Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/October 1894/Poetry and Science

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IN his able and suggestive essay on Cosmic Emotion, the late Prof. Clifford pointed out the significant fact that in the development of thought the feelings never quite keep pace with the intellect. It is not hard to see why this must be so. Every new achievement of science, every fresh acquisition of knowledge, makes its appeal directly to the intelligence; and the judgment so far as it is clear and unbiased, decides all questions at issue purely on the merits of the evidence laid before it. Any revision of old formulas, any restatement of old theories cause no friction, and are made as a matter of course. But meanwhile each such fresh achievement or acquisition enters at first as a disturbing factor into the emotional conditions of the time. Every generation finds itself in possession of a certain body of knowledge concerning the universe, and a certain philosophy of life based upon that knowledge; and between such knowledge and philosophy upon the one hand, and its average emotions upon the other, there is, as the result of long action and interaction, an adjustment or equilibrium which at the outset is relatively complete. The doctrines of Nature and human life in the midst of which men have grown up have become so familiar to the common mind that the feelings have had ample time to play round them, to saturate them, to make them their own. Presently a sudden discovery, or the rise of a new hypothesis concerning the world, causes unlooked-for expansion of thought. Unknown aspects of the universe are brought to light, hidden processes revealed, undreamed-of conceptions introduced. What follows? The traditional balance between knowledge and emotion is disturbed. The intellect adjusts itself rapidly to the changed conditions; the emotions cling tenaciously to the conditions that are being left behind. Years, perhaps generations, have to go by before once more the intellectual possessions of the age are brought into sympathetic relation with its common feelings and aspirations, and the adjustment in this way approximately restored.

Illustrations of the principle here outlined may be found without going further than the experiences of our own lives. We all know well enough that at a time of great emotional stress or upheaval we tend to revert to those ideas of our earlier days which we fancy we have outgrown, and which in calmer seasons no longer have any hold upon us. This is so notoriously the case that much capital has been made in theological literature out of the undeniable fact that during periods of unusual excitement—during periods, that is, when the feelings take the upper hand—the most skeptical spirits are apt to be driven back from the open sea of doubt to the safe anchorage of their boyish faith. It is a trite remark, too, that long after the judgment has been convinced of some new proposition, the feelings will still persist in protest and opposition. "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still," as Hudibras long ago told us. Now all this, in view of our generalization, is precisely what we should expect. The feelings in most of us are very imperfectly adjusted to our new intellectual acquisitions and their philosophical consequences; hence, in times of crisis, the almost inevitable lapse into our older thought of the world, and our cruder guess at the riddle behind it. In other words, the most advanced thinker is likely to be more or less conservative upon the side of his emotions. And all this explains not only the conservatism of women and elderly men, but also the constant tendency among those engaged in the study of the problems of life to segregate into opposing parties, roughly definable as the theological and the scientific—those who, guided mainly by the feelings, resist the new knowledge of the age; and those who, looking at facts from the point of view of the insulated intellect, accept such knowledge, concerning themselves but little with the question of its emotional results.[1]

Now this generalization interprets for us certain well-known facts that have found their place in the history of every great crisis in thought. The religious emotions of every epoch, though they have this of absolute and permanent about them, that they belong to man's sense of the mystery that lies at the heart of things, find their immediate and concrete expression in direct relation to what is currently known and thought of the world and of man's place in it. By and by Science steps in, and shows that the popular cosmology is childish, and the philosophic structure erected upon it a mere house upon the sands; and in the shock that follows it is not surprising that so many fine religious natures should feel themselves unhinged. The emotions have clung about the old knowledge so long that when that old knowledge is swept away they too seem in themselves to be hollow and untrustworthy, and a numbing sense of chaos and utter inanity settles down upon the consciousness of the world. This is the experience through which mankind has passed in every age of unusual intellectual movement and revision; this is the experience through which, in these days, we ourselves are passing. The wail of anguish that goes up to Heaven as foundations that have stood the test of centuries crumble rapidly away; the despair of many who, driven hither and thither by adverse winds of doctrine, know not where to turn for comfort or hope; the Cassandra cry of not a few who would have us believe that all faith has gone forever—these are simply signs of the times, unavoidable accompaniments of the wrenching away of men's emotions from their old moorings under the pressure of that extraordinary influx of new ideas that characterizes the age in which we live. The progress of science during the past half century has been so rapid and continuous that the intellect has got a long way ahead of the feelings, and the world is overweighted by a large body of unemotionalized knowledge. This is the real meaning of our present predicament in thought. Only hereafter can dawn the epoch of readjustment between feelings and knowledge; only after many years of such ferment and commotion can men at last come to the understanding that the new thought, too, is religious and poetic, and will furnish a soil for all the higher emotions richer and more fertile than that which the deluge has overflowed.

