Literary Criticism

Alexander Pope – Peri Bathous

In my despair for the state of the art of contemporary poetry, especially in light of the passing of John Ashbery, whose greatness was generally underappreciated, not only by the poetry reading public, but even by the majority of practicing poets themselves, I wondered whether Alexander Pope’s analysis of what he called “bathos” still matters, at least according to his purposes in Peri Bathous, or The Art of Sinking in Poetry, a prose parody of Longinus’ Peri Hupsous (On the Sublime). What Pope aimed to do in Peri Bathous (under the pseudonym “Martinus Scriblerus”) was pick a fight with the chief culprits responsible for the ill-conceived poetic fashions of his day, holding them up to ridicule by exposing their fundamental flaws, whether in grammar, diction, proportion, common sense or a general misunderstanding of the way figurative language is composed. Scriblerus introduces his scheme with a readily transparent ruse:

It hath been long (my dear countrymen) the subject of my concern and surprise, that whereas numberless poets, critics, and orators, have compiled and digested the art of ancient poesy, there hath not risen among us one person so public-spirited, as to perform the like for the modern. Although it is universally known that our every way industrious moderns, both in the weight of their writings, and in the velocity of their judgments, do so infinitely excel the said ancients.

NEVERTHELESS, too true it is, that while a plain and direct road is paved to their ΰφος, or sublime; no track has been yet chalked out to arrive at our βάθος, or profound. The Latins, as they came between the Greeks and us, make use of the word Altitudo, which implies equally height and depth. Wherefore considering with no small grief, how many promising geniuses of this age are wandering (as I may say) in the dark without a guide, I have undertaken this arduous but necessary task, to lead them as it were by the hand, and step by step, the gentle down-hill way to the Bathos; the bottom, the end, the central point, the non plus ultra, of true modern poesy!

Though a serious examination of poetic art is the professed motive for his mock-critique, his mordant irony is sharpest in its economic, social and political arguments:

When I consider (my dear countrymen) the extent, fertility, and populousness of our lowlands of Parnassus, the flourishing state of our trade, and the plenty of our manufacture; there are two reflections, which administer great occasion of surprise; the one, that all dignities and honours should be bestowed upon the exceeding few meagre inhabitants of the top of the mountain; the other, that our own nation should have arrived to that pitch of greatness it now possesses, without any regular system of laws. As to the first, it is with great pleasure I have observed of late the gradual decay of delicacy and refinement among mankind, who are become too reasonable to require, that we should labour with infinite pains to come up to the taste of these mountaineers, when they without any may condescend to ours. But as we have now an unquestionable majority on our side, I doubt not but we shall shortly be able to level the Highlanders, and procure a farther vent for our own product, which is already so much relished, encouraged, and rewarded by the nobility and gentry of Great Britain.

The corroner’s scalpal having been thus whetted, Scriblerus then proceeds with his examination from the point of biology and socialization: “The taste of the Bathos is implanted by Nature itself in the soul of man; till, perverted by custom or example he is taught, or rather compelled, to relish the Sublime.” Scriblerus sardonically observes “how fast the general taste is returning to this first simplicity and innocence,” typical of the “unprejudiced minds of children,” in an effort to cater to the tastes of “the greatest number,” the consequence of which is that the audience for the sublime has been reduced to “very few,” those “men of a nice and foppish gusto, whom, after all, it is almost impossible to please.” Further, it is “more chimerical to write for posterity, of whose taste we cannot make any judgment, and whose applause we can never enjoy.” Thus, we gentle readers quickly gather that the cultural corruption of art ensues when its “true design” is “profit and gain.” This was the root of the evil being done to language itself, as Pope saw it.

In one of his essays on the subject, entitled “The Trade in Bathos,” Keston Sutherland believes that bathos is knowingly embraced by contemporary poets:

The two kinds of bathos in innovative poetry are related to two different attitudes about what poetry is for. On the one invisible hand, there is what we could call the commitment to bathos. A person who feels this commitment, who feels that she has been committed to bathos, might recognize what Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson have called “the pathology of overdiminished expectations.” For Hirst and Thompson, who are critics of political economy and not of literature or language, “the pathology of overdiminished expectations” is “the political impact of ‘globalization’”. The commitment to bathos would involve feeling acutely how such a pathology does and can exist, while feeling also that “overdiminished expectations”, though pathological, are the only kind possible; it would be a commitment to the idea of freedom from error. Poetry of this kind tends to be thick with registrations of its own inadequacy not simply as language but as mere culture. It evinces an overdiminished but nevertheless inexpugnable desire for moral as well as ethical rectitude.

The second attitude, on the other invisible hand, could be called the affirmation of bathos. A person who wishes positively to affirm the presence of bathos in poetry, so that poetry can be written without the claustrophobic anxiety caused by the idea of ‘perfect’ or ‘adequate’ language, has several arguments to hand. It can be argued, as Nietzsche playfully said, that the way to confront “great tasks” is through “play”.[note 11] It can also be argued that if poetical language can reach a bottom, depth, furthest point or non plus ultra of abstraction from any material environment, then that furthest point ought always to be desired and attempted.

