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Simon Jarvis

Clear as mud:

J.H. Prynne’s Of Sanguine Fire

This piece is 2,200 words or about nine printed pages long.

J.H. Prynne’s collection Brass appeared to some of its first readers to mark a turning point in his authorship. Those features of The White Stones which had already prompted incomprehension and impatience amongst many readers — in particular a refusal to restrict the lexicon to that ordinarily available to a (hypothetical) common reader, and the insistence instead on the availability of a wide range of vocabularies ordinarily hived off into separate expertises for the language of poetry — were exacerbated in the later collections by difficulties which had hardly been attempted earlier: in particular syntactical and typographical deformations, incompletions and mutilations which appeared to some to suggest that the difficulty of access to reference already marked in The White Stones had now given way to a more radical scepticism as to the possibility of reference itself, a sharp loss of confidence in the availability of any readership willing to face the demands of a poetry the cost of whose difficulties had been carefully calculated, and a resultant headlong pitch into ludic or despairing and quite irreversible incomprehensibility.

The collection’s title already indicates some of these difficulties. Brass is what poets have long claimed to outlast; it is also the “neck” or shamelessness which might be necessary to appear in public as the author of such poems as these. In Thomas Love Peacock’s Four Ages of Poetry the “age of brass” was that of a futile and disastrous attempt by a last generation of poets to restore to poetry its centrally cognitive place as the curriculum of the arts and sciences: “Then comes the age of brass, which, by rejecting the polish and the learning of the age of silver, and taking a retrograde stride to the barbarisms and crude traditions of the age of iron, professes to return to nature and revive the age of gold. This is the second childhood of poetry. To the comprehensive energy of the Homeric Muse, which, by giving at once the grand outline of things, presented to the mind a vivid picture in one or two verses, inimitable alike in simplicity and magnificence, is substituted a verbose and minutely-detailed description of thoughts, passions, actions, persons and things....” All Prynne’s work pushes against the idea that poetry’s cognitive role is a thing of the past, but, in pushing against it, discovers precisely those faultlines which divide one expertise from another to be the focus of its enquiry.

In this paper, I want to investigate the kinds of difficulty involved in Brass through a preliminary report on an attempt to understand the last poem in the collection, “Of Sanguine Fire”. There are at least four earlier poetic avatars of the phrase “sanguine fire”, all or none of which may be relevant to the poem itself. According to John Davidson sanguine fire is what appears on the goddess Diana’s cheek when she becomes angry; according to The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus it describes the rage of any woman of a certain age; according to Christopher Pitt’s translation of the Aeneid the phrase is better reserved for the appearance of Charon’s eyeballs. In the opinion of William Cowper’s Beelzebub sanguine fire is what one should expect any fallen angel worth his salt to be capable of breathing: “Since the dread angel, born to brook no law/ To desolate the sky/ And raise the power of Hell,/ Ought to breathe sanguine fire, and on his brow/ Display the ensign of sublimest horror”. The database, then, provides us with two blushes, one case of bloodshot eyes, and one instance of devil-breath. All or none of these instances may be relevant, but what may at once be noticed is that all of them concern the physiological expression of an inner moral or emotional condition. The beginning of the poem’s first line, “Swift as a face...”, may connect with these instances of sanguine fire as blushing, for  the question of the fit, or lack of it, between the physiological and the moral or the emotional is at the centre of the poem’s interest, and blushing has often been thought to be a critical test case. Is blushing a sign of something, or is it a physiological event? For Max Scheler, writing in a phenomenological tradition which has often been thought important to Prynne, what you see when you see someone blushing is not a sign, representation, or phenomenal index of their emotion, but their emotion itself: the blush comes from a lived body which is both real and meaningful, whereas modern thought has often preferred to think you can’t have both at once.

This fit between virtue and physiology is not taken as a fit between two different kinds of entity (Prynne has always seemed to have a brisk way with any sniff of soul-talk) but as a fit between two different kinds of vocabulary. Throughout the poem, the language of a moral anthropology is made to collide with that of a biochemical physiology. The action and feeling of human animals can be talked about in terms of protraction, fortitude, appetite, terms which recur throughout the poem — and also in terms of synergic coils, pyloric mill racing, the adrenal cortex. There is a doubly corrective collision here. The poem suggests that any account of human appetite which overlooks the digestive organs themselves is bound to be conveniently naive. But at the same time, it is not proposing (for example) a naturalistic theory of mind for which abstract moral qualities would be chimera in need of reduction to a natural-scientific reality. Prynne writes as a philologist-poet, for whom the language of natural science has its own history of metaphorical extension and literalization. The virtues cannot be reduced to a cell count, not because they are too ineffable for that, but because the language of natural science is itself already instinct with secularized myth. Mercury may have come down to earth, but if we just take that element for a brute fact, without tracing within it the track of the messenger-god’s astronomical and metallurgical excursions, this does not make us less but more naive.

