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?

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