Language, Poets & the treachery of Women

my summer-vacation reading…

I’m making some time to catch up on reading and writing. Two passages from two very different books struck me. Thought I would share them. The first is from Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare’s Late Style. (I’ll write my next post about the other.) For fanciers of language, poetics and Shakespeare, this is a fascinating book. I’m having to read it twice.  Most readers would probably consider the book dry as chalk dust (McDonald isn’t exactly an engaging writer). Me? My second reading involves heavy underlining. MacDonald’s text is thick with information and ideas.

His book is primarily concerned with the “problem” of Shakespeare’s late style. Personally, I’ve never understood why Shakespeare’s late style is referred to as the problem. Shakespeare’s style changed with age. Why is that a problem? Interestingly, Shakespeare’s stylistic progression is no different, in my view, than the progression of all the great artist’s with whom I’m familiar. Consider Bach, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Frost, even Keats, and the great pianist Glenn Gould (compare his first performance of the Goldberg variations to his final performance). Or what about the Beatles? Their youthful works (such as Bach’s toccatas or the Beatles first albums) are marked by youthful enthusiasm, passionate flourishes (often in excess), and unrestrained (undisciplined) enthusiasm bordering, in some cases, on mawkishness. McDonald quotes the great Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley:

After Hamlet the style, in the more emotional passages, is heigthened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is, therefore, not easy and lucid and in the more ordinary dialogue is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes deficient in charm. (p. 30 Shakespeare’s Late Style)

What I find so fascinating is that this criticism is almost, word for word, the same as the criticism leveled at Beethoven’s late music (as well as Bach and even Mozart). That Bradley would consider the maturation of Shakespeare’s style “deficient”, reveals the deficiencies in his own critical acumen – though his comments are typical of his age.

As all these artists aged, they seemed to prune the excess, searching for, discovering and refining the essence of their genius, voice and style, seeking compression and concentration. Compare Bach’s very early keyboard Toccatas to his late works: the Musical Offering or The Art of the Fugue. Compare Beethoven’s lavish early Piano Sonatas to his last (or his late quartets). The album Let It Be was, in large part, the outcome of John Lennon’s desire to get back to the fundamentals of his rock and roll – a pruning of excess (the Naked version supposedly being closer to Lennon’s intent).

Anyway (and to me) Shakespeare’s late style isn’t problematic. It represents the natural progression of a maturing artist – no more problematic than Bach’s Art of the Fugue or Beethoven’s late quartets.

the corrupting influence of women…

The one passage that I found particularly fascinating had little to do with Shakespeare’s late style. Rather, it was McDonald’s observation concerning women, rhetoric and medieval thought. I wanted to excerpt the passage as gist for thought. McDonald is examining Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus. I’m cherry picking passages for the sake of brevity, but hopefully the following will give you some idea of the whole. McDonald begins the sub-chapter with the heading, MEN AND WOMAN AND STYLE. He writes:

Shakespeare’s self-consciousness about the perils and opportunities of language coincides with the contemporary debate over the available forms of prose style and the philosophical implications of those positions. A brief review of the controversy reminds us that the old fashioned Ciceronian model, with its elaborate syntactical constructions symmetrical patterns of words and clauses, and devotion to ornament, came into conflict with the self-consciously modern approach, modeled on Seneca, with its obviously broken periods and asymmetrical grouping of words, a severity of of vocabulary and sound, and a Spartan disdain for decoration. (p. 61)

Interestingly, the tug of war  between aesthetic “excess” or exuberance and aesthetic “restraint” is ongoing. Consider Islam’s historical aversion to representative art – and the religion’s hyper-masculine aversion to the feminine (it’s concealment of women’s facial features and form). Representative art was surely (and remains) tied to the idea of the feminine – to ornament, excess, distraction, treachery and error. Islam is hardly alone. The same strain is to be found in other religions, including Christianity (especially Catholicism), Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. The aesthetic divide seems to be a human preoccupation that expresses itself in all matters pertaining to self-expression. Bach was ceaselessly upbraided by his ecclesiastical employers for the distracting “excesses”  of his music. His employers felt that his music should focus the churchgoers’ mind on (G)od, not music. Bach, to put it mildly, disagreed. In all cases, the root of the aesthetic difference seems to boil down to a difference in a culture’s conception of the feminine. That is what I find so interesting. (Art, much removed from the idealized conception of the war-like male, was considered a feminine pursuit throughout the history of western culture.)  McDonald continues:

