May 3, 2006
I recently stumbled across a charming poem by the American poet E. E. Cummings. It’s called “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.”
Maggie and Milly and Molly and May
And Maggie discovered a shell that sang
Milly befriended a stranded star
And Molly was chased by a horrible thing
May came home with a smooth round stone
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
Students of Jung will notice the stone, the roundness of the stone, and the idea of finding oneself; in Jung’s work, the stone and the circle are symbols of the self. Click here for a reading of this poem, here for Cummings’ own reading of his poem “I Carry You in My Heart.”
Cummings grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. His father was a Harvard professor. “Cummings decided to become a poet when he was still a child. Between the ages of eight and twenty-two, he wrote a poem a day, exploring many traditional poetic forms.”1B Cummings was influenced by avant-garde poets like Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein, and his own poetry is known for its quirky, unconventional style. Cummings was a painter as well as a poet; he admired avant-garde painters like Picasso.
His first book, published in 1922, was The Enormous Room, which dealt with his experience in prison during World War I. Critics were enthusiastic about The Enormous Room; John Dos Passos wrote,
The first 17 sonnets urge Southampton to marry (to marry the granddaughter of Lord Burghley, the queen’s powerful minister1). In these first 17 sonnets, a common theme is that time destroys all, and Southampton’s youth and beauty won’t last, so he should renew himself by marrying and begetting a child; in the last two issues of Phlit, we discussed two sonnets on this theme.
Eventually, however, the poet abandons his attempt at match-making; Southampton is determined not to marry Burghley’s granddaughter. In Sonnet 18, the poet takes a new tack. Instead of saying that time destroys all, he says that Southampton’s beauty is immortal because it is preserved in immortal poetry:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Sonnet 121 is remarkable as evidence of the Oxford Theory, and as the poet’s own justification of his life. Responding to critics of his behavior, the poet says that what others condemn, his “feeling” approves. Conceding that he has “frailties” and “sportive blood”, the poet insists that what others “count bad... I think good.” The poet says that his critics are in no position to criticize because they themselves are faulty; they are “frailer” than he, and have “false adulterate eyes.” He concludes, however, by saying that his critics are right if they maintain that evil is universal, and that “all men are bad”:
I am that I am; and they that level
Note the phrase, “I am that I am”; these words are spoken by God in the Bible.4 Oxford uses the phrase “I am that I am” in a letter to his father-in-law, Lord Burghley. I challenge Stratfordians to name another passage in English literature, from Shakespeare’s time or earlier, that uses this phrase in this way (as self-justification). Use of this phrase in both Sonnet 121 and Oxford’s letter is evidence for the Oxford Theory, evidence that the poet was Oxford.5
To quote God in this way is a sign of supreme self-confidence — the sort of self-confidence that Shakespeare displays elsewhere in his works (as when he says, in Sonnet 18, that his work will be read “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see”).
The poet’s view that evil is universal is consistent with the view of evil that we’ve taken in Phlit, and consistent with Jung’s view of evil. The poet doesn’t aim at moral perfection; rather, he accepts himself as he is. This ethical standpoint is consistent with the ethical standpoint of Hermetic thinkers like Bruno. In an earlier issue, we described Bruno’s ethics as “non-ascetic and partially Epicurean”; the same phrase could be applied to the ethics of Sonnet 121, and perhaps to Shakespeare’s ethics in general.
In an earlier issue, I began discussing Thomas Wolfe, and his first novel, Look Homeward, Angel. Now I’d like to complete that discussion of Look Homeward, and also discuss an essay by Reaver and Strozier that I regard as an important work of Wolfe criticism.6
Wolfe was a person of extraordinary passion, and a writer with an extraordinary passion for literature. When he was just 22, he wrote to his mother:
What hunger of soul! Is it surprising that Wolfe burned out at an early age? (He died at 37.) Was his hunger a result of his feeling that time was short, that he didn’t have long to live? A Wolfe website had this to say about Wolfe’s early death: “Wolfe’s frantic rush to do all, see all, and write it all down had proved tragically correct.”
