Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Secular Sublime

Ten or fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have given a poet like Gerald Stern a second thought. Today he is one of my favorite poets, one of those liberating voices I am constantly refreshed by. The following essay grew out of a particular poem of his that kept coming back to me after reading his collection This Time. The poem “June Fourth,” even months after I’d read the collection, kept reviving in my mind: it’s imagery and tone, a kind of quiet rebelliousness. This gentle obsession ultimately led me back to his work and a deeper consideration of it. Out of that reconsideration, I discovered a poet whose work connects to a long history.

(Please note: I have written permission from the author to reproduce “June Fourth” in its entirety.)


The Secular Sublime: An Appreciation of Gerald Stern
By Michael T. Young

There are experiences and perceptions that change us so completely that when we look back at how we lived and saw things before, it is as if looking at another person. It seems that an old self is sloughed like a snakeskin and a new self emerges. It is a refinement. It is an experience of what some call the sublime. Such moments are the center of Gerald Stern’s poetry. His poems almost always take place at a moment of transformation, the instant of breakthrough. He is America’s consummate poet of the modern sublime.

Stern’s poems are deceptively simple. He writes in a language completely devoid of pretense and yet dignified with the elegance of profound meditation. He thinks and thinks deeply and through thought, the sublime is registered. We are transformed. As he says in the poem “The Thought of Heaven,” “I let it change me, that/is the purpose of thought—I call it all thought, whatever/changes you” (239. ln. 71, 72).

This change occurs to a figure in his poem “June Fourth.” It is a short poem that gathers all the major threads of Stern’s project: experience of the sublime, mourning of the past, and exhilaration of the emerging self. These threads all rise or recede in Stern’s poetry as his sensibility is sensitive to one, now another of them. But in “June Fourth” these threads come together with a subtle neatness.

Today as I ride down Twenty-fifth Street I smell honeysuckle
rising from Shell and Victor Balata and K-Diner.
The goddess of sweet memory is there
staggering over fruit and drinking old blossoms.
A man in white socks and a blue T-shirt
is sitting on the grass outside Bethlehem Steel
eating lunch and dreaming.
Before he walks back inside he will be changed.
He will remember when he stands again under the dirty windows
a moment of great misgiving and puzzlement
just before sweetness ruined him and thinking
tore him apart. He will remember lying
on his left elbow studying the sky,
and the loss he felt, and the sudden freedom,
the mixture of pain and pleasure—terror and hope—
what he calls "honeysuckle" (90).

One of the attractions of this poem is the articulation of the man’s experience as “honeysuckle.” Not only does the poem articulate an inner reality through a sensual experience; it was a stroke of genius to have chosen a smell as the vehicle. Physiologically, smell is the most closely connected to memory. But memory isn’t only relevant to this poem, as we shall see later it is also a relevant characteristic of the modern sublime.

Over a long period of time I was haunted by the poem’s simple and beautiful articulation. It slowly seduced me. Part of that seduction was the realization of its connection to another transformation beginning at least as far back as Milton. It seemed necessary to compare the figure in Stern’s poem to Satan in Paradise Lost.

The most obvious connection between them was the use of metaphorical language to articulate an inner experience. As the man in Stern’s poem uses “honeysuckle” to express his transformation, Satan expresses his transformation with the famous line, “Which way I fly is hell, myself am hell” (bk. 4, ln. 75). “Hell” becomes the term that articulates his internal reality. But this merely scratched the surface. Their kinship is deep and rooted in the drastic, even violent change both experience and how that experience is of the sublime.

“Sublime” derives from the Latin word “sublimis” and means “to lift high.” In Medieval Latin it meant “to purify” or “to refine.” The original Latin implies a change of place. The Medieval Latin implies a change of quality. But both imply a change of some kind. Although it is not reducible to change alone, change is the term common to every experience of the sublime and is a reasonable starting point for comparing the figures.

The man in “June Fourth” is ruined by sweetness and torn apart by thinking. Not only is it a change but it’s described as a violent one. The violence of Satan’s transformation is obvious enough: cast from Heaven to eternal damnation in Hell. But Satan’s change is also initiated, like the man in Stern’s poem, by a moment of taking thought.

Lifted up so high,
I ‘sdained subjection, and thought one step higher
Would set me highest.
(bk. 4, lns. 49-51)

How conspicuously that phrase "lifted up so high," suggests the original meaning of "sublime."  But more simply, for us, this moment of thinking to take God’s place on the throne of Heaven initiates Satan’s fall and subsequent transformation. Though what the figure in Stern’s poem is thinking isn’t clear, it is thinking that initiates his transformation. In the words of the poem, it tears him apart.

The man in “June Fourth” feels misgiving and puzzlement. He feels loss and freedom, terror and hope. Satan shares this confusion of emotions. He is tormented by the thought of “lost happiness and lasting pain” (bk. 1, lns. 54-56) but in defiance cries, “Here at least/we shall be free.” (bk. 1, lns. 258, 259). He feels the same exhilaration of “loss and freedom.” He describes the other fallen angels as being “astonished.” Thus both figures are filled with an apprehensive anxiety, a wonder before what has happened to them. Interestingly, 18th century critics, especially Edmund Burke, tied these same emotions to the sublime.

Burke wrote, “A mode of terror, or of pain, is always the cause of the sublime” (136. Part 4, Section 7). Furthermore, and more importantly for Stern’s poem, Burke said,

“As common labour, which is a mode of pain, is the exercise of the grosser, a mode of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system. In all these cases, if the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person, as these emotions clear the parts, whether fine, or gross, of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance, they are capable of producing delight. Its object is the sublime. Its highest degree I call astonishment” (136. Part 4, Section 7).

That Burke should identify the highest realization of the sublime as astonishment is significant since it is the very emotion Satan applies to the fallen angels. However, I want to focus on Burke calling “labour” a mode of pain and, consequently, a “grosser” type of the sublime. The man in Stern’s poem is a laborer. He works for Bethlehem Steel. Though it is of the grosser type, his pain is thus an experience of the sublime and it connects him to Satan’s pain, for like Satan he inwardly rebels against his condition.

Satan, before his decision to aspire to God’s throne was the highest angel. He was the morning star. But he was in this position because God, his creator, placed him there. Satan himself said, “Lifted up so high.” Having been “lifted” implies an external force, i.e., God, put him there. What this means is that Satan before his fall and transformation deferred his will to God, he obeyed God, he was in subjection to God. The man in Stern’s poem also defers his will. He is a worker at Bethlehem Steel. He defers his will to those who employ him: his supervisors, managers, and, more importantly, the shareholders and board members of the company. It is the owners of the company who are the secular version of God. It is they who hold the highest power in the company and determine its standard practice or laws.

Part of the worker’s change is that he is ruined by sweetness. Honeysuckle, the term used to identify the figure’s transformation, has a sweet smell. The association is with all that is outside: sunlight, fresh air, and open space. These are set in implied opposition to the factory where it is dirty, claustrophobic and hot. What he aspires for is nothing less than freedom from an oppressive job, freedom to enjoy the sunlight, fresh air and open space. But what he requires for that freedom is the money and power of those over him, especially of those like the shareholders. Implicitly, the man aspires, like Satan, to the position of those in power over him. This quiet rebellion, this opposition, during the 18th century, became an intimate part of the modern definition of the sublime.

Hume, in The Treatise of Human Nature, wrote, “any opposition which does not entirely discourage and intimidate us, has rather a contrary effect, and inspires us with a more than ordinary grandeur and magnanimity. In collecting our force to overcome the opposition, we invigorate the soul, and give it an elevation with which otherwise it would never have been acquainted . . .. Opposition not only enlarges the soul; but the soul, when full of courage and magnanimity, in a manner seeks opposition” (qtd. in Boulton l, li).

This “elevation” of the soul, obviously associated with the sublime, in Hume, is also associated with opposition itself. The association gained acceptance among critics through the 18th Century and in the Romantic poets was embraced in the images of the rebel and outcast as hero: Shelley’s Prometheus, Byron’s Childe Harold, Blake’s Los. In fact, Blake not only claimed Satan was the true hero of Paradise Lost but also expressed Hume’s point epigrammatically, “Opposition is true friendship” (42).

A curious historical fact lends credence to this point for the Stern poem. After Bethlehem Steel closed in the mid-90’s, a theater troupe took the unemployed workers and staged a performance of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. This gives us the analogy that, in Stern’s poem, Bethlehem Steel is the Zeus-like power against which the Prometheus-like worker thinks to rebel. The opening of Demogorgon’s final speech in the play is relevant.

This is the day, which down the void abysm,
At the earthborn’s spell, yawns for heaven’s despotism
(130. lns. 554, 555).

We live in a secular age and in such an age, heavenly despots are replaced with a board of shareholders, hell with earth, and Satan or Prometheus with the ordinary, working man who, like those figures, aspires toward the better life of those who employ him. The man in Stern’s poem is “the earthborn” yawning for “heaven’s despotism” and he experiences all the mixed exhilaration of those other independent, self-determined figures.

The man in Stern’s poem doesn’t openly rebel against his employers. He doesn’t quit his job, try to steal from them or to kill them. His rebellion is internal, an epiphany, a moment of insight. However, it is not spurious for being so. Most of us go to jobs we care little for, in fact, probably hate. We inwardly rebel against a condition to which necessity forces us to acquiesce. This does not make the disparity between our actions and feelings, between our outward circumstance and inward reality any less real or less painful. Each of us determines in some way, we are not defined by our job, we are something else. This is also to say that the essence of the rebellion is the desire for self-determination and the power used to define that self is the imagination or memory.

To the assertion that God created him and to him Satan owes his being, Satan says,

Who saw
When this creation was? Rememberest thou
Thy making? While the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised
By our own quickening power
(bk. 5, lns. 856-863)

Satan is invoking the power of memory to claim his past. What he can’t remember, he denies, thus reducing his sense of self to what his memory dictates. He is attempting an act of self-creation. He wants to be “self-begot, self-raised.” Memory is the faculty by which he tries to claim that power and it is the same power invoked at the beginning of Stern’s poem.

The goddess of sweet memory is there
Staggering over fruit and drinking old blossoms.

Memory defines the boundaries of the poem. But there is a hint that something isn’t quite right. The peculiar phrase “staggering over fruit” implies something of a stumbling block, perhaps a kind of alcohol, intoxicating the mind. The “drinking” of old blossoms reinforces the assertion. It is reminiscent of taking the fruit in Genesis, for there the temptation was that “ye shall be as gods.” That is, you shall become like your creator, becoming, in a way, self-created.

Satan, for the same desire, was cast into Hell. The worker in “June Fourth” suffers no less. Though we never see him in a heaven from which to be cast, we see him in his desire for the heights of it. He lies “on his left elbow studying the sky.” “Left” has always had unfavorable implications. The word itself derives from an Old English word meaning “idle,” “weak,” and “useless.” The word “sinister” derives from a Middle English word meaning “on the left side.” The worker in Stern’s poem, by this gesture, is aligning himself with the rebellious, with the sinister.

The man also is “studying the sky.” He is not simply looking distractedly in its direction. It implies that he isn’t thinking of something else, he is thinking about the sky, for one studies something in order to master it. Quietly, and symbolically, the figure follows in the footsteps of Satan, Prometheus, Los, the rebels of literary history. For his ambition, he is banished to labor “under the dirty windows.” The word “under” is telling for it could have easily been “behind.” But “under” suggests a vertical direction for the worker in relation to it. That is, the worker has been cast down. The factory is hell. But he has our sympathy, for he is the hero of our age. He is the underdog. He is our co-worker. He is each of us going to work everyday.

Works Cited
Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David V. Erdman. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Ed. James T. Boulton. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.

Milton, John. John Milton Complete Poems and Major Prose. Ed. Merritt Y. Hughes. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1957.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. The Selected Poetry and Prose of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Ramdon House Inc., 1951.

Stern, Gerald. This Time: New and Selected Poems. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.

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