An illustration of a poetry book, on a stage under a spotlight, being pelted with fruit
An illustration of a poetry book, on a stage under a spotlight, being pelted with fruit

As a poetry critic, I occasionally wake up in a cold sweat, struck by the fear that I’ve already written something as silly as what the London Weekly Review said about Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1828:“We cannot name one considerable poem of his that is likely to remain upon the thresh-floor of fame”.

Of all the chaff on fame’s thresh-floor, old book reviews are the most ephemeral – unless they get it spectacularly wrong by panning a future classic. Light words of praise blow away on the wind; wrongly thrown mud sticks forever. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that in 1866 The Spectator claimed Martin Tupper “has won for himself the vacant throne waiting for him amidst the immortals”. Nobody remembers that review, because nobody remembers Tupper.

But The Atlantic Monthly’s Thomas Bailey Aldrich has won an unenviable immortality through the drubbing he gave Emily Dickinson. “An eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village – or anywhere else – cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar,” he tutted in 1892. “Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood.” (Oblivion came for Aldrich’s own poetry rather sooner.)

Dickinson got off lightly compared to her contemporary Walt Whitman. When the first edition of his Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, the world had seen nothing like it – and most critics hoped never to see anything like it again. “Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics,” sniffed The London Critic.

Reviewers were baffled by Whitman’s long, rapturous free verse lines, disgusted by his celebration of sexuality and the body. But perhaps all those hatchet-jobs urging readers to stay away from an immoral book actually had the opposite effect. One appalled critic wrote: “The very nature of this man's compositions excludes us from proving by extracts the truth of our remarks; but we, who are not prudish, emphatically declare that the man who wrote page 79 of the Leaves of Grass deserves nothing so richly as the public executioner's whip.” How could anyone read that without rushing straight to the nearest bookseller, and flicking the book open at page 79?

The few positive reviews for Whitman’s masterpiece – in The United States Review, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the American Phrenological Journal – all later turned to have been written by the mathematical hog himself. In one of them, Whitman proved he was only too happy to wield the critical hatchet when it came to other people’s work. He reviewed his own book alongside Maud, the latest volume from England’s poet laureate, Tennyson, which he mocked for its “dandyfied forms” and “emasculated and impotent” portrayal of love. 

What can be most surprising today is the personal tone of the abuse hurled at great writers. Many of Keats’s reviewers were less annoyed by his poetry than by the idea that someone from his modest background was writing poetry at all. “John Keats’s friends, we understand, destined him to the career of medicine, and he was bound apprentice to a worthy apothecary in town,” wrote John Gibson Lockhart (hiding behind the inital “Z”) in an 1818 review for Blackwoods Magazine. “It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet, so back to the shop, Mr John, back to plasters, pills, and ointment boxes. But for heaven’s sake be a little more sparing of extenuatives and soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry.”

Those words surely stung. When Keats died three years later, it was tuberculosis that carried him off, but other writers thought it might have been his bad reviews. Lord Byron reflected in Don Juan:

John Keats, who was killed off by one critique,

Just as he really promised something great,

If not intelligible, – without Greek

Contrived to talk about the Gods of late,

Much as they might have been supposed to speak.

Poor fellow! His was an untoward fate:–

'Tis strange the mind, that very fiery particle,

Should let itself be snuffed out by an Article.

We live in a gentler critical age. Few poets today will ever find themselves in the shoes of Langston Hughes, who opened the Pittsburgh Courier one morning in 1927 to see what their critic thought of his second collection Fine Clothes to the Jew, only to be confronted by the headline “LANGSTON HUGHES’ BOOK OF POEMS TRASH”. 

And yet, I can’t help wishing that more of today’s critics would be willing to put the boot in. All happy reviewers are all alike; each unhappy reviewer is unhappy in their own way. The most passionate hatchet-jobs occasionally do a better job of pinning down what makes a book interesting than the raves. Remember that critic who called Walt Whitman a “hog”? His list of the things he disliked about the poems in Leaves of Grass – “their free language, their amazing and audacious egotism, their animal vigour” – sums up many of qualities that today’s readers love about them.

When one original poet dislikes or misunderstands another, it can illuminate both of them. Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck is often held up as one of the most influential poetry collections of the past 50 years. But the equally original Rosemary Tonks, reviewing it in the New York Review of Books, was left entirely cold. “This poet never writes a love poem from which she cannot learn something useful psychologically,” wrote Tonks. “In Miss Rich’s work, the moral proportions are valid, the protagonists are sane, responsible persons, and the themes are moving on their courses. Why is it then that we are still waiting for the poetry?” For Tonks, the idea of “sane, responsible” poetry was anathema. 

Skimming through a book such as Bill Henderson’s Rotten Reviews (to which I am indebted for several of the examples above), it’s easy to laugh at critics who panned today’s masterpieces. But would we fare any better? Imagine you’re a freelance book reviewer in 1923, and a fresh copy of The Waste Land has just dropped through your letterbox. Half the lines are borrowed from other poems, many of them in other languages. What on earth would you make of it?

You might not go so far as the New Statesman, which accused TS Eliot of “sacrificing [his] artistic powers on the altar of some fantastic mumbo-jumbo” and suggested that “this unhappy composition should have been left to sink itself.” But isn’t there some truth in The Times Literary Supplement description of the poem as “a zig-zag of allusion” from a writer “walking very near the limits of coherency”?

Clive Bell, an early champion of Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations, confessed in his 1923 review of The Waste Land that it left him rather flummoxed. But, with modesty and foresight, he suggested later readers might find more in it. It’s a useful lesson for all of us, to keep an open mind, and not rule out the possibility that any book which seems baffling today might be better understood and admired in years to come. After all, “Prufrock, which at first seemed almost unintelligible, now seems almost plain sailing,” Bell wrote. “So when we cudgel our brains over [Eliot’s] latest work let us hesitate to suppose that we cudgel in vain.”

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Image: Alicia Fernandes/Penguin

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