An unlikely Romantic

Dalton McGuinty as Byronic hero? I don’t know if I’m bad or dangerous to know, but news stories like this make me strongly suspect I’m going mad. I refer to Donna Jacobs’ “Monday Morning” in the Jan. 2 Citizen, saying the Ontario premier spends 18 hours a day doing politics, then crams in five to 15 minutes’ of poetry before crashing. That’s some kind of inner life. Especially as his favourites are the Romantic poets; the article even recounts that, unprompted, he gave “a slow, cadenced recital” of his all-time favourite, Shelley’s Love’s Philosophy. I imagine it was an experience not easily forgotten.

The premier then opined that “Poetry kind of reconnects you with your emotions.” I treasure the “kind of” regarding Romantic poets famously given to extremes rather than to cautiously equivocal reluctant partial embrace of what might vaguely be their emotions unless polls said otherwise. Especially as Mr. McGuinty went on to explain that Shelley’s thesis in that poem, “Nothing in the world is single,” informs his political philosophy. “I believe that politics and government are still the best way that we can come together as a people,” he told Ms. Jacobs, “and overcome challenges that are too big to overcome on our own. They’re still the best means by which we can actually do great things.”

Could anyone not currently confined to a mental hospital or actively engaged in politics think this a plausible description of the McGuinty administration? Or, for that matter, the Chrétien, Rae, Bush or Mulroney governments? What, other than the sublime experience of personally attaining power, caused Mr. McGuinty to form this opinion? Did seven years contemplating Mike Harris’s regime in helpless frustration provoke a rapturous cry of “this is the best way we can come together as a people?”

I’m not against politics. Even bad government is better than anarchy and political competition is a safeguard against really awful government. I’m mystified by all the hostile rhetoric about partisanship, as if we’d be better off with politicians harmoniously colluding against us rather than seeking to oust one another by pleasing us. But I’m also in favour of dentistry without waxing implausibly lyrical about it.

Besides, I don’t mean to seem cultured here, but is Mr. McGuinty’s favourite poet the same Shelley who after being expelled from Oxford for militant atheism eloped with a 16-year-old, endorsed William Godwin’s radical political philosophy, vegetarianism and free love, abandoned his wife and two children to elope with Godwin’s 16-year-old daughter (and Frankenstein author) Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, marry her shortly after his abandoned first wife committed suicide, then drown at sea, all by age 30?

Is the implication here that Dalton McGuinty models himself on such a person or would encourage others to do so? To elope with one 16-year-old may be regarded as a misfortune; two looks like carelessness. Is Shelley his model for “at-risk” youth in Toronto? Are we to believe that demonic fire rages in the premier’s soul? Personally, I don’t recommend such a thing. If I found a demonic fire so much as smouldering in my soul I would seek means to extinguish it without delay. I wouldn’t boast about it.

In fact, the premier married his high-school sweetheart and faithfully raised four children with her, which is exactly the sort of thing I admire. But I don’t contend that Byron or Shelley would applaud him for it. Which is among the reasons I don’t advocate attempts to remake our political order along lines either of them would approve either. So what is Mr. McGuinty talking about? There’s a Monty Python sketch in which a baffled merchant banker searches the dictionary in vain for the phrase “inner life.” At least he looked.

Some may object that politicians talk nonsense all the time and that poetry, like art galleries, is full of pretty pictures you’re not supposed to think about afterwards, so it is absurd to expect the former to hold meaningful opinions on the latter. I don’t buy it. I grant that we are governed by people who routinely spout gibberish, but I believe I am still within my rights to resent it. And if poetry’s images don’t mean anything, then reading it would be as pointless and dull as listening to a language we don’t speak. No, I stubbornly assume all those politicians droning on about education want kids not only to read books and poems and such stuff, but also to understand them.

So I’m not saying don’t read Shelley. I’m just saying it’s like medicine: Know what you’re taking. A work of art can be valuable because it’s horrifying. But only if you recognize that it’s horrifying. Otherwise it’s either dangerous or absurd, as when, for instance, a commentator loves “imagery” without caring what it is or can’t tell H.P. Lovecraft from J.R.R. Tolkien, or when a quintessentially conventional politician declares himself possessed of a Byronic soul. I’ll retire to Bedlam ... and write doggerel.

There once was a premier pedantic Who crowed about poets Romantic What heights did he seek? He strikes me as meek But his nonsense has rendered me frantic.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson