The Encyclopaedia Britannica








Poetry. Definition.

The difficulty of giving a definition of poetry, which shall include all that essentially belongs to it, and exclude all that is foreign or accidental to it, has been long felt and admitted. The definition of the ancients, which makes poetry "an imitative art," is obviously exposed to the double objection of being at once too comprehensive, since it would equally apply to the other imitative arts of painting and sculpture; and too limited, since it would exclude many departments of poetry, in which, as in the lyrical, the art is not properly imitative, but expressive; not copying in any sense the thoughts and actions of others, but presenting to the sympathy of the reader the emotions of the poet himself. Not less objectionable is the definition, that poetry is "the art of expressing our thoughts by fiction;" which, while it is equally applicable to the novel and the romance, is, in fact, not necessarily true of poetry at all, except in this sense, that in all high poetry a certain transforming and beautifying power of imagination is excited, which in some measure transmutes the forms of things from their actual prosaic aspect,

Clothing the palpable and the familiar
With golden exhalations of the dawn.

Still less can verse or metrical form be regarded as constituting the essence, or even one of the essentials, of poetry. It no doubt heightens its effect; it increases its charm and power of pleasing, by enlisting the aid of musical sound and cadence on the side of imaginative language or touching sentiment; but it must yet be regarded as amongst the externals of poetry, – something which will never make poetry of itself, and without which poetry is not only conceivable, but has in fact existed, and that in very striking and impressive forms.

Object of poetry the communication of intellectual pleasure.

Poetry may perhaps be defined to be an art which has creation of intellectual pleasure for its object, which attains its end by the use of language natural in an excited state of the imagination and the feelings, and generally, though not necessarily, formed into regular numbers. The proper antithesis, therefore, to poetry, as Mr Coleridge has remarked, is not prose, but science. The proper antithesis to prose is verse. Science seeks to instruct, to discover and to communicate truth; "the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure." Poetry may indeed incidentally instruct, as science may indirectly communicate pleasure; but the object of each must be gathered from its main direction and bearing, and in this sense the production of intellectual enjoyment is unquestionably the aim and the proper province of poetry.

This a pleasure conducive to morality.

But so closely are the intellectual and refined pleasures of man connected with his moral qualities; so much does his relish for the higher and more spiritual pleasures of the imagination depend on a sound and healthy state of morality in the first instance, and so much is this state in turn promoted and encouraged by stimulating and keeping alive the activity of the imagination and the sensibilities of the heart, that poetry, though generally avoiding the form of direct instruction, may yet be said, with justice, to be the most important handmaid and assistant of moral education, by its appeals to those affections which are apt to become indolent and dormant amidst the commerce of the world, and the revival of those purer and more enthusiastic feelings which are associated with the earlier and least selfish period of our existence. Immersed in business, which, if it sharpen the edge of intellect, leaves the heart barren; toiling after material wealth or power, or struggling with fortune for existence; seeing selfishness reflected all around us from the hard and glittering surface of society, as from a cold and polished mirror; it would go hard with man in adversity, perhaps still more in prosperity, if some resource were not provided for him, which, under the form of an amusement and a recreation, administered a secret but powerful balm in the one case, and an antidote in the other. This resource is afforded us by the influences of poetry. "Whatever withdraws us from the power of the senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, and the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of human beings." Sometimes, no doubt, poetry openly assumes the garb of morality, but it is generally least instructive when most directly didactic, and practically attains the end of instruction with most success when the instructor is himself unconscious of the lesson he conveys. In an indirect form, however, and through the medium of the feelings and the imagination rather than the mere reason, its efficiency as a moral agent is great and undeniable. And as upon the intellectual worth and nobleness of individuals depends the standard of a national morality, it may with truth be said that the fame and character of nations, – those qualities the presence of which makes the smallest state conspicuous in the world's eye, and the absence of which renders the widest empire, on which the sun never sets, in significant; namely, national pride, honour, fidelity to engagements, courage to act, fortitude to suffer, a generous and far-seeing policy, disdaining all mean or questionable advantages; are to some extent derived, and, at all events, continually cherished and fostered, by the influence of a pure and ennobling national poetry. If Plato had succeeded in banishing poets from his ideal republic, he would assuredly have conferred no benefit upon morals. He would have created a hard and utilitarian frame of society, inaccessible to generous feeling, and incapable of those great efforts, either of action or of endurance, which have their source only in enthusiasm, and cannot be suggested by any principle of expediency, however enlarged may be the basis of calculation.

No poetry permanently popular which is of an immoral nature.

It is the conviction of this intimate though indirect connection between poetry and morality, and the consequent bearing of the former upon human welfare, that explains the veneration which mankind have always felt for those poets who, acting under an impression of the sacredness of the task committed to them, and of the power of the talisman which genius has placed in their hands, have devoted their labours to the purest forms of poetry, and to the excitement of emotions, either virtuous in themselves, or conducive to virtue. It is this conviction which accounts for the aversion which they have never failed in the end to manifest against all those who have made the fascinations of poetry and wit subservient to the gratification of baser feelings or meaner propensities. For men taken in the mass judge rightly, even when they act wrongly; and moral opinion, so variable and wavering when applied to our own case or that of our friends, is found a safe and steady guide when applied to the mere representation of human thought and action in the forms with which they are invested by the poet. Hence the feelings of all men are enlisted and warmly excited on the side of virtue in fictitious composition, and still more in the most fascinating form of fictitious composition, poetry. For here the tendency of the poem is felt to be no mere speculative question, but a real dispute "pro aris et focis;" a contest whether, as is said to be often the case in India, poison is to be conveyed into the wells from which pure and refreshing water ought to be drawn. And this practical bearing upon important interests, of the abuse of [141] a fine art, is more felt, and justly, in poetry than in any other. In painting, for instance, Parrhasius, Julio Romano, Annibal Caracci, and Titian, have ministered by their pictures to the promotion of vice; some have even en deavoured to pervert the pure marble into a vehicle of impure representations: but the circle of their operation is imited; to the mass of men their iniquities of this nature are even unknown: but poetry, multiplied indefinitely by printing, finding its way into every quarter of the globe, and penetrating into the humblest as well as the highest class of society, has a sphere of operation bounded only by the globe itself, and a practical influence, through their sympathies, upon men's habits of thought, and consequently upon their morality and their happiness, which is not the less certain and extensive, that its limits do not admit of any precise or distinct determination.

Hence it is a remarkable fact in the history of poetry, that no work essentially immoral, or even exhibiting a mere indifference to moral feeling, has ever maintained a permanent popularity. The low ribaldry which deforms the splendid talents of Aristophanes will always render the perusal of his plays a painful task; the witty licentiousness of the Pucelle is already all but forgotten; and the next generation, while they treasure the better parts of Byron, will assuredly consign to oblivion much of his gloomy reasonings, his contempt for human nature, and his ridicule of generous feelings. The poets who are found to retain their hold over all hearts, and whose influence even appears to extend with the progress of ages, Homer, Shakspeare, Milton, Spenser, Calderon, Tasso, are those who have done their utmost to elevate rather than to depress the spirit and the hopes of men; to make existence brighter about us, and to embody in their strains the principles of faith and hope, of purity and universal charity. For it need hardly be observed, that we are not to condemn a work as immoral on account of a few brief passages, in which the poet, led away by a too lively imagination, has admitted scenes or images of an objectionable kind. Such, indeed, are to be found in Shakspeare, and in the pure and religious poems of Spenser; more rarely also in Tasso; but the general strain of the poem, and the obvious aim of the poet, being to promote the cause of virtue, the few objectionable particulars are lost in the general effect, and cease to be dangerous from their proximity to so much that is calculated to purify and to elevate the mind.

Painting and poetry; qualities common to both.

If it be difficult to give an accurate definition of poetry, it is still more difficult to describe that precise combination of mental and moral qualities which are required for its production, so as to distinguish these from the qualities required for perfection in the other imitative arts. The sensibility to natural and moral beauty; the study both of the outward world and of the mind of man; imagination and fancy to furnish the materials; judgment and taste to select and arrange them; these are common to the great poet and the great painter. What determines these energies and capabilities to the one direction more than to the other, and makes one man paint to the bodily eye in colours, the other to the eye of the mind in words, is that secret undefinable instinct which we call genius, which it is impossible to resolve into any mere result of the force of circumstances, and which, all experience teaches us, is born with the artist, and, like an instinct, directs his after-course. A genius for poetry or for painting is as certainly dependent on an organization mental and physical, with which we come into the world, as a musical ear; no education can give them; no general superiority of intellect will enable a man to turn with equal success to either; nature made him with the elements of a poet or a painter, and what she has so framed, art and education will never alter.

But though it is difficult to enumerate any quality requisite to form a great poet which is not necessary also to form a great painter, it is easy to see, that from the nature of the materials with which they deal, as well as their modes of operation; the one producing its effects by a momentary impression, the other by a continuous exertion; the degree in which the different component qualities of mind are employed in these respective arts is materially different.


