Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lord Dunsany on Poets

So, when recently reading the new collection of previously uncollected stories by Lord Dunsany (THE GHOST IN THE CORNER, ed. Joshi & Andersson), I came across a curious remark in the opening paragraph of the story "In the Governor's Palace":

"It was one evening at a university* 
. . . that I heard the story, where twenty or 
so undergraduates, members of some society 
in the University, were gathered together after 
supper to debate the merits of one of those 
lesser poets who lived like lonely stars in 
the dark of the space between the death of Milton
 and birth of Keats"**

(THE GHOST IN THE CORNER, p. 195)


Dunsany is famous (or notorious) for his hostility to modern poetry,***  but it's less well known that
while he idolized Shakespeare (cf. his play IF SHAKESPEARE LIVED TODAY) and Tennyson he was also dismissive of many great poets of the past -- most notably Alexander Pope and, so far as I can tell, pretty much all the poets who followed in the restoration and neoclassical traditions. The first half of the eighteenth century is usually called 'The Age of Pope', and with reason, but Dunsany very much bought into the idea that 'verse' is something distinct from 'poetry', and that Pope wrote the former and not the latter.

This dismissal of Pope comes across most strongly in Dunsany's story "The Club Secretary". in the second Jorkens book, MR. JORKENS REMEMBERS AFRICA (1934).**** In this story Jorkens stumbles across (or dreams of; the story leaves both options open) The Elysian Club, a club for poets whose members include all the great poets of all time. Specific poets mentioned as belonging to the club are  Homer, Milton, Tennyson (a particular favorite of Dunsany's), Shakespeare, Swinburne, Herrick, Keats, and Shelley. He also includes his old tutor, Stephen Phillips, but omits Pope, making him one of the servants (the hall-porter, what's these days usually called a bell-hop).*****

I'm inclined to put this down as more evidence of Dunsany's conservative tastes when it came to poetry, of a piece with his praise of Yeats' early poems and apologies for all the Yeats poems by which we remember him today. Still, curious and striking.

--John R.
current reading: old rpg magazines (skimming), THE AVEROIGNE CHRONICLES by Clark Ashton Smith, recently arrived C.o.C. adventure.



*Dunsany himself had wanted to go to Oxford, but his father insisted he attend Sandhurst, the military academy, instead (the English equivalent of West Point).

**Milton died in 1674 and Keat was born in 1795, so that leaves out about a hundred and twenty years.    Wordsworth and Coleridge's LYRICAL BALLADS, the book generally considered to have launched the Romantic movement, came out in 1798, so they're on the right side of the line; presumably Dunsany wd approve of them, and of their contemporaries Shelley, Byron, and Keats.
One major and interesting omission is Wm Blake. By 1795 Blake had already written SONGS OF INNOCENCE, SONGS OF EXPERIENCE, THE MARRIAGE BETWEEN HEAVEN & HELL, and the early Prophetic Books. But then if there was ever a poet who went his own way headless of contemporary movements, it was Blake, so it's possible he's one of those 'lonely stars in the dark'. I suspect it's more likely to have been Th Grey or Wm Cowper, each of whom is remembered today for a few haunting lines.

***among his very last works are a set of dueling articles attacking or defending modern poetry between Dunsany (attacking) and John Ciardi (defending).

****pages 277-284, the next to last story in the book and, it so happens, one of the two Jorkens stories recorded by Vincent Price for Caedmon Records in 1982.

*****one more poet he does not mention here but we have every reason to think thought highly of is Horace, given that he translated THE ODES OF HORACE into a stand-alone book towards the end of his career (1947).



No comments: