IN PORTRAITURE, BEETHOVEN’S GAZE is focused on something beyond the frame — never the viewer but a dimension larger than it, perhaps history or nature, on a long and winding trajectory toward God. An icon for the figure of the artist in any field, his impassive stare evokes ideals synonymous with his music: radical, revolutionary, and transcendent, with a considerable admixture of vulnerability and uncertainty. This year was to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth, but he has been upstaged by a plague. For many, the arc of hope traced by the Fifth Symphony’s journey from dark to light, the mindfulness in the late piano sonatas and string quartets, could not be timelier.

A quarter of a millennium hasn’t blunted Beethoven’s originality or his capacity to startle his listeners. Likewise, Ruth Padel’s Beethoven Variations: Poems on a Life challenges the assumption that the long-dead composer has little relevance to the contemporary moment. The book follows Darwin: A Life in Poems (2010) in its examination of a totemic subject through an autobiographical lens. Currently professor of poetry at King’s College London, Padel is also Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter. Associations between speaker and subject in the Darwin book naturally allow for more intimate reflections on inheritance. Still, the connections forged here, no less resonant for lack of blood relation, speak to the composer’s universality. From early memories of playing chamber music at home to a touching later recollection of her dad’s nerves before a performance, the composer is inseparable from Padel’s family life. Their parents having met through music, Padel and her siblings effectively owe their existence to Beethoven. Grappling with his scores offers vital lessons in life: “Here we are still, the five of us, / trying to get the counting right.” Stepping inside works of art can be daunting — “Music in the Dark of the Mind,” as the title of the first section puts it. Music-making tracks the evolution of the person through the aesthetic:

I learned that music is love,

an echolocation
which falters or explores
across a cave of unknown distances

most safely entered by music.

Padel’s light touch in such moments of self-analysis does not redirect attention away from the legend so much as recharge the reader’s perception of the unfolding drama of the composer’s life.

Beethoven Variations begins from the composer’s point of death before traversing a broadly linear chronology. “Listen,” the collection’s prelude, plunges the reader into the presiding Beethovenian fact of his deafness: “They say the ear bone, shaped like the bowl / of a tiny spoon, lasts longest when we die.” The short run Beethoven enjoyed of hearing cannot fail to convert the composer into a figure of tragic paradox. Less known are the blows dealt him by his upbringing. Beethoven was the precocious eye in the storm of his father’s alcoholism: “your father is magnetite / dragging all the iron in your soul / into his own force field: // you seal yourself in” (“If Your Father Damaged You”). Disability and paternalism conspired to undo a tenacious soul, but instead galvanized becoming — “but he was the one who made you, / beat the notes into you on the clavier.”

A conversational intimacy much like the composer’s chamber works is a notable feature of Padel’s rendering of second-person address, Beethoven’s story directed as much to him as it is to us. The neat formulations of the lyric impulse, however, mean the book cannot channel the ribaldry and wit associated with the subject. Chaos and roughness are generally excluded from the contemporary English lyric, which prizes the moral rectitude of its pastoral tropes.

Biography in the form of the poem sequence cannot ignore that life is episodic and narrative — a construction of fragments. This places a premium on the burden of selection higher than is the case in the genre of biography itself. Poets wield their special license. The first-person speaker often doubling as witness (“I see a small boy dashing through these alleys / to play for early mass”) to a scene or event from which time excludes her would be deemed improper for historical biographers in prose. The power of conjuration here is as much archival as it is imaginative — conjecture closing the gap between past and present. Padel’s invocations originate in the places once blessed by Beethoven’s presence, serving as a reminder to the reader of the book’s partiality — the orchestration, as it were, of one life through the prism of another.

Despite sowing the conditions for romanticism to flourish, Beethoven was a heroic rather than romantic artist. His early intuition that music could insulate him from a world that frequently turned away led to a life of material and spiritual struggle, mirroring a uniquely 19th-century aesthetic spectrum. Fleeting contact with Haydn, chief figure of the Sturm und Drang and Beethoven’s reluctant mentor, is likely to have been pivotal here. The young boy turned protégé

perfected some holy zone
of concentration, where he’s unreachable,
where three descending semitones
say there is answer in the world (“On Not Needing Other People”).

The poem’s title alone argues that Beethoven’s heroic sensibility was innate rather than cultivated. Deafness entrenched his burgeoning alienation: “He knows he is different. He can do nothing about it / there is something inside / beyond the essential stirrings of the world.” “Letters to Josephine,” from the later “Hero” section, reveals that the title of the former poem is woundingly ironic: Beethoven wanted nothing more than to be with someone, his thwarted attempts at courtship almost a sign of maladjustment. Padel carefully navigates the fraught scenario between Beethoven and the daughter of an aristocrat on whom he avidly set his eyes. Of course, the composer’s advances prove disastrous. But in the end, history handed down to her the crueller fate: “You battle / to get your children back, but die alone aged forty-two.” Like a number of instances across the collection, the poem is structured around Padel’s expansive empathy:

I can hardly bear to read his letters to you
pouring out his heart, not knowing
that in two hundred years
everyone will be able to share this lightly, online.

The collection’s marshalling of facts and anecdotes is reminiscent of a biopic, phrasing like “Sunlight on the Rhine” and “Berlin. Winter, 1970” akin to establishing shots. Such expressive economy all too often reads as if the distillation of ideas is sacrificed for exposition, the salient details of story accorded higher status than poetic discourse. Terse, accretive sentences sometimes stray into list territory, although concision is required the deeper history is mined. “We are all Vienna, the beautiful / city you cannot trust,” Padel claims in “The Shadow Behind the Door” of encountering the capital of the classical tradition, whose chocolate-box image belies its sedimented traumas. Padel pursues the city’s ghosts, or rather they force her to confront them. Beethoven comes into improbable contact with the Holocaust — “Jews, living in the house of Beethoven!” appears in a newspaper report from 1941. Given his response to Napoleon’s ransacking of his adopted home and the revolution’s lurch toward imperialist violence, it is little wonder that such history is enfolded in our reckoning with the composer in the present. Walter Benjamin’s thesis that civilization is pockmarked by barbarism seems distantly echoed here, Beethoven’s appropriation very much part of the problem:

the light
of enlightenment driven away
by monsters at the heart
and fallen feathers in the dirt like warnings.

If “monsters” is weak, “light / of enlightenment” only just rescues the cliché. This counterpoints the dominant symbolism of darkness in the book’s historical commentary, calling Beethovenian chiaroscuro to mind.

Beethoven Variations raises the difficulty of poets writing about music. The book’s subtitle, Poems on a Life, declares that prior attention is being given to a biosocial, rather than a musicological, phenomenon. Yet the quality of that attention when it turns to the music is variable: “Moonlight Sonata” dispatches a key piano work in the informational manner of a program note, whereas “Eroica” distinguishes itself through the deft manner in which thought is mobilized by the poem’s music. Such examples are rare, though, in a sequence that almost refuses to overstep the mark. It’s an ill-fitting poetics for a subject who raged against the bar line. Perhaps the point is that lyric transparency leaves room for the mind to breathe in the heat of Beethoven’s all-out assault on the senses. “Life-Notes: A Coda,” some 30 pages of tightly written prose fragments following the poems, takes this too far. Padel is nothing if not generous here, not to mention the section hints at the research required to mount a portrait of an artistic titan. In the end, I struggled with the impression of an unfortunate payoff — that the facts have supplanted ambiguity, poetry found wanting at the wrong end of prose.

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Christopher Madden is a writer and critic. He is the editor, with James Byrne, of The Robert Sheppard Companion (Shearsman Books, 2019). His work includes essays on Malcolm Lowry, Holocaust humor, and Annie Proulx.