The Road to Xanadu

As described in the early history of Eric Havelock and I.A. Richards, Havelock’s 1939 monograph The Lyric Genius of Catullus offers this remarkable observation on Virgil:

Virgil responded to [the novi poetae] readily, not only in his occasional pieces, but in his Ecologues and above all in the great episode of Orpheus and Eurydice which closes the Fourth Georgic. This tale of romantic regions under the sea, of passionate love and tragic separation, is too rarely recognized for what it is — an example of what the epyllion could become in Latin when handled with emotional sincerity and sure taste. Constructed on the sort of mechanical plan perfected by Callimachus, of a plot within a plot, (…), it yet manages to combine romantic mystery, prettiness, passion and pathos in a kind of literary tapestry. (172)

This passage is of great interest to readers of McLuhan in at least three respects.  In the first place, it broaches the topic of the epyllion in a monograph published by a University of Toronto classicist only a few years before McLuhan came to teach there in 1946. (And Havelock would follow this 1939 remark with a detailed study of epyllia in a UT publication in 1946, the very year of McLuhan’s arrival in Toronto.) This was a topic which would come to obsess McLuhan shortly thereafter.  As Marchand describes:

McLuhan’s conversational agenda was based on the themes that obsessed him. In 1948-49 Mallarme and the Symbolists were such a theme. Shortly thereafter and throughout the early fifties, he became fascinated with the epyllion, the little epic. McLuhan considered the essence of this literary form to consist of the interplay between plot and subplot and was convinced that in that interplay lay the secret to interpreting Western literature. He started, of course, to write a book on the subject — a book he was still working on a dozen or so years later. In the meantime, he began to spread the word about the epyllion through his personal network. (The Medium and the Messenger, 111)

Secondly, the epyllion form, the plot within a plot, is broached in the Catullus passage in specific regard to Virgil. Here again McLuhan would become fascinated and over the first decade of his career in Toronto would record in letters and essays his impressions from a series of Virgil and Virgil-related studies, all of which have to do with labyrinthine journeys in, variously, myth, dream, afterlife, initiation, caves, the underworld — and in artistic creation:

W.F. Jackson KnightCumaean Gates (1936) (mentioned by McLuhan in a letter to Ezra Pound, July 24, 1951, Letters 2281)

R.W. CruttwellVirgil’s Mind at Work (1947) (letter to Pound, July 24, 1951, Letters 228)

G.R. LevyThe Gate of Horn (1948), (mentioned in ‘Maritain on Art’, 1953; ‘Wyndham Lewis’, 1953; ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’, 1954; ‘The God-Making Machines of the Modern World’, 1954)

G.R. Levy, The Sword from the Rock (1953) (mentioned in ‘Introduction’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955)

Thirdly, Havelock specifies that this epyllion in Virgil concerns actions unfolding in “regions under the sea” — like Poe’s Maelstrom.

McLuhan’s second conversion brought him to a combination of these concerns with his contemporaneous discovery of communications through the work of Innis and, once again, Havelock2. It is the business of these Maelstrom posts to trace how this occurred. But this theme must also be threaded in the writings of Havelock, indeed even of I.A. Richards, because McLuhan’s awareness of the complex — the epyllion, Virgil, the labyrinth, Poe’s maelstrom, communications media — did not stem from The Lyric Genius of Catullus, but from Havelock’s subsequent development of it. And this development, it seems, transpired in interchange with Richards at Harvard.

That Havelock was continuing to consider the matter after his 1939 monograph was demonstrated in 1943 by a short contribution he made to The Classical Weekly (Vol. 36, No. 21, pp. 248-249), ‘Homer, Catullus and Poe’. Significantly, this piece begins:

Readers of [John Livingston] Lowes’ Road to Xanadu are aware that poets sometimes build highly imaginative structures out of miscellaneous materials recollected from the books they have read. Poe’s famous address To Helen seems to be a poem of this order.3

One particular reader of Lowes’ Road to Xanadu was either already in communication with Havelock at that time or very soon would be. This was I.A. Richards at Harvard. And it may be, indeed, that Havelock’s notice of Lowes was brought about through Richards.  For Richards had dealt at length with Lowes’ study in his 1934 Coleridge on Imagination and had been a colleague of Lowes in the Harvard english department since Richards’ arrival there in 1939.

In 1946 Havelock became a guest lecturer at Harvard which would then lead to a full-time appointment in 1947.  The arrangements for this guest lectureship would have been started a year or two earlier, of course, so in 1944, perhaps, conceivably even in 1943. It could be that Havelock had made an appeal to Richards (whom he may have met or even come to know in England at Cambridge in the twenties) because he was increasingly unhappy with his lack of advancement at Toronto and with the resulting financial situation this entailed for him and his wife and their family of three children.4 Or the impetus may have come from the Harvard side and Richards may have had a role in the recruitment process.

In any case, the known facts are these:

a) Richards, who was 10 years older than Havelock, was an influential lecturer in Cambridge while Havelock was a student there between 1922 and 1926

b) Havelock’s 1943 note in the Classical Weekly begins “Readers of Lowes’ Road to Xanadu are aware…”

c) Lowes had been an emeritus colleague of Richards in the English department at Harvard since Richards’s arrival in 1939

d) Richards had treated Lowes‘ 1927 Road to Xanadu at length (in a discussion taking more than 10% of the book) in his 1934 Coleridge on Imagination

e) Havelock would further develop his analysis of the epyllion in a considerable 3-part 1946/1947 essay, ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu‘, for which Lowes was the explicit inspiration and in which Havelock would cite Richards

f) Havelock would join Richards at Harvard in 1946 as a guest-lecturer and in 1947 in a full-time appointment

g) Richards would cite Havelock by name and discuss his orality/literacy work in a BBC broadcast in 1947

h) Harold Innis, in a letter to Frank Knight from May 21, 1951, discussing the problem of “understanding other cultures” would mention in successive sentences Richards’ Mencius on Mind and Havelock’s work on the Greeks — presumably Havelock had suggested Richards’ work to Innis

i) Havelock’s family would become close with Richards and his wife during their common time at Harvard, 1947-1961 

j) Havelock would contribute to the 1973 Festschrift for Richards with a lecture first given in Toronto in 1946 and would dedicate it to “Ivor Richards, revered friend and former colleague, who in all that he has taught and written has held a lamp for us to see by”.

Research in the records of the Harvard classics department and in the Eric Havelock papers at Yale might be able to specify the exact sequence of events here. For the purpose of understanding McLuhan’s second conversion, however, the important point is only that he seems to have started reading Richards again — more than a decade after initially reading him and hearing his lectures in Cambridge (UK) — about the time that he was coming under the influence of Innis and Havelock (who was then in close contact with Richards) and at the same time that McLuhan was coming loose from Leavis. His second conversion might be thought of, then, as a reversion via Havelock from Leavis to Richards, if not in the answers he was to find, at least in the questions he would investigate.

By the time of his 1957 essay ‘Coleridge As Artist’, at any rate, McLuhan had certainly reread Richards’ Coleridge on Imagination and, along with it, Lowes’ Road to Xanadu (which is cited twice in the essay).  But although seemingly never mentioned by McLuhan5 (always pending further findings, of course), the great likelihood (as will be detailed in further posts) is that he was put on this path that would be his life’s work, sometime around 1950, by Havelock’s essay ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’6, perhaps in combination with Havelock’s unpublished 1949 lecture, ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land‘.

  1. The editorial notes to this letter mistakenly refer to Knight’s 1939 Accentual Symmetry in Vergil. McLuhan mentions the cumaean gates again in another letter to Pound on July 16, 1952, Letters 231.
  2. It is very much of an understatement to call Havelock in regard to McLuhan ‘a University of Toronto classicist’ who happened to be active there for almost two decades up to the time of McLuhan’s arrival. Nor is it correct to limit Havelock’s direct or indirect influence on McLuhan to his work on media. Instead, Havelock (along with Eliot, Pound and Richards) may have shown McLuhan how to study literary works as a multilevel compositions in which horizontal and vertical labyrinths were of critical note.
  3. McLuhan, still in St Louis, was also working on Poe at just this same time.  His essay ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ was published in The Sewanee Review in 1944.
  4. A remarkable letter in the UT archives from Havelock to Innis, dated April 26, 1946, asks for Innis’ help in dealing with a “crippling” problem with the Canadian income tax authorities.
  5. Even Havelock seems to have felt that McLuhan went overboard in crediting the importance of Preface to Plato for his work. But this might have been a sign of an earlier and more profound unacknowledged debt?
  6. ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’: (1) The poet of the Orpheus-fantasy, Phoenix, Vol. 1, No. 1 pp. 3-8, 1946; (2) The Laboratory of a Poet’s Mind, Phoenix, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 2-7, 1946; (3) The Waters of the Great World, Phoenix, Supplement to Volume One, pp. 9-18, 1947.