John Keats

Eve and Matthew Levine

John Keats; drawing by David Levine

Everybody makes mistakes; only some of them become canonical. John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is one of the most celebrated poems in the English language, and it concludes with what appears to be a serious gaffe. Describing the experience of reading Homer in translation, the speaker compares himself to the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés surveying the New World for the first time; he is

like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Unfortunately, Keats seems to have mixed up his explorers: Vasco Núñez de Balboa is the one who founded a colonial settlement on the Isthmus of Darien (now known as the Isthmus of Panama) in 1510, and it’s Balboa who is credited as the first European to view the Pacific Ocean. Cortés saw it nearly a decade later, and never set foot in Darien.

Even Homer nods, as the saying goes. (Fact check: it was Horace, in his Ars Poetica, who first referred to Homer nodding, though notably he was expressing irritation, not tolerance: “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus” translates to “I become annoyed when the great Homer is being drowsy.”) But as Erica McAlpine, a poet, translator, and scholar at Oxford, demonstrates in her painstaking new study The Poet’s Mistake, contemporary literary critics have become uncomfortable acknowledging any authorial fatigue whatever. Keats’s mistake in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” for instance, has been rationalized many times. She cites Charles Rzepka, a specialist in British Romanticism at Boston University, who argued in 2002 in the Keats-Shelley Journal that Keats, aware he was not the first to discover Homer’s greatness, identified with Cortés’s belatedness as opposed to Balboa’s primacy. Thus, per Rzepka, Keats places Cortés in Darien inaccurately but intentionally, in order to underscore the contrast between the earlier and later explorer. Likewise, Jerome McGann, a well-known literary scholar, justifies the mistake, finding the image of Cortés on the peak in Darien “at once ludicrous and wonderful.” In McGann’s perhaps overgenerous account,

Keats’s schoolboy error…transports us to the most forbidden world of all—the…world of adolescence…. The poem’s absurd error is the sign that it has pledged its allegiance to what would mortally embarrass a grown-up consciousness.

Leaving aside the question of how many grown-ups in any century would be mortally embarrassed to mix up Balboa and Cortés, the point here is the commentators’ strange reluctance to treat Keats’s mistake as a mistake. Their urge is not merely to excuse the error but to insist that it somehow makes the poem better, even if they need to resort to their own forms of “wild surmise” to prove it. “Something in us wants a poem to be right even when we know its poet is wrong,” is how McAlpine puts it. The justification of mistakes, and not mistakes per se, is the phenomenon that really interests her. Her book is more than a catalog of howlers; its aim is not to shame poets for their errors but to question critics’ attempts to explain away those errors at all costs.

But catalogs of howlers can be fun, too, so here goes: Shakespeare sets the action of The Winter’s Tale partially on the coast of Bohemia, a landlocked country. (Ben Jonson first called him on this in 1619.) John Milton, in “Lycidas,” confuses two mythological entities when he refers to “the blind Fury with th’abhorred shears” (he’s referring to Atropos, one of the Fates, not the Furies). Emily Dickinson names the wrong volcano that “basks and purrs” outside Naples (she wrote Etna and meant Vesuvius). Alfred Lord Tennyson, who was a stickler for fact and the first to spot Keats’s Darien error, was so furious with himself for undercounting the number of British cavalrymen as “six hundred” in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” that he appended a correction to a subsequent printing of the poem (it was apparently closer to seven hundred; in fairness, he was misled by an early newspaper report). Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room” conflates two separate issues of National Geographic she recalled from her childhood—a mistake few readers would have detected, but Bishop felt the need to confess it to friends and interviewers on several occasions after the poem’s publication.

Those are all errors of historical fact, but poets make mistakes in diction, too. Sometimes they borrow words from other sources, with disastrous results. In Robert Browning’s 1841 dramatic monologue Pippa Passes, narrated by an innocent young girl, there is a puzzling reference to

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Owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods.

Wait a second…“twats”? “What could this slang and vulgar term for female genitalia be doing alongside owls, bats, and especially a monk’s cloak?” McAlpine asks. The answer is that Browning plucked “twat” from a book of royalist rhymes containing the bawdy couplet “They talkt of his having a Cardinalls Hat,/They’d send him as soon an Old Nuns Twat.” Browning liked the word but misconstrued its meaning; in reply to a philologist’s inquiry in 1886, he wrote that “the word struck me as a distinctive part of a nun’s attire that might fitly pair off with the cowl appropriated to a monk.”

Browning, an inveterate vocab-poacher, was especially but not uniquely susceptible to what McAlpine calls “the dangers of haphazard reading.” Elsewhere, in “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” he mentions a nonexistent musical instrument called a “slug-horn,” a noun he appears to have borrowed from Thomas Chatterton’s 1767 medieval pastiche “Battle of Hastings.” According to McAlpine, “slug-horn” is in fact “an archaic form of ‘slogan’ meaning a battle cry,” not a horn of any kind. But the word pops up over a century later in Seamus Heaney’s “Glanmore Sonnets,” where it once again appears to refer to a musical instrument; it’s likely Heaney picked it up from Browning. “Mistakes are passed on this way, by reading, from poet to poet,” Chatterton to Browning to Heaney: the slug-horn sounds its clarion call.

Another kind of poetic mistake, having to do with spelling, punctuation, and grammar, is a bit harder to identify, even after such orthographical niceties began to be standardized in the eighteenth century. What do we do, for example, with a writer like Dickinson, whose habits of syntax and punctuation were famously eccentric? Dickinson is much admired for her flouting of linguistic norms, which, it has been argued, anticipates the innovations of modernism and even later developments like the fractured syntax of late-twentieth-century Language poetry. But this view of Dickinson as a proto-avant-gardist creates a problem when it comes to more banal mistakes. “In an environment so free and figurative,” as McAlpine succinctly puts it, “it can be difficult to tell wrong from wrong.”

To illustrate the issue, she quotes a stanza that Dickinson included in a letter of 1876:

The Flake the Wind exasperate
More eloquently lie
Than if escorted to it’s Down
By Arm of Chivalry.

Paraphrased, these lines express a preference for fallen snow that has been shaken (“exasperate[d]”) by the wind over snow that has been driven (“escorted”) by human hands. In and of itself the conceit is not particularly complicated—a preference for wild nature over “chivalrous” artifice—but Dickinson’s syntax throws up multiple roadblocks to understanding. “Even the most admiring, lenient reader finds trouble here,” McAlpine comments, and then rolls up her sleeves and goes to work:

“Flake” requires singular verbs—exasperates, lies—or else “exasperate” and “lie” call for multiple flakes and the plural pronoun “their.” And “it’s” should technically carry no apostrophe—a punctuation misdemeanor that most of Dickinson’s editors silently correct while assiduously respecting her dashes and other personalized pointing marks…. But beyond these superficial problems, deeper questions take root: “Down” in line 3 is a strange adverbial substitute for a noun phrase meaning “resting place” or “spot on the ground,” and the metonymic noun “Chivalry” comes in lieu of the expected adjectival form of that word (i.e., “Chivalrous Arm,” or even “Arm of Chivalrous Man”)…. “Flake” is as unlikely an object for the transitive verb “exasperate” as “Wind” is for its subject. And how to square those uninflected verbs? And what does “eloquence”—which is usually heard rather than seen—have to do with this otherwise visual picture? Something isn’t quite right. But whose place is it to say?

From a grammarian’s perspective, almost everything in this poem—and many of Dickinson’s others—is wrong, or at least “not quite right.” But to “correct” her work (as her earliest editors did) would be to risk destroying it. A version of the poem in which its meaning was chivalrously escorted to the reader, rather than exasperated into eloquence, would negate the very values it expresses. More to the point, it wouldn’t be a Dickinson poem.

Still, is this the same as saying that Dickinson’s mistakes aren’t mistakes, or that they don’t matter? This is the position most commentators have taken. McAlpine quotes the critics Cristanne Miller, who holds that “the question of correctness is generally irrelevant as a criterion for judgment in reading Dickinson’s work,” and David Porter, who claims that Dickinson’s uninflected verbs are “are among the points where she exercised her freedom, separated her voice from others of the age, and inaugurated the audacious attitude we have come to see as postmodernist.” This kind of casuistry is not unique to Dickinson criticism, in McAlpine’s view: it’s been endemic to literary studies as a whole, and to the study of poetry in particular, for at least the last half-century. She concludes that “poetry presents those who would study and write about it with a particular kind of temptation to treat flaws as flourishes, to which many good readers succumb.”

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Where does this exculpatory temptation come from, and how long has it been with us? McAlpine notes that “the broader question of how to distinguish error from poetic license is nearly as old as poetry itself.” Aristotle, in the Poetics, admits that poets can err if they “meant to describe the thing correctly, and failed through a lack of power of expression,” but decrees that such errors “are justifiable, if they serve the end of poetry itself” and “make the effect of some portion of the work more astounding.” This assigns the author’s intention a crucial part in adjudicating error, alongside the reader or viewer’s judgment. If the poet meant to make a mistake—and if that mistake meaningfully contributes to an “astounding” aesthetic effect—then it’s not really a mistake at all. What has changed since antiquity, in McAlpine’s opinion, is the frequency with which this Aristotelian operation is performed:

Most critics [now] assume…that the burden of justifying errors in poems more often than not falls upon the reader (rather than the poet), who feels a responsibility to determine how (not whether) the mistake serves to “make the effect of some portion of the work more astounding.”

Our modern, more lenient attitude toward mistakes, according to McAlpine, has its roots in a couple of familiar developments in the intellectual history of the first half of the twentieth century. The New Criticism famously rejected authorial intention as a significant fact about literary works, making it functionally impossible to establish whether a feature of a work is inconsistent with its maker’s design. This cuts out half of Aristotle’s criteria: we can still say whether something is astounding or not, but not whether it was intended; for “how can a poet err,” McAlpine asks, “if there is no poet, only poem?” Even if a poet admits to making a mistake, the critic can still justify it through hermeneutic ingenuity without fear of being overruled, since “critical inquiries,” as the clinching last sentence of W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley’s “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946) has it, “are not settled by consulting the oracle.”

Over the course of roughly the same period, psychoanalysis revolutionized the way we view mistakes, redescribing them as expressions of unconscious desires rather than meaningless blunders. In The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, first published in 1901, Freud postulated that most mistakes “grant a reluctantly suppressed wish.” When applied to literary criticism, this principle opens up a vast terrain for interpretation, allowing critics to note factual errors without faulting authors for them or dismissing them as insignificant. Keats is a case in point: “Even if we could formulate a reasonable judgment about whether Keats really meant Cortez or whether he in fact meant Balboa,” McAlpine writes,

we would have to consider the possibility that, at least unconsciously, he meant Cortez either way. Unlike accidents, which merely happen, mistakes are made—they are born of choice. In the case of this poem, we are forced to acknowledge that Keats both meant to write Cortez and mistook him for Balboa at the same time.

In the new world that swims into the literary critic’s ken on first looking into Freud, Keats’s act of placing Cortés, rather than Balboa, on the peak in Darien can be both incorrect and significant, wrong and right, at the same time. And the fact that Keats, if consulted, might have denied writing “Cortez” on purpose only makes the psychoanalytic explanation more appealing.

McAlpine is a product of the same post-Freudian, post–New Critical academic culture she analyzes, and she can concoct elaborate rationalizations of poets’ blunders with the best of them. But she also admits to being uneasy with “the temptation to call mistakes good” that seems to have overrun academic literary criticism, and the criticism of poetry in particular. She insists that the poets she studies would have been appalled at their mistakes, and even more so at critics’ relentless attempts to justify them. “Among all readers of poetry, it has been poets themselves who are most willing to descry mistake,” she notes, offering numerous examples of both self-correction and poets’ corrections of one another.

For McAlpine, the praise of mistakes constitutes a kind of backhanded compliment. “When we deny mistakes, or read them as magical—as something that happens within a poem rather than as something made by a poet—we are in danger of making a different kind of error of our own,” she argues. To deny the possibility of making mistakes is ultimately to underrate poiesis (making) itself. “When we overinterpret error,” she insists, “we underestimate craft”: in trying to pay a compliment to poets’ unconscious brilliance and aesthetic infallibility, we are in fact insulting their skill as self-conscious artificers who care about getting things right. Worse: we suggest that poetry is of so little significance that it doesn’t matter whether it’s wrong or not.

The Poet’s Mistake is a book about errors, not flaws, and McAlpine is careful throughout not to confuse the two. She freely admits that “mistakes [do not] necessarily cause poems to be bad,” and that in some cases a mistake can even improve a poem. W.H. Auden was charmed by a misprint in the opening lines of his “Journey to Iceland”—“And the ports have names for the sea,” as opposed to “the poets”—and decided to leave it in. Bishop caught the error she had made with regard to the two issues of National Geographic prior to publication, but let it stand for thematic reasons. Other poets, like John Ashbery, deliberately plant mistakes in their poems. Consider the final lines of “The Skaters”: “The constellations are rising/In perfect order: Taurus, Leo, Gemini.” (As David Lehman has pointed out, “the correct order would read Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo.”)

But error and flaw, though separate, are related, and it’s significant that McAlpine often slips into talking not about “correctness” but “greatness.” “Can we not look for and expect greatness in poems, if not all the time, some of the time—and be willing to say when we do not find it?” she asks. And, elsewhere: “Error need not preclude greatness. [But critics] must be willing to concede that greatness does not always avert badness.” Thus she sidles up to one of the oldest, thorniest debates in literary criticism, one that has lately been rekindled: what to do about aesthetic judgment.

For McAlpine, it seems, to be willing to call a mistake a mistake is to readmit the concept of judgment to critical discourse—or, rather, to reacknowledge it, for it never really left. Michael Clune has recently argued that contemporary literary critics are averse to making aesthetic judgments for putatively political reasons: a commitment to what he calls “the master value of equality” makes them shy away from hierarchical statements that would rank one work above another.1 But it’s important to note that, for all their reluctance to judge, today’s critics are far from abandoning a discourse of value. The difference is that the critic now tends to assume the value of the object from the start—why would they be writing or talking about it otherwise?2—and the real work lies in specifying the nature of that value. The most competent critical performance, under these circumstances, consists of demonstrating that what looks bad is actually good, what looks wrong is actually right, and what looks meaningless is actually meaningful after all.

McAlpine’s discussion of mistakes illustrates that twenty-first-century academic critics of poetry are less in the business of judgment than they are in the business of justification: they specialize not in determining whether a given poem is good but in explaining why it’s good (or, at minimum, why it’s interesting). There’s nothing wrong with the justificatory approach per se—it has produced some great criticism—but it is qualitatively different from judgment, which admits the possibility of artistic failure in a way that justification doesn’t. And it tends to produce the kind of jesuitical defenses of precanonized works of art that McAlpine complains about, in which the rightness of every element is assumed a priori and therefore needs only to be ratified.

McAlpine’s book is published by a university press and aimed at an academic audience; it also mostly focuses on canonical, and safely dead, poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The situation is slightly different when we turn to criticism of contemporary poetry outside the academy, though here, too, the dynamics she observes are in operation.

There are certainly working critics—William Logan, Elisa Gabbert, Ange Mlinko, and Michael Robbins among them—who don’t shy away from judgment, and who subject specific poems to rigorous good-faith scrutiny. But the dominant tendencies in poetry reviews (which are almost always written by practicing poets) are either to praise extravagantly, implicitly suggesting that the poet’s apparent intentions have been completely achieved, or to take issue with a poet’s entire project on formal or ideological grounds—to say, in effect, This isn’t a good way to write poetry, rather than This poet has failed to produce good poems. Mistakes don’t enter into the discussion because the poet under review is either so brilliant as to have done everything right or so misguided about their art or the world as to have done everything wrong.

This impinges on a further issue, one that McAlpine doesn’t explicitly discuss but that her approach helps to illuminate. Poetry criticism in the twenty-first century is locked in something of a vicious cycle. Most contemporary readers don’t care about poetry (especially if they aren’t themselves poets), and poetry critics seem to have collectively decided that the most effective way to affirm the value of the art form is to exalt specific instances of it. What this frequently entails, as McAlpine demonstrates, is justifying any potential flaws these poems might contain. But this approach, when coupled with a principled aversion to judgment, ironically diminishes the sense of how or why poetry matters in the first place. If we can’t convincingly articulate how a particular poem might not be great, it’s difficult to persuade anyone that another poem is.

The usual remedy one hears proposed to this problem is a type of austerity measure: critics should get tougher, praise fewer poets, be more selective in the choice of poems to value. Maybe if gatekeeping were more rigorous, logrolling less obvious, we could make a stronger case for the greatness of poetry. But McAlpine suggests another tactic: not limiting the number of poems we define as valuable, but amending the way we talk about poems that we do value. “Denying a poem’s mistakenness erases from the record an important quality bound up with its existence as a work of art,” McAlpine argues. “Mistakes have something perhaps even more pleasurable to offer than rightness, for they reveal to readers what poems and poets actually achieve as opposed to what they should, or mean to.”

The wager here is that an honest assessment of a poet’s actual achievement—mistakes and all—means more than another facile demonstration of artistic perfection. Whether or not this wins more converts to the cause of poetry, it might at least allow those who are already converted a less mystified relationship to their idols. Or as McAlpine has it: “Readers can get closer to poets and poems by knowing when they are wrong rather than by insisting that they are right.”