Fred W. Robertson



Two Lectures on the Influence of Poetry on the Working Classes,
Delivered Before the Members of the Mechanic's Institution, February, 1852.

Lecture I.




The selection of the subject of this evening's Lecture, "The Influence of Poetry on the Working Classes," requires some explanation. What has Poetry to do with the Working Classes? What has it, in fact, to do with this age at all? Does it not belong to the ages passed, so that the mere mention of it now is an anachronism, – something out of date? Now, there is a large class of persons, to whom all that belongs to our political and social existence seems of such absorbing interest, that they look with impatience on any thing which does not bear directly on it. A great political authority of the present day has counselled the young men of this country, and especially of the Working Classes, not to waste their time on literature, but to read the newspapers, which, he says, will give them all the education that is essential. Persons of this class seem to fancy that the all-in-all of man is "to get on;" according to them, to elevate men means, chiefly, to improve their circumstances; and, no doubt, they would look with infinite contempt on any effort such as this, to interest men [2] on subjects which, most assuredly, will not give them cheaper food or higher wages. "Lecture them," they will say, "on the principles of political economy, in order to stem, if possible, the torrent of those dangerous opinions that threaten the whole fabric of society. Give them, if you will, lectures on science, on chemistry, on mechanics, on any subject which bears on real and actual life; but, really, in this workday age, rhyming is out of place and out of date. We have no time for Poetry and prettiness." If indeed, to have enough to eat and enough to drink were the whole of man – if the highest life consisted in what our American brethren call "going a-head" – if the highest ambition for Working Men were the triumph of some political faction, then, assuredly, the discussion of our present subject would be waste of breath and time.

But it appears to me, that in this age of Mechanics and Political Economy, when every heart seems "dry as summer dust," what we want is, not so much, not half so much-light for the intellect, as dew upon the heart; time and leisure to cultivate the spirit that is within us. The author of Philip Van Artevelde, in his last published volume, "The Eve of the Conquest," has well described this our state of high physical civilization and refinement, in which knowledge is mistaken for wisdom, and all that belongs to man's physical comfort and temporal happiness is sedulously cared for, while much that belongs to our finer and purer being is neglected, – an age of grim earnestness – not the noble earnestness of stern Puritanism for high principles, but one which is terrible only when the purse is touched.

[3] "Oh, England! 'Merry England,' styled of yore!
    Where is thy mirth? Thy jocund laughter where?
    The sweat of labour on the brow of care
Makes a mute answer: driven from every door.
The May-pole cheers the village-green no more,
    Nor harvest-home, nor Christmas mummers rare.
      The tired mechanic at his lecture sighs,
And of the learned, which, with all his lore,
      Has leisure to be wise?"

Whatever objection may deservedly belong to this Lecture, I hope that no "tired mechanic" will sigh over its tediousness or solemnity. I believe that recreation is a holy necessity of man's nature; and it seems to me by no means unworthy of a sacred calling to bestow an hour on the attempt to impart not uninstructive recreation to Working Men.

There are some other objections, however, connected with the subject, which must be noticed. Poetry may be a fitting study for men of leisure, but it seems out of the question for Working Men; – a luxury for the rich, but to attempt to interest the poor in it, is as much out of place as to introduce them into a cabinet of curiosities, or a gallery of pictures. I believe such a feeling has arisen partly from this cause, – that the Poetry of the last age was eminently artificial, unnatural, and aristocratic; it reflected the outer life of modern society and its manners, which are conventional, uniform, polished, and therefore unnatural, and not of general human interest. I will read to you a description of that which one of the poets of that age thought to be the legitimate call and mission of the poet. Thus writes Pope: –

"Poetry and criticism are by no means the universal concern of the world, but only the affair of idle men who write in their closets, and of idle men who read there.........

[4] "All the advantages I can think of, accruing from a genius for Poetrý, are the agreeable power of self-amusement, when a man is idle or alone; the privilege of being admitted into the best company, and the freedom of saying as many careless things as other people without being so severely remarked on."

You will scarcely wonder that when a poet could thus write of his art, working men and real men, who have no time for prettinesses, and have not the privilege of being "admitted into the best company," should be indifferent to Poetry, and that it should have come to be reckoned among the luxuries of the wealthy and idle; nor will you be surprised that one, who thought so meanly of his high work and duty, should never, with all his splendid talents, have attained to any thing in Poetry beyond the second rank, that in which thought and memory predominate over imagination, and in which the heart is second to the head; for much of Pope's Poetry is nothing more than ethical thought tersely and beautifully expressed in rhyme.

There is another reason, however, for this misconception. The Poetry of the present age is, to a great extent, touched, tainted if you will, with mysticism. Let us trace the history of this

A vigorous protest was made at last against the formalism of the Poetry of the last century. The reaction began with Wordsworth, Scott, and Byron, and the age of conventional Poetry was succeeded by the Poetry of sentiment and passion. But, by degrees, this wave also spent itself; and another came. Wordsworth was the poet of the few; the border ministrelsy of Scott exhausted itself even during his own life; and when that long, passionate wail of [5] Byronism had died away, a phase of tempestuous feeling through which every man, I suppose, passes in one portion or other of his existence, men began to feel that this life of ours was meant for something higher than for a man to sit down to rave and curse his destiny; that it is at least manlier, if it be bad, to make the best of it, and do what may be done. Next came, therefore, an age whose motto was "Work." But now, by degrees, we are beginning to feel that even work is not all our being needs; and therefore has been born what I have called the Poetry of Mysticism. For just as the reaction from the age of Formalism was the Poetry of Passion, so the reaction from the age of Science, is, and I suppose ever will be, the Poetry of Mysticism. For men who have felt a want which work cannot altogether satisfy, and have become conscious that the clear formulas and accurate technicalities of science have not expressed, nor ever can, the truths of the Soul, find a refuge in that vagueness and undefined sense of mystery which broods over the shapeless borders of the illimitable. And thus the very mystic obscurity of thought and expression which belongs to Browning, Tennyson, and even Wordsworth, is a necessary phase in the history of Poetry, and is but a protest and witness for the infinite in the soul of man

For these two reasons, that the Poetry of the past age was conventional, and that of the present mystical, it was very natural that Poetry should have come to be reckoned merely an amusement, suited to men of leisure. But it was not always so: Poetry began, not in the most highly civilized, but in the [6] half-civilized stages of society. The Drama, for example, was first acted in waggons drawn through the Grecian villages, and performed by men who only half-concealed their personality, by the rude expedient of smearing the face with lees of wine. And, before that, the poems of Homer had been recited with enthusiasm in the villages and cities of Ionia, by the people. The poems of Burns, himself a peasant, are the darling favourites of the Scottish peasant, and lie with his Bible, on the same shelf.

