THE first half of the seventeenth century is, perhaps, the period in which the method of seeking for meaning through the study of patterns of imagery and the axiom that we must attempt to think as men of a writer's age thought have been most generally and pertinaciously applied. Interpretation and explication, the discovery of underlying significances and profounder meanings, have claimed and received support from the obvious facts that allegorical writing persisted through the period, masques and pageants filled with allegorical and symbolic persons were popular, and there was delight in emblems and all kinds of insignia. It has also been asserted that men of this age, when they read what was to them the book of books, were still alert to the presence in it of hidden spiritual senses.
The audiences which watched the plays of Shakespeare and his successors, or at least the more serious members of them, were, we are told, accustomed to seeing the 'spirit in the letter' everywhere. Since the pattern of the old moral plays can be seen to correspond to the dramatic pattern created by the relations of Prince Hal to Falstaff and to the King, it may be assumed that the audience would recognize behind the drama of individuals an abiding conflict which they had often witnessed in simple moral form. They would thus be guarded against any sentimental sympathy with that grey-haired old Iniquity, Falstaff, who is a particular embodiment of the familiar figure of Riot misleading Youth. If we wish to understand the 'historical sense' of the play, that is the sense it had for the author who wrote it and the audience who first saw it, we must see its 'moral sense', and not allow ourselves to be seduced by any anachronistic sympathy for Falstafl: This particular application of the general theory has had a markedly debilitating effect on some recent productions of the first part of Henry IV, in which Falstaff has seemed so oppressed by awareness that he is temptation incarnate that he has had hardly the spirit to present any serious temptation.
As well as to moral senses it has been suggested that we should be alert to the presence of mystical ones, since typology was a familiar conception. Men were accustomed to seeing in Noah, the saviour of the remnant of mankind, or in Moses, the leader of Israel out of captivity, or in Joseph, the redeemer of the brethren who sold him, types and figures of Christ the Saviour of men. Would they not naturally then be aware, in watching dramas of human wills and passions, of a reflection, within the particular destinies shown, of the one great drama of human redemption? Thus we have been asked to see the mysteries of grace moving behind the human relation of Cordelia to the father who wronged her, and to recognize in the mysterious activities of the Duke in Measure for Measure an image of the Providence which while testing men brings good out of evil, and even in his marriage to Isabella the votaress a symbol of the mystic marriage of Christ and the soul. Prospero has long been allegorized as the poet, master of the creatures of his imagination. He appears more often now as a shadow of the Creator and divine stage-manager. The restorations to life, and recoveries of what was thought lost, in the last plays are discussed as images and symbols recalling those appearances in the flesh which apparently in its original form St. Mark's Gospel did not record.
The study of Shakespeare the poet, or of Shakespeare's imagination as revealed through the patterns of recurrent imagery in his plays, led at first either to the discovery of archetypal images, which related the plays to primitive myths and rituals, or to the discovery in them of symbols of the conflicts of the individual psyche in its attempts to come to terms with its environment. Critics who thus discovered myths, or archetypal images, or interpreted the plays in terms of Freudian psychology, were not, of course, unduly concerned if it was pointed out to them that their interpretation left out of account, or even conflicted with, important aspects of the play so interpreted. Thus Freud's interpretation of King Lear, as taken up by George Orwell, appears to ignore the moral feeling of the play by finding its truth in statements which Goneril and Regan would approve: they are great believers in the necessity of renunciation by the old. But interpreters of this kind are not claiming to be arriving at an 'historical sense'. Their concern is to get at something rather different: the source of the work's continuing power over men's imaginations, the truth of all time which lies within it. They treat the plays as Simone Weil treated the old story of Noah drunk; or, in Dr. Farrer's words, they study 'the play of the secondary images' in order to come at the great, perennially significant images which lie behind them. These great images vary according to the interpreter's own system of thought; but such interpretations usually end by resolving all the conflicts within a play into the conflict of various antinomies: 'Storm and Calm', or 'Light and Darkness, or 'Order and Chaos', or 'Death and Birth', or 'Youth and Age'.
Increasingly in recent years the great images have come to be images taken from the Christian myth of man's Fall and Restoration, and significance has been found in such concepts as Providence or Grace, and in a stress on the theological virtues. This is partly, I think, in reaction against the tendency of the great images to turn all too quickly into the great abstractions. To find the Garden of Eden behind a play is, at least, to find poetry behind poetry. Even more, it is because the more scholarly critics have been alarmed at the uncontrolled subjectivism of interpretation by patterns of images, and have wished to find external warrant for the search for patterns and confirmation of the patterns found. The habits of mind of the age have therefore been appealed to, particularly the persistence of the conception of the hidden senses of scripture, as a justification for the search for hidden meanings and as validating the meanings arrived at. More important is an obvious change in the general intellectual temper during the last two decades. There is a widespread recognition today, and this was by no means the case thirty years ago, that the story of man's Fall and his redemption through Christ is, at the very least, a myth of unique beauty and spiritual significance, and that the intellectual systems which have through the centuries been built into that story demand, at the very least, intellectual respect. It is by no means only Christians, who might be thought to have a special interest in claiming that the imagination of Shakespeare was a 'Christian imagination', who have come to these conclusions, and discovered through their study of Shakespeare the poet somebody not unlike Shakespeare the theologian.
