The Lowly Eye: Samuel Greenberg’s Platonic Argument

         Shortly after my previous post about American poet Samuel Greenberg (1893 – 1917), Mark Woods gave a link to it from his website wood s lot: the fitful tracing of a portal along with a poem by Greenberg that I hadn’t mentioned. I love the idea of people having a favourite Greenberg poem, and Michael’s post brought to my attention one that I hadn’t yet read, “Memory” (64), which begins with the startling line “Gluttonous helium of thought’s endowment.”
          I had mentioned irony in Greenberg’s poems, which first occurred to me as I read “Immortality” (62), a poem that owes its own immortality in part to Hart Crane’s appropriation of some of its lines in “Emblems of Conduct.” Because of his lack of formal education, Greenberg is sometimes viewed as a naive poet whose rather purplish style implies an uncritical and rapturous praise of the powers of poetry to describe nature and express emotions. But in my further readings of Greenberg’s poems, I found that his tone is more ironic than previous critics have noted. For example, L. S. Dembo’s comparison of Hart Crane’s “Emblems of Conduct” (which is mostly a pastiche of lines from various poems by Greenberg) and Greenberg’s original lines is an admirably sustained and insightful analysis whose purpose is to demonstrate that Crane “has changed the whole tone of Greenberg’s work from romantic enthusiasm to irony” (320).
          However, in the following I want to show that many of Greenberg’s poems investigate the problematic duality of perception’s illusion and an ungraspable reality through argumentation that sometimes relies on irony. Greenberg’s philosophical and aesthetic stance, which is in essence a version of Platonism, sometimes ironically attributes authority to poetry and the senses and then dethrones them to show the necessarily mediated reality that arises from human attempts to experience and describe the world.
          I’d like to preface my analysis by stating that the ambiguity of Greenberg’s punctuation and syntax make interpretations speculative to an extent, and because of the difficulty of reading his work and to explain how I arrived at my interpretation, I’ll attempt “translations” of his lines. Prosaic and faulty as these glosses may be, I nonetheless hope that they show his deliberately ironic tone in working out a philosophical problem.
          For example, “The Laureate” (57) might at first blush seem to be unadulterated praise of the poet’s powers, but on closer study Greenberg’s argument comes through clearly. The first clue to the poem’s irony is in the title’s rather pompous reference to the poet. Greenberg’s opening apostrophe poses the central question of his sonnet:

                    Poet O soul! hast thou within thy wing the raise
                    That nature doth disown with complete color,
                    The enlightening beat of Heaven’s plausive royalty?—

          The question mark is an addition of the 1947 collection, a plausible assumption of the intended syntax, perhaps something like the following: Poet, does the flight of your inspiration fall short of nature, with its complete range of colour (as opposed to the limited human palette with which you describe nature)? Does your poetry contain the enlightening rhythms of heavenly authority?
          In the lines that follow, Greenberg extols the poet’s inspired vision of nature by contrasting clouds and earth:

                    As the clouds in their nudity softly sensate,
                    Uplift the sordid earth from dark slumber
                    And deviate spirits mystic woob,
                    Create animations about the hidden angels,
                    Regulate love in lofty nobles’ helm.
                    Conquer, but to unconquer self’s tomb,
                    Knight the command of universal thought,
                    Thou who art the stream of souls’ flow.

In other words, just as the softly perceptible clouds uplift the base earth from its dark sleep and womb of strange spirits, so does the poet animate hidden angels, give meaning to love, conquer mortality (but also embrace it), and express universal thoughts and feelings. These lines seem to praise the “laureate’s” divine powers.
          But it is the last three lines that reveal the irony behind his adulation of poetry:

                    O Lyre, ne’er can’st thou forgive praise,
                    For joy hides its stupendous coverings;
                    The quality of senses create and overthrow.

To Greenberg, poetry should not become conceited by such praise because its joys conceal its own “stupendous coverings,” its illusory colouring and symbolizing of reality. Our very senses create the qualities that poetry ascribes to reality. However, in the last word of the poem, “overthrow,” perhaps he metapoetically conveys the idea that the poet’s senses are also capable of revealing those qualities for the illusions that they are, thus justifying his own poem.
          It’s possible that I’m over-reading with my thoughts on “overthrow,” but I hope that the above offers a general idea of his sonnet’s argument regarding human perception and expression: poetry and the senses give pleasure, but these are illusory expressions of a reality that cannot be grasped by limited human means. The senses can experience, and poetry can describe, but the strong, unmediated light of reality lies beyond the ability of mere mortals to see.
          In “Enigmas” (49), Greenberg describes this dichotomy as “the beam / Of fire from the sun” versus his own “slumber in imagination of spheres . . . and moon-like shapes.” In “Nature’s Cover” (10), reality has a “[s]mooth, tangible, accessible skin / That gives its sensual, carnal kin,” unlike the unknowable “glossy smoke” and “spongy blue” of the “heavens.” In “The Cloud” (12), the poet’s power is mere “gilt” compared with the cloud that is “far from our souls.” And in “Daylight” (50), he addresses reality’s light as the “[g]leam” that with its “all-power[ful]” rays (“strings”) assists the poet’s “muse” to express “desire”:

                    The horizon hues give vent
                    To thousand lofty thoughts of poetry.
                    The floating marble-like clouds
                    Form incomprehensive molds;
                    But the lowly eye views this all
                    And, from within, peals its classic melancholy folds.

The clouds and horizon, in Greenberg’s symbolism, imply the unknowable realm. On the other hand, Greenberg often uses forms and colours to signify limited (“incomprehensive”) human apprehension of nature through imperfect faculties. Thus the poet’s limited perception sees only the colours of the horizon, inspiring poetry, and perceives only shapes from the clouds, whose resemblance to marble contributes to their aura of permanence and perfection. Perception’s “lowly eye” views an ultimately unknowable nature, attributes qualities and symbols to it, and creates cognitive images that are inherently limited. The reality beyond human grasp is transformed by the poet’s “melancholy folds” into poor representations of what the mind and senses cannot directly apprehend.
          In fact, a fairly consistent set of symbols attesting to these concerns can be traced throughout Greenberg’s oeuvre: the unknowable is figured as divinity, heaven, eternity, truth, scepters, immersion, essence, nature, clouds, strong light, or the unseen realm beyond the horizon. On the other hand, the relatively frail human perception is figured as a world of dreams, memories, reflections, echoes, veils, webs, specks, vapours, hues, shapes, or shadows; base earth; or the illusory charms of beauty and language.
          The religious implications of this symbolism are obvious, and I’ll address the influence of Jewish spiritual tradition below in my discussion of Greenberg’s image of a “spiritual gate.” As well, his aesthetic stance follows the Renaissance recapitulation of Platonic philosophy and is similar to Michelangelo’s succinct statement: “The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection.” This idea permeates Greenberg’s poetry and is at the heart of the irony in many of his poems, notably in “Immortality,” which I’ll quote here in full and try to untangle Greenberg’s gnarled syntax:

                    But only to be memories of spiritual gate,
                    Letting us feel the difference from the real;
                    Are not limits the sooth to formulate
                    Theories thereof, simply our ruler to feel?

This passage is especially tricky, but inverting the syntax helps to sort things out: Art is a limited human expression of a truth or divine reality, a kind of theory that we formulate in order to feel close to the divine. Isn’t the limitation of artistic expression, which allows us to sense our separation from an ungraspable reality, actually a memory of a spiritual gate to the divine?
          The next few lines give examples of the apparent power of artistic expression:

                    Basques of statuettes of eruptions long ago,
                    Of power in symmetry, marvel of thought
                    The crafts attempt, showing rare aspiration;
                    The museums of the ancient fine stones
                    For bowls and cups, found historians
                    Sacred adorations, the numismatist hath shown,

Here Greenberg states that the arts are ambitious: they create bodices of statuettes, and they show advancements in the power of human thought. The numismatist shows the love of historians for bowls and cups of precious stones in museums of ancient art.
          In this passage, Greenberg ironically praises the mimetic powers of art. That irony consists partly in the artistic objects that he chooses to invoke: not Michelangelo’s David, but statuettes, bowls, and cups. Even these more humble works of art (which he ironically describes as “showing rare aspiration” and expressing “marvel of thought”) show our attempt to recreate something of an unreachable divine reality. And the term “numismatist” contributes to Greenberg’s exploration of this duality, for the coin collector emphasizes the idea of the utilitarian and commercial side of human creative expression, further lending an ironic tone to his praise of art. And to emphasize his original question, Greenberg ends with the opening four lines, thus framing his examples of artworks with the idea of their “spiritual gate” to the divine.
          I’d like to dwell for a moment on Greenberg’s image of the “spiritual gate,” which might have roots in his Jewish faith. Marc Simon points out that “[p]robably much of what might be termed the Jewish experience had permeated Greenberg’s life, despite relatively little religious training in a schoolroom” (7). From 1901 until 1907, when he had to leave school at grade seven to work in a leather factory, he attended a public school, not a cheder. In his autobiography, he remembers, tongue in cheek, the “fancy problems,” “polished desks,” and “abnormal cheer” of his classrooms, where he describes himself as a “reaper of hard fact and geographical bliss,” “material” that nonetheless “served as an unconscious guide in my spiritual labors.” He would have absorbed Jewish faith and traditions at home, for his parents were observant Jews. And indeed, Greenberg’s poetry contains many references to his faith.
          In Jewish symbolism, a gate can refer to the gates of the Temple or the gates of heaven; open gates imply a closeness to God. The service that ends Yom Kippur is called “Ne’ilah,” which refers to the closing of the gates of prayer. According to Milton Steinberg in the Machzor Hadash, on Yom Kippur “the Jew saw a spiritual gate, an entranceway to a new relationship with God, an opportunity to change, to begin again” (761).
          Thus the spiritual gate in “Immortality,” an idea that infuses Greenberg’s poetics, may bear a relation to Jewish tradition. And although sometimes Greenberg seems to admire the power of poetry as a medium with which enter the “spiritual gates” and transport the mind to inspired heights, he also points out that after all, it is but a shadow of a divine reality.
          Greenberg’s work does present difficulties to the reader because of its effusive style and ambiguous syntax. But as several of his admirers have shown, careful readings of the poetry demonstrate him to be more sophisticated in his choices than it might at first appear. For example, Marc Simon’s study of the influence of Greenberg on Crane takes a positive tack in his revelation of Crane’s use and honing of Greenberg’s “techniques of repetition” (52).
          Likewise, Evalyn Shapiro, in her 1947 review of the collection edited by Holden and McManis, attributes originality to Greenberg’s work when she concludes that although Greenberg may have borrowed certain types of images from such sources as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, nonetheless during “the brief five-year period of his creative life he managed to evolve a poetic style of his own, including an idiom, a metric, and a symbolism” (160-61).
          And although John Berryman agrees with Allen Tate’s assessment of Greenberg’s work as “turgid and bathetic,” he also asserts that while Greenberg may have been “inexperienced” in his editing of his work, “he was not naïve.” Berryman also points out that because Greenberg “has been thought of so far, when thought of at all, as mad or simple . . . insistence is necessary upon the deliberate sane craft visible, at least by intention, all throughout [the 1947] volume” (505-506).
          As I mentioned in my previous post, Charles Bernstein appreciates Greenberg’s syntactical acrobatics and ambiguities as characteristics of a “radically modernist dimension”: “His swerve from syntax as a principal of clausal subordination and hierarchy opens up the field of serial apostrophe that pushes to liberate itself from the confines of ‘literary diction.’”
          In keeping with these positive assessments, I hope that my analysis shows that Greenberg’s poetic tone is not so simply a case of overblown Romantic enthusiasm, and that through a sometimes ironic tone he is working out a philosophical and spiritual problem in his awareness of the limitations of human perception.


* There is debate as to whether (or to what extent) editors should alter Greenberg’s spelling and punctuation to clarify meaning. For the sake of consistency, I’m presenting the versions in Poems by Samuel Greenberg: A Selection from the Manuscripts, the 1947 collection edited by Harold Holden and Jack McManis. Readers might want to refer to Michael Smith’s website Samuel Greenberg: American Poet, which presents less edited versions of some of the poems that I discuss.


Works Cited

Bernstein, Charles. “Samuel Greenberg & Grammatic Truth.” Sibila: Poesia e Cultura.

Berryman, John. “Review: Young Poets Dead.” The Sewanee Review 55.3 (1947): 504-514.

Dembo, L. S. “Hart Crane and Samuel Greenberg: What Is Plagiarism?” American Literature 32.3 (1960): 319-21.

Deutsch, Gotthard, Cyrus Adler, and Francis L. Cohen. “Ne’ilah.” Jewish Encyclopedia.

Greenberg, Samuel. Poems by Samuel Greenberg: A Selection from the Manuscripts. Eds. Harold Holden and Jack McManis. New York: Henry Holt, 1947.

Hirsch, Emil G. “Gate.” Jewish Encyclopedia.

Shapiro, Evalyn. “Review: From Nowhere.” Poetry 71.3 (1947): 158-62.

Simon, Marc. Samuel Greenberg, Hart Crane and the Lost Manuscripts. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.

Smith, Michael, ed. Samuel Greenberg: American Poet.

Steinberg, Milton. Machzor Hadash.

Woods, Mark, ed. wood s lot: the fitful tracing of a portal.



Camille Martin
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