The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Complaint, Consolation, & Art

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the wonderful lecture that Eli Siegel gave on August 3, 1966, about complaint in poetry. What is in it, every person needs mightily, even urgently, to know.

People see their inner complaints—their dissatisfactions, their feelings of injury, of having been let down—as ever so personal, intimate, just-their-own. Yet Aesthetic Realism shows that each of us has to do, all the time, with the whole world: the world of happenings, facts, things, history. And we need to try to see our own feelings as related to other people’s feelings, as related to a world of feelings. If we don’t, we will be wrong about ourselves. Our thought about what goes on in us will be narrow, inaccurate, deeply ugly. And that is what usually happens.

But in this lecture, we see that complaint—so intimate to ourselves—is a subject. It is about many things, has many aspects and qualities, takes in centuries. For example, at the start of the class Mr. Siegel spoke about poems by the Chinese poet Chu Yuan (c. 332-296 bc). Next, in the section printed here, he speaks about Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) and Emily Brontë (1818-48). How different these three people are—yet poems by each of them have complaint. As we see this, we see ourselves and humanity newly.

There is the all-important fact that the complaint being looked at is in poems. They contain that way of seeing something which is the art way: the object (here, a complaint) is seen with such fullness, accuracy, relation, that there is form; there is music. These poems are described by the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” For example, the Emily Brontë poem, as both statement and sound, is a oneness of truculence and tenderness. It is a oneness of pride and humility. And we hear—together—the Brontë assertion of her individual self, and deep wonder about the world.

Consoling Ourselves, Truly & Falsely

Very often in life, complaint is accompanied by a going for consolation. In both poems that Mr. Siegel speaks about in this section, that is so: the writer consoles him- or herself through something or some way of being. How we console ourselves can be ever so fine, as it largely is in the Brontë poem. For example: we can complain, feel there’s something very wrong that we have met or endured—yet at the same time feel that what we’ve seen as beautiful and just in this world is still beautiful and just; and we console ourselves by wanting to love it more truly, deeply, extensively than ever. That is good, authentic consolation. But there’s another kind of consolation, much more frequent and infinitely hurtful. It is the consolation of contempt, the getting an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

A person may be right or wrong in feeling something should be complained about, but—even if our complaint is somewhat correct—one of the most dangerous yet ordinary things in life is to “console” ourselves with some form of contempt. For example, the feeling that someone has been unjust to us is often followed swiftly with the consoling triumphant feeling, “How superior I am to him!”

And millions of persons, feeling they’ve been hurt by some representative of the world, have gone for the consolation of: “People and things don’t deserve for me to be affected by them! I can make myself cold, unfeeling, emptily and scornfully above it all.” This is the ugly consolation of thumbing one’s nose at most of reality.

People have consoled themselves for their complaints by managing the world in some fashion. That’s why alcohol is so popular. Through it, a person seems to make the world do one’s bidding, become less questioning, less real. And the consolation that is the dealing with food grabbily also makes reality a servant of oneself: through those extra portions of chocolate cake one has made the world say, “I’m here just to please and soothe you—you don’t have to think or be fair to anything. I’m succulent, luscious, in my feeling it’s an honor to serve you.”

The consolation for our complaints can be our ability to punish others. A woman, disliking the world and confused by men, can console herself by conquering a man, making him less sure of himself, making him seem foolish because he’s in a tizzy about her. Men can do the same with women.

In fact, people hope to have complaints, look to feel hurt, in order to justify getting the consolation of contempt.

Like complaint itself, consolation has many forms. But the criterion for its goodness or badness is: are we being consoled through having respect for the world, or contempt?

Grandeur & the Everyday

We are reprinting in this TRO one of the greatest poems of complaint in world literature: “Must I Wait All My Life; or, The Misery Song,” by Eli Siegel. It was written in 1932 and has the subtitle “Uncouth-and-not Anthem of the Particular and General Unconscious.” It is published in Mr. Siegel’s 1957 collection Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems with this note by the author: “A Blues song about Destiny as Ill-Intentioned. Goes, I think, well with the Gregorian Chant.”

Eli Siegel was one of the writers who least saw “Destiny as Ill-Intentioned”; but he was able to present with richness, force, delicacy, and poetic structure the feeling, so much in people, that it is. I think he wrote, humorously, that “The Misery Song” goes “well with the Gregorian Chant” because the two are so different, and the reverential regularity of the Gregorian Chant needs, to complete it, the objection, discomfort, jolting, poking, moans, tumult—all with form, all with music—that are in “The Misery Song.”