As well as being used to justify symbolic interpretations of Shakespeare's plays, the habit of seeing the spirit in the letter is invoked to explain the superlative excellence of the poetry of the age of Shakespeare and the age of Milton. The loss of this habit is pointed to as one of the accompaniments, or even as a main cause, of an impoverishment of poetry in the age of Dryden and subsequently. Few people now hold in its rigour the extreme doctrine that the main stream of English poetry virtually dried up, except for a few trickles and isolated standing-pools, between the decline of the metaphysicals and the appearance of the modern symbolist movement in the poetry of Yeats and Eliot. But many who would not subscribe to this view and would reject strongly the view which went with it, that Milton was a corrupter of the true English poetic tradition, assert that something was lost in the mid-seventeenth century which we are learning, through the poets of our own day, and the efforts of the interpretative critics, to recover. It is argued that we must revive within ourselves the capacity to recognize hidden senses, and learn to read these hieroglyphs and forgotten symbols if we are to read the poets of this period with a full imaginative sympathy and be aware of the meanings which the author would have expected his readers to be sensible of and to respond to. He, like his readers, was a child of his age and we must learn its way of thought. Since a play or a poem is a structure of meaning conveyed through its images in their pattern, our first step towards making it meaningful to us is to be aware of the meaningfulness of the images to men of its own day. We can then, if the Christian images are not in themselves meaningful to us, see them as reflections of the great archetypal images of ancient myth.
Methods of literary criticism develop through dissatisfaction with older methods. The method of close analysis of the work through the study of its images developed from dissatisfaction with a criticism which seemed to be always discussing something other than the work: its sources, or the author's life, or social and political history as reflected in it, or whatever the work inspired the critic to muse about, whether human life in general or the previous or future history of the persons in a play. The combination of this method with a close reference to the climate of opinion or world picture of the age, as twin keys by which to arrive at a true meaning, arose from dissatisfaction at irresponsibility of interpretation and the fact that such conflicting interpretations were being arrived at. This method seems now to have come to the point where its deficiencies are becoming more obvious than its merits. The keys which have been cut and shaped with such care certainly open a door; but the door only seems to lead into another room with a door which is locked, and the lock on that door the keys do not fit. And the room we have got into is plainly not the heart of the building, but only another antechamber. Patterns have been found in plenty and meanings are being pointed to everywhere; but the true meaning of the work — its supreme value when we reread it, or when we go to see it acted, or when the memory of it comes back to us — seems less illuminated than obscured by the interpreter's efforts.
'The true use of interpretation', said Jowett, 'is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in the company of the author.'
It is impossible not to feel after reading much modern interpretative criticism that the author and his work have disappeared and that it is the interpreter's insistent company which we are left alone with.
The method has also led to odd results at which common sense revolts. The concentration on the working of the imagination in its power to perceive analogies and correspondences, and the allied concentration on the 'world picture' of the early seventeenth century, have led to the equation of things which are very different but which we are told we must regard as fundamentally the same. The desire of critics to examine the work as it stands, by a close study of its language and imagery, and the work of the historians of ideas, attempting to give the work an imaginative frame in the world picture of its day, have had the result of depriving particular works of their particularity, and of reducing the rich variety of one of the most richly various periods in our, or any other, literature to a kind of shadow play, hardly worthy the attention of the profounder critic who seeks for hidden meanings and underlying habits of mind.
Our own preoccupation with myth, metaphor, allegory, and symbol as related methods of expressing the imagination's sense of the unity of its experience has led to a concentration on the 'spiritual senses' of works which has made the literal sense something to be brushed aside as soon as possible. It is claimed that in so doing we are finding the true historical sense, since this was a continuing habit of mind which endured from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance into the seven-teenth century and, to our impoverishment, was lost when at the close of the century the old 'medieval world picture' was replaced by the modern scientific one. This view, which is here stated in its crudest form, might be called, with no impoliteness intended, the myth behind much modern criticism of the poetry of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. It embodies, as do all strongly held myths, some elements of truth; but it tells us more, I think, about those who framed it and hold it than about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and reflects the preoccupations of the critic more than those of the author. It has led to the discovery of 'philosophical patterns' in Shakespeare's plays and the discovery of theological significances in the conduct of his plots and the shaping of his characters. It has led also to the equally surprising discovery that
'metaphysical wit and concord of unlikes in an image are precisely the operation much condensed of the old and (maligned) allegorical way of writing';
and to finding that the imaginative power of The Temple lies less in its
'picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my Soul',
which Herbert, according to Walton, thought to be its main concern, than in Herbert's use of typology. In her epoch-making study of Spenser's Faerie Queene in 1934 Dr. Janet Spens insisted that we must not try to read Spenser as if he were Shakespeare, and that to treat his 'characters' as if they were characters in a play was to miss Spenser's whole significance. The opposite caveat seems called for today. It seems also necessary to reassert that metaphysical poetry is witty poetry, and condensation, although an element in all wit, will not alone give the effect of wit; and that Herbert's significance as a poet does not lie in what he shares with Quarles.
The unhistorical nature of this whole approach, in spite of its insistence that we must not read our own ideas into the past, lies in its lack of interest in anything but ideas, its ignoring of events and circumstances, and its consequent reduction of individual writers, who are historical persons, to habits of mind, and of works of art, which are historical objects, to exempla of these habits of mind and repositories of ideas. For all its respect for the past it is, in fact, contemptuous of it. It substitutes for historical reality a kind of Golden Age of the Mind, when the difficulties which we feel as historical beings were not felt, when faith was easy, and man, knowing his place in an ordered system of things, happily saw correspondences everywhere, only slightly disturbed by the possibility that the universe might not be geocentric. Four hundred years hence it might as well be said that men of the twentieth century were no longer haunted by the terrors that afflicted Johnson and men of his age, because the general acceptance of psychoanalytical theory, which the critic had demonstrated as present in work after work of literature, had, by providing an explanation of mental disturbances, shown the way to solve them. Whether we regard a past age as presenting us with awful warnings, or whether we regard it as giving us an example to be followed, and it is this latter and subtler form of patronage which the early seventeenth century has had on the whole to endure, we are emptying it of its own historical reality. It was to those who lived in it full of agonies, uncertainties, and conflicts and seemed, as every age does, a time of crisis, chance and change, as well as a time of confidence, advance and new knowledge. It was also, as are all ages, a time when everybody did not think alike.
Against this view that the power to see 'the spirit in the letter' is the secret of the greatness of the greatest period in English literature, it would be equally possible — I think myself it would be truer — to claim that the growing sense from the twelfth century onwards of the importance of the letter and of the spiritual nourishment to be drawn from it was at the root of the greatness of much late medieval art, and that the insistence of Protestantism on the reading of the whole Bible, and on the primacy of the literal sense of the Scriptures is not unconnected with the flowering of our literature in the reign of Elizabeth. But I do not wish to set up one partial view against another and this is a subject too huge to embark on here. I would merely say that a study of how particular minds grappled with the problems of the interpretation of Scripture, bringing to bear on it what knowledge they had, is destructive of the notion that to men of this period, as Professor Willey has written,
'every statement in Scripture, whether narrative, psalm, prophecy, parable, vision or exhortation, had a "spiritual" meaning; that is to say, it was pointing, through its literal "sense", to a "Truth" beyond sense'.
My reading of the sermons and other prose works of Donne, and my attempts to follow him into the commentaries which he used, have brought me to the opposite conclusion.
Compared with other preachers of his Church and age, and certainly with those of the age preceding, Donne makes a great deal of reference to the mystical senses. It would be possible to amass a formidable number of quotations, and on their evidence argue, in all good faith, that Donne held the view which Professor Willey puts forward as the view of the age, and valued the mystical sense as the sweet kernel hidden in the husk of the literal. Such a view, however impressively supported by quotation, would, I believe, be false. Donne's prime concern is always to establish the literal sense of his text, which he defines more than once as 'the principal intention of the Holy Ghost in that place'. He has profited by the long struggles of the exegetes of the Middle Ages to distinguish the problem presented to the interpreter of Scripture by its figurative nature, from the problem of whether it has different senses. Like St. Thomas, he includes in the literal sense the figurative, metaphorical, and parabolic. Thus he declares that in the first book of Scripture, Genesis, it is dangerous to depart from the letter, since we have no other means but this book to tell us how the world began; but in the last book, Revelation, 'there is danger in adhering too close to the letter':
The literal sense is alwayes to be preserved; but the literal sense is not alwayes to be discerned: for the literal sense is not alwayes that, which the very Letter and Grammar of the place presents, as where it is literally said, That Christ is a Vine, and literally, That his flesh is bread, and literally, That the new Jerusalem is thus situated, thus built, thus furnished: But the literal sense of every place, is the principall intention of the Holy Ghost, in that place: And his principall intention in many places, is to expresse things by allegories; by figures; so that in many places of Scripture, a figurative sense is the literal sense. — Sermons, edited Potter and Simpson, vol. vi (1953), p. 62.
He is aware that in interpreting the figurative passages and expressions of Scripture different expositors have arrived at varying interpretations which he often spends some time in weighing. The test by which they are weighed and one preferred to another is 'the analogy of Scripture'. But what the author primarily intended is always his first concern and very often he is content to rest there. His own interpreters might well take a hint from his comment on Pico's famous exegesis of the first words of Genesis:
Since this was directly and only purposed by Moses; to put him in a winepresse, and squeeze out Philosophy and particular Christianitie, is a degree of that injustice, which all laws forbid, to torture a man, sine indiciis aut sine probationibus. — Essays in Divinity, edited Simpson (19 51), p. 15.
In agreement with that statement of Aquinas which Gore read with a sigh of relief, that
"nothing necessary to faith is contained under the spiritual sense of Scripture, which Scripture does not somewhere deliver manifestly through the literal sense', he asserts again and again, in different ways: 'It is the Text that saves us'. "
The interlineary glosses, and the marginal notes, and the variae lectiones, controversies and perplexities, undo us: the Will, the Testament of God, enriches us; the Schedules, the Codicils of men, begger us.... That book is not written in Balthazars character, in a Mene, Tekel, Upharsim, that we must call in Astrologers, and Caldeans, and Soothsayers, to interpret it. .— XXVI Sermons (1660), p. 47.
There is an interesting discussion in a sermon preached on Christmas Day 1621 on the text 'He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness to that Light'. Donne considers the various uses of the word 'Light' in the prologue to St. John's Gospel. He objects to
'wresting in divers senses into a word, which needs but one, and is of it selfe cleare enough'
and calls to witness other places in Scripture. He asserts that light is always used either in its natural sense, or, if figuratively, of God or Christ, and in no other ways. He therefore rejects the interpretation of some Fathers and of some of the 'Schooles' which would take 'Light' in the fourth verse as 'natural reason'. He sums up:
Though it be ever lawfull, and often times very usefull, for the raising and exaltation of our devotion, and to present the plenty, and abundance of the holy Ghost in the Scriptures ... to induce the diverse senses that the Scriptures doe admit, yet this may not be admitted, if there may be danger thereby, to neglect or weaken the literall sense it selfe. For there is no necessity of that spirituall wantonnesse of finding more than necessary senses; for, the more lights there are, the more shadows are also cast by those many lights ... so when you have the necessary sense, that is the meaning of the holy Ghost in that place, you have senses enow, and not till then, though you have never so many, and never so delightfull. .— Fifty Sermons (1649), p. 322.
When Donne turns to what he calls in the Essays in Divinity'the heart and inward Mine, the Mystick and refined sense', it is usually to the great classic types that he turns, primarily to the deliverance from Egypt, and also to the Psalms (whose Davidic authorship he, of course, assumes) as mystically interpreted of Christ. Even so, it is from David the historical King that he begins.
'All these things are literally spoken of David; By application of us; and by figure of Christ.'
He made these three senses the basis of the plan of exposition for a set of six sermons on Psalm xxxviiii, preached at Lincoln's Inn, and dated by his editors in 1618. They are early sermons. He does not usually in later life follow so rigid a plan. But it is notable that even here, where the plan of the sermon is based on the three senses, the exegesis of the literal sense and its application to us takes up far more space than the development of the mystical interpretation.
Donne's sermons provide more than one example of what can be described as interpretative literary criticism. An interesting one is provided by his discussion of a famous passage which had been interpreted allegorically by Philo and mystically by many Fathers, the appearance of three men to Abraham as he sat by the door of his tent in the plain of Mamre. The problem Donne considers is who were the three men. Were they
'three men, or three Angels, or two Angels and the third, to whom Abraham spoke, Christ, or was the appearance of these three a revelation of the Trinity?'
First of all he distinguishes between Abraham's apprehension and Moses' relation. Moses said: 'The Lord appeared to Abraham', and therefore Moses intended us to understand that they were not ordinary men. But Moses also says that when Abraham lifted up his eyes he saw three men. We know that they were angels from the comment made on the episode in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but to Abraham they were simply men whom he entertained hospitably, and so he is here a pattern of hospitality to us. We too may 'entertain angels unawares' if we entertain strangers. On this point, following the Epistle to the Hebrews, Donne enlarges at great length. But was one of these angels Christ? This has been argued from Abraham's use of the term Lord, and his addressing the three in the singular. By comparison with other passages of the Scriptures Donne denies this and adds:
'When the Scriptures may be interpreted, and Gods actions well understood, by an ordinary way, it is never necessary, seldome safe to induce an extraordinary.'
God often proceeded with his servants by angels, it is not clear that he ever did so by his Son. It is safer not to admit the notion here. So he comes to the last question: whether, in these three messengers or angels, whom Abraham addressed in the singular, we are to understand an intimation to him of the Trinity. He turns to Luther, and behind Luther to Augustine's Figura nihil probat, to which Aquinas also had referred. There is no proof of the Trinity here; but to those who believe there is a reminder of the Trinity:
'It is an awakening of that former knowledge which we had of the Trinity, to heare that our onely God thus manifested himselfe to Abraham in three Persons: He thinks the Church of England right to appoint this as a lesson for Trinity Sunday. We can legitimately 'exercise our own devotions' with these 'similitudinary, and comparative reasons'. ( LXXX Sermons (1640), pp. 412-417.)
A study of how Donne handles this and similar passages in Scripture has some bearing on our reading of Donne's poetry. The clear distinction he draws between the literal and historical sense, the 'principall intention', which is fundamental, and the similitudes and comparisons which we can, but need not, use to exalt devotion and illuminate faith; the awareness of the necessarily figurative and metaphorical nature of the language of Scripture, which is included in the literal sense, and of the 'secondary and dependent' nature of all 'allegorick and typick' notions, throws a light on his use of similitudes and comparisons in the conceit, which is not at all the same thing as his use of metaphor. The essence of the conceit, and the element which makes it witty, is that it appears to be arbitrary and a matter of intellectual choice. The poet appears to be saying:
'Now I will show you what I mean, by a comparison or analogy. Take such and such a phenomenon for the purposes of argument, and let me use it to show you what I really mean.'
Thus the similitude between parted lovers and the separated feet of a compass is valued for its metaphorical final statement of a personal relation:
Thy firmness makes my circle just
And makes me end where I begun.
And the fact that kings who put on taxes in time of war do not remove them when peace comes leads to the beautiful metaphorical statement:
No winter shall abate the spring's increase.
Mr. Eliot spoke long ago of the blend of 'levity and seriousness' in metaphysical poetry. This remains a brilliant brief description of its peculiar effect. We are avoiding its true seriousness and finding seriousness in its levity, if we concentrate upon the imagination's power to perceive analogies and neglect its primary power to apprehend and express what touches the mind and heart. Where this is lacking metaphysical poetry is tedious trifling, or, to use the language of its own age, the mere 'itch of wit'.
Typology similarly degenerates into a mere game, without the sense of the actuality and importance of events and individual experience. It differed fundamentally from allegory in having its roots in belief in the historical actuality of both the type and its realization. Typologically, Paradise was not a timeless Golden Age which might return again. It was a historical Garden, whose location could be discussed, in which was figured the Church we enter at baptism, or the Heaven which is the abode of the saints after death. The three terms were not reversible. Christ is not Moses or Elijah returned to earth: Moses and Elijah are not Christ. The conception of the irreversibility of historical events, or non-recurrence, which is behind the typology of the Old Testament, implies a doctrine of progress. There is a 'divine far-off event to which the whole creation moves'. New Testament typology differs radically from this in its assertion that the event has occurred, that the beginning and end of history are within history. This plainly modifies the Hebrew conception of progress and makes possible the fruitful if uneasy marriage between Hebrew historicism and Greek philosophy of which Christian theology is the child.
When Philo allegorized the Old Testament to make its truths acceptable to the intelligent of his day, he was doing something different from what the Prophets of his race had done when they described the coming redemption of Israel in terms of the exodus from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the entry into Canaan over Jordan. The Alexandrian Fathers, who followed Philo in finding moral allegories of the soul and the body, or of reason and the passions, everywhere, and who extended the typological or mystical sense to cover every text of Scripture, were departing from the Hebrew conception of history as the field of God's judgements and deliverances towards the other conception of history as a kind of pageant symbolic of eternal verities. Deeply attractive to the intellect and to some imaginations as this conception of the unreality of the particular is, it leaves unsatisfied the heart, which reflecting on its own experience knows that it has itself a history:
But the heart makes reply:
This is only what the eye
From its tower on the turning field
Sees and sees and cannot tell why,
Quarterings on the turning shield,
The great non-stop heraldic show.
And the heart and mind know,
What has been can never return,
What is not will surely be
In the changed unchanging reign,
Else the Actor on the Tree
Would loll at ease, miming pain,
And counterfeit mortality.' .— Edwin Muir, 'The Recurrence', Collected Poems (1952), p. 73.
The Christian allegorizers went as far as they could to make tolerable to the educated of their day the sacred books of the Hebrews, which contained many episodes and many injunctions which seemed shocking to decency and to rational morality. The allegorical method, as has often been said, 'saved the Scriptures for the Church'; but the reason why the Scriptures had to be preserved was that it was believed that they contained the revelation of significant acts of God in history. This is, and always will be, the great stumbling-block to the Greek in us, the necessity of accepting an historical revelation.
For all its extravagances typology could never reduce its types wholly to symbols. Their symbolic value rested on their actuality. The tracing of continuing motifs in art is a fascinating study, but we must not forget when we follow Noah drunk from Venice to Florence and to Rome, come home and find him in Salisbury Chapter House, and in the West window at York, and in the Holkham Picture Bible, as the type of Christ rejected by his own people, that there were other ways of regarding Noah which were current and which were just as valid. The Great Gloss contains a good deal more than the mystical sense which is what most people go to it for today. Here it records, under the name of Alcuin, a very rational excuse for Noah's lapse from sobriety. He did not realize that wine was intoxicating, suggests Alcuin, for there is no mention in the Bible of the cultivation of the vine before the Flood. Alcuin refers his readers to Jerome; it was also the comment of Chrysostom, the greatest of the doctors of the school of Antioch, which concentrated on the exegesis of the literal sense. I quote Alcuin because he is in the Gloss, and so has as good a right to be cited as representing a standard medieval view as Augustine. This conception of Noah as victim of his own inventiveness accounts for the presence of Noah drunk on Giotto's campanile, among other benefactors of the human race. He was the discoverer of the wine which makes man's heart glad.
In the sixteenth century Calvin and Luther took the same view of the episode which Donne takes when he quotes Noah's drunkenness and Lot's incest as examples of the fact that
'the vices and sins of great persons are not smothered by Scripture'.
Bishop Hall speaks in the same way: he is distressed by Noah's lapse but excuses it on the ground that it only happened once. In case it should be thought that this is mere Protestant literalism, blind to the poetry of the Scriptures which Catholicism still responded to, I can call from the Catholic side the Dutch Jesuit, Cornelius à Lapide, Donne's exact contemporary and the most voluminous commentator of the age. He refutes Luther and Calvin's severity towards Noah's inebriety, but not by turning from the literal sense of the story to a mystical sense. He merely quotes Chrysostom at them: Noah's lapse should not be regarded as sin, since it was due not to intemperance but to inexperience. Two and a half columns of his huge folio commentary on Genesis are given up to discussing this episode. They are almost wholly concerned with the historical sense and with references to the vice of drunkenness in antiquity and the Bible. At the close he comes to the tropological sense which he takes from Ambrose and Gregory. The story shows the impropriety of drawing attention to the misdemeanours of our spiritual parents, that is, ecclesiastics. In four lines at the close he just mentions the mystical sense from Augustine. I cannot think, in spite of its persistence in art, that the story of the drunkenness of Noah had very much spiritual significance to either Catholic or Protestant in the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and no amount of illustrations in early Bibles will convince me to the contrary.
The mystical sense did not arise here from a sense that this was an historic turning-point in which the act of God could be seen, pointing to other greater acts to come. It arose from the desire to extend a type, in this case the Ark, and the desire to protect the moral reputation of the patriarchs. Both desires abated during the course of the Middle Ages. But even if we take the Ark itself as one of the fundamental figures in Christian typology, the type within the New Testament of our salvation by baptism, and recognize that the octagonal form of early baptisteries and fonts typifies the eight saved from the deluge, such conceptions are very remote from those deeply characteristic products of the later medieval imagination, the plays on Noah and his family. Obvious as this remark is, it is becoming necessary to insist that there are far more kinds of poetry in the Middle Ages than the poetry of Christian symbolism and courtly allegory. The imaginations of the writers of the Noah plays were just as much ' Christian imaginations' as was the imagination of the sculptor who carved the figurative Noah on the Doge's Palace. Their imaginations played over the literal and historical sense, seeing Noah as a man called by God to save the human race, a good craftsman, husband, and father. Looking at him in this way they were able to see him as comic, as well as holy and devout. Neither comedy nor tragedy can exist if the individual is only valued as illustrative of the general. It has been said that the Middle Ages lacked two essentials for a sound exegesis: 'une science philologique et surtout le sens historique'. But medieval literature and art testify everywhere to the response of the human imagination to historical reality. There is continuity here, as well as in the survival of allegory. There is also a rich development.
In the field of seventeenth-century studies conceptions as to what was the ' climate of opinion' or ' world picture' have not provided an adequate check upon the essential subjectivity of the search for meaning through the patterns of imagery. The conception of what the climate of an age was is equally at the mercy of a critic's own predilections. Just as patterns can be found when we look for them, so it is only too easy to build up, from a selection of current ideas and theories, schemes of thought, systems of ideas and, still more hazardous, habits of mind. It is inevitable and necessary that we should form such conceptions about historical periods, as we do about the temper of mind of our own times. We know from experience how such conceptions crumble when we talk with someone whom we had thought of as representing a particular modern attitude. Both a study of the patterns of images, and their part in the structure of a poem, and the knowledge of ideas, theories, and beliefs current in a period are of great value as tools in an interpreter's hands; but only if too much reliance is not placed on them. They cannot be more than auxiliary in leading us to the true ' meaning' of the work, which is the meaning which enlarges our own imaginative life. This is something we are aware of as present in the work before we attempt to analyse it, and as subsisting in the work after our analysis is made. The notion that this meaning can be arrived at by analysis is too ambitious. Literary criticism must begin by acknowledging its limitations. It can only give us approaches to the meaning, and an approach will be valuable in so far as the critic who employs it is aware of, and sensitive to; the value of other approaches. The analytic critic must be prepared to admit that description must often take over when analysis fails. All critics should acknowledge that the provision of information, analysis, and description can defeat the interpreter's true end, if he does not realize that, after a certain point, silence may well be the best service he can render his author and his reader. One obvious defect of the concentration on the approach to meaning through form and pattern is blindness to the notion that meaning also inheres in style. It is not perhaps irrelevant to note here that there is some truth in the constant complaint that many distinguished, subtle, and perceptive modern critics themselves write with little personal distinction of style. The approach to meaning through form alone, the belief that 'in literature as in other arts meaning inheres in form' was commented on by D. H. Lawrence, writing of Thomas Mann, as
'the outcome not of artistic conscience, but of a certain attitude to life. For Form is not a personal thing like style. It is impersonal like logic.. . .'Nothing outside the definite line of the book' is a maxim. But can the human mind fix absolutely the definite line of a book, any more than it can fix absolutely any definite line of action for a living being?'.—Selected Literary Criticism, edited A. Beal (1955), p. 260.
Lawrence was speaking of artists, not of critics, and comparing writers such as Mann, who
'has never given himself to anything but his art' with 'other artists, the more human, like Shakespeare and Goethe, who must give themselves to life as well as to art'.
His comment can be applied equally to a critical concentration on what is called ' the logic of the imagination': it leaves too much out. One thing which it omits is style, which, although notoriously difficult to analyse, is a prime element in giving us a sense that particular writers and particular works have great value and meaning. It is one of the major elements differentiating a poem from a riddle, which once it has been guessed has no further power to interest.
There are a good many signs in recent literary criticism of a reaction against these methods, springing out of a truer historical sense than that which concerns itself exclusively with the history of ideas. Two recent studies illustrate this development very well. The writers have plainly absorbed the lessons to be learned from the critical approach which concentrates on works of art as self-subsistent wholes. Both take more seriously than some of the searchers for meaning have done the distinction between the use of the word ' symbol' to describe a work of art and its use in common parlance. They do not treat the works they discuss as reducible. While alert to the intellectual milieu of the works they are discussing, they see works of art as historical objects 'preserved through time in the first freshness of their nature' because they are the products not of ' ways of thinking' but of men.
In the first chapter of his Clark Lectures on Coleridge, delivered in 1952, Humphry House, whose early death is an irreparable loss, not only to his friends, but to literary scholarship, declared it was time to consider the dangers of discussing Coleridge as ' a mind', and said that by
'minimising the importance to Coleridge of the external world in which he lived, we run the risk of diverting attention from some of his most characteristic strengths as a writer'.
He went on to defend the biographical approach, so long out of favour, and answered the commonplace that 'it is an impertinence to pity Coleridge' with a plea that we should show 'a proper pity' for great writers, the kind of pity which Aristotle was concerned to distinguish as appropriate to the contemplation of the tragic. The justification of this human and compassionate approach to Coleridge and his writings can be seen later in the book: in the just, discriminating, and generous appraisement of the value of Robert Penn Warren's study of The Ancient Mariner in terms of themes and images, and the demonstration of how much this approach left unexplained and ignored. Nobody could imagine that Humphry House was advocating a return to the criticism of men of letters
'approaching the work with a fair mind and the tact which letters alone can give',
or was suggesting that first impressions are all that matters. At the same time the historical nature of his approach is shown by the fact that it does not ignore, or depreciate that first apprehension of the work's meaning. Mr. Warren arrived at something so different from what a fascinated child finds on first reading The Ancient Mariner that his interpretation must be questioned. No critic can ever afford to disregard his own earlier experiences of a work or to despise or be ashamed of his younger self.
Coleridge is a writer about whom a great deal is known, and fresh material about him and by him is still being worked on. The other book I refer to is on a work by a writer whose life we know little about, and with whom a biographical approach is impossibly speculative and leads to circular argument. In 1953 Miss Mary Lascelles published a study of a single play by Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. No play has been more interpreted in the last thirty years, and in no play have critics made more persistent attempts to discover a meaning in terms of Christian thought. It has been treated almost as a Christian parable. Critics who have explored it in this way have the justification of its title, which is taken from the Gospels, of the fact that its heroine is presented to us as novice in a religious order, and that she speaks, as few characters in Shakespeare do, a speech that is explicitly theological At the crisis of her pleading for her brother's life, she appeals to the most central of Christian dogmas, that
He that might the vantage best have took,
Found out the remedy.
Miss Lascelles, whose master is Samuel Johnson, might have borrowed from him a title for her last chapter and headed it, as he headed the last chapter of Rasselas, 'The Conclusion, in which nothing is concluded'. She leaves her reader with no theory, no scheme of thought, but with a sense of the great tides of thought and feeling which swirl through the play and of its power to awaken in us, as the story awoke in Shakespeare, 'those ideas which slumber in the heart'. She brings to bear on the interpretation of the play knowledge of Elizabethan ways of thought, and of the Elizabethan stage and its methods of acting and producing, close study of the text and its problems, and of the difficulties of the play's language, as well as a sense of the potentialities and limitations of the artistic form in which the play is cast, tragi-comedy. The importance of Miss Lascelles's study is in the variety of approaches she makes to the central citadel of the play's significance.
She has revived, in the first place, what critics have too long pushed on one side, the study of Shakespeare's sources, what was presented to his imagination. She handles this with that sense of what is relevant to the critical problem which the new criticism has taught us. With humanity, compassion, and moral sensibility, she considers the different versions of this story which Shakespeare may have read and the various ways in which men have dealt with its cruel centre. She has found an expressive phrase for what she feels to be the story's essence in all the tellings of it. She calls it the story of 'the monstrous ransom'. The heart of this tale, to everyone who tells it, is an intolerable moral dilemma. Then, like her master Johnson, she refuses to disregard, as beneath critical notice, the judgement of what he called ' the common reader', the person whom she describes as 'the plain man trudging by'. She shirks no difficulties or anomalies; she considers patiently and sympathetically all those objections which troubled undergraduates bring to their tutors when they approach this play with their own unaided wits and natural moral sense, unassisted by the interpreters. She ends by demonstrating, triumphantly in my view, that
'for all the perils of misunderstanding with which it is beset, the study of the characters in their relation with one another — here conditioned by the given story, there, developing free of it — remains the right approach; and its alternative, a pursuit of phantoms'.
Her reward, and ours, is to be left at the end of her book not with themes and patterns but with the play. It is open to us to see what analogies we care to see. Lastly, Miss Lascelles makes no attempt to overleap the intervening centuries and somehow make herself into ' an Elizabethan'. She takes into account not merely what Shakespeare may have read, the ideas of his age, and the nuances of his language, but also how men have read him. She knows that writers cannot only be interpreted in terms of what lies behind them and around. That is to reduce genius to the level of mediocrity and forget that the reason we read Shakespeare is because he is more than ' an Elizabethan'. The disagreement over this play is a critical fact, like the extreme fluctuations of Donne's reputation. The work has come down to us through the centuries, not in a sealed box, but as something which has moved and troubled the imaginations of men. It is dangerous to disregard our own past; it is equally dangerous to disregard the past through which a work has survived. Miss Lascelles's book gathers up as it proceeds the doubts and reflections this play has provoked through the centuries which divide us from its author and its first audiences. The success of her book is that it does not arrive finally at 'the meaning of Measure for Measure'. She has been content to leave the play more meaningful than it was before we read her study.
This discussion is of only limited applicability to the literary criticism of the Gospels. The problems there are very different and the difficulties of interpretation far greater. I do not doubt that the ' newer method', the typological approach, throws much light on the evangelists' methods of composition and has made a significant contribution to our understanding. Speaking as a Christian, I would say that it has revealed another aspect of the praeparatio evangelii: the preparation of the imaginations of men to receive, when the fullness of time was come, the event of Jesus Christ and to render it to mankind. But, as a literary critic, I find it too one-sided, too abstract, intellectual and bookish, too literary and aesthetic an approach to the interpretation of the Gospels. It does not come to terms with the Gospels' proclamation of event, and their appeal through that to the moral imagination. I do not trust a literary criticism which is so unconcerned with anything but pattern and is so dominated by ideas. I realize that, however sceptical I may be about the importance of the mystical senses to men of the early seventeenth century in England, there is no question of their importance to men of late antiquity and of the early Christian centuries. All the same, the fact that many critics are capable of so overestimating the importance of ' hidden senses' elsewhere, suggests that writers of this generation may be tempted to overestimate the part played by this way of thinking in the production of those extraordinary literary documents, the four canonical Gospels. For if it is true that Shakespeare cannot be interpreted wholly in terms of what he shares with his contemporaries, how much more is this true of the writers of the Gospels. Their works are inexplicable in terms of contemporary Greek and Jewish literary practice.
Many literary critics, like the typological critics of the New Testament, impress on their readers the necessity of trying to think in this way. Both, rather unaccountably, assume that this is very difficult for ' modern' man. They ought, possibly, to be warning us instead to be on our guard against its obvious attractiveness to many modern minds. To the aesthetic sensibility of today the symbolic presentation of Christ seems more expressive and more congenial than the attempt to picture him in his humanity. The taste of both Christian and non-Christian responds to the Christus Victor reigning robed and crowned from the Tree, to the Christ in Majesty seated amidst the Twelve, or between the Four Beasts, or to the figuring of Christ in Melchizedek, High Priest of Salem, standing behind his altar offering the unbloody sacrifice of bread and wine, or to his presentation as a Lamb on a green mountain from which flow the four rivers of Paradise. Such images seem to many more significant than the teaching Christ portrayed by the sculptor of Le Beau Dieu d'Amiens, the naked and exhausted Christ hanging from the Cross, or the Christ whom Verrocchio showed offering the wounds in his risen body to the touch of doubting Thomas. Significant art of today has closer affinities with the art of earlier Christian ages than with the art of the sculptors of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in France or than with the art of the high Renaissance. The creative artist may value or neglect the art of past ages according as it is, or is not, related to his own art, just as the philosopher will think important those philosophers who were concerned with problems similar to those with which he is himself concerned. But the critic or scholar has a different function from that of the artist or original thinker. One of his uses is to help to preserve the creative thought of his own day from provincialism in time, by keeping alive and available to his own age what is neglected or disparaged by those absorbed in the preoccupations of the hour. His humble task is to protect his betters from the corruption of fashions.
Many readers of the Gospels today and many writers on them seem to see a very different figure from the Christ who fed with publicans and sinners and set a little child in the midst. This was possibly the dominant literary image of Christ in the nineteenth century. The dominant literary image today is more often of a lonely figure walking ahead of his puzzled and half-frightened disciples, speaking to them abruptly in dark riddles, with his face set to go up to Jerusalem. The texts quoted as expressive of the Christ who walked on this earth are not texts such as 'Suffer the little children to come unto me', but rather texts such as 'I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished'. The theologian of today may rightly concentrate on whatever image best illuminates his present concern; but the literary critic cannot disregard the other images. Much of the literary criticism of the Gospels in the nineteenth century may be justly charged with sentimentality. Its authors might well retort upon some of their successors the countercharge of inhumanity. It is a charge which can be brought against much of the art and literature of this age.
|«START»||«Business Of Criticism»||«Literary Criticism»||«Library»||«Home»|