The Nature and Elements of Poetry/Truth
If all natural things make for beauty,—if the statement is well founded that they are as What is meant by the Unity of Beauty and Truth.beautiful as they can be under their conditions, then truth and beauty, in the last reduction, are equivalent terms, and beauty is the unveiled shining countenance of truth. But a given truth, to be beautiful, must be complete. Tennyson's line,
"A lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies,"
will bear inversion. Truth which is half a lie is intolerable. A certain kind of preachment, antipathetic to the spirit of poesy, has received the name of didacticism. Instinct tells us that it is The didactic heresy.a heresy in any form of art. Yet many persons, after being assured by Keats that the unity of beauty and truth is all we know or need to know, are perplexed to find sententious statements of undisputed facts so commonplace and odious. Note, meanwhile, that Keats' assertion illustrates itself by injuring the otherwise perfect poem which contains it. So obtrusive a moral lessens the effect of the "Ode on a Grecian Urn." In other words, the beauty of the poem would be truer without it. Now, why does a bit of didacticism take the life out of song, and didactic verse proclaim its maker a proser and not a poet? Because pedagogic formulas of truth do not convey its essence. They preach, Half-truths are odious.as I have said elsewhere, the gospel of half-truths, uttered by those who have not the insight to perceive the soul of truth, the expression of which is always beauty. This soul is found in the relations of things to the universal, and its correct expression is beautiful and inspiring.
While the beautiful expresses all these relations, the didactic at the best is the expression of one or more of them,—often of arbitrary and temporal, not of essential and infinite, relations. We therefore detest didactic verse, because, though made by well-intentioned people, it is tediously incomplete and false.
Poets will interpret nature truthfully, within their liberties; they do not assume to be on as close terms with her, or with her Creator, as some of the teachers and preachers. They are content to find the grass yet bent where she has passed, the bough still swaying which she brushed against. They feel that
"What Nature for her poets hides,
'T is wiser to divine than clutch."
The imaginative poets, who read without effort the truth of things, have been more faithful in even their passing transcripts of nature and life than many who conscientiously attempt a portrayal. Truth a matter of course in the best art.Where they make comments, it is as if by anticipation of the reader; it is not so much their own conclusion as that of the observing world. The truth, moreover, is less in the comment than in the poetry,—is rather in the song than in the obligato. With the epic or dramatic poet the motive is not truth of description, but truth of life. Yet how much surer the scenic touches of the best narrative and drama than the word-painting of the so-called descriptive poets! Compare the sudden landscape, the life of its populous under-world, the sky and water, the sunlight and moonlight and storm, in "A Winter's Tale" and "Midsummer Night's Dream," with the prolonged and pious descriptions in Thomson's "Seasons." In the dramas the scenic truth is incidental, yet almost incomparable for beauty; in the descriptive poem it is elaborate and tame. You are comparing, to be sure, the greatest of poets with one relatively humble, but the latter is on his chosen ground, and gives his whole mind to his business. Something more than sincerity and knowledge, Faculty better than intention.then, is needed for the expression of truth. Superadd noble contemplation and the anointed vision that reads the life of nature, and you have Wordsworth, a poet and painter indeed. In his greater moods he assuredly sets us face to face with unadulterate truth. Even Wordsworth does this less effectively, when his interpretation is premeditated, than certain bards whose side-glimpses of the outdoor world we interpret for ourselves. Their chance strokes are matchless. The classic isles and waters are all before us in the "Odyssey," characterized broadly and truthfully by essential traits. Attica glows and glooms in the choruses of "Œdipus at Colonos" and "The Clouds;" we have the atmosphere that suffuses her landscape, action, personages. Its tone is just as capturable now as two thousand years ago under the sky of Sophocles and Aristophanes. The phonograph passes no more intelligibly to after time the living voice of a Gladstone "Descriptive" poets. Cp. "Poets of America": p. 46.or a Browning. Rarely is there an avowedly descriptive poet who achieves much more than the asking you to take his word for a mass of details. To come near home, this was what such American landscapists as Street and Percival usually succeeded in doing; while Lowell, with his quick eye and Greek good-fellowship with nature, always keeps us in mind of her as a blithe companion by his side when he chats to us, and whether on the rocks of Appledore, or under the willows, or along the snow-paths of a white New England night. Cowper got nearer to truth than Thomson; he pointed to the naturalness that Wordsworth sought in turn,—and found. As for Burns, he lay in nature's heart, and—whether with or without design expressed her as simply and surely as the bards of old.
Of both truth to life and truth to physical nature there are two poetic exhibits: the first, Breadth, and universiality.broad; the second, minute and analytic. The greater the poet, the simpler and larger his statement, however fine in detail when need be. Seeking that presentment of human character and experience which is universal, we go to the poets and idylists of the Bible, to Homer and the Attic dramatists, to Cervantes and Shakespeare, to Molière, and to the great novelists of the modern age. In poetry life has never been treated at once with so much intensity and truth, by many contemporaries, as in the Elizabethan period. This The Elizabethans.was inevitable. Our early dramatists wrote for instant stage production; their poetic text was of much import in default of the perfected acting and accessories which now render the text less essential,—in fact, far too subordinate. In such "effects" as the stage production then made practicable, Shakespeare and his group have not been excelled. But life—truth of life and character—then was all in all; a false transcript was instantly detected; the dramatic poet, however exuberant, founded his work in unflinching realism. Situations and trivial sentiment now make the playwright, and even Tennyson and Browning have been unable to restore the muse conspicuously to the stage. The laureate's genius, to be sure, is the reverse of dramatic. Browning had the requisite passion and dramatic instinct; life and motive engrossed him beyond all else. But contrast the bold, direct Elizabethan The analytic method. Cp. "Victorian Poets": p. 432.characters with Browning's personages,—whose thought and action are analyzed by him to the remotest detail. His drama is unique, but not in the free and instant spirit of poetry; it is not so much life as biology. The distinction recalls that tradition of the Massachusetts bar. Webster and Choate often were opposed in leading cases. The former brought his power and learning to bear upon the main issue of a case, and brushed aside the inessentials. Choate delighted to follow every trail to the uttermost, and in a manner as analytic as that of "The Ring and the Book." The jurors marvelled at Choate's intellectual dexterity and glitter, but Webster usually won the verdict. The jury of an author is the reading world. In prose romance America puts forward a counterpart to Browning,—Mr. Henry James, except that he never sacrifices an imperturbable refinement of style; besides, with reference to his novels at least, he usually avoids, as if on principle, the concentrated passion and the dramatic situations that at times make Browning so impressive.
On the other hand, when Browning, the anatomist Browning, Tennyson, etc.of human life, interests himself with side-glimpses of nature, he is full of simple truth, and with a sure instinct for essentials. His lyrics abound in these beautiful surprises. He forgets the laboratory when he touches landscape and outdoor life, and is all the artist. Nature has but one truer painter among the dramatists, and the best touches of both seem incidental. When Browning thinks of birds and beasts they suddenly, as in the Arabian Nights, become almost human. He reads the heart, one might say, of a bird, a horse, or a dog. This Tennyson does not do, nor does he usually give us vivid personal characters, admirably as he draws conventional types. His truth to nature is positive; he has the eye of a Thoreau, and the pastoral fidelity which befits one who is not only the pupil of Milton and Keats, but of Theocritus and Wordsworth. He can treat broadly, and imaginatively withal, "the league-long roller thundering on the reef" and "the long wash of Australasian seas;" but his frequent over-elaboration led the way to a main fault of the younger schools.
While a poet cannot be too accurate, his method, to be natural, must seem unconscious. Naturalness.The virtue of a truth is spoiled by showing it off. Tennyson, the idylist, pauses at critical moments, not perhaps to moralize on the situation, but to make a picture suggesting the feeling which the action itself ought to convey. This practice, for a time so fascinating, has been carried to extremes. Now, in a class of his poems of which "Dora" is a fine example, he has shown that nothing can be more effective than a story simply told. A direct statement, through its truth, often has exceeding Force of a direct and simple method.beauty,—the beauty, pathetic or otherwise, of perfect naturalness. You find it everywhere in the Scriptures; for example:
and everywhere in Homer:—
"A thousand fires burned in the plain, and by the side of each sate fifty in the gleam of blazing fire."
"A deep sleep fell upon his eyelids, a sound sleep, very sweet, and most akin to death."
All genuine epics and ballads are charged with it, as in "The Children in the Wood:"—
"No burial this pretty pair
Of any man receives,
Till Robin-redbreast piously
Did cover them with leaves."
In the heroic vein, Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum" has a primitive directness:—
"So said he, and his voice released the heart
Of Rustum; and his tears broke forth; he cast
His arms around his son's neck, and wept aloud,
And kissed him. And awe fell on both the hosts
When they saw Rustum's grief."
The finest touch in Lady Barnard's ballad is the simplest,—that of the line,
"For auld Robin Gray is kind unto me."
But I need not multiply such examples of the beauty of direct statement of unsophisticated truth. It is too rare a grace among the analytic and decorative poets.
When we come to the reflective poetry of nature, the broad effects of Wordsworth and Bryant are both true and imaginative, and therefore excellent realism. For Nature does not differentiate Truth to visible nature.her beauties; she combines them. It is hard to better the truth "by her own sweet and cunning hand put on." Bryant's successors—Whittier, Lowell, Whitman, Lanier, Taylor—have great fidelity to nature. Excellence of the American school.How can they help it, brought up in her own realm? Their touches are spontaneous, and that is everything. A city-bred poet is apt to strike false notes as soon as he hints at an intimacy with nature, and a false note is as quickly detected in poetry as in music, even by those who cannot sound the true one. As for truth to life—that depends on the poet's sympathetic perception. It was native to Burns; it was impossible with the self-absorbed Byron. Most poets, whether cockney or rustic, can draw only the types under their direct observation. Whitman's out-of-door poetry should be Whitman and Lanier.familiar to you. His admirers, including very authoritative judges at home and abroad, make almost every claim for him except that to which, in my opinion, he is entitled above other American poets. I know no other who surpasses him as a word-painter of nature. His eye is keen, his touch is accurate. No one depicts the American sky, ocean, forest, prairie, more characteristically or with a freer sense of atmosphere; no one is so inclusive of every object, living or inanimate, in the zones covered by our native land. His defects lie in his theory of unvarying realism. Nature's poet must adopt her own method; and she hides the processes that are unpleasant to see or consider. Whitman often dwells upon the under side of things,—the decay, the ferment, the germination, which nature conducts in secret, though out of them she produces new life and beauty. Lanier, with equal fidelity, avoids—a refined and spiritual genius needs must avoid—this irritating mistake. His taste made him an open critic of the robust poet of democracy: but it is manifest that the two (as near and as different as Valentine and Orson) were moving in the same direction; that is, for an escape from conventional trammels to something free, from hackneyed timebeats to an assimilation of nature's larger rhythm,—to limitless harmonies suggested by the voices of her winds and the diapason of her ocean billows. The later portions of Whitman's life-work, his symphonies of "starry night," of death and immortality, have chords that would have thrilled Lanier profoundly.
In certain poems which have been humorously True realism is not a statement of facts,compared to "catalogues," Whitman suplies an example of the uselessness of a display of mere facts. Facts, despite Carlyle's eulogy upon them, are not "the one" and only "pabulum." They are the stones heaped about the mouth of the well in whose depth truth reflects the sky. I recall the words of Sir William Davenant, who wrote the feeblest of epics on a theory, yet preluded it with a chapter of noble prose wherein, among other fine discriminations, he says: "Truth, narrative and past, is the idol of historians (who worship a dead thing), and truth, operative and by its effects continually alive, is the mistress of poets, who hath not her existence in matter but in reason." A masterwork appeals, in time if not immediately, to the people at large as well as to the elect few,—to the former, doubtless, by its obvious intent and fidelity; to the critical, by its ideal and artistic truth; yet I think that the more esoteric quality is felt, if not comprehended, even by the masses,—that this makes, however vaguely and mysteriously, an impression upon their natures. Realism, in the sense of naturalism, is the firm ground of all the arts, but the poet, then, is not a realist merely as concerns the things that are seen. He draws these as they are, but as they are or may be at their best. This lifts them out of the common, or, nor a servile imitation.rather, it is thus we get at the "power and mystery of common things." His most audacious imaginings are within the felt possibilities of nature. But the use of poetry is to make us believe also in the impossible. Raphael said that he painted "that which ought to be." And Browning writes:
"In the hall, six steps from us,
One sees the twenty pictures—there 's a life
Better than life—and yet no life at all."
Lord Tennyson is reported as saying, with respect It is vital with suggestion and interpretation.to certain contemporary writers: "Truth, as they understand it, is not the essential thing in poetry. For me verses have no other aim than to call to life nobler and better sentiments than we feel, and express in every-day life. If they can suggest pictures worthy of an artist's eye, so much the better." Even the first English writer upon the topic—George Puttenham, whose "Arte of English Poesie" was published anonymously in the year 1589—said that "Arte is not only an aide and coadjutor to nature in all her actions, but an alterer of them, so as by meanes of it her owne effects shall appeare more beautiful or straunge and miraculous." And so there is nothing more lifeless, because nothing is more devoid of feeling and suggested movement, than servilely accurate imitation of nature. Moreover, in poetry as in all other art, a certain deviation from fact is not only justifiable, but required. Some things must be told or painted not Truth of relation to the human faculties.as they are but as they affect the eye or the imagination. The photograph reveals, indeed, the absolute position of the horse's legs at a given instant; by its aid the spokes of the revolving wheel are defined. Without doubt, art has learned most important facts through the photographic demonstration of actual processes; our animal- and figure-painters, our sculptors, can never repeat the absurd untruths which have become almost academic in the past. They will not, and need not, however, go to the other extreme. To the human eye, with its halting susceptibilities, the horse and the wheel do not appear exactly as when caught by Mr. Muybridge's camera, and the artist's office is to present them as they seem to us. In the prosaic photograph they are struck with death: the idea of life, of motion, can only be conveyed by blending the spokes of the wheel as they are blended to the human vision, and by giving a certain unreality of grace to the speeding animal. Otherwise, you have the fact, which is not art.
Thus every workman must be a realist in knowledge, an idealist for interpretation, and Poetic truth is both realistic and ideal.—See, also, p. 145.the antagonism between realists and romancers is a forced one; and when any one rules the poet out of debate, as of course a feigner, he is in error, for the same law applies to all the arts. The true inquiry concerns the quality of the writer, his power of expression, the limits of his character. For no small and limited nature can enter into great passions and experiences.
It is a fine thing for a poet to express the life, feeling, ideal, of his own people; by so Truth of environment.doing, he betters his chance of commending himself to after times. This is what the Greeks did, but in our century we find poet after poet exercising his skill upon reproductions, working the Grecian myths and legends over and over again in pseudo-classical lyrics, idyls, and dramas. The appeal of the loveliest and most successful nova antica—of a poem like "The Hamadryad" or "Œnone"—is to the æsthetic sense chiefly, and therefore in some measure restricted. After Landor Raison d'être.and Keats and Tennyson and Swinburne, our younger school cannot find a real need for this sort of thing. I remember my own chagrin, twenty years ago, when Mr. Lowell wrote a most judicious notice of one of my books, and failed to mention a blank-verse poem, with a classical theme, upon which I had expended the technical "Local flavor" not to be contemned.skill and imagery at my command. On the other hand, he was more than kind to my native, if homely, American lyrics and ballads, written with less pains, yet more spontaneously; and he told me very frankly that he thought the simple home-fruit of more real significance than my attempt to reproduce some apple of the Hesperides. He was right, and I have not forgotten the lesson. With respect to another art, I wonder that the A home-field.American sculptor does not still more frequently make a diversion from his imitations of the mediæval and the antique. What subjects he has close at hand,—such as a Greek, if he now could chance upon them, would handle with eagerness and truth! Surely our American workman, at labor and in repose, our young athletes, our beasts of the forest and of the field, are available models; and Ward's "Indian Hunter," Donoghue's "The Boxer," and Tilden's "The Ball-Thrower," at least convey their suggestion of what should and will be done. There is a certain lack of Sincerity.sincerity, despite their artistic beauty, in the foreign and antique exploits of many poets and artists; and lack of sincerity is always Jack of truth. But, while they should favor their own time, they must avoid expression of its transient passions and characteristics. Seize upon the essential, lasting traits, and let the others be accessory. If the general spirit of the time be not embodied, a work is soon out of date.
