When critics play parlor games, they imagine how they would have reviewed the controversial books of the past. Critics are later judged, not by the book they failed to pan, but by the book they failed to praise. Most are certain that, given the chance, they would have recognized the genius of Lyrical Ballads, or Leaves of Grass, or The Waste Land. We pour bile on the heads of the dolts of 1798 and 1855 and 1922 who didn’t realize what was on the desk before them.

When you look at those wrongheaded, purblind reviews now long forgotten, however, it’s surprising how shrewd they are, even the most notorious ones. The critics (like the poets themselves) were creatures of their day, and subject to the prejudices of the day. The reviewer is most vulnerable facing a poetry that threatens convention—violations of form and formality tend to provoke the most ill-considered judgments. Yet even there, after you ...