Poetry, Sentimentality, and the Laugh Track Compulsion
The Anglo-Saxon world – many would say mercifully – never brought forth anything quite like Alphonse de Lamartine. Lamartine’s Méditations poétiques of 1820, a bestseller well beyond anything today’s poets could ever dream of, ostensibly typifies French Romanticism. Virgil Nemoianu has convincingly argued that French Romanticism bears more resemblance to the aesthetically reactionary poetry of the Biedermeier period than to the noisy beginnings of Schiller, Goethe, or Byron. Formally, Lamartine’s stiff alexandrines – the national verse form of France – are indistinguishable from the neoclassical work that came before him; the only innovation lies in the Romantic poet’s introduction of a sentimentalist vocabulary. In other words, Lamartine, unlike his neoclassical forebears, was sappy.
Today, teachers of French often still inflict upon their students Lamartine’s “Le Lac” (“The Lake”), a lover’s elegy that owes its apparent timeless character more to insipid, featureless abstraction than to any real quality:
“O temps, suspends ton vol! et vous, heures propices,
Suspendez votre cours!
Laissez-nous savourer les rapides délices
Des plus beaux de nos jours!”
(O time, suspend your flight! and you, auspicious hours,
Suspend your passage!
Let us savor the rapid delights
Of our loveliest days!)
“Heures propices,” (auspicious hours) hardly a Promethean poetic innovation, smacks of the dustiest Latin antiquity, and “Des plus beaux de nos jours” (our loveliest days) is such a banal formula that it hardly deserves to be called a line of poetry. Yet here lies one of the single most well known stanzas in all of the French lyric tradition. The colorless vapidity of extreme generality unfortunately has its pedagogical usefulness.
Yet thanks to “Le Lac” and the many professors that have jackhammered it into cultural consciousness, Lamartine has also earned the honor of being one of France’s most celebrated straw men (along with Alfred de Musset, perhaps). For French poets, even in our age of aesthetic pluralism, revile nothing quite so much as excessive sentimentality. In French, the very expression “excessive sentimentality” smacks of pleonasm.
Anti-sentimentalism and more broadly anti-Romantic attitudes certainly exist in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. But only the culture that invented sentimentalism à la Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (author of the intolerably saccharine late 18th century bestseller Paul et Virginie) could reject pathos quite as forcefully and consistently as the French. After all, the American “confessional lyric” has given rise to highly canonical poems of a sentimental character (I won’t name any names). In France, on the contrary, the adjective “lacrymogène” is applied either to art that’s too mushy – or to tear gas.
As an American and a devoted consumer of Hollywood movies, something has always rubbed me the wrong way about this typically French anti-sentimentalism. For what artist, and what poet first and foremost, would truly object to moving her audience? Movere, for the poet, surpasses both docere and delectare. Perhaps there be some stern moralist who would prefer only to instruct – but the heights of horror, sorrow, or exaltation can be instructive indeed.
If the most committed and serious artists aim for these heights, then, what are the French really objecting to when they complain about pathos in poetry?
First hypothesis: perhaps they accept pathos as sentiment generally, but not as sorrow or doleful sentiment specifically. Laughter, joy, but no tears. Thus Francis Ponge, for instance:
Je n’admets qu’on propose à l’homme que des objets de jouissance, d’exaltation, de réveil. […]
En conséquence : pas d’étalage du trouble de l’âme (à bas les pensées de Pascal). Pas d’étalage de pessimisme, sinon dans de telles conditions d’ordre et de beauté que l’homme y trouve des raisons de s’exalter, de se féliciter.
Pas de romans qui « finissent mal », de tragédies, etc., sinon… (voir ci-dessus).
Rien de désespérant. Rien qui flatte le masochisme humain.
(I only allow that objects of enjoyment, exaltation, awakening be proposed to men. […]
Consequently: no display of the soul’s torment (down with Pascal’s pensées). No display of pessimism, except in such conditions of order and beauty that man finds reasons in it for exaltation, for self-congratulation.
No novels with « unhappy endings », tragedies, etc., except… (see above).
No despair. Nothing that appeals to human masochism.)
Evidently, it’s Pascal’s Jansenist pessimism that elicits his mention; what Ponge proposes is a poetics of joy, a poetics of positivity. Nietzsche has evidently passed through this neighborhood : for this joyful attitude toward life recalls the Nietzsche’s amor fati :
I want to learn more and more how to see what is necessary in things as what is beautiful in them – thus I will be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love from now on! […] some day I want only to be a yes-Sayer!
Nietzsche’s language recalls Sartor resartus’ “Everlasting Yes” (but without the corresponding “Everlasting No” that Carlyle imagines as necessarily preceding affirmation) against the pessimism of one of Nietzsche’s major influences, Schopenhauer. Ponge rejects tragedy, unhappy endings, and the torments of the questioning soul in markedly similar terms, and there’s little doubt Ponge knew Nietzsche’s work well. Ponge, of course, does not go so far as to suggest an acceptance of evil in the world, as Nietzshe does.
However, for our American poetic modernity as well as for the French, this scandalously positive outlook remains quite starkly heterodox. For most poets, even those that reject Romantic pathos, modernity entails negativity first and foremost: the negativity of critique, for starters; that of Adorno proclaiming the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz; perhaps even that of perpetual loss and mourning. This statement, of course, requires a great deal more nuance that it can be given here, but it remains true that Ponge’s affirmation of poetic delight hardly represents modernity’s general trend, particularly after World War II.
In other words, it must not be tears and sorrow that the modern French poet rejects when he claims to reject sentimentality: modern poetry can be bleak indeed, after all; why else call a poem The Waste Land? What, then, might provide a second hypothesis?
Perhaps the problem lies not in being moved, but in how the poem moves the reader. In the mechanics of pathos, its mode or modes of deployment. I am reminded of two moments in Hollywood film: the first, the ending to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, depicting the departure of Frodo and his separation from the faithful Sam Gamgee; the second, Forrest Gump’s farewell to his beloved before her headstone. When I viewed Peter Jackson’s ending, I was tempted to exclaim: they ruined it! They botched this most beloved and poignant of conclusions! On the contrary, during Forrest Gump, I was impressed at the emotional intensity of the scene. Both, no doubt, equally sentimental; yet one suggested the most maudlin excesses of Hollywood, and the other seemed more worthy of its object. What differed in their execution?
While Peter Jackson’s scene dripped with Howard Shore’s music (occasionally admirable, as Hollywood music goes), Forrest Gump’s director had eliminated all superfluous sound, leaving only Forrest’s monologue, carried by Tom Hanks’ celebrated performance. Now, it’s not enough to frame this difference in terms of degrees or of mere excess, as though the music were simply too much sentimentality compared to Gump. Nor is music as such the problem. In France, Amélie’s initial success – its stocks have fallen considerably since its release, precisely due to its fairytale idealization and sentimentality – probably had much to do with the Yann Tiersen’s memorable soundtrack. Instead, the problem lies in what I might call the laugh track compulsion: in the director’s near-irresistible impulse to cue a specific emotional response, just as one bolsters a joke with the laugh track in hopes of eliciting the spectator’s sympathetic chuckle. It reflects lack of confidence in the strength of one’s material and of one’s performers, — as though twelve hours with Sam Gamgee and Frodo Baggins were not enough to make us regret their parting of ways! And perhaps worse still, it reflects a dim view of the spectator, as though duping her into tears or any other response were an easy matter indeed.
Do poets also suffer from the laugh track compulsion? Let us briefly examine a few poems and find out. Any example chosen in English offers the possibility of debate; one may find mawkish and hackneyed what strikes a chord in another. I have chosen two poems by a widely admired and oft-disparaged poet; one poem that has become the butt of innumerable jokes about schmaltzy love-poetry, and another, by the same poet and from the same sonnet sequence, that I believe reaches the heights of the genre. The poet is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the poems, of course, from the Sonnets From the Portuguese.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of everyday’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.
Beyond the first line, this is not such a shabby poem: the litany of repetition produces the desired cumulative effect, appropriate for a wild outpouring of passion. It seems a bit stiff, with its grand abstractions like “Right” and “Praise,” but a few rhythmic variations save it from boredom, such as the prosodic stress on the usually unstressed word “my” in line ten, or the double accent “as mén stríve” in line seven. Yet perhaps there is a reason that jokes about this poem only ever quote the first line. Perhaps that first line poses a problem that the rest of the poem does not. Indeed, what would radically change if we removed the second half of line one, thus: “How do I love thee? / I love thee to the depth,” etc. Suddenly, the initial declaration appears less histrionic and contrived. There was never any need for this “Let me count the ways”; there was no need to warn the reader about the impending outpouring of passion: it is a purely superfluous gesture that seems to say: by the way, I’m about to gush! Warning: passionate excess, wild intemperance! Accordingly, readers sense that the verse has a self-indulgent quality, as though it were congratulating itself for its hedonistic enumeration. At best, “Let me count the ways” is what the French call a cheville: useless verbosity used to fill out a line to fit the meter. Given its loud, unwelcome, overexplicit sentimentality, we might call it the result of Browning’s laugh track compulsion.
In sonnet thirteen, on the other hand, no mushy music spoils the magic: instead of a noisy signpost, a silent, eloquent gesture suffices:
And wilt thou have me fashion into speech
The love I bear thee, finding words enough,
And hold the torch out, while the winds are rough,
Between our faces, to cast light on each?—
I drop it at thy feet. I cannot teach
My hand to hold my spirits so far off
From myself—me—that I should bring thee proof
In words, of love hid in me out of reach.
Nay, let the silence of my womanhood
Commend my woman-love to thy belief,—
Seeing that I stand unwon, however wooed,
And rend the garment of my life, in brief,
By a most dauntless, voiceless fortitude,
Lest one touch of this heart convey its grief.
This, of course, is no more nor less than a recasting of Ovid’s elegiac resolve to write no more verse – formulated in verse. There are many variations on this motif, such as Joachim Du Bellay’s protestations at the beginning of his Regrets that he does not wish to imitate Greek and Roman poets – stated in the midst of a sonnet sequence that does precisely that (see notably sonnet IV). In the present sonnet, Browning likewise frames expression as a demand yet to be reckoned with – “And wilt thou have me fashion into speech / the love I bear thee” – while in the very process of fashioning her love into speech. She offers and refuses in a single gesture, by writing a poem about how that very poem cannot be written; she offers herself openly to her lover using the words of rejection and refusal: “I stand unwon, however wooed.” The culmination of the poem lies, to my mind, neither at the “turn” from quatrains to tercets, nor in the final line (this sonnet, not being Shakespearian, does not conclude with a forceful or ingenious couplet). It lies in line five: “I drop it at they feet.” The “it” in question is the torch that might light the lovers’ faces, but also, of course, the illuminating words of love that the poet might write. She refuses to hold the torch/declare her love, instead letting it/them fall at her lover’s feet, as if recoiling from some danger. Yet this equivocal gesture also represents an offering, an unmistakeable lover’s guerdon.
Here, Browning adds no needless commentary to her gesture: “I drop it at they feet” suffices; the poet does not return to the torch motif, refuses to belabor a gesture whose equivocation produces a perfect balance, a perfect contradiction: consent and refusal, a yes dressed up as a no. Therein, and not in the sonnet as a whole, lies the “silence of [her] womanhood,” in the refusal to make explicit the gesture that speaks for itself. One might object to the very 19th-century representation of the woman as demure and chaste, but Browning undeniably turns this representation to her advantage through an ingenious procedure of misdirection. The poem works because of this combination of reserve and generosity: the best poems – and the finest sentimentality — deny as they bestow, speak, and yet remain silent.