This debate is self-evidently grounded in conceptions of sexual difference and related to the figuration of language as feminine and action as masculine in medieval and early modern language theory. This misogynistic tradition propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error. It originates in the classical period and receives virulent expression in the writings of some of the Church Fathers, particularly Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. As Howard Block has demonstrated in some detail, this gendered conception is responsible for the series of identifications, still with us, of the masculine with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity; and of the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material, the duplicitous or ambiguous. In the most notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature, a familiar and loudly asserted complaint against women is their proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding — the most common laments from the molestiae nuptiarum or the tradition of anti-marriage literature, have to do with the verbal miseries inevitably attendant upon the taking of a wife. In other words, the attack on women is often a simultaneous attack on language. (p. 62)

A straight line can be drawn from this tradition to the Pope’s modern day demand for celibacy (an institution still steeped in the medieval dye). The unspoken (or spoken) assumption is that the feminine will have a corrupting and treacherous effect on the priesthood. For an institution that identifies the “word” of God as the fundamental truth, that relies on language to communicate is doctrines, and which conceives this truth as, ultimately, a masculine expression, the feminine influence (read speech) can only be understood as diluting and corrupting. McDonald continues:

Commentators reach as far back as Eden to connect the female with the decorative, the artificial, the inessential: in the Genesis account, Eve’s verbal seduction of Adam into eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree led to the need for covering, and from that time forward there existed a contest between the natural body and the dressings invented for it. As Tertullian put it, “with the word the garment entered.” In a related treatment of the topic, St. Augustine distinguishes between numerical signs as masculine and verbal signs as feminine: “From that time forth she [Reason] found it hard to believe that the splendor and purity [of numbers] was sullied by the corporeal matter of words. And just as what the spirit sees is always present and is held to be immortal and numbers appear such, while sound, being a sensible thing, is lost into the past.” Numerals are identified with the virtues of constancy, order, and clarity, in short, with the spirit. Words connote corruption and impermanence and are linked with the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.

We might now return to Bacon’s attack on Ciceronian style as “that delicate and polished kind of learning” that “allured” the boys from Cambrdige: “delicate and polished” is a gendered phrase, pejorative adjectives denoting a sissified style. Patricia Parker summarizes this debate with a major instance from the early Tudor period:

Erasmus in his Ciceronianus (1528) speaks of seeking in vain in Ciceronian eloquence for something “masculine” and of his own desire for a “more masculine” style. Ciceronian copia in these discussions is both effeminate and the style of a more prodigal youth, to be outgrown once one had become a man: “I used to imitate Cicero.” writes Lipsius; “but I have become a man, and my tastes have changed. Asiatic feasts have ceased to please me; I prefer the Attic.”

And this bias appears also in the Renaissance view of the femininity of verse and the Puritan attack on the effeminacy of the stage, we remember Sidney’s Defense, written as a rejoinder to the attack on theatrical poetry as immoral, frivolous, and unmanly. The sentence cited at the beginning of this chapter, Thomas Howell’s “Women are wordes, Men deedes,” should remind us of Hotspur, that quintessential man of action, who proclaims his contempt for “mincing poetry” and who on the battlefield is infuriated when the King’s effeminate ambassador addresses him in “man holiday and lady terms.” This still-prevalent view that poetry or dramatics is for girls, while science and mathematics – real learning – is best left to boys, descends from this ancient derisory association of women and words. (pp. 64-65)

McDonald’s last observation, that poetry is still considered an effeminate occupation, is one that I would have made myself. Robert Frost, in his own day and referring to his beginnings, stated that one might as well wear a millstone round one’s neck as declare oneself a poet. His grandfather, who effectively bankrolled the first half of Frost’s literary career, expected more “manly” pursuits from his grandson.

  • Image above & right. Bathsheba by Jan Matsys. Image above & left. Bathsheba by Jean Leon Gerome. Do these images of feminine nudity offend you? The biblical story of Bathsheba and the story of Susannah (like the paintings), nicely captures the west’s conflicted attitude toward feminine beauty and seductiveness.  The temptations of Bathsheba’s beauty proves to be a destructive one when David sends Bathsheba’s husband to die in battle. God punishes both lovers with the death of their child. Interestingly, the paintings warn us against the seductiveness of feminine beauty while also lulling us with the same, inviting us to be just as seduced by it. The same attraction to, and distrust of, language characterizes Shakespeare’s great plays and medieval attitudes toward language in general.

