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.
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):
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.
Categories: American Culture