Monday, January 07, 2019

David Barber, "In Search of an 'Image of Mankind': The Public Poetry and Prose of Archibald MacLeish"

Archibald MacLeish

Last spring, I noted on the Milton List that Archibald MacLeish had a Miltonic moment (vast) and might have had Miltonic pretensions (cancelled skies) in writing the poem "The End of the World" (1926). Here's that poem:

"The End of the World"

Quite unexpectedly as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and Teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb --
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there, hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the canceled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing -- nothing at all.

There is clearly something of Milton in this sonnet, as we can see by even a mere glance at these lines from Paradise Lost (Book 1, lines 17-26):

And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread [ 20 ]
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumin, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence, [ 25 ]
And justifie the wayes of God to men.

This is taken from Dartmouth's John Milton Reading Room.

David Barber, in his article "In Search of an 'Image of Mankind': The Public Poetry and Prose of Archibald MacLeish," (31-56) (29 American Studies 3 i, 36 (Fall 1988)) circles around a Miltonic conception of MacLeish (but does not note the parallels between the passages above):

"In 1931 Archibald MacLeish conceived a goal which he never afterward abandoned, though his idea of how to accomplish it changed: to identify or generate a vision for humanity, a motivating 'image of mankind in which men can again believe.'"[p 31, f 2]

[Footnote 2: "Nevertheless One Debt," Poetry 38 (1931), 216]

"His defects are in little danger of being forgotten, they are so visible. He failed to explain in prose, or demonstrate in poetry, just how poets can influence society's vision and direction. During World War II he claimed to want a national dialogue but contrived to set limits of allowable debate. He misused the podium of public office attempting to coerce the image makers: poets and artists and historians and journalists and film makers, into supporting his position. Perhaps his later opposition to McCarthyism, or his primary role in securing the release of Ezra Pound, or his repeated public reminders throughout the postwar period that Americans must know what they are for, not just what they are against -- perhaps such activities were his atonement. Not that he ever expressed a need to repent, or failed ultimately to prove his sincerity if not his judgment. Though Edmund Wilson always believed him a charlatan, MacLeish was doing, admittedly in a patronizing way, what Americans and all cultures need: exhorting them to conceive 'a good idea of themselves.' Thinking for a time that poetry alone could generate that vision, he eventually moderated this hope; and though he continued to seek a modern Dante to give our age its motivating vision, he lived to see no such genius appear. Certain of his enemies believed that MacLeish saw himself in this role; possibly at some point he did."[p 52, f 76]

[Footnote 76: "Rosenberg, for example, scorned MacLeish as 'the Poet Leader who has put poetry in the place formerly occupied by God' ("The God in the Car," 338, 340), and Zabel surmised that the opening of World War II gave MacLeish 'his chance to impress on his fellow-citizens the fact that a Milton not only should be living in this hour but by miraculous good fortune is" ("The Poet on Capitol Hill," 4).]

"To think that the people merely need someone to give them their vision, this perhaps was his failure of faith. It was a weakness he shared with Walt Whitman. And also — to descend from the sublime - with Amy Lowell. In MacLeish's pivotal year 1931 she had doubted whether MacLeish could play such a role. Perhaps, she mused, he lacked a certain 'gusto.' Perhaps we needed to wait for 'some poet of grit and brawn, some prophet of grandeur and laughter, some cross between John Milton and Ogden Nash, to tell us the whole truth and save the world.'"[77]

[Footnote 77: "Comment: Archibald MacLeish," Poetry 38 (1931), 155.]

We have reason to expect more on Milton and MacLeish . . .

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