To err is human – even for the greatest poets

For centuries, critics have tried to disguise mistakes in verse as intentional literary licence. An Oxford academic begs to differ

Readers of the world’s finest poetry have often skated over inconsistencies, preferring not to believe the poet was capable of a mistake. Now an Oxford academic has identified a host of poetic errors and compiled them in a book.

Erica McAlpine, associate professor of English, told the Observer that, in researching the work of around 30 poets, she came across hundreds of factual gaffes, mis-spellings and grammatical incongruities.

While many of the mistakes have been noticed before, McAlpine said critics have imbued them with deep meaning and justifications to suggest they were intentional – rather than admit the poet had simply got something wrong.

“People want to believe that poetry can magically mean anything. So, even if a poet were to be careless, they would still always be right. I just wanted to cross-examine that notion,” she said.

The examples in her book, The Poet’s Mistake, to be published in the US next week, include John Keats’s sonnet, On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. “He writes a vignette about the conquistador Cortez discovering the Pacific – except it was Balboa who did that,” McAlpine said. “Almost every literary critic who writes about this poem wants to come up with a reason why Keats must have actually meant Cortez. ”… One critic wrote a long article suggesting that the mistake was purposeful. Two other critics talk about the magic of the error, as though that’s something special about the poem.

“In fact, we know Keats wrote it in the middle of the night. We know he had William Robertson’s 1777 book History of America. It has a description of Balboa that very nearly matches the scenario in Keats’s poem. Elsewhere, the historian mentions Cortez, and it’s just so clear that Keats mixed them up.”

Of Seamus Heaney’s poem, Wordsworth’s Skates, inspired by the idea of the Victorian poet skating on Lake Windermere as a child, McAlpine said: “It was actually Esthwaite Water.”


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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