Leading article: Poetic licence

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The Independent Online

To anyone shocked by the ruthless campaign that has forced a candidate for the role of Oxford Professor of Poetry to withdraw, we would say: don't be. Few can rival composers of verse for their willingness to stoop to conquer.

In fact, the unpleasantness that has been visited upon the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott is tame by historical standards. Swift and Pope were as famous for their feuds as their poetry, and the invective in their verse would make a modern day spin-doctor blush.

Lord Hervey cursed Pope's "wretched little carcass". Pope, in return, noted his rival's "cherub's face, a reptile all the rest". Why such venom? Some suggest the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low. Cyril Connolly once characterised poets as "jackals snarling over a dried-up well".

Perhaps. But one lesson we can safely draw is that it is probably not a clever idea to get on the wrong side of a professional poet.