Occasionally, we encounter a bit of writing that gels a thought we previously had left murky and undefined. Montaigne did that for Eric Hoffer. In his story “Zetland: By a Character Witness,” Saul Bellow describes a young man (based on Isaac Rosenfeld) who abandons philosophy after reading Moby-Dick. My experience is a little less dramatic. The passage above comes from an essay Bryan Appleyard published in 2007, “Poetry and the English Imagination.” Bryan is thoughtful and prolific, and I wasn’t expecting him to realign my thinking, but suddenly I understood that English is the nation of poets, and that Englishness, more than the essence of any other nation, is largely defined by its poetry. At the time I wrote: “Try to imagine your emotional, sensory and intellectual lives without the gift of English poetry.” No doubt, some will find the thought offensive. As Bryan says, “We are a nation defined by and consisting of poets. To deny this is to deny England.” There is no rival.
On his own, a reader sent me Bryan’s essay because, he said, “I thought you’d get a kick out of it.” He’s right, especially because I hadn’t read it in several years and because I had forgotten Bryan’s speculation as to why our cousins are poets:
“But the truth, I suspect, is that it is the English language itself which made us poets. This is, of course, unprovable, not least because of the chicken and egg question – did the language make the English poets or did the English make the language poetic? But, if only subjectively, I think some kind of case can be made.”
For Bryan, the English line peters out after Auden. I can’t agree: Larkin and Hill, and down a notch, Stevie Smith and C.H. Sisson. But that’s quibbling. Yes, the Americans, for a brief spell, picked up the slack, but that tributary too has also run dry. Bryan’s fondness for Ashbery is an aberration we can forgive:
“Nobody can understand England without some sense of her poetry. That means, of course, that very few now understand England. Perhaps that is the way it must be: “The roar of time plunging unchecked through the sluices / Of the days” (Ashbery) must sweep all away. But, though the signs are not good, English poetry is buried too deep in English soil ever to be quite eradicated; and so, like Hamlet, we must defy augury and send the brats home to learn at least a sonnet a night.”