You’ve got to wonder about those poets. They live the strangest lives, and often end those lives in the most awful ways possible. For people who write with such beauty, their lives bear a gruesome tinge.
Take W.B. Yeats, for example. I have been reading up on him since it seems a good understanding of modern English poetry is impossible without him. But the more I read about him, the less I wish he were so important. Yeats – an Irish Protestant, originally – became a member of the Theosophical Society, an occult group, and adopted the magical name “Daemon est Deus Inversus.” His odd religious sensibilities become insulting alongside Yeats’s claim that he could offer a synthesis of all religions. The arrogance is scathing, and it became worse late in life. After a vasectomy operation done when he in his 60’s, Yeats adopted numerous paramours and described himself as experiencing entirely new creative powers. Yes, because running around with women like an irresponsible teenager is a wonderful way to imbue poetry with insight.
Poets are always doing odd things like creating their own religions, ambiguously remaking things they already know as if they had power over it. Something of this impulse becomes desperate in the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, who, rejecting the Catholicism in which his mother (rather maniacally) raised him, fills his poetry with religious values. Religious values set deliberately against Catholic values. His is an alternate religion – an atheist’s religion – enlightened by the living-dying Orpheus, who is divine and splintered.
Poets are always splintering.
This can be good, and this can be terrible. I wonder if poets entice both at once, or rather I wonder if they are tempted by arrogance and so succumb to what is terrible. They desire what is good, which is a certain kind of greatness, but in trying to grasp it they instead invite its opposite. The good can only be attained with humility, which means not grasping at anything at all.
G.M. Hopkins knew this. He burned poems he thought were too self-centered. Many consider this a tragedy, the neurosis of a religious man. Maybe it would be better to give him some credit, and imagine that he knew what he was doing.
Or there is Francis Thompson, perhaps my favorite poet. The forgotten poet, the delicate and tragic genius. He wrestled with addiction to opium – not uncommon in the 19th century – and was destitute and homeless for several years. Still he wrote poetry, immense words describing God’s grace. Yes: a homeless addict, writing with confidence in God’s mercy. His talent was discovered; he cleaned up. He was published. He fell in love, and she broke his heart. Thompson relapsed and died of a combination of tuberculosis and laudanum poisoning.
The man’s life was one of deep tragedy, and still he never ceased to speak of grace. I see in him a poet who never pretended his work was religion. A man who in his sad way knew the cross. If poets must suffer, he chose the better path. Better because he did not glorify himself for it.
But the poet rent off robe and wreath, so as a sloughing serpent doth,
Laid them at the rhymer’s feet, shed down wreath and raiment both,
Stood in a dim and shamed stole, like the tattered wing of a musty moth.
“Thou gav’st the weed and wreath of song, the weed and wreath are solely Thine,
And this dishonest vesture is the only vesture that is mine;
The life I textured, Thou the song—MY handicraft is not divine!”
– excerpt, “The Judgement of Heaven” (fragment), Francis Thompson