‘Midas’ brood shall sit in Honour’s chair
To which the Muses’ sons are only heir.’
So went Marlowe’s mock-prophecy in ‘Hero and Leander’, foreseeing a day when all pretenders to the poetic title would be bloated lickspittles struggling for place. By such a rationale, the true artists would be ignored outcasts, haunters of darkened and bohemian walks. An intellectual Class War wore on forever more. Manning the barricades were the True Poets, raffish Marlowe, Pope the mad and bitter little ‘lasher’, the deranged killer Richard Savage and his eulogist Doctor Johnson, and every variety of wasting Romantic. Crossing the picket-line were all Laureates, Southey, Wordsworth and Tennyson in command, and any literary figure who accepted a knighthood or other state honours. Declining became declaiming; Benjamin Zephaniah’s rejection of an OBE on anti-imperialist grounds was like Larkin’s famous spurning of the Laureateship, though his attitude was purer: less rooted in principle and more in the thoroughly poetic sensibilities of distaste and boredom.
Oxford’s chair of poetry has not generally been regarded as cursed, or grubby, to the same extent as the national laureateship. This is perhaps peculiar, because it is after all directly elected rather than appointed by an elected leader. The process leading up to the Professor’s selection is under widespread scrutiny, and any degree-holder of the University is of course an elector. Each candidate will have a circle of supporters, and will to some degree display their credentials, sometimes in situations with all the political dignity of a JCR husting. Yet we, the public, trust the idea of a vaguely bookish Convocation so much more than we do any form of politician that this post is assumed to possess more integrity than the Laureateship, whose holder is expertly plucked out by the tarnished governmental machine. It should be recalled that Arcadian dons and their self-important graduate ex-pupils can be grubby as well. For example, the 1938 election of Adam Fox as Professor was generally regarded as sewn up by the clout of JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis; Fox belonged to their Inkling clan.
By happy chance for hacks of all description, literary and Oxonian, this May was destined to see both poetic luminaries replaced, and by the same token both systems of poetic politics, Augustan patronage and Athenian democracy, put on trial. In an Oxford that has been bruised by internal governance arguments for a while, this was likely to produce an educative contrast anyway. Does Nanny know best? Will the Prime Minister’s Royal Prerogative and elite advice, or Convocation’s thrashed out debate, show the better intellectual taste? Mr. Brown & c., in one of their more astute recent decisions, set the standard for our University’s sense of competition high by appointing Carol Ann Duffy. Popular and canonical, Duffy always showed capacity to tease, chafing under humourless fiascos, like one exam board’s feeble, ad rappum argument that her poetry might fuel knife-crime. To get her across that picket-line was the right political decision, and it was not really the wrong poetic one. Simon Armitage, say, might be about as admired nationally, but the Barack vibe is not really with him. The gay community, the female sex and the Scots nation are a good deal more content than they would be with the headline ‘First Northern Poet Since The Last But One, And Before Him, Wordsworth’, and they are right to be. Obama was said to have introduced ‘poetry’ to politics; the nature of the Laureateship obviously makes it preferable that its choice can connote similar excitement.
Duffy represented her selection and consent as a victory for all woman poets. One of the women she stated was equally deserving of her Laureateship was Ruth Padel, who is one of the two likely winners of our chair of Poetry. Padel’s campaign website cites a blurb from Duffy in glowingly collective terms; the new Laureate (who is presented as such – the Padel party is up to date) claims to speak ‘in common with the community of poets in Britain’ through her endorsement. Perhaps she’s right; Oxford’s undergraduate Poetry Society gave Padel a vinous evening, a well-attended reading and an opportunity to distribute sign-up sheets both for graduate backers and undergraduate bag-carriers. But Duffy’s apostrophe to a ‘community of poets in Britain’ seems at worst similar to the Archbishop of Canterbury musing upon ‘the Church of England’ – a bit optimistic and ethereal. Would the great sociopaths, Marlowe, Savage, Blake and so on, really have relished membership of any such poets’ community, even with £5000 a year and travel expenses covered?
This is why I suspect that it will actually assist the cause of Derek Walcott that somebody is digging up stories about some past sexual depredations. The choice has become more distinguishable and the intellectual positions more clear; the ‘metropolitan favourite’, a duchess of the ‘poetic community’ ennobled by Queen Carol Ann, is now up against not only a Living Special Author (this is an English degree joke, for which I apologise), but a socially unnegotiable titan, the stuff of the Deptford tavern, of Lord Rochester’s stab in the dark. Professor Hermione Lee, in her incarnation as a Walcott heavy, got right onto this: ‘You might ask yourself as a student body whether you wanted Byron or Shelley as a professor of poetry, neither of whom personal lives were free of criticism.’
Sometimes, just before a dead, great writer is invoked in an essentially extra-textual context, the air seems to throb, as it must have done when Dr. Faustus summoned Mephistopheles. This was surely one such moment. The revenants of the second-generation Romantics, eerily youthful and beautiful, doubtless sprung up before Lee’s quailing vision.
Shelley: For what cause have you gathered our pure souls?
Do England’s children groan in slavery still?
Byron: Say rather, Hermione, my fairest, whether Sere Hellas cowers still ‘neath Turkish leather.
Professor Lee: Well, actually, er, Percy, George, it’s about the election for our Professor of Poetry. You see, Derek Walcott…
(The spirits vanish in a miffed and disappointed whirlwind. The Professor and Bowden of Cherwell exchange a glance of subdued relief.)
It’s hard to escape the suspicion that if the Cantabrigian Byron or the professionally awkward Shelley cared in the least about such a contest, they would be behind the newcomer, Arvind Mehrotra. His sudden arrival in the lists bears a memory of Byron’s Giaour in its drama:
The spur hath lanced his courser’s sides;
Away, away, for life he rides…
Besides, were Mr. Mehrotra Byron himself the Romanticism of his poetry would still be outdone by that of his beard. But onlookers of a more staid sort, such as the undergraduates who scurried to hear Christopher Ricks’s every address, may be starting to regret that poets, with their frenetic support bases and tabloid electioneering, are involved at all. Andrew Motion, thank heaven, thought the job was vague and the pay lousy. If all Grub Street followed suit, perhaps we would be treated to the more edifying spectacle of two or three affable dons chatting it out.