On Bogan’s “The Alchemist”

Bogan’s essay “The Springs of Poetry” appeared in the December 5, 1923, issue of New Republic, alongside Amy Lowell and Elinor Wylie, as well as Vachel Lindsay, Alfred Kreymborg, Witter Bynner, Joseph Auslander, and Archibald MacLeish, all of whom contributed to this landmark modernist issue. In “The Springs of Poetry,” Bogan criticized the “synthetic” poetry being produced by some of her contemporaries (9). A “synthetic” poem, according to Bogan, is a chemically induced objectivity, an artificial method for creating (or destroying) emotion within the poem. Her description resonates with Eliot’s famously chemical metaphor in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “The mind of the mature poet differs from that of the immature one not precisely in any valuation of ‘personality,’ not being necessarily more interesting, or having ‘more to say,’ but rather by being a more finely perfected medium into which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations” (40-41). Indeed, Bogan both conversed with and critiqued Eliot’s influential doctrine of Impersonality throughout her career. Like Eliot, Bogan acknowledges that direct, unmediated expression is neither desirable nor possible—poetry, she says, must always “be the mask, not the incredible face.” However, she also worries that too many of her contemporaries had begun producing emotionally sterile poetry—poetry like “a veil dropped before a void” (9). She cites, as a cautionary tale, the example of the contemporary poet

Determined to take a holiday from any emotion at all, being certain that to hear, see,

smell and touch, merely, is enough. His hand has become chilled, from being held too long against the ground to feel how it is cold; his mind flinches at cutting down once again into the dark with the knife of irony or analysis.

This “synthetic” poetry, she writes, “may sound…in ears uninitiate to the festival, but never to those, who, having once heard, can recognize again, the maenad cry.”

Against “synthetic” poetry, Bogan posits an organic solution, a formal poetic strategy she terms “reticence.” Reticence, she says, is modeled on the silence of the Old Testament prophets, who spoke infrequently, but when they did, spoke with tongues of fire. This is a poetics, she explains, “in which passion is made to achieve its own form, definite and singular,” “as though the very mind had a tongue,” and “in which the hazy adverbial quality has no place, built of sentences reduced to the bones of nouns, verb, and preposition” (9). “This is the further, the test simplicity,” Bogan concludes, “the passion of which every poet will always be afraid, but to which he should vow himself forever” (9). Years later, it was this distinctively organic formalism that Marianne Moore hailed in Bogan’s poetry: “Emotion with [Bogan], as she has said of certain fiction, is ‘itself form, the kernel which builds outward form from inward intensity’” (Moore 61).

Bogan’s poem, “The Alchemist,” which appeared in her 1923 collection, Body of This Death, illustrates the sophistication of her thinking regarding emotion and poetic form. Although Bogan’s theories are not entirely in line with her high modernist contemporaries, they are certainly not “sentimental” either:

            [“The Alchemist” quoted]

Bogan is not the first modern poet to have dabbled in the magical science of emotional alchemy. As Diane Middlebrook observes, “The Alchemist” tropes a long line of poetic speakers who embarked on similar quests for spiritual and aesthetic purity, including Shelley’s Alastor, Byron’s Manfred, Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy, and, in a modernist context, William Butler Yeats’ speaker in “Sailing to Byzantium” (Middlebrook 176). “Sick with desire,” Yeats’ speaker craves the purifying influence of “God’s holy fire.” “Consume my heart away,” he begs, “and gather me / into the artifice of eternity” (lines 17-24). Byzantium thus serves as a metaphor for the spirit’s transcendence of the body—that “dying animal” which impedes the speaker’s communion with eternity (line 22).

Yeats’ spiritual yearning—to transcend a decaying body and a heart that refuses to die—finds its aesthetic complement in Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Here, as in “Sailing to Byzantium,” the “bodily form” is tempered or purified through an alchemic process; for Yeats, it is the spirit that transcends, and, for Eliot, the mind that “transmutes” a baser, bodily substance. In Eliot’s quasi-scientific language, the poet’s mind functions as a catalyst, digesting and transmuting the raw stuff of emotion into a new, more “perfect” compound. “The more perfect the artist,” Eliot writes, “the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material” (41). Eliot’s Impersonality is not, as it is sometimes mistakenly thought to be, a method for creating an “unemotional” form of poetry. It is, however, a method for intellectualizing the emotions or “passions”—managing them, consciously, through poetic form.

At the outset of “The Alchemist,” Bogan’s poetic speaker seems to have taken Eliot’s advice to heart. “I burned my life,” she begins, proudly documenting the lengths to which she was willing to go in pursuit of an Impersonal poetics, “a passion wholly of the mind.” Yet, rather than a new compound—“the mind’s avid substance”— Bogan’s alchemy has produced only “unmysterious flesh.” By attempting to separate her intellect from her body, to transmute the base material of emotion into a finer substance, the speaker has not only destroyed her life, but, ironically, discovered that emotion is fundamentally more pure than intellect: “still / Passionate beyond the will.”

There is no transcendence to be found in Bogan’s poem, only the keen insight that emotions and the body cannot be managed fully by the conscious mind. Notice, for instance, the rhythmic breaks that disrupt the poem’s meter in the second stanza. From the heavily stressed tetrameter of lines 7 and 8—a “mounting beat” created by the use of iambs and trochees—the poem moves into the less regular rhythms of “unmysterious” and “passionate,” both of which contain dactyls that fundamentally alter the meter of those lines. In this rhythmic shift, Bogan models the unruliness of emotion—a trace of affective or bodily agency that has exceeded the subject’s best attempts at formal discipline. In contrast to both Eliot and Yeats, Bogan’s alchemy eschews a Western, masculine ideal of the mind, in favor of an embodied formalism. “Expression is molded by feeling,” Bogan writes, “as the liquid in a glass is shaped by the glass itself” (Achievement 25).  

Details

Criticism Overview
Title On Bogan’s “The Alchemist” Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Melissa Girard Criticism Target Louise Bogan
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 30 Jul 2013
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Oxford Handbook of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

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