Alexander Smith



The Philosophy of Poetry.


Literatur: Smith
Literatur: Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine


FEW questions have more frequently been asked, than that – "wherein does poetry differ from prose?" and few questions have been less satisfactorily answered. Those who have little taste for poetry, have seldom troubled themselves about this matter at all, while those who regard the art with enthusiasm, have seemed to shrink from too narrow an examination of the object of their adoration, as if they felt that they might thereby dissipate a charming illusion, and increase their knowledge at the expense of their enjoyment. For my own part, I confess myself one of those who are not so much dazzled with the charms of poetry, as to be unable to examine them steadily, or describe them coolly. My interest in it is such as to incline me to speculate upon the nature of its attractions, while I am yet sufficiently insensible to those attractions to be able to pursue my speculations with the most philosophical composure.

The term prose, is used in two significations; in one of which it stands opposed to poetry – in the other, to verse. It being admitted, however, that verse is not essential to poetry, it follows that prose, in the sense in which it is merely opposed to verse, may be poetry – and, in the sense in which it is merely opposed to poetry, may be verse. What is to be inquired here, is, what is the nature, not of verse, but of poetry, as opposed to prose. So strong, however, is the connexion between poetry and verse, that this [828] subject would be but very indifferently treated should that connexion fail to be properly accounted for; and I shall, in the sequel, have occasion to point out how it happens that verse must, generally speaking, always be poetry.

It seems to me that a clear line of demarcation exists between poetry and prose, and one which admits of being plainly and accurately pointed out.

No distinction is more familiarly apprehended by those who have considered the different states in which the mind exists, or acts which it performs, than that which subsists between acts or states of intelligence, and acts or states of emotion. Acts or states of intelligence are those in which the mind perceives, believes, comprehends, infers, remembers. Acts or states of emotion are those in which it hopes, feare, rejoices, sorrows, loves, hates, admires, or dislikes. The essential distinction between poetry and prose is this: – prose is the language of intelligence, poetry of emotion. In prose, we communicate our knowledge of the objects of sense or thought – in poetry, we express how these objects affect us.

In order, however, to appreciate the justice of the definition of poetry now given, the term feeling, or emotion, must be taken in a somewhat wider, but more logical or philosophical, sense, than its ordinary acceptation warrants. In common discourse, if I mistake not, we apply the word emotion more exclusively to mental affections of a more violent kind, or at least only to high degrees of mental affection in general. Except in philosophical writings, the perception of the beautiful is not designated as a state of emotion. A man who is tranquilly admiring a soft and pleasing landscape, is not, in common language, said to be in a state of emotion; neither are curiosity, cheerfulness, elation, reckoned emotions. A man is said to be under emotion, who is strongly agitated with grief, anger, fear. At present, however, we include, in the term emotion, every species of mental (as distinct from bodily) pleasure or pain, desire or aversion, and all degrees of these states.

It will be asked, does every expression of emotion then constitute poetry? I answer it does, as regards the specific character of poetry, and that which distinguishes it from prose. Every expression of emotion is poetry, in the same way, but only in the same way, as every succession of sounds, at musical intervals, every single chord, is music. In one sense, we call such successions or harmonies music, only when they are combined into rhythmical pieces of a certain length; so we only call the expression of emotion poetry, when it expands itself to a certain extent, and assumes a peculiar defined form – of which more afterwards. But as even two or three notes, succeeding one another, or struck together at certain intervals, are music, as distinct from any other succession or combinations of sounds – such as the noise of machinery, of water, of firearms, so is the shortest exclamation expressive of emotion poetry, as distinct from the expression of any intellectual act, such as that of belief, comprehension, knowledge. To which it is to be added, that though looking to the specific essence of poetry, every expression of feeling is poetry, yet that expression may always be more or less true and successful; and, as we sometimes say of a dull or insipid air, that there is no music in it – so we say, that a composition, in its essential character poetical, is not poetry – as meaning, that it is not good poetry – i. e. though an expression of feeling, yet not of a refined feeling, or not a faithful, an affecting, or a striking expression of it.

By the language of emotion, however, I mean the language in which that emotion vents itself – not the description of the emotion, or the affirmation that it is felt. Such description or affirmation is the mere communication of a fact – the affirmation that I feel something. This is prose. Between such and the expression of emotion, there is much the same difference as that which exists between the information a person might give us of his feeling bodily pain, and the exclamations or groans which his suffering might extort from him.

But by expressions of feeling or emotion, it is not, of course, to be supposed that I mean mere exclamation. Feeling can only be expressed so as to excite the sympathy of others – (being the end for which it [829] is expressed) – with referenceto a cause or object moving that feeling. Such cause or object, in order to be comprehended, may require to be stated in the form of a proposition or propositions (whether general or particular), as in a narrative, a description or a series of moral truths. The essential character, however, of a poetical narrative or description, and that which distinguishes it from a merely prosaic one, is this – that its direct object is not to convey information, but to intimate a subject of feeling, and transmit that feeling from one mind to another. In prose, the main purpose of the writer or speaker is to inform, or exhibit truth. The information may excite emotion, but this is only an accidental effect. In poetry, on the other hand, the information furnished is merely subsidiary to the conveyance of the emotion. The particulars of the information are not so properly stated or told, as appealed or referred to by the speaker for the purpose of discovering and justifying his emotion, and creating a sympathetic participation of it in the mind of the hearer.

The description of a scene or an incident may be highly picturesque, striking, or even affecting, and yet not in the slightest degree poetical, merely because it is communicated as information, not referred to as an object creating emotion; because the writer states the fact accurately and distinctly as it is, but does not exhibit himself as affected or moved by it. Take the following extract, for instance: –

"The Torch was lying at anchor in Bluefields' Bay. It was between eight and nine in the morning. The land wind had died away, and the sea breeze had not set in – there was not a breath stirring. The pennant from the masthead fell sluggishly down, and clung amongst the rigging like a dead snake; whilst the folds of the St George's ensign that hung from the mizen peak were as motionless, as if they had been carved in marble.

"The anchorage was one unbroken mirror, except where its glass-like surface was shivered into sparkling ripples by the gambols of a skip jack, or the flashing stoop of his enemy the pelican; and the reflection of the vessel was so clear and steady, that at the distance of a cable's length you could not distinguish the water line, nor tell where the substance ended and shadow began, until the casual dashing of a bucket overboard for a few moments broke up the phantom ship; but the wavering fragments soon re-united, and she again floated double, like the swan of the poet. The heat was so intense, that the iron stancheons of the awning could not be grasped with the hand; and where the decks were not screened by it, the pitch boiled out from the seams. The swell rolled in from the offing, in long shining undulations, like a sea of quicksilver, whilst every now and then a flying fish would spark out from the unruffled bosom of the heaving water, and shoot away like a silver arrow, until it dropped with a flash into the sea again. There was not a cloud in the heavens; but a quivering blue haze hung over the land, through which the white sugar works and overseers' houses on the distant estates appeared to twinkle like objects seen through a thin smoke, whilst each of the tall stems of the cocoa-nut trees on the beach, when looked at steadfastly, seemed to be turning round with a small spiral motion, like so many endless screws. There was a dreamy indistinctness about the outlines of the hills, even in the immediate vicinity, which increased as they receded, until the blue mountains in the horizon melted into sky." *

It would seem to me impossible for words to convey a more vivid picture than is here presented; yet there is not, I think, more poetry in it than in the specification of a patent.

To illustrate the distinction between poetry and prose, we may remark, that words of precisely the same grammatical and verbal import, nay, the same words, may be either prose or poetry, according as they are pronounced without, or with feeling; according as they are uttered, merely to inform or to express and communicate emotion. "The sun is set," merely taken as stating a fact, and uttered with the [830] enunciation, and in the tone in which we communicate a fact, is just as truly prose, as "it is a quarter past nine o'clock." "The sun is set," uttered as an expression of the emotions which the contemplation of that event excites in a mind of sensibility, is poetry; and, simple as are the words, would, with unexceptionable propriety, find place in a poetical composition. "My son Absalom" is an expression of precisely similar import to "my brother Dick," or "my uncle Toby," not a whit more poetical than either of these, in which there is assuredly no poetry. It would be difficult to say that "oh! Absalom, my son, my son," is not poetry; yet the grammatical and verbal import of the words is exactly the same in both cases. The interjection "oh," and the repetition of the words "my son," add nothing whatever to the meaning; but they have the effect of making words which are otherwise but the intimation of a fact, the expression of an emotion of exceeding depth and interest, and thus render them eminently poetical. *

The poem of Unimore, published sometime ago by Professor Wilson in Blackwood's Magazine, commences with these words:

"Morven, and morn, and spring, and solitude."

Suppose these to be the explanatory words at the beginning of a dramatic piece, and stated thus: "Scene, Morven, a solitary tract in the Highlands – season, spring – time, the morning," it would be absurd to say that the import conveyed is not precisely the same. Why is the second mode of expression prose? Simply because it informs. Why is the first poetry? (and who, in entering on the perusal of the composition, the commencement of which it forms, would deny it to be poetry?) because it conveys not information, but emotion; or at least what information it contains is not offered as such, being only an indirect intimation of the objects in regard to which the emotion is felt. The words, pronounced in a certain rhythm and tone, are those of a person placed in the situation described, and in the state of feeling which that situation would excite, the feeling, namely, of sublimity, inspired by solitude and mountainous or romantic scenery; of beauty, by the brilliant hues of the morning sky, the splendour of the rising sun, and the bright green of the new leaves yet sparkling with dew; the feeling of tenderness, which we experience in regard to the infancy, not less of the vegetable, than of the animal world; the feeling, lastly, of complacent delight with which we compare the now passed desolation and coldness of winter, with the warmth and animation of the present and the approaching period. These are the feelings, joined perhaps with various legendary associations connected with the scene, that would be conveyed by the words we are considering. Pronouncing these words in the tone and manner which disposes us to sympathize with the feelings with which they were uttered, and exerting our imagination to promote that sympathy, we experience a peculiar delight which no words, conveying mere information, could create; we attribute that delight to the poetical character of the composition.

So much for what may be called the soul of poetry. Let us next consider the peculiarities of its bodily form, and outward appearance.

It is well known that emotions express themselves in different tones and inflections of voice from those that are used to communicate mere processes of thought, properly so called; and also that, in the former case, the words of the speaker fall into more smooth and rythmical combinations than in the latter. Our [831] feelings are conveyed in a melodious succession of tones, and in a measured flow of words; our thoughts (and in a greater degree the less they are accompanied with feeling) are conveyed in irregular periods, and at harsh intervals of tone. Blank verse and rhyme are but more artificial dispositions of the natural expressions of feeling. They are adapted to the expression of feeling, i. e., suitable for poetry – but not necessary to it. They do not constitute poetry when they do not express feeling. The propositions of Euclid, the laws of Justinian, the narratives of Hume, might be thrown into as elaborate verse as ever Pope or Darwin composed; but they would never, even in that shape, be taken for poetry, unless so far as a certain structure of words is a natural indication of feeling. Indeed, when there is a possibility, from the nature of the subject, that feeling may be excited, the use of a measured structure of words, and a harmonious inflection of tones, implies that the speaker is in a state of feeling; and hence what he utters we should denominate poetry.

And in this behold the true reason why verse and poetry pass in common discourse for synonymous terms – verse, especially when recited in the modulations of voice requisite to give it its proper effect, possessing necessarily the peculiar qualities which distinguish an expression of feeling. Hence it may perhaps be truly said, that though all poetry is not verse, all serious verse is poetry – poetry in its kind, at least, if not of the degree of excellence to which we may choose to limit the designation. I say, all serious verse – because a great part of the amusement we find in humorous and burlesque poetry, arises from the incongruity observed between the language – that of feeling – and the subject, which may not only have no tendency to excite such feeling, but to excite a feeling of an opposite kind. But that – although verse, generally speaking, is poetry – poetry may exist without verse (although never without rhythmical language), is evident from a reference, for example, to the compositions ascribed to Ossian, which none would deny to be poetry.

These considerations explain how that which, in its original language, is poetry, becomes, in a translation, however exactly and properly conveying the meaning, the merest prose. The following translation of Horace, by Smart, conveys the exact meaning of the original. Why, then, is it not poetry? (For who would ever take it for poetry?) Simply, because it is not formed into the rhythmical periods, and thence does not suggest the melodious inflections in which we convey emotion. And it is yet in our power, by speaking it in a feeling manner, to give it the character of poetry: –

"The royal edifices will, in a short time, leave but a few acres for the plough. Ponds of wider extent than the Lucrine lake, will be every where to be seen; and the barren plane-tree will supplant the elms. Then banks of violets, and myrtle groves, and all the tribe of nosegays, shall diffuse their odours in the olive plantations, which were fruitful to their preceding master. Then the dense boughs of the laurel shall exclude the burning beams. It was not so prescribed by the institutes of Romulus, and the unshaven Cato, and ancient custom. Their private revenue was contracted, while that of the community was great. No private men were then possessed of ten-foot galleries, which collected the shady northern breezes; nor did the laws permit them to reject the casual turf for their own huts, though at the same time they obliged them to ornament, in the most sumptuous manner, with new stone, the buildings of the public, and the temples of the gods, at a common expense. *"

But although verse, however highly adapted to poetry, is not essential to it, it is found very materially to heighten the intrinsic charms of poetical composition. [832] There is a pleasure derired from the reading of harmonious * verse, whether blank or rhymed, altogether distinct from any that is conveyed by the mere sense or meaning of a composition, and which indeed is capable of being excited by the verse of an unknown language. Of the cause of this pleasure we can (so far as I am aware) give no other account than that such is our constitution; although there is no doubt that our perception of contrivance and ingenuity – of difficulty overcome (and apparently no slight difficulty) – enters largely into the delight which we feel; a delight too which admits of receiving great increase from the infinite varieties of form and combination which verses and rhymes are capable of assuming. The same observation holds with regard to music; the pleasure derived from the different varieties of musical rhythm being distinct from – though eminently auxiliary to – that excited by the melody and harmony. Music, however, is far more dependent for its full effect upon rhythmical division, than poetry is upon verse. In the former, as well as in the latter, the observation of contrivance adds very materially to the gratification. Hence the use of musical fugues, canons, &c. And I would observe, by the way, that a censure frequently passed in regard to musical compositions of a more elaborate cast, by persons whose ear is not sufficiently exercised to discern the merits of such – namely, that a taste for such composition is an unnatural and false taste – is by no means a reasonable one; or at least it is no more reasonable than a similar censure would be on our permitting ourselves to be gratified by the varieties of verse and rhyme in poetry. I am not sure, indeed, but there have been persons of so etherealized a taste, as even to profess a squeamishness in regard to the use of rhyme.

Nor is verse merely adapted, in a general way, to the expression of emotion. The infinite variety of particular measures and rhymes some swift and lively, some slow and melancholy – are available by the poet for the purpose of heightening every expression of sentiment. Hence, while he ministers to the physical delight of the ear, and gratifies us by the perception of the art displayed in his easy and correct versification, he humours the character or the caprices of his subject, by causing his verses sometimes to glide on in a smooth unmurmuring stream – sometimes to dash away with a noisy and startling vehemence.

But farther – the language of emotion is generally figurative or imaginative language. It is of the nature of emotion to express itself in the most forcible manner – in the manner most adapted to justify itself, and light up a kindred flame in the breast of the auditor. Hence the poet flies from the use of literal phraseology as unfit for his purpose; and the eye of his fancy darts hither and thither, until it lights on the figures or images that will most vividly and rapidly convey the sentiment that fills his soul. The mind, anxious to convey not the truth or fact with regard to the object of its contemplation, but its own feelings as excited by the object, pours forth the stream of its associations as they rise from their source. Our perceptions of external events and objects are distinct, fixed, and particular. The feelings which such objects excite are dim, fluctuating, ge[833]neral. Our language is correspondent in each case. Hence many expressions highly poetical, that is, eminently fitted for conveying a feeling from one mind to another, would be, if taken in reference to the object, and considered in their grammatical meaning, absolutely nonsensical. Washington Irving speaks of the "dusty splendour" of Westminster Abbey – an expression deservedly admired for the vividness of the impression it conveys. Taken as conveying a specific matter of information, it is absolute nonsense. Splendour is not a subject of which dusty could be an attribute; a space or a body might be dusty; but the splendour of an object might, in strict propriety of language, as well be spoken of as long, or loud, or square. So in the line,

"The starry Galileo and his woes,"

the literal inapplicability of the epithet "starry" to an astronomer is obvious. The expression is one, not of a truth that is perceived, but of an association that is felt. No epithet, signifying the mere addiction of Galileo to astronomical pursuits, could have struck us like that which thus suggests the visible glories that belong to the field of his speculations. From the consideration now illustrated, it results also, that the imagery, having often no essential connexion with the object, but merely an accidental connexion in the mind of the poet, strikes one class of readers in the most forcible manner, and fails of all effect with others. The expression of Milton – "smoothing the raven plume of darkness till it smiled," is greatly admired, or at least often quoted. I must confess, that, to my mind, it is like a parcel of words set down at random. I may observe, indeed, that many persons of an imaginative frame of mind, and who, in consequence, take a great delight in the mere exercise of imagination (and who at the same time possess a delicate ear for verse), find any poetry exquisite, however destitute of meaning, which merely suggests ideas or images that may serve as the germs of fancy in their own minds. There are many passages in Byron – Wordsworth – Young – and these enthusiastically admired, which, I must confess, are to me utterly unintelligible; or at least, the understanding of which (where that is possible) I find to require as great an exercise of thought as would be required by so much of Butler's Analogy, or Euclid's Demonstrations.

Lastly – as regards the peculiar character of the language of poetry – it is important to observe, that a principal cause of the boldness and variety that may be remarked to belong to poetical expression, is one which would, at first sight, seem to produce an effect directly the reverse; this is – the fetters imposed by the verse. The expression which would be the most obvious, and even the most exact (if exactitude were what was most required), is often not the one that will suit the verse. The consequence is, that a new one must be coined for the purpose; and I believe every poet would admit that some of his happiest epithets and most adorned expressions have been lighted upon in the course of a search for terms of a certain metrical dimension. The necessity of obeying the laws of the verse, leads also to a peculiar latitude in the application of terms; and as the impression of this necessity is also present to the mind of the reader, he readily grants the poetical license to the composer, and admits of verbal combinations, which, in prose, would seem far-fetched and affected. Thus the verse, then, instead of contracting, extends the choice of expression. The aptitude of a term or an epithet to fill the verse, becomes part of its aptitude in general; and what is first tolerated from its necessity, is next applauded for its novelty.

Behold now the whole character of poetry. It is essentially the expression of emotion; but the expression of emotion takes place by measured language (it may be verse, or it may not) – harmonious tones – and figurative phraseology. And it will, I think, invariably be found, that wherever a passage, line, or phrase of a poetical composition, is censured as being of a prosaic character, it is from its conveying some matter of mere information, not subsidiary to the prevailing emotion, and breaking the continuity of that emotion.

It might perhaps be thought a more accurate statement, if, instead of defining poetry to be in its es[834]sence the language of emotion and representing the imaginative character of poetry as merely resulting from its essential nature as thus defined, I had included its imaginative character in the definition, and made that character part of the essence of poetry. It will seem that the "language of imagination" would be to the full as just a definition of poetry as the "language of emotion;" or, at least, that these are respectively the definitions of two different species of poetry, each alike entitled to the denomination. I shall assign the reasons why I consider the statement I have adopted to be a more true and philosophical one than that now supposed.

