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Who is Ozymandias? And Other Puzzles in Poetry by John Fuller – review


Fuller's solutions to poetry's puzzles may be infuriatingly complex, but they do tell us about the way in which poets work

This is, in some ways, an extremely infuriating book, one rather removed from the populist promises of the title (compare the oeuvre of the author's near-contemporary John Sutherland, at least four of whose books, to my recollection, use the word "puzzle" or "puzzles" in their subtitles). You may, for instance, have been haunted, as you were meant to be, by Wallace Stevens's line: "The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." The back‑cover blurb strongly implies that within this book you will find the emperor's identity revealed.

It turns out to be more complex than that – which, of course, is the point. Perhaps. Fuller tracks the key part of the line to Hamlet, specifically when Claudius asks Hamlet where Polonius is. Hamlet, having recently killed him, says he's "at supper": but not eating, rather being eaten, by worms. "Your worm is your only emperor for diet," he says. Indeed, Stevens's poem is about death ("if her horny feet protrude ... "); yet, Fuller claims that it is "one of Stevens's great poems of celebration". I suppose, now, it is; yet I feel as though a certain sinister, and pleasing, ambiguity has been lost, or an internal emphasis shifted. As Fuller notes in another part of the book, sometimes a misreading can be fruitful. I remember being taught Yeats's "Cuchulain Comforted" at university, and being challenged to find its meaning: our teacher eventually pulled the rug from under us by saying he had no idea himself, and that sometimes this bafflement can constitute the very beauty of a poem.

There is a notion that floats around, darkly, in the background of some criticism, that there are two ways of looking at poetry, and they can be traced back to the university faculties of Oxford and Cambridge respectively. But, like dogs and cats, who have a shared ancestry, the two sides have come to loathe each other. They even have different canons, and you can go through a Cambridge literature course – even a part of it dedicated to the 20th century – quite easily without even learning that there was a poet called WH Auden. One is gently steered away from him. (This may have changed, but it was certainly once the case. You could, though, go on about Samuel Beckett and TS Eliot, with much encouragement, until you were blue in the face.) Now, this may seem like a very arcane matter for argument to most readers, a ding-dong between the big-endians and little-endians, and indeed it is ridiculous, but I couldn't help being conscious that this is a very Oxonian book. Literature, surely, is about more than puzzles as to meaning (he has a little dig on page 35 about "the semantic niceties of the Cambridge tradition", so I'm not making this up).

But then, we are often puzzled by lines in poetry, and not only is it understandable that we would want some help with them, but that someone should write a book to help us. What is infuriating about Fuller's book is also what is good about it: that it is not necessarily about neat answers. I am finding it very hard to summarise what he has to say: a summary would, like Borges's 1:1 scale map, have to be as long as the book itself, or rather be the book itself. It leaps from peak to peak, fuelled by an immense amount of learning and experience (Fuller is himself a very prolific and – justly – well-regarded poet); you might feel that you could have been led more gently. I also suspect he is capable of being mistaken: trying to find a mention of Merlin in Auden's journals in order to clear up a point (this book has Auden coming out of its ears), he comes up with "Merlin diving", but "began to feel that the phrase could just as easily have been 'Morris dancing'." (Difficult handwriting, you see.) Actually "Morris dancing", even in the context Fuller sets out, makes more sense.

But it doesn't matter, really: there is so much here that is worthwhile about the intentions of poets, the way they work, that we find ourselves better equipped after all. It really is up to us: as Fuller puts it, "The poem has escaped from the hands of the poet."

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