the wordless sonnet that still rhymes

Anthony Burgess – ABBA ABBA

F.X. Enderby
, poet laureate of the privy, squats on the jakes as he furiously scribbles his unreadable Modernist anti-poetry. Swapping the heights of Parnassus for the Cloaca Maxima, a great reckoning in a little room. A poem as a hard bolus of matter to be shat out... It's Burgess's joke, it course; but Pope and Swift, in the eighteenth century, were much obsessed with the excremental quality of literary creation, acutely sensible of the affinity between both kinds of evacuation. “Congratulations, Mr Enderby ...”

If you awaken now with one of the duodenal or pyloric twinges which are, to us, as gruesome a literature-lesson spicer as Johnson's scrofula, Swift's scatophobia, or Keats's gallop of death-warrant blood, do not fancy it is ghosts you hear sibilant and crepitant about the bed. To be a ghost one has first to die or, at least, be born... Perrrrp.

Anthony Burgess's novels have routinely dramatised the unwinnable struggle between carnality and spirit, prick and paraclete. Earthly Powers, his runaway magnum opus, portrays a Maughamesque popular novelist snagged between his cradle-Catholic conditioning and his sexual instincts – the more perilously for his homosexuality. Kenneth Toomey is creatively prolific, but, in the eyes of the Church, venally sterile. Body and soul are in bitter contention. Dying on the Spanish Steps, John Keats – tubercular, fading fast – execrates the frail uselessness of his body, as Burgess describes the scene in his novella ABBA ABBA:

I will lie here and see my body as nothing of mine. This hand I try to lift, see how cunningly fashioned, and it ploughdrove a pen once that scrawled bad hymns to beauty. But it is something now impertinently fastened to me and no longer anything of mine. I am something altogether apart from this machine ... For what you call my soul is the sparking of this machine. The brain too is the body. It is a fine and cunning trelliswork, but we may eat brain as we eat feet and flanks. But there is one thing that is not to be eaten and that is the little fire saying I am I am I am...

Burgess serves Keats's thwarted sensualism well. ABBA ABBA is textured magnificently, drawing on the wayward energies of early nineteenth century English as it threw off the prescriptivism of Augustan neo-classicism and rediscovered an Elizabethan verbal anarchy, its bawdry and voluptuous materiality.

Keats died at twenty-six in 1821. “'Tis strange the mind that very fiery particle,” Byron wrote in Don Juan anent the savaging Keats received from William Gifford in the Quarterly Review, “Should let itself be snuff'd out by an article..” Byron's sneer misses how gravely seized by the illness the young poet really was. Keats, at the recommendation of his physician, retired from the chill of London to Rome, the better to assist his recovery. Accompanied by his friend Joseph Severn, he rented an apartment on the Spanish Steps; and, in the Burgess version, made the acquaintance both of the Roman poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli and of the vigorous vulgarity of the local dialect.

The Keats of ABBA ABBA insulates himself from death – fleetingly, imperfectly – with a raucous defiance, expressed in great flights of wordplay and reflections on the salvatory properties of poetry. His despair at its deepest provokes in him his most extraordinary verbal pyrotechnics, as when he rails against Nobodaddy or Death or the Enemy:

He is all against life, meaning the thud of the heart in venery, the savour of claret, the clamorous morsels of spring in the nest you by chance uncover, hawthorn and goldenrod, good witty lechery in the company of men, the green waving tree, tough-boled, of the body. It is not enough for him to suck blood only at once to spew it forth, he must also poison the very wells of blood. His name may be Wells for all we know, or Flibbertigibbet or Cacasona, it matters not. He is cacodemon of decay, and it is not the decay of the grass-dropped apple in autumn. For the apple dies in sweetness but I do not.

The 'chomp and honey-drop of language, made of sense and bound to sense as it is' – this is good as an epitome of Keatsian vitalism as any, poetry a ripened tongue, eroticised by want, a kind of soulful ivresse... One citron Roman evening Keats happens upon Napoleon's sister, Pauline the Princess Borghese, and he bashfully tries to charm her in stilted French; whereupon she asks in parting, “Voulez-vous profiter de mon carrosse, monsieur?” - “What was that word? Did it mean caress?” Later, Keats fantasises deliriously about fucking this apparition, the more heated his imagination, the more brilliantly inventive his language: “She instructed me in all of the modes of physical possession out of her deep learning. Marry, I cannot remember the names of them all, but there was certes the pavonian touch, the Ledan straddle too, the chthonian ditch, the I think it was termed Ceutan flight and eke the Madrilenan inter-uberal... All this I tell you is true, Severn, in poetic truth it is all true.”

