So there I was yesterday, doing what I do pretty much every morning around ten o'clock — lounging on the couch drinking coffee, listening to music, and staring into space with a book open on my lap — when it hit me: it's Coleridge now, and has probably been for about a year. The "it" in question is something I suppose I'd call my personal laureate — the poet with whom I feel the strongest connection, but more than that, too: the poet who serves as a kind of personal patron saint. It's not a lifetime appointment like the British laureateship (nor does it, like that storied office, come with a butt of sack). The term of service is variable, but generally longer than the single-year renewable appointment of the American laureate, whose demeaning position, with its low pay, uncertain possibility of coming back, and its chorus of constant subtle derision from one's peers, seems to mirror that of the American adjunct instructor. I'm 42 years old now (how the hell did that happen?), and I can count half a dozen personal laureates since I was 18, plus two contenders of equal influence and merit, whom I must disqualify for different reasons. So on average the term seems to be about four years.
I remember exactly the moment when Walt Whitman became my first personal laureate, because I discovered two dubious pleasures right around the same time: hero-worship and reading while smoking pot (ah, youth, and it's wayward ways of youthful waywardness, etc.). I'd encountered both Whitman and the nefarious herb earlier, of course, but it was only toward the end of my first undergraduate year that I put them together. My dad was a professor at an enormous, provincial university, and I'd long had the run of the place, particularly enjoying it in the summer, when I'd go there to spelunk in the underground tunnels connecting the buildings, to hang out in the big, brutalist student center, to boost those little Loeb Classical Library editions from the campus bookstore and — best of all — to sneak, by secret paths, up onto the roofs of the buildings, where I could feel like the only person in the world. It was on the roof of one of the science buildings that I pulled my brick-thick Norton Critical Editions copy of Leaves of Grass out of one compartment of my backpack, and a tightly-rolled jay of British Columbian ditch-weed out of another, and spent a good four hours pouring over the pages (I remember chuckling at what seemed, for a moment, like a clever play on words inherent in the title of Whitman's book and the presence of the weed, but let's leave it go — the apparent cleverness surely being conditioned by the context). I remember being impressed by "The Ox-Tamer," and especially by "The Last Invocation," and feeling very clever for thinking that "What Place is Beseiged" must be a poetic reply to John Donne's "Batter My Heart, Three-Person'd God" (I'm sure, now, I was wrong). I suppose what really got to me, though, what made Whitman my hero and my laureate, was the mysticism, or perhaps I should say the callower side of Whitman's mysticism. There's profundity in Whitman, of course, but what I took from him, up on the roof on that clear-skied prairie day in 1987, wasn't the profundity. It was almost a kind of innocent's mysticism, something I'd recognize some fifteen years later when I read William James' comments on Whitman in The Varieties of Religious Experience. In a chapter called "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness" James says Whitman has a powerful sense of the goodness and unity of existence, that he rejects the "old hell-fire theology" of America's Puritan past for a sense that "evil is simply a lie, and any one who mentions it a liar." There's a kind of Dr. Pangloss quality to the Whitman I loved back then. James gets it exactly when he says:
Whitman is often spoken of as a 'pagan.' The word nowadays means sometimes the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show.
I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long;
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
No natural pagan could have written these well-known lines. But on the other hand Whitman is less than a Greek or Roman; for their consciousness, even in Homeric times, was full to the brim of the sad mortality of this sunlit world, and such a consciousness Walt Whitman resolutely refuses to adopt.
When I first read Whitman with some intensity it was that swagger in the face of the first intimations of mortality that caught my eye from across the gulf of time. I suppose, in my hazy way, I thought I'd discovered the Great Secret — that despite our individual deaths, we live on as part of the whole. The lines "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles" were, of course, particularly appealing to me. Cocky stuff, aiming at profundity, and failing, in the final analysis, to address the tragic side of our condition. When I think of who I was, then, I think of words from another poet, one (perhaps not coincidentally) working in the Whitmanic tradition: Carl Sandburg. His personification of Chicago as a brawling man "laughing as a young man laughs,/Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle" seems about right as a description of who I was, then, at least in this one respect of a cocksure, arrogant affirmativeness that was predicated on little more than a lack of experience. In other respects, such as looking really good with his shirt off, I'm sad to say I was, and remain, quite unlike Sandburg's brawler.
Whitman's term as my personal laureate didn't last long — less than a year and a half. It wasn't that I encountered any terrible tragedy that stripped me of my relative innocence. Rather, it was that I was seduced by some of the less legitimate qualities of another poet, Ezra Pound. Fret not: it wasn't Pound's least legitimate qualities that seduced me — his politics and his anti-Semitism were never things I cared for, though perhaps I was too blithe about separating those things from the things I did care for in his work. Unlike Whitman, Pound was a poet I initially encountered in the classroom, in a class on Modern American poetry taught by a kindly, indulgent old prof doing what I later learned was his last lap around the teaching pool before retirement. We were reading the slim, austerely black-and-white covered New Directions edition of the Selected Poems, which became, for me, a springboard to the extracurricular pleasures of Pound's Selected Essays, Guide to Kulchur and ABC of Reading, and to his edition of Fenollosa's Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Looking back, I see now that what attracted me to Pound's cranky, half-assed, often naïve essays was the fact that they seemed to offer shortcuts: shortcuts to erudition, to a knowledge of the shape and import of literary tradition, and shortcuts to a set of reasoned-out aesthetic principles.
There were a couple of reasons such shortcuts appealed to me. I had always cared for history, especially European history. Some of my most vivid early memories are of sitting on the floor of my family's weekend place in the Canadian wilderness, oblivious to the shimmering lake in the front yard and the huge forests all around us, utterly absorbed in reading about Leonidas at Thermopylae, or destruction of the Athenian fleet by Syracuse on the ill-starred Sicilian expedition during the Peloponnesian wars. But now, at university, I was encountering literary history in detail, and where I'd once felt a kind of supreme confidence (no kid at Acadia Junior High knew, or cared to know, as much as I did about the Babylonians), I now felt a kind of lack. There was so much I didn't know, and (my teenaged self-esteem hanging in the balance) I wanted to know now. Real knowledge, whatever that may be, takes time, of course. I've been studying literary history for decades now, and make a living teaching it, and every year I find myself thinking that I'm still just getting started. Now I consider this a blissful state of affairs — not many people get to feel an ongoing excitement of discovery in their work, still fewer get to sense of an inexhaustible richness in the materials they spend time with. But back then I wanted to fill the gap as quickly as possible. The young Ezra Pound had been the same way, except he conducted his education in public, coming up with a slightly harebrained scheme of cultural history on his own and publishing it as he went along.
Europe, or the idea of Europe, was another reason I found Pound so appealing. I never quite understood this until 1997, when I sat down in the poet Michael Anania's office up in a skyscraper just west of Chicago's loop to interview him for the article I was writing on his work for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Anania told me about his childhood in Omaha, and how as a student he was initially "thrilled by anything complicated and remote," and became immersed in modernism, and in European literary history. Like Pound, and like me, Anania was a provincial, and he wanted to know about Europe — not about Sussex or the Dordogne or the Veneto, but the whole damn thing, all of it, from way back then to just this minute. What's at work in this sentiment is something like an aspiring bookish highbrow's version of the "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere" mantra sung by yokels who want to hit the big-time in New York. If I can master all that prestigious stuff from over there, where the big dogs live, then I'd be up for anything — or so I thought at the time.
As if all this weren't enough, Pound offered what seemed like a bad-ass set of aesthetic principles, ready-made for deployment in creative writing classes and arguments with my fellow honors students in the little coffee shop that occupied a strange, cave-like space just off one of the university's building-to-building tunnels. "Go in fear of abstractions," said Pound, and so said I, when called upon to comment on another students work. "Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work," said the mighty impressario of American modernism — words I'd parrot over my fourth jittery cup of java when one of my friends quoted the opinion of a professor who had the sad misfortune to be a scholar of medieval literature — a creature (I'd proclaim) who, no matter his distinction, must always be outranked by an actual poet, such as I then believed myself to be.
Looking back, I notice that Pound's poems rarely entered into my thinking about him, except in the abstract. There were exceptions: I remember liking the windblown sentimentality of Cathay, and thinking, with a combination great self-importance and insensitivity, that "Portrait d'Une Femme" was pretty much right on about the girl with whom I'd split up, but for the most part the poems were less important to me that the crank scholarship, the hip-shooting aesthetic pronouncements, and the idea of the great literary enfant terrible. The Cantos stood in hard-covered splendor on my shelf, an object of veneration, largely unread for many months to come.
Eventually I did read Pound's Cantos, and it was through a combination of Poundianism and a growing interest in the poetry of place that I ended up going off to graduate school to work with the first poet whose candidacy for personal laureate is strong, but ultimately invalidated: John Matthias. (Matthias is disqualified through no defect of his own, but by the simple fact that no living man can be a patron saint). I'd discovered John's work while trolling through the library stacks, pulling down random books of poetry. This, like my attraction to Pound's prose, was a manifestation of my sense of lack, of a big void of knowledge that I wanted to fill. There were so many poets we didn't get on the syllabus, and I wanted to know about all of them. So, when I'd had enough of studying whatever I was studying in the library, I'd get up, walk over the PR, PS, or PN sections of the library, pull down a couple of slim volumes, and read for a while, leaning back against the stacks. Once in a great while I'd shuffle over to the Slavic Languages collection, in a corner of the library, where mortal feet rarely trod, and where some vandal had handily disabled the smoke detector, and stealthily read in the manner in which I'd read Walt Whitman, but for the most part I read tanked up on coffee and No-Doze.
What I liked about Matthias was how he seemed to square a certain circle for me. As attracted as I was by the arcane, the remote, the European, and the Poundian, I was also reading a lot of the poetry and polemics of the local campus poet-professors (Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, David Arnason) and their peers elsewhere in western Canada. They were militantly against everything I liked about Pound. Postmodern-loopy rather than Modernist-serious, and locally proud in the William Carlos Williams vein, they were part of a movement to decolonize the local mind. They were from the boonies and committed to the boonies, and wanted to write out of a sense of place, a sense of the history and geography around them, claiming it as important and literary. Their world, after all, wasn't part of the world they saw on television or the movies or read about in novels from commercial publishers, so they would have to make it part of the imagined community by putting it in words themselves. They knew they were never going to be much noticed by people in Toronto, much less New York or London. They didn't see this as a problem, though, so much as an opportunity, and set about making their own scene, with presses (Turnstone Press was their dojo) and journals (Prairie Fire was their house organ), readings, conferences, seminars, the whole deal. They had a very real local effect: you could count on any decent Winnipeg bookstore having a shelf dedicated to local writing, something I've never seen in Chicago, unless you count the Seminary Co-Op in Hyde Park flooding the front room with this month's Richard Posner book and this week's Martha Nussbaum title.
How, I often wondered in some semi-inchoate way in the back of my mind, could one reconcile all of this son-of-the-local-soil, poet-of-place stuff with Pound? Standing in the library stacks with John Matthias' poem "An East-Anglian Diptych" on the page in front of me, I saw an answer. Here was a poet who was deeply concerned with the history and geography of out-of-the-way places, but who came to those places from elsewhere, and saw in them the Big Story of European Civilization. Here was a Poundian of sorts, but also someone writing his own, expatriate version of Williams' Paterson (later, once I'd discovered Basil Bunting's poetry, I saw Matthias' long poems less as Patterson and more as Briggflatts, a comparison since made in a much more specific and insightful manner by Mark Scroggins, writing on Matthias in Parnassus). If I was going to understand more about these things, the only thing for it was to go off to grad school and study with Matthias, which I did, chucking the letters of acceptance from the schools foolish enough not to employ Matthias into the trash.
And so I found myself in South Bend, writing poems about the Canadian west (only one of which, a little effort about barbed wire, would eventually make it into my book Home and Variations), arguing critical theory in the coffee joint in Notre Dame's O'Shaughnessy Hall, and — in order to get at the roots of the poetry of place — reading Wordsworth. Wordsworth stuck, though South Bend didn't, and I soon found myself reading Wordsworth in the tiny apartment in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood I shared with my new wife, Valerie. I’d take the South Shore train out to Notre Dame every now and then to teach a freshman lit class, meet with my thesis committee, and spend the evening bullshitting merrily with friends at a local oyster bar before crashing dizzily on someone's couch for the night. What kept me reading Wordsworth — and what elevated him to the level of personal laureate, displacing Pound, wasn't really the regionalism. It was the organic conception of personal and cultural identity, the side of Wordsworth that comes out of Burke's view of history as something that grows, rather than something that is made, and as something whole, from which nothing is truly separable.
In a way, Wordsworth's vision was as mystical as Whitman's, but without the Panglossic quality you sometimes find in Whitman: Wordsworth's mystic unity is one that retains a strong sense of loss and tragedy. The sense of loss comes in many ways: in "Ode: Intimations of Immortality" we begin to lose the visionary gleam, the sense of the oneness of all things, almost immediately upon birth. We come into the world "trailing clouds of glory," but soon enough we find that "shades of the prisonhouse surround the boy" — loss comes in the form of our alienation from the world, our sense of a difference between self and other, our sense of the world as something different, hostile, confining. The "Blest the Infant Babe" passage of The Prelude shows us Wordsworth at his most grateful for never having fully lost the sense of the world as a benevolent, enveloping force to which he was linked. I used to return to those lines again and again, underlining parts of it and never quite knowing what to write next to them in the margins.
I remembering being particularly struck, too, by "The Ruined Cottage," because of how, on the one hand, it showed the organic unity of nature and history, and yet, on the other hand, remained sensitive to the reality of loss, sorrow, and destruction. The image of a ruined cottage and a mourning woman, whose world had fallen apart since her husband was shipped off on one of England's seemingly endless wars, is set against the slow return of the cottage to nature, as the vines and forest-growth reclaim it. Whitman's easier mysticism appealed to me when I went around like an arrogant young man, "laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle." But this poem appealed to an ever-so-slowly maturing version of myself. By this point in my life I'd had just enough of a view of the world — especially poor, run-down South Bend — to think that any representation of it that didn't make one feel the pathos of our condition wasn't going to adequate. I think really caring for someone had something to do with it,too: thinking how devastated I'd be if I lost my wife, or how she'd feel if something were to happen to me, made the Whitmanic embrace of death as just one more phase we go through, on the journey in which our identities as individuals are a very brief station-stop, seem like a half-truth. I suppose some of these thoughts lie behind "Wordsworth at the Cuyahoga's Mouth," a poem of mine where I imagine an American Wordsworth, and wonder if he'd have become more like Whitman had he lived in this country. That poem and it's companion piece "Marinetti at Union Station, Chicago" are also both, I suppose, attempts to square the circle of local pride vs. Poundian Europhilia. And they're full of industrial imagery, coming from the view out the South Shore Line windows as that train chugged through Gary and Hammond on the way to South Bend and back. I was certainly thinking better in those poems than I was in my doctoral dissertation on Wordsworth's influence, which I can't bear to think about now, much less revisit.
Wordsworth had a good, long tenure as my personal laureate — seven years, I think: all through my studies for my M.A., M.F.A., and doctorate, and into my first year as an assistant prof, when I directed a student's thesis contrasting Wordsworth’s populism with that of Whitman, still one of the best theses I've had the privilege to direct. I'm sure the student who wrote it would have made a good English prof, but he opted for a more adventurous life, moving to Thailand, starting a punk band, and scoring a #1 hit in southeast Asia. Sometime late in 1997 Wordsworth’s star began to set for me, though, and Byron's began to rise.
Byron's tenure as my personal laureate really consists of two consecutive terms, the first based on the strength of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the second on irony of Don Juan. I imagine Byron's first term as my laureate came about because his earlier poetry offers so much to anyone who feels alienated, and the experience of being a young prof on the tenure trail is a bit alienating. I shouldn't complain: the whole experience for me was easier than it seems to be for most people, and I actually think Byron had something to do with that.
By this point in my life I've listened — as peer, as old friend, and now as Senior Guy Who's Been Through It All; in faculty lounge, in office, at back-yard barbecue, on barstool, by Skype, — to a lot of junior faculty cris du coer from people at lots of different institutions, and the people who suffer the most seem to be those who look on the whole process as a set of hoops one is commanded to jump through. They treat everything as a means to the end of tenure, trying to get on the right committees to get noticed, trying all kinds of tricks to change their teaching (and sometimes their grading) habits so as to get higher evaluation numbers, and they try to write the sort of thing that will get published in the kind of journal they think will impress the powers-that-be. I get it: the job is, after all, on the line. But there's a way in which all this is to get things backwards. The idea, after all, is to do one's job and then stand back while others assess it, not to try to do one's job by what one imagines will be the criteria of assessment. To go about it otherwise is to alienate yourself from the work that you love, and to end up like one of those embittered kvetches one sees writing so often in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Of course stepping back and just doing what you do — writing things that come out of who you are, allowing yourself to grow unselfconsciously into teaching better — doesn't come easily. You've got to find some way to be inner-directed, rather than governed by the norms of those around you. And that's where Byron (or, rather, the Byron of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage) comes in.
I suppose I was lucky to be teaching that book so often in my early days of professoring. The book sprang from Byron's sense of being an alienated outsider (club-footed, wrong-accented, bisexual, taunted at school, attracted to his half-sister, and sexually abused as a child, he had good reasons to feel this way). But Byron turns that alienation into pure glamour and self-assertion. He selected as his heroes Napoleon and Rousseau, and loved them for their ungovernableness. Childe Harold, the Slim Shady to Byron’s Marshall Mathers, the Ziggy Stardust to his David Bowie, tells us that he cannot "herd with man" — those unalienated conformists who are little better than cattle. He may be wounded and fraught with discontent, the powers of respectable authority may judge and despise him, but Childe Harold does not give a flying fuck. He stands above them on his melodramatic mountaintop, rejects their reality, and substitutes his own. He will be who he is, in all his freaky majesty, and he, not the square community, will be the first and last judge of all things. There's a passage from Bertrand Russell's essay on Byron I used to show my students that gets at the gist of these things better than I can:
The aristocratic rebel, of whom Byron was in his day the exemplar, is a very different type from the leader of a peasant or proletarian revolt. Those who are hungry have no need of an elaborate philosophy to stimulate or excuse discontent, and anything of the kind appears to them merely an amusement of the idle rich…. No hungry man thinks otherwise. The aristocratic rebel, since he has enough to eat, must have other causes for discontent…. It may be that love of power is the underground source of their discontent, but in their conscious thought there is criticism of the government of the world, which, when it goes deep enough, takes the form of Titanic cosmic self-assertion, or, in those who retain some superstition, of Satanism. Both are to be found in Byron.
That's Satanism of a kind like the Romantic version of Milton's Paradise Lost Russell's referring to — self-assertion, non serviam, “better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven” stuff, not Aleister Crowley and the black mass. And all that Titanic cosmic self-assertion, all that inner-direction, can serve you well on the road to tenure. It can convince you that you're above the whole process, and let you get on with your life and your work. At least that's how I felt, as I stood under the patronage of Saint Byron. But if a self-image as aristocratic rebel will get you through the tenure trail, at some point the gulf between the rebel aristocrat and the comfortable, portly, bookish college professor becomes apparent — even to a thick-headed narcissist such as I was, a decade or so ago. Even Byron caught on to the fact that he wasn't really Byron, that he couldn't ever be the man he'd convinced half of swooning Europe he was.
This is how he came to write Don Juan, the poem for which the term "Romantic Irony" was invented, and the poem which won Byron a second term as my personal laureate. The poem's eponymous hero is, of course, meant to be the dashing, brooding, devil-may-care lover extrordinaire of legend — but in Byron's telling of Juan's adventures, that figure is constantly inflated and deflated. We see him built up, we see him knocked down. He is alternately the man you'd hope him to be and a hapless schmuck. In fact, the poem alternates between moments of high sentiment, even sincere pathos, and moments when the very things for which we'd been feeling such strong sentiment become ridiculous. This isn't a bad attitude for a recovering narcissist to take. Narcissists, as I've learned through long experience, are never "recovered" — like addicts or alcoholics, they're always only in remission, always about to slip. But self-irony that doesn't blot out other sensations, including the occasional belief in one's own (soon to be ironized) awesomeness, is a good thing. Or so I thought for a number of years. I don't think it's a coincidence that it was during these years that a former student with whom I'd had a few too many drinks down at the bar in the Heartland Cafe leaned laughing over the table and told me, not without some affection, I hope, "You're an asshole, Archambeau, but you know you're an asshole, which helps a little" — it’s a comment I've heard in one version or another from several quarters, though (I say this with a sigh) rather less frequently over the years.
It was in this period — the final years of the last century, and the opening ones of the present one — that my second disqualified candidate for personal laureate hove into view. This was Samuel Johnson, whom I hadn't read since my student days. But then I found myself teaching a seminar on the intellectual history of the 18th Century with a friend from the history department. We'd divvied up the various Enlightenment and Augustan figures before the semester started, and I'd taken Johnson, not because I knew much about his work, but because my colleague wanted both Voltaire and Rousseau, (I later learned that this was so that he could praise Rousseau — quite convincingly — at Voltaire's expense) and I needed to shoulder a little more of the curricular weight. When the time came to teach "The Vanity of Human Wishes," I found myself a bit flummoxed about how to do it. It certainly didn't seem like the kind of thing that would appeal to a bunch of people in their early twenties. When I talked to John Matthias about it, he told me of a poet friend of his who once wrote to him about the poem, proclaiming "I hope I am never old enough to like this." What to do? In the end, I played a little game of compare and contrast with the people in the seminar, showing them Johnson side by side with some passages from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. I don't know if it was instructive for them, but it was for me. I'd shown them Byron's passages on Napoleon, where the poet praises the deposed emperor for his self-assertion, his refusal to acknowledge authority or limit, saying that in Napoleon and men like him:
… there is a fire
And motion of the soul, which will not dwell
In its own narrow being, but aspire
Beyond the fitting medium of desire;
And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore,
Preys upon high adventure, nor can tire
Of aught but rest; a fever at the core
Byron adds, almost as an aside, that this fever of endless desire is "Fatal to him who bears, to all who ever bore," it, but that's the merest quibble. All the glamour lies with Napoleon and aspiration "beyond the fitting medium of desire."
After this, I pointed to Johnson’s poem, particularly a passage where he talks about the fate of Cardinal Wolsey, who'd risen from obscurity to great power, and dreamed (oh quenchless was his fever) of ever more:
In full-blown Dignity, see Wolsey stand,
Law in his Voice, and Fortune in his Hand:
To him the Church, the Realm, their Pow'rs consign,
Thro' him the Rays of regal Bounty shine,
Turn'd by his Nod the Stream of Honour folws,
His Smile alone Security bestows:
Still to new Heights his restless Wishes tow'r,
Claim leads to Claim, and Pow'r advances Pow'r;
Till Conquest unresisted ceas'd to please,
And Rights submitted, left him none to seize.
At length his Sov'reign frowns — the Train of State
Mark the keen Glance, and watch the Sign to hate.
Where-e'er he turns he meets a Stranger's Eye,
His Suppliants scorn him, and his Followers fly;
Now drops at once the Pride of aweful State,
The golden Canopy, the glitt'ring Plate,
The regal Palace, the luxurious Board,
The liv'ried Army, and the menial Lord.
With Age, with Care, with Maladies oppress'd,
He seeks the Refuge of Monastic Rest.
Grief aids Disease, remember'd Folly stings,
And his last Sighs reproach the Faith of Kings.
Speak thou, whose Thoughts at humble Peace repine,
Shall Wolsey's Wealth, with Wolsey's End be thine?
Or liv'st thou now, with safer Pride content,
The wisest Justice on the banks of Trent?
There's the stuff. Maybe the passage made such an impression on me because I'd started reading Kant's aesthetics, and was thinking a lot about disinterest as an ethos, a way to try to live. Or maybe it was the perspective I'd gained from watching people I know angle for the various gewgaws on offer in the American professional classes — promotions, prestige jobs, big-ass houses, what passes in the literary sphere for fame, prizes of various sorts — and making themselves miserable in the process (or, worse, becoming toadies of one sort or another). Or maybe it was the even sadder spectacle of seeing people for whom I had the utmost respect — poets and critics with real achievements to their names — lament, in their later years, the loss of the spotlight. Or maybe it was catching myself scheming, a couple of times, about how I could begin a campaign to end up Somewhere Grand in my career, and not liking that kind of calculating mind in myself, a mind that could conceive of instrumentalizing people and using them as means to my own ends. One way or another, conditions were right for me to hear what Johnson had to say, and I started tearing through his works, his Idler and Rambler essays, his fiction, his poems. He's a good antidote for so much in American culture, and he became the foundation for my way of feeling about academe, about the poetry biz, and about status of all kinds. I suppose I should mention that I live and work in towns populated by some of the richest people in America — watching those predatory corporate status monkeys and their Martha Stuart-wannabe wives jostle for status with one another must surely have played into the appeal Johnson had for me.
In some ways, Johnson's not a truly great writer, not in the way my other laureates have been (you’ve never heard of Matthias, you say? I’ll go to the wall for Matthias as great writer!). I remember the critic Gerald Bruns once telling me that, "compared to Candide, Johnson's Rasselas is trivial; compared to Pope's Essay on Man, "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is trivial — but I see why people keep coming back to him." I suppose I feel that way, too, and would gladly have awarded Johnson my laureateship, but for one thing: I'm sure he'd have turned the honor down, as a vanity unbecoming for a man to covet.
Instead, it was William Blake who became my next laureate. I never thought he would. I'd been reading him since I was a teenager, and liking him, but somehow I'd always had a bit of not-quite-conscious snobbery about him. Being such a creature of academe myself, at some level I condescended to Blake's autodidacticism. I had no idea of it at the time, but looking back on myself, I'd say my attitude to Blake was something along the lines of "You've gotta love the poems, but isn't he, after all, a bit of an intellectual hick? Hadn't he woven together his personal mythology out of Evangelical tracts and the dubious weirdo theology of Emanuel Swedenborg? Come on!" I was reading Kant and Fichte and Hegel and Schiller and Marx and Adorno and Bourdieu and Deleuze, and I wasn't about to be intellectually impressed by a guy who was home-schooled by religious freaks. Was I poetically impressed? Sure. But I had too much at stake in my own sophisticated intellectual grandeur to think of Blake as a serious intellect. Until, of course, I decided to really dig into the long, strange, prophetic works. Then (neither for the first time nor the last) I came to a realization: I'd been an idiot. Big time.
It was The Book of Urizen that broke things open for me, and took me back to poems I thought I knew well, like "The Mental Traveler" and "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." What I saw in Blake was, in fact, something very like what I'd been getting at by reading all those philosophers from the German Idealist tradition, and all those critical theorists from the Marxian and post-structuralist traditions: a dialectical vision of truth, in which forces create, and in some sense require, their own opposites. I once tried to explain dialectics to a skeptical colleague by using the image of a water-heater whose release-valve had become clogged. It builds and builds and builds pressure, until it suddenly releases it in an explosion — that's a negation of the first force (constraint), but it is also a kind of continuation, and couldn’t exist without the first force. He didn't like the analogy, so I tried again, saying that an instrumentalist view of trees, as potential lumber, could create an environment where we'd cut down all the trees, and consequently we'd develop an opposite view, a kind of "Earth First!" idea of ecological preservation — once again, the thesis creates its antithesis. He didn't like that either, so I swirled the cheap white wine in my plastic cup, shuffled over to a cluster of people at the other side of the room, and concluded that I wasn't any good at explaining dialectics. Of course Hegel's explanations, while more profound than mine, are turgid as hell. But Blake can make these kinds of things into music, and image, and set them dancing in front of you. In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" he's even funny while doing it. And for him it isn't merely a set of empty ideas: it's a truth about how the universe, and human consciousness, is structured. It's an apprehension, a mystical vision, of the nature of our being, and the necessarily contradictory nature of any kind of understanding or representation of things.
Coleridge, of course, is no slouch when it comes to thinking about metaphysics and the nature of consciousness, and it's through his concern with these things that he's won the coveted laurels. What Coleridge has got, and Blake hasn't, is a strong sense of the historical nature of truth, how the way it manifests depends on where we stand in the great scheme of things. Since I’d been reading a lot of Raymond Williams and the whole British cultural studies tradition, and seeing ideas as embodied in their moment, this had real appeal for me.
Consider The Rime of the Ancient Mariner for example, where we have a kind of model of the evolution of the way our understanding of truth evolves over time. At the core are the experiences of the Mariner, events that actually happened to him, and for which he seeks meaning. Then we have the story the Mariner tells, which includes his attempt at understanding the significance of those events. He sees everything as a morality tale about the oneness of all being, about how we should respect all things as we would respect ourselves, the division of self and other being essentially fictional. But this grand vision doesn't quite add up: the events of the story don't all fit the moral the Mariner draws. We could say that the Mariner's message is holistic — a statement about the unity of all things and the falseness of any sense that any part can be separated from the ultimate unity. It’s a kind of version of Hegel's "the true is the whole." But the failure of the moral to account for all the contradictory details of the narrative points in the opposite direction, to Adorno's dictum that "the whole is the false" (that is, that any attempt to represent the whole of things, and say this representation is true, is bound to fail, since the only truly adequate explanation of the thing is the thing itself). And the poem gets more interesting when we look at the marginal notes Coleridge added. They're meant to be the notes of some scribe who has found the manuscript of the poem, and written his interpretation in the margins. He's sophisticated and learned, this scribe, and represents a later historical stage than the Mariner, whose tale we're meant to see as having been found many years after it's composition. But he's wrong, too, imposing too much of Christianity on the tale, and too proud of his erudition. And then there's the level of where we, the readers, stand: still trying to make a full, total interpretation out of the weird, apparently contradictory world before us. This is Coleridge telling us about the evolution of insights, from experiences to moral injunctions to scholarly concepts — an ongoing process of increasing sophistication that remains, in the end, based on a world that is ultimately enigmatic.
In a way, Coleridge is like Blake, but more of a historicist. He’s also less imagistic, and more concept-driven. You can look at this in one of two ways: as either a great leap forward in clarity and specificity, or a terrible falling backward, from the vivid and moving to the deathly-dull and ink-stained. Indeed, you may, should you so desire, look at my own trajectory, from mostly-poet poet-critic, to mostly-critic poet-critic, in the same two ways, and I'm pretty sure my realization that Coleridge had been my laureate for more than a year is the product of my own shifting emphasis toward the spirit of criticism.
I suppose what attracts me to Coleridge is the way he takes a kind of insight into the unity of things, and shows us what the mind does with it, slowly, over time, in each phase taking on the colors of local conditions. He manages to be both a mystic and a historicizor of mysticism, which is no small feat. It's particularly impressive to someone whose own journey has been a matter of adding layers of self-reflexivity to a fundamentally mystical apprehension of experience.