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Jimena Ramrez Martn del Campo

Poesa del siglo XIX
Mtra. Rocio Saucedo

Beauty, Marriage and Art in Anne Carsons The Beauty of the Husband

On November 22nd 1817, John Keats wrote to his friend Benjamin Bailey a vehement letter
in which he reflected upon one of the most recurring subjects of his poetry: the concept of
beauty and its connection with the material world and the intangible universe of
imagination. What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth (1817), he wrote, for I
have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of
essential beauty (1817).
The previous statement accurately summarizes an aesthetic fixation also related
with themes such as cruelty, sexual desire, presence and absence, to name a few that
prevailed throughout his poetry and that has influenced the work of countless writers. One
of these writers is the Canadian Anne Carson whose book The Beauty of the Husband: A
Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos exposes, develops and even subverts Keatss notion of beauty
as a universal truth. This pondering is achieved through a series of textual procedures that
include the merging of multiple artistic expressions, poetic voices and aesthetic conceptions
that make The Beauty of the Husband a truly innovative literary form; as Daphne Merkin

has noticed, few works have advanced the art of poetry quite as radically as Anne Carson
is in the process of doing. Taking the previous observations into account, I intend to
realize a close scrutiny of the way in which these textual features trigger new reflections
upon the conceptualization of beauty; reflections that dare to go beyond Keatss renowned
claim Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.
Regarded as a peculiar mixture of literary genres1, The Beauty of the Husband tells
the tragic obsession of a woman with his beautiful but unfaithful husband an obsession
that began during her early adolescence and that continued even after their divorce. As the
title suggests, this narration is materialized through 29 tangos that besides remaining
faithful to the storys main premise by stating that [a] tango (like a marriage) is something
you have to dance to the end open with a fragment from Keats (mainly from his odes,
Otho the Great, The Cap and Bells and Indolence).
The symbolical presence of tango transcends the notion of marriage to which the
poetic voice constantly returns. We could even say that it dances with the many references
of Keatss works in order to become part of the poems structure: Always already departed,
the poem is structured by its witholdings and its withdrawals (Jackson 174).
On the other hand, these withholdings and withdrawals are also present in the
different points of view that give an account of this tragic marriage. Although this narrative
poem is told mainly from the wifes perspective, there are several stanzas in which the
husbands thoughts are recreated through the insertion of dialogues, letters that he wrote
and specific actions that produced an enduring effect on the female speakers memories:
1 Due to the many genres that constitute it, The Beauty of the Husband is also regarded as a verse
novel; however, throughout this essay, I will refer to it as a narrative poem

The husband touched his wifes temple

and turned
and ran

More important, these tangos are constituted by a wide range of artistic expressions
that go from the literary essay, novel and poetry to the visual. Besides Keatss poetic
presence, we come across references to Homer, Charlotte Bront, Georges Bataille, Plato,
Samuel Beckett, Arthur Conan Doyle and Aristotle in the case of literature; as well as
significant names for the visual arts, such as Marcel Duchamp and Edgar Degas.
However, this references are not meant to fulfil a decorative role, for it is thanks to
the intermingling of these artistic features as well as the many voices representing them
that the individual subjects of marriage, beauty and truth reach universal proportions and
become relatable. The main purpose of these literary and visual allusions is to provide
specific examples about the way in which art has represented beauty and marriage
throughout the centuries.
Based on this assumption, let us analyse the first tango that appears in The Beauty of
the Husbands, focusing on the transformation that Keatss romantic conception of beauty
as it is exposed in Ode to a Grecian Urn suffers as the poetic voice ponders upon the
circumstances of her marriage.

