Fit and Few

Donald Davie

  • The Making of the Reader: Language and Subjectivity in Modern American, English and Irish Poetry by David Trotter
    Macmillan, 272 pp, £20.00, March 1984, ISBN 0 333 30632 5

‘Fit audience, though few,’ said Milton; and thereupon declared the terms in which the issue of reader-response would be considered by poets from his day to ours. The widely-read author asks: ‘How many of these many readers are fit readers?’ And the non-selling author asks: ‘Are the fit readers so few?’ The first predicament is the worse. For the non-selling author can always blame his publisher, or his distributors; whereas the best-selling author, weeping all the way to the bank, has no one to blame but himself. If he is in earnest – and if he isn’t we’ll not bother with him, any more than David Trotter does – he thought that he was testing his society by moving out to the periphery of that society, speaking for and with the disaffected, the vagabonds, the ill-adjusted. How disconcerting, then, to find that the disaffection he thought he was speaking for had struck a loudly answering chord from the settled centre! That is the predicament of Larkin, of Hughes, of Heaney: each of them initially supposing himself a marginal person speaking up for marginal people, yet forced to recognise – as the royalty statements convey their gratifying yet unnerving message – that the stance he had thought of as special was on the contrary representative. The Making of the Reader doesn’t explicitly make this point, but it’s one necessary inference from David Trotter’s exceptionally strenuous argument.

Like many before him (Leavis, for one), Trotter believes that the common reader as Samuel Johnson conceived of him and relied on him was already disappearing from the scene by the time Johnson died. Trotter strikes out on his own by pondering the significance in this respect of a figure like Wordsworth’s ‘Old Cumberland Beggar’. He sees Wordsworth’s beggar as the first of a series of ‘silent monitors’ whose situation on the social periphery would be responded to only by fit readers, by those capable of an imaginative pilgrimage to the social margins. The poet, by introducing such figures centrally into his poems (they could be, of course, and usually were, more wilful and mutinous than Wordsworth’s vagabonds), had devised a way of recognising among his many readers those few who were ‘fit’: the fit readers were those few who would understand why old Cumberland beggars were worth bothering about. If this Wordsworth litmus-paper ever worked, it plainly wasn’t working for Ted Hughes by the time Hughes wrote of tramps asleep in ditches. But, so Trotter argues powerfully, every earnest and responsible poet from Wordsworth’s day to ours has needed some litmus-paper, some test that would distinguish the readers who were capable of responding to his provocations from those others who read him only idly and superficially. And The Making of the Reader surveys the different sorts of litmus-paper that poets have used to this end, particularly in the present century.

As soon as we are alerted to the significance of a poet’s preferred dramatis personae – Wordsworth’s beggars and village idiots, Matthew Arnold’s Carthusian monks and gypsies, the young Auden’s ‘airman’, Lionel Johnson’s and T.S. Eliot’s vanquished Kings – the investigation is seen to be fascinating and instructive. But already with Wordsworth and consistently thereafter the test that the poet administers to his readers is less thematic than rhetorical. It is not the beggar or the village idiot as such: it is the rhetoric that Wordsworth deploys in presenting them – in particular, the insidious and therefore powerful rhetoric that works through such seemingly unremarkable words as ‘this’ rather than ‘that’, ‘here’ rather than ‘there’, the definite article instead of the indefinite or the demonstrative. Here David Trotter comes into his own, having learned (I would guess from Christopher Ricks) how such apparently neutral and instrumental parts of speech – including prepositions, ‘in’ and ‘into’, ‘with’ and ‘amid’ and ‘among’ – exert, when used by an accomplished writer, far more powerful suasive force than metaphors and other tropes that draw attention to themselves. Apprehending this, we apprehend how talk of ‘test’ and ‘litmus-paper’ breaks down, falls misleadingly short. The poet is concerned, not to identify a fit readership already in being, but by rhetorical persuasion to will such a readership into being where before it was not to be found. The enterprise is not the identifying of the fit reader, but the making of him. And he is made, he is brought into being, when he is invited and in fact compelled to collaborate with the writer. In the young Auden that invitation and compulsion are embodied in the definite article:

The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

The reader is badgered into supplying from his own experience the substance that the definite articles declare to be patent though as yet unacknowledged: ‘You know the sort of old gang (hard bitch, riding-master) that I mean!’ As Trotter says, ‘the old gang, which we must identify through our knowledge of hard bitches and riding-masters, will transform itself by shedding its definite articles, “deep in clear lake”.’ The fit reader is thus identified by Auden, and forced to identify himself. His identity is political: not just ‘the Left’, but that part of the Left that knows about riding-masters, and therefore is afflicted by rentier-guilt. (‘Recurrent as malaria,’ John Lehmann wrote in 1955, ‘a bout of rentier-guilt laid me low.’) Because Auden’s ideal or preferred or postulated reader has this socio-political identity, he is particularly easy to recognise; Trotter’s ingenuity and sensitivity are more taxed when dealing with authors who conceive their fit reader in les overtly socio-political terms.

And sometimes he is forced to desperate expedients. He makes good use, when writing about Auden and others, of the recorded history of political sentiments in the intelligentsia; and still more rewarding is his framing of his entire argument inside the anthropological analyses of Arnold van Gennep, concerned with ‘rites of passage’, and of Victor Turner, investigating ‘pilgrimage’. But not all his forays outside of literature are so happy. Particularly unfortunate are his not infrequent appeals to Freud: ‘The fetishist’s quest stops short of the terrible revelation that a woman does not have a penis, and that castration is therefore possible.’ It is astonishing that after more than half a century (Freud’s paper on fetishism dates from 1927) such unverified and unverifiable pronouncements should still be adduced in all solemnity by writers who in other fields show themselves thoroughly cognisant of the laws of evidence. The sentence comes in what Trotter himself describes as ‘a less sophisticated and more localised description of the fetishism of the Cantos than that recently proposed by Alan Durant’. It is less sophisticated because it argues directly from the Freudian scriptures, not via the revisionism of Lacan. But the wholly indeterminate because unverifiable status of the Freudian texts nullifies the one argument, Trotter’s, as much as the other, Durant’s. The pity is that the entire excursus is unnecessary: Trotter’s examination of Pound’s Eleven New Cantos (1934-35), in civil dialogue with Stephen Fender, is judicious and breaks new ground without needing at any point to appeal to Pound’s alleged ‘fetishism’. The reader whom Pound appealed to is significantly different in Canto 41 from what he had been in Canto 31, and Trotter I think is the first to make this important point.

From time to time, however, we are in danger of forgetting altogether about the manipulation and ‘making’ of the reader. For lying athwart the book that David Trotter has written are tantalising and sizable fragments of another book altogether, at least as fascinating, which would have for title ‘Pathos and Anti-Pathos in 20th-century Literature’. This second book is first given its head in Chapter Five, called ‘The Spirit of Anti-Pathos’, which connects with sparkling audacity Brecht, Gramsci, Wyndham Lewis, and the Wallace Stevens who wrote ‘The Comedian as the Letter C’; it reappears in Chapter Nine, entirely concerned with American poetry and comparing Frank O’Hara with Ed Dorn (not the expected names? No, thank heaven); and in Chapter 11, where three English poets who normally trade in pathos are applauded for at one point departing into anti-pathos – Ted Hughes in Crow, Geoffrey Hill in Mercian Hymns and J.H. Prynne in Brass. The reader appealed to, or ‘made’, by these books is defined only by tautology: he is the reader who prefers comedy, or ‘ferocious banter’, to elegy, or the celebration of departed glories. Who he or she is, and how he or she came to have these preferences, is nowhere made clear, nor is the question addressed. We are invited to think that the reader who likes Crow won’t like the rest of Ted Hughes; that the admirers of most of Geoffrey Hill’s poetry will be disconcerted by Mercian Hymns; and that the admirer of T.S. Eliot won’t readily respond to Lewis’s The Wild Body – which may well be true, and if true it is interesting, but what has it to do with ‘the making of the reader’?

