The Nature and Elements of Poetry/Creation and Self-Expression
CREATION AND SELF-EXPRESSION.
The difficulty that confronts one who enters upon a general discussion of poetry is its universalThe radiant dome. range. The portals of his observatory tower before him, flashing yet frowning, and inscribed with great names of all the ages. Mount its stairway, and a chart of the field disclosed is indeed like that of the firmament. In what direction shall we first turn? To the infinite dome at large, or toward some particular star or group? We think of inspiration, and a Hebrew seer glows in the prophetic East; of gnomic wisdom and thought, and many fixed white stars shine tranquilly along the equinox, from Lucretius to Emerson; of tragedy and comedy, the dramatic coil and mystery of life, and group after group invites the lens,—for us, most of all, that English constellation blazing since "the spacious times of great Elizabeth"; of beauty, and the long train of poetic artists, with Keats like his own new planet among them, swims into our ken. Asia is somewhere beyond the horizon, and in view are countless minor lights,—the folk-singers and minstrels of many lands and generations.
The future lecturer will have the satisfaction of giving his attention to a single master or school,—to the Greek dramatists, to Dante, or Milton, or Goethe; more than one will expend his resources upon the mimic world of Shakespeare, yet leave as much for his successors to accomplish as there was before. Their privilege I do not assume; since these initiatory discourses have to do with the elements of which poetry is all compact, and with the spirit in fealty to which its orbs shine and have their being and rehearse the burden of their radiant progress:—
"Beneath this starry arch
Nought resteth or is still:
But all things hold their march,
As if by one great will:
Moves one, move all: hark to the footfall!
On, on, forever!"
Still, I wish in some way to review this progressTwo main divisions. of poesy. Essaying then, for the little that can be done, to look first at the broad characteristics of the field, we see that there are, at all events, two streams into which its vast galaxy is divided,—though they intersect each other again and again, and in modern times seem almost blended. These do not relate to the technical classificationA passing reference to established orders. of poetry: to its partition by the ancients into the epic, dramatic, lyric, and the idyllic,—unto which we have added the reflective, and have merged them all in the composite structures of modern art. Time has shown that we cannot overrate the method of those intuitive pagans. No one cares for Wordsworth's division of his own verse into poems of imagination, of fancy, and the like, the truth being that they all, with the exception of a few spontaneous lyrics, are poems of reflection, often glorified by the imagination, sometimes lightened by fancy, but of whose predominant spirit their author was apparently the least successful judge. The Greeks felt that the spirit shapes the form of art, and therefore is revealed by it. Assume, then, the fitness of poetic orders, styles, and measures; that these are known to you and me, and thus we may leave dactyls and choriambs to the metrical anatomists, and rhymes to the Walkers and Barnums. Passing to But poetry is either impersonal or self-expressive.the more essential divisions of expression, you will find their types are defined by the amount of personality which they respectively hold in solution: that poetry is differentiated by the Me and the Not Me,—by the poet's self-consciousness, or by the representation of life and thought apart from his own individuality.
That which is impersonal, and so very great at its best, appears the more creative as being a statement of things discerned by free and absolute vision. The other order is so affected by relations with the maker's traits and tastes that it betokens a relative and conditioned imagination; and is thus by far the larger division, since in most periods it is inevitable that the chief impulse to song should be a conscious or unconscious longing for personal expression.
The gift of unconditioned vision has been vouchsafedThe Creative and Impersonal. both to the primitive world, and to races at their height of action and invention. The objective masterpieces of poetry consist, first, of those whose origin is obscure, and which are so naturally inwrought with history and popular traits that they seem growths rather than works of art. Such are the Indian epics, the Northern sagas, the early ballads of all nations, and of course the Homeric poems of Greece. These are the lusty Juventus mundi.product of the youth of mankind, the song and story that come when life is unjaded, faith unsophisticated, and human nature still in voice with universal Pan. The less spontaneous but equally vital types are the fruit of later and constructive periods,—"golden" ages, the masterpieces of which are composed with artistic design and still unwearied genius. Whether epic or dramatic, and whether traditional or the product of schools and nations in their prime, the significance of objective poetry lies in its presentment of the world outside, and not of the microcosm within the poet's self. His ideal mood is that of the Chinese sage from whose wisdom, now twenty-six centuries old, the artist John La Farge, himself imbued with the spirit of the "most eastern East," has cited for me these phrases: "I am become as a quiet water, or a mirror reflecting what may be. It keeps nothing, it refuses nothing. What it reflects is there, but I do not keep it: it is not I." And again: "One should be as a vacuum, so to be filled by the universe. Then the universe will fill me, and pour out again." Which dark saying I interpret here as an emblem of the receptivity of the artist to life at large. This it is his function to give out again, illumined, but unadulterate. The story is told, the song chanted, the drama constructed, with the simplest of understandings between audience and maker: as between children at their play, artisans at their handicraft, recounter and hearers around the desert fire. Every literature has more or less of this free, absolute poetry. But only in the drama, and at Early and late creative eras.distinctively imaginative periods, have poets of the Christian era been quite objective; not even there and then, without in most cases having "unlocked" their hearts by expression of personal feeling. This process—exemplified in the sonnets of Shakespeare, and in the minor works of Dante, Tasso, Cervantes, Calderon, Camoëns—rarely suggested itself to the antique poets, whose verses were composed for the immediate verdict of audiences great or small, and in the Attic period distinctly as works of art, necessarily universal, and not introspective. Nor would much self-intrusion then have been tolerated. Imagine the Homeric laughter of an Athenian conclave, every man of them with something of Aristophanes in him, at being summoned to listen to the sonnetary sorrows of a blighted lover! There were few Werthers in those days. Bad poets, and bores of all sorts, were not likely to flourish in a society where ostracism, the custody of the Eleven, and the draught of hemlock were looked upon as rather mild and exemplary modes of criticism.
Now, in distinction from unsophisticated and creativeThe subjective poet. song comes the voice of the poet absorbed in his own emotions and dependent on self-analysis for his knowledge of life. Here is your typical modern minor poet. But here also are some of the truest "bards of passion and of pain" that the world has known. Again, there are those who are free from the Parnassian egoism, but whose manner is so pronounced that every word they utter bears its author's stamp: their tone and style are unmistakable. Finally, many are confinedSpecialists. implacably to certain limits. One cares for beauty alone, an artist pure and simple; another is a balladist; a third is gifted with philosophic insight of nature; still another has a genius for the psychological analysis of life. Each of these appears to less advantage outside his natural range. The vision of all these classes is conditioned.
An obvious limitation of the speechless arts isLanguage the freest means of self-expression. that they can be termed subjective only with respect to motive and style. We have the natural landscapist, and the figure-painter, while nearly all good painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, are recognizable, as you know, by their respective styles, but otherwise all arts, save those of language, are relatively impersonal and objective.
The highest faculties of vision and execution are required to design an absolutely objective poem, and to insure its greatness. There is no middle ground; it is great, or else a dull and perfunctory mechanism. The force of the heroic epics, whose authorship is in the crypt of the past, seems to be not that of a single soul, but of a people; not that of a generation, but of a round of eras. Yet the final determination of poetic utterance is toward self-expression. The minstrel's soul uses for its medium that slave of imaginative feeling, language. It is a voice—a voice; and the emotion of its possessor will not be denied. The poet is the Mariner, whose heart burns within him until his tale is told:
"I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach."
Races themselves have a bent toward one of the two generic types, so that with one nation Racial tendency.or people the creative poet is the exception, and with another the rule. The Asiatic inspiration, even in its narrative legacies, is more subjectively vague than that which we call the antique—that of the Hellenes. But the extreme Asia.Eastern field requires special study, and is beyond the limits of this course, so that I will only confess my belief that much of our fashionable adaptation of Hindu, Chinese, Japanese literatures represents more honestly the ethics and poetic spirit of its Attempts to transfer the Buddhist conceptions.Western students than the Oriental feeling and conceptions; that it is a latter-day illumination of Brahmanic esoterics rather than the absolute Light of Asia,—whether better or worse, not a veritable transfer, but the ideal of Christendom grafted on the Buddhist stock. It is doubtful, in fact, whether the Buddhists themselves fully comprehend their own antiquities; and if our learned virtuosos, from Voltaire and Sir William Jones to Sir Edwin Arnold, fail to do so, they nevertheless have found the material for a good deal of interesting verse. It will be a real exploit when some one does for the Buddhist epos and legendary what John Payne and Captain Burton have done for the Arabic "Thousand Nights and One Night." Then we shall at least know those literatures as they are; nor will it be strange if they prove to be, in some wise, as much superior to our conception of them as Payne's rendering of the "Arabian Nights" is to that of Galland, or as Butcher and Lang's prose translation of Homer is to Lord Derby's verse. Of such a paraphrase as Fitzgerald's "Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám," one at once declares, in Lander's phrase, that it is more original than the originals: the Western genius in this instance has produced an abiding poem, unique in its interfusion of the Persian and the neo-English dispositions.
But with Hebrew poetry, that of the Bible, we have more to do, since we derive very closely from it. There is no literature at once so grand and so familiar to us. Its inherent, racial The Hebraic genius.genius was emotional and therefore lyrical (though I am not with those who deem all lyrical poetry subjective), and a genius of so fiery and prophetic a cast that its personal outbursts have a loftiness beyond those of any other literature. The Hebrew was, and the orthodox Israelite remains, a magnificent egoist. Himself, his past, and his future, are a passion. But—and this is what redeems his egoism—they are not his deepest passion; he has an intenser emotion concerning his own race, the chosen people, a more fervent devotion to Jehovah,—his own Jehovah, if not the God of a universe. Waiving the question whether the ancient Jew was a monotheist, we know that he trusted in the might of his own God as overwhelmingly superior to that of all rivals. His God, moreover, was a very human one. But the Judaic anthropomorphism was of the most transcendent type that ever hath entered into the heart of man.
I do not, then, class the Hebrew poetry, which, though lyrical, gives vent not so much to Its national exaltation.the self-consciousness of the psalmist or prophet or chieftain as to the pride and rapture of his people, with that which is personal and relative, any more than I would count the winged Pindar in his splendid national odes, or even his patriotic Grecian followers, as strictly subjective, however lyrical and impassioned. Such bards are trumpet-tongued with the exaltation of their time and country: they speak not of themselves, but for their people. To the burning imagination of Moses and the prophets, and to the rhythmical eloquence of the Grecian celebrants, I may refer when noting the quality of inspiration. I think the national and religious utterance of the Hebrews even more characteristic than their personal outgivings; they were carried out of and Intense personal feeling.above themselves when moved to song. But there is no more wonderful poetry of the emotional order than the psalms of David and his compeers relating to their own trials and agonies, their loves and hates and adoration. As we agonize and triumph with a supreme lyrical nature, its egoism becomes holy and sublime. The stress of human feeling is intense in such poetry as that of the sixth Psalm, where the lyrist is weary with groaning, and waters the couch with his tears, exclaiming, "But thou, O Lord, how long?" and that of the thirteenth, when he laments: "How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? Forever?" and in successive personal psalms wherein the singer, whether David or another, avows his trust in the Deity, praying above all to overcome his enemies and to have his greatness increased. These petitions, of course, do not reach the lyrical splendor of the psalms of praise and worship: "The heavens declare the glory of God," "The earth is the Lord's and the fulness thereof;" and those of Moses—"He that dwelleth in the secret place of the Most High," and its immediate successors. But the Hebrew, in those strains where he communes with God alone, other protectors having failed him, is at the climax of emotional song.
Modern self-expression is not so direct and simple. We doubt the passion of one who wears his heart upon his sleeve. The naïveté of the Davidic lyre is beyond question, and so is the superb unrestraint of the Hebrew prophecy and pæans. We feel the stress of human nature in its articulate moods. This gives to the poetry of the Scriptures anSubjective, yet universal. attribute possessed only by the most creative and impersonal literature of other tongues,—that of universality. Again, it was all designed for music, by the poets of a musical race; and the psalms were arranged by the first composers,—the leaders of the royal choir. It retains forever the fresh tone of an epoch when lyrical composition was the normal form of expression. Then its rhythm is free, unrestrained, in extreme opposition to that of classical and modern verse, relying merely upon antiphony, alliteration, and parallelism. Technical abandon, allied with directness of conception and faithful revelation of human life, makes for universality; makes of the Hebrew Scriptures a Bible, a world's book that can be translated into all tongues with surpassing effect, notably into a language almost as direct and elemental as its own, that of our Anglo-Saxon in its Jacobean strength and clarity.
Advancing further, you perceive that where a work survives as an exception to the inherent The Book of Job.temper of a people, it is likely to exhibit greatness. The sublimest poem of antiquity is impersonal, yet written in the Hebrew tongue. The book of Job, the life-drama of the Man of Uz, towers with no peak near it; its authorship lost, but its fable associated in mind with the post-Noachian age, the time when God discoursed with men and the stars hung low in the empyrean. It is both epic and dramatic, yet embodies the whole wisdom of the patriarchal race. Who composed it? Who carved the Sphinx, or set the angles of the Pyramids? The shadow of his name was taken, lest he should fall by pride, like Eblis. The narrative prelude to Job has the direct epic simplicity,—a Cyclopean porch to the temple, but within are Heaven, the Angels, the plumed Lord of Evil, before the throne of a judicial God. The personages of the dialogue beyond are firmly distinguished: Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu,—to whom the inspiration of the Almighty gave understanding,—and the smitten protagonist himself, majestic in ashes and desolation. Each outvies the other in grandeur of language, imagination, worship. Can there be a height above these lofty utterances? Yes; only in this poem has God answered out of the whirlwind, his voice made audible, as if an added range of hearing for a space enabled us to comprehend the reverberations of a superhuman tone. I speak not now of the motive, the inspiration, of the symphonic masterpiece; it is still a mortal creation, though maintaining an impersonality so absolute as to confirm our sense of mystery and awe.
It has been said of the Hebrew language that its every word is a poem; and there are books of the Old Testament, neither lyrical nor prophetic, so exquisite in kind that I call them models of impersonal art. Considered thus, the purely narrative idyls of Esther and Ruth have so much significance that I shall have occasion to recur to them with reference to poetic beauty and construction.
Turning from Semitic literature to the Aryan in its Hellenic development, we at once Greece.enter a naturally artistic atmosphere. Until after his Attic prime, the Greek, with no trick of introspection, concerned himself very little about his individual pathology, being far too much absorbed with an inborn sense of beauty, and with his office of imaginative creation. His great lyricalThe lyrists. poets—Alcæus, Simonides, Pindar—rehearsed, as I have said, the spirit of a people rather than of themselves. As with the Hebrews, but conversely, the few exceptions to this usage were very notable, else they could not have arisen at all. One extremity of passion for which, in their sunlit life, they found expression compulsive, was that of love; and among those who sang its delights, or lamented its incompleteness, we have the world's accepted type in Love's priestess of Mitylene, the "violet-crowned, pure, sweetly smiling Sappho." The pity of it is Sappho.that we have only the glory of her name, celebrated by her contemporaries and successors, and justified to us by two lyrics in the stanzaic measure of her invention, and by a few fragments of verse more lasting than the tablets of the Parthenon. But the "Hymn to Aphrodite" and the Φαίνετάι μοι κῆνος are enough to assure us that no other singer has so united the intensity of passion with charm of melody and form. A panting, living woman, a radiant artist, are immanent in every verse. After twenty-five centuries, Sappho leads the choir of poets that have sung their love; and from her time to that of Elizabeth Browning no woman has so distinguished her sex. The Christian sibyl moved in a more ethereal zone of feeling, but could not equal her Ægean prototype in unerring art, although, by the law of true expression, most artistic where she is most intense.
The note which we call modern is frequent in the Classical expressions of feeling.dramas of Euripides, and in those of his satirist, Aristophanes; it drifts, in minor waves of feeling, with the lovely Grecian epitaphs and tributes to the dead,—that feeling, the breath of personal art, which Mahaffy illustrates from the bas-reliefs and mortuary emblems which beautify the tombs west of Athens. The Greek anthology is rich with sentiment of this cast, so pathetic—and so human. As an instance of what I mean, let me repeat Cory's imitation of the elegiacs of Callimachus on his friend Heracleitus:—
"They told me, Heracleitus, they told me you were dead,—
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.
I wept, as I remembered how often you and I
Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky.
"And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest,
A handful of gray ashes, long, long ago at rest,
Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake,
For Death—he taketh all away, but them he cannot take."
This, to be sure, is a paraphrase, yet it conveys the feeling better than the more compact version by the poet-scholar Andrew Lang. Nothing can exceed, in its expression of the spirit, Mr. Lang's handling of Meleager's verses to the memory of his loved and lost Heliodora:—
"Tears for my lady dead,
Salt tears, and strange to shed,
Over and o'er."
But I quote no more of this melody, since you can find it, in a certain romance of "Cleopatra," shining by contrast with much of that story like the "jewel in an Ethiope's ear." Others of Mr. Lang's elusive, exquisite renderings, done as it seems by the first touch, are incomparable with any lyrical exploits of their kind since "Music's wing" was folded in the dust of Shelley.
Follow the twilight path of elegiac verse to the Alexandrian epoch, and you find the clear Athenian strain succeeded by a compound of artifice and nature, so full of sentiment withal as to seem the The Greek idyllists.forerunner of Christian art,—in some respects the prototype of our own idyllic poetry. The studiously impassioned lament of Moschus for Bion is nearer than the poetry of his dead master, and of that master's master, Theocritus (always excepting the latter's "Thalysia"), to our own modes of feeling and treatment. It set the key for our great English elegies, from Spenser's "Astrophel" and Milton's "Lycidas" to Shelley's "Adonais" and Arnold's lament for Clough. The subjectivity of the Greek idyllists is thus demonstrated. They were influenced largely by the Oriental feeling, alike by its sensuousness and its solemnity, and at times they borrowed from its poets,—as in the transfer by Moschus of a passage from Job into his Dorian hexameters, of which I will read my own version:—
"Even the mallows—alas! alas! when once in the garden
They, or the pale-green parsley and crisp-growing anise, have perished,
Afterward they will live and flourish again at their season;
We, the great and brave, and the wise, when death has benumbed us,
Deaf in the hollow ground a silent, infinite slumber
Sleep: forever we lie in the trance that knoweth no waking."
We pass with something like indifference to the Latin sentiment.Latin poets, because their talent, in spite of many noble legacies bequeathed us, so lacked the freedom, the originality, the inimitable poetic subtilties which animated everything that was Grecian. Hellas was creative of beauty and inspiration; Italia, too, was a creative soil, but of government, empire, law. Her poetry, as it was less an impulse and more a purpose, belongs largely to the mixed class. In its most objective portions there is an air of authorship and self-expression. I will not speak now of Lucretius, who sends out the one dauntless ray of contemplative splendor between the Hebraic sages and the seers of our new dispensation. But Vergil is a typical example Vergil.of the poet whose style is so unmistakable that every verse overflows with personal quality,—a style that endures, establishes a pupilage. Vergil borrowed fire from Greece to light the altars of beauty in a ruder land. The Iliad and Odyssey kindled the invention and supplied the construction of his Æneids; the Georgics, his sturdiest cantos, took their motive from Hesiod; the Eclogues are a paraphrase upon Theocritus. But the Mantuan's style is preëminently his own,—the limpid, liquid, sweet, steadfast Vergilian intonation on which monarchs and statesmen hung enchanted, and which was confessedly the parent-voice of many an after bard. Tennyson, in point of a style whose qualityHis modern countertypes. is the more distinct for its diffusiveness,—whose potency, to borrow the homœopathic term, is the greater for its perfect trituration,—has been the English Vergil of our day. Browning's trade-mark is, plainly, the antithesis of what I here mean by style. Our own Longfellow furnishes the New World counterpart of Vergil. In the ascetic and prosaic America of his early days he excited a feeling for the beautiful, borrowing over sea and from all lands the romance-forms that charmed his countrymen and guided them to taste and invention. His originality lay in the specific tone that made whatever Longfellow's sweet verse rehearsed a new song, and in this wise his own. Mentioning these leaders of to-day only to strengthen my reference to Vergil,—and as illustrating Schlegel's point that "what we borrow from others, to assume a true poetical shape, must be born again within us,"—I Ovid, Catullus, etc.may add that there is a good deal of personal feeling and expression in the Latin epigrammatists and lyrists. We have Ovid with his Tristia of exile, and Catullus with his Sapphic grace and glow, and a Latin anthology of which the tenderest numbers are eloquent of grief for lover and friend gone down to the nebulous pagan underworld. The deaths that touched them most were those of the young and dear, cut off with their lives unlived, their promise of grace and glory brought to naught. Both the Greeks and the Latins, in their joy of life, strongly felt the pathos of this earthly infruition. That famous touch of Vergil's, in the A touch of nature.sixth Æneid, was not all artifice: the passage in which Æneas sees a throng of shades awaiting their draught of Lethe and reincarnation in the upper world,—and among them the beauteous youthful spirit that in time will become Marcellus, son of the Emperor's sister Octavia, and heir to the throne of the Cæsars. Every schoolboy, from the poet's day to the present, knows how this touch of nature made Vergil and his imperial listeners kin:—
"Heu, miserande puer! si qua fata aspera rumpas,
Tu Marcellus eris. Manibus date lilia plenis,
Purpureos spargam flores."
