Essay on Poetic Theory

Criticism on English Literature. A Dialogue (1846)

by Margaret Fuller

Introduction

Born in 1810 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, Margaret Fuller was a journalist, poet, critic, feminist, and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). She was educated by her father, a lawyer, and at schools in Boston and Groton, Massachusetts; there are reports that she was translating Latin by the time she was six years old. Fuller became acquainted with the leading intellectuals of Boston and Concord, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, and she edited the transcendentalist journal the Dial. She taught school for a few years and then held formal “conversations” for women on a variety of topics. In 1846 Fuller served as foreign correspondent to the New York Tribune. She eventually moved to Italy, where she was sympathetic to the Italian revolution and gave birth to a son. Fuller, her son, and her son’s father, Marchese Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, were lost at sea off Fire Island, New York, en route to the United States in 1850.

In Fuller’s scripted conversation, “Dialogue,” two characters named Poet and Critic discuss their respective ways; their views are not entirely harmonious. The Poet expresses transcendentalist leanings, commanding the Critic not to approach him because when the Critic encounters nature he “pierces her mystery, destroys its creative power.” He asks the Critic: “What have thy measurements, thy artificial divisions and classifications, to do with the natural revolutions?” Not wanting to be labeled, and favoring love over thought, the Poet recognizes in living the quality of happiness and the “consciousness of Truth manifested in the individual form.” He utters a line that may today still resound with writers who have experienced scathing critical reviews: “At present you are but an excrescence produced by my life; depart, self-conscious Egotist, I know you not.”

The Critic counters that they are brothers and that he, too, claims his “place in the order of nature.” The Critic is a Seeker; he can’t help his need to “examine, compare, sift, and winnow” in order to better understand the standards he holds to be true, averring: “I cannot pass on till I know what I feel and why.”

A DIALOGUE.

POET. CRITIC.

Poet. Approach me not, man of cold, steadfast eye and compressed lips. At thy coming nature shrouds herself in dull mist; fain would she hide her sighs and smiles, her buds and fruits even in a veil of snow. For thy unkindly breath, as it pierces her mystery, destroys its creative power. The birds draw back into their nests, the sunset hues into their clouds, when you are seen in the distance with your tablets all ready to write them into prose.

Critic. O my brother, my benefactor, do not thus repel me. Interpret me rather to our common mother; let her not avert her eyes from a younger child. I know I can never be dear to her as thou art, yet I am her child, nor would the fated revolutions of existence be fulfilled without my aid.

Poet. How meanest thou? What have thy measurements, thy artificial divisions and classifications, to do with the natural revolutions? In all real growths there is a “give and take” of unerring accuracy; in all the acts of thy life there is falsity, for all are negative. Why do you not receive and produce in your kind, like the sunbeam and the rose? Then new light would be brought out, were it but the life of a weed, to bear witness to the healthful beatings of the divine heart. But this perpetual analysis, comparison, and classification, never add one atom to the sum of existence.

Critic. I understand you.

Poet. Yes, that is always the way. You understand me, who never have the arrogance to pretend that I understand myself.

Critic. Why should you?—that is my province. I am the rock which gives you back the echo. I am the tuning-key, which harmonizes your instrument, the regulator to your watch. Who would speak, if no ear heard? nay, if no mind knew what the ear heard?

Poet. I do not wish to be heard in thought but in love, to be recognised in judgment but in life. I would pour forth my melodies to the rejoicing winds. I would scatter my seed to the tender earth. I do not wish to hear in prose the meaning of my melody. I do not wish to see my seed neatly put away beneath a paper label. Answer in new paeans to the soul of our souls. Wake me to sweeter childhood by a fresher growth. At present you are but an excrescence produced by my life; depart, self-conscious Egotist, I know you not.

Critic. Dost thou so adore Nature, and yet deny me? Is not Art the child of Nature, Civilization of Man? As Religion into Philosophy, Poetry into Criticism, Life into Science, Love into Law, so did thy lyric in natural ordertransmute itself into my review.

Poet. Review ! Science ! the very etymology speaks. What is gained by looking again at what has already been seen? What by giving a technical classification to what is already assimilated with the mental life?

Critic. What is gained by living at all?

Poet. Beauty loving itself,—Happiness !

Critic. Does not this involve consciousness?

Poet. Yes ! consciousness of Truth manifested in the individual form.

Critic. Since consciousness is tolerated, how will you limit it?

Poet. By the instincts of my nature, which rejects yours as arrogant and superfluous.

Critic. And the dictate of my nature compels me to the processes which you despise, as essential to my peace. My brother (for I will not be rejected) I claim my place in the order of nature. The word descended and became flesh for two purposes, to organize itself, and to take cognizance of its organization. When the first Poet worked alone, he paused between the cantos to proclaim, “It is very good.” Dividing himself among men, he made some to create, and others to proclaim the merits of what is created.

Poet. Well! if you were content with saying, “it is very good;” but you are always crying, “it is very bad,” or ignorantly prescribing how it might be better. What do you know of it? Whatever is good could not be otherwise than it is. Why will you not take what suits you, and leave the rest? True communion of thought is worship, not criticism. Spirit will not flow through the sluices nor endure the locks of canals.

Critic. There is perpetual need of protestantism in every church. If the church be catholic, yet the priest is not infallible. Like yourself, I sigh for a perfectly natural state, in which the only criticism shall be tacit rejection, even as Venus glides not into the orbit of Jupiter, nor do the fishes seek to dwell in fire. But as you soar towards this as a Maker, so do I toil towards the same aim as a Seeker. Your pinions will not upbear you towards it in steady flight. I must often stop to cut away the brambles from my path. The law of my being is on me, and the ideal standard seeking to be realized in my mind bids me demand perfection from all I see. To say how far each object answers this demand is my criticism.

Poet. If one object does not satisfy you, pass on to another and say nothing.

Critic. It is not so that it would be well with me. I must penetrate the secret of my wishes, verify the justice of my reasonings. I must examine, compare, sift, and winnow; what can bear this ordeal remains to me as pure gold. I cannot pass on till I know what I feel and why. An object that defies my utmost rigor of scrutiny is a new step on the stair I am making to the Olympian tables.

Poet. I think you will not know the gods when you get there, if I may judge from the cold presumption I feel in your version of the great facts of literature.

Critic. Statement of a part always looks like ignorance, when compared with the whole, yet may promise the whole. Consider that a part implies the whole, as the everlasting No the everlasting Yes, and permit to exist the shadow of your light, the register of your inspiration.

As he spake the word he paused, for with it his companion vanished, and left floating on the cloud a starry banner with the inscription “Afflatto Numine.” The Critic unfolded one on whose flag-staff he had been leaning. Its heavy folds of pearly gray satin slowly unfolding, gave to view the word NOTITIA, and Causarum would have followed, when a sudden breeze from the west caught it, those heavy folds fell back round the poor man, and stifled him probably,—at least he has never since been heard of.

Originally Published: February 15, 2010

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 Margaret  Fuller

Biography

Sarah Margaret Fuller was one of the most prominent literary women of the nineteenth century, and is sometimes thought of as America’s first feminist. After a rigorous classical education in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, she sought out Ralph Waldo Emerson. A brilliant conversationalist, Fuller applied many of Emerson’s Transcendental ideas to women in a series of open discussions. These conversations, which included some of . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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