Inspiration and Obsession in Life and Literature

Musée du Louvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot: The Reader Crowned with Flowers (Virgil’s Muse), 1845

I think that I should begin by evoking René Magritte’s famous painting of 1929, The Treachery of Images, with its simple, literal depiction of a pipe and the provocative caption beneath—Ceci n’est pas une pipe. “This is not a pipe.” (How strangely people seem to have reacted to this self-evident statement! Though no one in actual life would confuse a pipe with the drawing of a pipe.)

This is not a traditional lecture so much as the quest for a lecture in the singular—a quest constructed around a sequence of questions: Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? “Where do you get your ideas?” Do we choose our subjects, or do our subjects choose us? Do we choose our “voices”? Is inspiration a singular phenomenon, or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living?

Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipt me in Ink, my Parents’, or my own?

Alexander Pope’s great “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735) asks this question both playfully and seriously. Why did the child Pope take to verse at so young an age, telling us, as many a poet might tell us, with the kind of modesty that enormous self-confidence can generate, “I lisp’d in Numbers, for the Numbers came,” by which the poet means an intuitive, instinctive, “inborn” sense of scansion and rhyme for which some individuals have the equivalent of “perfect pitch” in music: you are born with it, or you are not.

For sheer virtuosity in verse, Pope is one of the great masters of the language; his brilliantly orchestrated couplets lend themselves ideally to the expression of “wit” (usually caustic, in the service of the poet’s satiric mission). The predilection to “lisp in numbers” suggests a kind of entrapment, though Pope doesn’t suggest this; the perfectly executed couplet with its locked-together rhymes is a tic-like mannerism not unlike punning, to which some individuals succumb involuntarily (“pathological punning” is a symptom of frontal lobe syndrome, a neurological deficit caused by injury or illness) even as others react with revulsion and alarm.

Pope’s predilection for “lisping in numbers” seems to us closely bound up with his era, and his talent a talent of the era, which revered the tight-knit grimace of satire and the very sort of expository and didactic poetry from which, half a century later, Wordsworth and Coleridge would seek to free the poet. Pope never suggests, however, that the content of poetry is in any way inherited, like the genetic propensity for scansion and rhyme; he would not have concurred (who, among the poets, and among most of us, would so concur?) with Plato’s churlish view of poetry as inspired not from within the individual poet’s imagination but from an essentially…

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