The Passing of the Poet

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The Passing of the Poet
by Stephen Leacock
Appeared in Literary Lapses, published in 1910.

Studies in what may be termed collective psychology are essentially in keeping with the spirit of the present century. The examination of the mental tendencies, the intellectual habits which we display not as individuals, but as members of a race, community, or crowd, is offering a fruitful field of speculation as yet but little exploited. One may, therefore, not without profit, pass in review the relation of the poetic instinct to the intellectual development of the present era.

Not the least noticeable feature in the psychological evolution of our time is the rapid disappearance of poetry. The art of writing poetry, or perhaps more fairly, the habit of writing poetry, is passing from us. The poet is destined to become extinct.

To a reader of trained intellect the initial difficulty at once suggests itself as to what is meant by poetry. But it is needless to quibble at a definition of the term. It may be designated, simply and fairly, as the art of expressing a simple truth in a concealed form of words, any number of which, at intervals greater or less, may or may not rhyme.

The poet, it must be said, is as old as civilization. The Greeks had him with them, stamping out his iambics with the sole of his foot. The Romans, too, knew him--endlessly juggling his syllables together, long and short, short and long, to make hexameters. This can now be done by electricity, but the Romans did not know it.

But it is not my present purpose to speak of the poets of an earlier and ruder time. For the subject before us it is enough to set our age in comparison with the era that preceded it. We have but to contrast ourselves with our early Victorian grandfathers to realize the profound revolution that has taken place in public feeling. It is only with an effort that the practical common sense of the twentieth century can realize the excessive sentimentality of the earlier generation.

In those days poetry stood in high and universal esteem. Parents read poetry to their children. Children recited poetry to their parents. And he was a dullard, indeed, who did not at least profess, in his hours of idleness, to pour spontaneous rhythm from his flowing quill.

Should one gather statistics of the enormous production of poetry some sixty or seventy years ago, they would scarcely appear credible. Journals and magazines teemed with it. Editors openly countenanced it. Even the daily press affected it. Love sighed in home-made stanzas. Patriotism rhapsodized on the hustings, or cited rolling hexameters to an enraptured legislature. Even melancholy death courted his everlasting sleep in elegant elegiacs.

In that era, indeed, I know not how, polite society was haunted by the obstinate fiction that it was the duty of a man of parts to express himself from time to time in verse. Any special occasion of expansion or exuberance, of depression, torsion, or introspection, was sufficient to call it forth. So we have poems of dejection, of reflection, of deglutition, of indigestion.

Any particular psychological disturbance was enough to provoke an excess of poetry. The character and manner of the verse might vary with the predisposing cause. A gentleman who had dined too freely might disexpand himself in a short fit of lyric doggerel in which "bowl" and "soul" were freely rhymed. The morning's indigestion inspired a long-drawn elegiac, with "bier" and "tear," "mortal" and "portal" linked in sonorous sadness. The man of politics, from time to time, grateful to an appreciative country, sang back to it, "Ho, Albion, rising from the brine!" in verse whose intention at least was meritorious.

And yet it was but a fiction, a purely fictitious obligation, self-imposed by a sentimental society. In plain truth, poetry came no more easily or naturally to the early Victorian than to you or me. The lover twanged his obdurate harp in vain for hours for the rhymes that would not come, and the man of politics hammered at his heavy hexameter long indeed before his Albion was finally "hoed" into shape; while the beer-besotted convivialist cudgelled his poor wits cold sober in rhyming the light little bottle-ditty that should have sprung like Aphrodite from the froth of the champagne.

I have before me a pathetic witness of this fact. It is the note-book once used for the random jottings of a gentleman of the period. In it I read: "Fair Lydia, if my earthly harp." This is crossed out, and below it appears, "Fair Lydia, COULD my earthly harp." This again is erased, and under it appears, "FAIR LYDIA, SHOULD my earthly harp." This again is struck out with a despairing stroke, and amended to read: "Fair Lydia, DID my earthly harp." So that finally, when the lines appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine (1845) in their ultimate shape--"Fair Edith, when with fluent pen," etc., etc.--one can realize from what a desperate congelation the fluent pen had been so perseveringly rescued.

There can be little doubt of the deleterious effect occasioned both to public and private morals by this deliberate exaltation of mental susceptibility on the part of the early Victorian. In many cases we can detect the evidences of incipient paresis. The undue access of emotion frequently assumed a pathological character. The sight of a daisy, of a withered leaf or an upturned sod, seemed to disturb the poet's mental equipoise. Spring unnerved him. The lambs distressed him. The flowers made him cry. The daffodils made him laugh. Day dazzled him. Night frightened him.

This exalted mood, combined with the man's culpable ignorance of the plainest principles of physical science, made him see something out of the ordinary in the flight of a waterfowl or the song of a skylark. He complained that he could HEAR it, but not SEE it--a phenomenon too familiar to the scientific observer to occasion any comment.

In such a state of mind the most inconsequential inferences were drawn. One said that the brightness of the dawn--a fact easily explained by the diurnal motion of the globe--showed him that his soul was immortal. He asserted further that he had, at an earlier period of his life, trailed bright clouds behind him. This was absurd.

With the disturbance thus set up in the nervous system were coupled, in many instances, mental aberrations, particularly in regard to pecuniary matters. "Give me not silk, nor rich attire," pleaded one poet of the period to the British public, "nor gold nor jewels rare." Here was an evident hallucination that the writer was to become the recipient of an enormous secret subscription. Indeed, the earnest desire NOT to be given gold was a recurrent characteristic of the poetic temperament. The repugnance to accept even a handful of gold was generally accompanied by a desire for a draught of pure water or a night's rest.

It is pleasing to turn from this excessive sentimentality of thought and speech to the practical and concise diction of our time. We have learned to express ourselves with equal force, but greater simplicity. To illustrate this I have gathered from the poets of the earlier generation and from the prose writers of to-day parallel passages that may be fairly set in contrast. Here, for example, is a passage from the poet Grey, still familiar to scholars:

"Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour's voice invoke the silent dust
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?"

Precisely similar in thought, though different in form, is the more modern presentation found in Huxley's Physiology:

"Whether after the moment of death the ventricles of the heart can be again set in movement by the artificial stimulus of oxygen, is a question to which we must impose a decided negative."

How much simpler, and yet how far superior to Grey's elaborate phraseology! Huxley has here seized the central point of the poet's thought, and expressed it with the dignity and precision of exact science.

I cannot refrain, even at the risk of needless iteration, from quoting a further example. It is taken from the poet Burns. The original dialect being written in inverted hiccoughs, is rather difficult to reproduce. It describes the scene attendant upon the return of a cottage labourer to his home on Saturday night:

"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face
They round the ingle form in a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace,
The big ha' Bible, ance his father's pride:
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare:
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion wi' judeecious care."

Now I find almost the same scene described in more apt phraseology in the police news of the Dumfries Chronicle (October 3, 1909), thus: "It appears that the prisoner had returned to his domicile at the usual hour, and, after partaking of a hearty meal, had seated himself on his oaken settle, for the ostensible purpose of reading the Bible. It was while so occupied that his arrest was effected." With the trifling exception that Burns omits all mention of the arrest, for which, however, the whole tenor of the poem gives ample warrant, the two accounts are almost identical.

In all that I have thus said I do not wish to be misunderstood. Believing, as I firmly do, that the poet is destined to become extinct, I am not one of those who would accelerate his extinction. The time has not yet come for remedial legislation, or the application of the criminal law. Even in obstinate cases where pronounced delusions in reference to plants, animals, and natural phenomena are seen to exist, it is better that we should do nothing that might occasion a mistaken remorse. The inevitable natural evolution which is thus shaping the mould of human thought may safely be left to its own course.