Burgess gets down the feverish thrashings of a high-blooded young man, facing death, yet grasping at the fugitive moment, still planning epic poems that never will be written, still hag-ridden by sex. “But I, Severn, have had a whole manhood of fleshly longing crammed into a boy's years, and Alma Venus or Queen Mab or l'ultima principessa could give in no wise to my fancy what she she she denied to my body..” Yet Burgess's Keats is also a cormorant of words, a dictionary glutton; and this, too, Burgess conveys well – for it is Burgess himself ghosting the pages of this short book, and, at times, Keats sounds more like Burgess than the ardent letter-writer, in whose scribblings we have a near-perfect archival after-print of the young poet.

ABBA ABBA celebrates the down-and-dirty sonneteering of Belli, the uncompromising realism of his Roman dialect verse: and of this, Burgess certainly approves. Where Keats was fey, fantastical and Romantic, Belli was brawny, scatological, streetwise. But uniting the two very different men, an almost mystical accord. “'I have a clear enough image of God,'” Belli informs a scandalised prelate, “'but it is my own and perhaps heretical, perhaps too paganly platonic to be acceptable to my spiritual betters.'”:

The sonnet form must have existed in potentia from the beginning, but it was made flesh with such as Petrarch. Behind the thousands of sonnets in the world, in Tuscan, Roman, French, German, even English, shines the one ultimate perfect sonnet. It has fourteen lines that divide into an octave of a rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA and a sestet CDC DCD, really two tercets. One may vary the rhymes a little but the essential shape will remain. The wordless sonnet that still rhymes, that says nothing, having no words, but yet speaks. It says: I am this, but I am also this. In my eight lines X, in my six lines Y, but in my total fourteen ever the unity, the ultimate statement whose meaning is itself ... I talk of an ultimate reality. And through the glimmering of it I have given you, a soul may speak to a soul. A Roman writes a sonnet on the divine beauty, and an Englishman writes a sonnet on an old tomcat; and neither understands the other's language, but in the recognition of the common form they meet.

Keats, too, is possessed by this insight: “Christ pendebat from his cross and cried ABBA ABBA. Now John knew that this was the Aramaic for father father, but he knew better that it was the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet octave. It came to him that the sonnet form might subsist above language...” His doctrine of 'negative capability', entailing the erasure of self and a blending with the things of the world, in blissful self-oblivion, clearly derived on some level from a desire to be free of the broken machinery of the body. And the pure poem adumbrated by Burgess's Keats finds its sublime figuration in the 'Ode to a Nightingale'; where, again, poetry exists somewhere in a domain beyond the diseased rancour of human life, and the shadow of death and decay... Of course, such platonising is the natural psychic defence of anyone terminally ill. Keats's sickness seems absolutely bound up with his aesthetics. One so death-haunted will inevitably seek – in the absence of the solace of formal religion – whatever narrative of mortal flight he can.

As Clive James reminds us, “The dark knowledge behind his light moments was once the background radiation behind all creative life.” The collapse of Keats's bodily integrity brought his imaginative instincts to a greater pitch of intensity. He was writing against extinction.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is -
I hold it towards you.

Extraordinary, that Keats here shouldn't merely address the reader, but should attempt to establish a physical connection that is somehow obscurely restorative: momentary resurrection by a touch. Anthony Burgess achieves, in ABBA ABBA, a like feat of necromantic recovery - not alone and palely loitering, his Keats bravely beards death, puns and daydreams, blasphemes and makes the English language symphonic and sensual. Thomas De Quincey, another literary Mancunian, once remarked of Keats, in an uncharacteristic fit of cruelty, “As a man ... Keats was nothing... Had there been no such thing as literature, Keats would have dwindled into a cipher.” Burgess plainly begged to differ, and restored to the young doomed poet a mournful dignity. Pathos without patronage, compassion without condescension.

Burgess throve on the challenges of literary ventriloquism. His Shakespeare novel, Nothing like the Sun, stands even now as the best introduction to the life and work of the premier dramatist: the undergrad fresher ought first to turn to Burgess, if she knows what's good for her. He tackled Marlowe in A Deadman in Deptford, and, in the short story '1889 and the Devil's Mode', Robert Browning. Burgess was professorial but not pedantic, gleefully vulgar but not coarsened. Read him, read him again.

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