Philology's Formal Function in Modernist Verse and in Academe

This week I’m trying to figure out why remediation of philology in verse exploded right when philology’s academic fortunes fizzled out.

From 1900 to 1920, philology went into steep decline in the English-speaking world. But during that time, and the decade or two right after, the presence of philology in poetry exploded. Think of all the philology in the works of Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Hugh MacDiarmid, David Jones, James Joyce, etc., etc., etc., which has been covered more admirably by other scholars than I could ever hope to do.

I’ve gestured at this topic before, and offered a genre called ‘philological poetry’. But that name doesn’t explain why that discrepancy happened, it only describes it—and only one half of it. That was a much easier thing to do.

But, foolishly, I submitted to BAMS 2019 an abstract which promised to finally solve that puzzle. Worse, my abstract was accepted. The title is ‘Why Did Philological Poetry Take Off as Philology Declined in the Academy?’ The conference is next week. Never submit a title that promises to answer a question. It will be accepted, and you will have to make good on your promise.

I have a few half-baked ideas so far.

1. Genres condition the kinds of knowledge expressible

If one genre (academic philology) is going down, while another (philological poetry) is coming up, the differing outcomes may lie in how the genres themselves differ. Texts don’t just represent the world; they stand in between the world and the reader. And the particular way a text does that is affected by its particular genre. 

Complicating, however, is that philological poetry doesn’t just stand between the reader and the world; it also stands between the reader and philology. There are two layers of mediation to think of. What could poetry do with philological knowledge that academic philology could not (or could no longer) do itself?

2. Philology bound knowledge and language together

There is something in philology’s content—what philology is at this time—that kills it in an academic sense. Philology gave form to the relation between knowledge and language. It did that for as long as such a relation was intellectually viable (until 1916, if you want to know).

That very quality of philology—how it gives form to the knowledge–language relation—may make it poetically fertile. The formal disconnection of knowledge and language after the early twentieth century was something of a modernist poetic cause célèbre. As W. H. Auden wrote, ‘the most poetical of all scholastic disciplines is, surely, Philology’. He goes on to say that language is poetic to the degree that the specific forms of words (their sounds and shapes) matter. When that form doesn’t matter, poetry is impossible, it becomes prose.

3. Philology’s forming function

If there is that formal function in philology which makes it academically dead after 1916, that formal condition may still be operable in poetry, which is not subject to the same strictures as academic truth-claiming; or, better stated, is subject to other strictures than those.

The paper will probably be a synthesis of these three ideas.

But what remains to be explained is the rise. The above may be sufficient conditions, but are they a sufficient cause?

(Note: the Auden quotations are from ‘Making, Knowing, and Judging’.)