Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Helen Vendler's "The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar": "Stevens and Keat's 'To Autumn'"


Reading Helen Vendler’s excellent new essay collection, The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar, I encountered an old friend – her great “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn.’” I first read this piece thirty-five years ago when it appeared in her wonderful 1980 collection, Part of Nature, Part of Us. “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’” is quintessential Vendler – intensely descriptive, powerfully analytic. It’s a detailed study of the ways Wallace Stevens reworked the materials of John Keats’s ode “To Autumn.” Vendler says, “It seems, as we read Stevens, that each aspect of the autumn ode called out to him to be reinterpreted, reused, recreated into a poem.”

Comparing The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar’s “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn,’” with the version in Part of Nature, Part of Us, I notice at least a dozen changes. For example, the Part of Nature version says, “The end of ‘Sunday Morning’ is a rewritten version of the close of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’; such risk-taking in a young poet argues a deep engagement with the earlier poem.” In the Ocean, Bird and Scholar version, this is changed to “The end of ‘Sunday Morning’ is a rewritten version of the close of Keats’s ‘To Autumn’; such obvious and unashamed risk taking in a young poet argues a deep engagement with the earlier poem” (my emphasis). One alteration puzzles me. In the earlier Part of Nature version, Vendler says of Stevens,

His attempts to go “beyond” Keats in various ways – to take the human seasons further, into winter, into boreal apocalypse, into inception; to find new imagery of his own, while retaining Keats’s crickets and bees and birds and sun and fields; to create his own archaic forms in the landscape – define in their evolution Stevens’ own emerging originality. (My emphasis)

In the Ocean, Bird and Scholar version, this is changed to

His attempts to go “beyond” Keats in various ways – to take the human seasons further, into winter, into boreal apocalypse, into inception; to find new imagery of his own, while retaining Keats’s crickets and bees and birds and sun and fields; to create his own archaic forms in the landscape, defining in their evolution Stevens’ own emerging originality. (My emphasis)

In the first passage, the words within the break marked by the dashes appear to refer to (and amplify) the ways Stevens attempts to go “beyond” Keats; the verb “define” after the second dash picks up the point (interrupted by the first dash) that Stevens’s attempts to go “beyond” Keats in various ways “define in their evolution Stevens’ own emerging originality.” But the deletion of the second dash in the Ocean, Bird and Scholar version, the insertion of a comma in its place, and the conversion of “define” to “defining” seems to me to break the sentence’s logic. The words “defining in their evolution Stevens’ own emerging originality” now appear to refer only to one of the ways that Stevens attempts to go “beyond” Keats.    

Perhaps the most significant change in the Ocean, Bird and Scholar version of  “Stevens and Keats’s ‘To Autumn’” is the revision of its description of Stevens’s late poem “The Hermitage at the Centre.” In the Part of Nature version, Vendler says,

Nonetheless I close not with this last successful meditation but instead with a poem that in its own relative failure shows Stevens’ stubborn ambition, even at the expense of violent dislocation of form, to have plenitude and poverty at once, to possess Keats’s central divine figure opulently whole and surrounded by her filial forms, while at the same time asserting the necessary obsolescence of her form and of the literature about her. (My emphasis)

In the Ocean, Bird and Scholar version, this passage now reads,

Nonetheless I close not with this last successful meditation but instead with a poem that in its own interlacing of lines shows Stevens’ stubborn ambition, even at the expense of violent dislocation of form, to have plenitude and poverty at once, to possess Keats’s central divine figure opulently whole and surrounded by her filial forms, while at the same time asserting the necessary obsolescence of her form and of the literature about her. (My emphasis)

The Ocean, the Bird and the Scholar shows a master stylist tweaking one of her finest essays. I find the changes fascinating.

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