Saturday, 31 August 2013


[Caveat for readers: this post is longer than the previous ones]

    . . . that fiery heart, that morning star
   Of re-arisen England, whose clear eye
Saw from our tottering throne and waste of war
The grand Greek limbs of young Democracy
Rise mightily like Hesperus and bring
The great Republic! him at least thy love hath taught to sing,

And he hath been with thee at Thessaly
   And seen white Atalanta fleet of foot
In passionless and fierce virginity
   Hunting the tuskèd boar, his honied lute
Hath pierced the cavern of the hollow hill,
And Venus laughs to know one knee will bow before her still.

And he hath kissed the lips of Proserpine,
   And sung the Galilaean’s requiem,
The wounded forehead dashed with blood and wine
   He hath discrowned, the Ancient Gods in him
Have found their last, most ardent worshipper,
And the new Sign grows grey and dim before its conqueror.

Spirit of Beauty! tarry with us still. . .
[from Wilde's ‘The Garden of Eros’: explanation below]

Apart from the famous Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde’s poems are probably still among the least read of all his writings. There’s nothing deeply shocking about this: even the editors of the modern scholarly edition of the poems don’t claim that they represent his best work. But for anyone interested in Wilde generally, the poems are well worth getting to know, or at least getting to know about,  since they provide many clues to his complicated personality and the development of his thought. Also, with Wilde now much more famous than many of his literary contemporaries, the poems offer something of a gateway into the lush, ornate world of late Victorian poetry. (For many people I suspect this is a bit of a poetical ‘dark age’, lying between the better known Romantic poets and the ‘modern poetry’ that succeeded it.)

Wilde’s poems are nearly all early works, most appearing in his first published book, Poems (1881). Thereafter, following a  period as a literary journalist, Wilde switched his main efforts to the stories, plays, and essays that made him famous. After 1881 he published only a handful of individual poems, culminating with The Ballad of Reading Gaol written after his imprisonment. (I may discuss the Ballad in a future post.)

Wilde’s 1881 Poems had a generally unenthusiastic reception when published. ‘Thin’, ‘mediocre’ and ‘derivative’ were among the terms applied to the volume. I suspect that the modern reader’s initial reaction is more likely to be simple bafflement. Most of us today are simply not in a position to spot unaided many of Wilde’s allusions, or the points where he is imitating or plagiarising other poets of his time. Certainly this was my experience when as a teenager I acquired the standard one-volume Collins edition of Wilde’s Complete Works. For me the poems were largely a blank area,  a section I skipped over while I was looking for his more appealing writings. It was only after Richard Ellmann’s critical biography of Wilde appeared in 1987, followed by the scholarly edition of the poems in 2000 (see Endnote), that comprehension of the poems for modern readers became somewhat easier.

Before exploring the context and content of the poems further, a little biographical background about Wilde. Born in 1854 in Dublin, with a prominent doctor for a father and a prominent literary figure for a mother, Wilde studied classics at university, first at Trinity College Dublin (1871-4) and then at Oxford (1874-8), after which he moved to London. He published individual poems in magazines from 1876 onwards. His 1881 Poems gave him enough reputation to land him a year-long tour lecturing on poetry and art in the United States. (Ironically, this was largely organized to publicise the US tour of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience, which satirised ‘aesthetic’ poets.) Poems (1881) was Wilde's first published book. Further lecturing , journalism and story-writing followed, culminating in his greatest period of fame from around 1889-1895, the time of the productions of the famous plays, as well as his critical essays and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Sentenced in May 1895 to two years’ hard labour for homosexual offences, Wilde lived abroad after his release. The Ballad of Reading Gaol was his only completed post-imprisonment work. He died in 1900 in Paris.


Although the world of nineteenth-century English poetry is huge, I think it can be useful to regard Wilde as belonging to a distinct and major tendency that one might call the ‘Keats strand’ ­­- by which I mean a way of writing poetry inspired to a large extent by John Keats, that lays emphasis on ideal beauty and on elaborateness of poetic expression.

Keats (d. 1821) was undoubtedly the greatest poet of the nineteenth century as far as Oscar Wilde was concerned. In contrast to most other writers  he discusses, Wilde never makes criticisms of Keats: his remarks, whether in prose or poetry, are always complimentary, often adulatory. Indeed, Wilde makes Keats the starting point for the movement  he labelled ‘The English Renaissance of Art’ in the lecture of that name he gave across America in 1882, the year after his Poems were published.

Since the ‘Keats strand’ encapsulates a very different attitude to poetry from the way we’re used to today, I think it’s worth examining in some detail.

The Romantic poets and their Victorian successors were in many ways trying to go forwards by going backwards, seeking inspiration in earlier forms of English and European poetry. They generally saw themselves as in revolt against ‘artificial’ and ‘unpoetic’ modes of eighteenth-century poetry. Keats made a point of returning to the ornate style of the Elizabethans, to Shakespeare and especially to Edmund Spenser (hence Byron’s jibe about Keats belonging to ‘the second-hand school of poetry’). This reaching backwards is also a feature of later poetry of the nineteenth century.

Keats’s tragically early death (‘the youngest of the martyrs’ Wilde calls him in a poem) probably added to his reputation in later Victorian times. Although this post is not mainly about Keats, at this point I feel I should express a few lines of personal opinions about him (I may post about these in more detail another time). Personally, while I have reservations about the poetry Keats actually completed, I also - like many people - am enthusiastic about the thoughts and feelings expressed in his much-admired letters. I believe  he would have been a much greater poet if he had lived longer. Keats was mauled in some reviews during his lifetime, and these maulings  have usually been held against those reviewers, but it must be remembered that the worst reviews were of his long sprawling romance Endymion (famous first line: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’), which even the poet admitted was an immature work. Keats had a robust character, with many loving friends, and he clearly desperately wanted to live, to write more poetry and to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne. I have no doubt he died of the tuberculosis that had already killed his brother, and of nothing else. But as regards the subjects of his works, many, apart from his purely narrative poems, are in effect ‘poems about writing poems’, and there’s perhaps a limit to how much one wishes to read about that. Also, despite the titles of some of the poems, I don’t regard Keats as a nature poet like Wordsworth or John Clare (if one defines ‘nature’ as ‘the real non-urban outdoors’): the worlds he describes are too idealised for that.

An important if curious belief that Keats expressed is that one should conceal rather than express one’s own personality in poetry. This viewpoint may possibly have had a deleterious effect on some of his Victorian successors. Such an attitude is all very well for epic or dramatic poets such as Homer and Shakespeare, but when it comes to short lyric poems, our attitude today is surely almost the opposite - we welcome honest personal expressions of thought and feeling on the part of a poet. (Keats does in fact break his own precepts completely in his later poems of love and jealousy addressed to Fanny Brawne, although admittedly he might never have wanted these published.) There are indications in Keats’s later letters that he was thinking of turning more to the ‘real world’ rather than continuing in the ‘never-never lands’ of romance. But he did not live to do this, and it was the ‘romantic’ Keats, with his professed devotion to the ‘principle of beauty’, which made him a hero for the poets later in the century who advocated ‘art for art’s sake’.

To return to historical narrative: after a few posthumous years of neglect, Keats’s poems were taken up enthusiastically by the young Tennyson and his undergraduate friends around 1830. (Tennyson also thought Keats the greatest poet of the century, and was much influenced by him, although Tennyson’s innate melancholy gives his own poetry a rather different flavour.) The big breakthrough, however, came in 1848, when a member of Tennyson’s circle, Richard Monckton Milnes (later Lord Houghton) published Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats. Independently at the same time, the young D. G. Rossetti discovered Keats’s poetry, and his pre-Raphaelites associates (including William Morris and A. C. Swinburne) became enthusiasts for Keats. As painters they used scenes from Keats’s narratives as subjects, while as poets they emulated Keats’s reaching into the past and his creation of exotic worlds. The worlds of the sagas and of medieval French and Italian poets were all explored, and Swinburne in particular employed verse forms and vocabulary that had not been used for centuries. Sometimes the meaning of the poems became secondary to their ‘beautiful’ form. Also, despite Wordsworth having denounced artificial ‘poetic diction’ at the beginning of the century, archaic vocabulary such as ‘thine’, ‘hath’, ‘methinks’, and so on flourished in their poetry. Indeed, it could be argued sceptically that in this way much of Victorian poetry managed to navigate  itself into a giant escapist cul-de-sac, detached from the real world, from which a revolution, partly influenced by modern French poetry, was necessary at the end of the nineteenth century in order to break free.