The poet, more sensitive than other men to the subtle influences at work around him, finds himself in the storm and stress of such a transitional period adrift amid currents and counter-currents of thought, the trend of which is only dimly foreseen or guessed at by the scientists and philosophers themselves. He moves about "in worlds not realized," with many "blind misgivings," and much painful groping toward the light. Now, whatever else poetry may or may not be, and whether we define it, with Aristotle, as an imitation or, with Bacon, as an idealization of the actual world around us, it is unquestionably the expression of an attempt on the part of the mind of man to deal with life from the standpoint of the feelings. It has been well said that while science is concerned with the study of the relations of things among themselves, religion and poetry are concerned with the study of the relations of things to us. This gives us the poet's problem. Regarding the new thought through the medium of the imagination, he has to inquire in what way and to what extent the changes in our conceptions of the universe and man brought about by science affect our emotional outlook—our feelings respecting our own individual lives, our sympathies with the lives of others, our attitude toward Nature, our hope for the future of the race here and of the individual hereafter.

What, then, will be the poet's response to the intellectual conditions under which he lives? Confronted as he is by this large mass of unemotionalized knowledge, what will be his message to his time? It may be one of passionate protest against or obstinate indifference to the revolutionary movement in progress around him, and which may seem to him to be taking all the charm from life, all the beauty from the world. It may be one of simple doubt and hesitation; a mere cry of Why? and Whither?—not so much an answer to the mute questionings of men, as a translation of those questionings into language and form. Or, in the third place, it may be a glimpse of coming things—an attempt to catch the new thought and force it to an emotional revelation. And as no man can wholly exclude the "element of necessity from his labor," or "quite emancipate himself from his age and country,"[2] so in one or other of these three ways will the forces of the time influence and fashion the poet's work. His attitude will thus be one of reaction, of uncertainty, or of prophecy; his gospel a gospel of evasion, of skepticism, or of promise.

Hereafter I hope to sketch the history of the poetry of the nineteenth century from the point of view now indicated—that is, to study it in direct connection with the scientific and industrial movements of our time. Here, in the illustration of the above theory, I must content myself with the mention of a few typical names.

For the most distinctive example of the poetry of evasion we turn naturally to the pages of John Keats. Leave out of question the artistic qualities of his work, which have absorbed most critics, but which do not concern us here, and the most significant thing about Keats is his absolute indifference to the life and spirit of his time. The world about him was alive with fresh interests and hopes; watchwords of progress were in the air he breathed; almost all his great contemporaries—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron among the number—were more or less drawn into the eddying current of change; but Keats remained an outsider and an alien. He felt no thrill of enthusiasm for the development of knowledge and the march of the race, no young man's interest in the world's travail and hope. He never troubled himself to ask what direction the thought of the time was taking. He only knew and only cared to know that it was drifting in some direction away from the old landmarks that he loved so well, and he persistently resented the change, without, perhaps, even realizing what it actually meant. There was nothing, therefore, left for him, as he felt, but to emulate the "negative capacity" of the Elizabethans—to live in the midst of all this ferment without being touched by it.[3] So he built for himself a palace of art—"a lordly pleasure house"—and escaped through the imagination from the pressure of a world in which he had no part.

For Keats, then, knowledge emphatically meant disillusion. Reality, romance—these were essentially contradictory terms. To explain the processes of Nature was to remove them once and for all from the soft twilight of poetry, through which they loomed dim but beautiful, into the lurid white glare of actuality, where they stood out gaunt, naked, revolting. The sense of real things constantly present to break in upon his sweetest fancies, he could liken only to a muddy stream, the turbid current of which was forever sweeping his mind back to darkness and nothingness. In the well-known passage in Lamia about the rainbow, with its emphatic protest against philosophy, we have the man's horror of science, so frequently revealed elsewhere in his work by implication, set forth in a kind of formal declaration. Such an outburst inevitably reminds us of the diatribes in Mr. Ruskin's Eagle's Nest against physiology and what he calls Darwinism—perhaps the foolishest utterances to be found anywhere in his voluminous writings, which is itself saying a good deal. But, after all, perhaps the best commentary on the lines in question is Haydon's statement that, three years before Lamia saw the light, Keats and Lamb, while dining with him (Haydon), had agreed together that "Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colors." We may imagine how these two sage critics would have laid their heads together over the more modern legend of the cynical chemist who is said to have remarked that a woman's tears had no longer any kind of power over him, since he knew their precise constituent elements—muriate of soda and solution of phosphate! Clearly, the æsthetic emotions of Keats lagged far behind the intellectual achievements of his time; and it was the consequent maladjustment that caused him to cling so persistently to that old order of ideas, to that cosmology of marvel and catastrophe which he felt to be slipping away from the world with all the beautiful accumulation of legend and myth which in the course of many centuries had come to cluster about it. To him "glory and loveliness" had indeed "passed away" from the present, and could be sought only in the things that the general world was rapidly outgrowing; and hence it was to these dead things alone—to Greek fable or mediæval story—that he could turn to find the beauty that was to be to him a joy forever.

But though in Keats's day the ocean of knowledge was slowly rising on every side, he had no hint of that great tidal wave of new ideas which has carried us so rapidly forward with its resistless roll. It is little to say that during the past half century the consequent emotional perturbation has been greater than the world ever experienced before; for the single generalization of evolution has disturbed the equilibrium of which we have spoken to an extent hitherto undreamed of. We face the universe from a new standpoint; our relations to Nature are altered; the problems of life, so often analyzed, so much discussed in the past, meet us in unfamiliar forms. Amid the Babel of tongues and the fierce clash of ideas and purposes to which all this has given rise, the poetry of evasion has still made its voice heard and its influence felt. In the works of Rossetti and the earlier writings of William Morris (The Earthly Paradise and the other poems antedating his conversion to socialism) we have the artistic traditions of Keats carried on with unmistakable success; the mediæval mood and attitude, however, replacing the pagan mood and attitude of the earlier bard. Both these men, too, sought to make their escape through the imagination from the life of their own time—from the rapid material changes going on in every direction, and from the speculation and inquiry with which the whole air is alive. The prelude to The Earthly Paradise, taken even by itself, makes Morris's position sufficiently clear, and to understand Rossetti's we have only to remember his own declaration of his belief that it concerned men and women far more to attend to the form of their tables and chairs than to bother about the doctrine of the conservation of energy and the hypothesis of natural selection.

Meanwhile, in the early years of the modern upheaval, a note of deeper meaning made itself heard—the outcry of earnest natures, conscious of the breaking down of old standards, but doubtful as yet of the spiritual import and tenor of the iconoclastic forces at work. To turn from the poems of Keats, Rossetti, and Morris, to the poems of Arthur Hugh Clough and Matthew Arnold, is to turn from the poetry of evasion to the poetry of skepticism. Here we find, as the burden of all their song, not the reactionary indifference of the simple artist, but the eager probing of the inquirer. Clough and Arnold are modern men, standing face to face with the problems of modern life. There is in their works no hatred of the new knowledge for itself, no intellectual cowardice regarding it; on the contrary, every fresh insight into the methods of Nature and the laws of life is welcome; but there is, at the same time, painful realization of the fact that the old foundations of the emotions are being sapped and undermined. What will be the result? Will science in this respect prove constructive as well as destructive? Will new emotional bases be given in place of those swept away? Or, will all the immemorial desires and aspirations and spiritual cravings of humanity be left to perish in grim despair before the blighting breath of a crass materialism which recognizes no sanctities and holds out no hope? These are the stubborn questions which, in one form or another, are put again and again, and for the most part left unanswered, in the poetry of the men to whom we now refer.

Clough's poetry, though little read to-day, and lacking almost every element of popularity, is of the utmost interest for those who care for the study of literature from the point of view here adopted. It was with little exaggeration that Mr. Lowell adjudged him the man who most probably "will be thought, a hundred years hence, to have been the truest expression in verse of the moral and intellectual tendencies, the doubt and struggle toward settled convictions, of the period in which he lived." He was the plaything of conflicting tendencies, which he saw he could not harmonize. Everywhere in his poetry the striving after truth is accompanied by a distressing realization of emotions out of touch and keeping with his intellectual environment. "What I mean by mysticism," he writes in one of his American letters, "is letting feelings run on without thinking of the reality of their object, letting them out merely like water. The plain rule in all such matters is, not to think what you are thinking about the question, but to look straight out at the things, and let them affect you." This is the sane utterance of a manly nature, alive to the manifold dangers of unchecked speculation, and not to be deceived by theological or metaphysical jugglery into any false sense of security. To hold fast to reality—that he saw was the prime requirement, to be fulfilled at any cost; and to seek for emotional excitation in what has been proved to be no reality, but a figment or shadow, would have seemed to him the willful blindness of folly or the despicable subterfuge of cowardice. But was the reality itself capable of furnishing scope for that emotional satisfaction which his nature demanded? Sometimes with more, sometimes with less of hope, he approached this obstinate issue; but the answer of the sphinx was still, as it were, couched in riddles. Thus his message to men was almost always a message of moods; brief seasons of faith alternating with other seasons in which the sense of loss was so strong upon him that he was tempted to struggle to save some floating remnant, worthless though it might turn out to be, from the universal wreck of belief that was going on around him.

An equally characteristic and far more considerable exponent of this attitude and mood of mind was Clough's friend Arnold. It was his mission, too, to give poetic voice to the emotional restlessness and craving which—inevitably as we now see—went along with the intellectual progressiveness of his age. Arnold (whose verse and prose, earlier and later, treatments of these themes furnish subject-matter for most instructive contrast) has given us the key to his position, while at the same time he has shown us how acutely that position was realized by him in the familiar lines in the splendid Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse, in which he describes himself as "wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born." The old faith had gone with the old theories of the universe and man, and the new theories of the universe and man had not yet revealed themselves in a religious light, or even shown themselves capable of such revelation. For the time being they were hard, dry facts of science merely; that they would ever be more than this was far from clear. Hence "the hopeless tangle of the age," the "strange disease of modern life," the sense of futility and despair, so characteristic of the large body of his poetic work. In the wonderful poem just above referred to—a poem that can hardly be read too often or too carefully as an exposition of the spiritual conditions of the man and his time—all this is made particularly clear. Why does Arnold linger among the shadows and traditions of the old Carthusian home—he a skeptic of the later time? Because he is seeking sadly for the spiritual comfort which all the while he knows he can never find, either in the old creed, because he has intellectually outgrown it, or in the new, because he has not yet emotionally appropriated it. Thus he must let the world go its way, with some hope for the coming race of men, perhaps, but for himself and his own time, none.[4]

For Clough and Arnold, then, knowledge and feeling were out of harmony; yet at times they seem to have caught glimpses of the possibility that the disturbance of relations from which they suffered so keenly might ultimately be overcome. That the far-off future might at length bring "a solemn peace of its own"—this in serenest hours was their larger faith. Fortunately for the world, stronger poetic voices were already making themselves heard in the declaration that the epoch of readjustment might haply be near at hand. While some men were busy railing at the new science as dismal, prosaic, irreligious, and others were painfully asking whether, real and certain as were its revelations, they could ever come to mean anything to the soul of man, there were still those who, with greater receptivity and more prophetic vision, saw that the new science itself, when once sympathetically envisaged, could even perhaps for this generation provide the spiritual impulses, the religious and poetic fervor, which the old knowledge, with the philosophy of life belonging to it, had furnished for the generations gone by.

The mass of men, let us repeat, can only achieve this readjustment of their feelings to their knowledge, this emotionalization of newly acquired fact, by a slow and painful course of adaptation. The discoveries and inductions of science must grow familiar through habit and association before they can take a poetic or religious coloring for the average mind. But it is exactly here that a great poet's best work may be done. He can lead the way. Taking the generalizations of the scientist and the philosopher as they stand in exact and unimaginative statement, he may illumine them with his genius, and as he sets them in their proper light and pierces into their inner natures, the world, for the first time begins to apprehend their beauty and to seize their spiritual meaning. It is then that men are thrilled, as Emerson puts it, by the influx of a new divinity upon the mind. It is, in a word, his special mission and privilege to stand forth as the emotional interpreter of the intellectual and material movements of his age.

Hence arises the all-important question, Does our modern poetry show any tendency toward the absorption into itself of this vast mass of unemotionalized knowledge by which we now stand confronted? It is manifestly too early as yet to expect any full emotional development of this new material, but are there signs of a movement in this direction? Can we yet pass from the poetry of evasion and the poetry of skepticism to a poetry that we may fairly call the poetry of promise?

