in verse #39 : the lost leader

I raised the issue in my last post of the political and economic forces driving Romantic poetry, citing Roger Sales, who argues that in the Romantic authors we find apologists for the destruction of English rural life.[i]  Jonathan Langford, in a comment on that post, wrote that “while I’m willing to concede political implications of poetry (often unintended, and sometimes counter what was intended), I take a lot of convincing to see the political and/or economic as driving Romantic poetry.”[ii]  I’m not certain Sales is right — I’m still reading the book — but it seems to me that his main point goes more to the “unintended” element Langford notes, when he describes the pastoral as “deceptive and prescriptive. It offers a political interpretation of both past and present.…. provid[ing] sheep’s clothing for aristocratic wolves, or indeed for anybody who was on the side of the victors in the civil war which was fought for control of rural society.”[iii]  If you read Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” closely (and you can in that last post) you can’t help but see the link between the poet’s nostalgia for the past and the pastoral view of the world.  The poem is saturated in nostalgia.

As for the political and economic implications, I will respond here as I did to Jonathan’s comment:  note the injured tone of the poem below, and guess who wrote it, and about whom, and on what occasion:

The Lost Leader

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a riband to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
—He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne![iv]

The comparisons of the subject both to Judas, betraying Christ for a handful of silver, and Christ, crowned in heaven and “the first by the throne”, indicate a certain ambivalence towards him.  The sense of betrayal among those he turned from is further illustrated by the progression from gold to silver to copper to rags, illustrating a sense of the speaker and his cohort as being near the bottom of the economic ladder.  These emotions, and the poet’s expression of them, are strong — and a little mean-spirited. It isn’t until we get to the 11th line that we begin to suspect that the “lost leader” of the title is not a politician, like Charles Stewart Parnell, the Parliamentary leader who was born about this time, and was called the uncrowned king of Ireland.[v]

The subject of the poem is Wordsworth — hence the comparisons with other poets — and the occasion of the poem is Wordsworth’s accepting of the post of Poet Laureate — the “riband” —  upon the death of Robert Southey in 1843. The previous year he had been awarded a civil-list pension of 300 pounds a year — the “handful of silver.”  Until his death in 1850 he wrote no “official” poems as Laureate, and in fact had only accepted the post on being assured that “you shall have nothing required of you” by the Prime Minister, Robert Peel.[vi]

The bitterness of this poem trips off the tongue of Robert Browning; it is to me ample evidence of the political and economic nature of the Romantics.  Almost all of the Romantic poets were, like Blake, dissenters or non-believers, and would have agreed with Blake’s famous assessment of Milton and Satan that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it.”[vii]  Surely Browning shows that same radicalism in this assessment of Wordsworth, who was 73 at the time,[viii] and lived another 6 or 7 years. That Browning so strongly felt the “betrayal” of an old man accepting a deserved honor indicates the strength of feeling that persisted in the wake of the radical Romantic movement, although perhaps “anarchy” would be a better descriptor than “movement”.

One reason I’m still not sure about Sales and his observations, is that they are advanced as much by sneer as by logic — so I’m still working it out. But he seems to feel, in response to the entire Romantic movement, some of that same betrayal felt by Browning.  This is a far stronger response to the poets than Harold Bloom’s famous “anxiety of influence,” which tells me that the response is both political and psychological.  And as for the political leanings of the Romantics, I refer you to this assessment from a fairly standard overview of the era:

The most intense perod [sic] of Romantic creativity lay between 1789 — the year when Blake’s Songs of Innocence was published — and 1824, the year when George Gordon, Lord Byron died.  The Romantic urge certainly lived on after 1824, just as it had already been in evidence before 1789, but the Romantic surge was finished when Byron expired in a foreign land fighting for the cause of a people not his own.[ix]

While I find John Garrett’s pairing of the “Romantic urge” and the “Romantic surge” compelling in its rhyme, I am less convinced by his conventional view that the Romantic surge was inspired by “a growing disgust among writers with the rationalistic bias of their predecessors,” who then “began to turn towards more mysterious or numinous aspects of experience and towards the world of their dreams, territories which had been out of bounds to the Augustans.”[x]  The clearly political stance of Blake’s Songs of experience, evident in such poems as “Holy Thursday” and “London” (to say nothing of the longer epics), is an impulse at least equally as strong as his turn to dreams and visions.

