John Campbell Shairp



Aspects of Poetry
Ch. 1: The Province of Poetry




[1] WERE I to begin my first Lecture from this Chair, in which the kindness of the University has placed me, by following an approved and time-honoured usage, I might ask at the outset. What is Poetry? and try to answer the question, either by falling back on some one of the old definitions, or by proposing a new one, or perhaps by even venturing on a theory of Poetry. But, as you are all, no doubt, more or less acquainted with the definitions and theories of the past, and probably have not found much profit in them, you will, I believe, readily absolve me from any attempt to add one more to their number. For definitions do not really help us better to understand or appreciate subjects with which we have been long familiar, especially when they are, as poetry is, all life and spirit. As my friend the author of Rab and his [2] Friends has well expressed it, 'It is with Poetry as with flowers and fruits. We would all rather have them and taste them than talk about them. It is a good thing to know about a lily, its scientific ins and outs, its botany, its archæology, even its anatomy and organic radicals, but it is a better thing to look at the flowers themselves, and to consider how they grow.' So one would rather enjoy poetry, than criticise it and discuss its nature. But, as there is a time for studying the botany of flowers, as well as for enjoying their beauty, there is a time also for dwelling on the nature and offices of poetry, and that time seems to have come to-day.

I think I shall be able best to bring before you what I wish to say at present, if, approaching the subject in a concrete rather than in an abstract way, I endeavour at the outset to note some of the more prominent characteristics of the poetic nature, when that nature appears in its largest and most healthful manifestation.

In doing so I shall have to tread some well-worn ways, and to say things which have often been said before. But I shall willingly incur this risk. For my aim is not so much to say things that are new as things that are true. You will therefore bear with me, I hope, if I try to recall to your thoughts a few plain but primal truths regarding that which is most essential in the poetic nature — truths which are apt to be forgotten amid the fashions of the [3] hour, and to lie buried beneath heaps of superfine criticism.

One of the first characteristics of the genuine and healthy poetic nature is this — it is rooted rather in the heart than in the head. Human-heartedness is the soil from which all its other gifts originally grow, and are continually fed. The true poet is not an eccentric creature, not a mere artist living only for art, not a dreamer or a dilettante, sipping the nectar of existence, while he keeps aloof from its deeper interests. He is, above all things, a man among his fellow-men, with a heart that beats in sympathy with theirs, a heart not different from theirs, only larger, more open, more sensitive, more intense. It is the peculiar depth, intensity, and fineness of his emotional nature, which kindles his intellect and inspires it with energy. He does not feel differently from other men, but he feels more. There is a larger field of things over which his feelings range, and in which he takes vivid interest. If, as we have been often told, sympathy is the secret of all insight, this holds especially true of poetic insight, which more than any other derives its power of seeing from sympathy with the object seen. There is a kinship between the poetic eye and the thing it looks on, in virtue of which it penetrates. As the German poet says —

'If the eye had not been sunny
 How could it look upon the sun?'

And herein lies one great distinction between the [4] poetic and the scientific treatment of things. The scientific man must keep his feelings under stern control, lest they intrude into his researches and colour the dry light, in which alone Science desires to see its objects. The poet on the other hand — it is because his feelings inform and kindle his intellect that he sees into the life of things.

Some perhaps may recall the names of great poets, though not the greatest, who have fled habitually from human neighbourhood, and dwelt apart in proud isolation. But this does not, I think, disprove the view that human-heartedness is the great background of the poet's strength, for to the poets I speak of, their solitariness has been their misfortune, if not their fault. By some untowardness in their lot, or some malady of their time, they have been compelled to retire into themselves, and to become lonely thinkers. If their isolation has added some intensity to their thoughts, it has, at the same time, narrowed the range of their vision, and diminished the breadth and permanence of their influence.

But this vivid human sympathy, though an essential condition or background of all great poetry, by no means belongs exclusively to the poet. Taking other forms, it is characteristic of all men who have deeply moved or greatly benefited their kind, — of St. Augustine, and Luther, Howard, Clarkson, and Wilberforce, not less than of Homer, Shakespeare, and Walter Scott.

[5] I must therefore pass on to points more distinctive of the poet, and consider —

What is the object or material with which the poet deals;

What is the special power which he brings to bear on that object;

What is his true aim; what the function which he fulfils in human society.

The poet's peculiar domain has generally been said to be Beauty; and there is so much truth in this, that, if the thing must be condensed into a single word, probably none better could be found. For it is one large part of the poet's vocation to be a witness for the Beauty, which is in the world around him and in human life. But this one word is too narrow to cover all the domain over which the poetic spirit ranges. It fits well that which attracts the poet in the face of nature, and is applicable to many forms of mental and moral excellence. But there are other things which rightly win his regard, to which it cannot be applied without stretching it till it becomes meaningless. Therefore I should rather say that the whole range of existence, or any part of it, when imaginatively apprehended, seized on the side of its human interest, may be transfigured into poetry. There is nothing that exists, except things ignoble and mean, in which the true poet may not find himself at home — in the open sights of nature, in the occult secrets of science, in the 'quicquid agunt homines,' [6] in men's character and fortunes, in their actions and sufferings, their joys and sorrows, their past history, their present experience, their future destiny. All these lie open to him who has power to enter in, and, by might of imaginative insight, to possess them. And such is the kinship between man and all that exists, that, as I have elsewhere said, 'whenever the soul comes vividly in contact with any fact, truth, or existence, whenever it realises and takes them home to itself with more than common intensity, out of that meeting of the soul and its object there arises a thrill of joy, a glow of emotion; and the expression of that glow that thrill, is poetry.' But as each age modifies in some measure men's conceptions of existence, and brings to light new aspects of life before undreamt of, so Poetiy, which is the expression of these aspects, is ever changing, in sympathy with the changing consciousness of the race. A growth old as thought, but ever young, it alters its form, but renews its vitality, with each succeeding age.

As to the specific organ or mental gift through which poets work, every one knows that it is Imagination. But if asked what Imagination is, who can tell? If we turn to the psychologists — the men who busy themselves with labelling and ticketing the mental faculties, — they do not much help us. Scattered through the poets here and there, and in some writers on æsthetic subjects, notably in the works of Mr. Ruskin, we find thoughts which are more suggestive. Perhaps it is a [7] thing to rejoice in that this marvellous faculty has hitherto baffled the analysts. For it would seem that when you have analysed any vital entity down to its last elements, you have done your best to destroy it.

I may however observe in passing, that the following seem to be some of the most prominent notes of the way in which Imagination works: —

To a man's ordinary conceptions of things Imagination adds force, clearness, distinctness of outline, vividness of colouring.

Again, it seems to be a power intermediate between intellect and emotion, looking towards both, and partaking of the nature of both. In its highest form, it would seem to be based on 'moral intensity.' The emotional and the intellectual in it act and react on each other, deep emotion kindling imagination, and expressing itself in imaginative form, while imaginative insight kindles and deepens emotion.

Closely connected with this is what some have called the penetrative, others the interpretative, power of Imagination. It is that subtle and mysterious gift, that intense intuition which, piercing beneath all surface appearance, goes straight to the core of an object, enters where reasoning and peddling analysis are at fault, lays hold of the inner heart, the essential life, of a scene, a character, or a situation, and expresses it in a few immortal words. What is the secret of this penetrative glance, who shall say? It defies analysis. Neither the [8] poet himself who puts it forth, nor the critic who examines the result, can explain how it works, can lay his finger on the vital source of it. A line, a word, has flashed the scene upon us, has made the character live before us; how we know not, only the thing is done. And others, when they see it, exclaim, How true to nature this is! so like what I have often felt myself, only I could never express it! But the poet has expressed it, and this is what makes him an interpreter to men of their own unuttered experience. All great poets are full of this power. It is that by which Shakespeare read the inmost heart of man, Wordsworth of nature.

A further note of Imagination is that combining and harmonising power, in virtue of which the poetic mind, guided by the eternal forms of beauty which inhabit it, out of a mass of incongruous materials, drops those which are accidental and irrelevant, and selects those which suit its purpose, — those which bring out a given scene or character, — and combines them into a harmonious whole.

The last note I shall mention is what may be called the shaping or embodying power of Imagination, — I mean the power of clothing intellectual and spiritual conceptions in appropriate forms. This is that which Shakespeare speaks of —

          'Imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown.'

And conversely there is in Imagination a power which spiritualises what is visible and corporeal, and fills [9] it with a higher meaning than mere understanding dreams of. These two processes are seen at work in all great poets, the one or the other being stronger, according to the bent of each poet's nature.

While Imagination, working in these and other ways, is the poet's peculiar endowment, it is clear that for its beneficent operation there must be present an ample range, a large store of material on which to work. This it cannot create for itself. From other regions it must be gathered; from a wealth of mind in the poet himself, from large experience of life and intimate knowledge of nature, from the exercise of his heart, his judgment, his reflection, indeed of his whole being, on all he has seen and felt. In fact, a great poet must be a man made wise by large experience, much feeling, and deep reflection; above all, he must have a hold of the great central truth of things. When these many conditions are present, then and then only can his imagination work widely, benignly, and for all time; then only can the poet become a

'Serene creator of immortal things.'

Imagination is not, as has sometimes been conceived, a faculty of falsehood or deception, calling up merely fictitious and fantastic views. It is pre-eminently a truthful and truth-seeing faculty, perceiving subtle aspects of truth, hidden relations, far-reaching analogies, which find no entrance to us by any other inlet. It is the power which vitalises all knowledge, which makes [10] the dead abstract and the dead concrete meet, and by their meeting live, which suffers not truth to dwell by itself in one compartment of the mind, but carries it home through our whole being — understanding, affections, will.

This vivid insight, this quick, imaginative intuition, is accompanied by a delight in the object or truth beheld, — a glow of heart, 'a white heat of emotion,' which is the proper condition of creation. The joy of imagination in its own vision, the thrill of delight, is one of the most exquisite moods man ever experiences.

Emotion, then, from first to last inseparably attends the exercise of Imagination, pre-eminently in him who creates, in a lesser degree in those who enjoy his creations.

In this aspect of poetry, as in some sense the immediate product of emotion, some have seen its necessary weakness and its limitation. Emotion, they say, belongs to youth, and must needs disappear before mature reason and ripe reflection. Time must dull feelings, however vivid, cool down passions, however fervid. How many poets have reiterated Byron's lament, that

'The early glow of thought declines in feeling's dull decay!'

How much of the poetry of all ages is filled with passionate regrets for objects

'Too early lost, too hopelessly deplored! '

No wonder, therefore, that strong men who despise senti[11]mentality, and will not spend their lives in bemoaning the inevitable, are wont, as they grow older, to drop poetry of this kind, along with other youthful illusions. The truth of this cannot be gainsaid. The poetry of regret may please youth, which has buoyancy enough in itself to bear the weight of sadness not its own. But those who have learnt by experience what real sorrow is, have no strength to waste on imaginary sorrows. And if all poetry were of this character, it would be true enough that it contained no refreshment for toiling, suffering men.

But, not to speak of purely objective poets, there is in great meditative poets a higher wisdom, a serener region, than that of imaginative regret. There are poets who, after having experienced and depicted the tumults of the soul, after having felt and sung the pain of unsatisfied desires, or uttered their yearning regret

'That things depart which never may return,'

have been able to retire within themselves, thence to contemplate the fever of excitement from a higher, more permanent region, and to illuminate, as has been said, transitory emotion 'with the light of a calm, infinite world.' Such poets do not ignore the heartless things that are done in the world, but they forgive them; the dark problems of existence they do not try to explain, but they make you feel that there is light behind, if we could but see it; — the discords and dissonances of life are still there, but over them all they seem to shed a [12] reconciling spirit. This serene wisdom, this large and luminous contemplation, absorbs into itself all conflict, passion, and regret, as the all-embracing blue of heaven holds the storms and clouds that momentarily sweep over it. It is seen in the 'august repose' of Sophocles, when he prepares the calm close for the troubled day of the blind and exiled Theban king. It is seen in the spirit that pervades the Tempest one of Shakespeare's latest dramas, in which, to use his own words, he 'takes part with his nobler reason against his fury,' and rises out of conflict and passion into a region of self-control and serenity. It is seen in Milton, when, amid the deep solitariness of his own blindness and forced inactivity, he is enabled to console himself with the thought —

'They also serve who only stand and wait.'

It is seen in Wordsworth, him who, while feeling as few have done, regret for a brightness gone which nothing could restore, was able to let all these experiences melt into his being, and enrich it, till his soul became humanised by distress, and by the thoughts that spring out of human suffering. Poetry such as this stands the wear of life, and breathes a benediction even over its decline.

As to the aim which the poet sets before him, the end which poetry is meant to fulfil, what shall be said? Here the critics, ancient and modern, answer, almost with one voice, that the end is to give pleasure. Aristotle tells us that 'it is the business of the tragic poet to give that pleasure which arises from pity and terror, [13] through imitation.' Horace gives an alternative end in his

'Aut prodesse volunt, aut delectare Poetae,'

and he awards the palm to those poems which combine both ends, and at once elevate and please. To take one sample from the moderns: Coleridge, in his definition of poetry, tells us that 'a poem is a species of composition, opposed to science as having intellectual pleasure for its object or end,' and that its perfection is 'to communicate the greatest immediate pleasure from the parts, compatible with the largest sum of pleasure on the whole.'

May I venture to differ from these great authorities, and to say that they seem to have mistaken that which is an inseparable accompaniment for that which is the main aim, the proper end of poetry? The impulse to poetic composition is, I believe, in the first instance, spontaneous, almost unconscious; and where the inspiration, as we call it, is most strong and deep, there a conscious purpose is least present. When a poet is in the true creative mood, he is for the time possessed with love of the object, the truth, the vision which he sees, for its own sake, — is wholly absorbed in it; the desire fitly to express what he sees and feels is his one sufficient motive, and to attain to this expression is itself his end and his reward. While the inspiration is at its strongest the thought of giving pleasure to others or of winning praise for himself is weakest. The intrinsic delight in his own vision, and in the act of expressing it, [14] keeps all extrinsic aims, for a time at least, aloof. This might perhaps be a sufficient account of the poet's aim in short lyrics and brief arrow-flights of song. But even in the richest poetic natures the inspiring heat cannot always or long be maintained at its height,

'And tasks in hours of insight willed,
 In hours of gloom must be fulfilled.'

Effort long sustained implies the presence of conscious purpose. Great poets cannot be conceived to have girded themselves to their longest, most deliberate efforts, — Shakespeare to Hamlet, Milton to Paradise Lost, — without reflecting what was to be the effect of their work on their fellow-men. It would hardly have satisfied them at such a time to have been told that their poems would add to men's intellectual pleasures. They would not have been content with any result short of this – the assurance that their work would live to awaken those high sympathies in men, in the exercise of which they themselves found their best satisfaction, and which, they well knew, ennoble every one who partakes of them. To appeal to the higher side of human nature, and to strengthen it, to come to its rescue, when it is overborne by worldliness and material interests, to support it by great truths, set forth in their most attractive form, — this is the only worthy aim, the adequate end, of all poetic endeavour. And this it does, by expressing in beautiful form and melodious language the best thoughts and the noblest feelings which the spectacle of life awakens in the [15] finest souls. This is the true office of poetry, which is the bloom of high thought, the efflorescence of noble emotion. No doubt these sympathies, once awakened, yield a delight among the purest and noblest man can know; but to minister this pleasure is not the main end which the poet sets before himself, but is at most a subordinate object. The true end is to awaken men to the divine side of things, to bear witness to the beauty that clothes the outer world, the nobility that lies hid, often obscured, in human souls, to call forth sympathy for neglected truths, for noble but oppressed persons, for downtrodden causes, and to make men feel that, through all outward beauty and all pure inward affection, God Himself is addressing them.

In this endeavour poetry makes common cause with all high things, — with right reason and true philosophy, with man's moral intuitions and his religious aspirations. It combines its influence with all those benign tendencies which are working in the world for the melioration of man and the manifestation of the kingdom of God. It is adding from age to age its own current to those great

            'Tides that are flowing
Right onward to the eternal shore.'

But, if it has great allies, it has also powerful adversaries. The worship of wealth and of all it gives, a materialistic philosophy which disbelieves in all knowledge unverifiable by the senses, luxury, empty display, worldliness, and cynicism, with these true poetry cannot dwell. [16] In periods and in circles where these are paramount, the poet is discredited, his function as a witness to high truth is denied. If tolerated at all, he is degraded into a merely ornamental personage, a sayer of pretty things, a hanger-on of society and the great. Such is the only function which degenerate ages allow to him, and this is a function which only poets of baser metal will accept. The truly great poets in every age have felt the nobility of their calling, have perceived that their true function is not to amuse, or merely to give delight, but to be witnesses for the ideal and spiritual side of things, to come to the help of the generous, the noble, and the true, against the mighty.

And, though some exceptions there have been, yet it is true that the great majority of poets in all times have, according to their gifts, recognised this to be their proper aim, and fulfilled it. Therefore we say once more, in the words of one of the foremost of the brotherhood —

'Blessings be on them and eternal praise!
 Who gave us nobler loves and nobler cares,
 The pcets, who on earth have made us heirs
 Of truth, and pure delight by heavenly lays.'

If these general views are true, there follow from them some practical corollaries as to our poetic judgments, which, while true for all times, are yet specially applicable to this time, perhaps to this place.

The first of these is the need we have to cultivate an [17] open and catholic judgment, ready to appreciate excellence in poetry and in literature under whatever forms it comes. It might seem that there was little need to urge this here, for is not one main end of all academic teaching to form in the mind right standards of judgment? Of course it is. But the process as carried on here is not free from hindrances. We too readily, by the very nature of our studies, become slaves to the past. Those who have spent their days in studying the master minds of former ages naturally take from their works canons of criticism by which they try all new productions. Hence it is that, when there appears some fresh and original creation, which is unlike anything the past has recognised, it is apt to fare ill before a learned tribunal. The learned and the literary are so trained to judge by precedents, that they often deal harder measure and narrower judgment to young aspirants, than those do, who, having no rules of criticism, judge merely by their own natural instincts. Literary circles think to bind by their formal codes young and vigorous genius, whose very nature it is to defy the conventional, and to achieve the unexpected. Many a time has this been seen in the history of poetry, notably at the opening of the present century. Those who then seated themselves on the high places of criticism, and affected to dispense judgment, brought their critical apparatus, derived from the age of Pope, to bear on the vigorous race of young poets, who in this country appeared after the French Revolution. Jeffrey and his [18] band of critics tried the new poetic brotherhood, one by one, found them wanting, and consigned them to oblivion. Hardly more generous were the critics of the Quarterly Review. There was not one of the great original spirits of that time whom the then schools of critics did not attempt to crush. The poets sang on, each in his own way, heedless of the anathemas. The world has long since recognised them, and crowned them with honour. The critics, and the canons by which they condemned them, — where is their authority now?

Even more to be deprecated than critics, judging by the past, are coteries which test all things by some dominant sentiment or short-lived fashion of the hour. Those who have lived some time have seen school after school of this sort arise, air its little nostrums for a season, and disappear. But such coteries, while they last, do their best, by narrowness and intolerance, to vitiate literature, and are unfair alike to past eminence and to rising genius. I can myself remember a time, when the subjective school of poetry was so dominant in Oxford, that some of its ablest disciples voted Walter Scott to be no poet; perhaps there may be some who think so still.

