More Popularity – God of the Machine
Feb 012003

Ian Hamet isn’t sure if it is true, as I claim, that popularity is entirely irrelevant to a work’s ultimate value. After all, he asks plausibly, “a work endures because it maintains a kind of popularity, does it not?”

Yes and no, but mostly no. A work, regardless of its ultimate value, is no sure bet to endure at all. There are almost certainly many great works of literature that have been forgotten. No work survives unless some distinguished person campaigns for it. One of the loveliest sonnets in English, “Fra bank to bank”, was written by Mark Alexander Boyd in the 16th century and received no attention for 250 years. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch saw fit to include it in The Oxford Book of English Verse in 1919. Ezra Pound picked up on it, writing in The ABC of Reading in 1934: “I suppose this is the most beautiful sonnet in the language, at any rate it has one nomination.” The poem is now well-known, at least to Renaissance specialists; but it would likely still be obscure had Quiller-Couch not anthologized it, and Quiller-Couch need never have been born.

F.G. Tuckerman’s great poem “The Cricket” went unread for 50 years until Witter Bynner and Edmund Wilson began to champion it in the early 20th century. It is now a standard, but if these men are forgotten it may disappear again. Even Shakespeare had periods, like the middle of the 17th century, in which he was scarcely read at all, and Bardology as we know it today is only about 150 years old. Artistic survival, in short, is precarious. It is inspiring that a few anthologists and critics, or even one, can by themselves resurrect a worthy work of art; and sobering that, even to greatness, survival is not guaranteed.

(Update: The Fredosphere comments.)

  7 Responses to “More Popularity”

  1. But those works which are "discovered," and do endure, usually have some quality which is responsible for its endurance, no? Not always, but usually. I think I’m with Hamet.

  2. Believing, as I did in my twenties, that I would be published posthumously or not at all, I wrote a short pentameter on one of history’s most miraculous cases of literary preservation:

    The Resurrection

    Though art and learning currently decline,
    centuries hence in some monastic crypt
    a thirsty monk may find my manuscript
    propping a butt of sacramental wine.
    Drying its mildewed pages in the sun,
    hell read my panegyrics to the past
    and share them with a fellow pederast.
    So was Catullus spared oblivion.

  3. Jim: I would say always, myself. But that quality will not necessarily be popular, then or ever.

    Tim: Can pixels mildew?

  4. Good point about anthologies. Untermeyer did more for Frost than Harriet Monroe could have dreamed of.

  5. One of my pet gripes about how decon has taken over literary studies is that it’s encouraged profs to think of themselves as philosophers. I’d rather see the profs spend their research time rooting through libraries and stacks, and dragging to us unfamiliar work that they think is worth attention. Turning over the mulch-heap of lit, in other words.

    But of course then they’d have to do some real work and some real reading. And also put their taste to work. So maybe it’s better that they kill their time playing with themselves instead.

    But who’s going to turn the mulch over?

  6. I suppose it’s true that the decons, qua decons, don’t rummage the mulch-heap: their only interest, as far as I can tell, is demolishing the spell under which great literature holds us. In short, they’re literally iconoclasts.
    But some of the same people–in their role as multiculturalists or postcolonialists or feminists or whatever–do indeed rummage the mulch-heap all the time, dredging up (mostly) deservedly worm-eaten relics they then try to resurrect–and forcd students to read–not on the basis of any inherent aesthetic appeal but on the basis of the historical importance of their author’s ethnicity or gender or whatever. And insofar as they indulge in this activity, the decons are anything but iconoclasts, although I dont know what to call this, except an appalling fraud.
    I must admit I’m not entirely up on all these folks findings, but I will admit it does stand to reason that some works by women, minorities, the colonized, etc., have been unjustly ignored and that we would all profit if they were rediscovered, and that the bonus of their female, minority, etc., perspective is a real bonus. But the first question–and the last if the answer is no–is "is it any good? would anyone read this for pleasure, as nourishment of the spirit?"

    Nobody seems to ask that question anymore–or are marginalized and "deconstructed" if they do.

  7. It’s nice of John to give us (females, minorities) some little air time. And now that we’ve been let out of our cages and our voices are suddenly being heard, flying around in the big wide world, the rest of it is discovering we do have poems and rocket science lurking inside us. Gosh! Golly Gee!Think of that. Those of us who’ve tapped in also have goddess energy; that mystery and intuition that Sappho and even more ancient of ancients must’ve known about and relied on… Right, Sappho….
    Once, many thousands of years ago, the world was matriarchial…and think of it. Back then, before Abraham, 2100 BC, and for mebbe a million years before then, wars massacring millions, were unknown… think of astrology. A female field of endevour, still accurate today…Understandings of the menses, and how it affected the human body…and no hang ups about sex….orgies were ivented by the female strain….must run. adios.

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