Some may struggle with that which is latent, the tension of that which is possible, that envelops each man in his privacy. Possibility and incarnation. Choices are made, paths are explored, all against that invisible background of can and could.
It is the foreground that interests Ezra Pound in his ABC of Reading: "The proper METHOD for studying poetry and good letters is the method of contemporary biologists, that is careful first-hand examination of the matter, and continual COMPARISON of one 'slide' or specimen with another. No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the sunfish."
'The anecdote of the sunfish' narrates how Agassiz, who knew more than his own professors and their libraries, would ask students to describe a fish without employing dictionary or textbook definitions, until they could describe what they saw with their own eyes. Samuel H. Scudder writes about this in Look at Your Fish! He cites Agassiz's discontentment with the ordering of well-observed facts: "Facts are stupid things ... until brought into connection with some general law."
Even Agassiz found it hard to commit - the implications are no good for less capable romantics. It is possible to awake one spring, if laggardly, to the self-imposed blindness one might wear like the horse of yesteryear, and to see the futility of slow-going labour that may take an age to write and yet turns into a most unbecoming child bearing one's name. To this, the message is, change.
Davenport paints a picture of change through his protagonists Darwin and Agassiz: the former taking Agassiz's evolution, of, say, the growth of the embryo in the egg, and applying it to the whole organic world. "Science now sees a linear development in time." What a twist in the plot! What a new horizon! Animals for scientists to place in a "time-order".
Against this, Agassiz's facts are stupid until connected to law. But ordered how?
To say that we don't ever get the whole picture isn't to think we oughtn't give it a good college try, or imagine humanity back in Plato's cave, as if time didn't receive form - of "market", "carbon" and "progress" - to borrow from a Kipling poem I will come to. A garment must first be donned if it is to be changed. A dress may be slaved over before it is found ill-fitting. Reality is the judge.
But reality is also fickle. And Davenport writes of Agassiz and Darwin, the "rival poets", that "soon we may find both on the shelf with Ovid, splendors of the imagination". It is here where I see the release of literature, released as I think it should be from an overly-scientific methodology. Even ABC which seems scientific is now argued to be less so than espousing Pound's literary views.
And for all the experimentation that Pound brought to poetry - and to the poetry of those he helped, like, say, Eliot - they all built their variations around Classical values. If workmanship suffers for lack of the impersonal but more democratic artistic gems of yesteryear, why not recall the invisible background of can and could and reorganise?
Epictetus wrote that one ought to measure hypotheses against "what precedes and follows" (29) "otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist." That's a great commonplace - the kind of knowledge Davenport might qualify as "teaching us how to live".
Things change and even valuable life instruction can get lost by the wayside, leaving some people, maybe even a generation or more, to find their own way. But I'd like to think that a willingness to pick one's things up and go, however many times it takes, is a noble endeavour. Some would turn up their noses at such lack of grace. But that is the same plodding movement of humanity. We did not always know how to harness or generate electricity, and here we are with our internet.
To the excited noise of spring, I answer: "Look at your fish!" Agassiz's student Scudder looked at so many fish piled one onto another over so many days that they began to decompose, that his - positive - memory of learning to see is associated with the otherwise ugly image of decay ("and even now, the sight of an old, six-inch, worm eaten cork brings fragrant memories!"). How's that for reverse-metamorphosis. And to add to the worm-eaten cork is that odd child's song, nobody likes me... going to the garden to eat worms. That song is about eating humble pie.
If that isn't a scholar's repast, then I wonder what kind of scholars they are. I take Agassiz as my mentor. And I return to the classically-inspired writers of yesteryear. Theory and science aside, I do not think one can write well - and here is where I failed, lest you think I am not eating my humble pie, I am - if one has not mastered at least the basics of the Classical tool kit.
Thus this post draws to a close, with fragments from Rudyard Kipling's "The Gods of the Copybooks": AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race, I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place. Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall, And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all. We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn: ... Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more. (via)