Against all this, the widest freedom is permitted to that chartered libertine,—the poet's But nothing is forbidden to the imagination, and a poet may follow his bent.imagination. Nature and the soul being the same forever, we care nothing for Shakespeare's anachronisms and impossible geography; we find nothing strange and unnatural in his assembly of mediæval fays and antique heroes and amazons, of English clowns and mechanics in Grecian garb, all commingled to enact a fantastic marvel of comedy and poesy in the palace and forests of a "Midsummer Night's Dream." We confess the poet's witchcraft, and ourselves are of the blithe company,—denizens of an enchanted land, where everything has the truth of possibility. A conception is not vitiated by the most novel form it may assume, provided that this be artistic and not artificial. For art, as Goethe and Haydon have said, is art because it is not nature. That method is most true which, invoking the force of nature, directs it by its own device; just as, in mechanics, the screw-propeller Art has a truth of its own.is more than the equivalent of the fish's flukes or the bird's wing. Our delight in art proceeds from a knowledge that it is not inevitable, but designed; a human, not a natural, creation; the truth of nature's capabilities, seen by man's imagination, captured by the human hand, expressed and illumined when our Creator, intrusting his own wand to us, bids us test its power ourselves.
What is called descriptive poetry never can be The poet inferior to the painter in depicting nature;.very satisfying, since the painter is so much more capable than the poet of transferring the visible effects of nature,—those addressed to the eye. I suppose it is out of the power of one not reared in England, and in that very part of England which lies between Derwentwater and the Wye, to comprehend thoroughly the truth and beauty of Wordsworth's pastoral note and landscape. Neither can a foreigner rightly estimate the American idylists; the New World scenery and atmosphere are so different from the European that they must be seen before their quality can be felt. Aside from this limitation, the poet expresses what but unsurpassed as her subjective interpreter.he finds in nature, to wit, that which answers to his own needs and temper. Her interpretation has been, it may almost be said, a special function of the century now closing. Nature moved Coleridge to eloquence, rhapsody, worship, and, as an artist, to imaginative mysticism. Heine, Longfellow, Swinburne, have read the secret of the sea. To Landor, Emerson, and Lowell the tree is animate; in their presence the Illustrations.flower has rights: they would not fell the one nor pluck the other. But there were two English poets whose respective temperaments answered perfectly to the two conditions of nature embraced in Lord Bacon's profound observation, that "In nature things move violently to their place and calmly in their place." Byron's fitful genius was Byron's impetuous unrest.stirred by her violence of change. The rolling surges, the tempest, the live thunder leaping from peak to peak, mated the restlessness of a spirit charged with their own intensity of motion and desire. Wordsworth felt the sublimity of Wordsworth's repose and visionary power.the repose that lies on every height, of nature's ultimate subjection to law. His imagination comprehended her reserved forces; and before his time her deepest voice had no apt interpreter, for none had listened with an ear so patient as his for mastery of her language. His announcement that
"he who feels contempt
For any living thing, hath faculties
Which he has never used,"
was like a revelation. That he had purged himself of all such baseness was his absolute conviction; in such matters he was a kind of Gladstone among the poets of his day. Therefore, self-contemplation, or, to be more exact, the transcription of nature's effect upon himself, seemed to him a sane, even a sacred vocation. In fact, a lofty, if not inventive, imagination, and
gave him for this faith a warrant which all his ponderous homiletics could not render null. As he let The modern return to nature."the misty mountain winds" blow on him, he was nature's living oracle. And the world soon yielded to the force of that "pathetic fallacy" which has imparted to modern thought a distemper and a compensation: the refuge, be it real or illusionary, still left to us, and so compulsive that neither reason nor science can quite rid us of it when face to face with nature,—when soothed by the sweet influences of our mother Earth. It is true, in Landor's words, that
"We are what suns and winds and waters make us;
The mountains are our sponsors, and the rills
Fashion and win their nursling with their smiles."
But Ruskin avers that the illusion under which we fondly believe nature to be the sympathetic participator of our sentiment or passion, and which he terms the pathetic fallacy, is incompatible with a clear-seeing acceptance of the truth of things.
Now, that there is a solace—a companionship—found The "pathetic fallacy."in nature none can doubt. It is as old as the fable of Antæus. Primitive races feel it so strongly that they inform all natural objects with sentient individual lives; our more advanced intelligence conceives of a universal spirit that comprehends and soothes Earth's children. In our own youth, nature haunts us "like a passion;" and as concerning the youth of a race we "cannot paint what then "we were, in mature years each of us can say,
"And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man.
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."
This has never been expressed so well as in Wordsworth's elevated phrases. They must always be cited. But a disenchantment is at last Expressions of the old feeling and the new doubt.upon us, and we are sternly questioning our reason. Is not nature's apparent sympathy, we ask, a purely subjective illusion? The old belief, the new doubt, are well conveyed in the early and later treatment of a favorite theme,—the moaning of a sea-shell held to the ear. In Landor's "Gebir" we have it thus:—The shell's murmur, as idealized by Landor and Wordsworth.
"But I have sinuous shells of pearly hue;
Shake one and it awakens, then apply
Its polished lips to your attentive ear,
And it remembers its august abodes,
And murmurs as the ocean murmurs there."
Landor complained that Wordsworth stole his shell, and "pounded and flattened it in his marsh" of "The Excursion":
"I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea."
Byron acknowledged his obligations to "Gebir" for his lines in "The Island," beginning,—
"The Ocean scarce spake louder with his swell,
Than breathes his mimic murmurer in the shell."
And now, as we near the close of the century which And as now reinterpreted by Lee-Hamilton."Gebir" initiated, Eugene Lee-Hamilton devotes one of his remarkable sonnets to this same murmur of the shell, and I cannot find a more poetic, more impassioned recognition of the veil which modern doubt is drawing between our saddened eyes and the beautiful pathetic fallacy:—
"The hollow sea-shell which for years hath stood
On dusty shelves, when held against the ear
Proclaims its stormy parent; and we hear
The faint far murmur of the breaking flood.
We hear the sea. The sea? It is the blood
In our own veins, impetuous and near,
And pulses keeping pace with hope and fear
And with our feelings' ever-shifting mood.
Lo! in my heart I hear, as in a shell,
The murmur of a world beyond the grave,
Distinct, distinct, though faint and far it be.
Thou fool! this echo is a cheat as well,—
The hum of earthly instincts; and we crave
A world unreal as the shell-heard sea."
How beautiful this ecstasy of disenchantment,—beautiful in its sad sincerity,—and yet Truth before all,how piteous! Here is a fine spirit, for the moment baffled, heroically demanding the truth, the truth. More trustfully leaving the future to "the Power that makes for good," Lowell also confronts the scientific analysis of our attitude toward nature:—
"What we call Nature, all outside ourselves,
Is but our own conceit of what we see,
Our own reaction upon what we feel;
The world 's a woman to our shifting mood,
Feeling with us, or making due pretence;
And therefore we the more persuade ourselves
To make all things our thoughts' confederates,
Conniving with us in whate'er we dream."
The poet, to be aware of this, must have drifted quite away from the antique point of view. though with it disenchantment.The Greek certainly made nature populous with dryads, oreads, naiads, and all the daughters of Nereus; but these had a joy and, like Jaques, a melancholy of their own, not those of common mortals. Doubtless the Greek felt the charm of the hour when twilight descended on his valley, but not the pensive suggestions of the Whence and Whither which it excites in you and me. "No young man," said Hazlitt, "ever thinks he shall die." He recognizes death, but it concerns him not. The Greek accepted it as a natural process; he yielded to nature; we adjure her, as Manfred adjured his spirits, and fain would compel her to our service and demand her to surrender the eternal secret.
Nature, even in her most tranquil mood, is palpitant Why Nature yields solace and companionship,with motion, in view of which Humboldt was at times a poet. Motion is life, and therefore fellowship. Herein lies the spell of the sea, which has mastered Heine and Shelley and every poetic soul. Its perpetual change, eternal endurance—these image both life and immortality; its far-away vessels moving to unknown climes, its unbounded horizon suggesting infinity, buoy the imagination, and thence come human passion and thoughts "too deep for tears." We have conquered it, and it is the modern poet's comrade, as it was the ancient's fear and marvel. But what is the sea? Tennyson's "still salt pool, lock'd in with bars of sand," would be an ocean to a man reduced to insect size,—a stretch of water, infused with salt, and roughened into wavelets by the air that moves across it. We have learned that the effect of the sea, of a prairie, of a mountain, is purely relative. One of the latest "Atlantic" novelists, with youth's contemporaneousness, realizes both the fact and the dream. Her lovers are watching "a big, red, distorted moon above the illimitable palpitating waste "of the ocean:—
"A waning moon is so melancholy," said Felicia, looking at it with wide, soft eyes that had grown melancholy, too. "I wonder why?"
"I don't see that it is melancholy," Grafton declared.
"No, I suppose not," she rejoined. "I dare say you see a planet which suggests to you apogee, or perigee, or something wise. I see only the rising moon, and it seems to me particularly ominous to-night. I am afraid. Something unexpected perhaps something terrible is going to happen."
You will note, by the way, that our débutante is scientifically accurate upon a matter in respect and this in spite of our scientific resdjustment.to which many a good writer has gone wrong. She sees the moon where it should be of an evening in its third quarter,—to wit, rising in the east. Giving the author of "Felicia" credit for this unusual feat, I believe that reason never can greatly lessen the influence of nature upon our feelings, and this in spite of her stolid indifference, her want of compassion, her stern laws, her unfairness, unreason, and general unmorality. To the last, man will be awed by the ocean and saddened by the waning moon, and will find the sun-kissed waves sparkling with his joy, and the stars of even looking down upon his love. One may conceive, moreover, that before a vast and various landscape we are affected by the very presence of divinity revealed only in his works; that, face to face with such an expanse of nature, we recognize more of a pervading spirit than when more closely pent: as in a house of worship, with a host of others like ourselves, we have more of him incarnate in humanity; whence comes a strange exaltation, and at times almost a yearning to be reabsorbed in the infinite being from which our individual life has sprung.
The aspect and sentiment of nature, more than Nature the sovereign of modern art and song.other incentives to mental elevation, have supplied a motive to the artistic expression of the last half century. In the domains of the painter and the poet, and on both sides of the Atlantic, the idealization of nature has been, as never before, supreme. Never has she been portrayed on canvas as by Turner and his successors; never has she received such homage in song as that of the English and American poets from the time of Wordsworth. Two significant advantages confirmed Wordsworth's influence: first, that of longevity, which, in spite of the ancient proverb, is the best gift of the gods to an originative leader; second, the fact that, with brief exceptions, he made verse his only form of expression. No wonder that he produced an "ampler body "of good poetry—and of prosaic verse as well—than "Burns, or Keats, or Manzoni, or Heine." But in this country, also, the force of nature has been sovereign, since Bryant first gave voice to the spirit of the glorious forest and waters of a relatively primeval land. During an idyllic yet speculative period, the maxim that "the proper study of mankind is man" has for many reasons been almost in abeyance. At last it is again evident that we cannot live by bread alone, even at the hands of the great mother. There Her triumph too prolonged. Cp. "Poets of America": pp. 464-466.is a longing and a need for emotion excited by action and life, for a more impassioned and dramatic mode,—that of a figure-school, so to speak, in both poesy and art. Not to "fresh woods and pastures new," but to human life with its throes and passions and activity, must the coming poet look for the inspirations that will establish his name and fame.
In my censure of didacticism I used that word in the usually adopted sense. Its radical Philosophic truth. The higher didacticism.meaning is not to be dismissed so lightly. If there is a base didacticism false to beauty and essentially commonplace, there is a nobly philosophic strain which I may call the poetry of wisdom. There is an imagination of the intellect, and its utterance is of a very high order,—often the prophecy of inspiration itself.
Were this not so, we should have to reverse time's judgment of intellectually poetic masterpieces from which have been derived the wisdom and the rubrics of many lands. Shall we rule out Ecclesiastes.the lofty voice of the Preacher, whose lesson that all save the fear of God is vanity has been reaffirmed by a cloud of witnesses, down to the chief of imaginative homilists in our own time? Whether prose or verse, I know nothing grander than Ecciesiastes in its impassioned survey of mortal pain and pleasure, its estimate of failure and success; none of more noble sadness; no poem working more indomitably for spiritual illumination. Shall we rule The Grecian sages.out the elegies of Theognis or the mystic speculations of Empedocles, celebrant of the golden age and declarer of the unapproachable God? And who would lay rude hands upon the poet who concerned himself with the universe, surpassing all other Latins in intellectual passion and dignity of theme? The rugged "De Rerum Natura" of Lucretius seems to me as much greater Lucretius.than the Æneids as fate and nature are greater than the world known in that day. Whether his science was false or true,—and meanwhile you know that the atomic theory is once more in vogue,—he essayed "no middle flight," but soared upon the philosophy of Epicurus to proclaim the very nature of things; meditating which, as he declared, the terrors of the mind were dispelled, the walls of the world parted asunder, and he saw things "in operation throughout the whole void." What shall Omar.we do with Omar Khayyám, at least with that unique paraphrase of his "Rubáiyát" which has impressed the rarest spirits of our day, and has so inspired the wondrous pencil of Elihu Vedder, our The wise imagination of our recent time.American Blake? And what of "In Memoriam"? The flower of Tennyson's prime is distinctly also the representative Victorian poem. It transmits the most characteristic religious thought of our intellectual leaders at the date of its production. We have no modern work more profound in feeling, more chaste in beauty, and none so rich with the imaginative philosophy of the higher didacticism. Browning's precepts, ratiocination, morals, are usually the weightier matters of his law. Take from Emerson and Lowell their sage distinctions, their woof of shrewdest wisdom, and you find these so closely interwoven with their warp of beauty that the cloth of gold will be ruined. Like Pope and Tennyson, they have the gift of "saying things," and in such wise that they add to the precious currency of English discourse.
The mention of Pope reminds me that he is the traditional exemplar of the didactic Pope, as the chief of English moralist=poets.heresy, so much so that the question is still mooted whether he was a poet at all. As to this, one can give only his own impression, and my adverse view has somewhat changed,—possibly because we grow more sententious with advancing years. Considering the man The question concerning his inherent gift.with his time, I think Pope was a poet: one whose wit and reason exceeded his lyrical feeling, but still a poet of no mean degree. Assuredly he was a force in his century, and one not even then wholly spent. His didacticism was inherent in the stiff, vicious, Gallic drum-beat of his artificial style—so falsely called "classical," so opposed to the true and live method of the antique rather than in his genius and quality. It is impossible that one with so marked a poetic temperament, and using verse withal as almost his sole mode of expression, should not have been a poet. In the manner of his time, how far above his rivals! Every active literary period has one poet at least. To me he seems like the tree which, pressed hard about by rocks, adorns them and struggles into growth and leafage. A fashion of speech mastered him, but he refined it and made it effective, the wonder being that he did so much with it. All admit that Cowper was a poet and the pioneer of a noble school. But he was as didactic as Pope; his vantage lay in a return to natural diction and flexible rhythm. A free vehicle of expression sets free the imagination. Again, there are forms still in use, and natural, as we say, to the genius of our language, in which Pope's resources were sufficient for the display of lasting thought and emotion. "The Universal Prayer" and "The Dying Christian to his Soul" equal the best of Cowper's lyrics. "The Rape of the Lock," still the masterwork of patrician verse, shows what its author could do with a subject to which his grace, wit, and spirit were exactly suited. The passionate intensity of "Eloisa to Abelard" lifts that epistle far above the wonted liberties of its formal verse. Looking at the man, Pope, that fiery, heroic little figure, that vital, electric spirit pitiably encaged,—defying and conquering his foes, loving, hating, questioning, worshipping,—I see the poet. However, if you care to realize how much more difference there is in the methods than in the contemplative gifts of certain bards, amuse yourselves by translating Pope, Tennyson, Emerson, Autre temps, autres mœurs.Browning, into one another's measures and styles, and you will find the result suggestive.
Three, at least, of these poets have at times a delicious humor and fancy, as in "The Humor as a Rape of the Lock," Humor as a poetic element."The Talking Oak," poetic element "Will Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue," "The Pied Piper," etc. Humor, in the sense of fun, is doubtless another lyrical heresy. But humor is the overflow of genius,—the humor compounded of mirth and pathos, of smiles and tears,—and in the poems cited, and in Thackeray's ballads, it speaks for the universality of the poet's range. While certain notes in excess are fatal to song, in due subordination they supply a needful relief, and act as a fillip to the zest of the listener.
In speaking, as I have, of measures and diction suited to the English language, it must Eclectic genius of our English tongue.be with reservation. That language has advanced of late so rapidly from the simple to the complex, that it seems ready to assimilate whatever is most of worth in the vocabularies and forms of many tongues. In Pope's time it had thrown away, "like the base Indian," half the riches bequeathed by Chaucer and the dramatists; nevertheless, an age of asceticism often leads to one of prodigal vigor. It required long years after Pope, and a French Revolution, to renew the affluence of English letters, but if the process was slow it was effectual. Another century has passed; our language, in turn, is giving increment to the Continental tongues, and the need of an artificial Volapük may soon disappear before this eclectic universality.
The highest wisdom—that of ethics—seems Truth of ethical insight.closely affiliated with poetic truth. A prosaic moral is injurious to virtue, by making it repulsive. The moment goodness becomes tedious and unideal in a work of art, it is not real goodness; the would-be artist, though a very saint, has mistaken his form of expression. On the other hand, extreme beauty and power in a poem or picture always carry a moral: they are inseparable from a certain ethical standard; while vice suggests a depravity. Affected conviction, affection of any kind, and even sincere conviction inartistically set forth, are vices in themselves,—are antagonistic to truth. But the cleverest work, if openly vicious, has no lasting force. A meretricious play, after the first rush of the baser sort, is soon performed to empty boxes. Managers know this to be so, and what is the secret of it? Simply, that to cater to a Why baseness nullifies the force of art.sensual taste incessant novelty is required. Vice admits of no repose; its votary goes restlessly from one pleasure to another. Thus no form of vicious art bears much repetition: it satiates without satisfying; besides, any one who cares for art at all has some sort of a moral standard. He violates it himself, but does not care to see it violated in art as if upon principle.
An obtrusive moral in poetic form is a fraud on its face, and outlawed of art. But that all Enduring poetry always makes for good.great poetry is essentially ethical is plain from any consideration of Homer, Dante, and the best dramatists and lyrists, old and new. Even Omar, in proud recognition of the immutability of the higher powers, chants a song without fear if without hope. The pagan Lucretius, confronting sublimity, found no cause to fear either the gods or the death that waits for all things. A glimpse of the knowledge which is divine, an approach to the infinite which makes us confess that "an undevout astronomer is mad," inspire the "De Rerum Natura." The poet sat in the darkness before dawn. He would report no vision which he did not see. Like Fitzgerald's Omar he seems to confess, with the epicureanism that after all is but inverted stoicism, and with unfaltering truth,—
"Up from Earth's Centre through the Seventh Gate
I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate,
And many a Knot unravell'd by the Road;
But not the Master-knot of Human Fate."
Poetry, in short, as an ethical force, may be either iconoclastic or constructive, nor dare I A noble scepticism.say that the latter attribute is the greater, for the site must be cleared before a new edifice can be raised. Herein consists the moral integrity of Lucretius and Omar. They rebelled against the superstitions of their periods. Better a self-respecting confession of ignorance, a waiting for some voice from out the void, than a bowing down to stone images or reverence for a false prophet. Critics are still to be found who look upon a modern poet—in his lifetime almost an outlaw—as a splendid lyrical genius gone far astray. Of course I refer to Shelley. Percy Bysshe Shelley.The world is slowly learning that Shelley' s office, if any need be ascribed to him save that of charming the afterworld with song, was ethical. As an iconoclast, he rebelled against tyranny and dogma. His mistakes were those of poetic youth and temperament, and he grew in love, justice, pity, according to his light. He groped in search of some basis for construction, but died in The false standards of criticism applied to his life and works.what was still his formative period. Yet we see sage and elderly moralists applying to Shelley the tests of their own mature years and modern enlightenment, and holding a sensitive and passionate youth to account as if he were an aged philosopher. Even Matthew Arnold, despite his fine recognition of that transcendent lyrist, did not quite avoid this attitude. Professor Shairp assumed it altogether. With respect to the poetry of nature, I can refer you to no more suggestive critic, for he was a Wordsworthian, and all his discourse leads up to Wordsworth as the greatest, because the most contemplative, of nineteenth-century poets. Otherwise he was an extreme type of the class which Arnold had in mind when he said, "We must be on our guard against the Wordsworthians, if we want to secure for Wordsworth his due rank as a poet." His utter failure to see the force of a blind revolt like Shelley's, in the evolution of an ultimately high morality, was inexcusable. A more striking example of faulty criticism could hardly be given. Shelley is not to be measured by his conduct of life nor by his experimental theories, but rather, as Browning estimates him, with every allowance for his conditions and by his highest faculty and attainment.
But the most thoughtful and extended of rhythmical productions in the purely didactic Poetic truth, above all, is hostile to the commonplace and unimaginative,method is of less worth, taken as poetry, than any lyrical trifle—an English song or Irish lilt, it may be—that is spontaneous and has quality. The disguises of the commonplace are endless; we are always meeting the old foe with a new face. A fashionable diction, tact, taste, the thought and manner of the season, set them off bravely; but they soon will be flown with the birds of last year's nests. Of such are not the works whose wisdom is imaginative, whether the result of intuition or reflection, or of both combined. These "large utterances" of intellectual and moral truth show that nothing is impossible, no domain is forbidden, to the poet, that no thought or fact is incapable of ideal treatment. The bard may proudly forego the office of the lecturer, such as that exercised in this discourse, which is by intention didactic and plainly inferior to any fine example of the but alert in each new wonderland.art to which its comment is devoted. Yet the new learning doubtless will inspire more of our expression in the near future, since never was man so apt in translation of nature's oracles, and so royally vouchsafed the freedom of her laboratory, as in this age of physical investigation. Accepting the omen, we make, I say, another claim for the absolute liberty of art. Like Gaspar Beccerra, the artist must work out his vision in the fabric nearest at hand. His theme, his method, shall be his own: always with the passion for beauty, always with an instinct for right. No effort to change the natural bent of genius was ever quite successful, though such an effort often has spoiled a poet altogether.
This brave freedom alone can breed in a poet the The poet's final recognition of beauteous verity.catholicity which justifies Keats' phrase, and insures for his work the fit coherence of beauty and truth. The lover of beauty, in Emerson's "Each and All," marvels at the delicate shells upon the shore:—
"The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave;
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar."
Disappointed, he forswears the pursuit of beauty, and declares:—
"I covet truth;
Beauty is unripe childhood's cheat;
I leave it behind with the games of youth."
But, even as he speaks, the ground-pine curls its pretty wreath beneath his feet, "running over the club-moss burrs;" he scents the violet's breath, and therewithal
"Over me soared the eternal sky,
Full of light and deity;
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole."
This recognition, at which the idealist arrives, of the intertransmutations of beauty and truth, Labor est etiam ipsa pietas.is a kind of natural piety, and renders the labor of the poet or other "artist of the beautiful" a proper form of worship. His heart tells him that this is so: it is lightest when he has worked at his craft with diligence and accomplishment; it is light with a happiness which the religious say one can know only by experience. The piety of his labor is not yet sufficiently comprehended; even the poet, having listened all his life to other tests of sanctification, often mistrusts his own conscience, looks upon himself as out of the fold, and is sure only that he must "gang his ain gait," however much he suffers for it in this world or some other.
Thus a dividing line has been drawn from time Arcadian non-conformity.immemorial betwixt the conventional and the natural worshippers, betwixt the stately kingdom of Philistia and the wilding vales and copses of that Arcadia which some geographers have named Bohemia. The mistake of the Arcadian is that he virtually accepts a standard not of his own establishment; he is impressed by a traditional conception of his Maker, regards it as fixed, will have none of it, and sheers off defiantly. If rich and his own master, he becomes a pagan virtuoso. If one of the struggling children of art and toil, then,—
"Loving Beauty, and by chance
Too poor to make her all in all,
He spurns her half-way maintenance,
And lets things mingle as they fall."
This is the way in Arcadia, and it has its pains and charm,—as I well know, having journeyed many seasons in that happy-go-lucky land of sun and shower, and still holding a key to one of its entrance-gates. Its citizenship is not to be shaken off, even though one becomes naturalized elsewhere.
Now the artist not only has a right, but it is his The God of truth is no less the God of beauty, joy, and song.duty, to indulge an anthropomorphism of his own. In his conception the divine power must be the supreme poet, the matchless artist, not only the transcendency, but the immanence of all that is adorable in thought, feeling, and appearance. Grant that the Creator is the founder of rites and institutes and dignities; yet for the idealist he conceived the sunrise and moonrise, the sounds that ravish, the outlines that enchant and sway. He sets the colors upon the easel, the harp and viol are his invention, he is the model and the clay, his voice is in the story and the song. The love and the beauty of woman, the comradeship of man, the joy of student-life, the mimic life of the drama as much as the tragedy and comedy of the living world, have their sources in his nature; nor only gravity and knowledge, but also irony and wit and mirth. Arcady is a garden of his devising. 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.
- ↑ "There is a way of killing truth by truths. Under the pretence that we want to study it more in detail, we pulverize the statue."—Amiel.
- ↑ Some reviewer, alluding to the discussion of Hawthorne's career, has said with much intelligence that the romancer was first of all, by choice and genius, an artist, and that his politics, ethics, etc., are matters quite subordinate in any estimate of him. It is well, then, to aver that Shelley was, before all else and marvellously, a poet, and that the rapid experiences of his young life—which ended, indeed,, before the age of mature convictions—are of importance merely as they affected what we have inherited of his beautiful lyric and dramatic creations.