And indeed it’s with an audible sigh that Trotter returns to this matter, in order to round off his book with some propriety. He honestly admits that the reader-response criticism that served him so well with Eliot and Pound and the young Auden quite signally fails him as soon as in his survey he moves past 1945 or 1950. ‘I believe but cannot prove’, and ‘The only explanation I have been able to advance’, are phrases that betray how far from confident he is about his attempt to paper over this awkward historical hiatus. And he is right to lack confidence: for the best he can come up with to explain the changed conditions since 1950 is the notion that in the last thirty years the poet-reader relationship has been institutionalised, the institutions in question being the universities, and in particular their English departments. The point has been made many times before, usually in accents of outrage, resentment and derision. Trotter admirably refuses to gratify these stock-responses to ‘the academic’; he notes with cool impartiality how such a seemingly non-academic poet as Ed Dorn in fact relies upon scholarly idioms and readily admits as much. But he must know how few English departments nowadays sail under the colours of Northrop Frye, or concern themselves with ‘close reading’, with what he calls, in a charmingly old-fashioned Cantabrigian moment, ‘practical criticism’. In the 1950s it was just possible for a poet to believe that the English departments would sort out for him the fit readers whom he might then address and manipulate: but no poet with his wits about him can believe that in the 1980s.

Oddly enough, I think it’s that other, that submerged book, the one about pathos and anti-pathos, that could supply Trotter with the criteria he needs for distinguishing, in post-1950 writing, those poems that will find many readers from those that will find only few. At the risk of echoing Kingsley Amis (whom Trotter, in general very tolerant, justly pillories at one point), ‘a useful rough rule says’ that poems of pathos will find readers, poems of anti-pathos won’t. Geoffrey Hill’s fine ‘Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy’ is a work of monumental pathos, celebrating a vanished world (Péguy’s), and intimating that we are the poorer for its vanishing; by contrast, a poem that similarly recreates a vanished era, but finds in it only ‘an age much like our own’, is a work of anti-pathos, and will find fewer readers. The point is crucial. For it is the virtue of reader-response criticism, as David Trotter practises it, that it returns us to the common-sense truth that all poets want fame, all want to be loved and admired by as many people as possible. But what such criticism slides over is the no less obvious truth that for fame a price has to be paid, and certain poets at certain times find the price too high. At such times a poet will write an unpopular poem, knowing it to be unpopular but impelled to write it nevertheless. The most striking case of this, among English poets of this century, is Bunting. Intransigently unpopular through most of his life, Bunting is surely conspicuous by his absence when Trotter salutes the masters of anti-pathos. But one sees why. For what did Bunting earn in royalties through the first 65 years of his life? And how can such a self-denying or self-defeating career be accounted for, in a survey that concentrates on how a poet finds, or woos, or fabricates a readership? Presumably Bunting’s royalty statements look more rosy since Briggflatts. (And yet not much, perhaps – for Briggflatts is generally esteemed but little read, and hardly ever remembered when we make our historical surveys.) The greatness of that poem – and it is surely the one indisputably great poem written in England since 1950 – is that, given a theme drenched in pathos twice over, both historically and personally nostalgic, the poet has wrung every drop of pathos out of his theme before he begins to put it on the page. A theme of great pathos is treated in the spirit of anti-pathos. Who the reader could be who would respond to that, where such a reader could come from, how he or she could be brought into being – if Bunting was to write the poem at all, these were questions he just couldn’t afford to ask.

Trotter’s book, too, will find few readers. For most of our commentators on poetry deny his initial postulate. In the New Statesman, in the Salisbury Review, even in the LRB, we are assured that the common reader is alive and well. He is the reader of the journal in question, or of all three of them. If Larkin and Hughes and Heaney are our best-selling poets, this is (so we are assured) because these poets have located and defined the common reader, so as to write of him and for him. Like David Trotter, I have too much respect for each of these poets to believe that they are happy with this account of their popularity, or persuaded by it. The poet of Briggflatts survives, an awesomely chastening exemplar to them and to the rest of us.