Impediment in Poetry
By Eli Siegel
Cut the heat—
plough through it,
turning it on either side
of your path.
The lines of H.D. quoted are clearly about impediment; but as lines of poetry they have impediment in them, impediment which is dealt with emancipatingly. Poetry is constantly a triumphant dealing with impediment or obstruction; in fact, the more it is poetry, the more the triumph and the impediment merge, the freedom and the hindrance coalesce, and space and weight are in true amity. How freedom and obstruction meet in lines of poetry is one of the richest technical questions in the art.
In Matthew Arnold: Interference & Liberty
I have said that impediment is in all poetry; and further, it is of the poet’s choosing because existence is impediment—impediment accompanied by the possibility of its being seen as freedom. In Matthew Arnold’s work, for example, there is an interesting junction of the most fervent desire for freedom with the most audacious, stoical awareness of impediment. This can be seen in the concluding lines of his “Philomela”:
How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!
The lines are about a “coming through,” as Henry James might have termed it—an intense coming through. Technically, likewise, impediment mingles with the breaking away, or coming through. In the line “How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!” consonants like the hard c or k and a consonantal heaviness and obstructiveness like the st in “bursts,” mingle with well-placed, emancipating, spacious vowel sounds. And certainly there are other technical aspects of the merging of interference and liberty. The meaning of the words goes along with the vowel and consonant assembling.
To Give Obstruction Its Whole Due
Arnold’s work, in English poetry, is a distinguished instance of a vision of reality as man’s subduer and possible deliverer. Arnold elegantly complained of Shelley as a willful courser of unimpeding space, but Arnold, in his way, was as much after freedom as the author of The Revolt of Islam was. Arnold just looked at freedom differently from the way Shelley did, but it was with as longing a gaze. And the author of “The Buried Life” is technically other than the author of Hellas. Arnold prefers to give obstruction its whole due before he proceeds to change the obstruction into something satisfactory, while Shelley is so quickly enamored of the liberty that he does not care to linger on the subject of bondage; he just mentions it, and away!
Arnold has an inclination to deal with the world as sluggish, obscure, languid, widely hindering. We can see this in the majestically indolent lines beginning “Sohrab and Rustum”:
And the first grey of morning fill’d the east,
And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream.
But all the Tartar camp along the stream
Was hush’d, and still the men were plunged in sleep.
The second line of the quotation—
And the fog rose out of the Oxus stream
—expresses both the difficulty and the hope in Arnold’s work. The fog has not vanished, but it is in motion. And, in Arnold, something is interfering with the unhampered functioning of man. As Arnold feels much the sadness, incompleteness, dullness of what is, there is that in his work which says, perhaps it need not be. The line I have quoted is made up almost entirely of monosyllables, and is an interesting arrangement of, among other things, vowels contradicting each other frontally—as the vowels in “rose out”—and yet assisting each other. The line has a little civil war nicely dealt with.
Hart Crane & Man’s Question
The question of the uses of impediment in poetry is of all periods, all locations. Hart Crane, like Shelley and Arnold, wanted to be free, while deeply aware of opposition to freedom. Man, according to Crane, has his own door on which he does his own pounding; he has his own net in which he does his own fluttering. And Crane was trying, as we all have to do, happily to deal with the problem of how that which may seem against us, or an impediment, can be honestly seen as emancipatory expression. In Crane’s poetry, the question, often, was beautifully answered. Crane’s and man’s question is answered in these four lines from “Garden Abstract”:
The bough has caught her breath up, and her voice,
Dumbly articulate in the slant and rise
Of branch on branch above her, blurs her eyes.
She is prisoner of the tree and its green fingers.
The person in the poem is an exuberant prisoner. Impediment has become opportunity. From a technical point of view, in the line “She is prisoner of the tree and its green fingers” there is a swaying firmness which gives one a sense of lively motion within impediment.
When impediment in poetry is not carefully, wholly, boldly, even willingly seen, there can be no successfully artistic dealing with it. The sighs must be real and entire before there can be artistic deliverance therefrom. The value of the obstruction makes for the value of the victory over the obstruction. The principles I have hinted at here are not adhered to, as I see the matter, in these lines from the once widely cherished Felicia Hemans. The lines are from her libertarian poem “Far Away”:
Far away!—my home is far away,
Where the blue sea laves a mountain shore;
In the woods I hear my brothers play,
’Midst the flowers my sister sings once more,
The emancipation is here come at too easily. Technically, there is no deep intermingling of words, syllables, alphabet sounds as heavy and light, thrusting, retreating, or just stolid. For this reason, there is more true freedom in the line of Milton given through the years as an example of the massively, gloomily obstructive in English verse. The line is from Paradise Lost, Book II—the last line in the following passage about the difficult motions of the banished, God-defying angels:
Through many a dark and dreary vale
They passed, and many a region dolorous,
O’er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp,
Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.
Forbidding matter is predominant in this last line, with its “rocks” and “bogs.” Metrically, it is rather forbidding too, or used to be. Yet it stands for a true victory over impediment. This victory is achieved in a different way from that victory over the obstructive to be seen in the last line of Shelley’s “Ozymandias” sonnet—
The lone and level sands stretch far away
—yet, essentially, there is a kinship.
As Poetry Went On
It is a well-known fact in English literary history that Anglo-Saxon poetry has seemed more metrically impeding than later poetry. This is so, for the way the ancient, noble consonants cluster in the poetry of, say, the ninth century has not seemed to be inviting to persons of later, perhaps more frivolous centuries here and there. As poetry went on, the heavy syllables had a way of changing to lighter. This is a matter of ages, really—this syllable matter—but much had happened by the time Thomas Nashe came to his neatly drunken “Spring” of 1590 or so. The words in this poem reel and shake pleasedly: they have the pleasantness of a well-timed whirl and light jump. In the second line of the poem, so naïve, so credible, there is a fixity accompanied by sweet seesawing and nimble-footed going-about:
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring.
The Elizabethans were not too fond of impediment, but when they wrote poetry, like honest artists, they recognized it adequately before they proceeded to win out over it.
Shakespeare is an encyclopedia of impediment neatly dealt with. His Hamlet is a dealing with the question, So what in the world, after all, is impediment? —As a writer of the verse line, Shakespeare knows how to present and deal with impediment with magnificent fetchingness. How beautiful resistance is in this line of the 97th sonnet:
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase.
The effect of this line is one of heaviness accompanied by emergence; and it is a most useful, abundant effect. It is like the emergence in difficulty in these lines from William Carlos Williams’ “Dawn”:
dividing the horizon, a heavy sun
lifts himself—is lifted—
bit by bit above the edge
of things,—runs free at last
out into the open—!
In the one instance we have harvest richly emerged from summer into autumn, and in the other the sun has emerged from covering dark. Yet the sense, the opulent sense, of difficulty or impediment is to be felt in both instances of expression.
Shakespeare has made impediment much less of a foe to man than it may appear to man’s uncertain mind. His work is a great recognition of impediment, and a great changing of it to beauty. Impediment teased him: we can feel this in these lines from “A Lover’s Complaint”:
When thou wilt inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
And there is always Sonnet 116, with its “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” The sonnet is not about love only; it is likewise about poetry. Perhaps as mighty as any instance of the awareness and putting into form of impediment is in the great phrase “The rest is silence” (Hamlet 5.2). Here the universe is both burden and freedom.
Technically, the problem of impediment went on from Elizabethan times, whatever the phraseology used or not used. Pope, perhaps, dealt more roundly and clearly, or consciously, than any writer before him with the matter of impediment in verse when, in 1709, he wrote his Essay on Criticism. Here are the historically and otherwise relevant lines:
When Ajax strives, some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labours, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er th’ unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus’ various lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
Pope does not write of impediment just so; yet we can feel in his lines the awareness of impediment as a matter of technique. That lines could be labored or graceful was surely felt by the Greeks and Romans; but Pope, I feel, is writing of something more. And in the words about “Timotheus’ various lays,” there is an intimation that opposing states of mind could help each other. Pope was a keen student of words as impeding and freeing at the same time, and his works, still with us vividly, show it.
In All Languages
The poetic question is the same, fundamentally, in all languages. German is more impeding than French; and sometimes Italian seems freer than French; and Dutch can sound more obstructive than a poem of Heine’s anyway; and a Danish lyric might scare a sweet-spoken Georgia girl—but putting aside all this linguistic ethnology, poetry everywhere is asking pretty much the same thing. French, for example, may be a “soft language,” but Hugo is more fluent than d’Aubigné; Lamartine seems so sweet, and, at times, too unobstructed; and Valéry is more graceful, or less impeded, in some ways than Corneille. The French poet, however, who perhaps most richly presents the problem of impediment in all ways is Baudelaire. He seems to be nearly always beautifully choked. Sometimes he musically pants, nobly stutters, as in the famous last line of the “Préface”:
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!¹
The sounds go up and down, gaspingly, but it all comes out well. Like a canoe well-managed by an Indian on boiling waters, the line reaches its destination.
There are many, many lines in Baudelaire where the impediment is both ethical and technical:
—Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon coeur et mon corps sans dégoût!²
These are the last lines from “Un Voyage à Cythère.” Then there is this stertorous line from “Duellum”:
—O fureur des coeurs mûrs par l’amour ulcérés!³
Here there are an angry rush and an angry collision of rs.
To Baudelaire, the devil was both impediment and refuge; reality was both grand and gagging. A rich study of impediment in poetry could be made from Baudelaire alone, and I think the quality, the fineness, of Baudelaire’s work would come out of it a little more clearly and closely.
Meanwhile, in poetry everywhere it happens: impediment in the poetic lines, impediment in the poem as a whole, is also freedom, joy, art. Therefore we must hail impediment.