Teaching Cenci

 I recently taught Shelley’s play The Cenci for this course at the University of Washington. It struck me as “unstageable” for the same reasons it did so for the play’s early readers: the sexual episodes are too extreme for the (especially late-Romantic) stage, and the characters deliver exhausting monologues that would bore any live audience. Besides, the language is to full, so intellectual, that hearing it spoken by an actor, one loses half of the meaning. I know, Shakespeare managed to write just as rewardingly for the page and for the stage, but then, he was Shakespeare, wasn’t he? 

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Hardly Hedgerows

Digging through early biographies of the Wordsworth, M.E. Bellanca uncovers one by the poet’s nephew Christopher called Memoirs of William Wordsworth, published in 1851. It features, as she notes, heavy quotation (about 45 pgs) from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere and Scotland journals. So, it should be considered an early publication of Dorothy’s, refuting years of scholarship that had claimed that Wordsworth’s talented sister remained unpublished during her life.

Except scholars made no such claim.

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Poetry of the Crimean War


With world attention fixed once again on the Crimean Peninsula, again due to provocation from Russia, let’s remember, as U.S. Congressional Republicans use the occasion to heckle from the sidelines—if only we’d been more belligerent, aggressive, if only more foot-stamping from across the ocean, then maybe 4-500 years of Russian foreign policy would’ve been reversed, and they’d act against type—that a similar affair happened some years ago. What started as a territorial dispute eventuated in a World War in which America was very nearly embroiled. 

Televised busts will probably be walking the public through much of that history in the coming weeks. Perhaps they already are. I wouldn’t know, having killed my television 15 years ago on the advice of some bumper stickers. It will be flash-summary, of course, full of posturing and bravado, and little in the way of scholarship. I want here only to point out that whatever else the Crimean War gave us (and it gave us a few things including the first tactical use of both railroads and telegraphs) it also gave us much of our finest war poetry. 

Not that I don’t appreciate Melville’s and Whitman’s civl war verse. I do. I think that conflict’s literary contribution, however,  (still largely unsung) took the form of hymnody, private correspondence, and political speech.  And I appreciate Winifred Owen’s work on WWI, especially Dolce et Decorum Est, which I regularly teach in my History of Poetry classes at UW. And Yeats on Ireland and Auden of WWII, and even, weirdly, much of the Taliban poetry on the War of American Aggression or Operation Iraqi Freedom, depending on whose branding you prefer. One needn’t agree with their politics or methods, but their rebellious, anti-Western verse is stirring stuff.
None of it has anything on the Crimean War. I don’t mean to march through it all here. Most readers know Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade, an account of a military disaster (due apparently to a misheard order) rendered as a heroic act of pure bravery and self-sacrifice.  For nearly 100 years, it was the most memorized poem in the language. 

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.

Much of the Crimean War poetry has been analyzed and collected by Stefanie Markovits and Orlando Figes. Both mention, though neither of them dwell on, my favorite Crimean War poems: Sonnets on the War, by Alexander Smith and Sydney Dobell. Smith and Dobell are two of my favorite poets anyway, members of the Spasmodic School, writing in Britain in the 1850’s. After each writing astonishingly successful first books, they turned to this little collaborative book of sonnets, neither taking credit for whose sonnet is whose, or whether they were all written together somehow. 

Sonnets on the War covers British positions on Sebastopol, Hungary, the infamous cavalry charge, on whether America should enter the war, on Florence Nightengale, and much else besides. Here’s one called “Self.”

The War rolls on. Dark failure, brave success
Deafen our ears. But little power to touch
Our deeper human nature lies in such.
Doth victory make an infant’s smile the less?
Each man hath his own personal happiness,
In which--as creep the cold-enfeebled flies
In the late beam--he warm and basking lies.
Each hath his separate rack of sore distress.
No hand can give an alms, no power consoles;
We only have our true hearts and our souls.
In leaguered forts, water with patient arts,
They draw from their own court or garden-plot;
So from the deep-sunk wells within our hearts
We draw refreshment when the fight is hot.

