1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Poetry
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POETRY. In modern criticism the word poetry (i.e. the art of the poet, Gr. ποίητης, maker, from ποιεῖν, to make) is used sometimes to denote any expression (artistic or other) of imaginative feeling, sometimes to designate a precise literary art, which ranks as one of the fine arts. As an expression of imaginative feeling, as the movement of an energy, as one of those great primal human forces which go to the development of the race, poetry in the wide sense has played as important a part as science. In some literatures (such as that of England) poetic energy and in others (such as that of Rome) poetic art is the dominant quality. It is the same with individual writers. In classical literature Pindar may perhaps be taken as a type of the poets of energy; Virgil of the poets of art. With all his wealth of poetic art Pindar's mastery over symmetrical methods never taught him to “sow with the hand,” as Corinna declared, while his poetic energy always impelled him to “sow with the whole sack.” In English poetical literature Elizabeth Barrett Browning typifies, perhaps, the poets of energy; while Keats (notwithstanding all his unquestionable inspiration) is mostly taken as a type of the poets of art. In French literature Hugo, notwithstanding all his mastery over poetic methods, represents the poets of energy.
In some writers, and these the very greatest — in Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and perhaps Goethe — poetic energy and poetic art are seen in something like equipoise. It is of poetry as an art, however, that we have mainly to speak here; and all we have to say upon poetry as an energy is that the critic who, like Aristotle, takes this wide view of poetry — the critic who, like him, recognizes the importance of poetry in its relations to man's other expressions of spiritual force, claims a place in point of true critical sagacity above that of a critic who, like Plato, fails to recognize that importance. And assuredly no philosophy of history can be other than inadequate should it ignore the fact that poetry has had as much effect upon human destiny as that other great human energy by aid of which, from the discovery of the use of fire to that of the electric light, the useful arts have been developed.
With regard to poetry as an art, most of the great poems of the world are dealt with elsewhere in this work, either in connexion with the names of the writers or with the various literatures to which they belong; consequently these remarks must be confined to general principles. Under Verse the detailed questions of prosody are considered; here we are concerned with the essential principles which underlie the meaning of poetry as such.
All that can be attempted is to inquire: (1) What is poetry? (2) What is the position it takes up in relation to the other arts? (3) What is its value and degree of expressional power in relation to these? and, finally, (4) What varieties of poetic art are the outcome of the two great kinds of poetic impulse, dramatic imagination and lyric or egoistic imagination?
1. What is Poetry? — Definitions are for the most part alike unsatisfactory and treacherous; but definitions of poetry are proverbially so. Is it possible to lay down invariable principles of poetry, such as those famous “invariable principles” of William Lisle Bowles, which in the earlier part of the century Definition. awoke the admiration of Southey and the wrath of Byron? Is it possible for a critic to say of any metrical phrase, stanza or verse, “This is poetry,” or “This is not poetry”? Can he, with anything like the authority with which the man of science pronounces upon the natural objects brought before him, pronounce upon the qualities of a poem? These are questions that have engaged the attention of critics ever since the time of Aristotle. Byron, in his rough and ready way, answered them in one of those letters to his publisher John Murray, which, rich as they are in nonsense, are almost as rich in sense. “So far are principles of poetry from being invariable,” says he, “that they never were nor ever will be settled. These principles mean nothing more than the predilections of a particular age, and every age has its own and a different from its predecessor. It is now Homer and now Virgil; once Dryden and since Sir Walter Scott; now Corneille and now Racine; now Crébillon and now Voltaire.” This is putting the case very strongly — perhaps too strongly. But if we remember that Sophocles lost the first prize for the Oedipus tyrannus; if we remember what in Dante's time (owing partly, no doubt, to the universal ignorance of Greek) were the relative positions of Homer and Virgil, what in the time of Milton were the relative positions of Milton himself, of Shakespeare, and of Beaumont and Fletcher; again, if we remember Jeffrey's famous classification of the poets of his day, we shall be driven to pause over Byron's words before dismissing them. Yet some definition, for the purpose of this essay, must be here attempted; and, using the phrase “absolute poetry” as the musical critics use the phrase “absolute music,” we may, perhaps, without too great presumption submit the following: —
Absolute poetry is the concrete and artistic expression of the human mind in emotional and rhythmical language.
This at least will be granted, that no literary expression can, properly speaking, be called poetry that is not in a certain deep sense emotional, whatever may be its subject-matter, concrete in its method and its diction, rhythmical in movement, and artistic in form.
That the expression of all real poetry must be concrete in method and diction is obvious, and yet this dictum would exclude from the definition much of what is called didactic poetry. With abstractions the poet has nothing to do, save to take them and turn them into concretions; for, as artist, he is simply the man who by instinct embodies in concrete forms that “universal idea” which Gravina speaks of — that which is essential and elemental in nature and in man; as; poetic artist he is simply the man who by instinct chooses for his concrete forms metrical language. And the questions to be asked concerning any work of art are simply these — Is that which is here embodied really permanent, universal and elemental? and, Is the concrete form embodying it really beautiful — acknowledged as beautiful by the soul of man in its highest moods? Any other question is an impertinence.
As an example of the absence of concrete form in verse take the following lines from George Eliot's Spanish Gypsy: —
|“||Speech is but broken light upon the depth
Of the unspoken; even your loved words
Float in the larger meaning of your voice
As something dimmer.”
Without discussing the question of blank verse cadence and the weakness of a line where the main accent falls upon a positive hiatus, “of the unspoken,” we would point out that this powerful passage shows the spirit of poetry without its concrete form. The abstract method is substituted for the concrete. Such an abstract phrase as “the unspoken” belongs entirely to prose.
As to what is called ratiocinative poetry, it might perhaps be shown that it does not exist at all. Not by syllogism, but per saltum, must the poet reach in every case his conclusions. We listen to the poet — we allow him to address us in rhythm or in rhyme — we allow him to sing to us while other men are only allowed to talk, not because he argues more logically than they, but because he feels more deeply and perhaps more truly. It is for his listeners to be knowing and ratiocinative; it is for him to be gnomic and divinely wise.
That poetry must be metrical or even rhythmical in movement, however, is what some have denied. Here we touch at once the very root of the subject. The difference between all literature and mere “word-kneading” is that, while literature is alive, word-kneading is without life. This literary life, while it is only bipartite in prose, seems to be tripartite in poetry; that is to say, while prose requires intellectual life and emotional life, poetry seems to require not only intellectual life and emotional life but rhythmic life, this last being the most important of all according to many critics, though Aristotle is not among these. Here indeed is the “fork” between the old critics and the new. Unless the rhythm of any metrical passage is so vigorous, so natural, and so free that it seems as though it could live, if need were, by its rhythm alone, has that passage any right to exist? and should it not, if the substance is good, be forthwith demetritized and turned into prose? Thoreau has affirmed that prose, at its best, has high qualities of its own beyond the ken of poetry; to compensate for the sacrifice of these, should not the metrical gains of any passage be beyond all cavil?
This argument might be pressed farther still. It might seem bold to assert that, in many cases, the mental value of poetry may actually depend upon form and colour, but would it not be true? The mental value of poetry must be judged by a standard not applicable to prose; but, even with regard to the different kinds of poetry, we must not compare poetry whose mental value consists in a distinct and logical enunciation of ideas, such as that of Lucretius and Wordsworth, and poetry whose mental value consists partly in the suggestive richness of passion or symbol latent in rhythm (such as that of Sappho sometimes, Pindar often, Shelley always), or latent in colour, such as that of some of the Importance of Metrical Questions. Persian poets. To discuss the question, Which of these two kinds of poetry is the more precious? would be idle, but are we not driven to admit that certain poems whose strength is rhythm, and certain other poems whose strength is colour, while devoid of any logical statement of thought, may be as fruitful of thoughts and emotions too deep for words as a shaken prism is fruitful of tinted lights? The mental forces at work in the production of a poem like the Excursion are of a very different kind from the mental forces at work in the production of a poem like Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind.” In the one case the poet's artistic methods, like those of the Greek architect, show, and are intended to show, the solid strength of the structure. In the other, the poet's artistic methods, like those of the Arabian architect, contradict the idea of solid strength — make the structure appear to hang over our heads like the cloud pageantry of heaven. But, in both cases, the solid strength is, and must be, there, at the base. Before the poet begins to write he should ask himself which of these artistic methods is natural to him; he should ask himself whether his natural impulse is towards the weighty iambic movement whose primary function is to state, or towards those lighter movements which we still call, for want of more convenient words, anapaestic and dactylic, whose primary function is to suggest. Whenever Wordsworth and Keats pass from the former to the latter they pass at once into doggerel. Nor is it difficult to see why English anapaestic and dactylic verse must suggest, and not state, as even so comparatively successful a tour de force as Shelley's “Sensitive Plant” shows. Conciseness is a primary virtue of all statement. The moment the English poet tries to “pack” his anapaestic or dactylic line as he can pack his iambic line, his versification becomes rugged, harsh, pebbly — becomes so of necessity. Nor is this all: anapaestic and dactylic verse must in English be obtrusively alliterative, or the same pebbly effect begins to be felt. The anapaestic line is so full of syllables that in a language where the consonants dominate the vowels (as in English), these syllables grate against each other, unless their corners are artfully bevelled by one of the only two smoothing processes at the command of an English versifier — obtrusive alliteration, or an obtrusive use of liquids. Now these demands of form may be turned by the perfect artist to good account if his appeal to the listener's soul is primarily that of suggestion by sound or symbol, but if his appeal is that of direct and logical statement the diffuseness inseparable from good anapaestic and dactylic verse is a source of weakness such as the true artist should find intolerable.
Using the word “form” in a wider sense still, a sense that includes “composition,” it can be shown that poetry, to be entitled to the name, must be artistic in form. Whether a poem be a Welsh triban or a stornello improvised by an Italian peasant girl, whether it be an ode by Keats or a tragedy by Sophocles, it is equally a work of art. The artist's command over form may Form and Matter. be shown in the peasant girl's power of spontaneously rendering in simple verse, in her stornello or rispetto, her emotions through nature's symbols; it may be shown by Keats in that perfect fusion of all poetic elements of which he was such a master, in the manipulation of language so beautiful both for form and colour that thought and words seem but one blended loveliness; or it may be shown by Sophocles in a mastery over what in painting is called composition, in the exercise of that wise vision of the artist which, looking before and after, sees the thing of beauty as a whole, and enables him to grasp the eternal laws of cause and effect in art and bend them to his own wizard will. In every case, indeed, form is an essential part of poetry; and, although George Sand's saying that “L'art est une forme” applies perhaps more strictly to the plastic arts (where the soul is reached partly through mechanical means), its application to poetry can hardly be exaggerated.
Owing, however, to the fact that the word ποιητής (first used to designate the poetic artist by Herodotus) means maker, Aristotle seems to have assumed that the indispensable basis of poetry is invention. He appears to have thought that a poet is a poet more on account of the composition of the action than on account of the composition of his verses. Indeed he said as much as this. Of epic poetry he declared emphatically that it produces its imitations either by mere articulate words or by metre superadded. This is to widen the definition of poetry so as to include all imaginative literature, and Plato seems to have given an equally wide meaning to the word ποίησις. Only, while Aristotle considered ποίησις to be an imitation of the facts of nature, Plato considered it to be an imitation of the dreams of man. Aristotle ignored, and Plato slighted, the importance of versification (though Plato on one occasion admitted that he who did not know rhythm could be called neither musician nor poet).
Perhaps the first critic who tacitly revolted against the dictum that substance, and not form, is the indispensable basis of poetry was Dionysius of Halicarnassus, whose treatise upon the arrangement of words is really a very fine piece of literary criticism. In his acute remarks upon the arrangement of the words in the sixteenth book of the Odyssey, as compared with that in the story of Gyges by Herodotus, was perhaps first enunciated clearly the doctrine that poetry is fundamentally a matter of style. The Aristotelian theory as to invention, however, dominated all criticism after as well as before Dionysius. When Bacon came to discuss the subject (and afterwards) the only division between the poetical critics was perhaps between the followers of Aristotle and those of Plato as to what poetry should, and what it should not, imitate. It is curious to speculate as to what would have been the result had the poets followed the critics in this matter. Had not the instinct of the poet been too strong for the schools, would poetry as an art have been lost and merged in such imaginative prose as Plato's? Or is not the instinct for form too strong to be stifled? By the poets themselves metre was always considered to be the one indispensable requisite of a poem, though, as regards criticism, even in the time of the appearance of the Waverley Novels, the Quarterly Review would sometimes speak of them as “poems”; and perhaps even later the same might be said of romances so concrete in method and diction, and so full of poetic energy, as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, where we get absolutely all that Aristotle requires for a poem. On the whole, however, the theory that versification is not an indispensable requisite of a poem seems to have become nearly obsolete. Perhaps, indeed, many critics would now go so far in the contrary direction as to say with Hegel (Aesthetik, ii. 289) that “metre is the first and only condition absolutely demanded by poetry, yea even more necessary than a figurative picturesque diction.” At all events this at least may be said, that the division between poetical critics is not now between Aristotelians and Baconians; it is of a different kind altogether. While one group of critics may still perhaps say with Dryden that “a poet is a maker, as the name signifies,” and that “he who cannot make, that is, invent, has his name for nothing,” another group contends that it is not the invention but the artistic treatment, the form, which determines whether an imaginative writer is a poet or a writer of prose — contends, in short, that emotion is the basis of all true poetic expression, whatever be the subject-matter, that thoughts must be expressed in an emotional manner before they can be brought into poetry, and that this emotive expression demands even yet something else, viz. style and form.
Although many critics are now agreed that “L'art est une forme,” that without metre and without form there can be no The Importance of Ideas and Attitude. poetry, there are few who would contend that poetry can exist by virtue of any one of these alone, or even by virtue of all these combined. Quite independent of verbal melody, though mostly accompanying it, and quite independent of “composition,” there is an atmosphere floating around the poet through which he sees everything, an atmosphere which stamps his utterances as poetry; for instance, among all the versifiers contemporary with Donne there was none so rugged as he occasionally was, and yet such songs as “Sweetest love, I do not go for weariness of thee” prove how true a poet he was whenever he could master those technicalities which far inferior poets find comparatively easy. While rhythm may to a very considerable degree be acquired (though, of course, the highest rhythmical effects never can), the power of looking at the world through the atmosphere that floats before the poet's eyes is not to be learned and not to be taught. This atmosphere is what we call poetic imagination. But first it seems necessary to say a word or two upon that high temper of the soul which in truly great poetry gives birth to this poetic imagination.
The “message” of poetry must be more unequivocal, more thoroughly accentuated, than that of any of the other fine arts. With regard to modern poetry, indeed, it may almost be said that if any writer's verse embodies a message, true, direct and pathetic, we cannot stay to inquire too curiously about the degree of artistic perfection with which it is delivered, for Wordsworth's saying “That which comes from the heart goes to the heart” applies very closely indeed to modern poetry. The most truly passionate poet in Greece was no doubt in a deep sense the most artistic poet; but in her case art and passion were one, and that is why she has been so cruelly misunderstood. The most truly passionate nature, and perhaps the greatest soul, that in recent years has expressed itself in English verse is Elizabeth Barrett Browning; at least it is certain that, with the single exception of Hood in the “Song of the Shirt,” no writer of the 19th century really touched English hearts with a hand so powerful as hers and this notwithstanding violations of poetic form, or defective rhymes, such as would appal some of the contemporary versifiers of England and France “who lisp in numbers for the numbers [and nothing else] come.” The truth is that in order to produce poetry the soul must for the time being have reached that state of exaltation, that state of freedom from self-consciousness, depicted in the lines: —
|“||I started once, or seemed to start, in pain,
Resolved on noble things, and strove to speak,
As when a great thought strikes along the brain,
And flushes all the cheek.”
Whatsoever may be the poet's “knowledge of his art,” into this mood he must always pass before he can write a truly poetic line. For, notwithstanding all that may be said upon poetry as a fine art, it is in the deepest sense of the word an “inspiration.” No man can write a line of genuine poetry without having been “born again” (or, as the true rendering of the text says, “born from above”); and then the mastery over those highest reaches of form which are beyond the ken of the mere versifier comes to him as a result of the change. Hence, with all Mrs Browning's metrical blemishes, the splendour of her metrical triumphs at her best.
For what is the deep distinction between poet and proseman? A writer may be many things besides a poet; he may be a warrior like Aeschylus, a man of business like Shakespeare, a courtier like Chaucer, or a cosmopolitan philosopher like Goethe; but the moment the poetic mood is upon him all the trappings of the world with which for years he may perhaps have been clothing his soul — the world's knowingness, its cynicism, its self-seeking, its ambition — fall away, and the man becomes an inspired child again, with ears attuned to nothing but the whispers of those spirits from the Golden Age, who, according to Hesiod, haunt and bless the degenerate earth. What such a man produces may greatly delight and astonish his readers, yet not so greatly as it delights and astonishes himself. His passages of pathos draw no tears so deep or so sweet as those that fall from his own eyes while he writes; his sublime passages overawe no soul so imperiously as his own; his humour draws no laughter so rich or so deep as that stirred within his own breast.
It might almost be said, indeed, that Sincerity and Conscience, the two angels that bring to the poet the wonders of the poetic dream, bring him also the deepest, truest delight of form. It might almost be said that by aid of sincerity and conscience the poet is enabled to see more clearly than other men the eternal limits of his own art — to see with Sophocles that nothing, not even poetry itself, is of any worth to man, invested as he is by the whole army of evil, unless it is in the deepest and highest sense good, unless it comes linking us all together by closer bonds of sympathy and pity, strengthening us to fight the foes with whom fate and even Nature, the mother who bore us, sometimes seem in league — to see with Milton that the high quality of man's soul which in English is expressed by the word virtue is greater than even the great poem he prized, greater than all the rhythms of all the tongues that have been spoken since Babel — and to see with Shakespeare and with Shelley that the high passion which in English is called love is lovelier than all art, lovelier than all the marble Mercuries that “await the chisel of the sculptor” in all the marble hills.
2. What Position does Poetry take up in Relation to the other Arts? — Notwithstanding the labours of Lessing and his followers, the position accorded by criticism to poetry in Poetry in Relation to the other Arts. relation to the other arts has never been so uncertain and anomalous as in recent years. On the one hand there are critics who, judging from their perpetual comparison of poems to pictures, claim her as a sort of handmaid of painting and sculpture. On the other hand the disciples of Wagner, while professing to do homage to poetry, have claimed her as the handmaid of music. With regard to the relations of poetry to painting and sculpture, it seems necessary to glance for a moment at the saying of Simonides, as recorded by Plutarch, that poetry is a speaking picture and that painting is a mute poetry. It appears to have had upon modern criticism as much influence since the publication of Lessing's Laocoon as it had before. Perhaps it is in some measure answerable for the modern vice of excessive word-painting. Beyond this one saying, there is little or nothing in Greek literature to show that the Greeks recognized between poetry and the plastic and pictorial arts an affinity closer than that which exists between poetry and music and dancing. Understanding artistic methods more profoundly than the moderns, and far too profoundly to suppose that there is any special and peculiar affinity between an art whose medium of expression is marble and an art whose medium of expression is a growth of oral symbols, the Greeks seem to have studied poetry not so much in its relation to painting and sculpture as in its relation to music and dancing. It is matter of familiar knowledge, for instance, that at the Dionysian festival it was to the poet as “teacher of the chorus” (χοροδιδάσκαλος) that the prize was awarded, even though the “teacher of the chorus” were Aeschylus himself or Sophocles. And this recognition of the relation of poetry to music is perhaps one of the many causes of the superiority of Greek to all other poetry in adapting artistic means to artistic ends. In Greek poetry, even in Homer's description of the shield of Achilles, even in the famous description by Sophocles of his native woods in the Oedipus coloneus, such word-painting as occurs seems, if not inevitable and unconscious, so alive with imaginative feeling as to become part and parcel of the dramatic or lyric movement itself. And whenever description is so introduced the reader of Greek poetry need not be told that the scenery itself rises before the listener's imagination with a clearness of outline and a vigour of colour such as no amount of detailed word painting in the modern fashion can achieve. The picture even in the glorious verses at the end of the eighth book of the Iliad rises before our eyes — seems actually to act upon our bodily senses — simply because the poet's eagerness to use the picture for merely illustrating the solemnity and importance of his story lends to the picture that very authenticity which the work of the modern word-painter lacks.
That the true place of poetry lies between music on the one hand and prose, or loosened speech, on the other, was, we say, taken for granted by the one people in whom the artistic instinct was fully developed. No doubt they used the word music in a very wide sense, in a sense that might include several arts. But it is a suggestive fact that, in the Greek language, long before poetic art was called “making” it was called “singing.” The poet was not ποιητής but ἀοιδός. And as regards the Romans it is curious to see how every now and then the old idea that poetry is singing rather than making will disclose itself. It will be remembered for instance how Terence, in the prologue of Phormio, alludes to poets as musicians. That the ancients were right in this could well be shown by a history of poetry: music and the lyrical function of the poet began together, but here, as in other things, the progress of art from the implicit to the explicit has separated the two. Every art has its special function, has a certain work which it can do better than any one of its sister arts. Hence its right of existence. For instance, before the “sea of emotion” within the soul has become “curdled into thoughts,” it can be expressed in inarticulate tone. Hence, among the fine arts, music is specially adapted for rendering it. It was perhaps a perception of this fact which made the Syrian Gnostics define life to be “moving music.” When this sea of emotion has “curdled into thoughts,” articulate language rhythmically arranged — words steeped in music and colour, but at the same time embodying ideas — can do what no mere wordless music is able to achieve in giving it expression, just as unrhythmical language, language mortised in a foundation of logic, that is to say prose, can best express these ideas as soon as they have cooled and settled and cleared themselves of emotion altogether. Yet every art can in some degree invade the domain of her sisters, and the nearer these sisters stand to each other the more easily and completely can this invasion be accomplished. Prose, for instance, can sometimes, as in the case of Plato, do some of the work of poetry (however imperfectly, and however trammelled by heavy conditions); and sometimes poetry, as in Pindar's odes and the waves of the Greek chorus, can do, though in the same imperfect way, the work of music.
The poems of Sappho, however, are a good case in point. Here the poet's passion is expressed so completely by the mere sound of her verses that a good recitation of them to a person ignorant of Greek would convey something of that passion to the listener; and similar examples almost as felicitous might be culled from Homer, from Aeschylus and from Sophocles. Nor is this power confined to the Greek poets. The students of Virgil have often and with justice commented on such lines as Aen. v. 481 (where the sudden sinking of a stricken ox is rendered by means of rhythm), and such lines as Georg. ii. 441, where, by means of verbal sounds, the gusts of wind about a tree are rendered as completely as though the voice were that of the wind itself. In the case of Sappho the effect is produced by the intensity of her passion, in the case of Homer by the intensity of the dramatic vision, in the case of Virgil by a supreme poetic art. But it can also be produced by the mere ingenuity of the artist, as in Edgar Poe's “Ulalume.” The poet's object in that remarkable tour de force was to express dull and hopeless gloom in the same way that the mere musician would have expressed it — that is to say, by monotonous reiterations, by hollow and dreadful reverberations of gloomy sounds — though as an artist whose vehicle was articulate speech he was obliged to add gloomy ideas, in order to give to his work the intellectual coherence necessary for its existence as a poem. He evidently set out to do this, and he did it, and “Ulalume” properly intoned would produce something like the same effect upon a listener knowing no word of English that it produces upon us.
On the other hand, music can trench very far upon the domain of articulate speech, as we perceive in the wonderful instrumentation of Wagner. Yet, while it can be shown that the place of poetry is scarcely so close to sculpture and painting as to music on the one side and loosened speech on the other, the affinity of poetry to music must not be exaggerated. We must be cautious how we follow the canons of Wagner and the more enthusiastic of his disciples, who almost seem to think that inarticulate tone can not only suggest ideas but express them — can give voice to the Verstand, in short, as well as to the Vernunft of man. Even the Greeks drew a fundamental distinction between melic poetry (poetry written to be sung) and poetry that was written to be recited. It is a pity that, while modern critics of poetry have understood, or at least have given attention to painting and sculpture, so few have possessed any knowledge of music — a fact which makes Dante's treatise De vulgari eloquio so important. Dante was a musician, and seems to have had a considerable knowledge of the relations between musical and metrical laws. But he did not, we think, assume that these laws are identical.
If it is indeed possible to establish the identity of musical and metrical laws, it can only be done by a purely scientific investigation; it can only be done by a most searching inquiry into the subtle relations that we know must exist throughout the universe between all the laws of undulation. And it is curious to remember that some of the greatest masters of verbal melody have had no knowledge of music, while some have not even shown any love of it. All Greek boys were taught music, but whether Pindar's unusual musical skill was born of natural instinct and inevitable passion, or came from the accidental circumstance that his father was, as has been alleged, a musician, and that he was as a boy elaborately taught musical science by Lasus of Hermione, we have no means of knowing. Nor can we now learn how much of Milton's musical knowledge resulted from a like exceptional “environment,” or from the fact that his father was a musician. But when we find that Shelley seems to have been without the real passion for music, that Rossetti disliked it, and that Coleridge's apprehension of musical effects was of the ordinary nebulous kind, we must hesitate before accepting the theory of Wagner.
The question cannot be pursued here; but if it should on inquiry be found that, although poetry is more closely related to music than to any of the other arts, yet the power over verbal melody at its very highest is so all-sufficing to its possessor, as in the case of Shelley and Coleridge, that absolute music becomes a superfluity, this would only be another illustration of that intense egoism and concentration of force — the impulse of all high artistic energy — which is required in order to achieve the rarest miracles of art.
With regard to the relation of poetry to prose, Coleridge once asserted in conversation that the real antithesis of poetry was not prose but science. If he was right the difference in kind lies, not between the poet and the prose writer, but between the literary artist (the man whose instinct is to manipulate language) and the man of facts and of action whose instinct impels him to act, or, if not to act, to inquire. One thing is at least certain, that prose, however fervid and emotional it may become, must always be directed, or seem to be directed, by the reins of logic. Or, to vary the metaphor, like a captive balloon it can never really leave the earth.
Indeed, with the literature of knowledge as opposed to the literature of power poetry has nothing to do. Facts have no place in poetry until they are brought into relation with the human soul. But a mere catalogue of ships may become poetical if it tends to show the strength and pride and glory of the warriors who invested Troy; a detailed description of the designs upon a shield, however beautiful and poetical in itself, becomes still more so if it tends to show the skill of the divine artificer and the invincible splendour of a hero like Achilles. But mere dry exactitude of imitation is not for poetry but for loosened speech. Hence, most of the so-called poetry of Hesiod is not poetry at all. The Muses who spoke to him about “truth” on Mt Helicon made the common mistake of confounding fact with truth. And here we touch upon a very important matter. The reason why in prose speech is loosened is that, untrammelled by the laws of metre, language is able with more exactitude to imitate nature, though of course speech, even when “loosened,” cannot, when actual sensible objects are to be depicted, compete in any real degree with the plastic arts in accuracy of imitation, for the simple reason that its media are not colours nor solids but symbols arbitrary symbols which can be made to indicate, but never to reproduce, colours and solids. Accuracy of imitation is the first requisite of prose. But the moment language has to be governed by the laws of metre — the moment the conflict begins between the claims of verbal music and the claims of colour and form — then prosaic accuracy has to yield; sharpness of outline, mere fidelity of imitation, such as is within the compass of prose, have in some degree to be sacrificed. But, just as with regard to the relations between poetry and music the greatest master is he who borrows the most that can be borrowed from music, and loses the least that can be lost from metre, so with regard to the relations between poetry and prose the greatest master is he who borrows the most that can be borrowed from prose and loses the least that can be lost from verse. No doubt this is what every poet tries to do by instinct; but some sacrifice on either side there must be, and, with regard to poetry and prose, modern poets at least might be divided into those who make picturesqueness yield to verbal melody, and those who make verbal melody yield to picturesqueness.
With one class of poets, fine as is perhaps the melody, it is made subservient to outline or to colour; with the other class colour and outline both yield to metre. The chief aim of the first class is to paint a picture; the chief aim of the second is to sing a song. Weber, in driving through a beautiful country, could only enjoy its beauty by translating it into music. The same may be said of some poets with regard to verbal melody. The supreme artist, however, is he whose pictorial and musical power are so interfused that each seems born of the other, as is the case with Sappho, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and indeed most of the great Greek poets. Among English poets (leaving the two supreme masters undiscussed) Keats and Coleridge have certainly done this. The colour seems born of the music and the music born of the colour. In French poetry the same triumph has been achieved in Victor Hugo's magnificent poem “En marchant la nuit dans un bois,” which, as a rendering through verbal music of the witchery of nature, stands alone in the poetry of France. For there the poet conquers that crowning difficulty we have been alluding to, the difficulty of stealing from prose as much distinctness of colour and clearness of outline as can be imported into verse with as little sacrifice as possible of melody.
If poetry can in some degree invade the domain of prose, so on the other hand prose can at times invade the domain of poetry, and no doubt the prose of Plato — what is called poetical prose — is a legitimate form of art. Poetry, the earliest form of literature, is also the final and ideal form of all pure literature; and, when Landor insists that poetry and poetical prose are antagonistic, we must remember that Landor's judgments are mostly based on feeling, and that his hatred of Plato would be quite sufficient basis with him for an entire system of criticism upon poetical prose. As with Carlyle, there was a time in his life when Plato had serious thoughts of becoming a poet. And perhaps, like Carlyle, having the good sense to see his true function, he himself desisted from writing, and strictly forbade other men to write, in verse. If we consider this, and if we consider that certain of the great English masters of poetic prose of the 17th century were as incapable of writing in metre as their followers Richter and Carlyle, we shall hardly escape the conclusion on the one hand that the faculty of writing poetry is quite another faculty than that of producing work in the arts most closely allied to it, music and prose, but that on the other hand there is nothing antagonistic between these faculties.
3. Comparative Value in Expressional Power. — There is one great point of superiority that musical art exhibits over metrical art. This consists, not in the capacity for melody, but in the capacity for harmony in the musician's sense. The finest music of Aeschylus, of Pindar, of Shakespeare, of Milton, is after all only a succession of melodious notes, and, in endeavouring to catch the harmonic intent of strophe, antistrophe and epode in the Greek chorus and in the true ode (that of Pindar), we can only succeed by pressing memory into our service. We have to recall by memory the waves that have gone before, and then to imagine their harmonic power in relation to the waves at present occupying the ear. Counterpoint, therefore, is not to be achieved by the metricist, even though he be Pindar himself; but in music this perfect ideal harmony was foreshadowed perhaps in the earliest writing. We know at least that as early as the 12th century counterpoint began to show a vigorous life, and the study of it is now a familiar branch of musical science. Now, inasmuch as “nature's own hymn” is Rhythm. and must be the harmonic blending of apparently independent and apparently discordant notes, among the arts whose appeal is through the ear that which can achieve counterpoint must perhaps rank as a pure art above one which cannot achieve it. We are of course speaking here of metre only. We have not space to inquire whether the counterpoint of absolute poetry is the harmony underlying apparently discordant emotions — the emotion produced by a word being more persistent than the emotion produced by an inarticulate sound. But if poetry falls behind music in rhythmic scope, it is capable of rendering emotion after emotion has become disintegrated into thoughts, and here, as we have seen, it enters into direct competition with the art of prose. It can use the emphasis of sound, not for its own sake merely, but to strengthen the emphasis of sense, and can thus give a fuller and more adequate expression to the soul of man than music at its highest can give. With regard to prose, no doubt such writing as Plato's description of the chariot of the soul, his description of the island of Atlantis, or of Er's visit to the place of departed souls, comes but a short way behind poetry in imaginative and even rhythmic appeal. It is impossible, however, here to do more than touch upon the subject of the rhythm of prose in its relation to the rhythm of poetry; for in this matter the genius of each individual language has to be taken into account.
Perhaps it may be said that deeper than all the rhythm of art is that rhythm which art would fain catch, the rhythm of nature; for the rhythm of nature is the rhythm of life itself. This rhythm can be caught by prose as well as by poetry, such prose, for instance, as that of the English Bible. Certainly the rhythm of verse at its highest, such, for instance, as that of Shakespeare's greatest writings, is nothing more and nothing less than the metre of that energy of the spirit which surges within the bosom of him who speaks, whether he speak in verse or in impassioned prose. Being rhythm, it is of course governed by law, but it is a law which transcends in subtlety the conscious art of the metricist and is only caught by the poet in his most inspired moods, a law which, being part of nature's own sanctions, can of course never be formulated but only expressed, as it is expressed in the melody of the bird, in the inscrutable harmony of the entire bird-chorus of a thicket, in the whisper of the leaves of the tree, and in the song or wail of wind and sea. Now is not this rhythm of nature represented by that “sense rhythm” which prose can catch as well as poetry, that sense rhythm whose finest expressions are to be found in the Bible, Hebrew and English, and in the biblical movements of the English Prayer Book, and in the dramatic prose of Shakespeare at its best? Whether it is caught by prose or by verse, one of the virtues of the rhythm of nature is that it is translatable. Hamlet's peroration about man and Raleigh's apostrophe to death are as translatable into other languages as are the Hebrew psalms, or as is Manu's magnificent passage about the singleness of man: —
“Single is each man born into the world; single he dies; single he receives the reward of his good deeds, and single the punishment of his evil deeds. When he dies his body lies like a fallen tree upon the earth, but his virtue accompanies his soul. Wherefore let man harvest and garner virtue, so that he may have an inseparable companion in traversing that gloom which is so hard to be traversed.”
Here the rhythm, being the inevitable movement of emotion and “sense,” can be caught and translated by every literature under the sun. While, however, the great goal before the poet is to compel the listener to expect his caesuric effects, the great goal before the writer of poetic prose is in the very opposite direction; it is to make use of the concrete figures and impassioned diction of the poet, but at the same time to avoid the recognized and expected metrical bars upon which the poet depends. The moment the prose poet passes from the rhythm of prose to the rhythm of metre the apparent sincerity of his writing is destroyed.
As compared with sculpture and painting the great infirmity of poetry, as an “imitation” of nature, is of course that the Plastic limitation. medium is always and of necessity words — even when no words could, in the dramatic situation, have been spoken. It is not only Homer who is obliged sometimes to forget that passion when at white heat is never voluble, is scarcely even articulate; the dramatists also are obliged to forget that in love and in hate, at their tensest, words seem weak and foolish when compared with the silent and satisfying triumph and glory of deeds, such as the plastic arts can render. This becomes jmanifest enough when we compare the Niobe group or the Laocoon group, or the great dramatic paintings of the modern world, with even the finest efforts of dramatic poetry, such as the speech of Andromache to Hector, or the speech of Priam to Achilles, nay such as even the cries of Cassandra in the Agamemnon, or the wailings of Lear over the dead Cordelia. Even when writing the words uttered by Oedipus, as the terrible truth breaks in upon his soul, Sophocles must have felt that in the holiest chambers of sorrow and in the highest agonies of suffering reigns that awful silence which not poetry, but painting sometimes, and sculpture always, can render. What human sounds could render the agony of Niobe, or the agony of Laocoon, as we see them in the sculptor's rendering? Not articulate speech at all; not words but wails. It is the same with hate; it is the same with love. We are not speaking merely of the unpacking of the heart in which the angry warriors of the Iliad indulge. Even such subtle writing as that of Aeschylus and Sophocles falls below the work of the painter. Hate, though voluble perhaps, as Clytaemnestra's when hate is at that red-heat glow which the poet can render, changes in a moment whenever that redness has been fanned to hatred's own last complexion — whiteness as of iron at the melting-point — when the heart has grown far too big to be “unpacked” at all, and even the bitter epigrams of hate's own rhetoric, though brief as the terrier's snap before he fleshes his teeth, or as the short snarl of the tigress as she springs before her cubs in danger, are all too slow and sluggish for a soul to which language at its tensest has become idle play. But this is just what cannot be rendered by an art whose medium consists solely of words.
It is in giving voice, not to emotion at its tensest, but to the variations of emotion, it is in expressing the countless shifting movements of the soul from passion to passion, that poetry shows in spite of all her infirmities her superiority to the plastic arts. Hamlet and the Agamemnon, the Iliad and the Oedipus Tyrannus, are adequate to the entire breadth and depth of man's soul.
Varieties of Poetic Art. — We have now reached the inquiry: What varieties of poetic art are the outcome of the two kinds of poetic impulse, dramatic imagination and lyric or egoistic imagination? It would be impossible here to examine fully the subject of poetic imagination. In order to do so we should have to enter upon the vast question of the effect of artistic environment upon the development of man's poetic imagination; we should have to inquire how the instinctive methods of each poet and of each group of poets have been modified and often governed by the methods characteristic of their own time and country. We should have to inquire, for instance, how far such landscape as that of Sophocles in the Oedipus Coloneus and such landscape as that of Wordsworth depends upon difference of individual temperament, and how far upon difference of artistic environment. That, in any thorough and exhaustive discussion of poetic imagination, the question of artistic environment must be taken into account, the case of the Iliad is alone sufficient to show. Ages before Phrynichus, ages before an acted drama was dreamed of, a dramatic poet of the first order arose, and, though he was obliged to express his splendid dramatic imagination through epic forms, he expressed it almost as fully as if he had inherited the method and the stage of Sophocles. And if Homer never lived at all, then an entire group of dramatic poets arose in remote times whose method was epic instead of dramatic simply because there was then no stage. This, contrasted with the fact that in a single half-century the tragic art of Greece arose with Aeschylus, culminated with Sophocles, and decayed with Euripides, and contrasted also with the fact that in England at one time, and in Spain at one time, almost the entire poetic imagination of the country found expression in the acted drama alone, is sufficient to show that a poet's artistic methods are very largely influenced by the artistic environments of his country and time. So vast a subject as this, however, is beyond our scope, and we can only point to the familiar instance of the troubadours and the trouvères and then pass on.
With the trouvère (the poet of the langue d'oïl), the story or situation is always the end of which the musical language is the means; with the troubadour (the poet of the langue d'oc), the form is so beloved, the musical language so enthralling, that, however beautiful may be the story or situation, it is felt to be no more than the means to a more beloved and beautiful end. But then nature makes her own troubadours and her own trouvères irrespective of fashion and of time irrespective of langue d'oc and langue d'oïl. And, in comparing the troubadours with the trouvères, this is what strikes us at once — there are certain troubadours who by temperament, by original endowment of nature, ought to have been trouvères, and there are certain trouvères who by temperament ought to have been troubadours. Surrounding conditions alone have made them what they are. There are those whose impulse (though writing in obedience to contemporary fashions lyrics in the langue d'oc) is manifestly to narrate, and there are those whose impulse (though writing in obedience to contemporary fashions fabliaux in the langue d'oïl) is simply to sing. In other words, there are those who, though writing after the fashion of their brother-troubadours, are more impressed with the romance and wonderfulness of the human life outside them than with the romance and wonderfulness of their own passions, and who delight in depicting the external world in any form that may be the popular form of their time; and there are those who, though writing after the fashion of their brother-trouvères, are far more occupied with the life within them than with that outer life which the taste of their time and country calls upon them to paint — born rhythmists who must sing, who translate everything external as well as internal into verbal melody. Of the former class Pierre Vidal, of the latter class the author of Le Lay de l'oiselet, may be taken as the respective types.
That the same forces are seen at work in all literatures few students of poetry will deny — though in some poetical groups these forces are no doubt more potent than in others, as, for instance, with the great parable poets of Persia, in some of whom there is perpetually apparent a conflict between the dominance of the Oriental taste for allegory and subtle suggestion, as expressed in the Zoroastrian definition of poetry — “apparent pictures of unapparent realities” — and the opposite yearning to represent human life with the freshness and natural freedom characteristic of Western poetry.
Allowing, however, for all the potency of external influences, we shall not be wrong in saying that of poetic imagination there Absolute and Relative Vision. are two distinct kinds — (1) the kind of poetic imagination seen at its highest in Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare and Homer, and (2) the kind of poetic imagination seen at its highest in Pindar, Dante and Milton, or else in Sappho, Heine and Shelley. The former, being in its highest dramatic exercise unconditioned by the personal or lyrical impulse of the poet, might perhaps be called absolute dramatic vision; the latter, being more or less conditioned by the personal or lyrical impulse of the poet, might be called relative dramatic vision. It seems impossible to classify poets, or to classify the different varieties of poetry, without drawing some such distinction as this, whatever words of definition we may choose to adopt.
For the achievement of all pure lyric poetry, such as the ode, the song, the elegy, the idyll, the sonnet, the stornello, it is evident that the imaginative force we have called relative vision will suffice. And if we consider the matter thoroughly, in many other forms of poetic art — forms which at first sight might seem to require absolute vision — we shall, find nothing but relative vision at work.
Even in Dante, and even in Milton and Virgil, it might be difficult to trace the working of any other than relative vision. And as to the entire body of Asiatic poets it might perhaps be found (even in view of the Indian drama) that relative vision suffices to do all their work. Indeed the temper which produces true drama is, it might almost be said, a growth of the Western mind. For, unless it be Semitic, as seen in the dramatic narratives of the Bible, or Chinese, as seen in that remarkable prose story, The Two Fair Cousins, translated by Rémusat, absolute vision seems to have but small place in the literatures of Asia. The wonderfulness of the world and the romantic possibilities of fate, or circumstance, or chance — not the wonderfulness of the character to whom these possibilities befall — are ever present to the mind of the Asiatic poet. Even in so late a writer as the poet of the Shāh Nāmeh, the hero Irij, the hero Zal and the hero Zohreb are in character the same person, the virtuous young man who combines the courage of youth with the wisdom and forbearance of age. And, as regards the earlier poets of Asia, it was not till the shadowy demigods and heroes of the Asiatic races crossed the Caucasus, and breathed a more bracing air, that they became really individual characters. But among the many qualities of man's mind that were invigorated and rejuvenated by that great exodus from the dreamy plains of Asia is to be counted, above all others, his poetic imagination. The mere sense of wonder, which had formerly been an all-sufficing source of pleasure to him, was all-sufficing no longer. The wonderful adventure must now be connected with a real and interesting individual character. It was left for the poets of Europe to show that, given the interesting character, given the Achilles, the Odysseus, the Helen, the Priam, any adventure happening to such a character becomes interesting.
What then is this absolute vision, this true dramatic imagination which can hardly be found in Asia — which even in Europe cannot be found except in rare cases? Between relative and absolute vision the difference seems to be this, that the former only enables the poet, even in its very highest exercise, to make his own individuality, or else humanity as represented by his own individuality, live in the imagined situation; the latter enables him in its highest exercise to make special individual characters other than the poet's own live in the imagined situation.
“That which exists in nature,” says Hegel, “is a something purely individual and particular. Art, on the contrary, is essentially destined to manifest the general.” And no doubt this is true as regards the plastic arts, and true also as regards literary art, save in the very highest reaches of pure drama and pure lyric, when it seems to become art no longer when it seems to become the very voice of Nature herself. The cry of Priam when he puts to his lips the hand that slew his son is not merely the cry of a bereaved and aged parent; it is the cry of the individual king of Troy, and expresses above everything else that most naïve, pathetic and winsome character. Put the words into the mouth of the irascible and passionate Lear and they would be entirely out of keeping.
It may be said then that, while the poet of relative vision, even in its very highest exercise, can only, when depicting the Lyric, Epic and Dramatic Singers. external world, deal with the general, the poet of absolute vision can compete with Nature herself and deal with both general and particular. If this really so we may perhaps find a basis for a classification of poetry and of poets. That all poets must be singers has already been maintained. But singers seem to be divisible into three classes: first the pure lyrists, each of whom can with his one voice sing only one tune; secondly the epic poets, save Homer, the bulk of the narrative poets, and the quasi-dramatists each of whom can with his one voice sing several tunes; and thirdly the true dramatists, who, having, like the nightingale of Gongora, many tongues, can sing all tunes.
It is to the first-named of these classes that most poets belong. With regard to the second class, there are not of course many wets left for it: the first absorbs so many. But, when we come to consider that among those who, with each his one voice, can iing many tunes, are Pindar, Firdausi, Jami, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Spenser, Goethe, Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Schiller, Victor Hugo, the second class is so various that no generalization save such a broad one as ours could embrace its members. And now we come to class three, and must pause. The third class is necessarily very small. In it can only be placed such names as Shakespeare, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Homer and (hardly) Chaucer.
These three kinds of poets represent three totally different kinds of poetic activity.
With regard to the first, the pure lyrists, the impulse is pure egoism. Many of them have less of even relative vision at its highest than the mass of mankind. They are often too much engaged with the emotions within to have any deep sympathy with the life around them. Of every poet of this class it may be said that his mind to him “a kingdom is,” and that the smaller the poet the bigger to him is that kingdom. To make use of a homely image — like the chaffinch whose eyes have been pricked by the bird-fancier, the pure lyrist is sometimes a warbler because he is blind. Still he feels that the Muse loves him exceedingly. She takes away his eyesight, but she gives him sweet song. And his song is very sweet, very sad, and very beautiful; but it is all about the world within his own soul — its sorrows, joys, fears and aspirations.
With regard to the second class the impulse here is no doubt a kind of egoism too; yet the poets of this class are all of a different temper from the pure lyrists. They have a wide imagination; but it is still relative, still egoistic. They have splendid eyes, but eyes that never get beyond seeing general, universal humanity (typified by themselves) in the imagined situation. Not even to these is it given to break through that law of centrality by which every “me” feels itself to be the central “me” — the only “me” of the universe, round which all other spurious “me's” revolve. This “me” of theirs they can transmute into many shapes, but they cannot create other “me's” — nay, for egoism, some of them scarcely would, perhaps, if they could.
The third class, the true dramatists, whose impulse is the simple yearning to create akin to that which made “the great Vishnu yearn to create a world,” are “of imagination all compact” — so much so that when at work “the divinity” which Iamblichus speaks of “seizes for the time the soul and guides it as he will.”
The distinction between the pure lyrists and the other two classes of poets is obvious enough. But the distinction between Examples of Relative and Absolute Vision. the quasi-dramatists and the pure dramatists requires a word of explanation before we proceed to touch upon the various kinds of poetry that spring from the exercise of relative and absolute vision. Sometimes, to be sure, the vision of the true dramatists — the greatest dramatists — will suddenly become narrowed and obscured, as in that part of the Oedipus tyrannus where Sophocles makes Oedipus ignorant of what every one in Thebes must have known, the murder of Laius. And again, finely as Sophocles has conceived the character of Electra, he makes her, in her dispute with Chrysothemis, give expression to sentiments that, in another play of his own, come far more appropriately from the lofty character of Antigone in a parallel dispute with Ismene. And, on the other hand, examples of relative vision in its furthest reaches can be found in abundance everywhere, especially in Virgil, Dante, Calderon and Milton. Some of the most remarkable examples of that high kind of relative vision which may easily be mistaken for absolute vision may be found in those great prose epics of the North which Aristotle would have called poems. Here is one from the Vōlsunga Saga. While the brothers of Gudrun are about their treacherous business of murdering Sigurd, her husband, as he lies asleep in her arms, Brynhild, Sigurd's former love, who in the frenzy of “love turned to hate” has instigated the murderers to the deed, hovers outside the chamber with Gunnar, her husband, and listens to the wail of her rival who is weltering in Sigurd's blood. At the sound of that wail Brynhild laughs: —
“Then said Gunnar to her, Thou laughest not because thy heart roots are gladded, or else why doth thy visage wax so wan?”
This is of course very fine; but, as any two characters in that dramatic situation might have done that dramatic business, fine as it is — as the sagaman gives us the general and not the particular — the vision at work is not absolute but relative at its very highest exercise. But our examples will be more interesting if taken from English poets. In Coleridge's “Ancient Mariner” we find an immense amount of relative vision of so high a kind that at first it seems absolute vision. When the ancient mariner, in his narrative to the wedding guest, reaches the slaying of the albatross, he stops, he can proceed no farther, and the wedding guest exclaims: —
|“||God save thee, Ancient Mariner,
From the fiends that plague thee thus!
Why look'st thou so?” “With my cross-bow
I shot the albatross.”
But there are instances of relative vision — especially in the great master of absolute vision, Shakespeare — which are higher still — so high indeed that not to relegate them to absolute vision seems at first sight pedantic. Such an example is the famous speech of Lady Macbeth in the second act, where she says: —
My father as he slept, I had done't.”
Marvellously subtle as is this speech, it will be found, if analysed, that it expresses the general human soul rather than any one special human soul. Indeed Leigh Hunt records the case of a bargeman who, charged with robbing a sleeping traveller in his barge, used in his confession almost identical words — “Had he not looked like my father as he slept, I should have killed as well as robbed him.” Again, the thousand and one cases (to be found in every literature) where a character, overwhelmed by some sudden surprise or terror, asks whether the action going on is that of a dream or of real life, must all, on severe analysis, be classed under relative rather than under absolute vision — even such a fine speech, for instance, as that where Pericles, on discovering Marina, exclaims: —
|“||This is the rarest dream that e'er dull sleep
Did mock sad fools withal”;
or as that in the third act of Titus Andronicus, where Titus, beholding his mutilated and ruined daughter, asks: —
even here, we say, the humanity rendered is general and not particular, the vision at work is relative and not absolute. The poet, as representing the whole human race, throwing himself into the imagined situation, gives us what general humanity would have thought, felt, said or done in that situation, not what one particular individual and he alone would have thought, felt, said or done.
Now what we have called absolute vision operates in a very different way. So vividly is the poet's mere creative instinct at work that the ego sinks into passivity — becomes insensitive to all impressions other than those dictated by the vision — by the “divinity” which has “seized the soul.” Shakespeare is full of examples. Take the scene in the first act of Hamlet where Hamlet hears for the first time, from Horatio, that his father's ghost haunts the castle. Having by short sharp questions elicited the salient facts attending the apparition, Hamlet says, “I would I had been there.” To this Horatio makes the very commonplace reply, “It would have much amazed you.” Note the marvellously dramatic reply of Hamlet — “Very like, very like! Stayed it long?” Suppose that this dialogue had been attempted by any other poet than a true dramatist, or by a true dramatist in any other mood than his very highest, Hamlet, on hearing Horatio's commonplace remarks upon phenomena which to Hamlet were more subversive of the very order of the universe than if a dozen stars had fallen from their courses, would have burst out with: “Amazed me!” and then would have followed an eloquent declamation about the “amazing” nature of the phenomena and their effect upon him. But so entirely has the poet become Hamlet, so completely has “the divinity seized his soul,” that all language seems equally weak for expressing the turbulence within the soul of the character, and Hamlet exclaims in a sort of meditative irony, “Very like, very like!” It is exactly this one man Hamlet, and no other man, who in this situation would have so expressed himself. Charles Knight has some pertinent remarks upon this speech of Hamlet; yet he misses its true value, and treats it from the general rather than from the particular side. Instances of absolute vision in Shakespeare crowd upon us; but we can find room for only one other. In the pathetic speech of Othello, just before he kills himself, he declares himself to be: —
|“||One not easily jealous, but, being wrought,
Perplexed in the extreme.”
Consider the marvellous timbre of the word “wrought,” as coming from a character like Othello. When writing this passage, especially when writing this word, the poet had become entirely the simple English soldier-hero, as the Moor really is — he had become Othello, looking upon himself “as not easily jealous,” whereas he was “wrought” and “perplexed in the extreme” by tricks which Hamlet would have seen through in a moment.
While all other forms of poetic art can be vitalized by relative vision, there are two forms (and these the greatest) in which Dramatic Imagination. absolute vision is demanded, viz. the drama, and in a lesser degree the Greek epic, especially the Iliad. This will be seen more plainly perhaps if we now vary our definitions and call relative vision egoistic imagination; absolute vision dramatic imagination.
Very much of the dramatist's work can be, and in fact is, effected by egoistic imagination, while true dramatic imagination is only called into play on comparatively rare occasions. Not only fine but sublime dramatic poems have been written, however, where the vitalizing power has been entirely that of lyrical imagination. We need only instance the Prometheus Bound of Aeschylus, the most sublime poem in the world. The dramas of Shelley too, like those of Victor Hugo and Calderon, are informed entirely by egoistic imagination. In all these splendid poems the dramatist places himself in the imagined situation, or at most he places there some typical conception of universal humanity. There is not in all Calderon any such display of dramatic imagination as we get in that wonderful speech of Priam's in the last book of the Iliad, to which we have before alluded. There is not in the Cenci such a display of dramatic imagination as we get in the sudden burst of anger from the spoilt child of gods and men, Achilles (anger which alarms the hero himself as much as it alarms Priam), when the prattle of the old man has carried him too far. It may seem bold to say that the drama of Goethe is informed by egoistic imagination only — assuredly the prison-scene in Faust is unsurpassed in the literatures of the world. Yet, perhaps, it could be shown of the passion and the pathos of Gretchen throughout the entire play that it betrays a female character general and typical rather than individual and particular.
The nature of this absolute vision or true dramatic imagination is easily seen if we compare the dramatic work of writers without absolute vision, such as Calderon, Goethe, Ben Jonson, Fletcher and others, with the dramatic work of Aeschylus and of Shakespeare. While of the former group it may be said that each poet skilfully works his imagination, of Aeschylus and Shakespeare it must be said that each in his highest dramatic mood does not work, but is worked by his imagination. Note, for instance, how the character of Clytaemnestra grows and glows under the hand of Aeschylus. The poet of the Odyssey had distinctly said that Aegisthus, her paramour, had struck the blow, but the dramatist, having imagined the greatest tragic female in all poetry, finds it impossible to let a man like Aegisthus assist such a woman in a homicide so daring and so momentous. And when in that terrible speech of hers she justifies her crime (ostensibly to the outer world, but really to her own conscience), the way in which, by the sheer magnetism of irresistible personality, she draws our sympathy to herself and her crime is unrivalled out of Shakespeare and not surpassed even there. In the Great Drama, in the Agamemnon, in Othello, in Hamlet, in Macbeth, there is an imagination at work whose laws are inexorable, are inevitable, as the laws by the operation of which the planets move around the sun. But in this essay our business with drama is confined entirely to its relations to epic.
Considering how large and on the whole how good is the body of modern criticism upon drama, it is surprising how poor is Epic and Drama Compared. the modern criticism upon epic. Aristotle, comparing tragedy with epic, gives the palm to tragedy as being the more perfect art, and nothing can be more ingenious than the way in which he has marshalled his reasons. He tells us that tragedy as well as epic is capable of producing its effect even without action; we can judge of it perfectly, says he, by reading. He goes so far as to say that, even in reading as well as in representation, tragedy has an advantage over the epic, the advantage of greater clearness and distinctness of impression. And in some measure this was perhaps true of Greek tragedy, for as Müller in his Dissertations on the Eumenides has well said, the ancients always remained and wished to remain conscious that the whole was a Dionysian entertainment; the quest of a commonplace ἀπάτη came afterwards. And even of Romantic Drama it may be said that in the time of Shakespeare, and indeed down through the 18th century, it never lost entirely its character of a recitation as well as a drama. It was not till melodrama began to be recognized as a legitimate form of dramatic art that the dialogue had to be struck from the dramatic action “at full speed” — struck like sparks from the roadster's shoes. The truth is, however, that it was idle for Aristotle to inquire which is the more important branch of poetry, epic or tragedy. Equally idle would it be for the modern critic to inquire how much romantic drama gained and how much it lost by abandoning the chorus.
Much has been said as to the scope and the limits of epic and dramatic poetry. If in epic the poet has the power to take the imagination of his audience away from the dramatic centre and show what is going on at the other end of the great web of the world, he can do the same thing in drama by the chorus, and also by the introduction into the dramatic circle of messengers and others from the outside world. But, as regards epic poetry, is it right that we should hear, as we sometimes do hear, the voice of the poet himself as chorus bidding us contrast the present picture with other pictures afar off, in order to enforce its teaching and illustrate its pathos? This is a favourite method with modern poets and a still more favourite one with prose narrators. Does it not give an air of self-consciousness to poetry? Does it not disturb the intensity of the poetic vision? Yet it has the sanction of Homer; and who shall dare to challenge the methods of the great father of epic? An instance occurs in Iliad v. 158, where, in the midst of all the stress of fight, the poet leaves the dramatic action to tell us what became of the inheritance of Phaenops, after his two sons had been slain by Diomedes. Another instance occurs in iii. 243-244, where the poet, after Helen's pathetic mention of her brothers, comments on the causes of their absence, “criticizes life” in the approved modern way, generalizes upon the impotence of human intelligence the impotence even of human love to pierce the darkness in which the web of human fate is woven. Thus she spoke (the poet tells us); but the life-giving earth already possessed them, there in Lacedaemon, in their dear native land: —
|ὤς φάτο τοὑς δ’ ἤδη κάτεχεν φυσίζοος αἶα
ἐν Λακεδαἰμονι αὖθι, φίλῃ ἐν πατρίδι γαίῃ
This, of course, is “beautiful exceedingly,” but, inasmuch as the imagination at work is egoistic or lyrical, not dramatic; inasmuch as the vision is relative, not absolute, it does not represent that epic strength at its very highest which we call specially “Homeric,” unless indeed we remember that with Homer the Muses are omniscient: this certainly may give the passage a deep dramatic value it otherwise seems to lack.
The deepest of all the distinctions between dramatic and epic methods has relation, however, to the nature of the dialogue. Aristotle failed to point it out, and this is remarkable until we remember that his work is but a fragment of a great system of criticism. In epic poetry, and in all poetry that narrates, whether the poet be Homer, Chaucer, Thomas the Rhymer, Gottfried von Strasburg, or Turoldus, the action, of course, moved by aid partly of narrative and partly by aid of dialogue, but in drama the dialogue has a quality of suggestiveness and subtle inference which we do not expect to find in any other poetic form save perhaps that of the purely dramatic ballad. In ancient drama this quality of suggestiveness and subtle inference is seen not only in the dialogue, but in the choral odes. The third ode of the Agamemnon is an extreme case in point, where, by a kind of double entendre, the relations of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus are darkly alluded to under cover of allusions to Paris and Helen. Of this dramatic subtlety Sophocles is perhaps the greatest master; and certain critics have been led to speak as though irony were heart-thought of Sophoclean drama. But the suggestiveness of Sophocles is pathetic (as Professor Lewis Campbell has well pointed out), not ironical. This is one reason why drama more than epic seems to satisfy the mere intellect of the reader, though this may be counterbalanced by the hardness of mechanical structure which sometimes disturbs the reader's imagination in tragedy.
When, for instance, a dramatist pays so much attention to the evolution of the plot as Sophocles does, it is inevitable that his characters should be more or less plot-ridden; they have to say and do now and then certain things which they would not say and do but for the exigencies of the plot. Indeed one of the advantages which epic certainly has over drama is that the story can be made to move as rapidly as the poet may desire without these mechanical modifications of character.
The only kind of epic for Aristotle to consider was Greek epic, between which and all other epic the difference is one of kind, The Greek Epic. if the Iliad alone is taken to represent Greek epic. In speaking of the effect that surrounding conditions seem to have upon the form in which the poetic energy of any time or country should express itself, we instanced the Iliad as a typical case. The imagination vivifying it is mainly dramatic. The characters represent much more than the mere variety of mood of the delineator. Notwithstanding all the splendid works of Calderon, Marlowe, Webster and Goethe, it is doubtful whether as a born dramatist the poet of the Iliad does not come nearer to Aeschylus and Shakespeare than does any other poet. His passion for making the heroes speak for themselves is almost a fault in the Iliad considered as pure epic, and the unconscious way in which each actor is made to depict his own character is in the highest spirit of drama. It is owing to this speciality of the Iliad that it stands apart from all other epic save that of the Odyssey, where, however, the dramatic vision is less vivid. It is owing to the dramatic imagination displayed in the Iliad that it is impossible to say, from internal evidence, whether the poem is to be classified with the epics of growth or with the epics of art. All epics are clearly divisible into two classes, first those which are a mere accretion of poems or traditionary ballads, and second, those which, though based indeed on tradition or history, have become so fused in the mind of one great poet, so stained, therefore, with the colour and temper of that mind, as to become new crystallizations — inventions, in short, as we understand that word. Each kind of epic has excellencies peculiar to itself, accompanied by peculiar and indeed necessary defects. In the one we get the freedom — apparently schemeless and motiveless — of nature, but, as a consequence, miss that “hard acorn of thought” (to use the picturesque definition in the Vōlsunga Saga of the heart of a man) which the mind asks for as the core of every work of art. In the other this great requisite of an adequate central thought is found, but accompanied by a constriction, a lack of freedom, a cold artificiality, the obtrusion of a pedantic scheme, which would be intolerable to the natural mind unsophisticated by literary study. The flow of the one is as that of a river, the flow of the other as that of a canal. Yet, as has been already hinted, though the great charm of Nature herself is that she never teases us with any obtrusive exhibitions of scheme, she doubtless has a scheme somewhere, she does somewhere hide a “hard acorn of thought” of which the poem of the universe is the expanded expression. And, this being so, art should have a scheme too; but in such a dilemma is she placed in this matter that the epic poet, unless he is evidently telling the story for its own sake, scornful of purposes ethic or aesthetic, must sacrifice illusion.
Among the former class of epics are to be placed the great epics of growth, such as the Mahābhārata, the Nibelung story, &c.; among the latter the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Paradise Lost, the Gerusalemme liberata, the Lusiadas.
But where in this classification are we to find a place for the Iliad? The heart-thought of the greatest epic in all literature is simply that Achilles was vexed and that the fortunes of the world depended upon the whim of a sulky hero. Yet, notwithstanding all the acute criticisms of Wolff, it remains difficult for us to find a place for the Iliad among the epics of growth. And why? Because throughout the Iliad the dramatic imagination shown is of the first order; and, if we are to suppose a multiplicity of authors for the poem, we must also suppose that ages before the time of Pericles there existed a group of dramatists more nearly akin to the masters of the Great Drama, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Shakespeare, than any group that has ever existed since. Yet it is equally difficult to find a place for it amongst the epics of art. In the matter of artistic motive the Odyssey stands alone among the epics of art of the world, as we are going to see.
It is manifest that, as the pleasure derived from the epic of art is that of recognizing a conscious scheme, if the epic of art fails The Epic of Art. through confusion of scheme it fails altogether. What is demanded of the epic of art (as some kind of compensation for that natural freedom of evolution which it can never achieve, that sweet abandon, which belongs to nature and to the epic of growth alike) is unity of impression, harmonious and symmetrical development of a conscious heart-thought or motive. This being so, where are we to place the Aeneid, and where are we to place the Shāh Nāmeh? Starting with the intention, as it seems, of fusing into one harmonious whole the myths and legends upon which the Roman story is based, Virgil, by the time he reaches the middle of his epic, forgets all about this primary intent, and gives us his own thoughts and reflections on things in general. Fine as is the speech of Anchises to Aeneas in Elysium (Aen. vi. 724-755), its incongruity with the general scheme of the poem as developed in the previous books shows how entirely Virgil lacked that artistic power shown in the Odyssey of making a story become the natural and inevitable outcome of an artistic idea.
In the Shāh Nāmeh there is the artistic redaction of Virgil, but with even less attention to a central thought than Virgil exhibits. Firdausi relies for his effects upon the very qualities which characterize not the epic of art but the epic of growth — a natural and not an artificial flow of the story; so much indeed that, if the Shāh Nāmeh were studied in connexion with the Iliad on the one hand and with the Kalevala on the other, it might throw a light upon the way in which an epic may be at one and the same time an aggregation of the national ballad poems and the work of a single artificer. That Firdausi was capable of working from a centre not only artistic but philosophic his Yusuf and Zuleikha shows; and if we consider what was the artistic temper of the Persians in Firdausi's time, what indeed has been that temper during the whole of the Mahommedan period, the subtle temper of the parable poet — the Shāh Nāmeh, with its direct appeal to popular sympathies, is a standing wonder in poetic literature.
With regard, however, to Virgil's defective power of working from an artistic motive, as compared with the poet of the Odyssey, this is an infirmity he shares with all the poets or the Western world. Certainly he shares it with the writer of Paradise Lost, who, setting out to “justify the ways of God to man,” forgets occasionally the original worker of the evil, as where, for instance, he substitutes chance as soon as he comes (at the end of the second book) to the point upon which the entire epic movement turns, the escape of Satan from hell and his journey to earth for the ruin of man: —
| “At last his sail-broad vans
He spreads for flight, and, in the surging smoke
Uplifted, spurns the ground; thence many a league,
As in a cloudy chair, ascending rides
Audacious; but, that seat soon failing, meets
A vast vacuity; all unawares,
Fluttering his pinions vain, plumb down he drops
Ten thousand fathoms deep, and to this hour
Down had been falling, had not, by ILL CHANCE,
The strong rebuff of some tumultuous cloud,
Instinct with fire and nitre, hurried him
As many miles aloft.”
In Milton's case, however, the truth is that he made the mistake of trying to disturb the motive of the story for artistic purposes — a fatal mistake, as we shall see when we come to speak of the Nibelungenlied in relation to the old Norse epic cycle.
Though Vondel's mystery play of Lucifer is, in its execution, rhetorical more than poetical, it did, beyond all question, influence Milton when he came to write Paradise Lost. The famous line which is generally quoted as the keynote of Satan's character —
seems to have been taken bodily from Vondel's play, and Milton's entire epic shows a study of it. While Marlowe's majestic movements alone are traceable in Satan's speech (written some years before the rest of Paradise Lost, when the dramatic and not the epic form had been selected), Milton's Satan became afterwards a splendid amalgam not of the Mephistopheles but of the Faustus of Marlowe and the Lucifer of Vondel. Vondel's play must have possessed a peculiar attraction for a poet of Milton's views of human progress. Defective as the play is in execution, it is far otherwise in motive. This motive, if we consider it aright, is nothing less than an explanation of man's anomalous condition on the earth — spirit incarnate in matter, created by God, a little lower than the angels — in order that he may advance by means of these very manacles which imprison him, in order that he may ascend by the staircase of the world, the ladder of fleshly conditions, above those cherubim and seraphim who, lacking the education of sense, have not the knowledge wide and deep which brings man close to God.
Here Milton found his own favourite doctrine of human development and self-education in a concrete and vividly artistic form. Much, however, as such a motive must have struck a man of Milton's instincts, his intellect was too much chained by Calvinism to permit of his treating the subject with Vondel's philosophic breadth. The cause of Lucifer's wrath had to be changed from jealousy of human progress to jealousy of the Son's proclaimed superiority. And the history of poetry shows that once begin to tamper with the central thought around which any group of incidents has crystallized and the entire story becomes thereby rewritten, as we have seen in the case of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Of the motive of his own epic, after he had abandoned the motive of Vondel, Milton had as little permanent grasp as Virgil had of his. As regards the Odyssey, however, we need scarcely say that its motive is merely artistic, not philosophic. And now we come to philosophic motive.
The artist's power of thought is properly shown not in the direct enunciation of ideas but in mastery over motive. Here Aeschylus is by far the greatest figure in Western poetry — a proof perhaps among many proofs of the Oriental strain of his genius. (As regards pure drama, however, important as is motive, freedom, organic vitality in every part, is of more importance than even motive, and in this freedom and easy abandonment the concluding part of the Oresteia is deficient as compared with such a play as Othello or Lear.) Notwithstanding the splendid exception of Aeschylus, the truth seems to be that the faculty of developing a poetical narrative from a philosophic thought is Oriental, and on the whole foreign to the genius of the Western mind. Neither in Western drama nor in Western epic do we find, save in such rare cases as that of Vondel, anything like thalt power of developing a story from an idea which not only Jami but all the parable poets of Persia show.
In modern English poetry the motive of Shelley's dramatic poem Prometheus Unbound is a notable illustration of what is here contended. Starting with the full intent of developing a drama from a motive — starting with a universalism, a belief that good shall be the final goal of ill — Shelley cannot finish his first three hundred lines without shifting (in the curse of Prometheus) into a Manichaeism as pure as that of Manes himself: —
|“||Heap on thy soul, by virtue of this curse,
Ill deeds, then be thou damned, beholding good;
Both infinite as is the universe.”
According to the central thought of the poem human nature, through the heroic protest and struggle of the human mind typified by Prometheus, can at last dethrone that supernatural terror and tyranny (Jupiter) which the human mind had itself installed. But, after its dethronement (when human nature becomes infinitely perfectible), how can the supernatural tyranny exist apart from the human mind that imagined it? How can it be as “infinite as the universe”?
The motive of Paradise Lost is assailed with much vigour by Victor Hugo in his poem Religions et Religion. But when Hugo, in the after parts of the poem, having destroyed Milton's “God,” sets up an entirely French “Dieu” of his own and tries “to justify” him, we perceive how pardonable was Milton's failure after all. Compare such defect of mental grip and such nebulosity of thought as is displayed by Milton, Shelley and Hugo with the strength of hand shown in the “Sālāmān” and “Absal” of Jami, and indeed by the Sufi poets generally.
There is, however, one exception to this rule that Western poetry is nebulous as to motive. There is, besides the Iliad, one epic that refuses to be classified, though for entirely different reasons. This is the Nibelung story, where we find unity of purpose and also entire freedom of movement. We find combined here beauties which are nowhere else combined which are, in fact, at war with each other everywhere else. We find a scheme, a real “acorn of thought,” in an epic which is not the self-conscious work of a single poetic artificer, but is as much the slow growth of various times and various minds as is the Mahābhārata, in which the heart-thought is merely that the Kauravas defeated their relatives at dice and refused to disgorge their winnings.
This Northern epic-tree, as we find it in the Icelandic sagas, the Norns themselves must have watered; for it combines the virtues of the epic of growth with those of the epic of art. Though not written in metre, it may usefully be compared with the epics of Greece and of India and Persia. Free in movement as the wind, which “bloweth where it listeth,” it listeth to move by law. Its action is that of free will, but free will at play within a ring of necessity. Within this ring there throbs all the warm and passionate life of the world outside, and all the freedom apparently. Yet from that world it is enisled by a cordon of curses by a zone of defiant flames more impregnable than that which girdled the beautiful Brynhild at Hindfell. Natural laws, familiar emotions, are at work everywhere in the story; yet the “Ring of Andvari,” whose circumference is but that of a woman's finger, encircles the whole mimic world of the sagaman as the Midgard snake encircles the earth. For this artistic perfection in an epic of growth there are, of course, many causes, some of them traceable and some of them beyond all discovery — causes no doubt akin to those which gave birth to many of the beauties of other epics of growth. Originally Sinfiotli and Sigurd were the same person, and note how vast has been the artistic effect of the separation of the two! Again, there were several different versions of the story of Brynhild. The sagamen, finding all these versions too interesting and too much beloved to be discarded, adopted them all — worked them up into one legend, so that, in the Vōlsunga Saga we have a heroine possessing all the charms of goddess, demi-goddess, earthly princess and amazon — a heroine surpassing perhaps in fascination all other heroines that have ever figured in poetry.
It is when we come to consider such imaginative work as this that we are compelled to pause before challenging the Aristotelian doctrine that metrical structure is but an accidental quality of epic.
In speaking of the Nibelung story we do not, of course, speak of the German version, the Nibelungenlied, a fine epic still, though a degradation of the elder form. Between the two the differences are fundamental in the artistic sense, and form an excellent illustration of what has just been said upon the disturbance of motive in epic, and indeed in all poetic art. It is not merely that the endings of the three principal characters, Sigurd (Siegfried), Gudrun (Kriemhilt), and Brynhild are entirely different; it is not merely that the Icelandic version, by missing the blood-bath at Fafnir's lair, loses the pathetic situation of Gudrun's becoming afterwards an unwilling instrument of her husband's death; it is not merely that, on the other hand, the German version, by omitting the early love passages between Brynhild and Sigurd at Hindfell, misses entirely the tragic meaning of her story and the terrible hate that is love resulting from the breaking of the troth; but the conclusion of each version is so exactly the opposite of that of the other that, while the German story is called (and very properly) “Kriemhilt's Revenge,” the story of the Vōlsunga Saga might, with equal propriety, be called Gudrun's Forgiveness.
If it be said that, in both cases, the motive shows the same Titanic temper, that is because the Titanic temper is the special Temper of East and West. characteristic of the North-Western mind. The temper of revolt against authority seems indeed to belong to that energy which succeeds in the modern development of the great racial struggle for life. Although no epic, Eastern or Western, can exist without a struggle between good and evil — and a struggle upon apparently equal terms — it must not be supposed that the warring of conflicting forces which is the motive of Eastern epic has much real relation to the warring of conflicting forces which is the motive of Western epic.
And, as regards the machinery of epic, there is, we suspect, a deeper significance than is commonly apprehended in the fact that the Satan or Shaitan of the Eastern world becomes in Vondel and Milton a sublime Titan who attracts to himself the admiration which in Eastern poetry belongs entirely to the authority of heaven. In Asia, save perhaps among the pure Arabs of the desert, underlying all religious forms, there is apparent a temper of resignation to the irresistible authority of heaven. And as regards the Aryans it is probable that the Titanic temper — the temper of revolt against authority — did not begin to show itself till they had moved across the Caucasus. But what concerns us here is the fact that the farther they moved to the north-west the more vigorously this temper asserted itself, the prouder grew man in his attitude towards the gods, till at last in the Scandinavian cycle he became their equal and struggled alongside them, shoulder to shoulder, in the defence of heaven against the assaults of hell. Therefore, as we say, the student of epic poetry must not suppose that there is any real parallel between the attitude of Vishnu (as Rama) towards Ravana and the attitude of Prometheus towards Zeus, or the attitude of the human heroes towards Odin in Scandinavian poetry. Had Ravana been clothed with a properly constituted authority, had he been a legitimate god instead of a demon, the Eastern doctrine of recognition of authority would most likely have come in and the world would have been spared one at least of its enormous epics. Indeed, the Ravana of the Rāmāyana answers somewhat to the Fafnir of the Vōlsunga Saga; and to plot against demons is not to rebel against authority. The vast field of Indian epic, however, is quite beyond us here.
Nor can we do more than glance at the Kalevala. From one point of view that group of ballads might be taken, no doubt, as a simple record of how the men of Kalevala were skilful in capturing the sisters of the Pojohla men. But from another point of view the universal struggle of the male for the female seems typified in this so-called epic of the Finns by the picture of the “Lady of the Rainbow ” sitting upon her glowing arc and weaving her golden threads, while the hero is doing battle with the malevolent forces of nature.
But it is in the Nibelung story that the temper of Western epic is at its best — the temper of the simple fighter, whose business it is to fight. The ideal Western fighter was not known in Greece till ages after Homer, when in the pass of Thermopylae the companions of Leonidas combed their long hair in the sun. The business of the fighter in Scandinavian epic is to yield to no power whatsoever, whether of earth or heaven or hell — to take a buffet from the Allfather himself, and to return it; to look Destiny herself in the face, crying out for quarter neither to gods nor demons nor Norns. This is the true temper of pure “heroic poetry” as it has hitherto flourished on this side the Caucasus — the temper of the fighter who is invincible because he feels that Fate herself falters when the hero of the true strain defies — the fighter who feels that the very Norns themselves must cringe at last before the simple courage of man standing naked and bare of hope against all assaults, whether of heaven or hell or doom. The proud heroes of the Vōlsunga Saga utter no moans and shed no Homeric tears, knowing as they know that the day prophesied is sure when, shoulder to shoulder, gods and men shall stand up to fight the entire brood of night, and evil, storming the very gates of Asgard.
That this temper is not the highest from the ethical point of view is no doubt true. Against the beautiful resignation of buddhism it may seem barbaric, and if moral suasion could supplant physical force in epic — if Siddartha could take the place of Achilles or Sigurd — it might be better for the human race.
But we must now give undivided attention to pure egoistic or lyric imagination. This, as has been said, is sufficient to The Lyric Imagination. vitalize all forms of poetic art save drama and the Greek epic. It would be impossible to discuss adequately here the Hebrew poets, who have produced a lyric so different in kind from all other lyrics as to stand in a class by itself. As it is equal in importance to the Great Drama of Shakespeare, Aeschylus and Sophocles, we may perhaps be allowed to call it the “Great Lyric.” The Great Lyric must be religious — it must, it would seem, be an outpouring of the soul, not towards man but towards God, like that of the God-intoxicated prophets and psalmists of Scripture. Even the lyric fire of Pindar owes much to the fact that he had a childlike belief in the myths to which so many of his contemporaries had begun to give a languid assent. But there is nothing in Pindar, or indeed elsewhere in Greek poetry, like the rapturous song, combining unconscious power with unconscious grace, which we have called the Great Lyric. It might perhaps be said indeed that the Great Lyric is purely Hebrew. But, although we could hardly expect to find it among those whose language, complex of syntax and alive with self-conscious inflexions, bespeaks the scientific knowingness of the Western mind, to call the temper of the Great Lyric broadly “Asiatic” would be rash. It seems to belong as a birthright to those descendants of Shem who, yearning always to look straight into the face of God and live, could (when the Great Lyric was sung) see not much else.
Though two of the artistic elements of the Great Lyric, unconsciousness and power, are no doubt plentiful enough in India, the element of grace is lacking for the most part. The Vedic hymns are both nebulous and unemotional, as compared with Semitic hymns. And as to the Persians, they, it would seem, have the grace always, the power often, but the unconsciousness almost never. This is inevitable if we consider for a moment the chief characteristic of the Persian imagination an imagination whose wings are not so much “bright with beauty” as heavy with it — heavy as the wings of a golden pheasant — steeped in beauty like the “tiger-moth's deep damasked wings.” Now beauty of this kind does not go to the making of the Great Lyric.
Then there comes that poetry which, being ethnologically Semitic, might be supposed to exhibit something at least of the Hebrew temper — the Arabian. But, whatever may be said of the oldest Arabic poetry, with its deep sense of fate and pain, it would seem that nothing can be more unlike than the Hebrew temper and the Arabian temper as seen in later poets. It is not with Hebrew but with Persian poetry that Arabian poetry can be usefully compared. If the wings of the Persian imagination are heavy with beauty, those of the later Arabian imagination are bright with beauty — brilliant as an Eastern butterfly, quick and agile as a dragon-fly or a humming-bird. To the eye of the Persian poet the hues of earth are (as Firdausi says of the garden of Afrasiab) “like the tapestry of the kings of Ormuz, the air is perfumed with musk, and the waters of the brooks are the essence of roses.” And to the later Arabian no less than to the Persian the earth is beautiful; but it is the clear and sparkling beauty of the earth as she “wakes up to life, greeting the Sabaean morning”; we feel the light more than the colour. But it is neither the Persian's instinct for beauty nor the Arabian's quenchless wit and exhaustless animal spirits that go to the making of the Great Lyric; far from it. In a word, the Great Lyric, as we have said, cannot be assigned to the Asiatic temper generally any more than it can be assigned to the European temper.
In the poetry of Europe, if we cannot say of Pindar, devout as he is, that he produced the Great Lyric, what can we say of The Ode. any other European poet? The truth is that, like the Great Drama, so straight and so warm does it seem to come from the heart of man in its highest moods that we scarcely feel it to be literature at all. Passing, however, from this supreme expression of lyrical imagination, we come to the artistic ode, upon which subject the present writer can only reiterate here what he has more fully said upon a former occasion. Whatever may have been said to the contrary, enthusiasm is, in the nature of things, the very basis of the ode; for the ode is a mono-drama, the actor in which is the poet himself; and, as Marmontel has well pointed out, if the actor in the mono-drama is not affected by the sentiments he expresses, the ode must be cold and lifeless. But, although the ode is a natural poetic method of the poet considered as prophet — although it is the voice of poetry as a fine frenzy — it must not be supposed that there is anything lawless in its structure. “Pindar,” says the Italian critic Gravina, “launches his verses upon the bosom of the sea; he spreads out all his sails; he confronts the tempest and the rocks; the waves arise and are ready to engulf him; already he has disappeared from the spectator's view; when suddenly he springs up in the midst of the waters, and reaches happily the shore.” Now it is this Pindaric discursiveness, this Pindaric unrestraint as to the matter, which has led poets to attempt to imitate him by adopting an unrestraint as to form. Although no two odes of Pindar exhibit the same metrical structure (the Aeolian and Lydian rhythms being mingled with the Doric in different proportions), yet each ode is in itself obedient, severely obedient, to structural law. This we feel; but what the law is no metricist has perhaps ever yet been able to explain.
It was a strange misconception that led people for centuries to use the word “Pindaric” and irregular as synonymous terms; whereas the very essence of the odes of Pindar (of the few, alas! which survive to us) is their regularity. There is no more difficult form of poetry than this, and for this reason: when in any poetical composition the metres are varied, there must, as the present writer has before pointed out, be a reason for such freedom, and that reason is properly subjective — the varying form must embody and express the varying emotions of the singer. But when these metrical variations are governed by no subjective law at all, but by arbitrary rules supposed to be evolved from the practice of Pindar, then that very variety which should aid the poet in expressing his emotion crystallizes it and makes the ode the most frigid of all compositions. Great as Pindar undoubtedly is, it is deeply to be regretted that no other poet survives to represent the triumphal ode of Greece — the digressions of his subject matter are so wide, and his volubility is so great.
In modern literature the ode has been ruined by theories and experiments. A poet like La Mothe, for instance, writes execrable odes, and then writes a treatise to prove that all odes should be written on the same model. There is much confusion of mind prevalent among poets as to what is and what is not an ode. All odes are, no doubt, divisible into two great classes: those which, following an arrangement in stanzas, are commonly called regular, and those which, following no such arrangement, are commonly called irregular.
We do not agree with those who assert that irregular metres are of necessity inimical to poetic art. On the contrary, we believe that in modern prosody the arrangement of the rhymes and the length of the lines in any rhymed metrical passage may be determined either by a fixed stanzaic law or by a law infinitely deeper — by the law which impels the soul, in a state of poetic exaltation, to seize hold of every kind of metrical aid, such as rhyme, caesura, &c. for the purpose of accentuating and marking off each shade of emotion as it arises, regardless of any demands of stanza. But between the irregularity of makeshift, such as we find it in Cowley and his imitators, and the irregularity of the “fine frenzy” of such a poem, for instance, as Coleridge's Kubla Khan, there is a difference in kind. Strange that it is not in an ode at all but in this unique lyric Kubla Khan, descriptive of imaginative landscape, that an English poet has at last conquered the crowning difficulty of writing in irregular metres. Having broken away from all restraints of couplet and stanza — having caused his rhymes and pauses to fall just where and just when the emotion demands that they should fall, scorning the exigencies of makeshift no less than the exigencies of stanza — he has found what every writer of irregular English odes has sought in vain, a music as entrancing, as natural, and at the same time as inscrutable, as the music of the winds or of the sea.
The prearranged effects of sharp contrasts and antiphonal movements, such as some poets have been able to compass, do not of Stanzaic Law and Emotional Law. course come under the present definition of irregular metres at all. If a metrical passage does not gain immensely by being written independently of stanzaic law, it loses immensely; and for this reason, perhaps, that the great charm of the music of all verse, as distinguished from the music of prose, is inevitableness of cadence. In regular metres we enjoy the pleasure of feeling that the rhymes will inevitably fall under a recognized law of couplet or stanza. But if the passage flows independently of these, it must still flow inevitably — it must, in short, show that it is governed by another and a yet deeper force, the inevitableness of emotional expression. The lines must be long or short, the rhymes must be arranged after this or after that interval, not because it is convenient so to arrange them, but because the emotion of the poet inexorably demands these and no other arrangements. When, however, Coleridge came to try his hand at irregular odes, such as the odes “To the Departing Year” and “To the Duchess of Devonshire,” he certainly did not succeed.
As to Wordsworth's magnificent “Ode on Intimations of Immortality,” the sole impeachment of it, but it is a grave one, is that the length of the lines and the arrangement of the rhymes are not always inevitable; they are, except on rare occasions, governed neither by stanzaic nor by emotional law. For instance, what emotional necessity was there for the following rhyme-arrangement?
|“||My heart is at your festival,
My head hath its coronal,
|The fulness of your bliss I feel — I feel it all.|
|Oh, evil day! if I were sullen,
While earth herself is adorning,
This sweet May morning;
And the children are culling,
On every side,
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Beautiful as is the substance of this entire passage, so far from gaining, it loses by rhyme — loses, not in perspicuity, for Wordsworth like all his contemporaries (except Shelley) is mostly perspicuous, but in that metrical emphasis the quest of which is one of the impulses that leads a poet to write in rhyme. In spite, however, of its metrical defects, this famous ode of Wordsworth's is the finest irregular ode in the language; for, although Coleridge's “Ode to the Departing Year” excels it in Pindaric fire, it is below Wordsworth's masterpiece in almost every other quality save rhythm. Among the writers of English irregular odes, next to Wordsworth, stands Dryden. The second stanza of the “Ode for St Cecilia's Day” is a great triumph.
Leaving the irregular and turning to the regular ode, it is natural to divide these into two classes: (1) those which are really Pindaric in so far as they consist of strophes, antistrophes and epodes, variously arranged and contrasted; and (2) those which consist of a regular succession of regular stanzas. Perhaps all Pindaric odes tend to show that this form of art is in English a mistake. It is easy enough to write one stanza and call it a strophe, another in a different movement and call it an antistrophe, a third in a different movement still and call it an epode. But in modern prosody, disconnected as it is from musical and from terpsichorean science, what are these? No poet and no critic can say.
What is requisite is that the ear of the reader should catch a great metrical scheme, of which these three varieties of movement are necessary parts — should catch, in short, that inevitableness of structure upon which we have already touched. In order to justify a poet in writing a poem in three different kinds of movement, governed by no musical and no terpsichorean necessity, a necessity of another kind should make itself apparent; that is, the metrical wave moving in the strophe should be metrically answered by the counter-wave moving in the antistrophe, while the epode — which, as originally conceived by Stesichorus, was merely a standing still after the balanced movements of the strophe and antistrophe — should clearly, in a language like ours, be a blended echo of these two. A mere metrical contrast such as some poets labour to effect is not a metrical answer. And if the reply to this criticism be that in Pindar himself no such metrical scheme is apparent, that is the strongest possible argument in support of our position. If indeed the metrical scheme of Pindar is not apparent, that is because, haying been written for chanting, it was subordinate to the lost musical scheme of the musician. It has been contended, and is likely enough, that this musical scheme was simple — as simple, perhaps, as the scheme of a cathedral chant; but to it, whatever it was, the metrical scheme of the poet was subordinated. It need scarcely be said that the phrase “metrical scheme” is used here not in the narrow sense as indicating the position and movement of strophe and antistrophe by way of simple contrast, but in the deep metrical sense as indicating the value of each of these component parts of the ode, as a counter-wave balancing and explaining the other waves in the harmony of the entire composition. We touch upon this matter in order to show that the moment odes ceased to be chanted, the words strophe, antistrophe, and epode lost the musical value they had among the Greeks, and pretended to a complex metrical value which their actual metrical structure does not appear to justify. It does not follow from this that odes should not be so arranged, but it does follow that the poet's arrangement should justify itself by disclosing an entire metrical scheme in place of the musical scheme to which the Greek choral lyric was evidently subordinated. But even if the poet were a sufficiently skilled metricist to compass a scheme embracing a wave, an answering wave, and an echo gathering up the tones of each, i.e. the strophe, the antistrophe and the epode, the ear of the reader, unaided by the musical emphasis which supported the rhythms of the old choral lyric, is, it should seem, incapable of gathering up and remembering the sounds further than the strophe and the antistrophe, after which it demands not an epode but a return to the strophe. That is to say, an epode, as alternating in the body of the modern ode, is a mistake; a single epode at the end of a group of strophes and antistrophes (as in some of the Greek odes) has, of course, a different function altogether.
The great difficulty of the English ode is that of preventing the apparent spontaneity of the impulse from being marred by the apparent artifice of the form; for, assuredly, no writer subsequent to Coleridge and to Keats would dream of writing an ode on the cold Horatian principles adopted by Warton, and even by Collins, in his beautiful “Ode to Evening.”
Of the second kind of regular odes, those consisting of a regular succession of regular stanzas, the so-called odes of Sappho are, of course, so transcendent that no other amatory lyrics can be compared with them. Never before these songs were sung and never since did the human soul, in the grip of a fiery passion, utter a cry like hers; and from the executive point of view, in directness, in lucidity, in that high imperious verbal economy which only nature herself can teach the artist, she has no equal, and none worthy to take the place of second not even in Heine, nor even in Burns. Turning, however, to modern poetry, there are some magnificent examples of this simple form of ode in English poetry — Spenser's immortal “Epithalamion” leading the way in point of time, and probably also in point of excellence.
Fervour being absolutely essential, we think, to a great English ode, fluidity of metrical movement can never be dispensed with. The more billowy the metrical waves the better suited are they to render the emotions expressed by the ode, as the reader will see by referring to Coleridge's “Ode to France” (the finest ode in the English language, according to Shelley), and giving special attention to the first stanza — to the way in which the first metrical wave, after it had gently fallen at the end of the first quatrain, leaps up again on the double rhymes (which are expressly introduced for this effect), and goes bounding on, billow after billow, to the end of the stanza. Not that this fine ode is quite free from the great vice of the English ode, rhetoric. If we except Spenser and, in one instance, Collins, it can hardly be said that any English writer before Shelley and Keats produced odes independent of rhetoric and supported by pure poetry alone. But fervid as are Shelley's “Ode to the West Wind” and Keats's odes “To a Nightingale” and “On a Grecian Urn,” they are entirely free from rhetorical flavour. Notwithstanding that in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” the first stanza does not match in rhyme arrangement with the others, while the second stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale” varies from the rest by running on four rhyme-sounds instead of five, vexing the ear at first by disappointed expectation, these two odes are, after Coleridge's “France,” the finest regular odes perhaps in the English language.
With regard to the French ode, Malherbe was the first writer who brought it to perfection. Malherbe showed also more variety of mood than it is the fashion just now to credit him with. This may be especially noted in his “Ode to Louis XIII.” His disciple Racan is not of much account. There is certainly much vigour in the odes of Rousseau, but it is not till we reach Victor Hugo that we realize what French poetry can achieve in this line; and contemporary poetry can hardly be examined here. We may say, however, that some of Hugo's odes are truly magnificent. As a pure lyrist his place among the greatest poets of the world is very nigh. Here, though writing in an inferior language, he ranks with the greatest masters of Greece, of England, and of Germany. Had he attempted no other kind of poetry than lyrical, his would still have been the first name in French poetry. Whatever is defective in his work arises, as in the case of Euripides, from the importation of lyrical force where dramatic force is mainly needed.
The main varieties of lyrical poetry, such as the idyll, the satire, the ballad, the sonnet, &c., are treated in separate articles; The Song. but a word or two must be said here about the song and the elegy. To write a good song requires that simplicity of grammatical structure which is foreign to many natures — that mastery over direct and simple speech which only true passion and feeling can give, and which “coming from the heart goes to the heart.” Without going so far as to say that no man is a poet who cannot write a good song, it may certainly be said that no man can write a good song who is not a good poet. In modern times we have, of course, nothing in any way representing those choral dance-songs of the Greeks, which, originating in the primitive Cretan war-dances, became, in Pindar's time, a splendid blending of song and ballet. Nor have we anything exactly representing the Greek scolia, those short drinking songs of which Terpander is said to have been the inventor. That these scolia were written, not only by poets like Alcaeus, Anacreon, Praxilla, Simonides, but also by Sappho and by Pindar, shows in what high esteem they were held by the Greeks. These songs seem to have been as brief as the stornelli of the Italian peasant. They were accompanied by the lyre, which was handed from singer to singer as the time for each scolion came round.
With regard to the stornello, many critics seem to confound it with the rispetto, a very different kind of song. The Italian rispetto consists of a stanza of inter-rhyming lines ranging from six to ten in number, but often not exceeding eight. The Tuscan and Umbrian stornello is much shorter, consisting, indeed, of a hemistich naming some natural object which suggests the motive of the little poem. The nearest approach to the Italian stornello appears to be, not the rispetto, but the Welsh triban.
Perhaps the mere difficulty of rhyming in English and the facility of rhyming in Italian must be taken into account when we inquire why there is nothing in Scotland — of course there could be nothing in England — answering to the nature-poetry of the Italian peasant. Most of the Italian rispetti and stornelli seem to be improvisations; and to improvise in English is as difficult as to improvise is easy in Italian. Nothing indeed is more interesting than the improvisatorial poetry of the Italian peasants, such as the canzone. If the peasantry discover who is the composer of a canzone, they will not sing it. The speciality of Italian peasant poetry is that the symbol which is mostly erotic is of the purest and most tender kind. A peasant girl will improvise a song as impassioned as “Come into the Garden, Maud,” and as free from unwholesome taint.
With regard to English songs, the critic cannot but ask — Wherein lies the lost ring and charm of the Elizabethan song-writers? Since the Jacobean period at least, few have succeeded in the art of writing real songs as distinguished from mere book lyrics. Between songs to be sung and songs to be read there is in our time a difference as wide as that which exists between plays for the closet and plays for the boards.
Heartiness and melody — the two requisites of a song which can never be dispensed with — can rarely be compassed, it seems, by one and the same individual. In both these qualities the Elizabethan poets stand pre-eminent, though even with them the melody is not so singable as it might be made. Since their time heartiness has, perhaps, been a Scottish rather than an English endowment of the song-writer. It is difficult to imagine an Englishman writing a song like “Tullochgorum” or a song like “Maggie Lauder,” where the heartiness and impulse of the poet's mood conquer all impediments of close vowels and rugged consonantal combinations. Of Scottish song-writers Burns is, of course, the head; for the songs of John Skinner, the heartiest song-writer that has appeared in Great Britain (not excluding Herrick), are too few in number to entitle him to be placed beside a poet so prolific in heartiness and melody as Burns. With regard to Campbell's heartiness, this is quite a different quality from the heartiness of Burns and Skinner, and is in quality English rather than Scottish, though, no doubt, it is of a fine and rare strain, especially in “The Battle of the Baltic.” His songs illustrate an infirmity which even the Scottish song-writers share with the English — a defective sense of that true song-warble which we get in the stornelli and rispetti of the Italian peasants. A poet may have heartiness in plenty, but if he has that love of consonantal effects which Donne displays he will never write a first-rate song. Here, indeed, is the crowning difficulty of song-writing. An extreme simplicity of structure and of diction must be accompanied by an instinctive apprehension of the melodic capabilities of verbal sounds, and of what Samuel Lover, the Irish song-writer, called “singing” words, which is rare in this country, and seems to belong to the Celtic rather than to the Saxon ear. “The song-writer,” says Lover, “must frame his song of open vowels with as few guttural or hissing sounds as possible, and he must be content sometimes to sacrifice grandeur and vigour to the necessity of selecting singing words and not reading words.” And he exemplifies the distinction between singing words and reading words by a line from one of Shelley's songs —
“where nearly every word shuts up the mouth instead of opening it.” But closeness of vowel sounds is by no means the only thing to be avoided in song-writing. A phrase may be absolutely unsingable, though the vowels be open enough, if it is loaded with consonants. The truth is that in song-writing it is quite as important, in a consonantal language like ours, to attend to the consonants as to the vowels; and perhaps the first thing to avoid in writing English songs is the frequent recurrence of the sibilant. But this applies to all the brief and quintessential forms of poetry, such as the sonnet, the elegy, &c.
As to the elegy — a form of poetic art which has more relation to the objects of the external world than the song, but less relation The Elegy. to these than the stornello — its scope seems to be wide indeed, as practised by such various writers as Tyrtaeus, Theognis, Catullus, Tibullus, and our own Gray. It may almost be said that perfection of form is more necessary here and in the sonnet than in the song, inasmuch as the artistic pretensions are more pronounced. Hence even such apparent minutiae as those we have hinted at above must not be neglected here.
We have quoted Dionysius of Halicarnassus in relation to the arrangement of words in poetry. His remarks on sibilants are Phonetic Perfection. equally deserving of attention. He goes so far as to say that σ entirely disagreeable, and, when it often recurs, insupportable. The hiss seems to him to be more appropriate to the beast than to man. Hence certain writers, he says, often avoid it, and employ it with regret. Some, he tells us, have composed entire odes without it. But if sibilation is a defect in Greek odes, where the softening effect of the vowel sounds is so potent, it is much more so in English poetry, where the consonants dominate, though it will be only specially noticeable in the brief and quintessential forms such as the song, the sonnet, the elegy. Many poets only attend to their sibilants when these clog the rhythm. To write even the briefest song without a sibilant would be a tour de force; to write a good one would no doubt be next to impossible. It is singular that the only metricist who ever attempted it was John Thelwall, the famous “Citizen John,” friend of Lamb and Coleridge, and editor of the famous Champion newspaper, where many of Lamb's epigrams appeared. Thelwall gave much attention to metrical questions, and tried his hand at various metres. Though “Citizen John's” sapphics might certainly have been better, he had a very remarkable critical insight into the rationale of metrical effects, and his “Song without a Sibilant” is extremely neat and ingenious. Of course, however, it would be mere pedantry to exaggerate this objection to sibilants even in these brief forms of poetry. (T. W.-D.)
- Translation of Morris and Magnusson.