The Nature and Elements of Poetry

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The Nature and Elements of Poetry  (1892) 
by Edmund Clarence Stedman

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Page 140






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The Riverside Press, Cambridge

Copyright, 1892,

All rights reserved.


The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U.S.A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Co.






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The series of lectures contained in this volume, although now somewhat revised and extended, formed the initial course, as delivered in 1891, of the Percy Turnbull Memorial Lectureship of Poetry at Johns Hopkins University. In founding that lectureship, Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Turnbull commemorated the name of their son, Percy Graeme Turnbull, who died in 1887, having nearly completed his ninth year. The brief life of a child, who gave promise of fulfilling the utmost wishes of parents devoted to things good and fair, has been of higher service than that which many whose lights "burn to the socket" are permitted to render.

In conformity with the terms of the gift, a course of lectures is to be delivered annually by some maker or critical student of poetry. There is but one other foundation dedicated to this art alone, as far as I can learn, among British and American universities, that being the chair endowed at Oxford by Henry Birkhead, in 1708, from which much learned argument has been delivered since the time of Warton, and to which we owe the criticism of Doyle, Shairp, Palgrave, and the high discourse of Arnold, in our own day. Had Mr. Lowell's health enabled him to initiate the Turnbull lectureship, the foundation would have derived a lustre at once the light and the despair of his successors. In the shadow of his lamented death it became my duty and distinction to prepare the following lectures, which are now issued in reconsideration of an intention, expressed in my last preceding volume of criticism, to write no more books upon the present theme.

Perhaps it is only natural that such an intention should be overcome by a striking illustration of the fact that, under stress of public neglect or distaste, the lovers of any cause or art find their regard for it more unshaken than ever. It seemed to me a notable thing that at a time when poetry as the utterance of feeling and imagination is strenuously rivalled by other forms of expression, especially by the modern industry of prose fiction; at a time when journalism, criticism, science more than all, not only excite interest, but afford activity and subsistence to original writers; at a time, moreover, when taste is fostered by the wealth of those to whose luxury the architect, the artist, and the musician, rather than the poet, are ready to minister; it seemed to me notable and suggestive that at such a time, though many think of poetry as the voice of the past, a few should still consider it a voice of the future also, and that there should be found what I may call practical idealists, to discover one need of our most liberal schools, and to do this much to relieve it.

I have thought it appropriate that an opening course upon this foundation should relate to the absolute nature of the art which future lecturers will consider more in detail with respect to its technical laws, varied forms, and historic illustrations. These pages, then, treat of the quality and attributes of poetry itself, of its source and efficacy, and of the enduring laws to which its true examples ever are conformed. An attempt to do this within brief limits, notwithstanding the extent of the subject, is not quite impracticable, since whether the "first principles" of any art, even of the philosophy of all arts and knowledge, can be tersely set forth, is not so much in question as is the skill of one who tries to epitomize them.

In the consideration of any subject, however ideal, an agreement as to what shall be denoted by its title may well be established at the outset. Therefore I have not evaded even that which it is so customary to deprecate,—a definition of the thing examined in this treatise. It must be observed that our discussion is of poetry in the concrete, and as the actual record of human expression,—keeping ever in mind, no less, the uncapturable and mysterious spirit from which its energy is derived. I say this, because most essays upon the theme have been produced by one or the other of two classes,—either by transcendentalists who invoke the astral presence but underrate its fair embodiment, or by technical artisans who pay regard to its material guise alone. There is no good reason, I think, why both the essence and the incarnation of poetry may not be considered as directly as those of the less inclusive and more palpable fine arts. At all events, an attempt is made in this volume to do that very thing.

Even this enforced brevity makes it the more needful that my course should be in good faith what its title indicates—elementary. But the simplest laws and constituents, those most patent to common apprehension, are also the most profound and abiding. Their statement must be accurate, first of all; since, as in the present instance, it seeks to determine the initial aim, and a hairbreadth's deviation at the start means a ruinous divergence as the movement progresses. I make no apology, then, for what is elementary and oft-repeated, my wish being, in this opening discussion of that wherewith the Turnbull lectureship is concerned, to derive a statement of first principles from the citation of many illustrious witnesses and creative works. If, therefore, I seem to thresh old straw, it is not without design; and often, instead of making the curious references so easily culled from the less-known books upon our shelves, I repeat passages most famous and familiar,—the more familiar, as a rule, because none apter in illustration can be cited.

In the endeavor to use time to the best advantage, it seemed most feasible to begin with a suggestion of reasons why poetry does not obtain the scientific consideration awarded to material processes, and then to review important outgivings of the past with respect to it; and next, to essay a direct statement of its nature (analyzing the statement logically), and to add a correlative view of its powers and limitations as compared with, and differentiated from, those of the other fine arts. I found it serviceable, afterwards, to divide all poetry—as indeed the product of every art may be divided—into the two main results, creation and self-expression, the vitalities of which are implied in those well-worn metaphysical terms, the objective and the subjective. The former characterization applies to that primitive and heroic song which is the only kind recognized by a Macaulay, with his faculty attuned to the major key. But, after all, there was much self-expression in "the antique," just as there are stately examples of objective creation in the poetry of Christendom. Therefore it was not possible to confine a third lecture entirely to the one, nor a fourth entirely to the other. The creative element, however, is the main topic of the third, while the fourth, entitled "Melancholia," pursues chiefly the stream of self-expression. Together, the two afford all the scope permitted in this scheme for a swift glance at the world's masterpieces. The way now becomes clear for examination of the pure attributes which qualify the art we are considering:—on the side of aesthetics, beauty,—and therewith truth, as concerns the realistic, the instructive, the ethical; then the inventive and illuminating imagination, and passion with its motive power and sacred rage; lastly, the faculty divine, operative through insight, genius, inspiration, and consecrated by the minstrel's faith in law and his sense of a charge laid upon him. A concession from the original scheme appears in the briefness of the section devoted to passion, under which title a poet's emotion should receive the same attention elsewhere given to his taste, sincerity, and imaginative power. My limits compelled me to speak of passion at the opening of the final lecture, where it does not precisely belong, though a necessary excitant of "the faculty divine."

Modern writers upon poetry as an art occupy themselves, as I have hinted, very closely with technical matters,—with "the science of verse," its rhythm, diction, and metrical effects. But these are matters of course for natural poets, each after his own voice and individuality, and technical instruction is obtained by them otherwise than through the schooling which fortifies the practitioners of arts which return subsistence as well as fame. Contenting myself with assuming the need of artistic perfection, I turn to weightier matters of the law, there being no true science of poetry which does not seek after the abstract elements of its power. Nor can any work henceforth be an addition to the literature of the subject, which fails to recognize the obligation of treating it upon scientific lines. For no one now feels the steadfast energy of science more than do the poets themselves, and they realize that, if at first it caused a disenchantment, it now gives promise of an avatar. The readjustment, in truth, is so thoroughly in force that a critic moves with it instinctively. If there is anything novel in this treatise,—anything like construction,—it is the result of an impulse to confront the scientific nature and methods of the thing discussed. Reflecting upon its historic and continuous potency in many phases of life, upon its office as a vehicle of spiritual expression, I have seen that it is only a specific manifestation of that all-pervading force, of which each one possesses a share at his control, and which communicates the feeling and thought of the human soul to its fellows. Thus I am moved to perceive that for its activity it depends, like all other arts, upon Vibrations,—upon ethereal waves conveying impressions of vision and sound to mortal senses, and so to the immortal consciousness whereto those senses minister.

In my opening lecture, I see that mention is made of the disenchantment to which "that airy nothing, the rainbow," has been subjected. But it is precisely because we have discovered its nothingness,—because we know its only being consists in vibrations which impart our sense of light, and of the color scale—that Lippman has been able at last to seize this color scale, and to fix the negative reflecting the light of the eye, the flush of the cheek, to make the sunset eternal, to secure the myriad tints of landscape,—in short, to make a final conquest of nature, and thus to enlarge our basis for the indispensable higher structures of the painter and the poet. Such realism cannot be ignored. It does not lessen ideality; it affords new inspiration. Each time when science fulfils our hope, the poet will be charmed to dream anew, and to impart from his own nature to the semblance of his visions that individuality of tone and form which is the ultimate value of human art.

I have avoided much discussion of schools and fashions. Every race has its own genius, as we say; every period has its own vogues in the higher arts, as well as in those which fashion wholly dominates. There have been "schools" in all ages and centres, but these, it must be acknowledged, figure most laboriously at intervals when the creative faculty seems inactive. The young and ardent,—so long as art has her knight-errantry, so long as there is a brotherhood of youth and hope,—will set out joyously upon their new crusades. Sometimes these are effective, as in the Romantic movement of 1830; but more often, as when observing the neo-romanticists and neo-impressionists, the French and Belgian "symbolists," and just now the "intuitivists," we are taught that, no matter how we reconstruct the altars or pile cassia and frankincense upon them, there will be no mystic illumination unless a flame descends from above. New styles are welcome, but it is a grievous error to believe a new style the one thing needful, or that art can forego a good one, old or new. Our inquiry, then, is concerned with that which never ages, the primal nature of the minstrel's art. Even sturdy thinkers fall into the mistake of believing that a great work loses its power as time goes on. Thus Shakespeare's creations have been pronounced outworn, because he was the last great "poet of feudalism." We might as well say that the truth to human life displayed in Genesis and Exodus, or the synthetic beauty of the Parthenon, or the glory of the Sistine Madonna, will grow ineffective, forgetting that these have the vitality which appertains to the lasting nature of things. No poet can ever outrival Shakespeare, except by a more exceeding insight and utterance. It is well said that great art is always modern, and this is true whether a romantic or a realistic method prevails. Doubtless the prerogative of song is a certain abandonment to the ideal, but this, on the other hand, becomes foolishness unless the real, the truth of earth and nature, is kept somewhere in view. Still, if any artist may be expected to pursue by instinct a romantic method, it is the poet, the very essence of whose gift is a sane ideality. The arbitrary structure of poetry invites us to a region out of the common, and this without danger of certain perils attending the flights of prose romance.

While the poetic drama, for example, must be realistic in its truth to life,—first, as to human nature, and, second, in fidelity to the manners of a given time and place,—it shortly fails unless surcharged with romantic passion and ideality. The drama, then, ever catholic and universal, is a standing criticism upon the war of schools,—a war usually foregone whenever the drama reaches and maintains a successful height. I have suggested heretofore the probability that dramatic feeling, and even the production of works in dramatic form, will distinguish the next poetic movement of our own language and haply of this Western world.

But criticism of style and method should be extended to specific productions, and to the writers of a certain period or literature. To the essays which in that wise have come from my own hand this treatise is a natural complement. If inconsistent with them,—if this statement of first principles could not be made up from my books of "applied criticism," I would doubt the integrity of the one and the other; for I have found, in preparing the marginal notes and topical index of the present volume, that nearly every phase and constituent of art has been touched upon, however briefly, which was illustrated in the analytic course of my former essays.

E. C. S.

New York, August, 1892.




Oracles Old and New 3


What is Poetry? 41


Creation and Self-Expression 75


Melancholia 111


Beauty 147


Truth 187


Imagination 225


The Faculty Divine: Passion, Insight, Genius, Faith 259


This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.