Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Moral and the Aesthetic, Recently

On Frederick Seidel and Robert Hass.

by D. H. Tracy

Two snippets, one from Frederick Seidel and one from Robert Hass:

Italy, your women are Italian!
Your motorcycles are women.
Milan, your men are high-heeled women.
Bologna, your brown arcades
Are waterfalls of shade.
Fascist Italy was ice cream in boots.
crema straddled the world.
It licked south in the heat.
It licked its boot.
           From “Italy” by Frederick Seidel

Walking home in the slant, widening,
Brilliant northern light that falls
On the new-leaved birches and the elms,
Nightingales singing at the first, subtlest,
Darkening of dusk, it is a trick of the mind
That the past seems just ahead of us,
As if we were being shunted there
In the surge of a rattling funicular.
Flash forward: firebombing of Hamburg,
Fifty thousand dead in a single night,
“The children’s bodies the next day
Set in the street in rows like a market
In charred chicken.”
            —From “Bush’s War” by Robert Hass

Seidel’s predicament here, if you can call it that, is to not quite be able to enjoy Italy for what it is, nor on the other hand to be able to relate what it is to what it was. The materials that get his attention—high heels, arcades, motorcycles—have it in them to parody Fascism but not to make it intelligible. In Hass’s poem, the leafing woods and the singing nightingales make a slightly embarrassing setting for a meditation on atrocity, and the environment is abruptly reset to match more closely the tenor of his subject. In the sense of these divisions, each of these passages contains distinct aesthetic and moral casts of mind, and I want to consider how and with what consequences poets seem to be weighting the two. The terms “moral” and “aesthetic” are philosophically slippery, but I suspect most poets (and certainly these poets) have a strong intuition for the two domains: the aesthetic is sensuous and the moral abstract; one tends to description, the other to prescription; one hews to percept, the other precept. The trajectory of the aesthetic is to deepen and bloom, without regard for its earthly use (it is said to be “non-instrumental”). The moral, one senses, is beholden to something beyond pleasure and so may ramify in unpredictable and potentially off-putting ways. The terms are commonly connected to “delight” and “instruction,” but I will use them here to refer to the more fundamental matter of the writer’s focus, rather than to qualities of the rhetoric or verse—roughly, the aesthetic wanders around Bologna with an ice cream cone and the moral ruminates on its Fascist past.

There is no shortage of ice cream cones in either of these poetssensuous experiences run up and down them both, and I think it is fair to say the aesthetic is their dominant mode, by volume. Both of them are in some doubt, though, as to whether pleasure is fundamentally meaningful, and so the moral intermittently surfaces, with desultory effects. Seidel’s transition from architectural appreciation to Fascism is jumpy, because there is nothing else it can be; he has no continuous way of getting from A to B. Hass too has problems turning one mode into the other, and in the event it is a “trick of the mind”—that is, an explicit failure of perceptionthat introduces the moral. With limited means of making the aesthetic relevant, it seems the only possible operating relationship between the two is ironicala regretful and alienating irony in Hass, an aggressive and burlesque one in Seidel. The poets are left making statements that large portions of their beings somehow cannot or do not bear on.

Anne Winters’s The Mill-Race” begins, at least, in similar straits. We are in a churchyard by Wall Street; a thunderstorm is brewing as five o’clock rolls around. A crowd of office workers piles onto the bus:

one girl with shocked-back ash hair, lightened eyebrows;
one face from Easter Island, mauve and granitic;
thigh on thigh, waist by waist; the elbow’s curlicue and the
   fingers’; elbow-work, heel-work,
are suddenly absorbed in the corduroyed black rubber stairs of
   the bus. Humid
sighs, settlings, each face tilts up to the windows’
shadowless yards of mercuric green plate glass. An
interspace then, like the slowing of some rural
water-mill, a creaking and dipping pause
of black-splintered paddles.
           From “The Mill-Race”

The “interspace,” like the “trick of the mind,” shoos the aesthetic being to make way for the moral one. We are not to expect, it says, that description will be the point. In its wake, Winters can begin to lay out her conceit for the exploitation of labor (the mill-race), in the same way that Hass begins his litany. The aesthetic and moral sensibilities feel mutually estranged; one is reduced to a sort of opening act for the other. In Winters’s more complicated case, I think the disjunction in “The Mill-Race” is atypical, and I will come back to this poem later.

