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Tag: W.B Yeats

Alfred Lord Tennyson: A poet who miraculously turned “twilight into flakes of fire”

Alfred Lord Tennyson strikes an imposing figure. Ensconced in a loosely fitting morning coat, with a fluid raven mane, a pineal beard, an aquiline face and a nose that could plough icebergs, he had all the bearings of a Victorian bard. He also had all the credentials. Tennyson began writing poetry as a child. Aged 12 he penned a 6,000 line epic in the style of Sir Walter Scott, a few years later a precocious verse-drama, The Devil and the Lady. It fact, the writing never ceased even when he failed to publish anything for over a decade. Born on 6th August 1809 in Somersby, Lincolnshire, Tennyson was the sixth of 12 siblings. His home-life was characterised by strife, family feuds, poverty and an iconoclastic, chronically-drunk and eventually-mad father. In 1827, Tennyson left for Trinity College, Cambridge, and a year later together with his brother Charles published a collection of juvenilia called Poems by Two Brothers. A couple years on another collection, Chiefly Lyrical, followed. Tennyson’s early forays into poetry attracted the attention of an undergraduate literary group, The Apostles, headed by Arthur Henry Hallam. The two formed a filial bond and later journeyed across Europe together in 1830 and again in 1832. Hallam’s sudden death in 1833 from a cerebral haemorrhage affected Tennyson so profoundly that “for the next 10 years he published no book, had no regular occupation, drank port, smoked strong tobacco and was poor and unhappy.” After this interlude, Tennyson began writing In Memoriam, his most distinguished work commemorating his friend. It took him nearly 20 years, earned him many accolades and made him a potentate of Victorian verse. Writing about Tennyson, in a critique entitled Essays Ancient and Modern T.S. Eliot said that Tennyson had “three qualities which are seldom found together except in the greatest poets: abundance, variety and complete competence”. Samuel Coleridge Taylor praised Tennyson’s work for its “great deal of beauty”.  While Thomas Carlyle speaking of him in a letter to Waldo Ralph Emerson said: “Alfred is one of the few British or Foreign Figures who are and remain beautiful to me; a true human soul, or some authentic approximation thereto, to whom your own soul can say, Brother! One of the finest looking men in the world. His voice is musical metallic – fit for loud laugher and piercing wail, and all that may lie between; speech and speculation, free and plenteous.” Others, however, have been less kind.  W. H. Auden said that Tennyson “had the finest ear, perhaps, of any English poet” but “was also undoubtedly the stupidest,” while George Bernard Shaw quipped that Tennyson had the “brains of a third-rate policeman.” As with any writer Tennyson’s merits are debatable, but for me he has always been someone whom I admired.

In 1850, at the age of 41, Tennyson succeeded William Wordsworth as the Poet Laureate. He held the tenure for over 50 years until his death – longer than any other Laureate before or after. Tennyson was a commanding figure with a calliopean voice which demanded attention when he spoke and captivated everyone when he did. Highly popular in his own lifetime, Tennyson was often referred to as “the Poet of the People,” celebrated for reflecting the mind of an entire nation. This has more recently counted against him but In Memoriam remains one of the most memorable elegies in the English language. So much so that one of the lines (“Tis better to have loved and lost/Than never to have loved at all”) from the poem has become indelibly engrained in our collective consciousness and vernacular. Writing about In Memoriam Tennyson himself said: “It is rather the cry of the whole human race than mine. In the poem altogether private grief swells out into thought of, and hope for, the whole world. It begins with a funeral and ends with a marriage—begins with death and ends in promise of a new life—a sort of Divine Comedy, cheerful at the close.” Remarkably, In Memoriam does veer, as Tennyson says, between extremes giving the reader a chance to really contemplate a whole spectrum of emotional logic. But it also offers more than that, as W.B. Yeats once noted it is abundant with “scientific and moral discursiveness” corresponding exactly with Tennyson’s age, which the poet captures masterfully.

I was slowly making my way through In Memoriam when a friend bought me a copy of Tennyson: An Introduction and A Selection prefaced and chosen by Auden. Writing about his subject Auden is both praiseworthy and vituperative, fluctuating between the two without suspiring. His choice of Tennyson’s work is, however, very well considered and contains some of my favourite poems. At one point Auden suggests that “the feelings which his gift revealed to Tennyson were almost entirely those of lonely terror and desire for death.” He is indeed right as most of Tennyson’s verse revolves around those themes, for example in The Lady of Shallot, Tennyson says: “Heard a carol, mournful, holy/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly/Till her blood was frozen slowly/And her eyes were darkened wholly/Turn’d to tower’d Camelot/For ere she reach’d upon the tide/The first house by the water-side/Singing in her song she died/The Lady of Shalott.” In The Vision of Sin, he describes death as “King.” And although Tennyson most frequently refers to death in a grave and foreboding manner, he is also occasionally flippant. In the same poem speaking on the subject, he says: “Tell me tales of thy first love/April hopes, the fools of chance/Till the graves begin to move/And the dead begin to dance.” Death is omnipresent in most of Tennyson’s work, and one of my favourite poems in this vein is The Eagle, where Tennyson illustrates self-sacrifice with moving minimalism: “He clasps the crag with crooked hands/Close to the sun in lonely lands/Ringed with the azure world, he stands/The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls/He watches from his mountain walls/And like a thunderbolt he falls.” Tennyson had a vibrant imagination, a robust symbolic facility and a melodic grasp of metre. But he could also be somewhat slapdash due to his intense and lingering feelings of melancholia. Carlyle observed it best in his letter to Emerson, when he said that Tennyson was a “solitary and sad” man forever “dwelling in an element of gloom” and “carrying a bit of chaos about him”.

The remarks about Tennyson’s character reflect the overall nature of his work. And nowhere more so than in In Memoriam, which is characterised by simple meditations on simple themes or as Auden put it “human emotions in their most primitive states”.  By and large, Auden thought that Tennyson’s poetry lacked sophistication, syntactical complexities and lexical intricacies, which to my mind does not detract from either the profundity or gravitas of his verse. Tennyson shows great technical ability in Morte d’Arthur by reconstructing chivalric themes while also developing his own epic repertory in all its varied moods and cadences, from ballad metre to blank verse, in lines such as: “To me, methought, who waited with a crowd/There came a bark that, blowing forward, bore/King Arthur, like a modern gentleman/Of stateliest port; and all the people cried/”Arthur is come again: he cannot die”/Then those that stood upon the hills behind/Repeated–“Come again, and thrice as fair”/And, further inland, voices echoed/”Come With all good things, and war shall be no more’.” He also demonstrates his lyrical proficiency in one of Hallam’s favourite poems, Recollections of the Arabian Nights, by unifying individuation with the imagination in a way that makes a significant statement about harmonising different experiences in art. He reveals himself to be wholly committed to the humanistic cause, rather than nature, which shows a departure from the Romantic tradition. The poem displays Tennyson at his consummate best, especially in the following stanza:“Dark-blue the deep sphere overhead/Distinct with vivid stars inlaid/Grew darker from that under-flame/So, leaping lightly from the boat/With silver anchor left afloat/In marvel whence that glory came/Upon me, as in sleep I sank/In cool soft turf upon the bank/Entranced with that place and time/So worthy of the golden prime/Of good Haroun Alraschid.”

Hallam, who wrote about Tennyson before his death, is now considered one of Tennyson’s best critics. In his account Hallam, outlined “five distinctive excellences” in Tennyson’s work: the control of a fertile imagination, an equilibrium in “moods of character” so that the narration and feeling correlate, skill in fusing a vivid portrayal of objects, modulation of verbal harmony and a melancholy “soberness of tone”. In a letter to William Gladstone, Hallam consolidated his opinion about the budding poet by saying: “I consider Tennyson to be as promising fair the greatest poet of our generation, perhaps of our century.” Tennyson saw in Hallam what he thought he himself lacked, a seemingly superlative man of worldliness, ideas and concupiscent yearnings. But in fact Hallam’s physical and mental travails were the elements that fortified the relationship between the two men. Bound by their respective solemnity and pyrrhonism, they felt reassured by one another in their mutuality. In a poem called Merlin and the Gleam Tennyson describes Hallam as “The friend who loved me/And heard my counsel.” But the most heartfelt descriptions are In Memoriam where Tennyson refers to Hallam as a kindred spirit and asseverates: “My Arthur, whom I shall not see/Till all my widow’d race be run/Dear as the mother to the son/More than my brothers are to me.” And a few lines later forswears that his love for his friend will not diminish: “Still onward winds the dreary way/I with it; for I long to prove/No lapse of moons can canker Love/Whatever fickle tongues may say.”

It is impossible to overlook Tennyson’s posthumous royal shadow or his influence on poetry. To this day, he remains one of few English poets who could sustain a Hellenic style in both the pastoral and the elegiac. Tennyson was an astonishingly complicated man, admired and liked by a wide group of acquaintances, eclectic in artistic endeavours and intense in his passions. In Memoriam reflects much of this, and  is yet both grand and accessible, two qualities which are rarely found in one work. The opening two stanzas of In Memoriam reveal a more cynical side to Tennyson’s pious Victorian persona. His tone in speaking about religion seems questioning and somehow almost laodicean when he says:  “Strong Son of God, immortal Love/Whom we, that have not seen thy face/By faith, and faith alone, embrace/Believing where we cannot prove.” A couple of lines down, he depicts the cruelty of the Almighty in the closing lines: Thine are these orbs of light and shade/Thou madest Life in man and brute/Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot/Is on the skull which thou hast made.” The poem showcases Tennyson’s ability to embody himself in moods of character, with great accuracy of adjustment so that the circumstances of the narration seem to have a natural correspondence with the predominant feeling. It also demonstrates his picturesque delineation of objects, and the peculiar skill with which he holds all of them fused in a medium of strong impression. In Memoriam contains a variety of his lyrical measures, and exquisite modulation of harmonious words and rhythms to the swell and fall of the feelings expressed in lines such as: “Let Love clasp Grief lest both be drown’d/Let darkness keep her raven gloss/Ah, sweeter to be drunk with loss/To dance with death, to beat the ground,” and “I  sometimes hold it half a sin/To put in words the grief I feel/For words, like Nature, half reveal/And half conceal the Soul within,” or “My own dim life should teach me this/That life shall live for evermore/Else earth is darkness at the core/And dust and ashes all that is.”

In Memoriam offers a maudlin soberness replete with grief, love, beauty. The elegiac leitmotif is encapsulated lucidly if somewhat reticently in the following lines, when thinking of Hallam Tennyson says: “Dark house, by which once more I stand/Here in the long unlovely street/Doors, where my heart was used to beat/So quickly, waiting for a hand/A hand that can be clasp’d no more—/Behold me, for I cannot sleep/And like a guilty thing I creep/At earliest morning to the door/He is not here; but far away/The noise of life begins again/And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain/On the bald street breaks the blank day.” One of Auden’s key grumbles about Tennyson’s poetry is the fact that “there was little about melancholia that he didn’t know; there was little else he did.” Thus Auden concludes that Tennyson’s single minded preoccupation is one of the reasons his poetry is “bad” to the point of obscurantism. But I daresay that range does not qualify the poet’s abilities. Auden of all people should have known that having had an immense range and a lot of dross to show for it. Perhaps mine is an overly simple view but I think that a poet’s puissance is measured by the emotion his work solicits from the reader since poetry is as Lawrence Durrell once said the “science of the heart’s affections” and going by that definition Tennyson is a master of that science who miraculously turned “twilight into flakes of fire” without burning the parchment.

Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop: “Together till life’s end”

It must be almost five years ago that I read Robert Lowell’s letters, and ever since then I have been meaning to read his complete correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop. I was given Words in Air several years ago for my birthday and only just recently finished the colossal tome. It is now impossible, at least for me, to think of one poet  without the other, or write about them in that vein, as their friendship, which lasted three decades, survived wars, revolutions, failed marriages, breakdowns and supernumerary love affairs and influenced both their lives and their work more than any of the other tribulations. The two were bound by an ineffaceable connection fortified by a “love that was more than love”, which Lowell once surmised in a letter by saying: “You and I are simply one”. Albeit their love never took form in a physical sense, Bishop was the only constant female fixture throughout Lowell’s life, and for his part, he envisaged the two of them together, “till life’s end”.

Many have viewed Bishop’s life and career, independently of Lowell, through her longstanding relationship with Lota Soares, her “secret problem” with drink, and “the smallest of oeuvres”, a mere 70 poems which saw her status elevated to one of the greatest “20th-century poets” on par with the likes of “T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Wallace Stevens and W.H. Auden”. Even more ascribed this framework of interpretation to Lowell, whose canon burgeoned with fervid alacrity and gathered readership with every volume while Bishop’s remained exclusive compendious and obscure. But for me the two poets have almost always been intrinsically linked together, not only through a lifetime of letters and personal histories but also by an incomparable “conjunction of the minds,” parallel and infinite. Bishop was an alcoholic, Lowell a manic depressive; both were consumed by their craft and an unshakable “dry loneliness,” often finding solace in one another and the thought of freeing themselves from the manacles of social-reality and people’s “universal good-will” by fleeing to Paris or Italy to spend their “declining years”.

The two wrote to one another with great verbal finesse and enthusiasm, whether about their mutual friends, commenting on the deeds and misdeeds of Marianne Moore, Randall Jarrell, Ezra Pound, Allan Tate, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas and many others; their work and intertwining artistic endeavours; their lives tinctured by disorder and early sorrows, and everything from the profound to the everyday. Lowell always had the capacity to incite antagonism in orthodox strongholds but was a brilliant, indefatigable, talker and incredibly amusing despite his obdurate frankness. His letters are full of incisive wit, elation, ecstasy, disillusionment, despair, sympathies and admonitions, genuinely vernal raptures, occasional bouts of malice and capricious episodic ellipses, transections, changes of tempo and grammatical errors. Lowell begins one letter with the following: “I was just making my bed (if you could call it “making”) when I became aware of a dull burning smell. ‘God, I must have left a cigarette burning.’ I rush into my other room; no cigarette. Absentmindedly I feel in my pocket. There, a lighted cigarette in holder consuming a damp piece of Kleenex. The pocket was also stuffed with kitchen matches. Oh my!” To which Bishop replies in her customary linguistic lambency and unique vernacular of jocularity: “I am mailing you a SAFE if not particularly aesthetic ashtray – I got two of them a while ago. They’re the only ones I’ve ever found that will really hold the cigarette while you write or scratch your head, and yet if you forget it, the cigarette automatically goes out…I was going to give one to Lloyd Frankenberg for Christmas, but they didn’t come in time and now you’re going to get it instead.”

Elizabeth Bishop was introduced to Robert Lowell in January 1947, at dinner party in New York hosted by Randall Jarrell. An exceptionally reticent woman with a, “round face and very thick, unruly, greying hair,” Bishop felt immediately at ease in Lowell’s company and the “backward and forward flow” of supererogatory correspondence commenced immediately, ending only with Lowell’s death in the late 70s. When Bishop wrote the innate shyness which beset her in public was cast aside and thus Lowell was one of very few people cordially inaugurated into this very private woman’s inner life and imagination. Shortly before his passing Lowell wrote to Bishop, “you [have] always been my favourite poet and favourite friend,” and the feeling was wholly mutual. Reminiscing about Lowell looking a “bit rumpled and unkept” with a “large smear of ink across his chin,” Bishop simply concluded that she “loved him at first sight”. In the early years of their friendship the two passed through a shifting and ambiguous phase of mutual attraction, which never developed into anything other than a near proposal of marriage on Lowell’s part during a “long swimming and sunning Stonington [Maine] day” in 1948 when Bishop disclosed to Lowell otherwise uncharted key aspects of her early life.

Almost a decade later, after a manic “harsh frenzy”, Lowell recalls that day, saying: “…our relations seemed to have reached a new place. I assumed that it would be just a matter of time before I proposed and I half believed that you would accept. Yet I wanted it all to have the right build-up. Well, I didn’t say anything then…I was so drunk that my hands turned cold and I felt half-dying and held your hand. And nothing was said…I wanted time and space, and went on assuming, and when I was to have joined you at Key West I was determined to ask you. Really for so callous (I fear) a man, I was fearfully shy and scared of spoiling things…Let me say this though and then leave the matter forever; I do think free will is sewn into everything we do; you can’t cross a street, light a cigarette, drop saccharine in your coffee without really doing it. Yet the possible alternatives that life allows us are very few, often there must be none. I’ve never thought there was any choice for me about writing poetry. No doubt if I had used my head better, ordered my life better, worked harder etc., the poetry would be improved, and there must be many lost poems, innumerable accidents and ill-done actions. But asking you is the might-have-been for me, the one towering change, the other life that might have been had.”

Neither Bishop nor Lowell mentioned the matter again, but their correspondence moved forward year by year. Lowell would send fresh batches of poems in wait of critique from his “unerring Muse,” but the letters were equally and mutually influential in both their individual artistic development and their personal lives. They emerge in a swirl of vividly-recorded quotidian experiences, full of impromptu snapshots drawn from the casual, peculiar, maudlin and happy domestic moments. Such moments punctuate the letters throughout, their tone often wry and witty but always and consistently sympathetic and longing, and of a literary genre in themselves. The interchange records an unfolding intimacy, a colloquial brilliance and a wealth of literary and social history of the American poetry scene and its outstandingly talented mid-century generation. But above all, they unveil a remarkable connection between two lives inexorably linked together till death, which came to Lowell in a form of a heart attack in a New York taxi in 1977 and two years later for Bishop who died of a cerebral aneurysm. Their legacy remains characterised by two people who wrote exclusively to and for one another until the “imperfect end”.

