The Eng. Lit. Patient

Jeremy Noel-Tod

  • The Invention of Dr Cake by Andrew Motion
    Faber, 142 pp, £12.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 571 21631 5
  • Public Property by Andrew Motion
    Faber, 112 pp, £6.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 571 21859 8

John Keats
John Keats
John
Please put your scarf on.

The author of these lines is J.D. Salinger’s fictional child-poet, Seymour Glass, showing a precocious acquaintance with literary history for an eight-year-old: his source seems to be an 1821 review of Adonais, Shelley’s elegy on Keats, in the Literary Gazette. The reviewer described the poem as a lament for

a foolish young man, who, after writing some volumes of very weak, and in the greater part, very indecent poetry, died some time since of a consumption: the breaking down of an infirm constitution having, in all probability, been accelerated by the discarding of his neckcloth, a practice of the Cockney poets, who look upon it as an essential to genius.

Although Keats’s reputation recovered, the image of the sickly poet lingered on. Seymour’s prosey brother, Buddy, notes that ‘only too often, sadly, a good poet turns into a damn poor keeper of his own body.’ What, though, if the medically trained Keats had healed himself, faked his own death and returned to England to work and die unknown among the rural poor under the name of Dr Cake? This scenario is both premise and précis of Andrew Motion’s novella, The Invention of Dr Cake. The action is the deduction of Dr Cake’s secret by the narrator, Dr Tabor. The book is presented in the form of documents supposedly written by Tabor and deposited in the archive of the Royal College of Surgeons. These are sandwiched between a foreword and afterword where Motion writes in the autobiographical persona of Keats’s biographer and the author of Wainewright the Poisoner (2000), a semi-fictional account of a minor Romantic era figure.

Wainewright was a stylistic repackaging of the biographical mode, a lively first-person ‘confession’ supplemented by factual footnotes. The Invention of Dr Cake is less factual and less lively. The prose style of the Andrew Motion who claims to have discovered Tabor’s papers is a self-fiction of uncertain status. Are the clichés (‘writing biography’ is ‘a balancing act’, which ‘like all balancing acts, can’t be sustained for ever’) and tautologies (‘detective-style sleuthings’) deliberate? The flamboyant Wainewright allowed Motion a rhetorical range beyond that of the sober biographer (‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,’ as Humbert Humbert says in Lolita); Tabor is a more restricting instrument. Motion warns us that Tabor was a sometime imitator of Wordsworth with a poetic tone as ‘dry as biscuit’. And at moments he plausibly resembles a genuine Wordsworthian bore (the narrator of ‘The Thorn’, for example): ‘a miniature grandfather clock known I believe as a grandmother’. Consistently pursued (as by Nabokov), the pedant can be an effective fictional voice. Tabor, however, is not a strong stylist. Motion’s Wainewright wrote as a known admirer of Tristram Shandy well might, with convincingly garrulous extravagance. Tabor writes like a reader of modern historical fiction:

Two gravediggers, dressed in coarse shirts and with their trousers tied at the ankles, lounged in the shade of a chestnut tree. A collar dove crooned above their heads.

‘Dr Tabor?’

It was a woman’s voice, spoken softly behind my back.

This is an extract from notes written by a man ‘apparently for no eyes but his own’. But the period details – the tied trousers – are not plausible as the observations of someone for whom such things were everyday fact. Nor does the suspenseful staging of this encounter – with a woman whom, it transpires, Tabor already knows – feel consistent with the factual approach of a dry as biscuit diarist.

It’s odd that Motion didn’t exploit the suggestively elliptical possibilities of the note form. Instead, the plodding Tabor is intermittently credited with vivid apprehensions in fully formed prose that can hardly be his. At one point, all but putting the ventriloquist’s dummy aside, Motion lets rip with a long, impromptu vision at Cake’s bedside of Keats’s last days in Italy. First, the voyage from England; then ‘the ghastly drama of a sickbed – the young man wasting on a sweat-soaked sheet, crying out sometimes in pain and rage, while his friend brought his little meals of rice. I heard the fountain battering in its basin.’ The technical problem on which the book falters is in that ‘battering’. It is a distractingly vivid verb, a flourish from the 20th-century biographer who evokes the same fountain outside Keats’s window ‘pulsing’ water into its bowl. Every fine touch of cinematic realism – Cake’s breath ‘making circles’ on the water which he attempts to sip – is a false touch to the 1844 forgery.

Stylistic anachronism is not a fault in principle. Keats himself once proposed that the ‘purest English’ was that of Chatterton, the youthful forger of pseudo-medieval poetry. Like Motion, Chatterton betrays the late provenance of his work through a too colourful use of vocabulary, and a markedly modern foregrounding of detail for its own sake. For example, Chatterton’s lingering description of how ‘The apple rodded from its palie green/And the mole peare did bende the leafie spraie’ resembles little in the 14th or 15th century, but is echoed by Keats fifty years later in ‘To Autumn’: ‘To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees’. Chatterton’s ersatz is challengingly innovative; Motion’s is coaxingly familiar. It didn’t matter to Keats that Chatterton’s spurious versifying priest, Thomas Rowley, was a fiction. What he admired was the result, a revivifying of English style with plum Anglo-Saxonisms. Motion needs us to believe in Dr Tabor’s historicity for the sake of the literary debate that is the novella’s point. But to make the debate more palatable, Tabor’s prose is empurpled for a modern readership with a taste for literary technicolour.

The debate is about Keats’s achievement. In the biography, Motion suggests that despite his premature death ‘the Collected Poems possibly contains everything the Keatsian Keats had to give.’ Dr Cake assumes this to be pretty much the case. The possibility that Tabor’s late-published volume of sub-Keatsian verse (Hyperion and Other Poems) actually contained the last poems that Keats wrote, before giving up his vocation as ‘physician of the soul’, is one of the mysteries that the book dangles heavily before us. Dying of consumption for real this time, Cake considers the fate of poets whose powers leave them, and speculates to Tabor:

‘Might it not even be better to die than to continue?’

‘You are thinking of Shelley.’

The doctor nodded. ‘I am thinking of Shelley, of Burns, of poor John Clare.’

At moments like this, reeling off the Romantic canon, the figure on the couch is simply a mouthpiece for the worn-out notion of the worn-out genius: the Eng. Lit. patient, palely loitering.

It’s a conservative premise. The mark of ‘genius’ is surely dissatisfaction, the ability to imagine beyond what has already been done. Motion imagines the least imaginative route Keats, had he lived, could have taken: usefulness. Anthony Burgess suggested a wittier alternative in his fictional account of Keats’s last days, Abba Abba (1977), which posited a poet turning from archaic lushness to colloquial bawdiness: an idea cleverly founded on a non-canonical side of Keats – his knockabout sonnet ‘To Mrs Reynolds’ Cat’ (‘Thy tail’s tip is nicked off’). Burgess at least assumes a sensibility concerned with the morality of style as well as action.

Style is moral because it is a way of relating to other people. Good style is honest, because it is consistent in the application of its principles – it aspires to integrity of diction, of discursive attitude. Its ‘usefulness’ is the end Keats avowed in his remarks on Chatterton: ‘English ought to be kept up.’ For Motion, however, here and in his poetry, the morality of style is a debate between Beauty and Truth as private pleasure (high style) and public good (plain style). The case of Dr Tabor seems to express something of his creator’s contradictory impulses as a poet. Tabor’s first book was populated by Wordsworthian tramps: ‘on almost every page a Cumberland beggar or homeless soldier wanders through the lanes around Finchley and philosophises about his fate.’ His last was seemingly the work of a disciple of Keats, continuing the mythic narrative of Hyperion.

Public Property is polarised by these two modes. The refined aestheticism of Keats and the social realism of Wordsworth are represented respectively by autobiographical poems and the public poems written as Poet Laureate. At their worst, the public poems are sentimentally moralistic. ‘What Is Given’, commissioned by the Salvation Army, is the story of ‘William Legge’, a barrister who disintegrates into a tramp after polishing off his family in a car accident (moral: nice professional people can – very occasionally – become homeless, too).

in the freezing gaps

of doorways and steps

among others the same
all fallen from grace

with rats and foxes
and even those codgers

the stinking badgers
who lost their place

‘Codgers’ is a word translators reach for when they want to seem streetwise about the elderly (or need a facetious rhyme for ‘badgers’). Here, integrity of tone has given way to a misguided notion that poetry should be chummily tough – ‘demotic’ – when dealing with tough subjects. The personal poems have a weakness for the opposite effect: antique, thickly patterned diction – ‘oozing, too-soft tassle-berries’, ‘cushioned on lush pads of ivy-leaf’. Such moments of sensuous intensity resemble the fragments of confected Keats included in the foreword to Dr Cake (a rose ‘oozing scent’, petals ‘quenched in amber beams’). Unlike Keats, though, Motion never loads every rift with this kind of ore. Unevenly embedded in plainer verse, they are symptomatic of his stylistic vacillations.

And so Motion’s style attempts to be both dry biscuit and Cake. A less Victorian understanding of the problem – one which seems even to take into account anti-mellifluous Modernism and after – shows itself in the few poems that resist the Keatsian Keats entirely. The most successful of the Laureate poems is ‘In a Perfect World’, written for the Trades Union Congress. It begins:

I was walking the Thames path from Richmond
to Westminster, just because I was free
to do so, just for the pleasure of light

sluicing my head, just for the breeze like a
hand
tap-tapping the small of my back

The light, breezy tone is well caught. It’s not Frank O’Hara, but it is amiable and suitable. The style itself expresses the democratic principles which the poem gently affirms, before concluding:

The buttery sun kept casting its light

on everything equally. The soft breeze
did as it always does, and ushered me on.

‘Buttery’ is an excellently casual, unexpected adjective here.

Motion writes most convincingly as a Laureate of the moderate, urban Left. He carries out the thankless task of valorising the British monarchy (anathema to Keats) through various evasions, including Hughesian invocation of natural forces. But the call of nature and the Windsors, although competently answered, is a distraction from the dry, ironical voice which is most distinctively Motion’s own as a poet. This voice is interested in aspects of personal freedom in an affluent, liberal society. Previously, it could be heard governing each mordantly economical line of poems about ice cream (‘you might stroll into a shop/and ask: One Strawberry Split. One Mivvi’) and dog mess (‘On the one hand it’s only shit; on the other, shit’s shit’). Here it contributes a poem on ‘A Wall’. The poet stares across the street at a surface

pocked with holes
that scaffolders left,
and flicked with an over-

flow flag. Which still
leaves pigeon-shit,
rain-streaks, washing.
Or maybe it’s really

a board where tiny
singing meteors strike?
I rest my case. I rest
my case and cannot imagine

hunger greater than this.

Not plying us with Keatsian dainties, the poem achieves the simple and steady expression of a modern feeling: comfortable, idle vacancy expanding disturbingly into the need ‘For marks./For messages sent by hand./For signs of life.’

‘The whole secret of a living style . . . is not to have too much style,’ Hardy observed. Perhaps Keats would have found virtue in plainness, too. ‘This living hand’, a late fragment of dramatic verse, proves that he could be powerfully simple. The bare speech rhythms of a single long sentence are masterfully restrained, with one quick touch of colour at its emotional crest: the thought of resurrection – ‘So in my veins red life might stream again.’ It’s one of several indications, discounted by Motion, of what the ‘foolish young man’ might have done next – had he kept his scarf on.