How many of us have been told by some bustling, ambitious soul that we need to “get a hobby”? If we’re workaholics, the sentiment is understandable; when we’re depressive and isolating, the concern is warranted. But when we’re readers, I don’t get it. Reading IS our hobby.
“What do you do for fun?” Well, last weekend I re-read all of John Keats’s Odes, and traced the mythic allusions in them; found a previously unnoticed connection to Wordsworth’s sonnet “The world is too much with us”; was reminded of how good Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels used to be when he used poetry quotes as his titles —
<discursus> before I scared that out of him. I was a grad student, thrilled that a series of popular mystery novels used titles from Frost, Browning, Coleridge, Keats, Blake and Yeats, and countless allusions to Melville, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. So I wrote my thesis on the use of classic poetry in depicting the re-creation of the self in Parker’s novels. In 1987 I interviewed him for the paper at his home in Cambridge, MA. He pretty much yelled at me that any damn fool who spent long enough sitting in college lit classes was bound to spit out all kinds of nonsense quotes and they didn’t HAVE any deeper meaning and by the way how come no one ever noticed that he also used quotes from American standards music (at which point I opened up the back of my notebook to the page labeled “American Popular Standards References”) and then I went home and cried and when his next book, Playmates, came out, it contained not a single poetic or literary reference, not in the title, the epigram, or in the text. A friend of mine walked into my apartment the day after Playmates was published, threw the book onto my couch, and asked, “What did you DO to the man?” Anybody who has read Playmates will also note that there is a very unattractive and useless character, a woman who is teaching College Composition while writing her thesis on some feminist nonsense while blithely ignoring the fact that her basketball-player students are illiterate. That was the year before two of MY College Comp students went to the Final Four with Seton Hall under P.J. Carlesemo. Coincidence???</discursus>
— when I re-read the great lines from “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”: “I saw pale kings, and princes too/Pale warriors, death pale were they all” (37-38); and most especially I re-read “Ode on Indolence.” If you’re ever in need of a strong poetic argument against bustling ambition, here’s the piece.
O folly! What is Love? And where is it?
And for that poor Ambition – it springs
From a man’s little heart’s short fever-fit (32-34)
And the poem takes as its epigram Matthew 6:28: “They toil not, neither do they spin.” In Wordsworth’s sonnet “The world is too much with us” he complains that we “lay waste our powers” in “Getting and spending.” And this was 1804. Apparently getting and spending has always been a popular hobby.
(You’re reading Keats again? Maybe you should get out more.)
The Odes are loaded with Greek and Roman classical allusions, but Keats was an Englishman through and through. When John William Waterhouse painted images from “La Belle Dame,” his knight was an English knight; the lady a fairy-sprite of the sort that we’ll see when Peter Jackson imagines Arwen and Galadriel. Shakespeare does the same thing in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The forest is outside Athens – how classical Greek can you get? – but the fairies are of the British Noble: Oberon and Titania. On Tom Clark’s “Beyond the Pale” blog, December 5, 2010, he quotes “La Belle Dame” in full, accompanied by art by Rossetti and Waterhouse, and “The Fairy-Feller’s Master-Stroke” by Richard Dadd. The latter is the patron saint of British fairy art, as anybody who has ever heard Side Black of the 1974 album Queen II must of course know.
“Ode on Indolence” ought to be represented by some good British painting too, but if it is I can’t find any. The painters absolutely knocked themselves out on “To Autumn” because any damn fool who spent long enough in a temperate climate knows what autumn looks like, but what does productive, spiritual Indolence look like? I never expect an American to paint that. In-do-lence (n): American for laziness.
Are you just going to lie around all day reading?
How came ye muffled in so hush a masque?
(“Ode on Indolence” 11-12)