The Keats-Shelley Blog

12 January 2019

Michael O’Neill: A Tribute by Duncan Wu

There’s a marvelous poem sequence in Michael’s most recent volume, Return of the Gift, entitled ‘From the Cancer Diary’. It concerns his illness, and one of the most memorable sections is entitled ‘Mists’.

Mists spiriting up from the fells
the sure and certain knowledge
they will continue to rise and catch
the gaze of others
after I’m no longer around
to steer the car towards
that imaginary vanishing point
I’ve had in mind for many years.
Or the leaves struggling free of branches
back in the old garden as every September
(it wouldn’t surprise should a figure with pince-nez
turn up disconsolately pushing a pram)
girders and trucks banging out their dissonant music
from the nearby Garston container docks
my father in his chair in the Long Room,
reflecting on who knows what,
me lingering on beneath the wide sky

The phrase that really holds me—and that has done, ever since I first read it—is ‘that imaginary vanishing point / I’ve had in mind for many years.’ As with the best things in this book, it comes out of the blue, carrying a huge emotional wallop. Because it alludes so quietly, so unobtrusively, so unself-pityingly, to the unlearned habit of anticipating one’s own demise—something almost impossible to talk about other than through an image as elusive and intangible as this one. Its power derives from Michael’s tacit acknowledgement of our fallen nature and our desperation not to relinquish our grasp on the world. And how moving to find him recalling the container docks he knew as a young man and the garden of his childhood. Such casually imparted details give Michael’s cancer diary much of its emotional impact: they are the stuff of his material existence and engagement with the world—an engagement never other than passionate and deeply-felt. And they find their way into these lines because of his disinclination to be separated from them, even though we know that is what fate has in store.

Michael O’Neill was one of the foremost editors of Shelley’s poetry and prose. Shelley is a notoriously difficult poet to edit. ‘Prometheus Unbound’ alone, with its bizarre mixture of manuscript and early printed sources, none of them in any sense final, is a snare of traps and false leads. Yet Michael’s work on that and other, equally challenging texts makes the task of editing look easy: it is for good reason he was associate editor on the Johns Hopkins University Press edition of Shelley’s poetical works, and co-editor with Timothy Webb of the OUP edition of the prose.

Like many Shelleyans, Michael served his apprenticeship in the salt-mines of the Bodleian, enmeshed in the manuscripts in the Abinger archive; if anyone could tell from the lilt of Shelley’s cursives whether on any given day the great man breakfasted on coco-pops or honey nut cheerios, it was Michael. He may have taken heart from his undergraduate tutor, Jonathan Wordsworth, whose interest in the cursives of a certain other Romantic poet verged on the obsessive—but Jonathan was surely dismayed by Michael’s devotion to Shelley.

Michael was an untypical product of the school from which he emerged, almost to the point of dissidence. He was that rare thing in intellectual life: his own man. This is nowhere demonstrated more vividly than in his critical work. At the last count, he had no less than eight volumes of discursive prose in print, with a ninth currently in the press. Sometimes very good wine gets kept till last. Michael invested many hours in New Relations: Shelleyan Dialogues and Influences, which OUP will publish later in 2019. There can be few other critical works that encompass Shelley’s work as translator; the influence on him of Lamb, Hazlitt, Southey, Byron, Wordsworth and Coleridge; Shelley’s dialogic relationship with Keats; or his influence on J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Hemans, Landon, Tennyson and Swinburne. Quite apart from its range, what makes it special is Michael’s unspoken conviction that it is as a poet he has something unique to contribute to our understanding. And that fascination with the matter of influence—the forces that created Shelley as much as his formative power on an unknown future—takes an added seriousness of intent from the hard-won insight that the artist’s present has continuous roots in history, where our every action is judged by the unwearying tribunal of the dead.

Michael would never have argued he was a finer, or even more self-realized, critic for his work as a poet: such was his modesty, it is hard to imagine him making any claim at all. In our last conversation he went out of his way to describe his verse as ‘not very good’. Yet it has always seemed to me that the remarkable thing about Michael was that he was not merely one of the finest scholar-critics of his generation; he was a staggeringly accomplished poet as well, having received both an Eric Gregory Award and a Cholmondeley Award. He currently has four books of poetry in print, and was sufficiently productive in his final months to produce a fifth.

Michael understood poetry as if it were a science, from the inside. And when you are apprenticed to an art, every word you say about it is tethered to an ultimate truth. Michael was as invested in it as in his other writing, if not more so. In fact, poetry was always a powerful adjunct to his critical and scholarly labours. That is why, when most preoccupied with the claims of art, Michael is most himself. There is a moment in his ekphrastic poem inspired by Kandinsky, ‘Landscape with Red Spots, No.2’, which provides an illustration.

It cuts its course, our packed traghetto,
across the Grand Canal.
                                    It’d cut its course,
your death, your quick, aortic death, across
the year, as though you’d somewhere new to go.
And yet I’d keep you for a short duration,
make-believe this room bequeathed by Peggy G,
shrine to the lilt and shimmer of Kandinsky,
held essences like yours through art’s creation.
Spiritual yellow arcs, halos round red spots,
leave space for spidery hints that shape
a cemetery’s outline—dark tints the clue.
But ‘essences like yours’ . . . the phrase rots;
even if your features crop up
everywhere, these brushstrokes can’t recall you.

There is much to admire here: the way ‘traghetto’ echoes the word ‘tragedy’, the mimicking of the Styx by the Grand Canal—in short, the steady drip-drip of detail that discloses, however gradually, that the tone is elegiac. Only when that is understood does it become clear how skilful is Michael’s use of prolepsis, not least because author and subject are the same.

Spiritual yellow arcs, halos round red spots,
leave space for spidery hints that shape
a cemetery’s outline—dark tints the clue.
But ‘essences like yours’ . . . the phrase rots;
even if your features crop up
everywhere, these brushstrokes can’t recall you.

That final line takes the one immaculate conception—the self—and erases it. There is nothing remorseful or self-pitying about that. In fact, the essential quality of Michael’s poetry can be found here: he is tough-minded, case-hardened, lacking in sentiment. ‘You have to be’, I can hear him saying, ‘it wouldn’t work otherwise.’ That dirty-foot realism, that sour taste of the truth, refracted through an astonishing verbal talent, by which emotion is understated almost to the point of neglect, enables the sonnet to work. When Michael says the brushstrokes can’t recall you, he means just that: the poet’s being has been subtracted from the sum of things, its dissolution irrevocable.

For younger academics, Michael was that rare thing—an older, more experienced colleague whose disinterested opinion could always be relied on, and who was generous beyond all reason with his time and energies. More than that: he was a good man—O he was good if ever good man lived. I’m grateful I had a chance to tell him that before he died. That he is no longer with us is an irreparable loss that leaves us the poorer.

Duncan Wu

KSMA Vice-Chairman and Raymond Wagner Professor in Literary Studies at the University of Georgetown