A thoughtful interrogation of the idea of the doomed poet avoids ghoulish sensationalism
Not the lives of poets, which Dr Johnson wrote about, but their deaths – whether early or late, in bed or in battle, accidental or self-inflicted. It’s a great idea for a book but one that could easily descend into ghoulish sensationalism or slick postmortem psychologising. It helps that the authors are poets themselves, whose agenda isn’t to rubberneck or lecture but to interrogate the Romantic myth “that great poems come at a heavy – ultimately fatal – price”.
If their previous collaboration, Edgelands, in 2011, was a pilgrimage to neglected corners of the English landscape, this one sends them further afield, to wherever it was (Boston, Vienna or Hull) that a poet’s last hours were spent. The hope is that by being there they can learn something – about the life and work, and how the manner of a poet’s death can affect, for better or worse, an understanding of his or her poems.
Henry Wallis’s portrait of the death of Chatterton – splayed body, abandoned drafts, arsenic phial – glamorised the image of the poet as sacrificial victim. Chatterton was just 17. The consumptive Keats (“that drop of blood is my death-warrant”) lasted only eight years longer. As other early casualties followed (Shelley, Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine), the legend of the poète maudit took hold. Dylan Thomas, dying at 39 in New York after claiming to have drunk “18 straight whiskies”, gave it new vigour. According to his widow Caitlin, his “ridiculous” investment in the idea of the doomed poet was a self-betrayal – what he really liked was warm slippers, pickled onions and checking the cricket scores.