The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Fight


Dear Unknown Friends:

The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now. There are three places in literature which make the fight between respect and contempt clearer. These places are Sonnet 66 of Shakespeare; Baudelaire’s “O Mort, vieux capitaine”; and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.”

Certainly there are many more illustrations in literature of that fight between respect and contempt which Aesthetic Realism sees as the beginning and most important fight in every mind. Still, the three instances of literature that I have mentioned can serve richly to tell what the fight in man is. The large fight, again, in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, is between seeing the world or reality as having meaning, aesthetic order, and some friendliness, a world which one can truly like; or seeing the world as disorderly, causeless, uncaring, something one cannot truly like.

1. Sonnet 66 of Shakespeare

Sonnet 66 of Shakespeare is about love of the world. If one looks at this sonnet, it is quite clear that the love which Shakespeare does not want to leave, is a love not for the Earl of Southampton, Sir William Herbert, or even for Willie Hughes. Southampton, Herbert, and Hughes are simply too small to bear the burden of beautiful meaning the lines of the sonnet have. And the sonnet does not go along with Elizabethan social life at allnoble life or the life of a commoner. Shakespeare often makes an abstraction personal.

When Shakespeare says in the second line, telling us what he is “tir'd with”:

As, to behold desert a beggar born

the complaint does not go along with a perception of Southampton, Herbert, or Hughes. And Shakespeare tells us that he is tired of the interference with mind or the not-seeing of mind, in the ninth line:

And art made tongue-tied by authority.

He is telling of what he has seen in the historical world. And when he is tired in the twelfth line of:

And captive good attending captain ill

he is talking of large injustice and disproportion in the world of all years. The thought here is too much for Southampton, Herbert, or Hughes, or any comely physiological love.

The love that is in the last line:

Save that, to die, I leave my love alone—

is the love of a world that is truly seen; seen as a oneness of opposites, seen as reality and art at once. Elsewhere in Shakespeare—say, in Sonnet 107—a possibly true world is spoken of with love. In the sonnet mentioned, the “wide world” is given a “prophetic soul.”

Art itself, the most successful agency of anti-contempt so far, is love of the world or reality, arising from its not being seen just personally or narrowly, but in terms of all space, time, and possibility. The way Cezanne saw a common French fruit in a painting of his, or the way William Carlos Williams saw his “Red Wheelbarrow,” is the way Shakespeare is thinking of the world. That world, Shakespeare respects; for the true world is the honest seeing of the world we meet every day. That worldthe world fully seenShakespeare does not wish to leave. It is the world, too, which Hamlet is somewhat thinking of in the renowned “To be, or not to be” soliloquy.

2. Baudelaire Explains Shakespeare

That Shakespeare in Sonnet 66 was thinking of a world obviously not worthy of respect as that world is customarily understood, is made clearer by some noted lines of Baudelaire. I give the words in the French and then my translationso that what Shakespeare was thinking of is made clear by the lovely poete maudit. The poem, bibliographically, is “The Voyage, VIII”:

O Mort, vieux capitaine, il est temps! levons l’ancre!

Ce pays nous ennuie, ô Mort! Appareillons!

Si le ciel et la mer sont noirs comme de l’encre,

Nos coeurs que tu connais sont remplis de rayons!


Verse-nous ton poison pour qu’il nous réconforte!

Nous voulons, tant ce feu nous brûle le cerveau,

Plonger au fond du gouffre, Enfer ou Ciel, qu’importe?

Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

I translated Baudelaire’s poem this way in Hail, American Development:

O Death, old captain, it is time! let us lift anchor.

This land tires us, O Death. Let us be under way!

If the sky and the sea are black as ink,

Our hearts, those you know, have rays of light!


Pour us your poison so that it comfort us!

We wish, this fire burns our brain, so much,

To plunge to the bottom of the gulf,

Hell or Heaven, what does it matter?

To the bottom of the Unknown, to find Something New!

The justification of Shakespeare and the explanation of Sonnet 66 lie in the discrepancies or contradictions in “The Voyage, VIII” of Baudelaire.

First, one can get the idea that Baudelaire is voyaging to death, with death as the Old Captain in charge. But it seems from the last line:

Au fond de l’Inconnu pour trouver du nouveau!

that the voyage is not towards death at all; it is to find the unknown or the new:

To the bottom of the Unknown, to find Something New!

We can rightly gather from this line that Baudelaire, like Shakespeare, had contempt for the world as ordinarily seen. The voyage Baudelaire writes of goes for something more than death; something with the quietude of death and art’s great stir; the unknown as form.

Second, Baudelaire tells us that “nos coeurs...sont remplis de rayons,” which literally means, our hearts are full of rays of light. This, from a poète maudit, is most surprising.

Third, Baudelaire makes a one of “poison” and “comfort” in the line:

Pour us your poison so that it comfort us!

Baudelaire, then, is finding some deep relation between the evil and good of the world. In having death give us something which is like poison, but which also makes us more content, he is, through aesthetics, trying to answer the old, old question of: How are good and evil in the same world?

Consequently, the voyage of which “Death, old captain” is in charge, is, as I said, a voyage to the unknown as something ever so deeply desired by man. This unknown, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, is the true meaning of the oneness of opposites. Art affirms the unknown. In art, the unseen is stated even as it is still the unseen.

The destination of the voyage of the “old captain” is the “love” of which Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 66. One may ask: What is reality capable of, while yet it is the reality with which we are familiar? What are all the implications of fact? At what point is science at its biggest and subtlest, the point where it is exactly what art or poetry is? Is there such a thing? Shakespeare and Baudelaire say, Yes, amid the pain of earth.

Walt Whitman, in his homely American way, corroborates Shakespeare and Baudelaire in this line from “Now Finale to the Shore”:

Now Voyager depart, (much, much for thee is yet in store).

Whitman’s “in store” is Baudelaire’s “l’Inconnu” and Shakespeare’s “love.”

3. Shelley Helps

I have implied that there is a fight in the Shakespeare and Baudelaire poems between reality as seenmaking for tiredness in Shakespeare and ennui in Baudelaireand a reality that is perhaps the greatest thing with which the unconscious can be honestly busy. What the unconscious can be honestly busy with has made for religion in varying ways; and also has made for some of the greatest art. Dante, Goethe, Aeschylus (in Prometheus Bound), have both religion and aesthetics in their work.

A fight between contempt and respect is clearer in Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” than in either the sonnet of Shakespeare or “The Voyage, VIII” of Baudelaire.

Percy Bysshe Shelley expresses his contempt for the reality he customarily met, in these concluding lines of Stanza IV of “Ode to the West Wind”:

A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed

One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.

When a person has contempt for the world through seeing, as he believes, the effect of the world on himself, he looks for something beyond this contempt. Contempt is reposeful, but makes for an unease which may trouble us. No person has wholly been pleased with contempt’s victory in him. It is a shameful, disabling, though ever so cunning victory.

Therefore, as soon as Shelley has told us that a “heavy weight of hours” has chained him, he looks for help, for something else, from the West Wind. This help is in the beginning of Stanza V:

Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:

What if my leaves are falling like its own!

The West Wind, then, is Shelley’s means of dealing with both contempt for the world and contempt for himself. One reason is that the West Wind is something we can physically feel or apprehend, and yet as such it is invisible. The West Wind, then, puts together the seen and unseen. How artistic this is!

It happens that the seen, by itself, can make for frequent, daily contempt. The unseen can also make for contempt, for, after all, it is unseen. Art, among other things, is the oneness of reality seen and of reality unseen. That is why music, for many people, provides the greatest respectful moments of their lives. There is something which is clearly affecting one, and yet it seems to be the wily and reverent organization of nothing.

The three persons I have written of in this number of TRO had the fight, the great fight between respect and contempt, every day of their lives. To be born is to engage, willy-nilly and constantly, in the great fight between the seeing of the world as uncouth, unwelcome, painful; and as profound, subtle, engaging. Shakespeare could be scornful: nearly every play of his instances scorn of the world in some fetching manner. Baudelaire fought ennui in the streets and flats and galleries of Paris for many years. Shelley could say in his “Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples”:

Yet now despair itself is mild,

Even as the winds and waters are;

I could lie down like a tired child,

And weep away the life of care

Which I have borne and yet must bear.

Shakespeare could write that astonishing line, apparently about himself, later the best known poet of this world:

When, in disgrace with Fortune and men’s eyes.

And in the 1850s perhaps, Baudelaire gave himself up, almost, in these lines from “l’Ennemi.” I translate:

My youth was but a darksome storm,

Met here and there by brilliant instances of sunlight.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

O grief! O grief! Time eats up life;

And the obscure Enemy which gnaws at our heart,

With the blood that we lose, increases and becomes stronger!

We see, then, that contempt is inseparable from hopelessness. What respect is inseparable from will be studied in coming years. Respect, the true thing, has a great future.

With love,

Eli Siegel