ONE THEME remains. Cleopatra conducts us to it when she says of Caesar. "He words me girls, words me, that I should not/ Be noble to myself." The theme, which pulses in Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, Hamlet and western poetry, is that there is a conflict between words and poetry in which moral dignity and reason itself are consumed by degraded language. The nobility of man and woman must resist the corruption of mad discourse. The argument of values in Troilus and Cressida, a singularly distasteful but revelatory play, becomes a murderous melodrama of confused abstraction and disfigured moral orthodoxy. Men have lost the traditional meaning of reason, action, pride, and honor, yet oppose these, in bitter debates between corrosive delusions. This is the historic worry of heroic song, Platonic dramatic dialogue-poems, Shakespeare, the Romantics, modern poets such as Pound and Eliot, and even of Mailer.
In the Trojan council scene of Troilus and Cressida, words are used without meanings, reason is damned, action perverted, human life demeaned to the value of food and coins. Priam, the Trojan king, sets the tone with the barbarically amoral lines:
After so many hours, lives, speeches spent, Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks: Deliver Helen, and all damage else, As honor, loss of time, travail, expense... Shall be struck off.
Troilus screams that the worth of Helen is infinite, which means indeterminate, capable of justifying the furthest thrill of insanity. He believes he is realistic when he calls for the preservation of "manhood and honor" by the vigorous prosecution of an irreversible war. That war is stark violence. Does this begin to sound compellingly relevant? As litility devours reason, the Renaissance heroic ideal of wise action becomes food for unheroic savagery. Troilus eats up reason in seeking honor as "the wide world's revenue." Hector dimly sees that appealing to infinite abstractions may insensibly transform public standards into an anarchy of private regard. The genuine anarchy, therefore, is not individual protestation, but the criminal exhortation for "unity of State under the insubstantial banner of familiar, unarguable infinitudes without merit, meaning, or measure. Heroic action is just criminal pertinacity. When Troilus reaches a satanic inversion with the exclamation "O theft most base/ That we have stol'n what we do fear to keep," Shakespeare writes the stage direction, Enter Cassandra raving with her hair about her ears. I always think of Enobarbus's lines:
A diminution in our captain's brain Restores his heart; when valor preys on reason, It eats up the sword it fights with.
These worm-eaten soldiers are sacrified on the altar of reputation. Reason is lost as it is defended: heroism is traduced as it is celebrated, Each new deed only provides a richer banquet for ravenous time- "alms for oblivion"- returning to mock the captain as he struts within the monumental mockery of unreasoning heroism.
WHEN WE listen to Nixon and Agnew- a sullied mutton and an interlarded projectile- this business of words and this responsibility of poetry presses excruciatingly. American language has never been more cruptive and strident. This is a time of clamor. If is not that words have lost their meanings, but that we have lost the words themselves. We have lost ourselves. Language is becoming just another commodity, subject to the rapacious degradation of competition, advertisement, and engorgement. Someone's voice breaks, then someone's head, then someone's heart. The sensitive man can only say: "If I scream, you will say that I am barbarous; If I whisper, you will not hear me; If I speak normally, you will say that I am indifferent." A great poem, a Vietnam headline, a back-page conundrum all appear the same- mute and urgent; just as a general, a soldier- killing or being killed- and a huckster are all the same size, volume, and duration on television, that magnificent annihilator of moral distinction, which cuts us even as we ignore it. We consume our words, our dead and dying, with equal voracity, equal unconsciousness. A thousand exhortations impinge on man, who, if insensitive, can only grow bitter or self-wasting.
We have only to catch the despair of Yeats's poem The Circus Animals' Desertion. on the awful burden and awful chance of self-delusion in caring for men's words:
These masterful images because complete Grew in pure mind, but out of what began? A mound of refuse, or the sweepings of a street, Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone, I must lie down where all the ladder's start, In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
Too many words can make a stone of the heart, Language becomes harried, tense, abusive, combative. There is no business like the business of perpetuating business, which now even trades on-cynicism and malaise, feeds on the very psychological damage it inflicts. Protestant, capitalist America has made a desert of our language, depriving us of the will or instinet for metaphor, for symbol, for the invincible liberty of the perfect word.
Words are all we have. They pillage or vivify mankind, thrust him into a million prisons, or urge his genius to touch just beyond its comfort. The condition of language at present may be compared, more or less unemotionally, to a stupefied, labyrinthine torture-house, which is nothing but unconnecting hallways, with only one way forward, the floor creeping with pursuant poison to the rear. Keep the words pure and the laws will be just, said Ezra Pound. It's an admonition, not a solution, The only way is poetry, for poets have less rubbish in their heads than other men. They have the power of symbol. Great poets possess the power of sensuous and formal mental penetration attaining the condition of music, and of religion- faith in universal, immanent, translucent truth. America has taken the most parochial habit of mind in the wide world, and made the wide world serve it. We are losing our words for universality, except those for the universal battle of market, magnate, and demagogue, the threefold prelacy of the universal blood-demanding Democratic Church.
THE QUALITY of life is the purity of language. And this purity resides in poetic symbol. The symbol, as the animating, penetrating, harmonizing power of poetry, is the descendant of myth and metaphor, as the highest articulation of the imagination. The Greek gods, more generally man's native yearnings to articulate his life and planet, to keep them gentle, become our modern power of symbolization. Coleridge said that the poet brings the whole soul of man into activity, in a more than usual state of emotion, with more than usual order. Shelley, whom I quote unblushingly, wrote that all great poets are revolutionaries who "unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth." Words are the quarry from which the cathedral is fashioned which the Mass of the symbol vivifies. Hofmannsthal said that to the pious only the symbol is real. Purity of language is the achievement of Antony and Cleopatra. The high road of Shakespeare is surely the road home.