world within

[re: the Alexandrian poets]

If one lives and works in a superb modern university that is lavishly funded by the omnipotent and uniformly benevolent emperor, what does one write about? The answer is, clearly: what one writes about is far less important than how well one writes. For such a sensibility as this, the objects of mimesis of less fortunate writers are bound to seem a sad by-product of their misfortune, even as the perfection of one's own style and the consummate refinements of one's own technique might well seem to outsiders merely the offshoots of one's own great good luck. And if such outsiders, having looked at this pure and perfect art, should decide that it was wholly artificial, that it lacked any vestige of power or commitment, that it was sterile, suspiciously delicate, narcissistic, overripe? Well, what is there to say to a barbarian? And if one's life is in fact meaningless and if existence is pointless, if the emperor should fall from his parade horse or choke on a fishbone and the bad times rush back, sweep through the boulevards, burn down the library? Idle, foolish, neurotic thoughts. There is no danger here, even if there were, it would somehow be unreal, for even if one's life should prove to be pointless, one's art is not. (p. 99)

—W. R. Johnson, “In the Birdcage of the Muses,” The Idea of Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (U. of California Press, 1982)

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