The Nature and Elements of Poetry/Imagination
It is worth while to reflect for a moment upon the characteristics of recent poetry. Take, Qualities of modern verse.for example, the verse of our language produced during the laureateship of Tennyson, and since the rise, let us say, of Longfellow and his American compeers.
In much of this composition you detect an artistic convergence of form, sound, and color; a nice adjustment of parts, a sense of craftsmanship, Its conscious refinement and vocabulary.quite unusual in the impetuous Georgian revival,—certainly not displayed by any poets of that time except those among whom Keats was the paragon and Leigh Hunt the propagandist. You find a vocabulary far more elaborate than that from which Keats wrought his simple and perfected beauty. The conscious refinement of our minor lyrists is in strong contrast with the primitive method of their romantic predecessors. Some of our verse, from "Woodnotes" and "In Memoriam" and "Ferishtah's Fancies" down, is charged with wholesome and often subtile thought. There has been a marked idyllic picturesqueness, besides a variety of classical and Preraphaelite experiments, and a good deal of genuine and tender feeling. Our leaders have been noted for taste or thought or conviction, often for these traits combined. But we obtain our average impression of a literary era from Cp. "Victorian Poets": p. 477; and "Poets of America": pp. 458-460.the temper of its writers at large. Of late our clever artists in verse—for such they are—seem with a few exceptions indifferent to thought and feeling, and avoid taking their office seriously. A vogue of light and troubadour verse-making has come, and now is going as it came. Every possible mode of artisanship has been tried in turn. The like conditions prevail upon the Continent, at least as far as France is concerned; in fact, the caprices of our minor minstrelsy have been largely the outcome of a new literary Gallomania.
Now, I think you will feel that there is something Something more is needed to confer distinction.unsatisfactory, something much less satisfactory than what we find in the little prose masterpieces of the new American school; that from the mass of all this rhythmical work the higher standard of poetry could scarcely be derived. To be sure, it is the providential wont of youth to be impressed by the latest models, to catch the note of its own morntime. Many know the later favorites by heart, yet perhaps have never read an English classic. We hear them say, "Who reads Milton now, or Byron, or Coleridge?" It is just as well. Otherwise a new voice might not be welcomed,—would have less chance to gain a hearing. Yet I think that even the younger generation will agree with me that there are lacking qualities to give distinction to poetry as the most impressive literature of our time; qualities for want of which it is not now the chief force, but is compelled to yield its eminence to other forms of composition, especially to prose fiction, realistic or romantic, and to the literature of scientific research.
If you compare our recent poetry, grade for grade, with the Elizabethan or the Georgian, I "The two middle pillars upon which the house stood."think you will quickly realize that the characteristics which alone can confer the distinction of which I speak are those which we call Imagination and Passion. Poetry does not seem to me very great, very forceful, unless it is either imaginative or impassioned, or both; and in sooth, if it is the one, it is very apt to be the other.
The younger lyrists and idylists, when finding little to evoke these qualities, have done their best without them. Credit is due to our craftsmen for what has been called "a finer art in our day." It is wiser, of course, to succeed within obvious limits than to flounder ambitiously outside them. But the note of spontaneity is lost. Moreover, extreme finish, adroitness, graces, do not inevitably betoken the glow of imaginative conception, the ecstasy of high resolve.
If anything great has been achieved without exercise of the imagination, I do not know of it. I am referring to striking productions and achievements, Anticipatio quædam decorum.not to acts of virtue. Nevertheless, at the last analysis, it might be found that imagination has impelled even the saints and martyrs of humanity.
Imagination is the creative origin of what is fine, not in art and song alone, but also in all forms of action,—in campaigns, civil triumphs, material conquest. I have mentioned its indispensability to the scientists. It takes, they surmise, four hundred and ninety years for the light of Rigel to visit us. Modern imagination goes in a second to the darkness beyond the utmost star, speculates whether the ether itself may not have a limiting surface, is prepared to see at any time a new universe come sailing from the outer void, or to discover a universe within our own under absolutely novel conditions. It posits molecules, atomic rings; it wreaks itself upon the ultimate secrets of existence. But in the practical world our men of action are equally, though often unwittingly, possessed by it. The imagination of inventors, organizers, merchant princes, railway kings, is conceptive and strenuous. It bridges rivers, tunnels mountains, makes an ocean-ferry, develops the forces of vapor and electricity; and carries each to swift utility; is already picturing an empery of the air, and doubtless sighs that its tangible franchise is restricted to one humble planet.
If the triumphs of the applied imagination have more and more engrossed public attention, it must be remembered that its exhibitors, accumulating wealth, promote the future structures of The executive Imagination.the artist and poet. In the Old World this has been accomplished through the instrumentality of central governments. In a democracy the individual imagination has the liberty, the duty, of free play and achievement. Therefore, we say that in this matter our republicanism is on trial; that, with a forecast more exultant, as it is with respect to our own future, than that of any people on earth, our theory is wrong unless through private impulse American foundations in art, learning, humanity, are not even more continuous and munificent than those resulting in other countries from governmental promotion.
As for the poetic imagination, as distinguished from that of the man of affairs, if it cannot Imagination of the poet.parcel out the earth, it can enable us to "get along just as well without it,"—and this by furnishing a substitute at will. There is no statement of its magic so apt as that of our master magician. It "bodies forth the forms of things unknown," and through the poet's pen
"Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."
I seldom refer to Shakespeare in these lectures, since we all instinctively resort to him as to nature itself; his text being not only the chief Shakespeare the preëminent exemplar.illustration of each phrase that may arise, but also, like nature, presenting all phases in combination. It displays more of clear and various beauty, more insight, surer descriptive touches,—above all, more human life,—than that of any other poet; yes, and more art, in spite of a certain constructive disdain,—the free and prodigal art that is like nature's own. Thus he seems to require our whole attention or none, and it is as well to illustrate a special quality by some poet more dependent upon it. Yet if there is one gift which sets Shakespeare at a distance even from those who approach him on one or another side, it is that of his imagination. As he is the chief of poets, we infer that the faculty in which he is supereminent must be the greatest of poetic endowments. Yes: in his wonderland, as elsewhere, imagination is king.
There is little doubt concerning the hold of Shakespeare upon future ages. I have sometimes "Not of an age, but for all time."debated whether, in the change of dramatic ideals and of methods in life and thought, he may not become outworn and alien. But the purely creative quality of his imagination renders it likely that its structures will endure. Prehistoric Hellas is far removed from our experience; yet Homer, by force of a less affluent imagination, is a universal poet to-day,—to-day, when there is scarcely a law of physics or of art familiar to us that was not unknown to Homer's world. Shakespeare's imagination is still more independent of discovery, place, or time. It is neither early nor late, antiquated nor modern; or, rather, it is always modern and abiding. The beings which he creates, if suddenly transferred to our conditions, would make themselves at home. His land is one wherein the types of all ages meet and are contemporary. He created beings, and took circumstances as he found them; that is, as his knowledge enabled him to conceive of them at the time. The garb and manners of his personages were also a secondary matter. Each successive generation makes the acquaintance of these creatures, and troubles itself little about their fashions and acquirements. Knowledge is progressive, communicable: the types of soul are constant, and are sufficient in themselves.
It does no harm, as I said at the outset of this course, for the most advanced audience to go back now and then to the primer of art,—to think upon the meaning of an elementary term. Nor is it an easy thing to formulate clear statements of qualities which we instantly recognize or miss in any human production, and for which we have a ready, a traditional, nomenclature. So, then, what is the artistic imagination, that of one who expresses his conceptions in form or language? I should call Definition of the artistic Imagination.it a faculty of conceiving things according to their actualities or possibilities,—that is, as they are or may be; of conceiving them clearly; of seeing with the eyes closed, and hearing with the ears sealed, and vividly feeling, things which exist only through the will of the artist's genius. Not only of conceiving these, but of holding one's conceptions so well in mind as to express them,—to copy them,—in actual language or form.
The strength of the imagination is proportioned, How to gauge its strength.in fact, to its definiteness, and also to the stress of its continuance,—of the memory which prolongs its utilization. Every one has more or less of this ideal faculty. The naturalness of children enables us to judge of their respective allotments. A mother knows which of her brood is the imaginative one. She realizes that it has a rare endowment, yet one as perilous as "the fatal gift of beauty." Her pride, her solicitude, are equally centred in that child. Now the clearer and more self-retentive this faculty, the more decided the ability of one in whom it reaches the grade at which he may be a designer, an artist, or a poet.
Let us see. Most of us have a sense of music. Clearness and retention.Tunes of our own "beat time to nothing" in the head. We can retain the theme, or opening phrase, at least, of a new composition that pleases us. But the musician, the man of genius, is haunted with unbidden harmonies; besides, after hearing a difficult and prolonged piece, he holds it in memory, perhaps can repeat it,—as when a Von Bülow repeats offhand an entire composition by Liszt. Moreover, his mind definitely hears its own imaginings; otherwise the sonata, the opera, will be confused and inferior. Again: most of us, especially when nervous or half asleep, find the "eyes make pictures when they are shut." Faces come and go, or change with startling vividness. The face that comes to a born painter does not instantly go; that of an angel is not capriciously transformed to something imp-like. He sees it in such wise that he retains it and can put it on his canvas. He has the clear-seeing, the sure-holding, gift which alone is creative. It is the same with the landscape-painter, the sculptor, the architect. Artistic ability is coördinate with the clearness and staying-power of the imagination.
More than one painter has declared that when a sitter was no longer before him, he could In the mind's eye. still lift his eyes, and see the sitter's image, and go on copying it as before. Often, too, the great painter copies better from some conception of his own brain than from actual nature. His mind's eye is surer than his body's. Blake wrote: "Men think they can copy Nature as correctly as I copy imagination. This they will find impossible." And again, "Why are copies of Nature incorrect, while copies of imagination are correct? This is manifest to all." Of course this statement is debatable; but for its philosophy, and for illustrations alike of the definite and the sublime, there is nothing later than Michelangelo to which one refers more profitably than to the life and letters, and to the titanic yet clear and beautiful designs, of the inspired "This bodiless creation." draughtsman William Blake. Did he see his visions? Undeniably. Did he call them into absolute existence? Sometimes I think he did; that all soul is endowed with the divine power of creation in the concrete. If so, man will realize it in due time. The poetry of Blake, prophetic and otherwise, must be read with discrimination, for his linguistic execution was less assured than that of his brush and graver; his imagination as a painter, and his art-maxims, were of the high order, but his work as a poet was usually rhapsodical and ill-defined.
But, as I have said, the strength and beauty of The conception definite.any man's poetry depend chiefly upon the definiteness of his mental vision. I once knew a poet of genuine gifts who did not always "beat his music out." When I objected to a feeble, indistinct conception in one of his idyls, "Look you," said he, "I see that just as clearly as you do; it takes hold of me, but I haven't" (he chose to say) "your knack of definite expression." To which I rejoined: "Not so. If you saw it clearly you would express it, for you have a better vocabulary at your command than I possess. Look out of the window, at that building across the street. Now let us sit down, and see who can make the best picture of it in fifteen lines of blank verse—you or I." After a while our trial was completed. His verse, as I had expected, was more faithful and expressive than mine, was apter in word and outline. It reinforced my claim. "There," said I, "if you saw the conception of your other poem as plainly as you see that ordinary building, you would convey it definitely. You would not be confused and obscure, for you have the power to express what your mind really pictures."
The true poet, said Joubert, "has a mind full of very clear images, while ours is only filled Conceptive faculty of the true poet.with confused descriptions." Now, vagueness of impression engenders a kind of excitement in which a neophyte fancies that his gift is particularly active. He mistakes the wish to create for the creative power. Hence much spasmodic poetry, full of rhetoric and ejaculations, sound and empty fury; hence the gasps which indicate that vision and utterance are impeded, the contortions without the inspiration. Hence, also, the "fatal facility," Pseudo-inspiration.the babble of those who write with ease and magnify their office. The impassioned artist also dashes off his work, but his need for absolute expression makes the final execution as difficult as it is noble. Another class, equipped with taste and judgment, but lacking imagination, proffer as a substitute beautiful and recondite materials gathered here and there. Southey's work is an example of this process, and that of the popular and scholarly author of "The Light of Asia" is not free from it; indeed, you see it everywhere in the verse of the minor art-school, and even in Tennyson's and Longfellow's early poems. But the chief vice The turbid shoal.of many writers is obscure expression. Their seeming depth is often mere turbidness, though it is true that thought may be so analytic that its expression must be novel and difficult. Commonplace thought and verse, however clear, certainly are not greater than Browning's, but as a rule the better the poet the more intelligible. There are no stronger conceptions than those of the Book of Job, of Isaiah, Homer, Shakespeare, nor are there any more patent in their simplicity to the common understanding.
The imagination in literature is not confined to Quality, not theme.that which deals with the weird or super-human. It is true that, for convenience' sake, the selections classed in the best of our anthologies as "Poems of the Imagination" consist wholly of verse relative to nymphs, fairies, sprites, apparitions, and the like. Although this justly includes "Comus" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," there is more fantasy than imagination in other pieces,—in such a piece, for instance, as "The Culprit Fay." No one knows better than the critical editor of "The Household Book of Poetry" that there is more of the high imaginative element in brief touches, such as Wordsworth's
"The light that never was on sea or land,
The consecration and the poet's dream,—"
"Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood,—"
or Bryant's path of the waterfowl, through
"the desert and illimitable air,
Lone wandering, but not lost,—"
or Stoddard's vanished city of the waste,—
"Gone like a wind that blew
A thousand years ago,—"
and countless other passages as effective, than in the whole of Drake's "Culprit Fay," that being eminently a poem of fancy from beginning to end.
But the imagination is manifold and various. Among its offices, though often not as Inventive and constructive power.the most poetic, may be counted invention and construction. These, with characterization, are indeed the chief functions of the novelist. But the epic narratives have been each a growth, not a sudden formation, and the effective plots of the grand dramas—of Shakespeare's, for example—have mostly been found and utilized, rather than newly invented. "The Princess," "Aurora Leigh," and "Lucile" are almost the only successful modern instances of metrical tale-invention, and the last two are really novels in verse. The epic and dramatic poets give imagination play in depicting the event; the former, as Goethe writes to Schiller, conceiving it "as belonging completely to the past," and the latter "as belonging completely to the present." But neither has occasion to originate his story; his concern is with its ideal reconstruction.