And where did our own English Poetry begin, but in those popular ballads of which you have a potable example in the epic ballad of "Chevy Chase?" Poetry is essentially of the people, and for the people.

However, it will be granted, perhaps, that the love of Poetry is compatible with an incomplete education; but hardly with a want of leisure or with hard work. To this I reply, first, by a matter of fact: the works of Poetry in this Institution, since the loss of its first large library, are few; but those few are largely read. Upon the Librarian, constant demands are made for the works of Shakspere and Sir Walter Scott.

I reply, secondly: I know something myself of hard work; I know what it is to have had to toil when the brain was throbbing, the mind incapable of originating a thought, and the body worn and sore with exhaustion; and I know what it is in such an hour, instead of having recourse to those gross stimulants to which all worn men, both of the higher and lower classes, are tempted, to take down my Sophocles or my Plato, (for Plato was a poet,) my Goethe, or my Dante, Shakspere, Shelley, Words[7]worth, or Tennyson; and I know what it is to feel the jar of nerve gradually cease, and the darkness in which all life had robed itself to the imagination become light, discord pass into harmony, and physical exhaustion rise by degrees into a consciousness of power. I cannot, and I will not, believe that this is a luxury, or rather a blessed privilege, reserved for me, or my class, or caste, alone. If I know from personal experience, – and I do know – that feelings such as these, call them romantic if you will, can keep a man all his youth through, before a higher Faith has been called into being, from every species of vicious and low indulgence in every shape and every form, – if I believe that there are thousands,

– – – – – "Whose hearts the holy forms
Of young imagination have kept pure,"

I am compelled also to believe that, as that which is human belongs to all humanity, so there is power in this pursuit to enable the man of labour to rise sometimes out of his dull, dry, hard toil, and dreary routine of daily life, into forgetfulness of his state, to breathe a higher, and serener, and purer atmosphere. I will believe that for him, too, there is an

"Appeal to that imaginative power,
 Which can commute a sentence of sore pain
 For one of softer sadness."

Some years ago, an Irishman, scarcely above a peasant in rank, was employed on the Ordnance Survey, under an officer of Engineers, in Suffolk, where I then was. I remember the description he gave me of the state of the Irish peasantry, and the scenes of wretchedness I had not then witnessed; [8] "Their cabins, your honor," said he, "are in such a state sometimes, that the poor craturs could count the stars as they lay on their beds."

I am not prepared to dispute that it might have been better for the Irish peasant if, instead of lying on his bed, counting the stars and cursing the Saxon, he had got up and mended his roof; nor will I enter into the question whether seven hundred years of English misrule have darkened all hope in the nation's breast, and left them neither heart nor spirit to mend and patch a hopeless lot; but I think you will agree with me, that a hard-working man, to whose imagination the thought which spontaneously presented itself on the sight of a roofless hut, was, not that of dripping rain or driving winds, but of poor creatures lying on their beds to count the stars, who could get away from discomfort to expatiate in the skies, was, to some extent, through his imagination and his poetry, independent of external circumstances.

By the title of this Lecture I am bound to define, in the first place, what is meant by "Poetry;" and, in the second, to endeavour to sustain the assertion "that it has a powerful influence on the Working Classes."

The former of these is the subject of this first Lecture. Our first definition of Poetry is – the natural language of excited feeling. When a man is under the influence of some strong emotion, his language, words, demeanour, become more elevated; he is twice the man he was. And not only his words, and posture, and looks, but the whole character and complexion of his thoughts are changed. They belong to [9] a higher order of imagination and are more full of symbolism, and imagery; the reason of which is – that all the passions deal not with the limitations of time and space, but belong to a world which is infinite. The strong passions, whether good or bad, never calculate. Anger, for example, does not ask for satisfaction in gold and silver; it feels and resents a wrong that is infinite; Love demands the eternal blessedness of the thing loved – it feels, and delights to feel, that it is itself infinite, and can never end; Revenge is not satisfied with temporary pain, but imprecates the perdition of the offender.

And so, these passions of ours, uncalculating, and outlaws of time and space, disdaining the bounds of the universe,

"Glancing from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,"

never argue, but reach at a single bound the eternal truth, discover unexpected analogies hidden before through all the universe, and subordinate each special case to some great and universal law.

Hence, the language of strong emotion is always figurative, symbolical, and rich in metaphors. For the metaphors of Poetry are not mere ornaments stuck on, and capable of being taken off, without detriment to the essence of the thought. They are not what the clothes are to the body, but what the body is to the life – born with it, the form in wbich the life has been clothed, without which the life would have been impossible: just as Minerva is fabled by the ancients to have risen in full panoply out of the brain of Jupiter.

Poetry, I have said, is the natural language of excited feeling. It is not something invented or [10] artificial, but that in which excited feeling naturally clothes itself. Now take an example. When the Pragmatic Sanction was violated on all sides in Europe, when Silesia had been wrested away by the young King of Prussia, and, with the assistance and sanction of the French, the Elector of Bavaria was aiming at the Crown of the Empire, the Empress, Maria Theresa, threw herself on her Hungarian subjects. We are told that when, robed in black, she appeared in the Diet, with her child in her arms, and asked their assistance, the Hungarian nobles rose, and, with one voice, exclaimed, "Let us die for our King, Maria Theresa." Observe the poetry of the expression, "our King, Maria Theresa." No calculation in that moment; no mercenary sordidness, balancing the question whether a nation could afford to defend weakness and honor at the expense of a costly war, or not. They had risen in one moment of strong emotion to the highest truth of human existence, the Law of Sacrifice: they had penetrated into that region in which kingly qualities had blended together the two sexes, and broken down the whole barrier of distinction between man and woman, that region in which tenderness and loyalty are not two, but one; "let us die for our KING, Maria Theresa."