The name of Tennyson inevitably presents itself in this connection. In the writings of this poet—the last of the true Victorian brotherhood—we find, it need hardly be said, the sad, skeptical note of Arnold often enough repeated. Not planting himself, as Browning did, upon the strong rock of a transcendental philosophy, he was shaken by storms of doubt and difficulty that seemed to have nothing but a tonic effect upon his more robust contemporary. Struggle, uncertainty, hesitation are revealed throughout the whole of his work; he holds his faith with infinite effort; even In Memoriam, as he told Mr. James Knowles, was more sanguine than the man himself; and he got but little beyond a "faint trust" of "the larger hope." Yet there are other sides to Tennyson's writings that reveal the man in a very different light. His keen interest in science; his sympathetic hold upon the vast movements in progress around him; his manly attitude toward the changes that life and thought were everywhere undergoing; his reiterated belief that we are but in the morning of the times—the "rich dawn of an ampler day"; his faith, only now and then shaken, in the years that are still to come—all these characteristics combine to render Tennyson the most intensely modern of all our modern poets.

"Let knowledge grow from more to more,
But more of reverence in us dwell,
That mind and soul, according well,
May make one music, as before,
But vaster."

There is the very index to Tennyson's intellectual position. And a very casual reading of his collected works will suffice to show how large an expression many of our new scientific conceptions find in his utterances. The underlying principle of all our modern thought—the doctrine of the universality of law, and of that orderly progression or development within the domain and under the influence of law which we call evolution—these principles constitute the firm foundation of the entire fabric of his philosophy of life; they characterize his attitude toward the external world; they mold all his social and ethical teaching; out of them grows his faith in the destiny of the race, his hope for the untried future. For him, man is as yet "being made"; the "brute inheritance" clings about him; but, because so much has already been accomplished, much more will be accomplished by and by.

"This fine old earth of ours is but a child
Yet in the go-cart. Patience! Give it time
To learn its limbs. There is a hand that guides."

Above all things, it seems to me significant that, with all the reaction against the cry of progress that undoubtedly marks some of his later poems, the evolutionary note comes out with ever-increasing strength to the very end. It should not be forgotten that such poems as The Dawn, The Dreamer, and The Making of Man all belong to his last published volume.

To go into further detail would be impossible; limits of space are already exhausted. Passing reference only can be made to the fact that, while in Tennyson's works, upon the whole, we find the fullest poetic interpretation as yet given to modern thought, writers like Browning, Whitman, and Emerson, and among those still living Robert Buchanan, William Watson, and Mathilde Blind, have each of them revealed in different ways a healthy tendency on the part of poetry to look at the facts of life from the point of view of present thought rather than from the point of view of past thought, and to recognize the supreme fact that if we find cause to complain, with William Morris, of the emptiness of our own life, it is the fault of ourselves and not the fault of our times. But here the subject must be left for the present; and the discussion of many important questions arising in connection with the above-outlined theory, held over till a more convenient season. Enough, perhaps, has been said to indicate the view we have been trying to develop of the relations of poetry to science, to show that there is no essential antagonism between them, and to point out that recognition of the one as the supplement of the other does not at all imply, as is so often thought, any absurd confusion of their methods and aims. For myself I read without fear the French critic's prediction that fifty years hence no one will care to read poetry. "Of all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous," says George Eliot, and such a statement may be quietly disregarded. On any large principle of education, poetry has its secure place in the scheme of life; but our emotions must respond to our knowledge, not our knowledge to our emotions. The business of the poet in his capacity of spiritual teacher is to help us to clothe fact with the beauty of fancy; not to try to force fancy into the place of fact. Let us understand what is scientifically true, socially right, and our feelings will adjust themselves in due course. It is for science to lead the way, and the highest mission of the poet is ever to follow in the wake, and in the name of poetry and religion claim each day's new thought as his own.

The locality of Florissant, Colorado, a lake deposit of the geological age called Oligocene, is famous for the extraordinary abundance and variety and the excellent condition of its insect remains. No group of insects perhaps, according to Mr. Samuel H. Scudder, shows this more strikingly than the family of "crane flies" or "daddy longlegs." Several hundred species have been collected there, and in a very considerable number of them, representing many species, the venation of the wings is completely represented with all their most delicate markings, and also the slender and fragile legs with their clothing of hairs and spurs, and, to some degree at least, the antennæ and palpi. Even the facets of the compound eye are often preserved as in life.

  1. A striking commentary upon these remarks will be found in the wonderful scene between Clotilde and Doctor Pascal in Zola's novel, Le Docteur Pascal, chap. iv.
  2. Emerson, Essay on Art.
  3. See his remarkable letter to his brother, on Shakespeare's "negative capacity," in Forman's edition of Keats's works, vol. iii, pp. 99, 100.
  4. The skepticism of Arnold and Clough is to be found deepened to absolute despair in the works of many of the minor verse-writers of the time—as notably in that superb expression of pure pessimism—The City of Dreadful Night. But conditions of space forbid my following the matter into these further details.