American Culture

VerseDay: the myth of the genius lost…

nick_drake.jpg This starts with Nick Drake. I wrote a piece about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions and during the course of that piece bemoaned the Hall’s selection of Leonard Cohen when artists whom I felt were more deserving, such as Drake, were routinely ignored.

That got me thinking about Drake and I spent much of yesterday afternoon listening to his work to verify my claims of his artistic worthiness. Listening to Nick Drake, who died tragically young after having completed only three record albums, (yes, I know “record album” is an archaic term, but until we have a better one to describe a set of songs meant by the artist to be heard as a unified group, it’ll have to do) got me to thinking about our tendency to elevate artists who die young to a status of respect and admiration (even iconic devotion) above what their actual work justifies.

Since this is a VerseDay and not a TunesDay entry, I’ll leave musicians now (with only this aside – listening to Drake yesterday confirmed my correctness in castigating the R&R HOF for having selected Cohen rather than the worthier Drake).

Time to turn a critical eye on poets.

I’ll save the triumvirate of Romantic poets (Byron, Shelley, Keats) for later consideration and take a few minutes to look at a couple of other interesting cases. In the first, the poet died young and leaves work open to vigorous argument as to its merit. In the other, the poet “died” as a genuinely imaginative poet relatively young – although he lived many years and certainly received many honors – and wrote mostly mediocre poetry after the age of 37.

I’m talking about, of course, Thomas Chatterton and Willliam Wordsworth.

Those of you still awake at this point may never have heard of “Chatterton, the marvellous boy” as Wordsworth described him in one of his best poems, “Resolution and Independence.” Little wonder – Chatterton produced all his poetry under pseudonyms and committed suicide at 17. The Romantics thought this stuff was wonderful – but one has to ask if they were more swayed by Chatterton’s Werther like self-destruction in the name of art than by the quality of his work. Here’s a sample. Decide for yourself if this holds up to the masters mentioned above (and to the one not mentioned, Coleridge):

ON HAPPIENESSE

MAIE Selynesse on erthes boundes bee hadde?
Maie yt adyghte yn human shape bee founde?
Wote yee, ytt was wyth Edin’s bower bestadde,
Or quite eraced from the scaunce-layd grounde,
Whan from the secret fontes the waterres dyd abounde?
Does yt agrosed shun the bodyed waulke,
Lyve to ytself and to yttes ecchoe taulke?

All hayle, Contente, thou mayde of turtle-eyne,
As thie behoulders thynke thou arte iwreene,
To ope the dore to Selynesse ys thyne,
And Chrystis glorie doth upponne thee sheene.
Doer of the foule thynge ne hath thee seene;
In caves, ynn wodes, ynn woe, and dole distresse,
Whoere hath thee hath gotten Selynesse.

It’s slow going, to be sure. And the language, a sort of melange of sounds (one might even call it a melisma in its musicality) is interesting, to be sure. But a little of this goes a long way.

Chatterton, folks, seems a one trick pony.

Since he killed himself at 17, one can’t determine whether he’d have learned other tricks. A fascination with the antiquarian is one of the characteristics of the Romantic Period and explains why they’d embrace him. But it’s all he offers -that and his early self-destruction, another fascination of the Romantics (thanks, Goethe). Still, Chatterton’s is a name invoked ever since to allude to genius lost before its time. (Those so inclined can read more Chatterton here.)

That brings us to Wordsworth.

Most of us would agree that Wordsworth is one of the great poets in the English language. But in his case, an early, romantic demise like those of his younger contemporaries mentioned above would probably have been the best thing that could have happened to him. Wordsworth was born the year that Chatterton died (1770) and lived to be 80. Had he died in 1808, his reputation as a Romantic figure would be much enhanced. Almost nothing he wrote after 1807 is of any importance to his legacy as a poet.

By 1807 he’d completed all the good stuff: his great epic The Prelude, the poems in Lyrical Ballads, his master collection Poems in Two Volumes. In fact, from the best poems of that last book, the aforementioned “Resolution and Independence,” come the lines Wordsworth wrote about Chatterton that apply to his own career:

I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perish’d in its pride; . . .
By our own spirits are we deified;
We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.

There’s irony in those lines. Scholars believe Wordsworth had some sort of breakdown in the mid 1790’s – around the time he returned from his adventures in France and shortly before he began working with Coleridge – and perhaps came out of his mental distress around 1807 – and that “Resolution and Independence” is a statement of his being “cured.” That 12-15 year period of ‘divine madness” gave us some of the most moving poetry in the English language:

MY HEART LEAPS UP WHEN I BEHOLD

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

He would never write so well again, though he would live another 40+ years.

The crux of all this blather? Hell, I’m not sure I know. Perhaps we’ve been assessing variations on the choice of Achilles – live briefly and be forever remembered or live long and gradually become ordinary. Wordsworth himself seems to have sensed the nature of the problem:

What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

In the end, as Sterne warned us, maybe it’s all just a cock and bull.

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12 replies »

  1. Drake had 3 albums? I only knew of the one (Pink Moon).

    As far as the poetry, though, well, no comment. I know diddly-squat about romantic poets. Which is only a little less than what I know about any poet, for that matter.

  2. I think it was Rick Rubin who mentioned in an article in Esquire magazine that sometimes the effort to create something can kill you, (and I think that he was referring to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame) or something to that effect. Maybe there is something to it…

    Also, how are you doing Jim?

    Also, has anyone seen any black people around here lately? I’m taking a poll…

  3. Phil – I know of situations in prior work lives and from stories I’ve heard from co-workers about their prior jobs that there have been projects that measured “success” in the number of heart attacks they induced in the people working on them. And we’re not talking stuff like the Manhattan Project here, either.

    Scary.

  4. I first read this in a Ray Bradbury Short story, “There will come soft rains.” Turned me completely on to prose and the written word.

    “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
    And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
    And frogs in pools singing at night
    And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
    Robins will wear their feathery fire,
    Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
    And not one will know of the war, not one
    Will care at last when it is done.
    Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
    If mankind perished utterly;
    And spring herself, when she woke at dawn
    Would scarcely know that we were gone.”

  5. Phil,

    I’m wide awake in America, as the man said… 🙂 Hope you’re feeling fine.

    The poem you reference from “There Will Come Soft Rains” is by American poet Sara Teasdale. It was her poem that (partly) inspired Bradbury’s story. Literature is cool that way…. 😉

  6. Brian,

    Drake’s other two albums are FIVE LEAVES LEFT and BRYTER LAYTER. Both are excellent. He was a wonderful talent. I recommend both highly.

  7. Whatever else may be said, Chatterton was better at 17 than I was.

    This is an interesting phenomenon, Jim. In music we all-too-often fetishize “the early stuff,” perhaps because rock and roll (dare I use that term after yesterday’s ruckus with Brian?) is so much about youth, and perhaps in the 18th Century poetry was rock and roll.

    How many of our poetic legends were better as old men? Yeats is an interesting case, of course – his later stuff was sublime, although never quite as magical as his earlier poems conjuring the myth of Ireland’s past. Eliot? Thomas?

    Heck, I don’t know. I’m not one of our legendary poets, but I think everything I’ve written is better than what came before it. Great reflection, though. Keep ’em coming….

  8. Sam: I’d say this about you and Chatterton – you were different at 17. No one knows when the Muse Erato will “drop her drawers” as a waggish friend once described the coming of the poetic impulse. It happens differently for each. Our most sublime comic writer in American lit, Mark Twain, wrote progressively darker, more troubling stuff as he aged. Who says the old adage about youth being tragic and age comic holds true?

    One more thing – as I’ve told you many, many times before, whipper snapper – WE don’t get to decide if we’re great. Time, that cruel mistress, does that. I only hope that we get an acceptance letter in the great wherever we are… 🙂

  9. “WE don’t get to decide if we’re great. Time, that cruel mistress, does that.”

    Oh I don’t know, Sam and Jim are great to me.

    Thanks for the reference to the Poem too. The story was read to us in English class by our teacher. I ran up to her afterward and demanded who wrote it. I was hooked on Ray Bradbury and prose ver since.

    I also found that statement:

    “Making art is a mystical process-a lot of people who are artists don’t understand it themselves. Especially the young ones. They feel different, but they don’t know what it is. They feel more. Everything hurts. Everything. They’re super-sensitive. They see things that other people don’t see. It can be crippling. For someone like Kurt Cobain, it can kill you.”

    Rick Rubin, Record Producer, 43, Los Angeles, “What I’ve Learned”, ESQUIRE, “The Meaning of Life”, January 2007