John Dolan, “Poetic Occasion from Milton to Wordsworth” (2000) – A poet I am not. When I do appreciate a poet, it’s usually for the same stuff I like in novelists and very little to do with, like, meter and prosody and the like. I do, however, enjoy depictions of the Darwinian world of literary careerism, and this is one of the greats.
A noxious combination of Puritanism, jealous aping of continental formalism, and plain snobbery drowned the endless inventiveness of Shakespeare’s era and corralled most poets who wanted to make a living into occasional poetry- that is, poetry dedicated to some kind of occasion. Sometimes that occasion would be something like a coronation or a big military victory. Most often, it would be the most inevitable occasion of all- a death.
In one of many grim ironies that characterize this book, an emphasis on “truth” forced poets who wanted to work to memorialize people they barely knew. Huge names like Milton and Dryden struggled mightily to distinguish their elegies from those of scads of other poets. They succeeded in part because they were able to squeeze invention into increasingly constricting forms- anyone who reads this is unlikely to forget Dryden turning some lord’s smallpox pustules into weeping eyes, shining stars, and rebellious subjects all in a stanza or two. But you also climbed in this world by being quick to shift the blame for insincere poetizing — of which everyone was more or less guilty— onto their rivals.
The central image of this book is the unseemly scrum around a grave, as poets become carrion eaters, symbolized by the legends of literal brawls between poets at Dryden’s funeral. Dolan describes decades as droughts of occasion, where poets had to scrape more pathos out of fewer nationwide events- if you weren’t quick, or independently wealthy, or else really good at poetizing that other source of truth at the time, the Bible, you were on the outs. You’ll notice the greatest work of imagination in English literature at that time, Paradise Lost, can be described as Bible fan-fiction if one were feeling cheeky.
What broke the logjam? Edward Gray’s craftiness and William Wordsworth’s sheer egotism, in this telling. One of the few poems I like, Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” attracted critical scorn from his day to (I learned from this book) ours. They use whatever the biggest cuss word they can find — often, sneering about he’s a favorite of “unsophisticated readers” i.e. me — but what they were (are?) really mad about, Dolan argues, is Gray’s slick maneuver of claiming a whole churchyard of corpses he didn’t know and making it an asset, allowing for some invention and clarity of writing (when he was being purposefully obscure as part of his brand). This cleared a path for Wordsworth, the first one to make the occasion a purely mental event- he saw a cloud and had a feeling, then wrote a poem about it. At bottom, this relied on the reader finding truth in the poet’s ethos, in this case Wordsworth’s Romantic posturing (the safe kind, not the scary Byron kind). He still had more than a foot in the occasional game, though- he insisted that he could produce the date and place for the inspiration of each of his poems.
Its a a grim set of prospects and one familiar to those who know anything about our contemporary era, of the workshop and the online confessional essay complex… Dolan gets his shots in at rival academics who buy the depiction of the poets of the past as unconcerned with the sort of base material realities we all contend with. It can sometimes get into some academic weeds that, not bring a trained student of poetry, I didn’t really get. But in all, the picture is as clear and fascinating as it is dire. ****’