The Point Is to Change It: Poetry and Criticism in the Continuing Present

By Jerome McGann | Go to book overview

1
Philological Investigations

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.

—Frank O’Hara, “Meditations in an Emergency”


1

Forty-eight constellations once populated the heavens. Then, at the end of the sixteenth century the navigator Pieter Keyser traveled to the East Indies and discovered in the southern sky twelve more to add to Ptolemy’s canon. Today eighty-eight have been officially recognized. But we know that those “infinite mountains of light” are in fact numberless. We know too that they are, as Blake knew, for ever “falling, rushing ruining! buried in the ruins, on Urthona’s dens.”1

Suppose we start again, this time from the ruins of Poe and not Paumanok, from Swinburne instead of Browning, from Stein and Riding rather than Pound and Eliot. Suppose we start by imagining the protest Robert Burns would make against any Lives of the Poets written to the measure of Lyrical Ballads. Would not he have justly cried: “Before Wordsworth was, I am”?2

“Are there not other gods for other loves?”3

For all the gods undergo shocking changes in their historical passage, as the pestilence-stricken Coventry Patmore shows. There is more in those ruins than “The Angel in the House.”

What rumour’d heavens are these
Which not a poet sings,
O, Unknown Eros? What this breeze
Of sudden wings
Speeding at far returns from interstellar space,
To fan my very face,
And gone as fleet?4

-1-

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