At an extreme, there may be no opening act at all. Adam Kirsch:

While bishops in the Tower were martyrized
For creeds their congregations couldn’t spell,
And pure Dissenters saw the unbaptized
In an eagerly delineated Hell;
While country families sent their duller sons
To keep an empire’s neck under the boot,
And city millionaires extracted fortunes
From showers of carcinogenic soot—
Someone was always listening to birds,
Thinking of evening or a woman’s name,
And trying to get something into words
Which is England, golden now and without blame.
           —From Palgrave’s Golden Treasury

The precise tone of this I find difficult to gauge, but it is plausibly disgusted. Not only is it entirely moral, but its point is the indictment of the aesthetic. If you accept Kirsch’s given, that listening to birds bears no relationship to martyrization, its style is in some sense appropriate. The pattern in all of these examples (including this one) seems to be the poet’s internalizing some version of Kirsch’s indictment—not an atrophy, necessarily, of aesthetic powers or interests, but a deference, withdrawal, or yielding of the aesthetic whenever it should meet or threaten to meet the moral.

Taken as a development, this pattern may not be bad. Kierkegaard warns that “the person who chooses the esthetic after the ethical has become manifest to him is not living esthetically, for he is sinning” (Kirsch has quoted this). When aesthetics first appeared by name in the mid-eighteenth century, it had nothing to do yet with the appreciation of music or painting, and was explicitly a study of “lower cognition,” the sensation and passion that presumably stood in no meaningful relation to truth. Perhaps it is good discretion to subdue the aesthetic when reaching for moral consequence; perhaps, when push comes to shove, the moral is just metaphysically higher, and the depreciation of the aesthetic is the price of responsibilitythe tribute, so to speak, that beauty pays to virtue. On the other hand, when two such strong forces are lopsided in a poet there is the possibility that certain capacities for good, capacities that depend on their cooperation, are lost. Why might one ask that the moral and the aesthetic be on something like equal terms? What is on the other side of the ledger?

Here is the ending of Alfred Corn’s elegy for Coventry, bombed to destruction in 1940, and for Coventry’s elegists:

Black swallows rise and circle as bells chime
the congregants inside at Evensong,
as if war had been a rough-hewn cornerstone
in the edifice of Common Market peace.

Et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Owen, Britten, Pears, all three moved out
of earshot to that other Coventry,
attendants of the blessed lady, prompted
perhaps by music’s blinding insights. Is it
because an icon forfeits all privacy
that every bystander at last is tempted,
eye at keyhole or shutter? This means you,
Peeping Tom, and I, and you, oh,
on fire to see the last thing we will ever see.
           From Coventry

(Benjamin Britten wrote his War Requiem, incorporating Wilfred Owen’s poetry, for the consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral; Pears, tenor vocalist and Britten’s partner, was one of the soloists at the premiere.)

There are indications here of a differently conceived role for the aesthetic, and evidence, I think, of its redounding to this poem’s benefit. A worse poem would have created two categories, “the war” and “now,” and announced to us which one the placid birds, bells, and congregants belonged to. Corn does something stranger, imagining a contiguousness of circumstance in which there is no other, more superficial reality for sense-perceptions to belong to. Since there is a thread understood to join the visible peace with the commemorated disaster, perceptions of that peace move in the right direction, towards the disaster and not away; the aesthetic seems to be working for the same purposes as the moral. As the poem approaches the mystery of annihilation, the aesthetic, not having been left behind, gives the poet a kind of insight perhaps not otherwise available, namely, that a sort of prurient interest arises, probably unavoidably, as the moral intensity of the subject grows.

