The Nature and Elements of Poetry/What is Poetry?
WHAT IS POETRY?
These lectures, as I have intimated, are purposely direct of statement, and even elementary. A word beforehand.From my point of view this does not of itself imply a lack of respect for the intelligence of the listener. The most advanced star-gazer holds to his mathematics; while, as to poetry, enthusiasts find it easier to build fine sentences than to make clear to others, if to themselves, the nature of that which affects them so inspiringly. I trust that you are willing, in place of the charm of style and the jest and epigram of discourses for entertainment, to accept a search for the very stuff whereof the Muse fashions her transubstantial garments—to discover what plant or moth supplies the sheeny fibre; in what heat, what light, the iridescent fabric is dyed and spun and woven.
It has occurred to me—I think it may not seem amiss to you—that this eager modern The direct and timely question.time, when the world has turned critic, this curious evening of the century, when the hum of readers and the mists of thought go up from every village; when poetry is both read and written, whether well or ill, more generally than ever before; and when clubs are formed for its study and enjoyment, where commentators urban or provincial, masters and mistresses of analytics, devote nights to the elucidation of a single verse or phrase—it has occurred to me that this is an opportune time for the old question, so often received as if it were a jet of cold water upon steam or the stroke of midnight at a masquerade—an apt time to ask ourselves, What, then, is poetry, after all? What are the elements beneath its emotion and intellectual delight? Let us have the primer itself. For, if such a primer be not constructible, if it be wholly missing or disdained, you may feel and enjoy a poem, but you will hardly be consistent in your discourse upon it, and this whether you concern yourself with Browning, or Meredith, or Ibsen,—as is now the mode,—or with the masterworks of any period.
Nevertheless, we too must begin our answer to The poetic spirit not reducible to terms.the question, What is poetry? by declaring that the essential spirit of poetry is indefinable. It is something which is perceived and felt through a reciprocal faculty shared by human beings in various degrees. The range of these degrees is as wide as that between the boor and the sensitive adept—between the racial Calibans and Prosperos. The poetic spirit is absolute and primal, acknowledged but not reducible, and therefore we postulate it as an axiom of nature and sensation.
To state this otherwise: it is true that the poetic essence always has been a force, an energy, both subtile and compulsive; a primal force, like that energy the discovery of whose unities is the grand physical achievement of this century. The shapes which it informs are Protean, and have a seeming elusiveness. Still, even Proteus, as Vergil tells us, is capturable. Force, through its vehicle of light, becomes fixed within the substance of our planet; in the carbon of the fern, the tree, the lump Its vocal expression may be defined.of coal, the diamond. The poetic spirit becomes concrete through utterance, in that poetry which enters literature; that is, in the concrete utterances of age after age. Nothing of this is durably preserved but that which possesses the crystalline gift of receiving and giving out light indefinitely, yet losing naught from its reservoir. Poetry is the diamond of these concretions. It gives out light of its own, but anticipates also the light of after-times, and refracts it with sympathetic splendors.
With this uttered poetry, then, we are at present concerned. Whether sung, spoken, or written, it is still the most vital form of human expression. One who essays to analyze its constituents is an explorer undertaking a quest in which many have failed. Doubtless he too may fail, but he sets forth in the simplicity of a good knight who does not fear his fate too much, whether his desert be great or small.
In this mood seeking a definition of A definition of Poetry in the Concrete.that poetic utterance which is or may become of record,—a definition both defensible and inclusive, yet compressed into a single phrase,—I have put together the following statement:
Poetry is rhythmical, imaginative language, expressing the invention, taste, thought, passion, and insight, of the human soul.
First of all, and as a corollary,—a resultant from 1. The imaginitive invention and expression are Creative.the factors of imaginative invention and expression,—we infer that poetry is, in common with other art products, a creation, of which the poet is the creator, the maker. Expression is the avowed function of all the arts, their excuse for being; out of the need for it, art in the rude and primitive forms has ever sprung. No work of art has real import, none endures, unless the maker has something to say—some thought which he must express imaginatively, whether to the eye in stone or on canvas, or to the ear in music or artistic speech; this thought, the imaginative conception moving him to utterance, being his creative idea—his art-ideal. This simple truth, persistently befogged by the rhetoric of those who do not "see clear and think straight," and who always underrate the strength and beauty of an elementary fact, is the Metrical sterility.last to be realized by commonplace mechanicians. They go through the process of making pictures or verses without the slightest mission—really with nothing to say or reveal. They mistake the desire to beget for the begetting power. Their mimes and puppets have everything but souls. Now, the imaginative work of a true artist, conveying his own ideal, is creative because it is the expression, the new embodiment, of his particular nature, the materialization of something which renders him a congener, even a part, of the universal soul—that divinity whose eternal function it is to create. The expressive artist is to this extent indeed fashioned after his Maker. He can even declare, in the words of Beddoes, who used them, however, to reveal his surprising glimpses of evolution:
"I have a bit of Fiat in my soul,
And can myself create my little world."
