Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Arnold’

Ghosts of all my Lovely Sins: Some Thoughts on the Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker

June 9, 2012

As Dorothy Parker once said
To her boyfriend, “Fare thee well”

Cole Porter Just One of Those Things

Years ago I was up late reading a poetry anthology when I came across a familiar passage from Wordsworth:

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her grave, and oh,
The difference to me!

I put the book down and thought, “You poor, poor man.” I was briefly flooded with empathy for Lucy and her chronicler. And this sensation connected my life and my various heartaches and disappointments with the turbid ebb and flow of human misery. (Soon I remembered that the people about whom I was reading had been dead for over a century. I picked up my book and went on to the next poem.)

Reading The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker, a women who “wore [her] heart like a wet, red stain,” I am reminded of the sage* who informs us that “Happiness is a sad song” (10).

Although I’m no stranger to heartache and self-pity, Mrs. Parker obviously possesses, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, a heart not so airy as mine.

The sun’s gone dim, and
   The moon’s turned black;
For I love him, and
   He didn’t love back.
(151)

Just about every human being who has ever lived has had a similar experience. But how many of us could condense so much feeling into eighteen beautifully collocated metrical syllables?

(A note on Light Verse: Kurt Vonnegut complained that critics mistook Science Fiction for a urinal, and that’s how I feel about this dismissive term often applied to rhymed poetry which possesses a healthy meter. Even when, for example, Phyllis McGinley writes of serious topics like nuclear annihilation, critics belittle such poetry by classifying it as light verse. This is why I am heartened by the growing presence of poets such as Mrs. Parker and Ogden Nash in the anthologies.)

Of course, the poetry of Dottie Parker would be a dreary place were it not for the courage she demonstrates by climbing back on that horse no matter how many times it throws her.

Better be left by twenty dears
    Than lie in a loveless bed;
Better a loaf that’s wet with tears
    Than cold, unsalted bread
(134)

And the existential vivacity of the tender heart which continues to grab life by the horns for all its gusto is heroic indeed.

For contrition is hollow and wrathful,
    And regret is no part of my plan,
And I think (if my memory’s faithful)
    There was nothing more fun than a man!
(172)

Perhaps not coincidentally, the tenacity of Mrs. Parker’s amorousness is matched (if not bested) by the ferocity of her malevolence.

Then if friendships break and bend,
    There’s little need to cry
The while I know that every foe
    Is faithful till I die.
(70)

Dorothy Parker is a legendary hurler of insults
who penned several composites of enmity which she calls “hate poems.” Here are some of her more artful derisions:

(Serious Thinkers)
They talk about Humanity
As if they had just invented it;
(224)

(Artists)
They point out all the different colors in a sunset
As if they were trying to sell it to you;
(236)

(Free Verse)
They call it that
Because they have to give it away
(237)

(Writers)
They are always pulling manuscripts out of their pockets,
And asking you to tell them, honestly—is it too daring?
(237)

(Tragedians)
The Ones Who Made Shakespeare famous. (246)

(Psychoanalysts)
Where a Freud in need is a Freud indeed,
   And we can all be Jung together
(263)

(Overwrought Dramaturgy)
Of the Play That Makes You Think—
Makes you think you should have gone to the movies.
(265)

(Married “Steppers-Out”)
They show you how tall Junior is with one hand,
And try to guess your weight with the other.
(359)

(Bohemians)
People Who Do Things exceed my endurance;
God, for a man who solicits insurance!
(120)

(Men)
They’d alter all that they admired.
They make me sick, they make me tired.
(73)

(Past boyfriends)
The lads I’ve met in Cupid’s deadlock
Were—shall we say—born out of wedlock.
(147)

*Schultz, Charles Happiness is a Warm Puppy

by Richard W. Bray

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

September 14, 2011

Harold Bloom

The Perils of Bardolatry: Harold Bloom’s Limited Perception of Hamlet

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man’s expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it.

Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? (178)

The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral.

D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (180)

When Kurt Vonnegut was working on Slaughterhouse-Five, he told movie-producer Harrison Starr that it was going to be an anti-war novel.

“Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?” Starr quipped.

Vonnegut found the comment amusing, agreeing that wars are “as easy to stop as glaciers.” This knowledge did not dissuade Vonnegut from completing his masterpiece because he realized that no work of art could ever rectify the human situation, and only the silliest sort of fool creates a work of art hoping somehow to fix the world. (This is what logicians refer to as assigning an irrelevant goal.)

But literature has its uses. And W. H. Auden notwithstanding, poetry makes all sorts of things happen. Great works of art render our world a lot more beautiful and slightly less confusing.

Harold Bloom, one of America’s most acclaimed literary critics, has released a curious collection of musings on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet entitled Poem Unlimited. According to Bloom, “of all poems” Hamlet is the “most unlimited,” and, as a “meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death,” the play “competes only with the world’s great scriptures” (3).

Bloom has long been an idiosyncratic critic, cocksure about his own brilliance and emphatic about the singular authenticity of his opinions. His general predisposition towards even the most revered literary figures is often miserly in terms of handing out approbation. For example, Bloom dismisses Matthew Arnold’s oeuvre in one sentence: “Arnold, long admired both for his poetry and for his literary criticism, was not particularly good at either” (The Best Poems of the English Language 684).

And like the notoriously fussy Mikey from the Life Cereal advertisement of my youth, when Bloom finally comes across something that pleases him, he really likes it.

Hamlet remains our world’s most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality. (7).

Of course, Bloom is hardly the first critic to gush over Hamlet.

It is perhaps not necessary to emphasize the quality of the prose in Hamlet. Here are passages which represent the highest point Shakespeare ever reached in this medium….it is the excellence and the importance of the prose which separates Hamlet from, and in many ways above, all the other plays (George H. W. Rylands, Words and Poetry 159).

So Bloom, a devout secularist who considers “Bardolatry” to be “only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare,” is ecstatic about Hamlet (7). This play’s the thing for Bloom, and its eponymous hero is the pinnacle of literary achievement, eliciting rapturous bellows of praise from the usually cantankerous critic:

[Hamlet] himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed (7);

Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling…fathered by himself (9);

Hamlet becomes the freest artist of himself in all literature (51);

We cannot play upon him: he is cleverer than we are, and more dangerous (54);

[T]he likes of] whom we have scarcely encountered before (82);

[H]e is more intelligent than you are, whoever you are (88);

[H]e is a mortal god in an immortal play (90);

Hamlet is the truth, insofar as any hero of consciousness can be (96).

Thus inebriated in adoration, Bloom almost completely ignores the enigma at the core of Hamlet’s personality which has confounded and infuriated critics for centuries: Yes, Hamlet is a devilishly clever young man, full of all sorts of wonderful words. But he is also cruel, capricious, and ditheringly indecisive. Indeed, the very expression “playing Hamlet” is a synonym for indecisiveness.

No one could seriously question Bloom’s assertion that Hamlet is a font of fabulous words. But if, as D. H. Lawrence argues, the moral function of art is paramount, then there is no escaping the fact that Hamlet is an abject failure as a man. If Hamlet had simply killed Claudius (the man who murdered Hamlet’s father), so much senseless death and mayhem could have been avoided. The Polonius family—who, whatever their faults, were decent, loyal and loving human beings—is utterly destroyed due to Hamlet’s vacillating stupidity.

Unlike Hamlet, Laertes has no need to navigate a sea of words in order to determine the right course of action. Hamlet himself speaks of Laertes as a “great gentelman,” and Hamlet admires the “bravery of his grief.” Furthermore, the similarity of their plight is not lost on Hamlet, who says of Laertes, “by the image of my cause, I see/The portraiture of his.”

Yet Harold Bloom will have none of it: “Laertes is too absurdly slight to be Hamlet’s ‘second self,’ as many critics aver (104).

Along with Laertes, the other heroic figure in Hamlet is Horatio. According to Hamlet, Horatio is

A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgement are so well commedled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As i do thee.

Again, Bloom is unwilling to listen, not even to Hamlet:

Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they are plainly mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of (15).

Alan Lerner jested that “The French don’t care what they do actually/As long as they pronounce it properly.” Similarly, Harold Bloom doesn’t care what Hamlet does, actually—whom he berates, whom he stabs, whom he has murdered, whom he brutishly badgers to the point of suicide, how many ways he contradicts himself, how many people die for his indecisiveness—as long as Hamlet collocates his lovely words better than anyone else.

by Richard W. Bray