Small Personal Cheers
On R.F. Langley and dramatic monologue
Writing a weekly newsletter about poetry is a very different kettle of fish to doing academic research, which generally takes a bit longer to boil its catch. So the highlight of my week was opening a contributor’s copy of Forms of Late Modernist Lyric (Liverpool University Press, 2021), ed. Edward Allen.
This new collection of essays traces the ancestral features of lyric traditions in contemporary poetry, from aubades to nocturnes. It’s an honour to be included with a chapter on R.F. Langley and dramatic monologue, a subject I first started to think about in 2014, while I was editing Langley’s Complete Poems (Carcanet, 2015).
Langley (1938—2011) spent his working life as an English teacher, whose profound, exacting insights into Shakespeare — a lesson might be spent on the first line of Hamlet — impressed generations of secondary-school students in the Midlands. As I assembled his sparklingly original oeuvre of 48 poems, I began to see how important this repeated thinking about poetry-as-theatre was to his own writing over four decades.
An early discovery sent me back to a classic study: Robert Langbaum’s The Poetry of Experience: The Dramatic Monologue in Modern Literary Tradition (1957; rev. edn 1974). Not only did Langley own both editions of this book, but a former pupil recalled how he also kept a stock of classroom copies that he would lend to promising students.
In The Poetry of Experience, Langbaum proposed that the dramatic monologue, as developed by Victorian poets such as Robert Browning, was the missing link between the Romantics and the Modernists. Here is an extract from my chapter which tries to use this thesis to illuminate a later Langley poem, ‘Touchstone’ (2005):
Robert Langbaum claimed that the subjective revelation of poetic epiphany was ‘the essential innovation’ of Wordsworth and Coleridge:
Epiphany, in the literary sense, is a way of apprehending value when value is no longer objective […] The epiphany grounds the statement of value in perception; it gives the idea with its genesis, establishing its validity not as conforming to a public order of values but as the genuine experience of an identifiable person.
Epiphany becomes Langbaum’s name for ‘the climax of a dramatic action’ which ‘lasts a moment only’ and is a ‘victory over […] an original dissociation of thought and feeling’. The ‘poetry of experience’ is the lyrical drama that arises from this moment.
In a letter he wrote to me in 2004, Langley used ‘epiphany’ to describe his own inspiration in the poem ‘Touchstone’, contrasting this with the avant-garde poetic doctrine — advanced by Eliot’s theory of impersonality in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) — that requires ‘the removal of the poet’s self as source system’. ‘This is where I come from,’ he commented, ‘but also where I have never been, in as much as I write epiphanies. [In ‘Touchstone’] I face the issue squarely, and even allow that other evil, the unmediated philosophical opinion, direct access, without a persona’.
Yet ‘Touchstone’ is also concerned with the idea that even the ‘personal poem’ can be a naturalised form of dramatic monologue. It proposes one of the classic scenarios of Romantic poetry, the lyric poet who listens to a bird singing, which prompts a series of aphoristic reflections on the instantaneous nature (‘the idea with its genesis’) of such an epiphany:
Commenting on these lines, Langley observed:
‘Personal’, so it has been surmised, comes from ‘per son’ — … through sound, and resulted from the use of dramatic masks in Greece, with their sound amplification tendencies. Which makes the person find himself in a stage projection, a role. This took me to ‘snatches at masks’… grabs for masks, or little songs written for masques, and, keeping ‘personal’, ‘small personal cheers’, where ‘cheers’ are the applause, the little self discoveries, or the faces, masks… what cheer my love?… to be found, by the listener, in the clusters of articulations in the Robin’s song. […] It felt like a little run of discoveries rather than the poet’s self!
Although the experience was ‘personal’, that is, the experience of writing the poem was not: it involved the ‘self discoveries’ of artifice, finding form via borrowed thoughts, voices and masks. This is also the implication of the poem’s title, which alludes to Touchstone the clown in As You Like It, who in III.iii famously avers the paradox that ‘the truest poetry is the most feigning’. The Shakespearean allusion is underlined in the final stanza, which begins: ‘It has to be a material fool. / His warranty tempts me back’ . This echoes Jaques’ description of Touchstone in the same scene as a ‘material fool’ — a fool, that is, with serious matter to impart — shortly after the clown has affirmed that to be ‘poetical’ is not to be honest. In ‘Touchstone’, however, Langley sets epiphany against scepticism. The memory of the live song of the robin is his ‘material fool’, a symbol of the poetic which may yet be a genuine ‘touchstone’ of reality (‘His warranty tempts me back’).