Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
Ken Egan, Jr.
The Machine in the Poem: Nineteenth-Century American Poetry and Technology
Ken Egan, Jr. (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison) is an Associate Professor of English at Rocky Mountain College. His most recent publications include "Emerson and the Contemporary Culture Wars" in Montana English Journal and "The Adulteress in the Marketplace: Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter," forthcoming in Studies in the Novel.
Literary scholars have often discussed the importance of technology for such major twentieth-century poets as T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, while at the same time dismissing similar concerns in earlier American poetry (Tichi xiii-xiv). But nineteenth-century American poets by necessity confronted technology and its culture. Poets as diverse as Poe, Whitman and Dickinson witnessed the encroachment of a machine-driven culture upon a craft-made world. How could these lyricists engage and overcome the striving technological culture which surrounded them? What could these poets make of the accumulating gadgetry and diminishing spiritual expectations of the nineteenth century? These three major poets proposed remarkably divergent answers, and in the process they pointed the way for those later, more self-conscious lyricists.
The philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann, writing in the tradition of Heidegger's critique, has developed a model or "paradigm" to help us evaluate the effects of technology. According to the philosopher at the University of Montana, the emergence of technology meant a shift from a culture of "things" to a culture of "devices," a shift with unavoidable consequences for our sense of well being and relationship to the world. Borgmann abstractly defines a "thing" by its qualities of gathering, of drawing together values, people and practices. In this way a thing generates a world, a gestalt, a complex, unified, layered experience which involves the individual's consciousness and senses. Through things in Borgmann's sense, we know belonging, a sense of presence, a sense of value and what matters most. By contrast, the technological device disconnects us from our environment and our sense of belonging. The device produces a desired commodity with little or no input from the human agent who supposedly controls the event. Indeed, part of the appeal of the device is precisely its mystery, the fact that it can produce such commodities through inexplicable means.
Since this contrast between things and devices remains obscure at the abstract level, Borgmann offers a dramatic example, apparently attempting to overcome the objectifying habits of the technological epoch. Revealing his Montana world, Borgmann turns to the contrast between the wood-burning stove and the central heating plant (furnace). The stove gathers practices of chopping wood, starting the fire, adjusting the damper, feeding the flame, and pulling up chairs. The stove also engages several of our senses simultaneously: feeling the wood and the warmth produced; seeing the flame and smoke and the changing patterns of light and dark on the faces of those gathered around; smelling the sometimes sweet, sometimes acrid smoke of the fire. Furthermore, the stove is often a literal gathering place for the family, pulling them together for conversation and rumination. So it is that the stove generates a self-contained world, rich, complex, full.
The central heating plant, by contrast, alienates the individual from world, for the furnace produces a largely one-dimensional commodity (warm air) through a mysterious mechanical means. Furthermore, unlike the stove, which is typically situated at the center of the most important gathering place in a house or cabin, the furnace is concealed, hidden away in the basement. We demand that the furnace do its work silently, efficiently, hassle-free, with a minimum of maintenance and nuisance. Far from gathering senses, practices, and people, the furnace seemingly liberates us from any and all commitments, "freeing" us for other equally alienated tasks under the regime of technology (Borgmann 41-42).
But how do we heal the wound caused by the triumph of the device? Borgmann urges a turn toward "deictic discourse," a term which in the original Greek meant "to show, to point out, to bring to light, to set before one, and then also to explain and to teach. Speakers of deictic discourse never finally warrant the validity of what they tell but point away from themselves to what finally matters; they speak essentially as witnesses" (178). Lyric poetry is characterized as the primary and most crucial instance of such discourse. In Heidegger's related terms, the lyric poem clears a space for things to "stand forth," to manifest themselves. In a more grandiose formulation of this idea, Heidegger claimed that revealed things gather to themselves the fourfold of mortals, gods, earth and heaven (171-173). In short, Borgmann and Heidegger privilege poetry as a special way of seeing and knowing which can overcome the "flattened," alienated experience of the device paradigm by engaging the reader in the world of things through manifold appeals. As we shall see, the three American poets display contrasting relationships with this "poetics of things."
If Borgmann's device paradigm seems far removed from the concerns of the major nineteenth-century poets, we must recall that it was precisely during the first half of the last century that the United States committed itself wholly to the cause of modernity, that is, to technological "progress" and the capitalist economic system. As scholars such as Leo Marx, John F. Kasson, and Michael T. Gilmore have shown, technology was not only an important cause in the young republic, but it became the central defining principle of the new polity. Americans ideologically strapped themselves to the machinery of progress. And the technological improvements were stunning: the steam railroad, the steamship, the steam mill and factory, the rotary press, etc. Is it any wonder that in this context popular art elevated the inventor to the status of "poet," the true maker who not only created but did so in the material realm toward the goal of helping many people live more comfortable, safer, healthier lives? Is it any wonder that Americans celebrated what Leo Marx has called "the technological sublime" (195-207), locating in machinery the ultimate source of wonder and religious awe?
Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson experienced this strange new world in at least two crucial ways. At the personal level, they witnessed the encroachment of devices upon the world of things, observing in person the substitution of a machine economy for the craft-driven, homemade world of the late eighteenth century. The metamorphosis which Borgmann describes so eloquently would have been real and immediate to each of them. Simon J. Bronner has demonstrated the intellectual and emotional impact of this transformation through anecdotal evidence. Here, for example, he quotes a son's remarks about his parents' experience during the second quarter of the nineteenth century: "'Their memories runneth back to the period our country was a wilderness. They have seen the windowless log schoolhouse displaced by conveniently arranged school buildings; the reap hook supplanted by the self-binder; the wooden breaking plow give place to a perfect breaking plow; the hum of the tiresome spinning wheel taken up and carried along by the methods showing wonderful ingenuity; in fact they have lived through a period of social and mechanical revolution'" (29). This "revolution" literally came home to Dickinson in painful and exciting ways, as it did to Poe and Whitman in their respective roles as magazinist and journalist. But aside from this personal involvement with technological change, these three writers were after all lyric poets who had to contend with the aesthetic consequences of this world of devices. The often eccentric form of their poetry suggests the struggle to find a lyrical voice in a culture which valued machinery over poetry, mechanical invention over "inventio." To complicate the situation even further, these three poets had to recognize that new printing and distribution technologies favored mass produced prose texts over the crafted poem.
The dramatically different responses of Poe, Whitman and Dickinson reflect both their contrasting temperaments and their radically different social and gender situations. Poe was, on the one hand, the would-be Southern aristocrat, educated in England, fluent in Latin and French, immersed in the Byronic school of Romanticism. On the other hand, he was a talented logician who was obliged to work as a professional writer within the constraints of the marketplace and its aesthetic of mass production. Predictably, Poe divided his energies between lamenting the encroachment of the device and embracing that very change. As his most recent biographer has commented, "so far as he remarked on the American scene, Poe had only scorn for what he saw as its foolish millennial enthusiasm for the products of technology…" (Silverman 149). The voice of protest is heard loudest in his early "Sonnet—To Science" (1829), an overt, lyrically sophis ticated assault on science and its attendant ills:
Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities? (Poetry 38)
This poem exemplifies what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called the Romantic "complaint against the 'disenchantment' of the world… with its sharp sense that human beings have been triply divided by modern reason—within themselves, between themselves, and from the natural world" (94). Thus Poe laments the objectifying gaze of science, that reductive, rational "peering" which appropriates "things" for technological use. The poem further links this desacralization to an assault on the "poet's heart," implying that the rationalizing habits of the technological epoch disarm imagination and passion. Significantly "Sonnet—To Science" was the lead poem in Poe's second volume of verse, for it is typical in theme and manner of the poetry published through 1831. The carefully crafted sonnet balances sound and sense, meter and sound effect with the precise word and image.
However, it would be misleading to suggest that Poe offers a poetry of "things" in the sense defined by Borgmann and Heidegger. The orphaned writer did not so much use his verse to reveal focal objects as to call attention to a persistent lack in human time. True to his superheated Neoplatonism, Poe constantly reminds the reader that our world is but "a shadow of a dream," the mere fragmentary image of real things existing in a higher realm of experience. That, of course, is the argument of "Israfel," a poem dedicated to exposing the hapless condition of the mortal poet who must make music out of the cacophony of this life, this human (existential) world. Poe assaults science in part because it demeans the already flawed things of this world, but more fundamentally because it disables revery, fantasy, "romance." Thus Poe practiced a kind of negative theology, one which points the way toward higher knowledge by negating the inconsequential, the demeaning, the disillusioning.
In a crucial review essay of Longfellow's verse from 1842, Poe summarized this "metaphysics of absence," and at the same time intimated that only the lyric poem itself could approximate the focal thing which gathers and engages: "Inspired with a prescient ecstasy of the beauty beyond the grave, [the soul] struggles by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time, to anticipate some portion of that loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain solely to Eternity. And the result of such effort, on the part of souls fittingly constituted, is alone what mankind have agreed to denominate Poetry" (Essays and Reviews 686). At the core of Poe's early aesthetic is the notion that the well-made poem, "by multiform novelty of combination among the things and thoughts of Time," can direct the reader's consciousness toward the Divine via the sublime. But even the poem itself must remain fragmentary, allusive, suggestive; Poe's lyric can not so much "show" or "reveal" as glance at a "full," manifold world beyond this one.
But by the mid-1840s Poe had abandoned even this circumscribed role for his poetry. Indeed, it seems clear that as Poe's career evolved he placed greater and greater faith in those very rationalizing powers he assaulted in the early verse. Undoubtedly this increasing obsession with "ratiocination" was linked to the increasing loss of control in his personal life, including the death of his young wife and continued professional and financial failures. Furthermore, Poe commented to a literary friend, "'The truth is that the higher order of poetry is, and always will be…in this country, unsaleable'" (Silverman 202). In search of "saleability," in need of order and stability, Poe retreated deeper into the womb of his calculating sensibility.
It is not surprising, then, that "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) converts the device aesthetic into an official ideology. Poe's most famous "ars poetica" asserts that the lyric poem should be a well-made machine which produces a single, definable commodity ("pleasure") through the complex mechanism of poetic technique. As the manic speaker of the essay declaims, "It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in ["The Raven's"] composition is referrible [sic] either to accident or intuition—that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem" (Essays and Reviews 14-15). Even if we are inclined to snicker at this improbable "demonstration," we must acknowledge the intensity of his technological ideal.
Poe exemplified the aesthetic consequences of this ideal in poems such as "The Raven," "Ulalume," and "The Bells," all calculated, shallow, and eminently consumable. Ultimately the fully formulated aesthetic of Poe's late poetry shifts emphasis from contact with a "higher realm" to contact with the marketplace for literary texts. Poe might counter that he simply placed increasing emphasis on the music of poetry, a move consistent with his earlier claims that it is through music that the human psyche most nearly approaches Israfel's world. The critic can in turn counter that Poe sacrificed a complex range of appeals for a one-dimensional, mechanical effect. Sound so thoroughly dominates the famous later poems that the reader virtually loses track of action, setting, or "sense" (both meaning and bodily engagement). Occasionally the later verse returns to the complexity and range of "Sonnet—To Science" and "Israfel" in such texts as "A Dream within a Dream," as though Poe fitfully recollected the manifold possibilities of his poetry.
Walt Whitman shared few of Poe's doubts. Son of a laboring class father, a laborer himself, a committed city dweller, Whitman embraced techno logical change, both as a social and an aesthetic movement. At times he expressed uncertainty about the device's intrusion into the artistic process. For example, in the 1855 version of "A Song for Occupations" the persona complains about his distance from the reader, a distance enforced by the mechanical means for producing the poem:
This is unfinished business with me….how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.
I pass so poorly with paper and types….I must pass with the contact of bodies and souls. (89)
However, on the whole Whitman elided these doubts (even in a later version of this very poem). More typical is his paean to "A Locomotive in Winter," with its sensuous, sublime representation of the ultimate symbol of nineteenth-century technological prowess. Furthermore, in "Democratic Vistas" the "barbaric" poet asserted that "America demands a poetry that is bold, modern, and all-surrounding and kosmical, as she is herself. It must in no respect ignore science or the modern, but inspire itself with science and the modern" (979). In fact, Whitman's revolutionary poetry shows all the marks of technological influence, especially the influence of photography and what we might call a newspaper aesthetic (Orvill 3-29). As Paul Zweig demonstrated, Whitman admired the mass-produced poetic of Martin Farquar Tupper, a popular British poet whose verse incorporated journalistic style (149). In short, Whitman embraced the technological sublime celebrated in popular culture.
Given this expansive poet's commitment to the modern and his own immersion in the work routines of the nineteenth century, it seems likely that Whitman would have affirmed the engaging powers of technology. First, Whitman believed that by approximating the mimetic fidelity of the photograph he could in fact capture "the real thing," the thing itself, on the poetic page. At its very best, when his catalogs are at their most precise and evocative, Whitman's verse does possess the uncanny ability to bring the reader face-to-face with the startling particulars of daily experience:
The blab of the pave …the tires of carts and sluff of bootsoles and talk of the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his interrogating thumb, the clank of the shod horses on the granite floor,
The carnival of sleighs, the clinking and shouted jokes and pelts of snowballs…. (33)
Beyond the precision of image and the engagement of multiple senses (especially sight and hearing), Whitman's catalogic rhetoric uses a panoramic, even cinematic effect to induce a trance-like effect. In other words, Whitman's persona would not only reveal discrete "things" but would immerse the reader in a manifold "world," in this case, the world of his beloved urban space. In contrast to the "focussed" engagement of Heidegger's poetic, then, Whitman seeks to "merge" the reader with a stream of experience, and thereby dissolve the subject/object division which separates reader from text, observer from event.
Furthermore, for Whitman the labor of handcraft and the labor of technology were part of a continuum of human creativity, related and not disjointed activities. Put simply, Whitman experienced machines as "things." One need only turn to the revised "A Song for Occupations" to appreciate how this autodidact celebrated the modern work place and its bristling array of machines as a world unto itself, a virtual gathering of common people for a common purpose with rich emotional resonances:
A song for occupations!
In the labor of engines and trades and the labor of fields I find the developments,
And find the eternal meanings. (355)
Clearly Whitman dwelt or was at home in this environment of modern labor, extending to it the Transcendentalist significance Emerson and Thoreau granted the natural world. In a telling catalog, he chants the beauty and meaning of this distinctly human-made world:
House-building, measuring, sawing the boards,
Blacksmithing, glass-blowing, nail-making, coopering, tin-roofing, shingle-dressing,
Ship-joining, dock-building, fish-curing, flagging of sidewalks by flaggers,
The pump, the pile-driver, the great derrick, the coal-kiln and brick-kiln…
Iron-works, forge-fires in the mountains or by the river-banks, men around feeling the melt with huge crowbars, lumps of ore, the due combining of ore, limestone, coal…. (360)
The vivid verbals of this catalog symbolize a universe of process, change, growth, evolution. Men and machinery are up and doing, and in the process aid the unfolding of divinity through time. If Whitman seems shockingly indifferent to the environmental consequences of technological domination, we have to recall his confidence in an overriding Hegelian spiritual force which would resolve all contradictions.
We might expect that the Civil War and its attendant device-driven violence would cast a pall upon this unshakable belief. Certainly "The Wound-Dresser," the best of the poems in Drum-Taps, expresses a profound pity for the victims of technological mayhem. Indeed, rarely has a lyric so forcefully embodied the contact between the loving, gracious caretaker and the maimed victim of armed conflict:
I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur'd thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame). (445)
But Whitman's Civil War verse not only qualifies such horror but ultimately celebrates technological warfare. Whether describing the vibrant commercial culture of New York City ("First O Songs for a Prelude"), or celebrating Manifest Destiny ("Song of the Banner at Daybreak"), or merging the artilleryman's revery with "The Star-Spangled Banner" ("The Artilleryman's Vision"), Whitman's poetic personae once again discover a larger prophetic purpose coursing through the mechanical efficiency of modern culture.
Emily Dickinson, Whitman's antithesis in so many respects, provides a striking counterpoint in her attitude toward technology as well. At first it seems surprising that Dickinson, ensconced in a genteel household in rural Massachusetts, directly confronted technological change. Yet, as historians have demonstrated, technological innovation infiltrated the Connecticut Valley in full force by the mid-nineteenth century, encompassing even Amherst, which established its own "factory village" (Clark, esp. 171). More importantly, the poet's father became the very engine of change within Amherst, leading the charge to bring both the railroad and the telegraph to that community. Indeed, one of Dickinson's most famous poems, "I like to see it lap the Miles," would seem to affirm the intrusion of the railroad into the world of the Connecticut Valley. But amidst the apparent celebration of technological power the reader can detect connotations of dis-ease and distrust. An adjective such as "supercilious" does not evince slavish wonder at the prospect of the railroad. At best one could argue that the railroad embodies a fantasy of power, much as the poet expressed through "My Life had stood a Loaded Gun." But this is a fantasy with counterbalancing doubts.
These connotations of dread are reinforced by a letter which Dickinson wrote upon the "inauguration" of the railroad in Amherst. By turns funny and poignant, the letter summarizes Dickinson's not merely ambivalent but downright fearful attitude toward her father's "iron horse":
The New London Day passed off grandly—so all the people said—it was pretty hot and dusty, but nobody cared for that. Father was as usual, Chief Marshal of the day, and went marching around the town with New London at his heels like some old Roman General, upon a Triumph Day. Mrs. Howe got a capital dinner, and was very much praised. Carriages flew like sparks, hither, and thither, and yon, and they all said t'was fine. I spose it was—I sat in Prof Tyler's woods and saw the train move off, and then ran home again for fear somebody would see me, or ask me how I did. (254)
On her father's "Triumph Day," Dickinson retreats to the professor's woods, observant but disengaged. In part her response stems from a profound shyness, but her decision to avoid the ceremony and her typically satirical treatment of her father's hubris point to doubts about the value of the railroad.
Indeed, careful reading of Dickinson's lyrics reveals a persistent pattern of scorn for technology and its cultural consequences. In a little discussed lyric from early in her poetic career, Dickinson creates a composite image of her ideal world, a world from which she would exclude the emerging economic order. Significantly, she associates that world with her father and his Franklinesque value system:
Where bells no more affright the morn—
Where scrabble never comes—
Where very nimble Gentlemen
Are forced to keep their rooms—
Where tired Children placid sleep
Thro' Centuries of noon
This place is Bliss—this town is Heaven—
Please, Pater, pretty soon!
"Oh could we climb where Moses stood,
And view the Landscape o'er"
Not Father's bells—nor Factories,
Could scare us any more! (112)
The speaker's conflict with "Father's bells" and "Factories" becomes even more dramatic when we recall that Dickinson often composed her poetry at night after her family retired. Her father's puritanical insistence on "Early to bed, early to rise" runs counter to Dickinson's poetic labors. In other lyrics Dickinson intimates that the combined forces of "Father" and "Factories" sponsored a culture dominated by "Prose," a reference not only to sanctioned expressive forms but to an entire ideology of earnestness, regularity, and conventionality.
But this eccentric poet did more than reject an aesthetic dominated by technological production and commercial values. She also affirmed a counter-aesthetic, one closely related to Borgmann's aesthetic of things. As one poem states, "The Missing All—prevented Me /From missing minor Things" (985). Put simply, Dickinson strived to return poetry to its root significance, to recover the notion of "poesis" as primal making. It is not surprising, then, that she frequently describes her verse in craft terms, returning us to a pre-technological mode of production. In one poignant poem she combines meditation upon loss of eyesight with fear of losing her poetic faculty. These linked fears are expressed through the symbol of sewing, one of Dickinson's prized "crafts":
Don't put up my Thread and Needle—
I'll begin to Sew
When the Birds begin to whistle—
These were bent—my sight got crooked—
When my mind—is plain
I'll do seams—a Queen's endeavor
Would not blush to own…. (617)
This analogy between sewing and poetic labor takes on added significance when we recall Dickinson's own form of "publication," stitching her poems together into fascicles, an activity one scholar has compared to the art of quilting (St. Armand 9). She also replaced the economy of money and mass distribution with an "exchange economy" which created intimacy with family and friends. We often forget that Dickinson did in fact circulate many of her poems during her lifetime, but she did so primarily through letters. In other words, her crafted texts were often shared as gifts, as signs of affection, sympathy, or the desire to be understood.
Finally, then, Dickinson used her craft to reveal the essential things of her life. Reading her corpus the reader discovers how often the banal or familiar thing enters the poem to gather feelings and ideas. Often these objects summon moments of existential crisis, times of ultimate engagement such as death, grief, and love. Or, conversely, these moments of crisis foreground the thing: "Death sets a Thing significant /The Eye had hurried by" (360). We also think of Dickinson's uncanny evocations of natural phenomena such as snakes, hummingbirds and storms, lyrics which allow "the thing to thing," as Heidegger would term it. Here we should return to Dickinson's famous letter to Higginson in which she answered his many questions about her life and influences. The coy poet describes her poetic enterprise imagistically, suggesting the power of the "mute" (but meaning-charged) things surrounding her: "You ask of my Companions Hills—Sir—and the Sundown—and a Dog—large as myself, that my Father bought me—They are better than Beings—because they know—but do not tell—and the noise in the Pool, at Noon, excels my Piano" (404). We might refer to this passage as Dickinson's "theory of the thing," a pre-Heideggerian meditation on how Being manifests itself through the seemingly mundane objects which surround us. Her commitment to "things" is further revealed through her dedication to "loved Philology," for Dickinson's theory of language (similar to Emerson's) would return the reader to the imagistic, metaphorical root of language, so that "a Word made Flesh" by the poet would provide a latter-day religious epiphany (1651).
To take a single example of Dickinson's aesthetic of things, I refer the reader to a poem which is rarely anthologized:
By my Window have I for Scenery
Just a Sea—with a Stem—
If the Bird and the Farmer—deem it a "Pine"—
The opinion will serve—for them—
It has no Port, nor a "Line"—but the Jays—
That split their route to the Sky—
Or a Squirrel, whose giddy Peninsula
May be easier reached, this way….
Was the Pine at my Window a "Fellow
of the Royal" Infinity?
Apprehensions—are God's introductions—
To be hallowed accordingly— (797)
Here the familiar pine becomes defamiliarized, transformed into the focus of the speaker's world. This tree gathers "sky" (through the agency of "the Jay") and "earth" ("the Stem"), mortals (the speaking subject) and gods ("God's introductions"). The poetic persona serves as a witness to a moment when Being reveals itself in all its fullness. Furthermore, the poet reveals the vision through the precise, evocative, nearly tangible language of the poem, urging the reader to resee the world by respeaking the world, setting aside such familiar terms as "Pine" in favor of more complex renderings of "the thing."
Thus these pre-modernist poets fashioned alternative responses to the aesthetic crisis brought on by the triumph of the device. Poe critiqued the objectifying habits of post-Enlightenment thought, but he also increasingly embraced those habits under psychological and financial pressures. Though he occasionally quailed at the "coldness" of technologized art, Whitman strived to reveal things through a poetic technique closely allied with new printing, photographic, and display devices. Finally, Dickinson resisted the device-driven culture associated with her father by refining a craft approach to "poesis." Their divergent strategies became models for T. S. Eliot's densely symbolistic method (Poe), Williams's ardent modernism (Whitman), and Theodore Roethke's organic poetry (Dickinson). Ultimately their related crises of faith found expression in a short lyric by the last great nineteenth-century American poet, Robert Frost:
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing. (76)
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