Issue 3, Autumn 1953
Historically, poets have generally adopted one of two main “poses,” or manners of considering their own metier. One has been the prophet, or vates, the divine madman who scrawls out his gifts from the gods in a state of inspiration and frenzy. The vates corresponds to the popular conception of the poet as long-haired eccentric. Contemporary critical opinion, on the other hand, often seems to disbelieve in the vates, and to expect all poets to conform to the other traditional category, that of the craftsman, the careful “maker.”
The categories become mixed in individual poets. Blake posed as a prophet, and said that poems were dictated to him by voices, but some manuscripts which have survived show extensive and painstaking revision; and even between printed editions of his work, Blake occasionally revised. The craftsman Coleridge wrote out Kubla Kahn in a state of near-dream. Yet, despite these and other exceptions, two general lines can be distinguished; and the attitude toward composition has some relation to the kind, if not the quality of the poems written.
Pasternak has said that the pose comes before the poetry. Whatever order of events is considered most accurate, what is most significant is not the order of the facts but the relationship itself. It is the assumption of the role which provides the speaker with the manner of speech. As in life we make a series of formal choices in conversation, which can be compared to a sculptor blocking out the main shape of his statue so in art our formal choices are much more line, and demand or engender a corresponding high formality. There is no insincerity involved—a useless term in literary criticism—but an assumption of personality which is no less real because it is assumed.