You will perceive from this that there is an element of poetry in us all. Whatever wakes up intense sensibilities, puts you for a moment into a poetic state; if not the creative state, that in which we can make poetry, at least the receptive state in which we feel poetry. Therefore, let no man think that, because he cannot appreciate the verse of Milton or Words[11]worth, there is no poetry in his soul; let him be assured that there is something within him which may any day awake, break through the crust of his selfishness, and redeem him from a low, mercenary, or sensual existence.

Any man who has for a single moment felt those emotions which are uncalculating, who has ever risked his life for the safety of another, or met some great emergency with unwavering courage, or felt his whole being shaken with mighty and unutterable indignation against some base cruelty, or cowardly scoundrelism, knows what I mean when I say that there is something in him which is infinite, and which can transport him in a moment into the same atmosphere which the poet breathes.

"High instincts," Wordsworth calls them,

            "Before which our mortal nature
Did tremble, like a guilty thing surprised:
. . . . . . those first affections,
Those shadowy recollections
      Which, be they what they may,
      Are yet the Fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet the master-light of all our seeing:
      Uphold us, cherish, and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
      Of the Eternal Silence.   Truths that wake,
           To perish never."

Shakspere, who knew all that man can feel, and the times when he feels it, is here, as usual, true to nature. You must have observed that he never puts language highly imaginative, what we call Poetry, into the lips of any except exalted characters, who may be supposed to live in Poetry, or persons who, for the time, are under some exciting influence. If [12] you will compare the manner and expression of Timon of Athens, through the earlier acts, with his language in the latter part of the Play, you will see how he becomes another man under the influence of a powerful passion. At first, you have the high-born, highbred gentleman, magnificent in his liberality, and princely in his tastes, bestowing a fortune on a dependent whose poverty is the sole bar to a happy marriage, giving away the bay courser to his guest because he admired it, the munificent patron of the arts, using the conventional language and the flat, dead politenesses of polished society, with no strong feeling of life, because nothing has broken the smoothness of its current. But the shock comes. In temporary reverses he begins to feel the hollowness of friendship, suspects that men and women are not what they seem; and then with that passionate scorn which henceforth marks his character, the real poetry of Timon's existence begins. And this is made the more remarkable by the relief in which his character stands out from the contrast between two misanthropes in the same Play. One is the generous Timon, who has despaired of men because he has not found them what he expected them to be; the other, the self-enclosed Apemantus, who believes in the meanness of all human natures because he is mean himself. Even when the two reciprocate abuse, the distinction is preserved. Apemantus is merely scurrilous – "beast" and "toad" are the epithets of his vocabulary. One pregnant word, alive with meaning, falls from Timon's lips – "Slave." And then, disappointed in his best and highest affections, the [13] whole universe appears to his disordered imagination overspread with the guilt of his wrongs: earth and skies and sea are robbers; yet his scorn is lofty still: even gold, the general seducer, he does not curse with the low invective of the conventicle.

Listen to the impassioned scorner:

"Thou ever young, fresh, lov'd, and delicate wooer,
 Whose blush doth thaw the consecrated snow
 That lies on Dian's lap!   Thou visible god,
 That solder'st close impossibilities,
 And mak'st them kiss!   That speak'st with every tongue
 To every purpose!   O, thou touch of hearts!"

It is poetry throughout – passion rendered imaginative; scorn, as contrasted with mere spite.

In saying, however, that Poetry is the language of excited feeling, by excitement is not to be understood mere violence or vehemence; but intensity. It is with accurate knowledge of human nature that Philip Van Artevelde says to Sir Fleuréant, who is imploring forgiveness with vehement self-reproach: "Thou art a weak, inconstant, violent man." Weakness and violence often go together. Passion may be violent; as in the case of Othello, Lear, and Northumberland; it does not follow that it must: vehemence is simply dependent on physical organisation, a mere matter of brain and nerve. Indeed, the most intense feeling is generally the most subdued and calm: for it is necessarily condensed by repression. A notable example you have in Wordsworth, the calmest of poets; so much so, that I have heard him characterised as a Quaker among poets. And yet he is the author of the sublimest ode in the English language, the Intimations of immortality from the recollections of childhood. [14] And for his intensity, I only appeal to those who have understood his poetry, felt, and loved it.

Yet even in this apparent exception we have a corroboration of the rule. Intense as Wordsworth is, there is in him something wanting for the very highest poetry. He is too calm. There is a want of passion: and hence an entire absence of epic as well as dramatic power; he reflects when he ought to describe, and describes feeling when he ought to exhibit its manifestation. He sings of our nature as some philosophic spirit might sing of it in passionless realms of contemplation, far away from the discords of actual existence, of a humanity purged and purified, separate from the fierce feelings and wild gusts of passion which agitate real human life. And therefore Wordsworth never can be popular in the true sense of the word. His works will be bought and bound richly, and a few of his poems will be familiar words: but still he will remain the poet of the few: acknowledged by the many, only because he is reverenced by the few; those discerning few whose verdict slowly, but surely, leads the world at last.

I have said that Poetry is the natural language of intense feeling. It is in perfect accordance with this, that the great master of all criticism, Aristotle, divides Poetry into two orders. He says a poet must be one of two things, a "frenzied man," or an "accomplished man;" in which single sentence are contained whole volumes. There are two kinds of poets, the one inspired, and the other skilful; the one borne away by his own feelings, of which he is scarcely master; the other able rather to conceive [15] feelings, and simulate their expression, than possessed by, or possessing them.

Hence it is almost proverbial that the poetic temperament, except in a few cases of felicitously organised constitution, and rare equilibrium of powers, is one of singular irritability of brain and nerve.

Even the placid Wordsworth says –

"We poets in our youth begin with gladness:
 But thereof come in the end despondency and madness."

And by this, too, we can understand, and compassionate, I do not say excuse, the force of that temptation of stimulants to which so many gifted natures have fallen a sacrifice. Poetry is the language of excited feeling: properly of pure excitement. But stimulants, like wine, opium, and worse, can produce, or rather simulate, that state of rapturous and ecstatic feeling in which the seer should live, in which emotions succeed each other swiftly, and imagination works with preternatural power. Hence their seductive power.

Our higher feelings move our animal nature: and our animal nature, irritated, can call back a semblance of those emotions: but the whole difference between nobleness and baseness lies in the question whether feeling begins from below or above. The degradation of genius, like the sensualising of passion, takes place when men hope to reproduce, through stimulus of the lower nature, those glorious sensations which it once experienced when vivified from above. Imagination ennobles appetites, which, in themselves, are low, and spiritualises acts which are else only animal. But the pleasures which begin in the senses only sensualise.

[16] Burns and Coleridge are the awful beacons to all who feel intensely, and are tempted to re-kindle the vestal flames of genius, when they burn low, with earthly fire.

I give another definition of Poetry. I think I have seen it defined – I am not sure whether I have confounded my own thoughts with what I have a dim recollection of having somewhere read – as "the indirect expression of feelings that cannot be expressed directly." We all have feelings which we cannot express. There is a world into which the poet introduces us, of which the senses are not the organs; there is a beauty which the eye has never seen, and a music which the ear has never heard. There are truths, eternally, essentially, and necessarily true, which we have never yet seen embodied. And there is, besides, from our human sympathies, a strong necessity for giving utterance to these cravings in us. For language has been given, not merely to inake known our own selfish wants, but to impart ourselves to our fellow men. Now, if these intense feelings could be expressed directly, so that when you expressed them, you felt yourself understood as adequately as when you say "I thirst," or "I am hungry," then there would be no Poetry at all; but, because this is impossible, the soul clothes her intuitions, her aspirations, and forebodings, in those indirect images which she borrows from the material world.

For this reason the earliest language of all nations is Poetry. Language has been truly called fossil Poetry: and just as we apply to domestic use slabs of [17] marble, unconscious almost that they contain the petrifactions of innumerable former lives, so in our every-day language we use the living Poetry of the past, unconscious that our simplest expressions are the fossil forms of feeling which once was vague, and laboured to express itself in the indirect analogies of materialism. Only think from whence came such words as "attention," "understanding," "imagination."

As language becomes more forcible and adequate, and our feelings are conveyed, or supposed to be conveyed, entirely, Poetry in words becomes more rare. It is then only the deeper and rarer feelings, as yet unexpressed, which occupy the poet. Science destroys Poetry, until the heart bursts into mysticism, and out of science brings Poetry again,— asserting a wonder and a vague mystery of life and feeling, beneath and beyond all science; and proclaiming the wonderfulness and mystery of that which we seem most familiarly to understand.

I proceed to give you illustrations of this position, that "Poetry is the indirect expression of that which cannot be expressed directly." An American writer tells us that in a certain town in America there is a statue of a sleeping boy, which is said to produce a singular feeling of repose in all who gaze on it; and the history of that statue, he says, is this. The sculptor gazed upon the skies on a summer's morning, which had arisen as serene and calm as the blue eternity out of which it came; he went about haunted with the memory of that repose – it was a necessity to him to express it. Had he been a poet, he would [18] have thrown it into words; a painter, it would have found expression on the canvass; had he been an architect, he would have given us his feelings embodied as the builders of the Middle Ages embodied their aspirations, in a Gothic architecture; but, being a sculptor, his pen was the chisel, his words stone, and so he threw his thought into the marble. Now observe, first, this was intense feeling longing to express itself; next, it was intense feeling expressing itself indirectly, direct utterance being denied it. It was not enough to say, "I feel repose;" infinitely more was to be said: more than any words could exhaust: the only material through which he could shape it, and give to airy nothing a body and a form, was the imperfectly expressive material of stone.

From this anecdote we may understand in what sense all the high arts, such as Sculpture, Painting, and Poetry, have been called imitative arts. There was no resemblance between the sleeping boy and a calm morning; but there was a resemblance between the feeling produced by the morning, and that produced by gazing on the statue. And it is in this resemblance between the feeling conceived by the artist, and the feeling produced by his work, that the imitation of Poetry or Art lies. The fruit which we are told was painted by the ancient artist so well that the birds came and pecked at it, and the curtain painted by his rival so like reality that he himself was deceived by it, were imitative so far as clever deception imitates; but it was not high art any more than the statue which many of you saw in the Exhibition last year was high art, which at a distance [19] seemed covered with a veil, but on nearer approach turned out to be mere deceptive resemblance of the texture, cleverly executed in stone. This is not the poetry of Art: it is only the imitation of one species of material in another species: whereas Poetry is the imitating, by suggestion through material and form, of feelings which are immaterial and formless.

Another instance. At Blenheim, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough, there is a Madonna, into which the old Catholic painter has tried to cast the religious conceptions of the Middle Ages, virgin purity and infinite repose. The look is upwards, the predominant colour of the picture blue, which we know has in itself a strange power to lull and soothe. It is impossible to gaze on this picture without being conscious of a calming influence. During that period of the year in which the friends of the young men of Oxford come to visit their brothers and sons, and Blenheim becomes a place of favourite resort, I have stood aside, near that picture, to watch its effect on the different gazers, and I have seen group after group of young undergraduates and ladies, full of life and noisy spirits, unconsciously stilled before it, the countenance relaxing into calmness, and the voice sinking to a whisper. The painter had spoken his message, and human beings, ages after, feel what he meant to say.

You may perhaps have seen in this town, some years ago, an engraving in the windows of the print sellers, called the "Camel of the Desert." I cannot say it was well executed. The engraving was coarse, and the drawing, in some points, false; yet it was full [20] of Poetry. The story tells itself. A caravan has passed through the desert; one of the number has been seized with dangerous illness, and as time is precious, he has been left to die. But as there is a chance of his recovery, his camel has been left beside him, and in order that it may not escape, the knee of the animal has been forcibly bent, the upper and lower bones tied together, and the camel couches on the ground, incapable of rising. The sequel is that the man has died, and the camel is left to its inevitable doom. There is nothing to break the deep deathfulness of the scene. The desert extends to the horizon, without interruption, the glowing heat being shown by the reflection of the sun from the sands in a broad band of light, just as it glows on the sea on a burning summer day.

Nothing, I said, breaks the deathfulness of the scene; there is only one thing that adds to it. A long line of vultures is seen in the distance, and one of these loathsome birds is hovering above the dead and the doomed; the camel bends back his neck to watch it, with an expression of terror and anguish almost human, and anticipates his doom. You cannot look at the print without a vivid sense and conception of Despair. You go through street after street before the impression ceases to haunt you. Had the plate been better executed, it is quite possible it might not have been so poetical. The very rudeness and vagueness of it leave much to the imagination. Had the plumage of the vulture, or the hair of the camel more accurately copied the living texture, or the face of the corpse been more death-like, so as, instead of kindling [21] the imagination with the leading idea, to have drawn away the attention to the fidelity with which the accessories had been painted, the Poetry would have been lessened. It is the effort to express a feeling, and the obstacles in the way of the expression, which together constitute the poetical.

Most of us visited the Exhibition in Hyde Park, last year. Some may have seen between the central fountain and the Colebrook Dale gates, several cases of stuffed birds, and probably passed on after a cursory glance. If so, it was a pity, for there was much Poetry in those cases. They contained a series illustrative of falconry. * In the first case was a gyrfalcon, hooded; in the second, the falcon has struck his quarry, and the heron lies below with ruffled crest, and open beak, and writhing, serpentine neck, the falcon meanwhile fixing his talons deep, and throwing himself backwards with open wings to avoid the formidable beak. In the third, the falcon sits gorged upon its perch.

I have visited the finest museums in Europe, and spent many a long day in watching the habits of birds in the woods, hidden and unseen by them; but I never saw the reproduction of life till I saw these. not merely the exquisite arrangement of the feathers, nor merely that the parts which are usually dry and shrunk in preserved specimens, the beak and the orbits, the tongue and the legs, were preserved with a marvellous freshness; it was not the mere softness of every swell, and the graceful rise and bend wherever [22] rise and bend should be, but it was the life and feeling thrown into the whole that dignified these works as real Art. They were vitalised by the feeling, not of the mere bird stuffer, but of the poet, who had sympathised with nature, felt the life in birds as something kindred with our own; and inspired with this sympathy, and labouring to utter it, had thus re-created life as it were within the very grasp of death.

And while on this subject, I may give you another illustration, by which you will perceive the difference between Science and Poetry, in the works, if you have ever time to read them, published in a cheap form, of Wilson, the American ornithologist. Wilson was born at Paisley; his first poetic inspiration came from the perusal of the works of his countryman, Burns. He emigrated to America, and there devoted his life to ornithology. He studied the life of birds in their native haunts, and the result was a work which stands amongst the foremost in its own department, and which one of the greatest ornithologists of the day, Prince Lucien Bonaparte, has felt it an honor to arrange scientifically. Wilson's enthusiasm and imaginative temperament are manifest in the singular wish that when he died he might be buried in the woods, where the birds would sing above his grave. And all his writing is full of this living sympathy with life, and poetic power of perceiving analogies: as when he calls the Arctic Owl" that great northern Hunter," or describes the Goat-sucker's discovery of the robbery of her nest. Whoever has read his works, or Waterton's Wanderings, or that sweet, [23] observing description given by Banquo, in Macbeth, of the swallow's haunts and dispositions, and will compare the aspect in which life appeared to them with that in which it presents itself to the mind of the scientific nomenclator, will understand the different ways in which Intellect and Feeling represent the same objects, and how it is that largeness of sympathy distinguishes poetic sensibility from scientific capacity. Poetry creates life: Science dissects death.

Our present definition will help to explain why all the scenes of nature are poetic and dear to us. They express what is in us, and what we cannot express for ourselves. I love those passages in the Bible which speak of this universe as created by the WORD of God. For the word is the expression of the thought: and the visible universe is the Thought of the Eternal, uttered in a word or form in order that it might be intelligible to man. And for an open heart and a seeing eye it is impossible to gaze on this creation without feeling that there is a Spirit at work, a living WORD endeavouring to make Himself intelligible, labouring to express Himself through symbolism and indirect expression, because direct utterance is impossible, partly on account of the inadequacy of the materials, and partly in consequence of the dulness of the heart, to which the infinite Love is speaking. And thus the word poet obtains its literal significance of maker, and all visible things become to us the chaunted poem of the universe.

These feelings, of course, come upon us most vividly in what we call the sublime scenes of nature. [24] I wish I could give to the Working Men in this room one conception of what I have seen and witnessed, or bring the emotions of those glorious spots to the hearts of those who cannot afford to see them. I wish I could describe one scene, which is passing before my memory this moment, when I found myself alone in a solitary valley of the Alps, without a guide, and a thunder-storm coming on; I wish I could explain how every circumstance combined to produce the same feeling, and ministered to unity of impression: the slow, wild wreathing of the vapours round the peaks, concealing their summits, and imparting in semblance their own motion, till each dark mountain form seemed to be mysterious and alive; the eagle-like plunge of the Lämmer-geier, the bearded vulture of the Alps; the rising of a flock of choughs, which I had surprised at their feast on carrion, with their red beaks and legs, and their wild shrill cries, startling the solitude and silence, – till the blue lightning streamed at last, and the shattering thunder crashed as if the mountains must give way: and then came the feelings, which in their fulness man can feel but once in life, mingled sensations of awe and triumph, and defiance of danger, pride, rapture, contempt of pain, humbleness and intense repose, as if all the strife and struggle of the elements were only uttering the unrest of man's bosom; so that in all such scenes there is a feeling of relief, and he is tempted to cry out exultingly, There! there! all this was in my heart, and it was never said out till now!

But do not fancy that Poetry belongs to the grander scenes of nature only. The poets have taught us that [25] throughout the whole world there is a significance as deep as that which belongs to the more startling forms, through which Power speaks.

Burns will show you the Poetry of the daisy,

"Wee, modest, crimson tippit flower,"

which the plough turns up unmarked; and Tennyson will tell you the significance, and feeling, and meaning there are in the black ash-bud, and the crumpled poppy, and the twinkling laurels, and the lights which glitter on the panes of the gardener's green-house, and the moated grange, and the long, grey flats of "unpoetic" Lincolnshire. Read Wordsworth's "Nutting," and his fine analysis of the remorse experienced in early youth at the wanton tearing down of branches, as if the desolation on which the blue sky looks reproachfully through the open space where foliage was before, were a crime against life, and you will feel the intuitive truth of his admonition that "there is a Spirit in the woods."

Nay, even round this Brighton of ours, treeless and prosaic as people call it, there are materials enough for Poetry, for the heart that is not petrified in conventional maxims about beauty. Enough in its free downs, which are ever changing their distance and their shape, as the lights and cloud-shadows sail over them, and over the graceful forms of whose endless variety of slopes the eye wanders, unarrested by abruptness, with an entrancing feeling of fulness, and a restful satisfaction to the pure sense of Form. And enough upon our own sea-shore and in our rare sunsets. A man might have watched with delight, beyond all words, last night, the long, deep purple lines of cloud, [26] edged with intolerable radiante, passing into orange, yellow, pale green, and leaden blue, and reflected below in warm, purple shadows, and cold, green lights, upon the sea – and then, the dying of it all away! And then he might have remembered those lines of Shakspere; and often quoted as they are, the poet would have interpreted the sunset, and the sunset what the poet meant by the exclamation which follows the disappearance of a similar aerial vision –

                      "We are such stuff
As dreams are made of: and our narrow life
Is rounded with a sleep."

No one has taught us this so earnestly as Wordsworth; for it was part of his great message to this century to remind us that the sphere of the poet is not only in the extraordinary, but in the ordinary and common.

The common things of sky and earth,
    And hill and valley, he has viewed:
And impulses of deeper birth
    Have come to him in solitude.

From common things, that round us lie,
    Some random truths he can impart:
The harvest of a quiet eye,
    That sleeps and broods on its own heart.

But, of course, if you lead a sensual life, or a mercenary or artificial life, you will not read these truths in nature. The faculty of discerning them is not learnt either in the gin-palace or the ball-room. A pure heart, and a simple, manly life alone can reveal to you all that which seer and poet saw.

This Lecture will be appropriately closed by a brief notice of the last work of our chief living poet, [27] Alfred Tennyson. And I shall also endeavour to confute certain cavils raised against it: for after laying down what appear to be true canons of criticism, they may be further substantiated by the exposure of criticism which is false.

The poem entitled "In Memoriam" is a monument erected by friendship to the memory of a gifted son of the historian Hallam. It is divided into a number of cabinet-like compartments, which, with fine and delicate shades of difference, exhibit the various phases through which the bereaved spirit passes from the first shock of despair, dull, hopeless misery and rebellion, up to the dawn of hope, acquiescent trust, and even calm happiness again. In the meanwhile many a question has been solved, which can only suggest itself when suffering forces the soul to front the realities of our mysterious existence; such as: Is there indeed a life to come? And if there is, will it be a conscious life? Shall I know that I am myself? Will there be mutual recognition? continuance of attachments? Shall friend meet friend, and brother brother, as friends and brothers? Or, again: How comes it that one so gifted was taken away so early, in the maturity of his powers, just at the moment when they seemed about to become available to mankind? What means all this, and is there not something wrong? Is the Law of Creation Love indeed?

By slow degrees, all these doubts, and worse, are answered; not as a philosopher would answer them nor as a theologian, or a metaphysician, but as it is the duty of a poet to reply, by intuitive faculty, [28] in strains in which Imagination predominates over Thought and Memory. And one of the manifold beauties of this exquisite poem, and which is another characteristic of true Poetry, is that, piercing through all the sophistries and over refinements of speculation, and the lifeless scepticism of science, it falls back upon the grand, primary, simple truths of our humanity; those first principles which underlie all creeds, which belong to our earliest childhood, and on which the wisest and best have rested through all ages: that all is right: that darkness shall be clear: that God and Time are the only interpreters: that Love is king: that the Immortal is in us: that – which is the key note of the whole –

          "– all is well, though Faith and Form
Be sundered in the night of fear."

This is an essential quality of the highest Poetry, whose characteristic is simplicity; not in the sense of being intelligible, like a novel, to every careless reader, without pain or effort: for the best Poetry demands study as severe as mathematics require; and to any one who thinks that it can be treated as a mere relaxation and amusement for an idle hour, this Lecture does not address itself: but simplicity, in the sense of dealing with truths which do not belong to a few fastidious and refined intellects, but are the heritage of the many. The deepest truths are the simplest and the most common.

It is wonderful how generally the formalists have missed their way to the interpretation of this poem. It is sometimes declared with oracular decisiveness, that, if this be Poetry, all they have been accustomed [29] to call Poetry must change its name. As if it were not a law that every original poet must be in a sense new: as if Æschylus were not a poet because he did not write an epic like Homer: or as if the Romantic poets were not poets because they departed from every rule of classical Poetry. And as if, indeed, this very objection had not been brought against the Romantic school, and Shakspere himself pronounced by French critics a "buffoon:" till Schlegel shewed that all life makes to itself its own form, and that Shakspere's form had its living laws. So spoke the Edinburgh Review of Byron; but it could not arrest his career. So spoke Byron himself of Wordsworth: but he would be a bold man, or a very flippant one, who would dare to say now that Wordsworth is not a great poet. And the day will come when the slow, sure judgment of Time shall give to Tennyson his undisputed place among the English poets as a true one, of rare merit and originality,

To a coarser class of minds "In Memoriam" appears too melancholy: one long monotone of grief. It is simply one of the most victorious songs that ever poet chaunted: with the mysterious undertone, no doubt, of sadness which belongs to all human joy, in front of the mysteries of death and sorrow; but that belongs to Paradise Regained as well as to Paradise Lost: to every true note, indeed, of human triumph except a Bacchanalian drinking song. And that it should predominate in a monumental record is not particularly unnatural. But readers who never dream of mastering the plan of a work before they pretend to criticise details can scarcely be expected to perceive |30] that the wail passes into a hymn of solemn and peaceful beauty before it closes.

Another objection, proceeding from the religious periodicals, is, that the subject being a religious one, is not treated religiously; by which they mean theologically. It certainly is neither saturated with Evangelicalism nor Tractarianism; nor does it abound in the routine phrases which, when missed, raise a suspicion of heterodoxy; nor does it seize the happy opportunity afforded for a pious denunciation of the errors of Purgatory and Mariolatry. But the objection to its want of definite theology, – an objection, by the way, brought frequently against Wordsworth by writers of the same school, is, in fact, in favour of the presumption of its poetic merit; for it may be the office of the priest to teach upon authority – of the philosopher according to induction — but the province of the poet is neither to teach by induction nor by authority, but to appeal to those primal intuitions of our being which are eternally and necessarily true.

With one of these criticisms I mean to occupy your time at somewhat further length. Some months ago, the Times devoted three or four colums to the work of depreciating Tennyson. I will answer that critique now, as concisely as I can; not because the Times can do any permanent harm to Tennyson's reputation, but because it may do a great deal of harm to the taste of its readers. The Times is in possession of extensive influence: it forms the political creed, and is arbiter of the opinions of the many who must be led. I hold it therefore no unworthy antagonist.

[31] Now, in any pretension to criticise a poetic work of internal unity, the first duty, plainly, is to comprehend the structure of it as a whole, and master the leading idea. It is to be regretted that this is precisely what English critics generally do not. Even with our own Shakspere, admiration or blame is usually confined to the beauties and blemishes of detached passages. For the significance of each play, as a whole, we had to look, in the first instance, to such foreigners as Augustus Schlegel to teach us.

Let us inquire what conception the critic of the Times has formed of this beautiful poem.

"Let the acknowledgment be made at once that the writer dedicated his thoughts to a most difficult task. He has written 200 pages upon one person — in other words, he has painted 120 miniatures of the same individual."

Mr. Tennyson has not painted 120 portraits of the same individual. He has written a poem in 120 divisions, illustrative of the manifold phases through which the soul passes from doubt through grief to faith. With so entire and radical a misconception of the scope of the poem, it is not wonderful if the whole examination of the details should be a failure.

The first general charge is one of irreverence. The special case selected is these verses which are called blasphemous –

"But brooding on the dear one dead,
    And all he said of things divine,
(And dear as sacramental wine
    To dying lips is all he said "–)

One would have thought that the holy tenderness of [32] this passage would have made this charge impossible. However, as notions of reverence and irreverence in some minds are singularly vague, we will give the flippant objection rather more attention than it merits.

By a sacrament we understand a means of grace: an outward something through which pure and holy feelings are communicated to the soul. In the church of Christ there are two sacraments — the material of one is the commonest of all elements, water; the form of the other the commonest of all acts, a meal. Now there are two ways in which reverence may be manifested towards any thing or person: one, by exalting that thing or person by means of the depreciation of all others: another, by exalting all others through it. To some minds it appears an honoring of the sacraments to represent them as solitary things in their own kind, like nothing else, and all other things and acts profane in comparison of them. It is my own deep conviction that no greater dishonor can be done to them than by this conception, which degrades them to the rank of charms. The sacraments are honoured when they consecrate all the things and acts of life. The commonest of all materials was sanctified to us in order to vindicate the sacredness of all materialism, in protest against the false spiritualism which affects to despise the body, and the world whose impressions are made upon the senses; and in order to declare that visible world God's, and the organ of His manifestation. The simplest of all acts is sacramental, in order to vindicate God's claim to all acts, and to proclaim our common life sacred, in protest against the conception which cleaves so obstinately to the mind, that religion [33] is the performance of certain stated acts, not necessarily of moral import, on certain days and in certain places. If there be anything in this life sacred, any remembrance filled with sanctifying power, any voice which symbolizes to us the voice of God, it is the recollection of the pure and holy ones that have been taken from us, and of their examples and sacred words –

– – – – – "dear as sacramental wine
To dying lips" – – – – –

In those lines Tennyson has deeply, no doubt unconsciously, that is, without dogmatic intention, entered into the power of the sacraments to diffuse their meaning beyond themselves. There is no irreverence in them: no blasphemy; nothing but delicate Christian truth.

The next definite charge is more difficult to deal with before a mixed society, because the shades of the feeling in question blend into each other with exceedingly fine gradation. The language of the friend towards the departed friend is represented as unfitted for any but amatory tenderness. In this blame the critic is compelled to include Shakspere: for we all know that bis sonnets, dedicated either to the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Pembroke, contain expressions which have left it a point of controversy whether they were addressed to a lady or a friend. Now in a matter which concerns the truthfulness of a human feeling, when the anonymous critic of the Times is on one side and Shakspere on the other, there are some who might be presumptuous enough to suppose à priori that the modest critic is possibly not the one in the right. However, let us examine the [34] matter. There are two kinds of friendship: One is the affection of the greater for the less, the other that of the less for the greater. The greater and the less may be differences of rank, or intellect, or character, or power. These are the two opposites of feeling which respectively characterise the masculine and the feminine natures, the familiar symbols of which relationship are the oak and the ivy with its clinging tendrils. But though they are the masculine and feminine types, they are not confined to male and female. Most of us have gone through both these phases of friendship. Whoever remembers an attachment at school to a boy feebler than himself, will recollect the exulting pride of guardianship with which he shielded his friend from the oppression of some young tyrant of the play-ground. And whoever, at least in boyhood or youth, loved a man, to whose mental or moral qualities he looked up with young reverence, will recollect the devotion and the jealousies, and the almost passionate tenderness, and the costly gifts, and the desire of personal sacrifices, which characterise boyish friendship, and which certainly belong to the feminine, and not the masculine type of affection. Doubtless the language of "In Memoriam" is tender in the extreme, such as a sister might use to a brother deeply loved. But it is to be remembered that it expresses the affection of the spirit which rejoices to confess itself the feebler; and besides, that, the man has passed into a spirit, and that time and distance have thrown a hallowing haze of tenderness over the lineaments of the friend of the past. It may be well also to recollect that there is a precedent [35] for this woman-like tenderness, against whose authority one who condemns so severely the most distant approach to irreverence will scarcely venture to appeal. "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been to me. Thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women."

Again, the praise and the grief of the poem are enormously 'exaggerated;' and as an instance of the manner in which the "poet may underline the moralist," and delicately omit the defects without hyperbolical praise, Dr. Johnson's lines on Levett are cited with much fervour of admiration. Good, excellent Dr.Johnson! sincerely pious; very bigoted and very superstitious, yet one, withal, who fought the battle of life bravely out, in the teeth of disease and poverty; a great lexicographer; of massive learning; the author of innumerable prudential aphorisms, much quoted by persons who season their conversation with proverbs and old saws; the inditer of several thousand ponderous verses; a man worthy of all respect. But it is indeed a surprising apparition when the shade of Dr. Johnson descends upon the Nineteenth Century as the spirit of a poet, and we are asked to identify the rugged portrait which Boswell painted with a model of delicate forbearance.

After these general observations, the writer in the Times proceeds to criticise in detail; he awards some praise, and much blame. You shall have a specimen of each. Let us test the value of his praise. He selects for approbation, among others, these lines: –

"Or is it that the Past will win
    A glory from its being far;
    [36] And orb into the perfect star
We saw not when we moved therein?"

The question has suggested itself as a misgiving to the poet's mind, whether his past affection was really as full of blessedness as memory paints it, or whether it be not the perspective of distance which conceals its imperfections, and throws purer hues upon it than it possessed while actual. In the rapid reading of the two last lines I may not have at once conveyed to you the meaning. So long as we remain upon any planet, this earth for instance, it would wear a common-place, earthy look: but if we could ascend from it into space, in proportion to the distance, it would assume a heavenly aspect, and orb or round itself into a star. This is a very simple and graceful illustration. Now hear the critic of the Times condescending to be an analyst of its beauties:

There is something indeed striking and suggestive in comparing the gone by time to some luminous body rising like a red harvest moon behind us, lighting our path homeward."

So that this beautiful simile of Tennyson's, of a distant star receding into pale and perfect loveliness, in the hands of the Times becomes a great red harvest moon!

Now for the blame. The following passage is selected: –

"Oh, if indeed that eye foresee
    Or see (in Him is no before)
    In more of life true love no more,
And love the indifference to be,

So might I find, ere yet the morn
    Breaks hither over Indian seas,
    [37] That Shadow waiting with the keys,
To cloak me from my proper scorn."

That is, as you will see at once, after the thought of the transitoriness of human affection has occurred to him, the possibility is also suggested with it, that he himself may change; but he prays that before that day can come, he may find the Shadow waiting with the keys to cloak him from his own scorn. Now I will read the commentary: –

"Lately we have heard much of keys, both from the Flaminian Gate and Piccadilly, but we back this verse against Hobbs. We dare him to pick it. Mr. Moxon may hang it up in his window, with a £200 prize attached, more safely than a Bramah. That a shadow should hold keys at all, is a noticeable circumstance; but that it should wait with a cloak, ready to be thrown over a gentleman in difficulties, is absolutely amazing."

The lock may be picked without any exertion of unfair force.

A few pages before he has spoken of the breaking up of a happy friendship –

"There sat the Shadow, feared by man,
    Who broke our fair companionship."

Afterwards he calls it –

"The Shadow, cloaked from head to foot,
    Who keeps the key of all the creeds."

Take, at a venture, any charity-school boy, of ordinary intelligence; read to him these lines; and he will tell you that the Shadow feared by man is death; that it is cloaked from head to foot because death is mysterious, and its form not distinguishable; and that he keeps the keys of all the creeds, because he alone can un[38]lock the secret of the grave, and shew which of all conflicting human creeds is true.

"It is a noticeable thing," we are told, "that a shadow should hold keys at all." It is a very noticeable thing that a skeleton should hold a scythe and an hour-glass: very noticeable that a young lady should hold scales when she is blindfold; yet it is not a particularly uncommon rule of symbolism so to represent Time and Justice. Probably the writer in the Times, if he should chance to read of "riding on the wings of the wind," would consider it a very noticeable method of locomotion; perhaps would enquire, with dull facetiousness, what was the precise length of the primary, secondary, and tertiary quills of the said wings; and if told of a spirit clothing itself in light, he might triumphantly demand in what loom light could be woven into a great coat.

Finally. The critique complains that a vast deal of poetic feeling has been wasted on a lawyer; and much wit is spent upon the tenderness which is given to "Amaryllis of the Chancery bar." A barrister, it seems, is beyond the pale of excusable, because poetical, sensibilities. So that, if my friend be a soldier, I may love him, and celebrate him in poetry, because the profession of arms is by all conventional associations heroic: or if he bears on his escutcheon the red hand of knighthood, or wears a ducal coronet, or even be a shepherd, still there are poetic precedents for romance; but if he be a member of the Chancery bar, or only a cotton lord, then, because these are not yet grades accredited as heroic in song, worth is not worth, and honor is not honor, [39] and nobleness is not nobility. O, if we wanted poets for nothing else, it would be for this, that they are the grand levellers, vindicating the sacredness of our common humanity, and in protest against such downright vulgarity of heart as this, reminding us that –

"For a' that, and a' that,
 A man's a man for a' that."

So much then for the critic of the Times: wrong when he praises and wrong when he blames: who finds Shakspere false to the facts of human nature, and quotes Dr. Johnson as a model poet: who cannot believe in the Poetry of any expression unless it bear the mint-stamp of a precedent, and cannot understand either the exaggerations or the infinitude of genuine grief.

Let it serve to the members of this Institution as a comment on the opinion quoted at the outset that it is sufficient education for Working Men to read the newspapers. If they form no more living conception of what Poetry is than such as they get from the flippant criticism of a slashing article, they may learn satire, but not enthusiam. If they limit their politics to the knowledge they may pick up from daily newspapers, which, with a few honorable exceptions, seem bound to pander to all the passions and prejudices of their respective factions, they will settle down into miserable partizans. And if Working-Men are to gain their notions of Christianity from the sneering, snarling gossip of the religious newspapers, I, for one, do not marvel that indignant infidelity is so common amongst them.

And let it be to us all a warning against that de[40]tracting, depreciating spirit which is the curse and bane both of the religion and the literature of our day — that spirit which has no sympathy with aught that is great beyond the pale of customary formalities, and sheds its blighting influence over all that is enthusiastic, and generous, and high-minded. It is possible for a sneer or a cavil to strike sometimes a superficial fact; I never knew the one or the other reach the deep heart and blessedness of truth.



[Fußnote, S. 21]

* Contributed to the Exhibition by – Hancock, Esq., of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.   zurück





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Fred W. Robertson: Two Lectures on the Influence of Poetry on the Working Classes,
Delivered Before the Members of the Mechanic's Institution, February, 1852.
Brighton: Henry S. King; London: Hamilton, Adams and Co. 1852, S. 1-40.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).






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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer