This wonderful novella is much concerned with recirculations. Eighty pages tell the story of the death of Keats; then we get sixty more in which Burgess translates about seventy of Roman dialect poet Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli's 2,279 wittily blasphemous sonnets into good Manchester English. Those sonnets keep returning to the same themes, the same images: souls and arseholes. Spirit and pricks. The title of Burgess's novel notates one formula common in rhymed verse, characteristic of the octave of some varieties of sonnet, as also of Tennyson's In Memoriam stanza, where rhyme steps away to link a couplet and then steps back to the original rhyme. It's also, the books tells us, the Hebrew for 'father' (which, via Latin, is why an Abbot is called an Abbot), and accordingly it records Christ's last Hebrew/Aramaic words on the Cross: because the book is also to do with painful early death, with figures whose words reach far beyond their death, and with the rationale of the Eternal City, Rome. AB are the initials of 'Anthony Burgess'; and 'ABBA ABBA' is inscribed on the novelist's own tombstone. The AB sets out, and the BA reverses the direction of travel. It goes one way, then it goes the other. Life is like this, and art, and history too. The history book on the shelf/Just keeps on repeating itself. Who said that? Was it ABBA? ABBA, yes.
As well as recirculation, the book is also much concerned with cocks, pricks, willies, knobs, schlongs, male-members, with what Roman slang, the book informs us, calls the dumpennente, from the Latin meaning something hanging down, also used of Christ on the Cross: 'Stabat mater dolorosa,' Keats quotes, delighted with the blasphemy: 'Apud lignum lachrymosa/Dum pendebat filius' ('"An unholy reference, if I may say so," Severn said, unwontedly assertive' ). 'This is the good groiny iron', says Keats, rather splendidly. Belli writes a Roman sonnet about this particular organ, and in chapter 3 Keats translates it:
Here are some names, my son, we call the prick:
The chair, the yard, the nail, the kit, the cock,
The holofernes, rod, the sugar rock,
The dickory dickory dock, the liquorice stick,
The lusty Richard or the listless Dick,
The old blind man, the jump on twelve o'clock,
Mercurial finger, or the lead-fill'd sock,
The monkey, or the mule with latent kick.
The squib, the rocket, or the roman candle,Sad Glad Bad Mad Dad draws our attention to the fact that the title ABBA ABBA, alongside all its other significations, proclaims the male member, too. It means Dad, Dad, cried out from the cross. Slang terms for the penis include 'the old feller' and 'the old man'. Indeed, I wonder if John ('John Thomas', clothed in a 'Johnny' to prevent conception) Wilson ('Willie') didn't have in mind a particular rebus of A and B, the 'A' a cazzo, the 'B' on its side two coglioni. This grafitto from the end-papers of my edition shows what I mean:
The dumpendebat or the shagging shad,
The love-lump or the hump or the pump-handle,
The tap of venery, the leering lad,
The handy dandy, stiff-proud or a-dandle,
But most of all our Sad Glad Bad Mad Dad.
Vulgar, but there you are. Graffiti often are. We get speculation on the state of ill Keats's cazzo, or Ceats's kazzo, and memories of Fanny Brawne cause Keats to have erotic dreams and nocturnal emission. Prongs and poetry elide. The pen is a penis, or vice versa. Keats himself jokes with Belli that he himself translates into Italian as 'Signore Cock' ('as in cazzo, as in cazzica' ). Keats ought to be writing, as it were, with his fertile cock, but the only fluid he can summon is pulmonary blood, the emission of which is literally killing him: 'scarlet gushed out and John moaned, choking. He tried madly to use his manuscript as a cup. The inky quill fell from the knee desk and wrote briefly on the coverlet' . This horrible admixture writes nothing but death. Or perhaps it brings poetry back to the swamp of individuality from which Keats's gift, at its finest, releases us. The fountain outside Keats' apartment gurgles through Burgess's novel, to remind us of his autoepitaph, remind us that his name was writ in water. His body, he tells Severn, was nothing but
a clever machine, with the tongue and the teeth and the lips clacking and cooing most clever clusters of noises, and the noises long by common acceptance attached to things and thoughts and eager to be juggled in pretty poesy. But at the end there is only this I, shapeless and without memory or intelligence unless I consign it elsewhere. So for the moment I join it to the I of that singing water in the piazza and lose even my name. Or, if you will, write that name on water and hear the water gurgle on uncaring singing I, I, I. That 'I' has the look of an upright cock too, though, don't you think? Without memory or intelligence. Down wanton down.
Keats's death was recorded by his friend Joseph Severn as follows:
Keats raves till I am in a complete tremble for him ... about four, the approaches of death came on. [Keats said] 'Severn—I—lift me up—I am dying—I shall die easy; don't be frightened—be firm, and thank God it has come.' I lifted him up in my arms. The phlegm seem'd boiling in his throat, and increased until eleven, when he gradually sank into death, so quiet, that I still thought he slept.Here's Burgess's version of the scene:
John knew his dying day had come, yet to achieve death might be a day's hard labour. Severn held him, as it were carrying him to the gate, but he could not bear Severn's laboured breathing, for it struck like ice. To put off the world outside – the children's cries, snatches of song, a cheeping sparrow, the walls and the wallpaper and the chairs that thought they would outlast him but would not, the sunlight streaking the door – was not over-difficult. A bigger problem was to separate himself from his body – the hand worn to nothing, the lock of hair that fell into his eye, even the brain that scurried with thoughts and words and images. It took long hours to die.That penile I (that Sad Mad Dad, that AB, that John) loses its stiffness and slips through the once warm and capable hand as the trope of masculine death. I'm melting! I'm melting! Oh, what a world, what a world.
"I'm. Sorry. Severn. My weight."
"Nothing, it's nothing, rest now."
He tried to give up breathing, to yield to the breathless gods, but his body, worn out as it was, would not have that. It pumped in its feeble eggspoons of Roman air, motes in the sun and all, but there seemed to be nothing in his body to engage the air. The afternoon wore on to evening and his brain was fuddled and he groped for the essence he had called I. It fell through his fingers.
There was nothing there to make any answer. 
Burgess's Keats is a vivid creation: believable, eloquent and, in his death, actually touching. He is, perhaps, a little fonder of the Joycean pun, the promiscuous riffing on overlapping meanings and inferences, than was the actual Keats (so far as we can tell from the letters and so on), but it doesn't seem to misrepresent the figure. The only piece of echt Keats the book includes is his sonnet 'To Mrs Reynolds's Cat', which Giovanni Gulielmi (= 'John Wilson', a purely fictional character) reads out to his friend Belli. Belli is unimpressed: '"It is nothing but noise" ... Belli made a cabbage of his face, as though, for a large audience, enacting nausea. "Such noises. Th and tch and rdst and glsbtld. English has no music' . Gulielmi points out that they are good cat noises, those; but beyond this one poem is the larger debate staged in the novel, as to whether poetry should concern itself with elevated and idealised matters or dabble with the mundane and even the debased. Actually it's hard not to admire the pleasant perversity of Burgess's characterising John Keats, the single most mellifluous, prosodically harmonious and beautiful poet English has ever known, via this charming but atypical sonnet full of tch and rdst and glsbtld. Compared to Burgess's Keats, Burgess's Belli is a lesser piece of characterisation; a little stiffly caught between his priggish and his earthy-raucous selves. But the minor characters are deftly and cannily drawn, and the whole 1821 Roman scene comes alive on the page.
This is how the novel opens, and it gives a flavour of the sprightliness of the dialogue, and the delicately on-edge-of-kitsch touches of description ('the dome of San Pietro grape-hued in the citron twilight'; Burgess knowingly repeats this phrase again on p.26) that speak to a writer carefully refusing to challenge Keats on the grounds of his own descriptive genius.
"Isaac," he said. "Marmaduke. Which of the two do you more seem to yourself to be?" He mused smiling among the ilex trees. The dome of San Pietro down there in the city was grape-hued in the citron twilight.Junkets are a type of food made of sweetened curds or rennet, I don't think it stretches things to follow the association with 'sputum' in the sixth paragraph through to the textural similarity of junkets to the seminal emission that enforcedly celibate Keats later experiences, and which is related, I'm arguing, to the novel's deliberately disreputable interest in pricks, cocks, cazzi. Otherwise the layered-over citron tartness (grapes, citron, marmalade) offsets this potentially cloying sweetness; and we move effortlessly via earthworks, with its hint of Keats's waiting grave in the Protestant cemetery at Rome into which his corpse goes before the end of the book (cool'd a long age in the deep-delvèd earth) to the earthworms that will eat him. The tyrant's beautiful sister, gliding through twilight, is both sex and death in a single feline form.
"I have never much cared for either name," said Lieutenant Elton of the Royal Engineers. "At school they called me Ikey Marmalade."
"We're both edibles then. Junkets, me."
"Junkets? Oh yes. Jun Kets."
"To be eaten by Fairy Mab."
Elton did not catch the reference. He took out his handkerchief, coughed harshly into it, then examined the sputum in the lemon dusk. Satisfied with what he saw, he wrapped it and stowed it in his pocket. He said:
"It's the mildness here that is good. The winter will be very mild, you will see. Extremes are bad. On St Helena a raging summer is ready to begin. Not good for the lungs, that climate. Not good for the liver. Not good for anything."
"You spoke with Bony at all?"
"He waved his arms and said something about earthquakes or it may have been earthworks. Or earthworms, for that matter. I could not understand his French very well. I saw him digging a lot. Il faut cultiver notre jardin, he shouted at me. That's from the atheist Voltaire."
"You don't admire Voltaire?"
"A damned atheist."
"Here comes his sister."
"No, no, no. God in heaven, here truly comes his sister. To us."
Pauline Bonaparte glided in the dimming light, a couple of servants behind her, taking her evening walk on the Pincio. Elegant, lovely, with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort, fine-nostrilled, fine-eyed, she peered with fine eyes at the taller and more handsome of the two young men, gliding closer to peer better. Elton stood stiffly as though on adjutant's parade, suffering the inspection. She smiled and nodded and glided on. 
The quality of light, so finely evoked in that opening passage, is very much to the point. The Rome of Burgess's 1976 novel Beard's Roman Women is continually being drenched by rain. The Rome of ABBA ABBA is rain-free and gloriously lit. Giovanni Gulielmi sits down 'with Endymion and the 1820 poems of John Keats and the fine-eyed, wavy-maned Guiseppe Gioacchino Belli one forenoon of November sunlight and intense blue Roman sky' ; Keats himself contemplates writing a long poem about Rome: 'light flooding his eyes as his eyes further widened' ; the last thing dying Keats sees is 'the sunlight streaking the door' . But Rome, bathed in light, is still dark. Belli converses with a senior prelate (the latter is offering him the office of censor in the city). He tells the Cardinal 'our drains are bad, our streets carry no name plaques, we lack light—' The Cardinal scoffs at this: 'So the Urbs Lucis lacks light, does it?' and Belli struggles to articulate his point: 'I am talking of the physical city, your eminence. In London they now have gas lighting, so a London visitor told me' . But it's not about gas lighting. The last scene in the novel's octave is Keats's funeral and Belli arguing with a corpulent priest called Don Benedetto, who deprecates the Protestant's darkness: 'What, Belli demands, 'do you mean by that?'. The priest means that the Englishman was 'the unenlightened ... all those nations that have turned their backs on the light. The novel closes with: '"He had," Belli said, "more light in his little toe than you have in your entire fat carcase" . Indeed.
A S Byatt wrote an introduction to a 1989 reissue of the novel (it was later collected in her On Histories and Stories) in which she expresses the view that 'Burgess's novel—like all his novels—is about body and soul', a remark that approaches a fatuity not common in her criticism. After all, in one sense every novel is about these two quantities. Every work of human art. Not merely fatuous, but wrong. Byatt says so because she wants to stress the importance of ghosts to ABBA ABBA. For instance, she reproduces the story Burgess tells in You've Had Your Time that 'making a television film for Canada, [Burgess] recited Keats's sonnet When I have fears that I may cease to be on the steps outside that house. During the fourteen lines a clear sky became stormy, rain poured, thunder drowned the words. Burgess says he is not "imputing a demonic vindictiveness" to the soul of John Keats, but believes that his fierce creative energy, frustrated by death, haunts the house where he died.' It's a nice story, though I don't believe it for a minute; and more to the point it has very little relevance to this novel. This is a text about the physicality of Keats, the bodily suffering he endured, what his body hungered for, and it's very well rendered. It's not about Keats's evanescent ghostliness then or now. In chapter 6, based on an actual incident, Severn takes away Keats's laudanum for fear that the poet will overdose of it and so commit the suicide that his devout carers considers a terrible sin. As a result, Keats goes through long-drawn-out death agonies without pain relief of any kind. The novel's interest is in the body rather than the soul, or perhaps it would be better to say: in the way the soul actualises bodily, materially, in the world ('God is in cabbage patches and beer-stains on a tavern table' is how Belli puts it). The novel is cats, and food, and cocks and cunts. Recalling his shocking cazzo sonnet Belli declares 'I was really proclaiming the glory of God' . It's an unghostly book. It's resolutely bodily.
This penis thematic might prompt us to read the titular 'ABBA' in more straightforwardly bawdy terms. It goes forward, and it goes back. Or we could say: it goes in, it comes out again. Who else but AB coined the phrase 'the old in-out, in-out' for shagging? It's perversely fitting that a novel named with such a rebus involves a procession of men (and one gliding woman) who are not getting any. Keats is too ill; handsome Lieutenant Elton is too loyal to his fiancée in England to take the sultry Pauline Bonaparte up on her offer; Severn is too devout; even Belli seems caught between his carnal impulses and his spiritual self-disgust. And so the sexily feline Mme Bonaparte must glide off into the twilight with no-one to share her bed.
As intimated at the beginning of this blogpost (and, really, it's a pretty obvious point to make) Burgess has structured his short novel according to the logic of the sonnet. The octave: eighty pages, give or take, of continuous narrative. The sestet: sixty pages (exactly!) of metafictional conceit about an alt-historical John Wilson, born a year before our lad, different life trajectory, killed in New York by (we assume, droog-style) thugs in 1959; and then the run of Belli sonnets. The 'turn' is from history to fiction, from a low-key and touching death story to the ribald, blasphemous life of Belli's reimagining of various Biblical moments. But the 'turn' in the sonnet is a recirculation, not a new departure; it is supposed to make us see the matter of the octave in a new light. Keats, near death, dreams a dream that curls back and bites the fiction in which is appears on the tail.
He had one dream or vision that shocked him at first with a sense of blasphemy, though it must be a sense borrowed from Severn, since he who did not believe could not well blaspheme. Christ pendebat from his cross and cried ABBA ABBA. Now John knew that this was the Aramaic for father father, but he knew better that it was the rhyme scheme of a Petrarchan sonnet octave. It came to him thus that the sonnet form might subsist above language, but he did not see how this was possible. Language itself was perhaps only a ghost of the things in the outer world to which it adhered, and a ghost of a ghost was a notion untenable totally. And yet it seemed that two men, of language mutually unintelligible, might in a sense achieve communication through recognition of what a sonnet was. [81-2]He rejects the ghostly quasi-Platonic interpretation of this, and rightly so: the book we hold in our hands is a physical, material object after all (or was, in the 1977 pre-ebook days in which Burgess worked). The two men referred to, there, are Belli and Keats; and what this dream points to is the sonnet as pure form, something akin to the logic of music. It's a form that combines divergence with coming-together, as does the story of Keats and Belli. This is where it dawns on the reader that the story here follows a together, apart, together, apart trajectory: friendly connection, broken by Belli's crossness that Keats has been given a copy of his scandalous cazzi sonnet (rudely, he rips Keats's translation to pieces and storms out), followed by reconciliation broken again by death. And this marks out Keats, Shelley's 'Adonais' (A) and Belli (B) as AB, BA then again AB and BA. It's proper too: Belli is an interesting poet for sure, but he's very much a 'B' grade writer compared with the incomparable A-star Keats.
One thing the sestet does is throw an new an achronological light upon the presence of Giovanni Gulielmi in the narrative. Pages 86-91 trace the family tree of this figure down to 'John Wilson' in a way that alerts those of us too dense to notice before the way AB has inserted himself into the time-frame of ABBA ABBA, in effect going backwards (BA) through time. And since were not sestetting our way through a series of intertextualities we can note that Burgess telegraphs this too. Burgess knows about the historical figure of Charles Wells, a 'a bouncing, red-haired youth of seventeen, addicted to practical jokes, and a former schoolfellow of Tom Keats' (I'm quoting Walter Jackson Bate). "There was a fool, his name was Wells, not that it matters,' Keats tells Elton, before he returns home. 'No, it does. Wells of stupidity, of malice, wells of the rank stinking water of inhumanity. He convinced poor Tom that a foreign lady was madly in love with him. She did not, I may say, exist. But Tom in his fever cried out for her. I should have thrashed Wells before I left England.' Elton is properly outraged. 'I had a corporal named Wells. He was a corrupt man and a drinker. No, his name was Willis. But it is near enough. I'll thrash this Wells for you when I reach home.'  This 'Wells' comes back to haunt Keats, mingling in his imagination with the water running outside his room. Babbling, he tells Severn: 'I dreamed just now of that water outside, and there was a grinning man poisoning it. Wells poisoning wells. ... He is clever. All the way from London he sends his poison.'  Burgess is slyly pointing to a different Wells, initials H.G., whose clever device inaugurated a new kind of story in which people might traverse time itself, and a man called Wilson might appear (his name suitable Italianised) in 1821 Rome. And Wells's machine can take us in both directions. As the Cardinal tells us in chapter 7, 'the future exists' . ABBA ABBA is also a sciencefictional story. But then, everything is.
Abbaabba might sound babbly (babbabbaly, perhaps), but we have seen how many puns Burgess contrives to fold into it that titular pattern of two repeated letters. In this he is being as Wakey as Finnegans, and he is doing so not only because Joyce works its way into most everything he does, but because he know how thoroughly Joyce's great punnovel is suffused with the flavours of the English Romantics:
Methought as I was dropping asleep somepart in nonland of where’s please (and it was when you and they were we) I heard at zero hour as ‘twere the peal of vixen’s laughter among midnight’s chimes from out the belfry of the cute old speckled church tolling so faint a goodmantrue as nighthood’s un seen violet rendered all animated greatbritish and Irish objects nonviewalbe to human warchers save ‘twere perchance anon some glistery gleam darkling adown surface of affluvial flowandflow as again might seem garments of laundry reposing a leasward close at hand in full expectation. [Finnegans Wake, 403-04]There's a good deal of babbabbaling in Joyce's final work, too. Of Anna Livia we learn that 'she’d neb in her culdee sacco of wabbash she raabed ... a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.' Wabba a sort of womanly-ABBA; or from near the end of the novel we learn of 'Hellig Babbau, whom certayn orbits assertant'. That might be a Burgessy-ABBA. We are growing fanciful, though. Back to earth.
Back, in fact, to Shakespeare. Of course Shakespeare. Elton gives Keats his English-Italian dictionary as a parting gift.
The book was intolerably heavy in his hands. He brought up his knees and made a lectern of them. LONDON, Printed by Melch. Bradwood, for Edw. Blount and William Barret. ANNO 1611. Year of the King James Bible. Shakespeare was how old? Forty-seven. With five years of life yet to run, he might have held this book, this very copy, in his hands, also finding it heavy. John's lectern-knees became Shakespeare's. John Florio had been Shakespeare's friend. At least he had been secretary to Shakespeare's noble dearmylove and patron. This is a real book, by the way: Queen Anna’s New World of Words, Or Dictionary of the Italian and English tongues, collected and newly much augmented by Iohn Florio, Reader of the Italian unto the Soueraigne Maiestie of Anna (1611). Keats turns first, of course, to the prickwords, the cockwords, the MadSadBadAbbawords: 'Cazzo, a man's priuie member. Also as Cazzica. Cazzolata, a ladle-full. Also a musical instrument without strings. Cazzo marino, a Pintle-fish. Cazzo ritto, a stiffe standing pricke. Cazzuto, a man that hath a pricke.' Keats finds this last comical, because prick is such a synecdoche for 'man' that a man without one is hardly even a man. But, reading over the pronunciation guide he discovers that Shakespearean English was far from 'correct' posho English. 'It began to sunrise upon him slowly what this meant. It meant that he was being granted a vision (not the just word. Audition?) of how Shakespeare spoke. He spoke like an Irishman, cazzica. He said not flea but flay. He pronounced reason as raisin. And now it flashed in where the joke was in Falstaff's words: "reasons are as plentiful as blackberries." Of course, raisins. With awe and something of fear, John felt as if he were being instructed by the dead in person, souls of poets dead and gone. Doors were being opened' . When Gulielmi comes to visit Keats is excited:
"Mr Keats," Gulielmi greeted, "I see the rose of health on thy cheek."The force of this has to do with provincialism, Burgess's non-London, unsouthern provenance, his Manchester accent, his sense of coming from the peripheries, consoled by the realisation that Shakespeare was a provincial and spoke like one too. And in a larger sense, we are all provincials from the perspective of the Eternal City ('I wonder if Shakespeare was ever in Rome'). Rome marginalises us all, and so unites us all in our existential centrality. Burgess follows this through with his Manchester-flavoured translations of Belli, anticipating the aesthetic strategy of Simon Armitage's splendid Gawain and the Green Knight translation by a quarter century.
"Master Kates, Shakespeare would call me. I have had the revelation this morning of hearing Shakespeare's voice. Florio's Dictionary. I have learned that Shakespeare said têle for tail and mêde for maid ... I wonder if Shakespeare was ever in Rome." 
And following on from Pappa, or Abba, Shakespeare, there's the Italian John Florio. He shares Burgess's first name, and his passion for languages, and his interest in all things Anglo-Itaian. Perhaps in his more fruity stylistic moments Burgess wouldn't have rejected the title 'John the Florid'. But here's a strange point that brings us back to ABBA ABBA. The dedicatory epistle to Florio's Italian-English dictionary, the one Keats possesses in this novel, addresses Queen ANNA ANNA in conventionally fulsome manner:
I like 'braine-babe', as a way of describing a book; not least because it returns me to this book, this Burgess brain-babe, this B-abba B-abba. Babba is a north-country rather than southern way of saying 'baby', of course; and that is what this book is. It babbles as infants do, because it is finding its way to the true speech. Or as Keats himself says at the end of chapter 1, in nicely merde-delighted baby tones: 'By the waters of babble on there we shat down and flung our arses on the pillows.'
14. Keats must be the last word, the last intertextual referent, the last name adduced, of course. Belli's sonnets, Burgess's authorial busy-ness everywhere present, the sexual allure of Pauline Bonaparte, the fate of Bonaparte himself, discussed variously by the various characters, fat Don Benedetto the priest, all these 'B's are arranged around the central 'A'. A is Keats, our alpha. Weep for Adonais, the book says, he is dead. But the book also says: the (arse)soul of Adonais, like a star/be-cocks from the abode where the arseternal are. Options
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