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Accident in Art -- Richard Hovey

(Poem #729) Accident in Art
 What painter has not with a careless smutch
 Accomplished his despair?--one touch revealing
 All he had put of life, thought, vigor, feeling,
 Into the canvas that without that touch
 Showed of his love and labor just so much
 Raw pigment, scarce a scrap of soul concealing!
 What poet has not found his spirit kneeling
 A-sudden at the sound of such or such
 Strange verses staring from his manuscript,
 Written he knows not how, but which will sound
 Like trumpets down the years? So Accident
 Itself unmasks the likeness of Intent,
 And ever in blind Chance's darkest crypt
 The shrine-lamp of God's purposing is found.
-- Richard Hovey
Today's poem explores a fairly common meme - the idea that there is some
small but precise element, some key stroke that renders a work of art Great,
some phrase around which an entire poem crystallizes. (I remember coming up
with the idea myself, when I was a kid, and wondering if there was that one
perfect, magical place on a canvas where placing a single dot would create a
masterpiece). It is not really true, of course - most great works of art are
made great by the synthesis of their various elements, not the predominance
of a keystone - but it is definitely a seductive concept.

There's also an echo of the idea we saw in 'The Lost Chord' - that such a
transcendent note is only ever struck by accident. Hovey takes the idea one
step further, though, making explicit that what looks like happenstance is
really all part of "God's purposing", and that the appearance of perfection,
one 'knows not how', unmasks the 'likeness of Intent'. (Note that 'likeness'
here refers to the actual image of intent, not a resemblance to it).

Formwise the poem is a Petrarchan sonnet (abba abba cdeecd), divided into an
octet and a sestet according to the standard pattern. The poem makes
unstartling but effective use of the sonnet form, the lines flowing neatly
and the progression of ideas laid out with no signs of strain or of having
been forced into the structure.


  Hovey, Richard
  b. May 4, 1864, Normal, Ill., U.S.
  d. Feb. 24, 1900, New York City
  U.S. poet, translator, and dramatist.

  After graduating from Dartmouth in 1885, Hovey studied art and theology
  and in 1887 met Bliss Carman, the poet, with whom he later collaborated.
  Hovey lectured on aesthetics at the Farmington School of Philosophy and,
  for the last two years of his life, at Columbia University, where he held
  a post as professor of English at Barnard College. A self-conscious
  individual, he tried, in clothing and mannerisms, to be an American Oscar
  Wilde. His works consistently reflect his faith in an optimistic and vital
  United States. His books include Launcelot and Guenevere: A Poem in Dramas
  (1891); with Bliss Carman, Songs from Vagabondia (1894), More Songs from
  Vagabondia (1890), and Last Songs from Vagabondia (1901, posthumous); and
  such other works as Seaward (1893), an elegy on the poet Thomas William
  Parsons; Along the Trail (1898); and Taliesin, a Masque (1900). Also
  published posthumously was To the End of the Trail (1908). He translated
  eight of Maeterlinck's plays into English

        -- EB


Some more poems by Hovey:
  [broken link]

Procter's 'A Lost Chord': poem #520

A nice site on sonnets:


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