pseudopodium
. . . End of the Century

. . .

Something to Believe In

First, End of the Century is respectful. Good. It's the Ramones, man; show some respect.

Then, from a rock documentary yet, insight.

Why did Joey/Jeff stay in the band instead of finishing that solo album? Why did Dee Dee snuff out when exposed to fresh air? How could both be so solidly and lastingly led by a guy who couldn't write, sing, solo, produce, or charm? The answer hangs like leather reek over the parade of celebrities who saw a band with "no talent" and realized "anybody could do that."

Wrong and wrong. Songwriting aside, the Ramones had something from the start those other kids didn't and kept it longer than those other kids would care to: Ineradicable irreducible loyalty to the idealized group. A fervor to "succeed" in the sense of not dishonoring that stoopid ideal, no matter what the individual costs might be.

And there was Johnny Ramone's unique talent. Casualties meant nothing to him (except insofar as they impinged on the honor of the ideal); being liked meant shit. He was a self-made drill sergeant who turned 4-F fuckups into jarheads. The drummers took their one tour of duty and sanely returned to civvies. Joey and Dee Dee were lifers.

Those early Ramones lyrics weren't literally fascist like the dopiest parents thought. But they weren't just jokes like me and my jerkoff friends thought either. They were the closest the band could come to describing the near-unstoppable heart of the organism itself. Semper Fi.

. . .

Fear more the heat o'the sun

For thirty years I've shelved William Congreve's comedies near the center of my personal canon, and it shames me that I can't contort myself to enter what contemporaries considered his most serious work: monotonic blank verse tragedy, heroically coupleted epistles and translations, sheepish elegies, and authentically bootlicking Pindaric odes. I gaze and glaze and it's as if Preston Sturges spent the 1950s filming CinemaScope epics about Mamie Eisenhower.

Congreve's shorter lyrics, many meant for singing, go down more easily, like vodka punch at a dull party. They push a glossy, genial cynicism or, since most of the singers are male, genial misogyny unencumbered by Herrick's manic invention or Rochester's Black Jack medical calling.

I.
Tell me no more I am deceiv’d;
That Cloe’s false and common:
I always knew (at least believ’d)
She was a very Woman;
As such, I lik’d, as such, caress’d,
She still was constant when possess’d,
She could do more for no Man.
II.
But oh! her Thoughts on others ran,
And, that, you think a hard thing;
Perhaps, she fancy’d you the Man,
And what care I one Farthing?
You think she’s false, I'm sure she’s kind;
I take her Body, you her Mind,
Who has the better Bargain?

Indicating how little in this thin-blooded vein sparks Congreve's interest, three of the better poems share a closing (and maybe a germinal) image: the sun, lost without regret.

