“There is nothing so likely to hand down your name as a poem: all other monuments are frail and fading.”
—Pliny the Younger
To say that O.B. Hardison, Jr., who died last August at the age of 61, was a poet is in some respects to diminish his memory. “Poet” has become a hollow accolade, a label with an honorific charge that is not unrelated to the disesteem in which most poets are actually held in a society that distrusts and resents poets and has little patience for what they do. Poetry is often demanding, after all, and it requires on the part of its audience a degree of attention and cultivation for which Jacobin egalitarianism has neither capacity nor patience. But in a larger and less polemical way, there is a sense in which that grandiose label is stylistically confining, suggesting—let us admit—a degree of withdrawal from the great issues of the culture. Poets sit on the sidelines, scribbling and entertaining themselves, while the important work of the culture goes on, strenuously elsewhere.
It was not always thus. There is another model, the all but forgotten idea of the poet who, like Chaucer or Raleigh, could be involved in affairs of state, active in exploration and military adventure and, as a parergon, tossing off a poem now and then. There have been poet-diplomats in our time, too—St. John Perse, Octavio Paz, and Basil Bunting come immediately to mind.
O.B. Hardison was a poet, then, in the strict and neutral meaning of the term—he published two collections. Lyrics and Elegies in 1958, a part of the Scribner’s “Poets of Today” Series, and Pro Musica Antiqua (L.S.U. Press, 1977). One might regret that there wasn’t more poetry, that there weren’t more pages and volumes of his suave, elegant, witty, but often deeply felt and abruptly moving work, but that would be sentimentalizing and would get the shape of Hardison’s career wrong. I was at a center for scholars and artists not so long ago, where there were a couple of poets in residence, and it struck me as off and, finally, unhealthy that writing poetry was all they did. They woke up each morning, consulted their mood, and played with their impressions, thoughts, and feelings, as if these were thermometers by which the temperature of the world itself was to be determined—and as if the world was either an invalid or at least something of a hypochondriac.
That is finally silly and not what Hardison did. Quite the reverse, actually. His engagement with the world, as a scholar and as an administrator (notably of the Folger Shakespeare Library), but primarily as a thinker, was too burly and energetic to be comprehended by the usual limp suggestion that the word “poet” carries. His poems were a part of his larger work and of a piece with it. To get some sense of how this is so, we might consider one of his early pieces, from the 1958 collection, a poem called “Bernini’s Colonnade.” It comes with a note that tells us,
Each arm of Bernini’s colonnade before St. Peter’s is composed of three parallel rows of columns. The two arms are laid out along the circumference of an ellipse, and the columns are placed behind one another on lines drawn from the foci of the ellipse. Thus, if one stands at the north focus, he has the illusion that the north colonnade-a has only one row of columns; but if he turns, he sees all three rows of columns in the south colonnade. Conversely, if he stands at the south focus, the south colonnade seems ‘simple,’ while the three rows of columns in the north colonnade are visible. This arrangement forms the basic image of the poem: to me, it suggests the relativity of truth as we know it.
My guess is that, later on, he might have suppressed the explanatory last sentence with its suggestion that the poem itself makes abundantly clear. And if we are in the explaining mood, I suppose I ought to make it plain that I advert to this particular piece not because it is necessarily Hardison’s best but because I find it peculiarly characteristic. It begins:
This great ellipse contains two jarring centers
From each of which one colonnade is pure.
Its other, further twin, irrational,
Making the form a tension, no idea.
Here, where I stand upon the artist’s point
(That’s reason) watching the frigid north
And world’s epistle side, what’s faith to me
But art to see a single curving row
Of pillars close the mental hemisphere;
What’s faith, that is, but our perimeter
Of something transcendental . . .
Some of this density of hypotactic elaboration is not altogether Hardison’s own but belongs to that baroque moment of the 50’s when James Merrill and Richard Wilbur were astonishing us all with “The Black Swan” and “Ceremony.” It is the intellectual play of which the syntax is a mimesis, the conjuring of the architectural, mathematical, and religious monument into another dimension, that seems to me to carry Hardison’s own signature. The dazzle of the flights of fancy and insight in Entering the Maze (Oxford University Press, 1981) and Disappearing Through the Skylight (Viking, 1989) is already established here as the domain—or demesne—of his fancy.
The brilliant first chapter of Entering the Maze that considers the philosophical claims of the architecture of Washington, D.C., is figured here, and if some of the verse later on in the piece, pushes too hard and tries too strenuously for its effects, that is, in a young man’s work, an admirable fault. Later, in Pro Musica Antiqua, Hardison was able to look at a mathematical subject (as how few poets would even dare to do) and quite breezily suggest:
Pythagoras knew the world is symbols.
Knew beans are evil.
Knew (as all lovers know) sheets
after sleeping must be smoothed.
Measured the trembling of those strings
That tie the mind to the sky
In halfs and demi-halfs until it sings.
Never pick up what has fallen (pass it by).
Leave no mark on the ashes (you will not return).
Taste only bread that is shared.
And never, O never, look in a lighted mirror:
Those eyes will dazzle;
You will die in that radiant net if you come nearer.
The square of two arms on fire
Forms the hypotenuse of desire:
Become through others.
Never eat your heart (you were made for pleasure),
Or let swallows nest on your roof.
Or being infinite, accept a measure.
It is a breathtakingly assured piece, a playful brooding on mensurability and harmony and their moral and spiritual dimensions and limitations. It is what the thinker of “Bernini’s Colonnade” might have figured out, but it goes far Chronicles Advertise In. . . beyond the early work in its grace and légèrete.
The sense of fun and even giddiness of the extravagantly wrought turn is part of Hardison’s personal treasure, and he could do the Wallace Stevens kind of capriole without ever seeming precieux, for, as with the best of Stevens, there is a touch of sadness to his ebullience, a minor interval in the harmony. Thus, in “In the Palazzo of Pellucid”:
Wherever he walked they talked in whispers
For his words were goblets of finest crystal
Each engraved with his initial, the famous crested P.
They were vessels of the wine of his meaning
Subtle vintages of red and white
Laid down from the good years of Pellucid. . . .
Stevens, in Hartford, imagined an elsewhere, a fanciful Guatemala or lush Key West, from which vantage points the dreary Connecticut city of small arms manufacture, actuarial tables, and the pettiness of state politics seemed reduced and amusing. Hardison is able to suggest distance in other, more taxing ways (which Stevens does, too, at his best). The end of the poem is much less blithe than what we might have expected:
You, too, know Pellucid, passed
by his house last night.
Heard the resplendent agonizing cry of strings.
Moved forward, moved by that thought.
Into the shadow of his desolation.
Still he paces the floor, waiting.
Knowing duty and the tears of things:
Carthage to be destroyed, pieties served.
Also humble things:
The gods of threshold and of hearth
To be honored in a dark time.
Days he walks in the gallery.
Night in another place, always playing.
Ignorant neighbors say, “Pellucid is playing.
He lives next door to Walter R. Clydesdale III.”
The authority of that last surprising move, the gloominess and sharpness of the joke, is characteristic of Hardison’s poise in the work of his maturity. He had a sure instinct and a remarkable ear, as keen as that of any poet I know. It was this otic acuity that informed and enlivened what may be his most important scholarly work. Prosody and Purpose in the English Renaissance. The syncretic work he’d done in Maze and Skylight was much flashier and deserved the attention it received, but this more narrowly focused book on metrics and the development of blank verse in English is magisterial, original, and, I believe, will shape all discussion about the heartbeat of English poetry for as long as anyone cares to attend to such a subject.
The subject is the sources of a metrical tradition that was both rhetorical and syntactical, and with an erudition and a delicacy that are each rare and much rarer in combination, Hardison charts a path through a very dark thicket indeed. There are close readings of Gavin Douglas’s and the Earl of Surrey’s 16th-century Englishings of the Aeneid and of Jasper Heywood’s versions of Seneca, and Hardison demonstrates persuasively how, at the moment of its invention, blank verse was a rich and complex system that could be read and heard either quantitatively or accentually. How this system later developed, was misunderstood, forgotten, and then, fundamentally, reinvented by Milton is a fascinating story in itself, and it sheds abrupt flashes of light on the poetry of one of the great periods of our literature. Had Hardison written no other book than Prosody and Purpose, his contribution and his reputation as one of the great men of our age would be secure. The combination of this book and the more spaciously speculative works (Maze and Skylight) and the poetry is, in both senses, awesome. He wrote, in the title poem of Pro Musica Antiqua, a line that was mentioned at his memorial service: “Having received, enlarge.”
His gifts—those gifts we all received from him—were grand but also grandly demanding. And it is right that they should be.
[Prosody and Purpose in the English Renaissance, by O.B. Hardison (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press) 360 pp., $42.50]
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