Blog Post

Poetry and nobility

'There is no element more conspicuously absent from contemporary poetry than nobility', Stevens wrote. Perhaps in a very literal way we should restore 'nobility' to the history of contemporary poetry, if for no other reason than because it seems foreign to the field?

Stevens did not quite mean it in this way, but it is true to say that one sociological theme almost entirely ignored is the dynastic and aristocratic, the 'noble', dimension to a certain strand of English poetry. Think about this odd fact as you consider the general proposition. Between Lord Byron and Robert Lowell, a certain strand of self-consciously authoritative, seigneurial English male poets all had Plantangenet ancestors.

Thus,

Byron was a 16 times great-grandson of Henry III of England (1207-1272)

Shelley was an 18 times great-grandson of Henry III

Tennyson was a 17 times great-grandson of Henry III

Swinburne was a 20 times great-grandson of Henry III

Eliot was an 18 times great-grandson of Henry III

Auden was a 20 times great-grandson of Henry III

Robert Lowell was a 21 times great-grandson of Henry III

These poets were all therefore distantly but discernibly related to one another. For example, Auden

was the 16th cousin, four times removed of Byron

the 16th cousin, three times removed of Shelley

the 14th cousin, twice removed of Tennyson

the 11th cousin, once removed of Swinburne

the 17th cousin, three times removed of Eliot

and the 18th cousin, once removed of Robert Lowell

Poetry has always been a tiny world. We always knew that, not without some anxiety. Perhaps it has also, in a certain way, always been a familial world? A world of hermetic 'connections'? Verbally and socially an aristocratic world? A world which has favoured the kind of imagination and speech patterns cultivated by people from a privileged class?

Personally, I find it unpleasant—dismaying, unsettling, even—to entertain the possibility that such notions as these are valid. Who wants to be in love with a corrupt medium? Who wants to entertain the ignominious idea that the sublimated version of an aristocratic voice is what one secretly, basely, in spite of oneself, worships in poetry, that it is what characterizes a kind of poem one reverences? There may be something here for people like me to face up to. Hypocrite lecteur, must I learn to believe that noblesse really does oblige?

Nicholas Jenkins's picture
Nicholas Jenkins writes about and teaches 20th-century culture and literature, especially poetry. After receiving his B.A. from Oxford, Jenkins came to the United States as a Harkness Fellow. He did postgraduate work at Columbia and was then employed as an editor and writer at ARTnews magazine in New York. He received a D.Phil. from Oxford and, after teaching in the Harvard English Department for two years, he joined the Stanford English Department in 1998. Jenkins is currently completing two projects: a critical edition of W.H. Auden's The Double Man (1941) and a book, under contract to Harvard University Press, called The Island: W.H. Auden and the Making of a Post-National Poetry. Jenkins has edited a Lincoln Kirstein Reader and co-edited and contributed to three volumes of Auden Studies. He is Series Editor of the Princeton University Press's "Facing Pages" translation series, and he regularly contributes essays and reviews to periodicals that include the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the New Yorker, and the Yale Review. A recepient of fellowships from the ACLS and from the Stanford Humanities Center, Nicholas Jenkins is Co-Chair of the W.H. Auden Society and Literary Executor of the poet, scholar and ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein.