In Praise of Old Heads

Lionel Trilling, On the Teaching of Modern Literature:

In one of his poems, Yeats mocks the literary scholars, the “bald heads forgetful of their sins,” the “old, learned, respectable bald heads,” who edit the poems of the fierce and passionate young men.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk this way?

Yeats, of course, is thinking of his own future fate, and no doubt there is all the radical and comical discrepancy that he sees between the poet’s passions and the scholars’ close-eyed concentration on the text. Yet for my own part, when I think of Catullus, I am moved to praise the tact of all those old heads, from Heinsius and Bentley to Munro and Postgate, who worked on Codex G and Codex O and drew conclusions about the lost Codex V – for doing only this and for not trying to realize and demonstrate the true intensity and the true quality and the true cultural meaning of Catullus’s passion and managing to bring it somehow into eventual accord with their respectability and baldness. Nowadays we who deal with books in universities live in fear that the World, which we imagine to be a vital, palpitating, reality-loving World, will think of us as old, respectable, and bald, and we see to it that in our dealings with Yeats (to take him as the example) his wild cry of rage and sexuality is heard by our students and quite thoroughly understood by them as – what is it that we usually call it? – a significant expression of our culture. The exasperation of Lawrence and the subversiveness of Gide, by the time we have dealt with them boldly, and straightforwardly, are notable instances of the alienation of modern man as exemplified by the artist.

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