This is also a way of saying that the controversion of any general belief about reality is never in itself materially harmful. We can tighten the lens of Pope’s microscope until the world disappears completely, but there is in this no possibility of ideological sabotage, because we are free to interpret the disapparent world however we choose; and furthermore, it is only through such acts of radical and free interpretation that we are able to apprehend, if not totally to enjoy, real freedom. Abstraction is for this kind of poetry an encouragement to the freedom of error. This poetry tends not to regret, but to celebrate the idea of its inadequacy, and to reject the desire for moral rectitude which seems implicit in the very idea that language might be adequate.

Both kinds of poetry are acknowledged to be inadequate. For poetry produced by writers who feel a commitment to bathos, this is a treacherous fact to be resisted, perhaps by what J. H. Prynne has called “the intense cultivation of dialectical consciousness”. Prynne seems to regard the use of ideological language as an index of our exclusion from history. He writes: “All bystanders are by definition imperfectly observant, and mostly assuage this imperfection by climax outbursts of sanctimony. The complicity with bad consciousness is universal, though it may be argued that societies with more power to elaborate fanciful domains of individual freedom and purity of heart ought maybe to carry more of the guilt for their own self-deception.”

A “commitment to bathos” and the “affirmation of bathos” become discrete ways for experimental poets to resist or innoculate themselves against the socialization of “bad consciousness.”

In “What is called ‘Bathos'” (from Stupefaction, A Radical Anatomy of Phantoms), Sutherland examines the broader implications of Pope’s methodology in Peri Bathous, and then uses Pope’s lens to read The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Critique. Against Bruno Bauer and Co. (the “Young Hegelians”), which was written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as a satirical rebuke, inter alia, of Edgar Bauer’s German translation of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (1848). Proudhon and the French Socialists had complained that the individual worker possessed nothing and had no rights, despite the fact that he “makes everything, produces everything.” The Young Hegelians responded with a parody, claiming, according to Marx, that “the worker creates nothing, because his work remains individual.” In other words, the fact that a worker is a mere cog in the machine, that the work is only performed to address personal needs, and that is only evident when viewed in the aggregate with the work of others, is enough to deprive him of any resultant property rights and benefits. Marx responded that the fallacious arguments of the Young Hegelians “does nothing but ‘construct formulae out of the categories of what exists’, namely, out of the existing Hegelian philosophy and the existing social aspirations.” In support of his position, Marx goes on at length and in excrutiating detail to demonstrate how Bauer had mischaracterized Proudhon’s arguments and fashoned them into straw men solely for the purpose of interposing facile responses to knock them down.

In order to give desirable perspective to Marx’s position, Sutherland likens Marx’s role to that of Scriblerus in Peri Bathous, construing Bauer’s mistranslation of Proudhon as a form of bathos, as “language in the wrong place,” characterizing Marx’s analysis of Bauer’s self-fulfilling “scheme of antithesis” as a case where the “language of Proudhon” has been unhappily presented in the “wrong place: the world of spirit, scene of miracles and bourgeois consciousness.” It is “bad speculative thinking personified.” As Pope’s Peri Bathous does with its examples of failed poetry, The Holy Family serves up the impoverished language of Bauer and the Young Hegelians in a way that cannot not but fail to nourish the abstractions of their philosophical positions. As Pope saw an increasing enculturation of bathos in the arts for “profit and gain,” The Holy Family argues that the Young Hegelians “have supplied sufficent proof of their virtuousity in their speciality, the mass stupefaction [Verdummung] of person and things.” The only relief from this, according to Marx, was by means of a pancultural awakening: “The reform of consciousness consists only in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in awakening it out of its dream about itself.” Along the same lines, Sutherland progresses to a critique of capitalism:

What Pope, Marx and Engels emphatically diagnose when they make the speculative concept “bathos” out of other people’s poetry and philosophy is a specific pathological social type: the person whose account of reality must compulsorily be destitute of truth. For Pope that person had many social guises — the hireling, the dilettante, the fop, the sycophant, the reprobate, the Modern Poet — but underneath them all, at his most terminally profound, a single constitution: apocalyptic moral idiocy. For Marx and Engels the person right at the bottom, for now at least, because right at the top of capital, was the bourgeois. It still is.

Contemporary poetry requires a similar awakening. For as long as our poets see their aesthetical goals in terms of the securing of more publication, fellowships, reading gigs, and tenured positions, the art of poetry will go begging.

[Unfortunately, Peri Bathous, or The Art of Sinking in Poetry is no longer freely available on the web, although one can acquire an e-book containing Pope’s major works, including Peri Bathous, which I assure you is a purchase well worth its nominal cost.]

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