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Hail to Thee, Blithe Spirit!

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By Michael Dirda

May 4, 2012


 

Last week I was in Manhattan for the Mystery Writers of America awards banquet and, having an afternoon free, dropped by the New York Public Library.

I’d already visited the Argosy Bookshop on 59th Street, where I’d browsed through the fiction in the basement and scarfed up a first edition (1880) of Mrs Oliphant’s A Beleaguered City. This, as some readers may know, is one of the novels reprinted in an old Viking Portable called Six Novels of the Supernatural. That anthology should sound familiar since I mentioned it a few weeks back when I wrote about the various editions of Walter de la Mare’s The Return. The Argosy copy of A Beleaguered City was a bit shabby, which meant it was only $25. I was quite chuffed, as the English say, to acquire a first.

Being in an exceptionally good mood, I decided to walk the 15 or so blocks to the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Beware of such moments of exaltation! My shoes were new, and I soon developed a terrible blister on the little toe of my right foot. It’s still bothering me.

But I digress.

The New York Public Library has been much in the news lately because of plans to reconfigure its flagship location. As I understand it, the intent is to turn the “old-fashioned” library into a “21st-century” media center, replacing much of its book collection with computer stations and all sorts of digital technology. To me, this is a deplorable idea. Where else but a library can you check out a real book and sit quietly and read it? Where but a real library will you have available both older titles deserving rediscovery and expensive scholarly works? Sigh. It’s not as though people can’t already access the Internet from any McDonald’s in the land. Nor, so far as I can tell, do any but the poorest people now seem to be without laptops or smartphones. As for the networking young: I recently heard on the radio that teenagers transmit roughly 60 text messages a day. I don’t think we need to encourage greater use of digital technology. Why should our libraries supply what we already have in abundance? They ought to make available material we can’t readily afford or find on our own.

But I digress again.

The last time I visited the New York Public Library the main hall had been opened up to display the manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The Beat legend typed on pages fastened together into a single long scroll and seemingly all 120 feet of it had been unrolled for awed visitors. Surrounding it were Kerouac artifacts, photographs, and other memorabilia. It was a terrific show.

This year the NYPL, in conjunction with Oxford’s Bodleian Library, has mounted a much smaller exhibition called “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet.” In a darkened room the visitor can peer through glass at Percy Bysshe Shelley’s handwritten text of “Adonais,” his elegy for John Keats, or study four pages from the manuscript of his wife Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. There are documents written by Mary’s parents, too, the philosopher-novelist William Godwin and the great feminist thinker Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the groundbreaking A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The exhibition even includes a waterlogged copy of Sophocles’s Tragedies—supposedly the volume in Shelley’s pocket when his boat foundered in a storm and he drowned at age 29.

However, for me the greatest thrill was seeing a fair copy of “Ozymandias.” This is, of course, one of the world’s most famous poems, but it holds a special place in my heart. When I was around 13 I happened to acquire, from an industrial dumpster behind a department store, a stack of records that had been discarded (or hidden there by a larcenous employee). One of those vinyl LPs was entitled “Vincent Price Reads the Poems of Shelley.”

That afternoon, when I was sure that my parents and sisters were away, I played the record and was electrified. This cognac-smooth, patrician voice echoed through my bedroom: “I met a traveler from an antique land/ Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert …’” The poem, as you will recall, builds to that magnificently defiant proclamation: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” There follows, immediately, the deliciously cynical climax: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Well, I was bowled over. If this was poetry, let me have more of it. I played the record again and again, practiced reciting the poems in Price’s voice, and memorized three or four of them, including the wonderfully hokey “The Indian Serenade,” now better known as “The Indian Girl’s Song,” which then struck me as the very acme of Romantic love poetry:

 

I arise from dreams of thee

In the first sweet sleep of night—

When the winds are breathing low

And the stars are shining bright.

I arise from dreams of thee—

And a spirit in my feet

Hath led me—Who knows how?

To thy chamber window, Sweet …

 

O lift me from the grass!

I die, I faint, I fail!

Let thy love in kisses rain

On my lips and eyelids pale …

 

What I didn’t know then, when I was declaiming to the tiles of my bathroom, was that Shelley’s star had sunk fairly low in the poetic firmament. He was thought to be rhetorical, corny, not quite first-rate. Keats, by contrast—he was the man. Later, in the 1970s, the young Harold Bloom argued fiercely for Shelley’s imaginative breadth and originality, but with only partial success. Even now Shelley sometimes seems admired more as a radical thinker and free spirit than as a major English poet.

No matter. To me, he will always be my heady entry-level drug into a lifelong addiction to poetry. These days, I may prefer John Donne or Wallace Stevens, but I still own that Vincent Price LP and sometimes, when my family is out of the house, I still play it. “I die, I faint, I fail!”

Michael Dirda is a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and the author of the memoir An Open Book and of four collections of essays: Readings, Bound to Please, Book by Book, and Classics for Pleasure. His most recent book, part of Princeton’s Writers on Writers series, is On Conan Doyle. Dirda is also a frequent lecturer and an occasional college teacher.


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