Apollo and the Making of Poetry

How 14 eloquent lines bring clarity

At the moment Daphne sends a prayer, she is transformed. “Apollo and Daphne,” between circa 1560 and circa 1565, by Paolo Veronese. San Diego Museum of Art. (Public Domain)

It was Lord Chesterfield, not a particularly profound thinker, who in 18th-century England correctly observed that “I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.”

Given that Chesterfield was an aristocrat, and with all that sense of self-importance and entitlement that such aristocrats in those days (and since) bestowed upon themselves, and also well-known as a man of letters, this was quite a severe constriction or limitation that he placed upon all peoples everywhere: You simply couldn’t make yourself a poet no matter what you did! And as un-egalitarian as it sounds and is, it points to the real difficulty there is in becoming a poet (and by, I think, legitimate extension, an artist of any sort: composer, artist, or dramatist, to name three other major and cognate disciplines).

Schools, colleges, and universities will certainly not be quoting this much these days, as for the last 70 years more or less, with the rise of modernism and post-modernism, anybody can be a poet; anybody, everybody is a poet. Just express yourself, and let’s not be judgmental about these scribblings, howsoever feeble they may be. Further, if we abandon form—free verse or vers libre—then nobody will be able anyway to judge the merits of what you do.