Through that keyhole, Corn has glimpsed (from a macabre direction) an ancient and contentious idea: that the moral and the aesthetic are related, overlapping, or even ultimately the same thing. Similarities in the two kinds of discernment, and in the traits required to be good at them, have historically suggested some grounds for parity. Plato believed they converged; Aristotle believed they didn’t. Lord Shaftesbury was the first in the modern era to link them, and his equating cultivation of taste with the pursuit of virtue found its way into the Enlightenment as the notion of “moral beauty. Immanuel Kant gives his elaboration of the idea in his Critique of Judgement, where he asserts that the relationship between the moral and the aesthetic is not one of degree, or hierarchy, or equivalence, but, fundamentally, of formal analogyin his famous pronouncement, “the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good.The dance of an imagination provoked by beauty—“free play,” as he called ithe saw as practice for those occasions when free will must be exercised, analogously, for the good. In this sense, aesthetic appreciation gives us a measure for how moral feeling relates to moral obligation, and the beautiful functions as a sort of orienting standard that life shows us in the otherwise abstract struggle for moral discernment:

Taste makes, as it were, the transition from the charm of sense to habitual moral interest possible without too violent a leap, for it represents the imagination, even in its freedom, as amenable to a final determination for understanding, and teaches us to find, even in sensuous objects, a free delight apart from any charm of sense.

It is this too-violent-a-leapthis “ice cream in boots,” this “interspace” and “trick of the mind”—that bedevils the morally committed poem of the moment. Its leap is violent, in Kant’s terms, because the understanding has to work without the example of the imagination. The understanding has to work by itself because the analogy of beauty to goodness is not, for the poet, evident or acceptable. As for what poetry looks like when it does accept the analogy, here is an example, almost the most elementary possible:

The shadows behind people walking
in the bright piazza are not merely
gaps in the sunlight. Just as goodness
is not the absence of badness.
Goodness is a triumph.
           —From Painting on Plato’s Wall by Jack Gilbert

This gesture itself may not seem to require any special equipment, but as strange as it seems to say, it is not easy to come by. Early in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, there is a section called “At the Tienappels’ / Hans Castorp’s Moral State” in which we receive this conspicuously unmoral description of the hero:

He was bathed spotless as a baby, and he had his clothes made by a tailor who enjoyed the trust of the young men in his circle. Schalleen took splendid care of his little treasure of neatly monogrammed underwear and shirts, which were tucked away in the English-style drawers of his wardrobe. Even when Hans Castorp left home to study, he regularly sent his things home to be laundered and mendedfor it was his maxim that no one in the empire except residents of Hamburg knew how to ironand a badly creased cuff on one of his pretty pastel shirts filled him with a terrible unease. Although the shape of his hands was not particularly aristocratic, he took good care of them, keeping the skin supple and setting them off with a simple platinum band and his grandfather’s signet ring; his teeth, which were rather soft and subject to damage, had been repaired with gold inlays.

From here, the leap to a preliminary assessment of the hero’s character is made without strain—not because soft teeth are a sign of mediocrity, but because having examined him we have some intuition for what level of unphysical detail to pay attention to. We begin to grasp his shape. In Kant’s picture, finally, as in these two examples, the aesthetic is relevant to the moral because it is a practical necessity to the moral’s getting on with itself. As philosopher Elisabeth Schellekens puts it, “it is the primary means through which we come to know what goodness feels like.” Kant’s case for the aesthetic is not at all airtight—among other things, it has trouble accounting for the goodness of things that are good by being bad, like Lolita. His critical system also comes with baggage regarding the universal validity of judgments, in the absence of which the beautiful’s symbolizing the good becomes a nice story—true, at some level, because he says so. From the standpoint of poetry criticism, though, the idea has some pragmatic justification (though I believe there is an unpragmatic truth to it) in the capabilities and felicities accruing to poems that accept the analogy, and the difficulties accruing to poems that do not—which often risk a desiccating abstraction, tend to struggle against a descent into prose, and suffer the embrittlement of an isolated act of conscience or intellect. Poems that know what goodness feels like, and have a moral purpose in mind as well, are recently rare (this is, after all, my point), but when they do exist they tend to benefit, like Corn’s poem, from having another realm available from which to understand the processes of their own judgment. With two points to shift weight between, a perspective on oneself as a moral being in time becomes possible:

Tobacco, he was told, paid for your education and all along the
that afternoon, grasshoppers sprang up from his footsteps
and shook faint ripples through the amethyst air of late July.
He stumbled down a slope of fescue, through sawbriars
and the mesh of the tree line; he entered the weedbeds
at the water’s crumpling edge; he entered the creek,
that plane of sliding liquid, and he stepped over rocks
that split and swiveled it. He has not forgotten that day.
           From “Nicotiana” by Davis McCombs

The “and” in the first line is unusual to the point of startlingthe poet explicitly yokes the two moieties, moral and aesthetic, and instead of taking up the parental challenge of the opening statement (which he never answers directly), goes for a walk. The free play of the imagination is realized, aptly, as wandering, and while this superficially appears purposeless or evasive, it is in some sense the calibration and development of his moral feeling, on which point his education may or may not have helped. While his very literary capacities are implicated in something morally questionable, he still possesses a means of meaningful response. “Not all of it,” g he seems to say, and not in the way you think. A more conventional poem would have begun with the description of the landscape, let thunk the line about tobacco, and then abandoned the landscape and tried to argue its way out of its own contingency. The poem as written is conscious in a way that an assertion of rectitude would not be.

The results of enfranchising the aesthetic need not be so gentle, though the sense of free play tends to keep a poem relatively supple even in moments of sternness. Here is Anne Winters again, later in the poem already quoted:

Outside Marine Midland, the black sea of unmarked corporate
waits for the belated office lights, the long rainy run to the
and perhaps on a converted barn roof in Connecticut
leisure may silver the shingles, somewhere the densely packed
labor-mines that run a half mile down from the sky
to the Battery rise, metamorphic, in water-gardens,
lichened windows where the lamp lights Thucydides or Gibbon.

In its traversals of physical and social scale, the passage is bracing and enthusiastically gorgeous, and yet relish is not the right word for its sentiment. Its aesthetic confidence seems to feed its moral confidence, and with the two principles in cooperation the poem achieves an ignition where increased pressure on one intensifies the other. The poem is in no danger of prose, and the poet need not expend energy worrying about the moral distractions of prettified language. The effect of this kind of liftoff seems to me, generally, at least slightly elegiac. It is the mode of much of late-period Geoffrey Hill. It is reached in a more cumulative manner in John Peck’s recent work, especially the “Letter to Hermann Broch, December 2001,” and (unrecently) in H.D.’s Trilogy, especially in the opening parts where she is physically confronted with the destructiveness of the Blitz.

As for why poems in the Kantian mold are comparatively rare at the moment, I can speculate but not much more than that. The relative ascendancy of the moral does not seem inevitable on the face of it. Supposing poets felt keenly the culture’s shallow sensuality and self-chastisements for it, I think I can imagine a nearby universe where they interpreted these as an underdevelopment of the aesthetic, to be remedied, rather than a corruption of it, to be worked around.  But this does not appear to be what is happening. The actuality is subscription to the fallacy of the aesthetic as anesthetic, and an asymmetry of sensibility which riddles the aesthetic response with skepticism while welcoming the moral one as ipso facto authentic. Yet, when fully imagined in their relation to art, the aesthetic and the moral seem to have similar potential for mediating among people and securing our mutual intelligibility. Both, Schellekens writes, are

deeply intertwined with our relations to other persons (past, present and future), not merely in terms of thought, action and reaction, but also in respect of the opportunities we want to enable them to have and the kind of experiences we want to be available to them. One could say that aesthetic and moral value puts our lives in a certain kind of perspective, one that is simultaneously internal to humankind and yet external to our individual selves.

Something sounded almost familiar about this formulation, and it eventually struck me how well the statement fares when you replace its subject with “poetry.” That trick is not so surprising, of course, if one conceives of art in the first place as a vehicle for aesthetic and moral value. But it suggests that poetry’s quasi-social functions depend on that value, and presumably find increased fulfillment in its variety, complication, and depth. In The Magic Mountain there is a throwaway moment when the hero goes for a walk, singing: “The bards do praise both love and wine, / Yet virtue still more often.” There is no stopping any of the three, but the first and second could be of more help with the third.

Originally Published: December 1, 2009


On February 16, 2010 at 8:06pm christine wertheim wrote:
D. H. Tracy makes a very important
point when he poses the question, “Why
might one ask that the moral and the
aesthetic be on something like equal

As he admirably demonstrates, many
contemporary poets appear to have
internalized an indictment under which
the aesthetic must yield “whenever it
should meet or threaten to meet the
moral.” Not only is this idea absurd,
Tracy implies, it leads to lopsided,
“abstract” and moralizing poetry. In
contrast to this, he argues for work,
like Alfred Corn’s elegy for Coventry, in
which the aesthetics of sensual
perception move in the same direction
as ethical rumination, namely towards,
not away from, an awareness of
disaster. “As the poem approaches the
mystery of annihilation, the aesthetic,
not having been left behind, gives the
poet a kind of insight perhaps not
otherwise available, namely, that a sort
of prurient interest arises, probably
unavoidably, as the moral intensity of
the subject grows,” (emphasis added).
Though other accounts of the aesthetic
could be given, ones that focus on the
sublime rather than the beautiful, I
believe Tracy’s point is spot on.

With its call for the ever-increasingly
novel and new, modern/contemporary
culture has engineered a state in which
the spectacle of disaster is often
inextricably linked with a sensation of
thrill and pleasure. In such a climate
any conscientious artist would want to
avoid being tagged a trauma-tourist,
hence the need to eschew the sensual
side of disaster in favor of its moral
aspect. But as Tracy suggests, this
does not work: firstly because it leads
to bad poetry, second because the lack
of sensual delight does not negate the
prurience. It simply covers it over. The
more genuinely ethical approach, as
Tracy suggests, is to recognize our
prurient sense of enjoyment in these
spectacles and face it for what it is.

Whether such honesty reveals an
analogy between the good and the
beautiful I cannot say. It seems to fall
more on the side of Lolita, one of those
“things that are good by being bad.”
But, in a world where every disaster
has become at least a potential site for
our “developed” (world) pleasure, an
exploration of this type of con-fusion
between the aesthetic and the ethical is
absolutely essential.

On January 5, 2011 at 12:26pm Henry Gould wrote:
This is a very fine essay, insightful & true. Reminds me of Wallace Stevens' remark, that "the spirit of poetry" is the "companion of the conscience."

Ethics & aesthetics meet, after all, in happiness - the moral freedom of the clear conscience (whereas pleasure, as a category of experience, is morally indifferent, neither here nor there). Such happiness does not reject pain & suffering, but rather comprehends them ("A tear is an intellectual thing..."). Maybe a better word for it is "peace" (that peace "which passeth understanding").

I think you are a little too hard on "Lolita". There Nabokov anatomizes & judges evil, in the same way that Shakespeare does in the tragedies & tragi-comedies... the glaring spectacle, the scandal of evil serves as art's poisonous bait, its pharmakon... a means toward possible redemption (through understanding).

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This prose originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

December 2009


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D.H. Tracy's poetry and criticism appear widely. He lives in Illinois.

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