Literatur: anonym
Literatur: Russell's Magazine


[52] There are certain operations of the human mind upon itself and the world without, which, when they take form and body in language, have been denominated Poetry. To describe the nature of these operations, in a single definition, has long been the aim of the philosophical critic. No perfectly satisfactory definition has yet been attained. We could quote a score, gathered from different sources – all more or less wide of the mark. As we recall them, we are reminded of a childish search once actually commenced by ourselves, after the pot of gold which is said to lie buried at the foot of the rainbows.

A writer in the July number of this Magazine has attempted to settle the question.

By very improperly making poetry the antithesis of prose (prose, as Coleridge justly observes, being properly opposed only to metre), and by confounding the subjective with the objective of poetry, he has arrived, with some plausibility, at what he offers us as a definition of poetry. It is, in reality, an extremely poor dictionary definition of a poem.

The truth is, the writer has altogether mistaken the question. That question is, as we have already implied, not how to define the forms of poetry, nor how to distinguish poetry from prose (the philosophic critic would as soon think of contrasting a virtue with a colour), but what is that element in human nature – what, we repeat, are those operations of the human faculties, which, when incarnated in language, are generally recognized as poetry.

The theory of the writer is, that poetry is a mere synonym for a composition in verse. Hence, the general dissatisfaction occasioned by his article – a dissatisfaction which we have heard expressed by many who, displeased they scarcely knew why, and dimly conscious of the true faith, were yet unable to find, in their own undefined notions, a logical refutation of the heresy. The genuine lovers of poetry feel that its essential characteristics underlie the various forms which it assumes. Ask any man of sensibility to define poetry, and he will endeavor to convey to you some idea, vague, doubtless, and shadowy, of that which, in his imagination, constitutes its spirit. The few poets who have attempted to solve the question, have looked rather into themselves than into the poems which they have written. One describes poetry "as emotion recollected in tranquility;" another, as "the recollection of the best and happiest hours of the best and happiest minds." These definitions – if definitions they can be called – are inadequate enough; – but they indicate, correctly, we think, the direction in which the distinctive principle of poetry is to be sought.

It is time that we should place the argument which we are discussing before the reader. We shall, perhaps, omit a passage here and there, but the reader has only to turn to the July number of this Magazine to see the argument in extenso:

            "What is Poetry?

"It will help us in knowing what it is, to determine first what it is not. It is not the nature of the thoughts expressed that makes a book a poem. It is not beauty of [53] imagery, nor play of fancy, nor creative power of imagination, expression of emotion or passion, nor delineation of character, nor force, refinement or purity of language, that constitutes the distinctive quality of poetry. Because it is evident that there are passages in prose capable of being compared, in all these properties, not disadvantageously, with the noblest productions of the ancient or modern muse. Take for an example of beautiful imagery, the often quoted passage from Milton's Tractate on Education, where he expatiates on the delights of learning: 'I will lead you to a hill-side, laborious, indeed, on the first ascent, but else so smooth, so green, so full of goodly prospects and melodious sounds on every side, that the harp of Orpheus was not more charming;' or Burke's eulogy on the adventurous hardihood of the seamen of America, or his description of the French Queen, etc.

"Where, in poetry, shall we find invention, fancy, imagination, more abundantly exhibited than in the writings of Defoe, or Fielding, or Scott, or Dickens? * * * And yet, unless it be metaphorically to sustain a theory, no one calls Tom Jones, or Robinson Crusoe, or Ivanhoe, a poem."

Then follow two quotations from the Bible, which, in spite of the sublimity of the one, and the beauty of the other, are pronounced (and we make no dangerous admission in saying very properly pronounced) to be "prose, nevertheless."

"A prose translation of the Iliad, containing every sentiment and description, faithfully expressed, would not be a poem. The passage from Milton, if turned into his own sonorous verse, would be as genuine poetry as the Comus or Paradise Lost. Turned into metrical form, by the commonest hand even, the prose is changed into poetry, the words remaining the same:

"We lead your footsteps to a mountain side
Laborious on the first ascent, but else
So smooth, so green, so full of goodly sights,
And sounds melodious, that the harp itself
Or song of Orpheus, not more charming seemed."

"But if it is not the thought, sentiment or imagery, either grand or beautiful, that makes the distinctive quality of poetry, what is it that does? If the distinguishing property be not in the substance, it must be in the form of the work; if not in the conceptions, it must be in the words that express them.