In the first place, the conveyance, by language, of an imaginative mental process, needs not be in the slightest degree poetical. A novel is entirely a work of imagination – it is not therefore a poem. The description of an imagined scene or event, needs not indeed differ in the least from that of a real one; it may therefore be purely prosaical. It is not the imaginative process by itself, and merely as such, but the feelings that attend it, the expression of which constitutes poetry. So much as regards the subject of a composition. As regards style, in like manner, there may be a great deal of imagery or figurative phraseology in a composition, without entitling it to be reckoned poetical; or, so far as entitled to be called poetical, it will be found to be expressive of emotion. On the other hand, the expression of emotion, even in relation to an actual scene or event (if it is merely the language of emotion and not that of persuasion – which, as elsewhere remarked, is the definition of eloquence) is, in every case, poetical, and notwithstanding that the style may be perfectly free from imagery or figure; nor again, without implying emotion on the part of the writer or speaker, will any language, or any subject, be poetical. It is then essential to poetry to be of an emotive – not essential to it to be of an imaginative character. But this imaginative character, though not of the essence of poetry, results from that essence. It is in a moved or excited state of mind, and only, I might say, in a moved or excited state, that we resort to the use of figure or imagery. The exercise of imagination is pleasurable chiefly as an indulgence of emotion. Do we usually exercise imagination on uninteresting subjects? – or what does interesting or uninteresting mean, but exciting or not exciting emotion? What else is it but our craving desire to admire – to be awed – to sympathize – to love – to regret – to hope; in one word, to feel or to be moved, that leads us to picture in the mind, scenes, or forms, or characters of beauty or grandeur; or states of enjoyment or distress; or situations of agony or rapture; or incidents of horror or delight; or deeds of heroism, or tenderness, or mercy, or cruelty? Why do we recall the joys or the sorrows that are past? why do we dwell on hopes that have been blighted – affections that have been crushed – delusions that have been dispelled? Why do we summon up the scenes and the companions of our childhood and youth? It is because such images or pictures move us – and poetry is the expression of our emotions.

So intimate is the connexion between emotion and fancy, that it is often not very easy to say whether the feeling is the parent of the image by which it expresses itself, or whether, on the contrary, the image is the parent of the feeling. The truth seems to be, that they produce and reproduce one another. Feeling generates fancy; and fancy, in its turn, upholds and nourishes feeling. If, as Mr Alison has maintained, and as most people seem disposed to grant, the pleasures of taste are resolvable in a great measure into a certain delight which we experience in pursuing a train of images and associations – the intimate connexion between emotion and fancy, and the consequent tendency to express emotion (or at least the emotions of taste) by figures and imagery, will be at once apparent. It is however sufficient for my present purpose to exhibit the fact of the connexion.

We may, in one or two familiar instances, exemplify the nature of the poetical character, and the intimacy of the union that subsists between fancy and emotion.

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day."

[835] The vital character of this line, as constituting it poetry, is, that it is not the mere fact or truth – (namely, that the tolling of the bell is a sign of the ending of the day) – that the words of the poet aim at communicating, but his emotion in regard to the fact; and, filled as his mind is with this emotion, his fancy first flies away to the origin of the evening bell, and, as we may imagine, rapidly wanders amid the associations of antiquity and romance, which link themselves to the name of the curfew. The sound of the bell, intimating the close of day, he invests, for the moment, with the import of the death knell summoning a soul from life; and the epithet "parting," bespeaks the similitude of his present frame of mind to that excited by the interruption of a cherished intercourse with an animated being – with a companion, a friend, a lover.

"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank."

The obvious purpose of these words is to express a feeling, not to furnish a matter of information; and the feeling cannot be adequately expressed by literal, or without figurative phraseology. "To represent the tranquillity of moonlight is the object of this line; and the sleep is beautiful, because it gives a more intense and living form of the same idea; the rhythm falls beautifully in with this, and just lets the cadence of the emphasis dwell upon the sound and sense of the sweet word 'sleep,' and the alliteration assimilates the rest of the line into one harmonious symmetry." *

And here I may distinguish two different exercises of the imagination in poetry. The first of these is where a figure of speech – a trope or metaphor – is used for the mere purpose of giving strength or illustration to some expression of feeling. The other – and what is more properly called imagery in poetry – is where the recollection or imagination of a sensible impression is that itself which moves the feeling. In many cases – as in the instance just quoted – the two operations are blended. And as sensible objects are so often the exciting causes of feeling, the happy conveyance of the impressions they create is one of the chief arts of the poet. Hence the picturesque character of poetical language – its aptitude to present a picture or image of an actual object calculated to affect us.

We may now see that a poetical genius – a poetical taste – may be said to consist essentially of sensibility (or aptitude to feel emotion), and, by consequence, of imagination (or aptitude to place ourselves in situations exciting emotion). The poet – the reader of poetry – seeks not to know truth as distinct from falsehood or error – to reason or draw inferences – to generalize – to classify – to distinguish; he seeks for what may move his awe – admiration – pity – tenderness; scenes of sublimity and beauty; incidents exciting fear, suspense, grief – joy – surprise – cheerfulness – regret. Whether these scenes or these incidents are real or fictitious, he cares not. It is enough to him that he can imagine them. Behold the compressed lips –the knitted brows – the fixed and sharpened eye of the philosophical enquirer, whose aim it is to know – to discover and communicate truth. The character of his countenance is that of keen penetration, as if he would dart his glances into the innermost recesses of science. Compare with this the open forehead – the rolling eye – the flexible mouth – the changing features of the poet, whose aim it is to feel, and convey his feeling. His countenance has been moulded to the expression of feeling, and is a constant record of that succession of emotions which passes through his breast.

Let us not suppose, however, that the pleasure derived from poetical composition is simply a pleasure [836] arising from being in a state of emotion. Many emotions are themselves far from pleasant; but we take pleasure in the skilful expression of these emotions, for the same reason that we are often delighted with the picture of an object which would itself attract no notice, or be positively offensive or painful.

A survey of the different species of poetical composition will serve to illustrate and strengthen the preceding statements.

