Posted on:Tuesday 3rd November, 2020
The Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon, who sadly passed away on 1 October 2020, was a great admirer of decadent and symbolist literature. I had coincidentally scheduled a lecture on Mahon’s poetry for the following week and, with great regret, was able to point my students toward the recent obituaries that provided an overview of Mahon’s life and work. Thinking about this blog, the lines that first leapt out to me, grimly, were from his ‘Rue des Beaux Arts’, a poem from Mahon’s 1997 volume The Yellow Book that weaves together a sympathetic portrait of Oscar Wilde’s last days exiled and destitute in Paris from a variety of textual sources, literary and biographical...
Quoting an 1898 letter Wilde wrote to Frank Harris,1 Mahon writes:
‘Art’s mainspring, the love of life, is gone;
prose is so much more difficult.’ The morgue
yawns, as it yawned too for Verlaine, Laforgue,
nor will you see your wife and sons again.
Shunned by society, with the source of his art fled, Mahon’s Wilde is reduced to a threadbare existence as an itinerant body: ‘Job with a skin-rash and an infected ear, / Oisín in the real world of enforced humility’. This once unstoppably loquacious talker is now threatened by silence. Mahon begins the poem with an epigraph from The Picture of Dorian Gray - ‘There is only one thing . . . worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about’ - and recalls the effort to bury Wilde’s legacy by newspapers that, ironically, have since gone out of print: '“The thing now is to forget him; let him go / to that limbo of oblivion which is his due”--/ though the Daily Chronicle and the St. James’ Gazette / are gone, while you are talked of even yet'2 As John Stokes observes: ‘What Mahon is doing, which is rather rare among writers on Wilde, is imagining how it felt to be him, in this place, in this season, at this particular stage in his life, when to be “unspeakable” was no longer to be “talked about.’”3 What Mahon is also doing is contemplating what it means for one’s legacy to endure beyond one’s present circumstances, beyond death and apparent failure. The poem ends with a quotation from Wilde that Richard Ellmann used in the epilogue to his iconic biography of Wilde to signal the success that would follow many decades after Wilde’s death: ‘The Greatest men fail, or seem to have failed’.4
At a time when Mahon’s own legacy is being crafted in various obituaries and tributes, it is worth returning to Mahon’s The Yellow Book, not least because it is a volume written at a time when Mahon was coming face to face with the concrete materiality of his own literary legacy. That encounter took place in the archive of his own work: the papers, letters, and other bric-a-brac that he had agreed to sell to the special collections library at Emory University in Atlanta Georgia (now the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library), an institution renowned for its ever-growing collection of papers from Irish and Northern Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, and Medbh McGuckian. Mahon visited Emory in January 1996 at the time he was drafting The Yellow Book, and the poems in that volume, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, are written partly in response to his encounter with the archive of his own work and with the processes undertaken by Emory in preserving and sometimes digitizing that work.5 From The Yellow Book on, then, Mahon wrote with a newly intensified understanding of the material fate of his own writing and with an enduring interest in the media, both print and electronic, by which that legacy would be carried. Mahon, who referred to himself as an ‘analogue simpleton’, often expressed a strong preference for print, preferring a typewriter to a computer even as he grudgingly acknowledged (and backhandedly complimented) the increasing and perhaps decisive importance of the internet in shaping, transmitting, and preserving poetry.6
