“Understanding the Art of Literature”

“Understanding the Art of Literature”

The Forum, April 1940

As Stephen Vincent Benét has already pointed out, there is a real story to be told of Ella Wheeler Wilcox and her times, but Jenny Ballou, in has not told it. She gives us the sense of presenting gossip and other people’s opinions on Ella Wheeler Wilcox rather than writing her own book. But “the mixture of jejune rhetoric and uncritical literary criticism,” to which Stephen Vincent Benét also refers, is undoubtedly her own; and it is with this that I propose to deal, chiefly for the reason that it enables me to answer some correspondents’ queries as to my opinion of the value of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’ writings. Jenny Ballou’s literary criticism represents a solid grade of assured Philistinism of the kind most calculated to exasperate people who take literature — and especially poetry — seriously.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox was, Jenny Ballou firmly informs us, not a minor poet but a bad major one. This vocabulary is bewildering. Herrick, for example, was a minor poet; Shakespeare and Dante were major poets. Are we to imagine that Wilcox was above Herrick but a Shakespeare or a Dante gone astray? Truly I think Jenny Ballou means something of the kind — that Ella was a sort of strayed Shakespeare. If she only had received proper criticism, Jenny Ballou thinks, she would have mended her ways and emerged as a major poet.

Now I maintain that in all Wilcox there is not a single stanza or even half a stanza that can be called poetry: she was not a poet at all. What she was is something else altogether, something that in its own way and on its own level is quite legitimate and even excellent: she was a utilitarian verse writer of accomplishment and variety. Her outstanding successes were of two kinds: first, in versifying popular philosophies; second, in versifying familiar emotions.

Some genuine poets, especially among the great Victorians, have, in their off moments, indulged in these two types of writing. Tennyson did, and some moderns forget (because he wrote such stuff as kind hearts being more than coronets and “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all”) that he was also a great poet, the great poet of Ulysses and Tithonus and the Lotus Eaters. Kipling, too, wrote accomplished utilitarian verse, as in , but he also was a poet of such a kind that Edwin Arlington Robinson believed him to be the finest English poet of his day.

Wilcox’ utilitarian verse was not as high-grade as Tennyson’s or Kipling’s, but it was better than Longfellow’s. Lines like

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

— are bad utilitarian verse, for they are true neither to common experience nor to common philosophy nor on their level as utilitarian verse should be. For, if there is one thing above another that lives of great men remind us of, it is that hardly any of us can leave “footprints on the sands of time.”

The versification of popular philosophies has always been a well-regarded and well-rewarded business in Anglo-Saxon countries and especially in America, where Poor Richards in verse can commonly make a good living. At the present time we have Eddie Guest and other well-known lights of the syndicated-verse brotherhood. But Ella had a finer talent than these; she could versify familiar emotions and throw a touch of glamour about them that was over nobody’s head. Everybody who had ever been in love felt much the way she had expressed it; she could put in rhyming words what the masses felt; she could also be daring and throw out delightfully fearsome suggestions that the bulk of the human race engaged in a sex life of some kind. If Baudelaire, as Victor Hugo said, introduced a nouveau frisson — a new shudder — into literature, Ella brought a nouveau frisson into utilitarian verse, into the home and the everyday life of women.

“She was a pure, thoroughbred lowbrow,” says Jenny Ballou. Not at all. I knew her slightly at the end of her days; and, as a young person newly arrived from an overly literary city where Ella’s works had been mocked at, I own to having found her an intelligent and talented woman. She had no literary culture, of course — probably no artistic culture of any kind. But she seemed very like the bulk of the women then turned out of the women’s colleges, though she was fond of saying she had received very little education.


LET US CONSIDER the nature of the talent which in her day made Ella Wheeler Wilcox known all over the English-speaking world.

A good many people are born with a sense of rhythm in words or music or motion. This commonly fades out in adolescence, but it remains in a number of people who can learn to play a musical instrument easily or dance naturally; some people can versify naturally and have in their systems certain common verse rhythms. These verse rhythms are the kind a real poet has to rid his mind of or else raise above the common denominator by a supreme tension of mind and emotion.

Ella’s command was of elementary metrical effects. She could express in verse common emotions so that the reader could say, “That is how I felt myself!” She had a power of communication in language such as the ordinary person did not possess and which yet was not too far beyond the power of the ordinary person to achieve. Some degree less imagination and emotion, mere intelligence instead of brooding intellect, could have made a poem like Drayton’s into a set of Wilcox verses. Ella had a diffused and warm emotion for her fellow men and women, but it had not that intensity which cuts through ordinary experience and stamps a new impress on words. Her emotion differs not only in degree but in type from the emotion which transforms verse into poetry and in which the whole personality of the writer is engaged.

Jenny Ballou attacks the criticism of Ella’s time for not drawing out her worth. Well, nothing could have made Ella into a poet. She has suitably expressed her own ars poetica in her verses. Art and heart: “‘Tis not art, but heart which wins the wide world over.” If, says Jenny Ballou, critics had only bothered to pick out such a poem as , had listened to the unmistakable “beat” and given her some detailed advice about words, especially about the word “control” (though why the word “control” more than “roll” or “shine” or “wine” in the same verses is hard to see, for they are all equally banal), she might have been led somewhere. Now Impatience expresses the longing of a woman to see a lover from whom she is temporarily separated. In it Wilcox gives expression, in familiar language, to an emotion that everybody has experienced who has ever been in love, with familiar clichés to add to the easily grasped effect. It is clear communication in a common denominator of verse. “Listen to the beat,” asks Jenny Ballou. Yes, listen to it:

You are not near me, and I know full well
My heart has need of patience and control:
Before we meet, hours, days and weeks must roll.
How can I wait?

This is as different from poetry as mazdas from moonbeams. About the best of Ella’s verses and the best in communications are those quoted by I.A. Richards in his , from .

The style in which Jenny Ballou writes, her approach to her subject, her line of thought, is a flat imitation of Van Wyck Brooks’ in and . She has indeed reproduced certain stylistic mannerisms of this author, such as the constant repetition of exclamatory and interrogatory sentences, in such a way that it often seems as if she were satirizing him. She has also taken over mannerisms in thinking for which some critics have found fault with him, such as the desire to find some obscure psychological complex in a simple natural habit. “What was the true meaning of Howells’ fur-lined coat, of his hungry passion for Tolstoy?” she asks. To most of us it could only mean that fur-lined coats kept the man warm and that Tolstoy happened to be a grand novelist.


BUT IMITATION of a prose writer is not as damaging to the original as imitation of a poet. Archibald MacLeish, for one, ought to be able to invoke the law to restrain some of the imitators of his rhythms. In literature, imitation is the most killing form of derogation.

That a poet should show the influence of another poet or poets is, however, a far different thing from imitating them. Many influences are to be observed on W. H. Auden, for instance — some of greater poets, some of lesser than he is; but, as he is a genuine poet, he manages to put the stamp of his own mind on everything he produces. There is in the influence of Yeats, of the Yeatsian phrase, the Yeatsian epithet and adjective, the deliberately roughened rhythms that are in Yeats’ later poems. There are other influences — Eliot and Pound. But the greatest influence of all, whether conscious or unconscious, is that of Latin verse, a sort of generalized Latin influence, a combination of Horace, Catullus, Martial, of old satires and epigrams. It is as though Auden first awoke to poetry while reading the Latins. There is a sort of fall-of-Rome attitude in his work, as of a man recognizing the doom of things he has been brought up with and fleeing from them. Rome is falling down, falling down: it is meet that the fall should be sung of, mockingly maybe, wittily often, but always tragically. The tragic undercurrent runs through all of Auden’s verse, and, like the Romans, he stiffens even his lighter poems with meditation on the life of the time.

He has the Horatian manner of thinking of a combination of things at the same time, a combination that is markedly shown in the opening poem of Part Two, where the poet (like Wilcox in Impatience) is waiting for his love. All sorts of irrelevancies pass through his mind and he pours out “whatever comes into my head”:

Slowly we are learning,
We at least know this much.
That we have to unlearn
Much that we were taught.
And are growing chary
Of emphatic dogmas;
Love like Matter is much
Odder than we thought.

Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much.
Almost I imagine.
Anything will do;
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine.
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.

The wit that is a characteristic ingredient of Latin poetry, mixed with current comment and brooding thought, Auden has in many of his poems. Inevitably he will be compared with certain older poets, with T. S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish. Like them, he has the modern idiom with its broken rhythms, an awareness of modern psychology and researches into archaeology, and he can put satire side by side with lyricism. But Auden’s work is far more fragmentary than theirs: there is nothing in Another Time as organic as Eliot’s or or the Sweeney poems or as MacLeish’s or . He is more long-winded than they are.

Indeed, at this stage of his career it is not easy to guess how fine a poet he may be. He seems to be shackled in some way and may be only one of those forerunners of a greater poet who will take all this material, all this tragic sense of a “ruined century,” and carry it into a region where sound and rhythm and intellectual content are one. His long-windedness is peculiarly noticeable in his ballads and in his poem in memory of Sigmund Freud, which is a genuine epitaph and summation of all that this great man accomplished. One cannot say, as one can say of Swinburne’s on Baudelaire, which is also a summation and a eulogy, that whole stanzas could be cut; it is simply that the conception should be more compact and intensified. This poet’s great interest for the younger generation is in the fact that his work is weighted with the sense that an age has been left behind and that a new one is coming to birth.


LIKE W.H. AUDEN, Oliver St. John Gogarty has written witty verses influenced by the classics. His prose is not as witty as his witty verse. It is not so much that he moves ponderously in prose; it is that he moves slowly, with too many asides. The witticisms which, when quoted in the notices of , sound so delightful have a dragged and deliberately thought-out effect in the book. Irish humor can be enchanting in its fancifulness and rollicking quality, especially when attached to Irish good nature or Irish rage, but I have never fancied Dublin wit, the wit of the Pale: it is too often malicious, too often attached to resentment and frustration, too likely to hit out without considering the object, so that it gives the harsh effect of a blow. It is not as effective as American wit or nearly as funny.

Going Native is about an Irishman who cavorted for a season amongst the English country-house people; the central episode is a love affair (or an attempted love affair) with one Parmenis, but the legendary incapacity of the Irishman to cope with the legendary looseness of the country-house-visiting English woman interferes with the author’s making the most of the matter. What it lacks is the point, the brevity, the humorous intellectual vulgarity that a Frenchman could give it. What high, diverting nonsense Jean Giraudoux, for instance, could have made of the bedroom scene, where the crossword puzzle in the bed has all the elements of side-splitting intellectual comedy! But Gogarty holds up the scene with philosophical asides and wisecracks. The effectiveness of this sort of situation lies in its swiftness; the agents, whether animate or inanimate, should move of themselves, with only the slightest of comment. The author interferes too much, and his attempts at being risqué seem virginal in comparison with what some of our bright boys on this side of the Atlantic can achieve.


ALSO DISAPPOINTING is Erskine Caldwell’s new book, . Although, like so many of the younger writers, Caldwell specializes in roughnecks and the low life, he has, underneath it all, a nervous and subtle power of emotion and character revelation which make him stand out from his contemporaries. He can delineate cowardice and fear — make them move by themselves, without any interference from the author — in a way no other writer can approach. As a study of cowardice, St. John Ervine’s depiction of Jimmie Caesar in his well-known play, , is a coarse and awkward performance in comparison with the silken texture and intricate weaving that Caldwell gets into such portrayals.

But this picture of the sheriff, the man who runs away, although it has some fine Caldwell qualities, loses point because the author felt obliged to write a thesis novel about an innocent Negro accused by a white woman. Caldwell’s talent is too subtle and devious to fare well in these obvious effects and propagandisms. In Trouble in July the effects he strives for hit you in the face instead of creeping under your skin as they did in his memorable prize story in the Tale Review of a few years back.

It would be a wise thing if young American novelists tried deliberately to figure out their equipment, their intellectual interests, and the effects they are anxious to achieve, as we see Katherine Mansfield doing in her which J. Middleton Murry has edited, or as we see the young James Joyce doing in Herbert Gorman’s . Such deliberate, conscious tabulation of resources and intentions would give them a working scheme, would make them know themselves better. A fine writer has nothing to fear from a deliberate investigation of himself; it will not get in the way of his transcending it all in his work or interfere with what Flaubert called “the thrusts of power beyond the reach of conscious art.” In The Scrapbook of Katherine Mansfield, the comments, the notes, the extracts copied from books show an artist who carefully thought out a plan of work.

A far more intense concern with literary thought and practice is in the speculations on art, the attempt to form an aesthetic, that is revealed in Herbert Gorman’s biography, James Joyce. Here the young Joyce shows himself, like every other real writer, as a first-rate critic, in the sense of being a thinker on literature and literary forms. It is noticeable that the thinkers Joyce concerned himself with were Aristotle and Aquinas. Without this careful reading, without his speculations on form and expression, his innovations in literature would have been only half-baked. It seems to me that today in America the young writers are steered away from meditation on the problems before them as writers, and so they fall victims to all sorts of temporary doctrines — ” the idols of the market-place,” as Bacon named them long ago.


FROM THE BEGINNING, America has been conscious about literature, and yet the unimportance of literature in American college and university education frequently astounds foreigners. It is brought to students in such a way as to give it insignificance in their minds. The Abbé Dimnet, in an address some time ago before the University of Lille, commented on the fact that, in gatherings of American men at luncheons and dinners, literature is never discussed as it is in other countries. Now a mind that is not in possession of some art is likely to be a dull and dreary one, and, if men are not given an understanding of the art of literature in the colleges, they will not be likely later on to get an opportunity to understand any other art.

Hopefully I opened a book by the head of one of the women’s colleges which proclaim a new design in education — in this case, the Sarah Lawrence College — and after diligently perusing it I have come to the conclusion that literature is likely to fare even worse in this new type of college than in the old. Yet the author, Constance Warren, is certain she is taking an advanced line. ” In Europe and the Orient,” she writes, in , “men have always seemed to enjoy great art and music, and even poetry, without losing face.” The italics are mine.

Now this is a revealing sentence: it means that a prominent educator has been all her life with men who would probably lose face by enjoying, really enjoying, great art and music. The phrase “even poetry” has implicit in it the notion that, in Constance Warren’s mind, poetry is something even more difficult than music or painting to associate with masculinity. But the most virile expression of the human race is in its poetry, and the bulk of the great poetry of the world has been written by the male sex from the Iliad and the Book of Job down to our own time, and it is not hard at all to arouse a real interest in poetry in young people of both sexes.

Constance Warren tells us that in her college, Sarah Lawrence, a course in literature is given “by an English teacher with training in economics who decided that the problems of modern economics could best be dramatized and made real to this group of students through the modern novel.” Now what this professor was teaching was, of course, not literature at all; it was a bastard economics. But the idea has numerous possibilities. What about having an ornithologist teach poems like Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, Shelley’s To a Skylark, Swinburne’s To a Sea-mew, and so on ? And what about having an archaeologist for Tintern Abbey, The Extinction of the Venetian Republic, The Lay of the Last Minstrel?

But where does the teacher dealing with literature as an art come in? Constance Warren has forgotten to mention him. In an interesting chapter called “The Lost Arts,” she apparently does not include literature as an art:

Obviously not every individual will want work in the arts, but given freedom of choice, about the same number of freshmen will register here as in the social sciences, literature and languages.

It is necessary to remark that the arts are improved not by the number of people engaged in practicing them but chiefly by the number engaged in appreciating them. The art of the short story has been practically lost in America owing to the number of people who have been taking it up as an “activity.”

However, there is no doubt that Constance Warren is approaching the problem of the education of girls in a sensible way: only a percentage of either sex ought to have a real university education; some suitable substitute as a preparation for life should be found for the others, and these experimental the results aimed at. These activities are engaged in to develop the individual; our grandmothers worked at them as a help to decorating the home and making it socially pleasant. Which aim is best?


THERE IS a good deal about education in T. S. Eliot’s booklet, — the distinction between education and instruction, for instance, is ably made in it. But The Idea of a Christian Society is mainly devoted to religion, to the promotion of Christianity in the world of today.

This book has been very slightingly reviewed in this country. For one reason, the type of Christianity that Eliot has in mind is Anglicanism, which to most Americans is associated with Trollope’s Barchester Towers and an odd kind of Establishment that joins church and state. But the booklet is important because it is a contribution to a very serious discussion that is being carried on by various groups in Europe as to how the decay of Christianity in European society is to be arrested and under what conditions a society conforming to the European religious tradition can function today. That discussion is being conducted by a Russian philosopher, Nicholas Berdyaev, by an English philosopher, Christopher Dawson, and by a French philosopher, Jacques Maritain, and by several others. And it is being conducted on a high philosophical level; those who have missed reading such books as Maritain’s True Humanism, Dawson’s Inquiries into Religion and Culture, or Berdyaev’s Meaning of History have missed books of great intellectual scope and stimulus.

The three lectures which Eliot publishes in this booklet are slight in content when compared with the books named, but they make a very thoughtful and well-written supplement to them — especially to True Humanism. Eliot follows Maritain in the acceptance of the fact that we live in a neutral society today and that the most that can be done at present is to arrest the decay of Christianity and to create an élite that would be favorable to traditional religion, even though it were not, all of it, actively Christian. This élite, he says,

would neither be self-educated nor have submitted in their youth merely to that system of miscellaneous or specialized instruction which passes for education. They would have received a Christian education. . . . A Christian education would primarily train people to think in Christian categories, though it would not compel belief and would not impose the necessity for insincere profession of belief.

Every serious-minded person agrees that there is a need for a reintegration of society in spiritual terms, and T.S. Eliot points one way to it. This way seems rather local and British from his side, and we await an American presentation. One hopes that it will be as good-tempered and as thoughtful as The Idea of a Christian Society.

January 30th, 1939
From A Psalm of Life in Knickerbocker Magazine, October 1838
Sonnet LXI first printed in 1619
Actually Friendship After Love, published in Poems of Passion in January 1883
This particular nonsense being Heavy Date, October 1939
Ave Atque Vale, presumably written in 1867, on Baudelaire’s death
James Joyce: a Definitive Biography, 1941
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