BMCR 1994.06.03

Response: Rudd on Edmunds on Rudd

Response to 1994.02.20

Response by

At Harvard in the summer of 1972 I enjoyed the good-humoured and agreeable company of Lowell Edmunds. So I will disregard the tone of his review (BMCR 94.2.20) of Horace 2000 (anyone can have an off day), and concentrate on the main point which he makes. My comments will be general, since I do not claim to speak in detail for the other contributors. These scholars were asked to write about the chief areas of Horace’s work in a straightforward, non-technical, manner; and though I naturally disagree here and there with the views expressed (and expect my own essay to be treated in the same spirit) I think the volume provided a useful and appropriate tribute. The questions raised could have been discussed quite readily by any humanist over the last 500 years—e.g., do some of Horace’s Epodes and Satires convey a more intense anger than their subjects seem to justify? And if so, why? (Griffin). Did Horace have dreams of imperial conquest which were not fulfilled by Augustus? (Seager). ‘Do those who regard Horace’s sympotic poetry as literary of Greek in inspiration misunderstand its character?’ (Murray). Whether right or wrong, such ideas are backed up with arguments based on the ancient evidence. Yet Edmunds says ‘It is almost impossible for the present reviewer to discuss these essays on the grounds on which they are written’—a statement which seem to be borne out by the review itself.

So what’s the trouble? According to Edmunds, all the writers are, to a greater or lesser degree, stuck in a time warp, a period which ended half a century ago when ‘the New Criticism dealt a death blow to the biographical and psychological approach to literature in all fields except Classics’. That point is very forcefully stated, and it is elaborated over three and a half out of four pages. Unfortunately it is not true.

Granted, there were a few writers before 1950, and several throughout the 60’s, who purveyed the anti-biographical doctrine in its crudest and most dogmatic form. But the more distinguished New Critics were usually more circumspect. Last Fall, Cleanth Brooks frequently spoke with indignation of how his views had been distorted: he had never been against the use of historical and biographical material in literary criticism—only against its naive mis use, and the habit of over-emphasizing it at the expense of the poems themselves. Anyone who wishes to check this claim can consult the Preface to The Well Wrought Urn (1949, revised 1968) and the Preface to Understanding Poetry (3rd ed.1960, p.xiv). Wellek and Warren in their Theory of Literature (the one work cited by Edmunds) say this: ‘If used with a sense of these distinctions [i.e., between the raw stuff of experience and the finished work] there is use in biographical study. First … it has exegetical value; it may explain a great many allusions or even words in an author’s work. The biographical framework will also help us in studying the most obvious of all strictly developmental problems in the history of literature—the growth, maturing, and possible decline of an author’s art. Biography also accumulates the material for other questions of literary history such as the reading of the poet, his personal associations with literary men, his travels, the landscape and cities he saw and lived in: all of them questions which may throw light on literary history, i.e., the tradition in which the poet was placed, the influences by which he was shaped, the materials on which he drew’ (Harvester Paperback, 1956, p.68). Nothing about a death blow there.

Briefly, the immensely valuable legacy of the New Critics was: a fresh assertion of the importance of the text; a new technique for exploring image, structure, and tone; and a greater sensitivity in dealing with a poem’s relation to history and the poet’s life. At the time, because of their over-zealous disciples, one had to sift what was being said. (My own attempt in this direction was ‘The Style and the Man’ in Phoenix, 1960). The same kind of sifting was necessary with the persona theory which grew out of the New Criticism (see ‘Sincerity and Mask’ in Lines of Enquiry, 1976). The other writers in Horace 2000 are also aware of such matters. Griffin, working from the text (not to it, from some preconceived notion), brings out the variety of stances adopted by the ironist; Seager regularly uses his knowledge of Roman history to highlight Horace’s political rhetoric; Feeney takes for granted the relevance of Horace’s reading of Greek lyric, a reading which (need one say it?) was part of the poet’s experience; in his paper on Horace’s love poetry Arkins speaks more than once of Horace ‘playing the role of a detached observer’; Hardie says ‘the refusal to gaze in wonder on the creations of the artist is closely connected to the persona worn by the poet’.

Having drubbed us heavily for being out of date, Edmunds might have been expected to point the reader eagerly towards postmodern aporia: the death of the author, the intellectual anarchy in which everyone is his own critic, the illusory nature of all objective truth, the fluidity of the text, the horror of closure etc. And he does, in fact, make a few gestures in that direction. But then, before finishing, Edmunds returns to the status of historical and biographical material. And here comes the surprise. There is no critical ban after all. Edmunds declares himself quite satisfied with the relevance of such material, provided it is used carefully and the emphasis is placed on individual poems. So where does that leave us?

The review concludes with an optimistic glance at the future of poetic theory in American classical circles; discussions are going on in various conferences. Good. Similar interchanges are taking place here. And perhaps all the ferment will eventually result in something solid and lasting. If that is to happen, a measure of confidence will have to be restored—confidence in well-established facts, in the independence of reason, in the validity of sound argument, and in the power of lucid prose as opposed to pretentious mystification. It might help if theorists were prepared to acknowledge that in the study of literature, as in other areas, the degree of truth available depends on what question is being asked. And in searching for firm ground one would do well to remember what Bertrand Russell once said to a clever young German who was going through a phase of total scepticism: ‘Come come, Wittgenstein; is there, or it there not, a rhinocerus in the room?’ Perhaps we should all start from that rhinocerus.