"But the words of a language are common to prose and poetry.

"It must be, then, in the form of arranging words that we find the peculiar something that constitutes poetry."

With a few more remarks, not very material to the argument, the writer concludes that poetry may be defined "as the expression, by words, of thought or emotion, in conformity with metrical and rythmical laws."

The sophistry of this argument lies principally in a very illogical confusion of the ideas conveyed by the terms poem, and poetry. The italics, which are our own, are meant to call the attention of the reader to the repeated change from one term to the other, as if they were identical in signification. – The writer would have us infer that because it is impossible to call Ivanhoe a poem, it must follow that it does not contain a single element of poetry. And in a passage which we have not quoted, he seems to insist that because "no one can [54] deny that the work of Lucretius is a poem;" we are, therefore, to infer that, from the beginning to the end, it is all poetry. We shall endeavor soon to show the absurdity of these conclusions, if, indeed, this simple statement be not all that is necessary to condemn them.

The reader ought also to observe, without our aid, that the writer sets out with the notion tacitly, though perhaps unconsciously assumed, that poetry is just what his definition describes it to be, that his definition is implied and taken for granted in the very arguments by which he reaches it – in a word, that his whole train of reasoning is but a simple petitio principii. For it is plain that, unless we accept his definition of poetry, or one no less narrow, it is impossible to recognize that antithesis of prose to poetry on which the whole argument is based. It is equally plain that, without recognizing that antithesis, it is impossible to see any force in those arguments drawn from the fact that there are to be found in prose, passages equal in point of "fancy, passion, or imagination," to many noble passages in verse.

Do we speak literally, or (as this writer avers, drawing, we admit, a legitimate inference from his own definition) are we employing a mere figure of speech, when we commend a passage of prose, teeming with passion and imagination, as true and genuine poetry?

Before answering this question, we must be permitted to say something as to our conclusions on the nature of poetry. We shall not pretend to give the reader an adequate definition. Our purpose in this essay is not to establish a theory of our own, but simply to expose the falsehood and superficiality of the one before us.

Coleridge remarks that the question, What is poetry? is very nearly the same with, What is a poet? The distinctive qualities of poetry grow out of the poetic genius itself.

The ground of the poetic character is a more than ordinary sensibility. Other qualifications, indeed, are necessary to complete our idea of the poet, but for the ends of our argument, it will be necessary to consider this one alone. From this characteristic of the poet results what we regard as an essential characteristic of poetry, – a characteristic which should be left out of no definition; we refer to the medium of strong emotion, through which poetry looks at its objects, and in which, to borrow a chemical metaphor of Arthur Hallam's, it "holds them all fused." Hence, again, is derived a third peculiarity in the language of poetry, which, with a difference in the degree, not the kind of its force, arising from an imagination more than usually vivid, is the language natural to men in a state of excitement, is sensuous, picturesque, and impassioned.

It is, in fact, only when we come to speak of the language, or of the forms of poetry, that we are moving in the same plane of argument with the writer. What distinguishes the language of poetry? The writer maintains that it is the metrical and rythmical arrangement of the words. We, on the contrary, are disposed to think it is the character of the language itself.

One of the members upon which the writer's faulty syllogism is made to rest, is the following statement: "The words of a language are common to poetry and prose." This needs considerable qualification.

Nothing is better known to the poet than the fact that prose and [55] verse have each a vocabulary of their own. Words, and even forms of expression, are still used in verse which are considered obsolete by the prose-writer. On the other hand, verse rejects a large number of words which are part of the legitimate stock of prose. Among these are most of the long words in the English tongue. Why are they rejected? Simply on account of their metrical impracticability? That, doubtless, is a good reason for excluding them from verse, but why does poetry endorse that exclusion – what constitutes their unfitness to express the passions and emotions of poetry? The answer is easy. Poetry does not deal in pure abstractions. However abstract be his thought, the poet is compelled, by his passion-fused imagination, to give it life, form, or color. Hence the necessity of employing the sensuous, or concrete words of the language; and hence the exclusion of long words, which in English are nearly all purely and austerely abstract, from the poetic vocabulary. Whenever a poet drags a number of these words into his verse, we say that he is prosaic; and by this we mean, not that he has written prose (for verse can never be prose), nor that he is simply deficient in spirit and vivacity, as this writer implies, but that he has not used the legitimate language of poetry; he has written something which is only distinguished from the ordinary dead-level of unimpassioned prose by the feet upon which it crawls. In the course of our poetical reading, we have seen the employment of a single abstract word impart to a line all the effect of prose. An instance occurs to us at this moment, but as it is taken from the writings of a poet very near home, we forbear to quote it