This tango / poem opens with a dedication: I dedicate this book to Keats (is it you
who told me Keats was a Doctor?) On grounds that a dedication has to be flawed if a book
is to remain free and for his general surrender to beauty. The purpose of this unusual
opening is double: first of all, the mention of the poets general surrender to beauty
intends to establish a connection with the aesthetic notions he sustained in his works, as
well as suggesting that these ideas will be constantly challenged. On the other hand, the
introduction of a you makes clear that, throughout her poetic account, the female speaker
will establish an open dialogue with the responsible of her misfortunes: her beautiful but
selfish husband.
Additionally, this conversation offers an example of the way in which a lyrical
poem, embodied by the speakers expression of her individual emotions, can merge with
the exteriorizing nature of narrative form which is symbolized by the very account of this
couples union and subsequent separation. Moreover, if we take into consideration the
books title, this narration can also be considered an essay: Lyric intensity ripples through
the strong narrative frameworks of her poems, and she often binds both to an interpretive
context or genre, such as an essay (Jennings 932).
In her article Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness, Tilottama
Rajan proposes a fusion between the monological essence of the lyric and the
differentiating and therefore digressive properties of narrative. According to Rajan,
lyrical poetry usually spoken in the first person and characterized by its emphasis on
individual experience claims for an intertextualization with other forms of discourse
(198). We could consider Carsons The Beauty of the Husband the perfect example of this
interaction. Firstly because it follows the deconstructionist method that some romantic
poets used on their own lyrical creations: Correspondingly, the dismantling of lyric

autotelism is something which happened in Romantic texts themselves, at certain points

when the writers themselves became self-consciously aware of the impossibility of such
autotelism (198). Secondly and similar to Percy Bysshe Shelleys Alastor, due to the
fact that its singular arrangement is able to militate against the monological, because it is
structured as a series of discrepancies between the Poet (197), the poetic voice and the
Furthermore, the first stanza of the tango offers an undeniable contrast between the
conventional notion of marriage and its gradual decline; a decline that is expressed through
the metaphorical use of the word wound:
A wound gives off its own light
surgeons say.
If all the lamps in the house were turned out
you could dress this wound
by what shines from it

Just like the imperfect and scandalous light that is shed by a wound, the disgraces of a
broken marriage will come to the surface sooner or later.
The poems ekphrastic quality becomes undeniable from the moment Carson refers
to Marcel Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors or The Large Glass, a
celebrated artwork that depicts an erotic encounter between a bride and her nine suitors:
Use delay instead of picture or painting
a delay in glass
as you would say a poem in prose or a spittoon in silver.
So Duchamp

of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors

As the poem recalls, this piece of art is also famous for being accidentally damaged
during a journey and despite Duchamps meticulous reparations for the wounds that
it has exhibited since then. The Large Glasss historical background is directly linked with
marriages beautiful and luminous wound in more than one aspect. Contrary to the
romantic conception of art that Keats conveys in Ode to a Grecian Urn in which he
praises the unalterable aspect of a Grecian urn that, due to its classic beauty, is meant to last
forever this modern artwork possesses a flawed beauty that is analogous to the flawed
love that exists between the wife and her seductive tormentor.
However, the similarities between both objects of art become evident when we
compare the scenes that they depict. Just as Keats Grecian urn portrays a mans eternal and
unconsumed desire for female beauty She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, /
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! the erotic encounter between the Bride Stripped
and her Bachelors will never be fulfilled.
A careful reading of this poem shows us that, as the very movements of tango, The
Beauty of the Husband is defined by a paradoxical withholding and withdrawal from
Keats romantic notion of beauty; something that is made possible through the combination
of artistic expressions and literary genres. Carson manages to subvert the conventional
association between beauty and femininity by positioning a male figure as the object of
desire. Nevertheless, a complete distancing from romanticism is never achieved, precisely
because the author agrees with Keatss impressions upon beautys imaginative and
idealistic power. In the end, it is up to usthe spectators of the dance to make a final
decision and become intimate with this lyrical narration too: the reader is enfolded
into the text, and invited to join the dance (Jackson 84).

Carson, Anne. The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos. New York:
Vintage Contemporaries, 2002
Keats, John. Ode to a Grecian Urn. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Gen. ed.
Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. D. New York: Norton, 2006. 905-906
__________ Letter to Benjamin Bailey. 22 November. 1817. John Keats. WEB
Jackson, Sarah. Dis-tanz: 29 Tangos. The Oxford Literary Review. 33.2 (2011): 167-187
Jennings, Chris. The Erotic Poetics of Anne Carson. University of Toronto Quarterly.
70.4 (2001): 923-936
Northrup, Tina. Lyric Scholarship in Controversy: Jan Zwicky and Anne Carson. Studies
in Canadian Literature. 37.1 (2012): 192-214
Rajan, Tilottama. "Romanticism and the Death of Lyric Consciousness". Lyric Poetry.
Beyond New Criticism. Eds. Chaviva Hosek y P. Parker. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.
Walker, Eric C. The Muse of Indifference. PMLA. 120.1 (2005): 197-218