In the end, it often comes down to the misfits and creatures of unusual habits to be unlikely mast-heads of their age.
I suppose I could be classified as a nature poet, considering that the natural world is so often my viewfinder of choice. I wonder if it is in some part due to an early literary influence? The slightly unfashionable titan of nature poetry – one William Wordsworth.
In my late teens, my father gave me a Victorian anthology of his work. As a physical object, it was beautiful, with ivy-green leather binding, and an elegant pencil dedication written on the inside leaf, dated 1899.
I recall sitting outside the coffee shop in Hove’s St Ann’s Wells park and trying to understand Wordsworth’s words. What did he mean in his strange way of writing? Was it outdated? Was it surpassed by the later greats like T.S. Elliot and Philip Larkin?
Wordsworth most often wrote through the prism of nature, and I think it was this—as a troubled kid who’d found his way back through reconnecting with its truth—that led me to instinctively trust in his greatness, laying aside doubts as to its contemporary relevance.
Back then, his poems were more like abstract paintings, I felt something but I didn’t always comprehend what. I only knew I sensed the beauty in his use of language and that was enough.
Now I can better decode what I couldn’t as a teenager. There is a truth latent within his verses, one demonstrating a universality of insight equal to any twentieth-century poet. Though I have rarely read his work since my early twenties.
It is likely we are all inspired by distant voices, the romantic poets of the late Georgian period like Wordsworth and his contemporaries, John Keats, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, were neckdeep in their own fixation with antiquity.
This was the Neoclassical period, part of the enlightenment ,when the art and culture of the ancient world (Rome and Greece) reinvigorated the western world. Science, politics, philosophy, architecture and literature, all became enriched by classical ideas.
So what we now think of as centuries old masters, were in there own day tapping into history and their personal pantheon of long dead greats.
This is the continuum, how art unites the past, present and future, by accessing something greater than our everyday actions. Art is the currency of consciousness, to be invested and re-spent again and again, for as long as it’s in circulation, one generation to the next.
From Wordsworth standing on Westminster bridge composing his famous poem at dawn (see above), to Shakespeare reading his first draft of Hamlet by candle light or Ovid in the eternal city constructing verses to his lovers, one or two perhaps laying beside him.
Art courses through time like a great river’s waters, parting a thousand cities on it’s meander toward the ocean, though if it’s a river then art is one that flows up hill and against the current at times.
Art allows the various ages to communicate with one another in a way history books can’t. It’s impossible to ignore the humanity we all share when confronted by the great artworks that came from the preceding ages.
It is an irony, that it takes a most rare artistic genius to create art that illuminates our most common humanity. So although the styles of expression change, it is the way it touches the inner-self, the part normally obscured by mundane routine which may confirm it as having an artistic value.
If art is anything, maybe it is the dirt under the soul’s finger nails, a remnant of a mind’s efforts to briefly grip onto reality.
In the carvings, in the marble statues and the frescos that span the vaulted roof of cathedrals, or the words of ancient texts, we find the remnants of souls a little like our own.
If an artist succeeds to write a line worth reading, or make a painting that strangers feel drawn to notice, then they beat the inevitable outcome awaiting us all. Good art is as close as people get to overcoming mortality. It provides the creator and consumer with hope, reassurance that their is a spirit greater than our own, one we can partake in and add to. Art is religion without a founder, we find it within ourselves.
We love the great artists because they dared defy the odds, they did not die quietly but in some trick of the light they fooled death into only taking their body, while they left behind a likeness in ‘soul’.
A thousand years from now others living in the same fragile biology—but in world’s so different to our own—will know we were the same, perhaps not through our institutions or our inventions, but through our art. Through the creative act of troubled minds that today fill bars and backstreets, that seek out sunsets and feel a little out of step with their own time., though in the end it often comes down to the misfits and creatures of unusual habits to become the reluctant mast-heads of their age.
It’s a risk to be a bridge-head into uncharted art, for every one Van Gogh there are ten thousand artists that died penniless and uncelebrated (and stayed that way). Though because we are all heading to the same fate, be you driving the latest Jag or stepping out of the local launderette, why not try? Paint, write, read, sing. dance and if you can’t do any of those be the person that supports the artist, value their work, respect their contribution, for it’s the artist that keeps the inner world illuminated, no matter how dark the times we live through become.
Years from now someone else will read Wordsworth at a cafe table, in a busy park and feel a little less alienated from the world by knowing it has always been as beautiful and as terrible as they find it, life has always been as much a burden as an inspiration, but the artist knows by instinct, that one alleviates the other.
Below is a link to an episode of a BBC series called: A picture of Britain. It gives an insight to how the landscape of the British isles has influenced and inspired art throughout the centuries. Also for anyone that hasn’t visited Britain, it’s a great introduction to the stunning natural scenery of these islands.