Wolfe’s hunger is so ravenous that it seems destined to be unsatisfied; reality can never quite satisfy him. One critic places Wolfe in the Romantic tradition, a tradition in which life never quite satisfies one’s longings and hungers:
Was Wolfe the last romantic? The last writer who was preoccupied with the romantic Ego — the hungry Ego, the unsatisfied Ego? Wolfe was fond of the English Romantics, and his works often allude to Romantic poetry.
It is often said that Wolfe was too hungry, too passionate, too romantic: “There remains abundant proof he did not rewrite enough. Words obsess him, and rhetoric sweeps him away.”9 But Wolfe is more than a naive Romantic; he’s the most learned, the most literary, of the American writers of his generation, and his short works are often well-crafted.10 No less an authority than Faulkner said that Wolfe was the best American writer of his time.
Wolfe was capable of philosophical reflections as well as poetic flights. He was
The best Wolfe biography is probably Look Homeward: A Life of Thomas Wolfe, by David Herbert Donald, best known for his biography of Lincoln. Also of interest are Wolfe’s own autobiographical writings, such as “God’s Lonely Man” and The Story of a Novel.
Wolfe was preoccupied with the central fact of human existence — namely, death. As one critic put it, “Wolfe is the writer of our century who has written most eloquently about death — the death of Grover, the death of Ben, of old Gant; and of the overwhelming imminence of death everywhere.... Time and death were his obsessions.”12 Now I’d like to discuss the essay by Reaver and Strozier, “Thomas Wolfe and Death”, which argues that Wolfe’s attitude toward death is the key to understanding his growth as a man and an artist.
This essay traces Wolfe’s progress to maturity, from his first novel to his later novels. More specifically, it looks at how Wolfe’s protagonists deal with death, how their increasing maturity is apparent in their attitude toward death. This essay argues that Wolfe’s career displays growth — psychological, spiritual, creative. It’s an important essay, perhaps the best attempt to understand and justify Wolfe’s work.
One of the central episodes in Look Homeward, Angel is when Eugene, the protagonist, witnesses the illness and death of his older brother, Ben. Ben’s death shows how Eugene has matured, and it also helps him to mature further. Instead of feeling anger and rage at Ben’s death, Eugene “can finally think of death as a tender, lovely, power to be cherished13 ....Through the death of his brother [Eugene] came to know a deeper and darker wisdom than he had ever known before.”14
After Ben’s death, Eugene leaves his hometown and his family, and goes to Harvard; “he dies to one life hoping to be born again.”15 This journey was encouraged by Ben’s ghost, who speaks to Eugene at the end of Look Homeward, Angel, and “advises Eugene to make the voyage to a new life.... Grasping this hopeful vision, Eugene answers... ‘I have died the hundred deaths that lead to life.’”16 In his letters, Wolfe described the experience of leaving home, and his description has a Proustian flavor:
Wolfe’s words also remind one of Nietzsche, who said, “One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive.”
Eugene’s experiences closely match Wolfe’s own experiences. During World War I, the Virginia docks were busy with war-related shipping, and Wolfe was lured to the docks by the promise of high pay. His experiences there strengthened him for the challenges that lay ahead:
Reaver and Strozier reject the common view that Wolfe’s later novels are a pale imitation of Look Homeward, Angel: “The same themes persist through his last three books: the concern with death or isolation, the struggle for maturity, and the search for self-awareness and creativity. Wolfe’s later writing expands with thoroughness and depth the problems dealt with on a smaller scale in his first novel.”19
Friendships are important to Wolfe’s hero, but they don’t last forever. One by one, the protagonist’s relationships collapse, and his focus gradually shifts from individuals to mankind as a whole.
