[In the testing conditions of the Nineteenth Century], it may well be that the individual lives of some artists were in large part a reflection of the general decline affecting the moral and social ties of the day. That some of them managed to produce enduring works in spite of such spiritual and institutional turmoil was a noteworthy achievement. That many of them felt obliged, in such a context, to adopt an individualistic stance (and sometimes a non-conformist and defiant attitude); that many were forced to struggle against the current in a spiritually demoralising environment – such conditions call for pity and sympathy.
(Ludwig Tuman in Mirror of the Divine – page 102)
As I explained in Monday’s post, at this point in human history parts of Africa and much of the Middle East are in turmoil. The fallout is affecting most of Europe, both in terms of the refugee crisis and the threat of terror. The recent murders in Beirut, Paris and Bamako are only the latest examples. Partly because of all this, one of my main preoccupations relates to understanding better what factors foster or suppress empathy and compassion. In terms of those factors I am aware that all the arts can have a part to play on both sides of the process, and not just in terms of the protest songs I discussed in the last post.
For reasons that may become slightly clearer as this sequence of posts unfolds, I have just now been unexpectedly drawn to the life of one poet in particular as a possible source of insight into many of these factors. Before we close in on the man himself, I felt I needed to say a bit more about my journey towards this particular choice. There were after all other poets I knew better and liked far more.
“Tintern Abbey with Elegant Figures” by Samuel Colman (for source of image see link)
The Limitations of Protest Alone
Admittedly even my infatuation, in the poems I quoted last time, with Byron’s pointed cynicism or Shelley’s dark condemnation did not entirely replace the powerful tug of what I have always felt are Wordsworth’s greatest lyrics, Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey and Ode on the Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood. They touched on a sense of the transcendent, which is of course not incompatible with protest against injustice, but takes things to an altogether different level. Again my mind was ringing to the melody of many remembered lines (From the Ode:lines 59-67).
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Or (From Lines written a few Miles above Tintern Abbey: lines 96-103):
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Something of the same current can be detected at times in the poet I have chosen to explore, but it feels more strained and less convincing, which may account for the extreme darkness of some of his poetry.
More consistently I resonated also to Keats’s greatest poems as an earlier post on this blog testifies, as does another post register my current debt to Coleridge and his Ancient Mariner, something that also goes back many years – through May 1982 as a diary entry of mine testifies – to my years at secondary school.
The diary entry in part reads:
At 17 I stopped up the wellsprings of my deepest feelings when I turned my back on all religions. I am now parching with a spiritual thirst – my main priority is to find out what I need to slake it.
I then quoted the same passage of spiritual insight from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as I have used in the blog post I linked to above.
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
And I blessed them unaware.
The self-same moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.
I then continue:
Tonight after I have prepared my meal I shall return to this journal to reflect upon what I need to do now. I have wasted half my life on vanities. I do not want to throw away the rest. . . . . Buddhism and meditation, in this last year mainly, have done so much to free my mind from its old debilitating patterns. I would be very foolish not to continue with my meditation and at least a minimum of Buddhist reading. Do I need to do more?
Seven months later I declared as a Bahá’í, but that is another story.
Not surprising, then, that I find Coleridge far more appealing, in spite of his evident frailties. He seems more rounded as a person than all the other Romantics, more complexly spiritual than Wordsworth (though undoubtedly a touch too abstractly philosophical at times) and far less egocentric than Byron. Keats I loved but his tragically short life left him somehow incomplete.
Abbé Vogler (for source of image see link)
A Charismatic Teacher
Two post-romantics, Tennyson & Browning, were also important to me, the one mainly for his brilliant collection of lyrical meditations on loss known as In Memoriam, and the latter mostly for his brilliant handling of the dramatic monologue – but more of them another time perhaps.
My strong connection with those two poets I owe to a charismatic English Teacher at my secondary school. He was an unlikely inspiration at first sight. He was short and round, steel-rimmed spectacles with round pebble-thick lenses perched on the end of his nose. But his enthusiasm for the poetry was infectious. He paced and bounced back and forth at the front of the classroom, the sunlight glinting back at us from his glasses, as he probed our hearts for responses to the challenges of verse.
He somehow managed to convey to us, at the age of 15 in our Fourth Year, the rich layers of meaning in even a poem as complex as Browning’s Abt Vogler, which captures the experience of the organist:
All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—
It may be no coincidence, in the light of my present concerns, that this poem explores the relationship between music and spirituality. Most of that aspect passed right over my adolescent head, though it may have registered subconsciously. Mind you, now that music can be recorded Browning might have had to steer Abt Vogler along a slightly different track.
I can remember though the impact of his enthusiasm to this day. I doubt that such a poem would find its way into any classroom nowadays, such is the pressure to equip our children to be effective cogs in the competitive economic machine we have come to believe is the peak of civilisation.
In the sixth form he taught us how to approach Tennyson’s outpourings of grief before most of us had the faintest idea of the agony loss can cause.
Without exposure to such art our sensibility is incalculably impoverished and our ability to contribute to bettering our world will be seriously impaired. Maybe that was partly what Pink Floyd were protesting about in their bleak song Another Brick in the Wall, as the powerful video below brings to life.
