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I thought that I might approach the idea of celebrity and issues around that cultural phenomenon in relation to English poetry.
Initially I thought of Barry MacSweeney’s brush with celebrity in 1968 when his publisher, Hutchinson, nominated him for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry at the age of nineteen, following the success of his first book, The Boy From The Green Cabaret Tells Of His Mother (1968), and of how he turned away from the marketing plans of a large publisher to embrace the small and independent presses and a more profound approach to poetry. MacSweeney maintained a sharp eye on public events and language culminating in his unpublished Mary Bell Sonnets. The fact that these remain unpublished put a scupper on sketching how celebrity impacted upon his work.
Secondly I thought of John Clare’s direct experience of the impact of Lord Byron’s celebrity as he watched Byron’s funeral cortége of sixty four carriages travel through London in July 1824 and of Clare’s own short-lived time as an object of curiosity as a rural poet and how he mangled his own identity with that of Byron’s celebrity in those extraordinary poems written when he was hospitalised in Epping Forest. In July 1841 having been at High Beach Asylum for three and a half years, Clare’s explorations of identity and experience culminated in his mixing of Byron’s identity and birthday with his own. He had been constantly shifting from his versions of Don Juan to Childe Harold, from Bryon’s model of sexual freedom to his own sexual losses, and finally united his inner and outer worlds by walking out of the hospital and back to his home in rural Northampton.
The heavens are wrath – the thunders rattling peal
Rolls like a vast volcano in the sky
Yet nothing starts the apathy I feel
Nor chills with fear eternal destiny
My soul is apathy – a ruin vast
Time cannot clear the ruined mass away
My life is hell – the hopeless die is cast
& manhoods prime is premature decay
That from Childe Harold is followed by this Don Juan rendering
Give toil more pay where rank starvation lurches
& pay your debts & put your books to rights
Leave whores & playhouses & fill your churches
Old clovenfoot your dirty victory fights
Like theft he still on natures manor poaches
& holds his feasting on anothers rights
To show plain truth you act in bawdy farces
Men show their tools - & maids expose their arses
Now this day is the eleventh of July
& being Sunday I will seek no flaw
In man or woman – but prepare to die
In two days more I may that ticket draw
& so may thousands more as well as I
To day is here – the next who ever saw
& In a madhouse I can find no mirth pay
- Next Tuesday used to be Lord Byron’s birthday
Lord Byron poh – the man wot rites the werses
& is just what he is & nothing more
Who with his pen lies like the mist disperses
& makes all nothing as it was before
(John Clare The Living Year 1841 Ed Tim Chilcott Trent Editions 1999 pp.50-51)
The conflation of Byron’s identity and freedom with his own situation and that of the rural poor is complete and he musters the necessary will to attempt to break free.
Byron was arguably the first modern celebrity. He played, to quote Marilyn Butler, ‘a larger part than any other single artist in shaping the stereotype soon recognised throughout Europe, the passionate, rebellious Romantic Poet.’ (Romantics, Rebels & Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830 OUP 1981) Greece declared a day of national mourning upon his death. News of his gallant death spread across the major towns and cities of Europe. The cult of Byron impacted upon artists, composers, musicians and writers throughout Europe reaching Russia and Scotland. Many people who had never known him were saddened by the loss. The fourteen year old Alfred Tennyson never forgot the day when he heard the news, remembering it as ‘a day when the whole world darkened for me’.
John Clare noted the impact of Byron’s death upon ordinary people in contrast to the scoffing at his fame.
‘…. the Reverend the Moral and fastidious may say what they please about Lord Byrons fame and damn it as they please - he has gained the path of its eternity without them and lives above the blight of their mildewing censures to do him damage – the common people felt his merits and his power and the common people of a country are the best feelings of a prophecy of futurity …. they are the feelings of nature’s sympathies unadulterated with the pretensions of art and pride. They are the veins and arteries that feed and quicken the heart of living fame.’
(John Clare By Himself Ed. Eric Robinson & David Powell Carcanet 1996 p. 157)
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), celebrity emerged as a word in the seventeenth century meaning ‘due observance of rites and ceremonies; pomp, solemnity (OED 1), ‘a solemn rite or ceremony, a celebration’ (OED 2) and ‘the condition of being much extolled or talked about; famousness, notoriety (OED 3).
OED 1 is obsolete and OED 4, ‘a person of celebrity; a celebrated person; a public character’ emerged in the mid-nineteenth century with a reference in Miss Mulock’s novel The Ogilvies (1849).
To attempt a definition, poetic celebrity can be read as a historical-cultural structure involving relations between a poetic self, the publishing industry and audience that impact upon public life. Lord Byron’s public persona of ‘being mad, bad and dangerous to know’ was intricately bound up with people reading his actions as if he were one of own poetic heroes. He was the subject of constant newspaper speculation. People would study his engraved portraits for clues to his inner self. By writing about the condition of Europe at a time of Revolution he helped popularise the idea that liberty was a universal ideal. He was seen to lead by example, as John Clare thought when he wanted to return to ‘his two wives’. Opposition to tyrannical government and numerous radical artisans and printers publishing cheap editions of his work fed the enormous popularity of Byron, the popular hero. (See E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class 1968) William Wordsworth might have had more lasting impact upon English poetry and life than both Byron and Tennyson but his public persona was less than both.
To sharpen our working definition of poetic celebrity let us say that it is a collaborative social process involving a self interacting with an audience through the publishing industry and other media. Byron certainly used his overnight fame for artistic, social and political ends and interacted with his own celebrity whilst building it at the same time. Whereas Barry MacSweeney, notwithstanding their different historical and social situations, by not collaborating with the development of his celebrity after 1968 did not develop a public persona. Echoes of his brush with celebrity and the blurring between public and private occur throughout his work. His fascination with the figure of ‘celebrity’ can be seen in part in his admiration of Thomas Chatterton and Anne Sexton and some of his late poems, such as Postcards From Hitler (1999) and the Mary Bell Sonnets, address the relations between confession, psychic disturbance and publicity. His own death produced some lurid journalism emphasising his drunkenness and long fall from stardom. (See Gordon Burn – ‘Message in a bottle’ The Guardian Thursday 1 June 2000.) MacSweeney’s interest is in precisely the direction that his work did take outside of the public arena.
Byron’s celebrity in London built upon the example and experience of Mary Robinson (1757-1800), a relatively neglected figure in the twentieth century and the subject of three recent biographies (Paula Byrne’s Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (Harper Collins 2004), Hester Davenport’s The Prince’s Mistress (Sutton 2004) and Sarah Gristwood’s Perdita (Bantam 2005). Feminist scholars began resurrecting Robinson’s life and career in the 1990s when identity and celebrity were becoming key cultural words. This was also the time when ‘celebrity novelist’ was coined for the first time.
Robinson’s first book of poetry, Poems (1775), written in Fleet Prison to get out of debt, gained her access to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the social ‘ton’. Her flamboyant free spirit, her portrayal of Perdita in David Garrick’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, subsequent affairs with the Prince of Wales and politicians, her career as a courtesan and ability to use the press to her own advantage led to the creation of an intriguing and fascinating personality. She used public knowledge of her exploits for her own ends and to reinvent herself as a courtesan and then as a writer. She became a popular Gothic novelist and poet. Her outstanding beauty was much talked and written about. This was surely a reason for Sheridan employing her as an actress and bringing Garrick out of retirement to tutor her. Her complexity and beauty were such that Thomas Gainsborough, who painted her in 1781 and Joshua Reynolds, who painted her as Perdita in 1782, were both criticised for failing to do her justice. Her choice of clothing, increasingly risk-taking, was also much discussed. Thus adding to her enigma and allure. She was, like Byron, on the radical wing of the Whigs, welcoming the French Revolution, and active in politics. By 1796 her friends included William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose views on marriage, sexuality, slavery and education, she shared. Her sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon, (1796) and pamphlet, A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), were read and studied by intellectuals. In the preface to Sappho and Phaon, she pointedly noted that Sappho’s readership idolised the Muse and not the woman. In 1799 she became poetry editor of The Morning Post, a newspaper that had written about her since 1775, publishing Wordsworth and Coleridge. Her Lyrical Tales (1800), ‘written in the manner of Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads’ and poems such as, ‘The Haunted Beach’, which inspired Wordsworth, and ‘Golfre’, with its echoes of Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, are now accepted as part of the early Romantic movement. Her literary relationship with Coleridge is the subject of on-going research and debate. The journal, Women’s Writing Vol. 9, No.1, (2002) devoted a special issue to her work.
Whilst Robinson’s Gothic novels and poetry were bestsellers amongst the aristocratic ‘ton’, her audience was not as large or as socially diverse as Byron’s. The emergence of poetic celebrity is linked to the growth of the number of London newspapers from 12 in 1720 to 52 in 1820. There are dozens of references to Perdita and Robinson in many newspapers from the 1780s onwards. After 1774 the end of perpetual copyright allowed a growth in book production and increased readership. Byron’s celebrity is more linked to advances in printing press technologies between 1785 and 1815 when presses could make 1100 impressions per minute and print both sides of a sheet and the fact that he allowed cheaper editions of his work to be published in large numbers. There was a similar growth in the reproduction of engraved portraits. This was also the period when journals began to be selective about what they reviewed and more books appeared with the author’s name than ever before. It is in this period that the author’s name becomes linked with publicity and promotion as in Mary Robinson in The Morning Post. There were other short-lived poetry celebrities, such Letitia Landon (1802-1838), promoted as L.E.L in the Literary Gazette and invariably associated with vague sexual scandals, Anne Yearsley (1753-1806), promoted as the ‘milkmaid poet of Bristol’ and James Woodhouse, the shoemaker poet. Byron, Robinson and Landon aroused sexual tension and interest. Reading their works and studying their portraits became associated with intimacy and gaining access to their underlying identity. Byron, above all, was able to use that intense interest following the overnight success of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) especially in his epic satire, Don Juan (1819-24) with its subtle play around the theme of identity that appealed to his female following and attack on social and sexual hypocrisy that appealed to his radical support. This work more than any other in Europe became associated with personal freedom. Don Juan, according to William St Clair in The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (CUP 2005), was read by more people than any previous work of English literature thanks to cheap pirate editions produced by radical London publishers such as William Benbow, William Hone, Richard Carlile, William Sherwin and William Dugdale. They also published Shelley’s Queen Mab, Robert Southey’s Wat Tyler and other works useful to the libertarian reform movement in great numbers. Don Juan and The Corsair (1814) were available in many abbreviated and cheap editions. The pirate editions of the scandalous Harem cantos of Don Juan were also integrally involved in the emergence of the obscene press as well as the underground, radical press. The Corsair sold 10,000 copies on the day of its publication and like Don Juan exceeded 100,000 sales in all versions of the book.
One of the key aspects of Byron’s poetic identity is that it each new instalment of Childe Harold and Don Juan added to his celebrity by creating a new ingredient to his life story. This satisfied his female following who wanted to know more about the man that seemingly challenged and broke social taboos. When Don Juan attacked the hypocrisy of married life it raised the level of mystery and sexual titillation to a higher level and made Byron’s private life the object of intense speculation. The Thomas Phillips portraits of 1814 added to the possibility that Byron was writing about his own life and inner self. By June 1818 reviewers such as John Wilson in the Edinburgh Review were convinced that the poet was writing about his private self ‘as secrets whispered to chosen ears’. Byron, though, became aware of the marketing around his work and offers the beginnings of a critique of poetic celebrity. Don Juan rejects belief in orderly developmental subjectivity and the narrator refuses notions of a unified self, preferring to be contradictory and inconsistent.
Patient – but not enamoured of endurance;
Cheerful – but, sometimes, rather apt to whimper:
Mild – but at times a sort of ‘Hercules furens’:
So that I almost think that the same skin
For one without – has two or three within (Canto 17, 11)
By highlighting marginalised individuals and their social setbacks culminating in punishment and social marking, Don Juan draws attention to the cultural uses of developmental subjectivity as a source of power reliant upon the incremental story of a self’s development. (See Tom Mole’s Byron’s Romantic Celebrity Palgrave 2007 pp.130-153)
The marketing process needs poetic personae that are in some way fascinating, difficult or controversial. It calls for critics to occupy subject positions in relation to the celebrity poet’s behaviour as in the example of Ted Hughes in relation to the suicides of Sylvia Plath and Assia Weevil. Hughes was left with little room to manoeuvre away from such speculation and pointedly did not use his position as Poet Laureate to illuminate his past. Indeed he gave the impression that he was somewhat indifferent to the Laureateship and wanted to keep his private space thus adding to his allure. More recent revelations of extramarital affairs have added to his fascination and continued to blur the poet’s private and public personae.
In recent times then the celebrity poet has become a commodity with a distinct and carefully arranged poetic persona, an intimacy with a possible self. This is reinforced in the criticism, biographies, documentaries and films of the celebrity, adding to the mystery and fascination of the poet. This commoditisation involves critics defending or accusing the situation and persona of a particular celebrity poet and pays dividends when the poet collaborates, as in the recent example of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998), which sold more than 150,000 copies in the first year of its publication. (See Randall Stevenson The Oxford English Literary History Vol. 12 1960-2000: The Last of England? OUP 2004 p. 267.)
However it is necessary to read beneath this process and to research the history of the construction of the poetic persona.
Dylan Thomas, who emerged as a public figure through his Forties radio broadcasts and the impact of Under Milk Wood, a radio play for voices broadcast two months after his premature death in November 1953 in New York, was promoted in a way that emphasised his simpler work and heavy drinking. Thomas’s literary executors held quite different poetic ideals to that of the poet and were well prepared to lessen his anti-Movement tendencies in any ways they could. James Nashold and George Tremlett have started work on the exposure of the myth of Thomas’s heavy drinking in their book The Death of Dylan Thomas (Mainstream 1997) but we are still in the strange situation where understanding of his poetic impact has been lessened and he almost appears like a forgotten figure.
R.S. Thomas (1913-2000) cultivated an austere figure as a Welsh poet-priest in remote parts of north Wales writing about Welsh speaking, Nonconformist hill farmers. His early work from The Stones of the Fields (1946) focussed on the starkness of farm labourer’s lives and the narrator’s feelings for Wales, albeit a Wales of the historical imagination. He wrote of the hill farmers at a distance from their real conditions, their speech and wit, and seemingly wanted them to return to some pre-technological idyll. From H’m (1972) onwards his work is also concerned with an apprehension of God, who is seen as an absence, ‘the empty silence within’ and the concepts of space and time. His final work is concerned with trying to find a meaning for existence and is characterised through some stunning poems about the death of his wife and their relationship.
Cold hands meeting,
the eyes aside
as vows are contracted
in the tongue’s absence.
over fifty long years
of held breath
the heart has become warm.
After an admission that this was a marriage not based on romantic love, the narrator writes:
She left me. What voice
colder than the wind
out of the grave said:
“It is over?” Impalpable,
invisible, she comes
to me still, as she would
do, and I at my reading.
There is a tremor
of light, as of a bird crossing
the sun’s path, and I look
up in recognition
of a presence in absence.
Not a word, not a sound,
as she goes her way,
but a scent lingering
which is that of time immolating
itself in love’s fire.
It is the underlying coldness of the relationship that shocks and raises questions about Thomas’ calculating personality.
Thomas attacked modern urban life, especially technology, the English encroaching into Wales and the Welsh responsible for the decay of their own culture and language. He preached to his congregation on the evils of fridges, washing machines and televisions. His anti-consumerism was linked to the loss of God and the worship of wealth and physical comfort instead of finding fulfilment elsewhere. His late books sold more than 20,000 copies each with poems that have an immediate emotional impact and through their simplicity resonate quietly. In films, photographs, interviews and poems, he appears to be an extreme Welshman. Indeed he wrote an autobiographical essay where he described himself as ‘a Welsh-speaking Welshman in a thoroughly Welsh environment.’
He was, in fact, as Byron Rogers’ biography (The Man Who Went Into The West: The Life of R.S. Thomas Aurum 2006) shows a Holyhead man who spoke English without a trace of a Welsh accent, who married an English woman and sent his son to an English boarding school. He spoke with all the coldness of an English bureaucrat and was an outsider to the Welshness that his early poetry seems to espouse and to the Welsh poetic tradition. Although a priest, he was neither devoted to his parishioners nor was he charitable. His poems indicate that he didn’t like Welsh clergymen either. He even introduced the Aberdaron youth club to croquet, the sport of English colonialists. He was such an extreme Welsh nationalist that he could not support Plaid Cymru because it recognised the English parliament. Instead he publicly supported the Sons of Glendower, who took their name from Owen Glendower, a fifteenth century Welsh rebel leader. This group led an arsonist campaign against English owned property in Wales throughout the Eighties. They blamed the influx of middle class English people, who were taking advantage of cheap Welsh homes at a time of property boom in southeast England, for diluting the Welsh language and culture and inflating house prices beyond the reach of locals. There is a photograph of Thomas as a craggy old man leaning menacingly from the hatch door of a cottage. The implication is that he is a danger to English visitors and yet this same man accepted the Queen’s Medal for Poetry and needed an editor to write in Welsh.