From the consecrating beauty of the Latin verse, in a new world and after nineteen centuries, is derived the legend—Manibus date lilia plenis—of an American hymn for Decoration Day. Out of the death of a youth as noble and gracious, in whom centred limitless hopes of future strength and joy, the spirit of poetry well may spring and declare—as from yonder tablet in this very place—that his little life was not fruitless, and that its harvest shall be perennial.
A passing reference may be made at this point to a class of verse elegantly produced in The Horatii.various times of culture and refinement: the hearty overflow of the taste, philosophy, good-fellowship, especially of the temperament, of its immediate maker. Thus old Anacreon started off, that Parisian of Teos. When you come to the Latin Horace, who like Vergil took his models from the Greek, you have, above all, the man himself before you: the progenitor of an endless succession, in English verse, of our Swifts and Priors and Cannings and Dobsons, of our own inimitable Holmes. There are feeling and fancy, and everything wise and witty and charming, in the individuality of these Horatii; they give us delightful verse, and human character in sunny and wholesome moods. One secret of their attractiveness is their apt measurement of limitations; they have made no claim to rank with the great imaginative poets who supply our loftier models and illustrations.
Return for a moment to that creative art which is Absolutely creative song.found in early narrative poetry and the true drama. The former escapes the pale cast of thought through the conditions of its formationPrimitive ballads. and rehearsal. Primitive ballads have a straightforward felicity; many of them a conjuring melody, as befits verse and music born together. Their gold is virgin, from the rock strata, and none the better for refining and burnishing. No language is richer in them than the English. Our traditional ballads, such as "Clerk Saunders," "Burd Ellen," "Sir Patrick Spens," " Chevy-Chace," "Edward! Edward!" usually are better poetry than those of known authorship. Not until you come to Drayton's "Agincourt" do you find much to rival them. What I say applies to the primitive ballads of all nations. Touch them with our ratiocination, and their charm vanishes. The epos evolved from such folk-songs has the same directness. The rhythm of its imagery and narrative, swift Epic masterpieces.and strong and ceaseless as a great river, would be sadly ruffled by the four winds of a minstrel's self-expression,—its current all set back by his emotional tides,
"The hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
The love of love."
The modern temper is not quick to apprehend a work of simple beauty and invention. It presupposes, judging from itself, underlying motives even for the legends and matutinal carols of a young people. Age forgets, and fails to understand, the heart of childhood; we "ancients of the earth" misconceive its youth. We even class together the literatures of races utterly opposed in genius and disposition. Some would put the Homeric epos The Homeric epos.on the same footing with the philosophical drama of Job, the end of which is avowedly "to justify the ways of God to men." Professor Snider, who has exploited well the ethical scheme of "Faust," would similarly deal with the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer, he thinks, had in mind a grand exposition of Providence, divine rule, the nature of good and evil, and so forth, in relation to which the narrative and poetry of those epics are subordinate and allegorical. But why should we reason too curiously? Both instinct and common sense are against it. Whether the Homeric epos was a growth, or an originally synthetic creation, I believe that the legends of the glorious Ionian verse were recited Its direct and joyous motive.for the delight of telling and hearing; that the unresting, untiring, billowy hexameters were intoned with the unction of the bard; that they do convey the ancestral reverence, the religion, the ethics, of those adventurous dædal Greeks, but simply as a consequence of their spontaneous truth and vitality. Their poets sang with no more casuistic purpose than did the nightingales in the grove of Colonos. Hence their directness, and their unconscious transmission of the Hellenic system of government and worship. If you wish instruction, everything is essentially natural and true. A perfect transcript of life—the best of teachers—is before us. In the narrative books of the Bible the good and bad appear without disguise. All is set forth with the frankness that made the heart of the Hebrew tent-dweller the heart of the world thereafter. In Homer, the deities are dramatis personæ, very human, with sovereign yet terrestrial passions; they dwell like feudal lords, slightly above their dependents, alternating between contempt for them and interest in their affairs. But Immortal songs that lure us "out of thought."where is the healthy man or boy who reads these epics without an absorption in their poetry and narrative that is the clew to their highest value? I have little patience with the critics who would disillusionize us. What is the use of poetry? Why not, in this workaday world, yield ourselves to its enjoyment? Homer makes us forget ourselves because he is so self-forgetful. He accepts unquestioningly things as they are. The world has now grown hoary with speculation, but at times, in art as in religious faith, except ye be as children ye cannot enter into the kingdom. We go back to the Iliad and the Odyssey, to the creative romance and poesy of all literatures, as strong men wearied seek again the woods and waters of their youth, for a time renewing the dream which, in sooth, is harder to summon than to dispel. Such a renewal is worth more than any moral, when following the charmed wanderings of the son of Laertes, by isle and mainland, over the sea whose waters still are blue and many-voiced, but whose mystic nymphs and demigods have fled forever; it is worth more than a philosophy,
"When the oars of Ithaca dip so
Silently into the sea
That they wake not sad Calypso,
And the hero wanders free.
He breasts the ocean furrows
At war with the words of fate,
And the blue tide's low susurrus
Comes up to the Ivory Gate."
The dramas of the Attic prime, although equally objective with these epics, are superb The Greek Dramatists.poetry, with motives not only creative but distinctly religious and ethical. They recognize and illustrate the eternal law which brings a penance upon somebody for every wrong, the inscrutable Nemesis to which even the Olympian gods are subject. In this respect the "Prometheus Bound," deathless as the Titan himself, is the first and highest type of them all. The chorus, the major and minor personages, the prophetic demigod, and even the ruthless Zeus, take for granted the power of a righteous Destiny. The wrong-doer, whether guilty by chance or by will, as in the case of the "Œdipus Tyrannus" of Sophocles, even pronounces and justifies his own doom. I will not now consider the grandeur of these wonderful productions. Through the supremer endurance of poetry they have come down to us, while the pictures of Zeuxis and Apelles, and the "Zeus" and "Athene" of Pheidias, are but traditions of "the glory that was Greece." The point I make is that Their absolute quality.these are absolute dramas. They are richly freighted, like Shakespeare's, with oracles and expositions; but their inspired wisdom never diverts us from the high inexorable progress of the action. It is but a relief and an adjuvant. You may learn the bent of the dramatist's genius from his work, but little of his own emotions and experiences. Nor is the wisdom so much his wisdom, as it is something residual from the history and evolution of his people. The high gods ofÆschylus and Sophocles. Æschylus and Sophocles for the most part sit above the thunder: but the human element pervades these dramas; the legendary demigods, heroes, gentes, that serve as the personages,—Hermes, Herakles, the houses of Theseus, Atreus, Jason,—all are types of humankind, repeating the Hebraic argument of transmitted tendency, virtue, and crime, and the results of crime especially, from generation to generation. The public delight in the Athenian stage was due to its strenuous dramatic action at an epoch when the nation was in extreme activity. Its religious cast was the quintessence of morals derived from history, from the ethics of the gnomic and didactic bards, from the psychological conditions following great wars and crises such as those which terminated at Salamis and Platæa. Æschylus and Sophocles were inspired by their times. They soared in contemplation of the life of gods and men: no meaner flight contented them. The apparent subjectivity of Euripides is due to his relative modernness. No literature was ever so swift to run its course as the Attic drama, from the Cyclopean architecture of the "Prometheus" to the composite order of "Alcestis" and "Ion." Euripides, freed somewhat from the tyranny of the colossal myths, Euripides.was almost Shakespearian in his reduction of them to every-day life with its vicissitudes and social results. His characters are often unheroic, modern, very real and emotional men and women. Aristophanes, still more various, and at times Aristophanes.equal to the greatest of the dramatists, as a satirist necessarily enables us to judge of his own taste and temper; but in his travesties of the immediate life of Athens he is no more self-intrusive than Molière, twenty centuries later, in his portraits of Tartuffe and Harpagon and "Les Précieuses." Men create poetry, yet sometimes poetry creates a man for us, witness our ideal of the world's Homer. The hearts of the Grecian dramatists were so much in their business (to use the French expression) that they have told us nothing of themselves; but this implies no insignificance. So reverse to commonplace, so individual were they each and all, that in point of fact we know from various sources more of their respective characters, ambitions, stations, than we know of that chief of dramatists who was buried at Stratford less than three centuries ago.
But I well may hesitate to discourse upon the Tribute to an American scholar.Greek and Latin poets to the pupils of an admired expounder of the classical literatures; and I use the word "literatures" advisedly, since, with all his philological learning, it is perhaps his greatest distinction to have led our return to sympathetic comprehension of the style and spirit of the antique masters,—to have applied, I may say, his genius not only to the materials in which they worked, but to the grace and power and plenitude of the structures wrought from those materials. With less hesitation, then, I change, in quest of strictly dramatic triumphs, from the time of Pericles to the period of Calderon, of Molière, of Shakespeare and his Elizabethan satellites. Lowell says that Addison and Steele together made a man of genius. Terence and Plautus between them perhaps display the constituents of a master-playwright, but not, I think, of a strongly imaginative poet.
I have alluded to the process by which the epic and dramatic chieftains appear to reach The cry of adolescence. Cp. "Poets of America": p. 146.their creative independence. As a preliminary, or at certain intervals of life, they seem to rid themselves of self-consciousness by its expression in lyrics, sonnets, and canzonets. Of this the minor works of Dante, Tasso, Boccaccio, Michelangelo, Cervantes, Calderon, Camoëns, Shakespeare are eminent examples. But nothing so indicates the unparalleled success of the last-named poet in this regard, as the fact that, unambiguous as are his style and method, and also his moral, civic, and social creeds, we gather so little of the man's inner and outer life from his plays alone: except as we seem to find all lives, all mankind, within himself,—all experiences,
"All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame;"
and Coleridge, when he called him the myriad-minded, should have added, "because the myriad-lived."
The grand drama, then, like the epic, gives us that "feigned history" which is truer than history as written, because it does not attempt to set things right. Its strength must be in ratio to its impersonality. It follows the method of life itself, whichThe drama an imaginitive transcript of life. to the unthinking so often seems blind chance, so often unjust; and of which philosophers, reviewing the past, are scarcely able to form an ethical theory, and quite helpless to predicate a future. Scientifically, they doubt not,—they must not doubt,—that
"through the ages one increasing purpose runs,
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns."
Right prevails in the end; crime brings punishment, though often to the innocent. We have seen that, if poets, they deal with phenomena, with the shows of things, and, as they see and faithfully portray these, the chances of life seem much at haphazard. Hamlet, for all his intellect and resolve, is the sport of circumstance. Rain still falls upon the just and the unjust. The natural law appears the wind of Its ethics the law of Nature.destiny. Man, in his conflicts with the elements, with tyranny, with superstition, with society, most of all with his own passions, is still frequently overthrown. It seems as if the good were not necessarily rewarded except by their own virtue, or, if self-respecting, except by their own pride, holding to the last; the evil are not cast down, unless by their own self-contempt, and the very evil flourish without conscience or remorse. The pull of the universe is upon us, physically as well as morally. When all goes well, and a fair ending is promised, then
"Comes the blind Fury with the abhorrèd shears,
And slits the thin-spun life."
Thus Nature, in her drama, has no temporary pity, no regret. She sets before us the plots of life, and its characters, just as they are. The plots may or may not be laid bare; the characters often reveal themselves in speech and action. As the stream rises no higher than its fount, the ideal dramatist is not more learned than his teacher. He may know no more than you of his personages' secrets. Thackeray confessed, you remember, that Miss Sharp was too deep for him.
Tragedy, according to Aristotle and in Dryden's English, is "an imitation of one entire,Why tragedy elevates the soul. great, and probable action, not told but represented, which, by moving in us fear and pity, is conducive to the purging of those two passions in our minds." And so its reading of the book of life, even with our poor vision, is more disciplinary, more instructive in ethics and the conduct of life, than any theoretic preachment. The latter will be colored, more or less, by the temper of the preacher. Besides, through the exaltation to which we are lifted by the poet's large utterance, our vision is quickened: we see, however unconsciously, that earthly tragedies are of passing import,—phenomenal, formative experiences in the measureless progress of the human soul; that life itself is a drama in which we are both spectators and participators; that, when the curtain falls, we may wake as from a dream, and enter upon a life beyond terrestrial tragedies and which fears not even a disembodied phantom, "being a thing immortal as itself."
The Greeks conceived their gods to be almost as Man's victory over fate.powerless as a human protagonist to divert the tides of circumstance, and postulated a Destiny above them all. The dramatists of Christendom, while also impelled to treat life as it is, its best and its worst, recognize no conflict between Deity and Destiny. Pagan and Christian alike present man, the image of his Maker, as exercising his highest function when he rises superior to fate. Thus Job rises, and thus rise Prometheus, Œdipus, Brutus, Hamlet, Wallenstein, Faust, Van Artevelde, and Gregory VII.; and likewise their fine heroic countertypes, Electra, Alcestis, Antigone, Cordelia, Desdemona, Thekla, Jeanne D'Arc, Doña Sol, and all the feminine martyrs of the grand drama.
In arguing that the strength of a play is in ratio The dramatic genius.to its objectivity, I assume, of course, that other things are equal. After all, the statements are the same, for only the poet endowed with insight and passion can give a truthful, forcible transcript of life. Otherwise many would outrank Shakespeare, being equally impersonal, more artistic in plot-structure, truer perhaps to history and to the possibilities of events. They often compose successful plays, striking as to incident and use of stage accessories: but more is required—the imagination that creates brave personalities, the cognate high poetic gifts—to make a composition entirely great. Add to such endowments the faculty of self-effacement, and Shakespeare stands at the head thus far. His period fitted him,—one of action and adventurous zest rather than of introspection. At that time, moreover, literary fame and subsistence were won by play-writing. His mind caught fire by its own friction, as he wrote play after play directly for the stage, knowing himself to be in constant touch with the people for whom and from whom he drew his abundant types.
I have often thought upon the relative stations of the various classes of poetry, and am disposedGrand drama the noblest and most inclusive of poetic structures. to deem eminence in the grand drama the supreme eminence; and this because, at its highest, the drama includes all other forms and classes, whether considered technically or essentially. Its plot requires as much inventive and constructive faculty as any epic or other narrative. Action is its glory, and characterization must be as various and vivid as life itself. The dialogue is written in the most noble, yet flexible measure of a language; if English, in the blank verse that combines the freedom of prose with the stateliness of accentual rhythm. The gravest speech, the lightest and sweetest, find their best vehicle in our unrhymed pentameter; again, a poetic drama contains songs and other interludes which exercise the lyrical gift so captivating in the works, for example, of our English playwrights: the Elizabethans having been lions in their heroics, eagles in their wisdom, and skylarks in their rare madrigals and part-songs. Tragedy and comedy alike are unlimited with respect to contrasts of incident and utterance, light and shadow of experience; they embrace whatsoever is poetic in mirth, woe, learning, law, religion—above all, in passion and action. So that the drama is like a stately architectural structure; a cathedral that includes every part essential to minor buildings, and calls upon the entire artistic brotherhood for its shape and beauty: upon the carver and the sculptor for its reliefs and imagery; upon the painter and the decorative artist for its wall-color and stained glass; upon the moulder to fashion its altar-rail, and the founder to cast the bells that give out its knell or pæan to the land about. The drama is thus more inclusive than the epic. There is little in Homer that is not true to nature, but there is no phase of nature that is not in Shakespeare.
Analyze the components of a Shakespearian play, and you will see that I make no overstatement.
"The Tempest," a romantic play, is as notable as "The Tempest" as an illustration.any for poetic quality and varied conception. It takes elemental nature for its scenes and background, the unbarred sky, the sea in storm and calm, the enchanted flowery isle, so
"full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."
The personages comprise many types,—king, noble, sage, low-born sailor, boisterous vagabond, youth and maiden in the heyday of their innocent love. To them are superadded beings of the earth and air, Caliban and Ariel, creations of the purest imagination. All these reveal their natures by speech and action, with a realism impossible to the tamer method of a narrative poem. Consider the poetic thought and diction: what can excel Prospero's vision of the world's dissolution that shall leave "not a rack behind," or his stately abjuration of the magic art? Listen, here and there, to the songs of his tricksy spirit, his brave chick, Ariel: "Come unto these yellow sands," "Full fathom five thy father lies," "Where the bee sucks, there suck I." Then we have a play within a play, lightening and decorating it, the masque of Iris, Ceres, and Juno. I recapitulate these details to give a perfectly familiar illustration of the scope of the drama. True, this was Shakespeare, but the ideal should be studied in a masterpiece; and such a play as "The Tempest" shows the possibilities of invention and imagination in the most synthetic poetic form over which genius has extended its domain.
For one, I think that Sophocles and Shakespeare have taught us, by example, that greatness Impersonality of the old masters.in the noblest of poetic structures must be impersonal. The magician must not directly appear; though, from reflecting upon a Prospero, a Benedick, or a Hamlet, we may guess at certain of his maker's traits; and in sooth he must know his own heart to read the heart of the world, even while he stands so far aloof that it may be said of him, as of one translated,
"Far off is he—
No more subjected to the change and chance
Of the unsteady planets."
Yet there is a subjective drama which, as we have Modern and subjective drama.learned in our day, is not without greatness derived from the unique genius of its constructor. The poet of England and Italy, whose ashes Venice has so recently surrendered to their shrine in Westminster, doubtless possessed a sturdier dramatic spirit than any Briton since the days of John Webster and John Ford. Browning Browning.was a masterful poet in his temper and insight, his flashes of power and passion, his metaphors, and distinguished for his recognition of national and historic types, his acceptance of life, his profound conviction that the system of things is all right, that we can trust it to the end. But his incessant recurrence to this conviction was a personal factor significant of many others. There are numerous and distinct characters in his repertory, but it requires study to apprehend them, for they have but one habit of speech, whatsoever their age or country. Cp. "Victorian Poets": pp. 294-297, 431-433.They all indulge, moreover, in that trick of self-analysis which Shakespeare confines to the soliloquies of special personages at critical moments. Even Browning's little maids study their own cases in the spirit of Sordello or Paracelsus. Finally, his whole work is characterized by a strangely individual style and atmosphere. True, it is difficult to mistake an excerpt from Shakespeare at his prime, But why is this? Because Shakespeare's style has unapproachable beauty, strength, flexibility, within the natural method of English verse; his inimitableness is due not to eccentricity, but to a grandeur of quality. His tone, characterization, and dialogue are as varied as nature. Browning's method hardly suggests either our native order of thought or nature's universality. It seems the result of a decision to compose in a peculiar way, but more likely is the honest reflex of his analytic mental processes. That at times it is great, and above that of his contemporaries, must be acknowledged, for his intellect was of a high order.
Swinburne calls his plays "monodramas, or soliloquies of the spirit." The subjectivity Dramatic lyrics and monologues.which blends their various personages in a common atmosphere does not detract from the effect of his powerful dramatic lyrics and monologues, each the study of a single character. The most striking of these pieces,—their abundance is prodigal, and not one is without excuse for being, from "My Last Duchess," "Bishop Blougram," "Childe Roland," "Saul," to "A Forgiveness," including nearly all the "Dramatic Lyrics," and "Men and Women," place him among the century's foremost masters. In such studies, and in certain of his dramas, he has created a new type of English poetry that is second only to the Elizabethan. His eminence is taken for granted when we begin to measure him, if only in contrast, by Shakespeare himself: a tribute rendered to scarcely any other poet save John Keats, and, in that instance, not on the score of mature dramatic quality, but for a diction so prophetic of what in time might be that the world thinks of his youthful shade among the blest as the one permitted to sit at Shakespeare's feet.
I spoke of our sovereign dramatist as being in The modern stage.spirit with his own people, and writing directly for their stage. Browning's earlier plays were written for enactment, and one or two were produced with some success. These, however, to my mind, are not his best work, and his most effective dramas are not, as we say, adapted to stage performance. Yet I rebuke myself, when repeating this cant of the coulisses, as I reflect upon the quality that does find vogue with managers and audiences at the present time. Who can predict what will be thought best "adapted to stage performance" when Jove lets down "in his golden chain the Age of better metal" for which Ben Jonson prayed,—the age, at least, of different metal? Even now we follow a grand drama, though it be one of the outlived classical and recitative cast, with absorbed delight, when it is revived by a Salvini. But I believe that Browning himself would have written more and greater dramas, and of an impersonal order, if there had been a theatrical demand for his work after the performances of "Strafford" and "A Blot in the 'Scutcheon." Mischance, and the spirit of the time, may have lost to us a modern Shakespeare. As it is, we have gained a new avatar of dramatic poetry in the works of our Victorian Browning.
- ↑ "Ah, dear lamented boy! if thou canst break fate's harsh decrees, thou wilt be our own Marcellus. Bring lilies in handfuls; let me strew the purple flowers!"
- ↑ Percy Græme Turnbull: born May 28, 1878; died February 12, 1887.
- ↑ Levering Hall, Johns Hopkins University.
- ↑ Professor Basil L. Gildersleeve.