Rousseau in Staffordshire

by Michael Hulse

I think him one of the worst of men – a rascal (Johnson said).
I would sooner sign a sentence for his transportation
Than that of any felon. Yes,
I should like to have him work in the plantations.
And Johnson hadn’t seen Rousseau wearing Armenian dress.

Rousseau moved into Wootton Hall, an isolated house.
Pasture. Rabbit warrens. Sheep.
The most beautiful land in the world, said Rousseau.
The local people had a rhyme, it seemed:
Wootton under Wever, where God comes never.

Thérèse for company. His “gouvernante” (so Hume declared).
One day (Rousseau was living in the past)
I hid near the well where the girls of a house
drew water. I offered the girls a sight
that was laughable rather than seductive.

He played the harpsichord. Walked his dog, Sultan. Sat under the oaks.
Longed for Mme. De Warens.
That sweetest intimacy. “Little one” was my name,
hers “Mamma”. One day I made her spit out a morsel –
I seized it and gobbled it up.

Thérèse quarrelled with the kitchen women. Rousseau sat under his oaks.
Sempstresses, chambermaids, shop girls
hardly tempted me. Every man has his taste,
and I have mine. On this point Horace and I
are of different persuasions.

Rousseau met Lady Andover, Lady Cowper, the Duchess of Portland,
And Mary Dewes and her flock of lambs.
He thought of nightingales, grasses, flowers – a loveliness unknown
In the melancholy land where he lived now.
His letters, he insisted, were opened, his food adulterated, money pilfered.

Once near Lausanne (he remembered), penniless, famished,
he dined and slept at an inn
and breakfasted next morning. Couldn’t pay.
The good-natured innkeeper shrugged it off.
How worthy was that honest man’s humanity!

He is a curiosity, an English lady wrote his works
extremely ingenious, as I am told, but
under the guise and pomp of virtue
his sentiments are unorthodox and wrong.
The devil, concluded Rousseau, is welcome
to Wootton under Wever.

 

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Michael HulseHailed by Gwyneth Lewis as “a formidable poet”, Michael Hulse has been praised by Robert Gray, C. K. Stead, Sean O’Brien, Simon Armitage, the late Peter Porter, and many others. His audience for his solo appearance at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2012 numbered 700, and his latest collection of poems, Half-Life (Arc, 2013), was chosen as a Book of the Year (“brilliant”) by John Kinsella. His poetry has won him numerous awards, and reading tours have taken him to Canada, the US and Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, India, and several European countries.

He has edited literary quarterlies, best-selling poetry anthologies, and literature classics and poetry series, and has translated more than sixty books from the German, among them works by Goethe, Rilke, and Nobel Prize winners Elfriede Jelinek and Herta Müller. His translations of W. G. Sebald brought him plaudits from Susan Sontag, A. S. Byatt, and many more, and were shortlisted for every translation prize – The Rings of Saturn won the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Michael lived for twenty-five years in Germany, working in universities, publishing and documentary television, before returning to England in 2002 to teach poetry and comparative literature at the University of Warwick. He has been a judge of literary awards worldwide, from the Günter Grass Foundation’s Albatross Prize to the All India Poetry Competition, and shared a Times Higher Education Award for Excellence and Innovation in the Arts in 2011 as co-founder with Donald Singer of the international Hippocrates Initiative for poetry and medicine.

 

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