What does it take to achieve lasting poetic fame in an age of glut?
What do human beings long for when, like most of us in the First World, we no longer have to worry about daily self-preservation? The answer, if our technology and media are any indication, is that we long for recognition. To be known, talked about, remembered—this is the ego’s basic demand, and like the demand for material plenty, it is now within reach of exponentially more people than ever before. Fame, like the franchise, has been gradually extended until it is now practically universal: no longer the preserve of statesmen and poets, nor even of movie stars and athletes, it is now within reach of the exceedingly average personalities who feature in the tabloids and on reality television. And even those forms of recognition may now seem too exclusive. What are Facebook and Twitter, after all, but technologies for the democratisation of recognition—ways for every single person to document and demand attention for their lives?
In making the transition from an age of scarcity to an age of glut, the nature of fame itself undergoes a change. One sign of the difference is that it would be hard to find a poet, in the 21st century, who openly claims to write for glory, fame, or immortality. Yet the idea that great poetry was the surest way to achieve fame and outwit death has been very long-lived. It can be traced from Horace, who predicted that “the greater part of me will escape death”, to Shakespeare, who boasted, “Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme”, to as recent a poet as Philip Larkin, who described himself as driven by “arrogant eternity”.
As H.J. Jackson points out in Those Who Write for Immortality, her provocative new study of “Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame”, literary fame has traditionally been taken to involve something more intimate than the public glory of kings and conquerors. People might talk about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar until the end of time, but it was their deeds, not their souls or selves, that posterity would know about. Poetic fame was something different, more bound up with personal acquaintance: as Jackson writes, “great deeds, no matter how meritorious, can never be experienced at first hand again, but thoughts can.” This is the eerie intimacy of Walt Whitman’s invitation in “Leaves of Grass”: “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,/Missing me one place search another,/I stop somewhere waiting for you.” In reading a poem, we resurrect its author; it is the closest we can come to an actual seance with the dead.
Why has this dream of immortality vanished from contemporary literature? One reason, surely, is that in the 20th century human beings faced a distinctively new uncertainty about the very existence of posterity. For a writer to achieve immortal fame, there must be an immortal readership; the human race must be envisioned as existing forever, or at least as close to forever as our imagination can reach. In the atomic age, and its successor, the age of ecological despair, this premise can no longer be taken for granted. If the human race itself is mortal, if indeed it seems to be on the verge of committing suicide by folly or violence, then it makes no sense to look to posterity for a reward. The inner life, like the outer, becomes more hectic as its time-frame becomes more compressed; recognition must be achieved now or never.
A second and less pessimistic explanation can also be found, however. Perhaps the dream of literary fame has, after so many years, simply discredited itself; perhaps fame no longer seems like an ethically sound ambition. Indeed, for as long as writers have wanted fame, they have also reproached themselves for wanting it. In The Dream of Scipio, Cicero has the ghost of the great general Scipio Africanus scorn the very idea of posthumous reputation. Even a fame that fills the Roman Empire, he points out, is parochial when considered from the point of view of the whole globe. The only trustworthy guide to action is not earthly acclaim but heavenly virtue, which is its own reward: “Therefore, if you will choose to look aloft and fix your gaze on this our resting-place and eternal home, nor ever enslave thyself to the rumours of the rabble, nor stake the hope of your life on the rewards of men: virtue must draw you by her own attraction to true glory; what others say of you, let that be their own concern.” Milton seconded this view when he described fame as “the last infirmity of noble mind”: if it spoke well of a person to long for fame, it was even better to transcend that longing.
The idea that ethics and ambition are at odds has returned, in our time, in a powerful new form. In a democratic and egalitarian society, after all, there is something inherently troubling about something so rare and difficult to achieve as literary fame. If the desire for recognition is universal, why should its achievement be limited to the handful of those born with literary genius? If every other kind of aristocracy is considered illegitimate, why should an aristocracy of talent be any different? The academic project of rewriting literary history to make room for the formerly disenfranchised is driven by some such intuition about the injustice of the economy of fame, which is premised on there not being enough to go around. Why should plenty not reign in this realm, as well?
This anti-canonical argument is easier to make if the canon itself ceases to have any validity—if literary fame comes to be seen not as the merited reward of genius, but as a lottery, in which the winners are chosen more or less at random. That is precisely the conclusion H.J. Jackson offers in her book, which is a kind of business-school case study in how the poets and novelists of the early 19th century achieved fame, or failed to achieve it. Why do we now read, teach and talk about Keats instead of Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth instead of Robert Southey, Austen instead of Mary Brunton? It is not, Jackson argues, because the former had genius and the latter only talent: “The historical record suggests, rather, that there are many ways of earning fame, and that while a minimum standard of literary competence can be taken for granted, not all famous writers owe their fame to outstanding literary merit alone (I would argue that none of them does).”
The fortunate few benefit, rather, from a number of circumstances unrelated to the merit of their writing. Wordsworth became famous in tandem with the rise of the domestic tourism industry, because he happened to live in and write about beautiful places that could become pilgrimage sites. Keats benefited from dying young, which made him eligible for Romantic myth-making—unlike, say, Barry Cornwall, an early sensation who grew old, became a lawyer, and stopped writing verse. Austen benefited from the family piety of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, whose 1869 biography helped to spread her fame; Brunton had no such luck. In the case of William Blake, who at the time of his death was known as a poet to barely a handful of people, the posthumous devotion of scholars and other poets was essential to keeping him alive. How many other mute inglorious Blakes might be out there, their manuscripts mouldering away because they never happened to find the right reader? Emily Dickinson, who falls outside the scope of Jackson’s study, is another famous example of a writer who perched, for a time, on the very knife-edge of oblivion.
There is, however, a certain circularity in Jackson’s argument. She shows convincingly that the posthumous fame of any writer is a collaborative work. No one, however talented, can secure fame on his or her own; it takes biographers, editors and scholars to ensure that books continue to live. And since everything human is subject to fashion, there is no guarantee that the poet who inspires such devotion today will continue to inspire it tomorrow. Indeed, the mutability of taste is a commonplace of literary history. Alexander Pope was the acme of poetic genius in England, until Matthew Arnold discovered he wasn’t really a poet at all, merely a “classic of our prose”. John Donne was considered abstruse and over-intellectual, until T.S. Eliot seized on him as the great poet of modern consciousness, while demoting Milton to the status of a bad influence.
These revaluations—like the Pre-Raphaelites’ and Yeats’s embrace of Blake, which Jackson discusses—came from critics who were poets themselves. And it is generally creative artists who set the taste of their age, by teaching the public how to find what is still vital and communicative in the work of the past. So it is possible, even likely, that writers who mean little or nothing to us today will one day turn out to have the food that future writers need. And the recent poets who seem to us to have the greatest chance of immortality—Larkin and Seamus Heaney—may be known to readers a century from now only as the authors of a few lines in an anthology.
But to say that fame is dependent on intermediaries, and even on institutions—like textbooks and anthologies and pilgrimage sites—is not a scandal or a revelation. It is a tautology. What has to be explained is why it is precisely these poems and novels, not others, which inspire people to do the work and make the noise which create fame. And the only possible answer to that question is what Wordsworth called “the grand elementary principle of pleasure”. As he wrote in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, “the Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being.” Southey has never been more famous than Wordsworth because his work has never given as much pleasure to as many people. Sir Walter Scott, to name another of Jackson’s prime examples, gave a great deal of pleasure to a great many readers for about 50 years; then he gradually started to seem boring, and now he is little read. John Clare, conversely, started out as a peasant-poet celebrity, then seemed to glide into obscurity, but now has been triumphantly revived and stands at the top of the second rank of Romantic poets.
Part of the problem with Jackson’s conception of fame is that, inevitably, it is biased towards the academy, which changes its mind about poets’ rank and worth more readily than what Samuel Johnson called “the common reader”. Since the rise of university English studies about a century ago, the most visible and measurable part of a poet’s afterlife has been in the academy—the conferences and articles and course assignments he inspires. In tandem with the decline of the general audience for poetry, this has made it seem that a poet who does not succeed in the academy is a failure, full stop. But the history of poetry is much older than the history of English departments, and it is certain that the latter will become obsolete sooner than the former. In the long run, pleasure must triumph over duty as a motive for reading, which means that poets earn immortality not in syllabuses but in the hearts of readers.
Our hearts being what they are, this kind of fame seems as if it ought to be tenuous and mutable; and yet, empirically speaking, it turns out to be, just as Shakespeare said, more durable than marble. Even if the actual number of readers who provide living sustenance for a poet’s reputation, in the form of attention and love, turns out to be small—far smaller, certainly, than the audience for a movie or a song that will be forgotten in a month—that would have come as no disappointment to Milton, who hoped only to find fit audience, though few.