In an epic or narrative poem, some event, or connected chain of events, is narrated with the various feelings which arise from the view of such event or events, and in a manner calculated to excite a sympathetic participation of these feelings in the mind of the hearer or reader. The historian of such transactions merely speaks for our information. He arranges his subjects so as to give us the clearest understanding of the dates, course and connexion of the incidents. The poet seeks not to inform us, or, at least, this is not his ultimate or principal object, but merely subsidiary to the expression of his own emotions, and the excitement of similar emotions in the breasts of others. Hence, instead of a methodical introduction such as a historian would adopt, he plunges at once in medias res – places before us some scene, strongly calculated, both from its own character and the apparent feelings with which he describes it, to excite our interest. Our curiosity once raised, he continues at once to gratify and keep alive, by the presentation of a succession of circumstances, or rather the indirect intimation of a succession of circumstances, filling, as his language testifies, his own mind with grief, joy, indignation, pity, tenderness, fear, hope, awe, admiration, and all the other passions of the soul, and awakening the like passions in ours. From the nature and ends of epic poetry arises the necessity of preserving what is called the unity of the poem; which means the presenting of one object to the mind of the reader of sufficient interest to absorb his continued attention, and in reference to which the subordinate incidents may acquire a degree of importance not perhaps intrinsically belonging to such incidents themselves.

Similar remarks will apply to the tragic drama – with only this difference, that here the actors of the scene are made to express directly the emotions which their several situations excite.

Descriptive poetry conveys an expression of the feelings excited by the view of the scenes and operations of nature and the works of art, whether grand, or simply beautiful. The rugged precipice, the vast mountain, the fierce torrent, the sombre forest, the hurricane, the thunder, the earthquake, the storm; or, on the other hand, the variegated plain, the glittering stream, the gracefully undulating surface, the luxuriant foliage, the hedge-row, the shrub, the flower, the rising and setting sun, the refreshing shower, the lively breeze, the glowing stars; or, again, the proud feudal fortress, the melancholy abbey, the splendid villa, the awful cathedral, with the associations connected with each; or, lastly, the appearance of animated nature, the peaceful labours of the husbandmen, the groups of flocks and herds, the bright plumage, the exhilarating song of the feathered tribes, or the mazy dance and mingled hum of the fluttering insects: – all these objects excite, in the mind of sensibility, the emotions of sublimity, or beauty, or tenderness, or melancholy, or cheerfulness; and the aim of descriptive poetry is the expression and communication of these feelings.

Didactic or sentimental poetry expresses the emotions produced by the contemplation of general truths regarding subjects of human interest, the shortness of life, the vanity of youthful expectations, the ravages of the passions, the miseries of human existence, the passage of time, the terrors of death, the hopes and fears of immortality.

Satirical and humorous poetry is the expression of emotions which arise at the view of human vice, folly, and weakness; the expression, namely, of indignation, scorn, contempt, derision.

Of all the emotions which arise in the human breast, none are either so universally and intensely felt, or so readily sympathized with, as the affections which take place between the sexes; nor perhaps are there any which are capable of being so much [837] varied and modified by the situations in which they are excited, and the individual character of the parties. Hence the innumerable aspects of the passion – its hopes and fears – its headlong ardour, and moving tenderness – its ebbs, and flows, and changes, and caprices – the torments of jealousy – the bitterness of absence, the exultation of success – "the pang of despised love" – constitute a class of subjects which has ever, above all others, been consecrated to poetry. To be a lover, indeed, is a part of the poet's profession; not to have loved is never to have been truly inspired with the poetical flame.

The difference between eloquence and poetry seems to me to consist in this, that, while the sole object of poetry is to transmit the feelings of the speaker or writer, that of eloquence is to convey the persuasion. of some truth – whether with a view to excite to action or not. And in proportion as the writer, in enforcing any particular truth, exhibits himself as affected by such truth, i. e. as feeling emotion at the contemplation of it; or, which is the index of emotion, expresses himself in a figurative or imaginative style – in such proportion the composition, though in a prose form, becomes in reality, and is felt to be, poetical. Hence poetry may be eloquent, and eloquence poetical – which is only saying, in other words, that the expression of emotion may contain an impressive statement of some truth which excites the emotion; or, vice versa, that the enforcement of a truth may be attended with a striking display of emotion excited by the contemplation of that truth. The line that separates poetry and eloquence, then, is sometimes altogether imperceptible. Indeed, for reasons which we have seen, the same proposition which not in verse, will be prosein verse will be poetry.

The reasons already assigned to show why verse must generally possess the poetical character, have occasioned the term poetry to be almost exclusively confined to verse: so that though a composition, not in verse, may be essentially poetical, as being the expression of emotion, we do not call it poetical unless eminently so – that is, distinguished by a peculiarly imaginative and refined cast of thought. *

And now, having attempted to assign the essential distinction that subsists between poetical and prosaic composition, I cannot help expressing my opinion that compositions in verse are, as such, and as distinct from the degree of merit they may individually possess, usually rated at a value far disproportionate to their real importance.

The expression of an emotive does not seem to possess any intrinsic superiority over that of an intellectual mental process. The interest attending it is different, but not necessarily greater. In one important respect it is inferior. Feelings associate among themselves, and are capable of being presented in connexion; but they will generally connect in one order as well, or nearly so, as in another. Hence the want in poetry (that is, in what is nothing but poetry) of progressive interest – of that sort of interest which belongs to chains of fact or reasoning – interest kept alive by the expectation of, and gratified by the arrival at, a result. The mathematician's famous query in regard to the Æneid, "What does all this prove?" is more faulty in regard to its applicability to the particular case, and to the narrowness of the idea it expresses, than as being destitute of a general foundation in [838] truth. Take up any sentimental poem, that is, a composition which is poetry alone, poetry left to its own resources, "the Seasons," "the Pleasures of Hope" – your enjoyment in reading will be much the same whether you dip into a page here and there, or go directly on from the commencement. Here then is one essential inferiority attaching to the poetical as compared with the prosaic character – to the expression of emotive, as compared with that of intellectual processes. But, waving this comparison, verse is not indispensable to the expression of feeling. What is prose in form, is often poetry in substance. Our question regards the value generally attached to verse, as verse. Is verse then never employed but in the conveyance of sentiments of a more valuable kind than are ever to be found in the prose form? In answer, I take upon me to affirm, that in any ordinary book of serious or tasteful reflection, there are sentiments to be found, which, extracted from the connexion in which they are presented, no one would thick of looking at twice, which are to the full as important, as striking, as touching, as vividly and elegantly expressed, as any thing which one may please to signify the value of a sentiment by, as are the subjects of many a "sonnet," or set of "stanzas", or "verses" which will yet be copied, translated, criticised, and the date and occasion of its composition settled with as much precision as if it were the commencement of an era. Is it the mere versification then that confers the value? Now without doubt there is a peculiar pleasure in verse as such, a pleasure which is the effect of positive constitution, and about which, therefore, there can be no dispute. But the pleasure arising from versification merely, will only, I think, be ranked among the more insignificant of our gratifications. It is not an enjoyment of a vivid, considerable kind. It is at most agreeable. But so is elegant penmanship – so may be the pattern of a carpet, a room paper, or a chimney ornament. There is that trifling sort of gratification which one will rather meet than the contrary, but not what we should go far out of our way to find. Then, again, the perception of ingenuity and contrivance, is no doubt pleasing; but a pleasure of that kind which inevitably loses its value as we become familiarized to it. We give our tribute to the talent and ingenuity of the workman, but we derive little pleasure from the work. It is trite to observe that many things which cost a vast deal of skill and labour to do, are felt of very little value when done. But farther, I must allow, in addition to the sort of pleasure which we take in verse, as such, the additional intensity which it is capable of giving to the expression of the sentiment. But here the difference between verse and prose is but in degree, and the degree sometimes but very slight. A sentiment, which expressed in prose would be of little value, cannot be of much when expressed in verse. Is there not, then, I again ask, a degree of interest and importance generally attached to "verses," "lines," "stanzas," utterly disproportionate to what is in justice due?

One will be apt to say here, all this is disputing about a matter of taste, which is universally allowed to be idle. To a person destitute of a taste for poetry, it is as impossible to prove its value, as to prove the value of music to one who has no musical ear. Now all this would be very well if verse were something essentially different from anything else, and, in its distinctive nature, the object of a specific taste, distinguishable from other tastes. This cannot be pretended to be the case. The difference between a thought expressed in prose, and the same thought expressed in verse, is obviously too trifling to make the former the object of a distinct constitutional faculty. The musician can, with mathematical precision, state the intervals, and the chords, and the successions of sounds, which, and which alone, delight his ear. Musical successions or harmonies can never be mixed or confounded with other species of sounds, nor with any thing else whatever, as poetry may be mixed or confounded with prose. Again, there is no one who fails of receiving a strong delight from music who has the mere organic perception of musical intervals (who has an ear). To every man who can merely take up or remember an air – who can hum, whistle, or sing it, [839] in tune, music is not merely pleasing, but a substantial, material enjoyment. The love of music, then, is universal among those who have merely a certain physical capacity, and whoever does not relish it, can be shown to want a physical capacity. Not so with poetry. A man who is extremely callous to its charms shall detect a flaw in versification as accurately as the keenest poetical enthusiast – shall do verse as much justice in the reading (in proportion to what he could do to prose composition) – shall even (I do not say he could do so without difficulty) compose faultless verses. He shall be – with the reservation we are supposing, if a reservation it must be – a man of sense, feeling, taste; nay, generally addicted to literary pursuits. Here, then, is one having all the physical and mental requisites for enjoying poetry, and who, though without in any considerable degree enjoying, may even be able to distinguish its beauties. If such a person fails in deriving any lively enjoyment from poetry – and numerous cases of this kind I believe exist – must not the fair inference be, not that he wants a peculiar faculty, but that, to the object of this supposed faculty there is attached a somewhat fictitious and imaginary value?

The comparison now made between poetry and music may not, it is true, seem a fair one, inasmuch as a love of music is so indisputably dependent on a certain physical organization. There are many cases, it will be urged, in which taste is allowed to be the sole arbiter, without appeal to any other tribunal, where yet there is no particular independent faculty such as an ear for music, and where yet the degree of taste for particular species of beauty differs remarkably in different individuals – as taste for painting, sculpture, architecture, natural scenery. Now I say, in the first place, that each of these objects of taste differ from every other thing in a way that poetry does not differ from prose, and may claim to be amenable to taste in a way that poetry, simply as distinguished from prose, cannot; and, next, that I believe there is no person of cultivated mind who is so indifferent to the objects of taste now enumerated, as many persons of cultivated mind are to poetry.

What then do I aim at showing? That all poetry is worthless? that the pleasure derived from poetry is altogether factitious and imaginary? no more than I should aim at showing that prose is worthless; that the pleasure derived from prose is factitious and imaginary. But I contend that poetry, as poetry, has no more claim to have value attached to it than prose has as prose. I object not to the estimation that is made of numerous individuals of the species, but to that mode of the species itself. I complain, not that many compositions that are poetical are placed in the highest rank of literary merit; not even that their being poetical is conceived greatly to heighten their value, and to display a peculiar and additional talent in the authors of them; but that many others have this value assigned to them, simply because they are poetical, and for nothing else. But, after all, what is there here, it will be asked, that any body disputes? Who desires, on the one hand, that worthless poetry should be preserved or valued? Who would deny, on the other, that worthless poetry is, in fact, despised and allowed to perish?

Now I acknowledge the difficulty, without specific proofs, which my present limits would not admit, of satisfying any one who should object to the justice of the opinions now offered. These opinions undoubtedly relate to a question of degree. I do not affirm that all poetry is rated above its value. I do not deny that some poetry is rejected. But I affirm, that much of what is allowed a place as poetry of value, poetry worth preserving and reading, is intrinsically worthless, worthless at least as regards any pleasure to be derived from the perusal of it. The truth of this position, with merely the general reasons on which it is founded, I must leave to be determined by the experience and reflection of individual readers.



[Die Anmerkungen stehen als Fußnoten auf den in eckigen Klammern bezeichneten Seiten]

[829] * From "Heat and Thirst – A Scene in Jamaica." – Blackwood's Mag. Vol. XXVII. p. 861.   zurück

[830] * See an instance of a singular effect produced by the passionate repetition of a name in the ballad of "Oriana," by Alfred Tennyson.   zurück

[830] † The philosophical reader will sufficiently understand what I mean by the feelings of sublimity and beauty, taken as distinct from certain qualities in outward objects supposed to be the cause of those feelings; to which qualities, however, and not the feelings, the terms sublimity and beauty are, in common discourse, more exclusively applied. The word heat either means something in the fire, or something in the sentient body affected by the fire. It is in a sense resembling the latter, that I here use sublimity and beauty.   zurück

[831] * I have said that no one would take this for poetry, which is true generally; yet there is as much even here as would indicate it to be a translation from poetry. Thus the second and third sentences – the epithet, "unshaven" – the expression, "reject the casual turf." These parts are distinguished from the rest (which might be taken to convey mere information), as intimating that the speaker is affected or moved by the subject of his statement.   zurück

[832] * It may not be superfluous to observe, that such words as melodious, harmonious, or musical, applied to verse, are purely figurative, possessing nothing whatever of the kind to which these terms are applied in music. The only thing that verse and music possess in common, is rhythmical measure. The musical qualities applied to verse have regard to mere articulations of sound, not to intervals or combinations of it. In the audible reading of verse, however, and even of poetical prose, there is room for the introduction of musical intervals; and, so far as my own observation goes, the inflections of a good speaker are not, as is usually stated, performed by chromatic or imperceptible slides, but by real diatonic intervals, and these generally of the larger kinds, such as fifths, sixths, and octaves – bearing a considerable resemblance, in fact, to the movements of a fundamental bass – the difference, if I mistake not, being mostly in the nature of the rhythm and the cadences. So intimate is the connexion between a musical sound and its concords (3d, 5th, and 8th), so natural and easy the transition, that any but a practised ear is apt to take for an imperceptible slide what is in reality a large interval.   zurück

[835] * New Monthly Mag. vol. xxix. p. 331 – Art. "Byron and Shelley in the character of Hamlet." I had adopted, as an illustration of my remarks, the line here referred to, when I just chanced to find what I wanted to express in regard to it, exactly provided for me.   zurück

[835] † And it is because a figure may also be used to strengthen or illustrate a mere truth or the expression of an intellectual process, that figurative language is not necessarily poetical.   zurück

[837] * A prayer to the Deity is essentially poetical, as being the expression of awe, admiration, gratitude, contrition, entreaty. Hence good taste, as well as just religions feeling, is shocked by the introduction, in a prayer, of any mere proposition (such as the affirmation of a doctrine) not in its nature exciting emotion. But verse, however generally suitable to the expression of emotion, would be inconsistent with the simplicity that ought to belong to prayer.   zurück

[837] † I say what is nothing but poetry, because the interest derived from story, incident, and character, can be equally well conveyed in prose composition, nay, infinitely better, from a variety of causes, and chiefly from the inadmissibility, in poetry, of the mention of any fact not calculated to be spoken of with emotion. Hence, at once, the comparative meagreness and obscurity of poetical narratives.   zurück





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Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine.
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Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine  online

Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine  inhaltsanalytische Bibliographie
The Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 1824-1900.
Hrsg. von Walter E. Houghton. Bd. 1. Toronto 1966.









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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer