Review of R.L. Brett, Reason and Imagination.

[Review of R.L. Brett, Reason and Imagination: A Study of Form and Meaning in Four Poems. Dalhousie Review 42.2 (1961): 246-8.]


To show the ways in which poetry expresses thought; to show how imagination may become “the agent of the reason”; to demonstrate that “a poem both makes something and says something”, and that there is “a constant interplay between symbol and concept”: these are some of the aims of this small book.  By way of expository support for his argument, Mr. Brett undertakes “to establish historical meanings” for a group of four poems.

For a start one feels a certain tedium in walking over a critical battlefield strewn with familiar straw corpses: the vices of the New Criticism, the self-deceptions of the psychoanalytical method, and the myopia of the Jungian obsession scarcely repay any longer the attack by blunderbuss.  The need for historical sense in reading poetry is not only recognized by tradition but is taken for granted even by many who insist most strongly upon the self-containedness of poems; and in any case the position has been stated by Miss Helen Gardner with enough eloquence and power to last for at least a generation.  Our attention and sympathies are engaged by any undertaking to elicit new structures of “meaning”, especially in poems as well known as these; but in the end Mr. Brett’s reading of the poems is disappointing because none of the poems blazes into a new and familiar light the way (for example) George Herbert’s do after reading Miss Rosemund Tuve’s criticism.

Mr. Brett opens his examination of each poem by inquiring into some “historical” point that he regards as of crucial interpretative importance.  The background of Lycidas, he says, is Milton’s struggle between humanism and Puritanism, the trend of which can be seen in the changes of style from Comus to Samson Agonistes; Pope accepted Bolingbroke’s quizzical view of the human intellect but clung to a concept of Nature as harmony, guide, and pattern; Coleridge wrote The Ancient Mariner according to critical and poetic principles later to be published in Biographia Literaria; Eliot’s Four Quartets mark the end of a movement from the myth of modern psychology in The Waste Land to a poetic form analogous to music.  These explorations, however, when brought into relation with the poems, produce curious conclusions.  Lycidas, we are told, is a poem “concerned . . . with the battle between the reason and the senses; between humanism and Puritanism; between the Renaissance and the Reformation conceptions of poetry.”  The Essay on Man shows that although Pope’s attempt to marry an empiricist theory of knowledge to a rationalist ethics may damage the logical congruence of the poem, it “does not destroy altogether the grandeurs of the poet’s vision.”  The Ancient Mariner simply discloses “a pattern of what might be called orthodox religious experience.”  The Four Quartets embody the view of “the poem as logos” and bring the argument to a close on the triumphant recognition that the poetic logos is “thought incarnate”.

For each poem there seems to be a serious gap between the “historical” exposition and the interpretation of the poem: the effect is to destroy, rather than to intensify, our sense of the distinctive thing each poem is, or makes, or says.  A sympathetic reader will notice how Mr. Brett demonstrates that patterns of persistent thinking and belief tend to assert themselves in the poems, though it is difficult to see why one should have expected otherwise.  Detailed and documentary objection could easily be raised against the claim that Coleridge had in 1797-8 already formulated the distinction between Imagination and Fancy.  But the most serious lack in the book is the failure to recognise – or in some way to delineate – a qualitative difference between discursive and poetic structures and relations.  Mr. Brett seems to assume that “thought” or “discursive thinking” is recognisable by content – an extra-poetical starting point that actually leads away from an inquiry into the possible structures of “thought” and “thinking”.  Again, we might not hesitate to agree that “The work of art is . . . like real life, but . . . it is real life raised to a higher pitch, organized and shaped by the imagination into a pattern that will stimulate and provoke the understanding.”  But when Mr. Brett, two sentences later, speaks of Coleridge using “the great characteristic device of symbol” there is a sense of desolating inadequacy.

Mr. Brett has some interesting things to say about the development of Milton’s style, and about the origins of Pope’s Essay on Man; and in none of the four poems does he fail to show that “the figured language of poetry mirrors its author’s philosophy.”  But we still need to see how and why in any particular poetic context the generality of “philosophy” can assume the vivid particularity of vision, and how the utterance of a belief profoundly held can make for itself a structure which is not discursive but poetic.  Also we are still in search of the poems.  Perhaps Mr. Brett, instead of allowing the theory to illuminate the poems, has used the poems as generalized evidence to “prove” a theory; and perhaps the theory is either an axiom or else turns upon some distinctions more intricate and radical than this book has managed to unfold.