Interesting too, is the strong link between religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, intolerance and hyper-masculinity. The puritans, who detested the poetry of Elizabethan England and reviled the dramatic stage (and successfully closed it down for a period of time), were religious fundamentalists who would have found common cause with the hyper-masculine religiosity of present day (fundamentalist) Islamists (such as the Taliban). Their cultural triumph was brief, however. The puritans quickly found themselves on the receiving end of intolerance. What did they do? They fled to Plymouth Rock— not a very pleasant group of people. They are presently celebrated every Thanksgiving as benign settlers seeking freedom from intolerance.  Hardly. As the joke has it: They fled intolerance to more freely express their own intolerance. Londoners were all too glad to be rid of them.

What’s so fascinating is that these biases continue today and are as firmly rooted as they ever were. One is tempted to think there is something in human nature that would recreate this division between the masculine (positive) and feminine (negative), even if the history of such biases were erased. Consider the passage at left, the introductory words to an essay by James H. McGoldrick, published in the The English Journal, Vol. 43, No. 5 (May, 1954), pp. 257-259 .

Notice that it’s not enough to say that poetry is effeminate. Associated with the idea of femininity is the sentimental and that which wastes ones time. The implication is that the feminine, and the pursuit of anything construed as feminine, is unworthy of effort.

Is it really human nature, or is it cultural? Consider the following from The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature Vol. 2:

Nirala, in that very introduction to Parimal maintains elsewhere: ‘just as metres, being self-forgetful in a state of joy bound within the ambit of rule, dance beautifully and lull the listeners into an ecstacy along with the auditory melody, similarly free verse affords us eternal asethetics of simlutaneity in its extraordinary flow as if it were the little and large waves of the infinite ocean, rising and falling with one single unified motion. Free verse is the verse that remains free even though growing on the ground of metre; the flow of free verse itself sustains and supports it; it establishes its metres and expresses the magesty of its freedom and literature of its law’. Nirala finds the beauty of ‘unequal similarity’ in free verse. He accepts the ‘flow’ of poetry as its great quality. In his famous article ‘Pant aur Pallava’ (1927-28) he writes, ‘In free verse one cannot get the art of music, there is the art of reading; it is not concerned with vowel but with consonant; it is not the feminine tenderness of poetry but the masculine courage or poetry. It’s beauty is not in music, but in conversation.”

Free verse becomes an effort to reclaim poetry’s masculinity. Fascinating, again, are the parallels to the rhetoric of western medieval bias. Remember that the writings of St. Augustine, among others, associated the masculine with the essence – the primary. In Nirala’s rhetoric, free verse is understood as the “infinite ocean” (which is nothing if not primary) whereas meter is understood as the more obviously feminine  – a seductive dance that lulls the listener with its ephemeral beauty. (We are reminded of Bathsheba, Susannah or Salome.) In the latter description, Nirala could as easily be describing the lulling effect of pornography. And there’s no mistake in the choice of  lull, which as part of its definition includes the meaning: to give or lead to feel a false sense of safety; cause to be less alert, aware, or watchful (Dictionary.com). Such a vision of the feminine is thoroughly in keeping with the west’s prejudices.

  • Susanna and the Old Men by Guercino. The old man, having stumbled across Susanna as she bathes, threaten to blackmail her (accuse her of an illicit affair) if she doesn’t have sex with them. She doesn’t. The elder men accuse her of fornication. Although Susanna is exonerated in the end, one is tempted to read the story not as the exoneration of an innocent woman but as a warning against the temptations of feminine seductiveness (and youthful excess). Susanna’s beguiling beauty can only end in destruction (the old men are sentenced to death once their lies are found out). Once again, Guercino invites the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the naked woman even as the narrative warns us against the lurid temptation. Message: Feminine beauty is a youthful folly and should be left to the youthful.

Ezra Pound, heralding the dawn of free verse in his manifesto “A Retrospect“, uses vocabulary no less loaded. He writes:

As to Twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner, it will be what Mr Hewlett calls ‘nearer the bone’. It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth, its interpretative power (of course, poetic force does always rest there); I mean it will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.

“Harder and saner” he writes. The implication is that the poetry of the Victorians, drenched in meter and rhyme, was softer (more feminine) and less sane (less rational and too emotional – read womanly). The poetry of free verse will be like “granite” – an inescapably masculine adjective. Pound goes on to describe the poetry of the previous decades as “rhetorical din, and luxurious riot”. There is little that separates such description from the “misogynistic tradition [that] propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error…” Pound’s “rhetorical din” is eerily similar to those “notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature” that associate the feminine with a “proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding…” As if to remove any doubt, Pound uses the adjective painted when describing the Victorians’ over reliance on adjectives. Painted recalls St. Augustine’s association of words with with the “corruption and impermanence” of “the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.” Painted, historically, has the meaning “covered with makeup, esp. to excess.” Pound’s use of the word is meant to imply that the aesthetics of the previous generation (read meter and rhyme) were effeminate, painted, and garish. The blogger Mike Chaser neatly sums up Pound’s manifesto in his post “Chick Lit?“:

In “A Retrospect” from 1918, Ezra Pound states his desire to produce a new, masculine poetry that is “harder and saner,” “nearer the bone,” and “free from [the] emotional slither” that, in his estimation, characterized the effeminate verse of the genteel nineteenth century.

Just as poetry itself is associated with the feminine, even in Shakespeare’s time, the insulting approbation, effeminate, was used by other modernist poets (including W.C. Williams) to differentiate (or elevate) their own efforts as more masculine (and therefore more respectable). The Ciceronian and Senecan divide was (and is) as alive as ever.

  • With that in mind, it’s breathtakingly ironic when self-professed feminists like Adrienne Rich proclaim their feminism by writing free verse – asserting that form in poetry (meter and rhyme) are oppressive patriarchal contrivances. Such immature and self-serving pronouncements merely reinforce the gendered biases which they are supposedly rejecting. It had been better and more honest if Rich had simply admitted that she lacked the talent to be a “good formalist”, rather than hide behind a rationalization.

McDonald closes his discussion of the feminine and masculine in language with a passage from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:

.     .    .   I prithee now, my son,
Go to them, with this bonnet in they hand,
And thus far having stretch’d it (here be with them),
Thy knee bussing the stones (for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ignorant
More learned than the ears), waving thy head,
Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling: or say to them,
Thou art their soldier, and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves, but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou hast power and person.

The immediate relevance of this passage is found in its grammatical structure, particularly the contrast with Coriolanus’s masculine style.

Even if the passage is punctuated so as to divide into two sentences, there is no break in thought. The length and the syntactical involutions suggest the association of women and copia: the paratactic, additive form of the plea, supported and extended as it is by the participles, connotes the endlessness of female speech, the ungoverned tongue familiar from the misogynist tradition; at the same time, the hypotactic intrusions and parenthesis attest to the indirections and potential waywardness of women and their words. Metrically, the expectations of regularity established by the pentameter are frustrated by the liberty and variety of the phrasing: the semantic demands and wayward rhythmic drive introduce disruptions that poke holes in the order of the line and threaten a kind of aural chaos. (…)

Coriolanus, then, presents a contest of styles, with each side sexually marked. The Baconian, phallic position informs the laconic speech of Coriolanus, who flees from words. Volumnia, on the other hand, embodies Ciceronian loquacity and indirection. (pp. 64-65)

Compare Volumnia’s statement that Coriolanus “hast not the soft way” with Ezra Pound’s emphatic demand for a poetry and language that is harder and “and that will be as much like granite as it can be”. In case the implication isn’t obvious, Pound, like Shakespeare, drives it home. The “force” of a more masculine language will “lie in its truth”. The inescapable corollary is the that feminine language is the language of deception. (It amazes me how little the terms of the debate have changed over 400 years.) To what degree the generations of free verse poets (who followed Pound) internalized Pound’s language is open to debate. But the tendency, as with Adrienne Rich, to rationalize ones aesthetics (ones likes and dislikes) in gender specific terms has never gone away. For Adrienne Rich, form, rhyme and meter are too patriarchal (read masculine).  Pound, on the other hand, considers the same tradition too effeminate. Go figure.

  • Image above right: Venturia at the feet of Coriolanus. Notice how the artist portrays the women. They kneel subserviently and obsequiously.  Coriolanus may be trying to lift the woman or push her away. His gesture is ambiguous. He is portrayed as a man of action (reinforced by the seemingly indifferent soldier who accompanies him and seems impatient to move on). The women are creatures of language – they resort to complaint and pleading.

