Apologies for the radio silence of the past couple weeks. I assure you that I was not trying to pull a Sarah Palin; I was merely housesitting and didn’t feel like hauling the OBVV across Brooklyn with my laptop and the stack of other books that I didn’t manage to get around to reading. I’ve also been pretty mucked up in my dissertation chapter — I’ve pretty much just been rewriting the first twelve pages all month. But that’s a different post, maybe.

Those struggles are, however, obliquely related to something that I see happening in this week’s poem:

365. “The Last Wish” by Edward Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1892)

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, this my prayer must be:

That thou mayst never guess nor ever see

The all-endured this nothing-done costs me.

(Just so we’re clear, this isn’t that Bulwer-Lytton — this dude is the son.)

I don’t think this poem needs a huge amount of explication, but I am really taking with this idea of doing nothing — or, as it comes in in that last line, the “nothing-done.” One of the things I’ve been struggling with conceptually in my dissertation is an argument I’m trying to make about suspension being a performative gesture, but of course what it does, much of the time, is, essentially, nothing — which potentially negates the whole “doing things with words” part of performativity. Nevertheless, there’s a residue in this nothing — and I can hear my undergrad adviser’s voice in my head saying “a no-thing that is not nothing, either” — this sense that “nothing” does take effort, that it rarely is simply void or interruption — or, for that matter, detachment or agnosticism. One of the things I’m trying to work through with Browning is how you can have a suspension of judgment that isn’t just a matter of rigorously marking the boundaries of the knowable and not going beyond them; I’m seeking a suspension that also maintains some kind of engagement, whether it’s an interest in the outcome or something more about the process and the working-through. Something more, well, performative, but a performative that “does nothing” in a kind of double sense. I would love to feel like Eve Sedgwick’s whole thing on the periperformative is helpful here — it may be in the same neighborhood (her metaphor), but I’m not sure where to put it yet.

And I’m well aware that at some level I’m probably giving this poem too much credit, that I’m writing more about Browning and my own life than “The Last Wish.” And it’s funny, too, because in the process of writing this post, I’ve begun to like this poem a lot less. I can almost feel the cliches swooping in — that whole “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” kind of thing — and something that’s not a cliche, some inchoate idea of political inaction, a suspension, say, of judgment or action that does more damage than any other alternative. And the fact that I’m writing in such tortured sentences suggests that I’m still writing around what I actually want to say.

And even more so. To call this “The Last Wish” is, I think, a bit self-indulgent, but that also may be, now that I think about it, the most transparently performative part of this, at least in its aspiration. But one does not place an end to things by drawing attention to one’s overweening efforts to end them — in what is, the more I look at it, a strikingly passive-aggressive bit of verse. (To a certain extent I think the same argument could be made about “Two in the Campagna” and probably a lot of love poetry in general. Second book?) This whole, “oh, don’t look at me, suffering for your sake” kind of thing. It pains me more than a little to say that because it’s also an experience close to my own heart and because it also engages a couple of topoi that I hold near and dear. (The other one is prayer.) And I think there’s probably a way to pull off what this poem is trying to accomplish without sounding like a whiny asshat, but for whatever reason, this isn’t doing it for me.

There are also at least two elephants in this interpretive room. One, if you clicked on the Wikipedia link to Earl Lytton, you no doubt read that poetry (which he published under the pseudonym “Owen Meredith”) is really only a minor claim to fame; his other accomplishments include presiding, as Viceroy of India, over the Great Famine of 1876-78. Or, as Mike Davis and others have recently argued, for helping cause it in the first place. (I admit that I’ve only read the first chapter of this book and that was some time ago — Mia and Kiran, can you shed light where light is needed?) That doesn’t “settle” anything one way or another when it comes to this particular text, but we’ve certainly pilloried our poets for lesser offenses (Oscar Wilde, anyone?). And forgiving political wrongdoings is always partially an aesthetic choice — in general, good poetry by bad people still gets read. It may also be hard to come up with a critical idiom for relatively minor literary work by people who are politically prominent. In some ways, I think this is probably one of the great mysteries of human nature, but it does, at least in this case, place a bit of an extra chill between the poem and me.

The other elephant is named “Textual Criticism” and has to do with the fact that I couldn’t really date this poem. I admit that I didn’t try all that hard and that my GoogleBooks-fu pales in comparison to Mia’s mad computer skills. But I’m usually able to find some trace of even minor poems. The “having a very similar name to your literar-ily famous father” and “writing under a pseudonym” parts didn’t help either, I’m sure. What I did find was a poem called “To A Woman,” which is kind of like this poem but also not:

Since all that I can ever do for thee

Is to do nothing, may’st thou never see,

Never divine, the all that nothing costeth me!

The first line and a half are the same in both versions, but without the interruption of prayer (which makes the utterance of the first one into something of a citation), this one feels a lot more direct. I’m suddenly inspired to go out and start a relationship just so I can use this as my parting shot in the breakup email. It’s either that or Tori Amos, right?

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