History and poetry

In the previous post, I referred to the idea, attributed to Mark Twain (though I’ve never been able to find a reference), that “history rhymes”. It is meant as an alternative to the idea that history simply repeats itself. Instead, it is suggested, the patterns of history are more complex than this: there are connections between past and present but they are complex and subtle rather than direct ones. The task for analysts of the present, as the historian Charles Emmerson put it in a thoughtful essay, “is to listen for those rhymes and to calibrate our hearing to catch them.” The implication is that history is somehow like poetry. It is an intriguing idea. But if one takes it seriously, it raises lots of further questions. How, exactly, does history “rhyme”? Are there rules of what we might call “historical prosody”? If history rhymes, does it also have something like metre?

The danger of this analogy with poetry is that it could lead us to see history in an almost mystical or perhaps romantic way – as if it followed some natural course over which policymakers have no control and must merely seek to understand. But perhaps it is policymakers who themselves make history rhyme. To put it another way, perceptions of history are themselves are an intervening variable in determining the course of history. In particular, a “rhyme” could come into being because policymakers try to draw a “lesson” from history: they see a danger of the repetition of what they see as a historical mistake, take action to avoid this, and in doing so make a different but connected mistake. This is exactly what Ernest May shows in his book “Lessons” of the Past on how policymakers applied lessons of World War II to the Cold War – “containment” rhymes with “appeasement”.

Another example of how we think of history as poetry is the term “caesura”, which I happened to use in my previous post to refer to the breaks in German history. The term comes from poetry, where it refers to a usually break in the flow of sound in the middle of a line of verse. When applied to a break in history, the implicit implication is that history also has a kind of rhythmic structure analogous to poetry. This takes the idea of history as poetry even further than the idea that history rhymes. If we think of events as the historical equivalent of words, or perhaps syllables, we can try to not just compare them to each other but also try to make sense of how they follow each other in time. So if the idea that history rhymes has to do with the connections between events, perhaps we can think of the relations between events and time – the rhythmic structure of events – as the metre of history?

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