Death of a Poet

Karl Miller

I write this during the world silence which Yoko Ono has asked for in remembrance of her husband, John Lennon, murdered by a crazy fan. I can’t say I’m observing it, but I’m not ignoring it either. ‘The soul of Adonais, like a star’ is to concentrate the thoughts and lift up the hearts of the many people who mourn him. The idea of a silence seems a good one for Lennon. The communion of absent friends at some appointed hour – or, as it has often been, of parted lovers, who arrange to watch the Moon together – is a romantic practice which goes back a thousand years, to the first novel, The Tale of Genji, and further still, and Lennon was a romantic artist, who helped to bring people together. In his departure can be seen the early death of a poet as this has long been known to the culture of romance.

Literary critics have been heard to suggest that romantic themes and mass culture – to both of which he devoted himself – are bad things, and that they are in collusion with one another: that romance is what never was and never will be, and that mass culture promises to deliver it, or that romance stands in an antithetical, a wishful relation to what human beings do, and to their reasons for doing it. But Lennon’s fate is far from proving that romance never makes anything happen, and cannot explain what does happen. I am writing here about the Lennon made public in his art and sayings. I am romanticising him. I am not trying to psychoanalyse him. But then these two activities have been in collusion since psychoanalysis began. It has been said that his inner life should be left alone in the tributes that are paid: but if the ideas which affected him, both in life and in death, and which are affirmed in his art, are to be left out of account, there might be very little to talk about except money and the chances of the profession, lucky breaks, bad scenes – ‘show business’, as the saying goes. There was more to Lennon, and to his music, than that, but show business – in the sense of the profession itself – has been no better than literary criticism at recognising it.

So how can it be shown that his death was no accident? He was the kind of person who is the author and subject of much romantic literature. He was the kind of person, that is to say, who can readily be experienced as an orphan. And his life reveals what certain literary texts reveal: an encounter between the orphan and the double. In this literature, the orphan may encounter his double, or may serve as someone else’s. The double may serve as a friend or as an enemy, just as the romantic ‘second self’ may be more or less the same as the first, or very different. Lennon, it turns out, was experienced as a double by a person whom he did not know, but who loved and hated him. Such are the hazards of stardom.

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In the next few weeks we hope to carry discussions of John Lennon’s music by Russell Davies and the singer Alan Price. They can be expected to pay less attention to the subject of Romanticism.