149. (Robert Lowell)

“Self-accusation,” writes Geoffrey Hill, “is the life-blood of Romanticism.” For a long time, I thought Lowell a late-Romantic, working back, through the reaction of modernism, to the lessons of the early nineteenth-century.  That is not right. Lowell does accuse himself, but whereas, in Hill’s view, self-accusation guards Romanticism against its own excesses, Lowell accuses himself for another end.  Forgiveness is his great subject and it … Continue reading 149. (Robert Lowell)

99. (William Empson)

Whatever else its relationship to genre, wit is a particular way of coping with the world’s fragility, its tendency to waste and isolation. Wit happens when the intelligence detaches itself from a situation in which that fragility is keenly felt and is able, by virtue of that detachment, not only to extract from it those dispersed and discordant elements that threaten to waste and isolate life, … Continue reading 99. (William Empson)

89. (Andrew Marvell)

When T.S. Eliot, in his essay on Andrew Marvell, offered his incomparably confusing characterization of “wit,” what was he onto? That he was onto something is clear less from his strained reach of eloquence than from his sequence of instances; Eliot’s eye for exemplary passages and for juxtaposition of passages was among his gifts as a critic and they delineate more clearly than the words … Continue reading 89. (Andrew Marvell)

54. (Alexander Pope)

Among the etchings on display at the MFA’s recent Goya exhibit, one from the series of Caprichos depicts an old woman, sat before a mirror, assuming the airs and accessories of youth. The lines might have been etched beneath: . As hags hold Sabbaths, less for joy than spight, So these their merry, miserable night; Still round and round the ghosts of beauty glide, And haunt the … Continue reading 54. (Alexander Pope)

17. (Charles Baudelaire)

Robert Lowell’s 1961 Imitations did more for the reputation of twentieth-century poets Mandelstam and Montale than it did for the nineteenth-century Europeans, Baudelaire and Leopardi, since the latter never needed much rehabilitating in literary circles and since the latter has still not received as much attention, in translation or in cultural myths, as he is due (the somewhat recent Galassi translation notwithstanding). But Lowell’s collection … Continue reading 17. (Charles Baudelaire)