Essay: I swear by almighty poets

How can literature induce a Mexican-American to become British? Michael Schmidt explains
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The Independent Culture
I, Michael Norton SCHMIDT, swear by Almighty God that, on becoming a British Citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second her Heirs and Successors according to the law.

I signed last week with a mixture of emotions. First, I like the language of the declaration. Capital letters evoke the late 17th century. By omitting a comma between "Elizabeth the Second" and "Heirs and Successors" the syntax enacts the uninterrupted continuity of the Crown. My German surname doesn't look any more out of place than Battenburg must have done. A tinge of disappointment, perhaps, in becoming a Citizen rather than a Subject.

When I renounced my American citizenship back in 1968 I kissed goodbye to a birthright. I was unprepared to travel to South-East Asia in uniform. For able-bodied young men (the middle-aged are fortunate) the fact of nationality entails certain duties, one of which is to answer when called up. I was born in Mexico and enjoyed dual nationality. I unpledged allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and the Republic for which it stands. My service in the Mexican army was brief and did not involve foreign travel.

Now I will enjoy dual nationality once more, and both my passports are chosen, the first for convenience, this new one for other reasons. After more than three decades in England I am in some respects indistinguishable from an Englishman. What changes will the new passport usher in? On holidays I will go through the same channel as my children and not imagine their abduction while I struggle in a queue of awkwardly differentiated people. I will be able to vote. And I will still be Mexican when it suits me.

A university colleague asked me what advantages I got from becoming British, beyond security of residence and the vote. Why hadn't I done it long ago. I could have set the wheels in motion any time these last 22 years. Was it New Labour, was I responding to the new dawn? Certainly not. Were there tax advantages? What, in Britain? Had I got my eye on a peerage? No. After Lord Bragg and his new coiffure, the Lords are surely doomed if not to extinction, then to an even more painful fate.

On reflection, I think I took the plunge because I wrote a book. The book is a history of poetry in English, starting in the 14th century and concluding today - tomorrow, in fact, since I discuss some poems not yet published. The history opens in one Plague and ends in another; opens in England and ends in the Antipodes. Preparing it, rereading our - I can now say our - poetry, from these islands and the rest of the world, I felt a need for the certified belonging that comes from "being faithful and bearing true allegiance".

Twenty years ago this need was partly satisfied by belonging to the Anglican communion, central to the history of our literature as to our larger identity. That institution is now so attenuated, has forgotten its own roots and its own resources so decisively, that "belonging" is almost meaningless in cultural terms and not particularly resonant in spiritual terms. The current Bishop of York regards the contemporary church as pedestrian. It has sold (or given away) much of its birthright for a mess of ecumenical pottage. I wish it were pedestrian: in most cities it seems to minister to the internal combustion engine.

Why would a literature, and more narrowly a poetry, induce anyone to change nationality? Can this seemingly sentimental decision be explained?

It has, I think, more to do with a sense of family than of nation. When I came to England in the 1960s on an exchange to Christ's Hospital School, it was primarily because I loved Coleridge and he was an Old Blue. He was the catalyst, even though the school had relocated since his time. Wearing the long blue coat, britches, bands and yellow stockings was not an exercise in a year's cross-dressing but the privilege of living, at least in part, in a fascinating continuum which included George Peele in the 16th century, Coleridge's friend Charles Lamb, and a poet who has become one of my favourite writers, Keith Douglas. There were many others. This experience was the seed of my becoming English.

After a year in the United States, I returned to England for university, to Lord Rochester's college. The city of Oxford at that time was full of recognisable ghosts who spoke to me even though I was among the students protesting and making a nuisance of myself. (A foreign student in Mexico behaving as I did would have been returned home.) If only the wing of Shelley had brushed us, our revolution might have issued in something durable. But we were crude Marxists. There was, all the same, a sense of almost belonging; among young comrade poets, among established figures. I became a poetry editor in my second undergraduate week.

My father was born in 1892, the year of Tennyson's death. His memory, encompassed service in the First World War and much else; and one's memory (as Ted Hughes always insisted) begins with one's parents' and grandparents' stories. They are our accessible history. As an editor I was free to find fathers and mothers here: Elizabeth Daryush, daughter of Robert Bridges; Edgell Rickword, the First World War poet, and Marxist critic (still neglected); IA Richards; William Empson; Stevie Smith; Sylvia Townsend Warner and several others. A lived connection with the past, through active memories, helps to fill in what is the family memory of poetry. We are - stretching the point - only seven (long) lives away from Shakespeare. In the company of old people, the past is less past. Even if Old Double is dead, he survives in a tangible memory.

The two writers to whom I became closest were the late Donald Davie, and CH Sisson. They represent two very different Englands, in both of which I have come to feel anxiously at home. Davie's 18th century is less hospitable, more severe, than Sisson's rich and tragic 17th. Reading their work, I was impelled to read the works they recommended and appraised: in Davie's case the out-of-kilter 18th century of Cowper and Smart, the condensed and benign 18th century of Goldsmith; in Sisson's, Filmer, Clarendon, the Vaughan brothers, Donne, the great divines. Both writers, from different angles, pointed towards Ezra Pound and the Modernists.

For a young man who had to earn a living in the universities, in which literature was becoming less real, the examples of Davie and Sisson were especially pertinent. A poem was never a text to them, and the reading remained a primary experience.

George Steiner once wrote to me, when I was talking about "roots", that as a Jew he had learned to use his legs. As an expatriate Mexican, as a one-time American, I have learnt to use my legs; but I prefer now to walk into a forest of deep rooted trees and try - it is hard when you start as late as I did - to root myself here.

Here, for me, is not Davie's Yorkshire or Sisson's Somerset but the - on the face of it - unpromising North West of England, where for 30 years I have watched the city I chose to live in, Manchester, reverse what looked like terminal decline to become a fascinating metropolis uncowed by Birmingham; as devolution progresses a capital in waiting. I teach now in a University - the Metropolitan - alive in the ways that American institutions were in the 1960s to opportunity and development. I have as a poetry publisher grown used to sparse resources and parsimony and am persuaded that the chief resource any institution requires is human energy and good will. A lack of funds need not inhibit the development of new programmes and new initiatives.

In recent years, writing my book, teaching, editing, I have watched a clapped-out city, cradle of the Industrial Revolution, come alive again because it has recovered something of the spirit that made it powerful in the past. Without cruelty this time, and with civic pride, it has revived. Walking to work, I watch buildings being restored, or rising like enormous organisms out of the rank old soil. The city is full of birds.

I have watched, too, how English poetry regarded abroad as effete and exhausted, remains alive regardless of the bad-mouthing it receives; how major writers have emerged from Britain even if they have not always been recognised. There is a poetry industry on an American model, with market leaders and hype. That's not where the best poetry is necessarily to be found: the product can be tainted by the process: Ted Hughes's Birthday Letters is not his best book.

But away from the steaming engines of reputation, Britain is a place in which a writer can put down roots: in some respects the soil is wasted, perhaps, but rich in defining ways. Even after 30-odd years here, I can say it. The air is good. And I can say without cavilling, "I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second her Heirs and Successors according to the law."

Michael Schmidt is the Publisher of Carcanet Books.