This began as a contemplation of John Kerrigan’s “Shakespeare’s Originality’ (2018) and my intention was to compare Kerrigan’s chapter on The Tempest, as an example of his overall argument and approach with that of Robert Graves in ‘Poetic Unreason’ (1925). But given how obscure the latter text is, what follows is an extended discussion of Graves’, ‘The Tempest, an Analysis’ (pps. 221-232).
A slight though not inconsequential digression
Eliot vs. Graves as critics.
Eliot. 'Hamlet', in ‘The Sacred Wood’ published in 1920.
‘The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which will be the formula of that particular emotion: such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is understood.’ (p100)
The younger Eliot was good at smoke and mirrors. If you try to untangle the difference between an ‘objective correlative’ and a symbol, or you ask how any ‘external fact’ can objectively represent something as messy as an emotion in a way that will be recognisable to everyone, you may wonder what happened to his philosophical training. It sounds profound and reasonable…until you stop and think it through.
But in his early criticism Eliot often withdraws from specifics. In the same essay he writes:
‘We must simply admit that here [in writing Hamlet] Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle. Under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know’.
Eliot is happy to raise a question and then avoid the necessity of offering an answer. It also absolves him from grounding the claim in any kind of evidence. Eliot’s essay is based on the assumption that ‘we’ all agree that Hamlet the play fails because Hamlet the character experiences an emotion in excess of the facts that might be used to explain or cause it. Whether ‘we’ would all agree with this, given the opportunity to dissent, is a different matter. Having damned the play, on grounds that are themselves questionable, it is enough for him to suggest that Shakespeare was driven by a personal compulsion to create Hamlet, and the play is a failure because he had not mastered that compulsion. But to understand that process ‘we should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself’.
Eliot is a fascinating critic to read if you want to learn how to sound profound. And he has been fruitful for generations of literary critics because of what can be said about what he ‘meant’. There are versions of his essays, in the writings and lectures of his exegetes, which are far more interesting than anything he ever wrote.
Graves on the other hand is fascinating to read for other reasons. He would probably have agreed with Eliot that the writing of Hamlet, or the writing of any play, was Shakespeare’s attempt to solve some kind of personal problem. At the time Eliot was writing The Sacred Wood, Graves was working towards a theory of composition that appears first in ‘On English Poetry’ and is then given its fullest expression in ‘Poetic Unreason’. Eliot claimed that to know why Shakespeare took on Hamlet would require ‘a great many facts in his biography, and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience he read….’. Eliot stops there. Having raised a question which he says cannot be answered, he exits, leaving us to wonder what was the purpose of his essay.
It’s a style that has been endemic in critical studies since then. The fashion for ‘problematizing’ texts was characterised by the failure of a many of its practitioners to do more than point out the problem. Graves, on the other hand, having come to a theory of composition, was more than ready to not only point in the direction he thought the critic should head, but to march resolutely towards his objective and persist in the assault long after common sense suggested that the objective wasn’t worth the effort. But his refusal to fudge the issue and stop becomes a way of showing why going half away along the path is equally pointless.
‘Poets are entitled to approach the truth imaginatively as well as by the slower methods of scholastic research.’ (p91)
To understand the composition of any text, or in this case the play: ‘The easiest approach to the study of the composition of The Tempest is to sort out what has already been discovered of the contributory materials and then see what is left to be explained both of the materials and of the motives’ (p.194)
Graves states that there are three main sources which he seems to assume are well known. A German play by Ayrer, Die Schone Sidee
A Spanish Romance by Ortunez de Calohorra: Mirror of Princely deeds and Knighthood, translated and printed in 1580.
A ‘fairly large body’ of literature dealing with adventure in the new world. (p.194)
For the modern reader, confronting the RSC Shakespeare’s declarative ‘No known Source for the main plot’ this raises immediate questions which we shall blithely ignore.
Graves claims that once these three sources have been fused by the writer there is not much to account for: The masque, the drunken sailors, Caliban and his mother.
And off Graves sets to ‘account for’ these, like Alice chasing the White Rabbit. First, he constructs a biographical narrative from the sonnets, links this to the chronology of the plays, and goes on to show how The Tempest is Shakespeare’s attempt to reconcile the conflicts these personal disasters caused. The necessary catalyst that brings together the Author’s life and his reading was, according to Graves, a passage in Isaiah in the Bible. ‘Nobody familiar with the psychology of romantic creation should deny that this passage had the power of crystallizing into dramatic form all the loose material floating about in Shakespeare’s mind’. (p. 210)
Perhaps I am unfamiliar with the psychology of romantic creation, but it seems to require a great deal of charity to follow Graves at this point. I can’t see the link between the biblical passages and The Tempest.
However, he goes on to ‘account’ for the features of the play that are not in the sources.
Caliban is W.H.; Sycorax the Dark lady; Ariel is an emanation of Shakespeare himself. The drunken sailors discover themselves as Chapman and Jonson, rival poets. (214)
Graves was nowhere near finished. Ariel’s song ‘Full fathom five’ and Prospero’s Epilogue have also to be ‘accounted for’, and even then he keeps going. Contacting a scholarly expert, to check his findings, he discovers he needs to add the ‘recent’ murder of Henry IV and the marriage of both Shakespeare’s own daughter and the marriage of the daughter of King James. In this historical doubling Sycorax now ‘in the political sense’ is Catherine of Medici and Caliban is Jesuitism. Prospero as ideal King is both Henry 4 of France and James 1 of England, and Graves’ scholarly source provides supporting evidence that the other subsidiary character have political sources and the lengthy conversations amongst the stranded nobles have political overtones.
By which point the exhausted reader is beginning to wonder what doesn’t relate.
Caliban may well be the result of combining ‘An Adriatic devil from a Spanish romance, a sea cow seen in the Bermudas, Jesuitism generally; Raviallic particularly’ as well as Mr. W.H. Everything a writer does, sees, hears and reads, is material for the finished work. It’s to Graves’ credit that he keeps going, but his determination illuminates the inevitable futility of the activity. Anyone trying to unravel all the threads that combined in the finished work is taking on an impossible task. A task made even more complicated by Graves’ understanding that, ‘How far he [Shakespeare] knew after writing each scene what that scene was about …is impossible to say’.
The chapter invites a peculiar ambivalence. Graves had taken ‘source’ analysis’ beyond a listing of similar texts, which had to be an advance. The reading takes The Tempest well beyond the usual ‘Shakespeare is Prospero and this is his farewell to the theatre’ which has to be in its favour.
If Graves is right that poetic composition is the poet’s response to personal issues of which he or she may not be aware, and if the biographical narrative Graves creates from the sonnets is valid, and if it matches up with the chronology of the plays, and if Shakespeare had access to the texts Graves had identified, and if his rivals are the models for some of the characters, then it seems possible to argue that The Tempest is the way it is because of all this.
That’s a great many ifs. Apart from the question of how much goodwill you have to extend to Graves and his argument or the fact that if any one of those ifs is wrong the whole argument comes apart, the chapter raises two issues.
Firstly, the argument can’t be proved. Therefore, apart from pointing out that ‘this text was not available to Shakespeare because….’ it can’t be disproved. It’s possible for another critic to theorise a different problem; Shakespeare’s ambivalence to his daughter’s marriage for example, a slightly different set of sources, and a different set of contemporary models and both constructions would be equally valid. Apart from the historical grounds of showing Shakespeare could not have used a source, there would be no way of choosing between them.
Although he later disowned his theory of composition, I think it rewards consideration if you’re a writer of poems, but from an academic point of view, although it seems like New Historicism avant la letter it’s a dead end. Once you’ve started out you have to keep going, looking for explanations for everything in the play. And having ‘explained the Tempest’, presumably you then go on to explain each of Shakespeare’s plays and while you’re doing that other scholars are ‘explaining' 'The Ring and the Book’ or ‘Paradise Lost’. As an intellectual activity, it must be very stimulating for the person doing it, but the external value of the exercise seems limited. The act of creation is too messy and contains too many variables to be reduced to a formula.
One thing redeems Graves’ approach throughout Poetic Unreason. Academic criticism, for most of the twentieth century has been reception orientated. A sceptical observer might suggest the art of academic criticism is mostly the art of using texts as springboards for displays of erudition other critics can object to.
On the other hand Graves was worrying away at a theory of composition from the perspective of someone who composed poetry. ‘New Historicism’, driven by institutional requirements to make any form of critical activity ‘New’, would develop into a sophisticated academic version of trainspotting which often leaves the reader baffled, wondering what was the point of wading through pages of cleverness. Graves was trying to prove something about authorship. If his theory held good for himself, it should apply to others. He was adamant: ‘my chief care in this chapter has been to illustrate my general theory of the psychology of poetry by means of the Tempest, rather than to anatomize The Tempest as a scientific subject with the absolute scientific idea that by presenting one thing in terms of something else or even several other things we can arrive at a knowledge of its true character’ because, as he concludes,
‘Even if every aspect has been discovered, and considered in its relation to the context, there still remains the personality, the individuality of the piece that baffles further scrutiny, something more than the aggregate of the histories that compose it.” P. 232
If Graves’ attempt feels awkward, it also, implicitly, offers a criticism of books like John Kerrigan’s 'Shakespeare's Originality'. If you go that far, and still end up stranded in no man’s land, with your readers wondering why you’d bothered, what’s the virtue in going less than half that distance? The modern version is open to all the criticism of Graves’ method, without the saving grace of the clarity of his prose, and his willingness to push on to his conclusion.