The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Kindness of True Imagination

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Imagination—It Gathers, by Eli Siegel, a 1971 lecture definitive about a matter central to art, and to everyone’s life. Mr. Siegel has been describing how imagination in art gathers, brings things together—and those things are not only objects and ideas, but the opposing qualities that make up the world itself. This is in keeping with the central principle 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.”

Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that there are two kinds of imagination, good and bad. And the distinction is: good imagination arises from the desire to respect the world; bad, from the desire to have contempt for it.

In the final section of this talk, he is in the midst of discussing poems from the most famous of English anthologies, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. He also reads, as representing gathering, two early poems of his own. And since he does not discuss those, it is my pleasure to comment on them now.

A Person & the World

Eli Siegel wrote “Let Fat Men, in Plush Coats, Do as They Please a Little” in, I believe, 1926. It tells about a person who could be seen narrowly—a fat man in a plush coat, who owns a factory and has a lot of money. But he is seen here as inseparably related to the assertive, limitless outside world, represented by January weather. He is seen too as having a world within himself, including thoughts that trouble him.

The way of seeing people that is in this poem is fundamental to Aesthetic Realism: We all have to do with everything. The world, Mr. Siegel said, is “the other half of ourselves.” And our character, who we are, depends on how justly—how deeply, widely, fairly—we see that outside world.

I love this poem, and consider it one of the great poems of America. The reason it is great is its music, which arises from the honesty and might of what is said—from how the writer’s imagination gathered.

Though most of the lines in the poem are long, it begins with a short line: “Cold, cold in the world.” That, in its sound, is definite yet seems to shiver. And, for all its brevity, the line sounds also large, with its three accented, resonant os. It is about the inescapable companion of the man in the plush coat: Reality—in the form of January.

As there is the bringing together of January and this man, there is also a bringing together of his exterior and interior: his showy coat is related to his worry; the factory he owns is related to the feelings he has—including his feelings about “what the doctor told him that afternoon.”

I could comment on every line but, for reasons of space, will not. The writing is a oneness of the factual, down-to-earth, even colloquial—and grandeur. There are syncopation—and depth and compassion. The man in the poem has solidity and mystery.

And what does the title mean—“Let Fat Men, in Plush Coats, Do as They Please a Little”? To do as one pleases can often be very bad, because it can be unfair to other people. And no one was more against, for instance, factory owners’ doing as they pleased with their employees, than Eli Siegel was. But we have the important phrase “a Little.” I think the title is a way of saying: “This person may be questionable, but he’s worried, suffering. If there are things he wants to do that will please him and not hurt anyone, let him do them. Let him get pleasure from reality.”

Tumult & Composition

The second poem of his that Mr. Siegel reads is very different, but it too is musical. “Mentioned Any Time” is wild. I think it’s about how the wildness, motion, changeability of the world are deeply in behalf of stability, composition. The first line has much stability, with the firm-sounding name “Vermont,” and “stones and old buildings.” Then there are motions of a strange kind, first involving a leaping snake, then a tossing river. Yet all the extraordinary leaping and tossing get to a rich composure, including the composure of “beautiful syllables beautifully together” and “a warm day in August.”

The poem’s music has calm, even as wild things are described. It is murmur as wonder; it is tumult as gentleness and grand stability.

—Now I go back to the first poem of Eli Siegel quoted here, and say, A message in it is needed urgently by people today, for both our pride and safety: See a person in his or her wholeness. When we see that every person has to do with everything, we cannot look down on and be mean to him or her.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Is Brought Together?

By Eli Siegel

Next in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury are two songs of Shakespeare from The Tempest. The first is Ariel, in an autobiographic mood, telling how he spends his time:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:

In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

There I couch, when owls do cry:

On the bat’s back I do fly

After summer merrily.

Merrily, merrily, shall I live now,

Under the blossom that hangs on the bough!

We have gathering: Ariel is couching in a cowslip’s bell (which very few people do)—and then, owls are crying. Then it seems Ariel leaves the couch that is in the cowslip’s bell, and makes an arrangement with a bat to fly on the back of the bat. “On the bat’s back I do fly”: there’s a feeling of substance there; you feel the bat’s back is firm as it goes fast.

“Merrily, merrily, shall I live now, / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough!” That is an interesting study in fixity and motion. It’s light, but you feel the blossom knows where it is; it’s firm too.

That poem is followed in Palgrave by another song of Shakespeare. And a question to ask is, what are the things that are brought together here?:

Come unto these yellow sands,

And then take hands:

Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d

The wild waves whist,

Foot it featly here and there;

And, sweet Sprites, the burthen bear.

Hark, hark!

Bow-wow.

The watch-dogs bark:

Bow-wow.

Hark, hark! I hear

The strain of strutting chanticleer

Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow!

What is all this about? It is a gathering of various sounds and also motions.

First there are motions. “Come unto these yellow sands”: that is swift, and also very sober, even somber. “And then take hands”: that is solemn, almost, but still has swiftness. These beings who go to the yellow sands and take hands will then curtsy. It seems too that the “waves whist” (silent waves) have been kissed. Then the spirits, or sprites, dance: “Foot it featly here and there.”

After this quiet motion, the spirits are supposed to hear some sounds of this world. What happens to you when you hear watchdogs as you think of waves that are silent and people curtsying? If you don’t get some notion of good gathering, then that much Shakespeare is ineffectual. I think bow-wow is very good near yellow sands.

Then there is chanticleer, the rooster. The difference between his sounds and the dog’s is, the dog divides his message to the world into little bits called bow-wow, while chanticleer is more persistent. He’s more of a trumpeter, and you hear something that lasts. Shakespeare was interested in mingling the cry of chanticleer and bow-wow. I would say it’s a very worthy purpose. And it’s part of imagination.

Two American Poems

To show that I have been interested in imagination as gathering, I am going to read a poem of mine, from Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, that ends with the line “Together, together.” This is called “Let Fat Men, in Plush Coats, Do as They Please a Little.” If one sees in it something about the profit system, let one; but it’s essentially a mingling of the worry of a stoutish rich man and January doing its January best. It appeared in New Masses in 1927. I don’t think they understood the poem.

Let Fat Men, in Plush Coats, Do as They Please a Little

Cold, cold in the world,

And winds doing their damndest and coldest.

The world is now cold, and a fat man in a plush, heavy coat, thinks of destiny or something; thinks of this in a too warm, smoky, ugly, rich room; and he also thinks of himself as a boy; and also, ’fore God, of what the doctor told him that afternoon.

And the wind does whistle; does it though; and it does, does roar, and water slowly, yet not so slowly, freezes, becomes hard, is cold, and clean and hard.

The fat man muses; fat men muse, you know, and ’fore God, how that wind roars.

Hands are clapped; fingers are blown on; breath comes out white; men and women run about near their shadows in night-streets, under a smiling, cold, clean, far moon.

Does that man worry about what the doctor told him that afternoon; does he though; he does and does.

Meanwhile, moon is wintry, most wintry and cold; and the winds are something awful; do they blow, though; are they cold, though; is it cold, though; it is January at its worst, damndest, coldest.

Tomorrow the fat man in the plush coat will arise wearily, come to think soon of what the doctor told him this afternoon; he will go to the factory he owns; fat men, in plush coats, it is recognized, do this; let fat men do as they please a little even if they are hell out of luck, or aren’t they, though.

My, though, how that clean, great, strange, very cold wind runs about; it runs about all the dark, cold streets of that city; and the moon smiles, coldly, cleanly over the house that worried, fat man in the plush coat is in; fat men, in plush coats, are this way.

Let fat men, in plush coats, do as they please a little; fat men who own factories, and who, somehow, go to them every morning (or is it every morning?).

Even though, presumably, they are hell out of luck.

What would existence be without rich, fat men, in plush coats; do you know?

Hell, yes, let fat men do as they please a little;

Even though winds roar and whistle mightily in nights in January, and are strange and great, and very cold, and are plainly, plainly in existence, too.

You can’t get away from cold, cold winds, and fat, fat men, in plush coats; and you can’t get away from seeing them and putting them together;

Together, together.

That’s imagination with a threat.

Another poem in Hot Afternoons is really an ordering to things. Imagination does order, as I have said—it gathers and orders, controls. The poem is “Mentioned Any Time.” (A subtitle could be “I Make Up Another Vermont.”)

Vermont being the place this could be with green around and stones and old buildings:

So, at twilight, with all history as is and looking-at-things being all as was—let, as a beginning call, a snake leap many feet and then change to red; meanwhile, saying beautiful syllables beautifully together.

The snake would then rest, and for a while not be seen.

After, a river would toss and go to ground and go back again; then seem as it would be in autumn; then be as it would be 4 o’clock in the afternoon, Wednesday, of a warm day in August.

Vermont being the place all as here mentioned or could be mentioned any time.

Well, that brings things together.

Mythology & Personal Feeling

The last poem I deal with is the longest of the early poems in Palgrave. It is by William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649). And it is about the coming of dawn, then about how morning isn’t so liked because the person he wanted to be with is not present. It has some of the boldest writing. Never before, likely, was night compared to a drunkard reeling.

Every poem is a gathering. It’s a gathering of words, but it’s a gathering of relations of words, and meanings, sounds, allusions, significances, causes, and purposes. This poem is in irregular lines with rhyme.

The first thing we have is that Apollo, or Phoebus, the god of the sun, is told to arise:

Phoebus, arise!

And paint the sable skies

With azure, white, and red:

· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

The nightingales thy coming each-where sing:

Make an eternal Spring!

Give life to this dark world which lieth dead.

“Phoebus, arise!” That is a little rude, I must say; but mythology is often rude. Then Phoebus is told to paint the black skies with blue, white, and red. (He was going to do it anyway, but it’s good to give orders.) And the nightingales sing the coming of Phoebus.

“Make an eternal Spring.” That is a strong line and has some of the feeling of Botticelli’s famous painting Spring.

“Give life to this dark world which lieth dead” is a line with more definitely thumping or falling iambics than nearly any other line in the poem: “Give lífe | to thís | dark wórld | which lí | eth déad.”

After the stoppage and falling of that line, Phoebus is told to spread his golden hair and also have his locks longer—which, again, I think is a little impolite:

Spread forth thy golden hair

In larger locks than thou wast wont before.

· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

Chase hence the ugly night

Which serves but to make dear thy glorious light.

Then Drummond gets personal. He says this day may be the one happy day in his life—unless the fates are against his hopes. And the writing is good; the syllables fall irregularly, but they fall justly:

—This is that happy morn,

That day, long-wishéd day

Of all my life so dark,

(If cruel stars have not my ruin sworn

And fates my hopes betray).

· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·

This is the morn should bring unto this grove

My Love, to hear and recompense my love.

Apollo is asked to see the girl who is to marry Drummond:

Fair King, who all preserves,

But show thy blushing beams,

And thou two sweeter eyes

Shalt see than those which by Penéus’ streams

Did once thy heart surprise.

This may refer to Daphne, who caused Apollo trouble.

Then:

—The winds all silent are,

And Phoebus in his chair

Ensaffroning sea and air

Makes vanish every star.

Ensaffroning means making yellow and red.

Night knows that it has to yield. It’s afraid of the flaming wheels of Apollo. And it should be:

Night like a drunkard reels

Beyond the hills, to shun his flaming wheels.

Loveliness & Pain

Then we have the final lines:

The fields with flowers are deck’d in every hue,

The clouds with orient gold spangle their blue;

Here is the pleasant place—

And nothing wanting is, save She, alas!

It’s a good poem. More can be said about it. It’s related to other poems, and is part of the passionate Renaissance in England—or late Renaissance. There is a gathering in it; there is imagination. When night doesn’t just leave and take dark with it but also acts like a drunkard—that’s Drummond adding something to what night does as it leaves.

There are other places in the poem showing a person at work with the world, gathering things for the world’s purpose and a person’s purpose. We should study this because it is the study of art, and the study of poetry.