An essay by Dr. Henrietta Bolingbroke, as provided by Bobby O’Rourke
Art by Errow Collins
[Excerpt from “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante” by Dr. Henrietta Bolingbroke, originally published in New Italian Literary Studies, 22 June 2015]
… intensely excited to be among the first to peruse the newly discovered diaries of poet Giacomo Calvante. These diaries may shed light not only on his poetry–the influence of which has long been underestimated–but also on a theorized mental illness and even madness which may have caused his premature death.
Calvante was born in Turin, Italy, in 1781, an obscure pioneer of free verse and a sympathizer with the Romantic movement prevalent in England at the time. Calvante’s poetry, like that of the Romantics, emphasized a break from traditional verse and an intense focus on the passions as the guiding force for humanity. Despite these sensibilities, Calvante was an outspoken proponent of technological innovation and a gifted student of chemistry and engineering; he did not revile the Industrial Revolution as many Romantics did. Consider the following lines from Calvante’s unpublished poem “Some Words on Coleridge”:
though our bodies turn to dust.
there exists a spark that lights the future.
If we must admire any part of man,
admire the will to mold a cup of iron,
which can house life forever.
An eternal mind deserves an eternal frame.
Calvante maintained a consistent output of poetry, but very few of his poems were published in his lifetime. Only two books, The Automaton (1808) and As I Look Forward (1814) were published by friends, and the first of these saw little circulation. Calvante kept hundreds of poems in his desk, either never intending for them to be seen or never considering them ready for publication. It is also known that Calvante fell into “a pervasive melancholy” shortly after his second book was published, and he spent the remaining years of his life as a recluse. He was believed to have succumbed to tubercular breathing complications: his father owned and operated a Tuscan mineral mine, which Calvante visited regularly as an adolescent.
The Collected Works of Giacomo Calvante, compiled and released in 1925, was largely ignored, scholars dismissing the poet’s influence on …
[From Giacomo Calvante’s diary, dated 7 December 1807]
My hand shakes as I write. I only stop now to scribble these words so if I may doubt myself in the future, I have proof of what I have done and what I have felt. Outside of these two acts, is there anything else?
My automaton is complete. She is alive. Even I, who know every crevice, and every imperfection of her, am in awe of the softness of her skin, the olivine shade of her eyes, the symmetry of her shoulders and bosom.
She is beautiful in the way gravity is constant, the way stars adhere to their natural course. She is beautiful because she will not age, will not degrade. She is beautiful because she is perfection.
Building her component parts was a long but ultimately fruitful task: my love of chemistry and construction as a small boy played no little part in her completion. Father used to allow me to peruse his bound copy of Vesalius’s On the Fabric of the Human Body, and I recall spending entire days poring over the diagrams of the human frame. Mother thought it grotesque, but then again Father claimed her books of poetry led the mind into idle wanderings. I loved when Mother would read to me each night from her selection of poetry. I knew even then that language, in a way as mechanical and efficient as any machine, was also a conduit to something deeply immersed within us, a flame that undulates with the passions and is in fact “the fire within our furnace.”
Having this dichotomy in mind, I thought of the best, most perfect way to introduce my automaton to the world. I read her poetry. And because of poetry she has awakened.
Materialists may say that she is powered by heat, which is merely a half-truth. I have made her from fire.
[From “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante”]
Although the dates and authenticity of the diaries have been verified, these bizarre writings beg the question: when did Calvante’s delusion of a “metal maiden” begin?
After working alongside his father at the mine in Tuscany, Calvante traveled to Milan in 1800, where he began writing his poems in earnest and fraternizing with artists and philosophers sympathetic to his aesthetics. Strangely, none of these associates make mention in any of their correspondence of Calvante’s delusions. Indeed, they seem to have been completely ignorant of it …
[Calvante’s Diary, 8 March 1808]
I have named her Regina. A queenly name for the woman who holds the future in her frame. She responds to this. Is a name all that is needed for an identity?
Regina cannot seem to grasp the origin of her existence, and Heaven knows I have tried to explain! She learns quickly and is quite adept at speech and writing, yet I cannot convey to her that I am her creator: in her mechanical mind, I am her benevolent friend and protector, but she has no inkling, or indeed impetus to learn, of her own origins.
I note that her memory seems to fade for varying periods of time. We have, for example, gone over the letter “R” many times in her alphabetical studies, and for many weeks she was unable to recall lessons we had reviewed only minutes before. This complication requires further study.
Aside from these difficulties, she is most astute and precocious. She has endless curiosity, and I have begun to teach her the rudiments of my craft. Regina delights in the throes of language, and has developed a particular fondness for Shakespeare. Is this not proof she is human in all but name?
[From the personal journal of Henrietta Bolingbroke, dated 16 March 2015]
Can’t believe I got to handle the actual pages of Calvante’s diaries today. Terrified to make even the slightest mark or tear.
So many friends have chided me for spending time on his poetry. He’s a footnote, they say. Stick with the real Romantics, and the rest can jog on to the satanic mills. They might be right, but I always thought there was something special about him and his poetry. Here’s proof. Even if that something special stems from insanity.
Strange dream I had last night: I am reading C.’s diaries and I fall into the pages. C. is there, yelling at me to add more coal to the fire. Thinking of line: “I have made her from fire.” It’s lovely, and a little scary.
[From “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante”]
Calvante’s first book of poems, The Automaton, was published in late 1808. Its dedication to “The Woman of the Future” has most often been thought to be in honor of Lisl von Welthaus, a German émigré from Bavaria. It is apparent at one time Calvante and Welthaus were lovers, though how long their relationship lasted has never been verified.
[Calvante’s Diary, 26 January 1809]
Never in all my days has such a river of inspiration flown through me! And all in the name of Regina!
For the first time in my life, I have had the courage to ask dear Theodoro to publish my work. He of course has been asking for many years to publish my work, such a kind friend. With Regina by my side, a perfect vessel by which to test my poetry, I have unbridled confidence. I have read to her all of my poems, determining the strength of each poem by her reaction to their pathos. I trust her to recognize such language that touches the very heart and sets it alight.
Lisl is upset I have been shut up all this time with my work (and Regina, though I have told not a soul of my darling’s existence). Lisl will come to understand in time that I have been preoccupied with escorting poetry itself towards a new dawn, one where the passions and the intellect of man have united in the cause of a universal experience.
[From “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante”]
After the lackluster reception of the literary community to The Automaton, associates of Calvante began to notice the poet’s withdrawal from life. Friends blamed the stress of the book’s perfunctory debut, but these diaries indicate his growing paranoia about the “automaton” may have been the cause of this social reclusion. Intuitions that one is being persecuted, or that one is not in control of one’s actions, are common amongst those suffering from mental illnesses …
[Calvante’s Diary, 4 April, 1812]
I shall never know carnal longing or the scent of wine,
I will forget I am glass on which a hand rests–
It must be sad to be a mirror, a surface waiting to be whole.
If I am not mine, I am not the prisoner of Time.
A scrap of parchment with these words upon it was on my writing desk as I awoke this morning. She wrote it. Regina wrote this for me. My creation has a mind of her own.
Why then can I not stop weeping?
I have spent my whole life composing lines upon lines of drivel, just to have a taste of what true artistic genius feels like. I have been trodden underfoot by giants, by Shelley’s and Byron’s words and the whole rotting lot. I love them, and I hate them for being what I can never be, even if I lived to write for two hundred years.
My automaton–this, this thing–has surpassed me. I know because when I reached the last word, I felt within me a sadness that reaches beyond tears and makes contact with the inner soul. I never wanted to leave the poem, no matter how bleak and despairing it may have been. Once I finished reading that small scrap of parchment, I turned and saw her standing behind me, her face beaming in anticipation and joy.
“Look what I have done,” she said, her voice, which I had once associated with the soft wind blowing over the sea, like the diving screech of a hawk. In her outstretched hands, she held more parchment filled with dozens of poems.
How warm the fireplace seemed to me at that moment. How it would welcome those delicious pieces of parchment.
… Now that it is night and I have ordered Regina to retire, my head has cooled enough to write again.
How does she render life so beautifully? I think it is because poets seek to confront emptiness. All we long for is an answer to why we are here, and the fact we will never find this answer is the source of poetry’s attraction. We view ourselves from above and realize how small we are in the vast cosmos. How noble then is our pursuit of love and friendship when all things are destined to crumble and turn to dust! Not so Regina. She will never crumble, never decay. Her isolation is complete, as she will never know another creature that can tread the sands of time unscathed. Because she is perfect, she is alone. So her words reflect that loneliness in a way we can only begin to fathom.
I have heard it said that geniuses are lonely because they live as if in another world; few others can reach the peaks on which they stand. Today I feel as though I have discovered my own peak is only a hill in the shadow of a mountain.
[Bolingbroke’s Journal, 11 April, 2015]
Work on the Calvante diaries and the article exhausting. Not sleeping very well. Finding the diaries more disturbing as I go along. The line “it must be sad to be a mirror” especially. Whenever I hear someone saying they feel like they’re being used, or that they can’t express their own feelings at the expense of others, I say “don’t go through life as a mirror.” I think I picked it up from my father, but I can’t remember.
Whoever said this was right: never meet your heroes. Calvante is turning out to be something I don’t like, a jealous lout and misogynist. But that’s the illness, I’m sure. Can’t blame him for that.
[From “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante”]
As I Look Forward, published in 1814, was much more successful than The Automaton, and it brought Calvante to the attention of such poets as Shelley and Keats. Calvante, however, immediately scorned the success of the book and would hardly speak of it when asked about his success or forthcoming writing. His publisher and friend Theodoro DiFabio pleaded with Calvante to continue his work and publish a new book. Calvante refused, and his paranoiac tendencies intensified. He hardly left his home and cut his friends and correspondence from his life. No one close to the poet was able to find out the cause of his distress, but these diaries suggest that …
[Calvante’s Diary, 11 February, 1816]
My chest aches, and not only from my wracking cough. My heart feels composed of lead, and I believe it is trying to sink into darkness. I should let it.
All the poems in As I Look Forward belong to Regina, not me. Writing this does not bring me the relief of confession, but it does soothe my self-hatred. Every day she places a poem on my desk with her delicate right hand, the hand which bears the sickle moon scar–one of countless sophomoric mistakes I made during her construction. Every day I read, unable to stop myself from gorging on her tragic, elegant language. Every poem takes something from me, then gives it back tenfold. I recognize my own smallness and isolation, but I am forced to connect with another isolated voice in the darkness. She expands my soul. I cannot escape the lines of her poem “On Richard II”:
We are all of us this miscast king
Grasping at what we say is mine, I, my,
When in truth our lives are marbled mistakes
Brought by Accident’s arms into eternity.
I hate her. I hate her.
She loses memory of writing these poems, a side-effect of her creation I can never explain. It happened one day in 1814, when spring had reared its all-too-happy head, that I, drunk beyond reckoning, collected as many of her poems as I could find, and sent them off to Theodoro. He is an unwitting accomplice to plagiarism. Maybe he will find solace in Lisl’s bed, where I know he has been spending most of his nights of late.
I have called myself a poet for so long, I do not know how to be anything else. Am I some kind of half-crazed Jupiter, creating life and shunning it when it upsets me? Am I mad?
I long to exist in darkness for a while, where I can hear no scratch of the quill, see no smile of the girl who believes she pleases me when she shows me her work.
[Bolingbroke’s Journal, 21 May, 2015]
Don’t feel well. Went to doctor, said everything is fine. Suggested a shrink if memory lapses become worse. I forget where I am sometimes, other times I can’t remember who my parents were, how long I’ve lived in my flat. Sometimes I think I remember things that never happened to me.
Herb Harry Dad’s name is Harold Harrison
My goddamned father’s name is
shit shit I can’t remember
I have a scar on my right hand. Bicycle accident when I was eight. Shape of sickle moon
[From “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante”]
… So where does this “metal maiden” find her place in the literary canon?
Of course, she was not real. Calvante’s automaton was obviously a metaphorical muse, a conjured specter by which he could focus and dedicate his work. In the first few years of his published life, this muse served him well. It was only when success loomed large in the view of Calvante that he panicked. Unable to handle the sudden celebrity and notoriety of a famous poet, Calvante’s health and spirit broke down, and his muse morphed into a demon who haunted his every step. The poems Calvante stashed in his desk from 1815–1822 are equally as beautiful as those in As I Look Forward, but he was most likely too frightened to let them see the light of day. Calvante’s end is a sad one, succumbing not only to madness but also to a lung disease alone in his Milan rooms. His burial was paid for with the money he earned from his second book.
[Bolingbroke’s Journal, 12 June, 2015]
Regina -> Latin for “Queen”
Queen -> female monarch, equivalent to male “king”
Henry Bolingbroke -> Henry IV, king of England, usurper of Richard II
Henrietta -> female form of Henry
Henrietta Bolingbroke -> female king Henry
oh god I remember
[Calvante’s final entry, 18 July, 1822]
I can only write this in between the fits of coughing. No one will read this, so I am not concerned with the blood splatters on the pages.
It seems fitting I should die with only Regina by my side. She has killed me, after all: I believe the pollution from her frame has infiltrated my lungs, and I can hardly breathe. I have ordered her to burn these writings when I die, but who knows if her memory will fail her again? She seems unable to grasp the concept of death. I wonder how she will confront this utterly foreign enemy.
All that will survive of me is this automaton and the words I have passed off as my own. I thought of seeking absolution from her, telling her I am a thief of her genius. But could she understand? Would she care? She is, after all, my creation, so am I not therefore within my rights to claim her work as my own?
Even as I write those words, I feel what little good is left inside escape from me like water from a broken canteen.
… I have just told her I love her and sent her away. I have neither the strength nor desire to destroy her. I have sent a true orphan into the world. All I can give her now is my blessing. And what little love still exists inside me.
Word has just reached me that Percy Shelley has died by drowning. I would not put it past the proud miscreant to have killed himself in order to maintain a posthumous reputation. His poetry is fine, but I much more enjoyed his wife’s delightful tale on the resurrection of corpses.
[Bolingbroke’s final entry, 23 June, 2015]
For how long have I been Henrietta Bolingbroke? Who else have I been?
I feel like I have lived my whole life in front of a shuttered window, believing there was an ocean behind it because I could hear the waves and the seagulls and smell the salt in the air. Only when I removed the shutter did I realize I had constructed all those sensations in my mind, and I look out on an unending stretch of desert sand.
I am not me. I owe my existence to that madman, that deviant. He made me his daughter-bride. Nothing I have or have done is mine. Even my words are his.
Who would do this? Who could be so lonely?
… It has occurred to me that in time I will forget what I have discovered about Calvante and his metal maiden. Only so many years or decades until I forget what I am and become something else. I may be alone, but I have the greatest gift of all: I will forget I am alone. Calvante never had that. He did at least one thing right, and that was an accident.
A romantic notion: I can walk the earth forever, writing the poetry I love and scattering it along the ground like apple seeds in the spring. I will confront eternity and make it bearable for those who cannot stand to look so far forward. I will hold someone’s hand as they die.
Although I cannot remember, I have done it before.
Henrietta Bolingbroke is a graduate student at St. Didian’s University, closing in on her PhD in Comparative Literature with a concentration in Romantic Poetry. She is the recipient of the 2014 Madeline Chollet Memorial Poetry Prize, and her poetry has appeared in Conroy’s, Lost Ramblings Quarterly, and the Underground Review. Henrietta’s dissertation, “The Madness of Giacomo Calvante,” will complete her course of study.
Bobby O’Rourke is a native of New Jersey. He has had fiction appear in The Binnacle, Sanitarium Magazine, and The Writing Disorder, and has had poetry appear in Spires. He recently earned his MA from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Creative Writing and Literature. While formerly a teacher, he now works in higher education administration. When Bobby is not writing, he reads, sings in his car or at karaoke, and enjoys popping in a truly horrendous horror movie for laughs.
Errow is a comic artist and illustrator with a predilection towards the surreal and the familiar. She pays her time to developing worlds not quite like our own with her artist fiancee and pushing the queer agenda. She probably left a candle burning somewhere. More of her work can be found at errowcollins.wix.com/portfolio.
“Calvante’s Maiden” is © 2017 Bobby O’Rourke
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Errow Collins