Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The Man Against the Sky

To Spell the Word 1 "In an early letter Robinson said the word we are all trying to spell is 'God.'" (1) Now, although I have read "The Man Against the Sky" over six times, and know this to be true, especially for Edwin Arlington Robinson, yet I feel quite unequal to the work of delineating and inspecting the varied aspects of this search as expressed in his great poem without degrading the whole, because of the obvious defects in my critical talents. Furthermore, since this poem is approximately no more than two thousand words in length, I have little doubt but that my aim to write a five thousand word criticism on one aspect of it shall be only an aim, actually falling far short of any tangible achievement. It is also necessary to inform my reader that, since whatever ideas are expressed in this essay are almost totally my own, he should not be surprised by the apparent lack of outside material. I like to build, or destroy, my own houses. However, it does seem good to present some biograph- ical background, if only because such will add depth to our - - - - (1) Estelle Kaplan, Philosophy in Poetry of Edwin Arlington Robinson p. 62 (Morningside Heights) New York: Columbia University Press, 1940 2 understanding of the man. Edwin Arlington Robinson was born on December 22, 1869, in the village of Head Tide, Maine. . . . He was a dreamy, unpractical, self-sufficient lad, who preferred books to boys' games. . . . About 1889 he realized definitely that "he was doomed, or elected, or sentenced for life, to the writing of poetry"; and although from the first his confidence in his ability was firm he spared his parents and friends the news of his discovery, knowing how the unlikely prospects for his future would worry them. . . . In 1891 Robinson was sent to Harvard University, where he studied for two years, until the illness of his father and the straitened circumstances of the family forced him to return home. From 1893 to 1897 he lived quietly in Gardiner, practicing his "unaccredited profession" of poet. . . . Convinced finally that editors were not to be persuaded to publish his work, Robinson decided to publish it himself; . . . In 1898 Robinson went to New York City, where he occupied himself chiefly with poetry and at times worked at the incidental task of making a living. . . . In the midst of the noise and teeming life of America's largest city Robinson was able to maintain his mental calm and air of detachment. He observed all about him shrewdly, discerningly, but he was at heart a bookish man--a devoted reader of Shakespeare, Dickens, the Bible, Thomas Hardy, Cervantes, Melville. He was particularly fond of detective stories, which he read for relaxation. As a boy he played for a time on the clarinet; and the love of music became one of the passions of his later life. He was fond of folk songs, of the Gilbert and Sullivan operatic scores, of Brahms, Verdi, and Wagner. Wealth, luxuries, and worldly success had little attraction for him; and he consistently refrained from the public reading and discussion of his poetry. During the early days of 1935 he became seriously ill and on January the seventeenth was admitted to the New York Hospital for treatment. There, after a serious operation, he died on April 6, 1935. . . . (2) One commitment concerning this essay was for me to - - - - (2) Chief Modern Poets of England and America, edited by Gerald Sanders pp. 383-5 (New York, 1938) 3 act as a censor. Subliminally I have done this, but I have found nothing censurable. Yet, as a Catholic who knows with a certainty the why of life and what lies hereafter, I am somewhat disappointed that such an admirable work as Robinson's "The Man Against the Sky" should express even a spore of uncertainty. In reflection, however, I some- times feel that the presence of uncertainty in this poem is a saving factor lest the philosophical sight completely negate the poetic sight. On this point a certain author has written concerning Robinson: . . . . He never, to my knowledge, stated that immortality is or must be a fact, but he repeatedly argued that nothing else will justify the belief in an essential justice which alone makes life supportable. No planetary trap where souls are wrought For nothing but the sake of being caught And sent again to nothing will attune Itself to any key of any reason Why man should hunger through another season To find out why 'twere better late than soon To go away and let the sun and moon And all the silly stars illuminate A place for creeping things (3) Around the world and ever since the reign of science threw the heart of man into the darkness of ratted dungeons, has he been constant in his search for freedom lost; for light once known but never again thought to be the good or the truth desired. No! that was not the ultimate. How could - - - - (3) Frederick W. Conner Cosmic Optimism p. 369 Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1949 4 it be? There must be another and greater freedom; greater light! But where is it to be found? Where was he going, this man against the sky? You know not, nor do I. (4) His way was even as ours; And we, with all our wounds and all our powers, Must each wait alone at his own height Another darkness or another light (5) So, many seek an answer to the mysteries that life presents, but so many seek it where it shall never be found; and yet, I congratulate them because they are at least men enough to bury apathy while setting their spades to turning up better earth for a better life. Even though I along with others hold the answer many like Robinson are at pains to discover, it often seems best to allow them to adventure with their own crude tools into the fertile soil that is truth, for only in this way shall they ever come to fully understand that truth without any danger to their self-pride. In all sincerity I believe that my only prerogative is not to dogmatize but to guide. It is through guidance that the majority of men are most effectively converted to those answers about life's mysteries which finally permit them to spell that Word, that ultimate answer, that very God so few - - - - (4) E. A. Robinson, from book edited by Gerald Sanders, p. 407 (5) E. A. Robinson, ibid., p. 406 5 now know. (I am, myself, a messenger of sight. Follow me through my literary searching and you shall come to realize at death that you have come to life. Where Robinson--God bless him--for lack of faith was of himself unable to search beyond that point to which he finally attained, I continue. Maybe this parading of righteousness "just isn't cricket," as the English would say, but no one can either deny my right or my duty to do just that.) Life is complex. I know this, and so did E. A. R. As I am an optimist, so "he was an optimist in spite of what the world had to show, or promised to show, not because of it." (6) A right optimism is necessary to the life of every man if he is to live outside despair or the false optimism some find in materialism. Always, then, as any true poet, Robinson sought something better and more simple in this complexity in which we are forced to live; and seeking such Robinson, indeed, seems to have pinned his hopes less on the perfection and worldly bliss of a remote posterity than on some kind of personal immortality. A less happy man living in less happy times than most . . . he was acutely aware of the Achilles heel of all evolutionary optimisms--that they offer little consolation to the individual. (7) And what is so important about the consolation of the - - - - (6) Conner, p. 366. (7) Conner, p. 368. 6 individual? When God made man, He made him possessing both body and soul. If man were without a rational soul, he would be merely an animal to which consolation might be appreciated but in no manner understood as a good to be sought. But man has a rational soul, that angelic quality which of its nature commands him to seek something beyond simple material exist- ence, something that transcends time and place so the total man can reach that immortality of being he wants so much to believe exists. In truth, it is only this undercurrent of hope in a more glorious living after death which daily reju- venates him, urging him to strive ahead in this otherwise indifferent world. Man knows that he is something else. He knows with an innate assurance that he is surrounded by an aura of ultra-rational existence--an existence, perhaps, beyond the grasp of any given individual, but a very real existence nevertheless. Without the measure "of man's immortal vision," (8) his life-giving principle would starve itself on despair. Any human being deprived of consolation due to an inability on his part to stretch out towards a reality greater than himself is thereby deprived of the ful- fillment of his being. Therefore, it follows, since conso- lation is the proof of gain, any unconsoled man becomes a hollow man, and not even a man, but merely a thing that exists. - - - - (8) E. A. Robinson, from book edited by Gerald Sanders, p. 408. 7 This is the import of consolation. Shall we, because Eternity records Too vast an anser for the time-born words We spell, whereof so many are dead that once In our capricious lexicons Were so alive and final, hear no more The Word itself, the living word That none alive has ever heard Or ever spelt, And few have ever felt Without the fears and old surrenderings When Death let fall a feather from his wings And humbled the first man? (9) When Robinson published The Man Against the Sky in which his poem of the same title, here under discussion, constituted a major rebuke to the soulless state of things that an overconcentration on reason manifested in scientific optimism had fostered, materialism and man's clawing after power were already experiencing their first world eruption. Robinson's poetic interpretation, while quite effectively subduing four erroneous philosophies and seemingly praising a fifth, did not, however, as we have noted before--but con- tinually deem it necessary to repeat--offer any particular alternative philosophy. This fact does yet intrigue me so, I cannot help but wonder what the philosophic "Ear" might have written had he known what truth men can know about the after-life. And yet, if we admit him to be the poet I believe time will testify him to be, we may adhere with certainty to the speculation that he would have written it even as he has. - - - - (9) Robinson, Edwin A. Collected Poems, p. 68. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937. 8 . . . . So we arrive at a major point in this exposition. . . . . Essentially, like any good poet, Robinson is less the philosopher than the metaphysician, and the question for him is the old ontologicial one. . . . God or no God, for Robinson the true question is this: Is there a life after this one? If so, then it is all worth it, the suffering and the terror. If not, then why live? . . . Again and again, he will assert his belief in immortality and the ultimate importance of this life, while he utterly rejects materialism. Every- where in the poems, letters, and reported comments, such a deliberate choice of belief crops up, implied or stated. (10) In the opening statement of this short analysis, if you remember, I quoted Robinson as saying that the word we are all trying to spell is "God." [ Am here omitting three sentences. ] Are we no greater than the noise we make Along one blind atomic pilgimage Whereon by crass chance billeted we go Because our brains and bones and cartilage Will have it so? If this we say, then let us all be still About our share in it, and live and die More quietly thereby. (11) Oh, the consummate irony! For who will willingly equate his personage to rocks and groans, or anything reflecting but material existence. No, we are "greater than the noise we make;" and who is there possessed of such audacity who ever could insinuate that we are blind! We'd have his head for such an insult. But there is more! - - - - (10) Coxe, Louis E. A. Robinson, p. 16. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. (11) Robinson, Edwin A. Collected Poems, p. 66. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937. 9 If after all that we have lived and thought, All comes to Nought,-- If there be nothing after Now, And we be nothing anyhow, And we know that,--why live? "Twere sure but weakling's vain distress To suffer dungeons where so many doors Will open on the cold eternal shores That look sheer down To the dark tideless floods of Nothingness Where all who know may drown. (12) Is there else? Robinson was a transcendentalist . . . to the extent of denying the mechanistic determinism of the naturalists and of believing that somehow the opposite was true; and he was an optimist to the extent of believing that somehow and sometime the injustice of men's lives would be corrected. (13) . . . . We have completed our search with an for the searcher. We have not been disappointed. In the contemplation of one man seen upon the apex of his life, we have comtemplated life and death entirely; we have learned the value of existence, and we have felt the holiness of death. We now can only turn again to Robinson to end our philosophical review. I've been called a fatalist, a pessimist and an optimist so many times that I am beginning to believe that I must be all three. . . . If a reader doesn't get from my books an impression that life is very much worth while, even though it may not seem always to be profitable or desirable, I can only say that he doesn't see what I am driving at. (14) Yes, "life is very much worth while." And why? It is so because our dual nature persupposes a unique reason for our existence. We are animal and angel, and though our animal reality can die unto nothingness, our angelic reality must live on. [ Am here omitting three sentences. ] And if we cannot once record the fall and rise beyond nor ever hope to spell "God" while we are here, when death has brought eternity, we shall record, we shall spell. - - - - (12) Robinson, Edwin A. Collected Poems, pp. 68-9. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937. (13) Conner, Frederick W. Cosmic Optimism, pp. 373-74. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1949. (14) Hagedorn, H. Edwin Arlington Robinson, p. 286. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939. Brian Salchert May 15, 1963 Oshkosh, Wisconsin * ---------------------------------------- post completed by Brian Salchert at 1:11 PM on October 31, 2007 © 2007 Brian A J Salchert Thinking Lizard All rights reserved. See directory2007 in Catmap. Rho00022