When critics play parlor games, they imagine how they would have reviewed the controversial books of the past. Critics are later judged, not by the book they failed to pan, but by the book they failed to praise. Most are certain that, given the chance, they would have recognized the genius of Lyrical Ballads, or Leaves of Grass, or The Waste Land. We pour bile on the heads of the dolts of 1798 and 1855 and 1922 who didn’t realize what was on the desk before them.
When you look at those wrongheaded, purblind reviews now long forgotten, however, it’s surprising how shrewd they are, even the most notorious ones. The critics (like the poets themselves) were creatures of their day, and subject to the prejudices of the day. The reviewer is most vulnerable facing a poetry that threatens convention—violations of form and formality tend to provoke the most ill-considered judgments. Yet even there, after you have adjusted for bias, the critic can be uncannily canny about the poetry itself. Such contemporary insight is important not just for its punctuality. The reviews expose how the poets failed the time—or how their time failed the poets. Only by knowing how critics resisted the work can we see what the poetry put in danger.
The first review of Leaves of Grass was written by Charles A. Dana, editor of the New York Daily Tribune.
From the unique effigies of the anonymous author of this volume which graces the frontispiece, we may infer that he belongs to the exemplary class of society sometimes irreverently styled “loafers.” He is therein represented in a garb, half sailor’s, half workman’s, with no superfluous appendage of coat or waistcoat, a “wide-awake” perched jauntily on his head, one hand in his pocket and the other on his hip, with a certain air of mild defiance.
The book’s frontispiece, a stipple engraving after a lost daguerreotype of the author, displayed a New York rough with his loose clothing and workman’s hat—a sailor’s open-collared blouse, the moleskin pants of a carpenter, and a slightly crushed soft-crowned hat, called a “wide-awake” supposedly because it lacked the felt “nap.” Here was the perfect democrat, a man showing where he stood by wearing neither coat nor waistcoat, while he slouched, hip cocked, staring out boldly at the reader.
Whitman’s extraordinary loose-limbed preface to Leaves of Grass made grand claims:
There will soon be no more priests. . . . Through the divinity of themselves shall the kosmos and the new breed of poets be interpreters of men and women and of all events and things.
Dana distilled Whitman’s vision of the poet as a democratic bard:
His language is too frequently reckless and indecent. . . . His words might have passed between Adam and Eve in Paradise, before the want of fig-leaves brought no shame; but they are quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society, and will justly prevent his volume from free circulation in scrupulous circles. . . . The Leaves of Grass . . . are full of bold, stirring thoughts . . . but so disfigured with eccentric fancies as to prevent a consecutive perusal without offense.
The idea that poetry has a proper language had been invoked against Lyrical Ballads half a century before and would be repeated against Howl a century after. However irritated Whitman made the critic, Dana detected something in this “odd genius.” What fair-minded reader now would claim that Whitman’s verse is not “disfigured with eccentric fancies,” even if we can’t quite believe that his language would have served “Adam and Eve in Paradise, before the want of fig-leaves”? (Surely Dana meant “brought shame,” not “brought no shame.”) If we are no longer offended, the critic has merely registered the local propriety, as Emily Dickinson did when she wrote Thomas Higginson: “You speak of Mr Whitman—I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.”
The young Charles Eliot Norton, later editor of the North American Review, discovered, in a roundup of books,
a curious and lawless collection of poems, called Leaves of Grass, and issued in a thin quarto without the name of publisher or author. The poems, twelve in number, are neither in rhyme nor blank verse, but in a sort of excited prose broken into lines without any attempt at measure or regularity, and, as many readers will perhaps think, without any idea of sense or reason. The writer’s scorn for the wonted usages of good writing, extends to the vocabulary he adopts; words usually banished from polite society are here employed without reserve and with perfect indifference to their effect on the reader’s mind; . . . the introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable.
The word “lawless” now reads more like a compliment—the laws Norton had in mind have come to seem antiquated, remote, even charmingly naive (and so were not laws but practicalities).
The diction of English poetry has gone through many cycles of contraction and release, when the fashion of one day has hardened into the law of the next—just as certain styles of clothing have fossilized into custom, like the vestments of Catholic priests, some of them more than a millennium old. More telling are periods when taste reversed direction, so that fifty years after his death Shakespeare was rewritten for the delicate tongue, and more than a century after that bowdlerized for the delicate ear.
Norton observed the violence in Whitman’s violations—the “excited prose,” the rejection of the authority of taste, the speech without reserve. It isn’t known to what obscenities the Manhattan Island ear was exposed in the “blab of the pave,” but Norton was objecting to Whitman’s embrace of American slang. Who now could dislike a poet who vilified government, as Whitman did in his preface, for its “swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics. . . . It is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer”?
Norton was embarrassed by Whitman’s lack of embarrassment. The judgment is a matter for social history and psychology; even if our ancestors never stitched skirts around piano legs, there was a nicety to language we should now think absurd. We moderns are not yet above such arguments, with the insistent self-censorship of television, newspapers, and magazines (even the New Yorker long maintained a list of banned words). Television’s casual murders, blood sports, and vulgar humor bother few—though its adolescent carnality and cable porn might have jaded even Lord Rochester. Whitman’s critics were disturbed by the indecency of passages like:
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous . . . . quivering jelly of love . . .
white-blow and delirious juice,
Bridegroom-night of love working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn,
Undulating into the willing and yielding day,
Lost in the cleave of the clasping and sweetfleshed day.
Norton saw the barbarians at the gates in Whitman’s “mixture of Yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism” (married, he was surprised to see, in the “most perfect harmony”); yet, despite his bluestocking sensibility, he found himself drawn to “this gross yet elevated, this superficial yet profound, this preposterous yet somehow fascinating book.” (Whitman’s contradictions have perhaps never been better sketched.) The critic’s prejudices were largely social, but he understood the poet’s means and ambition. Though Norton was prepared to believe that Whitman was what he claimed to be—an American rough—he had his doubts whether the poet was a kosmos. Honest critics doubt that still.
Once we discount Norton’s reflexive resistance, his insights seem largely acute, the better for his occasional wit—he wrote his friend James Russell Lowell that the poet “combines the characteristics of a Concord philosopher with those of a New York fireman,” continuing, however,
there are some passages of most vigorous and vivid writing, some superbly graphic descriptions, great stretches of imagination,—and then, passages of intolerable coarseness,—not gross and licentious but simply disgustingly coarse. The book is such indeed that one cannot leave it about for chance readers, and would be sorry to know that any woman has looked into it past the title page. I have got a copy for you.
The British, who took to Whitman more eagerly than the Americans, were not immune to exaggerated complaint. The reviewer in the Critic thundered that the poems could be compared to “nothing so much as the war-cry of the Red Indians,” while the poet was “as unacquainted with art, as a hog is with mathematics” (the critic had forgotten Toby the Sapient Pig, who had made his debut on the London stage in 1817):
We had ceased, we imagined, to be surprised at anything that America could produce. We had become stoically indifferent to her Woolly Horses, her Mermaids, her Sea Serpents, her Barnums, and her Fanny Ferns; but the last monstrous importation from Brooklyn, New York, has scattered our indifference to the winds.
The Woolly Horse was one of Barnum’s “humbugs,” though a real genetic mutation. The Fejee Mermaid was another humbug, but a fake. Fanny Fern was the first woman newspaper columnist (and therefore as freakish as the woolly horse or Fejee mermaid), and later a defender of Whitman. The comparisons tell us something of the British view of America in the decades following Martin Chuzzlewit and Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans.
Few now recall Martin Farquhar Tupper, the author of Proverbial Philosophy (1838), a volume of poetic fustian composed in long prosy lines, which sold more than a million copies. A review in the London Examiner called Whitman a “wild Tupper of the West.”
Suppose that Mr. Tupper had been brought up to the business of an auctioneer, then banished to the backwoods, compelled to live for a long time as a backwoodsman, and thus contracting a passion for the reading of Emerson and Carlyle; suppose him maddened by this course of reading, and fancying himself not only an Emerson but a Carlyle and an American Shakespeare to boot, when the fits come on, and putting forth his notion of that combination in his own self-satisfied way, and in his own wonderful cadences? In that state he would write a book exactly like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
The Brooklyn poet may indeed have borrowed some notion of the poetic line from Tupper, or from others who wrote in quasi-Biblical cadences—Whitman’s free verse was not without precedent. Yet the reviewer saw beyond the defects:
He asserts man’s right to express his delight in animal enjoyment, and the harmony in which he should stand, body and soul, with fellow-men and the whole universe. To express this, and to declare that the poet is the highest manifestation of this, generally also to suppress shame, is the purport of these Leaves of Grass. Perhaps it might have been done as well, however, without being always so purposely obscene, and intentionally foul-mouthed.
Filter out the qualms about language, the language not meant for poetry, and the remarks are cunning even while cutting. However scathing the criticism, however it looked down its nose at the upstart American, the droll mingling of Emerson, Carlyle, and Shakespeare was insightful, and the backhanded remarks hilarious—what do we have in Leaves of Grass but pages and pages of a man of some culture, playacting the rough? Only the Whitman Whitman wished to be had sheltered a runaway slave or seen the marriage of a trapper and a “red girl.” (When Bronson Alcott visited Brooklyn, Whitman claimed to be a house-builder—but Whitman’s mother confessed that the poet’s brother was the builder and that Walt “had no business but going out and coming in.”)
The anonymous reviewer then wrote a burlesque of this backwoodsman, as if his leaves had been torn from an auction catalogue:
Surely the house of a poet is a poem, and behold a poet in the auctioneer who tells you the whole lot of it—
The bath stone, compass front, open border, fender, shovel, tongs, and poker,
The blue moreen festoon window-curtain, the mahogany dining-table on the floor,
The six ditto hollow seat chairs covered with blue moreen,
Covered with blue moreen and finished with a double row of brass nails and check cases,
The Wilton carpet, sun shade, line and pulleys, the deal sideboard stained, . . .
The Tragic Muse in a gold frame.
No matter how trivial Whitman sometimes seems, he is never as trivial as this—and never as giddy (Whitman lacked few things, but among them was a sense of humor). Yet here, here too, what was misguided was not unfair. The untidy Whitman is easy to love—the reviewer simply had not learned how.
The most difficult book to review is, like a Fejee Mermaid, unlike anything seen before—or one that, despite superficial similarities to the literature of the day, is radically different. Often the author knows he is presenting a work strange and difficult. When Whitman published Leaves of Grass anonymously, adding his self-justifying preface, he had done no more than the authors of Lyrical Ballads before him. Whitman went one better by also sending his freshly printed book to the most famous literary man of the day, who in 1844 had called for an American poetry in his essay “The Poet”:
Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boa[s]ts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes.
Emerson could not have imagined that the young author would print the sage’s effusive reply in the second edition, issued months later, with an excerpt stamped in gold on the spine—“I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” (This is perhaps the earliest example of the purloined blurb.) However shy and gentle Whitman was in his codgery years, when he published Leaves of Grass he was a bustling, go-ahead young man—restless as a hyena, in the argot of the day, and sharp-practiced enough to write no fewer than three reviews of the book himself.
The “advertisement” to Lyrical Ballads, probably written by Wordsworth, was a canny defense of a revolution in poetic diction.
The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers . . . will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry.
By “experiments,” Wordsworth was referring to those of the scientist. This was not the first time poetry had been called experimental. Henry Pemberton, in Observations on Poetry (1738), remarked that epic and dramatic poetry show the “natural effects of different tempers and passions under feigned actions” and “may very justly be compared with the experimental part of natural philosophy” (the term for what we now call science). If experimental poetry still aims to upend convention, the scientific overtone has been lost —perhaps unfortunately, for experiments in literature succeed far less frequently than those in the lab, which rarely succeed at all.
The poems Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote before Lyrical Ballads were typical of their late Augustan day. They gave little hint of such a departure in style and ambition—and the mask of anonymity protected the small reputations they had already gained. With England at war against France, the French Revolution still in progress (Louis XVI had been executed only five years before), and growing fears at home about the discontent among laborers and the poor, the notion of overthrowing the high-flown, regal diction of Pope in favor of the humble language of cottage and field might have been called seditious, had people feared poetry more.
It was on the problem of diction that many of the reviews concentrated their wrath. Charles Burney remarked in the Monthly Review,
Though we have been extremely entertained with the fancy, the facility, and (in general) the sentiments, of these pieces, we cannot regard them as poetry, of a class to be cultivated at the expence of a higher species of versification, unknown in our language at the time when our elder writers, whom this author condescends to imitate, wrote their ballads.
This argument over the identity of poetry—that the poems, whatever their virtues, were not poems—has often been at the center of the attack on the “experimental.”
We have become so inured to Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s title, it’s easy to forget that to the readers of 1798 it meant some scraps that had fallen out of Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Lyrical Ballads offered, not a march forward, but a leap backward to the poetry of centuries before—it was peddling the faux antique only a generation after the Ossian hoax, and just eleven years after the publication of Chatterton’s fake Rowley poems. The difference was that the poems in Lyrical Ballads were, at worst, self-conscious imitations of antique style. (Burney overplayed the point—they don’t seem that antique). It was easy to dismiss imitation while ignoring the means provided for a change more radical—the use, not just of common diction, but of the lives of the poor, of sailors, of shepherds, of the dispossessed. In the end, poetry always ends up republican.
The reaction was akin to what might be expected if Sotheby’s started to auction Ethan Allen furniture. Burney continued:
Would it not be degrading poetry, as well as the English language, to go back to the barbarous and uncouth numbers of Chaucer? Suppose, instead of modernizing the old bard, that the sweet and polished measures, on lofty subjects, of Dryden, Pope, and Gray, were to be transmuted into the dialect and versification of the xivth century? Should we be gainers by the retrogradation? Rust is a necessary quality to a counterfeit old medal: but, to give artificial rust to modern poetry . . . can have no better title to merit and admiration than may be claimed by any ingenious forgery.
Ingenious forgery. There is the taint left by Chatterton and Macpherson. Recall that “The Foster-Mother’s Tale” would have seemed an allusion to The Canterbury Tales—Chaucer had gained a reputation for barbarousness largely because people had forgotten how to pronounce Middle English (Shakespeare’s and Donne’s “numbers” were also uncouth, compared to the smooth lack of anapestic variation in Pope). This is always the problem with Whiggish criticism—the present has evolved from a savage past, and civilization can be defended only by barring the uncivilized. The sacrifice of the broader subjects available in freer diction is not admitted. The source of retrogradation, however, lay in the retrograde motion of planets, which at times move backward across the sky—a mystery until Copernicus. Burney should have known that the apparent drift backward concealed nothing but forward progress.
Despite all this fuss about the upstart poets, marching toward the ill-numbered past, when Burney finally came to the poems he was remarkably reasonable.
When we confess that our author has had the art of pleasing and interesting in no common way by his natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents, we must add that these effects were not produced by the poetry:—we have been as much affected by pictures of misery and unmerited distress, in prose. The elevation of soul, when it is lifted into the higher regions of imagination, affords us a delight of a different kind from the sensation which is produced by the detail of common incidents.
This was the point of rupture with the poetic diction of the time. If for nothing else, we can be grateful that the doctor’s crack about prose probably fired Wordsworth to compose the longer preface to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads, in which he defended poems written in the “real language of men.”
At every point where Burney might have glimpsed the book’s virtues, he was prevented by a hidebound view of what poetry is; yet he sensed, in the darkened mirror of taste, something he could not quite put a name to.
The author’s first piece, the Rime of the ancyent marinere, in imitation of the style as well as of the spirit of the elder poets, is the strangest story of a cock and a bull that we ever saw on paper: yet, though it seems a rhapsody of unintelligible wildness and incoherence, . . . there are in it poetical touches of an exquisite kind.
There is a kind of unintelligible wildness in Coleridge’s youthful work (as well as an intelligible wildness)—that is part of its importance, and much of its charm. The critic was right in perhaps every way except the one that matters—he did not understand that the earth had shifted. Just such a quake occurs symbolically in “The Foster-Mother’s Tale.” Lyrical Ballads failed to fit the definition of poetry because the definition of poetry was suddenly out of date.
Burney went through the book at length, praising where he could, hurling the critic’s darts everywhere else (“All our author’s pictures, in colouring, are dark as those of Rembrandt,” “Here candour and tenderness for criminals seem pushed to excess,” “Another tale of woe!”). He was bemused when he sensed political radicalism (“if all the poor are to . . . supply their wants from the possessions of their neighbours, what imaginary wants and real anarchy would it not create?”). Burney was a bit too worried by the poets’ fondness for criminals and the poems’ criticism of the army.
The good doctor certainly missed the point at times, claiming of “The Foster-Mother’s Tale” that it “seems meant to throw disgrace on the savage liberty preached by some modern philosophes.” It’s true that the boy in the poem is brought to “heretical and lawless talk” by too much reading, but Coleridge hardly intended a sermon on the danger of books. Yet Burney praised numerous poems, including “The Nightingale” (“Miltonic, yet original”), “Simon Lee,” and “The Idiot Boy.” And it takes a hard heart not to admit that “We Are Seven” is “infantine prattle.”
Burney may have been right that Wordsworth strained logic here and there. The doctor suggested that in “The Last of the Flock” the Job-like shepherd “had, indeed, ten children: but so have many cottagers; and ere the tenth child is born, the eldest begin to work, and help, at least, to maintain themselves.” Perhaps—but Burney overlooked the crushing truth beneath, that in straitened times the shepherd might have to sell all he had to keep his children from starving. The weepy melodrama hides an uncomfortable truth. Whatever his animadversions, and however narrow the needle through which he was forced to view the poems, Burney frequently succumbed to grouchy praise:
The style and versification are those of our antient ditties: but much polished, and more constantly excellent. In old songs, we have only a fine line or stanza now and then; here we meet with few that are feeble:—but it is poesie larmoiante. The author is more plaintive than Gray himself.
Poesie larmoiante—sob-story poetry. (The remark that Wordsworth had out-Grayed Gray would have stung—Wordsworth detested Gray.) There’s an uncommon amount of tear-jerking in Lyrical Ballads, far more than in the border ballads from which they distantly descended—so many are the tears described or evoked that the cock-and-a-bull story of “The Ancient Mariner” serves almost as comic relief. It’s hard not to agree that “Tintern Abbey,” though the “reflections of no common mind; poetical, beautiful, and philosophical,” is also “tinctured with gloomy, narrow, and unsociable ideas of seclusion.” Lyrical Ballads is an uncomfortably dark book—when the city looks at the country, it rarely sees how poor and hardscrabble it is. (Poets of eclogue and pastoral often seem willfully obtuse.)
The Waste Land, another gloomy poem, famously confounded early reviewers. Some insisted on reading it through the lens of the author’s earlier work (a strategy that would have produced poor results for Lyrical Ballads and Leaves of Grass, had they not been published anonymously). Some spent a long time talking about anything but the poem: F. L. Lucas offered a long digression on Alexandria, Clive Bell a pointless anecdote about plumping for Eliot by reading “Prufrock” at a country-house weekend in 1916—or was it 1917? Some listed the allusions, at length, or quoted, at greater length. Some, like J. C. Squire, gave the whole thing up as a bad job (“I am still unable to make head or tail of it”). It occurred to few that a poem weighed down by allusion was also a man weighed down by allusion, which in the dreary wasteland of postwar London might have suggested that culture had reached a saturation, where little could be said that had not been said before. And almost no one saw that the real wastes that haunted the speaker (as opposed to the interior desert of a man at the end of his tether) might have been the torn-up battlefields across the Channel. If reviewers resist actually reviewing the book, it tells us something about reviewers, but much more about the book.
When critics tried to come to grips with the poem, however much they disliked it, the results were more telling. Louis Untermeyer was a bad poet and a worse critic, but he struggled resolutely with a poem he had every reason to dislike (later he included it, perhaps a little grudgingly, in his endless string of anthologies). He had a stronger sense than most critics, however, of the inner relation between The Waste Land and Eliot’s previous work—the traits of Eliot’s earliest poems (“an elaborate irony, a twitching disillusion, a persistent though muffled hyperaesthesia”) had been merged with the “harder and more crackling tone of voice” of the later, which reveled “in virtuosity for its own sake, in epigrammatic velleities, in an incongruously mordant and disillusioned vers de société.” The characterizations were not unfair—they were merely misdirected. The Waste Land, Untermeyer concluded,
is a pompous parade of erudition, a lengthy extension of the earlier disillusion, a kaleidoscopic movement in which the bright-coloured pieces fail to atone for the absence of an integrated design. As an echo of contemporary despair, as a picture of dissolution of the breaking-down of the very structures on which life has modelled itself, “The Waste Land” has a definite authenticity. But an artist is, by the very nature of creation, pledged to give form to formlessness; even the process of disintegration must be held within a pattern.
Untermeyer sought pattern, and was disturbed when he could not find it (pattern was there, but not in the place he looked): “This pattern is distorted and broken by Mr. Eliot’s jumble of narratives, nursery-rhymes, criticism, jazz-rhythms, ‘Dictionary of Favourite Phrases’ and a few lyrical moments.” Exactly, but to the critic this was not poetry:
Possibly the disruption of our ideals may be reproduced through such a mélange, but it is doubtful whether it is crystallized or even clarified by a series of severed narratives—tales from which the connecting tissue has been carefully cut—and familiar quotations with their necks twisted, all imbedded in that formless plasma which Mr. Ezra Pound likes to call a Sordello-form.
The critic committed the common sin of projecting an obligation, here the artist’s promise “to give form to formlessness”—in The Waste Land, the breaking of this promise is the point. Untermeyer understood the poem’s defects but not that they were the medium for something more interesting. It was exactly the lack of integration that told the tale, or the tales. Yet more favorable critics might not have been stringent enough to characterize Eliot “as an analyst of desiccated sensations, as a recorder of the nostalgia of this age,” and The Waste Land as a poem “whose value is, at least, documentary.” (Eliot is one of the great poets of city life, and urban manners.) The truths of the bad reviewer are often more troubling than the emollient praise of critics without an axe to grind.
The sins of the critic are almost all sins of damaged expectation. A reviewer like the anonymous J. M. in the Double Dealer may have believed that The Waste Land was the “agonized outcry of a sensitive romanticist drowning in a sea of jazz,” nothing more than a “medley of catch-phrases, allusions, innuendos, paraphrase and quotation [that] gives unmistakable evidence of rare poetic genius,” and that the poem would have been perfectly clear to Eliot, “for whom every quotation has an emotional and intellectual connotation of intense significance.” To everyone else, however, “it must remain a hodge-podge of grandeur and jargon.” Of course The Waste Land is that—it was everything J. M. said. The poem merely required readers who could believe that such a work was no bad thing.
The decades after such reviews would prove that Leaves of Grass, Lyrical Ballads, and The Waste Land offered poetry a way out of the past—it’s always hard for critics to recognize opportunities before some poet has taken advantage of them, and hard even then to admit that they were opportunities. The problem was never that the critics did not see, but that they did not know how to value what they saw. That would take no more than time—or other critics.
Once the genius of Shakespeare, or Coleridge and Wordsworth, or Whitman, or Eliot is generally agreed, the critics who backed the wrong horse are generally written out of literary history, or held up to ridicule. Yet those critics of whom time makes fools—John Wilson Croker on Endymion (“We almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody”), Francis Jeffrey on The Excursion (“This will never do”), and many another—are often more worth reading than the critics of the day who got it right. We know what the latter critics will say—their taste is what our ears have been filled with; but, unless we read the other critics with attention, we can forget what an uncertain thing a poet’s reputation was at the start, forget what withering glances the poems themselves had to overcome, forget that, if the naysayers had had their way, literary history might have been different. Reading the reviews that mistook genius is not simply cold comfort for critics whom taste passed by, or an exercise in antiquarian taste. The critics who got it wrong remind us that poets in whom we now see only virtues once seemed full of vices, and that, though we may value those vices differently, sometimes it is their presence that makes the virtues virtues.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 8, on page 21
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com