The imagination, however, is purely creative in the work to which I have just said that it is not restricted, namely, the conception of beings not drawn The peopled wonderland of song.from experience, to whom it alone can give an existence that is wondrous yet seemingly not out of nature. Such are the forms which Shakespeare called "from the vasty deep": the Weird Sisters, the greenwood sprites, the haunted-island progeny of earth and air. Such are those quite differing creations, Goethe's mocking fiend and the Mephistophilis of Marlowe's "Faustus." Milton's Satan, the grandest of imaginary personages, does not seem to belong to the supramortal class; he is the more sublime because, though scaling heaven and defying the Almighty, he is so unmistakably human. Shakespeare is not strong in the imaginative construction of many of his plays, at least not in the artistic sense,—with respect to that the "Œdipus at Colonos" is a masterpiece,—but he very safely left them to construct themselves. In the conception of human characters, and of their thoughts and feelings, he is still sovereign of imagination's world. In modern times the halls of Wonder have been trodden by Blake and Coleridge Coleridge.and Rossetti. The marvellous "Rime," with its ghostly crew, its spectral seas, its transformation of the elements, is pure and high-sustained imagination. In "Christabel" both the terror and the loveliness are haunting. That beauteous fragment was so potent with the romanticists that Scott formed his lyrical method, that of "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," upon it, and Byron quickly yielded to its spell. But Coleridge's creative mood was as brief as it was enrapturing. From his twenty-sixth to his twenty-eighth year he blazed out like Tycho Brahe's star, then sank his light in metaphysics, exhibiting little thenceforth of worth to literature except a criticism of poets and dramatists that in its way was luminous and constructive.
The poet often conveys a whole picture by a single imaginative touch. A desert scene Suggestiveness.by Gérôme would give us little more than we conceive from Landor's suggestive detail—
"And hoofless camels in long single line
Stalk slow, with foreheads level to the sky."
This force of suggestion is nevertheless highly effective in painting, as where the shadow of the cross implies the crucifixion, or where the cloud-phantoms seen by Doré's "Wandering Jew" exhibit it; and as when, in the same artist's designs for Don Quixote, we see visions with the mad knight's eyes. Of a kindred nature is the prevision, Prevision.the event forestalled, of a single word or phrase. Leigh Hunt cited the line from Keats' "Isabella," "So the two brothers and their murdered man,"—the victim, then journeying with his future slayers, being already dead in their intention. A striking instance of the swift-flashing imagination is in a stanza from Stoddard's Horatian ode upon the funeral of Lincoln:—
"The time, the place, the stealing shape,
The coward shot, the swift escape,
The wife, the widow's scream."
What I may call the constant, the habitual, imagination Imaginative diction.of a true poet is shown by his instinct for words,—those keys which all may clatter, and which yield their music to so few. He finds the inevitable word or phrase, unfound before, and it becomes classical in a moment. The power of words and the gift of their selection are unconrprehended by writers who have all trite and hackneyed phrases at the pen's end. The imagination begets original diction, suggestive epithets, verbs implying extended scenes and events, phrases which are a delight and which, as we say, speak volumes, single notes which establish the dominant tone.
This kind of felicity makes an excerpt from "The best words in their best order."Shakespeare unmistakable. Milton's diction rivals that of Æschylus, though nothing can outrank the Grecian's ανήριθμον γέλασμα,—the innumerous laughter of his ocean waves. But recall Milton's "wandering moon" (borrowed, haply, from the Latin), and his "wilderness of sweets;" and such phrases as "dim, religious light," "fatal and perfidious bark," "hide their diminished heads," "the least-erected spirit that fell," "barbaric pearl and gold," "imparadised in one another's arms," "rose like an exhalation," "such sweet compulsion doth in music lie;" and his fancies of the daisies' "quaint enamelled eyes," and of "dancing in the checkered shade;" and numberless similar beauties that we term Miltonic. After Shakespeare and Milton, Keats stands first in respect of imaginative diction. His appellatives of the Grecian Urn, "Cold pastoral," and "Thou foster-child of silence and slow time," are in evidence. "The music yearning like a god in pain," and
"Music's golden tongue
Flattered to tears this aged man and poor,"
excel even Milton's "forget thyself to marble." What a charm in his "darkling I listen," and his thought of Ruth "in tears amid the alien corn"! Shelley's diction is less sure and eclectic, yet sometimes his expression, like his own skylark, is "an unbodied joy." Byron's imaginative language is more rhetorical, but none will forget his "haunted, holy ground," "Death's prophetic ear," "the quiet of a loving eye" (which is like Wordsworth, and again like Landor's phrase on Milton,—"the Sabbath of his mind"). None would forego "the blue rushing of 'the arrowy Rhone," or "the dead but sceptred sovereigns, who still rule our spirits from their urns," or such a combination of imagination and feeling as this:—
"I turned from all she brought to those she could not bring."
Coleridge's "myriad-minded Shakespeare" is enough to show his mastery of words. A conjuring quality like that of the voices heard by Kubla Khan,—
"Ancestral voices prophesying war,—"
lurks in the imaginative lines of our Southern lyrist, Boner, upon the cottage at Fordham, which aver of Poe, that
"Here in the sobbing showers
Of dark autumnal hours
He heard suspected powers
Shriek through the stormy wood."
Tennyson's words often seem too laboriously and exquisitely chosen. But that was a good moment when, in his early poem of "Œnone," he pictured her as wandering
"Forlorn of Paris, once her playmate on the hills."
Amongst Americans, Emerson has been the chief master of words and phrases. Who save he could enveil us in "the tumultuous privacy" of the snow-storm? Lowell has great verbal felicity. It was manifest even in the early period when he apostrophized the dandelion,—"Dear common flower," "Thou art my tropics and mine Italy,"—and told us of its "harmless gold." But I have cited a sufficient number of these well-wonted instances. Entering the amazing treasure-house of English song, one must remember the fate of the trespasser within the enchanted grotto of the "Gesta Romanorum," where rubies, sapphires, diamonds, lay in flashing heaps on every side. When he essayed to fill his wallet with them, the spell was broken, the arrow whizzed, and he met the doom allotted to pickers and stealers.
With respect to configuration, the antique genius, in literature as in art, was clear and assured. It imagined plainly, and drew firm outlines. But Configuration and outline.the Acts and Scenes of our English dramatists were often shapeless; their schemes were full of by-play and plot within plot; in fine, their constructive faculty showed the caprice of rich imaginations that disdained control. Shakespeare, alone of all, never fails to justify Leigh Hunt's maxim that, in treating of the unusual, "one must be true to the supernatural itself." When the French and German romanticists broke loose from the classic unities, they, too, at first went wild. Again, the antique conceptions are as sensuous, beside the modern, as the Olympian hierarchy compared with the spiritual godhood to which Christendom has consecrated its ideals. But whether pagan The supernatural.or Christian, all the supernaturalism of the dark and mystic North has a more awe-inspiring quality than that of sunlit Italy and Greece. There are weird beings in the classic mythology, but its Fates and Furies are less spectral than the Valkyriës and the prophetic Sisters of the blasted heath. Even in the mediæval under-world of Dante, the damned and their tormentors are substantially and materially presented, with a few exceptions, like the lovers of Rimini,—the
That float in hell's murk air."
Having, then, laid stress upon the excellence of clear vision, let me add that imaginative genius can force Compulsion of the Vague.us to recognize the wonder, terror, and sublimity of the Vague. Through its suggested power we are withdrawn from the firm-set world, and feel what it is
"to be a mortal
And seek the things beyond mortality."
What lies beyond, in the terra incognita from which we are barred as from the polar spaces guarded by arctic and antarctic barriers, can only be suggested by formlessness, extension, imposing shadow, and phantasmal light. The early Hebraic expression of its mysteries will never be surpassed. Nothing in even the culminating vision of the Apocalypse so takes hold of us as the ancient words of Eliphaz, in the Book of Job, describing the fear that came upon him in the night, when deep sleep falleth on man:
English poetry doubly inherits the sublimity of Camoëns, Milton, Coleridge.the vague, from its Oriental and its Gothic strains. Yet it has produced few images more striking than that one which lifts the "Lusiad," by Camoëns, above the level of a perfunctory epic. Vasco da Gama and his crew are struggling to pass the southern point of Africa into the Indian seas beyond. The Spirit of the Cape of Tempests, mantled in blackness of cloud, girt about with lightning and storm, towers skyward from the billows, portentous, awful, vague, and with an unearthly voice of menace warns the voyagers back. I have said that the grandest of English supernatural creations is Milton's Satan. No other personage has at once such magnitude and definiteness of outline as that sublime, defiant archangel, whether in action or in repose. Milton, like Dante, has to do with the unknown world. The Florentine bard soars at last within the effulgence of "the eternal, coeternal beam." Milton's imagination broods "in the wide womb of uncreated night." We enter that "palpable obscure," where there is "no light, but rather darkness visible," and where lurk many a "grisly terror" and "execrable shape." But the genii of wonder and terror are the familiars of a long succession of our English poets. Coleridge, who so had them at his own call, knew well their signs and work; as when he pointed a sure finger to Drayton's etching of the trees which
"As for revenge to heaven each held a withered hand."
