John Drury’s poem “Burning the Aspern Papers” (2003) is a short narrative poem in the form of a monologue spoken by Tita Bordereau as she sets light to the Aspern Papers of the title of Henry James's novel. The essay is concerned with seeing what the poem can tell us both about the original work and the so-called “literary tradition” of Venice, and examines the recurring theme of the contrast between a glorious past and a squalid - or, at least, silent – present. In his preface James uses the revealing image of garden walls that block our perceptions of earlier ages; this is interesting for a novel in which a garden is so important, and of course it connects up with the famous dialogue about “raking up the past”. The novel could be said to be about failures of perception – failures that derive from insufficient effort on the observer’s part. James uses the “intertextual” nature of the city to allow us as readers, outside the text, to come to an assessment of the narrator. Drury’s poem shows a full awareness of the ironies of James’s text and of the way it plays with the concept of the literary city. One of the themes of the novel, after all, is that of the poverty of living in a purely literary world, a world where papers are more important than people. The task of the poem is to give a convincing voice to those characters who are denied one by the structure of the original work – but to do so without undercutting the irony of the original. The poem moves between the blank verse of Tita’s monologue and the sonnets and ottava-rima stanzas of Aspern’s letters. Thanks to the deftness and lightness of touch of his versification, Drury succeeds in creating a convincing voice for the character of Aspern himself, who, as James himself acknowledged, was a historical and literary impossibility. Even if not the great poet that the narrator of the novel would have us believe him to be, Drury’s Aspern is a credible and living personality – and thus no longer just a collection of papers and a picture.
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