Communicating Vessels


The metaphysical conceit is based upon the philosophical doctrine of correspondences and it gives at its best the effect of truly exploring the nature of some metaphysical problem. But the Baroque conceit does not explore; it rather views the same paradox or symbol from various angles, reviewing and revising and restating and expanding the issue until some truth of emotion gradually grows out from all that glittering elaboration … one might say that the Baroque conceit develops like one of those seemingly unending skyrockets which shoot out sparks of fire in a great shower, and then each spark blooms into a dozen further showers, and then all these bloom into further showers one after another after another until finally all the whole display reaches its climax and the sparks fade away in the night sky.

(Louis L. Martz, The Wit of Love)

Any attempt to define a Baroque aesthetic brings to the forefront the notion of a non-linear approach to poetic and visual composition. Richard Crashaw’s “The Weeper”, for example, consists of distinct stanzas within and between which an impassioned game of paradox and counter-paradox plays itself out; the whole poem is a sequence of complex images, what T.S. Eliot describes in his 1926 Clark lecture on Crashaw as “often no more than a string of little poems or epigrams, each containing some striking figure of speech”. Yet these epigrammatic figures are contained within the larger structure of the “necklace” itself: literally so, since “The Weeper” is explicitly designed as a kind of affective rosary, written to concentrate the mind on the Magdalen’s passion at the foot of the Cross, while simultaneously enacting the process and effect of empathic devotion.

Crashaw, and the poem, draw into themselves the emotions of the Magdalen, make emblems of them, and proceed to enact these on the reader. To achieve this effect requires the breakdown of the reader’s logical defences against the leap of faith proposed, and Crashaw’s habitual use of paradox is expressly designed to achieve this. As one thing continually melts into another, the reader’s desire for logical connections is just as continually frustrated. We can either accept these contradictions and enter into the affective realm of the proposed meditation, or we can give up on the poem altogether:

O Cheeks! Bedds of chast loves
By your own showres seasonably dash’t;
Eyes! nests of milky doves
In your own well decently washt,
O wit of love! that thus could place
Fountain & Garden in one face.

O Sweet Contest; of woes
With loves, of teares with smiles disputing!
O fair, & Friendly Foes,
Each other kissing & confuting!
While rain & sunshine, Cheekes & Eyes
Close in kind contraietyes.

(“The Weeper” XV-XVI)

The structural effect is as though thirty still photographs were run through a projector to become a sudden, instantaneous movement while the individual images remain iconically self-sufficient. In attempting to describe what is essentially inexpressable, Crashaw’s poem strives to be both static and in flux, fragmentary and unified. Each stanza of “The Weeper” occurs simultaneously in time, and the sum total of all thirty-one, layered one on another, is a kind of crystalline structure of internal echoes, reflections and reinforcements.

Like the elaborately carved roof-bosses in the nave of a medieval cathedral, only visible with the aid of binoculars or a zoomlens, this “impossible” conceptual form may have been intended “for the eyes of God”. The poem has what we might describe as a “fractal” structure, each part a version of the whole, and the whole implicitly a fragment of a larger construction still. Just as “The Weeper” consists of epigrammatic stanzas, so each stanza in turn breaks down into two further epigrams as a quatrain is followed by a couplet:

Such the maiden gemme
By the purpling vine put on,
Peeps from her parent stemme
And blushes at the bridegroome sun.
This wat’ry blossom of thy eyn,
Ripe, will make the richer wine.

(“The Weeper” XI)

A similar combination of epigram, complexity and transformation — not to mention a lachrymal inspiration – is found in Thomas Philipott’s 1646 poem “To a gentlewoman, viewing her selfe in a glasse”, a mannered and faintly absurd jeu d’esprit that nonetheless acquires disproportionate resonance from its compelling central conceit, the integrity of its imagery and a curiously appropriate disjunction between voice and form:

Cruell faire one, think this Glasse
Wherein you now behold your face,
Was compos’d of one who dyed
For love of you, since he applyed
His liquid and dissolving eyes
So long with teares to sacrifice
To your disdaine, that to relieve
His Bankrupt and impoverish’d griefe
With a fresh stock of moysture, hee
Melted to a spring, which see
The cold but charitable North
(Lest a fountaine of such worth
Should by vulgar lips be tasted
Or profanely be exhausted)
Congeal’d into a Chrystall Masse
Of which was form’d this Looking-glasse:
And as your figure faire did rest
Within this Lovers living brest,
So still you see it doth appeare,
Though turn’d to Chrystall, harbour’d there.

More linear in construction than “The Weeper”, and less impassioned, “To a gentlewoman, viewing herselfe in a glasse” is compelling and stilted, fluid and static, mechanical yet resonant, all at once. I remain undecided even on the question of whether this is a particularly good or spectacularly bad poem, but I’d challenge anyone to forget it.

“Musick’s Duell”, the least “occasional” of Crashaw’s secular poems, works differently again. It has a straightforwardly linear construction that moves from first line to last over the course of time occupied by the event described, which in turn coincides with the duration of time taken to read the poem itself. Because of this, the poem’s “glittering construction” is expressly designed to enact rather than merely describe the escalating complexities of a nightingale’s song as she competes with a lute-player in the forest, and both rush ecstatically towards the climactic fulfilment and annihilation of self embodied in their virtuosity:

Every smooth turne, every delicious stroake
Gives life to some new Grace; thus doth he invoke
Sweetnesse by all her Names; thus, bravely thus
(Fraught with a fury so harmonious)
The Lutes light Genius now does proudly rise,
Heav’d on the surges of swolne Rapsodyes
Whose flourish (Meteor-like) doth curle the aire…

The sacred and profane energies, sensual and spiritual transport, remained entangled, in poetic terms, throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, and Baroque forms seem to have entangled them more than most. If, in Octavio Paz’s phrase, poetry can be defined in terms of an “eroticisation of language”, “Musick’s Duell” clearly reads within an Ovidian, erotic-transformative tradition, to which Paz directly refers. The luteplayer’s hands, described as though engaged in foreplay, propel the nightingale’s song to the limits of bodily endurance (“Her little soule is ravisht; and so pour’d/ Into loose extasies, that shee is plac’d/Above her selfe …”):

His nimble hands’ instinct then taught each string
A capring cheerfullnesse; and made them sing
To their owne dance; now negligently rash
Hee throwes his Arme, and with a long drawne dash
Blends all together; then distinctly tripps
From this to that; then quick returning skipps
And snatches this again, and pauses there …

(“Musick’s Duell”)

Let’s not forget in this context that “petit mort”, the “little death” (to which fulfilment Crashaw’s nightingale “comes” at the same instant as her somewhat larger death) remains a commonplace shorthand for sexual climax, and for good reason. Here, too, the self is temporarily “lost”, dissolved in a unity greater than itself. Moreover, since Christ is both bridegroom of the church and the lover of humankind, several European poetic traditions — from Dante, Petrarch and Donne through to our own time — have been built on the concept of earthly love as an echo of the Divine, the devotional and the love poet sharing the common task of remaining faithful to the unpredictable objects of their greatest desire.

Related to this is the sense that the elaboration of musical technique in “Musick’s Duell” is poised on that fleeting “Blends all together”, those few moments within the poem where, after immense virtuosic striving, a sudden and effortless convergence precedes the still greater effort required to find it again. The merging of contraries is one of the defining features of Baroque aesthetics, and this too has its spiritual dimension. The musician in his own realm, not unlike the poet in his, echoes Christ’s salvation of humankind. Just as the artist blends all contraries within a dynamic harmony of stillness and motion, poise and flux, so in Christ the contraries of God and Man, Heaven and Earth, Sin and Redemption converge:

Jesus, no more! It is full tide.
From thy head & from thy feet,
From thy hands & from thy side
All the purple rivers meet.

(“Upon the Bleeding Crucifix”)

While the aesthetic of the Baroque is firmly rooted in the religious traditions of Catholic mysticism, however, its use is not restricted to the specific beliefs of any particular faith. Crashaw’s convergences and fusions have more than one distant echo in David Gascoyne’s 1935 translation of Andre Breton’s “The Spectral Attitudes”, another poem composed wholly of paradoxical and epigrammatic fragments, where:

A subterranean passage unites all perfumes
A woman pledged herself there one day
This woman became so bright that I could no longer see her
With these eyes which have seen my own self burning

It’s a passage that reads in parts as though obliquely related to the imagery of fire, flesh, tears, heat and cold that all converge in Robert Southwell’s emblem of Faith, “The Burning Babe”:

…lifting up a fearful eye to see what fire was near,
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed,
As though his flood should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.

Algernon Charles Swinburne made a point of inverting and parodying such devotional styles and “stock conceits” from his own atheistic perspective. While his poem “Christmas Antiphones” builds itself from the empty shell of a pious devotional rhetoric (“God whose eyes are skies/Love-lit as with spheres/By the lights that rise/To thy watching eyes/Orbed lights of tears”), the blasphemous “Dolores” approaches the impassioned quality of authentic devotion by its founding stroke of proclaiming the poet himself its martyr, approaching the feet of D.A.F de Sade (“thy prophet, thy preacher, thy poet”) through prostrations to his perverse “Magdalen”, the devotional object of the poem, “Our Lady of Pain”:

O lips full of lust and of laughter,
Curled snakes that are fed from my breast,
Bite hard, lest remembrance come after
And press with new lips where you pressed.
For my heart too springs up at the pressure,
Mine eyelids too moisten and burn;
Ah, feed me and fill me with pleasure,
Ere pain come in turn.


The plays on time, with motion and stillness that occur in “Atalanta in Calydon” are also of interest, particularly where the pagan Choruses hold statements in tension between two distinct states of being. “The faint, fresh flame of the young year flushes/ From leaf to flower and flower to fruit”, causing the season to oscillate between Spring and Autumn without settling on either, and the same Chorus later uses another variation on the same theme as a scene is simultaneously hidden and revealed, as though glimpsed in motion through leaves:

And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid …

(“Atalanta in Calydon”)

Thematically, this evokes Bernini’s 1625 Apollo and Daphne, a marble sculpture that itself makes a similar play on time through its status as a static form that nonetheless “moves” as the viewer circles it. Apollo and Daphne is a form that freezes not so much the instant but the instantaneousness of an Ovidian metamorphosis. Swinburne attempts a similar dynamic effect, embodying motion at several stages in time simultaneously.

David Gascoyne’s own poetic journey, from early Surrealism to a later, highly idiosyncratic mystical-visionary poetry, might tend to reinforce rather than loosen the connection between Baroque poetic strategies and specific religious faith. The difference between these two sides of Gascoyne’s work, however, is surprisingly small, and if there’s an overall loss of energy as abstractions begin to dominate in the later work, the actual crossover from Surrealism to mysticism is almost imperceptible at times, as evidenced by a comparison between “Signs”, from Gascoyne’s Surrealist period between 1933 and 1938, and “The Grass in the Waste Places”, written in the less prolific period after 1958:

From the dark’s most recent place
Across the curtains of the air
There presently began to rise
A dream-transfigured face
With lips exhaling prayer
And lambent eyes.


Anarchy the law of nature
A blade of grass glistens with dew
that the Franciscan sun devours

(“The Grass in the Waste Places”)

That most observers would tend to hazard that the later lines seem more “Surrealist” in tone than the earlier stanza indicates that both sides of Gascoyne’s work draw on the same poetic roots. This shouldn’t be too surprising, however, since as Mary Ann Caws has persuasively argued, Surrealist art draws much of its armoury from the radical fluidity and disjunction of the Baroque, an art frequently concerned with the evocation of otherness in its attempts to represent the unrepresentable, the paradoxical and the Divine:

… the contraries of the baroque mentality — water playing against fire, ruin against wholeness, sickness against health, motion against stillness — accumulate in the surrealist sensitivity, to which one of the most persuasive witnesses has always been the locomotive stopped, arrested at full speed in the virgin forest … “Flame of water”, ends Breton’s great poem ““Sur la route qui monte et qui descend”, “Lead me to the sea of fire” …

(Caws, The Surrealist Look)

“The architectural building up and in of such paintings and poems delineates a field in which the energy of contraries is released,” writes Caws, and this point about the “field” of Baroque aesthetics is reinforced by Louis Martz in his discussion of Bernini’s Baldaccino of 1633 at Saint Peter’s in Rome. It is, he writes:

…a massive, elaborately decorated canopy, supported by huge bronze columns covered with gold. Viewed in and by itself, close up, it may seem an awkward, unstable and bewildering construction … [yet] the Baroque Baldaccino of Bernini must be considered within its total setting and not simply by itself, for it acts within that setting as a symbol of human aspiration, spiralling upward toward the domed and vaulted harmonies of a perfect mathematical form. Thus, the Renaissance ideal of harmony controls and holds in place the violent aspirations of the Baroque spirit.

(Martz, The Wit of Love)

For Martz, the Baroque is a disruptive aesthetic force, a point underlined by his insistence on the Baroque as an aesthetic “enabled” by its containment within Renaissance geometry, its “violent aspirations” held in tension with a stabilising field. As this also implies, however, this aesthetic has a tendency to spill over the limits within which it is framed. Martz draws attention to Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s Il Gesu in this context:

… a basically Renaissance interior with strict geometrical arches and a dome. But on the ceiling of the nave is a painting of the late seventeenth century which bursts out of, literally breaks through, the frame, the panel, of its Renaissance form and flows and radiates upward as though the very ceiling were opening into the heavens to reveal far off the radiant Name Of Jesus.

This is the crucial aspect of a baroque aesthetic, the disruption of course, but also the tendency of this disruption to be directed through to some other component either within or beyond its own “field of contraries”. This explains the not infrequent sensation in the presence of Baroque works that the whole environment is drawn into the work itself, and appears to exist solely to facilitate its effect — an appearance that is not infrequently the case. A Baroque artwork is always (and paradoxically) both centrifugal and centripetal: it draws everything into itself, and simultaneously disperses into its surroundings.

Surrealism, of course, rejected the metaphysical realm absolutely, seeing the dream’s relation to reality as a material fact, like any other. Andre Breton’s atheism was unrelenting. Even during his later, more hermetically-minded dabblings in alchemy, voodoo and the occult, these were seen not as gateways to spiritual truth, but as tools to access the material reality of the subconscious itself. The crossover between Christian mysticism and Surrealism must therefore be seen in tems of a reversed polarity — Christ as the “other” of a Christian dreaming; the Magdalen of Crashaw’s “The Weeper” or the Saint Teresa of “The Flaming Heart” as no more (but no less) than Breton’s Nadja, or the “Dazzling and dark-haired friend” whose presence evokes Gustave Moreau’s Delilah in The Communicating Vessels. Breton is free to refuse transcendence, but its imaginative constructions cannot be censored. If the Crucifix cannot be more, then nor can it be less than the necktie, the bird, or the iris of the woman’s eye, “like the retractile shell of a green oyster”.

Surrealism’s notorious atheism also had a distinct tendency to manifest itself within a framework of representational tropes and symbols derived directly from the Counter-Reformation and the seventeenth-century Baroque. While these were often used blasphemously, the inherent meaning of the symbols themselves, and the forms through which they communicate, remain intact. Octavio Paz has made clear Breton’s own relationship to this lineage, describing him as:

…a “mannerist” poet in the good sense of the term; within the European tradition he belongs to that strain which descends from Gongora, Marino, Donne, poets whose work I do not know if he read, but who, I fear, his poetic morality reproved.

(On Poets and Others)

For Paz, Breton’s poems forge “a strange alliance … between prophecy and aestheticism which makes his best poems into objects of beauty and, at the same time, into spiritual testaments”.

There are enough examples of Counter-Reformation imagery in Breton’s writings to fill a fairly large anthology, and it seems interesting, to say the least, that so many of the figures and images in the Surrealists’ collective unconscious happened to be shared with Catholic devotional tradition. These were primarily the products of Catholic backgrounds and educations, of course, against which Surrealism itself rebelled, but Paz notes how Breton’s “opposition to Christianity was religious in nature”:

… language, to speak to itself, annihilates conscience. Poetry does not save the “I” of the poet, it dissolves it in the vaster and more powerful reality of speech. The practice of poetry requires abandonment, renunciation of the “I”.

“Gaps in understanding,” wrote Breton in Flagrant Delit, “are not only unimportant, they are perhaps even welcome, like clearings in the woods, the better to allow the heart’s rays to stream out without obstacle.” The immediate image of the Sacred Heart evoked here is irresistible, and its wholly positive context and conventional meaning in Breton’s hands is surprising, yet curiously appropriate. Breton’s “gaps of understanding” function not unlike Crashaw’s paradoxes in inviting an implied dissolution of the “I”.

Salvador Dali is perhaps the clearest example of a Surrealist-Baroque fusion, moving so far in this direction he wound up producing vast canvases depicting the mysteries of the Conception and Crucifixion while espousing his own, not entirely coherent versions of Catholic dogma in Franco’s Spain.

Yet it seems evident that the Baroque style represents less a specific set of Catholic, authoritarian or aristocratic values and more an aesthetic of implosion that corresponds closely to contemporary theories of subjectivity. Not least those of Jacques Lacan, whose psychoanalytic ideas were formed (at least initially) within the Surrealist movement itself, and Lacan’s “I” continues the tradition in being both created by and dispersed in language.

