Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Writing a great work with patient plan - Bysshe Vanolis and the poetic quotation

His pen name should have been the first clue.  Bysshe Vanolis - Shelley and Novalis.  This might be a poet awash in poetry, a poet of poets.  The City of Dreadful Night has three epigrams, one from Dante and two from Leopardi.  The first two lines are:

Lo, thus, as prostrate, 'In the dust I write
   My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears.'

The quotation is, it turns out, from Act III of Titus Andronicus.  Vanolis can't write five words without referring to another poet.

Yesterday I described an entire canto that is basically a bizarre riff on Dante's "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here."  In a list of meaningless activities, Vanolis includes "writing a great work with patient plan \ To justify the works of God to man"  (XII  45-6)  Sorry, Milton!  Canto XIV has some tigers burning "with beauty and with might," surely a nod to a fellow visionary poet.

I'm actually not very good at this.  These are the obvious ones, but they were enough for me to realize that the poem must be packed with more, and may very well be constructed out of lines from other poets.  Is that bit from Shelley?  Could that be Richard Crashaw?  Is there any way to even identify a Leopardi or Novalis reference?  Hopeless.  Canto IV contains a journey through a horrific desert landscape, and feels much like "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," but rereading Browning I didn't pick up anything specific.  Who knows.

The City of Dreadful Night climaxes with a vision of Albrecht Dürer's Melencolia I, precisely described, with the winged woman in the engraving looming over London "in bronze sublimity."  Citizens gaze upon her for "confirmation of the old despair."

Hey, wait a minute.  This, I have seen before.  Visionary poet Gérard de Nerval (click for a look at the engraving) invoked Melencolia I in both a poem in The Chimeras (1854) and his account of his mental breakdowns, Aurélia (1855).  Meanwhile, the conceit of The City of Dreadful Night, the London flaneur, strongly suggests the presence of Baudelaire.  The two secondary studies I have consulted have no interest in French poets whatsoever, but they're wrong.

I am describing one of many reasons The City of Dreadful Night reminds me so strongly of The Waste Land.  Parts of Eliot's poem are also mosaics of poetic quotations.  The climax is little more than a succession of quotations, Nerval among them, "These fragments I have shored against my ruins." 

But why does Vanolis use so many poetic references?  Why, given his pessimism, his despair, does he write poetry at all?  Well, he answers that question in the Proem:  "To show the bitter old and wrinkled truth" and so on.  Fine.  But then why do it so well?  For me, the aesthetic quality of The City of Dreadful Night actually destroys its central idea.  This, sir, was worth doing.  And if this, then perhaps other things, too.

Now, I came up with that myself, but it turns out that someone else had the same idea.  Tomorrow:  George Eliot vs Bysshe Vanolis.  They corresponded.  It is A. Scream.

Postscript:  Has anyone, by any chance, read After London (1885), a novel by the English nature writer Richard Jefferies?  My understanding is that Jefferies hated London so much that he wrote a novel destroying it. The city's sewers explode, rendering London a poisonous, uninhabitable swamp, killing all who enter it.  Is this novel insane and good, or merely insane?


  1. George Eliot!! I look forward to her thoughts.

    I actually have a similar reaction to The Waste Land itself - he argues that in this modern world everything has descended into the dead-eyed mundane, but it's hard to believe that with such a beautiful, historically-conscious and aesthetically pleasing poem in front of me.

  2. After that trip to Morocco, you're already killing it this year. Sheesh--what is all this?! Where did you find this poem/poet again? It's going to take me a little time to read through all of this--it all sounds fantastic, glancing at it.

  3. This sounds great - I expect secondhand booksellers are selling out even as I write. As to After London, it's a really good post-apocalypse novel (the first?) in a long line that includes great forgotten novels such as John Collier's Tom's a-Cold. Almost everything Jefferies wrote is worth reading - even The Dewy Morn, for its chapter-long paean to the female knee.

  4. Eliot - Thomas Stearns - has an out (or a theme, or point) that B.V. does not, namely that he values culture and beauty and whatnot. The beauty of his poetry is a protest against the world's entropy. Eliot is kicking against the pricks. B.V. claims that he is not.

    zhiv, whaddayamean, where'd I find it? He's Scottish! If it's not Scottish, it's crap.

    Neil - I knew it! I knew that Jeffries novel had to be good. Now the Jeffries novel I read about in Christopher Woodward's In Ruins, a book I'll bet you know. Thanks for the Collier recommendation, too.

  5. I am a big fan of Nerval's Aurelia, and it is both insane and good (can't comment on the other book as never heard of it before). But Nerval, when he wasn't in a good mood and toting his pet lobster around Paris on a blue velvet ribbon, was hugely melancholy and packed his poems choc-a-bloc full of mythological and poetic references. I get the feeling that this was the fashion in alexandrines at the time - lots of references decipherable only to a particular group of people (ie other depressed poets). It was a kind of exotic, excessive moment of wallowing in influence rather than feeling anxious about it. There was enough else for thee poor sods to feel anxious about, it seems.

  6. litlove, if you know Nerval's poems, you know Les Chimeres. That is them. I did my best with "El Desdichado" and "Delphica" during June's exciting Gérard de Nerval Week.

    By the way, we are for some reason discussing something you wrote recently in these comments. Please stop by to correct, redirect, gently admonish, etc.

  7. Why does he do it? Why does he do it so well? It's in the Proem too:
    'Yes, here and there some weary wanderer
    In that same city of tremendous night,
    Will understand the speech and feel a stir
    Of fellowship in all-disastrous fight;
    "I suffer mute and lonely, yet another
    Uplifts his voice to let me know a brother
    Travels the same wild paths though out of sight.'
    Misery loves company. Thompson must have found some small solace in the melancholic works of those poets he referenced, and wanted to share his pain in that tradition. The next stanza begins with the apostrophic "O sad Fraternity" - this is to whom he speaks.

  8. Yes, that's good. The "company" may just be dead poets, but he is then joining the tradition.

    You may well enjoy the post after this one, where Vanolis justifies himself to George Eliot.