At the same time, the quality of the poet's creation, be it lyrical, narrative, or dramatic, 2. The poet a revealer through Insight.is in a sense that of revelation. He cannot invent forms and methods and symbols out of keeping with what we term the nature of things; such inventions, if possible, would be monstrous, baleful, not to be endured. But he utters, reveals, and interprets what he sees with that inward vision, that second sight, the prophetic gift of certain personages,—that which I mean by "insight," and through which the poet is thought to be inspired. This vision penetrates what Plato conceived to be the quintessence of nature, what Wordsworth, in his very highest mood, declares that we perceive only when
"we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things."
The creative insight, according to its degree, is Genius, its recognition and its scientific vindication.allied with, if not the source of, the mysterious endowment named genius, which humdrum intellects have sought to disallow, claiming that it lies chiefly in one of its frequent attributes,—industry,—but which the wisdom of generations has indubitably recognized. The antique and idealistic notion of this gift is given in "Ion": "A poet ... is unable to compose poetry until he becomes inspired and is out of his sober senses, and his imagination is no longer under his control; for he does not compose by art, but through a divine power." The modern and scientific rendering is that of the exact investigator, Hartmann, who traces this power of genius to its inmost cell, and classifies it as the spontaneous, involuntary force of the untrammelled soul,—in precise terms, "the activity and efflux of the Intellect freed from the domination of the Conscious Will." Whichever statement you accept,—and I see no reason why the two are not perfectly concordant,—here is the apparently superhuman gift which drew from Sophocles that cry of wonder, "Æschylus does what is right without knowing it."
As an outcome of genius producing the semblance 3. Poetry as an expression of the beautiful,of what its insight discovers, poetry aims to convey beauty and truth in their absolute simplicity of kind, but limitless variety of guise and adaptation. The poet's vision of these is shared to some extent by all of us, else his appeal would not be universal. But to his inborn taste and wisdom is given the power of coadequate expression. Taste has been vilely mistaken for a sentiment, and disgust with its abuse may have incited the Wordsworthians and others to disqualify it. They limited their own range by so doing. The world forgives most sins more readily than those against beauty. There was something ridiculous, if heroic, in the supercilious attitude of our transcendentalists, not only putting themselves against the laity, but opposing the whole body of their fellow seers and artists, whose solace for all labors ever has been the favor of their beloved mistress Beauty,—the inspirer of creative taste.
The truth is that taste, however responsive to cultivation, is inborn,—as spontaneous as through creative Taste.insight, and, indeed, with an insight of its own. Schlegel's alertness with respect to the æsthetic moved him to define even genius as "the almost unconscious choice of the highest degree of excellence, and, consequently," he added, "it is taste in its highest activity." Profound thinkers, lofty and unselfish natures, may flourish without taste: if so, they miss a sense, nor only one that is physical,—something else is lacking, if the body be the symbol of the soul. I would not go so far as to say of one born, for instance, without ear for melody, that there will be "no music in his soul" when that is disembodied. It is finer to believe that
"whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in"
such a one cannot hear it; that
"The soul, with nobler resolutions deck'd,
The body stooping, does herself erect."
But taste, whether in or out of the body, is a facultyTaste often wanting or assumed. for want of which many ambitious thinkers have in the end failed as poets. It is a sense, however, the functions of which are very readily assumed and mechanically imitated. At periods when what are called false and artificial standards have prevailed, as in French and English letters from 1675 to 1790, the word "taste" has been on every one's lips, and the true discernment of beauty has been supposed to be supreme, when in fact merely the crown and sceptre of taste have been set up and its mantle stuffed with straw. At this very time art is suffering everywhere from an immense variety of standards and models, and our taste, in spite of the diverse and soulless yet attractive productions of the studio and the closet, is that of an interregnum.
Assuming that the artist's conceptions are spontaneous4. Poetry as an expression of intellectual Thought. and imaginative, their working out brings into play the conscious intellect. He gives us thought, building up masterpieces from the germinal hint or motive: his wisdom is of so pure a type that through it the poet and the philosopher, in their ultimate and possible development, seem united. It is the exclusive presentation of thought and truth that makes poetry didactical, and hence untrue in the artistic sense. For taste has been finely declared to be "the artistic ethics of the soul," and it is only through a just balance of all the elements in question that poetry rises above ordinary and universal human speech and becomes a veritable art.
Under the conditions of these reciprocal elements, the poet's nature, "all touch, all 5. Emotion. The poet must be impassioned.eye, all ear," exalted to a creative pitch, becomes emotional. Feeling is the excitant of genuine poetry. The Miltonic canon, requiring the sensuous beauty which taste alone insures, demands, last of all, as if laying stress upon its indispensability, that poetry should be passionate. It is the impassioned spirit that awakes the imagination, whose taste becomes alert, that hears whisperings which others do not hear,—which it does not itself hear in calmer periods,—that breaks into lyric fervor and melody, and that arouses kindred spirits with recital of its brave imaginings. Feeling of any kind is the touch upon the poet's electric keyboard; the passio vera of his more intense moods furnishes the impulse and the power for effective speech. His emotion instinctively acquires the tone and diction fitted to its best expression. Even the passion of a hateful nature is not without a certain distinction. Flame is magnificent, though it feed upon the homes of men.
Right here we stop to consider that thus far our discussion of the poetic elements applies with almost equal significance to all the fine arts; each of them,But the foregoing elements pertain to all the arts. in fact being a means of expressing the taste, thought, passion, imagination, and insight, of its devotee. The generic principles of one are those of all. Analysis of one is to this extent that of art as art: a remark illustrated by the talk of every noteworthy virtuoso, from Angelo to Reynolds and Ruskin and Taine. Reflect for an instant upon the simultaneous appearance of a certain phase, such as Preraphaelitism, in the plastic, structural, and decorative arts, in imaginative literature; and on the stage itself, and you see that the Muses are indeed sisters, and have the same food and garments,—often the same diseases. But take for granted the "consensus of the arts." What is it, then, that differentiates them? Nothing so much as their respective vehicles of expression. The 6. Poetry, then, is an art of Speech.key-stone of our definition is the statement that poetry, in the concrete and as under consideration, is language. Words are its specific implements and substance. And art must be distinguished, whatsoever its spirit, by its concrete form. A picture of the mind is not a painting. There is a statue in every stone; but what matters it, if only the brooding sculptor sees it? A cataract, a sunset, a triumph, a poetic atmosphere, or mood, or effect,—none of these is a poem. When Emerson and Miss Fuller went together to see Fanny Elssler dance, and the philosopher whispered to the sibyl, "Margaret, this is poetry!" and the sibyl rejoined, "Waldo, it is religion!" they both, I take it, would have confessed with Hosea that they had used similitudes. We are now considering the palpable results of inspiration. Poetry houses itself in words, sung, spoken, or inscribed, though there is a fine discrimination in the opening sentence of Ben Jonson's Grammar, which declares of language that "the writing [of it] is but an accident."
Language is colloquial and declarative in our ordinary speech, and on its legs for common Its characteristic language always Rhythmical.use and movement. Only when it takes wings does it become poetry. As the poet, touched by emotion, rises to enthusiasm and imaginative power or skill, his speech grows rhythmic, and thus puts on the attribute that distinguishes it from every other mode of artistic expression—the guild-mark which, rightly considered, establishes the nature of the thing itself. At this date there is small need to descant upon the universality of rhythm in all relations of force and matter, nor upon its inherent consonance with the lightest, the profoundest, sensations of the living soul. Let us accept the wisdom of our speculative age, which scrutinizes all phenomena and reaches the scientific bases of experience, and, looking from nadir to zenith, acknowledges a psychological impulse behind every physical function. The earliest observers saw that life was rhythmical, that man and brute are the subjects of recurrent touch, sensation, order, and are alike responsive to measured sound, the form of rhythm most obvious and recognizable; that music, for instance, affects the most diverse animate genera, from the voiceless insect and serpent to the bird with its semi-vocal melody, and the man whom it incites to speech and song. The ancients no less comprehended the rhythm of air and water, the multitudinous harmonies, complex and blended, of ocean The soul responsive to Vibrations.surges and wind-swept pines. But our new empiricism, following where intuition leads the way, comprehends the function of vibrations: it perceives that every movement of matter, seized upon by universal force, is vibratory; that vibrations, and nothing else, convey through the body the look and voice of nature to the soul; that thus alone can one incarnate individuality address its fellow; that, to use old Bunyan's imagery, these vibrations knock at the ear-gate, and are visible to the eye-gate, and are sentient at the gates of touch of the living temple. The word describing their action is in evidence: they "thrill" the body, they thrill the soul, both of which respond with subjective, interblending vibrations, according to the keys, the wave-lengths, of their excitants.
