Writing from Ravenna to Thomas Moore in 1821, Byron said that he could “never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of an excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake or an eternal fever.” And he added as an after-thought: “Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?” It’s worth hearing this from Byron of all people—Byron who could fill his days with riding, lovemaking, and drinking and then sit down late at night in an excited passion and pen an extraordinarily large number of stanzas. But Byron’s standards in passion were high. There was no such thing as a life of passion, and there was no such thing as a life of poetry.
Ravenna, a remote place even now, was an exceedingly remote place in those days. Byron’s exile—a thing lived through, it seems to us, with so much passion—was partly a matter of getting away from his admirers as well as his critics, from those who expected on meeting him to encounter the original Childe Harold. Byron was not like Childe Harold—or rather he was not always like Childe Harold. This was the mistake people made about his poetry.
If he was right about poetry being the product of an excited passion, the consequences for the way we regard our lives as poets can be both liberating and depressing. Byron was the most prolific of poets and one of the most successful commercially, but the idea that poetry might be a career was absolutely alien to him—alien to him, of course, as an aristocrat, but alien to him, anyway, as a figure of his time. Indeed, careerism in poetry is a very recent, perhaps postwar phenomenon.
To earn the title of poet in previous centuries it was enough that one had written a poem. Nobody thought that Gray, who made his reputation on a dozen poems, was any less the poet for that. Even today Dr. Johnson’s claim to the title poet rests on a couple of satires, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes (the tragedy Irene having ducked out of sight). But either one of those satires would have been sufficient to validate the claim.
This is not to imply that the poets of previous centuries were easily satisfied with their achievements, that they never yearned to go on churning the stuff out, that they never felt blocked as writers. Nor is it to imply that they had no ulterior motive when they wrote, no further object in view. Indeed they did have an object, about which they were notably more frank than we are. Their object was Fame.
But their object was not a career. You have to go back a long way, and rummage through some quite obscure poetry, before you find a careerism of the kind that is common today. Court poets were careerists, no doubt, if …
Copyright © 1992 by James Fenton