To me, Keats is the greatest of these poets because of “Ode on Melancholy:” “In the very temple of Delight,/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Once I understood, like Borges said, my life was forever changed. In suffering is redemptive power, the deepest moment of pain is the beginning of joy. I began not only to appreciate, but to seek, experiences that would take me through emotional extremes. Along with “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats created some of the greatest English poems in 1819. The following year he came to Rome to better his health. By the time he arrived, he had missed the good weather due to his disastrously stormy voyage and the ten days of quarantine at Naples. It was another few weeks before he became settled in the Piazza di Spagna. Those sunny mornings when he’d walk to the Trevi fountain and shake his head sadly at the peasants asking him for money, maybe offering a few centessimi, watching as the caped old lady hobbles away on her cane were all he could stand. His stomach caused him agony; he found a respite of joy breathing in the sharp Italian air, watching the brighter light and clouds of the south, but he was too exhausted and weak to write. Within a few more weeks, he lay dead. The poet, a short, poor man beginning to taste success, felt he was living posthumously even before he died. Perhaps he had an inkling that his posthumous career would be better than his life.
A near-tie for first places Wordsworth behind Keats. Crowned Poet Laureate in old age, he made his successor, Tennyson, seem fusty and old-fashioned: “Lyrical Ballads” is the beginning of modern poetry: an exploration of individual consciousness in the words of ordinary men. I see Wordsworth as a direct predecessor of Whitman. Due to its experimental nature, it still reads simply two hundred years later. While these poems are autobiographical in content, Wordsworth searches for the origins of his feelings, obviating the puerility of most juvenile and sentimental writing. His definition of poetry (in which the second part is often forgotten): “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility,” remains relevant to the novel as it eclipses poetry as Primary Literary Form. Unfortunately, poetry no longer sheds a light on human subjectivity, it is mostly a search for new combinations of words and occasions that only appeal to other poets. Wordsworth’s ideal is that quiet moment of lonely reflection when one analyzes new feelings. In “I wandered lonely as a cloud,” he writes of that “inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude.” And when he visited Rome after decades of imagining one of the world’s finest cities, on an early afternoon when he hiked through the forest in what is today the Mario Montale Nature Reserve and glimpsed St. Peter’s dome in the distance, he delighted in the papacy’s sovereignty over those disunited lands and all the animals inhabiting them; a cock crowed, a fawn lay “couchant;” he resignedly admired his surroundings and returned to his earlier years, those hikes through the Alps and around Como, the frissons he felt as a young man exploring not just Italy, but life. He came here in his sixties to walk new mental trails, but for William memory was often more vibrant than the present. In this, he prepared me for Proust. If he was not as momentous to my personal philosophy as Keats, he was at least as helpful in understanding the importance of tradition and memory to literature in general, and my own poetic development in particular.
Byron, Blake and Coleridge are all equally important, yet I award Byron the third spot because of his incredible life. Born club-footed, he published early and traveled widely, dying of fever in the Greek War of Independence. He swam the Dardanelles, a feat that always impressed me, and his poem written to honor and mock himself taught me how to pronounce the word “ague.” A life like this has brought into existence the phrase, “Byronic Hero,” the very definition of Romantic. Byron also, much to my chagrin, began the cult of celebrity. As opposed to Wordsworth, whose successor in style (Whitman) surpassed him; all of Byron’s fail to come close. To me, those who inspire a tradition or series of imitators less than themselves suffer from their lackluster followers. Capote, whose In Cold Blood is a masterpiece and which began the “New Journalism” tradition, suffers not from putting out another comparable work, but from those who followed in his wake, the Tom Wolfes whose writing judges and condemns like journalism, instead of presenting, as fiction. I would rather be surpassed and known as a credit to the one who needed me to create something greater. But enough of this; it is too tenuous to pinpoint strains of tradition to one lodestone. We can derive more tangible conclusions about an artist’s reputation by examining how their exploits and eccentricities affect their work’s reputation. An artist’s life is part of their work. It is inescapable, unless destined for the realms of myth or godliness, created by a Homer or Praxiteles, the art turns into dust any and all personal details, letting them blow away in the winds of time so that only the mass of the work remains. This, I wish, should be the intention of all artists; alas, ego too oft prevails. Byron’s life enhances his art. Not only a life of adventure can enhance literary status—Dickinson and Pessoa’s lives of tedium, loneliness and misery show the opposite manifestation of human genius. In Byron’s poetry, however, adventure and disillusion are compatible, almost requisite. The best of Byron’s writing imagines how historical suffering informs a place’s present. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage, Canto IV, takes us to the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Tivoli, Nemi, Albano, and makes me aspire to be more like this poet, who thirsted and eventually succeeded in joining that land’s history through love of it, imbuing his celebrity with that element rarely seen in those of today: the tragic death, by which I do not mean suicide or overdose, but the heroic, the epic, loss of life for a cause.
I rank Blake ahead of Coleridge because of his drawings, his mysticism, and his bizareness, inaugurating a tradition of his own. Blake’s work is difficult and there is much of it. As an engraver, painter and philosopher, his poetry defies simple classification. In “The Tyger,” perhaps his best known poem, we gain a sense of the divine mystery he knew so well: “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” This simple line reveals and obscures—as do his other poems—the speaker’s knowledge of the ethereal and the earthly, as if to encourage the reader to wonder about God’s secrets. Blake was the only one on my list not to visit Italy. He, like many mystics, did not feel the need to leave his home in order to find inspiration. He could see it on the wharves, in the eyes of his countrymen, in his readings, even within himself, emerging from his fingertips. I own a volume of Blake’s collected works, which I hope to read entirely and know through the alchemy of old age.
Coleridge, perhaps the druggiest lord of non-twentieth century poets, was like Blake, a mystic, but tended to organize his thought like a German, rationally. When he traveled through Italy, the yellow sun glittered on the Tiber and showed him the meaning of Platonic aesthetics. Unity between the human spirit, the ideal, reality, and God was all around him—in two thousand-year-old fountains, toppled columns, broken steps. Coleridge was nearly crushed by life’s impermanence, wholeness, and instantaneous grandeur. So much paradox, such beauty and overwhelming quiddity is oppressive. Thus the release of opium. These paradoxical unities are later symbolized in the images of the albatross and Kublai Khan. In the latter’s poem, the mention of the Alph as river of mystery, both Edenic and dark, brings a unity of opposites into relief against the ephemeral figure of the cruel horde-master, another paradox in that he lives on through Coleridge’s caricature. Despite the incisive essays of Biographia Literaria, I wish Coleridge had left us more poetry to study, which is why I place him so low on this list.
Finally, though he share my birthday, is Shelley. It is uncertain how much he helped his wife write Frankenstein. Even if he didn’t, his essays are as poignant as his lyrics. For Shelley, life was opposition to the immoral and the unjust. Italy, to him, represented a land of possibility, a wild, poor land, rich with majesty, history and beauty. Yet with possibility and freedom comes danger, which Percy did not sufficiently account for, and which led to his drowning too soon in the Gulf of Spezia. Prometheus Unbound, while beautiful in many parts, takes on the old-fashionedness of Don Juan. Both are classic but hardly ever read cover-to-cover.
I have a feeling that in five hundred years the canon will shift to include more women, focus on a different era, or place some of these men in obscurer realms only known to poets and writers. Perhaps it already has.