Dejection

By David Baker b. 1954 David Baker
The sun is warm, the sky is clear,   
      etc.... Quickly he taps
   a full nib twice to the mouth of
      his japan-ink bowl—harder than
      he had thought, if he had thought—smears   
   the fine spattering with his sleeve,
      and continues, for whom haste is   
   more purity than certainty,
as anarchy is better than despotism—

   for this reason—that the former
      is for a season & that the
   latter is eternal. These days
      have been quickened with sightseeing,   
      Mary and Claire at Virgil’s tomb,
   the Bay of Baiae, until poor health
      overtakes Shelley descending
      Vesuvius by torch light, who
collapses with agonizing pain in his side.

   Now his chamber is rebellion
      enough. He bears down, scratching lines   
   on the back of the stanzas he
      will later discard: “My head is wild   
      with weeping!” Famous among friends
   for his sloth, as for his passions,
      he once lived in a room described
   by Mr. Thomas Jefferson
Hogg, thus: Books, boots, papers, shoes, philosophical

   instruments, clothes, pistols, linen,   
      crockery, ammunition, and
   phials innumerable, with
      money, stockings, prints, crucibles,   
      bags, and boxes in every place ...   
   The tables, and especially
      the carpets, were already stained   
   with large spots of various hues,
which frequently proclaimed the agency of fire.

   Alas! I have not hope nor health,   
      Nor peace within, etc....
We lived in utter solitude,
      Mary writes in her journal of
      the days. Still, Pompeii staggers him,   
   and its distant, deep peals rattle
      like subterranean thunder   
   beneath the family’s lodging rooms.
The lightning of the noontide ocean is flashing

   around me, etc.... How
      might Prometheus consider
   these ruins, surrounding, the rooms
      a shamble, and the posthumous
      greatness of the Greeks more theory   
   than presence? Yet theories abound.   
      For all their visionary zeal,
   the pamphlets and tracts, sheer brilliance   
of his Defence, and hope, he is characterized

   more seditious than inspiring.
      John Coleridge, Samuel’s nephew:   
   Mr Shelley would abrogate
      our laws—this would put an end to   
      felonies and misdemenours ...
   he would abolish the rights of
      property, he would overthrow
   the constitution ... no army
or navy; he would pull down our churches, level

   the Establishment. This is at
      least intelligible; but it
   is not so easy to describe
      the structure, which Mr Shelley
      would build upon this vast heap of   
   ruins. ‘Love’, he says, ‘is the sole law
      which shall govern the moral world’.   
   The great gift, foresight, produces
foes instead of a god. His fingers blaze with ink.

   For I am one whom men love not,   
      etc.... His friend Southey:
   With all his genius, he was a
      base, bad man. Carlyle is plainer:
      He is a poor, thin, spasmodic,
   hectic, shrill, and pallid being.
      Tomorrow will bring a tour of
   Naples, and better spirits, and
peace with Mary and Claire. He is just twenty-six—

   all his life lies ahead. The bay
      burns wild beyond his window   
   in holy admixtures of fire
      and water ... the grand effusion   
      symbolic but real to him
   as well. The boats are running far
      and fast. He wonders whether he   
   might take time to charter one, sail
the Elysian Fields, the Caverns of the Sibyl ...

   He fills his pen. He must hurry.
      The fires of new thought swell in his   
   hand like a torch. Tomorrow,
      the sea, into which he will peer
      —so translucent that you could see   
   the hollow caverns clothed with the
      glaucous sea-moss, & the leaves, &   
   branches of those delicate weeds
that pave the unequal bottom of the water.

NOTES: This poem takes its stanza and syllabic form from Shelley’s ode, “Stanzas, written in dejection, near Naples.” I have incorporated several short passages from his poem into mine, and I have also borrowed fragments from The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The passage from Thomas Jefferson Hogg comes from his early biography, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, while Mary Shelley’s sentence is taken from Mary Shelley’s Journal. John Taylor Coleridge’s remarks are from an article he published in 1819 in Quarterly Review. I found the remarks by Robert Southey and Thomas Carlyle in Isabel Quigly’s introduction to Penguin Poetry Library’s Shelley: Selected Poems.

David Baker, “Dejection” from Changeable Thunder. Copyright © 2001 by David Baker. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press, www.uapress.com.

Source: Changeable Thunder (University of Arkansas Press, 2001)

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Poet David Baker b. 1954

Subjects Reading & Books, Arts & Sciences, Poetry & Poets, Travels & Journeys, Activities, Social Commentaries, History & Politics, Living, Crime & Punishment, Money & Economics, Death

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 David  Baker

Biography

Though he is known primarily as a poet of the Midwest, David Baker was born in Bangor, Maine in 1954. He spent his childhood in Missouri and attended Central Missouri State University before receiving his PhD from the University of Utah. He has won fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, the Pushcart Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Currently a Professor of English . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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