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Baron Wormser: Poetry and Paradise

One of the defining aspects of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, is poetry. The novel, devoted to the boyhood, young manhood, and then manhood proper (which is to say—war, disillusionment, and lost love) of Amory Blaine, traces the evolution of Amory’s sensibility. Since his egotism and conceit are freely acknowledged, Amory is never far from musing about Amory. The narrator, who has a seasoned attitude about human doings and undoings, sees Amory as one of those who is determined to make his mark. What that mark may be is unclear. For all his preening about being special, Amory is one more person who desires to master whatever social milieu that person encounters. Beyond college, and a good deal of the book is devoted to his years at Princeton, he finds himself bound to a world shaped by World War I and the rapid growth of industrial commercialism along with the entertainments that industrialism spawned. Mass society does not so much beckon as give orders.

   Poetry is literally another matter. Amory, who acknowledges to himself that he will never be more than a mediocre poet, does, nonetheless, write the stuff. He also reads poetry (Swinburne for example), quotes it, and declaims to a friend “Ode to a Nightingale” as he rides along on a bicycle. The narrator notes that “the bushes” are also the recipient of Amory’s declaiming. Indeed, a certain degree of pastoral is key to the novel as when Amory encounters, while strolling in the Maryland countryside, a young woman who is a sort of intellectual version of La Belle Dame Sans Merci. From her perch on a haystack, she has heard Amory reciting “Ulalume.” Amory has heard her singing a poem by Verlaine: “a strange sound fell on his ears.” Poetry is part of Amory’s being. 

   Toward the very end of the book Amory walks to Princeton from New York City. He knows he needs to touch base with “the spirit of the past” in order to go forward with his life. One passage here can stand for many in the book: “The afternoon waned from the purging good of three o’clock to the golden beauty of four. Afterward he walked through the dull ache of a setting sun when even the clouds seemed bleeding and at twilight he came to a graveyard. There was a dusky, dreamy smell of flowers and the ghost of a new moon in the sky and shadows everywhere. On an impulse he considered trying to open the door of a rusty iron vault built into the side of a hill; a vault washed clean and covered with late-blooming, weepy watery-blue flowers that might have grown from dead eyes, sticky to the touch with a sickening odor.” And then this sentence immediately following: “Amory wanted to feel ‘William Dayfield, 1864.’” The italics are Fitzgerald’s. 

   “Romanticism,” we mutter and nod at Poe, Keats, and Verlaine while reaching for the latest contemporary material or spiritual-material nostrum. We might say “poetry,” too, though that is more of a reach since poetry left those large “R” precincts a while ago to engage, as best it could, the modern, machine-made world. The word “feel,” however, sticks in Amory’s craw and sticks in the reader’s, since the foundation of sensibility is feeling. Without sensibility, a person might just as well be an automaton (a fate more and more people, inured as they are to mass technology, seem to welcome). A sensibility requires an education of the senses and the mind, some of which an institution such as college can provide and much that it cannot provide. Meanwhile, the poems are there for anyone to consult. 

   A belief in the value of poetry is crucial. To Amory, this belief comes naturally. Poetry speaks thrillingly to and for the whole person. Amory wants to be that person—according to his ever-emerging specifications. Those specifications are often shoddy, as he variously comes to admit throughout the book. Poetry, however, is neither shoddy nor glib. Poetry reverberates. When he quotes poetry, he is entering that enchanted realm. Swinburne doesn’t exactly make sense but sense isn’t the point of Swinburne. The evocation, the metered sway of the words, is all, especially to a young person who longs to be under the spell of something like magic, something that speaks to the enormity of youthful yearning, something that is willing to hazard everything on the bet that magic is not just possible but real. Love is real, after all, and love is magic. 

   Life as it is lived by human beings is far from poetic and yet the poetic quality redeems some of the humdrum, wearying toil and toll of daily commerce, be it economic or social. The poetic speaks to what Keats (an invaluable guide in this regard) referred to as “the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination.” Fine words and, as Keats well knew, the world had no trouble with leaving it at that. To live those words was another story but it was a story that interested Fitzgerald and the protagonist he created in his novel, for it was a story that connected beauty to life. After reciting Keats’s ode to his poet-friend Tom (modeled on the poet John Peale Bishop) Amory declares that “I’ll never be a poet . . . . I’m not enough of a sensualist really; there are only a few obvious things that I notice as primarily beautiful: women, spring evenings, music at night, the sea; I don’t catch the subtle things like ‘silver-snarling trumpets.’” Amory is quoting Keats again (from “The Eve of St. Agnes”) while acknowledging—even as he counts himself out—that beauty is a crucial dimension of our being. He might have quoted Keats further, for it was Keats who made a point of connecting the dots: “What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.” 

   I could make a fair case that the work of humankind beyond getting and spending is to honor those three terms and that poetry is integral to that work. I understand that this is not work in the sense that the world means. Yet it is work that honors not only human capabilities but also what the natural world presents us with each day. For one more crucial word remains to be added, a word Amory is keen on, and that is “love.” Keats did the connecting there, too: “For I have the same Idea of all our Passions, as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty.” When the natural world moves Amory, we feel, as Fitzgerald’s readers, that something like love is afoot. It’s not hard to imagine that if Keats were to find himself in our present-day world, he would quickly point out that if we want to help the earth, we have to love the earth. Nothing else will do it. 

   Novels exist, in part, to demonstrate the hard lessons of the social realm. Amory, for all his privilege, goes through some very trying times that include a bout of paranoia, being at loose, impecunious ends in the big city, and the loss of his true love, a woman who marries for money. Must he abandon poetry as part of his coming to terms with grim realities? Fitzgerald does not provide an answer. That’s not his task. He does, however, write this passage that stems from his falling “half into love” with the Verlaine-intoning Eleanor: “All night the summer moths flitted in and out of Amory’s window; all night large looming sounds swayed in mystic revery through the silver grain—and he lay awake in the clear darkness.” The earth is a poem, a palpable depth that anchors the human situation and that tacitly asks how we might accommodate the reverence, appreciation, and love that fall into the realm of the poetic or the “sublime,” to use Keats’s word. Life without human poetry and life without the poetry of the earth is a barren affair. Our famous exile from the paradisaical garden is false in the sense that the earth remains a garden. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t. 

   The title of Fitzgerald’s novel comes from a line by Rupert Brooke, a poet not many read these days. Many are the poets who are not read these days. Unfortunately, when we let go of the past, we disgrace our imaginations in favor of the sure thing of the present moment: whatever it tosses up is good. Yet sensibility is developed through our relationship with the past. Part of that relationship is understanding and feeling how others perceived beauty and truth, categories that cut through every social organization the earth has witnessed. The connection of truth to imagination has typically been harrowing because imagination so easily goes off the tracks. Poetry says, however, that doesn’t have to happen. Poetry, as it is based on appreciation, shows us the path of gratitude. Fitzgerald knew Keats’s famous, piercing sonnet “When I Have Fears.” The sonnet’s closing lines speak to the plight of Amory Blaine and to the young American holed up in his parents’ house in St. Paul, Minnesota, while he writes a novel: “And when I feel, fair creature of an hour! / That I shall never look upon thee more, / Never have relish in the fairy power / Of unreflecting love!–and then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone and think / Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.” 

   Fitzgerald’s novel encompasses “the fairy power” and it encompasses death in various forms including an automobile accident and the nightmare of World War One, where some of Amory’s classmates perish. Their lives, like Keats’s, had just begun. Their deaths, like Keats’s, were not “easeful,” the word Keats uses in his nightingale ode. Nor, for that matter, was Fitzgerald’s. This side of paradise is a tenuous place. That seems why Fitzgerald turned to poetry again and again in his novel, connecting the dots in his way, showing that to dismiss poetry is to dismiss whatever chance we have for insight into the beauty that moves this world. 

In 2000, Baron Wormser was appointed Poet Laureate of Maine by Governor Angus King. He served in that capacity for six years and visited many libraries and schools to talk about books and writing.

Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser.

Note: This Side of Paradise is in the public domain.

Written at the tender age of twenty-three, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel mirrors some of his own experiences at Princeton University. This romance of the early Jazz Age is a commentary on how love can be affected by money and social status.

4 comments on “Baron Wormser: Poetry and Paradise

  1. johnlawsonpoet
    February 11, 2023

    I was very glad to encounter this sentence in Wormser’s excellent essay: “A sensibility requires an education of the senses and the mind, some of which an institution such as college can provide and much that it cannot provide.” Just last night I saw a YouTube in which Ray Bradbury argued that writers shouldn’t go to college because literature is all about feeling, but higher education is all about intellect. His point seemed to be that a focus on intellect interferes with feeling.

    As much as I appreciate Bradbury, I believe he’s wrong. Following Wormser, I wouldn’t argue that people can’t develop their writing skills without a college education, but my own college experience certainly enabled me to experience art more deeply, both intellectually and emotionally–and I doubt that I’m alone. Intellect and sensibility don’t have to oppose each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      February 11, 2023

      Well-said, John. I didn’t know that Bradbury made this assertion. Odd, I think. College is not a single experience, but many, and with good teachers, it can be an extraordinary experience.


  2. Rose Mary Boehm
    February 11, 2023

    It’s been a while. Thank you for revisiting so lovingly and intelligently the novel and poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. vincentlowrey
    February 11, 2023

    Thank you for this tender, moving insight into Fitzgerald’s first novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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