“Were we uncomfortable epigoni of Frost, Pound, Eliot, Marianne Moore, etc?” Robert Lowell muses in his memoir of John Berry-man. Reading Lowell’s Collected Prose, I marveled at the way each generation feels overshadowed by the generation that preceded it. A decade after his death, Lowell seems even larger now than he did when he was a living presence on the scene, our greatest poet. His work resonates with undiminished force; it appears out of another world. I was struck by how old-fashioned, how rare and archaic his erudition must sound to a contemporary reader. Page after page of effortless discourse on such matters as the merits of various English translations of Ovid from the Renaissance to our own day; the problems of translating Phèdre; the character of the “woman-shy man” in French literature, in Racine, Constant, Stendhal: there’s no impulse to show off in...


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