Science drives spectre after spectre from its path, but the rule still holds—omne ignotum pro magnifico, and a vaster unknown, a more impressive vague, still deepens and looms before.
A peculiarly imaginative sense of the beautiful, also, is conveyed at times by an exquisite formlessness Imaginative formlessness.of outline. I asked the late Mr. Grant White what he thought of a certain picture by Inness, and he replied that it seemed to be "painted by a blind poet." But no Inness, Fuller, Corot, Rousseau, not even Turner, nor the broad, luminous spaces of Homer Martin, ever excelled the magic of the changeful blending conceptions of Shelley, so aptly termed the poet of Cloudland. The Cloudland; and its poet.feeling of his lyrical passages is all his own. How does it justify itself and so hold us in thrall? Yield to it, and if there is anything sensitive in your mould you are hypnotized, as if in truth gazing heavenward and fixing your eyes upon a beauteous and protean cloud; fascinated by its silvery shapelessness, its depth, its vistas, its iridescence and gloom. Listen, and the cloud is vocal with a music not to be defined. There is no appeal to the intellect; the mind seeks not for a meaning; the cloud floats ever on; the music is changeful, ceaseless, and uncloying. Their plumed invoker has become our type of the pure spirit of song, almost sexless, quite removed at times from earth and the Cp. "Poets of America": p. 266.carnal passions. Such a poet could never be a sensualist. "Brave translunary things" are to him the true realities; he is, indeed, a creature of air and light. "The Witch of Atlas," an artistic caprice, is a work of imagination, though as transparent as the moonbeams and as unconscious of warmth and cold. Mary Shelley objected to it on the score that it had no human interest. It certainly is a kind of aër potabilis, a wine that lacks body; it violates Goethe's dictum, to wit: "Two things are required of the poet and the artist, that he should rise above reality and yet remain within the sphere of the sensuous." But there is always a law above law for genius, and all things are possible to it—even the entrance to a realm not ordered in life and emotion according to the conditions of this palpable warm planet to which our feet are bound.
As in nature, so in art, that which relatively to ourselves is large and imposing has a corresponding Dimensional effect.effect upon the mind. Magnitude is not to be disdained as an imaginative factor. An heroic masterpiece of Angelo's has this advantage at the start over some elaborate carving by Cellini. Landor says that "a throne is not built of birds'-nests, nor do a thousand reeds make a trumpet." Of course, if dimension is to be the essential test, we are lost. Every one feels himself to be greater than a mountain, than the ocean, even than Chaos; yet an imaginative observer views the measureless nebula with awe, conceiving a universe of systems, of worlds tenanted by conscious beings, which is to be evolved from that lambent, ambient star-dust.
Certain it is that when we seek the other extreme, the province of the microscopic, Fancy, Fancy.the elf-child of Imagination, sports within her own minute and capricious realm. Her land is that of whims and conceits, of mock associations, of Midsummer Nights' Dreams. She has her own epithets for its denizens, for the "green little vaulter," the "yellow-breeched philosopher," the "animated torrid zone," of her dainty minstrelsy. Poets of imagination are poets of fancy when they choose to be. Hester Prynne was ever attended by her tricksy Pearl. But many is the poet of fancy who never enters the courts of imagination—a joyous faun indeed, and wanting nothing but a soul.
A large utterance, such as that which Keats bestowed "The grand manner."upon the early gods, is the instinctive voice of the imagination nobly roused and concerned with an heroic theme. There are few better illustrations of this than the cadences and diction of "Hyperion," a torso equal to the finished work of any other English poet after Shakespeare and Milton; perhaps even greater because a torso, for the construction of its fable is not significant, and when Keats produced his effect, he ended the poem as Coleridge ended "Christabel." All qualities which I have thus far termed imaginative contribute to the majesty of its overture:—
"Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
Sat gray-hair'd Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair.
Forest on forest hung about his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,—
Not so much life as on a summer's day
Robs not one light seed from the feather'd grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deaden'd more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad 'mid her reeds
Press'd her cold finger closer to her lips."
At the outset of English poetry, Chaucer's imagination is sane, clear-sighted, wholesome Chaucer.with open-air feeling and truth to life. Spenser is the poet's poet chiefly as an artist. The allegory of "The Faerie Queene" is not like that of Dante, forged at white heat, but the symbolism of a courtier and euphuist who felt its unreality. But all in all, the Elizabethan period displays the English The Elizabethans.imagination at full height. Marlowe and Webster, for example, give out fitful but imaginative light which at times is of kindred splendor with Shakespeare's steadfast beam. Webster's "Duchess of Malfi" teaches both the triumphs and the dangers of the dramatic fury. The construction runs riot; certain characters are powerfully conceived, others are wild figments of the brain. It is full of most fantastic speech and action; yet the tragedy, the passion, the felicitous language and imagery of various scenes, are nothing less than Shakespearean. To comprehend rightly the good and bad qualities of this play is to have gained a liberal education in poetic criticism.