Thus it is absolutely true that what Buxton FormanEvery true poet is born with the gift of Rhythm. calls "idealized language," that is, speech which is imaginative and rhythmical, goes with emotional thought; and that words exert a mysterious and potent influence, thus chosen and assorted, beyond their normal meanings. Equally true it is that natural poets in sensitive moods have this gift of choice and rhythmic assortment, just as a singer is born with voice and ear, or a painter with a knack of drawing likenesses before he can read or write. It is not too much to say that if not born with this endowment he is not a poet: a poetic nature, if you choose,—indeed, often more good, pure, intellectual, even more sensitive, than another with the "gift,"—and, again, one who in time by practice may excel in rhythmical mechanism him that has the gift but slights it; nevertheless, over and over again, not a born poet, not of the royal breed that by warrant roam the sacred groves. I lay stress upon this, because, in an age of economics and physics and prose fiction, the fashion is to slight the special distinction of poetry and to deprecate its supremacy by divine right, and to do this as our democracy reduces kingcraft—through extending its legitimate range. You cannot force artists, architects, musicians, to submit to such a process, for material dividing lines are too obvious. Otherwise, some would undoubtedly make the attempt. But poetic vibrations are impalpable to the carnal touch, and unseen by the bodily eye, so that every realist, according to his kind, either discredits them or lays claim to them. All the same, nothing ever has outrivaled or ever will outrival, as a declaration of the specific quality of poetry, the assertion that its makers do
"feed on thoughts, that voluntary move
and the minstrel poet, of my acceptation, "lisped in numbers" as an infant—and well does the hackneyed verse reiterate, "for the numbers came."
Aside from the vibratory mission of rhythm, its Rhythmical factors and minor aids.little staff of adjuvants, by the very discipline and limitations which they impose, take poetry out of the place of common speech, and make it an art which lifts the hearer to its own unusual key. Schiller writes to Goethe that "rhythm, in a dramatic work, treats all characters and all situations according to one law.... In this manner it forms the atmosphere for the poetic creation. The more material part is left out, for only what is spiritual can be borne by this thin element." In real, that is, spontaneous minstrelsy, the fittest assonance, consonance, time, even rhyme,—if rhyme be invoked, and rhyme has been aptly called "both a memory and a hope,"—come of themselves with the imaginative thought. The soul may conceive unconsciously, and, as I believe in spite of certain metaphysicians, without the use of language; but when the wire is put up, the true and only words—just so far as the conception is true and clear and the minstrel's gift coequal—are flashed along it. Such is the test of genuineness, the underlying principle being that the masterful words of all poetic tongues are for the most part in both their open and consonantal sounds related to their meanings, so that with the inarticulate rhythm of impassioned thought we have a correspondent verbal rhythm for its vehicle. The whole range of poetry which is vital, from the Hebrew psalms and prophecies, in their original text and in our great English version, to the Georgian lyrics and romances and the Victorian idyls, confirms the statement of Mill that "the deeper the feeling, the more characteristic and decided the rhythm." The rapture of the poet governs the tone and accent of his
"high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted."
Whoever, then, chooses to exempt poetry from this affinity with rhythm is not consideringThe essential differentiation. the subject-matter of these discourses. Not that I would magnify its office, or lessen the claims of other forms of imaginative and emotional expression. "The glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.... There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon." Nor do I ask you, with the Scripture, to set one above the other: count them of equal rank, if you like, as in truth they seem to be in a time which has produced not only "In Memoriam," "Pippa Passes," "The Problem," but also "A Tale of Two Cities," "Henry Esmond," "The Scarlet Letter,"—but count them as different. Of one thing I am assured, that every recognized poet will claim the vitality of this difference—a professional claim, without doubt, but not as though made by a lawyer or a divine, since their professions are more arbitrary and acquired. I confess that natural aptitude justifies in a measure the expressions "a born lawyer," "a born doctor," etc.; still, more of what we call professional skill is obtained by training than by derivation. The reverse of this is true of minstrelsy, and thus it chances that for a thousand excellent lawyers you shall not discover one superior poet.
It is not essential now, when the trick of making Rhyme, etc.clever verse is practised, like all the minor technics of decoration, music, and so on, by many more or less cultured persons with a talent for mimicry, to discuss historic forms of measure, and to show why rhythm is not confined to any formal measures rhymed or unrhymed. Yet even rhyme, in our tongue, has advantages apart from its sound, when so affluent and strong a workman as Browning uses it in some of his most extended poems as a brake on the whirl and rush of an over-productive genius. All the varied potencies of rhythm,—its trinity of time-beat, consonance, and assonance, its repetends and refrains and accidental wandering melodies and surprises,—are the vibrations of the poetic fervor made manifest, and the poet's conveyance of it to his listeners.
Now, we have seen that the term poetry was long Imaginative prose fiction:applied to all imaginative literature. I recognize the fact that the portion of it which was only germinal with the ancients, but is the chief characteristic of our modern age, the prose tale or romance,—that this, our prose fiction, is equally a part of the feigned history celebrated by Plato and Bacon and Sidney, of the thing creatively invented rather than of things debated or recorded. It is often imbued with the true spirit of poesy, and is almost always more original in plot, narrative, structure, than its sister art. It well may supply the topic for a series of discourses. Among the brilliant romancers and novelists are not a few who, were not fiction the dominant mode of our time, would possibly have wreaked their thoughts upon expression in rhythmical form. But to how it is distinguished from the poetry under consideration.see how distinct a thing it is, and also to illustrate my belief that a dramatic poet may as well not originate his own narrative or plot, read a story of Boccaccio or a chronicle by Holinshed, and then the play of Shakespeare's moulded upon it. The masterly novelist, the better to control his plot and to reflect life as it is, keeps his personal emotion within such command that it fails to become rhythmical. Where it gets the better of him, and he breaks into blank verse or singsong, his work is infallibly weakened; it may catch the vulgar ear, but is distinctly the less enduring. Who now can abide the tricky metrical flow of certain sentimental passages in Dickens? And Dickens, by the way,—nature's own child and marvellous, as in truth he was,—occasionally set himself to write poetic verse, but he knew no trick of it, and could acquire none. His lyrics were mostly commonplace. This was to be expected, for a real poet usually writes good prose, and rarely rhythmical prose as prose, though he may elect, with Macpherson, Blake, Tourgénieff, Emerson, and Whitman, to cast his poetry in rhythmical prose form. Thackeray, who was a charming poet, of a light but distinct quality above which he was too genuine to venture, put no metrics into his The prose of poets, vs.novels. See how definite the line between the prose and the verse of Milton, Goethe, Landor, Coleridge, Byron. Of Emerson I have said elsewhere that his prose was poetry, and his poetry light and air. There is a class of writers, of much account in their day, whose native or purposed confusion between rhythmical and true prose attracts by its glamour, and whom their own generation, at least, can ill spare. Of such was Richter,"poetical" prose. and such in a measure have been De Quincey, Wilson, Carlyle, and even Ruskin, each after his kind. The strong personality of a writer forces its way. But it is to be noted that these after a time fall into distrust, as if the lasting element of true art had somehow escaped them. Certain latter-day lights well might take a lesson from the past. These iliuminati leave firm ground, but do they rise to the upper air? There is something eerie and unsubstantial about them as they flit in a moonlit limbo between earth and sky. Howbeit, they are what they are, and may safely plead that it is more to be what they can be than not to be at all. The difference betwixt poetical prose and the prose of a poet is exemplified by Mark Pattison's citation of the two at their best—the prose of Jeremy Taylor and that of Milton, the former "loaded with imagery on the outside," but the latter "colored by imagination from within."
In short, although throughout our survey, and especially in the Orient, the most imaginative poetry often chants itself in rhythmic prose, the less rhythm there is in the prose of an essayist or novelist the better, even though it characterizes an interlude. As a drop of prosaic feeling is said to precipitate a whole poem, so a drop of sentimental rhythm will bring a limpid tale or essay to cloudy effervescence. As for eloquence, which Eloquence, rhetoric, etc.also was classed with poetry by our ancestors, and which is subjective and passionate, I do not say that it may not rise by borrowing wings; but in a poem the force of eloquence pure and simple cannot be prolonged without lessening ideality and the subtlest quality of all,—suggestiveness,—and rhetoric is as false a note as didacticism in the poet's fantasia.
It is worth while to observe, in passing, that there never was a time before our own in literaryModern cleverness and training. history when more apparent successes, more curious and entertaining works, were achieved by determined and sincere aspirants who enter, not through original bent, but under gradual training and "of malice aforethought," fields to which they are not born inheritors,—the joint domains of poetry and prose fiction. Their output deceives even the critic, because it does serve a purpose, until he reflects that none of it is really a force,—really something new, originative, enduring. Such a force was that of Fielding, of Byron, of Scott, of Keats, of Wordsworth, of Browning; and many lesser but fresh and natural poets and novelists are forces in their several degrees. What they produce, from its individual, often revolutionary, quality, is an actual addition to literature. But we see natural critics and moralists, persons of learning, of high cultivation in the focal centres of literary activity, who develop what is inborn with them—an exquisite gift of appreciation, and in time a stalwart purpose to rival the poets and novelists on their own ground. This they undertake at that mature age when the taste and judgment are fully ripe, and after admirable service as scholars, essayists Nature's process.and the like. Now, there scarcely is an instance, in the past, of a notable poet or romancer who did not begin, however late, by producing poetry or fiction, however crude, and this whether or not he afterward made excursions into the fields of analysis or history or æsthetics. Mr. Howells is a living illustration of this natural process. He began as a poet, and then, after excursions into several literary fields that displayed his humor, taste, and picturesqueness, he caught the temper of his period as a novelist, and helped to lead it. The cleverness and occasional "hits" of various self-elected poets and tale-writers are, however, noteworthy, even bewildering. At this moment many who command public attention and what is called the professional market have previously demonstrated that their natural bent was that of didactic and analytic, rather than of emotional and creative, writers. Their success has been a triumph of culture, intellect, and will power. These instances, as I have said of an eminent Cp. "Victorian Poets": pp. 91, 442.poet and essayist now no more, almost falsify the adage that a poet is born, not made. Still, we bear in mind that precisely analogous conditions obtain in the cognate artistic professions,—in painting, music, architecture. The poets and novelists by cultivation, despite their apparent vogue in the most extended literary market the world has ever seen, and ambitious as their work may be, lack, in my opinion, the one thing needed to create a permanent force in the arts, and that is the predestined call by nature and certain particles of her "sacred fire."
We need not enter the poet's workshop and analyze the physics and philosophy controlling"The Science of Verse." the strings of his lyre. That a philosophical law underlies each cadence, every structural arrangement, should be known in this very spot, if anywhere, where not alone the metrics and phonetics, and what has been called the rationale, of verse, but therewithal the spirit of the poetry of the East, of our classical antiquity, of the Romance tongues, of the Norse, and of our own composite era, are in the air, one may say, and are debated with a learning and enthusiasm for which a few of us, in my own academic days, hungered in vain. Here, too, it was that the most analytic treatise ever conceived, upon the technics of rhythmical effect, was written by Lanier.your own poet, Lanier, for whom the sister-spirits of Music and Poesy contended with a rivalry as strong as that between "twin daughters of one race," both loving, and both worshipped by, one whom death too soon removed while he strove to perfect their reconciliation. Though poetry must come by the first intention, if at all, and inspiration laughs at technical processes, even the unlettered minstrel conforms to law, as little conscious of it as some vireo in the bush is conscious of the score by which a Burroughs or an Olive Miller transfers the songster's tirra-lirra to the written page. The point remains that poetry is ideal expression through Poetry, above all, is utterance.words, and that words are not poetry unless they reach a stress that is rhythmical. Painting is a mode of expression, being visible color and shadow distributed upon a material surface; the language of poetry is another mode, because it is articulate thought and feeling. Sidney pointed merely to the fact that rhythm is not confined to verse, when he spoke of "apparelled verse" as "an ornament, and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never have versified"; and he added that "now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poet." Wordsworth's familiar recognition of "the poets that ne'er have penned their inspiration" was a just surmise; but such a poet is one in posse, assuredly not in esse, not a maker. Swinburne traverses the passage with a bit of common sense—"There is no such thing as a dumb poet or a handless painter. The essence of an artist is that he should be articulate."
Submitting these views with respect to a scientific definition of poetry, I ask your attention Comparative review of the Arts.to a brief consideration of its bounds and liberties, as compared with those of music and the respective arts of design.
The specific province, by limitation, of Sculpture, the art consecrate to the antique precision The respective powers and limitations of Sculpture,of repose, is to express ideals of form arrested as to movement and time. Its beauteous or heroic attitudes are caught at the one fit moment, and forever transfixed in rigid stone or wood or metal. Painting has an additional Painting,limitation; it gives only the similitude of form in all its dimensions, and only from one point of a beholder's view. To offset this, the range of the painter is marvellously broadened by the truth of perspective, the magic and vital potency of color, the tremulous life of atmosphere, and the infinite gradations and contrasts of light and shade. The mystical warmth and force of the Christian humanities are radiant in this enrapturing art. Yet its office is to capture the one ideal moment, the lifelong desire of Faust, and to force it to obey the mandate:—
"Ah, still delay thou art so fair!"
Such are the arts addressed to the eye alone, both of them lending their service to the earliest, the latest, the most various, of all material constructions—Architecture, Architecture,whose pediments and roofs and walls originate in our bodily necessities, whose pinnacles typify our worship and aspiration, and which so soon becomes the beneficiary and the incasement of its decorative allies. None of the three can directly express time or movement, but there is practically no limit to their voiceless representation of space and multitude.
But movement in time is a special function of Music.Music, that heavenly maid, never so young as now, and still the sovereign of the passions, reaching and rousing the soul through sound-vibrations perpetually changing as they flow. To this it The composer's sublime freedom, through progressive change.adds the sympathetic force of harmonic counterpoint. Its range, then, is freer than that of the plastic and structural arts, by this element of progressive change. Under its spell, thrilling with the sensations which it can excite, and which really are immanent in our own natures, considering moreover the superb mathematics of its harmony, and again that it has been the last in development of all these arts, we question whether it is not only superior to them but even to that one to which these lectures are devoted. All feel, at least, the force of Poe's avowal that music and poetry at their highest must go together, because "in music the soul most nearly attains the great end for which it struggles—supernal beauty." And so old John Davies, in praise of music,—
"The motion which the ninefold sacred quire
Of angels make: the bliss of all the blest,
Which (next the Highest) most fills the highest desire."
Schopenhauer thought that the musician, because there is no sound in nature fit to give him more than a suggestion for a model, "approaches the original sources of existence more closely than all other artists, nay, even than Nature herself." Herbert Spencer has suggested that music may take rank as the highest of the fine arts, as the chief medium of sympathy, enabling us to partake the feeling which excites it, and "as an aid to the achievement of that higher happiness which it indistinctly shadows forth." And in truth, if the intercourse of a higher existence is to be effected through sound-vibrations rather than through the swifter light-waves, or by means of aught save the absolute celestial insight, one may fondly conceive music to be the language of the earth-freed, as of those imagined seraphim with whom feeling is "deeper than all thought."
Consider, on the other hand, how feeling governs the simple child, "that lightly draws its breath," while thought begins its office as the child grows in But intellectual Speech is supreme.strength and knowledge, and it is a fair inference that thought is the higher attribute, and that the suggestion of emotion by music is a less vital art than that of intellectual speech. The dumb brutes partake far more of man's emotion than of his mental intelligence. Neither is music—despite our latter-day theorists who defy the argument of Lessing's Laocoön and would make one art usurp the province of another, and despite its power as an indirect incentive to thought by rousing the emotions—a vehicle for the conveyance of precise and varied ideas. The clearer the idea, the more exact the language which utters and interprets it. This, then, is the obvious limitation of music: it can traverse a range of feeling that may govern the tone of the hearer's contemplations, it can "fill all the stops of life with tuneful breath" and prolong their harmonic intervals indefinitely, but the domain of absolute thought, while richer and more imperial for its excitation, is not mastered by it. Of that realm music can make no exact chart.
Thus far, we have no art without its special office, and none that is not wanting in some capacity displayed by one or more of the rest. Each goes upon Limitations of the poet.its appointed way. Now comes poetry,—rhythmical, creative language, compact of beauty, imagination, passion, truth,—in no wise related, like the plastic arts, to material substance; less able than its associate, music, to move the soul with those dying falls of sound that increase and lessen thought and the power to harbor it; almost a voiceless spirit of invention, working without hands, yet the more subtile, potent, inclusive, for this evasive ideality, and for creations that are impalpable except through the arbitrary and non-essential symbols by which it now addresses itself to the educated eye.
Permit me to select, almost at random, from Keats and Tennyson, ready illustrations of the bounds and capabilities of the various arts—passages necessarily familiar, since they are from Keats and Tennyson, but chosen from those masters because, of all English poets since Spenser, they are most given to picture-making, to the craft that is, as we say, artistic, picturesque. A stanza from the How far he can illustrate and imitate sculpture."Ode on a Grecian Urn" describes, and rivals in verse, the ravishing power of a bit of sculpture to perpetuate arrested form and attitude—yes, even the suggestion of arrested music:—
"Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on—
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone.
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal; yet, do not grieve—
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss;
Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair."
These undying lines not only define by words the power and limits of the sculptor, but are almost a matchless example of the farthest encroachment poetry can make upon sculpture's own province. What it cannot do is to combine the details of the carving so as to produce them to the mind, as sculpture does to the eye, at a single instant of time. It lingers exquisitely upon each in succession. Progressive time is required for its inclusion of the effects of a Grecian frieze or scroll. Now, take His picture-making:from Tennyson's lovely but lighter poem, "The Day-Dream,"—a lyrical idyl at the acme of melodious and fanciful picture-making,—a stanza which seems to match with a certain roundness and color the transfixing effect of the painter's handiwork. It portrays a group entranced by the spell that has doomed to a hundred years of abeyance and motionlessness the life of the king's palace and the Sleeping Beauty. In the poems of Keats and Tennyson, as I say, artists find their sculptures and paintings already designed for them, so that these poets are the easiest of all to illustrate with its liberties and bounds.some measure of adequacy. The theme of the following lines, rendered by a painter, would show the whole group and scene at a flash of the eye; poetry cannot do this, yet, aided by its moving panorama, the listener has painted all in his mind when the last word is uttered:—
"More like a picture seemeth all
Than those old portraits of old kings,
That watch the sleepers from the wall.
"Here sits the butler with a flask
Between his knees, half-drain'd; and there
The wrinkled steward at his task,
The maid-of-honor blooming fair;
The page has caught her hand in his:
Her lips are sever'd as to speak:
His own are pouted to a kiss:
The blush is fix'd upon her cheek."
It is to be noted, as we read, that Tennyson's personages, and those of Keats as well, are Artist-poets.mostly conventional figures, as characterless as those on a piece of tapestry. The genius of neither poet is preferably dramatic: they do not get at individuality by dramatic insight like Shakespeare, nor by monodramatic soliloquy and analysis, like the strenuous Browning. Their dramas are for the most part masques containing eidullia (little pictures); though who can doubt that Keats, had he lived, would have developed the highest dramatic power? Remember what the less sensuous, more lyrical Shelley achieved in "The Cenci," when only four years beyond the age at which Keats imagined his "gold Hyperion, love-lorn Porphyro." The poet infuses Life by his command of vocal movement.But, to resume, see what poetry, in addition to the foregoing counterfeit of the painter's ocular presentment, can bring about in its own field through its faculty of movement in time—a power entirely wanting to the arts which it has just mimicked. Note how it breaks the spell of transfixed attitude, of breathless color and suspended action; how it lets loose the torrents of Life at the instant of the "fated fairy prince's" experimental kiss:—
"A touch, a kiss! the charm was snapt.
There rose a noise of striking clocks,
And feet that ran, and doors that clapt,
And barking dogs, and crowing cocks;
A fuller light illumined all,
A breeze thro' all the garden swept,
A sudden hubbub shook the hall,
And sixty feet the fountain leapt. ········ The maid and page renew'd their strife,
The palace bang'd, and buzz'd, and clackt,
And all the long-pent stream of life
Dash'd downward in a cataract."
That is the stream which the painter has no art to undam. Only by a succession of pictures can he suggest its motion or follow the romance to its sequel; and that he can do even this with some fitness in the case of a Tennysonian ballad is because the laureate, as we see, counterfeits the painter's own method more artistically than other idyllists of rank in our time. If art is the fit and beautiful conformation of matter infused with the spirit of man, it He is again supreme.must indeed have life. The most nimble, ardent, varied transfer of the vital spirit is by means of language, and of all language that of the poet is the most alive and expressive. Observe, again, that in what are called art circles—Arcadian groups of those devoted to art and letters—the imaginative writers are apt to interest themselves far more with respect to the plastic arts than the sculptors and painters with respect to poetry and romance; and well they may, since the poet enriches his work by using all artistic effects, while nothing is more dangerous to a painter, for example, than that he should give his picture a literary cast, as the phrase is, and make it too closely tell a story or rehearse a poem. This of itself tends to confirm Lessing's apothegm that "the poet is as far beyond the painter as life is better than a picture."
The conquests of poetry, in fine, are those of pure intelligence, and of emotion that is unfettered.Final analysis and summary of the chief of arts. Like the higher mathematics, it is not dependent on diagrams, for the mind to which it appeals is a responsive draughtsman of lines finer and more complex than any known to brush or graver. It creates no beauty of form beyond the accidental symbols grouped in script and print, none of light and color, while the ear is less touched by it than by the melodies or harmonies of music; for its melody is that of flexible speech, and it knows not counterpoint, but must resort to the value of successive strains. Yet we say that it has form and outline of its own, an architecture of its own, its own warmth and color, and, like music, life, and withal no little of music's vocal charm, in that through words it idealizes these "sweet influences," and is chartered to convey them all to the inward sight, the spiritual hearing, of the citadeled soul, with so apt suggestion that the poet's fellow-mortals, of like passions and perceptions with himself, see and hear and feel with much of his distinct individuality. Its vibrations excite the reflex action that creates in the mind of the receiver a vision corresponding to the imagination of the poet. Here is its specific eminence: it enables common mortals to think as the poet thinks, to use his wings, move through space and time, and out of space and time, untrammelled as the soul itself; it can feel, moan, weep, laugh, be eloquent, love, hate, aspire, for all and with its maker; can reflect, and know, and ever seek for knowledge; can portray all times and seasons, and describe, express, interpret, the hiddenmost nature of man. Through poetry soul addresses soul without hindrance, by the direct medium of speech. Words are its atmosphere and very being: language, which raises man above the speechless intelligences; which, with resources of pitch, cadence, time, tone, and universal rhythm, is in a sense a more advanced and complex music than music itself—that idealized language which, as it ever has been the earliest form of emotional expression, appears almost a gift captured in man's infancy from some "imperial palace whence he came." To the true poet, then, we say, like the bard to Israfel:—
"The ecstasies above
With thy burning measures suit—
Thy grief, thy joy, thy hate, thy love,
With the fervor of thy lute—
Well may the stars be mute."
- ↑ Johns Hopkins University.
- ↑ Since the first appearance of this lecture I have seen a finely penetrative essay by Mr. J. W. Comyns Carr (The New Quarterly Magazine, October, 1875), in which this same Ode is quoted to illustrate the ideal calm sought for by "The Artistic Spirit in Modern Poetry." As no better example can be found, in conveyance of the poetic and the plastic methods respectively, I do not hesitate to retain it.