male beauty

Terry Hall, best known as the frontman of 80s groups like The Specials and The Fun Boy Three,  has recently turned up in my mind in the way that buried and unsettling memories, unexpectedly set loose from their time and place, often can. A few days ago I was reading W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and Sebald’s description of Manchester in the 60s was making me think of my earliest memories of visiting the city when– there he was: Terry Hall, with his exquisite sad face, driving through deserted city streets at night with his fellow Specials singing ‘This town is ‘comin’ like  a ghost town.’ Watching the video now I see the humour and the political anger in the song: this was 1981 and Hall’s lyrics are a direct reaction to the high unemployment and hopelessness experienced by a generation in Thatcher’s Britain. But at the time I first watched it, I was 8 years old and along with two other pop videos (Julian Cope and The Teardrop Explodes’ ‘Reward’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’) this was the most frightening thing I had seen on TV. Of course, at 8, you don’t understand the politics of these songs, but you are able to understand desolation, and this was my experience. It was the music and images in these pop videos, especially ‘Ghost Town,’ that gave me my first taste of insomnia and the strange way the mind works when you don’t sleep. In the insomniac state, ordinary things– blackened brickwork, a man lifting a trumpet to his lips, a car swerving as it rattles over broken tarmac and cobbles–are tainted and become more tainted as the images and sounds that frightened you repeat and strengthen themselves. The dark becomes dirtier.

And somehow, Terry Hall’s physical beauty makes all that decay seem worse.  Hall, in 1981, looks like a male Garbo: huge eyes, an almost deathly pallor, a smile that passes, occasionally, like a cloud over his face. The face is sensitive and alert but also somehow mask-like; a living being in a dead world. Watching him, Julian Cope and the Floyd in the early 80s dropped me into another world. The comforting, sugary froth served up by bands like ABC and Duran Duran melted away when you watched and listened to music like this. Life wasn’t men in linen suits cavorting with models on yachts. It was something rainier and sharper and it could be lived more truthfully. Terry Hall both attracted and frightened me: he was political in ways I didn’t understand and was sad and honest in ways that I somehow did. His was the first voice I can remember that sang about life in a minor key. He said a lot in a few words, and quietly.



‘You’ve made a blog…Clever boy! Next: flushing.’

Don Paterson

Blog. Such an unattractive word, along with its unlovely sister, blogroll, but perhaps appropriate enough for the secretions that make their way onto many websites. Blogs range from the quirky and literate to the downright loopy– why are so many religious fundamentalists dedicated bloggers? Perhaps the blog offers a kind of virtual pulpit for creationists and other types of religious eejit, a pulpit where crackpot ideas are more often affirmed than challenged.  As a ‘blogger’ (ugh, I wish those scare quotes were a pair of tweezers) I wish that the name for writing one’s thoughts down in the form of an electronic essay, available for the public to read on demand, had been better chosen. The French do it more elegantly, or they are trying to: the boys on the burning deck of  the Académie Française want the French to call blogs ‘jouebs’ whilst their French-Canadian camarades prefer ‘blogue.’ (1) The Canadian option is suave, the French is naughty and intellectual–it sounds as though it was invented by the shade of Roland Barthes, fascinated in the afterlife by le plaisir de la toile, the pleasure of the net–‘joueb’ being short for ‘un journal web.’ At least with with ‘joueb’ there are playful connotations (jouer) rather than scatalogical ones.

‘Joueb’ is a word I’m tempted to adopt here not least because it chimes with the serious play I wanted to be in evidence on The Casket. When I began, I did not imagine that this would be the kind of web log of events and feelings, the boring blogtease in evidence on so many sites. Instead, I wanted a more formal version of a writer’s notebook. The Casket is a room for improvised observations; for ‘working without really doing it,’ as Elizabeth Bishop once described letter-writing; or, for the bonsai or capsule essay. I wanted it to be the sort of place where William Hazlitt, Samuel Johnson and the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century essayists might want to kick their shoes off and sit down, alongside– in conversation and play with–other modern idlers, punks and thinking wastrels. Guy Garvey has a chinwag with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; John Keats plays pingpong with Nick Cave; that sort of thing.

