You Can't Defend a Poem

There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.
–George Orwell, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool," in George Orwell: In Front of Your Nose, 1946-1950, 302.

This is an often-quoted statement by Orwell. He says this in his discussion of Leo Tolstoy's roasting of Shakespeare's play King Lear. The point Orwell makes is that the "verdict" of a poem is rendered by whether or not people keep reading it, not by whether or not people currently like it!

The larger context of the quotation (which is the conclusion of his essay) fills out Orwell's point:
True, Tolstoy would not prevent [the reading of Shakespeare] by force. He is not demanding that the police shall impound every copy of Shakespeare's works. But he will do dirt on Shakespeare, if he can. He will try to get inside the mind of every lover of Shakespeare and kill his enjoyment by every trick he can think of, including--as I have shown in my summary of his pamphlet--arguments which are self-contradictory or even doubtfully honest.

But finally the most striking thing is how little difference it all makes. As I said earlier, one cannot answer Tolstoy's pamphlet, at least on its main counts. There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare's case must be "not guilty." Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him.

Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later, Shakespeare is still there, completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Leo Tolstoy
April 24, 2013


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