Archive for May 5th, 2017

Happy birthday to poet Charles Gullans! “He did political poetry especially well!”

Friday, May 5th, 2017
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Wilkes as seen by Hogarth

Another birthday celebration, coming to us courtesy the Los Angeles poet (and Stanford alum) Timothy Steele:

The poet and translator Charles Gullans was born on this date in 1929. Educated at the University of Minnesota and Stanford University, where he studied with Yvor Winters, he achieved significant notice in the 1950s and appeared in such anthologies of the time as “New Poets of England and America.” Though his classically inclined work fell from favor during the ascendency of the Beats and the Confessionals, he was a popular and productive professor at UCLA and continued to write excellent poems until his death in 1993. He did political poetry especially well, as is illustrated by his poem about John Wilkes, the eighteenth-century Whig politician, journalist, and thorn-in-the-side of George III. (Wilkes once declined an invitation to play cards, remarking that he couldn’t tell the difference between a king and a knave.) In view of this past fall’s election, some readers may find timely Gullans’ suggestion that we should prefer an imperfect political leader to one who is barbaric. The anecdote to which Gullans refers at the end of his poem exists in several versions and may be apocryphal. But it suits the context and Wilkes’ character in any case. Happy Cinco de Mayo! Happy Birthday, Charles Gullans! (The caricature of Wilkes that accompanies this post is by William Hogarth. [Go here for Tim’s birthday tribute to the artist – ED.])

John Wilkes

Lord Bute, whose rant was the establishment,
Had studied and had mastered the appearance
Of public virtue, but his private bent
Was mistresses and whores built for endurance.

The public interest hid his private acts.
His principle, self-interest of the few,
The fool aristocrat, he hated facts,
And any man of strong, contrary view.

But here was Wilkes, the upstart gentleman,
Bourgeois, with an aristocrat’s disdain
Of canting ethics and of rant in one,
Or in the many, whom he hoped to gain.

“I have no minor vices,” though a boast,
Was license to quick, brittle fools to laugh;
Then, teaching what hyperbole may cost,
His wit pursued him like an epitaph.

No hypocrite, his vices all well known,
“Godless, but never womanless an hour,”
Hard and contemptuous, still the man had grown
Hating restriction and abusive power.

Consistency is firmness in each type.
Yet men of principle may simply be—
Hero or saint, coward or guttersnipe—
Persistent in the partial good they see.

Then if defect seems equal in each eye,
Prefer the cynic to the hypocrite.
Despise the Bute who said to him, “You’ll die
Of syphilis or on the gallows yet.”

birthday cakePrefer the Wilkes who looked into that face,
And with the swift inconscience of the bored
Said, “That depends on whether I embrace
Your mistress or your principles, my Lord.”
Charles Gullans (1929-93)