Blog Post

Literary need from Spenser to Blanchot: 1. The art of our necessities

                        the erotic mask
Worn the world over by illusion
To weddings of itself and simple need.
                                   --Merrill, "Days of 1964"

Spenser starts describing the Garden of Adonis, where Venus spends her time when she's on Earth, as a place whose location is unknown:

 

So faire a place, as Nature can deuize:
Whether in Paphos, or Cytheron hill,
Or it in Gnidus be, I wote not well;
But well I wote by tryall, that this same
All other pleasant places doth excell,
And called is by her lost louers name,
The Gardin of Adonis, farre renowmd by fame.

He does not know where it is, but he's been there: he knows through his own experience ("by tryall") that is excels all other places.  He has been in love, but now that love is lost.  He's been to the garden but now (like Le Grand Meaulnes),  he does not know his way back there.  He insists on its existence: it's not fabulous but real.  And he can show it's real because he can describe it so well, and in such detail, as he proceeds to do:

In that same Gardin all the goodly flowres,
Wherewith dame Nature doth her beautifie,
And decks the girlonds of her paramoures,
Are fetcht: there is the first seminarie
Of all things, that are borne to liue and die,
According to their kindes. Long worke it were,
Here to account the endlesse progenie
Of all the weedes, that bud and blossome there;
But so much as doth need, must needs be counted here.

It's that last line that I chiefly love.  (As Hamlet has it: he pauses to ask the Player for a speech from Marlowe -- more or less -- the speech that he "chiefly loved."  I want to return to this in another post when I take up the related issue of forgotten quotation.)  What need is this?  Why does it need to be counted here?  I know the second need is slightly more idiomatic than that, but I think Elizabethan poets tended to use "must needs" as a way of turning logic into affect.  Richard II, landing in England, is asked how he feels to be home again: "Needs must I like it well: I weep with joy" is his response.

So what need is there to recount what's in the Garden?  This is essentially literary need.  The need to find in Faerie Land what otherwise would be lost forever.  The first verse of the proem to Book VI describes the Land of Faery in just these terms:

The waies, through which my weary steps I guyde,
In this delightfull land of Faery,
Are so exceeding spacious and wyde,
And sprinckled with such sweet variety,
Of all that pleasant is to eare or eye,
That I nigh rauisht with rare thoughts delight,
My tedious trauell doe forget thereby;
And when I gin to feele decay of might,
It strength to me supplies, and chears my dulled spright.

"Trauell" puns conceptually on the idea of travel as travail, as work and pain. Living in the world is travail, but being in Faery Land is traveling through a ravishing and beautiful place. The work Spenser or his narrator is most relevantly doing is writing The Faerie Queene: his spirit is dull with the decay of invention, but the invented world supplies him the strength and cheer to go on traveling through it, without travail. So in real life, writing the poem is a proxy and example of the corrosive labor that ends in exhaustion and death, but in the poem is another world, a world of illusion celebrating the wedding of itself to simple need.

The world is a world in which love has been lost, but the poem is a poem in which it may be recounted ("must needs be counted here"), a place where it counts.  It's a place where the failing, exhausted will can find the two meanings of "need" combine: the essential thing that's missing; and the thing that, being necessary, is always there, necessarily there, like a necessary truth.

I've been thinking (and posting here a little) about the relation of poetry (and narrative too) to acts of what I want to call non-causal willing. To put it as simply as possible: in poems, some poems, what's needed happens.

A poem cannot meet the desire for love -- only a person can do that; but it can meet the need for love, when love appears as its most poignant avatar, under the guise of need, and therefore as the expression of need. What the poet needs is that expression; what the poem gives is that expression, and that's what loving a poem or a moment in a poem can offer: a love and need come together in the poem.

This is, in its fashion, a version of Nietzsche's amor fati.  I would like to say -- I would like to follow up by saying -- that this is also a version of the shuffled preference ranking that I have been thinking about in decision theory.  Preference ranking goes with subjective probablity, and when you can't change the world you can change your estimation of the probablities.  Need will do that, will make subjective probablity into certainty -- one certainty or another.  So for Spenser, loss needs to be haunted, and so needs something really haunting, which is what is found in the poem: the illusion truly wedded to simple need.

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This is a way of saying that poems are personifications of love, and here I'll list some examples of what I mean:

Herbert's "Love" (III) ("Love bade me welcome, but my soul drew back"), Shelley's "When the Lamp is Shattered" (Where love first seems to leave the nest, but then is left in the nest, exposed to the rain and cold winds) and Bishop's version of "Casabianca" ("Love's the boy stood on the burning deck").  

(See also Martin Browning's piece on "Casabianca" called "The Burning Boy.")

William Flesch's picture
William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).