Robert Hass: “The Nineteenth Century as a Song”
Imagine a young married professor ensconced in the library on a sunny afternoon. He began his day listening to people argue against the war in Vietnam, and then, perhaps, he met his wife and three small children for lunch. It’s spring. He’s studying revolutionary history and 19th-century poetry. His mind sifts through the events of the morning: uprisings, outrage, a picnic. He reads essays about anarchy and the abolition of the state. Outside, someone is flying a kite in the quadrangle.
Robert Hass meditates on such incongruity in “The Nineteenth Century as a Song,” a poem published in his first book, Field Guide, written while he held his first university teaching job. Hass came of age in San Francisco in the late 1950s and early ’60s, during a turbulent time: the Cambodian conflict, Vietnam, McCarthy. It was a “monstrously inhuman world,” he wrote then. Yet Hass is not a revolutionary. He makes poems “for the peace involved in reading and writing them.” “Feeling human,” he says, is a “useful form of political subversion.” The pleasure in “The Nineteenth Century as a Song” is the poem’s easy movement across an uneasy era, the way it touches down on increasingly discomforting subjects as casually as a bird hops from branch to branch of a tree.
The poem unfolds in Europe, from about 1850 to 1870, also a time of upheaval. Aesthetically the world was on the brink of Modernism. Wordsworth and Coleridge, the great Romantic poets who found redemption in nature, had died. God was dead, too: Darwin had published The Origin of Species. Marx was penning screeds on state-run socialism. Workers toiled in wretched factories. Paris saw a revolution and mob rule. The French poets Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire, both active politically, were writing a new kind of violent, sexual poetry. Baudelaire was even prosecuted for obscenity (just as Allen Ginsberg would be in the late 1950s, in Hass’s San Francisco).
Above all this turmoil there was the sky, of course. Birds. Clouds. Everything that inspired the Romantic poets, and that inspires Hass—who writes often and in detail about the California landscape—was there. What role does beauty have in a time of revolution? That’s the question the poem seems to ask.
The opening image of orderly loveliness seems to say that beauty was thriving in the 19th century. Hass quotes the poet Verlaine (1844–1896): “How like a well-kept garden is your soul.” The soul is not in torment; it’s a pretty place to walk through on a sunny day. Right? Well, all is not what it seems. Verlaine was no stroller in gardens. He was a tormented spirit, a wife-beater and a drunk who died (not entirely unhappily) in a fleabag hotel.
The poem leaps from this apparently peaceful image to an imagined scene in which Baudelaire (1821–1867) shops for the ingredients of his dinner. His butcher
shorted him four centimes on a pound of tripe.
He thought himself a clever man
and, wiping the calves’ blood from his beefy hands,
gazed briefly at what Tennyson called
“the sweet blue sky.”
Baudelaire’s shopkeeper is a devious character, cheating the poet of a bit of change on a cheap cut of meat. But he must need those four centimes: France is in crisis. There’s a depression. This man can’t even vote—the voting privileges of the working class have been revoked. As a révolutionnaire, he has a lot more than calves’ blood on his hands. Still, life is not so hellish that a butcher in a stinking shop can’t admire a beautiful sky.
It was a warm day.
What clouds there were
were made of sugar tinged with blood.
They shed, faintly, amid the clatter of carriages
new settings of the songs
Moravian virgins sang on wedding days.
Hass lingers in that pleasant afternoon. Instead of rain, the clouds are shedding music (a song’s setting is its melody). What would a new melody for a folk song be like in the mid-19th century? Modern music has its roots in the late 1800s. Compared with Romantic and Victorian music, it is cacophonous and dissonant. Hass may have had in mind Gustav Mahler (1860–1911), who spent his childhood in Moravia and whose symphonies, some of which are based on folk songs, began to play with anti-tonality. Perhaps he also thought of the Paris premiere of the ballet Rite of Spring. The audience booed and hissed at the pagan orgy onstage and at the animal-like shrieks of the bassoon in Igor Stravinsky’s score. Now picture a half-dozen country virgins staggering down a forest path to a weird, sort of ugly tune. They are being delivered into the sexuality of wifehood and the brutality of industrial-age life, not a flower-strewn happy ending. Poor virgins!
Hass’s title announces that the poem, too, is a song. Modern classical music has melodious parts that collide with jarring ones. Hass has given us flowers and animal intestines, sugar and blood, leaping from the smelly to the sublime and back again.
The poet is a monarch of the clouds
This line is adrift in space, like—well, like a cloud. I like to picture Robert Hass looking out that library window. Writing is a solitary act, unlike a march on Washington, or on Versailles. Poetry can’t change the world. On the other hand, Hass isn’t bombing Bien Hoa. Verlaine and Baudelaire didn’t exactly help oppressed Paris workers, but they did write impassioned verse. Poets lack power. They rule over a kingdom of ice droplets. Maybe that’s not so bad.
With a simple ampersand and line break, Hass makes another jump, this time from France to England.
& Swinburne on his northern coast
“trod,” he actually wrote, “by no tropic foot,”
composed that lovely elegy
The poet Algernon Swinburne (1837–1909) was attempting to wield perhaps the only public power a poet does have: memorializing the dead, in this case Baudelaire, one of his heroes. The elegy Hass nods to is indeed lovely, but “trod by no tropic foot” isn’t. It’s clunky and silly. Hass is taking a jab at the way Swinburne sometimes chose words for the sake of rhyme, but he rolls his eyes affectionately, as if at an overwrought love letter written by a teenager.
and then found out Baudelaire was still alive
whom he had lodged dreamily
in a “deep division of prodigious breasts.”
In his elegy, Swinburne had imagined the dead poet taken up into the bosom of a Titan woman whose vastness could barely contain Baudelaire’s lusty, rebellious soul and whose heavy tangle of hair smelled like forests. All very noble, except Swinburne had made a mistake: Baudelaire was alive. As a big fan of artifice, Baudelaire would have loved that Swinburne turned literary tradition on its head, however unwittingly. What could be more droll and modern than elegizing someone who wasn’t dead?
Next, Hass stakes his claim for the poet again. He sounds insistent, as if trying to convince himself that art has a purpose, or as if he can tell what you’re thinking: poets traffic in beauty, but the world isn’t beautiful. It’s full of madness, war, and betrayal. What’s the point?
Surely the poet is monarch of the clouds.
He hovers, like a lemon-colored kite,
over spring afternoons in the nineteenth century
while Marx in the library gloom
studies the birth rate of the weavers of Tilsit
Hass has neatly conjured Karl Marx beside him in the library, reading the very book he may be studying himself. If poets are useless, what about revolutionaries? Surely they are more than monarchs of the clouds. But while Hass floats around in the sky, Marx endures a tedious afternoon. Being a revolutionary seems glamorous, but one spends a lot of time waiting around for weavers to revolt.
Hass imagines a different sort of tedium in the affairs of the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876). Bakunin thought Marx didn’t go nearly far enough. Forget any form of government, he said. People should live in communes, farm the land, and rule themselves. It was as sexy a vision as the Age of Aquarius, and as short-lived.
Instead of writing “screwing” or “fucking,” Hass has Bakunin “fingerfucking,” a transitional, even adolescent, kind of sex. Revolutions are transitional states. The old system is on the verge of being overthrown, and the new one isn’t yet in place. As it turned out, Bakunin’s dream of anarchism climaxed and collapsed without ever coming to fruition. Finally the “gentle man”
applies his numb hands
to the making of bombs.
His hands engage in the “monstrously inhuman” act of making war—just after having sex—in order to achieve an ideal of peace! Bakunin is fucking a countess while plotting a revolution to overthrow the ruling class to which she belongs. Hass may not be a political poet, but he does portray the inevitable contradictions in subscribing to any political ideal. By inventing the details of Bakunin’s and Marx’s afternoons, he has fused the political, the personal, and the making of art.
Joy Katz is the author, most recently, of All You Do is Perceive, a Stalecher Selection at Four Way Books and a National Poetry Series finalist. Her other collections are The Garden Room (Tupelo) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois). Her honors include an NEA fellowship, a Stegner fellowship, and a Pushcart...