To guard us against all such narrowness, it is well to remember that the world of poetry is wide, as wide as existence, that no experience of the past can lay down rules for future originality, or limit the materials which fresh minds may vivify, or predict the moulds in which they may cast their creations. Let those who would pre[19]serve catholicity of judgment, purge their minds of all formulas and fashions, and look with open eye and ingenuous heart, alike on the boundless range of past excellence, and on the hardly less boundless field of future possibility. If we must have canons of judgment, it is well to have them few, simple, and elastic, founded only on what is permanent in nature and in man.

Again, in a place like this, men's thoughts are turned, and rightly, to the great world-poets of all time, — to Homer, Æschylus, Sophocles, Virgil, perhaps to Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, For the whole host of lesser, though still genuine, poets, much more for the sources whence all poetry comes, we are apt to have but scanty regard. It is well perhaps that for a short time, as students, we should so concentrate our gaze; for we thus get a standard of what is noblest in thought and most perfect in expression. But this exclusiveness should continue but a little while, and for a special purpose. If it be prolonged into life, if we continue only to admire and enjoy a few poets of the greatest name, we become, while fancying ourselves to be large-minded, narrow and artificial. If our eyes were always fixed on the highest mountain-peaks, what should we know of the broad earth around us? What should we think of the geographer who should acquaint himself with the rivers only where they broaden seaward, and bear navies on their bosom, and know nothing of the small affluents and brooks that run among the hills and feed the rivers, [20] and of the mountain-wells that feed the brooks, and of the clouds and vapours that supply the wells? You admire Homer, Æschylus, Shakespeare, perhaps Scott and Wordsworth and Shelley, but where did these get their inspiration and the materials which they wrought into beauty? Not mainly by study of books, not by placing before themselves literary models, but by going straight to the true sources of all poetry, by knowing and loving nature, by acquaintance with their own hearts, and by knowledge of their fellow-men.

From the poetry of the people has been drawn most of what is truest, most human-hearted, in the greatest poems. Would the Iliad have been possible if there had not existed before it a nameless crowd of rhapsodists, who wrought out a poetic language, and shaped the deeds of the heroes into rough popular songs? Would Shakespeare's work have been possible, if he had not wrought on ground overstrewn with the wreck of mediæval mysteries, of moralities, tales, ballads, and of England's chronicles and traditions, as well as enriched by the regular plays of his predecessors? When Shakespeare's 'study of imagination' was filled with kings and heroes and statesmen such as he had never met with, how was it that he so painted them to the life? Did not his insight into their characters, his reading of their feelings, spring from the power in him of imagination and memory, working on scenes he had witnessed, and on impressions he had gathered, first in the hamlets and the oak woods [21] about his own Stratford, and afterwards in the city and in city life? It was his own experience, not of books, but of men, idealised and projected into the strange and distant, till that became alive and near.

No doubt, a day comes with advancing civilisation, when the poets of the past must exercise more power over younger poets than they did in earlier times. But this at least remains true, that, if the poetry of any, even the most advanced, age is to retain that eternal freshness, which is its finest grace, it must draw both its materials and its impulses more from sympathy with the people than from past poets, more from the heart of man than from books. If poetry is to portray true emotion, this must come from poets who themselves have felt it, and seen others feel.

Those who are familiar with the poor, know how much of that feeling language, which is the essence of poetry, may be heard at times under cottage roofs. At the fall of autumn I have visited and said farewell to two old Highland women, sisters, sitting in their smoky hut beside their scanty peat-fire. With return of summer I have revisited that hut, and found one sitting there alone, and have heard that sole survivor, as she sat on her stool, rocking her body to and fro, pour forth in Gaelic speech the story, how her sister pined away, and left her in the dead days of winter, all alone. And no threnody or lament poet ever penned could match the pathos of that simple narrative.

[22] In cases like this, not the feeling only is poetic, the words which utter it are so too. And the poet, instead of adopting the approved diction of poets, or coining tropes and images of his own, cannot do better than adopt the language of genuine emotion, as it comes warm from the lips of suffering men and women. And not the language only, but the incidents of actual life are worth more, as a storehouse of fresh poetry, than all the written poems of all the literatures. Here, more than elsewhere, the saying holds, that the literary language is a stagnant pool. The words which men use under pressure of real emotion, these are the running stream, the living spring.

But it is not nature and human life only as they exist now, but also as we know them to have been in the past, that furnish ever fresh poetic materials. It has often been a marvel to me that English poets, with their own grand national history behind them, have made so little use of it. Since Shakespeare wrote his historical dramas, how few poetic blocks have been dug from that quarry! What I now say applies to England, rather than to Scotland. Our picturesque historians of recent years, while they have done the work of partisans very effectually, have also been in some sort poets of the past. But how seldom have our regular singers set foot on that field! The Laureate, no doubt, after having done his work in England's mythic region, has, late in his career, descended from those shadowy heights to the [23] more solid ground and more substantial figures of her recorded history. Let us hail the omen, and hope that the coming generation of poets may follow him, and enter into the rich world of England's history and possess it. Surely England, if any land, supplies rich poetic material in her long, unbroken story, in her heroic names, in her battlefields scattered all the island over, where railways and factories have not obliterated them —

              'in the halls in which is hung
Armoury of the invincible knights of old,' —

where hang, too, the portraits of her famous men, and in the homes in which they were reared, either still inhabited, or mouldering

'In all the imploring beauty of decay.'

These things remain to add life and colour to that which chronicle and tradition and family histories have preserved. How is it that our English poets have so turned their back on all this? I confess it has often pained me to see fine poetic faculty expended on a poem, long as Paradise Lost, upon some demigod or hero of Greece, in whom the Teutonic mind can never find more than a passing interest; or in discussing hard problems of psychology, better left to the philosophers; or in cutting the inner man to shreds in morbid self-analysis, while the great fresh fields of our own history lie all unvisited.

One word as to the relation which substance bears to form, thought to expression, in poetry. 'Lively feeling [24] for a situation and power to express it constitute the poet,' said Goethe. 'The power of clear and eloquent expression is a talent distinct from poetry, though often mistaken for it,' says Dr. Newman. Into this large question, whether he can be called a poet who lacks the power of expressing the poetic thought that is in him, I shall not enter. On the one hand you have Goethe and Coleridge, maintaining that poetic conception and expression are inseparable, — powers born in one birth. On the other hand, Wordsworth and Dr. Newman agree in holding that

        'many are the poets sown by nature,
Yet wanting the accomplishment of verse.'

As however the 'vision,' even if it exist, cannot reveal itself to others without the 'accomplishment' of expression, there is little practical need to discuss the question. But while both of these powers are indispensable, they seem to exist in various proportions in different poets. One poet is strong in thought and substance, less effective in form and expression. In another the case is exactly reversed. It is only in the greatest poets, and in those, when in their happiest mood, that the two powers seem to meet in perfect equipoise, — and that the highest thoughts are found wedded to the most perfect words. Among well-known poets, Cowper and Scott have been noted, as stronger in substance than in form; Pope and Gray, as poets in whom finish of style exceeds power of thought; Moore, as hiding commonplace sen[25]timent under elaborate ornament. On the whole, it may be said that the early poets of any nation are for the most part stronger in substance than in style; whereas, with advancing time, power of expression grows, style gets cultivated for its own sake, so that in later poets expression very often outruns thought.

As an illustration of the wide limits within which two styles of expression, each perfect after its kind, may range, take two poems, well known to every one; Wordsworth's Resolution and Independence and Mr, Tennyson's Palace of Art. Each poem well represents the manner of its author. In one thing only they agree, that each contains a moral truth, though to teach this is not probably the main object of either. In all other respects, in their manner of conveying the truth, in form, colouring, and style of diction, no two poems could well be more unlike.

Wordsworth's poem sets forth that alternation of two opposite moods to which imaginative natures are exposed, — the highest exaltation, rejoicing in sympathy with the joy of Nature, quickly succeeded by the deepest despondency. After these two moods have been powerfully depicted, admonition and restoration come from the sight of a hard lot patiently, even cheerfully, borne, by a poor leech-gatherer, who wanders about the moors plying his trade. This sight acts as a tonic on the poet's spirit, bracing him to fortitude and content.

The early poem of the Laureate begins by personify[26]ing the Spirit of Art, who speaks forth her own aims and desires, her one purpose to enjoy Beauty always and only by herself, for her own selfish enjoyment — the artistic temptation to worship Beauty, apart from truth and goodness. You will remember how she describes the Palace, so royal, rich, and wide, with which she surrounded herself, — the life she led there; how, after a time, smitten to the core with a sense of her own inward poverty and misery, she loathes herself in despair.

Wordsworth's 'plain imagination and severe' moves rapidly from the most literal, everyday commonplace, into the remotest distance of brooding phantasy, before which the old man and the visible scene entirely disappear, or are transfigured. And the diction moves with the thought, passing from the barest prose to the most elevated poetic style. Thus, if on the one hand you have such lines as

'To me that morning did it happen so,'


'How is it that you live? and what is it you do?'

you have on the other —

'I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
 The sleepless soul that perished in his pride;
 Of him who walked in glory and in joy,
 Following his plough along the mountain side:
 We Poets in our youth begin in gladness.
 But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness,'

You have also the strong lines likening the sudden [27] apparition of the old man on the moor to a huge boulder-stone,

'Couched on the bald top of an eminence';

then to a sea-beast that has crawled forth on a sandbank or rock-ledge to sun itself. Then rising into —

'Upon the margin of that moorish flood,
 Motionless as a cloud, the old man stood;
 That heareth not the loud winds when they call,
 And moveth all together, if it move at all.'

Many may object to the appearance of the plain lines in the poem as blemishes. To me, while they give great reality to the whole, they enhance, I know not how much, the power of the grander lines. I would not, if I could, have them otherwise.

