Sins in Thy Orisons: On David Mitchell’s ‘Slade House’

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Well-heeled critics take a kind of offense when writers of David Mitchell’s caliber experiment with genre fiction. Nonetheless, the release of 2014’s The Bone Clocks, with its body-jumping Horologists and systematic references to most of his previous novels, proved that Mitchell has embarked on more than an experiment; he is on a Yeatsian search for unity. Late in his life, W.B. Yeats, the famous Irish poet, published A Vision, a collection of cultish metaphysical writings that cast the whole of history as a cycle between order and chaos, the barbaric and the civilized. His poetry of the period also represented the world this way: his famous piece “The Second Coming” culminates with the image of a “rough beast…slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem to be born,” a kind of un-Christ who represents the beginning of a barbaric period in history, the inversion of the Christian era.

The purpose of all Yeats’s late writing, as the scholar Richard Ellmann pointed out in Yeats: The Man and the Masks, was to offer a “unified personality,” to give his readers a sense of cohesion that everyday life lacks by using a consistent set of symbols to discuss, praise, mourn, and process a disjointed reality. For Yeats, symbols like beasts, roses, and winding staircases were touchstones: no matter where his writing wandered, these landmarks offered a sense of direction — they brought him back to A Vision’s unified historical scheme. The poems he made with those images are beautiful and timeless. But A Vision is another story. Supposedly sourced from automatic writings Yeats’s wife received from the spirit world, it reads like an acid trip in a Catholic church, or — appropriately enough — like a scene from David Mitchell’s Slade House: a horror novel set in a dark corner of the newly-minted meta-world that unites all of Mitchell’s books.

Mitchell told fans at 2014’s Edinburgh Book festival that his writing has become “an exercise in world building and cosmology.” With the lengthy and ambitions Bone Clocks, he revealed the extent of that exercise by referencing characters from all of his work, back to his 1999 debut Ghostwritten. Though it would be difficult to gage the extent to which his megaverse was planned, Mitchell has made it clear that a single plot overarches everything, down even to his most quotidian Black Swan Green. Lovers of Cloud Atlas are familiar with Mitchell’s tendency to write novels as a series of interlacing plots, where a young character in one segment might be an old man in another. But what Bone Clocks introduced was design on an altogether different scale: a set of death-defying interlopers engaged in a cosmic war across time, whose antics, it turns out, have been crashing through the scenery of each successive novel.

When he announced that a new, shorter book was set to debut only a year after The Bone Clocks, fans correctly anticipated that Slade House would deepen Mitchell’s investment in that larger scheme. Released just in time for Halloween, Slade House has quickly sparked comparisons to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw — a literature critic’s ghost story, a haunted-house yarn the glamor of which was underpinned by plot and language that could bear up under the stuffiest academic scrutiny.

Mitchell has been upfront about his exasperation with critics who pit realism against everything else, as if the sort of writing where souls can be eaten and bodies shed like cicada shells needed to earn special literary stripes in order to be taken seriously. He told the Edinburgh Book Festival he likes “to use genre as a tool, like style, structure or a character. Where does it say a book has to remain within a single genre?” and The Paris Review that “When something is two-dimensional and hackneyed, this is how to fix it: identify an improbable opposite and mix it, implausibly, into the brew.” Mitchell has proved himself a master of the improbable brew, but the question is whether the books that have resulted are freshening agents, or just a cheap attempt to spike the punch.

Slade House cooks up its mixture with euphoric technical complexity and flourish. Set at nine-year intervals from 1979 to 2015, it is composed of five interlocking narratives centered around a mysterious “small black iron door,” and the magnificent, trippy, horrifying mansion to which it leads. A succession of sympathetic loners are lured into Slade House by its malevolent occupants, treated to a disorienting phantasmagoria that mixes their deepest fantasies of popularity and inclusion with their worst fears, and finally tricked into bringing about their own demise.

