End Notes: Pluperfect Poetry

Mark Twain said that, contrary to the usual rule, his memory had improved with age. When he was younger, he remembered only things that had actually happened. I was reminded of this while reading the lectures T.S. Eliot gave in 1926 on the subject of metaphysical poetry. Attempting to define his subject, Eliot puts before the reader poetic lines that embody his definitions. He cites Catullus to exhibit how thought modifies an emotion and vice versa: “Soles occidere et redire possunt / sed nobis….” But this, as a footnote tells us, is a misquotation. What Catullus wrote was:

Soles occidere et redire possunt: nobis, cum semel occidit brevis lux, nox est perpetua una dormienda. [Suns when down can rise again; but we, once our brief candle’s snuffed, must sleep an everlasting night.]

Well, even Homer nods, and what Eliot gives is sufficient to evoke the lines he has in mind. But then he quotes Shakespeare:

Man must abide

His going hence, even as his coming hither;

Ripeness is all.

But he has King Lear wrong as well.

What Shakespeare wrote was this:

Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither.

Ripeness is all.

The mistakes continue. Eliot misremembers Homer, and he gets Lewis Carroll wrong. I am enough of a pedant to derive morose delectation from such slight lapses, but it is not a lasting mood. There is something right about trusting one’s memory in the matter of beloved verse, even if you get it wrong. In the instances I have cited, Eliot gets the meaning roughly right and that ought to be enough—unless of course you are lecturing at Cambridge, and your argument is based on the particular lines quoted.

Eliot makes clear that he is discussing his subject from the vantage point of one who has himself been engaged in writing English poetry. He is not writing as a scholar. And surely the reader is struck by Eliot’s love of the poets whose lines he does not recall correctly.

One finds something similar in medieval writers quoting Scripture. Often the remembered lines amount to variants on the Vulgate, but this almost never defeats the purpose of citing them. Still, one would not want to get too irenic in this matter, not in the present state of literary criticism. After all, private interpretation led to the deliberate as opposed to unconscious alteration of Scripture, the reader presuming to be as inspired as the sacred author. Of course Holy Writ is a special case. But even in mere literature, it would be unwise to suggest that the poet’s poem is merely raw material for revision on the part of our imperfect memory.

So I find myself caught between the Scylla of pedantic exactness and the Charybdis of inventive memory. It seems obvious that, when we quote a writer, we should do him the courtesy of quoting exactly. On the other hand, who but the most self-absorbed poet would not prefer being remembered less than perfectly to being forgotten?

Sometimes defective memory is productive of almost a new genre. Chesterton is said to have reeled off lines of Shakespeare that cannot be found anywhere in the bard. Some of them deserve to be there.

My fear is that what faulty recalling of much-loved lines now confronts is not the more conscientious critic but rather some impersonal database. What meaning does “memory” first cause to flash before the mind nowadays if not a floppy disk or hard drive where, embedded in some way mysterious to me, the whole of world literature is now, as we say, accessible? Accessible, not by one who has often read and murmured the lines into his personal memory whence they may be called forth in faulty form on occasion, but by a generation for whom reading is downloading, accurate citations are available in a few keystrokes, and mindless accuracy is all.

Misprints are still possible, I suppose, but they are light-years away from not quite accurately recalling lines from past appreciations of them. Mechanical memory can never, like Mark Twain’s living capacity, “improve” with age. The flawed but human is preferable to mindless perfection.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.