One is reminded of a Jungian idea that we’ve often discussed — namely, the idea that personal growth means detachment, independence, the withdrawing of projections.20
In his last three novels, three relationships are of particular importance to Wolfe’s protagonist:
Before going to Harvard, Eugene visits his father, who is dying in a Baltimore hospital. Eugene tries to suppress the pity that he feels for his father; Wolfe takes a dim view of pity, and regards it as a weakness to be overcome: “The pity he feels at the moment is but the garbage of emotion. It offends him. No good can come from it. Eugene wants to escape the memory of Death and Pity, which follow him like two swift horsemen.”21 Starwick, Eugene’s Harvard friend, helps Eugene to escape Death and Pity, and to become creative. Wolfe’s negative view of pity reminds one of Nietzsche, as does his positive view of life, and his avoidance of death.
Eugene’s friendship with Starwick helps him to mature and grow. Eventually, however, Eugene turns against Starwick, and decides that “Starwick is not really creative. He is a dilettante, a hyper-aesthete who talks about creativity.”22 The rise and fall of Eugene’s friendship with Starwick is a pattern that recurs in Eugene’s later relationships: “The pattern of eager acceptance, admiration amounting to worship, and disillusioned rejection established in the relationship with Starwick becomes the model for the later major friendships of Wolfe’s hero.”23
Twenty-two years ago, when I began my book of aphorisms, I wrote an aphorism that Wolfe would have understood:
Eugene calmly accepts the death of his friendship with Starwick: “Eugene is developing a stoicism in the face of death. He indulges in no lyrical outbursts or literary refrains.”24 Eugene’s break with Starwick spurs his creativity: “he leaves Paris and goes south to Tours, where he writes driven by a burning fury of mind and heart. Starwick ironically has released him from weariness and apathy. Death, as always in Wolfe’s novels, has brought life again.”25
In Wolfe’s third novel, the protagonist (now called “George Webber” instead of “Eugene Gant”) is in love with the artist/designer Esther Jack:
Wolfe describes George’s love in a more mature, objective way than he had used in his earlier novels: “Wolfe frequently presents Esther in her own right without giving George’s responses to her.” The authors speak of “abandoning poetic rhapsody for dramatic objectivity.”27
George takes a dim view of Esther’s friends in the art world: “Esther’s friends... show themselves as the death of the creative spirit.”28 George begins to break away from Esther herself: “Her world is too peopled with uncreative frauds for him to dare linger in it.... His need for creative isolation kills their love.”29
Even when a relationship is in bloom, the protagonist often has a premonition of its end:
Wolfe’s first novel was translated into German, and he had fans in Germany; he often visited Germany. On one such visit, he went to the Oktoberfest, got into a fight, and was severely injured. This experience was a turning point for Wolfe’s protagonist: “When George wakes up in a hospital with his face and head battered, the shock of physical violence jars him into the deeper discovery of self that he had been seeking.”31 Did George himself bring about this defeat, this beating, in order to achieve this “deeper discovery of self”? According to Jungians, we often unconsciously bring defeat upon ourself, in order to achieve personal growth, in order to become whole. As Shakespeare says, “To willful men, the injuries that they themselves procure must be their schoolmasters.”32 Wolfe was certainly a willful man.
In the worldview of the later Wolfe, two elements stand out:
These two elements are combined in the notion that the common man loves life:
Perhaps today’s terrorists and suicide bombers are people who “deliberately ally themselves with death.” In a recent issue of Phlit, I argued that “evil is akin to death, evil is a kind of death-instinct: ‘Evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren, weakening, destructive, a principle of death’ ....Perhaps we can turn this argument around, and say that if evil is akin to death, then good is akin to life, good embraces life.”
In the end, Wolfe’s protagonist is disappointed with individuals, but has faith in mankind as a whole:
Perhaps we should think of Wolfe as an “intuitive poet”, a mystic, a non-rational thinker. Like other mystics, Wolfe affirms not only life, but death as well:
While the mystic affirms both life and death, the rationalist-pessimist rejects both life and death, and regards both of them as meaningless, absurd.
One reason for the collapse of George’s friendship with Foxhall Edwards is that Fox (like most intellectuals) is scornful of the common man, and of America:
In the end, Wolfe’s protagonist achieves creative isolation, and also the detachment that Jung regards as the highest stage of individuation:
Reaver and Strozier argue that there is growth and development in Wolfe’s fiction:
Nietzsche, too, rejected “disillusionment and despair”. Although Wolfe’s work may show growth and development, one wishes that he had lived long enough to complete his last two novels, which had to be cobbled together by an editor, Edward Aswell.
Wolfe’s acceptance of death reminds one of a famous passage in the Bible: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”42 Perhaps Wolfe’s prose was never more poetic than in this passage: “To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.”43
Wolfe anticipated his early death: “Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I must die.... A wind is rising, and the rivers flow.”44
|1B.||Poetry Foundation back|
|1.|| For more on this proposed match, click here. back|
|2.|| Nor will you lose possession of that beauty you own back|
|3.|| To time thou grow’st = you become grafted to time and thus will last as long as time lasts (Folger Library edition) back|
|4.|| Exodus 3:14 back|
|5.|| I learned of Oxford’s letter from Hank Whittemore’s Monument (Prologue, p. 49) back|
|6.|| “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier in Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field back|
|7.|| See Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “You Can’t Go Home Again,” p. 128 and “The Rhetoric and the Agony,” p. 47. Also quoted here. back|
|8.|| Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Thomas Wolfe: Of Time and Neurosis,” by W. M. Frohock, p. 46 back|
|9.|| ibid, p. 45 back|
|10.|| Some critics consider his novels, especially his later novels, to be inferior to his shorter works: “By almost any standard, ‘The Lost Boy,’ ‘The Web of Earth,’ ‘I Have a Thing to Tell You,’ ‘A Portrait of Bascom Hawke,’ and Look Homeward, Angel are works to admire without apology.”(Thomas Wolfe, by Elizabeth Evans, ch. 1) back|
|11.|| Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Thomas Wolfe and the American Experience,” p. 151 back|
|12.|| Thomas Wolfe: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Louis D. Rubin, Jr., “Thomas Wolfe: Of Time and Neurosis,” by W. M. Frohock, pp. 42, 45 back|
|13.|| Thomas Wolfe: Three Decades of Criticism, edited by Leslie A. Field, “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 39 back|
|14.|| ibid, p. 40 back|
|15.|| ibid back|
|16.|| ibid back|
|17.|| ibid, p. 38 back|
|18.|| ibid, p. 44 back|
|19.|| ibid, p. 45 back|
|20.|| In an earlier issue, I quoted Jung: “emotional ties are very important to human beings. But they still contain projections, and it is essential to withdraw these projections in order to attain to oneself and to objectivity.” back|
|21.|| “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 46 back|
|22.|| ibid, p. 48 back|
|23.|| ibid back|
|24.|| ibid back|
|25.|| ibid back|
|26.|| ibid back|
|27.|| ibid, p. 49 back|
|28.|| ibid back|
|29.|| ibid. George’s friendship with Foxhall Edwards follows the same rise-and-fall pattern: “The last crucial friendship for George is with Foxhall Edwards.... The pattern of quick acceptance, exaggeration of value, and ultimate rejection is repeated.”(Reaver & Strozier, p. 52) back|
|30.|| ibid back|
|31.|| “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 51 back|
|32.|| King Lear, II, iv back|
|33.|| “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 51 back|
|34.|| ibid, p. 52 back|
|35.|| ibid back|
|36.|| ibid, p. 57 back|
|37.|| ibid, p. 54 back|
|38.|| ibid, p. 56 back|
|39.|| ibid, p. 55 back|
|40.|| ibid, p. 56 back|
|41.|| ibid, p. 57 back|
|42.|| John, 12:24 back|
|43.|| “Thomas Wolfe and Death,” by J. Russell Reaver and Robert I. Strozier, p. 56 back|