How Heavy’s the Albatross?

Sam Quill

1. Atomic Time.

Poetry does not need our defences in the present. If we poets are to defend ourselves, happy as we are with wine and prizes, it must be from the accurate judgements of past and future. Modernism’s fault was its inability to recognise the relative statures of those twin angels; it is all too easy to find fragments when you flood the museums. To write from an avant-garde which is imagined, simultaneously, to proceed in the midst of continuous history, is to fail to grasp the irreducible difference between what has been and what has not. The Modernist’s conscious ego functions as a kind of punctum, whereby the pathos of historical time is recuperated as an icy star, like the seafarer’s self-illumination. It requires a settlement, both with and within reality, which reifies sensuous phenomena and makes of past and future and infinitely fungible economy. If we disregard this spectre of self, we have only what has been and what has not; there can be no mediation between unkind things. The poem is part of what is, which is part of all that has been. It lives and dies by its struggle with its only possible adversary, the absolute negation of “what is” in “what is not”: that is, namely, the future.

And is it for this reason that the future is all that matters with poems. Precisely, that is, because there is no matter there: nowhere to bury the bodies. The future is the entirety of speculative thought; it surveils us perpetually in its memory. So if poetry is to matter to us, it is in this regard only that it matters. Poetry (its traditions and individual talents) is not the democracy of the dead, it is the hierarchy of the yet to be born.

2. On the Mysteries.

Plotinus in his third Ennead:

‘What future, in fact, could bring to that Being anything which it now does not possess; and could it come to be anything which it is not once for all?

There exists no source or ground from which anything could make its way into that standing present; any imagined entrant will prove to be not alien but already integral.’ (216)

The so-called “hard problem” of consciousness is only a bad eminence: a malignant growth in ideology, born of the long Romantic century (which did not end until after the First World War), and shored up against the ruins of the Modernist project, its naked confrontation with the body count of abstract dialectics. Its malevolent star fixes the dogma of contemporary poetics. For all it is accused of poststructuralism, ours is an aesthetic moment that privileges identity, self-expression, self-valuing. It is co-adversarial in its insistence on expressions of ideological power which are, nonetheless, legislated for by the same material relations it claims to repudiate. It is centralising in its impulses; it desires the consolidation of selfhood in the totemic political whole, no matter how arbitrary are the borders of that body politic. It delights in policing frontiers, and demands to see the papers of undocumented acts of poesis. This mystification of subjectivity, as inalienable “lived experience” (both perfectly self-lucid and by definition incommunicable), is a kind of therapeutic galvanism. Revivified corpses animate a paper-moon Elysium, and obscure the only honest break we have, clean as mathematics, between what is and what isn’t. Poetry, I have said already, does not answer to the present, only to the accurate judgements of past and future. The present is the ghost train, the haunted superstructure: dead and circuses. And life falls still-born into time. Poetry alone, among these humorous cadavers, persists, however briefly, while it is not yet itself already dead.

3. What is Life?

“Then, what is Life?” I said … the cripple cast
His eye upon the car which now had rolled
Onward, as if that look must be the last,
And answered …. “Happy those for whom the fold

Of …”

(Shelley, ‘Triumph’ 545-48)

The association of “human life” with the conscious, self-conscious individual is contingent. As is usually case when contingencies are mistaken for necessities (or, worse, for “human nature”), the effect on art has been deleterious. And among arts, poetry in particular has been knocked out of joint. The hypostatised agent (self-lucid, metaphysically free), which rose with Enlightenment and persists now in the mucky afterlives of French phenomenologists, is a political and aesthetic catastrophe. Life has conceived of itself otherwise and will do again. And all the while, through this hegemony of auto-theocratic selfhood, it is poetry, in its best sense, that has sustained other modes and methods of self-apprehension. The life of poetry is another kind of life. It persists in the figurative relation of the general to the particular, not it the scholarly plotting of schools, nor in the agenda of any political actor.


I was once stood at a crowded bar in Cambridge. While I tried to get the attention of the barman, my friend held forth drunkenly on Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), a spectacular work of scientific hallucination, which places the birth of consciousness somewhere in the Middle to Late Bronze Age (that is, after the emergence of cities). We were standing, we soon found out, next to a neuroscientist. He was justifiably offended and proceeded to tell us that it was all a load of crap. The neuroscientist was, probably, correct. But he was also a fool. I was once stood at another bar talking football. An American decided, drunkenly and forgetting where he was, to join in, and began to tell me all about football. I began to speak in tongues.

4. On Visionary Induction.

Shelley wrote that poets are ‘hierophants’: ‘the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present’ (‘Defence’ 701). The honest materialist must understand that to mean that a poem intuits the material state of things (that is, it knows the past) and sees, therefore, what the future state must be. A full-blown rose is articulate in the bud; a waterfall’s roar sounds in the head as soon as the water starts falling. This is simple induction, with all its flaws and uses. The poet’s mode of “induction”, however – which I call “visionary induction” – is different. It is not learned. There is no meaningful accretion of experience. It is akin to the savant’s instant arithmetic. The poet’s gift, such as it is, is for formal intuition. For knowing what must come next, whether or not they can explain why it must, whether or not they can articulate these rules to others. In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1768), Hume considers the part that feeling plays in ordinary induction: ‘Whenever any object is presented to the memory or senses, it immediately, by the force of custom, carries the imagination to conceive that object, which is usually conjoined to it; and this conception is attended with a feeling or sentiment, different from the loose reveries of the fancy’ (48). It is this force of custom that moves the poet into futurity. But the poet requires no ‘object’, so much as the accretion of all that is (that is, the past) to make that feeling. Shelley’s assertion that poets are ‘the influence which is moved not, but moves’ requires no concessions to mysticism (‘Defence’ 701). It is explicable wholly within a materialist ontology, as an expression of the feeling of things past. It is feeling, untethered from any particular idea of causal succession, that stirs a poet to work. (This kind of esoteric practice is widely accepted in other walks of life. I have no idea how my laptop works, but I trust the capacities of the technologist. It is only poets who are asked to show their working.)1 Poets can induce on the macro scale because their instinct is for order and necessity. Possessed of an imagination sympathetic enough to intuit the tenor of history, poets see the future instinctively. Poets are not nightingales, they are starlings holding to the gyroscope murmuration at dusk. Starlings in a world of nightingales.

I have watched the starlings night after night as they fold their uncountable numbers into roost under the pier at Aberystwyth. I have learned that starlings navigate by figures. A bird in the flock’s dense centre cannot know what I see from the promenade. But it intuits, with life-or-death accuracy, the true state of its material surroundings, and moves in perfect measure with a will that no one would ever call its own. Starlings, like poets, survive by their ability to intuit the general in the particular. The structure of figuration expresses as antinomy; something is that, which, at the same time, it is absolutely not. A particular concatenation of material facts does not always (this is the “problem” of induction proper) lead us to accurate beliefs about what follows that state of things. Since history does not repeat, visionary induction proceeds always from a single arrangement of material facts. The rule by which the instant is generalised cannot be learned by experience, it can only be proclaimed ex cathedra from within a poem’s legislative terms. Figuration is visionary induction; it holds the particular instance to the impossible standards of the general rule.

So ‘poetry makes nothing happen’, yes (Auden II.5). Poets still have a place in the Republic. It is precisely because poetry rejects the paradigm of an interventionist will, the liberal agent which is its emanation, and the capitalist economics which are its spawn, that poetry matters to me and should matter to you. Poets see further than the rest. They can (and in the best of the past they did) culture human societies into self-coherence. Poetry cannot imagine a better world. It cannot even imagine a good one. But the poet is here to thole the cathexis of our traumas, and so to deliver us from them.

5. How Heavy’s the Albatross?

Ah! well a-day! what evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

(Coleridge 139-42)

Do poets bear moral responsibility for the worlds they conceive?

The Wandering Albatross weighs about 10 kilograms. That is roughly three-and-a-half house bricks, or 30 tins of soup. Its wingspan, not atypically, runs to three metres. The height of an adult Englishman during the Napoleonic Wars was around 1.7 metres, or 0.67 Wandering Albatross’ wingspans. The picture is largely similar for the Tristan, Antipodean, Amsterdam, and Southern Royal albatrosses. Now imagine that you are Coleridge’s Mariner. Imagine such a beast hung round your neck. Imagine the albatross hung round your neck. You stoop under the weight of its load so that its wingtips graze the deck as you walk, fraying like snowfall, growing muddied and wet. After some days it begins, even in the Antarctic chill, to rot. You thrust your mouth and nose forward into the frozen wind to try to escape its stench. Futile. The bad air catches in your throat whenever you’re forced to lean back on your heels to steady the horrible burden. You look like a shaman, you think, or like one who’s tarred and feathered. The albatross, you say, is very heavy.

Now imagine that the whole of the world is falling. I do not mean the globe, but everything you see around you, and all that you can picture beyond it: atoms falling plumb-down through void. Things fall at different rates. The snowflakes leeching from the clouds fall slowly. When you spit over the bow it falls more quickly than the ocean that it hits, which is falling as fast as the bedrock, that is drifting down with the stately progress of ship sinking, forever. The wings of the albatross catch some metaphysical resistance. Its feathers, lighter than feathers, are falling more slowly than you are. It hovers round your shoulders, and is light.


1 An edifying comparison: reflecting in 2020 on the strike that has become known as his ‘wondergoal’ (against Newcastle United in 2002: a hardly-conceivable pirouette, wherein he turns counter-wise to the direction in which he plays the ball, before calmly but certainly finding the back of the net, and which immediately had pundits crying ‘fluke’), Arsenal footballer Dennis Bergkamp remarked, ‘The week after that goal, “Did you really mean it?” was the question everyone was asking me. […] I couldn’t understand what people meant by the question.’

Works Cited

Auden, W.H. ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’, in Collected Shorter Poems: 1927-1957. Faber, 1969.

Bergkamp, Dennis. Interviewed by Chris Flanagan. FourFourTwo, 24 July 2020. Accessed 08.07.2021.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, in The Major Works. Ed by H. J. Jackson. Oxford University Press, 2008).

Hume, David. ‘An Enquiry Concerning The Human Understanding’, in Hume’s Enquiries Concerning The Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals. 3rd edition. Ed.

by L. A. Selby-Bigge, revised by P. H. Nidditch. Clarendon Press, 1975.

Plotinus. The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. Penguin, 1991.

Shelley,  Percy Bysshe. ‘A Defence of Poetry’ (1821), in The Major Works. Ed. by Zachary Leader and Michael O’Neill. Oxford University Press, 2003.

Shelley,  Percy Bysshe. ‘The Triumph of Life’ (1822), in The Major Works.

Sam Quill
lives in Aberystwyth. His poetry has appeared in PN Review, The Next Review, Blackbox Manifold, The Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and on the LRB Bookshop Blog. His debut pamphlet, Lost Decades, Last Orders, will be published in 2022 by Broken Sleep Books. He wrote a PhD on Percy Bysshe Shelley.