That’s the Dream bit. The reality of writing here is always tempered by that toile of readers, and the ways in which you suspect you are being read. WordPress provide the blogger with stats, raw data, which give an insight into possible clusters of interest: the fans of Dude Lebowski often stumble here because of my Clive James piece, which happens to mention him; college kids, I guess, writing about F Scott Fitzgerald, stop by to read my comments on Tender is the Night. Nick Cave fans, Leonard Cohen fans drop in for some duende. But most readers are text-tourists, looking for something else. Search terms tell me that what they are looking for is often information about ‘people in caskets’ or ‘dreams of dead people in caskets’ or ‘images of virile beautiful men’ (that will be the Rufus Sewell essay I wrote when I first started). Occasionally, I now get searches directed at ‘Casket of Dreams’ itself, which is flattering, but generally, most Casketeers arrive here in some kind of hurry; possibly bewildered, but always wanting the answer to a question.

On the whole, I’m glad they do show up. This despite the fact that the feedback they leave is seldom edifying. Comments by readers are usually pretty useless:  the flatterers  usually want you to visit their joueb in return; the nitpickers are equally self-important (‘How dare you assert that The Arctic Monkeys are talented self-publicists?’  with best wishes from their manager, etc). Yet how long do my visitors stay, and what do they flick through, what consider? My stats cannot, thankfully, tell me that. Still, whether you are looking for images of the dead in caskets, or whether you want to think about saudade or negative capability, you’re welcome. F. Scott Fitzgerald is sobering up next door in in time for the final of scriptwriters’ pingpong, where he meets William Faulkner in the Hollywood grudge match of the century. Mark Rothko is talking primitivism and abstraction with Elizabeth Bishop over a glass of grog by the fire. So stop awhile. Put your feet up. The weather is drawing in, and in any case, there is plenty we have to catch up on.


This great, flawed novel that I have loved since I was ten years old– weird and warped, sad, penitent and impenitent, northern, aloof, and, above all, fierce– is choked with loneliness and all kinds of passion. It has no characters; not even Jane is a personality. The product of a bursting, terrified, shy mind, Jane Eyre does not know how to talk, and yet it speaks; does not know what to want, and yet it hungers. Rochester, Helen Burns, Mrs Reed, St John Rivers and the rest are not bodies but desires, and the desires are all, ultimately, Jane’s. 

At times it seems as though Bronte’s protagonist wants to be ‘plain and quakerish;’ at times it appears that she gorges on beauty. It’s a pattern of advance and retreat, a spring tide. She fixates on Blanche Ingram’s perfections as much as she does on the blasted beauty of Rochester’s face: she sketches them both, and–she unnerves herself in doing so.  When Rochester desires Jane and wants to prettify her with ‘satin and lace, and roses in her hair,’ she fights back, stubbornly withdrawing into plainness.

Plainness becomes talismanic. She speaks with quakerish fervour and she speaks with obsessive austerity, her words as plain as the ‘grey silk’ dress she insists on wearing. She is right to favour this austerity: the ornate wedding veil (Rochester’s gift) is the one Bertha Mason tears to shreds. Plainness shields her like an instinct. Beauty only combusts.

What is Jane apart from air, air chasing a high and lonely place?  She loses herself on the moor before she finds her family and safety. But in reality, she spends the entire novel out in a kind of storm. Her desires and her intelligence fit nowhere. Gateshead, Lowood, Thornfield, Moor House, Ferndean: she leaves them all, ever the fugitive. Only when Rochester is blinded can he see as she sees, which tells us how much her vision habitually turns in and in on itself. She is inaccessible, destructive, conflicted, witty and punctured. She says: ‘It is one of my faults, that though my tongue is sometimes prompt enough at answer, there are times it sadly fails me in framing an excuse; and always the lapse occurs at some crisis.’ ‘It is one of my faults’; ‘anybody can blame me who likes.’ No desire of Jane’s is ever spent; none diminishes because desire is always accusing desire. It rebounds, echoes and increases. It is Jane’s desire that warps Jane Eyre out of a natural frame, so much so that she even seems to hear Rochester’s blind cries from a hundred miles away. There are no walls in this peculiar novel, even between minds.

‘Hallelujah’ is an infinite song. That’s the conclusion I came to last night as I sat down to Guy Garvey’s excellent hour-long documentary on the subject. Half asleep as I write this, I know it’s infinite because I have a feeling I could continue talking about it forever. Perhaps, in some recess of my mind, I will. Talking ‘Hallelujah’ will serve me well when I’m down in hell; all I’ll need as my get out of Sheol card will be a couple of blogs on ‘Hallelujah’ and the Prince of Darkness will be powerless to resist me. I’ll breeze past St Peter with a snappy rendition of ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’  and before you can say ‘space-time continuum’ Beatrice and Dante will have put the kettle on, I’ll be talking about generous pronouns and Jeff Buckley will be tuning his guitar.

Garvey’s programme was gentle, intelligent and he himself was wonderful when talking about Buckley’s rendition of ‘I Know It’s Over’ in the midst of a live recording of ‘Hallelujah,’ and about the guitar intro Buckley wrote for his version of the song. He was even better than wonderful when he told us that the song is powerful because it uses ‘mantra’ (the word ‘Hallelujah’) and that, writing for Elbow, he uses the mantra idea a lot: listen to ‘One Day Like This’ and you will understand what he’s talking about; by the end of the song, not only will you be singing too, but Dante will have fished out another mug with your name on it, in anticipation of your arrival.

Although Garvey’s show was a real treat (great not to have a presenter who speaks like they’ve been to Presenter Academy) I did feel there were one or two things I wished I’d been there to add. Some talk of pronouns for one thing. Last night, no one mentioned those little functional words and how they deliver the experience of the song to the listener and the singer; how they also allow the song to take on an almost infinite variety of political meaning. The pronouns are powerful, man. Look what happens when I alter them:

She tied me to the kitchen chair,

she broke my throne and she cut my hair,

and from my lips she drew the Hallelujah.


Well, ‘she’ is still OMG sexy, but suddenly the song seems firmly personal. Garvey showed how Cohen’s song really ceased to belong to Cohen the moment it had been released as a record. But if he’d written it like this it would simply have been a lovely conversation you overhear on a bus, say, or in a restaurant, and it would still belong to Cohen. But switch back those pronouns and feel the difference:

She tied you to the kitchen chair,

she broke your throne and she cut your hair,

and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.


Suddenly someone has broken into your memory, bypassed all the security and has reached the vault where all the precious things are, the ‘Casket of Dreams’ if you like. No guards or weapons can help you and you are utterly defenceless. The speaker can really hurt you now, and he does. But, and this is the amazing thing, he hurts you in a way that makes you thank him and sing back ‘Hallelujah,’ purely or brokenly, depending on how the song finds you at the time.

But the pronouns’ power doesn’t end there. They gift the listener many other things; great sex for one. If you’re lucky enough to have had sex like that, it makes the memory suddenly, overwhelmingly present (‘so that’s what happened, was it? Jesus!’); if you haven’t, it gives you such a powerful sense of being there that for a few glorious seconds you can imagine what that feeling is like. Either way, you experience a kind of ecstasy of imagining. You experience the pain and glory of ‘The Vision of Eros.’ You are more than half a poet.

However, if you’re the right kind of singer or listener, ‘Hallelujah’ can make you more than half a revolutionary too. I’ve already hinted at the political drive in k.d. lang’s interpretation. What happens to me, feminist me, when I listen to the song? One female contributor to Garvey’s programme described how she felt it was a man’s song, because of its use of that pronoun ‘she.’ I found that strange: I have never felt it was a man’s song, as though women were somehow excluded from its ‘Hallelujah.’ Rather, I feel the song is an opportunity to change gender. I become a man when I listen. I am Samson. I am David. I am the strong man tied to the kitchen chair, I am the poet-king. And nobody, the song gives me courage to say, can gainsay my claim–  watch those impish, insurgent pronouns go.

But women, too, can see their own strength reflected in the ‘she’ of the lyrics. How many times, in poems and songs, are women hated and scorned for their beauty or sexual power? Not here. ‘Hallelujah’ is revolutionary in its understanding of female sexual power, just as it also, simultaneously, teaches us about acceptance of sorrow, humiliation and loss. OK, so she cut your hair, Samson, but, you know what? you still got that broken hallelujah, and that’s worth just about everything. Her beauty overthrew you? Christ that hurt but bring it on– give me more– don’t stop–please. You are nothing now, but what a glorious nothing, an infinity of nothing. Submit, let go, be thankful.

‘Hallelujah,’ though, isn’t a political manifesto (no ‘victory marches’ here, no banners, no slogans). But it is poetry. Yet, there’s a paradox. It is only poetry when sung. The lyrics on their own are very fine indeed:

The baffled king composing Hallelujah.

I’ve highlighted the stresses in this line in bold to point out to the poetry anoraks amongst you that this is a deft iambic pentameter line that uses a feminine unstressed syllable at its close in a lovely, breathy way. The line drifts off ‘upstairs, downstairs, somewheres’ at the end, wherever you want it to go. And ‘baffled’ is so just. Overwhelmed by the song, not even understanding what he’s doing or what love is doing to him, the poet-king keeps going, in a state of negative capability.

But the song doesn’t stand up as poetry on its own because the words ache for the melody; dammit, the chord sequence is even described in the lyrics, they’re on such intimate terms. The words, beautiful as they are, need the music to keen properly. More than that, they demand the right interpreter.

‘Hallelujah’ does not render its cover artists magically equal, as Garvey’s programme demonstrated. In fact, the contrary is true–it renders them glaringly unequal. Garvey included many interpreters of the song, but, even he, democrat that he is, still couldn’t help suggesting that there was one supreme singer of ‘Hallelujah:’ Jeff Buckley. All ‘Hallelujahs’ to date lead to him. And the mystery deepens. Cohen’s masterpiece appears to be a bit like the Sword in the Stone: it demands a King Arthur to pull the prize from the rock. Not that Buckley is the only King (Katherine Williams emerges from the programme as a contender) but it does demand a supreme sensitivity in the artist to get ‘Hallelujah’ to fully yield. But to get the song to yield, the artist must first fully yield themselves to it. It’s that thing about risk again, that thing about duende.

So Garvey, here’s a gauntlet. I know you said you’re scared to take on ‘Hallelujah’ (who, after all, wants to end up in the seventh circle of the abyss where Bon Jovi will be doing their tight-trousered ‘Hallelujah’ till kingdom come?) But I know you can take on this song of songs and win. You won’t be able to help it, you little sod. You’re too intelligent, too sensual for that. Go on, give it a go. I dare you.

Buckley does a ‘Hallelujah’ on a fine Smiths song and utterly transforms it. Imagine this inserted into a live version of ‘Hallelujah.’ Or, better still, find Garvey on Listen Again (Radio 2) if you still can.

A link to Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’:

(for catsandbooks, disneytime and jan h: you know who you are)

LSD. The other night at Wolves, Guy Garvey told his delighted audience he was full of the stuff. He immediately clarified his comment: ‘I mean, Lancashire Self Doubt. ‘ Self doubt? How so? This is a frontman who has more self-possession and lyrical balance than almost any other songwriter I could name. He aims true and he hits; when he writes, when he plays, when he sings. From the moment he stepped out to welcome Jessca Hoop onto the stage to the moment he took his last bow we knew we were in safe hands. For a start, there was the way he treated Hoop. Jesca Hoop is a gifted writer herself and her voice has an eccentric but unerring heavenwards trajectory (in fact, it can swoop and dive just about anywhere). But her speaking voice is apologetic and too quiet, and so the audience, even the front few rows, could hardly hear what she was saying about her songs. Garvey, perhaps realising this was a problem, did his best to make sure she was listened to. He didn’t hector us into it, though, he simply gave her a recommendation: ‘one of the best singer songwriters around.’ And that was enough, especially for those of us lucky enough to be at the front. Where’s the LSD in that?

Safer still was the beginning of Elbow’s set. Various members of the band stood like a row of northern angels heralding in the gig as they stuck up the trumpet blasts that begin ‘Starlings.’ With each blast, spotlights lit the trumpeters for a second. Such a trick could look too choreographed with some bands, but not here. It was simply right, a beckoning of the audience, a fanfare for us. I’ve said before that Garvey plays us, his people, even better than he plays anything else, and this move felt like his and the band’s ‘tankpark salute’, a bolt of sheer joy. A jumpstart.

Twisting tunes from Leaders of the Free World and Seldom Seen Kid fluidly together, Elbow made every song feel part of the last, and yet every song had its own particular explosive excellence. ‘Grounds for Divorce’ became frighteningly sexy (what a loss of control I felt when they played it; did it show on my face?); ‘Station Approach’ reached further than ever into its longing when it arrived in the encore. But the real joy was hearing songs that I had previously thought slightly weak utterly transfigured. ‘Weather to Fly’ is a perfect example. On CD it seemed a sweet song– but perhaps too sweet. What they did with it live, however, was to begin by getting all the band to go to ‘Craig’s room’ (i.e. the space around the keyboards). Someone came on with a tray of shots. Each member of the band chinned one, after which they sang, flawlessly and a cappella, the first verse and chorus, before emerging from ‘Craig’s room’ to sing to and with the audience. Suddenly we were in a teenager’s house party again, all of us, and the melody was kicking like a horse.

When I listened to Garvey at Wolves, as was the case with other gigs, I attempted my usual dissolve into the voice of the lead singer. So, what did the Doubter deliver? In profile, Garvey looks like a 30s Hollywood hoodlum crossed with a falcon; he seems part Tough, part Windhover. But face on, he has a different kind of beauty: there’s also a childlike delight that ignites at the rightness of a note–his note or someone else’s. Somewhere along his sternum he feels it when a song moves into the right place for himself and the audience; his body seems at times to curve protectively round certain phrases. And, as a friend of mine recently observed, his arms are especially attractive. Some artists sing with their crotches (Elvis, Nick Cave); some with their chest and throat (Liam Gallagher, David Gedge); some with their lips (Richard Hawley), and some, like Thom Yorke, sing as though the melody is rippling around the inside of their skulls, like single malt around a tumbler. Garvey, however, sings with his arms and, by extension, his sense of touch. His arms are part of his voice, and, live, his voice has tentacles–it reaches everywhere.

This ability to touch obviously gives his voice a certain type of sensuality (think of the way he seems to run his fingers over the line ‘Sweet Jesus, I’m on fire’), but it also can simply translate as an affectionate embrace. In fact, there was something very levelling about the way he and the band went about things on Wednesday. His ‘touch’ is also political. Clues to the political groundedness of his approach came in the way he treated Hoop, but also in his insistence on thanking the lighting director for her work and getting us to thank her too; in getting us to wish the lighting director’s mum a happy 60th; in showering us with a canister of glittery silver paper; and most of all in a bit of ‘Kung Fu Fighting.’

That bit of Lancashire Kung Fu crowned the evening. Garvey, announcing the last song on the main part of the set, told us that we would need to sing Elbow back on stage if we wanted an encore. And, in his usual levelling way, he asked us for suggestions. I was just about to shout out ‘I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You’ when someone beat me to it and bellowed ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (we’d already had about 3 ideas, including ‘Tainted Love’). Garvey consulted the band and informed us that ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ it was, in the true ‘spirit of socialism.’ ‘Any socialists in the audience?’ he had asked at one point. Regrettably, only three people said ‘yes.’ Still, this decision felt properly egalitarian: some kind of equality of exchange would take place when we sang the band back into existence. After a bit of rehearsal in which Garvey reminded us of the tune–and realised that part of it was slightly racist– Elbow trooped off to ease their bladders and refill their glasses (how many different drinks could Garvey neck in the one evening?). Meanwhile, we got busy. At first, it was all dreadfully shambolic: one side of the crowd tried to start with ‘Everybody was Kung Fu fighting’ about 6 seconds after the other, making us sound less like a wall and more like a brawl of sound. But then, as the desire to see those northern angels once again suddenly bolted through us, we got it together. As one, we dropped in to that ‘Whooowhuooohh’ bit in the middle, chanting it in a glorious loop. And, after a couple of minutes, when this very silly song had transformed itself into something unexpectedly lovely, the band came out to us, grinning, drinks in hand.

Lancashire Self Doubt ? Well, if Garvey feels it, he doesn’t show it. And what I feel, after this gig, is a desire for another kind of LSD: Lancashire Self Determination. What’s so wonderful about Elbow, apart from their skill, is a kind of local energy. Just as Irn Bru was ‘made in Scotland-from girders,’ Elbow are forged in Lancashire, and in such a way as to make London and the self-satisfied south seem redundant. So, never mind all that crap about the North being dead (financially and culturally) (1); those in the know will want to head up Bury way, to the People’s Republic of Elbow. You might not need a passport to cross the border (this isn’t Pimlico) (2) but I suggest that before you travel, you look up the words to ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and practice a few scales. ‘Saint Peter in satin’ will ask you to sing before he admits you. But once inside, you’ll find you’ve arrived at the centre of the musical universe.



See Garvey do his thing with the metal bar. Hot damn!

 If Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso’ sees you without eyes, then the life and death masks of Keats touch you without ‘living hands.’ The mouth, so wide and fleshy, seems capable of kissing you, or of whispering in your ear. The eyelashes, so shockingly visible, pierce you (all Keats’s glances and depth-charge stares are contained beneath the bulbous lids like poems; these eyes are still, somehow, palpating life). The cupped philtrum, the wispy, fine hairline look tantalisingly warm, like a live body is warm and like Keats once said the stubble fields at Winchester looked warm. (1) How to distinguish between these life and death masks? The life mask is an arrow: the face propels itself, Hyperion-like, into Odes and Epics. The death mask’s sunken features are the ripples a stone makes when dropped into deep water (think of the letters here; ‘negative capability’ enacted, ‘uncertainties, mysteries and doubts’ deepening into an agony of the unsayable ). A voyage out and a journey back, the masks show us a Keats the ground of whose being was death and the apprehension of death.

1) See Keats’s letter to J.H. Reynolds of Autumn 1819

‘The term [dude] is used mainly in situations in which a speaker takes a stance of solidarity or camaraderie, but crucially in a nonchalant […] manner. Dude indexes a stance of effortlessness.’ Scott F. Kiesling  (1)

‘Meestah Cliiiiiiive Yaaaaames.’ With those feather boa tones, Margarita Pracatan used to introduce Clive James on his television show some years back. Like a good many of my friends in sixth form, my first introduction to James was watching Clive James on Television. My friends and I tuned in, not so much for the international TV clips, but for what he used to say about them. Later, after his defection to the BBC, I used to make a point of watching Margarita, Vitaly Vitalyev, P. J. O’ Rourke and others being coaxed into giving up the very best of their wit to a T.V. audience by the outrageously twinkly Australian. James wasn’t so much a TV presenter as a cultivator of personalities. He nurtured his guests like an expert gardener might lovingly provide the right conditions in which some rare, delicate orchid could flower. Back in the sixth-form common room, during ‘frees’ when when we should have been writing essays on Hamlet, we would discuss the previous week’s guests and TV clips, laugh over the best jokes and feel a little bit more intelligent as we retold them, even though we couldn’t hope to imitate the composure of Mr James’s delivery. Clive James, my friends and I thought, was a dude.

‘Dude’ is, at first sight, a grossly inappropriate word to apply to someone who, as long as I can remember, has been cuddly and decidedly avuncular. ‘Dude’ is a word that seems to belong in Bill and Ted  or The Big Lebowski. It is a word that acts as punctuation in the speech of Bart Simpson. It doesn’t, at first glance, fit the meta-articulate James at all. But I mean the word in two very particular senses. Firstly, it’s a ‘street’ way of expressing admiration for a person, and in particular, their masculinity. The kids I teach often use the word in this way, boys sometimes greeting each other with ‘Yo! Dude!’ It’s a way for boys to say ‘I love you’ to their male friends without the other kids questioning their sexuality. The kind of masculinity these kids admire, however, is ‘gangsta.’ James’s masculinity couldn’t be more different. His wit is powerful but never violent, affectionate and yet unsentimental and undeceived. He’s a ‘dude’ not because of his swagger (he couldn’t swagger if he tried) but because of his genius for camaraderie and the seemingly effortless grace with which he writes and speaks. He is also a ‘dude’ because he is able to speak of everything from ‘the street’ up to the Sistine Chapel ceiling and beyond. Recently, his unmissable Radio 4 ‘A Point of View’ show encompassed Amy Winehouse and Snoop Dogg, but he can write just as movingly on Auden or Roland Barthes.

Above: ‘Dude’ Lebowski being…a dude.

James’s Protean intellect makes him a dude in a much more archaic sense too. A dude was originally a New York aesthete, possessed of certain fastidious and refined sensibilities, a lover of beauty and truth. James’s whole career has been a defense of this old-fashioned worldview, but with one critical difference from the aesthetes of old: they were fond of championing art for art’s sake. James loves art for life’s sake. For him, to borrow from Blake, ‘everything that lives is holy.’

But Keatsian? Like ‘dude’ this is an honorary title, but perhaps even more of an apparently unlikely appellation. Or so it seems, unless you’ve had the chance to make more than a superficial acquaintance with the life and works of the early-nineteenth century poet. Keats had a reputation until relatively recently for being a rather fey, dreamy, wistful type. In the popular imagination he was rather feminine. (3) But as recent scholarship (most notably Nicholas Roe’s) has shown, Keats is tougher and far more politically engaged than was previously thought. Keats’s problem was his image. His was what he termed a ‘poetical character,’ delighting in whatever persona he created. He himself felt he was a thing of nothing. His friends (among them, Shelley) and enemies alike couldn’t bear this slipperiness and nothingness of spirit and tried to cast him as ‘piss-a-bed’ poet (Byron) or the wan and wounded Adonais (Shelley). Anything but that ‘poetical character’ Keats felt himself to be.

Clive James hasn’t had the extremes of critical response endured by Keats; he’s not consumptive; and has proven himself magnificently capable of avoiding early death.  However, I’d like to suggest a couple of gentle affinities. James is a little marginalised these days, the default Keatsian position (why isn’t he on BBC4 and ITV simultaneously,  being at once erudite and populist as is his gift?). In addition, his writing has a ‘poetical character’ to it: his TV criticism, his essays, his poems, his comic ‘to camera’ pieces, reveal a delight in Iagos and Imogens alike– all of that work fed by the Keatsian wellspring of permanent, discreet melancholy, beating in every measured word. ‘Where but to think is to be full of sorrow’: surely James’s whole poetical identity (if he has an identity) feeds on the marrow of this axiom.(4)

 Benjamin Haydon’s sketch of Keats for Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem.



1) American Speech, Vol. 79, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 281-305.

2) Watch James in Clive James on Television and listen with nostalgia for the intelligence and humour with which he dissects ‘Captain Power’ and the singing kiddy evangelists:

(3) Given my earlier comments on Rufus Sewell and ‘feminine’ masculinity, I also have a secret soft spot for this Keats, the Keats whom Byron accused of perpetually ‘frigging his imagination’ in verse. Nicholas Roe’s book is John Keats and the Culture of Dissent.

(4) James’s own website has a splendid selection of prose, poetry, audio, video work by James and people whose work he admires.

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