W.B Yeats: “In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”


I once did a brief stint at a publishing house concerned primarily with the cookery, beauty and gardening type of paper-wasting exercises. I used to get dizzy just looking at the mercantile florescent sleeves and cover-jackets, and often found myself in the backroom sorting through old, discarded and out of print copies where I chanced upon a number of poetry collections published in the 1990s. One of them, now sitting beside me as I write this, was that of W.B. Yeats. I learned a lot about Yeats while reading other poets, who always and unanimously hailed him as the laureate of modern romance. In turn, I felt I couldn’t read him for fear of being disappointed, but when I chanced upon his selected poems in an Oxfam in Islington my curiosity got the better of me.

I remember starting out with the Second Coming and being struck by the gnosis of the following lines: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. By the time Second Coming was penned, in 1919, Yeats was no longer the perfervid young man who would intractably recite aloud, without suspiring, his favourite verses in public places and gormandize on the romantics such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Lord Alfred Tennyson. Yeats had, by then, discarded the beautifully rarefied evocative tone of his earlier works for an obdurate sonority confronting reality and its imperfections. This was an altogether different Yeats from the one I would learn about later when reading his early works. William Butler Yeats was not a poet by nature – acutely short-sighted, purportedly dyslexic and severely tone-deaf, he showed a propensity for science rather than language, leaving school with “small Latin and less Greek”. He was, however, “egregiously the poet,” in temperament and in appearance, muttering “ends of verse to himself with a wild eye” sporting “seedy black clothes” and “a large black bow at the root of his long naked throat”. It is now almost impossible, for me at least, to think of Yeats in any other element, but his work remains the biggest testament to his role as one of the greatest arch-bards of the 20th century. Revered by everyone from W.H. Auden to Ezra Pound, Yeats began his craft with light but deeply heartfelt odes to Maud Gonne – a distant cousin he had fallen in love with – likening her to a “rose in the deeps of his heart” and later celebrating her beauty on a Homeric scale. Much of his early work is characterised by the paludal lows of unrequited love resonating in lines such as, “Pale brows, still hands and dim hair/I had a beautiful friend/And dreamed that the old despair/Would end in love in the end”.

Yeats’ despair, however, did not end in love in the end but was intensified by its “bitter mystery” and later Gonne’s marriage. Yeats continued composing poetry in Gonne’s honour despite her feelings which she made clear in a letter, dated February 1989, by saying that if the idea of an absolutely platonic friendship “which is all I can, or ever will be able to give, unsettles you and spoils your work, then you must have the strength and courage at once to give up meeting me”. Unnerved by the realisation that he may never be united in marriage with Gonne, Yeats immersed himself in his work, much of which lamented his predicament: The Sorrow of Love, A Dream of Death, The Wind Among the Reeds, He Wished for The Cloths of Heaven, in which he implores his beloved to tread softly on his dreams, and The White Birds, prompted by a thought of escaping with her to “numberless islands” where neither time nor the world would be of essence or import.

Gonne remained a constant factor in his imaginative and emotional existence and subsequently much of Yeats’ poetry during this time was populated by figures of woman as enchantress and agent of necromancy in the context of quest and death. His poetry had developed a nascent sense of disillusionment, grief and wariness which reached its peak after the news of Gonne’s marriage. He felt “deaf and dumb and blind with love” and recorded his sorrow in Four Unpublished Lines (My dear is angry that of late/I cry all base blood dawn/As if she had not taught me hate/By kisses by a clown) and further in Never Give All the Heart (Never give all the heart, for love/Will hardly seem worth thinking of/To passionate women if it seems/Certain, and they never dream/That it fades out from kiss to kiss/For everything that’s lovely is/But a brief, dreamy, kind delight/O never give the heart outright).

One is led to believe that Yeats never quite got over his first love despite numerous affairs, nuptials and attempts to extricate himself from the continuum of those unrequited feelings. In time, his poetry began to reflect the seismic shifts in his personal as well as his political life. Much of his later work adopted a bleaker, more disillusioned voice lamenting the state of Ireland’s cultural landscape and the emergence of the Irish Free State. Paradoxically, this antiquarian bard with a love of esoteric mysteries was the most contemporary of his peers and the one who still resonates most profoundly with our present anxieties and disillusionments. Yeats’ new take on things is most clearly encapsulated in September 1913, with the resounding refrain, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave.” Later still, Yeats’ work once again took on a more personal vein; his subjects began to include his children and the onslaught of senescence. In the poem The Circus Animals’ Desertion, published in his last collection, Yeats describes the inspiration for these works by saying: “Now that my ladder’s gone, /I must lie down where all the ladders start /In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” All in all, Yeats was an incredible poet with an incredibly interesting but torturous life, which makes me think that John Berryman’s desire to be Yeats rather than be like him was somewhat misplaced, because I get the distinct impression that oftentimes even Yeats didn’t want to be Yeats.

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