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.)