Literary Criticism

RESOURCES
1.  Spark Notes
2.  Times Literary Supplement.
3.  New York Review of Books
4.  Internet Modern History Sourcebook
5.  Here is an excellent interview of Paul Cantor of University of Virginia in which he celebrates pro-market forces in movies, sitcoms, and novels.  It is a great critique of the communist pall on literary theory.  Enjoy.

David Gordon of the Mises Institute reviews Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, Edited by Paul A. Cantor and Stephen Cox, and published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2009 • Xviii + 510 pages

6.  Big List of Literary Magazines
7.  Bartleby is a great site for a variety of resources, ranging from poems, biographical information, and criticism.
8.  The Robinson Curriculum.
9.  Foundation for Critical Thinking.
10.  The incredible and courageous, Ludwig von Mises, put this Latin phrase on his family crest, I believe, “Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.”  It’s Latin for “Do not give into evil but proceed ever more boldly against it.”
11.  GradeSaver.
12.  The Anatomy of Criticism: A Trialogue, Henry Hazlitt, 1933.
13.
14.
15.
16.
17.
18.
19.
20.

Of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish, 1946”

The Fish (1946)

I caught a tremendous fish
and held him beside the boat
half out of water, with my hook
fast in a corner of his mouth.
He didn’t fight.
He hadn’t fought at all.
He hung a grunting weight,
battered and venerable
and homely.  Here and there
his brown skin hung in strips
like ancient wall-paper,
and its pattern of darker brown
was like wall-paper:
shapes like full-blown roses
stained and lost through age.
He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rages of green weed hung down.
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
–the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly–
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones,
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.
I looked into his eyes
which were far larger than mine.
but shallower, and yellowed,
the irises backed adn packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.
They shifted a little, but not
to return my stare.
–It was more like the tipping
of an object toward the light.
I admired his sullen face,
the mechanism of his jaw,
and then I saw
that from his lower lip
–if you could call it a lip–
grim, wet, and weapon-like,
hung five old pieces of fish-line,
or four and a wire leader
with the swivel still attached,
with all their five big hooks
grown firmly in his mouth.
A green line, frayed at the end
where he broke it, two heavier lines,
and a fine black thread
still crimped from the strain and snap
when it broke and he got away.
Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels–until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

My criticism begins here.

This poem is about a fish.  The fish is also a symbol of Christianity.   It is this symbol that condenses multiple meanings.  First, the fish is an allusion to the whale in the Bible.  Jonah was swallowed by a whale.  But Jonah’s engorgement is almost seen as protective; it’s a bad experience but one that serves a larger purpose, one that serves to teach an important lesson.  What a price!  God spares him.  After three days and three nights, God causes the whale to belch Jonah out, producing a temporary reprieve from God’s persecution.

The second allusion is to Melville’s Moby Dick.  In Moby Dick, Captain Ahab is hell-bent on killing the white whale for revenge.  He had to punish it for taking his leg.  The whale is death; its whiteness suggests an immeasurable or timeless history.  Although harpooned, the whale does not die.  It submerges with Ahab tethered to him.  In Ahab’s pursuit of personal justice against the whale, collateral damage is expected.  Most of the crew of the Pequod die, begging the question whether the forgiveness might not
have served the beleaguered Captain.

Silvia Plath’s Mirror

I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see, I swallow immediately.
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god, four-cornered.
Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.
It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long
I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.
Faces and darkness separate us over and over.

Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.
I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.

The third allusion of Elizabeth Bishop’s fish is to Sylvia Plath’s “The Mirror,” in which a woman scared and despondent over the prospects of growing old.  She perceives her youth and productive energy consumed by present worry and her aged future filled with loneliness.  So “the terrible fish” that “Rises toward her day after day” is the dread she feels toward aging.  The poem ends with the lines, “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman / Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.”  Where Plath’s poem ends with the fish rising toward the speaker, Elizabeth Bishop’s starts.  She opens “I caught a tremendous fish” and then proceeds to describe the fish.  Bishop’s description of the fish effectively tames the ominous characteristics assigned both to Melville’s whale and Plath’s “terrible fish.”  The intention toward one’s grievance is different and it is what sets Bishop’s fish apart from the rest.

Plath is considered a confessional poet, one who used her poetry to reveal in detail all one’s awful experiences, what would most closely resemble abuse.  And she uses the gruesome details of one’s life, nothing compared to what we hear on college campuses today, to revolt against the veneer of middle-class perfection.  Bishop, on the other hand, deflects the bitterness by redirecting the regret from our most sacred traumas instead toward self-congratulations.  Jim Rohn once said that self-congratulation is mature; seeking congratulations is immature.  And I tend to agree.  And this is what Elizabeth Bishop directs her audience to in “The Fish” and away from misery and celebrating failure.  Immediately after studying the “five big hooks grown firmly [its] mouth,” the speaker sees the hooks as “medals with their ribbons / frayed and wavering / a five-haired beard of wisdom / trailing from his aching jaw.”  Medals that commemorate specific instances in our lives where we have survived and did not succumb to despair. Instead, Bishop uses the fish to assign self-congratulatory praise on its ability to survive. And so it should.

I should stop there, but perhaps a brief discussion of the opening line.  It opens “I caught a tremendous fish . . . .”  Understand what the word “tremendous” describes.  The word points to the size of the fish.  Fishermen usually refer to a fish’s weight, “one-pound rainbow” or a “two-pound bass,” but “tremendous”?  What, is that simply poetic license? And if it is, then let me extend it even further and say that the word tremendous is a literary reference to a whale of a fish, as well as a whale of a tale.  We use the word tremendous to describe wonderful and marvelous things or experiences.  The speaker uses that word to great economy.  The Latin “tremendus” is a gerundive of “tremere,” which means to tremble.  The speaker tells us that the fish causes one to tremble.  In this light, the unusual characteristics of the fish become commentary on one’s personal grievances.  Take a look.  The first unusual aspect of the fish is that it didn’t fight, “He didn’t fight. / He hadn’t fought at all.”  The fish does not fight because it is under the hand and comprehension of the narrator, “. . . held him beside the boat / half out of water. . . .” Unresolved grievances, or our fretful past, comes under greater understanding as we provide a narrative about it, even if an inaccurate approximation.  As Gary North says, you can’t have something for nothing.  You’ve got to start somewhere.  So it is by subjecting the fish to a narrative that brings our grief under control.  The speaker examines the fish at her own pace, the focus is selective, and connects and overwrites each facet of the fish away from the traumatized memory toward a celebration of victory in the narrator’s life: her survival and toward greater happiness for herself.  Besides its uncharacteristic placidity, the fish “hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable.” This describes the weight, frustration, and exasperation in dealing with the past.

[This is unfinished.]

The next poem that I thought I would tackle is W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming” (1919). This poem is often called upon to describe a portent of chaos and evil following a calamity, like World War I.  The poem was written right at the close of World War I.  This site provides some interesting insights.  The poem is here:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Here is some commentary from SparkNotes.

 

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