Irony

Alan Williamson on: "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

That moral and intellectual relativism is itself an issue in the poem is indicated, I think, by the dominant imagery of clothing. Of course, Lowell has used this imagery throughout, to denote human absorption in roles; but its exaggerated employment here underlines the fact that Lowell must now perceive people and situations through these roles and appearances, without the prophet's confident penetration to spiritual conditions. A further complicating factor is that the characters in the poem are all extreme, contradictory, sui generis - all Dickensian solipsists. Their relation to social processes is obscure and mystified, most of all to themselves; and taken collectively, they mirror the author's own confusion about the possibility of interpretive or moral judgments on society. Indeed, not the least solipsistic among them is the author.

The opening stanza reveals Lowell's subtle discomfort at his accommodated position, at the growing distance between his concept of himself and any of the roles he must or can play. He sees himself as an underground eccentric, wearing his pajamas most of the day; but this eccentricity - and the daily load of laundry - is made possible by a respectable job, though one so luxurious it hardly seems such: "Only teaching on Tuesdays." He "hog[s] a whole house" - a residential arrangement quite appropriate to his class and background, but clearly unnatural in terms of his own feelings. Lowell proceeds to invent a bizarre but appropriate analogue to his own paradoxical status:

even the man

scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,

has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,

and is a "young Republican."

(Perhaps this figure deserves to be interpreted more seriously, as Marcuse's vision of the superficially unexploited proletarian who pays for his comforts by a subtle regimentation extending not only to his politics but to his play - "a beach wagon" - and his sexuality - "a helpmate." But the archness of tone suggests that Lowell intends him - for the present, at least - mainly as metaphor.)

Within bourgeois community and responsibility, Lowell has found at least one vital center for his life, his baby daughter: "Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear." Yet even the daughter's importance is cheapened when it must be expressed through the irrelevant poetry of departure of advertising. This rhetoric bears out a dominant pattern of excess, especially of over-size - in Lowell's house, his teaching arrangements, the age-discrepancy between him and his daughter - a pattern that has some of the terror, if not the moral implication, of Macbeth's "giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief." At the very least, Lowell's exaggeration of his contentment is a subtle way of questioning it - of admitting that he is "selling" himself.

One reason, presumably, for Lowell's delayed parenthood is the very different kind of commitment that engaged his youth:

Ought I to regret my seedtime?

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statements . . .

"Ought I to regret my seedtime?" is the essential question of the poem: has Lowell's present ironic vision transcended, and so gained the right to reject, his earlier committed one? The question, for me, recalls one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "In seedtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." The proverb is relevant to more than Lowell's occupation, for the Devil is satirizing the conventional life-cycle, claiming that it is merely a mind-forged manacle designed to prevent man from ever enjoying his instincts, ever distinguishing his true self from his society's rationalizations.

Lowell's mature irony does indeed reveal disturbing, incontrovertible truths about his earlier self. His revolt was itself solipsistic, ineffective, merely bizarre, or at least society could make it seem so: the apolitical, Dionysiac Negro he was paired with was no better an objective correlative of his commitments than his fellow professors and Marlborough Street neighbors would be now. The phrase "telling off" makes his argument seem a sloppy emotional catharsis; just as, later, the comparison of the prison roof to "my school soccer court" would reduce his martyrdom to a compulsive repetition of childhood experiences involving authority, violence, and exhibitionistic attention-seeking (assuming that the reader makes the obvious connection with "91 Revere Street"). Of course, this too could be seen as part of society's mystification: prison makes the dissenter doubt his own manhood and judgment, since it reduces him to the dependence of a child.

At times, however, Lowell's irony backfires: the use of a technical psychoanalytic term like "manic" in a subtle descriptive context, however accurate it may be, suggests a complacent patness attained at some cost to richness of feeling and recollection.

