Responding to Richard Wilbur's Responses
I've mentioned that his introduction to Shakespeare's narrative poems, from the old Pelican edition, impressed me when I first encountered it years ago; this time, I am not revisiting that essay, and so far am taking a "hit or miss" attitude with regard to the pieces. So, for example, I began "Round About a Poem of Housman's" and found the introductory matter enjoyable—about his wartime experiences in Italy—but dropped out when he began to discuss the poem itself. As I wrote two days ago, it's not a topic I want to delve into deeply.
The book contains three essays about Poe. There again, after a bit, my interest lags with Poe. Poe was an early enthusiasm of my youth; one of the first books of poetry I remember purchasing was The Portable Poe (which also contains stories and essays). Not sure if it was this exact, or an older Penguin edition; but I imagine the contents remain constant. The introduction was good, and after you've encountered versions of the "Poe life story" once or twice you begin to realize something of what the materials are, what can be inferred, and—as Wilbur himself notes—how little knowledge of the life (incomplete as it is) can explain the genius of the writing.
It's a "penetrating analysis" I suppose you could say, and I began with "The Poe Mystery Case" because it touched on the Inspector Dupin stories—the invention of detective fiction. Again, there is not much new ground covered, but Wilbur is thorough, and a good place to begin if you haven't read about Poe. This sentence fits right in with my posts here of the last month or so:
Poe invented the detective story, but our sense of what he might be up to in a "tale of ratiocination" should not be limited by what the form has become in other hands. Those other hands have narrowed the form; so far as I know, G.K. Chesterton is Poe's only continuator in the writing of detective fiction having an allegorical stratum. In any case, straightforward whodunit writers like Agatha Christie do not define Poe, any more than chemistry defines alchemy.
Possibly tidbits will be addressed elsewhere. His second book of prose pieces (The Catbird's Song), which also contains another essay about Poe, has an one on Longfellow, so I might find some elaboration on this:
A series of paranoid articles on Longfellow's "plagiarism," which Poe published in the Broadway Journal during 1845, would from a fully sane man have been dishonest, and Longfellow's decent and perceptive response was to say that the articles must have arisen from "the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong."
We must not, Poe warns us in a review of Macaulay, "confound obscurity of expression with the expression of obscurity," and surely the best of his tales may be defended as illuminations of a subject matter essentially obscure. But the poems, with few exceptions, do not truly illuminate, and what brilliance they have is like that of a Fourth of July rocket destroying itself in the void.
He concludes saying "I reserve my respect for the major tales," suggestive that he does not accord it to much else.
"Sumptuous Destitution" is a definitely penetrating and incisive essay about the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Few people seem to write effectively about her—Vendler certainly has not—and I find none of Wilbur's claims particularly disputable.
But here, I have to say, I am glad that I have had a lifetime's encounter with the writings of Dickinson before having had them handed to me "on a platter" so to speak. Somebody (that I was reading) recently said that poets should be advised to read no criticism: the intermediary was valueless to them in their art. At the time, I felt it a ridiculous assertion; yet this causes me to reassess. Somehow, here, it seems that criticism dilutes the mystery. Yet, in these "latter days" in which I find myself, I'm glad to come upon it.