The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The History of Feelings

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue of TRO we reprint a quite early article by Eli Siegel. It is a review, published in the New York Evening Post Literary Review in April 1926. He was 23 years old. He had won the Nation poetry prize for his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” the year before. And here, he is reviewing three anthologies of poetry and prose.

This article contains a new and great way of seeing literature and the human mind: that of Eli Siegel. And we see something of who he himself was. His tremendous scholarship and knowledge were there even then, at that early time in his life, and they would grow and grow. In the article we see that this knowledge, this scholarship, learning, erudition, were inseparable from great feeling in him, and from a down-to-earth care for immediate life.

There Is Literary Style

He speaks here, with loving discernment, about the style of various authors. And I love his writing style as he does so. In the quality of the words chosen, in the way words meet words as sound and meaning, in the rhythms of the sentences, his style has what Mr. Siegel as person had always in the years when I was honored to know him: a oneness of intellectual might and warmth, of the fullest justice and the deepest pleasure in being just. That relation of opposites, which I saw in him always and which is in all his writing, is the most beautiful thing I have ever met in any human being, past or present. And we see it here, when he was a very young man.

We are looking at the early work of one of the best literary critics. (In my opinion, he is the greatest critic.) There is a placing, in the article, of the value of very much in American literature. And—central to this review—Eli Siegel shows why those books which are anthologies are so important, and what their meaning is. That is something he is the critic to see; it has been said by no one else before or since.

I love also what he says here about the physical book: what makes a book as a thing of matter and design, beautiful.

The Criterion for Art & Life

Reading this review, I was struck by how early Mr. Siegel saw that a good poem—no matter when or where it might be written, and no matter in what style—is always the oneness of opposites. He writes here, for example, “Passion and repose, fury and quietness together;...that is the situation of mind that makes poetry.” Fifteen years later he would begin to teach Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy based on his seeing that what poetry does, what art does, is what every person is trying to do. “All beauty,” he would explain, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And, he would show in Aesthetic Realism, all our self-caused suffering arises from our not having the purpose that art has: so much pain, and also shame, arise from our using opposites in us against each other, making them fight—particularly the opposites of care for self and justice to the outside world.

The review is of a specific time. The anthologies reviewed had just appeared; and there is a sense of that year, 1926. But what Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare is true about Eli Siegel too: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” And it is true of how he writes in the article reprinted here.

We see Mr. Siegel’s excitement. He was excited by knowledge, beauty, and what mind is—as a young man, and always.

We can be quite sure that the title of the review was given by an editor, not by Mr. Siegel himself. However, the way of seeing in the review is his alone. And it is what America and humanity are looking for now.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Anthologies—the Cream of Literature

By Eli Siegel

The Library of Poetry and Song. Originally edited by William Cullen Bryant. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. $5.

American Poetry and Prose. Edited by Norman Foerster. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.

Four Centuries of Literature: English and American. Selected and edited by Allan Westcott, Charles Lee Lewis and Carl Jefferson Weber. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. $3.50.

Thousands of men and women have written in the world. They all put their feelings somehow into words and they all meant to write well. Out of these thousands of persons who have written, the snobbish and cruel ages have picked very, very few to be in any way alive today. This picking by the ages from the work of thousands of minds is one of the big things in history. It shows the make-up of man’s mind as hardly anything else does.

For it is man’s mind that makes one book or poem live through the years and kills, or just about kills, many, many others. And it is man’s mind at its truest, deepest and most intense. Those who fight on that greatest battlefield of the world, the field of literature, for the lasting mind’s love of men and women must fight fairly. Tricks don’t deceive generations and flashy stuff doesn’t go through the centuries. No men could ever “make” a classic: classics, whatever they are, come to be because they fit in with the mind of man; and if books or poems don’t, all the endeavors in the world can’t stop their dying.

Anthologies and collections of prose and poetry show how the ages work on literature. Anthologies show what the ages have let live, and in doing this they show man’s mind as a whole as to literature. This being so, anthologies may be called the repositories of man’s finest and greatest passions. They are, if anything is, important in history.

And it is meaningful and good that of late years anthologies are taking in more and more of the world. To me, some of the most beautiful and most worth-having books are several very big collections of poetry and prose. I must say that I love their big, two-columned pages, having in them the mental loves of hundreds of years. A big collection is to me a thrilling thing. “Here,” I feel, “is that which the most fastidious, harsh, and fair years have let live because of its lasting goodness.” And more and more I have found that the years are right in their choosing, and that the “masters” are in truth the masters; and that, besides, and best of all, they are more enjoyable than the others who write. And I have had a rush of passion for those called the moderns; and when I read the newspapers I don’t judge the writing in them otherwise than I would judge (so I hope) Chaucer, Ben Jonson or Emerson.

Past Literary Feelings

Collections of literature are getting, these days, better and better. There is, however, a collection of poetry which is good chiefly because it shows past literary feelings so fully and lovably. This is The Library of Poetry and Song, edited first by William Cullen Bryant in the seventies. Since then it has gone through many editions and changes. But even in its present form it has the sedate, quiet, restrained and yet beautiful feeling that the America of the 1870s may give one. Pictures of lovable old houses, with old, large, restful looking trees about these houses, are in the book, and these show in their manner how America was then and how it looked on poetry. But quietness, beautiful repose, is one of the great things of the world, and without it life is little and very incomplete. Where the poetry that Bryant wrongly welcomed is wanting, is in strength, great and newly felt passion; but passion by itself never made a good poem; it is when great passion is put together with the world as a whole, and seen fully and clearly, that poetry ensues. And when one sees passion fully and clearly he is having passion and repose, fury and quietness together; and that is the situation of mind that makes poetry. In The Library of Poetry and Song there is a great quietness, and this quietness is needed, and needed today, if at any time. Art cannot be without quietness.

I am here speaking of the general way of feeling that is shown in Bryant’s anthology. This does not mean that much of the very best in English and American poetry is not in the book. It is: what one can rightly miss is very little. But the lesser and even bad poetry in the book needs to be known. There are times when it is very good to read bad poetry. That way one can come to have a fair idea of what good poetry is; and if this bad poetry is old and has been popular once, one can use it to see what there is in it that the bad poetry of today also has. The Library of Poetry and Song is a treasury of historically valuable verse. In it can be seen how our grandfathers felt the world and felt poetry; and there is, truly, no better way to come to feel the world of today rightly than to know well how those that came before us have felt it.

Yes, this famous anthology of William Cullen Bryant can give us both light and tears, if a little laughter also. We no longer say “Poems of the Affections,” among which “affections” is “love,” and “Poems of Temperance and Labor” and “Poems of Adventure and Rural Sports”; we have not these beautifully hazy and mild expressions. But, oh! what we lose when we no longer see the beauty and goodness that are in old, rather forgotten phrases like these. Let us admire amidst our laughter, and let us love.

A book like The Library of Poetry and Song should be had by the perturbed and mentally harassed people of today. It will give to them most of the great poetry in English, and along with this will give to them poetry that is very important for what it has meant to our forefathers. The “crushed mignonette” kind of poetry is not much with us any longer; but just as the gayest ladies of Broadway think it well to get a sweet Victorian touch in their dress at times, so let us use even the worst, the most insipid and thinnest parts of the staid America of the seventies. Beauty can be served by doing this.

Neat and Rich

Bryant’s anthology is a collection of the old kind. Norman Foerster, whose work on American literature is important and very praiseworthy, has edited a beautiful collection of American writings. American Poetry and Prose is a book that makes me think of a well-kept mind: it is neat and it is rich. I think that some of the most beautiful books physically are what are called “textbooks.” I am sure that Professor Foerster’s book, as the Riverside Press of Cambridge has printed it, is much more beautiful than the novels whose physical make-up is colorful and flashy, but which, nonetheless, have an appearance of thinness, ugliness and cheapness about them. Has the common dislike of textbooks made persons unable to see how, in reality, many of them are beautiful in the greatest and finest sense? However strange it may seem, my honest feeling is that America has done best, so far, in its printing, in the making of textbooks. This is not the place to name some of the very beautiful textbooks I know, but let anyone put the ordinary American pretentiously made book, with its badly stained edges, its dumpy, clumsy sumptuousness and colorfulness, and its ugly, even if heavy, paper against the pure white and blue, the clean, neat, lovely printing, and the grace and deftness in general of American Poetry and Prose as a thing of matter.

The book itself takes in American literature from the stiff, pious, but also witty and ardent Mrs. Bradstreet, to the notably free and easy Carl Sandburg; this is for poetry. The adventurous and, it is to be supposed, too imaginative John Smith leads the prose writers, and the novelist and short-story writer Hamlin Garland, too little known among today’s young American writing ladies and gentlemen, is last. The sight of the writings in America between 1607 and 1916 is one that makes for deep feeling. What happened to America making her go from the plainness and sweetness of Longfellow to the Lord-knows-what-the-authors-don’t of today’s more or less frantic and very confused writers of verse? What a sight is here! Yet, now, there is more in common between Longfellow and Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay and John Greenleaf Whittier, than there is between Sandburg and the person of today who mistakes verbal furies for poetry, and Miss Millay and the person who, with an ordinary emotion coming from an amorous happening, so caparisons and begauds that emotion in words that what she writes looks “intense,” “picturesque” and—oh, my, yes—poetic. The bad poetry of the 1720s in America, written mostly in couplets, and the bad poetry of the 1820s, written, a good part of it, in quatrains, are like the bad poetry of the 1920s, written, it may be, in sonnet form or in turgid, ill-sounding, flashy free verse. All bad poetry is alike in showing feelings not had fully, greatly and clearly; and all good poetry is alike in being the words that had to be if the feeling had by the writer was to be given truly as it was had. In all good poetry the words come straight from the feeling; in bad poetry one goes after being poetic, and takes terminological ardors having their cause in the dictionary for true poetic feeling.

This can be seen in Professor Foerster’s book. Poe’s “Annabel Lee” is as true a poem as any in American literature. Its plainness and definiteness of statement is wonderful when seen alongside the ordinary verse of today. Poe’s poem reads like the writing of a child when put with the false profundities and needlessly complex language of most of the poems of today.

There Is the History of American Prose

And the truth that a writer to write well must give his feeling wholly as he has it, and look at his feeling and not at thesauri, dictionaries and the like, is, of course, true in prose, too. Emerson when he is greatest is simplest; Hawthorne wrote gracefully and clearly; so did Poe when he was at his more fortunate literary moments. The best rhythm in prose comes from the greatest feelings most clearly seen. Hundreds of instances of this truth may be found in American Poetry and Prose, though I think that America has been much weaker in prose than even in poetry. Only Emerson has some moments of the very greatest prose. Hawthorne, Poe and Lowell, to keep to the nineteenth century, have many instances of the next to greatest prose loveliness. However this may be, America’s prose can be seen rather fully in this very important collection. And I think the history of American prose is as important as the history of its Presidents.

In this book, it may also be said, can be found the very best poem I know of Amy Lowell, “The Book of Hours of Sister Clotilde.” It is written in rhyme and very simply, when one considers how Miss Lowell wrote later—“Clotilde” was written in 1913 or 1914. Here Miss Lowell does not huddle colors together in an ugly fashion, as she is wont to do elsewhere, and she does not mistake a steady flow of garish words for poetic feeling. This poem will be gladly remembered, I think, when her later rather frantic, confused and uncomely writing will be justly forgotten. She is one of the persons whom, on the whole, free verse has hurt. But this means that free verse is hard to write well; not that, in itself, it is bad.

Poe may be seen, in American Poetry and Prose, writing almost laughably in the most distinguished Victorian boudoir fashion, and doing so, of all places, in a critical writing—his “Poetic Principle.” Towards the end of that quite famous essay he tells of the “simple elements which induce in the poet himself the true poetical effect.” And some of these things are in Poe’s words, “the bright orbs that shine in heaven,” “chivalrous, generous and self-sacrificing deeds,” “the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth” and “the harmony of the rustling of [the] robes” of woman. So this is how Victorian the somber and very intellectual Poe can be. Yet the whole passage is, amid its high-flying language, lovely; it is laughable, yet lovely.

The Outcome of Hundreds of Years

Four Centuries of Literature: English and American, edited by Professors Westcott, Lewis and Weber, is another beautifully made collection, in this instance of both English and American literatures in one volume. And as collections do, it, too, has in its well-made pages the outcome of the literary vicissitudes and battlings of hundreds of years. This collection is not as copious as most, but it is, nonetheless, inviting in its trimness and freshness. There are in it some great things—for instance, Scott’s “Bonny Dundee”—not to be had in other collections. And since collections show the greatest work of the ages, with the ages as judge, there can hardly be too many of them. A very good thing should be had in many forms. What should one care how often one has Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” or Milton’s “Lycidas” or Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci”? Let us have the needed joy of reading these in several physical forms. Suppose beauty is repeated, where’s the harm?

These three collections show, among other things, how the world more and more is seeing itself as a whole. They all give one a feeling of wholeness, and wholeness is health and joy. The world is no longer seeing itself as a thing of disconnected parts. It is coming to have a sense of its oneness in time and place. Collections, by allowing us quickly and yet fairly to see the history of the feelings of nations and the world—for literature is that—enable us to live not by shreds and nibbles but with a feeling of the oneness of all emotions and of all experiences. That way great joy comes. And the books that these days can do most toward making one see Feeling and Life and the World as One are collections of literature like those I have written about.

From New York Evening Post Literary Review, April 10, 1926