Lyrics and Ironies

Christopher Ricks

  • The Alluring Problem: An Essay on Irony by D.J. Enright
    Oxford, 178 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 19 212253 3
  • Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric by Donald Davie
    Cambridge, 76 pp, £15.00, September 1986, ISBN 0 521 32264 2

Faintly repelled by elaborate theories of irony and by taxonomies of it, D.J. Enright has set himself to muster instances, observations, localities and anecdotes. There is no continuing argument, and not much argufying even, but there are plenty of penetrating glances. ‘Rather than theory, it is something resembling “practical criticism” that this book will concern itself with: the exploration of individual ironies as they are manifest in life as well as in literature.’ This is good-naturedly loose, the recipe for something resembling a scrapbook, a scrappy one. ‘When I was making notes for this book I came, before long, to see irony everywhere.’ Likewise when you were making a book for these notes.

The lure of the abstract has not altogether been extirpated. The generalising title, The Alluring Problem, isn’t good: partly because it is dry until colonically irrigated with ‘An Essay on Irony’; partly because you can’t understand it until you meet Mann’s epigraph (‘the problem of irony, beyond compare the most profound and most alluring in the world’); partly because the relation of the title to the epigraph is uninciting (is Enright dissenting from the ‘most profound’ bit? Or just not much bothered?); and partly because it is far from clear what the problem of irony is exactly. Enright, putting a brave face on his title, announces in his first paragraph that the obvious problem is to gauge how effective an irony has proved. This can mean plastically anything. Enright fortunately spends most of the book knowing no such liberty. But he’d have done better to go even further towards a gathering of instances and reflections. ‘Anyone who has propounded a theory or compiled an anthology on a particular theme ...’: the editor of The Oxford Book of Death may have flinched from an Oxford Book of Irony, but he might have taken as a model Aldous Huxley’s lovely lasting book Texts and Pretexts, with its fine title (modest and radiating) and with its responsible freedoms as to when to quote, and how much, and with what flankings of commentary.

The unnourishing servings within The Alluring Problem (a book of 160 pages divided into 28 sections each then cravenly carved into chicken McNuggets of information) are those where you find yourself sure that either the arguments should have been digested or they shouldn’t have been broached. The TLS furore or fury about Peter Reading’s poem ‘Cub’ – anti-semitic, or dramatising anti-semitism? – isn’t appropriately or commensurately to be engaged with in two pages of musings (under the aegis ‘Or Only Funny and Sad?’), ending with: ‘Tone is a fearfully difficult thing not to get wrong, short of doing without it altogether. Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, loyal and neutral, in a moment – and tactful as well? But I am not a Jew.’ The tone of the allusion is unfathomable (what are we supposed to do with the murderous mendacity of Macbeth?), and the tone of the last half-dozen words comes out not as a shouldering but as a shrugging.

Tone has to do a great deal of the work – complemented by principle – once the enterprise is not only non-theoretical but anti-theoretical. Enright’s tone, I should judge, is at its best when genially sturdy, when, for instance, he deplores Flaubert’s craving to score off his characters, and – worse – the craving of his commentators to egg him on:

When Bovary’s horse stumbles as he enters Les Bertaux, the farm owned by Emma’s father, ‘the possibility of an ill omen immediately occurs to us,’ Miss Furst remarks, ‘though not to the unimaginative Charles.’ It isn’t hard for the reader to be cleverer than Charles. But what would we think of a suitor who turned back because his horse stumbled at the threshold of his loved one’s home? Or rather, following the text, what would we think of a doctor who hesitated because his horse, frightened by dogs, shied as he was on his way to treat an unknown farmer who happened to have a daughter? A stumbling or shying horse is no more than an unbrushed, ill-educated coincidence.

Enright is himself markedly uncensorious, though pleased as Punch when an anecdote will not stay still: ‘A music publisher commissioned a work from Stravinsky, who declined on the grounds that the fee was insultingly small. The same proposal was then made to the indigent Satie, who declined on the grounds that the fee was insultingly large. Satie comes well out of the story but perhaps wouldn’t have recounted it too often since he subsequently swallowed his pride and took the job.’ His tone often slips, however, in a way which is pertinent to irony as preternatural vigilance, when he lets enter his engaging self. ‘The awkward dodging to left and to right when two people meet in the street’ was unmasked (unpersuasively, it seems) by Freud as erotic of purpose. ‘The last time I engaged in the act, the other person was a large policeman.’ So? But no. End of paragraph.

Arch is what the unsympathetic will find these moments of endearing personal anecdote. Freud must be very unsettling to necessitate such cushions. Enright’s poem ‘Anecdote from William IV Street’ – about a request for the works of Freud and for an artwork of Jesus Christ – succeeds in its succinct ruefulness, the melting sentiment (as Eliot said of Goldsmith) just held in check by the precision of the language. But when telling us now that this poem is never welcomed and that his justifications of it are never believed, Enright resorts to too disarming a disowning: ‘There must be an explanation, however deeply concealed, for this vagary of mine. Nice if it could be something more momentous than suppressed desire, a suppressed memory of suppressed desire, for the young lady, glimpsed fleetingly from the rear as she left the premises ...’ His slippery ellipsis. For all the pipe-smoking persona, this is Harris twee.

William Empson is praised for magnanimous agility on one page, and then on the very next page, à propos of Pope’s great line, ‘And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake,’ Enright puts the footnote in: ‘Some wet blanket has argued that agitated lovers, awake all through the night, might excusably fall asleep in the morning.’ I like the sleepless wet blanket bit, but you’d hardly guess from this that the blanket in question originally belonged to William Empson. But then you’d hardly guess elsewhere that the poem called ‘Streets’ (‘which I shall quote in full since it seems not to be in print’) – a poem which the present reviewer has praised as magnificent and which in contest Enright then judges preachy – was written by the said Enright. All of which goes to show that ‘the case against irony’, which Enright acknowledges at intervals, might have been amplified to include an even stronger sense of how imperialistic or infectious irony can be. Two notable warnings are not accommodated by Enright. John Crowe Ransom’s: ‘We should be so much in favour of tragedy and irony as not to think it good policy to require them in all our poems, for fear we might bring them into bad fame.’ And T.S. Eliot’s: ‘What we rebel against is neither the use of irony against definite men, institutions or abuses, nor is it the use (as by Jules Laforgue) to express a dédoublement of the personality against which the subject struggles. It is the use of irony to give the appearance of a philosophy of life, as something final and not instrumental, that leaves us now indifferent; it seems to us an evasion of the difficulty of living, where it pretends to be a kind of solution of it.’

Meanwhile, it being one of the many good things about Enright’s book that it prompts recourse to other provocative books, I am grateful for having been pricked into belatedly looking up ironise in the OED and its Supplement, a word whose pedigree goes back to 1602, so that those of us who resist it may know what we are up against.

By one of those coincidences which one is minded mindlessly to call ironical, both arms of Donald Davie’s Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric are also embraced in Enright’s book. Enright has a section on ‘Milosz and the Case Against’, a respectful wary circling which becomes incautious only at the moment when, with rhetorical tentativeness, it moves to accuse Milosz of being so: ‘It may be that his understandable animus against clichés of despondency has rendered Milosz incautious on occasion.’ Milosz’s ‘Incantation’ is, for Enright, ‘vulnerable to even the least malignant of ironists’, whereas for others of us (Seamus Heaney, for one, who recently incorporated the poem – in Robert Pinsky’s superb translation – into a fervent lecture on poetry and political witness), ‘Incantation’ is a poem to freeze the spittled irony upon the lips of even the most malignant of ironists. In this, it partakes – though utterly different in tone – of Wordsworth’s dignity, a gaze that makes even the least frivolous ironist feel very small.

Enright complements Davie, too, in the matter of insufficiency. ‘Kierkegaard wrote in his Journals that for a Christian irony is not enough because it can never answer to the terrible truth that salvation entails the crucifixion of God. True, irony is never enough, for anyone. Yet, one is inclined to interpose, many others have been crucified, without the benefit of being God.’ Yet the further question, manifestly, is whether anything is enough? Isn’t the whole thought of enough (as in Beckett’s daunting prose-poem of that sufficient name) not enough? One of Enright’s best moments comes when he puts irony in its place, the place of admitted inadequacy within which all powers and feats dwell: ‘Face to face, we resort to harmless banalities which the sufferer understands in the spirit intended. This is a shared, almost you could say sacred, acknowledgement of inadequacy, and irony would never invade it.’ ‘Would never’ is a mite optimistic. Since no more than anything else does irony always know its place or acknowledge its subservience on occasion to ‘there, there’, let us settle for ‘should never invade’.

Enright will scarcely argue, Davie scarcely won’t. Davie is nothing if not argumentative, and Czeslaw Milosz and the Insufficiency of Lyric is characteristically bracing and pugnacious. In Milosz, Davie has a match, as he seldom does in arguing with or about the poets and critics of his day; it isn’t that Davie meets his match but that he meets someone whose substance and stance are similarly strong and independent. It has sometimes seemed with Davie’s instanced poets, as with all of ours at times, that they matter less in themselves than as furnishing the perfect polemical points de repère; over the years the poems of Christopher Middleton, of J.H. Prynne, and of C.H. Sisson, have all found themselves not so much constituting the grounds of Davie’s argument as figuring in it. But Milosz is too stubborn and faceted to be functionalised, even in the most high-minded way, and the result is a disinterested energy in Davie’s book in no way diminished by the book’s also having an axe to wield.

It is one of the strengths of this lean essay (forty pages ensconced within a further forty comprising Preface, Introduction, Postscript and Appendix) that it makes room for principled dissent from Milosz, especially at those moments when, like Davie on occasion, he cuts corners. The respect for Milosz is more than warm, but the respect for justice is fervid. Fortunately the force of Milosz’s convictions and the unsentimental passion of his poetry mostly permit Davie to be at once acclamatory and just. This, with the exact apprehensions which always animate Davie’s critical proceedings. There is, for instance, an unfolding of ‘Father explains’ which is itself a beautiful fatherly explaining of the poem, an education in this loving poem about education where the poetic imagination, bent over a map, poring yet disciplined, is ‘managed by father-as-teacher’.

This may be Davie’s first extended argument in genre criticism, from a critic who has been so innovative and so consolidatory under the aegis of diction, syntax, medium, context and more. But the argument itself is distinctly odd, not because one is moved to disagree with it, but because one can’t imagine how anyone would disagree with it, the lines of it. Milosz has compelled Davie ‘to re-think the nature of poetic discourse’. For Milosz manifests an ‘indifference to lyrical purity’. He is not content to remain within the lyric’s privilege of saying things that are true – ‘If true, here only,’ only at this time in this place: he needs, and builds, a poetic art which incorporates matters of speculation, argument, and wisdom, together with historical, philosophical and political hard terms. This is all handsomely exemplified, and anyway strikes immediately as true of Milosz; nobody will doubt it who has read Milosz or even read about him. But the thing which is dubitable to the point of making me doubt whether I can have understood Davie’s contention, reiterated lucidly though it is, is the assumption – entailing this re-asseverated counter-statement – that we live in days when the lyrical standpoint, the lyrical stance, the lyrical purity and privilege, are believed to be sufficient or all or all-sufficient.

Davie’s ‘principal and governing insight’ is that ‘Milosz characteristically seeks poetic forms more comprehensive and heterogeneous than any lyric, even the most sustained and elaborate.’ But is Milosz anywhere near being alone or even unusual in this? Davie concedes that the truth about the lyric’s being insufficient (insufficient both to the most comprehensive art and to comprehending the modern world – the ‘insufficiency of the lyric mode for registering, except glancingly, the complexity of 20th-century experience’) is a truth which used to be both acknowledged and grappled with. Milosz is indifferent to lyrical purity: ‘But this of course is just what worried and diffident readers have said over two generations about Eliot and Pound, Charles Olson and Basil Bunting – an important point, since it reminds us that, if C.H. Sisson mostly chooses to stay within the conventions of the lyrical standpoint, there were English-language poets before him who had not.’ But C.H. Sisson, irrespective of the insufficiency of lyric, is comically insufficient as an epitome of the last twenty years of poetry. Did Robert Lowell and John Berryman, like Sisson – and Milosz – poets of the Sixties and Seventies, rest within the lyric’s privilege? Does Ted Hughes, or James Merrill? Does Geoffrey Hill, in The Mystery of the Charity of Charles Péguy? Does Donald Davie? As critic, Davie is ‘chiefly arguing’ for this: ‘that Milosz, like a few other ambitious poets of his time, refuses to be restricted in his poetry to the lyric genre or the lyric mode.’ How few is few?

