Tuesday, October 16, 2012

`They Mount, They Shine, Evaporate, and Fall'

Ezra Pound writes in a frequently quoted January 1915 letter to Harriet Monroe: “Poetry must be as well written as prose.” Even when he’s making sense, Pound manages to sound dictatorial, and one feels obligated out of principle to disagree with everything he says. In contrast, Charles Lamb writes in an 1823 letter to the now-forgotten poet Charles Lloyd (1775-1839): 

“Your poetry is like no other: — those cursed Dryads and Pagan trumperies of modern verse have put me out of conceit with the very name of poetry. Your verses are as good and as wholesome as prose; and I have made a sad blunder if I do not leave you with an impression that your present is rarely valued.”

Unlike Pound, Lamb is charming and common-sensical: “As good and as wholesome as prose.” I knew Lloyd only as a friend of Lamb’s who had been introduced to the essayist by Coleridge. A little poking about confirmed Lamb was devoting more energy to being kind as a friend than discerning as a critic. Lloyd’s poems read like awkward parodies of Romantic verse. His best-known work is probably the book-length Desultory Thoughts in London (1821), which irresistibly invites parody. Here, from Book I, is Stanza 135: 

“But when Dejection’s crass ingredients muddle,
And sometimes almost choak the springs of thought,
’Tis quite a chance, if from the slimy puddle,--
Although we surely know ’tis there,--that ought
Of bright (which will like eels or loaches huddle
In any muddy crevice) can be caught.
As lady’s wishes, they’re as hard to find,
And when they’re found, as difficult to bind.” 

Human sympathy, however, restrains the parodic hand. Lloyd, like such poetic forebears in England as Smart, Clare and Cowper, suffered from, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “distressing auditory illusions.” At least periodically, he was quite mad, not unlike Pound. The Dictionary adds: 

“For some years Lloyd was engaged in translating Ovid's Metamorphoses, and in 1815 published a translation of Alfieri's plays, a project which De Quincey suggests he undertook to divert his mind from the threat of the onset of insanity. He also wrote, and printed privately at Ulverston, a novel, entitled Isabel, which was published in 1820; it has remained almost unknown. Meanwhile he was removed to the Quaker psychiatric hospital in York.” 

How sad, to labor for a lifetime at literature and be remembered as a mad man and the friend of greater writers. A much better poet, one not unacquainted with madness, writes: 

“Unnumber'd Suppliants croud Preferment's Gate,
Athirst for Wealth, and burning to be great;
Delusive Fortune hears th' incessant Call,
They mount, they shine, evaporate, and fall.”

1 comment:

marly youmans said...

Who could be better named than Lamb?

Most writers labor a lifetime to be little remembered. And yet I am not sad for them. What wholeness and fullness of life they had may have come in some part from being involved in continual creation, and even from adjusting their minds to accept that they were not, alas, great artists.

Your blog is addictive!