In the prison scenes Lowell's vision of anomalies and disconnections becomes still more intense and maddening. The pervasive costume imagery absorbs - though with a grimmer irony than usual - so palpable a reality as the New York slums: "bleaching khaki tenements." The prisoners, defined by garments ranging from "rope shoes" to "chocolate double-breasted suits," are worlds unto themselves, and worlds full of self-contradiction. One, Abramowitz, carries pacifism to a cosmic extreme, yet clearly has his own problems about aggression and masculinity (he is called a "flyweight" and urgently wishes to be "tan"). Lowell can finally dismiss his point of view with a rather sneaky reference to Eden and the Fall. Nor can Lowell feel much common cause with the other war protesters, one of whom belongs to a sect the Catholic C.O. has never even heard of Still less, of course, is there a feeling of unity among the prisoners in general. Indeed, the prisoners' interactions reveal to Lowell another, equally important kind of disunity; the ethical contradictoriness of our society, which punishes the aggressive conformist for his acquisitiveness while bearing down on the eccentric for his dislike of force, but allows the persecution of the eccentric by the conformist to go on in prison just as it does elsewhere.

Something unanticipated happens in the poem, however, when Lowell focuses on the last prisoner: "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke."

. . .

One difference is technical. Where, before, hesitancy and the sense of disconnectedness expressed themselves in abstention from eloquence, halting metrics, submerged or doggerel rhyming, now the lines become emphatically iambic, the rhymes prominent, regular, stately; there is a touch of the surging periodicity of Lord Weary's Castle.

We are led to look for a reflection of this increased intensity in the moral content of the lines. One insight that becomes very clear is the real power of money and violence cutting across all claims of value and principle in American life. Morally repudiated and condemned to die, Lepke is still czar, still "segregated" into privilege like a Southern white, still given "things forbidden the common man." Further, these things are exactly what the conventionally respectable desire: the American Way of Life, an unexamined jumble of consumer goods, piety, patriotism. As the scavenger earlier identified with these things against his own class interests, Lepke identifies with them against the whole legal and moral tenor of his life; unless, of course, one cynically concludes that the law and public life are themselves so pervaded by this doublethink that their ostensible values are meaningless.

For Lepke, as the citation from John Foster Dulles would suggest, is a symbol of at least one aspect of American public life. He has organized, bureaucratized, depersonalized individual murder; America, in the "tranquillized Fifties," has done the same thing with its power to annihilate mankind. Lepke is "lobotomized," has had certain electrical connections in his brain severed (whether literally or metaphorically is not to the point here). America, too, has "lost connections," between its values and its acts, the fiction and the reality of its motives, the news and the appropriate emotional reaction; it too "drifts" toward its fate, unable and unwilling to change. (Rightly considered, the phrase "agonizing reappraisal" was as grotesque when spoken by Dulles as when applied to Lepke.) America, too, is "calm," "tranquillized" as Lepke is "lobotomized"; but in both cases the calm may be merely the psychological effect of an overwhelming, inescapable fear of execution or nuclear annihilation. And here Lowell's analogy carries an especially frightening implication; for in Lepke's single-minded concentration on death, his attitude seems to change from terror to fascination to love. Death becomes an "oasis," the only escape from fear. A number of radical writers have seen such a Dr. Strangelove psychology in the attitude of Americans toward the bomb; and we remember that both Freud and Marcuse predicted a resurgence of the death instinct in very advanced civilizations.

The concluding phrase, "lost connections," seems to reflect not only on Lepke and official America, but on the poet himself. For he too, at the beginning, suffers from an inability to connect his inner identity with his social roles; and an inability to go beyond an inclusive, defensive irony to the patterned vision of social processes that might allow him to locate himself, and reopen the possibility of political engagement. This vision arrives with the symbol of Lepke; and it is important that Lepke is a symbol, while the other characters, because of their obscure or mystified relation to society, remain unbudging, fruitless particulars. The return from observation to symbolism, like the more intense metrics, and like the vision itself, suggests a kind of breakthrough or change of heart in Lowell - one that, I believe, is mirrored in the structure of Life Studies as a whole.

From Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1974 by the Yale University Press.

George Montiero: On "After Apple-Picking"

Several of Frost's finest poems through the years reflected his fascination with the myth of Adam and Eve and his preoccupation with the human consequences of their fall: what he called, in "Kitty Hawk," "Our instinctive venture / Into what they call / The material / When we took that fall / From the apple tree."

[. . . .]

In "After Apple- Picking" the matter is handled a bit differently. There the poet-farmer describes his concern regarding the "coming on" of sleep which will end his long day's labor. For he knows that troubled sleep and repetitive dreams, resulting directly from the daytime activity which has brought him to the harvest and the "wealth" he covets, are his meed. The remembered sensations of apple picking—the "bodily memories of the experience (what we farmers used to call kinesthetic images)"—will prevail in his sleep and will disturb his rest. In memory, but seemingly even stronger than memory, there will nag the "scent" of apples, the "sight" through the skimmed morning ice, the "ache" and "pressure" on the instep arch, the "hearing" of the "rumbling" from the cellar bin. "If you gather apples in the sunshine . . . and shut your eyes," wrote Emerson, "you shall still see apples hanging in the bright light." In sum, Frost knows not whether that sleep will be like the animal hibernation (the "long sleep") of the woodchuck or, as the poet puts it ironically, "just some human sleep."

The country details of "After Apple-Picking" only partly mask the poet's concern with the mythic consequences of the Fall. If Eve's curse, after she tasted of the fruit from the forbidden tree, was that she would "bring forth children," Adam's curse, after joining Eve in the risk, was that he would live henceforth by the "sweat" of his "face"—that is, he would sustain his life by his own labor. The irony beyond this curse is Frost's subject. Adam's curse was to labor, but another way of putting it is that Adam and his descendants were doomed to live within, and at the mercy of, the senses. Significantly, Frost defines the curse still further: man will not cease to labor even in rest.

In the very desire to profit from his long hours of work, the poet has made himself vulnerable, in a wry sense, to the dictum that "the sleep of a labouring man is sweet, whether he eat little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not suffer him to sleep" (Ecclesiastes 5:12). The rub is that the poet is both laborer and "rich" man. He has the "great harvest" he desired; but he has labored long and faithfully in bringing about that harvest—certainly too long and possibly too faithfully to enable him to reap the reward of peaceful, untroubled rest that is promised to the diligent laborer.

The poem can be seen as an elaboration of Genesis: Adam's curse was not merely that he was doomed to live by the " sweat" of his "face" but also that the curse to labor would follow him into his rest and his dreams. Such, inevitably, is the way after apple picking—and such is the paradox of Adam's curse, even as it extends to the poet-farmer of New England.

But Thoreau had viewed man's curse in another way. "It is not necessary," he wrote in Walden, "that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do." Indeed, as he had written earlier in Walden, the problem was that "men labor under a mistake. . . . [for] the better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate" commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal." Behind Frost's poem, however, is the recognition of all that Thoreau says about man's misguided labors and bootless cupidity and, of course, in the person of the apple picker a tacit disregard of these injunctions from an "old book" and the new book that is Walden. Indeed, Frost's apple picker, "overtired / Of the great harvest" he has himself desired, has made the Thoreauvian mistake of being "so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them. Their fingers, from excessive toil, are too clumsy and tremble too much for that. . . . the laboring man . . . has no time to be anything but a machine. . . . The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling." Something like Thoreau's admonitions, then, lies behind the uneasiness of Frost's apple picker's sleep ("One can see what will trouble / This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is").

 

From Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1988. Copyright © 1988 by the UP of Kentucky.

Mark Richardson: On "Mending Wall"

The speaker of that poem allies himself with the insubordinate energies of spring, which yearly destroy the wall separating his property from his neighbor's: "Spring is the mischief in me," he says (CPPP 39). This alliance at first has the effect of setting the speaker against the basic conservatism of his neighbor beyond the hill, who as everybody knows never "goes behind his father's saying": "Good fences make good neighbors." But the association of the speaker with insubordinate natural forces should not be permitted to obscure an important fact, which has been often enough noticed: he, not the neighbor, initiates the yearly spring repair of the wall; moreover, it is again he, not the neighbor, who goes behind hunters who destroy the wall in other seasons and makes repairs. So if the speaker is allied with the vernal mischief of spring and its insubordinations, he is nevertheless also set against them in his efforts to make the stones of the wall balance and remain in place: "Stay where you are until our backs are turned!" he wryly says to the stones. Here, in fact, the speaker is rather like those of Frost's earlier poems "Rose Pogonias" and "October," each of whom, in imagination at least, attempts to arrest the naturally entropic and destructive forces of nature in the hope of achieving a momentary stay against confusion. In "Rose Pogonias," for example, we read:

We raised a simple prayer      Before we left the spot,  That in the general mowing      That place might be forgot;  Or if not all so favored,      Obtain such grace of hours,  That none should mow the grass there      While so confused with flowers.

And in "October":

O hushed October morning mild,  Begin the hours of this day slow.  Make the day seem to us less brief.  Hearts not averse to being beguiled,  Beguile us in the way you know.  Release one leaf at break of day;  At noon release another leaf;  One from our trees, one far away.  Retard the sun with gentle mist;  Enchant the land with amethyst.  Slow, slow!

The happy irony of "Mending Wall" is this: the speaker in this case allies himself with the destructive energies of nature, not against them as in "Rose Pogonias" and "October"; but at the same time he ritually initiates the wall-building exercise that so inefficiently resists and contains those same energies. The speaker of "Mending Wall" is obviously of two minds: at once wall-builder and wall-destroyer, at once abettor and antagonist of seasonal entropies. I would point out further that his impatience with his neighbor's aphoristic turn of mind is significantly (and playfully) qualified by the admonitory aphorism he himself devises and twice repeats, clearly delighted at having thought of it himself: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," he says in a tone that by the poem's end almost acquires an air of finger-wagging, country pedantry. The difference is that, unlike his benighted neighbor, the speaker of the poem does indeed go behind his own favored aphorism to play both sides of the fence. In short, the two opposed men in the poem fairly shape up into one, and his name is Robert Frost.

At last, then, we have alternative aphorisms about walls and fences, and the truth of the matter resides in the "gap" between them that this famously mischievous poem opens up. In this way "Mending Wall" at once acknowledges the limitations of walls (and aphorisms) and also their seductions and value. As has often been pointed out, this dual

theme is embodied even in the movement of the blank verse lines of "Mending Wall," which subtly play both within and against the metrical and structural impositions of the iambic pentameter line. When his speaker has in view the energies that disturb walls and boundaries, Frost's prosody vagrantly resists the regularities of his metrical contract:

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it And spills the upper boulders in the sun And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Enjambment and metrical variations—trochaic feet for iambic ones, spondaic and pyrrhic substitutions, and so on—contribute subtly to the theme of these lines. It is exactly as Pope would have it. How better to, describe a disordered wall than in lines themselves disordered? At such times Frost's blank verse recalls "Tintern Abbey," in which Wordsworth describes those "hedgerows hardly hedgerows" in eloquently unruly lines. In any case, here—as at a number of moments in "Mending Wall"—metrical and rhythmical patterns work in a kind of loosely running counterpoint characterized more by "formity" than by "conformity," as Frost might say. By contrast, when Frost imagines the reconstruction of the wall as the two men labor, the rhythm and meter of his lines coincide quite exactly:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again. We keep the wall between us as we go.

Here, end-stopped lines are the rule: grammatical and rhetorical units more or less confine themselves to their prescribed ten-syllable boundaries. And there is little or no rhythmical variation against the basic iambic grid, which reasserts itself in these lines rather as the wall it- self is "reasserted." Other such examples of Frost's metrical dexterity in this poem might be given, but these two suffice to suggest how tightly integrated in "Mending Wall" are form and theme.

In sum, the speaker of the poem exhibits, both in his manner and in his actions, a certain flexibility. He unsettles walls that he also always repairs; he is at once Apollonian and Dionysian. Once again—as in the introduction to King Jasper and "The Future of Man"—Frost's conservative and rebellious tendencies are perfectly balanced, just as the "intransigent" and "accommodating" tendencies of the speaker of "Good Hours" are metrically and thematically balanced ….

We might also regard "Mending Wall" in light of what Frost says in his 1934 letter to his daughter Lesley about the doctrine of Inner Form. The "neighbor beyond the hill" is all on the side of conformity, the speaker of the poem (at least by his own account) all on the side of formity. Frost himself—and here we should perhaps distinguish him from his speaker—stands at the dialectical intersection of these two opposed terms, for as he says in "The Constant Symbol" about the "discipline[s]" from "within" and from "without": "He who knows not both knows neither."

From The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics. Copyright © 1997 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Katherine Kearns: On "Mending Wall"

It is arguable that the self-righteous speaker of "Mending Wall" is himself obsessively committed to wall building, far more intractably and instinctively committed than his cliché-bound neighbor. While the speaker of "Mending Wall" justifiably castigates his unthinking neighbor and is himself far more aware of the powers of language for good and for ill, he is nonetheless caught up, ironically perhaps, in the same actual task, wall building, which will have the same results and look no different from his neighbor's contribution despite the narrative he brings to it. There are several possibilities for irony here, depending on the level of Frost's self-awareness. Wall imagery pervades his poetry, as a conscious poetic image and as a psychosexual marker of control and limitation. That the speaker is the one who calls the neighbor to mend the wall is vitally important, then, but it is not clear that Frost meant for the speaker to be ironically perceived as a hypocrite. The simple explanation, that the speaker acts out of a sense of inevitability, knowing his neighbor's habits, seems hardly enough given the contextual symbolism of the wall in Frost's poetry; the psychological explanation attendant upon this version might suggest that Frost's conscious intent was subverted by his own unconscious need for walls. So while Frost might not mean the speaker to be self-parodic, the reader might judge that there is an ironic discrepancy between what is said and what is meant, both by the speaker and by the poet. On a deeper level even than this is the possibility that Frost was aware of, had taken account of and justified, his own need for barriers. One does, after all, need something against which to push. In this case, the poem might be completely unironic, for while both men are engaged in the same task, each brings a different narrative to it, the one limited to a thoughtless clichJ , the other enriched philosophically. It could be that Frost is illustrating what it means to move from delight to wisdom: the road less traveled may not look any different, but it is made different by the inner progress of the traveler. The one wall becomes, in this reading, two walls, the speaker's wall a philosophically differentiated structure, the neighbor's wall a mere landmark of past cliches.

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright Ó 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Katherine Kearns: On "The Road Not Taken"

"The Road Not Taken," perhaps the most famous example of Frost’s own claims to conscious irony and "the best example in all of American poetry of a wolf in sheep's clothing." Thompson documents the ironic impulse that produced the poem as Frost's "gently teasing" response to his good friend, Edward Thomas, who would in their walks together take Frost down one path and then regret not having taken a better direction. According to Thompson, Frost assumes the mask of his friend, taking his voice and his posture, including the un-Frostian sounding line, "I shall be telling this with a sigh," to poke fun at Thomas's vacillations; Frost ever after, according to Thompson, tried to bring audiences to the ironic point, warning one group, "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem - very tricky" (Letters xiv-xv). Thompson's critical evaluation is simply that Frost had, in that particular poem, "carried himself and his ironies too subtly," so that the poem is, in effect, a failure (Letters xv). Yet is it simply that - a too exact parody of a mediocre poetic voice, which becomes among the sentimental masses, ironically, one of the most popularly beloved of Frost's "wise" poems? This is the easiest way to come to terms critically with the popularity of "The Road Not Taken" but it is not, perhaps, the only or best way: in this critical case, the road less traveled may indeed be more productive.

For Frost by all accounts was genuinely fond of Thomas. He wrote his only elegy to Thomas and he gives him, in that poem, the highest praise of all from one who would, himself, hope to be a "good Greek": he elegizes Thomas as "First soldier, and then poet, and then both, / Who died a soldier-poet of your race." He recalls Thomas to Amy Lowell, saying "the closest I ever came in friendship to anyone in England or anywhere else in the world I think was with Edward Thomas" (Letters 220). Frost's protean ability to assume dramatic masks never elsewhere included such a friend as Thomas, whom he loved and admired, tellingly, more than "anyone in England or anywhere else in the world" (Letters 220). It might be argued that in becoming Thomas in "The Road Not Taken," Frost momentarily loses his defensive preoccupation with disguising lyric involvement to the extent that ironic weapons fail him. A rare instance in Frost's poetry in which there is a loved and reciprocal figure, the poem is divested of the need to keep the intended reader at bay. Here Frost is not writing about that contentiously erotic love which is predicated on the sexual battles between a man and a woman, but about a higher love, by the terms of the good Greek, between two men. As Plato says in the Symposium (181, b-c), "But the heavenly love springs from a goddess [Aphrodite] whose attributes have nothing of the female, but are altogether male, and who is also the elder of the two, and innocent of any hint of lewdness. And so those who are inspired by this other Love turn rather to the male, preferring the more vigorous and intellectual bent." If the poem is indeed informed by such love, it becomes the most consummate irony of all, as it shows, despite one level of Frost's intentions, how fraternal love can transmute swords to plowshares, how, indeed, two roads can look about the same, be traveled about the same, and be utterly transformed by the traveler. Frost sent this poem as a letter, as a communication in the most basic sense, to a man to whom he says, in "To E. T.," "I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain / Unsaid between us, brother . . . " When nothing is meant to remain unsaid, and when the poet's best hope is to see his friend "pleased once more with words of mine," all simple ironies are made complex. "The Road Not Taken," far from being merely a failure of ironic intent, may be seen as a touchstone for the complexities of analyzing Frost's ironic voices.

 

From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Richard F. Dietrich: On "Space being (don't forget to remember) Curved"

Cummings' "Space being...Curved" embodies a sarcastic and satirical protest against the way certain scientific theories appear to confine the spirit of humanity within a predictable and mechanical universe.  The poem is structured around a contrast between two spherical images--the first that of Einstein's "curved universe," the second that of a billiard ball.  The contrast points up the discrepancy between what Cummings understands the science of his day presumes--to explain the universe in a way that seems arrogantly to assign the role of creator to home sapiens--and what technology actually does with science--murder elephants to make billiard balls out of ivory (the "compassionate digit" ironically referred to is the "trigger finger").  Contrasted to what science presumes--to encompass the universe--technological achievement is ironically small, trivial, and destructive.

from Richard F. Dietrich, "Form and Content in Cummings' 'Space being...Curved.'" Notes on Contemporary Literature 12 (Nov. 1982): 5.

Christopher J. MacGowan: On "The Great Figure"

In his autobiography Williams links the incident that produced the poem to a visit to Hartley's studio on Fifteenth Street, repeating the poem's association with Hartley in a 1956 interview with Emily Farnham. (Hartley's correspondence narrows down the probable date of his visit--he lived at 337 W. 15th street in the second half of 1919, where McAlmon also rented a room.)

Williams writes in the Autobiography:

Once on a hot July day coming back exhausted from the Post Graduate Clinic, I dropped in as I sometimes did at Marsden's studio on Fifteenth Street for a talk, a little drink maybe and to see what he was doing. As I approached his number I heard a great clatter of bells and the roar of a fire engine passing the end of the street down Ninth Avenue. I turned just in time to see a golden figure 5 on a red background flash by. The impression was so sudden and forceful that I took a piece of paper out of my pocket and wrote a short poem about it.

Before continuing his account of the visit, Williams breaks his narrative to insert a later reminiscence. He recalls standing on a station platform with Hartley

when an express train roared by right before our faces--crashing through making up time in a cloud of dust and sand so that we had to put up our hands to protect our faces.     As it passed Marsden turned and said to me, "That's what we all want to be, isn't it, Bill?" (Auto, 172)

The juxtaposition of the express train anecdote clearly associates the train, the speeding fire engine with its figure 5, and the painter Williams was about to visit. The connection is reinforced by the apparently casual reference that transforms Hartley and his studio into "his number." In an unpublished letter to Henry Wells in 1955 Williams pointed to this larger meaning, explaining, "In the case of The Great Figure I think you missed the irony of the word great, the contemptuous feeling I had at that moment for all 'frear figures' [sic] in public life compared with that figure 5 riding in state with full panoply down the streets of the city ignored by everyone but the artist."

By alluding to his painter friend in terms of a numerical figure set against a dynamic, colorful background, Williams matched the strategy of Hartley's 1913-15 Berlin canvases. These abstract works, painted under the impact of his meeting with Kandinsky and Marc, fuse military, sexual, and numerical symbols into what Hartley called "consultations of the eye ... my notion of the purely pictural." As with Williams's figure 5, the numbers scattered across these canvases reflect not only the modernist aesthetic behind their composition, but also an esoteric quality peculiar to the scene or person abstractly portrayed. Many of the paintings gain further numerical associations through such abstractionist titles as Painting No. 1, Painting No. 2, etc. Most of the works, including Painting No. 5 which Williams may have had specifically in mind, are dominated by the military colors of white, black, red, and gold, mirrored in "The Great Figure" by "lights," "dark," "red," and "gold."

Both Hartley and Williams emphasized their strategy of capturing the 'immediate.' Hartley insisted upon the spontaneity of his Berlin compositions, declaring, "The forms are only those which I have observed casually from day to day." Williams similarly asserts that "The Great Figure" is the record of an "impression ... sudden and forceful," despite the variant printed versions of his poem, and the manuscript evidence of their careful revision.

Writing about Hartley five years after his friend's death in 1943, Williams singled out the Berlin pictures as the painter's most significant accomplishment. He could have seen the works at Stieglitz's 291 gallery in Spring, 1916 or January 1917, or at Hartley's studio, since many were unsold and remained in the painter's possession. Williams's sense of the dynamism, violence, and color of the paintings corresponds to the setting of "The Great Figure".

Hartley knew Paris, and, more important, the Berlin of just before the First World War and painted there ... abstract furies, close to the eye, pressing as it were on the eye, of great significance and beauty. . . . I have seen many attempts to equal them with their bold strokes of primary colors, exploding bombs, the arching trajectories of rockets.... It was a phenomenon unequalled in the history of art. If for nothing else these paintings of this period mark Marsden Hartley as one of the most powerful figures in American painting.

In the context of the Hartley association, "The Great Figure" achieves a level of meaning not noted by Williams's commentators. Rod Townley finds the poem's "tense / unheeded" to be "weak," while James Breslin claims of these lines that "Williams, uncertain that the object can speak for itself ... speaks for it." But the lines are in fact crucial, for like the figure, painter and poet are also "tense / unheeded." "The Great Figure" becomes a type of the artist isolated by an America inimical to its vital, creative talents. The painter still suffered poverty and neglect despite the "phenomenon" of his Berlin pictures, and Williams's work was still buried in little magazines and slim, self-financed volumes.

Yet the poet is about to visit the painter, and the poem finally affirms the hope that America's "unheeded" artists can support each other. As the final poem of Sour Grapes, "The Great Figure" qualifies the volume's "disappointment, sorrow." Sour Grapes fits into that pattern frequently structuring Williams's work: a despairing "descent," from which the poet emerges envisioning a rebirth of creative activity through the power of a rejuvenated imagination. But the hope that this poem's synthesis of poetry and painting represents--like the hope of "unity" that Contact represented--proved vain. In the summer of 1921 Hartley joined McAlmon and the other expatriates in Europe.

From William Carlos Williams: The Visual Arts Background. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1984. Copyright © 1984 by Christopher J. MacGowan.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

The son of former slaves, Paul Laurence Dunbar was born and grew up in Dayton, Ohio. His father had escaped from Kentucky to serve in a Massachusetts regiment during the Civil War. He began writing poetry in high school and eventually acquired a large multiracial audience. By late nineteenth century standards, Dunbar's work was steadfast both in its black pride and its rejection of racism. Yet during the Harlem Renaissance, his dialect poetry would win praise from Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, while meeting severe criticism from James Weldon Johnson and others.

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