Young Poets

Hogarth's Starving Poet

Hogarth’s Starving Poet



Lately I’ve been rereading T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.

This led to my taking down to peruse, after a hiatus of about twenty years, the slim volume he wrote called The Use of Poetry & The Use of Criticism.

That is not exactly a title for setting best-seller records. I had to check to see if it was even in print anymore, as I’d found my dog-eared copy on a dusty shelf in an old bookstore. The essays were part of lectures the poet gave in 1932 at Harvard.

Not what we’d call up-to-the-moment.

And yet as I leafed through idly, observations leaped out, like Eliot’s trenchant observations about Shelley, and how it’s usually the young who cherish his poetry, but who grow past it with maturity.

(I’ve chosen this sketch by a fellow student, which may be Shelley, because it is so difficult to find any pictures of him that were not assiduously doctored by Shelley’s survivors after he died; almost all his portraits were prettified as assiduously as Jane Austen’s were.)


Anyway, Eliot’s observation is something I’ve noticed about certain kinds of books; the emotional and environmental Sturm und Drang are exciting for the young reader, but begin to seem generic and finally empty as one gets older.

That’s not to say that these books are bad, but they have their time—and it’s good to discover them at that time.

Many say in defense of Shelley, but he died so young! Who knows what greatness he might have achieved if he had lived?

To that there is no answer.

But then there are the works that provide fresh insights when one returns to them over a lifetime, while the old insights remain steady. Keats, young as he died, is one of those poets, and Jane Austen one of those writers.



Eliot, in his book, makes the observation that Keats really demonstrated his genius through his letters; his observations about poetry, about life and the world, were ahead of his actual art.

O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is a “Vision in the form of Youth” a shadow of reality to come and this consideration has further convinced me… that we shall enjoy ourselves here after having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in Sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth.

— Keats to Benjamin Bailey, Nov. 22, 1817

Keats was even younger than Shelley when tuberculosis overcame him. He died too young to become the poet promised in those letters.

Yes, I thought, yes—this is why I reread Keats’s letters far more often than I reread the poems, though I appreciate them. It’s a self-deprecating genius, full of enthusiasm for life, for beauty and for wisdom, gentle self-mockery, laughter, poignant awareness of the preciousness of the current moment, and the butterfly flicker of time.

Much as I enjoy reading about Shelley and his menage—all fascinating people, especially Clair Clairmont, who never published in her lifetime at all—it is Keats I would first rescue, antibiotics in hand, if that time machine is ever invented.



Young Poets — 13 Comments

  1. To offer some contrafactual history–there is significant speculation that both Shelley and Byron would have burnt out and turned Tory had they lived. Keats wasn’t of their class, and he did not take the risks they took. I find his death more tragic.

  2. Sherwood — Eliot’s “How to Read ….” has an agenda of course. But so do those created by the southern agrarian poets from the same era: Allan Tate, Cleanth Brooks, John Crow Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, which evolved then, by the early 1940’s, to what became the New Criticism — Brooks, “The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in Structure of Poetry” — no lit major was without that one, for sure! You, having looked again just now at Eliot’s, probably have noticed the contrast those agendas possess — and that sometimes one has to submit them to deep reading of the subtext to fully comprehend. They started so early too, in their undergrad time at Vanderbilt, with an almost fully formed and understood objective to establish the writers of the south as fully literary players of the very first class on the global (i.e. American and European) stages.

    In between, among other publications — and their lectures — were their magazine, “The Southern Review,” and the very influential textbooks on how to teach poetry: An Approach to Literature (1936), Understanding Poetry (1938), Understanding Fiction (1943), Modern Rhetoric (1949), and, in collaboration with Robert Heilman, Understanding Drama (1945). Brooks’ two most influential works also came out of the success of the booklet: Modern Poetry and the Tradition (1939) .

    Among just these men — and there were quite a few others — they achieved such influential positions in academia — and even at the Library of Congress, and grant after grant after grant.

    I never noticed this at all when I was a student and poetry and literary criticism mattered everything to me, how much there were these competing traditions that began around WWI, between the American writers to removed themselves to England and Europe, and those who stayed home (though this crowd too, seemed to have managed at least one long stay abroad annually). Nor did I have a clue as to how much the American tradition was SOUTHERN, with the agenda to revise American political history too . . . .

    Pilgrimsoul — Yah — both Shelley and Byron took class ranking seriously, at least as how it affected them. It rankled Shelley a very great deal that Byron, by all the traditional class conventions that were still in place, always took precedence. And if Shelley forgot to observe such Byron would remind me, and not always in a tolerant manner — and that really infuriated Shelley.

    Kind of like after the French Revolution, all the timbrels, and the beheading of aristos and royals, was followed by the crowned-by-the-pope, Emperor Napoleón.

    Love, C.

    • The class thing is most interesting. IIRC Byron lifted an aristocratic eyebrow at Keats’s poetry on that account.

  3. O! I forgot to include what, in the circumstances, you discussed — how much these poets, at least Robert Penn Warren — admired and loved Eliot’s poems. Robert Penn Warren could recite “The Wasteland” from memory at the drop of a hat, even while drunk. They were always accused of either being too influenced by, or imitating, Eliot. Which quite rankled by the time they were older and well-established. So one does think that as the Southern Review was this group’s own bully pulpit in the literary sweepstakes so much conducted by the “little” literary magazines, to rival those coming out of England and Europe particularly — so might the first impulse to do a reading and teaching poetry handbook be sparked by Eliot’s lectures, which at least one of them, as I recall, was present for.

    Love, C.

    • These patterns are so fascinating to look at, especially after the fact. Who put investment into whom, and why? And has that investment stayed meaningful, or emptied?

  4. Sensation is a fine thing, for sure–I do like it a *little* attached to thoughts, though. I want a bit of everything on my plate.

    Still, I think it would be a wonderful thing if you could bring us back Keats and let him enjoy a few more decades of life.

  5. By and large the southern agrarian / new criticism influence peaked in the Civil War centennial era. It receded ever more rapidly as the antebellum and civil war revisionist history became ever more held up for what it was — which among other very important things, was the erasure of slavery and people of color from the narrative. First the Civil Rights era and the coming of African American studies, as well as women’s studies — these poets were not filled any ideas of women and wives’ equality, after all, no matter how much they may have adored their (second or third) wives and their very special and exceptional daughters.

    The critical opinion of their work has also receded in value. But they truly dominated through the first 3/4 of the 20th century.

    Love, C.

  6. As for whom invested and why in the southern agrarian dominance — whole books have been written about this, basically around why the federals ended Reconstruction, and allowed the south to institute neo-slavery and Jim Crow — which we’re seeing the results of again — YET AGAIN — with the privatized prison industrial complex all tied up with federal funding and white supremacy.

    • You’ve probably read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, but if you haven’t, it’s worth your time. Looked at in the light of what’s going on right now, it’s even more dead on.

      (I’m ranging a bit far afield — no poetry in Alexander’s book!)

  7. O yes — Alexander’s book is really pertinent in terms of connecting the end of Reconstruction, Jim Crow and what’s happening currently. A brilliant, if terrible book.

    Love, C.