Friday, December 05, 2014

`Continue to Beguile'

“A Prayer in Late-Middle Age” is a poem in Dan Brown’s new collection, What More? (Orchises, 2015): 

I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.”
                                                --Yeats on Keats 

“A river’s lazy essing,
An interstate or two,
Some ridging here, a city
There…a god’s-eye view 

“To which we’re only privy
At 30,000 feet—
And travel agents ask me
If I’d like a window seat. 

“Talk about an easy
Call….If there’s a trace
Of child surviving in me
It figures in a face 

“Inches from a window
That answers from above
To the one between the sweets and
Keats. May glimpses of 

“The shifting vista in it
Continue to beguile
When my bladder’s frequent promptings
Have put me on the aisle.” 

The Yeats epigraph is from “Ego Dominus Tuus” (The Wild Swans of Coole, 1919). The Dantean title means “I am your lord,” and the names of the speakers in the dialogue, Hic and Ille, are Latin for “this man” and “that man,” respectively. With Yeats, snobbery is never far off. In the lines following those in the epigraph, Ille continues: 

“For certainly he sank into his grave
His senses and his heart unsatisfied,
And made—being poor, ailing and ignorant,
Shut out from all the luxury of the world,
The coarse-bred son of a livery stablekeeper—
Luxuriant song.” 

A mixed verdict at best. A century earlier, in eight essays published in Blackwood’s Magazine, John Gibson Lockhart famously libeled the “Cockney School of Poetry,” including Keats, Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt. The articles were less literary criticism than elaborate exercises in class snobbery. Lockhart writes: “Mr Hunt is a small poet, but he is a clever man. Mr Keats is a still smaller poet, and he is a boy of pretty abilities, which he has done everything in his power to spoil,” followed by this, playing on Keats’ medical training: 

“It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John, back to `plasters, pills, and ointment boxes,’ &c. But, for Heaven’s sake, young Sangrado [a reference to the medical practice of bleeding], be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.” 

Yeats likewise patronizes Keats by imagining him as a schoolboy peering longingly through a shop window at candy, yet the image has always struck me as not greedy or unsophisticated but charming. In a comic vein, Brown reclaims the image and turns it around. The speaker in his poem, a man in “late-middle age,” is boyish in the best sense, holding on to his enthusiasm for the world’s bounty, whether sweets or the Earth seen from five miles up. Even with my airline-crippling dimensions, I prefer the window seat. The “shifting vista” is always a better show than the lousy in-flight movie or my seatmate’s silly e-book. Only so long as the world “Continue[s] to beguile” can we remain grateful and reasonably happy. 

[Twenty years ago I interviewed the late William M. Murphy, the Yeats scholar at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. He was about to publish Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and His Relatives (1995). After almost half a century immersed in the Yeats clan, Murphy expressed disgust with “Willie” and “all of his occult crap.” He said: “I got tired of him a long time ago, but I stuck with his family.”]

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