Coming back to Oscar Wilde himself, his enthusiasm for the ‘Keats strand’ shines through his early poetry and other writings. His long poem ‘The Garden of Eros’, published in the 1881 Poems, anticipates the critical line he took in his American lecture, celebrating first Keats and then the pre-Raphaelite poets who succeeded him. The stanzas quoted at the beginning of this post, for example, all celebrate Swinburne, and allude to several of his poetical works. (Wilde does not name Swinburne: the reader is supposed to be able to recognize him by description.) D. G. Rossetti and William Morris (as poet) are both praised in succeeding passages in the same poem.

Sadly there’s one obvious name Wilde misses out, both here and in his subsequent American lecture. That is Christina Rossetti, who was a much more prolific and surely also a better poet than her brother Dante Gabriel. Indeed, in my opinion Christina Rossetti put the ‘beautiful’ pre-Raphaelite poetic style to its best use, marrying it with intense expressions of love, sadness, and Christian hopes and fears. Since Wilde later called some of her poems ‘exquisite in their beauty’, her absence here unfortunately probably shows Wilde conforming to the sexist assumption of his age that, in a general survey of poetry, somehow only male poets ‘counted’.

‘Background’ in a much more practical sense informs Wilde’s publication of his Poems in 1881. When Wilde graduated in 1878, he was ambitious (and his mother was ambitious for him) but what he was actually going to do was unclear. Classics scholar, archaeologist, school inspector and even Member of Parliament were all career options he considered at this time. So was a literary career, although monetarily that was far more uncertain. The editors of the modern scholarly edition of Wilde’s poems argue that although poetry was much less commercially profitable in 1880 than at the beginning of the century, it retained its place as the most prestigious literary form, and so it was still worth ‘launching oneself’ with a book of poems. Wilde had already published many shorter poems in magazines, and it was now that he apparently began to write longer ones too, to provide the bulk to fill out a whole volume.


I may expand this section later, but for now (partly to avoid further delay in publishing this post) it’s intended just as a brief overview and ‘taster’ of Wilde’s poetry, most of which can anyway be found in full online (see Endnote).

As mentioned, my main interest in Wilde’s poetry is in what it tells us about the man himself and about the poetic times he lived in. Technically it’s all perfectly polished, but it’s not difficult to deride aspects of it as padded or insincere. For example, a friend of Wilde’s reported seeing him at his desk with a botany book, looking for flower names to pad out one of his poems. (This is borne out by ‘The Garden of Eros’, quoted above, which begins with seventeen fairly unnecessary stanzas about woodland flowers before it gets to its main point.) Many poems have French or Greek titles when they could perfectly well have English ones, and so on. Some of the opinions Wilde expressed might have been with an eye to pleasing eminent readers. (He sent inscribed copies of his Poems to Robert Browning, Swinburne, and Matthew Arnold, amongst others.)

Aside from these negative aspects, it is clear that Wilde put a lot of effort into presenting his volume as a neat and coherent whole. The shorter poems are gathered into groups by subject, pigeon-holed between five longer poems, including ‘The Garden of Eros’. There are poems about theatrical performances, political poems praising liberty and democracy, travel poems, imitation medieval ballads, and poems expressing vacillation and indecision. A few impressionistic descriptive poems, perhaps French-influenced, strike a more modern flavour. A risqué element of the Swinburne variety is introduced in the long poem ‘Charmides’, about a young man who makes love to a goddess’s statue, is killed for it, and is then himself made love to when dead by a nymph. (It ends happily, however!) One set of poems is supposed to record Wilde’s unhappy love for ‘professional beauty’ Lily Langtry (his inclinations seem to have been bisexual at this time, his first gay sexual experience not taking place till later).

There are two major omissions from Wilde’s poetry that I don’t recall having seen remarked upon, although they are really rather glaring. The first is the absence of anything Irish. Wilde spent many childhood summers in beautiful parts of Ireland, which would surely have furnished material for poetic descriptions and narratives if he had felt so inclined. Instead the poems are full of expressions such as ‘Our English land’, which offended at least one of his Irish editors (Wilde’s early poems were mostly published in Irish magazines). It’s all too clear that Wilde, on the make in the English metropolis, saw his Irish background as a disadvantage and deliberately suppressed it, just as he had deliberately lost his Irish accent at Oxford.

The other omission is humour. This is one of the wittiest men in history by reputation, and yet as far as I can see there is not a single glimmer of humour in his entire poetic output. No comic verse, no parodies (even in manuscript form), not even an ironic line to raise a smile. Wilde could be humorous in prose about other poets, but the actual writing of poetry he seems to have regarded as a solemn, even a po-faced activity.

One theme present, though half-hidden, in Wilde’s poetry is made much of in Richard Ellmann’s biography: Roman Catholicism. One of the strangest aspects of Wilde’s 1881 volume is that it contains poems both strongly defending and strongly attacking the Pope and the Catholic Church. One could write a whole post just on this aspect, but in essence Ellmann traces the origins of these poems to a period of anguished soul-searching in the late 1870s when Wilde felt spiritually rootless and wondered whether he should convert to Catholicism. In the end he did not, and Ellmann’s conclusion (which I find convincing)  was that he instead decided to live with his inner contradictions and make a virtue of them - hence the subsequent difficulty in working out what Wilde ‘really’ thought about anything, and hence also, perhaps, his success as a playwright.

There is, though, one belief that Wilde seems to have maintained consistently throughout his life, and that was the paramount importance of beauty; in particular, that the object of art was to create beautiful things and not anything else. The Ballad of Reading Gaol seems to go against this, having in part a reformist agenda,  but Wilde, though he obviously thought the poem was worth writing, later expressed uneasiness about it: ‘a denial of my own philosophy of art in many ways’, he wrote in a letter.

The circumstances in which we use the word beauty have certainly changed since Wilde’s time. Today it would be difficult to imagine someone being praised as our best poet because the poems they wrote were more beautiful than anyone else’s. It is, perhaps, the high importance attached to the concept of beauty that most separates late Victorian poetry from that of today.


NOTE: Texts of older editions of Wilde’s Poems are visible in full online at Hathi Trust, the archiving website. The modern scholarly edition of all Wilde’s poems, Poems and Poems in Prose (ed. B. Fong and K. Beckman, OUP, 2000), prints the poems in order of composition as far as this is known. The text of Wilde’s American Lecture ‘The English Renaissance of Art’ can be found by online searching.  The standard critical biography of Wilde remains Richard Ellmann’s (1987). Keats and the Victorians by G. H. Ford, originally published 1945, gives much detail about Keats’s posthumous reputation. There is also a paperback edition of Wilde’s poems published by Wordsworth Editions.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013


A child may ask when our strange epoch passes
During a history lesson, 'Please, sir, what's
An intellectual of the middle classes?
Is he a maker of ceramic pots,
Or does he choose his king by drawing lots?'
What follows now may set him on the rail,
A plain, perhaps a cautionary, tale.

I’ve been interested in W. H. Auden’s works since I was a teenager, but my opinion of their worth has fluctuated considerably over that time. Sometimes I’ve thought that, if the 20th century were to be represented by just one writer, it should be him. At other times I’ve taken the more pessimistic view that his output was mainly a clever intellectual game, not particularly moving for the most part, and of little ultimate value to people at large. At yet other times I’ve felt that his real genius was for vivid phrases and one-liners, so that one way to make his works live would be to convert them into a multi-volume quotations book arranged under categorized subject headings. (Auden was interested in practically every subject going, from science to arts to philosophy to theology.)