Doris.
Doris, a Nymph of riper Age,
Has ev’ry Grace and Art;
A wise Observer to engage,
Or wound, a heedless Heart.
Of Native Blush, and Rosie Dye,
Time has her Cheek bereft;
Which makes the prudent Nymph supply,
With Paint, th’injurious Theft.
Her sparkling Eyes she still retains,
And Teeth in good Repair;
And her well-furnish’d Front disdains
To grace with borrow’d Hair.
Of Size, she is nor short, nor tall,
And does to Fat incline
No more, than what the French wou’d call,
Aimable Embonpoint.
Farther, her Person to disclose
I leave let it suffice,
She has few Faults, but what she knows,
And can with Skill disguise.
She many Lovers has refus’d,
With many more comply’d;
Which, like her Cloaths, when little us’d,
She always lays aside.
She’s one, who looks with great Contempt
On each affected Creature,
Whose Nicety would seem exempt,
From Appetites of Nature.
She thinks they want or Health or Sense,
Who want an Inclination;
And therefore never takes Offence
At him who pleads his Passion.
Whom she refuses, she treats still
With so much sweet Behaviour,
That her Refusal, through her Skill,
Looks almost like a Favour.
Since she this Softness can express
To those whom she rejects,
She must be very fond, you’ll guess,
Of such whom she affects.
But here our Doris far outgoes,
All that her Sex have done;
She no Regard for Custom knows,
Which Reason bids her shun.
By Reason, her own Reason’s meant,
Or if you please, her Will:
For when this last is Discontent,
The first is serv’d but ill.
Peculiar therefore is her Way;
Whether by Nature taught,
I shall not undertake to say,
Or by Experience bought.
But who o’er-night obtain’d her Grace,
She can next Day disown,
And stare upon the Strange-Man’s Face,
As one she ne’er had known.
So well she can the Truth disguise,
Such artful Wonder frame,
The Lover or distrusts his Eyes,
Or thinks ’twas all a Dream.
Some, Censure this as Lewd and Low,
Who are to Bounty blind;
For to forget what we bestow,
Bespeaks a noble Mind.
Doris, our Thanks nor asks, nor needs,
For all her Favours done
From her Love flows, as Light proceeds
Spontaneous from the Sun.
On one or other, still her Fires
Display their Genial Force;
And she, like Sol, alone retires,
To shine elsewhere of Course.
To a Candle. Elegy.
Thou watchful Taper, by whose silent Light,
I lonely pass the melancholly Night;
Thou faithful Witness of my secret Pain,
To whom alone I venture to complain;
O learn with me, my hopeless Love to moan;
Commiserate a Life so like thy own.
Like thine, my Flames to my Destruction turn,
Wasting that Heart, by which supply’d they burn.
Like thine, my Joy and Suffering they display,
At once, are Signs of Life, and Symptoms of Decay,
And as thy fearful Flames the Day decline,
And only during Night presume to shine;
Their humble Rays not daring to aspire
Before the Sun, the Fountain of their Fire:
So mine, with conscious Shame, and equal Awe,
To Shades obscure and Solitude withdraw;
Nor dare their Light before her Eyes disclose,
From whose bright Beams their Being first arose.
The Decay. A Song.
I.
Say not, Olinda, I despise
The faded Glories of your Face,
The languish’d Vigour, of your Eyes,
And that once, only lov’d Embrace.
II.
In vain, in vain, my constant Heart,
On aged Wings, attempts to meet
With wonted speed, those Flames you dart,
It faints and flutters at your Feet.
III.
I blame not your decay of Pow’r,
You may have pointed Beauties still,
Though me alas, they wound no more,
You cannot hurt what cannot feel.
IV.
On youthful Climes your Beams display,
There, you may cherish with your Heat,
And rise the Sun to gild their Day,
To me benighted, when you set.

Probably I only noticed this reuse because the image was presented so plainly, and always with the same associations. They could easily have been varied, by, for example, cautioning against flights too near the sun. (In Congreve's two myth-based libretti, Apollo appears only to lead the audience in a drinking song after a heroine's tragic death.) Or by referencing the use of pinhole projection to view sun-spots.

The era's new-found sense of propriety likely snuffed any such impulse. 1 Congreve wouldn't want to risk The Double Dealer's workshop scene:

LADY FROTH. [Reads]
For as the sun shines every day,
So, of our coachman I may say

BRISK. I’m afraid that simile won’t do in wet weather; because you say the sun shines every day.

LADY FROTH. No, for the sun it won’t, but it will do for the coachman: for you know there’s most occasion for a coach in wet weather.

BRISK. Right, right, that saves all.

LADY FROTH. Then, I don’t say the sun shines all the day, but that he peeps now and then; yet he does shine all the day too, you know, though we don’t see him.

BRISK. Right, but the vulgar will never comprehend that.

His casts included no author's mouthpiece; each part's in its place and he in his, the untouched retoucher. His gifts were observational and structural, not egocentric the impulses of a novelist, just a few years too early for novels. His teenage romance 2, Incognita, thrills to the sound of its own voice 3 and the sight of its own Tinkertoy mechanics, but must respect generic proprieties with traditional characters of wood.

