Lost works are all the more tantalizing and sublime because they are lost. Our imaginations try to fill in the gap, but that space stretches out into infinity. And that infinity is beautiful in itself.
I was reminded of the spellbinding nature of lost works while reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin the other day. Goodwin describes Lincoln’s famous “Lost Speech,” given at a convention that eventually led to the creation of the Republican Party in Illinois.
Lincoln’s speech on this occasion was said to be so mesmerizing that no one stopped listening to record it. Reporters set their pencils down. Everyone was hypnotized.
Just to give you an idea: even the Gettysburg Address was recorded, including the moments where he was stopped in the speech by applause. What do you think Lincoln must have said in the Lost Speech?
One of my favorite references to this concept is from Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” quoted as the title of this post. But the first time I came across this feeling of yearning for an unknown work was reading Catullus.
Catullus is probably my favorite Roman poet; I did my senior thesis on his poem 64. But during a lyric poetry class we read poem 95, in which Catullus praises the epic poem Zmyrna by his friend Cinna, saying that Zmyrnam cana diu saecula pervoluent—the grey-haired ages will long read Zmyrna. But Zmyrna is lost.
I felt a pain almost physical upon first contemplating that a poem Catullus—Catullus!!—considered worthy of lasting through the ages had been lost and gone for all these generations. Catullus’s poem 64 has brought me so much joy. Just think of how amazing Zmyrna could have been!
Then again, maybe it’s better to leave some works unreachable. Who says Catullus and I have the same taste, or Lincoln’s audience and I? I might not have had the same reaction. I could even become let down from such a buildup of expectation.
“Therefore, ye soft pipes, play on…”
What lost work are you dying to read?