One Last Modernist

Mark Scroggins

Vol. 33, 2011

 

Guy Davenport delights in reading the survivals of archaic culture in the seemingly most homegrown American products. He reads O. Henry’s story “The Church with the Overshot Wheel,” for instance, as a perhaps unconscious retelling of the Persephone myth; it is “a detail in the structure of a culture of strong vitality which decided on the expressiveness of certain symbols five thousand years ago, and finds them undiminished and still full of human significance.” In “Persephone’s Ezra” he tracks that myth back to modernism’s Victorian forebears:

Like Sappho and Chaucer, Ruskin wrote about girls as if they were flowers, about flowers as if they were girls (so that his botanical treatise called Prosperina has more of an archaic Greek flavour [sic] than any of the period’s translations), and Lewis Carroll’s Alice is a kind of Persephone. There is Tennyson’s sombre [sic], Vergilian “Demeter and Persephone,” Swinburne’s “The Garden of Proserpine” and “Hymn to Proserpine.” Pound grew up in an ambiance congenial to myth…

Even if O. Henry had never read his Ovid, it’s not a matter of the writer happening upon some Jungian archetype, some story mystically embedded in the collective unconscious; rather he is repeating a tale that has been common property of the tribe, told and retold until its origins are forgotten.

The tracing of such symbols and lines of descent is the central act of Davenport’s criticism. (Its precise counterpart in art criticism is the iconography of Erwin Panofsky, as in his essay “The Ideological Antecedents of the Rolls-Royce Radiator,” which winds through the history of English architecture, landscape design, and neo-classicism before ending up at that auto part.) In The Geography of the Imagination, Davenport is much fascinated with tales—like that of Persephone—collected by Ovid. In the pieces gathered in Every Force Evolves a Form and The Hunter Gracchus, he returns again and again to the Greek concept of the daimon, the spirit messenger embodied in a bird (the mockingbird in Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle,” Poe’s raven, Wordsworth’s red-breast, Hopkins’s windhover) or a mysterious little boy (the various children in Kafka, the three boys in The Magic Flute). When we follow such symbols, Davenport tells us, we are tracing “modulations in a long tradition, a dance of forms to a perennial spiritual force.”

 

 

 

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