We hear the story through their voices, and each is masterfully rendered, deeply human. The 13-year-old Nathan Bishop, whose autism makes him insensitive to the subtle difference between a quirky hostess and a murderous schemer, the oafish lonelyheart policeman whose subtle racism he would blame on hard experiences on the beat, and the self-conscious college student Sally Timms are each cohesive and distinct.

For every character, Slade House morphs into a tailor-made nightmare. I found Sally’s haunting at a raucous party the most alarming and immediate, perhaps because I grew up listening to some of the same music. But more likely the sting came from her voice’s mixture of devastating self-examination and quippy humor: “Slade Alley can’t be more than three feet across,” she observes on approach to the house, “A properly fat person — fatter than me, I mean — couldn’t get past someone coming the other way.” And when she snuffs a proposition from an attractive partygoer: “Off he goes, and screw you, Isolde Delahunty at Great Malvern Beacon School for Girls and your platoon of body-fascist Barbies…screw all of you, wherever you are this evening, because I…just turned down a bronzed Australian surfer demigod…”

Yet the culmination of each story contains an obligatory nod the meta-world of Bone Clocks, and it is there that Mitchell’s ambition starts to make a messy feast of his talent. Examining Slade House’s grandfather clock, whose face bears no hands but only the words “Time is, Time Was, Time is Not,” Sally Timms quips that the clock is “Highly metaphysical; deeply useless.” At worst, this epithet could be applied to Mitchell’s language just at the passages when Slade House reaches its highest emotional pitch. At key moments in each character’s adventures there are debilitating pauses for exposition, linking Slade House’s dark little nightmare world to the wider one we heard all too much about in Bone Clocks.

Words like “lacuna,” “orison,” and worst of all, “psychovoltage” diffuse the physical terror of Mitchell’s best scenes with obtuse, jargony pinpricks. That the term “lacuna” is lifted from medieval metaphysics and “orison” from Hamlet’s banter with Ophelia in Act III scene i makes them no more interesting: pedigree adds little when species are awkwardly crossed, and there is nothing of Hamlet’s earthy nightmare in the clinical use to which Mitchell puts his meta-world’s argot, explaining away the wonderful ghost stories he’s taken such care to weave in each successive chapter.

At best, “highly metaphysical; deeply useless” might still be said of the interlaced world Mitchell is making. Metaphysical and useless, yes, but nothing is as essential as the inessential, and a little willful suspension of distaste allows us to luxuriate in Mitchell’s superfluities. The Yeats-like unifying project he’s taken on is initially thrilling in its apparent scope. And though his machinations are luxurious, underneath the heavy-handed codswallop is the pungent flavor of raw voices, coming from characters we recognize from the street. As long as his books are populated by such real people, Mitchell will deserve his following, but he is in danger of a fatal shark-jumping accident.

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, Mitchell allowed himself to suggest the unknown, and the scenes where Orito explores Enomoto’s caves are therefore riper with terror than any of Slade House’s “lacuna” scenes. Narrow paths curve into darkness, statues drip with blood, and Orito takes away only her fear and a growing list of questions about the people who built the tunnels. But Mitchell’s ambition to weave a meta-narrative has forced his newer books to reveal what is best left hinted. With their many external references, The Bone Clocks and Slade House are artsier novels than those that came before, but far less artful. In them Mitchell reads like a remodeler who stubbornly insists that the gaudy corridors he’s built between his mansions are the real architectural triumph.

Admirably, he has left nothing sacred in his conquest of genre-fiction territories, explicitly comparing his work to that of J.R.R. Tolkien, the master world-architect himself. Mitchell even included a character called Bombadil in Slade House’s final chapter, as if to assure us he knows what he’s doing, that no shrines to Tolkien will be left to gather dust during his incursion into hallowed ground. But to throw down that gauntlet is to invite comparison with a man who was a consummate novelist first, and mythology-spinner second. According to accounts from his friends, it took Tolkien 12 years to write and revise The Lord of the Rings, and obsessed with background as he was, most of that time was not spent tightening up a meta-scheme of cohesive self-references (otherwise why would there be so many Unfinished Tales, so many loose ends in The Silmarillion?), but making sure the characters and language were rich, authentic, and human. By contrast, Mitchell looks like a hobbit-sized challenger talking through a tall hat.

Above all, Tolkien knew what to leave unsaid. To name a specific example, the “Watcher in the Water” that guards the entrance to Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring is horrible precisely because we know neither what it is nor how it came to be there, apart from some scrawled suggestions in an abandoned journal. The entry reads: “The Watcher in the Water took Óin. We cannot get out.” More terror is crammed into those two lines then into the whole of Slade House, because Tolkien has left space for our imaginations to populate the darkness. But Mitchell is addicted to ripping back the veil. His evil Grayer twins become less frightening the more we know about them, and their soliloquizing at each chapter’s climax makes them something worse than poorly-written antagonists: they become well-written antagonists too well explained. Their nightmare mansion ultimately disappoints, like a haunted house with all the lights turned on.

With each successive, elaborately explained novel, there is a paradoxical sense that Mitchell’s world is shrinking, because the rigging he’s so intent on fastening between storylines is clogging up the gaps that should be occupied by the unknown. Nothing can swoop down on us without getting caught in the wires. Titles like Cloud Atlas hint that Mitchell is undertaking a quest to map the changeable world, to search for suggestions of coherence among what is cloudy, turbulent, and disordered. But just as the psychedelic gobbledygook of Yeats’s A Vision added nothing to the power of his poetry (it only gave theorists the opportunity to point to some prose passage that was supposedly the origin of a poem, as if that proved anything), Mitchell’s Horologist wonderland seems like an escape from the literary into the clever. Discovering one of his linked plots gives you a Sudoku-solver’s thrill, but this pleasure would be hard to call artistic. Billed as a suggestion about the interconnectedness between us all, such moments register instead as self-satisfied technical flourishes, easter eggs.

As Mitchell gains power and the volume of his work expands, we have to hope he exercises a proportionately large restraint. Tolkien’s world-creating mechanism began with people and with language: He and C.S. Lewis used to play Scrabble in Elvish, a cultural artifact which grew organically alongside Tolkien’s lands and characters, instead of being thrust upon them in literary retrospect in the manner of Mitchell’s Horology. In terms of creative impetus, this retrograde fiddling with Mitchell’s own world could prove to be, as Sally Timms puts it, “a fatal mistake, like Orpheus looking back…”

To demand that Mitchell walk the same road as even his greatest predecessors would be inane when his explicit desire is to innovate, but as he said himself, the watchword of the world-builder, even as he mixes improbable elements, must be a plausibility that outwrestles the improbable. Plausibility means a sense of rightness to experience, and Slade House, in spite of its pristine characterization, forgets that the experience of horror starts with the unknown. Instead of dark shadows, he gives us exposition, and as tempting as it must be to forget, Mitchell should have remembered that readers will always prefer to wander the maze’s edges than to sit down for a lecture at its center.

Rival Muses: on Jonathan Bate’s ‘Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life’

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Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “…who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question.

Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.”

But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given.

Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “…the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern.

But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency…” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.”

By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect.

In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” — in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life.

Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative.

And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships — these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed — an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”

This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.”

In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.

But there were other methods available to him — precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats.

A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Hyperion” remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare…and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions.

Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems — which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote — are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images.

Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.”

If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.

Detoured Genius: On the Work of John Keats

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John Keats’s 220th birthday falls this Halloween. Born on October 31, 1795, Keats survived only 25 years, but in that time developed into a poet of superhuman range, energy, and craftsmanship. The middle child of an orphaned family, Keats lived in a London populated by Dickensian characters: His father died in a freak fall from his horse, a loss that withered Mrs. Keats, who eventually succumbed to grief. His caretaker, Richard Abbey, was a weasley miser who jilted the Keats children out of their inheritance by hiding the money and playing their suspicions against each other.

The major events of Keats’s life also seem luminous enough to be taken from literature. His older brother, George, migrated to America where he was cheated out of his savings by none other than John James Audubon, a desperate shipping investor who had yet to become the famous naturalist. A younger brother, Tom, died of Tuberculosis in Keats’s arms. Trained as a physician, he abandoned the profession to make his living with poetry, an ambition that sounded less hubristic at that time than it would now, but still seemed childish enough to the saturnine Abbey, who took the announcement as an opportunity to cut Keats off from what little inheritance he had been granting him.

As a Londoner connected with one or two major publishers, Keats also met nearly every literary monolith of his day: Percy Bysshe Shelley became a friend and admirer, William Wordsworth got tipsy and joked with him at a dinner party, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge shook his hand after a chance encounter on the street. Coleridge was no medical man, but he sensed that Keats was ill: “There is death in that hand,” he said afterward. Keats was underground in less than two years.

From the meeting with Coleridge until his death, Keats spent the better share of his time juggling his poverty, disease, and genius. The first two would eventually bury him, but the third elevated his work to the grandest heights of English literature. His best poems are like xeriscapes: they surprise us with luxurious harmonies without burdening the language from which they’ve grown. Take for example the famous beginning of “Hyperion,” where the dethroned titan Saturn sits in a vale
                                      …quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud.
The double resonances of repeated nouns and alliterative consonants — “Forest on forest;” “Still as the silence;” “hung about his head;” “cloud on cloud” — succeed each other rapidly without clogging the lines. Not just here, but throughout “Hyperion” and all the poems of this period, Keats combines classical and medieval source material with rich soundcraft and miraculous ease. The lines are majestic enough to be carved on a tomb, casual enough for table talk. Though he never achieved fame in his lifetime, posthumous readings were intensified by his tragic death and lead to a rapid ascent. He was a household name before Wordsworth, who’d once called Keats’s early “Endymion” “a Very pretty piece of Paganism” — perhaps with a dismissive wave — had met his own gentler fate.

Retrospect, especially about the lives of famous men, can elevate the mundane into the monumental, but the intensity of Keats’s commitment to art and the passionate goodwill he brought to friendships make it difficult to discuss his biography without a calcifying grandeur. Even his contemporaries tended to reshape Keats according their presuppositions about poetry and poets. William Hilton’s famous portrait is a visual example: using angle and shade, the painter elongated Keats’s strong face, and collapsed his alert posture, into the Romantic stereotype of the tender dreamer. The actual, burlier man picked schoolyard fights habitually in childhood, enjoyed vigorous exercise, and wouldn’t flinch at an open cadaver.

Most of all, Keats was driven by the desire to be “numbered among the English poets,” a destiny he predicted for himself, and eventually gained after his death thanks to a ravenous international readership. His work, derided by successors as famous as W.B. Yeats as that of “a schoolboy…With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop | window…” has nonetheless become an academic industry, and a touchstone for all writers who hope to blend rococo imagery with the sound of sense.

Most often, Keats’s short life is read as an allegory about the power of persistence on the approach to a fixed creative object. But the actual story is more complicated. Keats was fired by the ambition to write an epic; an ideal that typified the contemporary perception of the master poet. In the wake of his many efforts to do this float grand fragments, but nothing in the genre that could approach Wordsworth’s Prelude for scale or command of subject. Aided by time and experience, Wordsworth learned to abandon classical inspiration and make an odyssey from his biography. The result, in a Napoleonic era where nationalist epics like The Faerie Queene seemed passé and even questionable, was a work calibrated to its time. Yet Keats never enjoyed the luxury of long reflection, and during the seasons he was working furiously at long narratives like “Hyperion” and “Isabella”, he relieved the pressure by writing cast-offs that would later be recognized as his masterpieces.

One of these was “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a short vignette about erotic love set in a snowbound medieval castle. Just after Tom’s tortured death from tuberculosis, Keats traveled south with his friend Charles Brown to shake off the grief. At coastal Chichester, working unsuccessfully to finish “Hyperion,” he diverted his forces to a subject his acquaintance Isabella Jones once suggested: the legendary evening when young women, if they followed a careful script of prayer and ceremony, could see visions of their future husbands. As biographer W. Jackson Bate recounts, with Spencer’s court romances rattling in his head, Keats shut himself in the home of some friends and finished the poem within a week. His hosts could hear him coughing from his room — the tuberculosis that would kill him, passed possibly from his brother, was already incubating.

“St. Agnes” is only one example of an apparent Keatsian sideshow that retrospect reveals to be the main event. For modern readers and especially writers, the poem is a reminder that mastery follows less from the grandeur of our plans than the measure of our effort. The great epics Keats hoped to write fizzled even at their best. But the statuesque perfection of “St. Agnes” is proof that Keats’s genius was at its finest when on a detour. Like the rest of his life and work, the poem both encourages and warns its readers, especially those who hope to make memorable literature during their own, inevitably rushed productive seasons.

“Prolonged work at any serious poem,” Bate wrote during his chapter on this phase in Keats’s life, “…frequently produced another result for Keats…If he turned temporarily to a less ambitious poem in a different form, the gate would quickly open and he would find himself…writing with remarkable fluidity…” “Remarkable fluidity” is accurate not only to the composition but the texture of Keats’s best romance. It is a ballet in gypsy costumes, its language concentrated to saturation point but stepping lightly at each turn of phrase, visually baroque yet cuttingly glib in its discourse on sex and love:
                                                     …Safe at last,
             Through many a dusky gallery, they gain
             The maiden’s chamber, silken, hush’d, and chaste;
             Where Porphyro took covert, pleas’d amain.
His poor guide hurried back with auges in her brain.
In love with the ravishing Madeline, Porphyro has discovered that tonight she plans to follow the old superstitions about St. Agnes’ Eve. A bolt of lust-charged inspiration hits him: convince her handmaid Angela to lead him to Madeline’s bedroom. He packs a feast, and plans his appearance exactly according to legend, a conquest that will both grant him sexual access and convince her of his worthiness.

Hidden in her chambers, he watches Madeline follow the delicious stipulations of the legend: to sleep undressed, never taking her eyes from heaven. Rising from prayer, she steps in front of moonlit stained glass. At this moment Keats’s ornamentation and syntactic force reach their peak — this casement, he writes, is filled with triple windows,
              And in their midst, ‘mong thousand heraldries,
              And twilit saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.
In the following stanza, these religious and heraldic images are offset by eroticism: Madeline disrobes in a flood of lines the consonance of which echoes the texture of sliding cloth. All the senses are engaged – Keats even finds time to note the transferred warmth still lingering in her dress’s jewels.
Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees;
Unclasps her warmed jewels one by one;
Loosens her fragrant boddice; by degrees
Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees.
Barely able to contain himself, Porphyro waits for her breathing to steady, then wakes her with a song, possesses her, and finally escapes with her into the night. He has enemies at court, and his union with Madeline carries the finality of a lifelong contract, meriting huge risks. Keats leaves their future ambiguous, if not outright doubtful. But the abrupt ending suits his concerns. Like Ovid in The Metamorphosis, Keats most wanted to distil the unbearable passion that transforms those it possesses.

The key turns, and the door upon its hinges groans…
          And they are gone: ey, ages long ago
          These lovers fled away into the storm.

Susceptible to the creative trends of his time, Keats was haunted by an apparent lack of ability to realize a grand suite of characters in an urgent plot. But the simple and compact “St Agnes” has more elegance even than the Prelude, and achieves a florid energy within the line of which Wordsworth was incapable. And Keats’s characterization is just as fine: no longer burdened by “Hyperion’s” large cast, he renders the palsied, gossipy handmade Angela with Shakespearian subtlety. Porphyro comes off as the perfect teenage Romio, elevated to temporary brilliance by sallionlike lust; and Madeline’s humanity is visible beneath the ornament. Her escapade with Porphyro may have been inaugurated by a trick, but it ends for her part with decisive action in the face of serious physical and social dangers.

Though both poems date from the same period in Keats’s life, “St. Agnes” is greater than the celebrated “Hyperion.” While the latter drags under the weight of its intricacies, eventually collapsing before the drama can properly start, “St. Agnes” showcases a master poet at the height of his creative control. That Keats didn’t comprehend this superiority is a reminder of just how young he was: big-hearted and ambitious above all else, his mistake was to be too hard on himself, conforming to an artistic type when he could have been more sensitive to the nature of his gifts.

Given time, Keats’s sharp critical eye would doubtless have noticed that his talent flourished within the charged compression of the lyric. His great odes, “to Psyche,” “on Indolence,” “to a Nightingale,” “on a Grecian Urn,” and “To Autumn” followed soon after “St. Agnes” — a creative season so explosive it could have blown back even William Shakespeare’s magnanimous curls. But Keats stuffed these lyrics among his scrap papers. It was too early for foresight. It always is.

Yet we inheritors of the poetic tradition he did so much to shape will still do Keats dignity if we try to benefit from his example, combining the fraction we can muster of his inexhaustible energy with a willingness to abandon any convention that emaciates our writing. One of his famous letters had it that a real literary genius is capable of “being in uncertainties.” He partly meant that we all inhabit uncertainties — not the least about the length of life — but that a brave intellect inhabits the doubt without “reaching after” an escape. At 25, in Italy, Keats ended by facing the unknown with dignity. Back in England, his accumulated work was waiting to teach the readers who had ignored him the certainty of his greatness.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Outlawed Nobleman: Oscar Wilde’s Trial by Fiction


This month marks the 125th anniversary of The Picture of Dorian Gray’s publication. A delicious scandal from the first day it appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine up to the present, Oscar Wilde’s only novel is so good it has withstood the two deadliest kinds of critical reaction: absolute censure and total adoration. The censure began when a reviewer from the Scots Observer, admitting that Wilde had “brains, art, and style,” venomously dismissed Dorian Gray as a book written only for “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys.”

That reference to a then-prominent British homosexuality scandal focused the public eye on protagonist Dorian Gray’s relationship with the man who made his portrait, Basil Hallward. In the second edition, Hallward claims to have been “dominated, brain, soul, and power” by Dorian, a sentence that in the Lippincott’s text read “I adored you madly, extravagantly, absurdly.” The implication of a connection between the two men that went beyond the intellectual was not unjustified, and though Wilde prudently played it down in subsequent printings, the damage had been done. Ward, Lock, and Co., Lippincott’s publisher, removed the issue that contained the novel from sale because the press had cried sodomy. Passages from that version were later used to vilify Wilde during his famous indictment for “gross indecency,” a trial that withered his reputation and lead to his irretrievable exile from London.

But copies of the book lingered on the shelves of the avant-garde, and when Wilde’s society plays began gathering momentum again after his death, a lavish reprinting of the novel was not far behind. The Picture of Dorian Gray’s trajectory has been upward ever since, and it would amuse Wilde to know that it is now the public who adores him, rather than his detractors, who are committing what he called “the absolutely unpardonable crime of trying to confuse the artist with the subject-matter.” The kisses custodians from Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery routinely had to wipe from Wilde’s tomb grew so numerous that in 2011, his estate installed a seven-foot deep plate glass barrier to keep admirers at bay.

I went to the site myself in 2010, when you could still walk up and read the notes Wilde’s fans had left for him. Few referenced his work, but most cast him as a champion of LGBTQ rights. Whether or not he ever played that role, Wilde would be quick to ask what it had to do with the quality of his prose. “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book,” he wrote in Dorian Gray’s introduction, and the fact that it has survived his moral crucifixion as well as his sainthood is proof that the claim might be true. Think what we will of the man, the book is luminous, terrifying, wonderful.

Understandably, not all critics interested in Wilde’s sexuality are invested in his biography — there is plenty of it in his books. Apart from the impeccable apartments and the clothes, intricate tensions between Eros, art, self-interest, and violence are what make The Picture of Dorian Gray’s great scenes memorable. And the early chapter where Dorian’s portrait is first painted outstrips the rest, because while it blends melodrama and sophistication as well as any scene in William Shakespeare, it also makes the novel a test-kitchen for Wilde’s aesthetic theories.

Wilde wanted to believe that no book could be moral: that to judge art, our sense of good aesthetics (by which he meant unity of form, deep characters, and a roller-coaster plot) should suffice. When he took the stand at his own trial, he asked Victorian London to believe it too. But he took an even bigger risk by allowing the book itself to pose the question. The bravery of The Picture of Dorian Gray is that Wilde was letting his moral and aesthetic theories work out their own implications in his characters. With it, he earned his qualification as a great explorer of the dusky territory between art and ethics.

As Wilde pointed out himself, the portrait-painting scene in chapter two is a modern retelling of Faust, the make-a-deal-with-the-devil scene. Dorian Gray, an arrestingly handsome man of about 20, is having his portrait made by Hallward, one of London’s preeminent artists. In the previous chapter, Hallward begged his friend, the jaded dandy Lord Henry Wotton, not to “spoil” his newfound friendship with Dorian, a man who was bound to “dominate” the rest of his life. Hallward is right to be cautions: Lord Henry is a fast-talker whose only hobby is psychologically “vivisecting” the weaker-minded.

As Dorian mounts the dais for the last phase of Hallward’s work, Henry starts a homily for hedonism that leaves Dorian starstruck: “I believe,” Henry coos, “that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought…that the world would gain…a fresh impulse of joy.” Seeing a “curious new expression” come into Dorian’s face, Hallward meanwhile paints like mad, oblivious to Henry’s tirade, or the effect it has on Dorian, who drinks down Wotton’s vintage to the dregs: “He [Dorian] was dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to have come really from himself. The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him…had touched some secret chord…”

It is these influences that lead to the famous moment several pages later when Dorian barters his soul to stay as timeless as the picture. He gets eternal youth as the result, and starts on a trajectory toward infamy and murder. But it is the portrait’s creation that is most interesting, because it occurs at precisely the moment when Dorian’s innocence, the original source of his charm and the reason for his being there, is punctured. Basil’s painting gets is pathos from capturing the instant of his friend’s unmaking, at the hands of his mentor, elevated by his own erotic longing. “I have caught the effect I wanted,” Hallward tells them, “– the half-parted lips, and the bright look in the eyes.”

Dorian’s “most wonderful expression” is the face of Eve biting the apple. Hallward is Adam, lead astray by worshipping Eve too much. Lord Henry, of course, plays the serpent, who shakes the fruit off the tree for Eve not in an act of Miltonic revenge, but out of pure puerile recklessness: I “merely shot an arrow into the air,” Henry thinks privately, “Had it hit the mark?” It had indeed, and Henry can be sure of it once Dorian points to the young face on the canvas and cries “I would give my soul for that!”

That this moment leads Dorian to a hideous downfall should interest us much, because with his hedonistic tirade, Henry was giving the young man an aesthetic exemption from the ethical; the same pass Wilde requested from his critics during his trial, and was tartly refused. In an act of literary bravery, Wilde allowed his art to cannibalize his credibility, and he paid the price, as he knew he would. “There is no such thing as an immoral work of art,” he insisted in trial as well as his novel’s preface, but he learned to be afraid of moral art critics. They were the ones who fed excerpts from Dorian Gray’s first edition to Wilde’s prosecutors, who, with the full weight of the state behind them, hammered him to dust.

The portrait-painting scene distills the creativity that laid him on the anvil: it is art being made at a moment of moral suspension. It captures a man mentally replacing goodness with beauty. And Wilde not only allowed his art to savor such moments of suspended moral judgment, he formulated his whole theory of art on a permanent suspension of it. Another way of saying this is that Wilde was far more interested in letting mankind have its way in a drama than he was in expressing cohesive opinions — or moral systems — through it. He shared this quality with other great aphorists, and with Shakespeare. It is what John Keats called “negative capability,” which a writer has when he is “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” An author with negative capability can transcend his context. He can let characters have their way with the world and each other, without interceding on behalf of his own assumptions.

Though he disliked it, Wilde was not always able to avoid writing critical prose, just as he was not able to avoid going to trial. So he couched his writings in negative capability by inverting the fundamental Romantic premise: rather than seeing art as the expression of the artist’s personality a la William Wordsworth, he claimed that “art existed to conceal the artist.” Not to mention being incredibly entertaining at dinner parties, this theory allowed Wilde to free himself from the Victorian moral imperative and focus on the alternately shoddy and magnificent fireworks of the human drama, even if that meant his characters might do something the audience didn’t like. In fact he stuck to his guns even if it meant watching Henry Wotton bilk and manipulate Dorian Gray into a monster using Wilde’s very theories.

That is the last proof of his dramatic talent: it isn’t Victorian moralism which brings Dorian Gray down, but Wilde’s own counterargument to it. When Basil Hallward finally sees the hideous soul trapped in the portrait, and begs Dorian to pray for forgiveness, to have his “sins washed white as snow,” we side with Hallward, not Dorian’s petulant reply that “those words mean nothing to me now.” Dorian’s appeal to the beauty of his sins does nothing to safe him from the guilt of eventually murdering Basil, or the alienation of selfishness: he dies miserably alone, and his household feels no pity.

That Wilde allowed the novel to reach such a conclusion wasn’t pandering to his audience, it was bowing to what he knew, as a brilliant dramatist, to be a fact of human nature: that those who enshrine themselves will soon find the pedestal a prison. As the borders of Dorian’s world shrink, they are increasingly defined in lines of blood, Hallward’s among the rest. That an amoral theory of art and life could have such very real moral consequences was not a convenient conclusion for Wilde’s work to reach: it was the same one reached by his prosecutors, though they took a crude and slanderous road to get there. Wilde knew that with Dorian Gray, he’d given them the perfect ammunition; he just hoped they would be enlightened enough not to consider the lavishness of Dorian’s sin an endorsement of vice. That was his mistake — readers of tragedies have always found it hard to draw the line.

Wilde was so invested in the arts he thought he could build a defense of his honor on an aesthetic theory, but was soon reminded he was talking to a culture more like bankers then his ideal aesthete aristocrats: their fingers twitched to find the bottom line, and Dorian’s fall from grace wasn’t nearly as colorful as his flight from virtue. In the end, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor, and died, discredited and unproductive, in Paris. But it was disappointment, not disgrace, that silenced him: the reality that no one could look past Dorian and Basil’s vaguely sexualized friendship, to the unity and poise with which their story was expressed, was more of a strain on him than years of pounding rocks: he came out of his sentence a wreck, and in French brothels briefly became the man London had made him out to be.

But it was his willingness to reach inconvenient conclusions (and many progressive fans find his supposed deathbed conversion to Catholicism a very inconvenient one) that set Wilde apart: capable of transcending everything to make the characters ring true, he let The Picture of Dorian Gray take on a life of its own. Preaching art for art’s sake in his lectures and at London parties, he still let Dorian reap the obscene harvest of a life lived for art’s sake alone. Wilde’s best work lives at that moment where it bucks the status quo in the name of beauty. In that sense it is a portrait of its author, and thankfully, since its only curse was to be brilliant, it could not share his fate.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.