Susan Wolfson

It was the poetry that made me an English major, and what guided the fun and work of my graduate studies.  For years at Rutgers I loved teaching the intro to reading and writing about poetry—which drew in not only prospective English majors, but students from all over the university with a curiosity about the fine management of words, and the forms and traditions of doing so.  At Princeton my teaching pleasures always involve poetry—whether in my usual terrain of Romanticism, or, when I have chance, Shakespeare, Milton, across the nineteenth century (Tennyson, Arnold, Browning, the Rossettis, Wilde) and twentieth (Auden, Eliot).  One of the most exciting classes I have taught at Princeton was in the Winter-Spring term of 2006—a course devoted to Paradise Lost, which we read slowly (against the breakneck speed usually required in survey courses, even Milton courses with more to do than this), and read recursively, pretty much a book a week (in the epic-convenient 12-week Princeton semester).  I’ve also written a lot about poetry, and published a critical study, Formal Charges: the Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997). And I like my innovative edition of John Keats (2007), which intersperses his activity as a poet with his extraordinary letters.  My two most critical studies (Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism (2007) and Romantic Interactions (2010)) together have chapters of the poetry of Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, M. J. Jewsbury, Byron, Keats, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth.  I’ve also contributed to and edited an on-line anthology, The Sound of Romantic Poetry, and am coediting a special issue of Literary Imagination (fall 2010) on “The Sonnet.” I’m just beginning a critical introduction to Keats that should be out in a couple of years.

I’ve been writing sonnets this year, too.  Here’s one from last January:

                        Pumpkins’ end

In the middle of sky-pale January
They came for the three small pumpkins, resting
On our front porch, since Halloween–frozen
Forgotten, yet still seed-full for plunder.
A nourishment, rare in these iron days
Of hard frozen ground, meager of acorns.
Tree-bark and moss: that’s what’s left for hunger.
Our bright orange globes could not but solicit
ravishment, scenting the air to house-shy
deer, was it? or the patient crows?  I didn’t
get to see the assault, just the white strew
of rind and seeds on the cold cement when
I opened the door, to retrieve the Times
And fill the birdfeeder with seeds I knew.


And in case you think that “Romantic Poetry” is all sublime passion, here’s one of the lighter poems from the Romantic era.  Celebrity author Lord Byron has been beseeched by his publisher, John Murray, to help frame a rejection letter to John Polidori, who has submitted a pretty bad play for consideration.  It’s awkward because Polidori is Byron’s personal doctor, and something of a hothead, always getting into scraps.  ( If you’ve read the Rossettis, you know that Polidori’s sister, much later, was their mother).  Polidori is most famous these days for his short story, The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker.

Anyway, to Murray’s request, Byron sent back this rejection-in-verse (ghosting in Murray’s voice):

Dear Doctor, I have read your play,
Which is a good one in its way,
Purges the eyes, and moves the bowels,
And drenches handkerchiefs like towels
With tears that, in a flux of grief,
Afford hysterical relief
To shatter’d nerves and quicken’d pulses,
Which your catastrophe convulses.
I like your moral and machinery;
Your plot, too, has such scope for scenery!
Your dialogue is apt and smart;
The play’s concoction full of art;
Your hero raves, your heroine cries,
All stab, and everybody dies;
In short, your tragedy would be
The very thing to hear and see;
And for a piece of publication,
If I decline on this occasion,
It is not that I am not sensible
To merits in themselves ostensible,
But–and I grieve to speak it–plays
Are drugs–mere drugs, Sir, nowadays.
I had a heavy loss by Manuel –
Too lucky if it prove not annual–
And Sotheby, with his damn’d Orestes
(Which, by the way, the old bore’s best is),
Has lain so very long on hand
That I despair of all demand;
I’ve advertis’d–but see my books,
Or only watch my shopman’s looks;
Still Ivan , Ina and such lumber
My back-shop glut, my shelves encumber.
There’s Byron too, who once did better,
Has sent me–folded in a letter–
A sort of–it’s no more a drama
Than Darnley, Ivan or Kehama :
So alter’d since last year his pen is,
I think he’s lost his wits at Venice,
Or drain’d his brains away as stallion
To some dark-eyed and warm Italian;
In short, Sir, what with one and t’other,
I dare not venture on another.
I write in haste; excuse each blunder;
The coaches through the street so thunder!
My room’s so full; we’ve Gifford here
Reading MSS with Hookham Frere,
Pronouncing on the nouns and particles
Of some of our forthcoming articles,
The Quarterly –ah, Sir, if you
Had but the genius to review!
A smart critique upon St. Helena,
Or if you only would but tell in a
Short compass what–but, to resume;
As I was saying, Sir, the room–
The room’s so full of wits and bards,
Crabbes, Campbells, Crokers, Freres and Wards,
And others, neither bards nor wits–
My humble tenement admits
All persons in the dress of Gent.,
From Mr. Hammond to Dog Dent.
A party dines with me today,
All clever men who make their way:
Crabbe, Malcolm, Hamilton and Chantrey
Are all partakers of my pantry.
They’re at this moment in discussion
On poor De Stael’s late dissolution.
Her book, they say, was in advance–
Pray Heaven she tell the truth of France!
‘Tis said she certainly was married
To Rocca, and had twice miscarried,
No–not miscarried, I opine–
But brought to bed at forty nine.
Some say she died a Papist; some
Are of opinion that’s a hum;
I don’t know that–the fellow, Schlegel,
Was very likely to inveigle
A dying person in compunction
To try the extremity of unction.
But peace be with her! for a woman
Her talents surely were uncommon.
Her publisher (and public too)
The hour of her demise may rue,
For never more within his shop he–
Pray–was she not interr’d at Coppet?
Thus run our time and tongues away;
But, to return, Sir, to your play;
Sorry, Sir, but I cannot deal,
Unless ’twere acted by O’Neill.
My hands are full–my head so busy,
I’m almost dead–and always dizzy;
And so, with endless truth and hurry,
Dear Doctor, I am yours,