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This report is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

Difficulties with Difficulty Neil Powell

‘We understand everything perfectly from the mid-sixteenth century up to 1922, then suddenly we have to scratch our heads and take exams.’ So writes Hugo Williams, ‘rehearsing the old nag’ as he self-deprecatingly puts it, in the TLS. And yes, it is an old nag, but the most puzzling thing about it is its refusal to lie down and die. That sentence of Williams’s could have been written – and almost certainly was, if not quite so elegantly – fifty years ago: so you’d have thought that, as literature sifts and settles, the cut-off point would have moved forward accordingly. But try substituting ‘1972’ for ‘1922’: the result is nonsense.

No, 1922 it remains, and The Waste Land is the work Williams tactfully leaves unmentioned, although that is also the year of Ulysses. Eliot, of course, provided a famous explanation of why modern poetry feels modern, in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.’ It’s an explanation which is entirely consonant with his expectation that readers of The Waste Land will have a basic knowledge of the standard authors and one or two non-standard ones. For Eliot, literary history resembled a set of Russian dolls: we don’t know what if anything Homer had read, but we know that Virgil had read Homer, that Dante had read Homer and Virgil, that Shakespeare had read ...

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