America's Poetic Past

Mr. Joseph Bottum is the leading scholar of religious and cultural decline in America in our time. His two major essays on the theme are An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (2014) and The Decline of The Novel (2019). This juxtaposition of subjects by itself suggests an argument from historical evidence, that artistic production arises when faith declines, and art must decline itself as it loses the moral-psychological basis for its investigations, which religion provided. The public thing, religion, seems to be more important than the private thing, art, even for our self-understanding.

This thesis we can hold as an alternative to what we may call the left-wing or Progressive thesis, which is that art arises when revolution finally, deservedly destroys the authority of religion, leading to the long-denied flourishing of humanity. The conservative thesis seems to have both greater depth and more predictive power since we have no Progress so far as beauty is concerned, but fewer and fewer masters in any of the fine arts, old or new, and even the prestige that still attaches to the artists and critics fails to conceal the futility of the effort. But does the rightwing thesis hold any power to inspire artists or audiences, a vision for them to pursue?

As he is a critic devoted to the greatness of past achievements, Bottum is plausibly considered a conservative. He is also a poet, perhaps as a part of the well-rounded education once considered necessary to the flourishing of humanity. His new volume of poetry is called Spending the Winter, and it includes a cycle of eight poems of the same name, which I propose to focus on while inviting readers to enjoy all the poems.

America, the Almost Israel

Fall comes too hard against this shore.
What little summer gave, we get no more

The opening poem of the cycle, The Mermaid, is a poetic statement of a vision of American conservatism that involves three things now rarely put together, but which were once thought to form a unity. First, the history of America, its origin in the hope of escaping the troubles of the Old World. Second, the moral principles we now associate with Puritans, which made the escape necessary and, in a way possible, looking for a new beginning on the basis of a very dark assessment of man’s powers coupled with a bright hope in divine providence. Third, the nature of the American land, the Eastern seaboard where America was formed, where the providence and the faith would be tested as men attempted to make a life for themselves.

America, my sea-born land,
The dark Atlantic’s bright invention.
[…] We are alone upon the strand
And have no power left to boast
Of our escape from history—
Or history’s escape to us:
This new world resurrected from the old,
This providential, chosen place
Preserved for God’s experiment.
This almost Israel.

Altogether, this formed a melancholy sensibility that Bottum seems to want to master. We associate it with American Calvinism, with New England, the Northeast more broadly, for the longest time the intellectual leader of America, and still a home for colleges and, therefore, elites. Somehow, the descendants of the Puritans are not quite at home in America, but also cannot quite hold on to the faith that was the true home of their forebears. Hence, the softness of melancholy, and its self-doubt. Poetry is second guessing. When Bottum writes about the fall and summer, I think of the great Republic, now imperial, in its decadence. He keeps moving from the natural scenery to our moral drama:

The land is more inviting from the sea
Than sea will ever be from land.
What brought them out to dare the swell?
Long ago, men squared their sails
And sailed here from far away.
[…] Europe spilled its seed upon the water,
And the water’s sullen tide
Delivered us upon this shore.

To look back upon American history is to wonder why it ever happened. The Pilgrim fathers seem strangers to us, but it is not all a matter of ignorance, our having forgotten what previous generations knew, and our parents having forgotten, too. Some part of it is fear and some part of that fear is our experience, or our confusion about our situation now, which opens us up to Bottum’s thought: Adventure is a very dangerous thing, after all—the sea is infinite and heedless of human concern. What unusual powers of the human soul can lead to such a rare event?

As with other American poets, Bottum prefers here a plain-sounding English that conceals his doubts in literary allusions—consider the image of Europe’s giving life to America—which are likely to set his audience to think for themselves about the pride and the precariousness of this name, American, whenever they recur to his poems. One of the questions about this kind of poetry is why it looks at American patriotism as largely concealed or subsumed in ordinary life.

A slow squall sleets across
The sun. Justice looks like this,
Once mercy’s gone. Above the rocks
The seabirds scold as each wave breaks,
The thick swell slick with iridescent oil.
There is no recompense for toil,
Only punishment for idleness.
Hard consequence repays soft sin.
The noble meets the common death.
The good reverts to mean.
O America, my sea-born land.
My almost Israel.

Perhaps the Puritans and the New England landscape and climate go together—the harshness leads to introspection and ruins many beautiful illusions. Moral seriousness is one result of this harshness, but another result of it is the commercial republic that made for unimagined wealth and technological progress.

Poetry is dead in America’s institutions and can only live if people take it upon themselves to learn to enjoy poetry and discover the ways in which it preserves civilization and the possibility of self-knowledge.

This is the element of America that’s missing from this poetic vision and that absence seems to me to follow from the attempt to bring together morality and the land, which is itself an attempt to put mind and body together again. The land is not of human making and isn’t really in our power—somehow, this makes it seem a fit object for contemplation; the absent wealth-making may, contrariwise, exacerbate human restlessness, driving contemplation out of our way of life and, with it, educated awareness of the conditions of all our activity. Part of the melancholy of the poetic vision comes from the knowledge that although technology advances, we die nevertheless, each one, and are no better at squaring with this fact than before, or perhaps worse. Human progress is not as evident as technical progress; as for political progress, it’s at least doubtful, since we may be experiencing terrible decadence.

Spending the Winter

The cycle includes another poem in this somewhat Calvinist mood, We meet our griefs. This reads like we expect a poem to read—it reminds us of Frost and, more, of Auden; perhaps some readers will also be reminded of Larkin. The poetic devices educated lovers of poetry especially enjoy—rhythm, sounds, including rhymes, and the alternation of longer and shorter sentences—everything works together to encourage the audience to impersonate the poem, to usurp, with pleasure, a perspective from which the bitterness of human things is, if not mastered, then comprehended. There is something pithy and something witty in this way of writing; it was once treasured, but it is now a neglected heritage. We may say that the moral importance of the observations is conveyed by the very unusual decision to narrate the poem in the first person plural rather than singular.

We meet our griefs again when work is through
And do with words what little words can do.
[…] Our faults were manifest: the false called true,
A petty discontent with wrong and right.
For all such things we pay, but no sin drew
These hurts. It is our virtue they requite.

The other poems in the cycle insist on memories, often of ordinary life, always private matters—there is not much to do in winter, but to dwell on the past; of course, winter is also an image of death, and therefore of old age. The poem Sepulcher, the only one in the cycle that observes rules of rhyme, rhythm, and stanza structure, takes that aspect of winter as its theme. Some readers may look at this formality as slightly morbid or even comic, but this may merely be an unreadiness to face the stark fact presented in this image, that our memories, as we age, fill up with dead people, while we know fewer and fewer living people. To have a good memory is in some sense to prepare for death and there may be something solemn or even sacred in that.

And I would grieve again. These days,
With no new places for new friends,
I see at last where labor ends.
I’ll latch the gate and find new ways
To wield my works, my hands, my days.

Finally, the poem that gives its title to the cycle and the volume as a whole also closes the collection. Spending the Winter is the longest in the cycle, at ten eight-line stanzas, rhyming in couples. It’s a meditation on life from the point of view of imminent mortality. Nature doesn’t seem to be so good when it is also in our nature to die. The passion for justice, the formerly notorious waspishness of the old men is very well articulated:

Cascades of fury: a murder spree,
A bribed inspector, a bargained plea,
A politician’s knowing sneer,
The sycophantic crowds that cheer.
We have no innocence to save,
Only the sweaty boy who gave
Another boy the knife to end
The life of a third they’d called their friend.
Burn it all, scorch the earth,
And cauterize the human hurt.

Ordinary events turn out to involve both the political and personal questions of great importance, but it is the personal question that is taken up here, as much as the political one dominated the beginning of the cycle. The poem moves from dark imaginations of justice to sunny imaginations of pleasure and then to something like therapy, a purging of the mind of the dark passions. The cause or the effect of this liberation is the memory of a well-lived life, the most important consolation of decent men.

Reading Poetry

The best one can do in introducing poetry to an audience is to hint at the importance of reading it and dwelling on the reading—much is left to the reader’s intelligence and flair, the ability to notice and enjoy what is not obvious, but is of obvious importance. I hope my interpretations above serve as a guide.

Bottum writes his lines with the sureness of the professional and readers are therefore guaranteed to enjoy reading Spending the Winter. The deeper ambitions of the volume are harder to describe. At various points, Bottum advertises a desire to imitate and thus revive various old poetic and linguistic forms, hinting at the mixed German and Latin—and therefore also pagan and Christian—past of the English language Americans call their own; there are also poems on Christian themes.

Admirers of Bottum’s important essays on our cultural and spiritual troubles will discover his hints at the history of civilization more easily and, I hope, will find the poems even more enjoyable. I believe we could use more poets who look to the past for an education and then attempt to make persuasive, thoughtful art. Poetry is dead in America’s institutions and can only live if people take it upon themselves to learn to enjoy poetry and discover the ways in which it preserves civilization and the possibility of self-knowledge.


St Louis 1918

Rediscovering Home

If much of T.S. Eliot's work expresses a tragic sense of cosmic homelessness, just as much anticipates a reconciliation with our origins.