In attempting to account for “the complex feeling of delight” to be had from great poetry, Wordsworth enumerated five sources in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads—“the music of harmonious metrical language, the sense of difficulty overcome, and the blind association of pleasure which has been previously received from works of rhyme or metre of the same or similar construction, an indistinct perception perpetually renewed of language closely resembling that of real life, and yet, in the circumstance of metre, differing from it so widely. . . .”
Of these the sense of difficulty overcome has always struck me as the best argument for metrical language, the least “Romantic” of Wordsworth’s ingredients. It is axiomatic in great poetry, I am tempted to say, a distinction to be found across the board—across languages, borders, and centuries. Consider, for example, Thom Gunn’s “Still Life,” the description of a terminal hospital patient:
The greyish-yellow skin
To which the face had set:
Lids tight: nothing of his,
No tremor from within,
Played on the surfaces.
He still found breath, and yet
It was an obscure knack.
I shall not soon forget
The angle of his head,
Arrested and reared back
On the crisp field of bed,
Back from what he could neither
Accept, as one opposed,
Nor, as a life-long breather,
Consentingly let go,
The tube his mouth enclosed
In an astonished O.
But this is not what is usually meant by difficulty in literature.
Perhaps the most familiar account of it belongs to George Steiner, who holds that a certain kind of difficulty—what he calls “ontological difficulty”—has come to be seen as a “desideratum or inescapable fatality in European literatures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” When called into question, difficulty is usually defended in these terms: “Ontological difficulties confront us with blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose” of literature. They are more than merely a desideratum, then; and they are more important than other difficulties (those that “aim to be looked up,” those that “challenge the inevitable parochialism of honest empathy,” those that “endeavor to deepen our apprehension by dislocating and goading to new life the supine energies of word and grammar”). They define the modern experience, and so they are necessary to modern literature.
Latter-day champions of difficulty merely paraphrase Steiner, as when Judith Butler defends the value of difficulty by pointing to Walter Benjamin, who “makes our heads hurt. Why does he torture us so?” The conclusion is not inevitable. Must we tell Benjamin that he is
But it has not been dogmatists only—those with ready answers to the blank questions of modernity—who wonder whether writers must “torture us so” to be faithful to modern experience. In “De Descriptione Temporum,” his inaugural lecture from the chair of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature at Cambridge, C. S. Lewis argues that the single greatest change dividing “the present from, say, the age of Jane Austen and Scott” has been the emergence of art which is “shatteringly and bewilderingly new.” This is especially true of poetry:
As Lewis said elsewhere, the “new race of readers and critics” treats literature as an “accomplishment rather than a delight.” Literature is defined as being hard. Hence the contempt for popular books and the naïve tolerance of “dullness and difficulty in any quack or sloven who comes before them with lofty pretensions. . . .”
Is it modern experience, then, which is defined by difficulty, or the professional conception of literature? I am inclined to the latter view, and not merely because more than one of the commentators to my broadside against Beloved have testified to an aversion to it. There is, I believe, a widespread loathing for the difficulties of much modernist and postmodernist writing, but out of fear of being called a dogmatist (or worse), the loathing is concealed. It is time, though, for those of us who delight in great literature to have the courage of our convictions—to stand with C. S. Lewis rather than Judith Butler. Give me the sense of difficulty overcome in Gunn’s “Still Life” to the lofty pretensions of Beloved any day.
 George Steiner, “On Difficulty,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 36 (Spring 1978): 273.
 Judith Butler, “Values of Difficulty,” in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, ed. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), p. 214. This volume is a belated reply, by diverse hands, to the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest, which caused much gnashing of teeth in academic quarters. My own contribution to the controversy was discussed in the volume by David Palumbo-Liu, a careful scholar who repeatedly got my name wrong, deciding finally to call me “Meyers herself.”
 C. S. Lewis, “High and Low Brows,” in Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 114.