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Godlessness Mars Most Contemporary Poetry  (1916) 
by Joyce Kilmer

Godlessness Mars Most Contemporary Poetry

Mrs. Coates Finds Modern Poets Nervously Seeking Novelties, and Says in Art There Can Be Nothing New That Is Not Ugly

WHAT is the matter with modern poetry? Perhaps you think that nothing is the matter with it. Perhaps you think that a renascence of the art is in progress, that poetry has not for many years been so healthy and so popular.

But one of the most distinguished of living poets—Florence Earle Coates—believes that something serious is the matter with modern poetry; that much of it is godless. Furthermore, she denies that there has been a renascence of poetry, or that there was any need of one; and the recent interest in morbidly realistic or fantastic stories told in rhymed or free verse she regards as anything but a sign of health.

Mrs. Coates is one of the few American poets who are read in Europe as well as in their own country. The art which won for her the praise of Matthew Arnold has gained for her admission into the columns of the Athenaeum and other English reviews and has given to her five books of verse the standing of contemporary classics. Her opinions as to the present status of the art of poetry, therefore, in addition to being interesting, are not without authority.

To a representative of The New York Times Magazine who recently called on her in her beautiful Philadelphia home Mrs. Coates expressed a strong belief in the enduring vitality of the art of poetry. But much of the most conspicuous verse of the day she seemed to regard as of no permanent value. She said:

"The trouble with much modern poetry, with much poetry that is widely read, highly praised, and extensively advertised, is that it is absolutely godless. I find that few of the poets who have been conspicuous during the last few years have any ideal, anything large or final to say.

"Some of the modern poets deliberately choose distasteful subjects, subjects that are mean and morbid and base. They show a perverse affection for ugliness and ill-health.

"Now, poetry that endures is not produced by writers who have this attitude toward life. Of course in the great masters of literature you will find occasional lapses of taste, occasional instances of ugliness.

"Amidst the sublimities of 'Lear,' Shakespeare introduces one wholly tasteless act. But with the masters of letters these things are the exception, not the rule. The great masters know that 'art is dedicated to joy.'

"The business of art is to enlarge and correct the heart and to lift our ideals out of the ugly and the mean through love of the ideal. Maeterlinck says: 'Il faut avoir une âme!'—'We must have a soul!' The business of art is to appeal to the soul.

"Of course you do not find this obsession with baseness among all modern poets. Some of them you can see steadily growing through their love of the noble and beautiful. Think of John Masefield, for example. There is a man who is constantly growing because of his love for big things—things like the restless and tremendous sea. His love for great things has stretched his soul. His realization of great ships and great spaces and great deeds has enlarged his vision as a poet's vision should be enlarged."

Mrs. Coates was asked what ether defects she saw in contemporary poetry. She instanced novelty—deliberate novelty, novelty nervously sought for its own sake.

"One of my strongest artistic convictions," she said, "is that in poetry a pretense to originality is ridiculous. In art there can be nothing new but what is ugly. There is nothing in poetry that was not known to Sophocles, Euripides, Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton.

"In art there can be nothing new. But there can be new expressions of the same divine original thing. In architecture and sculpture there can be nothing new, and this is true of all the arts, and especially of poetry.

"Maeterlinck says that compared with ordinary truths mystic truths have strange privileges—they can neither age nor die. Beauty is eternal and ugliness, thank God, is ephemeral. Can there be any question as to which should attract the poet?"

"I wish," said Mrs. Coates, "that all young poets would keep their minds and souls sensitive to the appeals of beauty. As has been said, there is nothing in the world capable of such spontaneous uplifting and speedy ennoblement as the soul. It may seem for the moment to be satisfied, but it has always a thirst for a wilder beauty than this world knows. And poetry, which is the voice of the soul's aspirations, has for it, of all the arts, the most natural and immediate appeal.

"Sculpture and painting are moments of life. Poetry is life itself. The muses, as Hesiod tells us, were formed in order that they might be a forgetfulness of evils and a truce to cares. The future of poetry should be, must be, in the hearts of children, lifting them above mean desires and helping them to believe, with Socrates, that they who have the fewest wants are nearest to the gods."

Mrs. Coates might be called a pragmatic poet or a poetic pragmatist. She believes strongly in the use of poetry as a means of spiritual education.

"As one looks today," she said, "at the young women in the streets of Paris, London, New York, and Philadelphia, as one sees the lack of modesty shown in their dress and the poverty and vulgarity of ideals written on the faces of many of them, one wonders if it would not have been different with them if they had early learned to know and love such women as Ruth, Esther, Imogen, Cordelia, and Desdemona 'in her untouched purity.'

"I have sometimes thought that a youth who had never entered a church (I speak reverently) but who had known and committed to memory the great poetry of the English Bible and the great poetry of Shakespeare's plays would be better trained religiously than one who had listened to countless sermons with indifferent and half-attentive ears.

"Lord Bryce, who has said many penetrating things regarding us, declares that America needs poets. Happily for us and for the world, poetry is as immortal as the heart of man. In the future we must go on, as we have done in the past, 'Still nursing the unconquerable hope, still clutching the inviolable shade.'"

Mrs. Coates was asked her opinion of the loudly heralded renascence of poetry. She added:

"You know that it has been said 'When you want to read a new book, read an old one.' To a certain extent I think this is good advice so far as poetry is concerned. But I don't want to seem too censorious about contemporary poets. We have many gifted and conscientious artists for whose work we may well be grateful.

"But poetry needed no renascence. It was not young, it is not old.

"This apparent sudden popularity of poetry, indicated by the existence of many little magazines of verse and by large sales of books of verse sensational in character, does not mean that there is a renascence of poetry. The atmosphere of poetry today seems strained and unnatural. There is an attempt to force the growth of poetry.

"Many modern poets seem to think that poetry should be sensual. It should not—it should be sensuous. It should be vivid, manifest to the senses. Poetry should be 'simple, sensuous, and passionate.' Much of our modern verse is neither simple, nor sensuous, nor impassioned; it is merely sensual."

The quotations from Matthew Arnold suggested to Mrs. Coates an anecdote of the great English poet and critic who was her friend and, to a certain extent, her discoverer.

"When Mr. Arnold was visiting us," she said, "we were standing one day in the Academy of the Fine Arts, when a stranger came up to Mr. Arnold, introduced himself as an admirer of his work, and asked: 'Why don't you write more poetry?'

"Mr. Arnold did not say 'I am interested in other things' or 'I hope to when I have more time.' Instead of this he simply said, 'Oh, poetry is so difficult!'

"You see, Matthew Arnold knew and loved poetry. And when he could no longer write poetry he ceased attempting to do so. He didn't want to write verse.

"I think that in that reply of Matthew Arnold's there is a moral for our day. Here we had our greatest English critic, a marvelous translator of the classics, a true poet, the author of some of the most exquisite things in our language. When he could no longer write poetry he wrote prose, not verse. And because he was Matthew Arnold, he wrote great prose. 'Poetry is so difficult,' he said.

"If our writers can't write poetry, why don't they write prose? Why do they write so much verse?

"So many modern poets are interested in what is commonplace; in the average and the common, and not in what is just as universal but on a higher level."

In reply to a question as to the causes of this tendency to select base and morbid subjects now noticeable among the poets Mrs. Coates said:

"I think that this brings us back to my first charge against contemporary poets. William T. Richards, the painter, said that nothing great was ever done in this world except from the attitude of the knees. And I think many of our poets are never on their knees.

"Much of this mad modernity in the arts began in the Salons. The artists desired to attract attention—they ceased to be worshippers of beauty. They found that disease and ugliness attracted attention more quickly than health and beauty.

"Some of the poets seem to think that to find truth it is necessary to go far down in humanity. And they think that the truth they find there is the only truth. But there is a higher truth and a lower truth, and it is the higher truth that is the proper subject of poetry.

"The terrible and the tragic are legitimate subjects for poetic treatment, but the disgusting is not. There is no true poetry that is not dedicated to the soul and to joy.

"A gifted reader can bring tears to the eyes of almost any one by repeating certain poetry. And the tears will be brought by the beauty of the things repeated. People are not really moved by what is ugly. Ugliness in poetry they may find clever and interesting. But it is only beauty that 'snatches the breath and fills the eyes with tears.'"