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ELH 67.2 (2000) 539-564

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A Recent History of Poetic Difficulty

William Christie

He lived amidst th'untrodden ways
       To Rydal Lake that lead:----
A bard whom there were none to praise
       And very few to read.
Behind a cloud his mystic sense,
       Deep hidden, who can spy?
Bright as the night, when not a star
       Is shining in the sky.
Unread his works--his 'Milk white Doe'
       With dust is dark and dim;
It's still in Longman's shop, and Oh!
       The difference to him!

--Hartley Coleridge, "He Lived Amidst Th'Untrodden Ways" (1827)

In and through his controversial reviews of Wordsworth, Francis Jeffrey expressed apprehensions about the tendency to solipsism in contemporary poetry and to isolationism amongst contemporary poets. At least one person, a young friend of Jeffrey's old age with the unlikely name of Algernon Moncrieff, believed Jeffrey had been right; writing thirty-odd years after the deaths of Wordsworth and Jeffrey, Moncrieff argued in 1886 that the ultimate result of the Romantic revolution was that poetry "has to a large extent ceased to be read." 1 It was also during the 1880s, even as Moncrieff was proclaiming the death of the poetry reader, that Matthew Arnold counseled "The Study of Poetry" to fill the void left by the dissolution of religion: "to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us." 2 If the Messianic role Arnold envisaged for poetry was never realized, the steady evolution throughout the nineteenth century of English as a subject at secondary and tertiary levels of public education has meant that, in anticipation of the near total indifference to poetry amongst general readers in the mid- to late-twentieth century, a reading public for poetry has been preserved. To quote Frank Kermode, "All the duties of the old Common Reader have virtually devolved upon professional students of literature." 3 [End Page 539]

That the vast majority of today's readers have little taste for poetry written before the Second World War and even less for that written and published since is not the concern of this article, however--or rather it is a prior and only indirect concern. What directly concerns me is the reason almost invariably given by general readers and students of English alike for their respectful indifference, which is that poetry is too difficult. The explanation usually evolves into an uncomfortable confession on the part of the reader that he or she is in some way incommensurate with poetry; what Stuart Curran has called "that sense of the prestigious residing in the poetic," in the Romantic as in all previous periods, has yet to abandon it. 4 But what does it mean to say that poetry or a poem or a poet is difficult, or too difficult? And to this question, let me add a more eloquent one from George Steiner's essay "On Difficulty" in order to highlight the paradox that it isolates: "How can the language-act most charged with the intent of communication, of reaching out to touch the listener or reader in his inmost, be opaque, resistant to immediacy and comprehension?" 5

The origin and nature of that cultural charge is, as it happens, a moot point. It may be that poetry is in fact the literary form least charged with "the intent of communication," in other words. Shelley, after all, compared the poet to a nightingale that sings to cheer its own solitude, utterly regardless of its more or less entranced audience. 6 Implicitly addressed in all I have to say is this question of how far poetry is written to or for or mindful of its audience, and how far it is just written. And the very fact that a Romantic like Shelley should have chosen to figure the poet as a solitary nightingale will be my justification for offering a recent history of poetic difficulty at all.


"The poet's task is increased by the strange obligation to set apart his words from the words of everyday life and communication thoroughly and fundamentally." 7 Here Rilke resorts to what has become...


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