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September 30, 2003 by AK

Anti-Pope

Aaron Haspel ‘debunks’ Alexander Pope in the most recent of his rare but piercing poetry posts.

His poetry is unsatisfactory because the dominant ideas of his time are unsatisfactory. He might have written great poetry had he been born a hundred years earlier or two hundred later. Instead he was bequeathed a cheap and facile philosophy, lacked the intelligence to think his way out of it, and became a poet of glittering fragments, no more. His vices are those of his age; his virtues are his own.

If one can extricate a poet’s philosophy from his verse, too bad. The best, the ultimate and the only expression of a perfect poet’s philosophy is his work.

Russia had a few brilliant philosopher poets, from Lomonosov to Derzhavin to Baratynsky to Tyutchev to… you name them; their best poems satisfy that condition. A few lines can be torn out of context and presented as separate maxims — e.g., “I am a king — I am a slave — I am a worm — I am a God” (Derzhavin), but we should always think of them as elements of a greater structure.

On the other hand (would I were eight-handed like the venerable Saraswati), Pushkin called Derzhavin’s verse poorly translated thoughts of a genius. In these days of polystylistics, it turns out the translation was quite apt.


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