Sydney Dobell



Lecture on the 'Nature of Poetry'.

Delivered in the Queen Street Hall, Edinburgh, April 8, 1857.





Having ascertained the principles of a Perfect Poem we may safely lay down of Poems that they are right in so far as they consist with this type and wrong in so far as they recede from it: and of poetry that it is excellent [27] in so far as it could form part of such perfect Poem and imperfect in so far as it is incongruous therewith.

Before proceeding to a closer investigation of some of the separate parts of which Poetry — perfect or imperfect — is composed, two questions naturally present themselves which it will be well to answer here where they arise. The one is 'if a perfect Poem be the outcome of a perfect mind what chance is there of our ever having such a Poem?'

The other 'how is it that men who have written unquestionable poetry have been as men so very far from perfection?'

The answer to these questions brings us, I believe, to the secret of all great Poems and of some of the most perplexing problems of Poetry. There are among men an order of minds gifted with the power of — I am of course using the word with no reference to its Scriptural meaning — transfiguration.

We are familiar with an inferior form of the gift in the bodily transformation of which some men are capable, so as to assume, as it were, the features and gait of another: and we see a subordinate manifestation of the gift itself in the case of the great Actor, and a diseased and involuntary exhibition of its phenomena in the hallucinations of the Lunatic.

[28] The higher forms of this gift enable the possessor to re-construct (so to speak) his whole character into that of some other mind.

In such persons the process is instinctive, and as the Actor cannot tell you by what laws he reproduces the face and manner of his hero, neither can he who has in the highest form the gift whereof we speak explain the process of its action.

A single look often suffices to give the actor his bodily cue: a word, a thought, a feeling may be sufficient for the mental transformation of the Poet. In this transformation the proportionate activity of his various qualities is so much altered that the proportion of the inherent qualities themselves seems, for the time being, changed: attributes that were large and notable become insignificant, and those that were in comparative abeyance during ordinary life arise into signal and masterful exercise. The possession of this gift does not make a man a Poet, but I think no imperfect Man can be a great Poet without possessing it. When possessed by one otherwise fitted to be a Poet it has two principal modes of manifestation. The one — and primary — is that at any beautiful or sublime influence it transfigures the mind towards Perfection — approaching the perfect state in proportion to its own power in the given mind and the [29] nature of the mental materials on which it has to work: — in this state the Poem is designed. The second is that in representing the human characters of the Poem it transfigures the mind into those characters for the time being — and by a succession of such states the characterization of the Poem is executed. The amount of completeness in this second transfiguration makes one difference between the Epic and the Drama.

The Epic being like some Dramatic story told by a great Tragedian wherein his successive but partial impersonations of the different characters meet in the permanent unity of himself, the one narrator; and the Drama the action of the same story enacted by him en costume, without the narrative, and with no central figure of himself in which the various dissimilar personifications might unite and cohere. A Poet has therefore a world — the world of imagined facts — of infinite possible variety, and an inexhaustible stock of men and women in the transmutable substance of his own character: and by the peculiarity of his nature the environments of this imaginary world affect him as actual circumstances affect ordinary men, and he lives, for a time, in these men and women as naturally as in his own personality. Out of this world and from these men and women he has to select and construct his Poem. The primary character [30] of the individual Poet and the degree to which he possesses the transfiguring power will determine the character of the Poem and regulate its approach to perfection. Where Love predominates the Lyric will be its expression in modes of predominating Beauty, and in the Epic the main subject will be Beautiful: where Worship the Lyric will be reverent and sublime and the Epic will take a subject of awe or terror: and in proportion to the sense of truth and relation the materials of the Poem will be more or less just and the ordination of it more or less perfect. In the highest type of Poet the Lyric will be the expression of combined Love and Reverence, and the subject chosen for the Epic will be at once Beautiful and Sublime.

Having thus come down from the heights of that perfect Ideal which we are not likely to see realized, to those regions of the possible which human poets may hope to climb, and to the topmost ledges of which they have now and then ascended, let us look, in the light of the general principles I have been endeavouring to set forth, more minutely at some of the peculiarities of all poetic expression. We have seen that as a Poem is the expression of a Poet's mind, every portion of a Poem, from the Epic to the single passage, is the result of the same principles, almost as we see in the [31] beautiful science of crystallography that the whole crystal is but a larger atom. Let us take one of the poetic atoms for analysis. We shall be met at the onset by the question 'how if the whole Poem be but an equivalent to the Poet's mind, can the single passage be an equivalent to the same characteristics?'

This is readily explained by an inward glance at the manner of our mental activities.

Take for instance our whole power to love.

We shall find the total Love of which we are capable to be like the Ocean, which though it be one water yet by meeting and incalculably crossing forces — invariable sway of the rolling globe, variable beat of all manner of winds, Sun-stroke, and Moon-stroke, actions, reactions, and interactions, multiplied past mortal skill, of waves, tides, shores, promontories, reefs, and rivers, — is roused into innumerable apparitions of the same substance, each having the form of separation without the power thereof, each diverse as to its momentary manifestation but indifferent as to its permanent nature, and holding, for its own space and season, the same shapeless, motionless, colourless, general element in a special moving, figured, coloured individuality. Now these billows, ripples, flakes and drops of a great general feeling or other attribute have, when they can be expressed at all, each for [32] itself correlatives in the external world, and by the serial expression of this temporary personæ the great flood finds, as it were, its narrow way by the straits of successional utterance. And thus, though no single fact of the imagination may be able, in the words of our great Poet, to 'take up the whole of Love and utter it,' the Poet, through his ordinating power, creates by the ordered assemblage of forms individually beautiful, an organized whole of Beauty sufficient for the Whole of Love, and corresponding in its parts to the vibrations of its successional activity. What is true in the case of Love, has analogous truth in the activity of the other mental powers.

Let us therefore out of that organized imaginative Whole which the Poet has produced take any one of the complete facts of Imagination whereof it is made up, and examine its constituents. Under the simplest conditions of expression, the expressed fact must consist of itself and the words that express it. As we have seen that it must itself be either beautiful or sublime, it corresponds to the Poet's love or worship. Proceeding outwards from the mind, you have therefore, first the fact, the equivalent of a feeling, and then the words, the equivalent of the fact.

And as the truth of the fact is the equivalent of the faculty to know, and the relationship of the fact to the [33] feeling and the words to the fact, the equivalent of that sense of relation which is the characteristic of the power to order, you have in the single expressed fact what you had in the great combination of such facts, the Poem, an equivalent for to feel, to know, and to order.

This is an instance of the simplest kind: proceed to one more difficult. Suppose the fact of the imagination is one that has no equivalent in words, or that from familiarity, popular misuse, or double meanings, its original verbal signs are no longer poetic equivalents. Suppose you have to express such a fact. You must find for that fact an equivalent in some other fact that has an equivalent in words. An equivalent is, as we have seen, something which being presented to the quiet mind will produce there the thing of which it is the equivalent You require therefore a fact that shall produce in the mind another fact; you require something more, a fact that shall produce a beautiful or sublime fact; and yet something more, a fact that shall produce such a fact in a mind whose primary characteristics are a sense of truth and a sense of relation. Your equivalent, therefore, must truly and essentially correspond to the beautiful or sublime fact for which it stands. That it does so makes it not only an equivalent for that fact but for your sense of truth and relationship. And as that first fact was an [34] equivalent to certain feelings, this second fact not only stands for the first, but stands also for your characteristics of feeling, knowing and ordering. Now a fact that thus stands for another is its metaphor. We have arrived therefore at this law of all metaphor — that every true metaphor is not only a metaphor of the thing for which it stands but of the Poet who placed it.

Time does not allow me to multiply instances and to carry out the principle into still more minute detail, but I think, if at leisure you examine any variety of examples, you will find that this is the law of all poetic equivalents and that it explains those erroneous figures of speech which are so often mistaken for Poetry. What are critically called concetti, or conceits, and those misperceptions of Nature which arise from what an eminent writer has lately denominated 'the pathetic fallacy,' and those substitutions of horrors for terrors and the carnal for the human which we call melodrama, are the equivalents of minds in whom, either constitutionally, or for the time being, there is something wrong in the kind or the balance of the powers to love, to worship, to know and to order.

Having formed our poetic passage in the imagination — having found for our feelings metaphors in facts and for our unspeakable facts metaphors in facts that have corresponding words, the remainder of the act of expression [35] would not need examination if words were arbitrary signs. But, as we all know, (however much philologers may differ about the precise primitive roots and their values,) there can be no doubt that in the first origin of language all words were metaphors — that is had an essential relationship to the facts for which they stood. And since every word of our modern languages is the result of some modification, combination, and recombination of those primitives, something of the essential relationship must still exist. But since those modifications and combinations have often taken place under the control of very artificial conditions, and since in the lapse of ages the various conditioning forces have crossed and recrossed into a complexity not often to be unravelled, the consciousness of original relation is so far lost that the words of a modern language are neither algebraic signs nor metaphorical equivalents, but range between these extremes and frequently approach either. In such a language (since he must not create a new one) the Poet has to express himself. In it he must find an equivalent for his imagined facts. We have seen the laws of poetic equivalents. An arbitrary sign does not fulfil those laws. The Poet requires his equivalent to be not a sign but a metaphor, and the whole action of his mind on language is therefore to elevate it from the sign towards the metaphor. [36] he first result of this action is to instinctively select from the mass of verbal signs those words that retain most of their old essential relation to the thing signified. The next is to impart to them what shall, as far as may be, restore what is lost of that relation: to make them essentially akin to the facts they represent. Now one of the proofs that two apparently different things agree is the identity of their effects. If I strike you, successively, with a rod of iron, of silver, and of gold, it will seem at first sight indeed that one effect is produced by very different causes: but on closer enquiry we shall see that the pain produced was neither because the producing rod was iron, silver, or gold, but because it was hard, and that the iron, silver, and gold produced the same pain because they agreed in being hard. Identical effects are therefore evidence of relationship in the causes, and when such effects occur in such a mind as we are investigating identical effects are the evidence of essential relationship. The Poet therefore adds to his selected words something which by having the same effect as the fact for which they stand shows itself to be essentially related to that fact. That 'something' is rhythm.

Words rhythmically combined affect the feelings of the poetic hearer or utterer in the same way as the fact they represent: and thus by a reflex action the fact is repro[37]duced in the imagination. By instinctive selection and rhythmic combination the verbal utterance is thus elevated from a sign to or towards a metaphor, and becomes, like other metaphors, not only a metaphor of the proximate poetic fact but of the characteristics of the Poet.

We saw a little while ago that the law of the whole Epic, that it is one subject with its congruous accessories, must apply to every passage of which the Epic is made up. We have now seen by an analysis of one such passage that the other law of the whole Epic, that it should be a metaphor of the Poet's characteristics, is not only fulfilled in every passage, but in every cardinal portion of a passage: in every complete act of expression and in the sub-acts of which it is composed. Carrying out the homology of the whole and the parts, let us now, reasoning from the less to the greater, by one more examination of the passage explain a difficulty in the Epic. Select a complete expression and pull it to pieces. I will take a well-known saying of Shakspeare because it not only illustrates what I am going to say, but also happens to be exemplary of a truth I have just now been bringing before you. Othello, bending over Desdemona and prefiguring what he is going to do, says not, 'when I have killed thee,' but 'when I have plucked thy rose.'

Here you have an instance in which the fact of the [38] imagination had no equivalent in words, and had to be expressed by another fact for which such an equivalent existed. That somewhat by which the living differed from the dead, — that wonder of vital form and colour, that visible presence of thought and passion, that fragrant atmosphere of sweet influences, that spiritual mystery of an incarnate soul by which she was not a corpse but Desdemona, had not — and will never have — a name or phrase among men. But in the language of God there was a fact essentially akin to it for which we had a human sign; the Poet instinctively turned to that equivalent, and the ineffable became effable in a Rose. But I quote this sentence 'when I have plucked thy rose' that having perceived its surpassing beauty as a whole you may take it in pieces and so, to use its own metaphor, 'pluck the rose' of it. For that somewhat by which the whole sentence lives, and the parts live while forming a whole, is like the living Desdemona, something not to be defined. 'When I have plucked thy rose,' separate those words altogether from the general idea and restrict them to their several utterly independent meanings. You will find that they have all expired a something with which they before were warm, and that some of them, 'when' and 'have' for instance, are almost without any life or significance at all. Look out 'when' and the auxiliary verb [39] 'to have' in the Dictionary and see how empty and effete they are. Now reunite the sentence, and behold the same 'when' and the same 'have' full, and brimming over, with the life, colour, and beauty of the whole.

Now this circulation of vitality and beauty from the whole into its parts which you have seen in the single sentence, takes place also in the total Epic and explains how some members of a great Poem — as it were the prepositions and conjunctions of that mighty syntax — which taken separately do not seem to express either the Love or Worship of the Poet are, nevertheless, by their essential union with wholes of which they are perceived by his peculiar gifts to be necessary parts, and of whose essence they are therefore partakers, as truly the fulfilment of the great primary Poetic Law as the most dazzling centres of the Beautiful or the Sublime.

We have now in endeavouring to find the principles of Perfect Poetry investigated a perfect Poem in its origin, its wholes, and its parts. We have enquired into the Principles of the producing Mind, into the Principles of the total thing produced, and all the members which compose it, and we have discovered the human means by which its production becomes possible to imperfect humanity. We have found a Poem to be from first to last, in things and in words, the manifold metaphor of a [40] human mind, and to approach perfection within and without, in spirit and in matter, in design and execution, in the ratio wherein the mind of whose activity it is the equivalent is at the time of its production perfect.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Sydney Dobell: Thoughts on Art, Philosophy, and Religion:
Selected from the Unpublished Papers of Sydney Dobell.
With Introductory Note by John Nichol.
London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1876, S. 3-65.

Unser Auszug: S. 26-40.









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