History: Our Friend
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s 1949 lecture Poetry and History—a lecture that is itself historic. In these TROs which serialize Poetry and History, I have commented on Mr. Siegel’s might as historian—might that was the same as warmth: how his scholarship was unsurpassed; how history, as he presented it in his lectures, essays, poems, was always living, had to do with your feelings now.
In the present lecture he is showing that there is a structure in history that is like the structure of a poem—in keeping with this principle of Aesthetic Realism: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." He has quoted Macaulay, a history of Russia, Milton’s Paradise Lost, poems of China and Japan, Wordsworth and Keats, and the American historian Samuel Eliot on the Algonquins. And he has shown history to be a constant oneness of such opposites as the known and unknown, wildness and causality, the individual and the general, point and expansiveness. All the while, there are past and present: he speaks here about these tremendous opposites, the oneness of which can be hard to understand but is always in our lives.
Mr. Siegel said in this lecture, "No person can understand himself who is not interested in history." We need to see ourselves as related to the past—and not in any vague way: to the facts, happenings, feelings which people real as ourselves had about love, food, money, religion, land, relatives, fun, and their own past. Aesthetic Realism explains that the most hurtful thing in self is to see ourselves as not related to other things and people. The more civilized we are, and intelligent, the more we see ourselves as related to, and the more deeply we see our relation. Central to contempt for people and reality is the feeling that we’re not related to them. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else"; and he showed that all the cruelty and mental difficulty in history come from the having of contempt. In order to enslave a person, or bomb him, or exploit him economically, or feel it’s okay for him to be poor while you’re financially comfortable, you have to see yourself as not like him.
The purpose of our lives, Mr. Siegel showed too, is to like the world—to see ourselves as related to it. And that includes the past. At age 21, he began his essay "The Middle Ages, Say," with these words, firm and kind:
There were people who lived in the Middle Ages and, who, so, suffered and enjoyed; the one difference between us and them is that their pains and pleasures are over and ours are not. These people are our fellowmen over the years. [Modern Quarterly, December 1923]
"What Now Coheres?"
I cannot conclude this serialization of Poetry and History without quoting what I consider as great a poem about history as any that exists. It is Eli Siegel’s sonnet "What Now Coheres—Of 1861-1865?" He wrote it in 1959; and it is in his book of poems Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968). Through the way he sees and brings together, in that strict 14-line form, the manyness and unbearableness and ordinariness of the Civil War, tremendous music comes to be:
We’re closer to the year, a hundred years
Ago, when war began, our Civil War.
As time goes on (or seems) our thoughts are more
Than ever, ever given to those fears,
Those rallyings, those yells, those skies. Appears
Again, the death at less than twenty-four
Of yelling Richard Tingley; with a store
Of other deaths. We ask: What now coheres—
Of all the gone, May 3rd, at Chancellorsville?
Atlanta’s speeches, Hood’s advance, retreat?
The length of Lincoln, lying known and still?
A picket’s bellyache, a bullet neat;
The creeks with hissing shells; a mule named Bill;
The James in sunlight, and one’s severed feet?
The question "What coheres?" is a crucial question about history: Is there an organization in all this? What of it all comes together, makes sense for us? Eli Siegel asked this about the whole world, and his answer is Aesthetic Realism: a description of how all the aspects and items of reality are related.
The two rhymes that go through the sonnet’s octet (its first 8 lines) are that sound of pain with its long, sharp ee, "years," "fears," "appears," "coheres"—and the thoughtful, gentle sound or. The whole poem is a beautiful joining of thoughtfulness and pain. I comment on several lines.
The 6th line, "Again, the death at less than twenty-four," in its music has indignation and revulsion with that repeated eh sound. Yet it also has dignity, through the slow, distinct iambic rhythm. Then we have a phrase terrible and wild: "Of yelling Richard Tingley." Even as that phrase seems to flail every which way in agony, it too has an orderly rhythm.
Lincoln, and More
The line that begins the sonnet’s sestet (the final six lines) is like history itself: while
it is very specific, has a date and a place name, we hear in it width and wonder and space. The line has destiny’s thump; it has pomp and a groan: "Of all the gone, May 3rd, at Chancellorsville?"
The line about the dead Lincoln makes us feel him: it has such horizontality, and such tenderness. The line that follows is so different in sound—sharp, staccato: "The length of Lincoln, lying known and still? / A picket’s bellyache, a bullet neat." Lincoln, with his immortal grandeur, can seem so apart from the bellyache of an unnamed sentinel. Yet they are both, as Eli Siegel saw it, of history. Swiftly, in this sestet, things different from one another are brought together, and as they meet musically we feel there is a form among them—they do cohere.
There were American creeks, and something happened to them as shells got to them. The phrase about them, as sound, conveys what happened in its fierce, terrible disorder: "The creeks with hissing shells"—we hear that hiss. And after it we have—so quiet, so homely and sweet: "a mule named Bill."
I think the last line of this sonnet is one of the most courageous lines ever written. It brings together with beautiful, musical sincerity the loveliness of an American river and horror done to physiology: "The James in sunlight, and one’s severed feet?" There are tenderness and authentic composure as the poem ends with the unbearable.
The question "What now coheres?" is part of what Mr. Siegel showed to be the central fight all through history and in every person’s own life. We will either want to know the world, with its people, happenings, feelings—or we will see the world essentially as something to conquer, exploit, dismiss, despise. To ask what things have to do with each other, how they cohere, is part of the desire to know. For instance, do we want to make sense of the different aspects of a person close to us—how he can be both angry and gentle, selfish and kind—or do we just want him to behave and give us our way? The pain of both history and ordinary life has come because people have preferred manipulating the world and changing the facts to suit themselves, to knowing.
Eli Siegel’s purpose all the time was to know. It was my tremendous honor and happiness to see this directly, to hear it with every sentence he uttered. We need an America in which people truly want to know. Aesthetic Realism can bring out that desire and educate it so it can win at last.