Wednesday, May 27, 2009

`Shockingly Mellifluous Musicality'

Seldom is a review worthy of its subject (except if the book is lousy); even more rarely does one rival or exceed its subject in excellence. Randall Jarrell wrote a few of the latter and so has Christopher Ricks, author of the unmatched Keats and Embarrassment. In The New York Review of Books, Ricks publishes a review of Stanley Plumly’s Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography notable for grace, generosity and casual scholarship. It is written by a gentlemanly critic:

“It is a mark of this biography's distinction that there is so much that I for one (and not alone) would wish to address in gratitude.”

When Plumly published his book last year, I was surprised. I attended a reading he gave at my university almost 40 years ago that was memorable for leaving almost no memories, negative or otherwise. Subsequent attempts to read his poetry confirmed its unmemorable quality but his Keats volume is a masterpiece of empathetic brilliance, a late-career masterpiece – and Ricks is his master reader. No critic is so attuned to the sound of words in poetry. His hearing is acute but while exercising it he never sacrifices the poet’s humanity:

“Thanks to acts of arbitration that are not simply arbitrary, [Plumly] is able to exercise to the full his own shaping spirit of imagination, and to have each chapter be `formed from a single image, theme, or object relative to Keats's vulnerabilities as an individual and his strengths as an artist.’ The happy result, sensitive to the darkest unhappinesses, is a work that is markedly personal, while never becoming self-conscious, idiosyncratic, or eccentric.”

In an e-mail to me on Monday, Bill Sigler writes:

“I myself always get knocked upside the head by Spenser, whose shockingly mellifluous musicality always gives me a visceral response, kinda like what [Geoffrey] Hill said about the way the mouth moves as the key to poetry. Granted, Spenser had access to a lot of words that are no longer in the English language.”

“Shockingly mellifluous musicality” also deftly captures the sound of Keats’ best verse. Keats, of course, was a great admirer of the author of The Faerie Queen. His earliest surviving poem is titled “Imitation of Spenser” (1814), and he put a portrait of Spenser on the title page of his first published book of poems. The poet’s friend, Charles Cowden Clarke, describes Keats’ reaction when he introduced him to Spenser:

“It were difficult at this lapse of time, to note the spark that fired the train of his poetical tendencies; but he must have given unmistakable tokens of his mental bent; otherwise, at that early stage of his career, I never could have read to him the `Epithalamium’ of Spenser; and this I remember having done, and in that hallowed old arbour, the scene of many bland and graceful associations -- the substances having passed away. At that time he may have been sixteen years old; and at that period of life he certainly appreciated the general beauty of the composition, and felt the more passionate passages; for his features and exclamations were ecstatic.... like a true poet, too -- a poet `born, not manufactured,’ a poet in grain, he especially singled out epithets, for that felicity and power in which Spenser is so eminent.”

Reading Ricks’ review moves one to reread Plumly’s life and Keats’ poems and letters, which suggests how potent reviews can be, though they seldom are.

No comments: