- Lives of the Poets:On Recent Novels About Poets
In a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse dated October 27, 1818, the poet John Keats remarks, "A Poet is the most unpoetical of anything in existence." Keats goes on to suggest that poets have no inherent interest as subjects because they are always imaginatively or sympathetically projecting themselves into the minds or bodies of others to create poetry. Keats would be surprised to discover, then, that by my count no fewer than five novels have appeared in the past two years about the lives of poets. It is also surprising to find this increased interest in poets occurring at a point when popular interest in poetry is purportedly at its lowest ebb. Like the fiery heart of Shelley, said to have been snatched intact from the poet's still burning remains by his friend Edward Trelawny, poetry—and the poet—appear to have survived all attempts to kill them, returning to enjoy the renewed attention they are receiving in the realm of fiction.
Of course, poets have always been a source of interest and the subject of inflated claims about their special status, particularly among poets themselves. In Book III of his Republic, Plato famously chose to disallow poets from his ideal state, citing their ability to excite the passions over reason and [End Page 177] to conjure seductive imitations of reality as making them too dangerous to be admitted into civilized society. Then there's Wordsworth, writing in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1802), who sees the poet not as a danger to his fellow human but as a spokesperson:
What is a Poet? To whom does he address himself? And what language is to be expected from him? He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endued with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them.
One wonders whether there is anything, by Wordsworth's account of things, that the poet isn't capable of.
Shelley, in his passionate "Defense of Poetry" (1821), also stands in defiant opposition to Plato's banishment of poets from society and government, calling them instead the "legislators [albeit 'unacknowledged'] of the world" and claiming they possess a greater virtue than ordinary mortals:
A poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue, and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men. As to his glory, let time be challenged to declare whether the fame of any other institutor of human life be comparable to that of a poet.
Though this idealistic vision of the poet as a person of "spotless virtue" stands in contrast to Shelley's own conduct, his confidence in the role of the poet as an exemplary figure is nonetheless inspiring.
Across the Atlantic, Emerson continues the Romantic legacy of claiming special status for the poet in his well-known essay "The Poet." Sounding like a blend of Shelley and Wordsworth, Emerson observes, "the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth." Emerson too argues, paradoxically, for the superiority and the universality of the poet, saying that poets are both better than the rest of us and at the same time representative of us...