In old age, Giambologna used to tell his friends the story of how, as a young man, a Flemish sculptor newly arrived in Rome, he made a model to his own original design, finished it coll’alito, “with his breath”—that is to say, with the utmost care, bringing it to the very peak of finish—and went to show it to the great Michelangelo. And Michelangelo took the model in his hands and completely destroyed it, and then remodeled it according to his way of thinking, and did so with marvelous skill, so that the outcome was quite the opposite of what the young man had done. And then Michelangelo said to Giambologna: Now go and learn the art of modeling before you learn the art of finishing.1

One supposes from this terrible story that the model must have been made of wax. One supposes that, even on a hot summer’s afternoon in Rome, it would have needed a certain amount of working before the wax became malleable enough for Michelangelo to shape according to his own wishes. Who knows, perhaps several minutes were involved. They must have seemed like hours, as the young sculptor watched, and the wrathful old genius, biting his lower lip, squeezed and squashed and pounded away at the model that had been so lovingly finished. And well before the new model began to emerge, and with it the ostensive reason for the exercise—learn to model before you learn to finish—another point was being made: See how I crush all your ambitions and aspirations, see how feeble your work is in comparison with mine, see how presumptuous you were even to dare to cross the threshold—Thus I destroy you!

There were compensations, of course, for the young Giambologna. He had walked in with an example of his juvenilia, and he left carrying a vibrant little Michelangelo. You might say that he was lucky the master had thought him worthy of the lesson, even if the lesson had to be delivered in such a devastating way. You might say this. Or you might argue that the ostensive lesson was only a pretext for the destruction of the young man’s work.

There is no such thing as the artistic personality—not in poetry, not in the visual arts. Michelangelo’s personality was just one of the colorful range on offer. He was paranoid about his productions, keeping his drawings secret not only from his contemporaries who might include potential plagiarists, but also from posterity itself. As his days drew to a close he made two large bonfires, and not a drawing or cartoon was found in his studio after his death.2 And this paranoia extended to his relations with other artists. He did not “bring on young talent.” He appears to have surrounded himself deliberately with no-hopers, and it is easy to imagine that it was the skill, not the shortcomings, of Giambologna that drove him into such a rage.

But you don’t have to be like that in order to be a great artist, or a great poet. If Michelangelo was both, so, apparently, was Leonardo, of whom Vasari tells us that, in addition to his gifts as a musician, he was the most talented improviser in verse of his time.3 We are told by one scholar that while “Michelangelo jealously guarded his artistic property against other artists, it was not in keeping with Leonardo’s nature to trouble himself to preserve the authorship of the wealth of ideas which poured out of him,” that he was

amiable by nature, communicative and ready to be of help… when he turned to the greater themes of painting or sculpture, he was interested above everything else in the solution of some fundamental problem; when he had succeeded to his own satisfaction, perhaps only theoretically, he liked to leave its execution to others; and what happened further to the work of art seems to have troubled him but little, much less did it occur to him to sign it. He was so independent and had so little vanity that in the execution of his work the identity of the patron had not the slightest influence with him. 4

And yet there were, as Vasari makes clear, limits to Leonardo’s lack of vanity: he did not tolerate insulting behavior, he could not stand a foolish, ignorant patron, and he couldn’t bear to remain in the same city as Michelangelo. Nor Michelangelo with him. So one went off to Rome, and the other to the court of the King of France, and thereby they put between themselves about as great a distance as they possibly could, without falling off the edge of what they deemed the civilized world.

But it does not follow from this that genius always repels genius. Verrocchio presents a further type, a teacher who was happy to surround himself with talent, who trained Lorenzo di Credi and loved him above all others. Verrocchio it was who took on the young Leonardo and who famously decided to renounce painting when he recognized that Leonardo’s angel in the Baptism outshone his own work. He was ashamed to have been outpainted by a mere boy. But if this renunciation seems hysterical, I would say that it is less so in Verrocchio’s case than it would have been in others’. Verrocchio had plenty of other fish to fry. He had begun life as a goldsmith. In Rome, he


saw the high value that was put on the many statues and other antiques being discovered there, and the way the Pope had the bronze horse set up in St. John Lateran, as well as the attention given even to the bits and pieces, let alone the complete works of sculpture, that were being discovered every day.

So he decided to give up being a goldsmith and be a sculptor instead. And when he had won honor as a sculptor so that “there was nothing left for him to achieve,” he turned his hand to painting.

I take these stories about artists, from Baldinucci and Vasari, because they date from a period when it appears that one could acknowledge straightforwardly motives of which we would today be obscurely ashamed. Verrocchio observes that there is much honor to be gained in the field of sculpture, so he becomes a sculptor, and when he feels he has won the honor that is going, he turns to painting with the same motive, but when he sees his way blocked by Leonardo he turns back to sculpture again. There is something equable about this temperament and something generous about the recognition of which it was capable. But this generosity was far from typical of its time and place. It was noteworthy. It was a cause célèbre.

Otherwise one feels that the Italy these artists worked in was a place of the most vicious rivalry and backbiting, maneuverings for commissions, anglings for patronage, plots, triumphs, and disappointments. You had to wait literally for years to be paid. If your work was deemed ugly, you soon learnt about it from lampoons or pasquinades. You got stabbed in the back. Anonymous denunciations for sodomy would arrive, as regular as parking tickets.

Since your work, standing, and honor were all bound together, the award of a grand commission to a friend or rival would be a devastating blow. It would make you rethink your life, as—and this is the last of the Vasarian exempla—Brunelleschi and Donatello were forced to do when Ghiberti won the famous competition for the Florence Baptistry doors. The contest had taken a year. When the entries were exhibited, it was clear to the two friends that Ghiberti’s work was better than theirs, and so they went to the consuls and argued that Ghiberti should get the commission. And for this, Vasari says, “they deserved more praise than if they had done the work perfectly themselves. What happy men they were! They helped each other, and found pleasure in praising the work of others. What a deplorable contrast is presented by our modern artists who are not content with injuring one another, but who viciously and enviously rend others as well!”

So Vasari praises the two artists, and he is not sentimental either, for he goes on to relate how the consuls asked Brunelleschi, who had clearly come a very good second, whether he would cooperate with Ghiberti on the doors, but Brunelleschi said no, since “he was determined to be supreme in some other art rather than merely be a partner or take second place…” Nor was this a passing fit of pique, although both artists eventually did return to Florence and did help Ghiberti. Perhaps the strength of their sense of failure may be gauged from the fact that Donatello, who had not done so well, took a year away from Florence, whereas Brunelleschi, the honorable runner-up, took at least five, and when he did return, he did so principally as an architect.

It’s not enough to fail. You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the middle of the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse—My failure, my very own failure, I thought I’d left it behind in Florence, but look, it’s followed me here to Rome. And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. This is after all the failure for which you were responsible. Why are you neglecting your failure?


Many people live in such a horror of failure that they can never embark on any great enterprise. And this inability to get going in the first place is the worst kind of failure because there truly is no way out. You can cover up. You can hide behind a mask of exquisite sensibility. You can congratulate yourself on the fact that your standards are so high that no human effort could possibly match up to them. You can make yourself unpleasant to your contemporaries by becoming expert on their shortcomings. In the end, nothing is achieved by this timidity.

Or you can permit yourself one failure in life, and devote your remaining days to mourning. “Alas, alas, the critics panned my play.” “When did this happen, friend?” “In 1894!” This failure, it would seem, has been kept like a trophy, lovingly polished and always on display. But for a productive life, and a happy one, each failure must be felt and worked through. It must form part of the dynamic of your creativity.

The judgment on Donatello’s competition entry was: good design, poor execution. Donatello could decipher from that a message saying: You are not yet fully formed as an artist; you must study. But the message received by Brunelleschi was: You will never be as good as Ghiberti. This was a hard blow. Brunelleschi did what he felt necessary—sold a small farm and, with Donatello, walked down to Rome. And there something happened to them which I hope will happen to any poet reading this. Failure rewarded them a thousandfold.

For they came to a place, a sort of Land of Green Ginger, where every answer to every urgent inquiry lay literally at their feet. This, for a poet, would be like discovering voice, technique, and infinite subject matter, fresh and unused, and finding them all in a flash. The ruins of Rome were fresh and unused. You pulled back a caper bush and there lay an architrave. You peered behind the pigpen and there was a sarcophagus. You dug a little and there was a bust, a capital, a herm.

And so they dug and drew and made measurements of the astonishing buildings all around them, and they went without food, and they got filthy, and people decided they must be geomancers in search of treasure. Which wasn’t far wrong. For the secrets of the classical orders were revealing themselves, and the lost technology of the ancient world. But all this time Brunelleschi never revealed to Donatello—especially not to Donatello—the scope of his ambition to revive the classical art of architecture and make that his bid for fame. They were friends. They were rivals. For the project to be worthwhile, it had to be the means whereby Brunelleschi would defeat not only Ghiberti, but also Donatello, his best friend from the Salon des Refusés.

Why should artistic ambition be like that? Why should a sculptor, a poet, feel the need to be the unique object of admiration, to create around himself an illusion of being quite the only pebble, the only boulder on the beach? Why should uniqueness itself be so closely involved with our definition of a work of art, so that we expect every performance to be unique, every hand, every voice, every gesture?

Without looking too far for an answer, we might say that our efforts in the direction of art have something to do with a moment, or a period, in which we felt or knew ourselves to be unique. Feeding at the breast we were unique. (I mean, normally speaking. We are not piglets. We weren’t born in a litter.) Dandled on the lap we were unique, when our parents taught us all the new things we could do with our lips and our limbs. And this was a time of pure inventiveness. Everything we did was hailed as superb. We leapt up and down and our innards went wild with surprise. And the palms of our hands were beaten together. We learnt about rhythm and we learnt new ways of making a noise, and every noise we made was praised. And we learnt how to walk, and all eyes were upon us, the way they never would be again.

Because there follows the primal erasure, when we forget all those early experiences, and it is rather as if there is some mercy in this, since if we could remember the intensity of such pleasure it might spoil us for anything else. We forget what happened exactly, but we know that there was something, something to do with music and praise and everyone talking, something to do with flying through the air, something to do with dance.

And during this period of forgetting we have been forced to take a realistic view of the world, and to admit that there are other people in it besides ourselves and our adoring audience. And in our various ways of coping with this fact we form the basis of our personality. And one will say through his art: There can be only me—the rest being counterfeits. And another will say: There is me, and my best friend, and we are the best. And a third version would be: There is me and my best friend, who (but don’t tell him) isn’t as good as me.

Auden wrote a wonderful thing to Stephen Spender in 1942—it is quoted in Auden’s Juvenilia—when he said: “You (at least I fancy so) can be jealous of someone else writing a good poem because it seems a rival strength. I’m not, because every good poem, of yours say, is a strength, which is put at my disposal.”5 And he said that this arose because Spender was strong and he, Auden, was weak, but his was a fertile weakness.

And it would indeed be a source of fertility to be blessed with that attitude both to the living and to the dead, so that everybody’s good poem is a source of strength to you, and the corpus of published poetry lies before you as the ruins of Rome appeared to Brunelleschi. One associates Auden’s luck in this regard with his abiding conviction that in any gathering he was always the youngest person in the room.

An extreme case of the opposite attitude would be that of Wordsworth in old age, at least the attitude that Carlyle claimed to detect:

I got him upon the subject of great poets, who I thought might be admirable equally to us both; but was rather mistaken, as I gradually found. Pope’s partial failure I was prepared for; less for the narrowish limits visible in Milton and others. I tried him with Burns, of whom he had sung tender recognition; but Burns also turned out to be a limited inferior creature, any genius he had a theme for one’s pathos rather; even Shakspeare himself had his blind sides, his limitations:—gradually it became apparent to me that of transcendent unlimited there was, to this Critic, probably but one specimen known, Wordsworth himself! He by no means said so, or hinted so, in words; but on the whole it was all I gathered from him in this considerable tête-à-tête of ours; and it was not an agreeable conquest. New notion as to Poetry or Poet I had not in the smallest degree got; but my insight into the depths of Wordsworth’s pride in himself had considerably augmented;—and it did not increase my love of him; though I did [not] in the least hate it either, so quiet was it, so fixed, unappealing, like a dim old lichened crag on the wayside, the private meaning of which, in contrast with any public meaning it had, you recognized with a kind of not wholly melancholy grin.6

You notice how far we have come from the candid psychology of ambition as perceived by Vasari to the uncandid, sly, deceitful self-love as perceived by Carlyle, whose meaning, unpacked, was—there is only me, and there only ever has been me.

Nor was this simply something that Wordsworth came to believe at the end of his life. There was a period when his “intolerance of others,” as Gittings tells us, “was reported to have reached alarming lengths.”7 And it happened that this was the period in which Keats, who admired Wordsworth to distraction, was ushered into his presence. He had sent a copy of his 1817 poems to Wordsworth, who, if he had read them, had done so without cutting all the pages. But all went well initially, and Wordsworth kindly asked what Keats had been writing recently. And from this point I shall follow Haydon’s account, even though the detail has been disputed.8 What seems not in dispute is that Keats did a bit of a Giambologna. Haydon says:

I said he has just finished an exquisite ode to Pan—and as he had not a copy I begged Keats to repeat it—which he did in his usual half chant, (most touchingly) walking up & down the room—when he had done I felt really, as if I had heard a young Apollo—Wordsworth drily said “a Very pretty piece of Paganism”—This was unfeeling, & unworthy of his high Genius to a young worshipper like Keats—& Keats felt it deeply—so that if Keats has said any thing severe about our Friend; it was because he was wounded—and though he dined with Wordsworth after at my table—he never forgave him.9

If it did not happen quite like this, something quite like this appears nevertheless to have happened, and Keats became aware of that quiet, fixed, unappealing, dim old lichened crag, and got a whiff of its meaning. Because his attitude does change, and it is not so long after this encounter that Keats writes his celebrated letter to Reynolds of February 3, 1818. Nothing from the surviving letters gives Keats’s side of the encounter, unless we take this passage as a record of a man recovering from an insult.

It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth &c should have their due from us, but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist—Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself.

And a few lines later:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us—and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.—How beautiful are the retired flowers! how they would lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose!”

Well, we hate an insult both for the evidence it gives us of another’s malice, and for the way it finds us out, the way it gets at our self-esteem, or worse, if the insult thinks it can get at us, even though we feel passionately that we are not as base-minded as that. If Keats came from his encounter with Wordsworth insulted and disillusioned, it is not surprising that he should have refrained from saying so directly, for it is humiliating to admit that some trivial remark has cut us to the quick, humiliating further to give any evidence that the jibe has lodged with us, that it has arrived with all its luggage and intends to stay for a long time. Keats looked into Wordsworth’s soul and saw something unexpectedly petty:

Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this. Each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, & knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions & has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: the ancients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them—I will cut all this—I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt…

It may be that there was something about Keats that created alarm in his contemporaries. Byron seems hysterical in his attack on Keats’s “piss-a-bed” poetry: “No more Keats I entreat—flay him alive—if some of you don’t I must skin him myself[:] there is no bearing the drivelling idiotism of the Mankin.——“10 And “Mr. Keats whose poetry you enquire after—appears to me what I have already said;—such writing is a sort of mental masturbation—he is always f—gg—g his Imagination.—I don’t mean that he is indecent but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state which is neither poetry nor any thing else but a Bedlam vision produced by raw pork and opium.”11 Then he becomes a “dirty little blackguard,” simply for having been praised in the Edinburgh Review. And then, in death, he is assumed to be a person of “such inordinate self-love he would probably not have been very happy.” Byron assumes it to be true, and becomes obsessed by the idea that Keats was killed off by a burst blood vessel after receiving a savage review in the Quarterly. He affects a kind of regret, but cannot conceal an illicit excitement at the story. It is hard not to conclude that Keats was seen as a threat by Byron, and that this was his greatest sin. As for Wordsworth, going through his impossible phase, Gittings says: “From 1815 to 1820, the difficult second half of a man’s forties, Wordsworth showed at his worst, and his emergence at fifty to something like his normal self was greeted by all with relief. It is an irony that his malaise coincided precisely with the whole of Keats’s writing life.”12

Irony doesn’t seem quite strong enough a word to cover the implication of this passage: that one of the supremely gifted poets of his time should be driven into something that looked like a kind of mental illness, by the mere fact of another poet’s existence; that Wordsworth could not be at ease with himself until he knew that Keats was dead.

But if it were true, and if it were true that Byron suffered something like the same disease, then one would suppose that what identified Keats as a threat was his aspiration for greatness, rather than the greatness itself. It is not that either of the older poets had been put into a pother after reading the odes. It’s the Poems of 1817, stuff that might strike us, for the most part, as not exactly threatening—and anyway Words-worth hadn’t even read all of it,13 and there’s no guarantee that Byron had either.

It seems unfair, excepting in this sense, that Keats’s encounter with opposition, with envy perhaps on Words-worth’s part, and his disenchantment, seems to have benefited him, to have made him stronger, whereas it was nothing unless debilitating to Words-worth. Keats had a strong and just sense of his own development, and he didn’t mind taking a nose dive:

The Genius of Poetry must work its own salvation in a man: It cannot be matured by law & precept, but by sensation & watchfulness in itself—That which is creative must create itself—In Endymion, I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, the quicksands, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice.—I was never afraid of failure; for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.14

So it might have been the aspiration that was the problem, as it is indeed a problem for anyone setting out in poetry. If I aspire to musicianship, I am at once set on a journey through a series of immensely complicated disciplines. It is extremely improbable that I will get anywhere without training. And it therefore does not happen that even a precocious musician seems pretentious. We feel, however much we envy the success, that it must have been earned. But it is far from clear how we are supposed to earn success in poetry. Poetry often seems unearned.

Nor is it all clear how we could be delayed, held back from achieving our aim, if we looked like a bit of a threat. Verrocchio can always hold Leonardo back, keeping him grinding colors, or preparing panels or busy at any number of prentice tasks. Or he could affect to bring him on, keeping him sketching from dawn till dusk, but always delaying the dread moment when he picks up the paintbrush. But in poetry there is really no equivalent for these in intermediate disciplines. The way to learn to write poetry is: to write poetry. So we pass directly from the aspiration to the activity itself, and that leaves us at first vulnerable, because, looked at in a certain way, we have no right to be writing poems at this stage. But unfortunately we have no option but to give it a whirl. The old joke—Do you play the violin? I don’t know, I’ve never tried—describes our predicament. We are in the position of someone who takes up a violin for the first time and has a go at giving a concert.

But you might object: surely there are things one can do, like writing parodies, like trying out the traditional forms, like studying other people’s poetry, like going in for competitions.

I would certainly say that people who have no interest at all in studying other people’s poetry are unlikely to produce it themselves, although it is not at all uncommon for them to attempt to do so. As for parodies and the trying out of forms, these are things that some people do and find useful. In the case of parody, its chief usefulness is in getting people to write poetry who are too shy or sly to admit that that is what they want to do.

As far as the trying out of traditional forms is concerned, I have this to say: that there seems to me to be a fundamental difference between trying out a traditional form as an exercise, and writing a poem in a traditional form. It is true that, in the context of a workshop, structure may be given to a group’s work by the trying out of certain famous forms, and it is true that such things can be fun as competitions or games among friends. But I do not think that the trying out of forms is an exercise that points in the direction of the writing of poems. Trying out the sonnet—taking a sonnet for a spin, putting the little filly through her paces—seems a rather different activity from the writing of poetry. The great questions of form go deeper than that, and the commitment implied is much more profound than the respectful nod in the direction of form-as-exercise would imply. Don’t try out a sonnet. Try to write a sonnet. Try to write a real sonnet. But that’s the whole aim. That’s not an exercise.

Auden tried everything there was going, but his attitude was different. It was much more like Brunelleschi and Donatello going crazy among the ruins of Rome, digging things up, finding how they worked, imitating them. And imitating for Auden meant much more than the banal copying of metrical pattern and rhyme scheme. It meant a recapturing and reinterpretation of the quality of a thing—a madrigal, a calypso, whatever it was.

There is another form of activity, though, besides reading other people’s work and trying perhaps to imitate it, and this is showing your work to other people. And this activity is of the essence. And of course it can be most devastating, usually because what one has written turns out to be a complete turkey, and we only realize this at the moment we hand the thing to our friends. We should all take heart though from the case of Flaubert, who put a phenomenal effort into the composition of the first version of his Temptation of Saint Anthony (one single episode involved him in the reading of sixty ancient texts, histories, and scholarly commentaries) and finally read it aloud to his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime DuCamp, who recalled later that

the hours that Bouilhet and I spent listening to Flaubert chant his lines—we sitting there silent, occasionally exchanging a glance—remain very painful in my memory. We kept straining our ears, always hoping that the action would begin, and always disappointed, for the situation remains the same from beginning to end. St. Anthony, bewildered, a little simple, really quite a blockhead if I dare say so, sees the various forms of temptation pass before him and responds with nothing but exclamations: “Ah! Ah! Oh! Mon dieu! Mon dieu!”… Flaubert grew heated as he read, and we tried to grow warm with him, but remained frozen… After the last reading [and the whole thing had taken thirty-two hours] Flaubert pounded the table: “Now; tell me frankly what you think.”

Bouilhet was a shy man, but no one was firmer than he once he decided to express his opinion; and he said: “We think you should throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.”

Flaubert leapt up and uttered a cry of horror…. He repeated certain lines to us, saying “But that is beautiful!”

“Yes, it is beautiful…. There are excellent passages, some exquisite evocations of antiquity, but it is all lost in the bombast of the language. You wanted to make music and you have made only noise.”15

I think we can assume that there was justice in what the two friends said, rather than envy, which is what Flaubert’s mother thought. But there remains the problem first of daring to show the work to your friends, next of bearing to listen to what they say about it, but finally, finally and most importantly, there is the whole matter of interpreting what your friends say, deciding whether to accept or reject their judgment, and figuring out where you are going to go from there. And this is where the delicate matter of the relations between poets comes in.

Why should it be, for instance, that Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” in the late 1790s, say October or November 1797, that the Wordsworths definitely knew it in 1798 because Dorothy says in her Hamburgh journal that she “carried Kubla to a fountain,” meaning, we believe, that she carried her drinking can, which she called Kubla, but that Coleridge is not recorded as reciting the poem till 1811–1812, and that it was not published until 1816.

If we had written the poem would we be so reticent?

I believe the answer is that Coleridge wrote the poem, much as one writes any poem, with a great deal of excitement, and that he put it in his pocket and went over to see the Wordsworths. Now the state of mind one is in after writing a poem is rather like the state of mind that continues in a waking person after a particularly vivid dream—but with this difference, that we are under the illusion, after such a dream, that it will be of interest to others. But very few dreams are. They might interest our lovers, and they are meat and drink to our analysts, but not to anyone else. But we don’t know this, because the state of mind that produced the dream is still with us. Nor do we know, after we have written the poem, whether it will be of interest to others. Put it away for a while, and you can possibly tell, but at the moment of completion you merely hope that the thrill is not an illusion.

Coleridge came bounding over to see the Wordsworths, as he had often done, to read his latest work. And they sat in a rather damp parlor, and Coleridge launched into his reading, and while he was at it, full tilt, Dorothy was watching William, as she always did, for his reaction. And there was a little gesture which she knew well, which meant that his nose had been put out of joint. Keats noticed it too, and it survived in one of the passages I quoted. Wordsworth put his hand in his breeches pocket. And Dorothy knew that all was not well. Coleridge was in the process of committing an utter Giambologna.

The reading was over. Silence fell. And Coleridge, who was on a natural high not caused by anything remotely resembling substance abuse, thought—great, they’re impressed. And he waited for a compliment or two. And nothing happened, and finally he too began to suspect that something was up. And then Dorothy said, in a bright voice, “Well, at least I shall know what to call my drinking can now. Come along, Kubla, we’re going to the well.” And Wordsworth suddenly burst out laughing in a rather horrible, forced way, and said, “I say, Dorothy, that’s awfully good—Kubla Can—do you get it, Coleridge?” And Dorothy left the room, and silence fell again, punctuated occasionally by Words-worth’s chuckling over Dorothy’s joke.

Finally, it was Coleridge’s turn to say something, to cover up the dreadful Giambologna he appeared to have committed. And he began telling a story about how he had been taking opium and gone into a trance, and something about a person from Porlock, all of it made up. And Wordsworth turned to him and said: “I think you should throw that poem in the fire, Coleridge, and never speak of it again.”

Now if Coleridge had been Keats he would have fallen out of love with Wordsworth on the spot. But Coleridge was not Keats. He was absolutely convinced, and puzzled by the fact, that he had made a faux pas of the worst kind, because he could not recognize that thing that Keats and Carlyle recognized when they looked into Wordsworth’s soul—that unappealing, lichen-covered thing.

It was not that he was not sly, in his own way he was incredibly sly. He affected to like Southey’s poetry, of which he had a low opinion. Same with Byron. He thought he was the greatest of Wordsworth’s admirers, but he once went to great lengths to write a two-volume book, the Biographia Literaria, merely in order to be able to print a whole chapter on the defects of Wordsworth’s poetry, which he knew would be enough to send Wordsworth up the wall. A whole chapter on Wordsworth’s defects! And Byron read that chapter with particular interest. And Coleridge never knew what he, Coleridge, was up to.

If he’d been a character out of Vasari he could have understood that Wordsworth had to be the only one in his field, and he might even have done a better job of going off to Rome, or going to work at the court of the King of France, or whatever the equivalent would have been. But he couldn’t manage to fall out of love with him. He couldn’t leave him alone.

But “Kubla Khan” wouldn’t go away. Coleridge had improvised the story whereby he turned it into a curiosity, and it was as a curiosity that he would recite it to his friends. One day in early April 1816 he did so in the company of Byron—Byron who, despite his views on the Lake Poets, always had time for Coleridge (his letters show this), always admired poems such as “Christabel,” and had even put work in Coleridge’s way.

Byron was impressed, and immediately asked why Coleridge had not published such a fine work. Coleridge shrugged and said that Wordsworth hadn’t liked it. Thereupon my suggestion is that Byron set Coleridge right upon the character of his friend. When the poem saw print, it was with an acknowledgment of Byron’s encouragement.

The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity, and, as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on grounds of any supposed poetic merits.

But Coleridge did not think Byron’s celebrity as a poet was deserved. As Henry Nelson Coleridge reported in his Table Talk (June 2, 1824),

Nothing of Lord Byron’s would live, nor much of the poetry of the day. The art was so neglected; the verses would not scan.

This then is the essence of a true Giambologna. It is based on a gross misunderstanding of the actual state of affairs. Giambologna takes a statuette to show to Michelangelo, and he thinks he’s just a poor Flemish nobody, wanting a pat on the head. But Michelangelo takes one look at Giambologna and what he sees is a threat. In fact Michelangelo hallucinates. What he sees is a gleaming, nude bronze warrior, a sort of glistening David, striding into the studio with some kind of weapon in his hands, and he thinks: Oh, so I’m supposed to be Goliath, am I? And he seizes the weapon and crushes it with all his might. And the hallucination passes, and he sees that it’s just that Flemish twerp who keeps pestering….

Giambologna emerges from his meeting with Michelangelo, with the wax model still warm from the worker’s hand. He can’t believe that Michelangelo, whom he had worshiped as a god, could have been so perfectly foul to him. He feels sorry for himself as a foreigner. He thinks: He wouldn’t have behaved like that if I’d been a Florentine; the bastard just said to himself, Who does this Flemish twerp think he is? And so he walks on through a Rome with which he is now distinctly out of love, the Rome which had once seemed to him like the Land of Green Ginger, until he comes to the small tavern where he and several of his countrymen live. And it’s evening, and his friends are at table and they call out to him: Hey, Jean, how did it go? And then they say: Oh, like that, was it? And Giambologna takes a taper and goes up to his room, lights a lamp and places the little model on the table, the model that he had made to his own design and finished so beautifully.

And he thinks: It’s so banal, that advice—first learn to model before you learn to finish. It’s like saying learn to walk before you learn to run. Who needs it? What’s the point? Why set yourself up as a genius if that’s the best that you can do?

And then he thinks: Who’s he to talk about modeling, anyway? The Bacchus looks as if it’s going to fall over. The David’s got one leg longer than the other. Who’s he to talk about modeling. And the thought of the injustice of it makes him throw his shoes across the room with such force and one of his countrymen comes up to see what’s wrong.

And Giambologna says: “Michelangelo’s idea of modeling, I mean, his idea of modeling, is sticking a couple of breasts on a bloke to make a woman. That’s his idea of modeling!”

And the friend says: “Yes, Jean, yes, come and have a drink.”

But Giambologna says: “He talks about learning to model before you learn to finish. I mean—what does he know about finishing? When was the last time he ever finished anything? Tell me! When?”

“Sistine Chapel?” says the friend, but Giambologna doesn’t hear.

“The façade of San Lorenzo is a disgrace. The tomb of Julius is just a fragment. He doesn’t even bother any more, he thinks he’s so clever he can leave half the block untouched.”

“You’re right,” says the friend, “he’s a complete tosser. Now come on down.” But Giambologna stays upstairs, calmer now that he has fallen out of love with Rome and out of love with Michelangelo, now that the scales have fallen from his eyes. And from time to time he goes over to the table, and examines the little bozzetto, and really it’s not entirely bad, it’s just that it’s full of all the things that Giambologna now can’t stand about Michelangelo.

And soon without knowing it he is biting his lower lip, and working away at the red wax, till it becomes malleable again. And now he begins to revise the figure according to his way of thinking, reducing the gigantism of the muscles, giving the features an elegance and brio, working away with his finest tools until every centimeter of surface is brought to the most beautiful finish he has ever achieved.

Dawn comes. He can hear the shepherds making their way up the Janiculum, singing their peasant songs to their clanking flocks. And now all the bells of Rome begin to ring. It sounds like the introduction to the last act of Tosca. It is the introduction to the last act of Tosca. Giambologna feels a surge of hope once again. He thinks he will be able to excel anyone in his art.

And he is right to think so, for his mental apprenticeship to that angry genius has come to an end. Giambologna will become sculptor to the Medici. His works will be like a sort of diplomatic currency, given only to princes, distributed the length and breadth of Europe. He has taken Michelangelo’s advice, but he has rejected the spirit of that advice. His works will be known, yes, for the bravura of their modeling, but they will be known above all for the brilliance of their finish.

This Issue

March 23, 1995