I was going to write something about Bertram Stevens and singing next but Miguel of St Orberose brings up a point in the comments – I reword it into a question like this -- Is it wrong-headed to compare old poets, who are adhering to the aesthetics of their times, to new poets? I was wondering similarly while I was writing the last post but the word I used when I was talking to myself was fair. Was it fair? Strange fairness when one party had died and the other one would never know; this was fairness being acted out for the living and the present people, who would maybe feel it transmitted into themselves through the medium of correct and balanced feelings or emotional sniffer dogs implanted early and reinforced.
Incoherence, though; I was approaching Bathgate through the word incoherence, which had come into my head when I was re-reading that old interview with Geoffrey Hill.
Incoherence (I considered) is eternally available to everyone and the year 1889, which was the publication of The Clematis* would not have forbidden incoherence, the 1800s being so hectic in the Anglosphere and Ruskin breaking down, even at the end of Praeterita when he is pointing out the quiet and peacefulness; still he is not quiet and peaceful but must worry back over what he has written: “… totally above men of the 'world' in general understanding, courtesy, and moral sense. Men of the outer world, I mean, of course ...” -- joking a little but still craving in general to be understood both at the atomic level of a single word and in the overarching meaning, which he complained nobody got, and instead they pulled quotes out of his books and showed them around, saying they were beautiful. I do not want to be beautiful, he wrote. I want to be meaningful. But Oscar Wilde defended him after his death by writing
Who cares whether Mr. Ruskin’s views on Turner are sound or not? What does it matter? That mighty and majestic prose of his, so fervid and so fiery coloured in its noble eloquence, so rich in its symphonic music, so sure and certain, at its best in subtle choice of word and epithet, is at least as great a work of art as any of those sunsets that bleach or rot on their corrupted canvases in England’s gallery ...
The dirt world would not understand him either and his ditch did not work.
This is Hill's habit too, in lectures and poems, this way of picking back over a word he has used, this restless irritation, stung by words as if they are insects he has sat on, he goes, he has to scratch, but he has to sit down in the grass again too, he sits, he gets bitten, he quotes the OED, he sits down again and has to get up again. He will never be able to settle comfortably on a word and rest there like a man on a soft cushion. The dead are misunderstood as well, he worries. They are ignored. Very much like words in that respect. People assume their compliance without asking.
Somebody should make a list of writers whose clarifying nitpicks are also a style, eg
* I've just ("just" is at ten forty-five, the morning after I made this post) read a review of Bathgate's Clematis book, Far South Fancies, in an edition of The Literary World (July 19, 1890). The reviewer's opinion in a nutshell: "So far as the human element in them [the poems] is concerned, they are of little value [...] But Mr Bathgate has an eye for scenery."