Thou hast clung to tyranny, and cast away justice; whereupon all created things have lamented, and still thou art among the wayward. Thou hast put to death the aged, and plundered the young. Thinkest thou that thou wilt consume that which thine iniquity hath amassed? Nay, by Myself! Thus informeth thee He Who is cognizant of all. By God! The things thou possessest shall profit thee not, nor what thou hast laid up through thy cruelty.
Art and reality have a complex relationship as the background to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll illustrates (for the full 2005 article Guardian see link).
The song contains errors of fact. Dylan misspells the perpetrator’s name, omitting the letter T – perhaps deliberately, out of contempt, or perhaps to emphasise the Snidely Whiplash hissing of the Zs. And Zantzinger’s actual arrest and trial were more complicated than the song lets on.
Police arrested him at the ball for disorderly conduct – he was wildly drunk – and for assaults on hotel employees not including Hattie Carroll, about whom they apparently knew nothing at the time. When Carroll died at Mercy Hospital the following morning, Zantzinger was also charged with homicide. The medical examiner reported that Carroll had hardened arteries, an enlarged heart, and high blood pressure; that the cane left no mark on her; and that she died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by stress caused by Zantzinger’s verbal abuse, coupled with the assault. After the report, a tribunal of Maryland circuit court judges reduced the homicide charge to manslaughter. Zantzinger was found guilty of that, and of assault – but not of murder.
However, for reasons the Guardian article unpacks, those inaccuracies in no way detract from the power and brilliance of the song or from the integrity of its basic message:
Zantzinger was sentenced on August 28 1963. As it happened, that was the day of the march on Washington, when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “I have a dream” speech. The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Baltimore Sun all ran brief stories about the sentencing; none mentioned that anybody objected to the lightness of the sentence.
All three papers devoted pages and pages to the march; and it is striking, to a reader four decades on, how blind (for want of a better word) the coverage all was. What comes through in the stories about the march is a vast sense of relief – shared, presumably, by the reporters, the papers’ management and their readership – that the 200,000 or more assembled “Negroes” hadn’t burned Washington to the ground. All three papers used the adjective “orderly” in their headlines; all reported prominently on President Kennedy’s praise for the marchers’ politeness and decorum. The Post and the Sun gave small notice to Dr King, and less to what he said. Neither made much of the phrase “I have a dream”. Only James Reston of the Times understood that he had witnessed a great work of oratory, but even his story veered into brow-wiping at the good manners of the marchers.
Listening to The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll today, you can hear Dylan shouting against exactly this blindness. The song he wrote took a one-column, under-the-rug story and played it as big as it deserved to be. Dylan’s voice sounds so young, hopeful, unjaded, noncommercial – so far from the Victoria’s Secret world of today. Even the song’s title is well chosen: Before I went to Carroll’s church, I had not quite understood why her death was “lonesome”. But of course, as Rev Jessup noted: “Not one of those people stood up for her.” In a party full of elegant guests, Hattie Carroll was on her own.
If it weren’t for television and videotape, we would not know how powerful the march on Washington, or Dr King’s speech, really was. And if it weren’t for Dylan, nothing more would have been said about Hattie Carroll.
So, given that the value of the song is not corrupted by its departures from literal truth, how far is this also true of the relationship between the possibly immoral artist and the potentially inspiring art, which is at least as complex? And just as importantly why does it matter?
Times may not have changed as much as we would like
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.
For reasons that will become clear 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.
He was a poet living in a time of terror: terror visited by his own state upon its own people, and recent terror overseas, both during and in the wake of revolution. Our own time therefore has echoes of the times he lived in.
During his career as a poet he behaved oppressively to most of the women closest to him, one of whom committed suicide partly as a result of his indifference to her suffering. He also displayed great courage in speaking out for the oppressed in his society, at the risk of imprisonment and possibly even death.
He seems therefore a good example to choose in my exploration of altruism, and also of the complex relationship between reality, the artist and the art. It may even shed light, for me at least, on how artists and others might best respond to the current crisis, for we see him struggling, amongst other things, to define the most constructive response to violence, whether from the state or elsewhere. He may have even been an unseen influence inspiring Dylan to create his masterly attack on injustice.
Exactly what led me to see that he might be such an example also maps out an interesting trajectory, one which might tempt us to feel it was ever so, and because we still have not worked out how to solve it after 200 years, we never will. I’m not convinced by that pessimistic conclusion but I will accept that it can sometimes be a tempting one to draw.
The Appeal of Protest and Satire
For as long as I can remember, during my formative years, the five major Romantic poets writing in English took centre stage in my mind’s theatre behind only Shakespeare in the power of their influence upon me. Given my disaffection with the faith I was reared in, poetry was effectively my religion.
However, I was equally taken with only four of the five. In my late teens Byron snook ahead with his major satirical works: The Vision of Judgement, Beppo and of course Don Juan. How could I resist the playful power of lines I still can quote from memory such as these?
St Peter sat by the celestial gate:
His keys were rusty, and the lock was dull,
So little trouble had been given of late;
Not that the place by any means was full . . .
(My memory smoothed out the scansion of the last line but was otherwise impressively accurate!) That it was also a protest against the reign of George III, a king ‘who shielded tyrants’ (stanza viii), added to its attraction.
My entry into this world fell under the shadow of three tyrants and a world war. It was a long shadow and the end of the war did not see the end of widespread atrocities. The irony of the ‘peace’ that followed lay not least in the fact that the Western Powers, having rescued eastern Europe from Hitler’s brand of totalitarian oppression handed it straight over to Stalin’s version, while Mao wreaked havoc in China paving the way for further slaughter in the Far East: terror moved from concentration camps through gulags to mass graves in Cambodia. Spain continued to wither under a Fascist state. No major power came well out of the conflicts that, for example, ensued in Korea and Vietnam, or in the final dissolution of European Empires in such places as Algeria and India. Even more recently war and violence generally seems to breed more violence, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, to name but two. And almost always, cutting across many boundaries, there still remains the poison of racism.
My twenties were in part shaped by the protest songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, which strongly attracted me. In a sense Byron along with the senseless oppression I was discovering had prepared the ground for such receptivity.
Even in the Twentieth Century protest has not only been in song. Protest and political poems exist. Auden, who was clearly an admirer of Byron given that he wrote him a long verse letter, penned perhaps the most famous of them all – 1 September 1939.
The penultimate stanza is perhaps the best known moment in the poem:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
As if I needed further evidence of the tricky relationship between reality, the poem and the poet, I found another poet, John Fuller, quoting Auden (W. H. Auden: a commentary – page 292):
Rereading a poem of mine, 1st September 1939, after it had been published, I came to the line ‘We must love one another or die’ and said to myself: “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So, in the next edition, I altered it to ‘We must love one another and die.’ This didn’t seem to do either, so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realise, was infected with an incurable dishonesty – and must be scrapped.
I still think it’s a great poem even though it is not reprinted in my Collected Poems! There are other more recent poets too with a political or protest penchant. The ones on my shelves include James Fenton, Peter Reading and Tony Harrison. The genre is not dead by any means.
The poet I will be looking at later in this sequence of posts was often ploughing the same field as Byron and at more or less the same time.
In a famous sonnet he shared his sardonic awareness of the limitations of power:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
He also wrote a powerful but uneven sonnet triggered in part by the impending death of the same king Byron satirised (England in 1819):
An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,–
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow
Through public scorn,–mud from a muddy spring,–
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,–
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field,–
. . . . .
Are graves, from which a glorious Phantom may
Burst, to illumine our tempestous day.
The Guardian article I’ve linked the poem to asks an important question we may have to come back to and makes its own comment upon it: ‘Why can’t political poetry be as good as any other? Distrust anyone who says the postmodern muse should be above such things.’
What Shelley might have meant by the expression ‘glorious Phantom,’ and his own attempts to bring it into reality, will begin to be our focus in this sequence of posts, as will the major obstacles, both internal and external, that impeded him in his attempts. It will become apparent that it might not be enough, if it is to be great, for a poem to be simply political. I feel Auden’s poem, quoted above, is much more than that.