Coming onto Shelley
Portrait of Shelley by Alfred Clint (1819) – for source see link
So, why am I not starting with one or other of those poets?
I’d better start by admitting that my head doesn’t really understand my choice of Shelley at this point. I’m simply following my intuition here. Let’s hope my head catches up completely before the end of this sequence of posts, as I’ll need its help to make some sense of it all. What follows is my best attempt to understand the direction I have chosen to take.
Well, it was my interest in Coleridge that triggered me to read Richard Holmes’s excellent two–volume biography. That in turn meant that when I saw his biography of Shelley on the shelves of a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye last year I immediately snapped it up, even though Shelley has always been my least favourite poet of the Romantic period.
I’m still not quite sure why I decided to pull it off the shelf and begin to read it at last. After all, it was what I experienced as Shelley’s combination of ethereal intensity and chaotic sensibility that repelled me from his longer poems in the first instance, and nothing had happened since to change my mind. The decision to learn about his life possibly came from another level.
Initially, my recent reading of this biography did little to dispel my negative perception.
However, as my reading of this 700 page account of Shelley’s life moved forward, though I lost none of my reservations about the man, they became balanced by examples of his capacity for kindness, even generosity at times, by the increasing breadth of his understanding, and by the increasing depth and accessibility of even some of his longer poetry. I became intrigued and wanted to try and understand the dynamics of that better, while also wondering whether this might all shed some more light on the factors that influence our levels of altruism, as well as on our responses to and understanding of violence and terror.
Suddenly his life began to seem exactly what I needed to reflect on now. It looked like Shelley might be a fruitful biographical test case to get me started on my quest to understand what puzzles me so intensely.
I need to mention at this point that I am also reading a book by Ann Wroe called Being Shelley: the poet’s search for himself. As she describes it, the book (page ix) ‘is an attempt to write the life of the poet from the inside out: that is, from the perspective of the creative spirit struggling to discover its true nature. It is a book about Shelley the poet, rather than Shelley the man.’ She quotes Shelley as stating in a letter written in 1821 (ibid.): ‘The poet & the man . . . . are two different natures; though they exist together they may be unconscious of each other . . .’
Intriguingly Alan Bennet exploits this idea in his script for The Lady in the Van, though in his case the writer and the man communicate incessantly over what is happening. The film is worth watching, therefore, not only for Maggie Smith’s performance, but for the insights it gives into the creative process, though the trailer gives you no clue about that, sadly.
Wroe’s book clearly contains information relevant to my current task.
However, I have decided to focus most on Holmes’s more prosaic biography and other similar sources, only pulling in comments from Wroe’s book when I feel they add something of significance or illustrate a point more powerfully.
In this sequence of posts I will share a helicopter review of his life first. After that will come a discussion of some general ideas before I attempt to deal with his poetic development in detail, including some clues I have found in his biography about the source and nature of his creativity.
Only after that will I come to some tentative general conclusions intended to guide my subsequent investigations into the lives of other creative artists of various kinds, contrasted I hope with the Florence Nightingales and Indira Ghandis, to test whether there is a distinction to be made concerning the relationship between intense activity and personal life in the field of the arts as against in other domains, in the light of the conditions prevailing at the time.
I also eventually want to examine, further than I will be able to do here, the nature of poetry’s power. This of course requires making a distinction, that to some extent might be arbitrary, between poetry and verse. Even my own limited experience of writing poetry suggests that there is such a distinction to be made. There are times when what I write is merely workmanlike. It is fundamentally pedestrian. It’s just verse. It has no spark. I have tried not to fall into the temptation of posting any of that on my blog.
Other poems seem to be alive in a way that I find it hard to describe. They often appear with whole lines or even passages more or less complete. They also have unexpected ideas, sometimes I even do not fully understand what I am writing (see link for one example). Whenever I have read a poet’s complete works I have found the same unevenness: one poem is sublime, the next one dull.
Dullness can even predominate. In the dedication to Don Juan, Byron made his famous comment on a poem of Wordsworth’s, that suggests that even the greatest can produce copious quantities of sub-standard work:
And Wordsworth, in a rather long “Excursion”
(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
Of his new system to perplex the sages;
‘Tis poetry—at least by his assertion,
And may appear so when the dog-star rages—
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.
I also have to admit that this, in the end, comes down to a matter of taste when we discuss any particular poem, and taste is something learnt rather than innate. I found this out very early. Almost at the same time as one teacher was helping us gain access to Abt Vogler, another teacher was testing us in a different way. He came into the classroom with two poems and handed them round. He asked us to read them both and then decide which was the better of the two. Almost the whole class picked the same one. Only then did he explain that we had preferred a poem he’d written in his teens over one of Shakespeare’s sonnets!
That complicates it all even more.
Anyhow, this whole enterprise may be hopelessly ambitious. It is very much a pilot study. It may be that the anarchic chaos of Shelley’s life will spread to my treatment of his art. This may not be a bad thing if I manage to rescue some reliable data from the maelstrom. They may be worth a great deal when I come to look at more orderly examples later, if I ever do. We’ll see how far I get before I run out of steam or ideas.
An irony I can’t resist mentioning at this point is that his personal life displayed the anarchy in a less violent form that he so detested in the political arena.
There will be more on Shelley next week.