The New Compass: A Critical Review



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Letter from Cambridge


Gordon Harvey


March 26, 2003


It has been a bad winter.  Storms have raged up and down the Northeast corridor, stopping trains and planes and flattening the world to white:  trees bent heavy, cars in burial mounds, spumes from smokestacks drifting in the frozen sky, and a clamping cold that turns every gust off the Charles into a blade.  I remember this cold from my days in Edmonton. I remember seeing these heavy trees in the Saskatchewan river valley and these spumes drifting above the power plant as I sat in the University of Alberta’s Humanities Center in classes with Christopher Drummond, who died two years ago today.  


The landscape not being an interest of Drummond’s, we would usually not be contemplating poems about it, although there were occasional exceptions:  


One must have a mind of winter,

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine trees crusted with snow;


And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter


Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind …


What impressed Drummond about Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man,” I recall, was its evocation of absence:


                                   and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,      

In the sound of a few leaves,


Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place


For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


He beholds the nothing that is there:  he feels, as if it were also the winter of mankind, the absence of human meaning in the landscape of the sort that earlier beholders have felt there; and he feels this absence as a palpable presence. 


In the months after Drummond’s sudden death, one felt him palpably absent everywhere, even here in Cambridge.  He loved the big American cities, especially the intellectually storied ones, and liked to visit Harvard because it didn’t need to strive to be World Class.  (He liked to recall standing at a newsstand in Harvard Square, as a summer student in the 50s, watching a new pile of the New Yorker disappear in 20 minutes.)  He thought the blind striving to be World Class was destructive to thinking and teaching, in places like the U. of A., and that in literary studies it ultimately distracted attention away from what was happening on the page towards some more marketable consideration.  If no fan of landscape, he cared greatly about topography: he thought it important and true that there should be great universities, just as there are great minds and great works—that not everything everywhere could be World Class. This was part of his deep humility as a person.  It was also, of course, a political position, and he would sometimes declare, in a characteristic way that was drastically clear and honest but at the same time provocative, that what he most wanted was to be a subject!


Drummond’s absence was also still palpable, this winter, further down the frigid corridor at the MLA conference in New York. Although the conference has become a megaplex of fad and World Class striving, a glass and steel update of Chaucer’s whirling House of Fame, Drummond never missed it. He always read the program cover to cover—all 2000+ announced talks and every book ad and publisher’s flyer—and he neatly checked off (in pencil) his choices. He always had exact and interesting reasons for these, and equally exact and interesting reasons for being disappointed by them afterwards, which he would exuberantly explain over a drink in his hotel room.  It was to honor the MLA of these hotel-room colloquies, not the MLA of Two Thousand Talks, that we feted him there on his retirement.      


On the streets outside the MLA hotels this year, of course, one also felt a larger and more impersonal kind of absence, whose emblem is the wound, no longer smoking but still gaping, that is Ground Zero:  an absent faith in one’s security and in the limits of animosity.  One felt also the peculiar power of a sudden absence to make people feel vulnerable and lose their bearings—a power illustrated some months ago by a run on duct tape, now by a war.  That the news of Drummond’s death also gave some of us a twinge that went beyond grief testifies to his role as the embodiment of a faith, the faith that clear thinking and talking and criticism were humanly improving, and the topography they created was roughly true.  Drummond surely felt the absence of this faith at recent MLAs, and surely felt it as he wandered Harvard Yard and the new Humanities Center, with its self-consciously World-Class woodwork and fireplaces, and studied the flashy course offerings posted outside the new offices of the English Department, which serves a steadily dwindling number of English majors. Yet he continued to check off his choices and give his careful reasons, to exemplify belief.


He wanted to believe more. Stevens has said that “The Snow Man” is about the need to imaginatively “identify with reality in order to understand it and enjoy it,” rather than be depressed by its ultimate indifference. But Drummond heard “a mind of winter” differently, heard “one must have a cold clear mind not to project one’s desire for belief onto reality.” His ability to identify with and enjoy the older works he taught—by Donne, Jonson, Shakespeare, Milton, Bunyan—made him the great teacher he was; his inhabiting them so vividly made them live, through him, for us. But it also made him aware of what in them he couldn’t fully inhabit, however he might wish to. And unlike other students of past literature who have felt the pull of its faith—we should remember how large the question loomed in the critical landscape of Drummond’s youth, in Eliot, Tate, and others—he needed to keep clear about what he could and could not believe, to draw the line rather than hedge around it or blur it with religiosity or nostalgia, or leap across without being called.


But Drummond’s clarity was never cold, was indeed an invitation to identify with past works by treating them with a seriousness about life commensurate with their own. What does seem cold, by contrast, although Drummond’s preference for the clear-headed spared his students having to entertain it, is the ironic attitude towards the religious past that informs some versions of modernism:  the attitude that one can draw on, allude to, the serious feelings and occasions of the past and at the same time insist upon one’s ironic distance from them. Thus Auden’s elegy for Yeats: 


           He disappeared in the dead of winter:

           The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,

           And the snow disfigured the public statues;

           The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.

           O all the instruments agree

The day of his death was a dark cold day.


In a deeper sense than the descriptive, this leaves one cold. Brooks bump against airports, and the old-fashioned “O all … agree” bumps against “instruments”; the figure of mercury sinking in the mouth of day is deliberately strained and modern, perhaps meaning to place quotation marks around the clichés “dead of winter” and “dark cold day” and the coarse rhythms and alliterating on “death,” but in fact only producing something too unstable, too unclear in feeling, to embody thought or to be habitable by the reader’s own experience of loss.   


            Whereas, to change seasons and settings, one can bring one’s experience to a poem like the following, despite its more private occasion. Edgar Bowers, who died the winter before Drummond, was (besides a great poet) another one whose faith in conversation, and whose ability to clear-headedly inhabit older works, made him a great teacher. And Bowers’ absence is still palpable—again here in Cambridge, but especially on the milder coast on which he lived and taught, and where life continues on in the presence of death with a poignant beauty and brightness:   


           Almost four years, and though I merely guess

           What happened, I can feel the minutes' rush

           Settle like snow upon the breathless bed—

           And we who loved you, elsewhere, ignorant.

           From my deck, in the sun, I watch boys ride

           Complexities of wind and wet and wave:

           Pale shadows, poised a moment on the light's

           Archaic and divine indifference.


Drummond would like, I think, the way Bowers locates his personal loss in the emotion of the ages, and the way his fully inhabiting a symbolic tradition makes for unstrained intellectual density.  Snow, in this setting, is the opposite of life, is the alien principle of crystalline fixity.  In “Settle like snow upon the breathless bed,” “breathless” is the state just before death and the state just after; “Settle like snow” suggests moments accumulating (as in the base of an hourglass), but also a body settling for the last time, and also that body being covered with a final blanket.  But the human world, as here presented, isn’t just change and death; it is a state of in-between. Our lives are moments of poise between the sea, the dark principle of time in its ceaseless motion and freshness (“wind and wet and wave”), and the remote sun of constant spiritual being: “archaic” because it shone on the world's foundation, and shone also when ancient Greek boys tried their skill and later died and were mourned, and has always shone, indiscriminately, on the tragic and the trivial. The modern boys are "pale shadows" because they appear light against the dark sea, but also because they partake of the light of mind, use its illumination to momentarily master nature by deft calculation. But they are also pale in the sense of being not fully bright: they reflect light but also partake of the dark, as material beings not transparent to light that therefore cast shadows on the water, and as beings that will pass away on a breathless bed.  In “the light’s/ Archaic and divine indifference,” “divine” is a metaphor for god-like detachment, but a metaphor that also carries the literal implication that the light is all of divinity that we can know.  And although the cosmic perspective of the last line places this particular passing as a mere personal moment in the impersonal story of time, the final word “indifference” is laden with its opposite—is laden, as these Cambridge snows have been laden, with an undiminished feeling of loss.






Harvey, Gordon. “Letter from Cambridge. The New Compass: A Critical Review 1 (June 2003) <>