Friday, 3 February 2017

'It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries...'

There's an excellent 'Pulpit' editorial in this month's Literary Review, in which Nicholas Murray, a poet, biographer and publisher, politely questions recent claims that we are now living in 'a golden age for poetry'. For Murray, the only question that really matters in the end is 'Is it any good?' - not how much of it is there around, how big are the prizes, how much of a splash is it making? He would like to see a little more discriminating criticism and 'a little less prize-night babble' in the world of poetry. Indeed.
  On this day in 1818, in a letter to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds, Keats wrote:
'It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries - that Wordsworth &c. should have their due from us. But, for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egoist - Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself.... We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us - and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one's soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. - How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, "admire me I am a violet! - dote upon me I am a primrose!" Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this. Each of the moderns like an Elector of Hanover governs his petty state, and knows how many straws are swept daily from the Causeways in all his dominions and has a continual itching that all the Housewives should have their coppers well scoured: the antients were Emperors of vast Provinces, they had only heard of the remote ones and scarcely cared to visit them. - I will cut all this - I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular - Why should we be of the tribe of Manasseh, when we can wander with Esau? why should we kick against the Pricks when we can walk on Roses? Why should we be Owls, when we can be Eagles?...'
  Golden age or no golden age, it is always more profitable to look back than to look around.

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