Popular Science Monthly/Volume 84/February 1914/Science and Poetry

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



IN the year 1910 there were published in the United States, in round numbers, 13,500 books. This was an increase of about 2,500 over the preceding year. The total for Great Britain was nearly 21,000 for the same biennium. The German output was over 31,000 volumes, the variation between the two years being small. But compared with 1900 these figures represent an increase of nearly 6,000 volumes. The total number of book publications now reaches about 150,000 volumes annually, although in some countries pamphlets are also reckoned as books. In 1910 there were issued in the United States and Great Britain nearly 5,000 volumes under the head of fiction, poetry and the drama, the latter country slightly exceeding the former. To these should be added many translations, cheap reprints of novels of a more or less standard character, and a large number of plays, mostly comedies that are performed in every village, town and city from one end of the land to the other. Besides, a great quantity of both prose and verse never appears in book form. One can hardly take up a popular periodical without finding in it some of each, while many contain little else. Furthermore, a great many articles and even books are so permeated and even vitiated by the personality of the author when professedly dealing with facts that they may properly be relegated to the domain of fancy. Their contents pass through the mind of the reader, leaving hardly more residuum than the smoke that goes up a chimney. We need also to remember that the enormous output of the religious press is largely occupied with questions of a more or less theological character as distinguished from practical Christianity, and is so colored with the views of the writers that it may be classed under the head of imaginative literature. We may make the same statement of almost all history dealing with periods more remote than two or three centuries. Hardly any two writers agree as to the reliance that should be placed on the so-called original documents; and there is no way of deciding the points at issue. Even subjects of a strictly scientific character appear to need the touch of the magic wand of the writer endowed with a vivid imagination to make them popular. In this kind of literature the French occupy the foremost place. Such books as Macé's "History of a Mouthful of Bread," Verne's fantastic stories, Figuier's "World before the Deluge," and others, have been translated into almost all modern languages and sold in great numbers. When we take into account this enormous mass of printed matter, to which should be added the newspapers; and consider further that many of the metropolitan dailies contain enough words to make three hundred large volumes every year, we are constrained to believe that the present generation is one of readers, not of thinkers. We are in fact told now and then that thinking has almost become a lost art. In science a concept is recognized as produced by an external entity, or at least by an entity external to the cognitive faculty, as when it takes cognizance of its own operations and states. These concepts are verifiable by any number of experiments and observations and must agree in the main. Science deals with things that can be counted, or weighed, or measured. In poetry, speaking by and large, concepts are also recognized as external entities, it is true, but there is no agreement between any two observers and the phenomena 'are not verifiable. In truth, in all primitive poetry phenomena are envisaged as external, because the mind, though aware of its own operations, is unconscious of them. An important element of poetry is mythology, and mythologies are not the exclusive possession of primitive peoples. In the Homeric poems all mental states are regarded as external objects. We find the same conditions in the Old Testament. God is represented as speaking to men out of a corporeal body, or in dreams. This is just what we find in early Greek poetry. We can not draw a clear line of demarcation between the figments of the imagination and facts any more than we can do so between light and darkness. The imagination frequently leads to wholly diverse interpretations of the same data, as may often be seen in history. Here science finds its most difficult field of operations. What is called the historic imagination differs widely in different writers. Variety or lack of uniformity is a prime characteristic of all poetry. No productions on the same theme are exactly alike. In science there is a substantial agreement among any number of persons. The same feeling or emotion finds expression in many different ways. What an endless variety of treatment there is of the familiar theme of romantic love! It may be, however, that the passion does not manifest itself in exactly the same way in any two persons. This may seem a strong statement, but it is neither extravagant nor exaggerated in view of the circumstance that of all the millions of human beings upon the earth no two are so much alike that it is impossible to distinguish one from the other. The imagination often casts a glamor over persons of the opposite sex and endows them with attributes which they by no means possess. This state of mind is amusingly exhibited by Don Quixote with his rhapsodies over Dulcinea del Toboso, although she was in fact nothing more than a plain and coarse village wench. Similar instances occur not only in fiction, but even in greater abundance in real life. Here lies the limitless domain in which writers of imaginative literature find most of their themes. The Germans call both prose and fiction Dichtung, very properly making no distinction between the two since in both the imagination is the dominant agency.

When the imagination is kept within bounds by the intellect it discovers many general truths. Even our senses are constantly deceiving us when uncontrolled by the judgment. This control is lacking in the insane and in brutes. A horse that shies at a piece of paper blown across its path is doubtless influenced by its imagination. Its primal instinct is self-preservation and the unusual object portends danger. An unaccustomed noise or smell often produces the same effect.

Fiction, including poetry, is generally the production of a kind of unsystematic meditation in which successive steps are not logically correlated. These steps are the result of association, or suggestion and reintegration. If they follow each other in strictly logical order they could exhibit but little variety, perhaps none at all. Often a word or an idea brings into the mind another idea or concept that has a merely accidental connection with it. The process can not be foreseen because it is not alike in any two individuals. Neither can it be retraced or repeated, which may always be done when a chain of reasoning is strictly scientific. It usually has no very definite purpose and is rarely based on definite knowledge. In fact, definite knowledge usually dissipates a state of mind that does not differ widely from delusion. "Poetry," says Wordsworth, "is emotion recollected in tranquility." The scientist always regards emotion as a disturbing factor. It prevents his seeing objects as they are. Emotion interferes with clearness of vision and distinctness of mental apprehension. It is wont to endow objects with qualities which they do not possess. There is a vast difference between a slight possession and a deep-seated and ineradicable prejudice; but every step from one toward the other, no matter how short, is a movement away from the truth. Most men are more emotional in early life than in later years because experience and reflection enable, and often constrain them, to see persons and things more nearly as they are. An emotional state of mind in its intenser form is usually called enthusiasm. Carlyle employs a semi-German word, Swarmery, as being more expressive. Under the influence of strong emotion almost every person becomes an enthusiast. But it is only men of genius who can produce this mental condition at will. Few persons can remain in the emotional state of mind for a long time because the commonplace affairs of the world demand frequent returns to the normal state. On the other hand, there are persons whose hopes and anticipations so persistently deceive them as to unfit them for the stern realities of this world. It is difficult even for genius to deal with conditions objectively, to envisage phenomena with the clear apprehension that its own personality is a disturbing factor. In persons endowed with a literary mentality there is developed the style of an author, that is, his individual mode of presenting his thoughts to the reader. Every author of note exhibits this characteristic. Hence it is generally possible for experts to divine the authorship of anonymous literary works. The late James T. Fields recognized some of De Quincey's unsigned essays which he found in periodicals; and although their author at first declared he was mistaken finally admitted what he had himself forgotten. Great as were the intellectual endowments of Byron and Goethe, commentators on their works profess to be able to discern their personality in everything that emanated from their pens. They were unable to get away from themselves. They viewed the external world through a medium which they could not lay aside. It is interesting to note the improvement in the esthetic taste the human psyche gradually underwent after men began to reflect upon their mental processes, although this improvement was doubtless at first unconscious. Homer describes minutely the harnessing of mules to a cart and the killing of animals for sacrifice. Furthermore, he exhibits a veritably diabolical ingenuity in devising ways by which men might be mutilated and slain. When their passions were aroused the historical Greeks were bloodthirsty to a degree. They sometimes put to death by thousands their prisoners taken in war. The political factions showed no more mercy than do those in some of the Central American states. Their judicial tribunals were often frightfully unjust. But when they calmly looked upon a tragedy they did not want to see any one openly slain. The Æneid of Virgil, though largely patterned after Homer, is pervaded by a much more humane spirit than the Iliad or the Odyssey. Yet the same Romans who read it with delight found pleasure in witnessing the gladiatorial games in which men and beasts lacerated and killed each other for the delectation of the spectators. During the middle age and far into modern times when religious persecution claimed its wretched victims by squadrons, the execution of human beings was often accompanied by the most frightful atrocities amid the applause or the silent approval of the spectators. But the modern novelist or poet who deals with these gruesome ages passes lightly over the more revolting incidents and permits the imagination of the reader to supply what he darkly hints at. Victor Hugo describes in minute detail, largely from his imagination, the slaughter of men and horses in the "hollow way" at the battle of Waterloo. But he casts a sort of halo of glory over victims and vanquished alike by extolling their bravery, their devotion to duty, their disregard of wounds and death, in order that he may arouse in the minds of his readers a sort of enthusiasm which makes him forget the horrors of the scene. The modern novelist is usually careful to eliminate everything from his production that would offend the esthetic taste, even to the extent of perverting well-established historical facts. "Egmont" is one of Goethe's most popular dramas; but its hero and the Egmont of history are totally different persons. The same may be said of Schiller's "Tell," by most persons regarded as attaining the highest excellence in German tragedy. Many of the eighteenth-century novels are now but little read by reason of their coarseness, while such a simple story as the "Vicar of Wakefield" is as popular as ever. While, therefore, the general progress of events did much to humanize men, the movement was very slow, with many and long periods of stagnation, between about 400 B.C. and A.D. 1800. Persons of insight had learned to be humane before science had taught them the wisdom of humaneness. Science had made considerable progress before the latter date. But it was aristocratic. The common people concerned themselves little about it because it taught them almost nothing which it was to their interest to know. It dealt chiefly with large problems, not with the minute affairs of daily life. The fundamental difference between science and poetry is that the former seeks to know and to set forth the truth no matter what the consequences; the latter seeks to give pleasure. Coleridge says:

Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science, prose to meter. The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement or communication of truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of pleasure.

Hence the poetic justice that plays so important a part on the modern novel is not the justice that prevails among men. Science brings before us the stern facts of the world in which we live, painful though they may be. On the other hand, imaginative literature either ignores those facts that pain the reader or weakens their effect by contrasting them with man's nobler traits or with human nature in "her calmer moods." Often a disagreeable subject is placed at a distance from us in either time or space. The Homeric poems are full of strife and slaughter and bloodshed and treachery; but they also portray conjugal and parental affection, valor, friendships that are not broken by death, piety toward the dead, fortitude and heroism. A novel in which all the characters are bad would be read by nobody. The popularity of Scott and Dickens is due mainly to the humanitarian spirit which their works display. They portray villains of the blackest type, but they always meet with the reward which we feel to be their due. Such novels are, therefore, not true to nature. Many knaves live to enjoy the fruits of their villainy to the end of a long life and die in peace. To the scientist nature is "red in tooth and claw"; to the poet she is a benignant mother, a provider of pleasure and a beneficent friend. A truth is often clad in a poetic garb. It then becomes a winged word, and impresses itself more firmly on the mind. It is poetry as well as truth. When Burns wrote: "wad some power the giftie gie us," he put on a homely truth a poetic garment. On the other hand, the commonplace and unadorned dictum: "Honesty is the best policy," together with a thousand similar proverbs lacks every element of poetry. It is the embodiment of human experience, a sort of summing up of what men have learned in their intercourse with one another. It is science. Proverbs are the small blossoms on the large tree of human experience. There exist odes to the skylark in every language spoken where this bird is known. No two of them are alike. But all descriptions of the skylark by ornithologists agree in the main. Carlyle often expressed disgust for "silly poetry." Yet he generally dealt with the facts or the reputed facts of history from such a strikingly individual point of view that a great deal of what he wrote belongs to the realm of the imagination as much as to the domain of history. He could not get away from himself,—probably did not want to. "Romola" or "Jane Eyre" deals with types and not with individuals. Their authors probably had some one in view for almost every character they introduced. But they are disguised. On the other hand, some of Carlyle's heroes are historical characters and bear well-known names. Nevertheless, they are almost as much unlike the familiar men and women of the ordinary text-book as if they belonged to the realm of fiction. The type never exists in unadulterated form. Very few every-day people are interesting. Consequently, when novelists bring them before their readers they exaggerate both their virtues and their vices in order to make them attractive. Dickens has a great deal to say about schoolmasters and schools. It is nevertheless much to be doubted whether the men and women he describes and the conditions as he represents them existed anywhere in England. By taking here and there from this person and that a trait or a personal peculiarity that best suited his purpose he makes composite portraits and portrays characters with such verisimilitude that we forget that they are largely the creations of his imagination. Albeit, the imagination is a wonderful and mysterious faculty. The orator is to some extent an artificial product; the poet is born. Unlike the intellect and the will, the imagination can not be trained. Dickens was almost without education; yet he portrays in his works fifteen hundred and fifty characters with more or less fulness of detail, while the number of names of places, societies, literary works, familiar persons and signs exceed two hundred. Balzac's works contains two thousand biographies, individual, distinct and, for the most part, complete. He usually takes each person at his birth and does not lose sight of him until his death. He also knows what the spirit of the country was in their time, the condition of the provinces and the trade to which the man belonged. He even knows what his income is, what taxes he paid, and the state of his culture. Yet Balzac's productive years hardly exceeded a score and Dickens died before reaching old age. In rare cases, but probably in more than is generally known, the poet and the scientist are combined in the same person. The Rev. C. L. Dodgson was a mathematician of considerable ability and expected his fame to rest on what he had done in this department of knowledge. Now hardly anybody cares for his mathematical writings while there are few who do not find "Alice in Wonderland" exceedingly interesting. The little volume is so "excruciatingly silly," that we laugh over its absurdities without knowing why. Goethe was probably the only poet of modern times whose fame is world-wide and whose work in science was of a high order. But as science is progressive many of his ideas have become a part of its history and may be said to be outgrown. Moreover, as the world can not or does not believe that a man can be great in more than one or two departments, Goethe is known as a man of science only to specialists. Then too the interest in facts is confined to few, while fiction is attractive to the great mass of mankind. The late Professor Shaler was a man of similar type. He ranked high as a scientist and wrote dramas that contain many notable passages. But this sphere of his mental activity is not generally known. It is probable that no man engaged in research and investigation is a scientist "all through." Benjamin Franklin is an interesting case. From his earliest youth he seems to have had his mind almost exclusively on practical matters. Albeit, under the influence of Whitefield's fervent appeals he emptied his purse into the contribution box in spite of his first resolution to give nothing, then to give at least very little.

Many persons seem to be unable to distinguish at all times between the products of the imagination and concepts based on observed phenomena. Sir Isaac Newton is regarded as the founder of mathematical physics and physical astronomy. We are astounded at his marvelous intellectual acumen when we consider the inadequate instruments with which he had to work. Yet he devoted much time to theological speculation and wrote many pages that are mere puerilities. So feeble are they that M. Biot professed to believe that they were the productions of his dotage. But he was mistaken. Newton also spent a good deal of time on the writings of the alchemists and tried to discover the philosopher's tincture. There was evidently a large measure of the mystic in him. There was a good deal of similarity between his mind and that of Swedenborg. In many things the latter was thoroughly practical and a master of much useful information; but his mystical vagaries often led him far astray. To such an extent did Kant find this to be the case that he characterized him as the prince of visionaries. Sometimes men adhere to a creed adopted in early life and refuse to modify it no matter how much new evidence is brought to their attention. It is usually easier to defend an accepted belief because we have the materials ready to hand than to test the data which might lead to its abandonment.

Charles Darwin relates, in his autobiography, that up to his thirtieth year he was very fond of poetry, and even as a schoolboy took great delight in Shakespeare. But in his later years he could not endure to read a line of poetry, and on attempting to reread Shakespeare's plays found them insufferably dull. On the other hand, he experienced great delight in reading novels, or in having them read to him, if they did not end unhappily, "against which a law should be passed." Many scientists, however, have held a different attitude toward poetry. J. S. Mill, although not a scientist in the strict meaning of the term, possessed a severely logical mind. When his premises were correct his conclusions have rarely been called in question. In his autobiography he says, when speaking of Wordsworth:

What made his poems a medicine for my state of mind was that they expressed not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling and thought colored by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. I needed to be made to feel that there was real permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings.

Quite as remarkable both for what it was as for what it was not was the mind of William E. Gladstone. He is said to have been the only English statesman who could make a speech in Parliament two or three hours long crammed with statistics and bristling with figures yet hold the attention of his auditors to the end. Some of his contributions to the history of ancient Greece are considered to be of lasting value. On the other hand, in his controversies with Huxley and in his theological writings generally he displays such short-sightedness and such an obliquity of intellectual vision that the reader is sometimes prompted to ask himself whether Gladstone the statesman and Gladstone the theologian are the same person. Horace observed long ago that you might drive out nature by violent means, but it would always return. Although Darwin's mind seemed to be almost pure intellect, he was a man of "kindly disposition, of strong feelings and wide sympathies. Many anecdotes are told of the ways by which his grandchildren tyrannized over him. Herbert Spencer was unable to suppress feelings of indignation when he witnessed an act of cruelty. He was powerless to explain this emotional state of mind and admitted that he could not help it. It is not putting the case too strong to say that every forward step in the march of human progress has been due to the constructive or creative imagination. In the man of routine it is very feeble, so feeble that it can hardly be said to exist. Columbus imagined the existence of a continent at some distance westward from the Atlantic coast as he knew it because he saw on the shores of Portugal branches of trees, two human corpses and other objects which he was convinced were not of European provenience. Many other persons had seen similar objects before him; but they did not set the imagination of the observers to work. In addition he had doubtless read the views of the Greeks as feebly reflected in a few Roman authors affirming that the earth is a sphere. Had his imagination been of the fanciful order he might have written a poem or a novel the characters of which would have been the inhabitants of the western coast of the Atlantic. He might have given to the world a prototype of "Peter Wilkins," or of a "Journey round the Moon." If he had been on bad terms with everybody he would have produced an early version of "Gulliver's Travels," for which his experience with men would have doubtless furnished him much first-hand material.

The imagination performs an important service to mankind when it takes the form of sympathy. This is an emotion that scarcely exists among the lower animals. When some of the individuals of a flock of birds or a herd of beasts are injured or killed their companions pay no attention to them or take flight. The compassion shown by man for his fellow-man can not be explained solely on the ground of selfishness or self-interest. It exists where this motive can have no conscious influence. To be human and humane mean nearly the same thing. But the sympathetic emotion avails little unless directed by science. Those who are suffering from disease or injuries are not as much benefited by the active sympathy of a hundred ignorant persons as by the knowledge of one who knows how to alleviate their ills. The ravages of disease were not checked until science discovered their causes and preventives. It is one thing to bewail the sad lot of man, as has so often been done in both prose and verse, and quite a different matter to teach him how to better his condition.

The imagination performs an exceedingly important service in the sphere of human activity when it is called hope or expectation. Mark Akenside wrote an interesting poem on the "Pleasures of the Imagination" and Thomas Campbell a fine one on the "Pleasures of Hope," in which these emotions are dealt with from the standpoint of the poet. It must be admitted that they embody much of truth. The man who has no expectations and is no longer lured by hope has outlived his usefulness. There is little in the future that can be called certain, when it depends on human conduct. Action is usually conditioned by hope and the most vigorous action is inspired by the most ardent hope. But unless hope is enforced by a resolute will and guided by insight it rarely leads to tangible results. The alchemists were inspired by hope, but most of their labor was fruitless. The Spaniards sought the fountain of youth and El Dorado, but found only disappointment and suffering and death. Imaginative literature that keeps close to facts is a European product; and Europe has made more progress in a hundred years than Asia in a thousand. Nobody but a European would think of writing a "Treatise on the Creative Imagination." Nor would an Asiatic be interested in the pleasures of hope or of the imagination. The Chinese who have the reputation of being the most practical people in the world have made more progress in the last two decades under the guidance of science than in the preceding two thousand without it. The imagination is the force that impels the scientist to seek new and hitherto unexplored regions in the vast domain of nature; but unless it is guided and controlled by the intellect it rarely leads to anything worth while.

Perhaps, however, the circumstance that our generation devours enormous quantities of fiction should not be taken as evidence that there is comparatively little thinking. Mental effort is largely expended along practical lines. Such problems as the existence of God, the priority of mind or matter, whether moral ideas are intuitional or evolutionary, metaphysical monism or dualism, together with a host of others on which philosophers were wont to expend their intellectual energies for more than two thousand years are now generally regarded as impossible of solution and are ignored. The world concerns itself little about transcendental questions and is turning with increasing interest to the consideration of matters that lie within its reach. Everybody now admits that the noumena of the cosmos are undiscoverable; the use to which the visible and tangible phenomena about us determines our moral and physical welfare and our mundane happiness as a whole.