The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Relation: The Most Important Subject

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part two of the great 1972 lecture by Eli Siegel titled Hail, Relation; or, A Study in Poetry. It is about what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the most important subject in the world. Relation is, on the one hand, a philosophic matter, and in this talk we see some of the philosophic logical might of Aesthetic Realism. But on the other hand, relation, and how we see it, has to do with our biggest worries.

For example, loneliness is about relation. So is cruelty. Loneliness is the feeling that one does not have deeply to do with other things: it is a denial of relation. And cruelty always begins with the denying another human being feelings, hopes, a life, related to and as real as one’s own. Meanwhile, central to both kindness and intelligence is the sense that other things and people are related, vibrantly related, to ourselves.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which makes clear that—and how—every individual is fundamentally related to every other person and thing: “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” This vital relation we have to everything not ourselves is the reason why our having contempt weakens our minds and interferes with every aspect of our lives. Contempt is the desire (which we feel is so clever) to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

There Is Shakespeare

In the first and second parts of this lecture, Mr. Siegel discusses two sonnets of Shakespeare. He had given,  in the 1950s, a series of talks on all the 154 sonnets, and he is the critic who showed what they are about and who the much disputed “friend” Shakespeare writes of really is. In that series—one of the greatest of all instances of Shakespearean and literary criticism—Mr. Siegel shows that the friend is not any person Shakespeare knew. This friend is reality itself seen truly—in all its fullness and with all its tumult—as beautiful, as having form. And the friend is, too, Shakespeare’s own seeing of reality that way, which seeing made for Hamlet, Othello, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, and more. The friend is the aesthetic seeing of the world, which was loved by Shakespeare, and which he worried that he was untrue to.

Relation as Beauty, Logic, Happiness

Many of Eli Siegel’s own poems are explicitly about relation, sometimes humorously, sometimes wildly, but always nobly, logically, and musically. For example, there is “Put Zebras by the Mississippi.” A most surprising relation is told of in the title, and shown throughout the poem to be right. We feel that rightness in the first two lines, which are at once the same and different in their structure and sound: “Swiftly in forests, the zebra, / Slowly the Mississippi.” And there is the 7th line, so earthy and wide and reassuring: “Hell, is not the same moon over zebras and the Mississippi?” Later, there’s the tenderness of “The moon’s over all. / The moon’s not so big.”

“Put Zebras by the Mississippi” is included in Eli Siegel’s Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. The book’s title poem, which won the Nation poetry prize in 1925, is, Mr. Siegel wrote, “about things having to do with each other.” And from “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” he said, Aesthetic Realism itself arose.

In another poem, “And There Prevail,” Brooklyn and ancient Assyria are honestly shown to be related—and not tangentially or theoretically. Brooklyn the gorgeous, / The southern Nineveh,” it begins—with thrust and conviction and richness. Later in the poem is this line of relation, which I have loved for many years; it is so quiet, so throbbing, and so grand: “How is it that of a hushed afternoon a man may drowse in Brooklyn with his elbow near the name Palmyra.“And There Prevail” appears in Eli Siegel’s collection Hail, American Development.

Also included there is the poem we reprint in this TRO: “And It Does, Marianne.” Eli Siegel wrote it in 1927. Marianne is like everyone: the implication is that she can be “interested” in some people—young men—but does not see them as related to everything. (We tend to see people mainly in relation to us.) In the poem, the writer speaks to Marianne about the relatedness of things. And those things are everyday and mighty: for instance, a young man’s socks and the sun.

“And It Does, Marianne,” is one of the best poems ever written in America, and one of the kindest. In its music are jazz rhythms. And the way Marianne is spoken to has the vibrant, living good will with which Eli Siegel spoke to everyone: he is so respectful of her, even as there’s criticism in what he says. The poem has that memorable line about relation “It’s a very connected world, Marianne.” And the line which follows shows why our seeing how things have to do with each other is the same as our being happy: “Emptiness, just so, isn’t had at all, Marianne.”

Eli Siegel is the person of thought who understood relation—in reality itself; in art; and in the minutes, the confusions, the hopes of everyone.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Relation, Shakespeare, Lindsay

By Eli Siegel

I have defined relation in two ways, one accenting the basic verb (is, are, be), sometimes called a copulative verb, and the other accenting a verb that is more with action (do). The first definition is: Relation is the way things are and may be to each other. That is, there is a relation now: everything is quietly related. A smokestack is related to a cigarette. A cigarette is related to an angel in white. An angel in white is related to a falling line of snow. A falling line of snow is related to a curled up sheet of paper. A curled up sheet of paper is related to a white chicken trying to stand up. In other words: at the moment, things are related—everything.

