The Magazine

An Academic Barred

A New Formalist manifesto—in verse.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By JAMES MATTHEW WILSON
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Lake situates these satires on contemporary folly in a rich historical and thematic context. The title poem returns us to the years of the Terror, in the wake of the French Revolution, when time was “out of joint.” The days, months, and streets of the new Republic were secularized and made to conform with the crushing mathematical logic of Danton and Robespierre. The Marquis de Sade was set free to carry out his perverse “experiments in living,” and Paris stank with blood and raged with the mob’s noisome spirit of “liberation.” 

Cry Wolf revealed Lake as a Burkean storyteller who appreciates the fragility of civil society and the consequent necessity for a conservative approach to citizenship. Republic shows his equally Burkean evaluation of revolutionaries, past and present, as world-bending tyrants who do not hesitate to use terror to realize their vision of justice, prompt, severe, / And inflexible.

If Lake proves himself an adept satirist, he is not that only. The book opens with lyric reflections on fatherhood, marriage, old age, and death. These themes reach a climax in his adaptation of François Villon’s gallows humor and huitain stanza in “Testament,” which begins,

In this, my fortieth year of age,

I wake beneath a soggy sheet

Stone sober, my mind a crumpled page,

My life a sentence, half complete;

Still mired in the old conceit

And lust for literary fame,

I stare down darkness, death, defeat,

Burning my candle in the game.

In the remainder of the poem, we detect the origin of Lake’s satire in his career as a writer and teacher who has been foiled in his “lust for literary fame”—not by lack of talent, but by an academic climate that harnesses art as a draught horse to drag left-wing ideologies into the souls of students.

Republic is a fine book. But it does not match the achievement of Lake’s earlier Walking Backward (1999), whose narrative poems deliver all the action of a novel with the vivid personae of a Robert Browning monologue, and whose meditative poems (especially “Interrogations”) constitute some of the most exacting and vividly rendered explorations of good and evil, sin and redemption, in contemporary literature. Republic does demonstrate, however, that Lake’s fabulist imagination continues its brilliant work.

James Matthew Wilson, assistant professor of literature at Villanova, is the author of The Violent and the Fallen.