The poem’s central difficulty, then, is provided by its refusal to offer a single lexicon as the basis for its procedure. Its one stable feature appears to be an opposition between two characters, figures, or motifs: “Pie” and “Outwash”. The initial presumption is that Pie is what gets selected as valuable from any process, whilst Outwash is a waste product. So that the first verse-block appears to be about a light-industrial process of pie-making:

Swift as a face rolled away like
      pastry, turned up the stairwell oh
cough now room for two &
      faced with bodily attachments:
evidence hovers like biotic soup, all
      transposable, all like. The pastry
face takes the name Pie (crust folded
      like wings over the angelic sub-
strate, all so like pasties they
      hover again), is younger by a
specific aim. From upstairs the
      face crossed by banisters
counterclaims in re Outwash, it
      foils downward, round the newel,
to a fierce vacancy guarded
      on moral & legal grounds which
run to the limits of perfect zeal.

The first line has already accomplished the refusal to specify what is literal and what is figurative by its redoubled comparison: “Swift as a face rolled away like / pastry” already means that we are uncertain whether a face is being compared to a pie or whether a pie is being compared to a face, an uncertainty which is confirmed when we read the two simply combined as “The pastry face”. This uncertainty as to tenor and vehicle introduces the poem’s continual suspension of the presupposed difference between the living and the inanimate. The first line’s echo of the first line of Shelley’s Triumph of Life: “Swift as a spirit hastening to his task of glory and of good” is a significant clue, since it is the last line of that unfinished poem — “ ‘Then what is life?’ I cried —” which this poem takes as its clue. This poem asks what is life? in the quite specific sense that it asks whether we really know what we mean when we describe some things as living and others as non-living. So that, for example, in this first paragraph, the running together of, on the one hand, a scene of human domestic intimacy, with Pie turning up the stairwell to see Outwash’s “face crossed by banisters”, with, on the other, a light-industrial process of pie-making, asks us why or whether we are sure that one is a repository of meaning, the other a simple mechanism. The pie’s pastry face is stamped on to it in its travels along the conveyor; Pie’s human face is in one sense a message and a medium for meanings, an index of a singular identity, in another sense the blind terminus of a genetic process. So that when we read “crust folded/ like wings over the angelic sub-/strate” we have, on the one hand, a description of a pie cover closing over its filling — say, of angel delight — and, on the other, perhaps, a description of the composition of a (stairwell-shaped) chromosome: where the angelic substrate is angelic in the sense that it carries genetic messages, for initially, of course, Greek αγγελοσ means simply messenger. But is what we habitually refer to as a genetic message really a message at all? In what sense is the genetic process which determines the sex of an individual organism (and sex-selection is also one of this poem’s central preoccupations) a message? The question makes the poem’s point that the vocabulary of meaning and of signification, a vocabulary which is ultimately moral and political, invests and has always invested the apparently technically neutral languages of natural science no less than scientific vocabularies find their ways into our languages for talking about the moral and political. What it is critically thus able to do is to suspend any lazy opposition between humanism and anti-humanism. The poem is about “mud & zeal”, as it is put later, suspending the sense that only one of these registers must be the gold standard.

We can see how this works if we investigate a particular example. “protraction, fortitude, appetite” are three abstract qualities announced in the second block of verse as “doorways”. The remark suggests a kind of cod-allegorical domestic scene in which Pie and Outwash, dwelling in the house of Mercury, go in and out of the doorways “protraction, fortitude, appetite”. Yet later on much of the action appears not to be happening in a house of any kind, but somewhere in somebody’s stomach. So we read that “Pancreas strikes hard into the valley floor. The adrenal cortext cannot fail to grab for the willow wand, life’s like that all round”. Further on still we read: “wait for it, Pie/ conceives a whiff of apple, even short crust, wait for it, like one bold face too many, pyloric mill racing;....”. The pylorus is the lower orifice of the stomach, the opening from the stomach to the duodenum, which is guarded by a strong sphincter muscle. The word, however, is a mere transliteration of Greek πυλωροσ, gatekeeper, porter. So if protraction, fortitude and appetite are doorways, so also is the orifice leading from the stomach to the duodenum, and the fact that we call it pylorus and not gatekeeper, whilst it has the effect of apparently removing the pylorus into a realm of absolutely literal anatomical description, in truth testifies only to the contest of faculties. The salient fact about this poem, then, the fact that we can never work out where on earth the thing is supposed to be happening, whether in a house or on a glacial moraine or in a pie-factory or in somebody’s digestive tract or in a scrip of DNA, thrusts in front of us the fact that, while we know well that the inside is not the outside, so soon as we name our inner objects as objects, we orientate ourselves in our cells and digestive tracts no less than in the small habitable part of the earth with languages which are not finally to be disconnected from each other: so that our stomachs are full of doorways and gatekeepers no less than our built environment.  

I don’t think I’ve even cut into the crust of this poem in this brief paper, still less served up any angelic evidence. But what I have wanted to suggest is that this poem, and Prynne’s later work as a whole, is distinguished by being about mud and zeal, chromosomes and trust, a poem which faces the old question — then what is life — but lets those angry and sentimental twins, humanism and anti-humanism, argue each other down the stairwell. What’s felt in the blood and felt along the heart is not data waiting for concepts to convert it into meanings, but might be a sanguine fire no less meaningful for really being there.

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