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Monday, May 21, 2007

I’ve been reading history the last few months in no disciplined fashion, skipping back and forth in time over the last 3000 years, in older works like A Distant Mirror and in brand-spanking new ones like Justinian’s Flea and The Making of Victorian Values (just to name the three I’m reading now), and next up is The Ghost Map. In The Making of Victorian Values I just finished the chapter “Byroned,” which explores the vitriolic critical reaction to the first two cantos of Don Juan, and I was struck by this remarkable paragraph:

It was not personal animosity toward Byron or dislike of his poetry that sparked this extraordinary language. He was feared because he wielded a terrifying weapon. … [In The Edinburgh Review, Francis Jeffrey wrote] Poetry had the power to awaken and animate the passions like nothing else in art; a painter could depict a tiger, but only a great poet had the power to imbue a man with the features of a ferocious tiger while making him “interesting and attractive.” Poetry was explosive and awesome in its hold over the passions: “it is the object of poetry to make us feel for distant and imaginary occurrences nearly as strongly as if they were present or real.”

I’ve been in a lot meetings in the last two weeks, not one having squat to do with poetry, and that passage tipped me from irritation over wasted time to near-despair over the status of poetry today.


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