Seeing Pieces of Yourself

I can’t get with the Romantics. The Victorians either for that matter. I appreciate them like I appreciate orchestral music, and I have the best intention of delving back into Dickens the next time I have a large chunk of reading time available, but most of the time I’d rather shoot an albatross.

Blake I like, but his weird mysticism was less affectation than fact. Wordsworth reputedly admired his poems but thought he was insane, and all it takes is a quick glance at some of his paintings to see why. Blake hoped his poems could be read and understood by common people, an admirable goal, yet he was never well-received by the general public.


I mostly like him because I like weirdo mystics. Like friends, we’re often drawn to our influences because we see something of ourselves in them. Or something we’d secretly like to be.

The songwriter Irving Berlin dropped out of school when he was thirteen in order to help his family. When he died, he left behind an fairly extensive library full of many fine volumes that he likely never read. When biographer Philip Furia interviewed his daughter about the library, asking if Berlin had a favorite poet, she bristled.

“My father,” she said, “liked to read history books and True Crime magazine.”

With some probing, however, she recalled that there was one poet he admired, Alexander Pope.

“Now I was flabbergasted,” Furia writes. “Of all the great English poets, Pope was such an acquired taste that even few English professors teach him anymore. Then it hit me. Pope wrote all of his poetry in the most constricting poetic form imaginable–the heroic couplet. Into sequences of two-line units of ten syllables each, he packed subtle variations of rhythm, phrasing, wit, and rhyme.

“Berlin worked within the constrictions of an equally tight form–the thirty-two bar chorus, which gave a lyricist between sixty and eighty words to find a clever and moving way to say, in song after song, some variation of ‘I love you.'”

Berlin probably did not rescue Pope from some remote corner of culture; the poet was suitably famous in the early 20th century even if his name is more obscure today. But he did find a worthy artistic companion, and this is true for all of us who call ourselves creative. Against the constraints of popularity or expectation, we find sympathies with like minds across time.

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