Meet Your New Favorite Poet

From The Paris Review:

I like to tell poetry students about pleasures that are “on reserve” for them—meaning pleasures they’re too little to have now, but which they will have, someday, if they just stick with it. Good example of this: owning other poets.

How can you own a poet? Simple. You have to find a poet whom no one has read in a long time, a poet with no living fans. Then you have to sincerely love that poet’s work. That’s the hard part. But if you love the poet’s poems, and no one else has even read them, there’s your opportunity to plant your flag. That poet is now your private property. Your interpretation of that poet’s work is by definition correct. Your right to be there is indisputable.

. . . .

James Thomson (1700–1748) is my private property. I keep him in my pocket and take him out and look at him sometimes. He always looks good. There are many James Thomson poems that I have never read. Consequently, those pieces do not exist. The ones I have read I have read many times. I’m talking about The Seasons, a 5,500-line poem that used to be approximately as famous as the Aeneid or whatever. It was translated into a bunch of different languages, Goethe revered it, it was imitated all over the place. People used to sit there, stunned or rocking back and forth, muttering “Oh man, oh man, oh man!” about The Seasons. These days, however—2019—the sun has quite gone down on this great poet.

It’s not hard to see why. His stuff doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good AT ALL. Number one, it was written in the eighteenth century. Nobody likes that century’s poetry. Number two, it’s in twisted-up Miltonic blank verse. In other words, it’s hard. Number three, it’s 5,500 lines of nature imagery. There’s no plot, no characters—it’s nature imagery, floor to ceiling.

Do not adjust your laptop. That sound you hear is fleeing multitudes.

. . . .

Exhibit A: This is just to give you an idea what kind of diction-syntax we’re talking about. This is really early 0n in the poem, and Thomson has been talking about how the coming of spring affects the air and the wind; now he draws your attention to the soil and leaves:

Nor only through the lenient air this change
Delicious breathes: the penetrative Sun,
His force deep-darting to the dark retreat
Of vegetation, sets the steaming power
At large, to wander o’er the vernant earth
In various hues …

For God’s sake, look at the word lenient there; the word penetrative; the word retreat. And the construction “sets the steaming power at large.” But, more subtly, consider the strange way that this:

Nor only through the lenient air this change delicious breathes,—

is so much better than:

Not only does this delicious change breathe through the lenient air,—

This latter point instantiates a deep mystery. In 2019, no one would dare Latinize their syntax like that. It would look like if you went to school one day in an Elizabethan ruff. And even in the eighteenth century, this wasn’t always done with grace and élan. Thomson, however, has the touch. He always knows when it would be better to say “Something wicked this way comes” rather than “Something wicked comes this way” (which, incidentally, has the exact same scansion).

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

During college, PG spent a lot of time analyzing poems and other literary work for class assignments. (He might have been better off if he had studied computer programming, but that field was pretty gross before personal computers. At any rate, his résumé got him a good first job out of college, then a good second job, which is about all you can expect from an undergraduate degree. During his second job interviews, nobody asked him about his undergraduate studies).

At any rate, while PG liked a lot of things about the OP, he must take exception to the author’s slander of 18th-century poets and poetry. Here’s a short list of poets PG thinks did fine work during that era:

William Blake
Robert Burns
Lord Byron
Samuel T.Coleridge
John Keats
Percy Shelley
William Wordsworth

Here’s the opening of Endymion by Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

The entirety of Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by Wordsworth:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

And, by Robbie (pronounced Rabbie) Burns, “The National Poet of Scotland,” John Anderson my jo:

(The poem’s narrator is an old Scottish women speaking about her husband of many years and their life together.)

John Anderson my jo, John,
When we were first acquent,
Your locks were like the raven,
Your bonie brow was brent;
But now your brow is beld, John,
Your locks are like the snaw,
but blessings on your frosty pow,
John Anderson, my jo!

John Anderson my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither,
And monie a cantie day, John,
We’ve had wi’ ane anither;
Now we maun totter down, John,
And hand in hand we’ll go,
And sleep thegither at the foot,
John Anderson, my jo!

For those who are a bit rusty on Gaelic and its effect on 18th-century Scottish pronunciation of English words, here’s a cheat sheet:

jo – darling
acquent – acquainted
brent – smooth
beld – bald
pow – crown of your head
clamb – climb
thegither – together
cantie – happy
maun – must


6 thoughts on “Meet Your New Favorite Poet”

  1. PG, I approve your choices but I think you are pushing it calling Keats and Shelley 18th century poets. It’s a bit hard to claim that for Byron as well.

    I suspect that this is one of those cases where the writer’s definition of 18th century does not tie in with the chronological record. My guess is that he really means poets writing in the first three quarters of the century and certainly excludes anything Romantic.

    • I’m not sure about century definitions, Mike, so you could be right.

      Both Keats and Shelley were born in the 18th century. Not by much, though.

  2. Those lines do not scan the same way. Sheesh. “Comes” at the end is accented strongly, but “way” at the end is accented weakly or not at all.

    • Strictly speaking, they both scan the same way; that is, they both fulfil the requirements of the metre. But you are definitely right that the music is different; a consonantal verb like ‘comes’ is much stronger than a mewling little semi-abstract noun like ‘way’.

      Of course, the fact that ‘comes’ rhymes with ‘thumbs’ definitely helps. But this, too, is part of the Bard’s design. In the whole passage, the only rhymes with open syllables are go/throw and Jew/yew. Nearly all the rhymes are masculine, nearly all are monosyllables, and it is nearly impossible to read the lines aloud without chanting – which ensures the proper effect on the stage.

Comments are closed.