Foremost amongst the qualities that constitute the poet is imagination, that creative principle of the mind which forms new conceptions out of previously existing materials; "conceptions not absolutely justifiable by the rules of logic, but quite intelligible to the mind when duly elevated; intelligible through our sympathies or sensibilities, though not sufficiently definite nor strictly coherent to stand the cold survey of our reason." This is indeed the most essential gift of the poet, "where either he must live or have no life;" with it, he may triumph over every other defect; without it, no combination of qualities will ever render him a great poet. This is the power which emancipates the poet from the trammels of space and time; carries him back into the spirit of past ages; enables him to create and to endow with coherent attributes beings of a nature different from our own, and yet having for us a real existence, so far as our sympathies are concerned: to conceive and consistently to follow out the thoughts, and words, and passions of imaginary actors, and all this not by a metaphysical analysis of the emotions or passions, nor by a course of induction from actual observation in the world about him, but by a secret consciousness, flashing upon his mind, in a concentrated shape, the result of all philosophy, embodying all, which conception, abstraction, and judgment would have separately furnished. It supersedes the necessity of observation in every special case, because it furnishes him with those primary elements of our nature which give the formula for the solution of all. The value of patient observation and study of life and character, in addition to the suggestions of the imagination, we do not dispute; we shall afterwards see, that within certain limits, and for certain departments of poetry, they are indispensable. But we may be assured, that for those elemental conceptions of character which are unmodified by mere manners, local position, or age; the conception, for instance, of a Lear or a Miranda, a Caliban, an Ariel, or a Hamlet; no observation of human character in the actual world, nor dissection of the component passions and sympathies that make up character, would have sufficed. We have but to look at the range of Shakspeare's characters to be at once satisfied of this. Pre-eminent amongst these are his characters of women; and yet from what analysis of character, or observation of society, could these have been drawn?. Where could a youth, whose chief companions had been deer-stalkers, actors, or play-writers of no high repute, and to whom female society, at least in its most refined form, must have been unknown, have gleaned the materials which enable him to pourtray, with equal mastery, the fierce overbearing spirit of Lady Macbeth and Constance, the tranquil regal dignity of Hermione and Katharine of Aragon, or the totally dissimilar aspect of female character presented in the passion of Juliet, the purity of Miranda, the simplicity of Ophelia, or the tender submission and wife-like confidence of Imogen and Desdemona? No prototypes existed in the society around him from which these could be drawn. The streets and taverns of London might indeed furnish him with Bardolphs and Pistols; his acquaintance with Lord Southampton, or with the other gallants of the court, might afford the outlines of his Prince Henry or Hotspur; but his female creations are obviously drawn from no other sphere but his own breast. They are the offspring of an imagination "all compact," not elaborately constructing, but almost unconsciously creating.

The power of imagination is shown in its most imposing form in the conception of character, incident, situation, and scenery, – in the general scope and design of the poem; but [142] its value and importance as an element of poetry is scarcely less felt in the details, in the manner in which it informs and transforms the whole language of the poem; studding it with imagery, simple or complex, often making a single word act like a spell, and conjure up a host of magical associations. Its province in this respect is not to be confounded with that lower department of the poetical art which is called diction, and which, when the idea is formed, simply dictates the selection of the word most appropriate to express the precise idea to be conveyed. Imagination supplies the idea itself, or fasciculus of ideas, to be embodied in the word; and in the number, novelty, and judicious selection of associations which can be suggested to the mind within any equal space, lies the chief difference between the work of a great poet and an inferior one, be tween an original or an imitative mind.

The images suggested by the imagination, we have said, are frequently complex. It seems to fuse many in one, to divide one into many, and to present the mass to the mind in a form which suggests all the particulars of which it is composed. It is certain, too, that many of the images which it suggests, and the effect of which upon the mind is immediately felt by all lovers of poetry to be beautiful, can by no means be justified upon the principles of logic, or their coherence made clear to the understanding. "When Milton tells us of 'darkness visible,'" says a writer on poetry, "we feel that he has uttered a fine paradox; we feel its truth, but cannot prove it. And when in that appalling passage where the poet stands face to face with Night and Chaos in their dark pavilion, 'spread wide on the wasteful deep,' and says that

                        By them stood
Orcus and Ades, and the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon,

how is it possible to reconcile such expressions to a mere prosaic understanding? Darkness is, strictly speaking, absence of light. How then shall we say that it is visible, when we see only by the aid of light? And with respect to the 'name' of Demogorgon, which stands by Orcus and Ades, how can such a phrase be justified by the rules of reason? Nevertheless it is as magnificent as words can make it. It is clothed in a dark and spectral grandeur, and presses upon our apprehensions like a mighty dream." 1 Take another instance also from Milton, where he speaks of music

At every fall smoothing the raven down
Of darkness till it smiled.

Here also it is impossible to perceive the mere logical connection of the images; for, allowing darkness to be embodied under the notion of some bird with glossy and raven plumage, it would certainly puzzle any critic to show how musical sounds could smooth such plumage; and yet we should have little hesitation in putting this passage to any one as a test whether he possessed a feeling or sense of poetry, or whether his mind was entirely of a prosaic character. In these, and a thousand similar instances, particularly in Shakspeare, it is clear that the poetical effect can be explained upon no ordinary principle of reason. The metaphors are what are called broken; they cannot logically be united, and yet they have a sufficient poetical coherence. How this result is produced we shall only be enabled to explain when the whole laws which govern the faculty of imagination, as yet most imperfectly understood, shall be discovered.

It is somewhat difficult to establish a plain and practical distinction between fancy and imagination, so far as regards the imagery or ornaments of poetry; though, as we have already said, the higher efforts of conception, and the general design, fall almost entirely, in serious and heroic poetry, under the province of imagination. From Milton's line, "Sweetest Shakspeare, Fancy's child," it would seem that the words fancy and imagination had then been used as having the same meaning; for certainly any one now endeavouring to describe the most remarkable of Shakspeare's qualities would refer to his imagination rather than his fancy. Yet fancy may perhaps be said to be imagination at a lower point of excitement; not dealing with passions, or creating character; nor pouring out unconsciously, under the influence of strong feeling, images as they arise massed and clustered; but going in search of comparisons and illustrations, and when it invests them with personality, as in metaphors, still adhering much more closely to the logical fit ness and sequence which govern similar ornaments in prose. It seems to act like a colder and weaker species of imagination, furnishing the thoughts which "play round the head, but do not touch the heart;" pleasing the eye and the ear; creating or heightening the idea of the beautiful, much more than of the sublime. It is not careful, like imagination, to make the whole bear on the general design, and heighten the main impression sought to be produced, but rather strives to excite our pleasure, and to bespeak our admiration for the images themselves which it suggests. Its natural field, so far as regards the general design, is in poems like the Rape of the Lock, or the Lutrin, where the object is to give a poetical dress to a subject essentially prosaic, and excluding passion or high imagination. To these it lends an airy machinery, in genious comparisons, imagery of a lively and pleasing cast in harmony with the level tone of the subject, and thus brings them within the domain of poetry. Some have represented the distinction between the effects of imagination and fancy to consist in this, "that the former altogether changes and remodels the original idea, impregnating it with something extraneous; the latter leaves it undisturbed, but associated with things to which, in some view or other, it bears a resemblance." But this distinction cannot be admitted; fancy, though in a less degree, does create, or change and remodel ideas; the difference between them must be sought more in the sort of ideas on which they operate, and the purposes to which they apply them, than in the plastic power supposed to be exercised in the one case and not in the other. "Fancy," says Mr Wordsworth, in a fine passage in his preface, "depends upon the rapidity and profusion with which she scatters her thoughts and images, trusting that their number, and the felicity with which they are linked together, will make amends for the want of individual value; or she prides herself upon the curious subtilty and the successful elaboration with which she can detect their lurking affinities. If she can win you over to her purpose, and impart to you her feelings, she cares not how mutable and transitory may be her influence, knowing that it will not be out of her power to resume it upon an apt occasion. But the imagination is conscious of an indestructible dominion; the soul may fall away from it, not being able to sustain its grandeur; but if once felt and acknowledged, by no act of any other faculty of the mind can it be relaxed, impaired, or diminished. Fancy is given to quicken and to beguile the temporal part of our nature, imagination to incite and support the eternal. Yet it is not the less true, that fancy, as she is an active, is also, under her own laws and in her own spirit, a creative faculty. In what manner fancy ambitiously aims at a rivalship with the imagination, and imagination stoops to work with the materials of fancy, might be illustrated from the compositions of all eloquent writers, whether in prose or verse, and chiefly from those of our own country. Scarcely a page of the impassioned parts of Bishop Taylor's works can be opened that shall not afford examples. Referring the reader to these inestimable volumes, we will content ourselves with placing a conceit, ascribed to Lord [143] Chesterfield in contrast with a passage from the Paradise Lost.

The dews of the evening most carefully shun;
They are tears of the sky for the loss of the sun.

After the transgression of Adam, Milton, with other appearances of sympathizing nature, thus marks the immediate consequence.

Sky lowered, and, muttering thunder, some sad drops
Wept at completion of the mortal sin.

The associating link is the very same in each instance; dew and rain, not distinguishable from the liquid substance of tears, are employed as indications of sorrow. A flash of surprise is the effect in the former case; a flash of surprise and nothing more; for the nature of things does not sustain the combination. In the latter, the effects of the act, of which there is this immediate consequence and visible sign, are so momentous, that the mind acknowledges the justice and reasonableness of the sympathy in nature so manifested; and the sky weeps drops of water, as if with human eyes, as earth had before trembled from her entrails, and nature given a second groan." It is evident, that in the parallel passages thus opposed to each other by Wordsworth, the creative or remodelling operation produced by fancy in the former case, and by imagination in the latter, is the same; in both the sky is endowed with personality and human feeling; it is the propriety of the action attributed to the imaginary being in the one case, and its unreasonableness in the other, which makes the former merely fanciful, the latter highly imaginative.

Danger of an excess of fancy.

It will readily be perceived, from what has here been said of the nature of fancy, that when unregulated by a strong judgment, and unwarmed by strong passion, it is one of the most dangerous qualities which a poet can possess. To the predominance of this quality, indeed, to the consciousness of a facility of finding ingenious analogies or subtile distinctions, of conjuring up a multitude of fantastic resemblances, pleasing in themselves, but in no way heightening the leading impression sought to be conveyed, are to be ascribed many of the errors of taste by which modern poetry has been deformed. To this must be ascribed those conceits, from which scarcely a single Italian writer prior to the eighteenth century is free, and which reached their consummation in Marino; to this the similar extravagancies of Gongora, Quevedo, and their followers in Spain; the affected taste introduced by Voiture and Balzac in France, and exploded by the good sense of Molière; and the similar extravagancies of our own metaphysical poets. An excess of imagination cannot lead to bad taste in style; an excess of fancy is but too apt to produce that effect.


Of judgment, which is the regulating and controlling power by which the active and creative faculties of imagination and fancy are guided, checking the too daring flight of the one, and pruning the excesses of the other, it is needless to speak; since it is a quality not more peculiarly requisite in poetry than in oratory, or any of those departments of intellectual exertion which depend not on demonstration, but on the balance of probabilities. In fact, the highest range of imagination has invariably been found to be accompanied by a corresponding depth and comprehensiveness of judgment; or rather, perhaps, it would be more philosophical to say, that judgment is involved and constitutes one of the component parts of high imagination. For the imagination, as is justly remarked by Mr Stewart, is a complex power. "It includes conception or simple apprehension, which enables us to form a notion of those former objects of perception or knowledge, out of which we are to make a selection (in the fine arts); abstraction, which separates the selected materials from the qualities and circumstances which are connected with them in nature; and judgment or taste, which selects the materials, and directs their combination." It is only in minds where imagination is limited, and where its possessor tries by effort and straining to enlarge it beyond its appointed bounds, that the judgment is generally found defective. Homer and Shakspeare, the most inventive and imaginative of poets, are also the most sagacious, the most practical, the most abounding in wisdom, both of a worldly and of a higher kind.

Study necessary to form a poet.

But, in addition to the natural gifts of sensibility to feel, memory to retain impressions, imagination and fancy to fashion new conceptions, and judgment to blend in harmony all the materials which have been thus accumulated, study is just as essential for the formation of the poet as for the acquisition and practice of the most mechanical art. That study regards both the materials of poetry and the language by which they are to be communicated in a sensible form to others. Study of men in the different conditions of life, and the habit of observing and systematising these observations; study of external nature, so as to mark the peculiarities which escape common eyes; the accustoming the mind to search for resemblances among things different, and to lay them up in the memory as in a treasury; these are assistances which no poet can overlook, and without which the imaginative faculty is deprived of its due nourishment, and of half its power. For even imagination does not strictly create out of nothing; it must be quickened and set in motion by something external, and demands materials on which it can try its processes of change or recombination. All great poets, therefore, have steadily pursued this course of study of nature, both moral and physical; though, after the habit is once formed, these mental operations are carried on almost unconsciously, and the treasures of poetical observation grow upon their possessor, without his being conscious of any effort in their accumulation. A remarkable instance of the attention paid by great poets to the minutest peculiarities of external nature, and of course equally applicable to the study of mental phenomena, is afforded by the case of Sir Walter Scott. Every one knows the graphic truth as well as the wonderful variety of his descriptions of scenery, which, by their selection of every thing that is characteristic, embody the very spirit of the place, and call back to our minds the impression with which we had first viewed it, and which had faded away and become forgotten. It is evident that in such descriptions Scott trusted little to the imagination, as able to compensate the observation of reality. Mr Morritt mentions, that whilst he was engaged in the composition of Rokeby, he observed him noting down even the peculiar little wild flowers and herbs that accidentally grew round and on the side of a crag near his intended cave of Guy Denzil; and on his saying that he need not have taken the trouble, since daisies, violets, and primroses, would have suited his purpose as well as the humble plants he was examining, the poet replied, "that in nature herself no two scenes are exactly alike, and that whoever copied truly what was before his eyes, would possess the same variety in his descriptions, and exhibit apparently an imagination as boundless as the range of nature in the scenes he recorded; whereas, whoever trusted to imagination would soon find his own mind circumscribed and contracted to a few favourite images, and the repetition of these would, sooner or later, produce that very monotony and barrenness which had always haunted descriptive poetry in the hands of any but the patient worshippers of truth."


The other department of the poet's study relates to the use of the medium through which his ideal creations are to be conveyed to others; in other words, diction, or the choice and arrangement of the words most appropriate to convey the precise shade of meaning, and to convey it divested of all those associations of a low or ludicrous character, which usage sometimes connects with words, and assisted by all the charms of musical sound. All men who seek to command the minds of others through speech must by study learn to ² of every word which his fellowmen have used for ages as the vivid image of some conception of the soul. They must acquire a perception of the value of words, at once exact, delicate, and passionate. This careful and fond study of language, however, is peculiarly requisite to the poet, and has been carried to higher perfection by them than by prose writers; "because, in the composition of poetry, the mind, attempered to delight, feels more sensitively the exquisite form into which the material expression of its conception is wrought." The very shackles imposed by metre and rhyme, though they may occasionally tempt an inferior poet into the use of a word which is not the one most apt to express his conception, unquestionably only operate as a stimulus to the great poet to make himself master of all the resources of words which the language supplies, so as to comply with the necessities of rhyme and musical sound without sacrificing any portion of the substance of his conception. Without this thorough command of the whole armament of language, and the utmost patience and perseverance in its use, we may be assured that no poet has ever succeeded in attaining a general and permanent popularity. Verse cannot leap full armed from the brain of the poet. The steps which lead from the rudeness of the first conception to the elegance of the last, though they cannot be seen, are undoubtedly many. The ideas must be patiently wrought into shape; words weighed and rejected; shades of meaning of the nicest kind discriminated; associations foreseen and guarded against; and an arrangement of words throughout preserved, which, while it differs from that of prose, never allows the inversions which are admitted in poetry to obscure the meaning. The practice of the greatest poets we know to have been in conformity to these rules. We find Virgil dictating a number of verses in the morning, spending the day in revising, correcting, and reducing them, and comparing himself, as Aulus Gellius mentions, to a she-bear licking her misshapen offspring into shape. We see Petrarch returning day after day to his sonnets, to alter some single word, or make some trifling change in the arrangement of a line. The manuscripts of Ariosto, whose style appears the very perfection of ease, and an almost spontaneous emanation, still exist at Ferrara, and show that many of the favourite passages in the Orlando were written eight times over. Scarcely less attention was bestowed upon the stanzas of the Gerusalemme by Tasso. Milton's study of English speech, and mastery of the artifice of language, as well as the critical care with which he built up "the lofty rhyme," are well known.

He with difficulty and labour hard
Moved on; with difficulty and labour be.

The specimens of Pope's Iliad given in Johnson's Life, exhibiting the successive changes which the lines underwent before they assumed that compact and harmonious form in which they appeared before the public, must be in the recollection of every reader. And we see from the letters of Lord Byron, that the same laborious process of polishing was not disdained even by his impetuous mind. It is indeed scarcely too much to say, that no composition of any length, which has attained a permanent popularity, was ever thrown off at a heat; and that the nearer the work approaches to the appearance of spontaneity, the greater has in general been the extent of the labour which has been employed upon it.

Qualities common to all good poetry.

Such being the qualities and habits of mind that make the poet, it may be asked what are the common qualities to be found in all poetry which has permanently commanded the admiration of mankind. Milton has endeavoured to condense these into a sentence. Poetry, he says, must be "simple, sensuous, passionate."

Poetry must be simple.

