15 January 2007

in englesh forto make a book

[from Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets, 1998]

That’s a Renaissance notion: a final version of a poem. A poem was never finished. Like a cathedral it grew, bits were added or removed to make new space. Even as the poet dictated, scribes might add a bit or, when they grew tired and dozed, miss whole passages. Hovering over them was an ideal poem which the poet almost knew. But even he could change his mind: the poem he made one year might be out of date the next. Sir John [Gower] wrote his Confessio for King Richard [II]; when Richard proved unworthy, he made it over, adding an allegorical record of royal errors. Poems can die — or be killed by fire or neglect — unless the poet refashions and refreshes them. If he learns something new, he has to add it. The aim is to delight, but the purpose is to instruct. Delight without precept is pointless.

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