Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Literary Prodigies

In reference to a TLS article that I can't locate online, one of my friends suggested that Rimbaud might be literature's only true prodigy.

Such an assertion begs debate. Debate that would begin with a clearer definition of the idea of "prodigy," which combines ideas of omens, miraculousness, precocious genius, and technical mastery. Some disciplines seem fertile for prodigies: math, chess, physics, and music. In the first three, judging the prodigy as prodigious seems easier: the prodigy solves a problem or wins the game. In the fourth, the prodigy's prodigiousness is more difficult to gauge: the prodigy can play with mastery, but I would have to defer to people more knowledgeable in music to be able to differentiate between a human-playback machine and a true genius.

In literature, the field I know much better, we decided that the prodigy's work as a youth would have to be of such quality that it demanded comparision to the productions of serious writers of all ages. This definition would rule out Byron's Hours of Idleness (produced at 18), or Pope's later assertion that he "lisped in rhyme": no matter how much potential was shown, the output doesn't deserve to be taken seriously.

Keats, despite his sudden brilliance and youth, was 23 or 24 during the "golden year." Chatterton's poetry, written before his 20th birthday, is largely forgotten today--the deception that was his downfall also covers up his voice. Gerard de Nerval was heralded as a prodigy, for translating with great sensitivity Goethe's Faust--does that count? (And in another, perhaps related discipline, Hume has got to be one of the few philosophy prodigies; his Treatise was conceived before 21 and written before 25. Maybe that's beyond the cut-off date.)

I don't think it's an accident that when looking for literary prodigies, I'm first looking for poets. The lyric would seem to be the easiest mode to write in without wide and deep experience of life. You'll see a lyrical novel here and there--Alfred de Musset's Confessions d'un enfant du siecle at age 26 might qualify him as a prodigy, as might his poetry collection at twenty, Contes d'Espagne et d'Italie.

So many of my examples are drawn from the early 19th century, an era that glorified youth (and that presented fewer obstacles to publication), so where are the later literary prodigies, or contestants thereunto?



Blogger Anna in Portland (was Cairo):

Weren't the WWI soldier/poets pretty young? Maybe not boys, but pretty young men. Rupert Brooke? Wilfred Owen? Seigfried Sassoon? Also, e.e. cummings wrote poetry as a child / teen which is in some of the collections and is pretty good stuff.

8/16/2005 04:17:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

I checked out the dates for these guys on Wikipedia and was genuinely surprised to find them older than I'd thought.

Brooke was born in 1887 and died in 1915 at 27. He published his first volume of poems at 24. Prodigy? Maybe.

Sassoon was born in 1886 and managed to survive WW1 into the 1960s. The work Wiki cites as his "first real success," The Daffodil Murderers, was published in 1913, when Sassoon was 27. Prodigy? No.

Owen was born in 1893 and died in 1918 at the age of 25. He would seem to be in the strongest running for the prodigy-category; except that only five of his poems were published during his lifetime. A bit tricky to classify, but I'm happier with more literary prodigies than fewer, so sure!

I'll try to track down some of the early cummings poems: I enjoy most of his work and will be interested to see what was done young. Thanks for the suggestion!

8/17/2005 09:12:00 AM  

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