Apropos to my previous post on (G)reatness and the Language of Poetry, I was reading Jack Stillinger’s Introduction to Keats’ Complete Poems and ran across the following two paragraphs.
The content of Keats’ best poems, if reduced to their themes, would be, just as with the best work of Shakespeare and Dickens, quite banal (“life is very difficult,” “the imagination is not to be relied on,” “everything has to die,” “nature consoles”). But Keats concerns with dreaming, illusion, problems of time and mortality, and the pleasure-pain compexity of life should not be translated in this way; they give a pleasurable and requisite seriousness of content to the poems, but they cannot be taken as equivalent of the poems. The same may be said of the most characteristic tensions in the poems – the conflicting claims of human and immortal realms of existence, the opposition of attitudes toward the actual and the ideal. These provide structure and dramatic conflict, but they are not the equivalent of the poems either. And the ideas and tensions cannot be invoked to account for Keats’s sudden rise to greatness in the poems of the last nine months of his career, because they are in his work all along, from late 1816 to the end. Something else is needed to explain the excellence of his mature poetry.
That “something else,” I suggest, is Keats’ style. This is a topic that was comprehensively considered in the 1940s (by W.J. Bate and R.H. Fogle in particular) but has been relatively slighted in more recent decades, possibly because critics have become increasingly aware of the methodological difficulties seemingly inherent in stylistic analysis of a literary text. Nowadays there is a great deal of argument about what “style” is and where it resides, if at all, in literary works. But it is still practically useful, while the debate goes on, to retain a concept of style in the old-fashioned sense of “mode of expression,” referring to such things as choice of words and images, sentence structure, rhythms and sound patterns, figures of speech. These fundamentals are, or used to be, taught in a freshman Introduction to Poetry, with textbook like James R. Kreuzer’s Elements of Poetry or Laurence Perrine’s Sound and Sense. It would be a mistake, to underestimate the importance of these elements in literary art. All works have subject matter, themes, structures, incidents, ideas, and feelings; it is ultimately the language in which these are contained and transmitted that makes some works more pleasing and more moving that others.
And it is this “something else” that seems to be missing from most of the poetry of the latter 20th Century and presently. Perhaps this “something else” has been undervalued?
As it stands, my feeling is that content (great in thought or otherwise) has all too readily been equated and conflated with (G)reat Poetry. There’s a difference (or at least one is inclined to assume so) given the broader public disregard of contemporary poets in favor of poets like Keats, Dickinson, Frost, Shakespeare, Millay and Cummings – all poets who were and are famous not just for their ideas, but for their poetry (the language and style in which they expressed their ideas).
Style doesn’t have to mean Meter or Rhyme. Whitman rejected meter and rhyme – but there’s no confusing his verse with the prose of a novelist. His rich rhetorical patterning more than offset the absence of rhyme or meter. He was a stylist in as full and rich a sense as Browning or Tennyson, his contemporaries. I can’t claim to have read even a fraction of a fraction of all the poetry that is being printed and published everyday, so maybe there’s a poet, or poets, who display a command of language and style that elevates their ideas to great poetry. I keep looking every day.