Literary Incompletion

“Shown at Oxford, the draft for Milton’s Lycidas, Charles Lamb felt terror at the thought that that poem could have been otherwise. At the other end, so to speak, the poem as we have it will induce an apprehension, more or less substantial, of what it could be if it was to achieve the full measure of its intentionality, which is the surpassing of its medium. We recall Liebniz again, when he alludes to the enigma of that which ‘will never be’ though it lies so near. The richer, the more enduring the text, the more vivid, the more palpably circumstantial, will be this sense of a potential self-surpassing into a sphere of absolute freedom. ‘Read me, look at me, listen to me’, says the significant work of literature, art and music, ‘and you will share in the joyous sadness, in the constantly renewed wonder, of my incompletion. You will derive from this incompletion in action what evidence is given to the human spirit of that which lies beyond, just beyond, my highest reach.’ (Once more, it is the Paradiso which most incisively articulates this proximity.)”

– George Steiner, Grammars of Creation

2 thoughts on “Literary Incompletion

  1. I know how Lamb felt. Vergil’s Aeneid is supposed to be a draft that he ordered to be burned after his death! And all epics from Homer onwards have those great, incomplete endings. I’ve always loved that quality in epic (although I realize some find it maddening.)

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