Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Hand Grenade Heart -- Johnson's Cowley

(Note: Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets is available on Project Gutenberg. Below is a link, for anybody who is interested.

Lives of the Poets, Volume 1

Also, Google Books offers downloads of Abraham Cowley's complete poetry and prose.)


*****

Abraham Cowley should justly be remembered by history as the person who composed the poem "My Lover's heart, a hand grenado."

Samuel Johnson might not disagree with me on this (provided Cowley's only extant work were his poetry), though Johnson and I might differ as to sentiment regarding this statement.

Personally, I'd love to see the Old-Timey Strongbad giving a recital of this poem, in which the heart of Cowley's lover, like a hand grenade, blows both Cowley and the lover to bits.

Samuel Johnson, in his essay on Cowley, the first essay in his collection of essays on the "lives" of English poets, places Cowley above John Donne as the greatest of the metaphysical poets. This seems odd to me, as it might to other readers of the current day, if only because John Donne seems to be so ostensibly *the* metaphysical poet in college English Literature anthologies.

But being the greatest of the metaphysical poets isn't such a great distinction, judging by Johnson's opinion of the metaphysical poets. Johnson perceives the poets as a group of intellectuals more interested in proving their wit than in expressing emotion or imitating nature.

For those in the know: please tell me what a metaphysical poet is.

For those not in the know: a metaphysical poet, it seems to me, is a poet who tries to make his sole goal in poetry the fashioning of philosophical ideas in poetic form.

Actually, today, when I read Johnson's description of the metaphysical poets, I had three corollaries pop into my head (and, boy, does that hurt): first, the Cubists, experimenting with their paintings; second, the Beat poets, experimenting with their poems; and third, the Dadaists, experimenting with everynothing.

What gave me this impression, as I read Johnson's description of the metaphysical poets, was a sense that, among this tradition of poets, there was a kind of fraternity or brotherhood of ideas. This fraternity and experimentation with ideas seems really novel, especially for this time period.

As I understand Johnson (and I may not actually understand him at all), the metaphysical poets were reaching out for new ideas, things never thought of before. At the same time, they were looking for certain "conceits," not images, but conceits, that would help them reach these new ideas.

In other words, it seems to me, the metaphysical poets were looking for dynamic expressions.

This is just one of the many effects of Shakespeare. I guess my favorite thing about Shakespeare, other than the fact that it's really just a lot of fun to read his stories, is the fact that his metaphors are so active. His metaphors don't just stand for other things: they actually do things. It seems like magic to me.

The problem is -- how the heck are you going to do what Shakespeare did? Shakespeare's works are works of genius. So the assumption would be that to create works of genius you'd have to be a genius. And to be a genius, you'd have to be learned. Shakespeare's metaphors are so active, and so varied, it seems like Shakespeare would have to be a master of all the subjects he included in his metaphors: how else could he have such an intimate understanding of the subject?

So it would seem to me that the poets, trained as scholars, took the scholar's route to intimate understanding, and became great students of various fields of knowledge. Then, to create dynamic metaphors, they tried to find dynamic ideas and match the topics in their fields of knowledge with the dynamic ideas in a metaphorical way.

Did this create poetry as great as Shakespeare's? Of course not. Socrates' answer to the riddle of genius is that it comes from the gods. In fact, he says that a poet may not know much at all about a subject but speak as if he knew it intimately, simply because the gods had blessed his verse. And he's probably right.

But if people aren't passionate about *something*, they won't write poetry. And poets were probably writing a lot more like the metaphysical poets than they were writing like Shakespeare in Pindar's day. So the metaphysical poets were following a tradition and not necessarily striking out on their own.

Shakespeare just did what the devastating genius of every age does. He woke them up -- with the clap of a hand grenado! -- and got them studying.

So Johnson's argument against the metaphysical poets is that they show off their learning, which is often way too specialized for the common reader of poetry, and so they end up confusing their audience with their cleverness.

Oddly enough, Johnson turns this argument right around at one point and says that the metaphysical poets don't care if the metaphors they use express scientifically accurate ideas, as long as they express commonly accepted ideas.

Now, I find this latter argument of his very interesting, especially in conjunction with another idea of his. Johnson states that Cowley, at least in his poem Davideis (about the Biblical King David), is, in his descriptive passages, less concerned with describing things in terms of images than with describing them in terms of conceits.

If I personally were to list my two favorite rhetorical devices in rock and roll, which I would only do if I were a really boring person (and I am), they would be ironic usage of common sayings and the employment of conceits. So, as I see it, at least Cowley, if not the other metaphysical poets, would have these devices common with rock and roll songwriters. Would Cowley have anything else in common with rock and roll?

Yes. Cowley actually got boys and girls writing poetry, according to Johnson. Hm... Not just boys. Girls, too.

Where'd this fervor for writing poetry come from? Johnson explains that Cowley, in his book of Pindaric Odes, explained his own personal theory of Pindaric Odes, that the lines didn't need to have a constant number, and that the Pindaric form was generally free, with the overall effect of lines coming from the way the poems were recited. If you understood the Pindaric Ode, you could recite it correctly, and bring out the meter in what would otherwise seem to be a free, orderless poem.

Johnson's response? (This comes from the Gutenberg version of Johnson's Lives) "This lax and lawless versification so much concealed the deficiencies of the barren, and flattered the laziness of the idle, that it immediately overspread our books of poetry; all the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion, and they that could do nothing else could write like Pindar. The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin."

All the boys and girls caught the pleasing fashion? You mean -- everybody was doing the Pindar? Did Chubby Checker write a song about it?

Maybe Chubby Checker didn't write a song about it. But look at this verse, which Johnson includes as an example of Cowley's poetry, and which is also in the Gutenberg Project text (link above):

"By every wind that comes this way,
Send me, at least, a sigh or two,
Such and so many I'll repay
As shall themselves make winds to get to you."

That has the same sentimentality as Bobby Vinton's "Sealed with a Kiss."

But I can't really compare old poets to rock and roll singers without giving credit to the author who taught me to do it: Camille Paglia. Camille Paglia, as I understand it, gives Byron as the prototypical rock star. I'd think that's correct. At least -- if you compare Cowley's actual life with Byron's, Cowley would not look like an Elvis. Would Bobby Vinton's?

Anyhow, Johnson's other complaint was that the Cowley-inspired Pindar Fever was "invading" the temples of poesy and allowing disorder to "break into" the study of classics.

This kind of visceral response to Cowley's poetry is repeated on a number of occasions -- but in the strangest ways. In one instance, Cowley is said to have "violent inclinations." What were these "violent inclinations" toward? "Solitary study," "temperate pleasure," and "moderate revenue."

Violently solitary? Maybe. You could say that's antisocial, maybe. But violently temperate? Violently moderate? I don't know. What kind of violence is that?

Johnson also produces the very lovely phrase regarding metaphysical poetry, calling it full of "disgusting hyperbole," of which he gives the most entertaining examples. It's hard not to laugh at Johnson's style, as he proceeds to rail the metaphysical poets. Johnson's quips are one part Demetrius on Style and one part Jay Leno headlines.

But the disgusting hyperbole is what makes Cowley, and, in a lot of instances, Donne, so much fun!

The fact is that Johnson comes close to calling Cowley's verse antisocial: he calls it "unsociable." And, in a number of instances, Johnson stresses the importance of knowing modes of expression before writing serious poetry. Levity of expression is fine, Johnson says, for comedic poetry. But serious poetry needs to respect the "wise" modes of expression used in high society.

Johnson also seems to stress, again and again, the need for appropriate thematic measure in poetic expression. Mixing high metaphors with low subjects or low metaphors with high subjects is completely inappropriate, in Johnson's opinion. This would, again, fit into Johnson's understanding of expressive skill and finesse as an indicator of position within a hierarchical society.

But Johnson makes haste -- more than haste! -- to stress the fact that Cowley was a grocer's son by birth. What's worse, Cowley was the son of a *dead* grocer.

I'm not really interested at present in any hierarchical implications that might be drawn from Cowley's fatherless upbringing as a grocer's son. But I am interested in some of the psychological implications of it.

First of all -- Paglia's sentences on Donne near the conclusion of her chapters on Shakespeare in her book Sexual Personae say it all. Donne was Shakespeare's successor. His language is very muscular and full of sexual transformations. I probably can't add more than that.

Second -- Paglia's book Sexual Personae deeply explores the place of the Spenserian Bower in the tradition of western literature.

Almost as quickly as Johnson points out that Cowley is the son of a dead grocer, he points out that Cowley's mother worked very hard to make sure Cowley could get and education, and that Cowley became a poet after reading his mother's copy of Spenser's epic poem "The Faerie Queene," which conveniently lay on the windowsill.

Johnson gives a very brief sketch of Cowley's life. During the Reformation, when the Parliament took over Cambridge, Cowley was expelled. Cowley was a Royalist.

In 1646, Cowley followed the Queen to Paris. Cowley took on the job of a letter-writer for the Queen. The Queen would actually write the letters. But Cowley would re-write them in a secret code. The King would send the Queen letters, which would also be written in a secret code. Cowley would re-write these encoded letters in regular English for the Queen. Cowley, according to Johnson, spent almost all his time doing this.

In 1656, Cowley was sent back to England, with the purpose, apparently, of gathering information on current conditions in England for the Queen. But Cowley was mistaken for someone else, arrested, and almost executed. He was luckily bailed out, and his true identity was confirmed. However, his position as a Queen's servant was revealed.

Cowley was told that he would remain in jail, or even be killed, if he did not give an oath that he would send back no information to Paris for the Queen. Cowley agreed to this and was released. He took the title of Physician and retired somewhere in England, where he studied plants and wrote six volumes of Botanical poetry.

Upon the Restoration of England, Cowley believed that his services to the Crown would win him preferments. He believed he'd receive Mastership of the Savoy. But he didn't. Later on, Cowley moved to Chertsey, where a noble managed to secure some lands and an annual allotment of 500 pounds per year for Cowley. This gave the "violently moderate" Cowley a comfortable situation until his death.

Nevertheless, Cowley seems to have been a chronic complainer. And his poetry, which was often disapprovingly misunderstood by the people of his time as satirical about Royalists rather than in praise of them, provided him with only another cause for complaint.

In a number of instances, Cowley speaks of being so fed up with all of the injustices he is facing that he thinks of exiling himself. In one instance, he mentions the possibility of going across the Atlantic, to live out on one of the plantations in America. In another instance, he imagines himself as exiled in a bower, as the "melancholy Cowley."

This fantasy Cowley has of exiling himself, I believe, would come from Cowley's reading of Spenser. Spenser was exiled to Ireland, where he wrote his Fairie Queene. I would argue that Spenser had become for Cowley, not just a source of poetic inspiration, but a father figure. So Spenser's exile would have to be mimicked, if only in fantasy. And if Cowley were to be a good son and develop his father's work a step farther, he'd have to exile himself even farther away than Ireland. Why not America?

But when Cowley only exiles himself to Chertsey, which isn't even as far off as Ireland, he had to satisfy his desires meeting his imaginary father's standards by exiling himself -- in his mind -- in one of his father's bowers. So Cowley does so. He exiles himself in a Spenserian Bower, and names himself the melancholy Cowley.

As I understand things, Paglia describes the Spenserian Bower as a secluded, vegetative area in which the feminine can entrap the masculine, thereby enslaving the masculine and draining its physical and mental energy away. The draining of energy is often described as vampirism. The Bower is, for example, a place where the knight Artegall is captured and subdued by the Amazons. After being subdued in the Bower, Artegall is required to wear women's clothes and act as a servant to the all-female group of warriors.

I would argue, and I may be wrong in this, that for Cowley the Bower signifies something other than subduction and vampirism. I would argue that Cowley's psychological experience was, rather, one of trying to achieve what he saw as a male status in life, and, upon entering this apparently male status-world, finding *it* to be full of subduction and vampirism.

For Cowley, then, the Bower would signify a retreat from vampirism, rather than a surrender to it. One could say that this would be a sort of nature-love, what Paglia would attribute, I believe, to Rousseauism: a Romance extolling the benevolence of feminine nature. However, this nature is decidedly masculine. And, as Paglia also points out, there was a poet who thought of nature-love in almost one-sidedly masculine terms: Wordsworth.

This is why, I would guess, Paglia hasn't really mentioned the metaphysical poets in her book Sexual Personae. Whatever wild sexual metamorphoses John Donne makes would later be made in a more characteristic and pronounced form by Wordsworth.

However, Cowley's poetic peculiarities in this sense are quite interesting. And it's worth looking at them. Like I said, I'd argue that the Spenserian Bower, a typically feminine field in poetry, has been transformed by Cowley into a masculine field. Cowley has identified Spenser with his father. And Cowley has equated exile with Spenser. And exile, generally to the wilderness (as in "As You Like It"), would equate with the bower. So -- to be a man like Cowley's father-figure Spenser would equate to being Embowered.

Cowley may also have experienced a resentment toward his mother, for remaining alive while his father died. Perhaps Cowley may have thought that if his mother had died and his father had survived, Cowley would have been able to understand the masculine sense of order and propriety that would have allowed him to achieve success in the courtly realm he aspired to.

So, I'd argue, Cowley began to have (poetic, metaphorical) fantasies about male pregnancies and father-son incest creating a child, a new identity for himself. That this idea was actually *not* lost, at least unconsciously, is obvious from the first sentence of the essay on Cowley, where Johnson says that Cowley's biographer Dr. Sprat has a "pregnancy of imagination."

But the incest, pregnancy, and rebirth fantasies are evident in Cowley's own poetry. Here are two instances, both from the Gutenberg text (link above).

In this first instance, Cowley speaks on the changeability of an individual's nature:

"My members, then, the father members were,
From whence these take their birth which now are here,
If then this body love what th'other did,
'Twere incest, which by nature is forbid."

In this instance, Cowley addresses his hypothetical mistress:

"Thou who, in many a propriety,
So truly art the sun to me,
Add one more likeness, which I'm sure you can,
And let me and my sun beget a man."

Let me and my sun beget a man? Let me and my son beget a man? It would seem that Cowley is speaking. But I'd believe his father is speaking, or rather his father-image, who, as Spenser, is the poet inside of him.

So in the first set of verses, we have Cowley speaking as himself, as his own father. As his own father he begets himself through the mutability of time. But he's forbidden from incest. In the next set of verses, his father speaks through him, asking expressly to commit incest with him, while he is in the guise of the father's mistress, who would, of course, be Cowley's mother.

So, Cowley wishes to play his father so that he can re-create himself. But that would be incestuous and unnatural. So he comes up with the fantasy of taking on the persona of his mother and having his father have sex with him as if he were the father's lawful, natural wife. And through this ritual sex act, Cowley sees the possibility of finally re-creating himself -- as a real man!

This could only happen in a Spenserian Bower of the imagination, which, while being a possible field of psychic vampirism, is also (I'm pretty sure Paglia states this) a hermetic vessel, where the Jungian "Mystical Marriage" (or Mysterium Coniunctionis) can take place.

The only problem? Cowley *still* can't exile himself to this Bower. He seems unable to take the journey. An example of Cowley's inability to act is illustrated very well by Johnson, who is expresses extreme frustration at the interminable preparation of the Muse's Chariot, which never actually seems to get off the ground.

The Chariot of Cowley's Muse is first supplied with horses, some of which Johnson is positive will not be able to move forward anyway. But horses aren't enough for this Chariot. Cowley seems to heap item after item into the ornamentation and retinue of the Chariot. Johnson declares that "every mind is now disgusted with this cumber of magnificence."

(Again, Cowley elicits *disgust* in Johnson.)

But once the Chariot is ready to move, Cowley seems to make the whole trip sound desperately futile.

"For long, though cheerful, is the way,
And life, alas! allows but one ill winter's day."

In other verses, Cowley makes the search for the imaginative goals of the Bower seem either unattainable or, more importantly, attainable only by the well-initiated.

This "cumber of magnificence" that keeps the Muse from making her journey isn't due to the lack of skill. Cowley doesn't want the Muse to take the wrong journey, that's all. Cowley is trying to find the right "spell" for his Mystical Marriage. If he doesn't have the right spell, then his Mystical Marriage won't be successful. It will only be unnatural and disgusting.

This could be argued from a poem which -- peculiarly -- Johnson doesn't include in his essay, instead opting to choose the verses from a non-poet writer who copied Cowley's style in order to "produce" the only verse known to be attributed to him.

The verse is attributed to Bentley. It speaks first of the mystical greatness of the Holy Scriptures. But it then provides a word of caution regarding delving too deeply into them unassisted:

"Yet reason must assist, too; for in seas
So vast and dangerous as these,
Our course by stars alone we cannot know
Without the compass too below."

So it could possibly be inferred that Cowley believes in the Mystical Marriage he proposes. But he is so afraid of being overwhelmed by his unconscious if he were to attempt this journey to the Bower alone, to meet his father-husband (who would, in fact, be his unconscious), that he is constantly pausing, trying to find the right "Reason," the right magic spell, to guard him as he goes.

I'd argue that, oddly enough, he even seems to imply in the verses below that if only his father-husband could give him a sure sign he should go on this journey, he'd be alright.

"The man who has his God, no aid can lack;
And we who bid him go, will bring him back."

But how could Cowley's father-husband (his unconscious) give Cowley anything like a protective pass into the unconscious? How could Cowley's unconscious promise to protect Cowley from itself? It couldn't. It beckoned Cowley, but Cowley couldn't go. And thus the transformation never occurred.

The passion Cowley felt was surrounded by cold. Cowley even saw the end of this passion as an explosion, as detailed in the physical concept of "antipersistasis." In antiperistasis, one physical body is pressed on from all sides by another body or set of bodies, which have the opposite qualities of from the central body. As the central body is pressed harder and harder by the opposite and surrounding bodies, the characteristic quality gets stronger and stronger.

In the poetry of Cowley, the central body is heat or fire. Passion, in other words. It's surrounded by ice. This could be Cowley's lack of resolve. But the ice pushes in on the fire, harder and harder. The fire gets hotter and hotter -- antiperistasis. Finally -- the heat becomes -- an explosion!

And thus we have the end of this conflict. The heart as hand grenade. But what happens after the hand grenade has exploded?

"Then shall love keep the ashes and torn parts
Of both our broken hearts;
Shall out of both one new one make;
From hers th'allay, from mine the metal take."

The Mystical Marriage. But, still, I don't know how positive it is, from a Jungian standpoint. It still seems rather dismal. A fire creates ashes. A phoenix is reborn from the ashes. But the phoenix is just another hand grenade.