Whitman on Poe

The Washington Star of November 16, 1875 reported the following remarks by Walt Whitman at the public reburial of Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore:

For a long while, and until lately, I had a distaste for Poe’s writings. I wanted, and still want for poetry, the clear sun shining, and fresh air blowing—the strength and power of health, not of delirium, even amid the stormiest passions—with always the background of the eternal moralities. Non-complying with these requirements, Poe’s genius has yet conquer’d a special recognition for itself, and I too have come to fully admit it, and appreciate it and him. Even my own objections draw me to him at last, and those very points, with his sad fate, will doubtless always make him dearer to young and fervid minds.

The quote offers a nice insight into Whitman’s own philosophy. He spoke extemporaneously, having declined to make a formal speech. In conclusion, he evoked a vision of Poe:

In a dream I once had, I saw a vessel on the sea, at midnight, in a storm. It was no great full-rigg’d ship, nor majestic steamer, steering firmly through the gale, but seem’d one of those superb little schooner yachts I had often seen lying anchor’d, rocking so jauntily, in the waters around New York, or up Long Island sound—now flying uncontroll’d with torn sails and broken spars through the wild sleet and winds and waves of the night. On the deck was a slender, slight, beautiful figure, a dim man, apparently enjoying all the terror, the murk, and the dislocation of which he was the centre and the victim. That figure of my lurid dream might stand for Edgar Poe, his spirit, his fortunes, and his poems—themselves lurid dreams.

Elaborating on his remarks in The Critic, Whitman wondered what to make of the “lush and the weird” influences that had “taken such extraordinary possession of Nineteenth Century verse-lovers”.

Souvenirs of Paris

RaymondDuncan

Raymond Duncan (1874-1966) was a noted eccentric of the twentieth century. The brother of dancer Isadora Duncan, he was born in San Francisco but spent most his life in Europe. Duncan developed a philosophy of living that combined labor, the arts, and physical movement, which he called “Actionalism.” He taught simplicity and self sufficiency at his Academy on the Rue de Seine in Paris, where he made his own textiles, books, ceramics, and sandals. (He dressed in classical Greek attire.)

Orson Welles interviewed Duncan for an episode of the 1955 ITV program, Around the World with Orson Welles.

Years ago I purchased a second-hand volume of Duncan’s (not very good) poetry, which had tipped into it several handbills advertising events at the “Akademia.” The book and the flyers had been printed by Duncan himself in his workshop around 1953, shortly before Welles’s visit.

Remembering Sir John Betjeman

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Sir John Betjeman left a towering legacy as a poet and preservationist. He wrote about the touchstones of British life, both grand and homely. As an Anglican Christian, who credited his conversion in part to Arthur Machen’s novel The Secret Glory, he was particularly concerned with English cathedrals and parish churches. W.H. Auden described him as a man who was “at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” Betjeman defended the branch line railways that fell to Beeching’s Axe in the 1960s. He was an advocate for Victorian architecture, which was deeply unpopular during most of the twentieth century. It is largely thanks to his campaigning that the magnificent St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel were saved from demolition in the 1960s.

My favorite account of Betjeman comes from the Australian actor Barry Humphries. In The Telegraph, he writes:

John described himself not as a poet but as a ‘senior journalist’, and in his book-cluttered sitting-room, lined with green William Morris wallpaper and hung with pictures by Conder, Laura Knight and Max Beerbohm, he dispensed generous late-morning drinks, usually ‘bubbly’ in pewter tankards, to friends such as Osbert Lancaster, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and, not seldom, an Anglican priest or two.

It was a heady company into which I, a callow colonial, had been agreeably plunged. After a few drinks, and in an exalted mood, we would all repair to Coleman’s chophouse, in Aldersgate Street, where the atmosphere and appointments were immutably pre-war, and remained so until the enlightened mid-1960s, when the entire eastern side of that old thoroughfare was razed and replaced by council houses in the Brutalist style, now woefully shabby.

At Coleman’s we would all tuck into roast beef and Brussels sprouts, and drink more champagne. John always insisted on paying, which was just as well. His Collected Poems was a bestseller, and his masterpiece, the poetic autobiography Summoned by Bells, was a huge popular success, in spite of a few sniffy and envious reviews.

John was fond of exclaiming, with great merriment and that high, exultant cackle that his friends remember with such heart-rending affection, ‘Thanks to the telly, I’m as rich as Croesus!’ The poacher’s pockets in his jacket bulged with books and round canisters of Player’s cigarettes, which he liked to smoke because the ‘art work’ on the tins hadn’t changed in 30 or more years.

Sir John Betjeman’s former home at 43 Cloth Fair, overlooking Great Saint Bart’s, is owned by the Landmark Trust, which rents it out to holidaymakers.