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Lucifer in Harness: American Meter, Metaphor, and Diction

Lucifer in Harness: American Meter, Metaphor, and Diction

Copyright Date: 1973
Pages: 199
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    Lucifer in Harness: American Meter, Metaphor, and Diction
    Book Description:

    For nearly two hundred years the rebellious American poet has been reluctantly harnessed to the English language and literary tradition. In a triptych of essays, Edwin Fussell attempts "to explore the fundamental dilemma of American poetry as it appears in the three crucial fields of meter, metaphor, and poetic diction, the three crucial fields of American poetry (taken as a whole) most studiously avoided by American scholars, but not, as I intend to show, by American poets."

    Writing in a provocative critical style attuned to the poets he discusses, Edwin Fussell explores the dilemma of the American poet who wants to write a distinctly "American" poetry but must do so in a language imbued with the sensibility of English poetry and culture. Because these are different from and sometimes antithetical to American cultural ideals and commitments, the harness chafes. The emphasis is on those poets who have successfully created a truly American poetry-Poe, Whitman, Pound, Eliot, and Williams-but the author also discusses Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Emerson, Bryant, Lowell, and Frost, among others.

    Originally published in 1973.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6907-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xv)

    • Dissonance and Dialectic
      (pp. 3-14)

      Indeed it does not. At first by default, later by design, American numbers are recurrently characterized by that “dissonance” with which John Crowe Ransom charges himself personally in this delightful poem, and of which he professes (such is the casuistry of poets) to be “sick.” The lines containing these mock complaints are by the most cunning artistry metrically harsh. With obvious ironic relish, the poem also insists upon jarring our ears with such studied cacophonies as “pernoctated,” such unnecessary inversions as “To England came Philomela with her pain.” By diligent avoidance of liquidity, “Philomela” achieves an undeniable and unmistakable American...

    • The Radical Tradition in American Poetry
      (pp. 15-24)

      American poetry curiously resembles the two-party system of American politics, where one party invents (sometimes over-stepping the bounds of possibility, sometimes only pretending to invent) and the other party alternatively obstructs and then consolidates and tries to take credit for the innovations it obstructed. Both parties have been around long enough to have proved they are necessary, and perhaps a kind of achievement is possible for either, but in poetry as in politics the driving force behind historical development is nearly always found in the party of the Future, or in Emerson’s ever-ready phrase, the Movement. Cultural change originates with...

    • The Age of Growing Discomfort and Inadequate Remedy
      (pp. 25-29)

      Somebody sent Hawthorne this parody in 1856. “Ask the fact for the form,” as Emerson sagely advised in “Poetry and Imagination,” or, from the point of view of historical investigation, ask the form for the fact. The crucial period in the history of American poetry is between Bryant and Whitman, the Age of Growing Discomfort and Inadequate Remedy. Except for Lowell, who was notoriously too facile for his own good, the poets of this age are almost unbelievably inept in their metrics; and the more ambitious, the more inept (except for a brilliant hit like “The Raven”). Even Lowell, for...

    • Emerson and the Meter-Making Argument
      (pp. 30-33)

      Emerson not only recognized Whitman the minute he arrived; by coming closer than any other writer to articulating the poetic problem for American culture, he more or less precipitated Whitman. In “The Poet,” after complaining of those minor versifiers for whom “the argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary” (Poe?), he declared: “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem.” At that moment American poetry cracked wide open. That Emerson was thinking of American poetry—and not of “romantic” or “modern” poetry, or poetry in general—is borne out by his subsequent elaboration...

    • Radical Explosions and Conservative Reassertions
      (pp. 34-38)

      By a kind of historical logic, which would of course include the impact of Emerson’s ideas on Whitman, the period of metrical discomfort was consummated by the first major explosion, or reflex,⁷ of American poetry,Leaves of Grass. This explosion was in turn followed by a long period of conservative reassertion. In their metrics, Dickinson, Lanier, Moody, Robinson, even the much younger Frost more nearly resemble Bryant, Lowell, Poe, and Emerson than Whitman, but they no longer sound so awkward, so ill at ease in their meters, even when the meters are most in the English tradition. Emily Dickinson refurbished...

    • The United States as a Poem
      (pp. 39-46)

      Like all his countrymen provincially cut off from the centers of the older and parent civilizations, the American poet is periodically compelled to assume the defiant stance, to ward off too much—too much of the wrong kind of—influence. This is obvious in the poems and prefaces of Whitman and in most American poems and prefaces down to Williams and beyond. Yet Whitman’s poems and prefaces also insistently proclaim the American poet’s need to involve himself with Europe and the rest of the world. Few poets have regarded their forerunners, especially the greatest ones—all of them European—whom...


    • Whitman and Metaphorical Form
      (pp. 49-55)

      However complex and subtle they are in reality—for no two lines of verse ever have exactly the same rhythm, even when they have precisely the same words; how could they, when they occur at different times in the poem?—at least in general outline the problems of American meter are relatively simple. In comparison, the problem of American metaphor is what any good American poet would call a fair bitch. (And poetic diction is worse.) We can, if we must, start a bit back, with an obvious concessive point: American metaphors, like American meters, are sometimes just like anybody...

    • Poe and the Analogue of the Short Story
      (pp. 56-60)

      Whitman’s closest predecessor in the constituting metaphor is, as we might expect, Poe. (It is just as surely not Emerson, who in respect to metaphor doggedly clings to the traditional British ways, despite his assertion in “The Poet” that “in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form.” See, for example, “Brahma,”which has nearly as many metaphors as lines.) Constituting metaphors can of course be found here and there throughout the world’s literature, and not only in Dante; but they can be found most easily, and nearest home, in the poems of Poe. “The Raven” (1845) and...

    • In Which Power Transacts Itself
      (pp. 61-68)

      “crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is an excellent instance of Whitman’s metaphorical forms. (In 1856 it was titled “Sun-Down Poem,” which suggests that Whitman was not yet entirely clear in his mind what the poem was about. Naturally I am quoting the final version.) As usual, there are two ways to read it, the ordinary, pedantic way, in which everything is taken at face value, and the other, Dantean, poetic way, as a simple trail of idea. Read the first way, the poem comes out as a conglomeration of prosaic statements (“It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not”), which would...

    • The Four Years’ War as Pivot
      (pp. 69-79)

      At one end of the Whitmanian spectrum we find “Song of Myself,” much the longest poem inLeaves of Grass, and despite myriad local felicities, many of them uncharacteristically comic, one of the least unified. As I have suggested, its constituting metaphor may never have been found by Whitman, and it has certainly not been found by Whitman’s readers except in some vague, over-rationalized, and perhaps even tautological formula like “the self reciprocally in its world.” Whitman never again attempted a poem so long or so loosely formed. At the other end of the spectrum we find Whitman’s shortest poems,...

    • The Waste Land and the Cantos
      (pp. 80-88)

      As in Whitman, the major modern American poems are organized by a constituting metaphor, which usually appears in the title, and which establishes an area of figurative discourse within which a sometimes quite astonishing diversity of material can be brought to poetic life. (And sometimes not. These poems are even more ambitious than Whitman’s, and often fall apart in the poet’s—or reader’s—hands.) Partly because the poems are so ambitious, they are frequently misread, and it is therefore fairly common to find them in company with prose explanations. (Not necessarily in public. As in the case of Hart Crane’s...

    • The Genesis of Hart Crane’s The Bridge
      (pp. 89-97)

      Naturally every poet thinks that his own great poem is the most ambitious poem in American history. What all American poets seem to agree on is the necessity for explanation and, with poets less self-assured than Pound, justification. Hart Crane’sThe Bridgehad to be endlessly explained to friends, and of course it had to be justified to his financial benefactor Otto Kahn. Crane’s last surviving letter to Kahn (12 September 1927) sets the problem:

      What I am really handling, you see, is the Myth of America. Thousands of strands have had to be searched for, sorted and interwoven. In...

    • William Carlos Williams and Open-Ended Metaphor
      (pp. 98-104)

      The term constituting metaphor is vulnerable to gross mis-calculation if the reader thinks of constitutions only as rigid, static, closed, formal actions, forgetting that good constitutions are equally susceptible of judicial interpretation and later amendment. (Endlessly, in states like California.) Actually, as I have tried to show, even poems of constituting metaphor that appear to be most closed (“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”The Waste Land) are in our real poetical experience nearly as open as poems that aren’t yet finished (theCantos). And it might even be argued, against the tendency of my argument in the preceding...

  6. Chapter Three: WHAT THE THUNDER SAID

    • Voices and the Primitive Terror
      (pp. 107-111)

      “I have told you, this/ is a fiction, pay attention,” as aforesaid by Williams. Let the vegetation stand for American poetry, root and branch, and let the stony rubbish stand for the American poet’s rock-bottom sense of his dislocation from the English heritage (language, sensibility, literature, culture, politics). Let the heap of broken images stand for our anfractuous American poems. The epigraph is Eliot’s first indentation (paragraph break) in “I. The Burial of the Dead,” summary comment on the opening eighteen lines of broken images, a conspicuous medley of dictions (including German—echt deutsch, echt amerikan), which run the gamut...

    • The Early American Poets and Poetic Diction
      (pp. 112-122)

      Because they seldom unify their poems through constituting metaphor, British poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tend to find their unity, which is superficially much more striking than the unity of American poems, in a unity of tone that derives from poetic diction and is further corroborated by the regularity of British metric. British poems by the same poet tend to sound more alike than American poems by the same poet. They also tend to sound more or less the same all the way through, whereas an American poem often sounds at first hearing as if it had been...

    • The Birth of Death in Whitman
      (pp. 123-134)

      That there is something intrinsically dialectic about the problem of diction in American poetry becomes immediately evident in the discrepancy between Whitman’s prose statements and poetical practice, on the one hand, and his poetical themes on the other. Neither in the prose statements—except in a rare moment: “the great radical Republic . . . its loud, ill-pitch’d voice” (“Poetry To-Day—Shakspere—The Future”)—nor in the language of the poems does there seem to be any problem at all, whereas the thematic drift of the poems is exquisitely problematical. Even in An American Primer, written, but unfinished, during the...

    • From Imagism to The Waste Land
      (pp. 135-150)

      The theory or feel of American diction, like the theory of American metric and the theory of American metaphor, is seldom explicitly stated and must mostly be deduced or intuited (felt, heard) from example and practice. The easy side of it comes closest to programmatic explication (as does the theory of metric: “to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome”) in Ezra Pound’s 1912 Imagist mamfesto, the first two principles of which directly concern the language of modern, that is, American verse:

      1. Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.


    • Linguistic Lapses in Crane and Stevens
      (pp. 151-165)

      Some do and some don’t. As we have just seen three times—Whitman, Pound, Eliot—the American poet can at his best live with his linguistic problem, and he can even make great poetic capital out of his suffering. What seems to be common to all three poets, in other ways so disparate, is a deep humility toward their medium, an ear firmly gripped by the sound of the English language in America, and, conversely, gripping it. That much presupposed, the poet is free to ramble far and wide, even to the extent of Pound’s dragging in as many foreign...

    • William Carlos Williams, M.D.
      (pp. 166-176)

      “And war for war, each has its gallant kind” (Stevens). True, but Williams, our most diligent self-appointed inspector of linguistic snow-jobs, would naturally view the matter from a different angle:

      How shall I find examples? Some boy

      who drove a bull-dozer through

      the barrage at Iwo Jima and turned it

      and drove back making a path for the others—

      Voiceless, his

      action gracing a flame

      —but lost, lost

      because there is no way to link

      the syllables anew to imprison him

      No twist of the flame

      in his own image : he goes nameless

      until a Niké shall live in...

    • Poe Against the Thin Edge
      (pp. 177-182)

      Two sentences after that sentence about Poe, Williams gives us a brief but moving historical image of Lincoln “walking up and down in Springfield on the narrow walk between the two houses, day after day, with a neighbor’s baby, borrowed for the occasion, sleeping inside his cape upon his shoulder to give him stability while thinking and composing his coming speeches.” Williams is a cunning master of juxtapositions. Poe, the great Southerner, childless, who inspired Whitman into the birth of death, and thus of American poetry; Lincoln, the great Northerner, our first assassinated President, with a borrowed baby on his...