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This item is taken from PN Review 14, Volume 6 Number 6, July - August 1980.

Letters
We print here a small selection of the several hundred letters received in response to PNR 13. All but a very few of the letters supported our stand. We print in this issue (and will print in PNR 15) the dissenting letters we have received.

Dear Sir: May I congratulate you and Dr Martin most warmly on PNR 13 which is a truly impressive document and apparently quite unanswerable!

I wrote to let you know that I am willing to sign any further petition or supplement. I hope that the frustrated laity may be able somehow to show their feelings, especially in the light of the sentiments expressed by the clergyman during the Synod debate which did not measure up to his Christian calling.

I do not think that the large majority amongst the clergy in favour of Series-3-revised would be anything like that if a referendum were taken amongst the laity. Is that the next step?

It was also interesting to hear on 'Sunday' on the BBC that the essays in PNR were accounted 'intemperate'.

I think that the important nub of the whole matter is that the laity are aware of their rights and able to have the BCP if they wish it. So many priests appear to me to insist on the revised forms, either kindly or not so kindly, and take little notice of the needs of their parishioners. This is short-sighted though, because they will slowly lose their support in many cases.
DR. FRANCIS JACKSON
Master of the Music, York Minster

Dear Sir: May I send my name, as one who is very concerned with upholding the doctrine enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer 1662, which according to Canon A5 is:-'The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and the Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal.'

I am a lay member of the General Synod and I was the only one who spoke in support of the Petition presented at the November Session 1979. My husband, now a country rector, has the services laid down in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer in both his churches-Horton and Little Sodbury. For twenty years he served in the Royal Air Force as a Chaplain. Never has he found the B.C.P. or the Authorized Version of the Scriptures inadequate-which was claimed by a certain professor in General Synod. He will not touch the New Series Services, nor any other version of the Scriptures. Our congregations are not all elderly people-many children, teenagers and young adults attend because they love the A.V. and the Prayer Book.

The new Alternative Service Book is to be an alternative to the Book of Common Prayer 1662. If the Prayer Book is pushed out or relegated to times when few can attend anyway, this is no alternative: it is a substitute, and is contrary to the condition laid down when Parliament (I must say without consideration of the consequences) passed the Worship and Doctrine Measure.

Not only is the language changed into what is termed 'modern', but the doctrine is subtly changed-which is inevitable with the choice of words. The beauty of the language of the Authorised Version and the Book of Common Prayer is an ideal vehicle for a reverent approach to our Almighty God and Saviour in repentance and worship. This is totally lacking in the modern-language liturgy.

A nationwide petition should be organised as there are so many who feel this way and have already left attending the Anglican churches for the reason that the Prayer Book Liturgy is mostly not used. There is pressure from the hierarchy to keep the younger generation ignorant of the Cranmer Liturgy in schools and theological colleges. The former Doctrinal Commission and the Liturgical Commission worked together in producing the New Series Liturgy. Anyone reading the official report of that Doctrinal Commission Christian Believing must see the direction in which these new services are taking us.
MRS J. L. ENSOR
Horton Rectory, Chipping Sodbury, Bristol

From the Horton Rectory newsletter:


'Forward the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though each signatory knew
The Church had blundered:
Theirs was to make reply,
Theirs was not to reason 'Why?'
[. . .] Into the valley of
wroth Rode the Six Hundred.

Canon to the right of them,
Canon to the left of them,
Canon in front of them,
Volleyed and thundered . ..

 
Dear Sir: On page 63 of PNR 13-Crisis for Cranmer and King James-you invite those sympathetic with the petitions to write to you.

I should be happy to be associated with the petitions.
GARTH TURNER
Leasehold Canon and Precentor of Manchester Cathedral

Dear Sir: A good many people are dissatisfied, and more may become dissatisfied, with the actual texts that we are asked to use as alternative services. Nevertheless, none of the criticisms this produces makes the BCP a better liturgy than it really is, nor does it disqualify the very powerful reasons for wanting alternatives to it. I think it is generally agreed by historians that the BCP (in its successive editions) has never really suited the mind of the church but has been defended by some for fear that others would only destroy what was worth preserving in it. This tension had reached a critical point in the 1950s and 1960s when the Parish Communion Movement was making considerable strides on the basis of insights of which the PB tradition knew little or nothing. For the first time in Anglican liturgy it seemed possible to produce a new Eucharistic Liturgy based on general desire for regular eucharistic worship, rather than on suspicion of it, and in the light of both scholarly evidence and pastoral experience. That is why the really very conservative body of Anglican clergy gave the new alternative such a welcome.

There is a general problem about 'alternative services'. The BCP was not devised to be an alternative to something else, nor can it have its full effect (whatever that may be) when it is used in that way. The general effect of using alternative rites is to make all rites less institutional-less reliable indicators of the mind of the Church, or educational and social points of reference.

In practice, most people, especially lay people, seem to find that their tolerance of alternatives is pretty low, and want to settle down with whatever is provided. The result is that a reasonable experimental use of a new rite becomes a settled use of the same rite by sheer inertia. I wonder whether a sociological consider-ation of the idea of experimental liturgy would not show that this is inevitable.

Insofar as your petitioners seem to hope that BCP and AV can continue to exercise a vital cultural effect, and perhaps attract people to the church, I would venture to say that this was a forlorn hope even before Series 2 was produced. They are indeed cultural treasures of a kind, but the treasures of a select population which on the whole does not need regular public experience of these texts to remain sensitive to the values they embody. The idea that they can be simply 'explained' to the ignorant overlooks the distinction between education and hermeneutics. The regular use of them in church implies a hermeneutical task of a kind that many pastors would regard as unnecessary and wasteful of scarce energy.
THE REVEREND KENNETH MASON
Director: Canterbury School of Ministry

Dear Sir: I could hardly believe my eyes when I read the statement printed on the back cover of PNR 13. As the son of a parson, and a friend of a number of parsons of different denominations, I am amazed that PNR could sink to the patronising sentimentality of 'the clergy as they live quietly sacrificial lives'. It reminds me of the description of George Herbert in the introduction to the 1907 edition of his poetry, published in the World's Classics Series, quoted by T. S. Eliot in his pamphlet on George Herbert:


Here, as the cattle wind homeward in the evening light, the benign, white-haired parson stands at his gate to greet the cowherd, and the village chimes call the labourers to evensong. For these contented spirits, happily removed from the stress and din of contending creeds and clashing dogmas, the message of the gospel tells of divine approval for work well done. . . . And among these typical spirits, beacons of a quiet hope, no figure stands out more brightly or more memorably than that of George Herbert.


Upon this, Eliot comments: 'This rustic scene belongs to the world of Tennyson and Dickens; but no more to the world of George Herbert than to our world today.' And that's where your picture of the clergy belongs, too!

What Eliot himself would have thought of the whole issue, I do not, of course, know; but I wonder, after twenty-five years of study and teaching of his work, whether Valerie Eliot's comment is not a little misleading. After all, the main emphasis of most of those whose observations are picked out for special attention is on the literary qualities of the Cranmer Prayer Book and the Authorised Version of the Bible, and Eliot wrote, in 'Religion and Literature', contributed in 1935 to a symposium Faith that Illuminates, of the Authorised Version and other religious writings:


The persons who enjoy these writings solely because of their literary merit are essentially parasites; and we know that parasites, when they become too numerous, are pests. I could fulminate against the men of letters who have gone into ecstasies over 'the Bible as literature', the Bible as 'the noblest monument of English prose'. Those who talk of the Bible as a 'monument of English prose' are merely admiring it as a monument over the grave of Christianity . . . the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered as the report of the Word of God. And the fact that men of letters now discuss it as 'literature' probably indicates the end of its 'literary' influence.


(T. S. Eliot, Selected Prose, pp. 33-4, Penguin, 1953)

For all the pages of eminent names assembled at the end of your issue, that comment of Eliot seems to me to be the essential point; and the Reverend Douglas Bean's letter to The Times (21 November) has, I hope, been read by these signatories. It is, of course, of great interest to read the opinions' of good artists and critics on the quality of the language of any book, sacred or profane; but there are two points which, I think, need to be made. First, that the writings of such artists as Shakespeare are solely works of art, however deep their moral insight. They are not concerned to develop, and continually support, belief in a particular interpretation of the universe and our place in it. The Bible is. Second, there is not only one beauty of style, as the poetry and prose of your Review has been publishing for some years now admirably demonstrates. If, as I believe, the language of the New English Bible is as fine in its way as that of the Authorised Version, and removes the obstacles to understanding that exist in the latter, readers of PNR should be spared the muddle-headedness and literary provincialism that PNR 13 evinces.

Might I suggest that it would be very interesting if Philip Larkin, who is, I think, one of the best poets in Britain today, could be persuaded to contribute an article to a future issue of PNR, in which he gives an account of the suggestions he made when consulted by the translators of the New English Bible. The issue could profitably also contain some articles by younger writers, especially some who could put the case for the language of the New English Bible from having heard it regularly read in church services. You could make it a better issue by leaving out any eminent names and using the pages for material of 'intellectual value'.
JOHN ELWELL
Bromley, Kent

Dear Sir: I can't help thinking it is rather a pity that the Petitions to Synod seem to have attracted more attention than the series of articles in the Review to which they were appended. I say this because Crisis for Cranmer and King James seems to me to be one of the weightiest and most devastating pieces of criticism ever to be trained upon the new Series and modern versions of the Bible. On the one hand it gives strong reinforcement to those who want to retain our Prayer Book and the AV Bible heritage; on the other it ought to be taken seriously and given a reasoned answer by the Liturgical Commission and its supporters.

As you say, there does seem to be an element of sheer madness in the quite ridiculous changes made in the Lord's Prayer-surely a case of change for change sake if ever there was one. And I fully agree that vandalism has contributed to the dismantling of
our liturgy. There may indeed be a connexion between this and the iconoclasm of William Dowsing and his fellow Puritans; but it is also, I think, a reflection of the vandalism that is so characteristic of the present time as well.

By this I don't just mean the obvious 'vandalism-here at Hale the Church was deliberately set on fire and almost destroyed by vandals two years ago; but the vandalism that has altered and destroyed so many of our institutions in the past ten years or so: i.e., the reorganization of local government (which in fact destroyed a thousand years of our history), our entry into the Common Market, the destruction of our coinage, metrication, to take the obvious examples. The destruction of the BCP and superseding of the Authorised Version fits only too well into this general pattern.