We must not be understood to say that abstract words and abstract thinking are the sole sources of the prosaic. A passage may be rendered prosaic by a phrase not itself abstract in word or meaning, which has been made commonplace by constant repetition. But such a phrase will generally be found to have lost, with its novelty, the picturesqueness which it at first pos sessed. It no longer calls up the image which it expresses, it merely suggests the thought which it stands for, and affects the mind in exactly the same manner as the boldest abstraction.

If verse may semetimes be prosaic, prose may sometimes be poetic. Poetry is a subtle spirit, and appears in different guises, and in various places. In prose, indeed,

                  "Her delights
Are dolphin-like, and show themselves above
The element they sport in;"

yet, even in that domain, her movements are at times scarcely less free and graceful than when she is floating through the Heaven of Song.

It is a characteristic of poetry in its aim to create beauty, that it levies, for this purpose, its contributions on every side. Not content, as the ordinary prose-writer should be, with such words as are simply the most proper to express the meaning to be conveyed, it seeks also the most beautiful – the sound, and the associations connected with a word, being taken into consideration as well as the sense. The words of poetry, without interfering with the general effect, challenge a slight attention to themselves. This is what Coleridge meant when he described poetry as "the best words in the best order."

When, therefore, we meet with a passage of prose, which, while it is [56] kindled into eloquence by the beauty which it strives to embody, seems also to be revelling in its own, and the language of which is sensuous, picturesque and passionate, we may with perfect justice pronounce that passage to be poetry. Many such passages are to be found in the writings of Milton, and of Jeremy Taylor.

"I looked upon a plain of green,
   That some one called the land of prose,
Where many living things were seen
   In movement or repose.

"I looked upon a stately hill,
   That well was named the Mount of Song,
Where golden shadows dwelt at will,
   The woods and streams among.

"But most this fact my wonder bred,
   Though known by all the nobly wise,
It was the mountain streams that fed
   The fair green plain's amenities
." *

We are inclined to agree with the writer, in refusing the title of a just poem to any work which is not metrical in form. Yet we respect the opinions of those who maintain that there may be such a thing as a prose-poem. Doubtless, much could be said in support of those opinions. But such is the avidity of poetry in gathering up its materials for the creation of beauty, so necessary does it seem that its language should possess every charm of which language is capable, that it appears to demand verse as its natural and proper expression. Moreover, those who are disposed to agree with us in our views of poetry, will see that no poem, no long poem at least, can be (Coleridge says it ought not to be) all poetry. Whether a poem be narrative, or philosophical, there will be parts and aspects of its subject wholly insusceptible of genuine poetic treatment. Verse, therefore, is required to preserve these parts in some sort of keeping with the poetry, the object being the production of a harmonious whole.

The reader now holds in his hand the key to all the sophistical arguments of the writer. He will see that while we acknowledge the work of Lucretius to be a poem, we may yet declare that much of it is not poetry. He will see, also, that without denying the passage from Milton's Tractate on Education to be prose, we may yet assert that it contains the genuine elements of poetry. And so on with all the rest of the writer's various illustrations.

The writer speaks much about logical precision, and the confusion into which this subject has been thrown by a misconception of what he chooses to term the figurative expressions of poetic prose, and prosaic verse. The real source of this confusion is the opposition of poetry to prose. For this relation of the two to each other, the writer may indeed urge the precedent of common usage, and the practice of many good writers. – But the impropriety was exposed long ago by Coleridge and Wordsworth, and we hardly expected to see it repeated at this date in the pages of Russell's Magazine.

Much of the article we have been examining is consumed in illustrating the profound truth that tastes differ. They do, indeed. There must be a vast difference between the taste of a man who regards the Ancient Mariner as the noblest of all ballads, and the taste of another who has read through that poem with no other sensation than what is vulgarly termed a turning of the stomach. Of the comments upon this strange, weird production of [57] Coleridge, we shall remark little more than that they seem to us to be conceived very much in the spirit of Charles Lamb's literal Scotchman. And in regard to the assertion that the poem is an offence against a principle of Coleridge himself – Coleridge having said that every poem should be common sense, at least – we may be permitted to suggest it as not impossible that, between the poet's philosophical notion of common sense, and this writer's, there were few points of resemblance. Coleridge certainly did not refer to that quibbling common sense which would apply to a supernatural story, – much the same sort of logic that is resorted to by papas, when they endeavor to prove to the satisfaction of little boys the non-existence of ghosts.

Of the caricature of Wordsworth it is difficult to speak without indignation.

We had once a conversation with a prosaic friend of ours upon the subject of poetry. After pronouncing the whole tribe of poets to be a set of conceited coxcombs, our friend added that he was sure no poet could "truly enjoy the beauties of Nature. The fellows can't look at a sunset without thinking of the fine things which might be said about it." We said nothing, for our friend would not have understood us, if we had told him that a man who looked at a sunset in such a spirit, was not, and could not be, a poet. Yet such was the spirit in which, according to this writer, Wordsworth was accustomed to look at Nature. No one, at all familiar with the writings of Wordsworth, would have made this accusation; and we cannot help suspecting that it is based upon a perusal of the titles of the poems, rather than of the poems themselves. For passage after passage might be adduced, so wholly incompatible with the character assigned to Wordsworth, that, for the sake of the writer's taste and common sense, we must conclude that he knew nothing at all about them.

Perhaps no poet ever felt so deeply, certainly none has ever described so admirably, that complete abandonment of the soul to the influences of Nature, in which

"Thought is not; in enjoyment it expires."

Take the following lines, from poem composed near Tintern Abbey:

                           "Nature then
To me was all in all.   I cannot paint
What then I was   The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion; the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours, and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter charm
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye

And who will believe that the passage which follows these lines – transcendental though it may be – could be the production of a coxcomb, who traded with Nature for his poetry? In what fitting language it depicts those moods of ecstatic contemplation, in which the soul, through a faculty not dependent upon the senses, feels the presence of that mysterious and universal principle, of which the world is a manifestation!

                      "And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused.
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."

[58] It is useless to multiply quotations to prove the groundlessness of a charge which we can scarcely believe was made in earnest. A few more remarks as to what seems to us an unfair use of the authority of Coleridge, and we have done.

Coleridge has charged upon certain portions of the poems of Wordsworth, "a matter of-factness," by which he meant an occasional, and somewhat superfluous, minuteness of detail. The fault is probably to be traced to a too great desire, on the part of the poet, to bring the groupings and situations of his few characters distinctly before the mind of the reader. The writer insidiously represents this charge as a general one; and in attempting to account for the blemish, he caricatures in the grossest manner the lofty sense which Wordsworth ever entertained of his office as a poet, and his loving and life-long devotion to its duties. – The whole is so strikingly unjust, that we shall not take the trouble to argue the point.

Coleridge has elsewhere done ample justice to Wordsworth's powers of imaginative description. And Ruskin has pronounced him to be the great poetic landscape painter of the age.

We should like the writer to point out anything like "a matterof-factness" in the description of the breaking up of the storm in the second book of the Excursion; in the description of the "twin mountain brethren," as seen from the cottage of the Solitary; in the sonnet on Westminster Bridge; in the sonnets, "Methought I saw the footsteps of a Throne," "It is a beauteous evening, calm and free," and "The world is too much with us;" in the blank verse entitled a Night Piece; in the poem on Yew Trees (than the greater part of which, it is impossible to conceive anything further removed from matter-of-fact); in the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality; in the burst which concludes the Song at the Feast of Brougham Castle, and the exquisite quatrains which close that poem; in the Danish Boy; in the Boy of Winandermere; in the stanzas commencing, "Three years she grew in sun and shower;" in the character of the poet as sketched in A Poet's Epitaph; in the austere and spiritual grandeur of Laodimia; or (we are getting out of breath) in the following italicised line of enchanted and enchanting beauty – a whole fairy poem in itself, and alone sufficient to absolve Wordsworth of this charge against him – with which, whether abruptly or not, we shall conclude our article:

                      "That tall fern
So stately, of the queen Osmunda named,
Plant lovelier, in its own retired abode,
On Grasmere's beach, than Naiad by the side
Of Grecian brook, or Lady of the Mere,
Lone-sitting by the shores of old Romance



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Literatur: anonym

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer