I’m just back from teaching a week-long residential writing course with friend and collaborator Damian Walford Davies at Ty Newydd. Entitled “Writing Beyond the Self”, the course focused on throwing voices, on moving out of the post-Romantic comfort zone that is the confessional poem, and asked participants to adopt various masks of persona. The work produced was extraordinary – innovative, challenging and moving – suggesting there's plenty of life in the old form yet.
The thrown voice is closely associated with Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” are masterpieces of the genre. However, its modern roots can already be discerned in a long verse drama by Keats’s more popular rival, Barry Cornwall. Cornwall's Marcian Colonna (1820) shocked and enthralled Romantic audiences left cold by Keats's own attempts at enthusing the reading public.
Cornwall's poem had been inspired by a grisly short story written in the voice of a murderer, Gosschen's Diary (1818), penned by Keats's reviewing bete noir, J. G. Lockhart. Both Cornwall's verse drama and Lockhart's gothic story in turn became major influences on Browning’s "Porphyria's Lover" – an intriguing “escape route” for an experimental aspect of Romantic aesthetic into the Victorian age.
The week, spent with such a wonderful group of inspiring and talented writers at Ty Newydd – given additional spice by superb readings from the poet Kathryn Simmonds and writer and activist Kevin Powell – sent me back to the Romantics in other ways. Damian and I wished to address the dramatic monologue as a form that takes us “beyond self” to get back to self, an approach that offered a different “take” on the post-Romantic “I” in contemporary poetry, where Romanticism’s self-representation as the only veridical, authentic mode of composition, predicated on the heroic articulation of first-hand experience, still has currency. We wanted our thrown voices to resist the post-Romantic confessional/veridical mode – itself a conceit, as we discussed – in order to arrive at a way of thinking about voice and style as constructed, yet in a sense no less – perhaps more – “personal” than the confessional poem in its full Plathian expression.
Since the “drama” of a dramatic monologue – those tiny tremors of anxiety, and deeper, convective stirrings – usually occur in moments of slippage and elision, where the speaker gives him or herself away, so to speak, we spent a lot of time discussing the timing of the technique. “My Last Duchess” is one of the great examples of self-betrayal: the Duke lets a great deal slip, and not merely his sinister role in stopping his wife’s smiles altogether (here he plays with the extent to which his social power allows him to hint at criminality). Also at stake in the poem is the speaker's sense of his increasingly precarious position in a world where new money was fast eroding the power of a nine-hundred-year-old name (a prospective dowry is one reason why he’s negotiating a new marriage).
It might seem foolish to go mano-a-mano with the Duke, but here’s a link to one of my own dramatic monologues, "Elisions", from my collection Wan-Hu’s Flying Chair (Salt, 2009). In it, a Romantic-period steam engineer, a man not unlike James Boulton, a member of the Lunar Society and as such an abolitionist, tries to elide his complicity in the slave trade while letting his sense of culpability slip precisely at the same time.
I was also returned to the Romantics by the sense of community and coterie that the Ty Newydd setting encourages and fosters. It didn’t take long before, isolated from the world and its things (relatively speaking: there's wifi available), we began reading each other’s work during the composition phase, suggesting changes, phrases or even lines, very much as Keats and Co. did in their own circles. Far from existing as isolated geniuses, wafting above the world, Romantic authors relied on friends to read and revise their poetry, see it into print and puff it when it appeared. Much like the Ty Newydd group, they also researched poems, even if they liked to give the impression they were flashing the contents of their “teeming brains” (see Keats's sonnet "When I have fears that I may cease to be") onto the page in one, tremendous spontaneous event.
Keats was no different to other writers in his circle in that regard, plundering Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary for Greek mythology, and turning to whatever books were at hand during “research” for even his most personal, ostensibly self-contained works. Take the great odes, written in May 1819. Do we think any less of Keats once we see his (possible) debt to the French philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac? Compare the following lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode on Melancholy” (respectively) to what I think are their immediate sources in Nugent’s English translation of Condillac’s Essay on the Origin of Human Understanding (1756):
Even if Keats's most famous line of poetry, "beauty is truth, truth beauty", is closely inspired by his reading of someone else's work, it doesn't diminish the achievement of the famous ode. We bring ourselves to our poetry – how could we not? – and the “traffic” into a piece of creative writing is organized by that matrix of personality, ambition and foible we think of as the “self”. All the same, the Romantic myth of the autonomous genius is just that. Poetry might be 10% inspiration, but mostly it's hard, if enjoyable, craft.