For them, as Eliot explains, “there is only the trying / The rest is not our business”. Why do they do it? Certainly not for money ? the epithet “best-selling poet” brings a wry smile to their lips. Fame? Not quite. Immortality, however, has its profound attractions. John Milton wrote, modestly, to a school friend: “I am thinking of immortality.” And he got it.
“I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name,” wrote Sylvia Plath, only weeks before she died. “The woman is perfected” is the chilling first line in Edge in which she became “one of those… great classical heroines”, according to poet Robert Lowell. Alas, the problem with immortality is that it is awarded posthumously.
Plath died virtually unknown, as did poor Keats, who believed that his name was “writ in water”. Shelley, who drowned a short time later (a book of Keats in his back pocket), died with most of his work unpublished ? “Then, what is life?” was the last line he ever wrote.
It’s a prophetic line, because it is in pursuit of the answer to that searing question that the poet lives and works. The heroism involved lies in the desire to penetrate “the sacred mystery of the universe” ? which Thomas Carlyle believed was the essence of the poet’s journey to the interior.
They are sent to make it more impressively known to us, he said, and thus their work belongs to all time. Indeed they speak to us more powerfully through the centuries than do novelists or playwrights whose work is often more worldly and therefore more rooted in its particular moment.