The subtitle describes the poem as “Uncouth-and-not.” The person speaking in it (I always see her as a woman) seems to be speaking to herself. And she uses language that is vernacular, has roughness. Yet really these couplets are elegant too; they have grandeur. Every line has four beats, though with varying numbers of syllables around each beat. There is such variousness of sound, of motion, in the phrases, each of which expresses feeling. Here, feelings have different motions. They are in a kind of dance. We hear a person wanting to demand, and wanting to sink. We hear swirling bewilderment, and thrusts. There is a tremendous drama of slowness and speed in sound. And all this is about what goes on within a person. And all this is in neat rhymed couplets.

The Underlying Complaint in America

While “Must I Wait All My Life; or, The Misery Song” is about people’s individual lives, I think the first line also stands for a complaint had by the American people today about our nation itself: “Must I wait all my life for a certain thing to happen?” Those words have to do with a complaint about economics: economics as ethics, as immensely personal, affecting every aspect of one’s life. What is the underlying complaint in America about how our nation is run? Mr. Siegel described it in various ways in the 1970s, in his Goodbye Profit System lectures. One way is: “There is a feeling...on the part of persons who work that they are not getting their just share of the gross national product, and they feel that their not getting it is caused by ill will.”

The underlying complaint in America is: I’m not getting what I deserve. I should not only have a job, but I should be seen with respect, treated with respect, on that job—and that includes being paid a dignified wage.

The big complaint in America is about the question Mr. Siegel said is the most important in the world: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Whether people have heard that question or not, there is a feeling of huge complaint because it has not been answered honestly. This complaint needs to be seen truly, expressed clearly. When it is, the result will be kind, proud, efficient, and beautifully American.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Complaint: Modulated & Intense

By Eli Siegel

We now go from Chu Yuan to the English part of this poetic looking at complaint—I’ll show some of the diversity of the subject through English poems. Two of the most insistent, and a little virulent, complainers in English poetry are the two Tudor masters, the Earl of Surrey and Thomas Wyatt. As soon as you read a poem of Wyatt, you can be pretty sure his next one is complaining; you look around and find him complaining. The person with the richest complaint—he deserves a talk on himself about that—is Edmund Spenser. He was given to seeing what’s beautiful with such extensiveness and detail, and also to describing so much that he doesn’t like, so much misfortune. But I’m not dealing with him today.

Wyatt, in the poem I’ll read, tells about himself. And this can be called a modulated complaint. The poem appeared, likely, about the time of Tottel’s Miscellany (Songs and Sonnets). It’s of the 1550s. Wyatt complains that women change and that the woman whom Wyatt knows changes on him. But he says he’s not going to make too much of it. There are very few poems the climax of which is I won’t make too much of it. But this is one of them. (To lin means to stop, and of kind means of nature.)

Divers doth use, as I have heard and know,

When that to change their ladies do begin,

To mourn and wail, and never for to lin,

Hoping thereby to pease their painful woe.

And some there be, that when it chanceth so

That women change and hate where love hath been,

They call them false and think with words to win

The hearts of them which otherwhere doth grow.

But as for me, though that by chance indeed

Change hath outworn the favour that I had,

I will not wail, lament, nor yet be sad,

Nor call her false that falsely did me feed,

But let it pass, and think it is of kind

That often change doth please a woman’s mind.

There Is Restraint

This quite clearly is not an in excelsis poem. It is not a poem with a sunset. Its passion is rather limited. Still, it’s a poem. It is in the middle ground. And that middle ground in poetry is one of the most interesting to study, where you’re neither here nor there—because if you rage in a poem or you exult in a poem, you’re already off to a good start. This poem has in it the Tudor restraint. It’s waiting for Queen Elizabeth to ascend the throne in 1558.

“Divers doth use, as I have heard and know, / When that to change their ladies do begin, / To mourn and wail, and never for to lin.” That is, they complain a very great deal. They mourn and wail and don’t stop.

“Hoping thereby to pease their painful woe.” Through all this carrying on they think they’re going to feel better. But Wyatt knows better.

Then there’s another kind of person: when women change, these men get angry—“They call them false.” Wyatt knows better than that, too. He says he knows women’s nature. He just doesn’t mind. I don’t think you can make a great poem out of that.

“I will not wail, lament, nor yet be sad, /... / But let it pass, and think it is of kind”—it’s what I could expect and therefore let us go on to something else.

So this can be called low water. And the Tudors were like that. The Tudors did write things that are in the middle ground. For example, there’s Thomas Tusser with Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry. There’s very little passion in that work. It’s all about millet and barley—well, it’s about something more than that. But it does lack cry and passion.

Another Kind of Complaint

Earlier, I mentioned Emily Brontë; I said she is one of the most intense complainers. But she always says to herself, Look at yourself, Emily—you know this is all trivial! She has a likeness to Chu Yuan and to Wyatt, but she is Emily. Other poems of hers are in this field, but one as famous as any begins in an unusual way—because most poets don’t say that they’ve been “rebuked.” It doesn’t look dignified. But Emily Brontë can say it. The first line is famous: “Often rebuked, yet always back returning,” which means that she was often rebuked but she always found out that she was right anyway.

Often rebuked, yet always back returning

To those first feelings that were born with me,

And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning

For idle dreams of things which cannot be:

Today, I will seek not the shadowy region;

Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear;

And visions rising, legion after legion,

Bring the unreal world too strangely near.

I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces,

And not in paths of high morality,

And not among the half-distinguished faces,

The clouded forms of long-past history.

I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading—

It vexes me to choose another guide—

Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding,

Where the wild wind blows on the mountain-side.

What have those lonely mountains worth revealing?

More glory and more grief than I can tell:

The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling

Can center both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.

This poem, with its complaints and consolation, is not easy. In going for consolation, two things that are opposites, concentration and expansiveneness, can be used. As Chu Yuan said: that he can “eat pure flowers” consoles him (good!), but also he is aware of the heavens. In this poem Emily Brontë chooses something that she has taken to be herself, a precise place—we can presume it’s in Yorkshire—not too big. And she says, Because this exists and this is me, I am consoled. In the meantime, she thinks of other kinds of consolation and puts them aside.

“Often rebuked, yet always back returning / To those first feelings that were born with me.” Those feelings were about something of earth as akin to herself.

“And leaving busy chase of wealth and learning / For idle dreams of things which cannot be.” She is not going to get satisfaction from “busy chase of wealth and learning”; they are idle compared to this definite good feeling she gets from earth seen precisely.

“Today, I will seek not the shadowy region.” She’s not going to look into the great beyond or the heavenly regions or the celestial emptiness or the divine vacuity and such things. Nothing like that. She won’t get lost in the stars; that’s a vulgar way of finding consolation. But the implication is that in a weaker moment she did. “Its unsustaining vastness waxes drear”—besides, she says, it doesn’t work.

“And visions rising, legion after legion, / Bring the unreal world too strangely near.” To have all that vastness, with legions after legions rising, makes things unreal. Emily Brontë says, There’s some earth I saw years ago in Yorkshire; it’s here still—that’s all I want.

“I’ll walk, but not in old heroic traces, / And not in paths of high morality, / And not among the half-distinguished faces, / The clouded forms of long-past history.” She doesn’t want to be consoled by Joan of Arc or even St. Francis, or Queen Elizabeth or Cromwell or the history of Alexander. It’s a little insulting, I must say.

This Is What She Needs

“I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading.” That’s right. “It vexes me to choose another guide.” This can be greatly misused.

“Where the gray flocks in ferny glens are feeding.” She knows those flocks. “Where the wild wind blows on the mountain-side.”

“What have those lonely mountains worth revealing? / More glory and more grief than I can tell: / The earth that wakes one human heart to feeling / Can center both the worlds of Heaven and Hell.” She says that what she needs is this earth making for feeling.


Must I Wait All My Life; or,
The Misery Song

(Uncouth-and-not Anthem of the Particular and General Unconscious)

By Eli Siegel

Must I wait all my life for a certain thing to happen?

Must I spend all my days just in dozin’, just in nappin’?

Isn’t there to be a fire? Won’t some color come?

Am I blind? have I no luck? am I just plain dumb?

Must I wait all my life for a certain person’s comin’?

Will I die, my life gone, and still a love tune hummin’?

Is my life to be empty? Won’t some real love come in it?

Is my life just to be one grey minute after minute?

God, I could scream. God, I could tear myself to pieces—

I’m the boredest human of the whole damn human species.

I could bite, I could cry, I am hell tired of waitin’—

When the Lord made me he did some bum creatin’.

I listen for a sound but all I do is listen;

What other people get it always seems I’m missin’.

I’m in a deep unhappy ditch, I’m as miserable as sin.

Must I wait all my life for life just to begin?