The Daemon and the Prig, by the Man Who Saw the Torturer's Horse


Daniel Maclise, Scene from ‘Twelfth Night’ (‘Malvolio and the Countess’), c. 1840

by Emma Darwin

I’ve stumbled on something that Auden wrote to an aspiring teenage poet, John Cornford:

The real problem though for you as for every other writer… is that of the Daemon and the Prig. Real poetry originates in the guts and only flowers in the head. But one is always trying to reverse the process and work one’s guts from one’s head. Just when the Daemon is going to speak the Prig claps his hand over his mouth and edits it.

The idea of the daemon and the prig is of course at the root of the ideas of Shitty First Draft, NaNoWriMo and the like. And I doubt if by Prig Auden means only social propriety or even (more likely in Cornford’s case) Marxist propriety: I’m sure he also means the kind of Writing Prig who tells you that you shouldn’t use Y, or that in a certain genre you must do X, and above all you mustn’t Get It Wrong. Of course those may be true, but Auden’s point is that it’s too early to know. You need to open the doors (“dip the bucket down into the well of the subconscious,” said E M Forster) and try to write the force, as well as the facts, of what the Daemon has fetched up from the underworld.

Writers, it seems to me, take the gut stuff as much for granted as they do their arms and ears. Yes, a seed has its own potential and its own limits, but to us what’s interesting is what we do with it: how we get it to flower – germinating, pricking out, fertilising, pruning, dead-heading, and if all else fails, transplanting. (Non-writers, journalists and literary biographers are more interested in the gut stuff: where in our real lives the stories come from. At least, they think are, but if you can find ways of talking about what you did in a way which makes sense, non-writers are interested.)

When Auden says that you can’t (or shouldn’t?) “reverse the process”, that’s important too: an understanding of form will not make a real poem any more than an understanding of how Romance works as a genre will make a real novel: I’m talking about real art, here. But notice that Auden doesn’t say that real poetry is purely the product of the guts either, as in my grumpier moments I tend to feel non-writers believe. It flowers, says Auden, in the head. Indeed, the letter also says,

you might do more with stricter verse forms. I think it is easier to find what it is that you want to say… the very nature of the form forces the mind to think rather than recollect.

This reminds me of Roethke talking about form as a sieve to catch certain kinds of meaning. In other words the poem or story will flower only if you work consciously, perhaps using something as impersonal and mathematical as verse forms. It’s that work which will lead you to finding what the poem’s really about, sending little assistant daemons scurrying back to the underworld to find more stuff.

The thing about prigs, though, is that they’re often right: if they weren’t we wouldn’t be annoyed by them. Perhaps a prig is only an Inner Editor who’s come in to work too early, while the daemons are still there. But the thing which separates a well-executed womag story or commercial thriller from the same subjects and forms as handled by Ali Smith or Graham Greene – the thing which turns craft into art – is the way that the artist uses their own, unique sensibility – their daemon – to inform a work of art which then somehow speaks to the universal sensibility – the “universal wound”, as Raymond Tallis puts it. Well-executed craft uses a bit of daemon and a lot of prig, and most beginner writers are all daemon and no prig. But anyone who’s serious about real writing is surely trying to strengthen and develop both daemon and prig. And above all, we need to learn when to leash and unleash the daemon, and when to muzzle and un-muzzle the prig.

An Archeo Daemon, Final Fantasy V, Square, 1992 

Piece originally posted on Emma Darwin’s Blog | Creative Commons License