Paul Muldoon, Madoc: A Mystery (1990)
Please note the page numbers refer to the edition of Poems 1968-1998 pictured above.
An Attempt to Provide Some Context
Would anyone be so bold as to claim that they understand Madoc: A Mystery? I certainly won’t. The title is, in this case, perfectly apt: it is a mystery. However, I feel like I ought to attempt to provide at least a rough sketch of the book’s “plot” (for lack of a better term), in order to present the reference to Canada in some sort of context. So here goes.
Madoc: A Mystery contains a few independent short poems at the beginning, but is mostly the long, title poem. It is divided into short sections, each titled with the name of a philosopher in square brackets. I’m not a profound student of philosophy, but it seemed to me that the section titles went in roughly chronological order, i.e. the earliest sections of the poem have the names of the Pre-Socratics as their titles (Pythagoras, Heraclitus), and by the end we’re at least brushing up against the contemporary (Habermas, Kristeva). The title refers to Madoc, a mythical Welsh prince who supposedly journeyed to America in the 1100s and founded some sort of Welsh tribe there. Robert Southey wrote a poem about him called, somewhat predictably, Madoc.
Muldoon’s poem takes, as its jumping-off point, a plan by Coleridge and Southey to leave England for America and form a “pantisocratic” society in Pennsylvania. They never actually made the trip to North America, of course, but Muldoon begins by imagining that they had, and placing them, along with some other characters (including a talking, syphlitic horse named Bucephalus) in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As the poem proceeds, it also draws in historical figures who actually were in America at the time, including Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and the explorers Lewis and Clark.
I should make clear that the book is really more concerned with American history than Canadian; to the extent that you can tell where it takes place, it takes place in the U.S., and the other “characters” who appear are mainly American. Canada does, however, make one notable appearance.
The Reference to Canada
I’m going to quote four consecutive sections from the poem, as I feel like they are all part of the reference to Canada.
‘And the devil was pleased for it gave him a hint
for improving the prisons of…’
Coleridge stops in his tracks. A Seneca
wearing only a breech-
and a skunk
bonnet and cradling an arquebus
has just stepped out
from behind a beech.
Coleridge is genuinely perplexed.
He unclasps and dabbles
in the portmanteau
for which Southey and he drew lots.
He brandishes John Eliot’s
and quaveringly intones the name of ‘Manitou’.
The Mohawk, as he turns out to be, goads
him through the gateless gates
the formal gardens and unfathomable fountains
of this, the summer palace
of the Old Man of the Mountains.
Up a spiral staircase with precisely two hundred and thirty-three
steps, each conjured from the living rock.
Through the hoopless hoop of a black rainbow.
To the room where Thayendanegea, Joseph Brant,
appears to him as in a dream,
his head shaved but for a scalp-lock
adorned with a white
feather, his bearskin
robe, his shirt a calico
set off by a solid brass
gorget, his sword-stick with its brass ferrule.
He offers Coleridge tea and scones,
erves and clotted cream.
He folds his arms: ‘Would
you say you came here of your own free will?’ (225-7)
That gives a sense, anyway, of what the book is like. It will take a wiser head than mine to determine the relationship between the philosophers in the titles and the content of the sections, but I will note three things: Coleridge is described as “perplexed” and the most famous book by Maimonides is the Guide for the Perplexed; the number of steps (233) is a number from the Fibonacci Sequence; and the question of free will is one that was extensively considered by Aquinas (though also by numerous other philosophers). Could it all be that straightforward?
But let’s get to the good stuff – one of the most exquisitely suggestive descriptions of Canada I’ve come across, and all conveyed in so few words:
…the gateless gates
I’m torn here; I’ve reached that point one sometimes reaches with poetry where trying to explain why something is beautiful simply drains the beauty from it. This image of Canada as a country separate from the U.S. and yet not clearly marked off as such seems to me to speak quite compellingly about the wilderness our country once was, and the mystery and strangeness it once possessed for Europeans. Of course this idea is immediately undermined by the description of “formal gardens” that follows, and ultimately leads to tea and scones with Joseph Brant.
And what of Brant? Born in what is now Ohio, he is technically an American; however, he fought on the Loyalist side (i.e. for the British) during the American Revolution (a subject that came up recently), and lived the later part of his life and died in Canada, and so has come to be associated with our country as well. I think the tea and scones here must be a nod to (or a mockery of?) the fact that Brant’s lifetyle in Canada was apparently very much that of an English country gentleman – he certainly appears somewhat dandified in this passage. And his question, which ends this sequence, has undeniable resonance for a country of immigrants like Canada, a country that people choose to come to – even if they feel to some extent that they have been pushed to it by circumstances in their homelands, just as Coleridge here is “goaded and bullied” across the border. (One could almost read the sequence as a fable of immigration.)
Wow – Canadian Intertextuality
There’s one more reference to consider, which isn’t directly to Canada, but related to our work here at Wow – Canada!:
It moulders now in the double-dusk
of the valise,
along with a copy of Voltaire’s
The Ingenu involves a Frenchman who was raised in Canada by the Huron and, as we have already noted, contains numerous references to Canada. Muldoon probably mentions it here simply because its subject matter relates to that of Madoc: A Mystery, but for us, this passage represents the exciting first instance of what we might call “Wow – Canada intertextuality”: a book that refers to Canada and also refers to another book that refers to Canada. So a big moment.
I want to enjoy those two lines one more time:
…the gateless gates