The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


This History, This Poetry

By Eli Siegel

In a poem of Walter Savage Landor there is an expression of the fact that what doesn’t get down won’t be seen. After all, Alexander did depend on the historians; otherwise we just wouldn’t know him from anybody else. In "Past Ruined Ilion" Landor says that the persons he knows in himself will be immortal because he’s writing about them:

Past ruined Ilion Helen lives,

Alcestis rises from the shades;

Verse calls them forth; ’tis verse that gives

Immortal youth to mortal maids.

Soon shall Oblivion’s deepening veil

Hide all the peopled hills you see,

The gay, the proud, while lovers hail

These many summers you and me.

This isn’t bumptious; it’s not pompous—If I don’t write about you, no one will know about you. Shakespeare wrote that way.

The Individual and the Times

There is the history that many persons spurn: of ordinary life in a small town. When that is dealt with, it is usually by a novelist. But certainly the history of a small town—the feelings and the procedures of the dwellers in that town—is, most authentically, history. Our past is part of the history of the world. We cannot see our past until we relate it. This fact is in keeping with a good deal of the clamor for an understanding of a writer, let us say, in relation to his times. But what must always be seen is the individual and the times simultaneously. Furthermore, there must be an adequate notion of what the times are.

Let us say a writer is dealing with Chopin. Chopin can be seen in relation to his times; but if Chopin is seen only in relation to the agitated and pretty miserable state of Poland, Chopin is not explained. The times are definite, but they are also strange; they have in them the unconscious. Every time we think of history, we have to see an unknown source, with, perhaps a clear result. So if we are to say that a person should be understood as an individual in relation to his times, the terms individual and times must be fully seen. When that occurs, history is seen as poetry.

Our Emotion Is Present and Past

Every time an emotion is described, in order for it to be seen with the proper quietness it must be seen as having occurred. There is a sense of its having occurred while it can be granted as still going on—because when a thing is described, it is given a past quality. From a certain point of view, to objectify ourselves is to give ourselves a past quality. But our unconscious wants it. 

One of these days there will be the being able to write of an individual as if he were very much agog and still as if he were part of reality that was. The idea of was won’t take on the mortuary feeling then. This is hard to explain; it is what poetry is going after: the changing of the past to a living thing, and the giving to life a quality of complacent sculpture. That is to be seen, in both poetry and history. When a historian deals with a period of man, where ever so many men and women lived and ever so many things happened, if the history is successful he will present the swirlings, confusions, yearnings, wistfulness, moving darknesses; and further, there will be a frame, a quality of definite being.

Poetry goes after the living emotion as if it were historical, and wants to change the past emotion as if it were living. We relive emotions in seeing them; we also know that they’re past.

What happens to us when we read and are affected by something written long ago? Is not the past for us alive? If past and present can be combined by seeing an emotion of the past, this means that time is more than one way at once. I don’t want this to be misunderstood as having to do with any tricks with time. Tricks with time of the sort that people who want to understand reality too quickly have been fond of, should be left to people who are not proud of themselves.

The truth is that anytime we see a painting of the past, poem of the past, book of the past, the past is present. If we were to read a somnolently mournful and honest Japanese poem and have tears, those tears would be chemically authentic. The past would help to cause them.

A Document Can Have Poetry

Sometimes history takes on the form of conscious organization. Some of the documents of history have poetry, definitely. The Charter of New York City of 1683 and 1686 has poetry. And if we look at the Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation, we have a mingling of Lincoln as a person; Lincoln as someone general, someone impersonal; a mingling of a high feeling and geography; and geography that is definite but still uncertain. So I read a passage from the Emancipation Proclamation. If it is understood, this proclamation will be seen as having history flirting, nicely and honestly, with poetry; and poetry accepting the advances:

Now, therefore, I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States,... do, on this 1st day of January, a.d. 1863,... designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof, respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana ..., Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northhampton...).

... I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States and parts of States are, and henceforward shall be, free; and that the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

So there is a mingling of counties somehow strangely where they shouldn’t be, and all kinds of little twirls, and then this geography, this statement of freedom, this warning, this sternness, this kindness, this feeling of individual and generality, this history, this poetry.

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