Published Humanitas, Volume VIII, No. 2, 1995
Tide and Continuities: Last and First Poems 1995-1938, by Peter Viereck. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1995. xix + 320 pp. $36 cloth. $20 paper.
In Tide and Continuities, Peter Viereck shows himself to be a formidable philosophical poet of the sort that Santayana had in mind in Three Philosophical Poets (Lucretius, Dante, and Goethe). His cosmic drama is in the form of extended meditative dialogues on death and dying carried through a series of long and ambitious poems, in which the figures (voices) of Dionysus, Persephone, and Pluto are metaphors that enlighten, rather than transmute, the perspective of an uneasily but deeply held belief in the finitude of individuated human consciousness. Viereck is a civilized humanist, just like Babbitt, Ortega, and Santayana (writers whom Viereck likes to cite in his prose works), but he is of a later generation that was tempered by World War II and turned existentialist. In an important sense, Peter Viereck is a civilized existentialist.
Now we find him in the first poem in the book, “At My Hospital Window,” near death and suffering from a critical illness, confined to hospital, and hooked up to medical contraptions and pumped full of medicines. Yet he has written long, demanding, and complex philosophical poems in genial voices that go beyond anything that he has done before in their sustained concentration and thematic depth. It is as though his illness liberated poetic powers in Viereck, that it convinced him not to hold back anything, to go for all he could get before it was too late. In the process, he has given us a compelling myth structure through which to think through our own encounters with finitude grasped from within our personal awareness. There is a poetry of the technological hospital and Viereck has written it. Viereck, ever audacious, gives us an account of the poet’s dying and, in consequence, of what our own might be if we could pull it off.
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