The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Aesthetic Realism as Poetry

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are proud to reprint in this number of TRO Eli Siegel’s Statement with Comments, “Poetry Is the Making One of Opposites.”Aesthetic Realism as philosophy that has beautifully revolutionized people’s lives, arose from Eli Siegel’s seeing of what poetry is. He writes of the first Aesthetic Realism lessons, which took place in 1941: “Aesthetic Realism, as taught by an individual, arose from requests from people in my poetry classes who asked if they could talk to me privately. In my talks on poetry, I mentioned often the fact that what makes a good poem is like what can make a good life. This I see as still true, for poetry is a mingling of intensity and calm, emotion and logic” (TRO 316).

The explanation of poetry presented here is asked for by the whole history of literary criticism; for every important critic has had some sense that opposites matter in poetry. Alexander Pope advises eighteenth-century readers to “Praise the easy vigour of a line, / Where Denham’s strength, and Waller’s sweetness join.” William Wordsworth, defining poetry, says it is both excitement and calm: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity.” And Wordsworth’s friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in Chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria, has the most important statement before Aesthetic Realism about poetry reconciling “opposite or discordant qualities.”

Yet it is Eli Siegel alone who saw the fullness and the meaning of the opposites in poetry. He saw that poetry justifies the world itself, because poetry shows that reality’s opposites, seen truly, are musical. Eli Siegel is the critic who most has enabled people to be moved by poetry. He has enabled people to write poetry that is true. And—here we have Aesthetic Realism itself—he has enabled poetry to teach people how to live. Eli Siegel is the greatest friend to poetry, and to man.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Poetry Is the Making One of Opposites
A Statement with Comments

By Eli Siegel

I. Prologue

All poems have in them a oneness of opposites: as seen by the individual who wrote the poem. However, some opposites are more noticeable in one poem than in another. For example, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey is a oneness of meditation and excitement, or, more philosophically put, rest and motion. Yet oneness and manyness are in Tintern Abbey—as are order and freedom, continuity and discontinuity—and other opposites.

Therefore, in the following Statement and Comments, when I present a poem as instancing some opposites, it should not be presumed that the poem has only these opposites: for, indeed, it has all of them.

And I am not trying to put the opposites here in a serried arrangement. If there is some casualness, let it be so. The philosophic opposites present in poetry, while ever so orderly, are likewise as casual as thistledown or a tired little girl with a hoop.

II. Instances

1. ordinariness: strangeness. Every poem is a oneness of ordinariness and strangeness. This was talked of by Coleridge and Wordsworth as they planned the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge tells us so in his Biographia Literaria. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is perhaps the most noted exemplification of ordinariness and strangeness in our language. The Mariner is strange, and is in strange territory: and yet he talks a clear English, and he takes himself matter-of-factly or ordinarily.

2. regularity: irregularity. There is something regular in verse itself, yet all good verse has irregularity, too, or imbalance, or the unsymmetrical. What makes the lines in Pope’s Rape of the Lock effective is that in the regularity, something unexpected is found, a charming imbalance. However, in Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, we begin with uncertainty or irregularity but feel something sure or regular. Pope’s poem and Whitman’s poem begin differently but they come to have similar aesthetic possessions or attributes.

3. universality: individuality. Milton’s Paradise Lost is in a sense about the universe, but the Miltonic self is there. Milton, as self, asserted what he was even as he wrote about the beginning of earth, God, the fall of man, and, in time, the saving of man. The relation of all good and evil is what the universe is about, and Milton as one person saw fit to write about this, and apparently did it well. France, Germany, and even Russia have said that in Paradise Lost, the individuality of Milton merged well with the universe—a theological universe is still universal.

4. slowness: speed.In poetry there is a slowness which is sharpness and alacrity or speed. Words in a poem may be slow, but since more is said, and a greater height and depth are reached, there is speed, too. Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is an important instance of slowness and speed as one in poetry. The very first line:

And the first grey of morning fill’d the east

shows this. The words are slow, but so much is included in these few words—color, time, and sky—they are fast or speedy, too. Slowness and speed as one can be seen also in Blake’s

O Rose, thou art sick.

Something is said here abruptly, sharply, but with such meditativeness, depth, we can feel that the rose is told it is sick swiftly but with the slowness of unwilling, large thought.

5. permanence: momentariness. Poetry has in it the utterance of all time, while it fits the moment, while it is immediate. The russet mantle in—

But look, the morn in russet mantle clad,

Walks oer the dew of yon high eastern hill—

as told of by Horatio in Hamlet, is a russet mantle with the immediacy of garb, but we feel also that the russet mantle will never be worn out. And the morn that walks o'er the dew, while an active morn, undoubtedly present this minute, is, likewise, in the territory of the enduring.

6. sense: sound. Virgil, the Romans in general, the Greeks and Li Po were aware of these opposites—as all writers of poetry have been. “Sound must go along with what I mean”—every poet has said to himself. The oneness of sense and sound makes for a rightness that is thrillingly acceptable.

7. picture: music. This pair of opposites is of course related to Sense: Sound. Picture in poetry consists, as it does in painting, of shape and color. In Tennyson’s line, from Tithonus

And after many a summer dies the swan—

there is a shape of sound, almost like that of a swan’s neck moving. At least there is shape, and the swan is there, visually, if we so like.

In Dante’s

In la sua volontade è nostra pace

which can be put in an English iambic line this way:

Whatever peace we have is in His will

we have shape. The syllables rise and fall, widen and narrow in the line from Dante’s Paradiso. And the iambic line arising from it in English has the shape of the iambic in it, if nothing else. The shape of music is like picture.

However, color is in poetry abundantly. Color and music, dullness and motion make a one in these lines from Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:

Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead

Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.

8. oneness: manyness. A poem like all art is a composition: that is, many things, while being what they separately are, have a work in common, an impulsion in common. If the poem I have just mentioned, Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind, were not one thing as it changed, as it went to differing detail, it likely would not be studied these days in so many educational places of the world.

9. junction: separation. There must be a closeness of words in a poem, also of syllables—also of lines. The parts of a poem must be in an unchangeable, undying embrace. Yet there is separation, too. Keats’ line from his Ode on a Grecian Urn,

What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape,

has congestion in it, impediment—but there is also separation. Legend haunts call to each other as words ever so closely, but still they are different words—there is space between them.

The whole of Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is a study in crowdedness and space at once, or junction and separation.

And William Carlos Williams’ The Red Wheelbarrow is a notable instance of crowdedness of objects and the separation of wonder.

10. lightness: heaviness. In poetry, the syllables trip as they are majestic: they stamp and linger as they beckon elsewhere and seem to leave the scene. The first stanza of Thompson’s Hound of Heaven is a study in lightness and heaviness at once. If we look at the very first line of this poem:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days—

are there not lightness and ominousness here—lightness and heaviness?

11. grace: energy. Poetry is easy, but strong: it hints and affirms. The grace and energy in all poetry are exemplified in FitzGerald’s stanza from the Rubaiyat:

I sometimes think that never blows so red,

The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled;

That every Hyacinth the Garden wears

Dropt in its Lap from some once lovely Head.

Here are tentativeness of approach and sureness of manner. The rose is graceful—but then there are “buried Caesars.” Besides, the rose itself is graceful and energetic at once. Poetry tells us that the unseen asserts, and that the lightsome is persistent.

12. expansion: contraction. A poem goes out, as it is economic. Suggestion arises in a poem from concision. The oneness in poetry of expansion and contraction can, I think, be usefully seen in Sir Charles Sedley’s

Love still has something of the sea,

From whence his Mother rose.

The Restoration in English poetry was as good a time as any for inclusiveness of
meaning and brevity—that is, expansion and contraction.

13. depth: surface. The value, meaning, import of things are in poetry as there are surface, brightness, the show of things. The eighteenth-century lines with which Gray’s An Ode on the Spring begins are a little funny, I grant, yet there are depth and surface in them: a solidity, a depth is in them along with the frivolous, jolly show of things.

Lo! where the rosy-bosom'd Hours,

Fair Venus’ train appear,

Disclose the long-expecting flowers,

And wake the purple year!

Frivolity oft beckons to profundity; this is an avouchment of poetry.

14. contrivance: spontaneity. Poetry is both artifice and a cry, structure and freedom. How many poems in all languages exemplify the fact that poetry is spontaneous in art! Contrivance and spontaneity may be felt in the first lines of Poe’s Raven:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.

Poe’s poem is a careful structure arising from the spontaneously somber, the obsessively boding.

15. unknown: known. What we know and what we don’t know are present as one in poetry. What we see and don’t see, conceive and don’t conceive, understand and are uncertain of—are inextricably to be found in the beginning stanza of Shakespeare’s The Phoenix and the Turtle:

Let the bird of loudest lay,

On the sole Arabian tree,

Herald sad and trumpet be,

To whose sound chaste wings obey.

16. sameness: difference. Things are the same and different in a poem. All the technique of poetry is about sameness and difference: metaphor, image, symbol, personification—these are in “meaning technique.”And rhyme, assonance, change of accent, alliteration, syllabic recurrence, the chemistry of sound, parallelism, onomatopoeia—these are in “word technique.” Whatever the manifestation of technique in poetry, sameness and difference as one are in play.

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,

The mother of months in meadow or plain—

these lines of Swinburne are permeated with sameness and difference as one thing.

And so it is in poetry.

III. Epilogue

I trust that the instances I have given make acceptable the idea that Poetry, like Art, is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.