But I am concerned, in this investigation of the Romantics, with their turning away from the classical couplet and to the Greek ode.  To me, that turn is political; the former represented the settled orthodoxy of the previous century (although Pope was certainly heterodox in his religion), and the latter the democratic and wildly dionysiac spirit of freedom sweeping Europe. Greece, ruled by the Ottoman Empire for nearly 400 years, declared its independence in 1821 but did not achieve it until 1829.[xi]   Byron died, as noted above, in 1824, fighting in Greece for the cause of its people.  Any poet using the Augustan couplet in that context would follow the conventional form; but he or she would invent the form in the Pindaric ode, as Wordsworth did. I conclude that the adoption of a Greek form had political as well as aesthetic origins, and reflected the revolutions in North America and France as well as that in England in the preceding century.  I may be reading too much into this, but it is significant to me that the romantics tried just about everything but the dominant verse form of the preceding 100 years, and seemed reluctant to return to Milton’s blank verse.

I think there is an obvious and complex relationship between English Romantic poetry and the models from ancient Greece, primarily the Greek Ode, that served to inspire it.   There is a puzzling discrepancy between the two great experimenters we have been considering, Blake and Smart, and their successors in experiment, Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats.  But before we get to further experimentation, I have another evaluation in verse of Wordsworth from Browning’s generation, this one by James Kenneth Stephen (1859–1892), a man with three first names, which is far less bitter — well, somewhat less vitriolic:

A Sonnet

Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud’s thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times,
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times—good Lord! I ’d rather be
Quite unacquainted with the A. B. C.
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

But hold on, I hear you say — that’s less vitriolic than Browning’s poem?  With its mocking of Wordsworth as “an old half-witted sheep” and his poems as “hopeless rubbish?”

Your turn.

[i] English literature in history. 1780-1830 : pastoral and politics / Roger Sales.—New York : St. Martin’s, c1983; this argument, advanced in his chapter 1, “The propaganda of the victors,” takes a long view of the subject, and I’ll be returning to it in future posts.

[ii], accessed 27 March 2014.

[iii] Op. cit., p.17.

[iv] “The lost leader” from The poems. Volume 1 / Robert Browning.– [Yale ed.] /  edited by John Pettigrew ; supplemented and completed by Thomas J. Collins. – New Haven : Yale University Press, 1981, p. 410.  In the poem as printed, every second line is indented 6 characters; WordPress does show that in draft, but will not display it on publication.  I apologize, and know that it is a bad workman who blames his tools, but, well, sorry.  If you know of a way to make it display leading spaces, I’m all ears.

[v], accessed 27 March 2014.

[vi], accessed 27 March 2014.

[vii] The marriage of Heaven and Hell / William Blake. – Introduction by Clark Emery. – Coral Gables, Florida : University of Miami Press, c1963.  This volume, no. 1 in the University of Miami critical studies series, reproduces the plates as photographs of a facsimile reproduction of a copy in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; they are not easy to read.  The quote is transcribed from plate 6 of Blake’s book.

[viii] According to the notes on p. 1091 of The poems. Volume 1, the poem was published on 6 November 1845, 2½ years after Wordsworth accepted the laureateship.  I have found no indication that Wordsworth ever read it, although Pettigrew in the note to this poem says that Browning had met Wordsworth.

[ix] British poetry since the Sixteenth Century : a students’ guide / John Garrett. — Totowa, New Jersey : Barnes & Noble Books, 1987, p. 104.

[x] Ibid., p. 103.

[xi], accessed 27 March 2014.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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One Response to in verse #39 : the lost leader

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    What all this illustrates, I think (at least in context with the rest of what we know about the poets in question), is that politics and aesthetics do indeed mix, but in confused and often confusing patterns, even (perhaps especially?) for the practitioners. Stephen’s assessment at least addresses the question of Wordsworth as a poet — making it perhaps at once both more and less bitter as a criticism than what Browning wrote. It’s certainly possible to read Browning’s diatribe as little more than a well-phrased temper tantrum.

    Poets would like to believe that their words have impact in the real world. Or they are horrified at accusations that this might be the case. Either way, it seems odd (but all too plausible) that choice of one poetic meter or another might be seen as a political, or even ideological, choice — not primarily an aesthetic one. (And what does it say for the Romantic poets’ claims of the primacy of poetry that they let politics into the driver’s seat on poetic matters such as these?)

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