Which confined Congreve-the-observer to the wicked stage, Puritan bait. Congreve's sense of the proper was dear to him, and he seems to have felt genuinely wounded when an increasingly stringent hypocrisy turned against his plays. His damning response was a defense of his craft, not his faith. And by the end of the century, Fanny Burney's Evelina would feel properly scandalized by Love for Love, despite novel-deep submersion in a wickeder plot.

Out of the light, Congreve can see rather than be seen. In lyric first person, he displays a cabinet of withdrawal; he has nothing to show except what he's found. The only verse in which a Romantically-schooled reader might recognize human feeling is an exsanguinated Keatsian swoon:

On Mrs. Arabella Hunt, Singing.
Let all be husht, each softest Motion cease,
Be ev’ry loud tumultuous Thought at Peace,
And ev’ry ruder Gasp of Breath
Be calm, as in the Arms of Death.
And thou most fickle, most uneasie Part,
Thou restless Wanderer, my Heart,
Be still; gently, ah gently, leave,
Thou busie, idle thing, to heave.
Stir not a Pulse; and let my Blood,
That turbulent, unruly Flood,
Be softly staid:
Let me be all, but my Attention, dead.
Go, rest, unnecessary Springs of Life,
Leave your officious Toil and Strife;
For I would hear her Voice, and try
If it be possible to die.

Suicide by appreciation: the liebestod of the critic.

1   Donald McKenzie helpfully cites James Boaden's later praise for "To a Candle": "Here we have none of the perverse ingenuity of the metaphysical poets. The points of contact seem obvious, and not to be missed; but such a parallel, so continued and so exact, was never made out before."

2   By which I mean a romance written by a teenager.

3   This aside seems made to footnote:

Now the Reader I suppose to be upon Thorns at this and the like impertinent Digressions, but let him alone and he’ll come to himself; at which time I think fit to acquaint him, that when I digress, I am at that time writing to please my self, when I continue the Thread of the Story, I write to please him; supposing him a reasonable Man, I conclude him satisfied to allow me this liberty, and so I proceed.

Responses

tsui

Tsui Hark? Well, I haven't myself read his lyric poetry, but I doubt it's as interesting as Peking Opera Blues.

. . .

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.

The Warm South by Paul Kerschen

“God knows how it would have been — but it appears to me — however, I will not speak of that subject.”
- John Keats to Charles Brown, November 30, 1820

Fiction begins in mean-spirited gossip, and the fictional career of “John Keats” began in 1818 when Blackwood’s Magazine cast him as little Sirrah Aguecheek, sticky sidekick to Leigh Hunt’s insolent Master Belch. Three years later, Keats’s death provided Percy Bysshe Shelley with Adonais, whose preface described a fluffy duckling skewered mid-peep, ne’er to reach full-fledged quackery.

These two accounts largely (and inaccurately) agreed on the facts of the case, differing by the tone in which they pronounced it “pathetic.” The magazine’s Keats was a bad poet who published bad poems, received bad reviews, and died badly; Shelley’s Keats was a promising poet who did the same. As Blackwood’s and Lord Byron feared and Matthew Arnold lamented, Shelley’s deflected self-pity won undisciplined hearts and minds, and the Martyrdom of Saint Mawk supplied a low-impact model for sad underbred poetic youths until punk duckling Rimbaud finally edged it out.

In post-Victorian fiction, Rudyard Kipling’s Medium-is-the-Medium short story “Wireless” transmitted Keats’s voice to 1902, but all it could find to do was recite a bit of “The Eve of St. Agnes” before fading into static. At much greater length at the other end of the century, Dan Simmons used Keats as the props department for a series of super-science space sagas, and a Keats-shaped token made the midpoint shit-is-getting-real sacrifice in The Stress of Her Regard, Tim Powers’s Lives of the Poets with Vampires. Anthony Burgess’s more delicate reinterpretation of literary history, ABBA ABBA, hung a series of elaborate set-pieces from Mr. Finch’s account of the dying Keats’s uncooperative mood and the dying Keats’s own account of compulsive punning. More recently, Andrew Motion mulled a drowsy muddle of reincarnation and/or transmission and/or alternative history in The Invention of Dr. Cake.

