Delmore Schwartz (shwawrts) was one of the poets of the “middle generation,” so called by critic Bruce Bawer, who took his cue from some lines by Robert Lowell. That generation of poets included Lowell, Randall Jarrell, and John Berryman as well as Schwartz, who in some ways led the group into poetry. It was he who first published a book, and it was he who showed the way in contemporary American poetry during the years before and during World War II.
Born in New York City of parents whose families had emigrated from Romania when they were very young, Schwartz was raised in an unhappy household. His autobiographical poem Genesis recounts some of his experiences as a child and his reactions to his parents, who were eventually divorced when Schwartz was a teenager. Educated at the University of Wisconsin and New York University, Schwartz later taught at Harvard University, where he undertook graduate work in philosophy. He had already begun writing poetry as a student in George Washington High School, where he was encouraged by his teacher, Mary J. J. Wrinn, who included some of his work in her book The Hollow Reed (1935). During his college years Schwartz wrote criticism as well as poetry, and by the time his first book appeared he was being hailed as “the American Auden.”
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities is a collection of poetry and prose, including the title story and some of the poems that had earlier appeared in magazines and journals, such as Poetry and The Partisan Review. In his early work, Schwartz was clearly influenced not only by W. H. Auden but also by poets of the older generation–William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound–and by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. In fact, his autobiographical poem Genesis is heavily influenced by Freudian psychology, which was not, however, to remain a lasting influence any more than Marxist philosophy was.
Some of his finest poems, frequently anthologized ever since, nevertheless reflect a new voice. “The Heavy Bear That with Me Walks” and “In the Naked Bed, in Plato’s Cave” are remarkable for their attempt to make the abstract concrete, and for an idiom that directly reflects the epigraph from Alfred North Whitehead that prefaces “The Heavy Bear”: “the withness of the body.” Indeed, it is Schwartz’s ability in these and other poems to communicate the physicality of experience while at the same time rendering lines of lyric grace and mellifluousness that is one of his greatest accomplishments.
Schwartz’s early poems are not easy reading. They are very much in key with the modernist attitude that required mental exertion as opposed to rhapsodic response (although such rhapsodic verse came later in Schwartz’s career, as many of the poems in Summer Knowledge reveal). Unsurprisingly, given Schwartz’s reading in philosophy, philosophical ideas also permeate his poetry. Like the work of Eliot, for whom he had a kind of love-hate regard, Schwartz’s poetry invites, even requires, the reader to think as well as feel. The trap of time is a frequent theme in these early poems, and its solution is love, however difficult. Fear and guilt, of which Schwartz, like other poets of his generation, had an abundant share, form another theme, for which Schwartz offers confrontation, not evasion, as a solution, as in the poem “Father and Son.”
Whether it was the early acclaim he received, which he could not sustain, or the failures in his personal life that damaged him (his first marriage ended in divorce in 1944, as did his second in 1955), the work in Vaudeville for a Princess, and Other Poems shows a growing sense of defeat and is mostly unsuccessful. Only three of the poems were reprinted, along with verse from In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, in Summer Knowledge, which includes some of his best later poetry. Somehow, the oppressiveness of his long early guilt seems to have found release, and the poems of the 1950’s soar with newfound energy. “The First Morning of the Second World,” for example, shows a new acceptance and a new poetic mode. Walt Whitman, not Eliot, is the presiding spirit in this poetry, as evidenced by longer lines with broader cadences. The sprung rhythms of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the rhapsodic verse of Dylan Thomas are also influences, but the voice is Schwartz’s own. There are lapses, but the poetry as a whole seemed to presage a resurgence of poetic inspiration and delight.
Unfortunately, the inspiration and delight did not endure, and by the early 1960’s Schwartz’s personal and professional difficulties reasserted themselves. His drinking became an increasing problem, and he quarreled with friends and colleagues. Schwartz’s superb critical writing, like his poetry, began to decline, and he wrote fewer short stories. He died of a heart attack in one of the shabby hotels in midtown New York in July, 1966, leaving behind much unpublished and unfinished work. Some of that work has been collected, edited, and published by scholars and friends, many of whom still recognize the genius that was Delmore Schwartz.