(Ed note: This post originally appeared on April 16, 2008. Mark Doty picked Yezzi's "Minding Rights" for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2012. You can hear him read his poem at the BAP launch reading on September 20. sdh)
OK, it has been a day from hell--two days from hell, in fact. I don't know about you, but taxes were completely brutal this year. I envy you, if you are one of those fortunate people who actually gets money back! I more than envy you; I want to come stay with you and eat food out of your refrigerator. I'm also exhausted this morning. I was up until 2:30 finishing a review, for which I will receive a small amount of money that will then be reported to the IRS so that I will owe taxes on it next year.
I thought I might write about the blues today. I'm in the mood. I was planning to expatiate on the pleasures of Mississippi John Hurt's alternating-thumb base line on the acoustic guitbox, and how his treble-line melodies infuse traditional songs like "Stack O'Lee Blues," "Casey Jones," and "Frankie and Albert" with his singnature sound. Then there's "Candy Man." "Candy Man"!: "He's got stick candy that's nine inches long, / He sells it faster than a hog can chew his corn / Candyman, candyman!" But I think I'll do that tomorrow . . .
Instead, I want to quote from a book of Macaulay's essays that I picked up on the giveaway shelf at the library this morning. A free book! Things are looking up. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was an English poet, reviewer, essayist, historian, and MP for Edinburgh. Here's a bit from his essay on Lord Byron, which I read on the subway on my way to work (I want to quote a bunch of it because, a) it's a great portrait of Byron and B) the prose rocks):
In the rank of Lord Byron, in his understanding, in his character, in his very person, there was a strange union of opposite extremes. He was born to all that men covet and admire. But in every one of those eminent advantages which he possessed over others was mingled something of misery ans debasement. He was sprung from a house, ancient indeed and noble, but degraded and impoverished by a series of crimes and follies which he had attained a scandalous publicity. The kinsman whom he succeeded had died poor, and, but for merciful judges, would have died upon the gallows. The young peer had great intellectual powers; yet there was an unsound part in his mind. He had a naturally generous and feeling heart: but his temper was wayward and irritable. He had a head which statuaries loved to copy, and a foot the deformity of which the beggars in the street mimicked. Distinguished at once by the strength and by the weakness of his intellect, affectionate yet perverse, a poor lord, and a handsome cripple, he required, if ever man required, the firmest and most judicious training.
Macaulay goes on in this vein for quite a while. It's pretty good stuff, and wonderfully sympathetic to Byron, though not nearly as sympathetic as Auden's tribute to him in "Letter to Lord Byron." Auden doesn't name Macaulay, but it's critics of his ilk that he is skewering. In fact, there are enough correspondences between the essay and Auden 's poem that I can't help wondering if Auden had it partly in mind:
I like your muse because she's gay and witty,
Because she's neither prostitute nor frump,
The daughter of a European city,
And country houses long before the slump;
I like her voice that does not make me jump:
And you I find sympatisch, a good townee,
Neither a preacher, ninny, bore, nor Brownie.
A poet, swimmer, peer, and man of action,
--It beats Roy Campell's record by a mile--
You offer every possible attraction.
By looking into your poetic style
And love-life on the chance that both were vile,
Several have earned a decent livelihood,
Whose lives were uncreative but were good.
You've had your packet from the critics, though:
They grant you warmth of heart, but at your head
Their moral and aesthetic brickbats throw.
A "vulgar genius" so George Eliot said,
Which doesn't matter as George Eliot's dead,
But T. S. Eliot, I am sad to find,
Damns you with: "an uninteresting mind".