Every person is indefinitely related to an indefinite number of things, and the idea is to know that and use it. Anyone who denies relation—well, all one can say is, he’s in such a cataleptic trance that reality itself is put aside. However, even so, reality is not put aside. In fact, the one good thing about death is that when you die you are just as much related as when you were alive. The relation goes on. George Washington, Anthony Wayne, and Lord Cornwallis have as many relations now as they had when they were living. For example, you can always ask, “What would Lord Cornwallis say of this?”

The definition using an active verb is: Relation is how things have to do, and may have to do, with each other. Relation is are and do. As I said earlier, all the parts of speech except noun and pronoun are relations. The noun or pronoun is that which has relations: “He is near the store,” “She is distant from the sea,” “The sea is above her head.” The relations are emphasized there by the prepositions. But relation can be shown through adjectives and adverbs: “This is a less bright pattern.” There is a relation between the brighter (or more bright) pattern and the less bright pattern. As soon as we have more and less—whether as adverbs or adjectives—we have relation. Quantity is always relation.

Then there are the relations that people are interested in: “What is the relation of that fellow, William, to that fellow there, Humphrey?” “Oh, William works for Humphrey.” So we have one of the important relations in the world: somebody’s being an employee of somebody else. Then: “What’s the relation of those two people?” “Oh, don’t you know? They’re married to each other.” Or: “What is the relation of those two people?” “They both graduated from Yale in 1918 and haven’t got over it.” There are many other things: “They both took part in the Earl Carroll Vanities of 1927 and they like to talk about it.”

Dependence & Independence

A very important relation is dependence and independence. The existence of the world, as far as we are concerned, depends on us, because if we were not, no world would exist for us. If we weren’t around to see it, no matter whether the world existed or not, it wouldn’t exist for us. That is not solipsism; it’s just ordinary language. If we don’t know that a city exists, we can say it doesn’t exist for us—in a certain sense. Not that it fully doesn’t exist, because, as I said, even the dead are affected by the world: they’re in relation.

Dependence and independence is an important relation in logic, poetry, and art. Sometimes it takes the form of a technical term like sub-motif or ninth canto. A canto of a poem—the twelfth canto of Don Juan—is obviously in relation to the whole poem, and can be seen as dependent on the poem. Independence and dependence could not be without each other, as, let’s say, a rose could not be without its stem, but were no rose possible no stem would be growing. There’s an inter-existence relation.

Every poem is a collection of relations, stated or implied. In the previous sonnet I read (sonnet 18), Shakespeare says that the grandeur of the person he’s writing to depends on Shakespeare’s poetic sight (“this gives life to thee”). But another sonnet of Shakespeare begins with the phrase “Being your slave.” The first lines of sonnet 57 are:

Being your slave, what should I do but tend

Upon the hours and times of your desire?

I have no precious time at all to spend,

Nor services to do, till you require....

This is a mingling of subservience and dependency with absolutism: absolute dependency. It is hard to believe that Shakespeare, a grown man, could say he was a slave to anybody in England: I’m just waiting for a request of yours. When did he get time to write Othello with that going on? Rather, the feeling he’s writing about here is that we do obey something all the time, or want to obey it—that we are, in a sense, a slave to our best ideals. We are a slave to our best hopes: if we weren’t we’d swerve from them, and that is not commendable.

Then: “Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour / Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you.” One can take this literally and say that Shakespeare is somewhere in Southwark or Aldwych watching for the footsteps of this friend—which I say is not the thing occurring.

We have a poem which gets in a person, but also gets in the idea of life. To be alive is to be dependent on what keeps you alive. To be alive and want to be happy is to be dependent on what makes you happy. And that dependence, which is life itself, is what is described here. What can be called the romance of need is in this poem.

“Nor dare I question with my jealous thought / Where you may be, or your affairs suppose.” This means that things occurred in Shakespeare’s mind that he didn’t quite map out, that he was not an authority on. It’s not, Where were you, Earl of Southampton?

“But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought, / Save, where you are how happy you make those.” If whatever is good in the world is present, it would mean something to other people. To say it’s about a nobleman, well—first of all, Shakespeare knew (he writes about it a great deal in his plays) that noblemen can quarrel with other noblemen.

