The Invention of the Self
This is poetry off the shelf. I am hitting the grades today. The invention of the self before everything changed. I talked to Peter Murphy an English professor at Williams about a very very old palm faithfully from me written in the fifteen thirty s by Thomas Wyatt. I was wearing that. No one would be interested in a conversation about an old poem right now but listening back. I often felt a jolt of recognition in the fifteen hundreds of course epidemics happen every few years there was a viral pneumonia. Going round something. The English called sweating sickness with symptoms very similar to also seeing. Now only you die. Within twelve to twenty four hours of developing Simpson's and there was a bubonic plague which Henry de eighth was so terrified off that whenever he had to travel somewhere he sent surveyors ahead to check on any of the towns on route and if they found sick people they were carried out of there has an into the fields and left to die and you. Dave is often described as the worst king England of a known. He inherited a fortune. The blue all on his fancy lifestyle and stupid wars. He married six times and had two of his wives executed. He was famously paranoid and would turn on his most trusted advisers on a whim locked them into tower and often ended up executing them. One of these trusted advisers was Thomas Wyatt the author of our poem why it worked as an ambassador for the court and had close ties to Amber Lynn. He too by the way ended up imprisoned at tower twice in fact but he survived and each time he went right back to working and writing poems. One of these poems Li flee from me has kept Peter Murphy busy for almost two decades in his book. The long public life of a short private poem. Peter Murphy follows this long long thread from its author Thomas Wyatt to his friend. Who copied the poem in her own manuscript making a few changes to the family that inherited the original and stored it in their home library for centuries to the various printers and scholars throughout the ages? Who fought over version was best all the way to the presence when the poem has become something of a staple of English literature textbooks? So why this poem because to contemporary ears they flee from me is not the easiest if I were to give you a rough summary. A man remembers a time. When he was popular especially with women but nowadays they flee from me it's not the most compelling story of tolls but the story is not the point. It's who's telling it at various points throughout the book. You sort of say that Wyatt kind of as a person as a character Makes his appearance in the palm and that know that that it was a new thing that maybe before that was more of this sort of anonymous unified court voice or something. You can feel it in. Wyatt's poems that they have that texture of introspection like declarations about the nature of his inner life or the nature of inner life. I I like thinking of it as a moment of invention. It's right here and this moment would let's say it's fifteen thirty five but we can't be sure but it someplace right right close to fifteen thirty five you know here. It is It's the invention of the lyric in English That's probably again in some fine grain. Detail I don't think that that's strictly accurate. But it feels that way. That's so interesting. I mean I think. Today at literature is almost synonymous with inner life. Right like we see it as the only way I think almost to get I mean movies. It's much harder to get to the inner life the characters right. I mean you have to do cheesy things. Like voice over. Work Flashback. balloon literature. That's sort of what it does best and so can you take me back to what that was before we started doing that. You know what we're writing then. Yeah I mean it's such an interesting subject and I think that there's a lot of mysteries associated with it. And I think that it's not a kind of continuous and smoothly developing story from you know people inventing language and had to the day of Thomas Wyatt and then to our own But in the period right before why it. When we're talking about shorter poems lear tomes I think it's it's mostly true to say that the accomplishment that people are interested in poetry was largely as a kind of design so that the poems about love for instance that why would know that are in English. You know their poems that would feel to us to be highly artificial. They have stanza forms. That mean that they repeat themselves a lot and you can feel that some of the satisfaction of making such an object is actually. Just do it like here. I made this complex stands a form and look all the words appeared. Alright spots And I I don't think of that as a low form of entertainment. I think that there's a lot of of expressive objects that have that quality that. Wow that's a neat thing Edgar something. Wow that's well done I mean but it's you know I think that that's exactly right and I think that there must be you know what amounts to a satisfaction in the kind of controlling or designing of of the process of thought that is in such an artificial poem. The clearly people liked. I think it feels quite foreign to us. Were much more used to a more nuanced and flowing An even inconsistent picture of inner life. And so I with why we have a few poems where what feels like the picture of inner life has this kind of dramatic and compelling texture and I it's just so noticeable especially if you're sitting reading a lot of poetry from the period it's just so noticeable kitchen. Could you read the poem and and I was thinking because you know i? I can't assume that everyone has Sort of a fluency in sixteenth century. English could you maybe take standby stanza and slick paraphrase may be as we go along sure absolutely? So here's the firsthand. They flee from me that sometime did me seek with naked foot stocking in my chamber. I've seen them gentle team and meet. That now are wild and do not remember that sometime. They put themselves in danger to take bread at my hand and now they range busily seeking with continual change so I think that some of the one of the things that people like and this poem is just that magnetic first line. They flee from me. That sometime did me seek now. It's old English Has a little bit of a Foreign Air. But we can understand that line And then the the evocative air of the poem the sort of summoning of stuff with naked foot stocking in my chamber. So who are they? Those first two lines That's the part that caught me and I think it's that that that part catches a lot of people and sometimes they put themselves in danger to take bread at my hand and now they range. Busily seeking was a continual change. That's the substance of the first answer is about change the second thanked before Cheon It Hath Been Otherwise Twenty Times better but once in special in thin array after a pleasant guys when her loose gown from her shoulders did fall and she me caught in her arms long and small and there with all sweetly did me kissing softly said Dear Heart. How like you this so you have this. I stands about these beings that now are gone. And then the thing that's gone now appears to be this really beautiful intimate moment and I think you know especially if you're reading poetry from this period this stanza is just you know what I wanna say. I might be wrong in some very detailed way. But in a general way what I want to say is. There's nothing else even remotely like this people love to retail this stanza. They loved to just talk about and think about the the sort of intimate energy that suddenly appears in the Stanza Which that kind of intimate energy is just so unusual in this period. You know we've gotten so used to it. Yeah exactly yeah. It's hard for me to to hear what you hear because yeah for me it is. It is the thing that we still do right. Like we recollect something. And then we will hint at some details to make a really visual for the one who's reading her arms long and small and that is so common to us that. What is the the newest thing about this? Then you know I think that It's the it's that it feels like an actual recall like this is a thing that happened and a lot of poetry in the in the period. I'm not sure people would have been very interested in doing that. That is an actual recall. Might you might even think about is the flaw. It reduces the sort of designed and performed live aspect of short poem about feelings. And you can imagine someone thinking you know these are actual feelings. That's the that's not what we're talking about you know we're we're we're talking about. As you said the Faberge egg I want to. I want something more beautiful and more abstract in effect. And even if you're reading Wyatt's poem they flee from me. This poem is different So here's the last ends. It was no dream. I lay broad waking but all is turned through my gentleness into a strange fashion of forsaking. I have leave to go of her goodness and she also use newfangled names but since that I so kindly served I would fain know what she had deserved. I'm not sure you would guess that the Palms GonNa turn in this bitter direct and I think that bitterness unfortunately is a really common quality in you know the what is loosely described as love poetry in this period. There are all these conventions about how men get to complain about women not paying attention to them so I think that readers in the period are people encountering this poem in the period would have this complaint about her behavior There's something they would have read a thousand times you know. The lover's complaint is often a title for poems. That type in this period. And yet you know in this stanza. Also if it's not it's not a very decorative complaint It seems unhappily genuine and the the bitterness is part of that right so he gets into this stanza. And there's just this low. That's the place where I think that people would have felt the texture of self to be just a little bit too much but since that I so kindly observed I would fain know what she had deserved especially that sort of dead rhythm in the the last line. I would fain know what she had deserved. Not Very musical That's I think one of the things that gives it. Its sort of unhappy feel of genuineness like he just wrote out those words because he was so angry he he didn't even have time to institute is I am BIC pentameter. That's true like it has the sort of Obstinate field to it. Almost right like he's sort of leaning on every word would say no what she had deserved. Okay that's I think that's exactly right. That's what I call the kind of dead rhythm of it and I think what's happening in that line is this it's just an insistence on a feeling that feels genuine enough to be a little uncomfortable. Like you know. Conversation at a cocktail party of someone says something all of a sudden. You're like well look at that. And they need to go get a glass of wine or you know you find a way to slide out and so the poem as it appears in the very closely related manuscript it's manuscript that's being maintained by Wyatt's friend. They change that line and disfigure if they changed that line they knew Thomas Wyatt. They had sympathy with his problems. They changed that line then. Something's happening in that line. It clearly made people uncomfortable. Yeah I mean I was a little uncomfortable with it. Now you know like however many centuries five you know five hundred years later. I thought Oh you know doing that. Typical Nice guy thing like well. I was being kind. She's wanting to you know exactly the bit ask. That shows up bitter. Yeah I think of that is That's a technical innovation I think on Wyatt's part He's making the palm respond to feeling in a way that people would not have been used to. Can you tell me a little bit when you look at that page today or even the entire book that this page is a part of what what sort of interesting. Scribbles and and drawings appear in the margins of the poems There's this math on the left hand side which is Subversion of Algebra. I had the great fun of getting to read Seventeenth Century Algebra. Textbooks to figure out the you know the notation and took a little bit of work to even figure out what's written there but again what what a pleasure to read a century work of mathematics and figure out that that squiggle actually means X. squared and so on. Yeah but the math is a sign that the person doing the math didn't care about the poem and in the rest of the manuscript. This is much more obvious thereon. Other pages straight lines drawn through each of the lines of the poem and then the pages just covered with other kinds of writing so the person structure basically simply struck through so then sometimes pages are covered in prose. Sometimes there's geometry problems so that there are triangles that are drawn over poems and the idea that a person's sitting with you know a book that we now consider a priceless treasure. Yeah in the reasons that it's a priceless treasure is that there's a poem written on the page. There's person sitting there with this book who actually can't see the poem right so it's exactly the opposite of us. We look at that page. And it's like oh was their math on the left hand side. I'm sorry I didn't see it. I was reading the poem And that seemed to me to be. It's just a really important part of the life of this poem that there are people and You know my thought is that. There's a resonance between and the contemporary world were a lot of people wouldn't be interested in that poem and I tried to tell that story. Sympathetically that is there's lots of reasons why you wouldn't be interested in that palm and it doesn't make you a bad human being and it doesn't mean that you're not sympathetic with other humans or that you don't have a nuanced inner life yourself or that you're not interested in the inner life of others that just means you're not interested in that poem And so you know it's like it's a healthy tonic. That you can drink while you think about the history of this poem because there's always this temptation to regard it as some kind of mystified magical and holy relic that and it really is not that it's a it's a poem written by a person in fifteen thirty right right. Yeah you know if you try to write about these people who scribbled in the margin sympathetically. Well you've succeeded because I really. Yes such warm feelings for them. You know at this John Harrington I mean they're all called John called John Harrington yes generated call this guy. Mp You know because he was a member of parliament. Yeah what what I love. So much about him is that he seems like the antithesis of a poet sort of insensibility He likes math. He likes While he works in government he sort of interested in science and it's very practical and so he uses it sort of to conduct his business and to also just write down notes. Sort of like a to do list or something you know and Yeah one of the things. What was it again? That that he wrote something like I helped my friend's son I'm constipated just like sort of A. You know whatever that that was also sort of like you say an inner life you know. There's many many people who wrote things into this book after Thomas Wyatt Road in it but John Harrington who's the person who wrote the math he wrote really a lot into this book was a judge he was a magistrate. And there's addresses to juries are sketched out in this book and what I ended up thinking about as I meditated on Harrington's lack of interest in the poems his diary and his daily is that in this really Broadway there's a generic resemblance between his diary and the poem. That is somehow the writing out of the things that happened to him. Some of them very intimate. You know not very appealing constipation is not you know. Generally a great subject for lyric poem. But that there's a resemblance between his urge to write out the stuff about himself. Just the these are things that happened to me There is a resemblance between that and the work of lyric poetry. Which is somehow the writing out of an account of inner life. makes us feel that it's more manageable or that it is more. Maybe it makes it more thoroughly a thing of the past if that's what we want or it makes it more understandable and so that relationship between writing and what amounts to self understanding or just the management of everyday life is not entirely different from Thomas. Wyatt's use of that book. It's just really different from Thomas. Wise Use of that book. Yeah I mean that's a gorgeous way of looking at it and it really Seems to be exemplified also in the way that the MP Or that the judge John Harrington His son used that book he was just sort of learn how to Rights right like he was a little kid and had a tutor and he had you know do his alphabet and stuff and and what is so lovely as how you describe this kid was maybe not you know the most interested in school and that he sort of would draw these monsters enlarging exactly. I. I find that part like you. I find that part. Really beautiful actually and You know in my general feeling. That poems are things that people right because they have reasons for writing them by Thomas. It can be in some ways about his job as an ambassador. Desperate hope to stay alive and tutoring England And that again. There's this kind of generic resemblance between that and little We'll Harrington there is finally Harrington who's not called John Harrington you know this little wheel Harrington making drawing this little monster in the manuscript you know. There's a kind of habit of mine where we think. Well you know. It's a kid and he's just drying a monster but again it's that act of sort of getting something out of your head and onto the paper and then you look at it and it's done something for you. Something that was inside. Your head is now out there on this piece then so again. It seems like it's a good companion further poems in that book. It's it's you know it's it's the same kind of newborn of the spirit a a now that the manuscript lives at the British library which bought it at the end of the nineteenth century You know now it's sort of lives it's museum of Fides existence right like it. It can no longer be Doodle let's say I mean. Of course it's great because now it's public and Vancouver. The right accreditations can go and consulted and stuff night books about it. That's cool but But it also yeah in in a way it's now dead and I think I'm really happy that that wasn't destroyed in the course of its long centuries and I'm really happy that will Harrington drew a monster instead of making paper airplanes with the with the page that they flee from me was written on and so on so I'm happy that it was preserved. I'm happy that I can see it. And my ability to see it is entirely dependent upon the kind of mummification. That happens to that book in the British Library But at the same time The it's it's fun and interesting to think of people using that manuscript as a legitimate human activity you know that they're interested in that book that adding things to it was their way participating in the kind of general life of this book. That had all these interesting things in it. So you know. There's the two sides to it gets saved for us so that I can call what the British library did to the sort of vaguely derogatory term. Mummification so you know I'm entirely. I really understand that irony but it does seem like it that it's important to register it you know. I went to the British library. I went there several times to look at this book. Which is neat experience? One time I went I had done all the things I was supposed to. I'd sent email beforehand presented my credentials and I had a little card and so long but on this day which is the last time I looked at it. They somehow the library. Just I just didn't seem legitimate enough to them and I speak to another person who's often indifferent room and this person I was saying what I was doing. And and this person actually said looking at me I guess Europe professor she said and I thought wow all right well you know in some ways. I'm happy that somehow I could be misidentified as something more interesting glamorous than an English professor but at the same time what is it about me that makes me seem like a person who shouldn't be allowed to look at this You Know Ancient Manuscript. They did eventually let me do it but they made me wait like three hours just to make sure God. Wow Yeah I mean that's also really interesting about your book is that you sort of You show what it took for someone to gain access to that book you know in like in the Eighteenth Century You write about Percy who was the self-made scholar This kind of careerist guy. Who's great at introducing himself at an seeming very important and sort of making that a self fulfilling prophecy and He's he's the person who actually finds I mean we're we're skipping over a whole lot of history here but you know we'll which is going to have to because of the time you know But he's the first one to sort of reunite the idea of the poem sort of the original manuscript of it right that he marks up the book with this. Little Code to basically indicate okay. This is a manuscript that it comes from. This is the page in the original manuscripts that it comes through. And so you right. At that point that Percy decided to write in the book writer Dan who knows like write a paper or something you know. Because he couldn't he didn't have the sense of institutions that would sort of provide continuous security that his paper with his findings would actually stay with the book. You know so. He thought okay. Let's just write in the book and what I what I was wondering about. What your senses about that you know. Now we've we sort of. The pendulum has swung in the completed action right. Like we were so reliant on our institutions and and even just like the way that we digitize stuff. It seems like we're so confident that these digital copies that they're going to be around you know or that we've always have the capacity to read them to feel like we do too much of that we're risking our heritage in a way. Well you know there'd be other people be smarter about that but my instinct is yes certainly and you know there's the I'm not the only person who has noticed things like you know the the wonderful interest that's available for instance in the letters of people who lived in the past so where that information going to be you know we'll that beyond hand it's all an email now actually it's taxed or no. I don't know what it's in. It's in a tweet that disappeared so One of the I think really. I don't know a beautiful inside available through the history of this manuscript this book. Sort of calmly. It's it's a stack of paper that survives for five hundred years and and it just does that survives the you know the unbelievable and bitter carnage of the Tudor world at survives. You know it's owner getting his head cut off That is Thomas. Wyatt's son got his head cut off in the rebellion against Queen. Mary and then it just wanders around at ends up in a Family Library. We might think of a family library as a place. That's you know I Dunno through unofficial dangerous but at that that turns out to be incredibly secure location for it even though people are using it for all kinds of other things And so it just makes its way in one way or another and so there's something about the survival of of a physical object in the story about the poem that I find really just kind of great that it's it because it was an object that means it could have gotten lost in it's because it was an object that it didn't get lost and so there's something really beautiful about that story that would just paper and yet the stack of papers. You can go see it today. If you have the right credentials they believe Sawyer. Have you looked professorial enough? Yeah you write somewhere That the study of literature for you has always been connected to the study of everything and I really love. I mean it's so true about your book and and you know it made me think about you. Know those kinds of books that are like the history of sand or you know or something like that right or the history of paper or whatever and then of course it's not just the history of sand. It's the history about human beings you know just sort of the excuse you know Why do you prefer to do it through poems? Well I think for one thing. I think that when I began this book which is in the year. Two Thousand Right. It's a really long time ago actually from a personal view. I think that there was actually a surge of the kind of books that you mention and I really liked those books. You know I was really interested in them and so I I. I think that that feels like a kind of accurate observation about in some ways the source of the shape of the idea that there's a role I'm back. The French literary critic has this neat moment at the beginning of a book called said where he talks about a certain Buddhist practice of conjuring a landscape out of the skin of a bean And it feels a little bit like that you take little bean and you conjure the whole world out of it but I think that doing such a project with a poem is some of the satisfaction of it is that the the palm is about human being and even this palms Britain so long ago the some of the interest of this palm is that it was written by Thomas Wyatt who was Cordier in the Court of Henry the eighth than and Berlin got her head chopped off and the story of amber. Lynn is a bizarre and interesting and terrifying one. And so it's just the that. Tell a kind of extended story about this aspect of English speaking culture using poem. It just allows you to talk about the the pains and pleasures of being a person at every moment at in essence and and so You know as I was working on it you know my feeling was like who wouldn't want to write a book like this. I mean it's just like it's just like the perfect thing because the for one thing. Anything could be absorbed into it. You know so so for for almost twenty years worth everything I thought was. I would think you can just go you know. Can this go in in the bus? Oh here's something about inc. Well maybe I should read the thing about INC and the lives of people are so interesting and the attempt to imagine the intimate texture of lives of people who lived long ago with both interesting and I think really good for us And and in the record to to think about the long history of people trying to assemble their inner life. Does that daily struggle? You know that we have you wake up and you think wow what a great day. I'm doing some great today by afternoon. It's like Gosh. What a terrible day and you know I really feel I've lost control on the threat of my life has just now frayed and then the next day you're feeling good again the to be able to talk about that texture over this long period. It just was so rewarding it was so rewarding and so interesting that when I finish this project I was sad I mean I know there is like Gosh restores more history. Maybe there is there a sentry. I forgot about that I could you know. Just go backwards and think about Peter. Murphy is the author of long public life of short private poem reading and Remembering Thomas Wyatt before that he wrote a book about the tension between poetry is art or livelihood. Focus on the romantic poets Abacus titled Poetry as an occupation and an art in Britain. Seventeen sixty eighteen thirty. He's a professor at the English Department of Williams College in Williamstown Massachusetts and got his education at John Hopkins and Yale. He's currently at work on a book about storytelling. But he warned me that it could be another twenty years you can find. They flee from me and more poems by Thomas Wyatt on the Poetry Foundation website. The music in this episode is by Todd sicker. Foos I'm Helen. Illegal routes and this was poetry off the shelf. I hope you're still going strong. Thank you for listening.