The Song of Taillefer

Somerset, NJ. Legend has it that on the field of Hastings, as the forces of the Conqueror ascended a hill to engage the exhausted army of Harold II, a certain minstrel named Taillefer went before the ranks, tossing his sword high into the air and catching it again, all the while chanting the story of Roland’s defeat in the passes of the Pyrenees, that song of “Charlemagne, and Roland, and Oliver, and those who met their death at Roncevalles,” the same story which has been transmitted to posterity in the Chanson de Roland. His purpose was obviously to inflame the hearts of the soldiers marching behind him to perform acts of courage in the imminent battle, by reciting the extraordinary acts of courage performed by those antique heroes.  The manner in which he delivered his tale – the selection of material, its arrangement, his cadence and pronunciation, his gesticulations – was determined by this purpose, as the most effective means of exciting the soldiers’ passions towards emulation.  The soldiers, for their part, must have shared a sympathetic mind with Taillefer, and heard in his song an ideal of honorable conduct which they hoped to match.  And we can be certain that William, the king, approved of the song and its singer, in so far as it produced the evident result of making his men readier to fight with boldness and fortitude.  So for Taillefer, the content, style, and critical criteria of his song were all direct consequences of the occasion upon which he sang.  Keep all of this in mind.

The practice of poetical composition in the modern world is distinguished by the extraordinary social isolation in which the poet works.  It seems quite unnecessary to insist upon the marginal status of poetry in our times, as it is a fact which has been often recognized, and often lamented.  This peripheral condition of the art is brought home all the more poignantly by those occasional attempts, inevitably vain and insipid, to push poetry back into the current of social priority, such as declaring a national poetry month, or hanging verses on subway cars.  I should point out that I am not referring to mere numerical popularity; for all I know, some contemporary poets may reach press runs exceeding those reached by Wordsworth or Tennyson in their lifetimes.  But Wordsworth and Tennyson had an importance to their society that no poet in our day has, or can aspire to have.  Poetry has been removed from the occasional life of our society; we do not look to our poets for joy in the general success, or consolation in face of communal misfortune.  We are not even aware of anything unusual or deleterious in this indifference.  As F.R. Leavis was to state the matter so concisely at the opening of New Bearings in English Poetry, “poetry matters little to the modern world.”

If this social marginality is the most salient feature of the practice of poetry in the modern world, the most obvious features of the style of poetry in the modern world seem equally incontrovertible – that is, its obscurity and disorder.  Tolstoy remarked on this fact during the very earliest years of the modernist movement, noting that “obscurity is elevated into a dogma among the new poets,” and further, “it has come, finally, to this: that not only is haziness, mysteriousness, obscurity, and exclusiveness (shutting out the masses) elevated to the rank of a merit and a condition of poetic art, but even incorrectness, indefiniteness, and lack of eloquence are held in esteem.”  There seems to be no good reason to disagree with this assessment, and I’m not sure if even modernism’s most ardent champions would in fact disagree with it.  From Pound and Eliot to Ashberry and Graham, the distinctive thing, the essential thing, about modernism is its lack of formal rigor, its non-sequential ordering, and its esoteric purport.  It is not merely this or that formal stricture that the modern poet rebels against; it is poetic strictures as such.  It is not this or that sort of genre which the modern poet renounces; it is the notion of genre per se.  What has resulted is a poetry consistently amorphous, bizarre, baffling, and unsweet.

It would be a remarkable thing if these two very evident facts about modern poetry – its social inconsequentiality and its stylistic anarchism – were unrelated, and I do not think they are.  As a matter of fact, I think the latter is a direct consequence of the former, that the social marginalization of the art of poetry inevitably causes it to decline into stylistic incoherence.  To understand why this is the case, return to the story of Taillefer.

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