Mr. Tennyson again, from end to end of his poem, pitches the style at a high artistic level, from which he never once descends. Image comes on image, picture succeeds picture, each perfect, rich in colour, clear in outline. When you first read the poem, every stanza startles you with a new and brilliant surprise. There is not a line which the most fastidious could wish away.

In another thing the two poems are strikingly contrasted. Wordsworth's is almost colourless; there is only a word or two in it that can suggest colour. Mr. Tennyson's is inlaid throughout with the richest hues, yet so deftly as not to satiate, but only to bring out more fully the purpose of the poem. In reading the one you feel as though you were in the midst of a plain bare moor, [28] out of which the precipiced crags and blue mountainpeaks soar aloof, not inharmoniously, but all the more impressively, from the dead level that surrounds them. In the other you are, as it were, walking along some high mountain level, which, without marked elevation or depression anywhere, yields on either side wide outlooks over land and sea.

I have alluded to these two poems, not by any means to estimate their comparative excellence, but as instances in which two great poets give expression to high thoughts, each in his own characteristic style, and that style perfect according to its kind and aim.

In these two instances the idea and the expression are well balanced, in just equipoise.

But it is otherwise with much of the poetry, or attempts at poetry, of the present time. A tincture of letters is now so common, that the number of those who can versify is greatly increased, and the power of expression often lamentably outruns the thought. There is one marked exception to this, which will occur to every one, in the case of one of the most prominent living poets, in whom the power of lucid utterance halts, breathlessly and painfully, behind the jerks and jolts of his subtle and eccentric thought. But this is not a common fault. Rather, I should say, we are overdone with superabundant imagery and luscious melody. We are so cloyed with the perfume of flowers, that we long for the bare bracing heights, where only stern north winds blow. [29] Or to put it otherwise: in many modern poems you are presented with a richly-chased casket; you open it, and find only a common pebble within. This is a malady incident to periods of late civilisation and of much criticism. Poetry gets narrowed into an art — an art which many can practise, but which, when practised, is not worth much. How many are there in the present day, of more or less poetical faculty, who can express admirably whatever they have to say, but that amounts to little or nothing! At best it is but a collection of poetic prettinesses, sometimes of hysteric exaggerations and extravagances. Had these men, with their fine faculty of expression, only made themselves seriously at home in any one field of thought, had they ever learned to love any subject for its own sake, and not merely for its artistic capabilities, had they ever laid a strong hearthold of any side of human interest, no one can say what they might not have achieved; but for want of this grasp of substance the result is in so many cases what we see. Not till some stirring of the stagnant waters be vouchsafed, some new awakening to the higher side of things, not till some mighty wind blows over the souls of men, will another epoch of great and creative poetry arise.

The views which I have set forth in this Lecture will, if they are true, determine what value we ought to place on that modern theory which maintains 'the moral indifference of true art.' The great poet, we are sometimes [30] told now-a-days, must be free from all moral prepossessions; his one business is 'to see life steadily and see it whole,' and to represent it faithfully as it is. The highest office of the poet is 'to aim at a purely artistic effect.' To him goodness and vice are alike — his work is to delineate each impartially, and let no shade of preference intrude.

It is to Dramatic Poetry, I suppose, that this theory is mainly intended to apply, and from the Drama it is supposed to receive most confirmation. Be it so.

It is then the aim of the dramatist truly to delineate character of every hue, the base equally with the noble, to represent life, in all its variety, just as it is. But is not life itself full of morality? Is not the substance and texture of it moral to the core? must not the contemplation of human characters, as they are, awaken liking or dislike, moral admiration or moral aversion, in every healthy mind? And must not the poetry which represents truly that substance be moral too? must not the spectacle of the characters depicted stir natural feelings of love or dislike, as well in the poet who draws, as in the reader who contemplates them? Did not Sophocles have more delight in Antigone than in Ismene? Did not Shakespeare admire and love Desdemona and Cordelia; hate and despise Iago and Edmund?

This theory of the moral indifference of Art originated, I believe, in great measure, with Goethe, and has been [31] propagated chiefly by his too exclusive admirers. I should be content to rest the whole question on a comparison of the moral spirit that pervades the dramas of Goethe and those of Shakespeare. It has been asserted, I believe with truth, that it was the existence of this very theory in Goethe, or rather of that element in him whence this theory was projected, which shuts him out from the highest place as a dramatist, and marks the vast interval between him and Shakespeare. Goethe's moral nature was, it has been said, of a somewhat limp texture, with few strong 'natural admirations,' so that his dramas are wanting in those moral lights and shadows, which exist in the actual world, and give life and outline to the most manly natures. His groups of characters are most of them morally feeble and shadowy. Shakespeare, on the other hand, being a whole, natural man, 'the moral, imaginative, and intellectual parts of him do not lie separate,' but move at once and all together. Being wholly unembarrassed with æsthetic theories, his 'poetical impulse and his moral feelings are one.' He does not conceal or explain away the great moral elevations and depressions that you see in the world. He paints men and women as they are, with great moral differences, not withholding admiration from the noble, contempt and aversion from the base. Therefore, though we do not say that he is faultless, do not deny that there are things in him we could wish away, yet, taken as a whole, there breathes from his [32] works a natural, healthy, bracing, elevating spirit, not to be found in the works of Goethe. Every side, every phase of human nature is there faithfully set down, but to the higher and better side is given its own natural predominance. With the largest tolerance ever man had for all human infirmity, the widest sympathy with all men, seeing even the soul of good that may lie in things evil, there is in him nothing of that neutral moral tint, which is weakness in poetry as truly as in actual life.

Neither do we find in this master-dramatist any trace of another theory, born of morbid physiology, as the former of morbid æsthetics, by which character, personality, the soul are explained away, and all moral energy disappears before such solvents as outward circumstances, antecedent conditions, heredity, and accumulated instincts. Shakespeare had looked that way too, as he had most ways; but he leaves the announcement of this modern view, or one closely allied to it, to Edmund, one of his basest characters, and even he scorns it.

If the divorce of poetry from morality will not hold in the drama, in which alone it can show any semblance of argument, far less can it be applied to poetry in its other forms, epic, lyric, meditative. If it be not the function of poetry in these forms to give beautiful expression to the finer impulses, to the higher side of life, I see not that it has any function at all. If poetry be not a river, fed from the clear wells that spring on the highest [33] summits of humanity, but only a canal to drain off stagnant ditches from the flats, it may be a very useful sanitary contrivance, but has not, in Bacon's words, any 'participation of divineness.'

Poets who do not recognise the highest moral ideal known to man, do, by that very act, cut themselves off from the highest artistic effect. It is another exemplification of that great law of ethics which compasses all human action, 'whereby the abandonment of a lower end in obedience to a higher aim is made the very condition of securing the lower one.' For just as the pleasure-seeker is not the pleasure-finder, so he who aims only at artistic effect, by that very act misses it. To reach the highest art, we must forget art, and aim beyond it. Other gifts being equal, the poet, who has been enabled to apprehend the highest moral conception, has in that gained for himself a great poetic vantage-ground.

To bring this to a point: The Christian standard we take to be the highest known among men. Must then, you may ask, all great poets, at least in modern times, in order to reach the highest poetic excellence, be Christians? Goethe, you say, made little of Christianity; Shelley abjured it: are we on that account to deny, that they rank among the great poets of the world?

To this it may be replied, — First, that though they did not consciously hold it, they could not escape at least some unconscious influence from the religion [34] which surrounded them. Secondly, that had their prejudice against Christianity been removed, could they have frankly owned its divinity, instead of being losers they would have gained hardly less as poets than as men. For lack of this it is that there lie hidden in the human spirit tones, the truest, the most tender, the most profound, which these poets have never elicited.

Let it not be said that I have been advocating sectarian views — trying to bind poetry to the service of a sect. It is true that poetry refuses to be made over as the handmaid of any one philosophy or view of life or system of belief. But it is equally true that it naturally allies itself only with what is highest and best in human nature; and in whatever philosophy or belief this is enshrined, thence poetry will draw its finest impulses.

There are only two views with which it has nothing in common. One is the view of life which they hold, whose motto is 'Nil admirari.' With this it can have no fellowship, for it cuts off the springs of emotion at their very sources. The other antipode is the philosophy which denies us any access to truth except through the senses; which refuses to believe anything which scalpel or crucible or microscope cannot verify; which reduces human nature to a heap of finely granulated, iridescent dust, and empties man of a soul and the universe of a God. Such a philosophy would leave to poetry only one function, — to deck with tinsel the coffin of [35] universal humanity. This is a function which she declines to perform.

But we need have no fears that it will come to this. Poetry will not succumb before materialism, or agnosticism, or any other cobweb of the sophisticated brain. It is an older, stronger birth than these, and will survive them. It will throw itself out into fresh forms; it will dig for itself new channels; under some form suited to each age, it will continue through all time, for it is an undying effluence of the soul of man.

That this effluence has on the whole been benign in its tendency who can doubt? I have wished throughout not to indulge in exaggeration, nor to claim for poetry more than every one must concede to it. Imagination may be turned to evil uses. It may minister, it has sometimes ministered, to the baser side of human nature, and thrown enchantment over things that are vile. But this has been a perversion, which depraves the nature of poetry, and robs it of its finest grace. Naturally it is the ally of all things high and pure; among these is its home; its nature is to lay hold of these, and to bring them, with power and attractiveness, home to our hearts. It is the prerogative of poetry to convey to us, as nothing else can, the beauty that is in all nature, to interpret the finer quality that is hidden in the hearts of men, and to hint at a beauty which lies behind these, a light 'above the light of setting suns,' which is incommunicable. In doing this it will fulfil now, as of old, the office which [36] Bacon assigned to it, and will give some 'shadow of satisfaction to the spirit of man, longing for a more ample greatness, a more perfect goodness, and a more absolute variety' than here it is capable of.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

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