The work of poets

by Jeffrey Greggs

The long-time Parnassus contributor John Foy is guestblogging at Best American Poetry this week. In his maiden post, he takes a look at some poets who have held down “real” jobs, by which he means they worked outside the literary sphere. Judging from the list of “usual suspects” he’s collected—Stevens, Eliot, Williams, Neruda, and Cavafy—it’s safe, at least, to argue that “real” work isn’t a barrier to creative inspiration.

In fact, it can even be salutary. Although professional stability is probably the last phrase anyone would associate with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his one stab at “real” work proved a resounding success. Fleeing an estranged wife, ill health, bad habits, and his growing obsession with Sara Hutchinson (AKA Asra) in England, he travelled to Sicily and Malta in 1804. He secured employment as Acting Public Secretary of Malta under the Commissioner Alexander Ball. This was a position of real power: Malta was a crucial wartime base for the Royal Navy, which was still engaged in a struggle for supremacy over the Mediterranean with the French fleet. Over the next year or so, Coleridge carried out his responsibilities quite skillfully and earned high praise from Ball. (Plus, for a spell, some of those bad habits subsided.) The whole story is told at great length and with verve in the second volume of Richard Holmes’s outstanding biography Coleridge: Darker Reflections.

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  1. Jean Michael says:

    Having read the Holme’s biography the author enabled the reader to feel Colerdige tracking across Cumbria sweating out pleasures domes, beating paths between two women and then plumping himself down at a desk. DARKER REFLECTIONS seemd the fruition of an earlier biography of Shelley, THE PURSUIT, in which Holmes managed to explore the developing psyche of the younger Romantic poet who wanted to change the world. Shelley, however, could have never held down a job. Perhaps he knew this when he set sail either knowing or not bothering to check that there was a storm on the horizon.

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