Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. And if you want to listen to Douglas read this week’s work, from Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great,” click below.
Immortality is a tricky word. For various reasons, it crops up as an idea far more in poetry than in any other art form. There is a recognition that novels, for instance, are likely to have their day and then lose it. But the aim of poets—sometimes self-consciously, as with Dickinson—is to write for posterity. To be a poet is almost, by definition, to write for the ages.
The fact that very few poets are likely to make that grade is irrelevant. Certain people do—or, at least, have done so far. We have had The Iliad for almost three thousand years, and in human terms that may be about as long as anything can be around.
Still, it has always seemed to me that there is an obsession about posterity in poetry, in part because there is a nervousness about it. What are the real chances? In A Mathematician’s Apology, the great Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote something that should terrify most poets: “Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.” If Hardy is correct, then you might say that the poet’s search for immortality is a fool’s errand. Yet, if it is possible outside of the realm of mathematical facts (which, once proved, cannot be forgotten), then poetry has the best chance.
One of the poets who wrote best about poetry and immortality was not himself a great poet.