Irving Layton, Pseudo-Prophet
by Peter Hunt
Irving Layton experienced a mingling of scorn and neglect in his earlier years as a poet. He responded to this aggressively, publishing in poems, letters and essays, violent and personal attacks on those who criticized his vision and craftsmanship. Anyone ignorant of those earlier years might imagine that he had always been favoured. Those who know the earlier story usually see him as triumphing over the opposition, getting himself recognised and read through the sheer power of his talent. For the casual or superficial observer either notion is excusable. What name in Canadian poetry looms larger than Laytons? Pratts may, and several others, perhaps Livesay, D.C. Scott, Lampman and Birney, receive as much attention or are as well-known. But to few poets, in Canada or elsewhere, can such uniform praise have been given by critics as that conceded to Irving Layton. His own exalted view of his work has been echoed by the judgement of most, if not quite all, the influential critics. Frye and Pacey lent their prestige in the fifties, Beattie (though often close to ironic unmasking of Laytons follies) gave his work substantial attention in Literary History of Canada, Eli Mandel weighed in with his book establishing Laytons own view of his career as that of a profound mythopoeic poet firmly in the Canadian Pantheon, and George Woodcock (though admitting Laytons convincing exhibition of his ferocity as a ring-tailed roarer in the little zoo of Canadian letters)1 finally paid his homage after an overseas journey in the congenial company of Laytons Collected Poems in 1966. Frye, whose verdicts receive that awe-filled attention which Canada alone reserves for its eminent critics, referred Layton in 1956 as the most considerable poet of his generation.2 But Weaver and Toye, whose Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature for some reason perhaps not unconnected with their devotion to Layton excludes such fine poets as Roy Daniells and Douglas Le Pan, went much further. For them, Layton is perhaps the best poet we have in Canada.3
It is seldom that such popularity with critics goes with a reputation for radical non-conformity, except in an incestuous literary milieu, and so perhaps Laytons attitudes and preoccupations suit well with the anxiously emancipated readers and critics who praise his work. If there is going to be a challenge to the judgements of these critics and to Laytons reputation as a poet, it will not come from the inside. It will only be part of a movement which opens Canadian literature to the fresh winds of a dynamic traditionalist challenge offered in other milieux by such minds as James McAuley,4 Yvor Winters, Allen Tate or Jacques Maritain. It is my view that Irving Layton, far from being a major poet, is, in fact, a major symptom of much that is diseased in the modern sensibility. But it will need a more drastic breaking of the critical silence that now surrounds contemporary figures like Layton than can be achieved in one article to shatter the spell by which a literary Caliban becomes a Prospero. Should anyone doubt the aptness of this figure, let him ponder the significance of this statement by a recent writer in C.V.ii:
. . . this is true greatness: the ability to speak of the last four things, not in the sepulchral tones of the pulpit, but in the same language that is scrawled on lavatory walls.5
No one who understands Laytons work, least of all the critics I have mentioned, admires it for the language referred to in this passage, though some seem to feel that his genuine lyrical gift and sheer fecundity of diction and image overshadow his barbarism. All the same, it is hardly deniable that, insofar as Laytons acceptance as a popular poet keeps pace with his reputation among the critics, it is this typical choice between memories of Canadian Calvinism and the general dissolution of mass-literacy into graffiti that appears to provide most of the momentum. Too often, when they refer to Puritanism, bourgeois Canadians castigate common decency, forgetting that common decency, which condemns the Nazi tyranny or makes us cherish justice or compassion, has no basis unless it applies in some way to the whole of mans life. The trouble is that it has become the fashion to apply such a basic moral sense to every sphere except the sexual when it suits tht modernist to do so, and to imagine that Puritanism (which really equated sin with natural delight) alone may be regarded as opposed to the excesses of the sexual revolution and the notion of doing your own thing which accompanies it. This comment indicates, of course, that my critique of, Laytons work is directed, not merely to his craftsmanship, but to his overall vision as well, a practice given the sanction of every critic (except the recent relativists) in the past.
No one need complain if I apply moral criteria, as well as philosophic and stylistic ones to Laytons poetry if it is borne in mind that poets and critics, whatever their denials, do it all the time, and that we must ask of poetry, not merely how well does the poet achieve or express his vision, but of what value the vision is to us as readers. Layton himself, in his generally at excepted role of prophet, has constantly made moral judgements about society, other persons and their motives, and about the nature of poetic integrity, despite the Nietzschean justifications he and his friends may offer in extenuation of their stance. The only difference between what will be regarded as my absolutist stance and that of relativistic moderns is that (with Maritain, Winters, McAuley and T.S. Eliot) that there is, indeed, a permanent basis for moral and aesthetic judgements (and that these intertwined) while they want to make such judgements without admitting any objectively true norms or standards. Most poets in the past have shared some common standards of moral vision and beauty of language, and have seen the moral imagination as integral to their vision. After all, why say that human beings are cruel or that Vietnam was tragic or that books should not be burnt unless admitting some perennial norms? We cannot ignore the moral dimension.
As I agree with those who think that we must judge a work of literature as a moral and aesthetic whole, I am most concerned to say that Laytons poetry offers a very limited, even stunted and distorted view of life and of the poets vocation. This is not to deny that what one regards as an inadequate vision of life (in the light of ones view of the good life or of mans destiny) may still produce a great work of art because it appreciates the richness of a tradition which it may ultimately reject, expressing greatly a human aspiration and a source of human anguish. We see all this in Arnolds Dover Beach. In such a poem, as with all great poetry, the words carry in their very music that fusion of thought and feeling which has always been the mark of the poet as one who brings his intuition to birth through a consummate mastery of words with all their patterns and penumbra of suggestion. In my view, Laytons poetry does not express any greatness, although a few lyrical and elegiac pieces reveal a moderate talent. For the most part, that has been wasted in pursuit of those sterile pellets of itellection to which McAuley and Trilling refer,6 and in an exhibitionism which eventually brought the underlying talent to the attention of critics who happen to share much more of Laytons outlook than has been realised (by those who follow the myth-makers) or generally acknowledged. Before giving this latter point more detailed attention, however, let me at least indicate an overall estimate of Laytons poetry by suggesting some evaluative limits drawn from the work of other poets, and then comment on a representative selection of individual poems.
Northrop Frye has stressed his conviction that we must not make evaluation the primary concern or even a central element in discussion of Canadian poetry.7 It is true that we should read and appreciate Canadian poetry because it is Canadian; it is our own and carries in its very being, as it were, the identity and history and experience of living in Canada. But too much of what passes for excellent in Canadian poetry is really mediocre or imitative, while the recent wave of nationalism (though it has its necessary and healthy elements) provides opportunity for literature of low quality to receive more attention than it deserves, or exaggerates the stature of rather ordinary talents. Unless we apply to Laytons (and other) poetry criteria drawn from the best in English, American and Canadian poetry, we will have to live with the find of illusion he himself reveals in his prose and in such presumptuous poems as Prologue to the Long Pea-Shooter or Shakespeare. The latter of these two poems is symptomatic of his illusion and of the very uneven texture of his work. And it is the poem which, perhaps more than others, echoes the tone of his prose.8
Instead of mourning the truth that, in his own uncouth words: Well, theres nothing to be done about that bastards unsurpassable greatness, Layton should have been wondering whether his poetry even approaches the quality of what Yvor Winters calls the second-rate poetry of a D.H. Lawrence or Byron or Poe.9 It will be recalled that Layton was apparently prompted by his sons questions: Whos the greatest poet? and Will you ever be greater than . . . (Shakespeare)? The poem was not a tribute to Shakespeare so much as a lament that he, Layton, could not begin to climb that unclimbable mountain . . ., a phrase typically clumsy in a poem whose courseness is masked for some sensibilities by its anguish. A normal reaction of an aspiring poet should be gratitude for a Shakespeare, not wounded pride or an intolerable twitch of envy. The anguish springs from an egoistic view of poetry; self-aggrandisement and a desire to lick the world (even in the context of a sons image of his father) is contrary to the spirit of appreciation which characterizes the work of every poet we have admired in the past. In his book In Defense of Reason, Yvor Winters, while acknowledgeing their greatness, refers to the work of certain poets, notably, Lawrence, Byron and Poe, as second-rate because their gift of language is inadequate to their task. 10 This is, of course, the fruit of rigorous criticism. But what would Winters think of Laytons work? I ask the question because Layton grieves (though adopting a jocose mask which suits ill with his more anguished lines, as though his grin becomes a snarl) that he will never surpass Shakespeares greatness; and he has expressed the view that his work will rank with the best of Keats and Shakespeare.11 To take only one symptomatic instance, Layton has written no poem about an animal to compare with Lawrences Snake. And no poet worth taking seriously descends the slapstick coarseness of the imagery Layton facetiously attributes to his sons thoughts about his mother. If this is the primitive North American alternative to English gentility, so much the worse for North America. But, fortunately, it is not, as Pratt and Robert Lowell and D.C. Scott show.
