A Source for A. M. Klein's "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens"

by Zailig Pollock

In the course of preparing critical notes for an edition of the complete poetry of A. M. Klein (to be co-edited with Seymour Mayne), I came across a volume from Klein's personal library1 which was obviously the major source for "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens": The Philosophy of Spinoza Selected from His Chief Works, edited by Joseph Ratner (New York: The Modern Library, 1927). The two introductory essays by Ratner, "The Life of Spinoza" and "Introduction to the Philosophy of Spinoza," contain many markings and a few annotations in Klein's handwriting, and it is no exaggeration to say that every detail concerning Spinoza's life and philosophy in Klein's poem derives from these two essays, in most cases from the marked passages.

     Klein appears to have gone through Ratner's essays at least twice since there are two distinct sets of markings, one in pencil and another (less numerous) in pen. It is impossible to say which set of markings is earlier but passages from both sets are incorporated into the poem. With two exceptions (noted below), the volume contains no verbal comments; Klein limited himself to underlinings or marginal markings opposite passages that interested him (vertical lines, check marks, NB, Imp).

     Although I was at first disappointed by the lack of detailed verbal annotation, I soon realized that Klein's markings are, in fact, of unusual interest. Firstly, the very fact that they exist establishes Ratner's edition, beyond any reasonable doubt, as a source for "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens," and allows us to use it, with some confidence, to sharpen and test our perceptions of the poem. Specifically, comparisons with the edition, and especially with its marked passages, allow us, on the one hand, to clarify certain obscurities and, on the other, to deepen our appreciation of Klein's art as we observe him transforming Ratner's serviceable but pedestrian prose into poetry of great beauty.

     Klein's markings are useful in another way as well. It seems to me that they provide strong evidence (if only of a negative kind) that Klein had very little knowledge of or interest in Spinoza's philosophy, apart from what he could make use of, as a poet, in one particular poem. Klein's verbal comments on Ratner's introduction to Spinoza's philosophy are neither numerous nor particularly impressive. He comments on a discussion of the compatibility of Spinozaism and Darwinism: "But Spinoza makes nature perfect not evolutionary" (xliv), and his note on a discussion of free will and determinism is "Boloney!" (xli). That's it. Even more revealing is the fact that, if the markings are any guide, Klein appears not even to have bothered to read through the passages from Spinoza selected by Ratner. The 376 page selection of Spinoza's writings contains precisely two markings (of no particular interest) on adjacent pages (88-89) in the chapter "Of the Ceremonial Law." By contrast, the 16 pages of Ratner's "Life of Spinoza" contain 16 markings and the 44 pages of his "Introduction to the Philosophy of Spinoza" contain 37. There is no way of proving, of course, that Klein did not actually read Spinoza either in Ratner's edition or in some other book which we do not know about. But those who would argue that he did must now prove that "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens" (or any other work by Klein) contains information about Spinoza not available in Ratner's two essays.

     If Klein was, in fact, not very interested in Spinoza's philosophy why did he write a poem about him? Klein's interest in Spinoza was probably aroused by the approaching tercentenary of his birth in 1632.3  Out of curiosity he turned to Ratner's recently published "popularization" (Ratner's term, v) and found the account of Spinoza's life and (to a lesser extent) philosophy strikingly relevant to his own central concern, specifically his concern with the role of the creative individual, possessed of a unifying harmonious vision, in a hostile or indifferent society. Hence Klein's emphasis on the episode of Spinoza's excommunication, which raises this concern in the starkest terms. The young poet's identification with the young philosopher at the time of his excommunication is obvious: Klein was twenty-two when the poem was first published; in Ratner he read (and noted in the margin) that Spinoza was excommunicated when he was "barely twenty-four" (xvi).

     Klein's borrowings from Ratner are, for the most part, straightforward. In almost all cases, we can point to specific passages in the poem (lines, stanzas, or sections) as having drawn on some concept or bit of information in Ratner. Such cases are listed below. There is one very important exception, however, which influenced, not a specific passage, but the overall conceptual structure of the poem as a whole. In his poem, Klein is concerned with placing Spinoza in a social context, and he does so by playing him off against three distinct social types. These three types, and their relationship with each other and with Spinoza himself, establish a pattern which is fully elaborated for the first time in "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens" and thereafter remains remarkably invariant through the rest of Klein's career. In the poem, the three types are represented by "the paunchy sons of Abraham" in section i, Uriel da Costa in section ii, and Shabbathai Zvi in section ix. "The paunchy sons of Abraham" represent society as a whole. They are a timid unadventuresome lot who feel threatened by any signs of genuine creativity and respond to it with rigid intolerance. Uriel da Costa represents the pathetic self-divided minority who are repelled by the values of their society, which heartily despises them in turn, but are unable to create new values themselves, and are tortured by a desire for acceptance. Shabbathai Zvi represents the opportunistic demagogue who is seen by society as a saviour, but who, in fact, is no more than an "echo of their own wishes," to paraphrase Klein's account of another demagogue ("Political Meeting"), exploiting the fears and frustrated desires of those who worship him. Klein's choice and treatment of this set of representative figures was undoubtedly influenced by a paragraph in Ratner in which they are presented in the same order as in the poem and characterized in identical ways. It is worth noting that although the link between Spinoza and da Costa is a commonplace which Klein could have come across anywhere, this is certainly not true of Ratner's link between Spinoza and Shabbathai Zvi. I quote the paragraph in its entirety:

It was inevitable that the intellectual life of the Jews of Amsterdam should bear the marks of their inner and outer social constraints. Their intellectual life was cramped and ineffectual. Indiscriminate erudition, not independent thought, was all the Jewish leaders, connected in one way or another with the Synagogue, were able to achieve. It was far safer to cling to the innocuous past than it was to strike out boldly into the future. Any independence of thought that was likely to prove socially dangerous as well as schismatic was promptly suppressed. The humiliation and excommunication (circa 1640) of the indecisive martyr Uriel da Costa when he ventured to entertain doctrines that were not orthodox, were prompted as much by political as by religious considerations. It is true, many of the faithful were attracted by Cabbalistic wonders and the strange hope of being saved from a bitter exile by a Messianic Sabbatai Zevi. But these wayward deviations, in reality not so very far removed from orthodox tradition, exhibited only the more clearly the fearsome inner insecurity which a strained formalism in thought and habit bravely attempted to cover. (xii; marginal marking opposite second and third sentences)

     Most of the passages cited in the following list are marked by Klein, but in some cases I have cited unmarked passages when their relevance to the poem seems particularly obvious. Identification of passages in the poem is by section and line number and is keyed to the most accessible version, in the Collected Poems of A. M. Klein, edited by Miriam Waddington (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1974), pp. 128-132.

Title   Polished Lens
     "He took up the trade of polishing lenses as a means of earning his simple bread." (xvii). Klein may have been inspired to use Spinoza's lens polishing as the central metaphor for his poem by the epigraph to Ratner cited from Heine: "All our modern philosophers though often perhaps unconsciously, see through the glasses which Baruch Spinoza ground." (underlined)

Section i.3   Baruch alias Benedict
     ". . .he changed his name from Baruch to Benedict, quite confident one can be as blessed in Latin as in Hebrew." (xvii; marginal marking)

Section i.l3-14   ram's horn. . .breath
     "Spinoza found himself cut off from the race of Israel with all the prescribed curses of excommunication upon his head." (xvi; marginal marking)

Section i.l7-19   Nothing. . .stiletto
     ". . .an attempt had been made by one of the over-righteous upon Spinoza's life soon after he became an object of official displeasure." (xvi-xvii)

Section iii.4-8   Banish. . .purse
     "Report has it. . .they offered Spinoza an annuity of 1,000 florins if he would, in all overt ways, speech and action, conform to the established opinions and customs of the Synagogue; or, if he did not see the wisdom and profit of compliance, they threatened to isolate him by excommunication. . . . Their experience with Uriel da Costa was still very fresh in their minds and they must have felt fairly confident that Spinoza would be warned by the fate of his heretical predecessor. . . ." (xvi)

Section iv
     "Instead of maintaining that God. . .has absolute, irresponsible control of a universe which is external to him — the rather rude anthropomorphic account of the ultimate nature of the universe contained in the Bible — Spinoza maintains that God. . .must be and act according to external and necessary laws." (xxiii; NB in margin)

Section v.1-2   Reducing providence to theorems. . .like proving two and two make four
     "Man, Spinoza held, is a part of Nature and Nature is governed by external and immutable laws. It must be just as possible, therefore, to apply the mathematical method to man, as it is to apply it to matter." (xxviii; marginal marking)

Section v.1   The horrible atheist
     ". . .a rumor spread that he had in press a book proving that God does not exist." (xix; marginal marking)

Section v.9   passion intellectual of God
     "The highest virtue of the mind, therefore, the highest blessedness of man, consists in the intellectual love of Nature or God." (lx)

Section vi
     "We find in him. . .an utter reliance upon the powers of the human mind." (xxxii)

Section vii.7   these miracles
     "For Spinoza. . .miracles, did they actually occur, would exhibit not God's power but His impotence. The omnipotence of the one absolutely infinite Being is not shown by temperamental interruptions of the course of events; it is manifested in the immutable and necessary laws by which all things come to pass." (xxxiv; NB in margin)

Section viii
     "Whatever is, is one." (xxiii; marginal marking); "...we can apprehend the infinite essence of God or Nature because every particular finite thing is a determinate expression of the infinite. . . . Thus from the comprehension of any particular thing, we can pass to a comprehension of the infinite and eternal." (lxi-lxii)

Section viii.1-2   petty words. . .a fragment
     ". . .man is, cosmically considered, impressively insignificant...an infinitely small part of absolutely infinite Nature. . .a very tiny expression of infinite life." (lxiii)

Section viii.3   thou art the world
     "God is identical with the universe." (xxxiii; NB in margin)

Section ix
     For the central contrast in this section between the false bridegroom and the faithful "ever-unwedded lover": "Natural love, or love free from all ceremonial coercions, is not merely not a questionable source of marital happiness: it is the only source. The ceremonial law, the legal or religious marriage custom, has nothing whatsoever to do with human happiness." (liii; marginal marking)

Section ix.7-8   forgetting / Dutchmen and Rabbins
     "For the rest of his life, whenever he had occasion to refer to the Jews, Spinoza referred to them as he did to Gentiles — a race to which he did not belong." (xvii)

Section ix.8   consumptive
     ". . .the fine dust he ground. . .aggravated his inherited tuberculosis and undoubtedly considerably hastened his death." (xvii-xviii; marginal marking)


  1. Unfortunately, much of Klein's library has been dispersed and is probably untraceable. However a substantial number of volumes, many with markings and annotations, are still in the possession of Klein's sons Colman and Sandor. I am grateful to them for permission to examine these volumes and to make use of them in my research. I would also like to thank Usher Caplan for the use of his catalogue of Klein's library.[back]

  2. G. K. Fischer in In Search of Jerusalem: Religion and Ethics in the Writing of A. M. Klein (Montreal and London: McGill-Queens University Press, 1975) argues that Klein's discovery of Spinoza was a crucial event in his intellectual and spiritual development, and that Spinoza's influence continued to be central in one form or another throughout Klein's career (see especially Chapter 2, "Spinoza, Enthusiasm, and Disillusionment in the 1930s, pp. 35-76). I find Fischer's arguments unconvincing. In the first place Fischer is unable to show evidence of Klein's familiarity with any aspect of Spinoza's philosophy, apart from his pantheism, and Klein's version of this pantheism is so vague as to be undistinguishable from Cabalism, Hasidism or, for that matter, the Romanticism of Wordsworth or Whitman. In the second place, as far as I am aware, Klein never again shows any interest in Spinoza after completing "Out of the Pulver and the Polished Lens." He did make revisions to the poem in his copy of Hath Not a Jew. . . (Klein Papers, Public Archives of Canada MS2744), including replacing section vii with "Spinoza: On Man, on the Rainbow," but to me this indicates Klein's interest in his poem rather than in Spinoza's philosophy. No doubt there may be scattered references to Spinoza in Klein's voluminous writings which I have missed. But it is significant (though not, of course, conclusive) that the index to Beyond Sambation: Selected Essays and Editorials 1928-1965, edited by M. W. Steinberg and Usher Caplan (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982) contains not a single reference to Spinoza while there are references to many other Jewish thinkers of one sort or another, such as Einstein, Freud, Achad Ha'am, Heine, Herzl.[back]

  3. "Spinoza had become a kind of hero to many secularist Jews, and was enjoying a vogue on the eve of his 300th anniversary in 1932." Usher Caplan, "A. M. Klein: An Introduction." Ph.D. dissertation. State University of New York at Sunnybrook, 1976, p. 48.[back]

  4. "The persistence of this pattern is particularly striking in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape" in which "the paunchy sons of Abraham" become "our real society"; Uriel da Costa becomes the false poets ("schism" is the key word for da Costa, "schizoid" for the false poets); Shabbathai Zvi becomes the "impostor"; and Spinoza becomes, of course, the poet. For a discussion of the Shabbathai Zvi/Spinoza opposition throughout Klein's works see my article, "Sunflower Seeds: Klein's Hero and Demagogue," Canadian Literature 82 (Autumn 1979), 48-58.[back]