Surrealist and Baroque aesthetics share a coherent set of strategies to produce in the viewer or reader this same “dissolved” subjectivity, differing only on the question of whether this represents a fusion with God, or some primal, linguistic “other”. “Poetic automatism, as Breton himself stressed many times, is a neighbour of asceticism,” writes Octavio Paz, and goes on to add:

I do not think it is a method for writing poems, nor is it a rhetorical  recipe: it is a psychic exercise, a convocation and invocation destined to open the floodgates of verbal flow…

Richard Crashaw, in the first part of “Sospetto d’Herode”, addresses the Muse in terms that clearly echo this sense of drawing on forces inherent within language itself:

O be a Dore

Of language to my infant lips, yee best
Of Confessours: whose Throates answering his swords,
Gave forth your Blood for breath, spoke soules for words.

While the muse invoked is in this case the higher power of the Holy Spirit, it is invoked to create a door both of, and through language. In vengeance for Herod’s massacre, throats will answer swords, blood will be made breath, and words will themselves embody souls. Even the image of the “infant lips” pressing at the “Dore/ Of language”, whether intentionally or not, gives an overtone in which the language itself is seen as nurturing and redemptive: the poet is, literally, suckling a breast.

“Words do not attempt to describe visual images; words create them,” writes Mary Ann Caws, attributing to Andre Breton a philosophy of language closer to that underwriting the act of prayer than it might like to imagine. “Words make love; images are born from their latent sympathies and magnetic properties.” The point is reinforced by Breton’s retort to a critic’s attempts to explain away in prose some images from the poems of Saint-Pol-Roux (“Morrow of a caterpillar in evening dress means: butterfly/ Breast of crystal means: a decanter”):

No, sir, does not mean. Put your butterfly back into your decanter. What Saint-Pol-Roux meant to say, you can be sure he said.

The point is echoed in Eliot’s discussion of Crashaw’s “The Teare” in the Clark lecture of 1926:

Faire drop, why quak’st thou so?
Cause thou streight must lay,thy head
In the dust? O no,
The dust shall never be thy bed;
A pillow for thee I will bring
Stuft with downe of Angels wing.

(“The Teare” VI)

“Donne, you remember, supplied a bank as pillow for the drooping head of a violet,” writes Eliot, “but Crashaw supplies a pillow, stuffed with down, and down from moulting angels at that, a pillow for the head — of a tear. One cannot conceive of the state of mind of a writer who could pen such monstrosities.” Yet as Breton insists on behalf of Saint-Pol-Roux, so Eliot asks us to consider Crashaw:

The only way is to repeat the stanza to oneself until its odd beauty comes out, like a palimpsest — for, I repeat, it has beauty. And the effect, I believe, is not merely on the ear. There is, I am sure, not only some amount of intellectual labour performed in preparing such a freak as this imagery is, but there is a certain intellectual ingredient in the enjoyment.

“It is as if you had destroyed the natural connections between sense and thought, and built up some quite arbitrary connection out of the fragments,” Eliot concludes, a deeply insightful remark given that both Crashaw and Breton would agree, from distant poles of opinion and time, that these “natural connections” (read as habits of mind) should indeed be destroyed so that new connections — of affective devotional knowledge, of “latent sympathies and magnetic properties” — might be freed to replace them. This, in Breton’s terms, was precisely what the “revolution of the mind” entailed, and in The Communicating Vessels he defines its scope and nature. Surrealism, he hopes:

…will be considered as having tried nothing better than to cast a conduction wire between the far too distant worlds of waking and sleep, exterior and  interior reality, reason and madness, the assurance of knowledge and of love, of life for life and the revolution, and so on.

“… and so on”. Small wonder that Freud rephrased his famous question about woman to ask Breton exasperatedly, “What is this Surrealism, and what does it want?” The answer is inevitably, and necessarily, paradoxical. As Mary Ann Caws summarises it:

He wants the things he loves not to hide all the others from him; he wants the strawberries in the woods to be there for him alone and for all the others; he wants to take history into account and go beyond it; he wants, above all, to be persuasive.

It seems more than just coincidental that an almost identical desire for the harmonious convergence of contraries acts as the animating force of the Baroque as well.

[First published in Quadrant [Aus] 1999]

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