I think that’s just great. The poems are patriotic, but not boosters, inspiring, but not hawkish. More importantly, they’re honest. Tennyson’s poem asks “When can their glory fade?” The answer is: it fades as soon as one finds out that 600 wasted their lives because a general was ineffectively in command of them, and/or their testosterone charge short-circuited their hearing and broke the chain of command. “Honour the Light Brigade,” we are therein commanded. It’s all one-sided.

Smith and Dobell’s poem acknowledges both “brave success” and “dark failure,” which is necessarily the sum of any military engagement. It acknowledges too the uselessness of language as a cure for pain (brave for poets, but again: honest). “Each hath his separate rack of sore distress./ No hand can give an alms, no power consoles,” the poem admits. How much better if we responded to the pain of other’s more often with that kind of realism? 

Here’s the opening of one called “Meditative.”

We could not turn from that colossal foe,
The morning shadow of whose hideous head
Darkened the furthest West, and who did throw
His evening shade on Ind. The polar bow
Behind him flamed and paled, and through the red
Uncertain dark his vasty shape did grow
Upon the sleepless nations…

I write here and there about the Spasmodic poets, and how, though sometimes studied for their jarring popularity in the mid-Victorian era, they deserve a broader audience for the sheer quality of their writing. Sonnets is a good place to start. Read the whole collection here

John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe

Notes Toward a Review

John Keats
By Nicholas Roe

I thought Really? Another Keats biography? I'd just finished Stanley Plumley's Posthumous Keats, and Daisy Hay's Young Romantics, and what with Jane Campion's "Bright Star" (Apparition LLC 2010), I felt the moss'd cottage trees bent with apples, the gourds all swollen, and hazel shells plumped, if you take my meaning. I liked all these, mind you (though Plumley's less after I saw him read from it without force or elaboration as part of the Seattle Arts and Lectures program). Plus, I've written a chapter about Keats in this book, and recently published another article about him here. When I heard about Nicholas Roe's new Keats bio, I thought I would safely pass. 

But then I mentioned it to my friend Frederick Burwick, who claimed it on the spot "required reading." "No negotiating," he continued, "it's just stunning." And he was right--now that I've got my hands on it (thanks, SPU library for my pre-move copy, and Douglas County Libraries for my post-) I see just what he meant. 

I don't much appreciate the phrase "tour-de-force," since it is used indiscriminately to describe everything from blockbuster films to meals, but this book really is a tour of forcefulness: one never settles in, grows comfortable in the intellectual pressure. Three hundred pages in, it's still startling. There are also aspects of the Keats story that I never quite understood that this biography marks and lights.

To name just a few:

Twittery Politico

Keats is an aesthete: perhaps he is the aesthete (pre-Wilde, obviously). But Roe brings out just how political the work is, and was taken, in the poet's life, to be. He's no Shelley, but the choices of his friend group, his places of first publication, his identification with Leigh Hunt, even his grammar school marks him as a liberal, if not quite a radical. 


Everyone knows that Keats was a trained surgeon, but I hadn't processed fully a) how far along he was, and b) how much mileage he got out of medical vocabulary. No mere student of anatomy, according to Roe, Keats would've seen patients, removed limbs, dissected rotting corpses. The thought of that makes him less a wilting flower than he is often cast as. Moreover, his poetry becomes, as Roe shows, markedly more muscular (more sanguine, especially) during the period of his apprenticeship. 


Leigh Hunt is a giant. Now, he's an easy sort to make fun of: less talented than everyone around him, treated less well by history, and fawning. But during Keats' life, he was huge. As a cultural figure, and emblem of resistance, and a taste-maker, and especially as an idol for a young poet like Keats. Hunt published Keats' first poem, introduced him to others who would be seminal for his life and aesthetic, and guided his early work toward the epic and historical.  We have much for which to thank Leigh Hunt, if not for his own work, then for much of Keats'.  

I'm not writing a full review, since I'm doing so much else just now, but for anyone who reads Romanticism, this is a second to Burwick's claim: Roe's book is required reading. 

My Brief Affair with the Criticism of Michael Robbins

Well, that was quick. On Wednesday, I received my copy of this month's Poetry Magazine, and read the criticism first, as is my custom. There, I found a blistering--not for its spirit, but for its force--critique of a new anthology called Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology, edited by Paul Hoover. It was authored by one Michael Robbins, whose poem book, "Aliens vs. Predator," I ordered immediately.

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