“All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

A while ago, I observed that when T.S. Eliot, in his book of literary criticism, The Sacred Wood, says that good poetry must aim at “that perpetual slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxtaposed in new and sudden combinations” – he is echoing the aesthetic arguments of the Russian defamiliarists, in particular, Victor Shklovsky who, four years before, in 1917, had written:

“… and art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.“ 

It seems that the Romantics (first generation and second generation) were on to something similar a hundred years before. In Biographia Literaria, Coleridge writes the following about Wordsworth:

Mr. Wordsowrth… was to… give the charm of novelty to things of every day… by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us… but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

The similarity is striking not only because the same word “familiarity” is used in the same context, but the entire sense of the two paragraphs is very proximate. Both Shklovsky and Coleridge lament the moribund nature of custom that deadens and dulls our perception of the world into something; and both advocate the point of art (poetry) to be – through defamiliarisation – to reawaken this perception to its full and rich state: so that we can feel things and the stone is made stony (Shklovsky), so that the eyes, ears and heart can see, hear and feel again (Coleridge).

And today, while reading Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, I came across this paragraph:

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.”

Followed by:

[Poetry] makes us inhabitants of a world to which the familiar world is a chaos. It reproduces the common universe of which we are portions and percipients, and it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being… it creates new the universe after it has been annihilated in our minds by the recurrence of impressions blunted by reiteration. It justifies that bold and true word of Tasso – non merita nome del creator, se non Iddio el di Poeta.”

Shelley is, of course, very evidently channeling Coleridge here, and elaborating upon the basic point: familiarity suppresses beauty by casting a veil (of commonality?) over it; poetry tears down this veil and reveals beauty to us through defamiliarising the sensations and perceptions that we have come to expect and become accustomed to. He is also channeling Wordsworth himself, who in Lyrical Ballads spoke of how extraordiness can serve as an act of “reforming perception.”

The irony here, of course, is that Eliot had a famously low opinion of the romantics – and yet they both seem to have been subscribing to a broadly similar philosophy of poetry.

But I think the most striking statement of this philosophy comes neither from the romantics, nor from the modernists, but from a representative of the intervening period – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Victorian poet, famous for the sprung rhythm. In Pied Beauty, Hopkins puts it pithily – and perfectly:

All things counter, original, spare and strange…

Counter – against the grain, and therefore, unfamiliar; original – by definition, un-imitated, and therefore unfamiliar; spare – in old English – meant “scant”, or rare – and therefore, unfamiliar; strange – naturally, unfamiliar by virtue of being so. What I like best about Hopkins is that while Coleridge, Shelley, Shklovsky and Eliot all express their philosophy of sensing-beauty-through-defamiliarisation through prose, Hopkins does it through poetry – and increases the impact tenfold. It is something similar – but not identical – to Blake expressing his philosophy in a single line of pure magic:

To be an error, and to be cast out, is a part of God’s design.” 

Of course, I’d like to believe that god’s design is at least, in part, aesthetic perfection, in which case Blake would join the illustrious list cited above, but that apart – I think it’s quite fascinating how poets separated by centuries, poets belonging to very different – and in fact, diametrically opposed schools of poetry, poets who would differ fundamentally on aspects such as rhyme, metre, vocabulary, scansion – nonetheless seem to agree on the most fundamental issues of them all: at the ultimately abstract level, what is poetry for, and how must the poet fulfill his task?

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2 Comments

Filed under Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

2 responses to ““All things counter, original, spare, strange”: Poetic Philosophy through the Ages?

  1. Brian Joseph

    I think that it is a testament to the universality of certain human concepts that thinkers and artists from such diverse times and backgrounds should come to these similar conclusions.

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