AG: “I could lie down like a tired child,/And weep away the life of care,” that’s a classic, much-repeated line. “I could lie down like a tired child,” because he was, I guess – he was not that old. Eighteen eighteen, how old would he be?
Peter Orlovsky: What year was he born?
AG: Well, over here somewhere.
Peter Orlovsky: Oh, 1792.
AG: Twenty-four, just a kid. About as old as anybody in the class, practically, or younger. Is anybody younger than twenty-four here? – [a show of hands] – Just a couple. So he’s younger than most of the people in the class writing (of himself) in this, “like a tired child.”
I guess the dejection .. (Stanzas Written in Dejection Near Naples) One – “..did any heart now share in my emotion.” He’s got this brilliant flash of “The lightning of the noontide Ocean/Is flashing round me,” which is a real accurate description of the mid-day sun on ocean, or bright sun on the ocean – “The lightning of the noontide Ocean/Is flashing round me,” (which is where Shelley is a great poet). “The lightning of the noontide Ocean/Is flashing round me” – a real evocation of the flash of sunlight on mediterranean water. (Ezra) Pound had a line trying to describe that same thing, “tin-flash of sun dazzle” – “tin-flash of sun dazzle” – you understand “dazzle”? “Tin-flash” like the flash on a tin pan, like the flash on a frying pan – “tin-flash of sun dazzle” – to get that same mirror-like reflected brilliance.
In this poem the things that I dug the most when I read it was, well, “waves upon the shore/Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown;” – that’s pretty good as a sort of Imagist description of an actual fact. “waves upon the shore” – like what? “Like light dissolved in star-showers, thrown;” – so if you’ve seen a wave breaking with all the glittering reflections, which he makes out as “star-showers.” But then for the whole panoramic flash of bright sun on water in the blue space of the Mediterranean, that “lightning of the noontide Ocean/Is flashing round me.”
So he’s got this acute perception of space, and an accurate perception of the celestial sun, celestial brilliance of earth, except he has nobody to talk to, he says. Nor has he health. He had tuberculosis at the time, I think. Nor peace. Well, he was fighting. He had money troubles and he’d left Harriet. Nor calm. And apparently he didn’t find the equanimity of meditation, and he had fame, actually, but not real fame. He was accepted as a poet, but still considered “Mad Shelley”. Nor power, like Wordsworth, who was, I guess, still poet laureate by then, who was an old reactionary according to Shelley’s likes, [Editorial note – Wordsworth was poet laureate from 1843 until his death in 1850. Shelley was dead by 1822]. – Nor love. Who was he living with then? Mary. But he also had other girlfriends, about two other girlfriends besides Mary when he was in Europe. [Editorial note – Although they spent time separately, they were remained married until Shelley’s death] – Nor leisure.
“Others I see whom these surround,/Smiling they live and call life pleasure:/To me that cup has been dealth in another measure.” – (So then rather than an accurate depression, it’s rather a mild matter – “like (a) tired child” – so melancholy).
And then an idea that death might steal on him, but his vision of death is – “My cheek grow cold, and hear the sea/Breathe o’er my dying brain its last monotony.” It’s like an acid vision, sort of. The ocean waves and the sea breathing over his brain, sort of lying like… a guess a big polyp..
Student: Do you think that….
AG: ..a big gelatinous polyp on the sand with a…. Yeah?
Student: He says in there, that line (in Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples”) – “Smiling they live and call life pleasure” – Do you think people really see life as pleasure and he’s … like he’s detached from himself, looking back, you know, at the people, you know, you picture wine cups, you know, and everybody laughing and drinking….
AG: Probably more like … well, what are the things? There’s health, hope, and then we’ve got a house in the country, some kind of peace and calm, they’re not overworked, they’re not frantic trying to create revolutions in the mind, they meditate mayb… not so much bacchantic pleasure of orgies and wine cups, it’s more like Wordsworth, I suppose – they’re retired. Or with children, or with families. Families together. He just says “I see others that are surrounded by these kind of life pleasures and they’re smiling and they can live and they can call life pleasure, but something else was dealt me. I got dealt another hand.”
Student: That’s … that poem, I don’t know why he’s got a tinge of self-pity, you know. I wonder if it’s….
AG: Well, wait till you get in trouble. Yeah, you could say a tinge of self-pity, but he’s actually telling a real situation. He’s got TB (tuberculosis)., his kids have been taken away, he’s maybe the greatest poet of England forever (he wrote poetry like nobody ever wrote and nobody ever will write, and wasn’t going to live … he was such a great poet that even dying at what? twenty eight or so, when everybody thinks of English poetry as a thing of Shelley first, sort of, or Romantic, or expansive – Shelley’s the big cheese, the big light..). So he really did have something, and at the same time he was constantly in debt and subject to the law.
And he was kind to other poets, though, apparently. He loved (Lord) Byron and he was kind to (John) Keats. He recognized genius in other people as very few other people directly did – one-to-one. He knew who to hang around with or who to patronize. So he was an extraordinary man. Nowadays they’d give him one of those $250,000 grants you get from the MacArthur Foundation. Maybe – Or they should! – By hindsight, they would. “Whom men love not – and yet regret.” – So it’s a real situation. You could say of his own making and therefore self-pity, but maybe not so much of his own making. I mean, he got kicked out for writing a pamphlet on atheism – he didn’t do nothing wrong. He got kicked out for writing a little essay – out of Oxford. You can hardly call it self-pity if he complains about that. Except maybe the tone. But this is not such a bad tone – Or it’s not a cloyingly self-pitying tone – What’s that?
Student: It’s just that one image there, you know, among all there rest of the things, that their life appears to be pleasure, you know, and I don’t really … it’s hard for me to see that.
I can imagine the bitter agony, the pain that comes out of his poetry, what he had to face, you know – rejection and pain his whole life – but for him to look and say other people’s lives was pleasure is what I was sort of talking about.
AG: You know, I’ve been in that position, a lot.
Student: Yeah. I mean, I never know whether.. this is hard to see (in) other people, really..
AG: Well, when you get busted for pot or something and then you look out of the jail cell and see other people riding by in their Volkswagens going happily to the insurance company to work, and going to teach classes and taking their Ph.D exams and growing their beards, and there you are, all battered and beaten, and you owe your lawyer $3,000, and you haven’t got enough money for bail, and you’re going to get sent up for twenty years, and everybody else seems to be leading a normal life. Or wait until you get consumption – wait till you get to be twenty-two years old and have consumption and marooned in Italy with a wife you’re maybe not like, and your best friends are dying, and all you can do is write poetry.
to be continued
The audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixteen-and-three-quarter minutes in and concluding at approximately twenty-six-and-a-half minutes