One can already detect an emerging bifurcation of Mahon’s legacy between print and electronic media in the specific poems mentioned in Mahon’s obituaries. First mention usually goes to ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’, which has long been Mahon’s ‘most celebrated poem’, as the Irish Times notes. With its oblique and surreal contemplation of dereliction and abandonment, the poem has been described by John Banville as ‘the best single poem written in Ireland since the death of Yeats’.7 Mahon has written of how Heaney would laughingly ask him why he ‘only’ wrote ‘great poems’, and yet, in 2020, it isn’t the ‘great’ poems such as ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ or ‘A Garage in Co. Cork’ that have reached the widest audience, but the much slighter and inadvertently twitter-friendly ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right’, which went viral early in the Covid-19 pandemic.8 Indeed, a forty-five-second video, posted in 2012, of Mahon reading the poem while sitting in the sunshine of some pleasant garden spot, birds chirping in the background, seems tailor-made for our moment as Mahon calmly reassures us: ‘There will be dying, there will be dying, / but there is no need to go into that [. . .] the sun rises in spite of everything,’ and ‘everything is going to be all right’.9 Never mind the Beckettian undertones beneath the titular Bob Marley vibes, this seemed a poem to be taped to the refrigerator. Further perpetuating the viral life of the poem, no fewer than two Irish heart throbs, Paul Mescal, the co-star of the BBC and Hulu’s oversexed adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, and Andrew Scott, the ‘hot priest’ of Fleabag fame, had recorded their own video renditions. Mescal’s reading is unremarkable, but Scott lives Mahon’s gladness at a ‘riot of sunlight’ darkened only momentarily by existential gloom. (I admit I teared up a bit as I played the clip for my students over Zoom.) Greatness or legacy isn’t the point here, this poem strives to live in the now. Nevertheless, the poem’s ability to reach and move untold casual poetry readers in a moment of global crisis through social media happily, I think, reflects the paradoxical, against-the-grain, fashion by which Mahon figured his own work might endure as early as The Yellow Book.
The original title of Mahon’s The Yellow Book refers, of course, to the notorious 1890s print journal associated with Aubrey Beardsley and the British decadents. (Mahon would later rename the sequence ‘Decadence’ in his New Collected Poems.) Despite Mahon’s titular allusion to the luxuriously styled fin-de-siècle print journal, Stokes astutely notes how Mahon’s ‘forest of intertextuality’ (like Baudelaire’s forest of symbols) takes on a certain hyperlinked quality, such that ‘one might [. . .] be tempted to call it, despite Mahon’s hostility to technology, “Internet poetry” or “cyber poetry.’”10 Mahon’s wonderful late essay ‘Olympia and the Internet’, however, demonstrates less a hostility to technology than a well-studied ambivalence. Initially, he signals his refusal of the modern ways by celebrating his old Remington typewriter. Mahon, with some irony, calls his Remington ‘a relic of the industrial era, fit only for derision and dereliction, it’s not to be taken seriously in the age of Google and tweet, yet it still works’.11 A site of derision and dereliction, a typewriter, like a disused shed, is, even now, a place ‘where a thought might grow’.12 The internet, however, is a place where every thought is given away unwittingly for others to sell: ‘the commodifiable now includes our own thoughts and daily lives, which we yield up in tribute to the networks with our websites, emails and online conversations’.13 Yet poetry, Mahon acknowledges, adapts to and is altered by its new media of composition and transmission, its material substrates and its means of distribution: ‘Concrete poems, t/w-inspired, have been around for ages; and now we have computer verse written on, to and about computers, besides the old manual stuff. Poetry, that strange persistent art made up – ideally - of soul, song, and formal necessity, survives and even thrives in the digital age; thrives, perhaps, because of digitization. It’s a form of resistance, or should be, an insistence on private truth and fantasy in the face of a dominant paradigm’.14 Even if not everything is going to be all right in the internet age, poetry, Mahon suggests, belongs on the internet precisely because it has the potential, at least, to resist the commodification of private thoughts, paradoxically, by adopting the internet’s material and aesthetic forms, and by making even more public a poet’s private truths.
So where, then, did this thought first grow? In the rag and bone shop of the Emory University Library, I would suggest. When Mahon visited Emory in 1996 to see how his newly collected archive was being looked after, he was given a tour of the library, shown the folders of his manuscripts, and given something of a crash course in the technical processes by which his work would be captured in meta-data, his own voice digitized for distribution on the library web site. He corresponded regularly with Emory’s librarians regarding their collections of his work as well as that of other Irish writers, including Beckett, even as his poetry reveals the extent of his ambivalence about commodifying his own papers and having previously sold some of his manuscripts to collectors. Mahon’s drafts and notebooks for The Yellow Book contain numerous references to the Emory library, which he repeatedly linked to Henry James’s short story The Aspern Papers, which concerns a nefarious attempt to secure the letters and manuscripts of a long-dead poet.15 One poem in The Yellow Book that acutely demonstrates Mahon’s self-consciousness about his transactions with the library is ‘Remembering the ‘90s’, a poem that refers to numerous figures of Yeats’s ‘tragic’ generation of 1890s poets, including ‘Dowson, Johnson, Symons and Le Gallienne’. These were mostly short-lived ‘heroes’ compared to Mahon, who refers to himself as ‘a decadent who lived to tell the story, / surviving even beyond the age of irony / to the point where the old stuff comes round again’.16 The prematurely faded decadents, then, were figures whose legacy seemed sealed by their own tragic fates. Mahon, who happily managed to avoid falling off a bar stool, is then left to contemplate how his own legacy would outlast him in the very books and papers collected by libraries such as Emory. He does so by lamenting the ever-encroaching internet age and celebrating the yellowing pages of print that survive in the library’s collections, even as these decaying print objects (each a yellow book) becomes subject to the gnomic digital encryptions of mage-like librarians. As he writes at the end of ‘Remembering the ‘90s’:
in the known future,
new books will be rarities in techno-culture,
a forest of intertextuality like this,
each one a rare book and what few we have
written for prize-money and not for love,
while the real books like vintage wines
survive among the antiquities, each yellowing page
known only to astrologer and mage
where blind librarians study as on a keyboard
gnomic encryptions, secrets of the word,
a lost knowledge; and all the rest is lit(t)erature.17
In an age when every thought is commodifiable, where new books are written solely for the recognition of prize committees in a literary market governed by prestige, not soul and song, Mahon sees the yellowing antiquities of the special collections library, with its limited audience and cryptic protocols, as a site of resistance to the more public-facing, publicity-seeking domains of poetry in the internet era. The final line here, as readers of this blog will recognize, alludes to Verlaine’s ‘Art Poetique’: ‘Et tout le reste est littérature’.18 As Arthur Symons explains, for Verlaine, the only thing worth expressing in poetry is nuance, nuance found in the ‘evocation of sensations, a restless, insistent search for the last fine shade of expression. [. . .] “And all the rest,” says Verlaine, with supreme contempt, “is literature!” Literature means the prose of things: and is that worth expressing?’19 Mahon’s judgment, then, however ironic, sides with the archive as perhaps one of the few places left where some kind of nuanced shade of expression might be found. All that poetry on the internet, all those prize-winning volumes? Just literature, barely more than prose.
Verlaine’s presence here is another indication of how concerned The Yellow Book is in contemplating how one’s legacy survives oneself, and how superannuated one must feel if one lives long enough to see one’s legacy take shape. Gone are the days when archivists and biographers waited a respectable period after one was dearly departed to come sniffing around for material.20 Indeed, to Mahon’s chagrin, one of Emory’s former archivists became his biographer.21 Ellmann’s biography of Wilde was an especially important source for Mahon’s ‘Rue des Beaux-Arts’, and Verlaine plays a particular role there in prefiguring Wilde’s tragic fate. As Stokes notes: ‘Ellmann’s life of Wilde is a magisterial rearrangement of a tragic design that many others have found there, not least Wilde himself. It is persuasive in part because it is based on literary prototypes. Here was a man, Ellmann points out, who knew all about Aeschylean doom because he studied the Greek canon. Later, revising his own story, Wilde was to turn from drama to the New Testament, another set of texts that he knew well, offering himself in imitation of Christ’.22 Following suit, Verlaine comes across in Ellmann’s biography as a kind of decadent John the Baptist figure (a fitting precursor for the author of Salomé.) According to Ellmann, Wilde first met Verlaine at a café in Paris in 1882 when Verlaine ‘was beginning to publish poems about homosexuality’. Wilde, who had been celebrating the ‘sunlit heights’, delighted in Parisian decadence. He was, however, ‘put off by Verlaine’s seedy appearance’, though he ‘recognized his genius’.23 This becomes a motif for Ellmann, who describes a lunch in 1891 in which Wilde objects again to Verlaine’s ‘unkempt’ appearance and devotes his attentions instead to Verlaine’s youthful friend, the Guatemalan writer Enrique Gomez Carillo, commenting that ‘The first duty of a man is to be beautiful, don’t you think?’ When Wilde lamented that he had put only his talent into his work and his genius into his life, Verlaine is said to have remarked that ‘this man is a true pagan. He possesses the insouciance which is half of happiness, for he does not know penitence’.24 (Wilde would come to know it.) In his dissolution, vagrancy, and ultimate demise, Verlaine, who was famously jailed for shooting his lover Rimbaud in the wrist, tragically and ironically prefigures Wilde’s downfall and exile after Wilde served two years hard labor for the crime of ‘gross indecency’. Ellmann recounts how Wilde had earlier brought Verlaine, ‘unkempt as ever’, to a party hosted by the opera singer Emma Calvé. ‘At Wilde’s urging, Verlaine read a poem about his prison experience; his words cut through hypocrisy and evasion to touch the hearts of the respectable company. Wilde, on his way to becoming another of society’s victims, joined proudly in the applause’ (407). 25 Late in Ellmann’s biography, Wilde acknowledges how his own fate had mapped onto Verlaine’s. His health broken by prison, his appearance deteriorating, his teeth rotted, Wilde became an unkempt wanderer in Paris, begging money and meals off old acquaintances, sometimes pretending not to recognize them, or refusing recognition. As he said to Max de Morés, ‘I am a vagabond. The century will have had two vagabonds, Paul Verlaine and me’.26
Mahon highlights the incident of Wilde introducing Verlaine at a party in a review he wrote of Ellman’s biography, noting how Wilde had similarly been cast out of the charmed garden of his life: ‘Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to go on living there, any more than it had been for Verlaine. The French poet, whose less brilliant career foreshadowed his own [. . .].’27 The review, however, is ultimately concerned with how Ellmann’s biography, at long last, does some justice to an artistic and critical legacy too long obscured by the salacious details of the life. Mahon quotes Ellmann: ‘His work survives as he claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitised and standardised, to replace a morality of severity with one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s.’ To which Mahon adds: ‘The full force of that last assertion is only now becoming evident.’28 Mahon suggests that Wilde’s very modernity meant that he lived far before his time: ‘Like Rimbaud he insisted that art should be absolutely modern; yet it’s only now that the nature of his example is becoming clear. [. . .] It’s a measure of Wilde’s complexity and originality that we should have had to wait a hundred years to understand, to be allowed to understand, exactly what he was about’.29 After quoting the line about the greatest men failing, or seeming to fail (Wilde had Charles Stewart Parnell in mind), Mahon writes that ‘if we have the imagination to read him aright, Wilde’s real success lies before him’.30
I would love to end this blog post elegantly on that note, to say that we would have to wait a hundred years to be allowed to understand Mahon’s work, but that if we have the imagination to read him aright, his real success lies before him. That is of course all true in a way, but in reading through Mahon’s 2017 collection of essays Olympia and the Internet, I am struck by just how unsettled issues of legacy were for him. There is no final success, no finally correct or proper reading. There is instead a restless urge toward revisionism, and the endless, nearly karmic recycling of material things: rubbish, paper, plastic, bodies. Many of these concerns hover around the materiality of Mahon’s own archive, its record not just of success, but of error. Aware of how wrong biographies can get it, he writes ‘If only one could change the past, so open to tendentious misrepresentations’.31 Moreover: ‘We blush at our juvenilia, and even at later things put down at an age when we should have known better; and this applies to private correspondence too, for everything ends up in archive libraries, to be scrutinized, and perhaps misinterpreted, by not always friendly eyes. You can still get a good price there for a soul, but it’s like anything else in life, we regret our past performance and want to set things right if we can; mostly we can’t. We can never unwrite a thing in print - but new editions, if we’re fortunate enough to run to new editions, provide opportunities for revision. At least for some of us nothing is ever finished; the most we can hope for is a proximate finality - a work, or a group of works, in something like final shape, representing the best we can do with our material’.32 At a conference a few years ago, Mahon’s editor at Gallery Press, Peter Fallon, told a story of how Mahon had joked (or was it threatened?) to start work on a ‘New Corrected Poems’. It is true you can’t unwrite a thing in print, but even that thing in print decays. Nothing is finished, the old stuff comes round again, or the paper’s recycled, and even proximate finality is a thing to be hoped for if never achieved. There will be new editions, and rather than attempt to seal a legacy or give it a final narrative shape, we, Mahon’s readers, can only remind ourselves that what we offer in thinking through a poet’s life and work is just one further revision, and there will be more revisions to come.
Associate Professor in the English Department at Florida State University
Derek Mahon reading "Everything is going to be alright" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNGU11lK_5E
Andrew Scott reading "Everything is going to be alright" - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72duK3EU-Uo
1 Rupert Hart-Davis, Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962), 328-9.
2 Derek Mahon, The Yellow Book (Winston-Salem: Wake Forest University Press, 1998), 42.
3 John Stokes, ‘New Ways with Last Days,’ Irish Studies Review 13:3 (2005): 385.
4 Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Vintage Books, 1988): 589.
5 For a fuller account of Mahon’s Yellow Book poems, see Robert Stilling, ‘Decadence and the Archive in Derek Mahon’s The Yellow Book,’ in Beginning at the End: Decadence, Modernism, and Postcolonial Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998): 226-282.
6 Derek Mahon, ‘Olympia and the Internet,’ Olympia and the Internet (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 2017): 82.
7 “Derek Mahon obituary: ‘One of the great poets of his generation,’ The Irish Times. Wed, Oct 7, 2020.
8 Derek Mahon, ‘Changing a Word,’ Olympia and the Internet (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 2017): 17.
9 Derek Mahon, ‘Everything is Going to Be All Right,’ New Collected Poems (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 2011): 104.
10 Stokes, 390.
11 Derek Mahon, ‘Olympia and the Internet,’ 83.
12 Derek Mahon, ‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford,’ New Collected Poems, 81.
13 Derek Mahon, ‘Olympia and the Internet,’ 83.
15 See Stilling, ‘Decadence and the Archive in Derek Mahon’s The Yellow Book.’
16 Derek Mahon, ‘Remembering the 90s,’ The Yellow Book, 28. Mahon revised and renamed the poem ‘Hangover Square’ for New Collected Poems.
17 Ibid, 29. Mahon’s parenthetical (t) in ‘lit(t)erature’ seems to gesture ironically in postmodern critical fashion to the difference in spellings between French and English. See Patrick Crotty, ‘Apocalypse Now and Then: The Yellow Book,’ in The Poetry of Derek Mahon, ed. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (Gerard’s Cross: Colin Smythe Lmt., 2002): 281.
18 Paul Verlaine, Selected Poems. Trans. C. F. MacIntyre (Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1976): 182.
19 Arthur Symons, ‘Paul Verlaine,’ The National Review. 19:112 (June, 1892): 501. Archive.org.
20 As Kristen Mahoney has shown, despite their reputation for dying young, there were quite a few superannuated decadents and aesthetes, Max Beerbohm, for one, who lived well past the yellow nineties and stuck to their gilded guns as an act of resistance to the modern. See Kristen Mahoney, Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
21 See Stephen Enniss, After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon (Dublin: Gill Books, 2015).
22 Stokes, 379.
23 Ellmann, Wilde, 228.
24 Ibid, 341-342.
25 Ibid, 407.
26 Ibid, 574.
27 Derek Mahon, ‘Ellmann’s Wilde,’ Journalism: Selected Prose, 1970-1995 (Loughcrew: Gallery Press, 1996): 125.
28 Ibid, 128.
29 Ibid, 122-123.
30 Ibid, 127.
31 Derek Mahon, ‘Changing a Word,’ Olympia and the Internet, 17
32 Ibid, 19.