The Twenty-Year Rule

Amit Majmudar
October 29, 2013
Comments 2


Just as there is a sharp division between a 19th century Yeats (the “Celtic Twilight” material) and a deliberately developed, 20th century Yeats (the “Byzantine” Yeats of the more famous, widely read poems), Rilke published several books of now-little-read poems before transforming himself, deliberately, into the Rilke of that diamond-mine of a collection, Neue Gedichte (1907). This latter Rilke would go on to write the Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus in a burst around 1922. Yeats wrote well throughout his life, but even a brief review of poem titles reveals that much of his most enduring and characteristic work comes between “Easter 1916” and 1938’s New Poems. Both of these periods—15 years for Rilke, 22 for Yeats—seem like a furious, spectacular flowering after a longish, slightly chaotic gestation. In Rilke’s case this is particularly so, as he wrote his last sequences in some kind of epileptic-poetic fit.

The more you study bibliographies, the more it seems that roughly twenty years is the time limit accorded genius. This isn’t to say that no writer has ever flowered for a longer period: Just look at Goethe. Or T. S. Eliot, who went through a single, relatively low-output flowering between “Prufrock” in 1917 and Four Quartets in 1945, and who stayed productive well beyond that with his late dramatic works—works which we, as a literary community, may never take the full measure of, as their “Modernist” poetry is trapped in the un-modern form of the verse play.

So maybe I shouldn’t call it a “rule.” Still, 20 years or so…. Shakespeare’s career effectively lasts from 1593 to 1613; then, three years of silence. Dostoevsky knocks out everything between Notes from Underground and The Brothers Karamazov between the years 1864 and 1880, the most daunting decade and a half in literary history. Tolstoy has some shorter late masterpieces, but we focus on those because of the major novels. Family Happiness, 1859, The Cossacks, 1863, War and Peace, 1869, Anna Karenina, 1877: A steady escalation of his art. Then he approaches that 20-year mark, and he undergoes his conversion; he starts turning out polemics like “What is Art?” and repudiates his own novels.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has written a handful of good novels, but his two, universally acknowledged best came out in 1967 (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and 1985 (Love in the Time of Cholera): Again, inside the twenty-year span. He didn’t write poorly before, and he hasn’t written poorly in the decades since—but within those charmed 20 years, he did the work for which he will be remembered. Likewise Flaubert: Between Madame Bovary and Trois Contes lie exactly 20 years. (He wrote a tremendous number of works before Madame Bovary, few or none published then, few or none readable today.) Rimbaud is another 19th-century Frenchman who follows the rule. I suppose we could include all those short-lived English Romantic poets in this, too, but we probably shouldn’t; we can only guess what pattern Keats would have followed. The longest-lived English Romantic, William Wordsworth, spent the last few decades of his life writing now-unread political sonnets. Lyrical Ballads was first published in 1798, which was roughly the time he started The Prelude (which he worked on intermittently, and which was posthumously published, and which, incidentally, bores me to death). Poems, in Two Volumes came out in 1807—this is the volume that contained the Immortality ode and the one about the daffodils. The Excursion came out in 1814. After that, something in him shriveled.

I could go on—with plenty of American writers, incidentally: Melville, Steinbeck, Hemingway…and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who once remarked that “there are no second acts in American lives.” It’s not a law, but it’s an interesting trend, and food for speculation, especially when we consider the amount of time these writers had. Even in Britain circa 1500, the average adult male life expectancy, if you lived until age 21 (high infant mortality decreased “average life expectancy” overall), was as high as 71. This meant you had, on average, five additional decades if you made it to the age when writers start writing well. In our time, the number of decades granted someone who makes it to adulthood is even higher. Yet the 20 year trend holds now as it did then: less than half of the time allotted us.

Is it that contemporary recognition quenches ambition? Or does contemporary contempt have the same effect (as in Melville’s case)? Does the energy of youth drive innovation in literature? Does “energy of youth” in that sentence just mean a fitful, unsettled inner nature? That would explain the changes of form and tone in long-lasting writers like Goethe and Eliot (who also, let us not forget, wrote about Practical Cats); also the relatively later-life flowerings of Rilke, Yeats, Dostoevsky. Is it possible that mastery grows disinterested in what it has mastered? This might explain the silences of Shakespeare and Racine and Philip Larkin: all three were writers who silenced themselves before death did. Does literary power demand a certain degree of neuronal plasticity, an eagerness and ability to form new connections, and does that ability harden in old age—call it Wordsworth phenomenon?

Or is it that twenty years, in the timeless psychological zone of creativity, are a much longer time than they seem? Are twenty years, in literary time, eternity?

2 thoughts on “The Twenty-Year Rule

  1. I do not wish simply to disagree, but when I, more or less at random, looked at the bibliographies of a handful of the writers I know best, I found as much to contradict as to support the theory.

    To start with, I disagree strongly about Yeats, one of the poets I love most. Even if we ignore the famous Lake Isle of Innisfree, 1890, the great poems of Yeats begin at the latest with Adam’s Curse, 1903. Plus, he was still going strong at his death in 1939, with no suggestion that he was withering.

    Some great novelists only slightly exceed your rule. Dickens: from Pickwick Papers, 1836, to Our Mutual Friend, 1864; Trollope, from The Warden, 1855, to The Duke’s Children, 1880.

    But then there is Henry James, from Roderick Hudson, 1875, to The Golden Bowl, 1904. Mann, from Buddenbrooks, 1901, to Felix Krull, in progress at his death in 1954. Milan Kundera, from The Joke, 1965, to Ignorance, 2000, and he may well (this fan hopes) have more to come.

    Some great English men of letters: Milton, from Lycidas, 1636, to Samson Agonistes, 1671. Dryden’s career begins in 1660 and is still going strong at his death in 1700; you could argue that the earliest stuff doesn’t belong, but I wouldn’t start the era of his greatness much later than the Annus Mirabilis of 1667. Dr. Johnson, from London, 1738, to the last of the Lives of the Poets, 1781. From Modern Painters, 1843, to Praeterita, 1889, Ruskin’s career spans more than half a century. So does Auden’s. So does Voltaire’s.

    Although you restrict yourself, I think wisely, to literature, you state the theory more broadly: “Twenty years is the time limit accorded to genius.” Not in music, as witness the long careers of Handel and Bach and Verdi and the seemingly endless career of Haydn.

    Obviously there are also many people whose careers support your rule: even Balzac, who, I was surprised to see, wrote nearly all his many great works in less than twenty years. But can it be a rule with so many exceptions?

    • I don’t wish to disagree with you either; as I mention in the body of the essay, we really shouldn’t call it a rule. (I do apologize for the somewhat strict-sounding title; and for minimizing the value of some of Yeats’s earliest work.)

      However, I do see one problem here. I would point out that your examples, by taking the whole duration of a “great” writer’s productivity as “greatness,” segues naturally into the impossible-to-settle debate about what is “great” and what isn’t. Not that I’m one to settle that debate, on a specific or general basis…but I would suggest that Roderick Hudson may not be a great novel, by any definition, even if it is by Henry James; ditto Dombey and Son, even if it is by Dickens; ditto much of Dryden. Also that Voltaire’s claim to literary (as opposed to philosophical) greatness rests on the prose narratives, not on Zaire or L’Henriade or other now-unread works that made him famous in his twenties.

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