The Enigma of Delmore Schwartz, the Luminous Poet Who Fell From Grace
Schwartz's Supporters Compared Him to Eliot, Pound, and Auden
I seem to remember reading Delmore Schwartz’s poetry for the first time in F.O. Matthiessen’s wonderful Oxford Book of American Verse (1950), and yet it must be a misremembrance, for these lines from “In the Naked Bed, In Plato’s Cave” are not in there:
In the naked bed, in Plato’s cave,
Reflected headlights slowly slid the wall,
Carpenters hammered under the shaded window,
Wind troubled the window curtains all night long,
A fleet of trucks strained uphill, grinding,
Their freights covered, as usual.
The ceiling lightened again, the slanting diagram
Slid slowly forth.
Hearing the milkman’s chop,
His striving up the stair, the bottle’s chink,
I rose from bed, lit a cigarette,
And walked to the window. The stony street
Displayed the stillness in which buildings stand,
The street-lamp’s vigil and the horse’s patience.
The winter sky’s pure capital
Turned me back to bed with exhausted eyes.
Strangeness grew in the motionless air. The loose
Film grayed. Shaking wagons, hooves’ waterfalls,
Sounded far off, increasing, louder and nearer.
A car coughed, starting. Morning, softly
Melting the air, lifted the half-covered chair
From underseas, kindled the looking-glass,
Distinguished the dresser and the white wall.
The bird called tentatively, whistled, called,
Bubbled and whistled, so! Perplexed, still wet
With sleep, affectionate, hungry and cold. So, so,
O son of man, the ignorant night, the travail
Of early morning, the mystery of beginning
Again and again,
while History is unforgiven.
This was the insomniac world, where history was unforgiven, because history was the self.
In Schwartz’s poetry, knowledge and history are obtained through the self: “the development of the historical sense and the awareness of experience which originate in psychoanalysis are two aspects of the view of existence which is natural to a modern human being.” And of course what could provide more of a historical sense, a sense of being transformative in history, than to discover that oneself, the son of Jewish immigrants, is a great poet who is writing great poems in the English language?
Delmore came to Cambridge in the Fall of 1935 to study Philosophy under Alfred North Whitehead. It was while at Harvard that Delmore suddenly wrote an unprecedented series of poems, verse dramas, short stories, reviews, and essays, and began to send these out to the magazines. The first hit was dead center. In the spring of 1936 his verse play “Choosing Company” was published in The New Caravan (the anthology in which he first read Hart Crane nine years earlier). His professors David Prall and F.O. Matthiessen praised this work highly, and it was singled out for praise in a review of the anthology in the New York Times Book Review.
In Scene One, a Radio speaks in characteristically Delmorean imagery and rhetoric, with an Audenesque lisp:
Here is this young man before the looking-glass.
What is he here for? It is something much more
Than his own face. It is the moving picture
Grave in his mind, of all things the most serious,
His picture of himself, which is cached within,
Engraved in the gash, the welt, the wound which is self.
It is no photograph, but sensitive as the violin,
Strung on his nerves and by thick skin kept safe.
No one but its owner may view it and laugh,
Its seasons are hope and despair and the future:
It trembles like a pool, being made of belief
—But is it, after all, such an extraordinary picture?
Delmore, in the classic tradition of the Harvard outsider poet, and like his hero Eliot, turned down his degree. He declined to take his Masters because he could or would not pay off his fines at the Widener Library. He was restless to write and publish and achieve literary fame, and had reams of manuscripts under his belt after his time at Harvard.
Between 1936 and 1938, when his first book of poems was published, he placed poems, stories, essays and reviews in Poetry, Partisan Review, Southern Review, Common Sense, Marxist Quarterly, Twentieth Century Verse, and two editions of the annual New Directions in Prose and Poetry (1937 and 1938). Perhaps his most startling and wide-reaching publication during this time was that of the story “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”, which caused a sensation when it appeared in the Partisan Review in December, 1937.
Delmore had meanwhile written to Jay Laughlin, who had a year earlier established New Directions while himself still a student at Harvard, explaining that he was just the sort of cutting edge new author the new publishing house wanted, and offering manuscripts and books of all types. Laughlin was impressed and took the newcomer on.
Believing that he was going to be a great and famous writer, Delmore married Gertrude Buckman on June 14th, 1938. He received his author’s copy of his first book of poems, plus a story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”, and a verse play, “Dr. Bergen’s Belief”, on December 7th, 1938, the day before his twenty-fifth birthday, five days before the book’s publication date of December 12th, 1938.
Praise for the book was overwhelming. Shortly after the New Year, Delmore received a letter from Allen Tate: “Your poetic style is beyond any doubt the first real innovation that we’ve had since Eliot and Pound.” The spring reviews were no less effusive. George Marion O’Donnell wrote in Poetry: “Delmore Schwartz’s In Dreams Begin Responsibilitiesis one of those rare first books that oblige an immediate recognition of their genuineness as poetry. Indeed, no first book of this decade in American poetry has been more authoritative or more significant than this one.”
In The Kenyon Review, Mark Van Doren found the poetry “as good as any poetry has been for a long while, say at least a literary generation.” R.P. Blackmur wrote in Partisan Review of “an inexhaustible quality in the perception which the associations of image and statement reveal.” Only Louise Bogan dissented in The Nation, sniping at what she found to be trendy borrowings: “The Kafka-Auden-Isherwood Dog, a monocle and some ice cream from W. Stevens, playing cards from Eliot, and Anglo-Saxon monosyllables from Molly Bloom.”
Schwartz was the eldest of a new generation of poets who came of age in the 1930s, under the influence of the Hound and Horn, and in the wake of the death of Hart Crane: one that included John Berryman and Robert Lowell, both of whom would become Delmore’s friends. Later labelled “confessional poets”, they claimed as their mentors critics such as John Crowe Ransom (Lowell), Allen Tate (Lowell and Berryman), and R.P. Blackmur (Lowell, Berryman, Schwartz).
As Adam Kirsch has pointed out, Delmore’s long poem Genesis: Book One (pub. 1943; Delmore claimed to have written it during the years 1931-1940) was possibly the first “confessional” poem, in the sense of being self-consciously modern and autobiographical.
At the age of 14 or 15, Delmore discovered Hart Crane (the poem was “Ave Maria” from The Bridge) in the first American Caravan (1927). The encounter changed him. From then on, Delmore began to live and breathe poetry. His calling became clear: he was to be a great poet and write great poetry.
The ghost of Delmore Schwartz is everywhere in Harvard Square. Attending the same University, and living on the same small plot of earth, with its perennial local landmarks of streets and buildings, its nuance or tempi of twilight traffic (“Reflected headlights slowly slid the wall”), I found it impossible not to feel the presence of Delmore like a ghostly brother whether in a fire-warmed dining room in winter, or across some furtive Cambridge alley way half-hid in shadows.
Delmore was mine, a poet of Harvard Square, haunting the bookshops, the cafes, the Brattle Theatre, the lecture halls and dorms, the late-night log-warmed lounges.
But if Delmore was the poet of Cambridge, Mass., the Eliot for a post-Eliot period, he also possessed the inheritance of Hart Crane as the poet par excellence of New York:
‘the withness of the body’ —Whitehead
The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.
Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.
His rendering of raw human emotion and ambition reached the sublime in its quest to know the heights.
In 1939 New Directions published Delmore’s translation of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. He had done most of the work on it in 1934 using for a crib an unsigned translation of the poem which had appeared in The Dial in 1920. Delmore’s version was widely rebuked by the critics, who published long lists of errors and misprisions. The critics never considered that Delmore’s “mistakes” might be interesting and valuable in themselves as original poetry.
However, it is worth pointing out that John Ashbery regarded Delmore’s translation very highly, and that Roger Shattuck admired it above all other translations of Rimbaud’s masterpiece. Even Eliot had good things to say about it.
The critics’ hostility was the first in a series of blows Delmore suffered in short order. The second, far more devastating one, was when his verse-and-prose masterpiece Genesis: Book One was published to almost universally negative reviews in 1943. Only F.O. Matthiessen and R.P. Blackmur, in Partisan Review and The Kenyon Review respectively, arguably the two most intelligent of the critics, stood up for the poem, hailing it as a masterpiece.
But the sensitive Delmore was devastated. His drinking, paranoia, and pill taking increased, his sleep became extremely irregular, and in 1944 his wife left him. Thus began the long slide downwards, through loneliness, depression, mental illness and derangement that ravaged the rest of Delmore’s life, despite the publication of a number of significant and lucid books—The World Is A Wedding (stories, 1948), Vaudeville for a Princess (poems, 1950), Summer Knowledge: Selected Poems 1938-1958 (1959, winner of the Bollingen Prize), and Successful Love (stories, 1961).
Other books appeared posthumously—Selected Essays (1970), In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (stories, 1978), Last and Post Poems (1979, rev. 1989), Shenandoah and Other Verse Plays (1992), and Portrait of Delmore (notebooks, edited by Delmore’s second wife Elizabeth Pollet). The unfinished books Genesis: Book Two and T.S. Eliot: A Critical Study were never published (both are at Yale). Editions of both are in preparation. At the time of Delmore’s death by heart attack in a New York City hotel room in 1966, he was said to have been working on several novels, collections of stories and new poems, but with the exception of the poems, these rumored works have vanished without a trace.
Adapted from the introduction to The Uncollected Delmore Schwartz. Used with the permission of the publisher, Arrowsmith Press. Introduction copyright © 2019 by Ben Mazer.