Cover image for This craft of verse
This craft of verse
Borges, Jorge Luis, 1899-1986.
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, [2000]

Physical Description:
154 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm.
Format :


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PN1064 .B67 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Through a twist of fate that the author of Labyrinths himself would have relished, these lost lectures given in English at Harvard in 1967-1968 by Jorge Luis Borges return to us now, a recovered tale of a life-long love affair with literature and the English language. Transcribed from tapes only recently discovered, This Craft of Verse captures the cadences, candour, wit and remarkable erudition of one of the most extraordinary and enduring literary voices of the 20th century. In its wide-ranging commentary and exquisite insights, the book stands as a deeply personal yet far-reaching introduction to the pleasures of the word, and as a first-hand testimony of to the life of literature.

Author Notes

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1899, Jorge Borges was educated by an English governess and later studied in Europe. He returned to Buenos Aires in 1921, where he helped to found several avant-garde literary periodicals. In 1955, after the fall of Juan Peron, whom he vigorously opposed, he was appointed director of the Argentine National Library. With Samuel Beckett he was awarded the $10,000 International Publishers Prize in 1961, which helped to establish him as one of the most prominent writers in the world. Borges regularly taught and lectured throughout the United States and Europe. His ideas have been a profound influence on writers throughout the Western world and on the most recent developments in literary and critical theory.

A prolific writer of essays, short stories, and plays, Borges's concerns are perhaps clearest in his stories. He regarded people's endeavors to understand an incomprehensible world as fiction; hence, his fiction is metaphysical and based on what he called an esthetics of the intellect. Some critics have called him a mystic of the intellect. Dreamtigers (1960) is considered a masterpiece.

A central image in Borges's work is the labyrinth, a mental and poetic construct, that he considered a universe in miniature, which human beings build and therefore believe they control but which nevertheless traps them. In spite of Borges's belief that people cannot understand the chaotic world, he continually attempted to do so in his writing. Much of his work deals with people's efforts to find the center of the labyrinth, symbolic of achieving understanding of their place in a mysterious universe. In such later works as The Gold of the Tigers, Borges wrote of his lifelong descent into blindness and how it affected his perceptions of the world and himself as a writer.

Borges died in Geneva in 1986.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Argentina's greatest twentieth-century writer learned English from his British grandmother, studied the language's literature throughout his life, and delivered these lectures in superb English--extempore, since he couldn't see well enough to read a text on a podium. Forgotten for 30 years, they are here accompanied by ideally informative notes and an afterword by editor Mihailescu. The six talks are about the definition of poetry, metaphor, the epic and tale-telling, translation, the relationship of literalism and poetry, and his own poetic creed, which he characterizes as faltering and uses as the pretext to recapitulate the previous lectures and bring up such other, provocative literary matters as whether belief in the characters of fiction is more important than belief in its events. Each discussion must be delightful to avid literary readers, animated as they are by the conviction that there is magic in all great literature. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

The Norton lectures at Harvard retain their prestige, even though the annual speakers rarely achieve the general interest of such past invitees as Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein. Ten years ago the venerable Ashbery (Your Name Here; Forecasts, July 24) returned to his undergraduate alma mater to give the customary six lectures, here retouched and presented with documentation. They deal with "certifiably minor" writers whom Ashbery, as a self-confessed nonscholar, feels more at ease in discussing: John Clare, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Raymond Roussel, John Wheelwright, Laura Riding, and David Schubert. He relies heavily on the lives of the arid Boston Brahmin poet Wheelright and depression-era American Schubert for entree into their work, and, in the case of all the writers, liberally invokes secondary sources. The lectures themselves are unlikely to raise strong objections or reapprisals, as the Schubert particularly seems designed to do, but Ashbery's fans will appreciate a look into his reading. Borges's lectures from 1967-68, posthumously transcribed, retread familiar critical territory for the poet and maker of masterly Ficciones. Although titles like "The Riddle of Poetry," "The Telling of the Tale," and "Thought and Poetry," hold abstract promise, these are the sort of musings on literature that Borges carefully kept out of his diamondlike stories but allowed into much of his critical prose: wistful, retro, and slightly befuddled, such as when Borges cites The Arabian Nights in the middle of a paragraph about Jewish mysticism or calls Oscar Wilde "a writer for boys." The stilted afterword by Mihailescu, a professor of modern languages at the University of Western Ontario, doesn't help. The delay in the issuing of these two books already boded poorly; their release now seems perfunctory. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

For Borges (1899-1986), the central fact of life was the existence of words and their potential as building blocks of poetry. In this series of six long-forgotten lectures given at Harvard more than 30 years ago, he insists that reading (in English, primarily) gave him more pleasure than writing. Most of his examples are taken from English-speaking writers, such as Shakespeare, Keats, Byron, Whitman, and Frost. Borges developed a passion for the study of Old English, with its abundant metaphors, harsh beauty, and deep feeling (though not, he admits, for its deep thought). He dislikes the history of literature, which he feels demeans individual works, and he is generally wistful for a future when we are no longer overburdened by history. He champions the primacy of storytelling and prefers the epic to the novel, which he finds "padded." He also argues that one of the great poverties of our time is that we no longer believe in happiness and success and that happy endings seem commercial or staged. Some of his ideas are quirky, but it's still a privilege to have access to one of the most distinctive literary voices of the century. Recommended.DJack Shreve, Allegany Coll. of Maryland, Cumberland (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

This volume comprises the six Charles Eliot Norton Lectures delivered in English at Harvard by Argentine poet, short-story writer, and essayist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-86) during the academic year 1967-68. Long believed lost, these addresses were transcribed from recently discovered tapes and judiciously edited by Mihailescu (Univ. of Western Ontario). Like Borges's Borges, oral (Buenos Aires, 1979)--five presentations given by Borges in Spanish at the University of Belgrano in 1978--the Norton Lectures provide abundant evidence of Borges's protean erudition and penetrating intelligence. The writer discusses metaphor, fiction making, and translation, among other topics, and in the last lecture presents his "Poet's Creed." Throughout, Borges's engaging voice and richly allusive manner are diminished only by his practice of repeatedly issuing apologetic disclaimers; these self-effacing concessions finally come to seem rather too coy in light of the cogency and sophistication of the surrounding text. But that's a minor quibble. As might be expected, the book is a delight. And Mihailescu's exhaustive endnotes are exceptionally thorough and informed, affording an additional dimension of excellence. Academic collections at all levels. G. J. Searles; Mohawk Valley Community College

Table of Contents

1 The Riddle of Poetry
2 The Metaphor
3 The Telling of the Tale
4 Word-Music and Translation
5 Thought and Poetry
6 A Poet's Creed Notes ""Of This and That Versatile Craft""Calin-Andrei Milhailescu