The obstacles to developing a balanced view of Auden are considerable. He was a prolific writer all his life, not only of individual poems but also of large-scale dramatic and semi-dramatic works, not to mention prose criticism.  His tone of voice can vary from comic to preachy to lyrical to totally obscure, sometimes within the same poem. Where does one start? In practice, are most people just going to know him by a handful of individual poems that happen to become well known, such as ‘Stop all the clocks’ (not actually one of his more interesting poems in my opinion, although brilliantly deployed in Four Wedding and a Funeral)?

A relatively straightforward route into Auden that I've come to favour recently is via his long comic poem ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, from which the stanza above is quoted. Written in 1936 when Auden was in Iceland for the summer, it’s one of the most accessible of his works. It is a long poem, 159 stanzas in its shorter final version, written in the style of Byron’s sprawling satiric masterpiece Don Juan. (See the Endnote to this post for further details.)

‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is not given a great deal of critical attention in the works on Auden I’ve perused, perhaps because it’s thought too straightforward and obvious compared with his more ‘obscure’ or ‘serious’ works. (It does contain a number of topical allusions to people and places of the 1930s, but in this day of the Internet these can easily be tracked down.)

One way in which 'Letter to Lord Byron' is highly typical of Auden generally is in its imitation of the style of another writer. As Katherine Bucknell’s 1994 edition of Auden’s Juvenilia demonstrates, Auden became a poet – from an almost instantaneous start at age 15 – by imitating the styles of other writers, starting with Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy and progressing to a whole host of others. He ultimately achieved an astonishing technical fluency in practically every verse form in the English language. Although one would never mistake an Auden poem for a poem by one of his models (he says things in a way that the original would never say) it does explain why it seems impossible to write a general parody of Auden’s style – all one can do is pick one of his many styles and parody that.

‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is not an exact technical imitation of Don Juan: Auden uses the seven-line 'rhyme royal' stanza, whereas Byron uses ottava rima which has one more line. But both stanzas lend themselves to comic observation rounded off by a punchy couplet (such as Byron’s famous ‘But - oh ye lords of ladies intellectual!/ Inform us truly, have they not henpecked you all?’).

The four sections of Auden’s poem are: an introduction explaining why he’s chosen to write it; a topical update for Byron’s benefit about 1930s Britain, complete with Surrealist Exhibitions, chromium-plated furniture, Sir Oswald Mosley and much else; a section on the arts, especially Auden’s reservations about the Romantic movement; and finally a mainly autobiographical section, including the stanza quoted above.

There’s one attractive way in which ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is not typical of Auden’s poetry. Auden often writes in a preachy, impersonal manner (‘the preacher’s loose immodest tone’, as he called it), but in this poem he adopts an engaging, self-deprecating persona which he rarely uses elsewhere except in the lesser-known poems of his last years. Of course preachers can have interesting things to say, but one trouble with Auden’s preaching is that he was always changing his views, sometimes even by the time a particular ‘preachy’ poem was published.

Which takes us on to the subject matters of Auden’s poetry, and their relative importance to him. Psychology and psychoanalysis were major areas of interest permeating his early verse, not only Freudian but the views of a whole range of lesser figures.  By 1936, when he was 29, he’d already passed through his most intense period of interest in such subjects, and was able to joke about it in ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ as a largely a phase in which a friend had ‘fed/ New doctrines into my receptive head’.

Auden was also thought of as a political writer in the 1930s, but while the era virtually forced writers to take some interest in politics, and while Auden’s technical flair allowed him to write memorable political poems, he was not in my opinion really a political animal, being much more interested in the ‘human condition’ in the abstract. In particular, despite hints that he was drifting towards communism in the earlier 1930s, he makes fun of this in the original version of ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, by claiming that his left-wing friends predicted he would remain ‘a selfish pink old Liberal to the last’.

It would be wrong to claim that ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ covers all of Auden’s preoccupations. Not much is said about personal love, for example, while the poem was written before his later return to the High Anglican religion of his childhood.

Nonetheless, the poem does cover what I’ve come to regard as perhaps the centre of Auden’s being, his intense emotional bond to certain places and landscapes. This seems to have come before all his other interests – before sex, psychology, poetry and history, for example. He constantly reuses favourite landscapes throughout his writing career, sometimes disguised  or employed as psychological allegories, but always with a real personal feeling for them.

As a child, and perhaps afterwards too, Auden seems to have been some way along the Asperger’s spectrum; he later wrote that in childhood ‘people seemed rather profane’, in comparison with places and things. Unlike Wordsworth’s landscapes, Auden’s do not involve untouched wildernesses, but have to be marked by a human element, preferably industrial, to give them meaning (although the people themselves are usually absent). These landscapes include the bleak lead-mining areas of the Durham moors, visited in childhood holidays, with their flues and chimneys and engine houses, and also the urban industrial landscape of Birmingham’s black country, near where Auden grew up, with its tramlines and slagheaps. ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ again:

On economic, health, or moral grounds
It hasn’t got the least excuse to show;
No more than chamber pots or otter hounds:
But let me say before it has to go,
It’s the most lovely country that I know;
Clearer than Scafell Pike, my heart has stamped on
The view from Birmingham to Wolverhampton.

In a later poem about love, Auden similarly wrote:

Love requires an Object,
But this varies so much,
Almost, I imagine,
   Anything will do:
When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
   Beautiful as you.

Among all his massive oeuvre, that is one of the few passages that can still bring tears to my eyes.

NOTE: This post obviously will make more sense after actually reading ‘Letter to Lord Byron’. In its final revised form, the poem can be found in Auden’s Collected Poems and also his Collected Longer Poems. It was originally published as a longer five-section poem in Letters from Iceland (1937), a book written jointly with Louis MacNeice. This original version was reprinted in The English Auden (1977). Auden’s revisions to his poems are often controversial, but in this case it was mainly a question of cutting weaker stanzas. So I would recommend starting with the more concise revised version, and then exploring the original version later if desired.

Saturday, 13 July 2013


As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve come to admire Wordsworth for his insights into sightseeing and travelling, where I find him much more down-to-earth than his popular image of solitary ‘communing with nature’ suggests. In his later groups of poems particularly - written in connection with individual tours that he made through Britain and Europe - he packages his reflections into conveniently short poetic modules, mainly sonnets. This post hopes to be one of several that focus on the different things he has to say in these ‘tour’ poems.

First, I should be honest about what I do/don’t get out of reading Wordsworth  Three things I appreciate most about poetry generally (when I can find them) are: its melodious or ‘singing’ quality; its capacity to touch the heart suddenly and unexpectedly; and its frequent wit and humour. I have to say I rarely find  any of these qualities reading Wordsworth! For me, especially with the later poems, it’s the reflective content of what he says that interests me.

In fact, I’d probably be just as happy to read Wordsworth’s travel reflections if they were in prose - indeed, he himself provides many prose reflections in his notes to his own poems. On the other hand, Wordsworth in his later years  had become highly practised at crafting sonnets, which lend themselves to concentrated expression of thought. So since he went to the trouble of writing sonnets, I’m more than happy to read them. . .

Not everyone likes the sonnet as a form, A.E. Housman for example regarding it as 'more often a substitute than a vehicle for poetry’. Wordsworth’s sonnets take after those of John Milton, a leading influence in turning the sonnet from a love-poem  into a form used for general reflection. Wordsworth’s lifelong self-assurance and his lack of humour can give his sonnets a pompous air - that comes with the territory with Wordsworth - but once one gets into the habit of reading them they’re not difficult to understand. Wordsworth is usually saying what he thinks perfectly straightforwardly, without the puzzles and ambiguities that one finds in Shakespeare’s sonnets for example.

So after that preamble, here’s a first sample of his ‘travel’ sonnets, one which surprised me when I first read it a couple of years ago. It comes from a set connected with his tour to the Isle of Man and Western Scotland in 1833, when he was 63. The sonnet focuses on the ‘motions and means’ that were making this tour possible:

Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this, 
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe'er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar 
To the Mind's gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision, whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown 
In your harsh feature, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime.

Although Wordsworth didn’t use railways on his trip (they were only just getting going in 1833), voyages in steamboats were essential for making it happen, as he recognised. How many of us since Wordsworth’s time have felt an uneasy conflict between loving the great outdoors and fearing that the transport we use helps spoil it? This sonnet boldly offers the consoling argument that steamboats and railways can  be seen as natural because they’re the offspring of something natural (Man) - and moreover, they represent the triumph of one aspect of nature over another.

If this sonnet were by John Donne, one might interpret it as elaborating a deliberately bogus argument for the amusement of readers! However, since it’s by Wordsworth, that seems much less likely, and one must assume that he did mean it seriously at the time.

What I find most interesting is that, although Wordsworth did later oppose the encroachment of railways on his beloved Lake District, he was by no means in blanket opposition to their growth, or to other forms of modern transport, even on aesthetic grounds. A prose note that he wrote for the above poem even celebrates a ‘magnificent viaduct’  thrown over the River Eden near the Lake District as part of the Newcastle to Carlisle Railway.

It’s therefore wrong to imagine that Wordsworth was some kind of Luddite anti-technologist. He was too sensible, and too honest, for that.

Thursday, 11 July 2013


I’ve often felt there’s an undercurrent of half-hidden doubts and conflicts associated with viewing the outdoors:  ‘Do I really think this view is beautiful, or do I just say so because it’s expected of me?’ ‘There’s been a change to this landscape  - am I cool about that, or should I be objecting?’ ‘I’ve finally got to my destination, and actually I’m rather disappointed’; and so on.

In Britain especially, our views have been significantly influenced by one man, William Wordsworth, whose attitudes as expressed both in his poetry and prose have seeped into our national way of looking at the outdoors. In particular, his views were influential on the setting up of national parks, and also inspired the creation of the National Trust.

Until recently I tended to think that Wordsworth’s dogmas were part of the problem when it came to the uneasiness we may feel in relation to the countryside. But reading him more closely in the last couple of years, I’ve come to realise that he’s much more ‘on our side’ than I previously imagined.

This perhaps all sounds quite abstract so far, so I should explain that this post is in part intended as a reference point, to give me something to refer back to from future posts on specific poems.

The reason I thought Wordsworth was ‘part of the problem’ is that he sometimes writes as though the mere act of seeing a natural object such as a rainbow or a wild flower  automatically brings joy. And because of Wordsworth’s prestige, one might be inclined to feel apologetic or even inadequate if one doesn’t react in the same way. Personally I’ve always been sceptical about such sweeping claims about nature, which to me beg many questions, including: If natural objects are so powerful, why not just go straight to them rather than reading poems about them? Do all natural objects tend to create joy (a bee, an acorn, a slug...)? What about being in low spirits - don’t nature’s beauties tend to mock one’s own unhappiness rather than alleviating it? And, in general, just why should an object’s merely being natural cause joy in a person?

However, closer inspection of Wordsworth’s works show that he is often more down-to-earth and realistic than famous poems such as ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ might suggest. To take one example: sapling Scots pines are entirely natural objects, yet Wordsworth in his prose Guide to the Lakes is firmly critical: ‘The young Scotch fir', he writes, 'is less attractive during its youth than any other plant.' (He does  add that it can grow into a ‘noble tree’ if given room to spread its arms.) Many examples can be given where Wordsworth applies critical or aesthetic judgements to natural objects and scenes, and does not just accept them as beautiful and inspirational simply because they’re natural.

Although so far I’ve used ‘natural’ in the sense of ‘not created by humans’, we often use the word nature more loosely to mean ‘the non-urban outdoors’, including traditional farmscapes as well as untouched wildernesses. Wordsworth was keenly interested in nature in this broader sense, and about the positive contributions that human activities can make to the landscape. He is a great poet of place and places - a subject which many of us have just as deep feelings about as we do about ‘nature’ in the abstract. In his later poems especially, he has many acute things to say about the psychology of sightseeing (and Wordsworth was a great traveller throughout his long life). Topics he deals with include: our possibly overvaluing a sight because we come across it by surprise, or after travelling through dull country; the disadvantages of visiting somewhere in a large group; the slight guilt we may feel about ignoring places on our doorstep; our tendency to speculate about natural phenomena without coming to any conclusions; and so on.

A final tentative thought for now about Wordsworth’s ‘development’ as a poet. In his earlier and better-known poems he tends to treat nature as a single mystical entity or ‘Power’ (one of Wordsworth’s favourite words, usually capitalised). This view tends to be less visible in his later poems, with more emphasis being given to different varieties of experience in the context of real sightseeing tours. People have often suggested  that Wordsworth’s poetic powers declined in later years. Personally I don’t see that, unless perhaps it’s ‘power to believe certain things’. Perhaps the older Wordsworth simply no longer believed so strongly in the validity of a mystical approach to nature; it may also have smacked too much of animism or pantheism to be compatible with the orthodox Church of England religion that he increasingly gave at least lip-service to. In any case, whatever the exact truth, I believe there’s plenty to interest and even amuse in his later poetry, and I hope to explore some of its richness in future posts.

Friday, 5 July 2013


I was once thumbing through a tattered poetry book in a library when some  opening lines caught my eye:

From the depths of the dreamy decline of the dawn through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine
Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that flickers with fear of the flies as they float. . .

I read on. A few lines down, and the alliteration had increased even further:

Surely no spirit or sense of a soul that was soft to the spirit and soul of our senses
Sweetens the stress of suspiring suspicion that sobs in the semblance and sound of a sigh

not to mention:

Made meek as a mother whose bosom beats bound with the bliss-bringing bulk of a balm-breathing baby

The poem, titled ‘Nephelidia’ (‘little clouds’) was by the Victorian poet A.C. Swinburne. I already knew a little about Swinburne, and that he had a reputation for elaborate versification. But even so, how could anyone bring themselves to write poetry quite so over-the-top?

The answer to this is explored below, but first, a little about the man himself:

Swinburne was such an extraordinary character that a list seems the best way to introduce him briefly: Son of an admiral; very short but with a long neck, large head and auburn hair; constantly twitching hands possibly due to brain damage at birth; lifelong interest in flagellation from his Eton schooldays (both writing about it and being whipped himself); close friend of D.G. Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites; critic, linguist and classical scholar; disapproving of male homosexuality but enthusiastic about lesbianism; claimed to find the Marquis de Sade’s writings hilariously funny; champion of French poets, especially Baudelaire; rescued from an alcoholic bachelor existence at the age of 42 by a male friend; lived quietly in Putney for the rest of his life, developing an innocent interest in babies and writing many poems about them.

Swinburne was admired for his astonishing versifying skills by all his poetic contemporaries, including the Poet Laureate Tennyson. On the other hand, even his own mother criticised his verbosity, while Robert Browning complained of his ‘never using one word where 100 will do’.

But people certainly took notice of him. His first major collection Poems and Ballads, published in 1866 when he was 29, scandalised the Victorians with its allusions to lesbianism, sadomasochistic sex and other matters. Punch magazine christened him ‘Mr Swine-born’ – though there’s an irony since Swinburne might well still have been a virgin when his book was published.

Swinburne robustly defended his poems, and never sought to suppress them afterwards. Yet he seems to have quickly lost interest in risqué matters: subsequent volumes of poetry choose entirely different subjects such as liberty, the sea, historical and patriotic topics, and of course babies.

More discussion of Swinburne in future posts, I hope. But, in the meantime, how does ‘Nephelidia’ contribute to getting to know him? It was some time after my first reading that I discovered its simple secret: it’s a self-parody. Swinburne was fully aware of his poetic idiosyncrasies, even if he chose not to rein them in, one of these being a  particular fondness for triple rhythms (one two three, one two three. .). He also spread alliteration on with a trowel at the best of times, and so had to go to extreme lengths to parody himself – hence the remarkable lines quoted above. 

I like to think the poem offers a ‘taster’ of Swinburne while excusing oneself from asking what he might be saying under all the verbosity – because the answer in the case of ‘Nephelidia’ is, more than likely, Nothing at all.

[The full text of ‘Nephelidia’ can be found here:
(Although there’s plenty of academic interest in Swinburne today, when if ever he becomes a household name again remains to be seen. . .)]