“So true a fool is love that in your will, / Though you do anything, he thinks no ill.” One can say this “you” is a person. But also, one can say that it’s the cause of life and thought in Shakespeare and he cannot defy that.

Forces in Us

I go to another slave poem, because slave is a relation. This is a not-so-well-known poem of Vachel Lindsay, “Aladdin and the Jinn.” In keeping with the story in the Arabian Nights, a supernatural force (the Jinn, or genie) is a slave of Aladdin. How this can be is a question. But persons writing the Arabian Nights said that if you get the right lamp, it can be.

“Bring me soft song,” said Aladdin;

“This tailor-shop sings not at all.

Chant me a word of the twilight,

Of roses that mourn in the fall.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .

For I would be mending my spirit,

Forgetting these days that are bad:

Forgetting companions too shallow,

Their quarrels and arguments thin;

Forgetting the shouting muezzin.”

“I am your slave,” said the Jinn.

...“Build me a dome,” said Aladdin,

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  . .  .  .  .  .  .

“Pure moonlight without and within,

Where I may enthrone my sweet lady.”

“I am your slave,” said the Jinn.

The slave relation is different in the poems of Lindsay and Shakespeare. A person in the Shakespeare sonnet makes himself a slave to the possibilities in himself identified with a friend. In the Lindsay poem, various possibilities, forces, here supernatural, are made the slave of an individual. Both relations have been spoken of again and again. If a character in Tennyson says, “I can do better,” it means the idea of better can be used by oneself. “I can stick to my principles” means principles can be in a certain relation to one.

Also, we can be seen as serving some principle: for example, a great person can be seen, in keeping with Carlyle, as someone used by the spirit of the century. Destiny wanted somebody, and went to Corsica and said to Napoleon: “You.” That is, forces use a person. It seems that Shakespeare was necessary, so Shakespeare came to be; Luther was necessary. Then, sometimes we say, “This is in me and I want to get it out and use it”: there we use a general force. Meanwhile, “I have to be true to myself” means that something in ourselves uses us. People can say, “Why wasn’t I true to my possibilities then?” I was thinking of quoting Edna St. Vincent Millay, where, in her letters, she says she feels she’s not true to something. Something has got her, is vexing her. This is said again and again. One can see it in Henry James, who wasn’t given to bewailing himself.

What Can Be Related?

All this is a phase of the question What things in this world can be related? A metaphysical question is whether a thing is related to itself. The reason an oak or cherry tree grows is that it has some notion of a complete oak tree or complete cherry tree; therefore, it is in relation to it. Every cherry tree sighs, “What can I be?” And an oak tree says, “I want to get all the oak possible.”

I am trying to make some principles fairly clear, even while the richness of the principles, I’m afraid, cannot be made altogether clear.


And It Does, Marianne

By Eli Siegel

O, in evening, Marianne,

With evening different everywhere,

Young men think of their past,

And think, too, of what the hell may be coming to them when coming days will have come to them, these thinking young men with a past and with desires.

Meanwhile, winds may be dying,

Or, somewhere, somewhere else, this is what it means for evenings to be different, winds may just be starting to be getting really strong,

And may now be sending paper on the street or in a road higher, almost or nearly, than paper ever went before, with winds doing the sending of paper to the sky.

(The sky just has to be, will be always, whether paper’s going up or no.)

Coming to these young men, Marianne:

While in thousands of rooms under an early beginning moon, ties are being used to help along young men’s necks in streets, and socks are being put on feet more or less rightly, being put on, anyway, usefully,

While thousands of young men think of the present  and coming evening and of other evenings and days,

O, Marianne, the sun is ready to come again,

And it will come, and how Marianne.

Without the sun, Marianne, ties would not be put on.

Without the sun, Marianne, socks wouldn’t come to young men’s feet neatly, usefully.

Even, Marianne, without the sun winds would not be to do the things winds do do and do.

It’s a very connected world, Marianne.

Emptiness, just so, isn’t had at all, Marianne.

Young men have to do with ever so many million things, Marianne.

Marianne, it’s a very connected world.

That takes you in, Marianne.

It should, I think, too.

You deserve it and the world does.

So let be as is this universe.

Quite, Marianne.

Quite so, this universe, Marianne.

Marianne, as had this universe.

What do you say, girl?

It means something to me, what you say about this, girl.

You know it does.

And it does.

And it does, Marianne.