Shakespeare’s maturity

According to McDonald, Shakespeare eventually rejects the notion of poetry as effeminate and unworthy. While Shakespeare uses Coriolanus to more or less dramatize the debate which was swirling around him,  Antony & Cleopatra, according to McDonald, represents a dramatic resolution. He writes:

The final movement, from Antony’s suicide to Caesar’s eulogy, may be considered a bridge between the tragedies and the romances because it attests to Shakespeare’s developing attitude toward fictional [feminine] language. Cleopatra seems to have occupied Shakespeare’s imagination, making a great gap in Plutarch’s tale by inserting herself into, and thereby transforming what might have been simply a tragedy of Antony. She not only memorializes Antony in a virtuosic act of poetic [feminine] construction  but also stages her own spectacular end by a creative manipulation of costume, setting, and words [the emphasis is my own].  The represented death of the historical female is for Shakespeare the birth of the fictional Cleopatra…

McDonald goes on to quote from Suffocating Mothers, p. 177

By locating Antony’s heroic manhood within Cleopatra’s vision of him, Shakespeare attempts in effect to imagine his way beyond this impasse [the impasse between masculine and feminine language].

This imaginative union of the masculine and the feminine helps to account for Shakespeare’s re-conceived attitude towards words, dramatic mode, and the theatrical enterprise itself.

Translation: The feminine fiction of Cleopatra’s poetic vision immortalizes the masculine facts of Antony’s deeds.

and the immaturity of the other 2,ooo years…

Shakespeare’s artistic equilibrium made no lasting impression on the generations that followed. Consider the following contemporary article (2007) by Douglas Wilson, entitled “The Loss of Poetry“. It begins:

The causes are not easy to identify, but poetry has fallen on hard times.
Poetry today huddles in its prescribed little ghettoes – the sentimentalism of greeting cards and cupboard poetry, the small clutch of arcane poetry journals with a circulation of thirteen, self-absorbed adolescents scribbling pages of navel-gazing free verse, nationally-ignored poet laureates, and that about covers the world of poetry.

What is the alternative to sentimentalism, self-absorption and navel-gazing? Wilson tells us:

…if we are Christians, we need to learn… [that] our understanding of revelation will continue to be truncated… until we give ourselves to the recovery of poetry.
[A] great problem has been the gradual feminization of poetry. This is not mentioned as a criticism of women with a poetic gift. Rather, rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality. An essential part of this is making a place for masculine poetry, and the fact that masculine poetry seems oxymoronic to us now illustrates the problem nicely.
The upshot is that men no longer lead through poetry; they merely put up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives. When we think of poetry we think of cowslips and dewdrops, and various forms of moon Juning. We no longer think of Beowulf among “ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!” We no longer think of David, a warrior king, singing psalms of piercing strength and loveliness. We think rather of a Romantic poet, wandering lonely as a cloud.

Through his definition of masculine poetry (or language), we can tease out his definition of feminine poetry and language (which is necessarily defined as the opposite); and his definition is almost identical to the attitudes of the medieval Christian writers. Wilson (like Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine) defines masculine poetry as a human phenomena, a  poetry concerned  “with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity”. And like the early Christian theologians, he defines “the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material”. Feminine poetry doesn’t reflect “broad reality“.

Masculine poetry leads. Feminine poetry “puts up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives”. Feminine poetry lulls and beguiles with images of the material and ephemeral “cowslips and dewdrops”, while masculine poetry contends with (what Wilson considers) the universal and lasting – ancient kings (status), glory (reputation), mighty swords (conquest), and the psalms of piercing strength (Wilson was surely  aware of the sexual suggestiveness in his choice of words – the insinuation of masculine sexual conquest).

Wilson’s exhortation could have been written 2,000 years ago or it could have been written during Shakespeare’s day. In either case, it would have been warmly received.

And it’s not that the division of masculine and feminine isn’t a useful division or that these terms don’t represent real and natural differences between the two halves of the human population, but that the feminine is so often construed as the negative (or the lesser of the two). But the masculine voice is just as replete with negatives (if that’s the focus) — empty bombast, vanity, boorishness, pretentiousness, and all the attendant preoccupations with station, rank and reputation. Propagandist poetry could be considered masculine poetry – the poetry of nationalism, colonialism, and chauvinism.

My own observation is so obvious as to be trite: The greatest poets, whether male or female, seem to synthesize what is best in both the masculine and feminine tradition. It’s a wonder that it bears repeating.