None of these “Keats” characters resembled the “Keats” in my head; none of these Keats stories satisfied me as storytelling. And that bothered me not at all; I didn’t particularly expect or crave a believable Keats in a satisfying fiction. Writers are people so extraordinarily dull that they need to put themselves through the ridiculous fuss of writing and publishing merely to make anyone notice them at all. Why should we turn to a pillow-bellied mimic of Henry James when the original had so much more incentive to hold our attention? Gluing a fake nose on Nicole Kidman is its own reward; why drag poor Virginia Woolf into it?

The Warm South taught me what was missing from the previous two hundred years of John Keats stories and why I should have missed it.

All of them shared at least one characteristic besides the nominal presence of “Keats”: immobility. Their Keatses consist of funeral orations, Royal Academy paintings, quotations, checklists, and holographic freeze-frames of that-living-hand. Blackwood’s goofus was hopeless from the start; the hottest action in Adonais was Shelley flipping the Mourn / Don’t-Mourn switch. Tim Powers drew a loopy narrative line, but it connected the dots which had been printed long before. And Motion’s heavy concentric Victorian frames unleashed all the narrative force of an after-dinner speech at the Keats-Shelley Association. To repurpose Jeffrey C. Robinson’s summary of a hundred verse tributes, they were “driven not by Keats’s life or by his poems but by his death; Keats is that poet who by definition died young.”

It’s true enough that John Keats was besieged by death from childhood, and in good sad underbred poetic youth fashion he indulged occasional suicidal fantasies (Chatterton being the definitionally dead poet of his generation). But he was never une nature morte; allowing for the constraints of wealth, health, and family, he careened and caromed as wildly as Byron or Shelley, and, lazy though the Keats children might have been by nature, he refused to stay still when it would be the wisest course of inaction. You might be certain that he wouldn’t follow good advice or accept assistance gracefully, but past that all bets were off. “He would not stop at home, he could not quiet be.”

The Keats in my head was, if anything, that poet who by definition made mistakes. Of course, many of us have made more and larger mistakes than Keats could manage. But Keats seemed unusually enthusiastic about the prospect and more determined to be content with the result. It was a way to go adventuring on the cheap, to elevate unprovisioned circumstances into self-earned manly independence.

“I refused to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope.”

“I will write independently. I have written independently without Judgment. I may write independently, and with Judgment, hereafter. The Genius of Poetry must work out its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.”

“I feel that I make an impression upon them which insures me personal respect while I am in sight whatever they may say when my back is turned.”

Paul Kerschen’s Keats convinced me by making Keatsian mistakes in a Keatsian manner. And although it might sound odd, his Keats carried even more conviction for having changed. Death should be, after all, a life-changing experience, and one rarely survives one’s mid-twenties without some self-definitional trait being revealed as ballast; it’s the age when, for example, most sad poetic youths stop writing poetry.

In pre-posthumous Keats’s letters and his circle’s memoirs, we encounter an instantly charming young man: warm, forthright, engaged, generous, even pretty in a peculiar way. Byron and the Keatses’ icy guardian, Richard Abbey, were immune, or allergic, to his appeal, but more appear to have been susceptible. And we also encounter a moody, thin-skinned abandoned child: distrustful, paranoid at times, misanthropic and misogynistic, and quick to break his most fervent attachments.

During his last summer, Keats began to note his own role in this repeated drama: “I am in the wrong, and the world is in the right, I have no doubt. Fact is, I have had so many kindnesses done me by so many people, that I am cheveaux-de-frised with benefits, which I must jump over or break down.”

The benefactors responsible for his Italian trip and Roman residence would have piled such chevaux past overlooking or misinterpretation. But rather than letting this new clarity break his established cycle, the novel’s post-posthumous Keats redirects his distrust inward: he’s not so manic, not so prone to gush puns and bouts-rimes and fill all available verbal space to sustain engagement between those abrupt retreats.

Environmental changes, also, would put adaptive pressure on Kerschen’s subject. Rebirth drops Keats into an impoverished, repeatedly conquered and divided land, with little command of the language, no family, no funds, and a great deal of debt — albeit the countable debts of a middling sort rather than the transfinite debts of the rich. Counter-revolutionary reaction blankets Europe; science is sedition; incarcerations and executions are frequent and fast; and by year’s end democratic movements in Italy and Spain are as dead as Napoleon. The insecure upper crusts fail to imagine how life might be managed without servants; on the other side of that unfathomable gulf, the division between those who hire laborers and those who wait to be called, between beggars and those who pass by beggars, is very thin indeed.

One might reasonably ask if this is the sort of world to bring a new (or renewed) life into. The novel’s most experienced resurrectionist, Mary Shelley, was less than sanguine about the procedure’s prognosis. Having tended the deathbeds of mother, brother, and utter strangers, Keats himself rejected heroic measures, and the final horror of his short nonfictional life came when Joseph Severn overrode his advance directive.

Presume then, for the sake of review-reading, that Kerschen’s machinery works and Keats Lives. Should Keats live?

A third into The Warm South, we reach a “Is he really...? Did he really...?” sort of passage and feel generic ground shift a bit. Nothing that breaks the surface, mind; Keats doesn’t don a domino to thwart the reactionary terrorism of the Scarlet Pimpernel, or collaborate on a prophecy titled Content-Purveyor “K” Anno CCXXVII. Aside from one spontaneous remission of end-stage pulmonary tuberculosis, Kerschen sticks to the rules of well-researched historical fiction; the closest we come to meta is Lord Byron’s public denunciation of well-researched historical fiction.

Instead, as pages turn and narrative focus glides, an increasing sense of artifice rises from the arrangement of incidents. Some situations which might find simple resolution instead become more complex — which, I admit, in the context of the Lives of the Second-Gen Romantic Poets remains strictly naturalistic. Less predictably, situations which might resolve tragically do not always do so, and some tragedies we vaguely recollect seem delayed, or have we passed them by entirely?

And mistakes? Mistakes all the way down. In certain times and places — maybe most times and places, maybe even all — success is out of the question. At best, we might have a choice of failures.

Which tempts us to call any move, any sign of life, worthless, pointless. But having been placed in a game whose outcomes exclude lasting worth, its non-attainment can’t reasonably be considered a loss of points: by definition, we can only lose what’s at stake and build with what’s available. Therefore the game at hand, overhead, underfoot, in our blood and in our bellies, beyond reach of resignation, calls for a different scoring system. How well were our failures intended? How immediately damaging were our attempts? In the past, or elsewhere, what happened when failed attempts were not made?

Closing a fannish review, twenty-two-year-old Keats apostrophized Edmund Kean, “Cheer us a little in the failure of our days! For romance lives but in books.”

Unlike our days, our books have the benefit of choosing their end. Adjust the trim, and a self-cast Hamlet or Timon might be revealed as Telemachus, or Viola’s brother. And The End may determine the genre: death delimits a proper biography, for example.

A proper comedy begins in sorrow and ends with a hat trick of happiness. As for its sequel — well, we learned how that goes when John Marston checked in on the rom-com marriage of Antonio and Mellida and found the bridegroom on a killing spree. We know the chorale of forgiveness which ends The Marriage of Figaro won’t prevent further transgressions and retaliations, and if we didn’t, Beaumarchais reminded us in a third play. To reference the lore of my own rustic childhood, when Luft Stalag 13 survivors convene, they don’t analyze Colonel Hogan’s fatal sexual drives or Frenchie’s Algerian atrocities — they retell that time they really put one over on Klink.

The Warm South ends, in a chorus of forgiven indebtedness, where its characters would have ended their retold story.

I’m grateful to Kerschen for telling it the first time. It comes as a balm in the failure of our days; not a cure, but a welcome tonic. As Edmund Kean, I think it was, said, “Infirmity, that decays the wise, doth ever make the better fool.”

Responses

I wrote the above to work some things out. For Music & Literature, I wrote this review. I thank editor Daniel Medin for the opportunity and his guidance.

 

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.