Already we are beginning to see that much that happened in the 1960s and early 1970s was a ghastly mistake: too late we may see that this applies to the liturgical revolution as well.

By trying to be 'contemporary', the new Additional Service Book is at least a decade out of date even before it is published- as dated (say) as the Beatles. My fear is that we shall be stuck with it at least until well into the next century, by which time it will be as antiquated as the cloche hats of the 1920s would be today.

Dr Geoffrey Willis, himself a former secretary of the Liturgical Commission, recently wrote: 'We should do well to abandon Series 2 and 3 now, as having proved a disastrous failure, and go back to Series 1 or the BCP; and then think long and hard, and perhaps after fifty years we might be able to devise something that would be a real improvement.'
THE REVEREND D. L. SCOTT
The Vicarage, Hale, Liverpool 24

Dear Sir: I recently purchased the twenty-fifth edition of a little manual Jeremy Taylor wrote during the time of the suppression of the Prayer Book-'in this sad Declension of Religion', as he says, '... the Supplanters and Underminers are gone out, and are digging down the foundations ... having ... discountenanced an excellent Liturgy, taken off the Hinges of Unity, disgraced the Articles of Religion, polluted publick Assemblies ...'.
ADRIAN BRADSHAW
Ardwick, Manchester

Dear Sir: I received PNR 13 at the November General Synod, for which I thank you. I would be glad to support any supplement to the Petitions, as author, lecturer, and General Synod member for the past twenty years for the Diocese of St Albans, as also Rector of the Little Munden, Ware, Hertfordshire, parish.

In this church we use 1662 Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion service. Our people tried Series 2 Holy Communion for some time, then the Church Council requested by majority vote to return to 1662. We hesitated a long time before using Series 3, consented, then after a good trial the Council unanimously requested to return to 1662. We shall not attempt Series 3 Revised.

Although ours is a rural village of a mixed type of people, congregations are large in relation to the population, but it is the young people who are foremost in desiring the use of 1662.

Last June, while in America on research, I attended the First Church of Christ (Congregational), Hartford, Connecticut, in historic terms the major Free Church of the Founding Fathers of that State. The service was Holy Communion, and to my surprise the Minister used the 1662 'Invitation', Sursum Corda, and other parts of the Anglican service. Talking to him afterwards I said how good it was for a British clergyman to hear parts of our service in an American Free Church. His answer: 'Never lose your Prayer Book, it is one of the most valuable treasures your country has.'
CANON ARTHUR BENNETT
Little Munden Rectory, Ware, Hertfordshire

Dear Sir: We the undersigned wholeheartedly and unreservedly support the petition set out on page 57, PNR 13, which expresses deep concern for the Authorised Version of the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
LITTLE LAVER PAROCHIAL CHURCH COUNCIL
Little Laver Hall, Harlow; Essex

signatures supporting the petition

Dear Sir: I am writing in admiration of the initiative behind the Petitions to the General Synod, and in total support of the views expressed. For some time, as an English teacher in secondary schools, and often finding myself somewhat at odds with the Religious Education Departments, I have urged the retention of the King James Version. Alas, the 'great act of forgetting' is nowehere more evident than among some of the most intelligent and gifted Sixth-formers in our schools.

Hardly surprising, though, since it is possible for them to have reached this stage of their education on a diet of strip-cartoon worksheets, quasi-sociological discussion groups and courses in Comparative Religion which, though they encourage some superficial sense of things being various, make few demands beyond what is necessary for the glib acquisition of general knowledge. The Old Testament remains, at best, as a recollection of Junior School tableaux-a kind of primitive costume drama-the study of the New Testament barely seems to raise the life of Christ above the level of 'The Story of Jesus', an episodic biography robbed of its mystery by being 'retold' in flat (rather than plain) English.

I fully appreciate the great difficulty of having to give any kind of religious education to crowded, often restless, classes in the one or two weekly periods set aside for R.E. in Secondary schools, but it does seem to me that the kind of muddle and diffusion suffered by many teachers (and experienced by children deprived of any challenge to the imagination) is directly related to the vacuum caused by the removal of a central, unifying text; a text as numinous as it is demanding, and which has been felt to be so by those who have taught and studied it, and are now appalled by its relegation to the stock-cupboard.

If the Authorised Version is not re-introduced to the classroom (because where else?), I'm afraid that R.E. classes may disintegrate further into random, impromptu discussion groups based on inadequate, simplistic material, and that the number of serious students who reach the Sixth Form knowing nothing of Job, Abraham or Samson (to mention only three names which are invariably met by blank faces when they come up in the course of my English Literature classes) can only increase.
JOHN MOLE
St. Albans, Hertfordshire

Dear Sir: The New English Bible was not intended to be a substitute for the Authorised Version, but an aid to understanding for those who needed it, as well as a text for scholars. I was a member for some years of the literary panel working on the Old Testament, and I certainly never thought that the new version would be used in place of the old-I should have been dismayed had I thought so.

For myself, I prefer the liturgical form of Series 2 to the Prayer Book Communion Service, but I find the ICET versions used in Series 3 very unsatisfactory-and the musical settings lamentable. I hope that the petitions may do something to prevent the general use of modernised psalms.
ANNE RIDLER
Oxford

Dear Sir: As a Catholic of the Roman adhesion, may I write in support of your No. 13? It had the ecumenical effect of making me realise how many Anglicans are in the same boat as those Catholics who feel bereft of their proper liturgy.

The Jerusalem Bible, I seem to remember, turns the gift of tongues of Pentecost into an ability to speak foreign languages. And ICEL is worried that 'man' is a sexist term.

One thing is clear to any translator: that the old translators had a real apprehension of the significance of their texts and of their task. Their task was to produce durable prayers for publicworship.
MICHAEL ALEXANDER
University of Stirling

Dear Sir: In his magnificent work Catullus the poet and scholar Louis Zukofsky manages to translate the entire works of that poet without making clear the meaning of even the simplest single line, while at the same time keeping more or less to the sound and cadence of the original Latin. Who better then to let loose on a really modern and up-to-date version of the Bible?
NICHOLAS MOORE
St Mary Cray, Kent

Dear Sir: The petitions have been criticised by members of the General Synod on the grounds that they are merely an appeal for the retention of our cultural heritage and, because some signatories have admitted to laying no claim to religious belief, that they are not important to the expression of worship in the Church of England. A careful reading of the articles in PNR 13 must give the denial to such opinions. These well reasoned articles and the six hundred names attached to the petitions clearly show the deeply held feelings of many of the leading people in our nation.

It is however the common people, the 'men in the pew' who make up the Church of England. There is among many of these a deeply held, although inarticulate desire that the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version of the Bible be used regularly in the main services of the Church. Many of us are convinced that this is not only because of the beauty of the language, but because in these the true doctrine of Christ's Church is enshrined.

Thank God that the 'six hundred' have given us the lead. We, the ordinary members of the Church of England, must be given the opportunity to respond before it is too late, and these treasures are lost to the young people of our nation. As a primary school teacher I can say that my pupils are beginning to know and love the Authorised Version. It is no more difficult for them than the confusion of the modern translations, and children respond to the challenge of the need to make an effort is something worthwhile is to be attained.
DOREEN G. COOKSLEY
Head Teacher, Horton C. of E. School

Dear Sir: If you need an epigraph for any subsequent publication on the subject of Crisis for Cranmer and King James, may I suggest the following lines from the second of Seferis's Three Secret Poems:


As pine trees
keep the shape of the wind
when the wind has fled, is no longer there,
so words
guard the shape of man
even when man has fled and is no longer there.


(My translation; it is better in the Greek.)
PETER HAMMOND
Principal Lecturer in the History of Art & Design
Hull College of Higher Education

Dear Sir: In the discussion of the old and new diction of the New Testament and the Prayer Book one important point, which has occurred even to me, a Hindu, is being overlooked. It is that religious sentiment, especially in its exultant form, cannot be separated from the diction (including sounds and rhythms) in which it was originally embodied. So even uneducated Hindus express their religious fervour in Sanskrit and in verse.

So it has been with Christians. Although the primary text of Christianity was written in the popular Greek of the day that Greek was imbued through and through with Semitisms derived from Hebrew through the Septuagint, and the Vulgate did not depart from that model. Nor did the A.V. Not only was its English not Jacobean, it was not even current Tudor English. Anyone reading the Lord's Prayer alone in Greek, Latin, and the A. V. versions will find that their rhythms are identical. The rhythmic pattern is derived from Hebrew and was not natural in the language as spoken or written normally.

So it is with the words. Nobody could have understood the meaning of the phrases 'Son of Man' or 'Kingdom of Heaven' without going back to Hebrew religious ideas and vocabulary. No Greek of the times, whether educated or uneducated, would have understood what the words 'Christos' and 'agape' meant in the light of his knowledge of the Greek language, without having the special Christian significance explained to him by a Christian preacher. Another significant example: the word 'poor' in the first Beatitude ('Blessed are the poor in spirit'). Neither in Greek, nor in Latin, nor in English did the word poor (prokhoi in Greek, pauperes in Latin) have any commendatory association: the connotations were always depreciatory when not pejorative.

This usage in the New Testament is pure Semitism, for in all Semitic languages the equivalent word means the humble and virtuous common folk. As I think, this is the only context in the whole of the English language in which the word poor has this association. The OED in its lengthy entry does not give this meaning of the word, and Webster's International gives the meaning of 'poor-spirited' as 'mean, base, cowardly'.

Even so, through the ages no Christian has misunderstood the meaning of the declaration. My point is that if the Christian Kerygma itself can survive in our age it can and should survive in its special language. You cannot make a shop-girl Christian by employing her diction.
NIRAD C. CHAUDHURI
Oxford

Postscript to AFTER THE DISCUSSION (PNR 12)

Michael Hamburger writes:

Our exchange of views in PNR 12 confirmed all my doubts about the usefulness of such controversies. Donald Davie withdrew the word 'genteel' thrown at David Gascoyne and me at Cambridge, only to make me the apologist for a Shelleyan 'ineffectual angel', 'fastidiously above politics', with a 'mournfully Olympian detachment', etc. The point I tried to make about poetry and politics was an entirely different one, and a little reflection about Milton or Blake, and the incompatibility of their radical theocratic visions with practical politics even in their respective ages, let alone ours, would have made it impossible for Donald Davie to cite them as instances of poets who would have rejected my 'doctrine' and 'contumely'. Nor is it a doctrine at all, but an inescapable deduction from such knowledge as I have of the work and beliefs of the most diverse poets. I could also answer Donald Davie's rhetorical question about my present position in British politics, but the answer would be of no general interest, though I agree with Donald Davie that 'the national situation is critical, is in crisis'.

All I wish to do here is to apologise to Donald Davie for one imputation, which he did not take up, in my earlier piece, the suggestion that he is not 'as ingenuous as he would like to be'. (By 'ingenuous' I did not mean 'honest', but unsophisticated.) What he writes about the 'poet's relationship with his potential audience' and his own immediate circle of friends and kinsfolk, who do not read his books, now strikes me as highly ingenuous, in my sense of the word, and I must beg Donald Davie to believe that this is not a sneer or a jeer, since ingenuousness is not a quality I despise. To ask, as he does, whether it is his fault that those near and dear to him do not read his books, strikes me as touchingly and disarmingly ingenuous, to the point of naivety, since the question assumes a community of concerns and of culture in this country that patently does not exist. It is also naive of Donald Davie to assume that, in the present state of affairs, a political party's politics are separable from its economics. Even Labour Governments failed to create a common culture in this country by educational reforms that would have separated 'high culture', once and for all, from `high class'. Instead, class-i.e., economic- differences continue to determine people's attitudes to those things that might otherwise constitute a culture, and that applies to intellectuals and writers who feel compelled to voice the philistinism and the prejudices of their social class, from which they may well be alienated, out of a misguided loyalty. (I will not drag any new names into this 'controversy'; but anyone who understands me can fill in the names.) That is the British sickness; and it will not be cured, but aggravated, by the present government and its divisive measures.

Though I also share Donald Davie's detestation of totalitarian systems, of the 'Left' as much as of the 'Right', I must add a correction of his assertion that fascism, 'both in Italy and Germany . . . grew out of socialism'. Italian fascism appeared to do so, because Mussolini had been a socialist. Hitler took nothing from socialism but the name, and that for reasons of expediency, not of sympathy with any socialist cause; and even in the name 'National' was the operative word. If Donald Davie accepts that correction, he may also have second thoughts about the 'national socialism' he imputes to Anthony Wedgwood Benn, whatever qualifications may be implied by the lower case letters.
 
IN DEFENCE OF HERMENEUTICS
A reply to Stanley Rosen's essays on Nihilism, PNR 10 & 11
David J. Levy writes:

What is the duty of an interpreter facing a text? In an age less sophisticated, or less sophistical, than our own the answer would have seemed self-evident: to discover and communicate the true meaning of the work. Ours is a different sort of time. Puzzles abound in contemporary discussions of the interpretative process and, against those who would return to a lost Eden of interpretative innocence, it is necessary to insist on the reality and relevance of the difficulties raised by modern hermeneutics. If today I wish to maintain that the purpose of interpretation is to discover and communicate the true meaning of the work, I must defend my view against doubters who will variously protest that there is no such determinate object as the true meaning of the text; that though there is, it is synonymous with the intention of the author and that this is unknowable; or, even, that there is no such entity as a text apart from the constructions which the interpreter imposes upon the orderless mass of experience.

Small wonder that Stanley Rosen in 'Nihilism Ten Years Later' (PNR 11) has attacked the proponents of such views as carriers of a nihilist plague endemic in modern civilization, which threatens our continued experience of order and meaning in the world. Rosen follows the example of Leo Strauss in tracing its origins to the abandonment of central insights of classical philosophy by influential modern thinkers. According to this diagnosis the essence of modern thought is its historicism. Historicism makes truth a dependent function of time. The historicist denies the existence of an unchanging human nature and, with it, certain perennial problems and mysteries of man's existence in a universe created neither by the individual nor the species.

Hermeneutics, as the discipline of interpretation is called, is described by Rosen as uniting technical virtuosity with spiritual superficiality: 'Hermeneutics has been both the cause and effect of the continuing doubt in the western world concerning the objective intelligibility of spiritual work.' Becoming more alienated from such work as a result of sharing no longer the ontological assumptions on which its meaning is founded and from which its truth is generated, we fall back upon complex methodologies of interpretation that threaten to turn the art of reading into a pseudo-science as sterile as it is arcane. The orthodoxy of interpretative theory which requires us to concentrate on the text as an achieved entity to the exclusion of any knowledge that we may bring to bear upon it from wider experience is, according to Rosen, a debilitating perspective. For what is it that moves the interpreter to probe the surface of the text if not the problems of meaning that it poses? If the text, attentively read, is the site of the difficulty how will further attention to the discursive surface resolve it? Rosen's point is that is a text presents problems of meaning, connected with ambiguity of language or incoherence in argument, then elucidation of the difficulty requires reference to elements that lie outside the text itself-specifically, to knowledge of human nature, which means, 'in the first and last instance', self-knowledge.

I share Stanley Rosen's anti-historicism, agreeing with him that 'History is intelligible only because the passions that motivate mortals are fundamentally the same in all ages' and that 'Works of art are accessible to us because the unexpected resolution of a technical problem is the resolution of an always accessible problem (and one that remains a problem after its latest resolution).' But the dismissal of hermeneutics and the identification of knowledge of human nature with introspection seems over-hasty. Much of the impetus to the development of hermeneutics comes from the insight that knowledge of the potential of human nature, and hence of ourselves, is, in large part, a function of acquaintance with the accomplishments of others. 'By their works ye shall know them' is not only the justifying principle of every work of literary or historical interpretation but a basic clue as to how we actually come to understand the nature of man. The appeal to introspection rests upon the argument that to look within ourselves is to delve into an individual of the species Man and that, as men, we share a nature or fundamental and finite potential. Shared nature is the precondition for understanding the work of others and if something in that work puzzles me it is ultimately within myself that I will discover the solution. To put it in a paradoxical fashion, in sharing a nature with others I am potentially any other man.

This I accept but is it sufficient? I am born a man with all that that implies for my nature and my status in the universe. The potential for self achievement is within me but whether the potential becomes actual depends on factors without. To an overwhelming extent I learn what it is to be a man by acquaintance with those about me and with the achievements of my predecessors. In both cases much of what I learn comes to me from the encounter with their accomplished works. I could not understand such work were I not sharing a nature and a world with its creators, but it is also true that knowledge of my essential possibilities as a member of the human race is enlarged by the encounter with the works and actions of others. As Hans Jonas says:


To 'know love by love' is not to infer, from my own experience of the feeling of love, what is probably going on in someone else. I may first be awakened by Romeo and Juliet to the potentialities of love, by the tale of Thermopylae to the beauty of sacrificial heroism. This is itself an experience, showing me undreamt-of possibilities that may or may not become actualities of my own experience. This experience of the potential, mediated by symbols, is precisely what is meant by 'understanding'! . . . The knowledge of other minds thus rests on the ground of the common humanity of men- in such a manner . . . that the common ground is effective, not by supplying parallels between what is there in the self and the other, but-by allowing the voice of the other to call on the possibilities that lie latent in the soul of man or can be elicited from his nature.


The work of Celine displays possibilities of humanity no less our own, unpleasant though the admission may be. And while Auden exaggerated in claiming that after Hitler and Stalin we know all things are possible, their deeds reveal a potential for evil which we would, I trust, be hard put to discover through introspection. The justification of hermeneutics and the central position it is now accorded in the sciences of man is based on the recognition that the works of men are our main source of knowledge of the nature of man. To abandon historicist assumptions about human nature, as Rosen urges, does not imply abandonment of the field of hermeneutics nor render the problems posed by thinkers like Gadamer unreal or unimportant. To claim that knowledge of human nature means, in the first and last instance, self-knowledge ignores what I call the reactive genesis of the self I aspire to know. By this I mean the way in which the self grows as it does because of the ways in which it is fertilised in its temporal journey through the world. The value of introspection is largely, though not entirely, proportioned to the openness of the soul who engages in it. Rosen believes that the insistence that our orientation be the text itself precludes appeal to the area of knowledge where the source of intelligibility lies, our knowledge of human nature actualized in the self. I can only reply that this seems to ignore the extent to which we know the agent only by the act. In knowing the creation of a mysterious creator called Shakespeare we are introduced to possibilities on which introspection would never have cast light. To know subsequently that it is our own potential for good and evil that is thus introduced to consciousness is certainly knowledge of the self but who will claim that attendance at the theatre is a type of introspection?

An impatient dismissal of hermeneutics based on an opposition to the philosophical tenets of some of its theorists prevents Rosen from considering the way life itself is the source of hermeneutical problems and, to the extent that to live is to mature through the encounter with the achievements of others, an implicit model for hermeneutic practice. A philosophy which makes hermeneutics a central concern and strategy does so because problems of textual interpretation arise in the way of philosophical knowledge and because investigators in the field have made explicit procedures of the essentially interpretative life of consciousness which, though fundamental to survival, have rarely been accorded the attention they deserve. The battle against nihilism must be fought within hermeneutics and not against it, for the unchanging framework whose outline we seek to know is perhaps only knowable through responsive attention to works which are the index of man's response to the order of being.

'PONTIFICES' AND 'PYROGRAPHY'

Marjorie Perloff writes:

I have just received my copy of PNR 11, in which James A. Powell launches a lengthy attack on my supposedly Structuralist 'misreadings' of specific poems by Charles Tomlinson and John Ashbery, misreadings that he takes to be 'not merely a momentary lapse from the text at hand', but the result of 'a theoretical parti pris'. I don't mind at all being called a Structuralist (although no one has ever considered my work Structuralist before), but since Mr Powell asserts that my commentary on Ashbery's 'Pyrography' (in Houseboat Days) 'utterly fails to engage Ashbery's subject' (p. 41), perhaps a response is in order.

Mr Powell's argument, briefly put, is that 'Pyrography' is not, as he thinks I claim it to be, a dream journey poem in the tradition of Rimbaud's 'Bateau ivre', but, on the contrary, 'a traditional Independence Day oration . . . s profound meditation, posing as a recusatio, on America's relations with history'. The poem, he notes, was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Interior for its Bicentennial Exhibition 'America 1976' and first appeared in the exhibition catalogue. Accordingly, he takes the title 'Pyrography' to refer to 'fire-writing' (Fourth of July fireworks), and suggests that the poem's theme is 'How might we "write the history of our time" . . . when America assiduously pretends that it has none'.

Mr Powell is against the sort of 'intertextuality' he believes I practice, but surely even he might concede that the way critics have always understood particular poems by a given poet is to read the poet's other work. If Powell knew anything at all about Ashbery's poetic oeuvre or indeed about Ashbery's critical positions, as those positions have been articulated in a whole series of essays and reviews, he might realize that even though 'Pyrography' was commissioned by the Department of Interior and appeared in the 'Bicentennial America' catalogue, Ashbery is hardly the sort of poet who would take such a commission at face value. Given such an assignment he would, on the contrary, regard the whole thing as a delightful joke, giving him the opportunity to refer to the Stars and Stripes, to fireworks and parades, to 'This is America calling', all the while adapting such traditional Fourth of July props to his own purposes. Such neighboring poems in Houseboat Days as 'The Other Tradition', 'Valentine', and 'Fantasia on "The Nut-Brown Maid" ' engage in similar play with historical and literary convention. Indeed, and I apologise for using intentional fallacy here, it might interest Mr Powell and your readers to know that, despite what Mr Powell takes to be my 'utter' failure 'to engage Ashbery's subject', Ashbery himself telephoned me, as soon as he had read the APR essay, to tell me that he was delighted to read an essay on his work that seemed to understand so thoroughly what he was trying to do. I provide this bit of extra-literary information only because Mr Powell accuses me all the while of cramming Ashbery's poem into a 'Procrustean bed' of my own invention and hence ignoring the poet's intention!

In my own essay, I argued that the poem records two mysterious journeys, one spatial, the other temporal journeys in which the poet tries to come to terms with his self. 'The journey', I wrote, 'is not only a journey across the American continent or back into "cities at the turn of the century", but the eternally present "journey" one lives through each day of one's life.' In the course of the poem, I suggested, pyrography, which is to say poetry, becomes the process of imprinting burning traces of memory and vision on a consciousness so fluid and amorphous that the 'heated tool' is likely to slip on the surface. In other words, the poem is a meditation on the poetic process as a continuous attempt to arrest the flow, the 'unravelling/Out toward the junctions' which is human life, an attempt just as continuously blocked as the 'stage-set' abruptly disappears from sight and one recognizes that there is nothing beyond 'these bare fields, built at today's expense.'

But Mr Powell reads 'Pyrography' as 'a recusatio on America's relations with history', and so his focus is on those passages that refer specifically to history, a focus that produces some peculiarly reductive readings:

1)'American history', Powell claims, 'starts on the East Coast, and moves westward (so does the night); its palpable presence thins as one travels west, until one reaches "the nothing of the coast".' This would be a logical procedure, but Ashbery is never so logical or simple-minded. In fact, the poem's opening setting is not the East Coast but Cottage Grove (the Midway in Chicago), and the original journey in 'carriages . . . drawn forward under a sky of fumed oak' is not the journey westward but some sort of theatrical performance taking place on 'a creaking revolving stage in Warren, Ohio.' More important, the Pacific Coast is not, as Mr Powell seems to think, the symbol of escape, of the delusion of those, like the Orientalists of Bolinas, who think they can avoid the lessons of history. On the contrary, the Pacific Coast is at once disappointing and enticing; it is the place where 'dreams alternately glow and grow dull', and in the poem's last stanza, 'The land/Is pulling away from the magic, glittering coastal towns'-the embodiments of the poet's desire.

2) The passage about 'fake ruins' and 'a crumbling stone pier' (lines 26ff) refers, so Mr Powell believes, to the 'Construction of pseudo-histories' as 'another means of evasion'. Here I would read much more literally. Why must the various architectural forms Ashbery cites be allegorical embodiments of 'pseudohistories'? It seems, rather, that Ashbery is talking about the structures we try to erect for ourselves, the fantasy 'open-air theater [s]', the would-be arches and piers that engage our imagination. Such construction of ideal dwelling places is a venerable poetic topos that goes back to Jonson, Marvell, and Pope, and there is no need to allegorize it there.

3) Mr Powell construes 'it' ('In the cities at the turn of the century they knew it', 'The children under the trees knew it', etc.) to refer to the loss of the past, the deprivation of a sense of history that America will not face up to. I find this reading oddly reductive. In its varied appearances in lines 40-50, 'it' can only by a ding-an-sicb, the 'substance that prevails', as Stevens would say, a substance that paradoxically cannot be named but which must be included in any account 'of the history of our time'. The need to name the unnamable haunst of the poet. Powell cites Auden's 'Easter 1929' as an analogue, but what he fails to recognize is that here as in such poems as 'These Lacustrine Cities' and 'Rivers and Mountains', Ashbery alludes to Auden parodically. In Auden's poem, 'The fallen children know it'-that is, they know unconsciously of the pending political crisis. But Ashbery's 'children under the trees' know no such thing. And that, of course, is Ashbery's point.

4) When Powell comes to the last verse paragraph of 'Pyrography', he throws up his hands: 'As Ashbery's poem turns toward its conclusion, the sense of the argument becomes progressively more clouded.' Indeed it does, Mr Powell, because there never was an argument. It is not Ashbery's poetic habit to argue. But, confronted by a passage that he cannot force into his Independence Day Oration scheme, Powell sidesteps the issue and blames his own failure to understand the lines in question on Ashbery's failure to make things clear. He asks: 'Does he [Ashberyi] argue that America can evolve a sense of history that will somehow subsume its evasions, maintain its "purity", its historical innocence?' And since the text provides him with no answers to this question, he concludes that Ashbery's lyric mode is too far removed from the discursive 'prose virtues' recommended by Robert Pinsky in The Situation of Poetry. So much for 'Pyrography', a poem that almost makes it but ultimately has too many 'difficulties'.

Yet, if one reads Ashbery's poems less reductively than does Mr Powell, one will find that the ending is perfectly in keeping with the rest. 'The hunch is it will always be this way', says the narrator. He realizes, in other words, that he must try, over and over again, to recreate his self by finding its origins, both in history and in geography, but that it will be his fate to fail, that there can be no more than the 'vast unravelling/Out toward the junctions and to the darkness beyond/To these bare fields, built at today's expense.' To 'pay' somehow for those 'bare fields': this is the poet's responsibility.

I wonder, finally, whose 'gratuitous mystifications' are greater, Mr Powell's or mine? In my own essay on Ashbery, I have argued that he is a poet who cannot be read properly unless we suspend our disbelief long enough to perceive that his is neither a poetry of experience (leading up to the expected epiphany) nor a poetry of statement, but a poetry of what Ashbery himself calls 'an open field of narrative possibilities'. To call 'Pyrography' an enigma text is not to say that it is meaningless. On the contrary, its meanings are so rich, so open, so 'undecidable', that we can never define its theme as baldly and as one-dimensionally as does Mr Powell. He might have come up with a much better reading if he would have taken as his given, the Fourth of July theme (fireworks, parades, burnished uniforms-all these are in the poem) and then tried to see how Ashbery plays with our bogus patriotic notions ('This is America calling:/The mirroring of state to state,/Of voice to voice on the wires'), how strenuously Ashbery suggests that, given the present situation, the poet can only make a separate peace.

Mr Powell prefers a more 'discursive' poetry than Ashbery's, a poetry that will have 'the virtues of prose, in addition to those qualities and degrees of precision which can be called poetic' (the phrase is Robert Pinsky's). It is certainly his privilege to prefer such a poetic to that of John Ashbery. But it is not, I think, his privilege to force Ashbery's poetry into a totally alien mold. Perhaps it is Mr Powell himself who inhabits a Procrustean bed. Or did he just get up on the wrong side when he wrote'Pontifices'?

James A. Powell replies:

A 'separate peace' is precisely what, given poetry's present situation, we cannot afford to make. Ms. Perloff's letter makes a somewhat more convincing (because much more detailed) case for her reading of 'Pyrography' as Ashbery's personal psychomachia-which indeed it is, insofar as Ashbery's participates in America's. But Ms Perloff prefers to limit the reference of 'Pyrography' to the poet's 'self', if not to the even more 'separate' realm of dream. In the course of offering what she calls a 'more literal' reading of such lines as 'The land wasn't immediately appealing; we built it/Partly over with fake ruins, in the image of ourselves', she converts first person plural into singular, and 'fake ruins' into 'fantasy'. I do not argue that 'would-be arches' are 'allegorical embodiments' of anything. They are facts of American architecture, and, though Ms Perloff will not permit it, we may, and 'Pyrography' does, investigate their significance, ask what they express about the America that built them.

This is not to make of Ashbery's poem a dour political tract. A recusatio ('refusal') never takes 'at face value' the terms of the commission it refuses to fulfil. Rather, while overtly excusing itself by asserting the poet's 'inability' to rise to the occasion, it covertly proves him capable of that ascent, and often quietly questions the postulates of commission and occasion alike. Ms Perloff would do well to consult a few examples of the genre (e.g. Callimachus, 'Hymn to Apollo'; Horace, Odes 1.6 and IV.2; Propertius, III.9). And as these references, and indeed my article itself, should make abundantly clear, I have nothing against 'intertextuality' per se. But I do object, vehemently, to the critical fashion which under this banner attempts to reduce poetry's field of reference to the poet's private 'fantasy', to other works of literature, and to the poem itself.

'Jonson, Marvell, and Pope' could afford to long for 'ideal dwelling places', places of retirement from the neg-otium of a public discourse, a res publica whose health their very longing affirmed. There is a kind of citizenship made of something other than 'bogus political notions', one which grants allegiance to something deeper than the governmental or even economic status quo, one whose fundamental incarnation is a common language. When Ms Perloff denies the poem's historical reference, its citizenship within the public realm, she enforces a ban of exile long since published by the traditions of a poésie pure. When she dissolves signification by transporting into 'dream landscapes' and private 'fantasies' the common world to which language refers, she assists in this tradition's relegation of poetry to an increasingly trivial place in the life of the commonwealth. Contributing to the disintegration not just of poetry, but of our common language, this tradition collaborates in the res publica's
present privation.

And incidentally, I notice that she does not mention Mr Tomlinson's pipe.

'Being liturgical-I must do something surgical.'

This item is taken from PN Review 14, Volume 6 Number 6, July - August 1980.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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