As history, whether of the recent past or of the present, the thesis of this book, then, is very peculiar. ‘I have suggested, going for support to the writings of Milosz, that no concerned and ambitious poet of the present day, aware of the enormities of 20th-century history, can for long remain content with the privileged irresponsibility allowed to, or imposed on, the lyric poet. This is not a contention that will be readily accepted: for less earnest poets are grateful for this privilege, and jealous of it, and their publics are ready to ensure it for them, since it absolves the reader from ever taking his poets’ sentiments to heart, except as the poignant expression of a momentary mood.’ I see no reason to believe that the sentiments in, say, the lyrics of George Herbert need not be taken to heart except as the poignant expression of a momentary mood; Yvor Winters’s supreme accolade for the meditative lyric may have been extreme, but then so is Davie’s revulsion from it. But in any case Davie’s contention, though it is both roundly and squarely said, cannot square the circle or square with the facts. Which is not to say that the lure of pure poetry, at its purest since Romanticism in the lure of that purity sought by a certain kind of lyric, cannot be felt in the recent past or in the present: simply that capitulation to this lure has been the unusual, not the usual thing. ‘For “personal lyric” is the sort of poetry that most of us look for, to the point where some of us forget that other sorts of poems are possible and are still being written.’ Some of us? You guys, or not even that but hooded hordes.

But then there is a further difficulty. Davie is writing about genres – and about the ‘insufficiency’ of a particular genre – without ever engaging directly with the fact that it is inherent in the idea of any genre that it be insufficient. Eliot’s poetic repudiation of lyrical confinement is respected by Davie, but then so should be Eliot’s own principal and governing insight into the insufficiency of any genre or form. Eliot contended with Middleton Murry:

I question one assertion of a more general kind: on p.135 Mr Murry affirms that ‘drama is the highest and fullest form of poetry.’ I should say that in the highest and fullest forms of poetry there is a dramatic element; but I doubt whether the highest and fullest poetry has to take the form of drama. For any form of poetry restricts one’s liberty; and drama is a very peculiar form: there is a great deal that is high and full poetry that will not go into that form. Drama was, I think, less of a restriction to Shakespeare than it has ever been to any other dramatic poet; but I do not see how we can assert that it is a higher and fuller form than that used by Homer or that used by Dante.

Even the most capacious of the ancient genres, epic and tragedy, are vantage-points from which certain things – and only certain things – can be seen and shown; other vantage-points, those of epigram or comedy (or lyric), are living reminders that the idea of sufficiency – whether sufficiency as achievement or sufficiency to life – is itself insufficient, not even a chimera but a will of the wisp. To write a lyric is to not write something else – but some such thing is true of even the most capacious genres. ‘The diminution of all poetry to the lyric’ has not, in my view, taken place or even been substantially advocated: but it is in any case no more lethally a diminution than would be effected if the dithyramb (one of Milosz’s genres extolled by Davie) were to queen it. Every genre has not only its insufficiencies and limitations, but its temptations and propensities; some genres are more ample than others, true, but none is – in the fundamental sense posited by Davie – sufficient, and moreover the sequence of lyrics has shown itself endlessly resourceful in creatively resisting the single lyric’s privileged purity. There is something narrow about a notion of the lyric’s narrowness which would be so little able to deal with, say, In Memoriam. But then the book that some of us most hope that Davie will write is one that will newly do justice to the greatest Victorian poetry.