.

    Good choice of poem here, Alana. But it demonstrates one weakness of traditional forms (in this case the sonnet) : the poem sometimes moves from inspiration–the octave here seems almost to have written itself; very powerful– to explanation, or rational commentary, which loses some of the true poetic quality, as in EB’s sestet. These last six lines are clever and intricately constructed, but harder to follow without pausing and working out the meaning, and then being impressed by the artistry rather than the sheer poetry that came before. (So much for criticism! I should have stopped at “I have mixed feelings.”)

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    • Well, I think you are showing your quality here, Albert. You’re giving me a lot of challenging ideas to work on.

      I think you’ve articulated the point of disagreement that always arises, but usually is left unspoken and implicit, between me and critics of my poetry. Eventually, though you haven’t levied this criticism yourself, my critics always say that my poetry is too obtuse and not sensitive enough to the reader. This infuriates me, to be perfectly honest. I think they could figure it out if they tried, but they seem to think that poetry that doesn’t automatically interpret itself on the first reading is arrogant. They want me to use words in the most shallow, limited, and obvious way possible, and they defend this as a sacred virtue.

      This belief seems to partake of the same assumptions as the rules of the poetry critique circle (which I encountered in online poetry forums, where they are similarly enforced.) In those circles, the critics can say anything they want about the poem under consideration (from what they think is wrong to what they think it means) but the author is muzzled and cannot explain, point things out, reason, or respond with anything other than “thank you for the critique.”

      It resembles a particularly hellish hazing.

      I’ve always felt that this was part of a concerted conspiracy to blur the roles of author and reader into non-existence but I didn’t know where it came from. I’ve never taken a poetry class.

      Not that there are no good points here. Yes, an author should be aware of the semantic range of the words he chooses and include enough artistry in his poem to allow his reader to grasp how that semantic range has been limited in his poem. By writing difficult poetry, I limit my readership. And that’s my right. Perhaps I prefer intelligent adult readers! Or maybe like Walter de la Mare, I want readers who are children or child-like, and so I choose to write simple poetry where everyword lies exactly at the most common point of its contemporary semantic range. The point is that I make that call; my reader is not the author of my poem. If someone doesn’t understand my poem the way I meant it to be understood that doesn’t mean that my poem has an infinite number of possible “real” meanings. It means he doesn’t understand my poem – yet. This simply implies that poems are capable of becoming meaningless to later generations or certain classes, of readers.

      The good reader, who understands the art of reading, should be aware that words all have enormous semantic ranges and that reading involves a process, largely automatic but sometimes deliberate, of responsively determining how the semantic range of those words has been limited. He might do this based on the placement of words in relation to other words, on the syntax of the sentences they compose, on the interactions between all that with the history of words and literature, and on his knowledge of the moral and intellectual stature and stance of the author.

      For instance (a simple example) if I say “red” you can think about the huge semantic range of the word and you really don’t know which red I mean, but you know I don’t mean “gray.” If I say “apple” you have a similar situation. If I put the two words together, “red apple,” the semantic ranges of each word work on one another and now you have a range of apples and a range of reds that can combine in a limited number of ways to give the possible meaning. If I don’t specify any further you are left with a partially-limited meaning which, presumably, is sufficient for my, the author’s, purpose. You must then obtain a significance which is consistent with that partially-limited meaning.

      If I say “the gold-red apple of Eden’s deadly tree,” now there’s a lot more to work with.

      However, if I don’t elaborate further, then I am depending on the reader’s knowledge of Eden, and his grasp of the fact that “apple” is such a common fruit for contemporary Americans that it can be used to represent an unknown species of fruit. If his understanding is not the same as my own, then he doesn’t completely understand my poem. And that highlights one of the limits of literary communication. The insistence that literature is Universal enough to contain all possible meanings is nothing less than the insistence that literature is, a priori, infinite. Literature, in this view, has no limits in its ability to communicate.

      And that’s just silly. Everything is limited except God. Literature is not God.

      When he refuses to engage in deliberate reading of complex literature, the reader does not refine and increase his ability to engage in the more automatic kind of reading. The deliberate preceeds the automatic. It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy to deprive us all of the ability to see complexity and beauty together.

      I haven’t responded to a large part of your comment but this was long enough for now…

      Thanks for the comment!

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      • AR, there is a conspiracy to dumb down all of us. The author of the conspiracy is not other human beings, although we certainly participate. The author is the father of lies who seeks in all ways to dull our awareness and to engage our passions (in this case the passion to deface and disfigure the beautiful). It is a form, IMO, of iconoclasm.

        One of the points made against icons was that they put boundaries on God–essentially that we should be free to meet our own idea of God unchallenged by reality (kinda like the Protestants). Good poetry is iconic (thus form is critical to communicating properly). The reader must face it as it is, not how he wants it to be. Good poetry reveals truth and beauty, not as abstracts but as concrete realities that must be faced and dealt with: either by rejecting them or entering them and see where they lead. Good poetry is a whole that, in many ways, defies analysis. Certainly, the poet does not know all of what is being revealed but the poet can certainly say: Not That! Sort of like apophatic theology. You are the final authority on what is not meant by your poem.

        Of course, poetry itself can be distorted to explore only the darkness of the soul away from God to lead one there. Much of modern poetry seems to follow that path and the Critics hail these poems.

        There is a fascinating portrait of “The Critic” in Stanislavski’s book “Building a Character”. I cannot do it justice except to say that the protagonist has to create a character for acting class. He has difficulty coming up with a character but gradually “The Critic” emerges. As he goes through the process of creating this character he disfigures himself physically and emotionally and becomes a whining scab picker in shabby gray-green clothes and make-up much like a rotting corpse. Critics are a bit like serial killers that get off on torturing living beings by slowly dismembering them until they die.

        So if these type of people assault your poetry–praise God. It means you are doing something worthy.

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        • Michael, as a general “type” I definitely recognize that critic. And I do think there is a demonic conspiracy to rob us all of everything good. And we see that at work in many of the literary trends of the day, whether in the composing end of things or the criticizing end of things.

          I do agree with Albert that good criticism is a necessary thing and that it is sometimes helpful to say where a work of poetry fails as well as where it succeeds. A person of good taste and judgment is a rare boon to the world! My ideal of criticism is most closely represented by the book “The Allegory of Love” by C. S. Lewis (henceforth to be referred to on this blog as St. Jack.)

          For instance, you and I thought the geese line in Millay’s poem was poor, though Albert saw value in it. Albert thinks that the end of Browning’s poem is contrived, although I don’t mind the complexity. As a result we ended up thinking about what makes poetry good and what doesn’t, and that’s an ongoing conversation that I am relishing. I dare say we will all be more discriminating in the future.

          But I appreciate your pointing out that I can take heart when people who seem to hate poetic virtues as such attack my work. 🙂 When I was on that online poetry forum, there was a group of people who would cruelly scold everyone who wrote formal poetry for anything remotely resembling poetic diction, while those who wrote formless poetry got a pass on literally anything. I took the fight to them for a while and found out how incoherent they were. Nevertheless, I wrote some of my best poetry in the shortest amount of time, while I was there.

          I agree that evangelical protestants often lack all seriousness when it comes to the doctrine of God. There are whole strains of protestantism, though, where people are trying to engage the church fathers and the history of the Church, and decrying the gigantic joke that is evangelicalism. If you haven’t visited them two blogs worth looking at are Bindlestiff and Unknowing. You won’t find their “tone” to be the usual kind of thing one meets with on Orthodox blogs (because thay aren’t Orthodox) but both are written by minds worth encountering.

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          • I differentiate between rational critique and criticism. The one helps the other intends to destroy but God can overcome it.

            Any time one uses Protestant as a generally descriptive term it will be wrong yet I don’t know how else to call it. Although I do think that Protestantism in general has encouraged it-some with more vehemence than others.

            Maybe in this case it would have been better to not have used that reference at all. Iconoclasts are pretty much everywhere these days.

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            • That’s true, they are.

              It may be that criticism has almost stopped meaning its own meaning, stopped meaning anything but nastiness. Yet, critique doesn’t really do a good job as a replacement term in my opinion. Criticism is judgment; it is discrimination, it is making a distinction between good and bad. Critique is merely evaluation of technique and effect.

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        • “Of course, poetry itself can be distorted to explore only the darkness of the soul away from God to lead one there. Much of modern poetry seems to follow that path and the Critics hail these poems.”

          Okay if I jump in with a question? Must poetry that explores the darkness be considered a distortion? As I was commenting elsewhere, I have read and liked a lot of dark poetry in my time (call me an overaged angsty teen, I can take it) and am hesitant to consider that a vice. However, the “defenses” that spring to mind– “it’s part of the human experience,” “it’s real”, “there is a beauty in melancholy”, etc are falling more than a bit flat to my own ears. 😉 I am curious if you or anyone would like to expound more on this thought.

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          • No some exploration of the darkness of the soul is OK to a point. However, poetry is, in Orthodox terms, a noetic activity. That means it comes from the deepest place of one’s being.

            It can penetrate the darkness and help restore balance and nurture a deep sense of wholeness and beauty.

            The types of poetry I was talking about are the professionally depressed, perpetually alienated, angst driven type. They may not be as common now as they were when I was younger. If not, that is a good thing.

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          • I think that’s a perceptive question, Leah. As I think about it, it seems to me that Andrew Cecil Bradley could help us out here.

            To set up the discussion, we have to understand what he means by the word “imaginative.” Many people nowadays think that this means “able to make things up.” However, this word properly refers to “the activity and products of that faculty of man’s soul known as the imagination.”

            In its turn, we should note that the imagination is the faculty (the ability) to create images in the mind. By extension, it is the ability to do for all reality what images do for the appearance of reality. When we compose imaginatively, we don’t create out of nothing. Rather we compose and arrange material in such a way that the end result represents something or “images” something that really exists.

            As Bradley points out, this thing that really exists could be a fiction – which exists as fiction. The point is that whatever we are presenting, whether fiction, fact, story, experience, apperance, idea, or what have you, must be represented, not just presented. It must be shown to the reader as you have conceived it in your image-making faculty, and not just handed to them in the same condition it came to you.

            If you fail to do this for your reader, no act of art has been accomplished. All that has happened is a relay of information. Not only that, but the reader is coming to the poem ready to exercise his own imagination. If you don’t give him something to do with his imagination, he won’t thank you. Your imagination must show something to his imagination, or there is no art.

            So that’s the first point. Whatever goes into a poem ought to go in after first being re-presented by the imagination.

            The second point is that darkness is, indeed, something that exists and that human beings experience. Since it exists, it can conceivably be represented in a poem. What gives us pause as Christians, I think, is the fact that we know the darkness ought not to exist and that it is sin or the result of sin, at least at some remove. We shrink from celebrating or spreading darkness.

            I think the two points act on one another beautifully. If a poem is an occasion for presenting darkness (that is, for merely presenting, and not imaginatively representing it) I always recoil from it and I think most other people do, too. In this case the darkness has been deposited, as darkness, in its own reality, into the poem. Anyone who reads the poem is in danger of catching or being infected by the darkness that is there. He could let it in.

            Sometimes this kind of poem is attractive to people for the same reason that angsty young people love hard rock or emo. It allows them to express the rage that is really in them, thus avoiding the discomfort/destruction of supressing it or hiding it or compressing it in the soul. I would never tell someone to avoid that kind of thing because something worse could come, and I don’t know what to give them to replace it.

            I will say, however, that this is not really art. It’s just using an art-form as a vessel for something that we cannot contain within ourselves because it is too painful. The thing I notice about this sort of thing is that the art-form inevitably breaks when you try to force too much reality into it. Blues becomes rock becomes people painting themselves in violent array and foaming at the mouth and having seizures on stage and breaking their instruments and screaming and basically just not being able to pour enough rage into the music to satisfy their needs. Or, at the extreme, Sylvia Plath (or Heath Ledger) commit suicide.

            Back to real poetry. I think it should be plain now that when we make some darkness the subject matter of a poem, that darkness must first pass through the imaginative faculty and be transformed, re-presented. Within the poem or other composition then, the darkness is no longer darkness but an image of darkness.

            The good thing about this is that it allows us to offer perspective along with the darkness instead of just dumping it on someone. This perspective could be a tempering brought by an image of light, or the perspective of maturity or healing or a moral viewpoint on the darkness we are representing. Even if all we talk about in the poem is darkness, as long as we represent it imaginatively (in the sense I have been talking about) then we are protecting our readers from the real thing. We are allowing them to form an opinion about the nature of what we are showing them. We are allowing them to look at it instead of being drenched in it. We are making art instead of vomit.

            I think you can probably guess at this point that I think this is morally permissible and indeed artistically permissible, as well. I think that whether it will be succesfful and good as art depends on 1. The imaginative power of the artist and his consequent ability to encompass his subject matter and transform it 2. The moral breadth of the artist and his consequent ability to understand darkness without succumbing to it.

            A really good example, though it is not a poem, is the Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Hardly any subject could have been more dark. He transforms demons into creatures of imagination. These creatures of imagination are then conveyed to the imaginations of his readers. Thus, in a safe form, we his readers learn some things we desperately need to learn about demons, without having to encounter actual demons (or demonic energy.)

            However, Lewis said that the project was an extremely difficult one and that he almost succumbed to the darkness sometimes, in the form of depression. I think that he said he would never want to revisit the project or produce a sequal. This should be a warning to all of us, because it would be very difficult to find someone with a greater imaginative power or a vaster moral breadth than St. Jack.

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            • Hi Alana,
              I really appreciate you taking the time to explain these perspectives on Christianity, poetry, and darkness. I was even motivated to finally read the Andrew Cecil Bradley chapter you posted all the way through to make sure I understood the fuller context, or at least some of it. I’m so glad I did! I was not expecting it to be the sort of essay that would leave me in goosebumps by the end, but it did. A very agreeable surprise. I look forward to future installments which I’m sure will be further illuminating.

              Regarding darkness and poetry, I don’t have a lot to say in reply, partly because I don’t see much to argue with (lol) and partly because, I’m honestly a little uneasy about my liking for such stuff. The implicit warning (if I read you correctly) is also appreciated. I do think in such explorations, poetic or otherwise, one has to be careful. You can fall in. At the same time it can be a risk worth taking and sometimes necessary. There may be a pearl to be snatched from the jaws of the dragon.

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  2. AR, I see what you are saying about criticism but that is definitely not the role critics play in today’s world. The word, like many words, has been debased and made ugly and our hearts grow cold.

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    • I know coldness, ugliness, and debasement is everywhere, but I’m just not convinced that nothing is left. The good people should find each other, draw attention to one another, build on one another’s work.

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        • Heh, well, I don’t mind writing a poem with the word ‘as’ in it but I won’t describe my process of writing a poem by means of any phrase using the formula “A as B” because I can’t stand that formula. 🙂

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    • Michael, for an example of a more positive version of literary criticism, check out the excellent article by James Wood in this week’s The New Yorker magazine, 5/29. It’s about a “dazzling debut” novel by Zia Haider Rahman, who was born in a rural village in Bangladesh, moved with his family to London, where his father found work as a bus conductor, and where Zia developed his mental skills enough to earn “a place at Oxford” and the go on to participate as “an investment banker on Wall Street and as an international human rights lawyer.”

      I might not have wanted to read Rahman’s novel–probably wouldn’t even have heard of it–if not for Wood’s article. This is the kind of “criticism” that I was interested in applying to poetry.

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  3. Alana, I Just read this – http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/this-week-in-my-classes-the-radicalism-of-aurora-leigh/ – and remembered some interesting conversations which got started with comments about the poem of E.B.B above. I haven’t read “Aurora Leigh,” but now think I’ll give it a try, having been encouraged by your efforts to bring life back to narrative poetry and to bring narrative poems, your own included, to life.

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