Ryan Cull: On "Now the Fog"
Written in 1950, "Now the Fog" is both a reflection on the World War just finished and a prophecy of the government-sponsored witch-hunts that were soon to come. In the literary context, it is also a response to the increasingly consolidated New Critical convictions that sought to turn writers away from addressing just such historical issues. The very title "Now the Fog" itself seems as if it is meant as a completion of an ellipsis or a before/after statement. After the tumultuous forties, according to Rolfe, we are "now" living in the resulting time of fog, a precarious moment of psychological, critical, and political obscurity.
The first verse paragraph introduces this obfuscating fog as doing two very distinct things: it "falls on the land" and it makes the "imagination's eyes go blind." It is, thus, simulataneously a physical/geographical phenomena and a psychological/aesthetic phenomena. And perhaps the "fogging" up of such distinctions is part of Rolfe's poetic project, an early attempt to blur the strict New Critical separation between realm of art and the "real" world. We learn, however, that this fog is not an innocent atmospheric condensation but, in actuality, something much more ominous - smoke. Whether caused by battle or by burning or by both, this smoke is sinister; it is the "sole residue of written wisdom." All of the intellectual inheritance of the past has been virtually consumed in the wake of World War II and the new atomic age. And this burning of wisdom is the ultimate source of the fog that blinds contemporary "poets" and "prophets," causing them to live a strange kind of death in life in "their wavering edgeless tomb." Even worse, while these contemporary wisemen are blinded by the fog, McCarthy-esque "knaves" with political and military power (who very likely are the same people whose burnings destroyed the "written wisdom") take their place and fill the silence by telling the citizenry what to "say, listen to, [and] see."
With no contradicting voices, like those of poets and prophets, the people fall into the "habit" (note the word's double meaning referring to clothing) "of slavery," a "suit" that had been "long discarded" but now feels "comfortable" once again. But the changes do not stop here. The people also quickly lose their sense of "taste" (a key double meaning here as well - physical taste and aesthetic taste - thus a jab at the critical establishment), follow the demands of the "belly," and mindlessly, with their "gutted brains," succumb to an apparently totalitarian state. As a result of this, we see one of the only objects that emerges from this pervasive fog: "stamped official registration cards" making it easier to track and, if necessary harass, every citizen (something Rolfe himself had to endure for years).
The final two verse paragraphs, though brief, are no less ominous. They continue Rolfe's elegy for what is being lost, seeming to ask whether this can possibly be the fulfillment of a land founded with promise. Now "only rare and blest oases of courage remain" on the "blurred landscape" as the "fog falls" and inexorably "seeps" ever deeper "into the land." It is the poem's final curious image, however, that emphasizes those who may be the real targets of Rolfe's critique. He fears that "even the iron rust/. . . of the English tongue." Language, one of the key parts of a culture's scaffolding is rusting. And, even as Rolfe himself writes ironically in a murky kind of post-Romantic chiaroscuro, his accusation is clear: it must be the poets and critics who are at fault for abdicating their own domain.
Copyright © 2001 by Ryan Cull