Cynic, Dignity, Diogenes, Diogenes Laertius, Honesty, Literature, poem, Poetry, Pretense, Reverence, William Carlos Williams
The third poem in what appears to be a triptych of Williams is again named “Pastoral” as was the first in the series. Williams again takes the part of a detached but certainly not disinterested observer. While he does not involve himself in the matter under consideration, he deeply cares about it. Indeed, in this final poem he is “astonish me beyond words”.
This poem again comes around to the poor and their dignity — unknown and unobserved by those of Williams’ native world — but this time he begins with “little sparrows”:
The little sparrows
about the pavement
with sharp voices
over those things
that interest them.
The scene is easy to understand for anyone who has ever seen a sparrow: the small birds are hoping about doing something and making their sharp sounds. But there are a few things here which are interesting:
First the intensity of the birds’ conduct: they hop, they quarrel, their voices are sharp. There is a great intensity to their conduct.
Second, the birds have no concern for the poet watching them at their business: the birds hop ‘ingenuously’. There is a complete unstudied and unconcerned freedom about the birds conduct. They have their own world and the poet may not enter: he can see, but not participate. Also, the subject of their quarrel is their own concern: “those things/that interest them.” They simply don’t care about Williams.
The birds’ unconcern is matched by the human detachment:
But we who are wiser
shut ourselves in
on either hand
and no one knows
whether we think good
We people “shut ourselves in”. We are “wiser” and so we don’t concern ourselves with these matters. We certainly do not tell anyone, “no one knows whether we think good/or evil.” We — in seeming dignity (as opposed to the undignified “ingenuous” birds) — do not let on our judgment.
There is an ironic allusion here to the Fall: our wisdom (“we who are wiser”) does not lead to us to judgment; no one even knows whether we judge this good or evil. The Fall described in Genesis 3, concerns the temptation of the shrewd serpent who tricked Eve into believing that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would make her wise and she would become as God (of the gods):
Genesis 3:5–6 (NASB95)
5 “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.
All of this wisdom has resulted in a stultified judgment: we simply don’t concern ourselves with these lowly animals.
The faint allusion to the Bible is again hinted at in the next stanza.
the old man who goes about
walks in the gutter
without looking up
and his tread is more majestic than
that of the Episcopal minister
approaching the pulpit
of a Sunday.
Dog-lime is a riddle. Doing a little looking I found a message board of similarly stumped readers, and someone suggested that it may mean trying to find something to eat in the gutter, or possibly some residue of dog-feces. Whatever the meaning, it is obviously unbecoming: it is a mark of this man “in the gutter” who never looks up: he is the precise opposite of the Episcopal minister on a Sunday morning (the most dignified of men). But here is another use of “dog” and this rather unreverent man which we will consider in a moment.
The reference to “dog” is the exact opposite of “god” (which is an obvious joke made at length by Joyce in Ulysses — which Williams would not have known).
But there is a patent allusion to Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan:
Lord Darlington. No, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. [Sits down at C. table.]
Dumby. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars? Upon my word, you are very romantic to-night, Darlington.
Our old man, very unromantically, does not even look up from the gutter: he is scrounging for some offal of some sort.
The old man is like the sparrows: he is about something intently. It is a matter of life and death to him, and he bears no pretense. He has no concern about the poet or anyone else. Like the sparrow he carries on his life in public.
Now let us return to the vague reference to dog-lime which seems to invoke the Cynic Diogenes who carried on his live in public, like a dog, with no concern about the thoughts of others.
(John William Waterhouse, Diogenes)
Here are some references from Diogenes Laertius which may help explicate this poem. He writes of the first great cynic Diogenes as follows:
Through watching a mouse running about, says Theophrastus in the Megarian dialogue, not looking for a place to lie down in, not afraid of the dark, not seeking any of the things which are considered to be dainties, he discovered the means of adapting himself to circumstances. He was the first, say some, to fold his cloak because he was obliged to sleep in it as well, and he carried a wallet to hold his victuals, and he used any place for any purpose, for breakfasting, sleeping, or conversing. And then he would say, pointing to the portico of Zeus and the Hall of Processions, that the Athenians had provided him with places to live in.
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, ed. R. D. Hicks (Kansas City Missouri: Harvard University Press, November 1, 2005), 25–27.
And one day when Plato had invited to his house friends coming from Dionysius, Diogenes trampled upon his carpets and said, “I trample upon Plato’s vainglory.” Plato’s reply was, “How much pride you expose to view, Diogenes, by seeming not to be proud.” Others tell us that what Diogenes said was, “I trample upon the pride of Plato,” who retorted, “Yes, Diogenes, with pride of another sort.”
Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, ed. R. D. Hicks (Kansas City Missouri: Harvard University Press, November 1, 2005), 27–29.
He would say that men strive in digging and kicking to outdo one another, but no one strives to become a good man and true.
And he would wonder that the grammarians should investigate the ills of Odysseus, while they were ignorant of their own. Or that the musicians should tune the strings of the lyre, while leaving the dispositions of their own souls discordant;  that the mathematicians should gaze at the sun and the moon, but overlook matters close at hand; that the orators should make a fuss about justice in their speeches, but never practise it; or that the avaricious should cry out against money, while inordinately fond of it. He used also to condemn those who praised honest men for being superior to money, while themselves envying the very rich.
At a feast certain people kept throwing all the bones to him as they would have done to a dog.Thereupon he played a dog’s trick and drenched them.
So I think it safe to say that this old man in the gutter seeking dog-lime is no romantic; rather, he is the precise opposite of the romantic. But he is also a man utterly without pretense or deception (although he is possessed of a very different pretense; yet, he is an animal and in parallel to the sparrows).
By setting the old man up as a cynic, Williams displays this old man as an honest man. The most famous incident of Diogenes involves a lamp, “He lit a lamp in broad daylight and said, as he went about, “I am looking for a man.” (λύχνον μεθʼ ἡμέραν ἅψας περιῄει λέγων “ἄνθρωπον ζητῶ.”)
This dog-man is set up in direct contrast to the great master of dignity and civilization and Williams finds the Cynic (Greek for “dog”) more “majestic” than the minister.
The poem then ends with the self-abnegating lines:
Astonish me beyond words.
The irony here is that Williams has actually provided words, may precise and well-calibrated words which make allusion to Oscar Wilde and a Greek philosopher. He is so “astonished” “beyond words” that he has given us words. What this must mean is that his poem aims at but does not achieve the end which he sought (which is the common element of anyone who has written and judged himself honestly).
So what then is the summary of Williams’ attitude to the poor? First, he cannot enter into their world. He is observes from a distance; he is astonished and finds great beauty and dignity; but he is still a world-apart. Second, he sees in them a dignity which transcends their circumstance. They are more “majestic” than the height of Williams’ own class and world. It is a sort of barbaric dignity and beauty which he sees.
Third, his poem is the connection which draws him into their world. He sees, frames, understands and makes their lives something intelligible him; even if that intelligibility leaves him at a distance. His words do something, but they cannot do all.