While some verse is indeed irredeemably incompetent, tastes do change – both technically and stylistically. This is not to say that poor poets are really unlucky ones, fated to have been born in an era which fails to recognise their talents. Rather, it is to argue that while “good” and “bad” are established points on a continuum, these markers are not static but shift in relation to an evolving context.
Take, for example, cliché. Across critical contexts there is, in general, a celebratory attitude to originality and novelty, and a condemnation of cliché – the unimaginative, repetitive, and inane regurgitation of platitudes. Yet, while the taboo against cliché remains a constant, what is considered clichéd changes.
The great Umberto Eco recognises the implications. In his Reflections on the Name of the Rose, he writes:
” a man who loves a very cultivated woman… knows that he cannot say to her ‘I love you madly’, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland.”
Eco mentions Cartland here not simply because her books are romances, but because of her extraordinary literary virility – she holds the Guinness World Record for most novels written in a year (23 in 1983). His, point though, is a serious one. Even the simplest, most honest, and in Eco’s words most “innocent” forms of expression can be rendered not only trite and absurd but, more seriously, actively meaningless through becoming clichés.
“I love you madly ” cannot sustain itself in any consequential way as both a genuine expression of emotion, with it’s attendant characteristics of specificity, profundity and desire, and as the endlessly repeated motto of endless identikit heroes, in endless identikit romances. The expression is stripped of it’s expressive force, and thus becomes incapable of conveying the intensity integral to it’s meaning. As a result “I love you madly” delivered in a spirit of “innocent” naivety becomes merely silly.
The connotations in regard to poetry are clear. Change is not only self-generating and inevitable, but necessary for the preservation of meaning – with the result that established forms of expression become not only “old-fashioned”, but subject to different qualitative standards. This is not as simple as “good” becoming “bad”, but to say that ideas of “good” ensure their own eventual negation at the very point they become established – indeed as a result of it, as this is the juncture at which they begin to become generic.
It is worth mentioning that this is not an issue unique to written and verbal forms of expression. Claude Monet’s “Impression, soleil levant” (1872) once scandalised the elite institutions and public tastes of a generation. Nearly 7 generations and many millions of biscuit tin covers later, and nothing could be safer or more reassuring as an image.
Finding a way out…
Eco does offer a solution to this conundrum. He argues that a man wishing to express love
“…can say ‘As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly’. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly that it is no longer possible to speak innocently, he will nevertheless have said what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence. If the woman goes along with this, she will have received a declaration of love all the same.”
This is the path Shakespeare takes in his much discussed 130th sonnet. With the Elizabeth sonnet craze having become a study in ritualised exposition, Shakespeare’s satire on the banality and hyperbole of his contemporaries is perhaps the exemplar of Eco’s post-modern call for a form of communication true to itself and to it’s context – albeit written some 400 years prior to Eco’s own work.
To demonstrate, what is meant it is worth contrasting Shakespeare’s poem with one of the works he is attempting to overthrow. Sonnet VII of Thomas Watson’s “Hekatompathia or “Passionate Centurie of Love” serves a purpose in this regard:
Hark you that list to hear what saint I serve:
Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold;
Her sparkling eyes in heav’n a place deserve;
Her forehead high and fair of comely mold;
Her words are music all of silver sound;
Her wit so sharp as like can scarce be found;
Each eyebrow hangs like Iris in the skies;
Her Eagle’s nose is straight of stately frame;
On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies;
Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame;
Her lips more red than any Coral stone;
Her neck more white than aged Swans that moan;
Her breast transparent is, like Crystal rock;
Her fingers long, fit for Apollo’s Lute;
Her slipper such as Momus dare not mock;
Her virtues all so great as make me mute:
What other parts she hath I need not say,
Whose face alone is cause of my decay.
While we cannot question the technical skill with which Watson salutes the beauty of his mistress’ forehead, it is readily apparent that this is not a form of expression that strikes contemporary tastes as genuine. It’s heavy stylisation is of course deliberate, but it comes across to the modern eye an exercise in poetic mastery rather than love. In contrast, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 is almost cruel in the force of it’s rejection of empty flattery.
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.
Here we see, frozen in time, the struggle between a dominant form (Watson’s archetypal attempts to reflect the “passion of love”), and it’s usurper, a type of poetry that seeks to acknowledge that love takes place “on the ground” and not “in heav’n”. This is not a battle simply of conflicting preferences. For Shakespeare, Watson’s poetry is not just an inferior means of achieving a shared objective (conveying the idea and experience of love) but actively “false” .
Muddying the waters again…
Of course, the recognition of the need for self-awareness and cultural contextualisation, is not the end point for this debate. The distance created between word and meaning by the need for irony may in itself sabotage the emotional content of a phrase, rendering it inauthentic in a different manner.
This objection is dramatised, not by Shakespeare, but in the defining work of that other great chronicler of the human heart Richard Curtis, in his masterwork Four Weddings and a Funeral. Hugh Grant’s character in the film expresses himself in a manner extremely similarly to the unnamed “man” in Eco’s hypothesis, declaring his affection for Andy McDowell with the words:
“I-I just wondered… ehh. I really feel, ehh, in short, to recap it slightly in a clearer version, eh, the words of David Cassidy in fact, eh, while he was still with the Partridge family, eh, “I think I love you”
This is, evidently, unsuccessful and it is not until rather later in the film when he is able to tell Ms McDowell, in a more forthright and old fashioned manner, that he “totally and utterly” loves her that his emotional overtures are accepted. Indeed, Grant’s earlier “self-aware” and “culturally aware” pronouncements on the Partridge Family are seen to collapse into triteness – the very phenomenon Eco’s solution hopes to avoid. (* Curtis is certainly not blind to the post-modern. Apart from anything else in these twin proposals he is also referencing Darcy’s unsuccessful and successful proposals to Elizabeth Bennett).
This circular interplay between Watson, Shakespeare, Cartland, Eco and Curtis is a product of cliché operating as a taboo. In this interpretation post-modern attempts at escaping the trappings of formulaic romanticism collapse under the weight of their own artifice, opening the door to the return of Romantic expressions of emotion.
Back to poetry…
Poetry is much more vulnerable to these fluctuations than prose. This is because “form” itself is more important in poetry, largely because it plays a greater part in shaping meaning. A novel may suffer from clichéd characters and yet survive off the intricacy of its plotting. Consider Eco’s own “The Name of the Rose“, whose central character, William of Baskerville, is an openly re-purposed Sherlock Holmes. Poetry in contrast is far less forgiving in how it will allow its constituent parts to be re-used.
Watson is not a “mediocre” poet by any means, yet it was inevitable that his particular palette of allusions and hyperbole would fall by the wayside. In this regard no artist is immune. Famously, Shakespeare’s verse was “corrected” in an edition of his works published by Alexander Pope in 1725, in order to better fit in with Augustan ideas of rhyme and metre, and his texts have been reworked multiple times since – in order to cater to Victorian mores, to be rendered more “accessible” to modern audiences, and for countless other purposes.
Today’s terrible verse will probably not be taught in tomorrow’s universities. But it is worth keeping in mind that today’s poetic grandees may well be seen as tomorrow’s as mediocrities, not as a result of their relative abilities but because of inevitable changes in popular and critical attitudes. Tennyson is an example in this regard. With the odd exception amongst his works, the taste for rigid metricality that saw him made Poet Laureate in the reign of Queen Victoria has seen him fall out of fashion in the looser,more assonant era of Queen Elizabeth II. Yet, while Tennyson continues to have both his detractors and defenders, what is clear that is that to study poetry, or indeed art itself, is to study the interplay between different and mutating understandings of artistic worth.
(Coming soon, part 3: from the “soul of the age” to the “spirit of the age”.)