Bromwich on the “Literature of Power”

5 07 2017

Following up on a distinction first made by DeQuincey, in “The Language of Knowledge and the Language of Power,” David Bromwich makes a distinction between the “literature of knowledge” (i.e., that of information sharing) and the “literature of power” (i.e., that of great art). After complicating DeQuincey’s ideas, Bromwich attempts himself to differentiate the two, and literary power, it seems, comes from its capacity to deliver discovery and surprise:

Literature sharpens your ability to know when something surprising has happened to you—something that wants to be thought and felt about more and further. It signals an opportunity for knowledge and self-knowledge which mustn’t be ignored. I say “thought and felt about”—both of these things together—because I don’t see that thoughts can reliably be discriminated from feelings. Wordsworth says in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads that thoughts “are the representatives of all of our past feelings” and that seems right; thoughts are the carved-into-shape and unforgettable shadows of feelings, the allegorical or abstract heightenings or reductions by which feelings are made available with a precision that seems native to the discovering mind.

And, although he doesn’t say so, the turn seems bound up in poetry’s ability to deliver felt discovery and surprise: each of the four poems he discusses contain sharp, smart, moving turns. They are:

Thomas Hardy’s “I found her out there”;

Trumbull Stickney’s “In the Past”;

A. E. Housman’s “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”; and

Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries.”

In fact, DeQuiney’s own distinction between the literatures of knowledge and power may hint at the turn’s place in this distinction:

What do you learn from Paradise Lost? Nothing at all. What do you learn from a cookery-book? Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph. But would you therefore put the wretched cookery-book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem? What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level; what you owe is power, that is, exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite, where every pulse and each separate influx is a step upwards, a step ascending as upon a Jacob’s ladder from earth to mysterious altitudes above the earth. All the steps of knowledge, from first to last, carry you further on the same plane, but could never raise you one foot above your ancient level of earth; whereas the very first step in power is a flight, is an ascending movement into another element.

The literature of power, that is, has movement, shifting the imagining mind from one plane to another. This may be within the power of a variety of poetic elements, but it certainly identifies the peculiar magic of the turn. Readers of this blog will certainly want to engage Bromwich’s essay.