Now take a collection of English verse,—and there is no poetry more various and inclusive,—take, let us say, Ward's "English Poets," and you will find that the generations after Shakespeare are Two centuries.not over-imaginative until you approach the nineteenth century. From Jonson to the Georgian school there is no general efflux of visionary power. The lofty Milton and a few minor lights—Dryden, Collins, Chatterton—shine at intervals between. Precisely the most unimaginative period is that covered by Volume III. and entitled "From Addison to Blake." We have tender feeling and true in Goldsmith and Gray. There is no passion, no illumination, until you reach Burns and his immediate successors. Then imagination leaped again to life, springing chiefly from subjective emotion, as among the Elizabethans it sprang from young adventure, from discovery and renown of arms, above all from the objective study of the types and conduct of mankind. If another century shall add a third imaginative lustre to the poetry of our tongue,—enkindled, perchance, by the flame of a more splendid order of discovery, even now so exalting,—it will have done its equal share.
The Mercury and Iris of this heavenly power are Comparison, etc.comparison and association, whose light wings flash unceasingly. Look at Wordsworth's similes. He took from nature her primitive The elemental bards.symbolism. Consider his elemental quality: I use the word as did the ancients in their large, untutored view of things,—as Prospero uses it, ere laying down his staff:—
That is thy charge: then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well!"
In Wordsworth's mind nature is so absolute that her skies and mountains are just as plainly imaged as in the sheen of Derwentwater; and thence they passed into his verse. He wanders,—
"lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills."
He says of Milton:—
"Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart."
A primeval sorrow, a cosmic pain, is in the expression of his dead love's reunion with the elements:—
"No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees,
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees."
The souls of the Hebrew bards, inheritors of pastoral memories, ever consorted with the elements, invoking the "heavens of heavens," "the waters that be above the heavens," "fire and hail; snow, and vapor: stormy wind fulfilling His word." Of the Greeks, Æschylus is more elemental than Pindar, even than Homer. Among our moderns, a kindred quality strengthened the imaginations of Byron and Shelley; Swinburne too, whom at his best the Hebraic feeling and the Grecian sway by turns, is most self-forgetful and exalted when giving it full play.
I point you to the fact that some of our American Bryant. Cp. "Poets of America": pp. 81,82.poets, if not conspicuous thus far for dramatic power, have been gifted—as seems fitting in respect to their environment—with a distinct share of this elemental imagination. It is the strength of Bryant's genius: the one secret, if you reflect upon it, of the still abiding fame of that austere and revered minstrel. His soul, too, dwelt apart, but like the mountain-peak that looks over forest, plain, and ocean, and confabulates with winds and clouds. I am not sure but that his elemental feeling is more impressive than Wordsworth's, from its almost preadamite simplicity. It is often said that Bryant's loftiest mood came and went with "Thanatopsis." This was not so; though it seemed at times in abeyance. "The Flood of Years," written sixty-five years later than "Thanatopsis" and when the bard was eighty-two, has the characteristic and an even more sustained majesty of thought and diction.
It is easy to comprehend why the father of American Stoddard's blank verse, etc.song should be held in honor by poets as different as Richard Henry Stoddard and Walt Whitman. These men have possessed one quality in common. Stoddard's random and lighter lyrics are familiar to magazine readers, with whom the larger efforts of a poet are not greatly in demand. But I commend those who care for high and lasting qualities to an acquaintance with his blank verse, and with sustained lyrics like the odes on Shakespeare and Bryant and Washington, which resemble his blank verse both in artistic perfection and in imagination excelled by no contemporary poet. Whitman's genius is prodigal and often so elemental, whether dwelling upon Whitman's cosmic mood.his types of the American people, or upon nature animate and inanimate in his New World, or upon mysteries of science and the future, that it at times moves one to forego, as passing and inessential, any demur to his matter or manner. There is no gainsaying the power of his imagination,—a faculty which he indulged, having certainly carried out that early determination to loaf, and invite his soul. His highest mood is even more than elemental; it is cosmic. In almost the latest poem of this old bard, addressed "To the Sunset Breeze" (one fancies him sitting, like Borrow's blind gypsy, where he can feel the wind from the heath), he thus expressed it:—
"I feel the sky, the prairies vast—I feel the mighty northern lakes;
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself swift-swimming in space."
Lanier is another of the American poets distinguished by imaginative genius. In his Some other poets.case this became more and more impressible by the sense of elemental nature, and perhaps more subtly alert to the infinite variety within the unities of her primary forms. Mrs. Stoddard's poetry, as yet uncollected, is imaginative and original, the utterance of moods that are only too infrequent. The same may be said of a few poems by Dr. Parsons, from whom we have perhaps the finest of American lyrics, the lines "On a Bust of Dante." There is a nobly elemental strain in Taylor's "Prince Deukalion" and "The Masque of the Gods." I could name several of our younger poets, men and women, and a number of their English compeers, whose work displays imaginative qualities, were it not beyond my province. But many of the newcomers—relatively more, perhaps, than in former divisions of this century—seem restricted to the neat-trimmed playgrounds of fancy and device; they deck themselves like pages, rarely venturing from the palace-close into the stately Forest of Dreams. If one should stray down a gloaming vista, and be aided by the powers therein to chance for once upon some fine conception, I fancy him recoiling from his own imagining as from the shadow of a lion.
Here, then, after the merest glimpse of its aureole, On wings above his fate upborne.we turn away from the creative imagination: a spirit that attends the poet unbidden, if at all, and compensates him for neglect and sorrow by giving him the freedom of a clime not recked of by the proud and mighty, and a spiritual wealth "beyond the dreams of avarice." Not all the armor and curios and drapery of a Sybaritic studio can make a painter; no æsthetic mummery, no mastery of graceful rhyme and measure, can of themselves furnish forth a poet. Go rather to Barbizon, and see what pathetic truth and beauty dwell within the humble rooms of Millet's cottage; go to Ayr, and find the muse's darling beneath a straw-thatched roof; think what feudal glories came to Chatterton in his garret, what thoughts of fair marble shapes, of casements "innumerable of stains and splendid dyes," lighted up for Keats his borough lodgings. Doré was asked, at the flood-tide of his good fortune, why he did not buy or build a château. "Let my patrons do that," he said. "Why should I, who have no need of it? My château is here, behind my forehead." He who owns the wings of imagination shudders on no height; he is above fate and chance. Its power of vision makes him greater Creation.still, for he sees and illuminates every-day life and common things. Its creative gift is divine; and I can well believe the story told of the greatest and still living Victorian poet, that once, in his college days, he looked deep and earnestly into the subaqueous life of a stream near Cambridge, and was heard to say, "What an imagination God has!" Certainly without it was not anything made that was made, either by the Creator, or by those created in his likeness. I say "created," but there are times when we think upon the amazing "Ye shall be as Gods."beauty, the complexity, the power and endurance, of the works of human hands—such as, for example, some of the latest architectural decorations illuminated by the electric light with splendor never conceived of even by an ancestral rhapsodist in his dreams of the New Jerusalem—there are moments when results of this sort, suggesting the greater possible results of future artistic and scientific effort, give the theory of divinity as absolutely immanent in man a proud significance. We then comprehend the full purport of the Genesitic record,—"Ye shall be as gods." The words of the Psalmist have a startling verity,—"I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the Most High." We remember that one who declared himself the direct offspring and very portion of the Unknown Power, and in evidence stood upon his works alone, repeated these words,—by inference recognizing a share of Deity within each child of earth. The share allotted to such a mould as Shakespeare's evoked Hartley Coleridge's declaration:—
"The soul of man is larger than the sky,
Deeper than ocean—or the abysmal dark
Of the unfathomed centre....
So in the compass of the single mind
The seeds and pregnant forms in essence lie
That make all worlds."
But what was the old notion of the act of divine The infinite process.creation? That which reduced divinity to the sprite of folk-lore, who by a word, a spell, or the wave of a wand, evoked a city, a person, an army, out of the void. The Deity whom we adore in our generation has taken us into his work-shop. We see that he creates, as we construct, slowly and patiently, through ages and by evolution, one step leading to the next. I reassert, then, that "as far as the poet, the artist, is creative, he becomes a sharer of the divine imagination and power, and even of the divine responsibility." "Two Worlds." By R. W. Gilder.And I now find this assertion so well supported, that I cannot forbear quoting from "A Midsummer Meditation" in a recent volume of American poetry:—
"Brave conqueror of dull mortality!
Look up and be a part of all thou see'st;—
Ocean and earth and miracle of sky,
All that thou see'st thou art, and without thee
Were nothing. Thou, a god, dost recreate
The whole; breathing thy soul on all, till all
Is one wide world made perfect at thy touch.
And know that thou, who darest a world create,
Art one with the Almighty, son to sire—
Of his eternity a quenchless spark."
We have seen that with the poet imagination is the essential key to expression. The Incentive.other thing of most worth is that which moves him to expression, the passion of his heart and soul. I close, therefore, by saying that without either of these elements we can have poetry which may seem to you tender, animating, enjoyable, and of value in its way, but without imagination there can be no poetry which is great. Possibly we can have great poetry which is devoid of passion, but great only through its tranquillizing power, through tones that calm and strengthen, yet do not exalt and thrill. Such is not the poetry which stirs one to make an avowal like Sir Philip Sidney's:
"I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas, that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet."