The Great Symbol Hunt
A View of My Own. By Elizabeth Hardwick.
(Heinemann, 30s.) -
CONSIDERING how much American work does not get published in this country—poetry, notoriously—we are very well served with essays. Warren's creative work is sufficiently distin- guished to justify the publication of his criticism, even though most of the essays in this volume are around twenty years old—and show it. What dates these essays, often, is the assumed background controversy. For instance, in one of the best essays, 'Pure and Impure Poetry,' he attacks that attitude which requires poetry to exclude all the dross and mire and prose of everyday reality and evoke a pure spiritualised 'poetic' world. Today that would be tilting at windmills. Even so, the essay is written with a lively intelligence and persuasive insight, and in arriving at his own definition of poetry Warren reveals all that was good in the 'new criticism.' The poet, he suggests, is like the ju-jitsu expert: 'he wins by utilising the resis- tance of his opponent—the materials of the poem. In other words, a poem, to be good, must earn itself. It is a motion toward a point of rest, but if it is not a resisted motion, it is a motion of no consequence.'
In a very long and brilliant essay on Cole- ridge's Ancient Mariner, Warren amply justifies the sort of close reading the new critics went in for, because in this case the reading is in- formed by a good deal of tactfully deployed scholarship. Writing against those critics who insisted the poem was a pleasant but meaning- less dream, he shows the poem to be a profound parable of 'the imagination.' Coleridge himself, when he looked at nature, felt he was 'asking for a symbolic language for something within me that always and forever exists,' and Warren is justified in interpreting the poem as a sym- bolic inquiry into the ambivalent power of the imagination (a privilege and salvation in that it affords the sinful poet a unifying sacramental vision of nature, a curse in that it alienates the poet from human community). The whole essay is one of the most suggestive pieces I have read on Coleridge and shows Warren at the top of his powers.
When Warren goes symbol-hunting in Eudora Welty's work he begins to show signs of one of the worst aspects of 'new criticism' and, indeed, of much recent American fiction. I refer to that feeling that if you can ascribe a symbolic status to things you have discovered their 'real' deeper meaning; whereas, in fact, this conscious pursuit of facile portent actually involves a sad undervaluation of reality. True symbols are dis- covered, not made, and they bear the weight and pressure of a vast amount of pondered emotion and realised experience. They are imponderable and irreducible; but for Warren and Welty they seem to have become like little wrapped gifts in the bran-tub. Thus a character receives a watch—it shows she lives in Time: her father's name is Solomon—it shows she lives in the House. of Wisdom. This is disappointing after Warren's subtle and impressive discussion of symbols in the Coleridge essay. I recalled with sympathy Saul Bellow's cry against 'deep- reading' and symbol-hunting. 'Let Plato have his circles and let the soda crackers be soda crackers and the wood shavings wood shavings. They are mysterious enough as it is.' But Warren is usually better than this. He is a generous critic, genuinely interested in literature a.; 'a celebration of life' and he himself has all those qualities he asks from the critic: 'intelli- .gence, tact, discipline, honesty, sensitivity.'
I have heard Elizabeth Hardwick described as 'a nice Mary McCarthy' and I know what they mean. There is something contingent about some of these essays, but for the most part they are remarkable for their abiding interest. More than that, for their grace, lucidity, mobile acuity, and a really elegant intelligence. Without becoming deliquescent from an excess of 'female' sensi- bility, her essays have a humane and personal flavour which makes a refreshing contrast with McCarthy's clinical and arrogant vindictiveness. This shows in her essays on the letters and lives of people like Hart Crane, Sherwood Anderson, William James, Eugene O'Neill and George Eliot's husband; in which sympathy and astute- ness work together in a most pleasing way. And there are some really perceptive essays here. For example, on the significance of Caryl Chessman and Dylan Thomas in America (The maniacal permissiveness and submissiveness of American friends might, for all we know, have actually shortened his life . . . there was a certain amount of poison in our good will'). More- over, I must make special mention of a most engaging piece on Simone de Beauvoir and 'The Subjection of Women,' which is almost humbling (to a man) in its candid objectivity and its utterly unquerulous assessment of the undeniable differ- ences between the sexes. Elizabeth Hardwick writes as the alert, intelligent, humane non- expert to whom all aspects of life are interesting and inter-illuminating. I must be trite to be true —these essays were a joy to read.