The point of all this is that it does help us to narrow the circle around Layton, for the comments of the critics have been far too extravagant. His poetry shrinks in stature the moment we mention, at random, De La Mare, Masefield, Hopkins, Auden, Eliot or James McAuley. I can think of no poem by Layton which has the prophetic vision of Lampmans City of the End of Things or the powerful social criticism of Livesays Day and Night, nothing so rich and humane as D.C. Scotts classic The Forsaken, no poem which enscapulates a Canadian experience in appreciative terms so well as Kleins For the Sisters of the Hotel Dieu or Pastoral of the City Streets. But let me proceed quickly to humbler comparisons. Is Laytons The Bull Calf better than Alden Nowlans The Bull Moose? At least one critic has seen a rich symbolism in Nowlans poem, and whatever the truth of the interpretation, the poem does lend itself readily to an exploration of a deeper layer of meaning. Laytons poem (which I discuss in some detail later) does not. Moreover, Nowlans poem has both pathos and a satirical edge, bringing out the meanness and emptiness of the mooses tormentors. Laytons poem is merely sentimental. I am willing to concede that Laytons work as a whole probably shows more mastery of rhythm, more variety and lyric intensity than Nowlans, but that this sort of comparison can be made does provide at least an outline of sanity in assessment of his work. Layton has himself said, in the context of a serious letter: I am a genius who has written poems that will survive with the best of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats.12
Northrop Frye, among others, has attempted to distinguish Laytons serious poetry from his stage personality.13 I confess that I do not understand what Frye means by his remark that Layton . . . has satisfied the public with an image of its own notion of what a genius should be like, and has thereby set himself free for his serious work,14 unless it means that poets cannot hope to reach a wide public, but only a small coterie, when they write serious poetry. But the implications are insulting for ordinary people. Which public is it that, in Fryes view wants poems like The Convertible, Bargain, Rhapsody, Family Portrait, Whom I Write for, or the much-anthologised On Seeing the Statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah in the Church of Notre Dame.? It cannot be a tolerant, humane or compassionate public, for these poems are none of these things.
I illustrate from some of his worst and his best. In The Convertible we find nothing more than a cynical recollection of a seduction of one of the bored young wives of Hampstead wearing her wedding-ring and in her husbands convertible. Where is the much-vaulted sensitivity and compassion critics attribute to Layton in this trivial and ice-cold little piece of viciousness? I do not think that this poem or The Day Aviva Came to Paris (with its references to his own wife), or The Worm (a reduction of sex to an organ) or Mahogany Red (so symptomatic of sexual escapism) and many others can be regarded simply as celebrations or expressions of sensuousness (as is so often suggested by Layton himself) but as exhibiting a sensibility which indulges in slavering obscenities, falling below the navel. These poems have nothing in common with The Song of Songs as Layton implies,15 though they do have with The Millers Tale, with the significant difference that, in Laytons case that, unlike Chaucer, he is not depicting a character but expressing himself, with enough of the cerebral to give them pride.16
In the piece Whom I Write For we see an even more serious flaw in Laytons craftsmanship and sensibility. The theme of this poem is one consonant with Laytons well-known, and sometimes perceptive, assaults on the hypocritical and complacent. It protests that Layton is not writing just to add his contribution to the writing of the fraternity of lying poets who soothe rather than shock, pandering to self-deception. Now, as with his poem Westminster Abbey, Layton does touch upon a source of much humbug and presence in this manifesto-like piece. Westminster Abbey reacts against the pompous commercialism associated with exploiting the past in British monuments; though, of course, it misses the tradition beyond the politicians and profits. It is effective irony, however, and its satiric edge, if used to carve indiscriminately both folly and virtue, is at least sharp. The same cannot be said of Whom I Write For which exemplifies a central defect in Laytons work. The very barbarism he deplores (at Hiroshima and in Nazi Gennany) is present in his own vision and method:
I want you to feel as if I had slammed
your childs head against a spike;
And cut off your member and stuck it in your
wifes mouth to smoke like a cigar.
He does not integrate the sense of moral shock with description of the horrors he hates; rather he attempts to shock the reader by overt obscenity and sadism. Here we see how defective sensibility has allied itself with poor craftsmanship, the first probably producing the other. There is no doubt that his technique shocks the reader, but not about the atrocities of Hiroshima or Dachau. It does not shock one into an increased moral awareness of these monstrously vile actions because it imitates them. The horror should grow out a description of the atrocities. It does not do this in Laytons poem because he fails to integrate his own reaction with the actual events he would have us see in a new, terrifying light. While recognising that Layton has an acute sense of how self-deceiving we all can be, and how poetry can sometimes serve complacency (one part of the poem which rises above rhetoric) there is a case for saying that such a poem as this can only increase a generally callous attitude, partly because it is so crude and partly because its instances of brutality are not ones to which most people, (however blase they may sometimes be) are prone.
Misunderstanding is one of those trivial, cynical pieces which made George Woodcock almost despair of Layton. Like The Convertible it links up with a whole range of poems which so frequently celebrate his sexual conquests, and, inconsistently with his moral anger at inhumane treatment of people and animals in other poems, includes the imagery of pubic hairs, genitals, sunburnt backsides, groins and groans, womens thighs, and other erotic graffiti which, taken out of the context of personal love, and therefore becoming fragments of a dismembered human whole, are in quite clear contrast with the humane tradition from which our great poetry has come. But I would like to avoid such depersonalizing erotica (except insofar as it illustrates a grave blindness to dignity and compassion) and go on to comment on two other poems in this grouping I have made before going on to other selections. I refer to Family Portrait and On Seeing the Statuettes of Ezekiel and Jeremiah . . ..
The first of these is not regarded as one of Laytons more serious poems, but it is symptomatic of his harsh moral judgements and his poetrys lack of a compassionate sense of human complexity. In this poem, it will be recalled, Layton satirises a family, rich from speculation but devoid of culture. The tone is contemptuous, and crudely so, for, according to Layton, these people are as useless as tits on a bull. How external such judgements are is highlighted by the poet himself, albeit half-consciously, in the last few lines which refer to Christ. Now we can understand how an owner of duplexes might arouse a poets ire; its easy to feel disrespect for rich philistines. But Laytons judgement is obviously a moral one, as it is in Whom I Write For, and many other poems which condemn others. Mainly, but not solely, Laytons castigation or satire of human beings is bound up with what appears to be a compassionate sense or a sense of social justice; at least that is how critics see it. But there is a deeper vein of intolerance in Laytons poetry, and this is exemplified in his poem about the Hebrew prophets whom he sees himself understanding as one of their own kind. In this bigoted and rhetorical expression of resentment that Hebrew prophets are represented in a French-Canadian Catholic Church, Layton refers to his prize brother-in-law . . . / pawing his rosary, and his wife / sick with many guilts. I have not read one criticism of this poem as narrow and intolerant, but, quite clearly, we see here a petty, personal element which is foreign to poetry, (being quite unlike the satire of Swift or Pope which is always, whatever degree of personal spleen may be involved, rooted in moral principle and imbued with a larger vision.) The contempt expressed in prize brother-in-law and the unwarranted use of the term pawing is itself contmptible, and is also, fittingly enough, allied with impoverished diction.17 Is it not strange that academic critics can let this kind of ignoble sentiment pass, but would be only too ready to attack a poem which expressed pique or intolerance towards the religious habits of a Buddhist or a Jew? The satirist scorns pomposity and inexcusable folly; he does not abuse sincere devotion. Laytons poetry and prose are full of such cheap jibes. He conveniently forgets that his hot Hebrew heart, as he calls it, (if we are to judge from his poetry) appears to yearn after very different goals from those of Ezekiel or Jeremiah. Perhaps it is fear such as that expressed in that much more significant and poignant poem, Gothic Landscape which motivated Laytons dislike of his brother in-laws conversion:
I do not like this monastic whiteness of winter -
It is a Christ drained of all blood.
Whatever the case, a lack of compassion as well as intolerance are features of Laytons vision, and they are often blended with cold egotism and absurd vanity. I cannot accept the dichotomy suggested by Frye; rather I think that Mandel is correct when he approvingly writes: As if the ephemeral and inflammatory were any less Layton than those more enduring poems. . .18 Laytons work must be judged as a whole, and on the very terms on which critics have tried to establish him as a prophetic figure, not least of which is his much-vaunted sensitivity, sense of justice and compassion. Not all the perfumes of poems about poor bull-calves, mosquitoes or bull-frogs can sweeten the stench which comes from so many of his cynical, intolerant or primitive poems.
Two poems which are most-often anthologised and recorded as revealing a tender, sensitive side to Laytons vision are Berry Picking and The Bull Calf. The first of these is about his wife; the second is about an animal. Both poems are also regarded as fine examples of poetic craftsmanship. They are probably among his best poems, a high point in his achievement, though, in terms of significance of theme, lyric intensity and organic unity, New Tables, Composition in Late Spring and The Swimmers are at least as good, if not better. But let us look closely at the two very favoured poems.
In its six stanzas, Berrypicking gives a portrait of the poets wife, detached from him, serenely herself, free of his barbarous jests, and it conveys a sense of a humbler, more subtle and tender poet. The whole poem is tinged with a sad kind of wonder and a feeling for the otherness of a person, and a sense of inadequacy which is by no means unwelcome. It is perhaps saved from the too personal and private by its universal sense of the masculine-feminine tensions in marriage, and there is warmth and delicacy of feeling throughout the poem. In the first eight lines the freshness of imagery is typical of Laytons gift for metaphor and exact diction at their best, and the rhythm is more varied and flexible than many of his earlier poems which tended to be somewhat stiff and of the same, somewhat formal texture. But the poem does not sustain its intensity; some lines are much less successful than others, being too awkward, abstract or prosaic, a fault not uncommon in Laytons poetry generally. His style is very uneven, incorporating, often unexpectedly, a heavy, Latinic diction derived from eighteenth-century models, though without their grace, as in:
Even silence daylong and sullen can then
Enamour as restraint or classic discipline.
The attempted concentration of meaning about his wifes mood and his response to it results in a poor piece of pseudo-poetic writing, the moral reading of which reveals more fully its lack of music. Laytons eclecticism, his echoes of other poets are often ill-suited to their contexts, as in the rather quaint change of tone obvious in the lines:
No more the easy soul my children craft deceives
Nor the simpler one for whom yes is always yes;
The echo of Grays Elegy is not well-integrated into the tone of the poem as a whole.
The last line of the poem: Though her lips are redder than the raspberries., is weak because it makes a comparison which, though intended to give unity to the poems thought, is much too plain and trite when compared with the delicate suggestiveness of the earlier lines. As with the closing imagery, so with the rhythm: the final word, raspberries simply does not provide an apt movement or sound to close the poem, being somewhat flat and off-key. The scene is fairly memorable, but the poem lacks musical power. Its movement falls between metrical form and free verse; the tensions between running rhythm and metre (or metrical effects as in the better free verse) are not nearly as fruitful as in such Canadian poems as Scotts The Forsaken or Livesays Lament, and we miss those subtle cadences and rhythmical patterns which spring from an inspired sense of the musical nuances of phrases and tone and of the most effective blend of the informal and formal elements in speech, of colloquial rhythm and metrical phrasing. All of these poems have a music which is infused with the feeling, and they an end on a strong note, on a sense of a high point of meaning having been reached. Laytons ear is not seldom at fault; his poems so often lack the aural qualities which mark great poetry. There is often strong control there, but there is so much less to control. An illustration of what can be done with a blend of standard metre and colloquial idiom and rhythmic nuances is seen in Robert Frosts moving, and semi-symbolic poem, After Apple Picking which has a haunting and memorable quality unapproached by any of Laytons work.
The Bull Calf is a good, but much over-rated poem. It was, on Laytons testimony, written in ten minutes under a sudden infusion of inspiration, or effusion of feeling. Its imagery is often impressive as in the lines: The fierce sunlight tugging the maize from the ground. or when the bull calf raises his darkening eyes to us / till we were only the ponderous mallet . . . and so on, and it is tightly structured. It has feeling, good overall design and descriptive power. Putting my own response rather subjectively, I do not find the poem very moving, though I can see how the sudden killing of a beautiful and potentially powerful animal can arouse pity. I do not think, however, that it embodies a powerful symbol or universal theme very effectively. I will not have space to justify my conviction that poems about the death of bull calves which do not pay farmers to keep (bearing in mind the fact that we all eat meat) have a very limited significance unless related to the more important human condition and are in danger of being merely sentimental, but one has only to look at what Francis Brett Young did with The Quails (despite its limited idea of pity) to see the difference between poetry of that stature, the poetry of a minor poet, and that of Layton. The Quails develops its theme in a moving way and is rich in rhythm and imagery, being well within the tradition of poetry as at least, memorable speech. The last line of The Bull Calf: I turned away and wept, as with the opening of Whom I Write For is too detached from the central substance of the poem; it is too explicit a summing-up; it protests too much. It should be unnecessary if the reader himself is moved by Laytons account of the bull-calves death. Hence, such a line, lacking in restrained and intrinsic intensity, is sentimental. Readers who respond to the sense of genuine anguish is Trumpet Daffodil or In the Midst of My Fever may wonder why this poem is fussed-over as if it were a masterpiece. Symptomatic of its weakness, too, is the odd departure from pregnant imagery in the line: I thought of the deposed Richard II. Who cares to be told this? If an apt simile or metaphor will not reveal the comparison and its significance, a flat, informative statement is hardly likely to do so. In any case, the link between calf and king is much too tenuous, the sovereignty in each case being of a different kind and magnitude. This is not the way that good poets make their comparisons or allusions; and a penchant for a casual, so-called modern idiom cannot obscure, dull and trite statements. Yet one major critic sees this line as exemplary of Laytons erudition.19
I would like, now, to comment on Laytons philosophy and stance as a prophet-poet. And, in doing so, I shall lead on to a consideration of the highly-praised The Birth of Tragedy and its significance in his corpus. This, in turn, prepares the way for a broad, general section in which I shall indicate the correlationships between Laytons outlook and limitations and those of the critics who have helped to establish his reputation.
Layton has seen himself and has persuaded others to see him as a kind of prophet-poet, a man of inspiration as opposed to cold, academic reason and bourgeois complacency, at one with the Hebrew prophets in his passion and finely attuned to the tensions we find in such visionaries as Blake and Nietzsche. The comparisons with Old Testament prophets appear to rest on two thing he has in common with them: he is Jewish and he is angry.20 But Jewishness and anger are not enough, I am afraid, to permit us to swallow the nonsense of seeing Layton as another Jeremiah or Ezekiel, or any other of those Hebrew giants who confronted their generations with the moral passion and zeal for reform that was inherent in the mission of Israel. The Superman cult of sex and egotism is exactly what they abhorred. To pass on to the comparison with Blake, suffice it to say that one cannot imagine Laytons writing a poem with such awareness of the subtle and deadly nature of hatred as we find in A Poison Tree, or one with such compassion and anguish for others as London, or the prophetic vision of a good social order for all (with its crusading spirit associated with Christ) we find in that immortal poem, Jerusalem. The fearful symmetry of the tiger is, however, often evident in Laytons poems; and this brings me to the influence of Nietzsche, and to its exemplification in The Birth of Tragedy named after the title of a central book in Nietzsches philosophy.21
In her illuminating article in a recent issue of Canadian Literature, Wynne Francis explores at some length the influence of Nietzsche on Layton.22 She points out that, temperamentally, they were kindred spirits, Layton recognizing himself in Nietzsche, discovering himself in the poet-philosopher, and thereby releasing a torrent of creative energy. There seems no doubt that Layton has all the gusto and exuberance attributed to him by George Woodcock and A.D. Hope, and one can see how the philosophy of the Superman would have appealed to him.23 However, Wynne Francis does more than establish even more clearly than Mandel the Nietzschean influence on Laytons poetry; she brings out, albeit enthusiastically, some of the central defects in Laytons vision. She refers to Laytons dream of the Jews as having the greatest potential to become higher men.. This, of course, has quite obvious historical links with the Messianic mission of the Jews, and that the children of Israel have a unique destiny is a central conviction of Catholic Christians. However, associated as it is with the Nietzschean philosophy, Laytons view borders on a form of self-assertion masquerading as a prophetic role; for the Dionysiac elements in his poetry subordiante both moral and aesthetic values to his assertion of his poetic ego. His earlier attachment to Marx was potentially far more Messianic in the true sense than his later conversion to Nietzsche, but it should be noted that the expression of a Dionysiac violence and orgiastic passion has analogies with the release of a libido which lacerates the ego in an incessant frustration of a self-appointed mission. Francis is strangely blind to the effects of the Freudian-Nietzscean thrust when she refers nicely to the wry good humour of Laytons poem, Shakespeare, and she completely fails to grapple with the dilemma of the relationship between the moral and the aesthetic elements in poetry. Is the aesthetic subordinate to a moral end or are the two fused in successful works of art as Yvor Winters claims, basing his conviction on Aquinas view of art?24 Whatever the case, Laytons Dionysian abandon, in which, according to Francis, many of his love poems emphasise the delirious joy and the redemptive power of lust, needs to be examined for what it is worth in the light of some objective values rather than simply accepted as good in itself; for despite the attempt to ignore objective values they keep on cropping up by implication. Take, for example, the reference to redemptive power. What does the term redemptive mean if it has no value connotation? And how do we know what and how it can redeem if we have no idea of values outside the apparent satisfaction it affords? This reasoning of course, applies to Nietzsches philosophy pre-eminently, for it has to be asked why we should accept his notion of the Superman and the value implications and assumptions of a higher life if he himself denies, as indeed he did, any basis for objective moral values? This brings me to the question of Laytons anti-rationalism and its connections with Nietzsches anti-Socratism.
Wynne Francis explores the influence of Nietzsches critique of the Socratic spirit, and, in doing so, relates it to Laytons well-known hostility to the rationalism of the age which he equates with the literary and academic as well as with the whole atmosphere of the scientific, commercial world. She admits that Nietzsche is ambivalent towards Socrates, respecting Socrates concern for the life of inquiry and seeing the Socratic spirit as necessary in contributing to the struggle between the Appolonian and Dionysiac forces, a struggle which makes the creative life of the poet possible. But she brings out more explicitly what we see as inherent defects in Laytons view of reality and of his vocation. This is a complex matter and, so, for brevity I list points that must be made:
(i) By setting imagination and feeling in opposition to reason, both Layton and his apologist Francis miss the point that reason means more than logic or conceptualising. Socrates was an exemplar of the saying that all philosophy begins in wonder for he begun with an intuition of his mission (symbolized by the Delphic Appollo) and pursued his vocation of inquiry into concepts and the nature of the good not in a narrow, logical way, but as an artist-philosopher. What is poetic intuition if it is not a way of knowing, how can one know or see reality and here one recognises the same idea of vision in Wordsworths theory and practice of seeing into the life of things if it is not the mind that does the knowing and the seeing? In other words, we need to see poetic intuition or vision as a higher way of knowing, as essentially intellectual, as Maritain shows in his masterpiece Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry. In any case, the poet and the reader of poetry surely has to use his mind in all its aptitudes and modes of operation if he is to write or read with perception and vision.
Scientism (illustrated by that empiricist fact-value distinction which George Grant has rigidly seen as stunting academic life in a positivist age)25 with its narrow view of reason, deserves attack for the corrosive influence it has on all religious, humane and artistic endeavour, for its bolstering of that notion of progress which has lain at the heart of our commercialized civilisation. But Layton attacks intellect itself, Nietzechean anti-Socratism as his justification, while at the same time being more academic than the ademics in his erudite poems.
(ii) Francis refers to the Socratic spirit as substituting truth for reality as implying that reality is knowable and that the way to it is through logic and reasoning.26 As I have pointed out, reality is knowable, and, since it is, it is intellect that knows it. If this is not true, then what we are left with in Laytons view is mere self-assertion for there is no way of testing the validity or worth of his vision. But this is exactly what the Nietzschean thrust of his work implies; for the only good or reality for Layton is the aesthetic struggle. This being the case, and this struggle also having intrinsic to it the role of the Superman and the will to power we have a perfectly circular self-justification for Laytons abuse of all traditions which question the value of his work and his histrionic ascent to stardom in the murky firmament of Canadian pseudo-culture. It is naive of Wynne Francis to see Layton as exhorting his fellow men to recognise the evil of their days,27 if, in fact, there is no way of knowing or defining evil beyond simply saying that it is opposed to the dialectical struggle of Appolonian-Dionysiac elements as experienced by this particular poet, Irving Lavton. Self-contradiction is inherent in such a view, it is illustrated profusely throughout his poetry. In that stark, ugly but moving and graphic poem Stella, for instance, the novelist who seduces the proud beauty (in somewhat melodramatic fashion) and thus exposes her to the envious scorn of the villagers was simply indulging his Dionysiac urges, yet self-satire is not evident in the poem. Satire of what is seen as pious hypocricy is central to the poem, just as it is central to other poems such as Westminster Abbey and Prologue to the Long Pea-Shooter. But while we have to admit that Layton has an unusually acute sense of the human beings capacity for self-deception and humbug, as seen, for instance, in his perceptions of the way in which the British have commercialized their history, and clergymen feasting on roast duck discourse sweetly on the soul,28 his sense of irony seems to stop short of awareness of his own pursuit of the bubble, reputation, and of the suffering a Dionysiac assertiveness may cause to others. This is in no way a personal judgement on the man, but a judgement on the drift and value of what we find in his poems.
(iii) Nietzches teaching was by no means so devoid of an ethical sense or as shallow as all this (and Francis reasoning) makes it appear, even though we must admit with Coplestone, his theory of the Superman was not unconnected with the Nazi self-assertion.29 There are passages in Thus Spake Zarathruatra which reveal a capacity for searching self-examination and a deep sense of human nobility. Nothing in Francis article shows that this is reflected in Laytons poetry; though the question of his use of irony and of his expression of a courageous individualism which suffers will be taken up in due course. Somehow, we do not feel it would be fitting to add to a poem by Layton celebrating a sexual exploit on someones perfumed bed: Thus spake Irving Layton! And, I would maintain, and will now try to demonstrate, we do not find it satisfactory to put The Birth of Tragedy, Laytons exemplary statement of his artistic position, in the same context as Thus Spoke Zarathrustra.
There is no doubt that Laytons poem does express in a serene and concentrated form the Nietschean resolution of Dionysiac and Appollonian dialectical struggle, and that Layton manages to fuse his own image of his poets vocation with this struggle. The poem has structure, music and a distilled essence of the poets whole philosophy. Here find a poise and quiet akin to that of Yeats Lapis Lazuli. But the significance of the phrase A quiet madman cannot be overlooked. We find in this poem not peace and joy (as commentators say) but the serenity of a poet who has not only the satisfaction of knowing that he is stating so aptly his artistic code and his sense of cosmic wisdom (a word Layton despises but a quality he aspires to be recognized for), but also of being poised in a stoic escape from the nagging sense of mortality and decay. It is as though, despite his boast that unlike Keats I have not wished to escape into the unreal domain of the nightingale,30 he yet finds escape in an aesthetic, ego-satisfying realm which parodies immortality. Layton may not hope to beacon from . . . the abode where the eternal are as Shelleys Adonais has Keats doing but he has both a sense of oneness with a cosmic plan of recurrence and an absolution from guilt in this poem where he attributes to the gods (the Appollo Dionysiac axis) both the passionate meditations of his poems and pardons for the insurgent blood. Compared with Keats struggle to resolve the tensions between a passionate love of sensuous beauty and a desire to ascend to the transcendental where beauty never fades, the anguish we see in all his odes and temporarily resolved in The Eve of St. Agnes, the resolution we find in Laytons poem is a tame thing produced at least partly by a temperamental need to rationalise his poetic career. The poem also illustrates a quality in Laytons poetry which has not always been recognised, namely, the fatalistic submission to a process outside himself and which makes use of him an instrument. This is not the same as the poets idea of the muse.
Despite its poise and apparent joy, this poem is no more convincing than Yeats view of tragic joy and the associated notion that Hamlet and Lear go down to their fate with a similar gaiety; a view which confuses tragic spectacle with tragedy itself, and which misses the deeper vision Shakespeare intended, not one of mere aesthetic stoicism, but of the purgatorial consequences of tragic folly and the supremacy of integrity and love. Still, I am willing to concede that The Birth of Tragedy has more depth than most of Laytons poetry and also more effective fusion of idea, feeling and image. Its rhythmic control is superb. It shares almost a classical control form and diction with such earlier pieces as New Tables and Composition in Late Spring in which a feeling akin to the Wordsworthian vision and experience is evident, though Layton would be the first to deny it. The opening line, in my view, mars the poem, for, though contrived to give an air of spontanaeity , its succeeds in being another example of North American primitivism: And me happiest when composing poems may suit the semi-literate casualness of hippies but it strikes the cultivated reader as bordering on pidgin English.
Laytons poetry is often close to nightmare, not only the nightmare of De Sade, but a Manichaean disgust with the corruption associated with the flesh. I have suggested that The Birth of Tragedy has a poise which is really a form of escape; and this has significant connections with the quasi despair of Seven OClock Lecture (with its sense of the unreality of the immortal claptrap of poetry and the permanent bloom on all time-infected things) and with the near-hysteria or poems like Mortuary, Gothic Landscape and In the Midst of My Fever. It seems true that from an unbearable struggle with what, in another context, James McAuley has symbolised by the blue horses of Romantic frenzy, Layton moved towards an aestheticism which finds its justification, not in art for arts sake, in so much as in a nominally prophetic form of self-assertion, and the accompanying applause from a generation of liberalist readers and critics only too ready to accept the blend he offered. Munro Beattie has hinted at the truth in his suggestion that Layton decided that he would devise a myth.; except that the poet-outsider is much more on the inside of contemporary mores and muddle-headedness than he allows.32 But before exploring his adaptation to liberalist academia and modernism, let me suggest the kind of escapism which Laytons atheism and cult of sexual indulgence represents. The latter has an almost religious intensity.
In a piece of work which is truly pornographic and not merely sensual, Mahogany Red, (a poem which expresses all the violence of lust) Layton sees a now worn-out affair (with a worn-out partner) of the past as having involved a sexual nepenthe from the anguish and uncertainty of recurrent religious and social dilemmas. The connexion between his atheism and his sexualism is aptly summed-up in his own words in the poem:
It is sad to be an atheist,
Sadder yet to be one with a limp phallus.
Could we get a more explicit statement of the commonplace truth that mere physical lust (violent and ecstatic though it may be in its human form) can have an illusory manic which is an expense of spirit in a waste of shame.? Such thoughts certainly unmask the folly of those who see Laytons sexual poems as joyful. Where they are not sad; they are cynical, full of smug glee. The more joyful poems are those which, like New Tables or The Sweet Light Strikes My Eyes express delight in being and in the vitality and sensuous freshness of nature, though the theme of sexual escapism, as with so many similar poems, creeps into the ecstasies of the latter. But none of these poems, despite a superficial resemblance to Wordsworthian response to nature, and with due regard for the moderately good gift of lyricism with which Layton has been endowed, expresses much more than a passing joy mainly at the level of the senses, and an awareness of its fleeting nature. There is a degree of intensity in all of Laytons work (an intensity which may reveal a religious dimension and, indeed, the escapism of the sex obsession suggests this ) but in these more lyrical and finer poem there is still not much we can see as akin to the Wordsworthian experience of A presence that disturbs me with the joy / of elevated thoughts or to a Hopkins vision discerning a . . . dearest freshness deep down things. The wonder and profound depths of meaning and magic inherent in the reality behind perceptions and apprehensions of nature, the sense of a reality that rolls through all things and which has significance for the poet who glimpses its power, is missing. The vision of nature as a parable is blurred.
On the whole, one cannot find much in Layton that is deeply moving; on the contrary, reading his poetry in itself is a somewhat boring exercise. One can have only a very limited interest in the poets self; the superman, aggressive egotist or world-beater is a bore, especially when he takes himself so seriously. The individualism Pacey praises in Layton diminishes the shared response, the long tradition of a common humanity, the recognition of a tradition which the good poet works within by making it his own.33 Only in a contemporary Canada in which a cult of exhibitionism bred in the rancid fat of a force-fed pseudo-nationalism could Laytons reputation have ballooned to stardom. And that stardom, it must be remembered, emerged from a background of violent abuse and self-confidence in the face of adverse criticism. What the person who rejects Laytons fatuous war on a tradition of letters feels on looking into the journals and books which contain most of the poetic output of the last decade or more is a thirst, a parching thirst for the mousik� of inspiration, the singing tone and rhythmical authority of a poet with both an integral vision and a voice, nurtured in meditation, that rises far above the whimper, the whine, the windy braggadocio of Sado-Freudian revolt. If Blake, Carlyle, Mill and Yeats are right in seeing poetry as something born from a secrecy and inwardness in the poet, Layton, and many of the current camp-followers, are examples of how easily rhetoric (often not even good rhetoric) replaces poetry today. What Dudek calls the open rhetorical line of Ginsberg, charged with hysterical sensationalism; and . . . street language is free verse and the slapstick sex bit abound.34 Now, although Layton is rightly called one of the belly dancers of Canadian poetry,35 he does have the gift of poetry, being, at his best, an effective lyric poet, though some of his latest work has degenerated into the general morass of chopped-up prose we see all around us today.36 The debasement of the currency has reached a nadir, and although the mass of arid stuff is greatly inferior to the best poetry of the hour, one is still stunned by the monotonous ease with which Governor Generals awards are given, and bemused by the steady chink of money and medals in a solidly inbred literary market; a market where, too often, the voice of poetry is drowned by the squeak and gibber of mummified charlatans risen to tell us what it feels like to be dead. For this situation, Layton and all those attuned to his myth, must, in part, be blamed. None of this condemns a modern attempt to work within a poetic tradition while expressing individual experience and a modern sensibility,37 an attempt at least partly successful in the work of F.R. Scott, Dorothy Livesay, Earle Birney, Leo Kennedy, Louis Dudek and others. All of these poets have a gift of lyricism, and the capacity for memorable and rhythmic utterance of profound themes. But a modernist cult which wants to jettison the past or merely use it as a kind of archaeological source of clever allusion or hollow myth-making makes decay inevitable.
Laytons principal attitudes or stances on religious, moral, social and literary questions are, in fact, not rebellious towards conventional norms or the status-quo, except insofar as they involve anti-capitalist positions, and the examples of these in Layton are not very convincing. After all, commercialism is as much a part of literary reputation in Canada today as of any other phase of life, and fat fees go with the publicity and clowning. As far as the prevailing norms of those in a position to help poets like Layton are concerned, he is well-attubed to the establishment. A.D. Hopes anecdote of Laytons address to the students and faculty of Carleton university is symptomatic of his conventionality.38 When he advocated sexual indulgence, berating the repressive elders and assuming the role of the students liberator, the faculty cheered and the students were healthily shocked. The truth is that Layton pleases an influential section of the middle-class, academic, modernist in-group who share his views. For example, being Nietzschean, he rejects all absolutes in morals or art. So do they. Relativism, based on the fact-value distinction is typical of the academic mind today. But he takes up radical positions on religious, literary and political questions; such inconsistency is characteristic of the positivist professor and sentimental pseudo-radicals, and instant poets who throng to avant garde happenings. He equates any ideal of moral integrity as involving self-denial or restrictions on behaviour, especially in the matter of sexual expression, as repressive Puritanism. Everywhere in Canada today, you will find liberated people (usually well-heeled and often academic,) saying exactly the same. In an age of pornographic freedom Laytons stance on sex is hardly original or courageous. He sees the Christian vision as benighted (even vicious) and so do those who long ago succumbed to the teachings of Bertrand Russell or D.H. Lawrence. Among theologians, the academics favour Gregory Baum (who has just the right mixture of slippery sociology and apparently rebellious attitude); and one finds a good deal in common between the views of Layton and those of Baum.39 Layton employs his talent for cadenced vituperation (an often ruthless instrument) on any literary or scholastic or moral tradition which would describe his work as barbaric or vulgar, yet he loves to work into his poems as impressively as he can the figures and works of the past to the point of evoking from the mighty tributes for his erudition. That is precisely the way in which a traditionless, modern literati want to have their cake and eat it, learned but not recognising wisdom, having no unified vision. But this point is well put by Louise Dudek in his description of Patterns in Recent Canadian Poetry. Dudek says that they grasp at the confusion of symbolic images, often a rag-bag of classical mythology, in the effort to organise a chaos too large for them to deal with.40 Such a vain struggle, and its accompanying search for myths to give significance to work which lacks an integral humanism, denying the long tradition of perennial human needs and values, ignoring the central question of What is man? as an outmoded metaphysical concern, produces work which either lacks the fire of humane vision or resorts to pure egoism. Layton, it might seem, has developed an integrated view rooted in his sense of his Jewishness and his alienation from repressive morality and literary scholasticism, but much light can be thrown on all of this by a study of the affinities he has with that venerable figure of Canadian scholarship, Northrop Frye.
Unlike George Grant, Jacques Maritain, Yvor Winters, James McAuley, (and the greatest critics of the nineteenth and early twentieth century) Frye regards value judgements, whether moral or literary, as subjective. Of Literary judgements, he says: . . .when they are fashionable or generally accepted, they look objective, but that is all.41 He sees the demonstrable value judgement as the donkeys carrot of literary criticism and contends that Value judgements are founded on the study of literature; the study of literature can never be founded on value judgements.42 This suggests, of course, the quite sound idea, recognised by all those who understand a literary tradition, that any work of literature is seen by the discerning reader or critic within the literary context; that is, its qualities and its excellence as a work of literature can be evaluated partly in terms of the criteria established by earlier literature. Put simply, this means that masterpieces within a genre offer the measure which we can value or judge any new poem, play, novel or essay. But by what criteria do we establish the truth that any work, say, Hamlet, is a great work of art? We cannot go on indefinitely evaluating in terms of purely literary criteria, because the process becomes circular, and therefore, meaningless. According to Frye, to call Shakespeare great is not to state a fact but to express a value judgement.43 Criticism. . .and aesthetics generally, writes Frye, must learn to do what ethics has already done. There was a time when ethics could take the simple form of comparing what a man does with what he ought to do, known as the good.44 This is, of course, a mere caricature of what ethics was; for it leaves out the question of the relationship between motive and moral principle; and the analogy between ethics and aesthetics ignores the question of how they are interwoven in a work of art.
Obviously, there is no space here to embark on a debate with the prevalent positivism on which Fryes theories are based. Mortimer Adler and Jacques Maritain have effectively dealt with the fallacies inherent in the teaching of A.J. Ayer, and Adler, in particular, has explored the roots of the denial of the good in the work of G.E. Moore.45 Frye is simply assuming that the tired, and demonstrably self-contradictory fact-value distinction is true, and, in doing so, is led into a position which undermines all criteria of excellence in literary study. His Anatomy of Criticism sets up a dichotomy between moral, religious and social values on the one hand, and the experience of literature on the other, by detaching myth and metaphor from objective truth.46 The same kind of thinking runs through his book, The Educated Imagination.47 And his comments on closed mythologies in The Modern Century not only a caricature of belief and life in the Middle Ages; it misses the whole point of doctrine as springing from a vision of the good life and of mans destiny which permeates a literary tradition.48 Frye presents a very dry, conceptualized version of religious faith:
A closed mythology, like Christianity in the Middle Ages, requires the statement of theoretical belief from everyone, and imposes a discipline that will make practice consistent with it.49
There is no sense of an inner experience in this statement; there is nothing of the sort of intuition that enabled an historian like Francis Parkman and a poet like Pratt to enter into the minds of Jesuit missionaries who, as men of the Counter-Reformation, were inspired by medieval ideals.50
If there are no objective standards, ethical or aesthetic, then how do we know that the educated imagination is a worthy goal? Indeed, what is the educated imagination".? Frye will refer to the excellences of literature, and to the myths on which literature draws. But if there is no reality behind the myth, if there is not more magic in the mystery than a dream which inspires good literature, we have no criteria by which to judge its value in human terms, and by what other terms can we value anything which we are told will educate us, will enrich our lives? Ultimately, Fryes notion of myth and of its role in literature is hollow; for it has no intrinsic value enshrined in it. Frye is relativist in the same sense as Bertrand Russell is relativist, and like Russell he is blatantly self-contradictory.51 This has certainly stultified criticism in Canada, as we shall more cleanly see when I expose morel fully the correspondence between Fryes general judgements bout contemporary Canadian poetry (especially of Laytons) and the ways in which Layton has defended himself against the strictures of a moral and more philosophical aesthetic traditional52.
Without moral and aesthetic norms which have perennial relevance, we become like those men without chests to whom C.S. Lewis refers.53 But just as Layton constantly makes moral judgements about current issues and defends his work as an attack on, or dissolvent of values and positions he rejects while, at the same time, trying to put his poetry beyond criticism by retreating into a Nietaschean relativism, Fryes literary judgements are sometimes in direct contradiction to his theory. He is muddled philosophically though perceptive about works. For instance, he writes:
The poets job is not to tell you what happened, but what happens; not what did take place, but the kind of thing that always does take place. He gives you the typical recurring, or what Aristotle calls, universal event. You wouldnt go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland you go to it to find out what a man feels like after hes gained a kingdom and lost his soul.54
Now this statement clearly implies that there is, indeed, some permanent idea of goodness and sanity rooted in mans nature. There can be no universal event or theme without the universal we recognise in man. Why are we moved by the tragic spectacle of Macbeths downfall if there is no moral idea enshrined in the right vision of the play? The style conveys that vision. Insofar as narrative or dramatic literature approaches the essential spirit of moral fable or perennially relevant allegory (a subject to which Frye has devoted his scholarly attention) we see the truth that the moral imagination is inseparable from our aesthetic judgement. Chaucers The Pardoners Tale means little or nothing unless mere greed for money and the pleasures it buys is always a vice and unless we recognise the relationship between avarice on the one hand and death on the other as symbolised by the characters of the story, an idea as old in literature as the Midas myth. This is no plea for judging literature on its morality alone, nor is it to confuse one type of literature with all other types; it is simply consonant with the truth that the vision of literature is always conditioned by those ancient glimpses of the divine which the Greeks called, truth, beauty and goodness.55 The denial of moral and aesthetic criteria, objectively real independently of works of literature (implicitly contradicted by Fryes comments on Macbeth) is what, in fact, leads to closed mythologies. For if there is a reality in man and his condition and in our glimpses of truth and beauty which is shadowed forth in poems, plays, stories and other works of art, that reality can be explored indefinitely; it opens up newer depths and vistas of truth the more it is even partially revealed. Thus, if Blake is right about hatred in his poem, A Poison Tree his poem opens up new insights into the true nature of human hatred. If Dickens portrays Pips tendency to snobbery with psychological realism then, truly, he opens for us an insight into human pride and into the power of compassion. Bradley rightly referred Shakespeares tragedies to a moral order. A system of literary criticism which, on the other hand, wants to relate values in literature only to other literary works, and claims that values for judging literature come from literature itself without objectively, real criteria is like the snake biting its own tail, a figure favoured by Irvin Layton as emblematic of his mission.56 What could be more closed than that? But there is a larger social and political sense in which Fryes positivist-based theory leads to closed mythologies, and precisely in the sense in which he compares the medieval world view with a totalitarian system. Without objective values there can be natural rights of man to appeal to, and there can be no argument against a totalitarian imposition of norms and destruction of visionary books.57
Fryes version of Christianity is also closely akin to that of Layton. Frye sees a dichotomy between the idea of God as Creator and the mission of Christ. In attempting to explicate Pratts outlook, he assumes a fundamental cleavage in Christianity which runs through all his work and is the theme of his profoundest poem, The Truant.58 This cleavage is in what Frye sees as a contradiction between The revolutionary core of Christianity in its identifying of God with a suffering, persecuted and enduring man, and the institution of the Church which worships an establishment God who created and governed the order of nature.59 In making these asumptions, Frye attributes to Pratt a sense of conflict between the divine inheritance of man and the moral unconsciousness of nature.60 I have shown elsewhere how erroneous is this view of Pratts poetry, but the point here is that Fryes view is not only non-Christian (because it denies the tralitional doctrine of Christs Divinity); it is consonant with the notion of a divinisation of man independently of God, a notion central to the thought of Nietzsche and Layton. It also leaves the way open for the Superman theory, especially when it is seen in association with Fryes explicit denial of God and his expression of an ideal of the world we ought to be creating.61 Frye does not, of course, tell us why we ought to do anything, but his view, subjectivist and self-refuting, is typical of secular humanism today, and of the intellectual fashions among the literati who think of myth as an evolving force in literary imagination rather than as reflecting or symbolising some inward reality of the cosmos and mans place in it.62
Fryes notion of the artist or poet in relation to society is also the same as that of Layton. In his conclusion to Literary History of Canada, Frye has written:
During the last decade or so a kind of social Freudianism has been taking shape, mainly in the United States, as a democratic counterpart of Marxism. Here society is seen as controlled by certain anxieties, real or imaginary, which are designed to repress or sublimate human impulses towards a greater freedom. These impulses include the creative and sexual which are closely linked. The enemy of the poet is not the capitalist but the square, or representative of repressive morality. The advantage of this attitude is that it preserves the position of rebellion against society for the poet, with out imposing on him any specific social obligation.(italics mine).63
He goes on to give mainly Layton as an example of this attitude in Canada. Here we see the same view of Puritanical repression we find in Laytons prose and poetry, and the same idea that the sexualism he celebrates is part of his creative role as a prophet-poet. But note the diction and phrasing of the words in italics. Frye sees the attitude as an advantage. This is the language of Fryes theory of myth in literature; the intrinsic realities are not what matter, or even exist; rather it is what is useful as a mythopoeic force in creating new literature. And how one can be rebellious against socity without having any specific social obligations boggles the mind. In other words, Frye is interested not in the truth or otherwise of an ethical stance or poetic use of myth (for he denies objective criteria) but only in the ways in which it helps to unify the mind of the writer by externalizing his enemy. No wonder that Frye so unreservedly endorsed Laytons stature as a mythopoeic poet. Sometimes it is difficult to see who influenced whom the most: did Frye become a Laytonite, converted by his erudition and his attacks on orthodox Christianity and morality? Or did Layton shrewdly adapt his poetry to the theories of Frye? The probable truth is that what Layton moved towards through desire, Frye had already discerned as the inevitable implications for literature of logical positivism, and, indeed, the whole drift of secularist modern thought in which he was soaked. Still, it is an odd dilemma to untangle that both men see poetry from the aspect of what McAuley calls, The magian heresy,64 though neither Blake nor Shelley ever retreated into immanentism, or into a world of literary shadow-boxing. However, one aspect of Laytons ambivalent attitude to Frye the critic (long after he was converted to recognise Frye as a literary Titan, an exception to the general run of academic critics, an honour he shared with Pacey who also endorsed Laytons work), is symptomatic of the real shortcomings of Fryes view of literary criticism. Layton rejects Fryes systematising because he instinctively sees that what Frye is recommending lacks that creative symbiosis between literature and life that makes for utterance that comes from the heart, and not merely from the head.65 He may also wish to avoid odious comparisons of his own poetry with that of the past. Layton exhibits two incompatible traits in his attitudes towards society and towards the tradition. First, he wants to be recognised, or at least sees himself, as a prophet in a tradition which is at war with the academic and literary approaches and perceptions of British Protestantism and the Wasp mentality in Canada generally.66 He makes foolish generalizations, endorsed by critics such as Eli Mandel, about conflict between a European prophetic mode (seen also in North American primitivism) and a British academic and intellectual approach to poetry; generalisations, evident in many of his splenetic outbursts, which, ignoring as they do, the prophetic tradition which continues in English literature (exemplified in works as disparate as Piers Plowman, Paradise Lost, The Tempest, Four Quartets or Ballad of the White Horse), enable him to justify his adherence to the weaker side of American standards. And he overlooks, conveniently, the traditions of Christian humanism which, like the medieval vision, is incarnational, but, at the same time, transcendental, avoiding the excesses of Blake and Shelley, and deistic transcendentalism of the eighteenth-century classicists and those heart-breaking dilemmas that agonised poets like Keats, and baffled the Pre-Raphaelites.67 Those traditions live on in Canada today; they constantly recur and produce a vision and outlook quite contrary to what Layton suggests when he lumps all traditionalist attacks on his work with the Wasp mentality. We see the Christian humanist tradition exemplified in the work of Bishop Medley in Fredericton, as Malcolm Ross shows in a recent illuminating article;68 and we know its influence in the work of poets such as D.C Scott, E.J. Pratt and even Laytons fellow-Jewish poet, A.M. Klein. And whatever their ambivalence towards religious faith or their loss of it, many poets, such as Roberts, Carman, Lampman, Dudek and Kennedy have shared in the long tradition of natural law inherited from the Greek philosophers and poets and assimilated to the Mosaic and Christian moral codes. That tradition finds its literary expression throughout the history of English literature, and is inseparable from the aesthetic judgements we hare been educated to form. It is not by Wasp standards that Laytons work is deficient, but by the standards of humanity, and the excellence of the mainstream of English literature which has been enriched by what is arguably the best body of poetry in any tongue. Newman, himself a man of prophetic vision and a rare and subtly delicate perception, declared that, excepting mainly Chaucer and Shakespeare, the main body of English literature will always have been Protestant.69 The Puritan creed did not always stultify poetic creation, but it did often dry up its springs, and an anti-visionary academic outlook, rooted in scientism, was unfavourable to poetry. But these elements in English culture should not be confused with the English literary tradition itself. Layton wants to blur these distinctions, making out that only a Puritan, didactic and plodding view of literature would condemn or criticise his poetry. Dostoevsky explored the effects of rabid individualism in Crime and Punishment, a prophetic parable on the illusions of creating ones own world.70 Turgenev explored the dilemmas of nihilism.71
Both Frye and Layton are really in the falsely prophetic traditions of gnosticism, with a good dose of Manichaeism thrown in, as evidenced by the notion of a special illumination which cannot be subjected to objective critique, and by the idea of a conflict between the tyger and the lamb (without nature being created or seen to be good) inherent in the cosmos in the view of Frye, and between Appollo and Dionysius in Laytons mythology.
It is interesting to observe the way in which, at every major point, the thoughts of these two men coincides. In a book which uses the title of one of Laytons books for its chapter title, Frye endorses Laytons primitivism by upholding a shallowly metropolitan or cosmopolitan view of culture which rejects the regionalist and decentralist view (within a long tradition) expounded in the work of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson and easily substantiated from Canadian experience alone.72 According to Frye, Complete immersion in the international style is a primary culture requirernent.73 That style he sees as assimilating prevalent norms and popular art forms, a view probably influenced, not only by the actual practice of Layton and his mentors and followers, but by the modernity of Marshall McLuhans view of the media and of change, a basically determinist view of social development. Such a view misses the creative relationship between a long tradition which adheres to perennial and intrinsic norms of worth, and the local environment and experience which interacts with it, a relationship quite clearly at work in the beginnings of Canadian poetry. Symptomatic of Fryes myopia towards the deeper currents of cultural change is his comment on the influence of Christianity on Anglo-Saxon patterns of thought discernible in Anglo-Saxon poetry.74 The point is that Layton has a justification for what he writes in the theories of Northrop Frye, and Frye seems to draw much of his surface theory inductively from Laytons performance.
Before closing, it seems apt to comment briefly on Eli Mandels (and Fryes) view of Layton as a Swiftian satirist.75 Laytons work is not Swiftian. In A Modest Proposal Swift depends on a shared moral tradition, as all good satirists do. Swift may parody heartlessness but only for purposes of exposing stupidity and callousness through ironic scorn. The irony would not work unless some readers were half-deceived about Swifts intentions. But Swift does not become what he attacks. Insofar as Mandel suggests that, in his mockingly coarse or Sado-Masochistic poems, Layton is satirising himself, or those are his outlook, he shows the distinction between the true satirist intention and that of Layton.76 Swift hopes reach those who may not see what he sees or who are unaware of what flows from their hideous treatment of the Irish poor; on Mandels premises, Layton writes for those who share his vulgarity or find his coarseness palatable, for how could those who dislike his work be at once hostile to it yet converted to a satirical new of its folly? Those who object to Laytons animalism are precisely those who would be moved to anger or scorn if another Swift were to portray it ironically. In one case, there is moral shock; in the other there is cynical acceptance, so that Mandels tortuous exculpation of Layton will not wash. And we do not find, even in Laytons satirical attacks on what he thinks of vaguely as establishment values, that quivering undertone of humane anger, that essential nobility which makes even some of Popes more personal attacks on opponents or rivals a powerful plea for integrity and decency. There is a sadness in some of Popes attacks which reveal the true master of irony:
Who would not weep if Atticus were he.77
Blunt and barbaric attacks are not satire; nor is reduction of opponents to insect level anything more than inhuman egoism.78 When Dionysiac frenzy is confused with prophecy the passions themselves are debased instead of sublimated into an integral vision; a vision which we find in the Hebrew prophets and in the long, rich heritage of Christian mysticism. I cannot see that any irony we find in Layton, in Mandels words: . . . touches on forbidden feeling, but . . . holds up to ridicule or exposes debased feelings. Rather it defends such feelings on grounds of moral emancipation and a pseudo-prophetic role which wants to be at once free of any moral norms yet making the harshest judgements on those who question it. The most horrifying words Shakespeare puts into the mouths of Lear, Hamlet and Timon are those which express their revulsion from cold treachery and infidelity. Clearly, their rage and that of Layton are quite different.79
Nothing I have written denies Laytons lyrical gift or his inborn intensity. His exemplification of a debased romanticism is a lesson for all those who would retreat into the solitary self or jettison the past. In Laytons best poems, he brings home poignantly the dilemma of mans dream of the Divine while denying its objective reality. But it is far better to feel the misdirected intensity of a Layton than to follow the dessicated logic of a Frye.
To the real poet and visionary in Layton, we may perhaps apply the words of Jacques Maritain:
. . . the authentic, absolute atheist is, after all, only an abortive saint, and, at the same time, a mistaken revolutionaist.80
George Woodcock, A Grab at Proteus Notes on Irving Layton in Odysseus Ever Returning, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p. 78.[back]
Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden -- Essays on the Canadian Imagination, (Toronto: Anansi, 1971), p. 70.[back]
R. Weaver and W. Toye, The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature, (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973).[back]
McAuley may not be as well-known in Canada as he is in The United States, England and Australia. His ideas on art and literature are to be found mainly in his book, The End of Modernity, (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1959).[back]
See A. Adamson, The Poet as Split Infinity, CVii, 2,1, (January, 1976), pp. 47-49.[back]
- See, The End of Modernity, p. vii.[back]
Literary History of Canada, ed., Carl F. Klinck et al, (Toronto: U.T.P., 1970), p. 821.[back]
See, for a choice sample of Laytons essays and letters to journals Engagements, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972).[back]
Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason, (Chicago: The Swallow Press, Third edition, 1943), pp. 90-91.[back]
- Ibid., p. 90.[back]
- See, Engagements, p. 169.[back]
- Ibid., p. 169.[back]
- The Bush Garden, p. 117.[back]
- Ibid., p. 117.[back]
Engagments, p. 165. In this passage Layton, replying to criticism by Kildare Dobbs, refers to his own joyful sensuality as comparable to The Song of Songs.[back]
Another difference is that the Miller tells his tale, not about himself, but about young people who not only make the Reeve a cuckold but are themselves made absurd in bawdy fashion. Moreover, the Miller may be brutish, but he is not boastful, at least not about sex.[back]
As is well known, Laytons brother-in-law was John Sutherland. For a prose version of his contempt for Sutherland, see, Engagements, p. 179.[back]
Eli Mandel, Irving Layton, (Toronto: Forum House, 1972), p. 14.[back]
See Desmond Pacey, Creative Writing in Canada (Toronto: Mcgraw-Hill Ryerson, 1961), p. 165.[back]
This Hebraic mask runs through all his work. The latest expression of it is in his new collection of poems, For My Brother Jesus.[back]
"The Role Of The Teacher" By Irving Layton
In our society today, many students do very poorly in school. But what is the reason for this? In Irving Layton's essay 'The Role of The Teacher' he believes that teachers shouldn't be fully blamed, and that one of main reasons why students do poorly in school are due to the cut backs and poor judgment of the school boards. Also he believes that the society has done their part to help shape our present and current students. Another main factor he discusses about is how the teacher should be teaching the students how to learn, open their minds and prepare for the future. I do agree with agree with Irving Layton, but to a certain extent. The school boards and the society do play a role in the learning process of a student, but I believe that the main factors are the students themselves and the teachers.
The choice of whether a student wants to learn is totally up to him or her. Some students do try to succeed in school and receive the education, while others just don't care about their future and their level of education. In every class, there are always the select few of students who are superior and do very well who achieve high grades. These students are usually the ones that participate in class, do their homework, and most importantly, those who try and give an effort. Oppositely, there are some who are at the end of the line who do very poorly, and do not try to succeed at all. They have just given up without even giving a pinch of effort. These students then usually complain that the teacher is being unfair and puts the blame on the teacher, when they have done nothing productive. But on the other hand, there are some factors that can affect this. There are students who do try in school, and yet still seem to be struggling. Some just have problems learning. They don't earn the highest marks in the class, but they are still giving an effort, which is important. There are some scenarios where some students who are just naturally intelligent. They can do everything last minute, yet still pull off an A+. For example, I have a friend who usually does everything last minute, cramming and scrambling the night before, but still manages a 90% average. I find this very unfair. When I do...
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