By the first quality, simplicity, which applies both to the matter and the language, he seems to indicate the necessity of dealing in poetry with the simple elements of human nature; keeping the broad highways of feeling, avoiding affectation of sentiment, over-refinement, or morbid peculiarity of any kind. "It distinguishes poetry from the arduous processes of science labouring towards an end not yet arrived at, and supposes a smooth and finished road on which the reader is to walk onward easily, with streams murmuring by his side, and trees, and flowers, and human dwellings, to make his journey as delightful as the object of it is desirable, instead of having to toil with the pioneers, and painfully to make the road on which others are to travel." 1 And unquestionably it is the fact, that the works of the greatest poets are the simplest, the most level to ordinary apprehension, the most adapted to ordinary sympathies. Homer, in whose works nature is reflected without change, is understood and relished equally by the youth and the man, by nations the most distant from each other both in space and time. Shakspeare, in like manner, in whose works we can detect no subjective influence produced by his own mind, and who seems to range like the universal sun over the provinces of emotion, enlightening all alike, produces the same deep impression on the learned and the unlearned. Both concur in this, that they do not paint the exceptional, but the customary; not the peculiarities, but the common features of humanity; and that they paint these broadly and simply, instead of endeavouring, by a complex apparatus of singular traits and colours, to display their own artistic skill.


The second of the qualities enumerated by Milton is, that poetry must be "sensuous;" that is, that it shall have that character of sensible reality, which shall prevent its degenerating into mere dreams and abstractions; that it shall be so far connected with the world about us, and with our actual interests and pursuits, as not to appear altogether the creature of another sphere; and this both as to the nature of the subject and the definite nature of the imagery employed upon it. The right understanding and application of this rule would have saved the world from many of those hazy poetical abstractions, or attempts to transmute political or metaphysical theories into poetry, with which, in the present age in particular, the public has been inundated. It is the neglect of it which renders the metaphysical poetry of the sixteenth century, with all its grandeur and force of thought, so often unreadable; which has made the poetry of Keats, abounding, as it does, in exquisite beauties of conception, a sealed book to the mass of readers; and which, more even than its irreligious tendency, has obstructed the popularity of the poems of Shelley.


The third requisite of poetry is that it be passionate. It is not enough that thought and imagery be sensuous, or objective and definite; the passio vera of humanity, as Coleridge remarks, must animate both. It is by our sympathies that poetry lays its strongest hold on us; and it is by the representation of passion that these must be set in motion. Even the lower and more level departments of poetry must be warmed by it; of the epic, and still more the dramatic, it constitutes the mainspring. Didactic and descriptive poetry would become wearisome were they not enlivened by the occasional introduction of scenes awakening the feelings of love or pity. In lyric poetry, the song constantly exhibits its condensed expression; in fact, so powerful is its influence, that genuine passion will often support a poem which has but slender claims to fancy or imagination. The mere literal and truthful exhibition of [145] the greater passions of our nature so stirs within us the sense of the sublime or the terrible, so rouses our curiosity and suspense, that for a time we are willing to dispense with the more ethereal colouring which imagination might impart to them. We say, however, for a time only; for a literal picture of human passions, if prolonged through a whole drama, and unrelieved by imagery, or the expression of calmer thought, is felt to be painful and harrowing to the mind. Such is the effect produced by the Newgate Calendar dramas of Lillo, George Barnwell, Arden of Feversham, and the Fatal Curiosity, and by the similar tragedy of Werner, the Twenty-Ninth of February. So great was the effect produced by the scene in Lillo's play representing the murder of Arden, that the audience, unable to endure the excitement of the representation, rose up with one accord and interrupted it. Appeals to our passions, presented in this bleak and naked reality, have the same painful effect upon the mind which exhibitions of crime and suffering have in real life. To make them produce a pleasing effect in poetry, at least for any length of time, they must be blended with associations of a less vulgar and less agitating kind; and the pain which attends our sympathy must be tempered by the soothing imagery suggested by the imaginative and reflective faculties.

Poetry changes with society.

The qualities enumerated by Milton may be considered as fixed and inherent in all good poetry; beyond these it is difficult to point out any which are of permanent and universal necessity. That poetry which seeks to please through our sympathies must shift and vary, both in its themes and in the manner of treating them, with the changes of society, is a truism on which it is needless to enlarge. If the opinions of men change, if their habits and the objects and associations which interest them alter, poetry must adapt itself to this altered state of things. It does so indeed unconsciously; it cannot avoid doing so, for the poet's own nature has partaken of the change.

Effect of increased civilization on poetry.

It is a more important question, whether the progress of society, the advancement in civilization, and the moral habits and intellectual constitution which accompany it, operate favourably or unfavourably on poetry; in other words, Is there reason to believe that the imaginative faculty in poets, and the sensibilities of their readers, decline with the progress of refinement in the arts; or that the imagination no longer finds the same materials in actual life on which its plastic power can be excited?

The tendency of most of the late inquiries into the question has been towards the opinion of its unfavourable influence. The faculty of imagination is supposed to decline as knowledge becomes more exact; the turn for analysis, which is the characteristic of advancing civilization, and which shows itself in the philosophical character which language assumes, is maintained to be destructive of that individuality and distinctness which is the life of poetry; substituting general abstractions for particulars, vague phrases instead of images, and personified qualities instead of men. In a half-civilized state of society, too, life is a romance, a tissue of adventures, powerfully exciting the feelings of fear, wonder, and enthusiasm. In more refined periods these sources of excitement cease; and, even where they exist, they are veiled by the caution which the fear of ridicule produces, a restraint which in the ruder periods of society is comparatively unknown. Hence both the imagination of the poet and the sensibilities of the reader of poetry are chilled. "Poetry," says one of the ablest exponents of this unfavourable view of the effects of civilization on the arts, "produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge breaks in upon its exhibitions – as the outlines of certainty become more and more definite, and the shades of probability more and more distinct – the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which it calls up grow fainter and fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction."

Yet these observations, though true to some extent, must be received also with some qualification. If language loses something in picturesqueness, it becomes far more pliant, far better adapted to convey the exact idea intended; if phrases which originally conveyed images have by long use ceased to be metaphorical, we see that genius is constantly creating and giving currency to new combinations. Knowledge and learning and mechanical improvements, if they tend to repress enthusiastic feeling, at least supply poetry with a host of illustrations unknown to earlier periods; but, above all, it may be doubted whether the enthusiastic and imaginative faculties within us can ever be materially affected by the changes of society, however their outward manifestations may be repressed. Whilst men feel that they are connected with eternity, mysteriously surrounded by influences which they feel and acknowledge though they cannot account for them; whilst love still holds a place in the heart, and carries the spirit of romance into the barest realities of existence; whilst men have a country to honour and defend; whilst they can still be animated to enthusiastic concert in the cause of humanity; whilst the strange accidents by which even our decorous and conventional course of life is at times broken, still present to them a thousand scenes of joy or calamity; there seems little reason to apprehend that the imaginative faculty can ever be so impaired from want of external nutriment or inward vigour, but that a truly great poet will always find the means of speaking to the hearts and sympathies of men, in different language it may be, but with undiminished power.

Still less reason is there for the apprehension, that the materials for description and illustration which external nature offers to the poet are likely to be in time exhausted, or even materially encroached upon. Certainly the first and the more obvious of its features are caught by the first labourers in the field of poetry, with a truth and liveliness which no subsequent efforts are likely to surpass; and if poetical imitation were, like literal landscape or portrait painting, a mere transcript of the scene before us, there might be reason to think that all the more striking aspects and points of view would, in the course of time, come to be exhausted, and the poet driven either to mere repetition in a feebler form, or to seek for novelty by endeavouring to turn to account the materials which his predecessors had thrown aside as least fit for their purposes. But when it is recollected how infinite are the varieties and combinations of which the objects of moral and material nature are susceptible, how largely, too, a creative and changing power is exercised in poetical imitation; and in how many different lights, independently of this process of imaginative change, the objects around us are placed by natural differences of associations in the person who contemplates them; it may be safely assumed that the materials of poetry are inexhaustible.

That poetry must have existed from the very earliest periods is undoubted. As the expression in language, of that feeling of excitement and elevation produced either by moral or material grandeur or beauty, it had its seat and origin in human nature itself, and in its simplest form must necessarily have existed as soon as man felt the desire of recording his impressions, or communicating them to others. In its first shape it may have been destitute either of rhythm or metre; although so close is the connection between that state of the imagination which gives birth to poetical conceptions, and a tendency to assist the effect of these by certain intonations of the voice approaching to musical sounds, that it is far more probable that even from the first [146] something of measure was imparted to it, probably without effort or consciousness on the part of the reciter. At any rate, the power of measure as an assistant to memory, and as furnishing a species of gratification to the ear, apart from the mere effect of the ideas upon the mind, could not fail to be soon perceived and acted upon. At first, in fact, poetry and music seem to have been constantly associated; for the study of music, as something separate from the accompaniment of words, is one which arises only at a later period; and in all the poetical compositions which have descended to us, the elements of versification, or division of lines into certain measures, are discernible.



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

[142] 1   Edinburgh Review, 1825.   zurück

[144] 1   Coleridge's Literary Remains, vol. II. p. 10.   zurück





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer