Last Words Of A Sensitive Second-rate Poet

by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
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"Genius Does What It Must, And Talent Does What It Can"

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Context: The Earl of Lytton played an important part in the British diplomatic world. His father, the first Baron Lytton, is remembered for his novels Eugene Aram (1832), The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Rienzi (1835). The son got his early education at Harrow, where he wrote his first poetry at the age of twelve. After Harrow, instead of going on to a university, he was privately educated by tutors, with emphasis on languages, fortunately, because he later represented his country in such places as Paris, Athens, Florence, Vienna, and Madrid. He began as secretary to his uncle in the embassy at Washington, where he wrote most of his poetry, though none was published until 1860. Since it was not appropriate for a diplomat to write poetry, he signed his work "Owen Meredith," a concoction of Christian names of earlier members of his family. In 1874 he achieved a literary reputation with the publication of Fables in Song. Then he revised and added poems for two more collections, one in 1885 and a posthumous collection in 1892. In the meantime, he had been Secretary of the British Legation in Copenhagen (1863), British Minister to Lisbon (1872), Viceroy of India (1876–1880), and finally Ambassador to Paris (1887–1891). During his lifetime, critics admired his poetry for its brilliancy of idea, phrase, and description, but complained that such brilliancy eventually became tiring. One critic lamented that, in spite of being appointed Viceroy of India by Disraeli, Lord Lytton is chiefly remembered for his poem Lucile (1860), which the critic rated as "a vast, stale, Victorian piece of poetry." Perhaps it lives in memory for the couplet:

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We may live without friends; we may live without books;But a civilized man cannot live without cooks.Considerably different is his "Last Words of a Sensitive Second-Rate Poet," that appeared in Book IX, "Here and There: Romances and Ballads," of his Chronicles and Characters (London, 1868). In it, the poet is dying with only his faithful friend, Will, beside him, weary from three days of vigil. The poet thinks of their youth together, their days of girlcourting, and is reminded of one girl who used the poet and left him. But he must not think bitterly of her.There can be no space for the ghost of her face down in this narrow room,And the mole is blind, and the worm is mute, and there must be rest in the tomb.In his youth, the poet was optimistic and confident, with hopes of moving the world, though unable himself to stand firm. Now he begs his friend to burn everything he has written. Perhaps he would have been more popular and successful if his poetry had been less melancholic. All he knows is that he has failed, so he waits patiently for death.. . . The world, that had paused to listen awhile, because the first notes were gay,Pass'd on its way with a sneer in a smile: "Has he nothing fresher to say?This poet's mind was a weedy flower that presently comes to nought!"For the world was not so sad but what my song was sadder, it thought.Comfort me not. For if aught be worst than failure from overstressOf a life's prime purpose, it is to sit down content with a little success.Talk not of genius baffled. Genius is master of man.Genius does what it must, and Talent does what it can.Blot out my name, that the spirits of Shakspeare and Milton and BurnsLook not down on the praises of fools with a pity my soul yet spurns.And yet, had I only the trick of an aptitude shrewd of its kind,I should have lived longer, I think, more merry of heart and of mind.

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