Cyclopedia of Literature and the Fine Arts







PO'ETRY. To produce a complete and satisfactory definition of poetry has been, hitherto, unsuccessfully attempted by writers on taste, and by poets themselves. A popular one, sufficiently adapted to general notions, is furnished by the doyen of living critics, Lord Jeffrey: "The end of poetry is to please; and the name, we think, is strictly applicable to every metrical composition from which we derive pleasure without any laborious exercise of the understanding." But, in the first place it has been truly observed that "verse is the limit by which poetry is bounded: it is the adjunct of poetry, but not its living principle." "Poetry," says Coleridge, "is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. Poetry is opposed to science, and prose to metre." "The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement or communication of truth; the proper and immnediate object of poetry is the communication of immedate pleasure." It is essentially a creative art: its operation is "making," not transcribing. "Imitation" it is, as Aristotle defines it; not because it copies, but because it has its model in nature, and can never depart far from it without losing its character. Lord Bacon explains this by saying, that poetry "doth raise and erect the mind by submitting the shows of things to the disire of the mind." The imagination alters these "shows of things" by adding or subtracting qualities, and poetry produces to view the forms which result from the operation.

1. Imagination is, emphatically, the great poetical faculty. It is "the first moving or creative principle of the mind, which fashions out of materials previously existing, new materials and originial truths." It is "a complex power, including those faculties which are called by metaphysicians conception, abstraction, and judgment:" the first enabling us to form a notion of objects of perception and knowledge; the second "separating the selected materials from the qualities and circumstances which are connected with them in nature;" the third selecting the materials. Its operations are most various, and it exhibits itself in poetry in very different degrees and forms. It may shine here and there; chiefly in comparison, or in bold and pleasing metaphor, breaking the chain of a narrative, as in Homer and the earlier poetry of most nations; it may hurry image on image, connected only by those exquisite links of thought which are present in the mind of the poet, in daring, compressed, rapid langauge, as if laguage were inadequate to its expression, as in the inspired prophets, in Æschylus, and often in Shakspeare; it may predominate in entire sustained conceptions, grasping at general features, as in Milton; it may cling more closely to the "shows of things," dwelling in particulars, reproducong with startling vividness images little altered, graphic, and minute, as in Dante.

2. No distinction has given critics more trouble, in the way of definition, than that between imagination and fancy. "Fancy," it has been said, "is given to beguile and quicken the temporal part of our nature; imagination to incite and support the eternal." "The distinction between fancy and imagination," says another, "is simply that the former altogether changes and remodels the original idea, impregnating it with something extraneous; the latter leaves it undisturbed, but associates it with things to which in some view or other it bears a resemblance."

3. Lord Jeffrey associates with the pleasure of imagination that derived from "the easy exercise of reason." This is produced chiefly by the faculties of thought, wit, and reflection. It may, indeed, be doubted whether the expression of thought, however energetic and acute, [481] clad in current poetical diction, is really poetry. Certainly it is so, if at all, in a very inferior degree to that of the imagination.

4. The expression of passion, sentiment, or pathos, is the most common and universal of all sources of poetical pleasure. It is the very soul of all early and simple poetry; it pervades no less that of the most civilized communities. Yet this class of poetry is less truly and emphatically poetical than the imaginative, although more popular. The pleasure occasioned by it is of a mixed nature: it arises from the excitement of peculiar sympathies; not produced, but heightened only, by the form in which that excitement is conveyed.

5. The dramatic faculty, of which we have already spoken, seems to consist in acute powers of observation of the varieties of human character, together with the rarer power of delineating it with such force as to bring the imaginary person distinctly before the reader. It is the wonderful and unique characteristic of Shakspeare, in whom all individuality, as has often been observed, seems absolutely lost.

6. The descriptive faculty is of the same kind; that of bringing the objects of external nature, or passing scenes of whatever sort, vividly before the reader's fancy. It is obvious that this also is a faculty common to poets with many others who are not so: but sustained energy of description, as in Homer, forms a magnificent groundwork for strictly poetical ornament. In the poetry of modern times, especially in this country, and in Germany, the description of external nature has been made subservient to the purposes of imagination and reflection by writers of high genius; and this combination peculiarly characterizes the taste of the age.

7. Lord Jeffrey ranks last the pleasure derived from diction as of a secondary order, which it undoubtedly is, and yet almost essential. The highest poetry, without beauty of style, is rarely or never popular. We have no space to characterize minutely this poetical quality; but by way of example, it may suffice to observe that Virgil is, perhaps, of all poets, he of whose charm the greatest proportion is derived from simple beauty and felicity of diction; through a whole range of ill-chosen subjects, always graceful, always equable, and as nearly approaching to faultlessness as human skill can construct.

8. Lastly, we must not omit the pleasure of melody: not essential to poetry, since there may be poetry without verse; not always a merit of the poet's own, since much depends on the language; and a Greek or Italian poet, cæteris paribus, will ever be preferable to an English or German one on this account alone; but a grace which heightens the charm of the noblest poetry, and sometimes captivates the sense even in the most different.

Dr. Channing says, "In an intellectaul nature, framed for progress and for higher modes of being, there must be creative energies, powers of original and evergrowing thought; and poetry is the form in which those energies are chiefly manifested. It is the glorious prerogative of this art that 'it makes all things new' for the gratification of a divine instinct. It indeed finds its elements in what it actually sees and experiences in the worlds of matter and mind; but it combines and blends these into new forms and according to new affinities; breaks down, if we may so say, the distictions and bounds of nature; imparts to material objects life, and sentiment, and emotion, and invests the mind with the powers and splendors of the outward creation; describes the surrounding universe in the colors which the passions throw over it, and depicts the mind in those moments of repose or agitation, of tendernese or sublime emotion, which manifests its thirst for a more powerful and joyful existence. To a man of a literal and prosaic character, the mind may seem lawless in these workings; but it observes higher laws than it transgresses, the laws of the immortal intellect; it is trying and developing its best faculties; and in the objects which it describes, or in the emotions which it awakens, anticipates those states of progressive power, splendor, beauty, and happyness, for which it was created. We accordingly believe that poetry, far from injuring society, is one of the great instruments of its refinement and exaltation. It lifts the mind above ordinary life, gives it a respite from depressing cares, and awakens the consciousness of its affinity with what is pure and noble. In its legitimate and highest efforts it has the same tendency and aim with Christianity; that is to spiritualize our nature. True, poetry has been made the instrument of vice, the pander of bad passions: but, when genius thus stoops, it dims its fires, and parts with much of its power; and, even when poetry is enslaved to licentiousness or misan[482]thropy, she cannot wholly forget her true vocation. Strains of pure feeling, touches of tenderness, images of innocent happiness, sympathies with suffering virtue, bursts of scorn or indignation at the hollowness of the world, passages true to our mnoral nature, often escape in an immoral work, and show us how hard it is for a gifted spirit to divorce itself wholly from what is good. Poetry has a natural alliance with our best affections. It delights in the beauty and sublimity of the outward creation and of the soul. It indeed portrays with terrible energy the excesses of the passions; but they are passions which show a mighty nature, which are full of power, which command awe, and excite a deep though shuddering sympathy. Its great tendency and purpose is, to carry the mind above and beyond the beaten, dusty, weary walks of ordinary life; to lift it into a purer element, and to breathe into it more profound and generous emotion. It reveals to us the loveliness of nature brings back the freshness of youthful feeling, revives the relish of simple pleasures, keeps unquenched the enthusiasm which warmed the spring-time of our being, refines youthful love, strengthens our interest in human nature by vivid delineations of its tenderest and loftiest feelings, spreads our sympathies over all classes of society, knits us by new ties with universal being, and through the brightness of its prophetic visions, helps faith to lay hold on the future life. It is not true that the poet paints a life which does not exist. He only extracts and concentrates, as it were, life's ethereal essence, arrests and condenses its volatile fragrance, brings together its scattered beauties, and prolongs its more refined but evanescent joys; and in this, he does well; for it is good to feel that life is not wholly usurped by cares for subsistence and physical gratifications, but admits, in measures which may be indefinitely enlarged, sentiments and delights worthy of a higher being."





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Cyclopedia of Literature and the Fine Arts.
Comprising Complete and Accurate Definitions of All Terms Employed in Belles-lettres,
Philosophy, Theology, Law, Mythology, Painting, Music, Sculpture, Architecture, and All Kindred Arts.
Compiled and arranged by George Ripley and Bayard Taylor.
New York: A. S. Barnes; Cincinnati: H. W. Derby 1854, S. 480-482.


Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).






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