A STUDY OF POETRY
by BLISS PERRY
Professor of English Literature in Harvard University
Author of "A STUDY OF PROSE FICTION," "WALT WHITMAN," "THE AMERICAN MIND," etc.
M. S. P.
The method of studying poetry which I have followed in this book was sketched some years ago in my chapter on "Poetry" in Counsel Upon the Reading of Books. My confidence that the genetic method is the natural way of approaching the subject has been shared by many lovers of poetry. I hope, however, that I have not allowed my insistence upon the threefold process of "impression, transforming imagination, and expression" to harden into a set formula. Formulas have a certain dangerous usefulness for critics and teachers, but they are a very small part of one's training in the appreciation of poetry.
I have allotted little or no space to the specific discussion of epic and drama, as these types are adequately treated in many books. Our own generation is peculiarly attracted by various forms of the lyric, and in Part Two I have devoted especial attention to that field.
While I hope that the book may attract the traditional "general reader," I have also tried to arrange it in such a fashion that it may be utilized in the classroom. I have therefore ventured, in the Notes and Illustrations and Appendix, to suggest some methods and material for the use of students.
I wish to express my obligations to Professor R. M. Alden, whose Introduction to Poetry and English Verse I have used in my own Harvard courses in poetry. His views of metre have probably influenced mine even more than I am aware. The last decade, which has witnessed such an extraordinary revival of interest in poetry, has produced many valuable contributions to poetic theory. I have found Professor Fairchild's Making of Poetry particularly suggestive. Attention is called, in the Notes and Bibliography, to many other recent books on the subject.
Professors A. S. Cook of Yale and F. B. Snyder of Northwestern University have been kind enough to read in manuscript certain chapters of this book, and Dr. P. F. Baum of Harvard has assisted me most courteously. I am indebted to several fellow-writers for their consent to the use of extracts from their books, particularly to Brander Matthews for a passage from These Many Years and to Henry Osborn Taylor for a passage from his Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages.
I wish also to thank the publishers who have generously allowed me to use brief quotations from copyrighted books, especially Henry Holt & Co. for permission to use a quotation and drawing from William James's Psychology, and The Macmillan Company for permission to borrow from John La Farge's delightful Considerations on Painting.
POETRY IN GENERAL
I. A GLANCE AT THE BACKGROUND
II. THE PROVINCE OF POETRY
III. THE POET'S IMAGINATION
IV. THE POET'S WORDS
V. RHYTHM AND METRE
VI. RHYME, STANZA AND FREE VERSE
THE LYRIC IN PARTICULAR
VII. THE FIELD OF LYRIC POETRY
VIII. RELATIONSHIPS AND TYPES OF THE LYRIC
IX. RACE, EPOCH AND INDIVIDUAL
X. THE PRESENT STATUS OF THE LYRIC
NOTES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
A STUDY OF POETRY
POETRY IN GENERAL
"Sidney and Shelley pleaded this cause. Because they spoke, must we be dumb?" GEORGE E. WOODBERRY, A New Defense of Poetry
A STUDY OF POETRY
A GLANCE AT THE BACKGROUND
It is a gray day in autumn. I am sitting at my desk, wondering how to begin the first chapter of this book about poetry. Outside the window a woman is contentedly kneeling on the upturned brown earth of her tulip-bed, patting lovingly with her trowel as she covers the bulbs for next spring's blossoming. Does she know Katharine Tynan's verses about "Planting Bulbs"? Probably not. But I find myself dropping the procrastinating pen, and murmuring some of the lines:
"Setting my bulbs a-row In cold earth under the grasses, Till the frost and the snow Are gone and the Winter passes—
* * * * *
"Turning the sods and the clay I think on the poor sad people Hiding their dead away In the churchyard, under the steeple.
"All poor women and men, Broken-hearted and weeping, Their dead they call on in vain, Quietly smiling and sleeping.
"Friends, now listen and hear, Give over crying and grieving, There shall come a day and a year When the dead shall be as the living.
"There shall come a call, a foot-fall, And the golden trumpeters blowing Shall stir the dead with their call, Bid them be rising and going.
"Then in the daffodil weather, Lover shall run to lover; Friends all trooping together; Death and Winter be over.
"Laying my bulbs in the dark, Visions have I of hereafter. Lip to lip, breast to breast, hark! No more weeping, but laughter!"
Yet this is no way to start your chapter, suggests Conscience. Why do you not write an opening paragraph, for better for worse, instead of looking out of the window and quoting Katharine Tynan? And then it flashes over me, in lieu of answer, that I have just discovered one way of beginning the chapter, after all! For what I should like to do in this book is to set forth in decent prose some of the strange potencies of verse: its power, for instance, to seize upon a physical image like that of a woman planting bulbs, and transmute it into a symbol of the resurrection of the dead; its capacity for turning fact into truth and brown earth into beauty; for remoulding the broken syllables of human speech into sheer music; for lifting the mind, bowed down by wearying thought and haunting fear, into a brooding ecstasy wherein weeping is changed into laughter and autumnal premonitions of death into assurance of life, and the narrow paths of individual experience are widened into those illimitable spaces where the imagination rules. Poetry does all this, assuredly. But how? And why? That is our problem.
"The future of poetry is immense," declared Matthew Arnold, and there are few lovers of literature who doubt his triumphant assertion. But the past of poetry is immense also: impressive in its sheer bulk and in its immemorial duration. At a period earlier than any recorded history, poetry seems to have occupied the attention of men, and some of the finest spirits in every race that has attained to civilization have devoted themselves to its production, or at least given themselves freely to the enjoyment of reciting and reading verse, and of meditating upon its significance. A consciousness of this rich human background should accompany each new endeavor to examine the facts about poetry and to determine its essential nature. The facts are indeed somewhat complicated, and the nature of poetry, in certain aspects of it, at least, will remain as always a mystery. Yet in that very complication and touch of mystery there is a fascination which has laid its spell upon countless generations of men, and which has been deepened rather than destroyed by the advance of science and the results of scholarship. The study of folklore and comparative literature has helped to explain some of the secrets of poetry; the psychological laboratory, the history of criticism, the investigation of linguistics, the modern developments in music and the other arts, have all contributed something to our intelligent enjoyment of the art of poetry and to our sense of its importance in the life of humanity. There is no field of inquiry where the interrelations of knowledge are more acutely to be perceived. The beginner in the study of poetry may at once comfort himself and increase his zest by remembering that any real training which he has already had in scientific observation, in the habit of analysis, in the study of races and historic periods, in the use of languages, in the practice or interpretation of any of the fine arts, or even in any bodily exercise that has developed his sense of rhythm, will be of ascertainable value to him in this new study.
But before attempting to apply his specific knowledge or aptitude to the new field for investigation, he should be made aware of some of the wider questions which the study of poetry involves. The first of these questions has to do with the relations of the study of poetry to the general field of Aesthetics.
1. The Study of Poetry and the Study of Aesthetics
The Greeks invented a convenient word to describe the study of poetry: "Poetics." Aristotle's famous fragmentary treatise bore that title, and it was concerned with the nature and laws of certain types of poetry and with the relations of poetry to the other arts. For the Greeks assumed, as we do, that poetry is an art: that it expresses emotion through words rhythmically arranged. But as soon as they began to inquire into the particular kind of emotion which is utilized in poetry and the various rhythmical arrangements employed by poets, they found themselves compelled to ask further questions. How do the other arts convey feeling? What arrangement or rhythmic ordering of facts do they use in this process? What takes place in us as we confront the work of art, or, in other words, what is our reaction to an artistic stimulus?
For an answer to such wider questions as these, we moderns turn to the so-called science of Aesthetics. This word, derived from the Greek aisthanomai (to perceive), has been defined as "anything having to do with perception by the senses." But it was first used in its present sense by the German thinker Baumgarten in the middle of the eighteenth century. He meant by it "the theory of the fine arts." It has proved a convenient term to describe both "The Science of the Beautiful" and "The Philosophy of Beauty"; that is, both the analysis and classification of beautiful things as well as speculation as to the origin and nature of Beauty itself. But it should be borne in mind that aesthetic inquiry and answer may precede by thousands of years the use of the formal language of aesthetic theory. Mr. Kipling's "Story of Ung" cleverly represents the cave-men as discussing the very topics which the contemporary studio and classroom strive in vain to settle,—in vain, because they are the eternal problems of art. Here are two faces, two trees, two colors, one of which seems preferable to the other. Wherein lies the difference, as far as the objects themselves are concerned? And what is it which the preferable face or tree or color stirs or awakens within us as we look at it? These are what we call aesthetic questions, but a man or a race may have a delicate and sure sense of beauty without consciously asking such questions at all. The awareness of beautiful objects in nature, and even the ability to create a beautiful work of art, may not be accompanied by any gift for aesthetic speculation. Conversely, many a Professor of aesthetics has contentedly lived in an ugly house and you would not think that he had ever looked at river or sky or had his pulses quickened by a tune. Nevertheless, no one can turn the pages of a formal History of Aesthetics without being reminded that the oldest and apparently the most simple inquiries in this field may also be the subtlest and in a sense the most modern. For illustration, take the three philosophical contributions of the Greeks to aesthetic theory, as they are stated by Bosanquet: [Footnote: Bosanquet, History of Aesthetic, chap. 3.] (1) the conception that art deals with images, not realities, i.e. with aesthetic "semblance" or things as they appear to the artist; (2) the conception that art consists in "imitation," which they carried to an absurdity, indeed, by arguing that an imitation must be less "valuable" than the thing imitated; (3) the conception that beauty consists in certain formal relations, such as symmetry, harmony of parts—in a word, "unity in variety."
Now no one can snap a Kodak effectively without putting into practice the first of these conceptions: nor understand the "new music" and "free verse" without reckoning with both the second and the third. The value to the student of poetry of some acquaintance with aesthetic theory is sometimes direct, as in the really invaluable discussion contained in Aristotle's Poetics, but more often, perhaps, it will be found in the indirect stimulus to his sympathy and taste. For he must survey the widespread sense of beauty in the ancient world, the splendid periods of artistic creation in the Middle Ages, the growth of a new feeling for landscape and for the richer and deeper human emotions, and the emergence of the sense of the "significant" or individually "characteristic" in the work of art. Finally he may come to lose himself with Kant or Hegel or Coleridge in philosophical theories about the nature of beauty, or to follow the curious analyses of experimental aesthetics in modern laboratories, where the psycho-physical reactions to aesthetic stimuli are cunningly registered and the effects of lines and colors and tones upon the human organism are set forth with mathematical precision. He need not trouble himself overmuch at the outset with definitions of Beauty. The chief thing is to become aware of the long and intimate preoccupation of men with beautiful objects and to remember that any inquiry into the nature and laws of poetry will surely lead him into a deeper curiosity as to the nature and manifestations of aesthetic feeling in general.
2. The Impulse to Artistic Production
Furthermore, no one can ask himself how it is that a poem comes into being unless he also raises the wider question as to the origin and working of the creative impulse in the other arts. It is clear that there is a gulf between the mere sense of beauty—such as is possessed by primitive man, or, in later stages of civilization, by the connoisseur in the fine arts—and the concrete work of art. Thousands enjoy the statue, the symphony, the ode; not one in a thousand can produce these objects. Mere connoisseurship is sterile. "The ability to produce one fine line," said Edward FitzGerald, "transcends all the Able-Editor ability in this ably-edited universe." What is the impulse which urges certain persons to create beautiful objects? How is it that they cross the gulf which separates the enjoyer from the producer?
It is easier to ask this question than to find a wholly satisfactory answer to it. Plato's explanation, in the case of the poet, is simple enough: it is the direct inspiration of the divinity,—the "god" takes possession of the poet. Perhaps this may be true, in a sense, and we shall revert to it later, but first let us look at some of the conditions for the exercise of the creative impulse, as contemporary theorists have endeavored to explain them.
Social relations, surely, afford one of the obvious conditions for the impulse to art. The hand-clapping and thigh-smiting of primitive savages in a state of crowd-excitement, the song-and-dance before admiring spectators, the chorus of primitive ballads,—the crowd repeating and altering the refrains,—the rhythmic song of laboring men and of women at their weaving, sailors' "chanties," the celebration of funeral rites, religious processional and pageant, are all expressions of communal feeling, and it is this communal feeling—"the sense of joy in widest commonalty spread"—which has inspired, in Greece and Italy, some of the greatest artistic epochs. It is true that as civilization has proceeded, this communal emotion has often seemed to fade away and leave us in the presence of the individual artist only. We see Keats sitting at his garden table writing the "Ode to Autumn," the lonely Shelley in the Cascine at Florence composing the "West Wind," Wordsworth pacing the narrow walk behind Dove Cottage and mumbling verses, Beethoven in his garret writing music. But the creative act thus performed in solitude has a singular potency, after all, for arousing that communal feeling which in the moment of creation the artist seems to escape. What he produces in his loneliness the world does not willingly let die. His work, as far as it becomes known, really unites mankind. It fulfills a social purpose. "Its function is social consolidation."
Tolstoy made so much of this "transmission of emotion," this "infectious" quality of art as a means of union among men, that he reduced a good case to an absurdity, for he argued himself into thinking that if a given work of art does not infect the spectator—and preferably the uneducated "peasant" spectator—with emotion, it is therefore not art at all. He overlooked the obvious truth that there are certain types of difficult or intricate beauty—in music, in architecture, and certainly in poetry—which so tax the attention and the analytical and reflective powers of the spectator as to make the inexperienced, uncultured spectator or hearer simply unaware of the presence of beauty. Debussy's music, Browning's dramatic monologues, Henry James's short stories, were not written for Tolstoy's typical peasant. They would "transmit" to him nothing at all. But although Tolstoy, a man of genius, overstated his case with childlike perversity, he did valuable service in insisting upon emotion as a basis for the art-impulse. The creative instinct is undeniably accompanied by strong feeling, by pleasure in the actual work of production and in the resultant object, and something of this pleasure in the harmonious expression of emotion is shared by the competent observer. The permanent vitality of a work of art does consist in its capacity for stimulating and transmitting pleasure. One has only to think of Gray's "Elegy" and the delight which it has afforded to generations of men.
Another conception of the artistic impulse seeks to ally it with the "play-instinct." According to Kant and Schiller there is a free "kingdom of play" between the urgencies of necessity and of duty, and in this sphere of freedom a man's whole nature has the chance to manifest itself. He is wholly man only when he "plays," that is, when he is free to create. Herbert Spencer and many subsequent theorists have pointed out the analogy between the play of young animals, the free expression of their surplus energy, their organic delight in the exercise of their muscles, and that "playful" expenditure of a surplus of vitality which seems to characterize the artist. This analogy is curiously suggestive, though it is insufficient to account for all the phenomena concerned in human artistic production.
The play theory, again, suggests that old and clairvoyant perception of the Greeks that the art-impulse deals with aesthetic appearances rather than with realities as such. The artist has to do with the semblance of things; not with things as they "are in themselves" either physically or logically, but with things as they appear to him. The work of the impressionist painter or the imagist poet illustrates this conception. The conventions of the stage are likewise a case in point. Stage settings, conversations, actions, are all affected by the "optique du theatre" they are composed in a certain "key" which seeks to give a harmonious impression, but which conveys frankly semblance and not reality. The craving for "real" effects upon the stage is anti-aesthetic, like those gladiatorial shows where persons were actually killed. I once saw an unskilful fencer, acting the part of Romeo, really wound Tybalt: the effect was lifelike, beyond question, but it was shocking.
From this doctrine of aesthetic semblance or "appearance" many thinkers have drawn the conclusion that the pleasures afforded by art must in their very nature be disinterested and sharable. Disinterested, because they consist so largely in delighted contemplation merely. Women on the stage, said Coquelin, should afford to the spectator "a theatrical pleasure only, and not the pleasure of a lover." Compare with this the sprightly egotism of the lyric poet's
"If she be not so to me, What care I how fair she be?"
A certain aloofness is often felt to characterize great art: it is perceived in the austerity and reserve of the Psyche of Naples and the Venus of Melos:
"And music pours on mortals Its beautiful disdain."
The lower pleasures of the senses of taste and touch, it is often pointed out, are less pleasurable than the other senses when revived by memory. Your dinner is your dinner—your exclusive proprietorship of lower pleasure—in a sense in which the snowy linen and gleaming silver and radiant flowers upon the table are not yours only because they are sharable. If music follows the dinner, though it be your favorite tune, it is nevertheless not yours as what you have eaten is yours. Acute observers like Santayana have denied or minimized this distinction, but the general instinct of men persists in calling the pleasures of color and form and sound "sharable," because they exist for all who can appreciate them. The individual's happiness in these pleasures is not lessened, but rather increased, by the coexistent happiness of others in the same object.
There is one other aspect of the artistic impulse which is of peculiar importance to the student of poetry. It is this: the impulse toward artistic creation always works along lines of order. The creative impulse may remain a mystery in its essence, the play of blind instinct, as many philosophers have supposed; a portion of the divine energy which is somehow given to men. All sorts of men, good and bad, cultured and savage, have now and again possessed this vital creative power. They have been able to say with Thomas Lovell Beddoes:
"I have a bit of fiat in my soul, And can myself create my little world."
The little world which their imagination has created may be represented only by a totem pole or a colored basket or a few scratches on a piece of bone; or it may be a temple or a symphony. But if it be anything more than the mere whittling of a stick to exercise surplus energy, it is ordered play or labor. It follows a method. It betrays remeditation. It is the expression of something in the mind. And even the mere whittler usually whittles his stick to a point: that is, he is "making" something. His knife, almost before he is aware of what he is doing, follows a pattern—invented in his brain on the instant or remembered from other patterns. He gets pleasure from the sheer muscular activity, and from his tactile sense of the bronze or steel as it penetrates the softer wood. But he gets a higher pleasure still from his pattern, from his sense of making something, no matter how idly. And as soon as the pattern or purpose or "design" is recognized by others the maker's pleasure is heightened, sharable. For he has accomplished the miracle: he has thrown the raw material of feeling into form—and that form itself yields pleasure. His "bit of fiat" has taken a piece of wood and transformed it: made it expressive of something. All the "arts of design" among primitive races show this pattern-instinct.
But the impulse toward an ordered expression of feeling is equally apparent in the rudimentary stages of music and poetry. The striking of hands or feet in unison, the rhythmic shout of many voices, the regular beat of the tom-tom, the excited spectators of a college athletic contest as they break spontaneously from individual shouting into waves of cheering and of song, the quickened feet of negro stevedores as some one starts a tune, the children's delight in joining hands and moving in a circle, all serve to illustrate the law that as feeling gains in intensity it tends toward ordered expression. Poetry, said Coleridge, in one of his marvelous moments of insight, is the result of "a more than usual state of emotion" combined "with more than usual order."
What has been said about play and sharable pleasure and the beginning of design has been well summarized by Sidney Colvin: [Footnote: Article on "The Fine Arts" in Encyclopaedia Britannica.]
"There are some things which we do because we must; these are our necessities. There are other things which we do because we ought; these are our duties. There are other things which we do because we like; these are our play. Among the various kinds of things done by men only because they like, the fine arts are those of which the results afford to many permanent and disinterested delight, and of which the performance, calling for premeditated skill, is capable of regulation up to a certain point, but that point passed, has secrets beyond the reach and a freedom beyond the restraint of rules."
3. "Form" and "Significance" in the Arts
If the fine arts, then, deal with the ordered or harmonious expression of feeling, it is clear that any specific work of art may be regarded, at least theoretically, from two points of view. We may look at its "outside" or its "inside"; that is to say at its ordering of parts, its pattern, its "form," or else at the feeling or idea which it conveys. This distinction between form and content, between expression and that which is expressed, is temptingly convenient. It is a useful tool of analysis, but it is dangerous to try to make it anything more than that. If we were looking at a water-pipe and the water which flows through it, it would be easy to keep a clear distinction between the form of the iron pipe, and its content of water. But in certain of the fine arts very noticeably, such as music, and in a diminished degree, poetry, and more or less in all of them, the form is the expression or content. A clear-cut dissection of the component elements of outside and inside, of water-pipe and water within it, becomes impossible. Listening to music is like looking at a brook; there is no inside and outside, it is all one intricately blended complex of sensation. Music is a perfect example of "embodied feeling," as students of aesthetics term it, and the body is here inseparable from the feeling. But in poetry, which is likewise embodied feeling, it is somewhat easier to attempt, for purposes of logical analysis, a separation of the component elements of thought (i.e. "content") and form. We speak constantly of the "idea" of a poem as being more or less adequately "expressed," that is, rendered in terms of form. The actual form of a given lyric may or may not be suited to its mood, [Footnote: Certainly not, for instance, in Wordsworth's "Reverie of Poor Susan."] or the poet may not have been a sufficiently skilful workman to achieve success in the form or "pattern" which he has rightly chosen.
Even in poetry, then, the distinction between inside and outside, content and form, has sometimes its value, and in other arts, like painting and sculpture, it often becomes highly interesting and instructive to attempt the separation of the two elements. The French painter Millet, for instance, is said to have remarked to a pupil who showed him a well-executed sketch: "You can paint. But what have you to say?" The pupil's work had in Millet's eyes no "significance." The English painter G. F. Watts often expressed himself in the same fashion: "I paint first of all because I have something to say.... My intention has not been so much to paint pictures that will charm the eye as to suggest great thoughts that will appeal to the imagination and the heart and kindle all that is best and noblest in humanity.... My work is a protest against the modern opinion that Art should have nothing to say intellectually."
On the other hand, many distinguished artists and critics have given assent to what has been called the "Persian carpet" theory of painting. According to them a picture should be judged precisely as one judges a Persian rug—by the perfection of its formal beauty, its harmonies of line, color and texture, its "unity in variety." It is evident that the men who hold this opinion are emphasizing form in the work of art, and that Millet and Watts emphasized significance. One school is thinking primarily of expression, and the other of that which is expressed. The important point for the student of poetry to grasp is that this divergence of opinion turns upon the question of relative emphasis. Even pure form, or "a-priori form" as it has sometimes been called,—such as a rectangle, a square, a cube,—carries a certain element of association which gives it a degree of significance. There is no absolutely bare or blank pattern. "Four-square" means something to the mind, because it is intimately connected with our experience. [Footnote: See Bosanquet, Three Lectures on Aesthetic, pp. 19, 29, 39, and Santayana, The Sense of Beauty, p. 83.] It cannot be a mere question of balance, parallelism and abstract "unity in variety." The acanthus design in architectural ornament, the Saracenic decoration on a sword-blade, aim indeed primarily at formal beauty and little more. The Chinese laundryman hands you a red slip of paper covered with strokes of black ink in strange characters. It is undecipherable to you, yet it possesses in its sheer charm of color and line, something of beauty, and the freedom and vigor of the strokes are expressive of vitality. It is impossible that Maud's face should really have been
"Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null, Dead perfection, no more."
Nevertheless, though absolutely pure decorative beauty does not exist, the artist may push the decorative principle very far, so far, indeed, that his product lacks interest and proves tedious or nonsensical. There is "nonsense-verse," as we shall see later, which fulfills every condition for pure formal beauty in poetry. Yet it is not poetry, but only nonsense-verse.
Now shift the interest from the form to the meaning contained in the work of art, that is, to its significance. An expressive face is one that reveals character. Its lines are suggestive of something. They are associated, like the lines of purely decorative beauty, with more or less obscure tracts of our experience, but they arouse a keen mental interest. They stimulate, they are packed closely with meaning, with fact, with representative quality. The same thing is true of certain landscapes. Witness Thomas Hardy's famous description of Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native. It is true of music. Certain modern music almost breaks down, as music, under the weight of meaning, of fact, of thought, which the composer has striven to make it carry.
There is no question that the principle of significance may be pushed too far, just as the principle of decorative or purely formal beauty may be emphasized too exclusively. But is there any real antagonism between the elements of form and significance, beauty and expressiveness? This question has been debated ever since the time of Winckelmann and Lessing. The controversy over the work of such artists as Wagner, Browning, Whitman, Rodin has turned largely upon it.
Browning himself strove to cut the difficult aesthetic knot with a rough stroke of common sense:
"Is it so pretty You can't discover if it means hope, fear, Sorrow or joy? Won't beauty go with these?" [Footnote: "Fra Lippo Lippi."]
He tried again in the well-known passage from The Ring and the Book:
"So may you paint your picture, twice show truth, Beyond mere imagery on the wall,— So note by note bring music from your mind Deeper than ever e'en Beethoven dived,— So write a book shall mean beyond the facts, Suffice the eye and save the soul beside."
How Whistler, the author of Ten O'Clock and the creator of exquisitely lovely things, must have loathed that final line! But Bosanquet's carefully framed definition of the beautiful, in his History of Aesthetic, endeavors, like Browning, to adjust the different claims of form and significance: "The beautiful is that which has characteristic or individual expressiveness for sense-perception or imagination, subject to the conditions of general or abstract expressiveness in the same medium." That is to say, in less philosophical language, that as long as you observe the laws of formal beauty which belong to the medium in which you are working, you may be as expressive or significant as you like. But the artist must be obedient to the terms of his chosen medium of expression; if he is composing music or poetry he must not break the general laws of music or poetry in order to attempt that valiant enterprise of saving a soul.
4. The Man in the Work of Art
Though there is much in this matter of content and form which is baffling to the student of general aesthetic theory, there is at least one aspect of the question which the student of poetry must grasp clearly. It is this: there is nothing in any work of art except what some man has put there. What he has put in is our content question; what shape he has put it into is our form question. In Bosanquet's more technical language: "A man is the middle term between content and expression." There is doubtless some element of mystery in what we call creative power, but this is a part of man's mystery. There is no mystery in the artist's material as such: he is working in pigments or clay or vibrating sound or whatever other medium he has chosen. The qualities and possibilities of this particular medium fascinate him, preoccupy him. He comes, as we say, to think in terms of color or line or sound. He learns or may learn in time, as Whistler bade him, "never to push a medium further than it will go." The chief value of Lessing's epoch-making discussion of "time-arts" and "space-arts" in his Laokoon consisted in the emphasis laid upon the specific material of the different arts, and hence upon the varying opportunities which one medium or another affords to the artist. But though human curiosity never wearies of examining the inexhaustible possibilities of this or that material, it is chiefly concerned, after all, in the use of material as it has been moulded by the fingers and the brain of a particular artist. The material becomes transformed as it passes through his "shop," in some such way as iron is transformed into steel in a blast furnace. An apparatus called a "transformer" alters the wave-length of an electrical current and reduces high pressure to low pressure, or the reverse. The brain of the artist seems to function in a somewhat similar manner as it reshapes the material furnished it by the senses, and expresses it in new forms. Poetry furnishes striking illustrations of the transformations wrought in the crucible of the imagination, and we must look at these in detail in a subsequent chapter. But it may be helpful here to quote the testimony of two or three artists and then to examine the psychological basis of this central function of the artist's mind.
"Painting is the expression of certain sensations," said Carolus Duran. "You should not seek merely to copy the model that is posed before you, but rather to take into account the impression that is made upon the mind.... Take careful account of the substances that you must render—wood, metal, textures, for instance. When you fail to reproduce nature as you feel it, then you falsify it. Painting is not done with the eyes, but with the brain."
W. W. Story, the sculptor, wrote: "Art is art because it is not nature.... The most perfect imitation of nature is therefore not art. It must pass through the mind of the artist and be changed. Art is nature reflected through the spiritual mirror, and tinged with all the sentiment, feeling, passion of the spirit that reflects it."
In John La Farge's Considerations on Painting, a little book which is full of suggestiveness to the student of literature, there are many passages illustrating the conception of art as "the representation of the artist's view of the world." La Farge points out that "drawing from life is an exercise of memory. It might be said that the sight of the moment is merely a theme upon which we embroider the memories of former likings, former aspirations, former habits, images that we have cared for, and through which we indicate to others our training, our race, the entire educated part of our nature."
One of La Farge's concrete examples must be quoted at length: [Footnote: Considerations on Painting, pp. 71-73. Macmillan.]
"I remember myself, years ago, sketching with two well-known men, artists who were great friends, great cronies, asking each other all the time, how to do this and how to do that; but absolutely different in the texture of their minds and in the result that they wished to obtain, so far as the pictures and drawings by which they were well known to the public are concerned.
"What we made, or rather, I should say, what we wished to note, was merely a memorandum of a passing effect upon the hills that lay before us. We had no idea of expressing ourselves, or of studying in any way the subject for any future use. We merely had the intention to note this affair rapidly, and we had all used the same words to express to each other what we liked in it. There were big clouds rolling over hills, sky clearing above, dots of trees and water and meadow-land below us, and the ground fell away suddenly before us. Well, our three sketches were, in the first place, different in shape; either from our physical differences, or from a habit of drawing certain shapes of a picture, which itself usually indicates—as you know, or ought to know—whether we are looking far or near. Two were oblong, but of different proportions; one was more nearly a square; the distance taken in to the right and left was smaller in the latter case, and, on the contrary, the height up and down—that is to say, the portion of land beneath and the portion of sky above—was greater. In each picture the clouds were treated with different precision and different attention. In one picture the open sky above was the main intention of the picture. In two pictures the upper sky was of no consequence—it was the clouds and the mountains that were insisted upon. The drawing was the same, that is to say, the general make of things; but each man had involuntarily looked upon what was most interesting to him in the whole sight; and though the whole sight was what he meant to represent, he had unconsciously preferred a beauty or an interest of things different from what his neighbour liked.
"The colour of each painting was different—the vivacity of colour and tone, the distinctness of each part in relation to the whole; and each picture would have been recognized anywhere as a specimen of work by each one of us, characteristic of our names. And we spent on the whole affair perhaps twenty minutes.
"I wish you to understand, again, that we each thought and felt as if we had been photographing the matter before us. We had not the first desire of expressing ourselves, and I think would have been very much worried had we not felt that each one was true to nature. And we were each one true to nature.... If you ever know how to paint somewhat well, and pass beyond the position of the student who has not yet learned to use his hands as an expression of the memories of his brain, you will always give to nature, that is to say, what is outside of you, the character of the lens through which you see it—which is yourself."
Such bits of testimony from painters help us to understand the brief sayings of the critics, like Taine's well-known "Art is nature seen through a temperament," G. L. Raymond's "Art is nature made human," and Croce's "Art is the expression of impressions." These painters and critics agree, evidently, that the mind of the artist is an organism which acts as a "transformer." It receives the reports of the senses, but alters these reports in transmission and it is precisely in this alteration that the most personal and essential function of the artist's brain is to be found.
Remembering this, let the student of poetry now recall the diagram used in handbooks of psychology to illustrate the process of sensory stimulus of a nerve-centre and the succeeding motor reaction. The diagram is usually drawn after this fashion:
Sensory stimulus Nerve-centre Motor Reaction ______O_____ ——————————> ——————————>
The process is thus described by William James: [Footnote: Psychology, Briefer Course, American Science Series, p. 91. Henry Holt.]
"The afferent nerves, when excited by some physical irritant, be this as gross in its mode of operation as a chopping axe or as subtle as the waves of light, convey the excitement to the nervous centres. The commotion set up in the centres does not stop there, but discharges through the efferent nerves, exciting movements which vary with the animal and with the irritant applied."
The familiar laboratory experiment irritates with a drop of acid the hind leg of a frog. Even if the frog's brain has been removed, leaving the spinal cord alone to represent the nervous system, the stimulus of the acid results in an instant movement of the leg. Sensory stimulus, consequent excitement of the nerve centre and then motor reaction is the law. Thus an alarmed cuttlefish secretes an inky fluid which colors the sea-water and serves as his protection. Such illustrations may be multiplied indefinitely. [Footnote: See the extremely interesting statement by Sara Teasdale, quoted in Miss Wilkinson's New Voices, p. 199. Macmillan, 1919.] It may seem fanciful to insist upon the analogy between a frightened cuttlefish squirting ink into sea-water and an agitated poet spreading ink upon paper, but in both cases, as I have said elsewhere, "it is a question of an organism, a stimulus and a reaction. The image of the solitary reaper stirs a Wordsworth, and the result is a poem; a profound sorrow comes to Alfred Tennyson, and he produces In Memoriam." [Footnote: Counsel upon the Reading of Books, p. 219. Houghton Mifflin Company.]
In the next chapter we must examine this process with more detail. But the person who asks himself how poetry comes into being will find a preliminary answer by reflecting upon the relation of "impression" to "expression" in every nerve-organism, and in all the arts. Everywhere he must reckon with this ceaseless current of impressions, "the stream of consciousness," sweeping inward to the brain; everywhere he will detect modification, selections, alterations in the stream as it passes through the higher nervous centres; everywhere he will find these transformed "impressions" expressed in the terms of some specific medium. Thus the temple of Karnak expresses in huge blocks of stone an imagination which has brooded over the idea of the divine permanence. The Greek "discus-thrower" is the idealized embodiment of a typical kind of athlete, a conception resulting from countless visual and tactile sensations. An American millionaire buys a "Corot" or a "Monet," that is to say, a piece of colored canvas upon which a highly individualized artistic temperament has recorded its vision or impression of some aspect of the world as it has been interpreted by Corot's or Monet's eye and brain and hand. A certain stimulus or "impression," an organism which reshapes impressions, and then an "expression" of these transformed impressions into the terms permitted by some specific material: that is the threefold process which seems to be valid in all of the fine arts. It is nowhere more intricately fascinating than in poetry.
THE PROVINCE OF POETRY
"The more I read and re-read the works of the great poets, and the more I study the writings of those who have some Theory of Poetry to set forth, the more am I convinced that the question What is Poetry? can be properly answered only if we make What it does take precedence of How it does it." J. A. STEWART, The Myths of Plato
In the previous chapter we have attempted a brief survey of some of the general aesthetic questions which arise whenever we consider the form and meaning of the fine arts. We must now try to look more narrowly at the special field of poetry, asking ourselves how it comes into being, what material it employs, and how it uses this material to secure those specific effects which we all agree in calling "poetical," however widely we may differ from one another in our analysis of the means by which the effect is produced.
Let us begin with a truism. It is universally admitted that poetry, like each of the fine arts, has a field of its own. To run a surveyor's line accurately around the borders of this field, determining what belongs to it rather than to the neighboring arts, is always difficult and sometimes impossible. But the field itself is admittedly "there," in all its richness and beauty, however bitterly the surveyors may quarrel about the boundary lines. (It is well to remember that professional surveyors do not themselves own these fields or raise any crops upon them!) How much map-making ingenuity has been devoted to this task of grouping and classifying the arts: distinguishing between art and fine art, between artist, artificer and artisan; seeking to arrange a hierarchy of the arts on the basis of their relative freedom from fixed ends, their relative complexity or comprehensiveness of effect, their relative obligation to imitate or represent something that exists in nature! No one cares particularly to-day about such matters of precedence—as if the arts were walking in a carefully ordered ecclesiastical procession. On the other hand, there is ever-increasing recognition of the soundness of the distinction made by Lessing in his Laokoon: or the Limits of Painting and Poetry; namely, that the fine arts differ, as media of expression, according to the nature of the material which they employ. That is to say, the "time-arts"—like poetry and music—deal primarily with actions that succeed one another in time. The space-arts—painting, sculpture, architecture—deal primarily with bodies that coexist in space. Hence there are some subjects that belong naturally in the "painting" group, and others that belong as naturally in the "poetry" group. The artist should not "confuse the genres," or, to quote Whistler again, he should not push a medium further than it will go. Recent psychology has more or less upset Lessing's technical theory of vision, [Footnote: F. E. Bryant, The Limits of Descriptive Writing, etc. Ann Arbor, 1906.] but it has confirmed the value of his main contention as to the fields of the various arts.
1. The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice
An illustration will make this matter clear. Let us take the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been utilized by many artists during more than two thousand years assuredly, and how much longer no one knows. Virgil told it in the Georgics and Ovid in the Metamorphoses. It became a favorite theme of medieval romance, and whether told in a French lai or Scottish ballad like "King Orfeo," it still keeps, among all the strange transformations which it has undergone, "the freshness of the early world." Let us condense the story from King Alfred's Anglo-Saxon version of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae: "There was once a famous Thracian harper named Orpheus who had a beautiful wife named Eurydice. She died and went to hell. Orpheus longed sorrowfully for her, harping so sweetly that the very woods and wild beasts listened to his woe. Finally, he resolved to seek her in hell and win her back by his skill. And he played so marvelously there that the King of Hell to reward him gave him back his wife again, only upon the condition that he should not turn back to look at her as he led her forth. But, alas, who can constrain love? When Orpheus came to the boundary of darkness and light, he turned round to see if his wife was following—and she vanished."
Such was the myth in one of its manifold European forms. It deals obviously with a succession of events, with actions easily narratable by means of a "time-art" like poetry. The myth itself is one of fascinating human interest, and if a prose writer like Hawthorne had chosen to tell it in his Wonder-Book, we should doubtless speak of it as a "poetic" story. We should mean, in using that adjective, that the myth contained sentiment, imagination, passion, dramatic climax, pathos—the qualities which we commonly associate with poetry—and that Hawthorne, although a prose writer, had such an exquisite sympathy for Greek stories that his handling of the material would be as delicate, and the result possibly as lovely, as if the tale had been told in verse. But if we would realize the full value of Lessing's distinction, we must turn to one of the countless verse renderings of the myth. Here we have a succession of actions, indeed, quite corresponding to those of the prose story. But these images of action, succeeding one another in time, are now evoked by successive musical sounds,—the sounds being, as in prose, arbitrary word-symbols of image and idea,—only that in poetry the sounds have a certain ordered arrangement which heightens the emotional effect of the images evoked. Prose writer and poet might mean to tell precisely the same tale, but in reality they cannot, for one is composing, no matter how cunningly, in the tunes of prose and the other in the tunes of verse. The change in the instrument means an alteration in the mental effect.
Now turn to Lessing's other exemplar of the time-arts, the musician—for musicians as well as poets, painters and sculptors have utilized the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. What can the musician do with the theme? Gluck's opera may serve for answer. He cannot, by the aid of music alone, call up very definite ideas or images. He cannot tell the Orpheus story clearly to one who has never heard it. But to one who already knows the tale, a composer's overture—without stage accessories or singing actors or any "operatic" devices as such—furnishes in its successions and combinations of musical sound, without the use of verbal symbols, a unique pleasurable emotion which strongly and powerfully reinforces the emotions suggested by the Orpheus myth itself. Certain portions of the story, such as those relating to the wondrous harping, can obviously be interpreted better through music than through the medium of any other art.
What can Lessing's "space-arts," sculpture and painting, do with the material furnished by the Orpheus myth? It is clear that they cannot tell the whole story, since they are dealing with "bodies that coexist" rather than with successive actions. They must select some one instant of action only, and preferably the most significant moment of the whole, the parting of husband and wife. In the museum at Naples there is the wonderful Greek treatment of this theme, in sculptured high relief. The sculptor has chosen the moment of parting. Hermes, the messenger of the gods to recall Eurydice, has twined his hand gently around the left hand of the woman. With her right hand she still touches her husband, but the dread instant is upon them all. The sculptor, representing the persons in three dimensions, as far as high relief allows, has sufficiently characterized their faces and figures, and with exquisite sense of rhythm and balance in his composition has fulfilled every requirement of formal beauty that marble affords.
In Sir Frederick Leighton's painting of Orpheus and Eurydice and in many another less famous painter's rendering of the theme, there is likewise the portrayal of an arrested moment. But the painter represents the personages and the background in two dimensions. He can separate his figures more completely than the sculptor, can make their instant of action more "dramatic," can portray certain objects, such as the diaphanous robe of Eurydice as she vanishes into mist, which are beyond the power of the sculptor to represent, and above all he can suggest the color of the objects themselves, the degree of light and shade, the "atmosphere" of the whole, in a fashion unapproachable by the rival arts.
The illustration need not be worked out more elaborately here, though the student may profitably reflect upon the resources of the modern moving picture—which is a novel combination of the "time" and "space" arts—and of the mimetic dance, as affording still further opportunities for expressing the artistic possibilities of the Orpheus story. But the chief lesson to be learned by one who is attempting in this way to survey the provinces of the different arts is this: no two of all the artists who have availed themselves of the Orpheus material have really had the same subject, although the title of each of their productions, if catalogued, might conveniently be called "Orpheus and Eurydice." Each has had his own conception of the theme, each his own professional technique in handling his chosen medium, each his own habits of brain, each, in a word, has found his own subject. "Are these children who are playing in the sunlight," said Fromentin, "or is it a place in the sunlight in which children are playing?" One is a "figure" subject, that is to say, while the other is a landscape subject.
The whole topic of the "provinces" of the arts becomes hopelessly academic and sterile if one fails to keep his eye upon the individual artist, whose free choice of a subject is conditioned solely by his own artistic interest in rendering such aspects of any theme as his own medium of expression will allow him to represent. Take one of the most beautiful objects in nature, a quiet sea. Is this a "painter-like" subject? Assuredly, yet the etcher has often rendered the effect of a quiet sea in terms of line, as a pastellist has rendered it in terms of color, and a musician in terms of tone-feeling, and a poet in terms of tone-feeling plus thought. Each one of them finds something for himself, selects his own "subject," from the material presented by the quiet sea, and whatever he may find belongs to him. We declaim against the confusion of the genres, the attempt to render in the terms of one art what belongs, as we had supposed, to another art, and we are often right in our protest. Yet artists have always been jumping each other's claims, and the sole test of the lawfulness of the procedure is the success of the result. If the border-foray of the impressionist or imagist proves successful, well and good, but a triumphant raid should not be mistaken for the steady lines of the main campaign.
2. The Special Field
What then do we mean by the province of poetry? Simply that there is a special field in which, for uncounted centuries, poets have produced a certain kind of artistic effect. Strictly speaking, it is better to say "poets" rather than "the poet," just as William James confesses that strictly speaking there is no such thing as "the Imagination," there are only imaginations. But "the poet" is a convenient expression to indicate a man functioning qua poet—i.e. a man poetizing; and we shall continue to use it. When we say that "the poet" in Sir Walter Scott inspires this or that utterance, while "the novelist" or "the historian" or "the critic" in him has prompted this or that other utterance, we are within our rights.
The field of poetry, as commonly understood, is that portion of human feeling which expresses itself through rhythmical and preferably metrical language. In this field "the poet" labors. The human feeling which he embodies in verse comes to him originally, as feeling comes to all men, in connection with a series of mental images. These visual, auditory, motor or tactile images crowd the stream of consciousness as it sweeps inward to the brain. There the images are subjected to a process of selection, modification, transformation. [Footnote: "The finest poetry was first experience; but the thought has suffered a transformation since it was an experience." Emerson, Shakespeare: The Poet.] At some point in the process the poet's images tend to become verbal,—as the painter's or the musician's do not,—and these verbal images are then discharged in rhythmical patterns. It is one type of the threefold process roughly described at the close of Chapter I. What is peculiar to the poet as compared with other men or other artists is to be traced not so much in the peculiar nature of his visual, auditory, motor or tactile images—for in this respect poets differ enormously among one another—as in the increasingly verbal form of these images as they are reshaped by his imagination, and in the strongly rhythmical or metrical character of the final expression.
Let carbon represent the first of the stages, the excited feeling resulting from sensory stimulus. That is the raw material of poetic emotion. Let the diamond represent the second stage, the chemical change, as it were, produced in the mental images under the heat and pressure of the imagination. The final stage would be represented by the cutting, polishing and setting of the diamond, by the arrangement of the transformed and now purely verbal images into effective rhythmical or metrical designs.
Wordsworth once wrote of true poets who possessed
"The vision and the faculty divine, Though wanting the accomplishment of verse."
Let us venture to apply Wordsworth's terminology to the process already described. The "vision" of the poet would mean his sense-impressions of every kind, his experience, as Goethe said, of "the outer world, the inner world and the other world." The "faculty divine," into which vision blends insensibly, would mean the mysterious change of these sense-impressions— as they become subjected to reflection, comparison, memory, "passion recollected in tranquillity,"—into words possessing a peculiar life and power. The "accomplishment of verse" is easier to understand. It is the expression, by means of these words now pulsating with rhythm—the natural language of excitement—of whatever the poet has seen and felt, modified by his imagination. The result is a poem: "embodied feeling."
Browning says to his imaginary poet:
"Your brains beat into rhythm—you tell What we felt only."
There is much virtue, for us, in this rudely vigorous description of "the poet." Certainly all of us feel, and thus far we are all potential poets. But according to Browning there is, so to speak, a physiological difference between the poet's brain and ours. His brain beats into rhythm; that is the simple but enormous difference in function, and hence it is that he can tell what we only feel. That is, he becomes a "singer" as well as "maker," while we, conscious though we may be of the capacity for intense feeling, cannot embody our feelings in the forms of verse. We may indeed go so far as to reshape mental images in our heated brains—for all men do this under excitement, but to sing what we have thus made is denied to us.
3. An Illustration from William James
No one can be more conscious than the present writer of the impossibility of describing in plain prose the admittedly complicated and mysterious series of changes by which poetry comes into being. Those readers who find that even the lines just quoted from Wordsworth and Browning throw little new light upon the old difficulties, may nevertheless get a bit of help here by turning back to William James's diagram of the working of the brain. It will be remembered that in Chapter I we used the simplest possible chart to represent the sensory stimulus of a nerve-centre and the succeeding motor reaction, and we compared the "in-coming" and "out-going" nerve processes with the function of Impression and Expression in the arts. But to understand something of what takes place in the making of poetry we must now substitute for our first diagram the slightly more complicated one which William James employs to represent, not those lower nerve-centres which "act from present sensational stimuli alone," but the hemispheres of the human brain which "act from considerations." [Footnote: Psychology, Briefer Course, pp. 97, 98. Henry Holt.] Considerations are images constructed out of past experience, they are reproductions of what has been felt or witnessed.
"They are, in short, remote sensations; and the main difference between the hemisphereless animal and the whole one may be concisely expressed by saying that the one obeys absent, the other only present, objects. The hemispheres would then seem to be the chief seat of memory."
Then follows the accompanying diagram and illustration.
"If we liken the nervous currents to electric currents, we can compare the nervous system, C, below the hemispheres to a direct circuit from sense-organ to muscle along the line S... C... M. The hemisphere, H, adds the long circuit or loop-line through which the current may pass when for any reason the direct line is not used.
"Thus, a tired wayfarer on a hot day throws himself on the damp earth beneath a maple-tree. The sensations of delicious rest and coolness pouring themselves through the direct line would naturally discharge into the muscles of complete extension: he would abandon himself to the dangerous repose. But the loop-line being open, part of the current is drafted along it, and awakens rheumatic or catarrhal reminiscences, which prevail over the instigations of sense, and make the man arise and pursue his way to where he may enjoy his rest more safely."
William James's entire discussion of the value of the hemisphere "loop-line" as a reservoir of reminiscences is of peculiar suggestiveness to the student of poetry. For it is along this loop-line of "memories and ideas of the distant" that poetry wins its generalizing or universalizing power. It is here that the life of reason enters into the life of mere sensation, transforming the reports of the nerves into ideas and thoughts that have coherence and general human significance. It is possible, certainly, as the experiments of contemporary "imagists" prove, to write poetry of a certain type without employing the "loop-line." But this is pure sensorium verse, the report of retinal, auditory or tactile images, and nothing more. "Response to impressions and representation of those impressions in their original isolation are the marks of the new poetry. Response to impressions, correlation of those impressions into a connected body of phenomena, and final interpretation of them as a whole are, have been, and always will be the marks of the enduring in all literature, whether poetry or prose." [Footnote: Lewis Worthington Smith, "The New Naivete," Atlantic, April, 1916.] To quote another critic: "A rock, a star, a lyre, a cataract, do not, except incidentally and indirectly, owe their command of our sympathies to the bare power of evoking reactions in a series of ocular envelopes or auditory canals. Their power lies in their freightage of association, in their tactical position at the focus of converging experience, in the number and vigor of the occasions in which they have crossed and re-crossed the palpitating thoroughfares of life. ... Sense-impressions are poetically valuable only in the measure of their power to procreate or re-create experience." [Footnote: O. W. Firkins, "The New Movement in Poetry," Nation, October 14, 1915.]
One may give the fullest recognition to the delicacy and sincerity of imagist verse, to its magical skill in seeming to open new doors of sense experience by merely shutting the old doors of memory, to its naive courage in rediscovering the formula of "Back to Nature." [Footnote: See the discussion of imagist verse in chap. III.] Like "free verse," it has widened the field of expression, although its advocates have sometimes forgotten that thousands of "imagist" poems lie embedded in the verse of Browning and even in the prose of George Meredith. [Footnote: J. L. Lowes, "An Unacknowledged Imagist," Nation, February 24, 1916.] We shall discuss some of its tenets later, but it should be noted at this point that the radical deficiency of imagist verse, as such, is in its lack of general ideas. Much of it might have been written by an infinitely sensitive decapitated frog. It is "hemisphereless" poetry.
4. The Poet and Other Men
The mere physical vision of the poet may or may not be any keener than the vision of other men. There is an infinite variety in the bodily endowments of habitual verse-makers: there have been near-sighted poets like Tennyson, far-sighted poets like Wordsworth, and, in the well-known case of Robert Browning, a poet conveniently far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other! No doubt the life-long practice of observing and recording natural phenomena sharpens the sense of poets, as it does the senses of Indians, naturalists, sailors and all outdoors men. The quick eye for costume and character possessed by a Chaucer or a Shakspere is remarkable, but equally so is the observation of a Dickens or a Balzac. It is rather in what we call psychical vision that the poet is wont to excel, that is, in his ability to perceive the meaning of visual phenomena. Here he ceases to be a mere reporter of retinal images, and takes upon himself the higher and harder function of an interpreter of the visible world. He has no immunity from the universal human experiences: he loves and he is angry and he sees men born and die. He becomes according to the measure of his intellectual capacity a thinker. He strives to see into the human heart, to comprehend the working of the human mind. He reads the divine justice in the tragic fall of Kings. He penetrates beneath the external forms of Nature and perceives her as a "living presence." Yet the faculty of vision which the poet possesses in so eminent a degree is shared by many who are not poets. Darwin's outward eye was as keen as Wordsworth's; St. Paul's sense of the reality of the invisible world is more wonderful than Shakspere's. The poet is indeed first of all a seer, but he must be something more than a seer before he is wholly poet.
Another mark of the poetic mind is its vivid sense of relations. The part suggests the whole. In the single instance there is a hint of the general law. The self-same Power that brings the fresh rhodora to the woods brings the poet there also. In the field-mouse, the daisy, the water-fowl, he beholds types and symbols. His own experience stands for all men's. The conscience-stricken Macbeth is a poet when he cries, "Life is a walking shadow," and King Lear makes the same pathetic generalization when he exclaims, "What, have his daughters brought him to this pass?" Through the shifting phenomena of the present the poet feels the sweep of the universe; his mimic play and "the great globe itself" are alike an "insubstantial pageant," though it may happen, as Tennyson said of Wordsworth, that even in the transient he gives the sense of the abiding, "whose dwelling is the light of setting suns."
But this perception of relations, characteristic as it is of the poetic temper, is also an attribute of the philosopher. The intellect of a Newton, too, leaps from the specific instance to the general law; every man, in proportion to his intelligence and insight, feels that the world is one; while Plato and Descartes play with the time and space world with all the grave sportiveness of Prospero.
Again, the poets have always been the "genus irritabile"—the irritable tribe. They not only see deeply, but feel acutely. Often they are too highly sensitized for their own happiness. If they receive a pleasure more exquisite than ours from a flower, a glimpse of the sea, a gracious action, they are correspondingly quick to feel dissonances, imperfections, slights. Like Lamb, they are "rather squeamish about their women and children." Like Keats, they are "snuffed out by an article." Keener pleasures, keener pains, this is the law of their life; but it is applicable to all persons of the so-called artistic temperament. It is one of the penalties of a fine organism. It does not of itself describe a poet. [Footnote: I have here utilized a few paragraphs from my chapter on "Poetry" in Counsel upon the Reading of Books, Houghton Mifflin Company.]
The real difference between "the poet" and other men is rather to be traced, as the present chapter has tried to indicate, in his capacity for making and employing verbal images of a certain kind, and combining these images into rhythmical and metrical designs. In each of his functions—as "seer," as "maker," and as "singer"—he shows himself a true creator. Criticism no longer attempts to act as his "law-giver," to assert what he may or may not do. The poet is free, like every creative artist, to make a beautiful object in any way he can. And nevertheless criticism—watching countless poets lovingly for many a century, observing their various endowments, their manifest endeavors, their victories and defeats, observing likewise the nature of language, that strange medium (so much stranger than any clay or bronze!) through which poets are compelled to express their conceptions—criticism believes that poetry, like each of the sister arts, has its natural province, its own field of the beautiful. We have tried in this chapter to suggest the general direction of that field, without looking too narrowly for its precise boundaries. In W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions the reader will remember how a few sticks and stones, laid upon a hilltop, were used as markers to indicate the outlines of a continent. Criticism, likewise, needs its poor sticks and stones of commonplace, if it is to point out any roadway. Our own road leads first into the difficult territory of the poet's imaginings, and then into the more familiar world of the poet's words.
THE POET'S IMAGINATION
"The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights." SAMUEL JOHNSON
"The singers do not beget, only the Poet begets." WALT WHITMAN
We must not at the outset insist too strongly upon the radical distinction between "the poet"—as we have called him for convenience—and other men. The common sense of mankind asserts that this distinction exists, yet it also asserts that all children are poets after a certain fashion, and that the vast majority of adult persons are, at some moment or other, susceptible to poetic feeling. A small girl, the other day, spoke of a telegraph wire as "that message-vine." Her father and mother smiled at this naive renaming of the world of fact. It was a child's instinctive "poetizing" imagination, but the father and mother, while no longer capable, perhaps, of such daring verbal magic, were conscious that they had too often played with the world of fact, and, for the instant at least, remoulded it into something nearer the heart's desire. That is to say, they could still feel "poetically," though their wonderful chance of making up new names for everything had gone as soon as the gates were shut upon the Paradise of childhood.
All readers of poetry agree that it originates somehow in feeling, and that if it be true poetry, it stimulates feeling in the hearer. And all readers agree likewise that feeling is transmitted from the maker of poetry to the enjoyer of poetry by means of the imagination. But the moment we pass beyond these accepted truisms, difficulties begin.
1. Feeling and Imagination
What is feeling, and exactly how is it bound up with the imagination? The psychology of feeling remains obscure, even after the labors of generations of specialists; and it is obvious that the general theories about the nature of imagination have shifted greatly, even within the memory of living men. Nevertheless there are some facts, in this constantly contested territory, which now seem indisputable. One of them, and of peculiar significance to students of poetry, is this: in the stream of objects immediately present to consciousness there are no images of feeling itself. [Footnote: This point has been elaborated with great care in Professor A. H. R. Fairchild's Making of Poetry. Putnam's, 1912.]
"If I am asked to call up an image of a rose, of a tree, of a cloud, or of a skylark, I can readily do it; but if I am asked to feel loneliness or sorrow, to feel hatred or jealousy, or to feel joy on the return of spring, I cannot readily do it. And the reason why I cannot do it is because I can call up no image of any one of these feelings. For everything I come to know through my senses, for everything in connection with what I do or feel I can call up some kind of mental image; but for no kind of feeling itself can I ever possibly have a direct image. The only effective way of arousing any particular feeling that is more than mere bodily feeling is to call up the images that are naturally connected with that feeling." [Footnote: Fairchild, pp. 24, 25.]
If then, "the raw material of poetry," as Professor Fairchild insists, is "the mental image," we must try to see how these images are presented to the mind of the poet and in turn communicated to us. Instead of asserting, as our grandfathers did, that the imagination is a "faculty" of the mind, like "judgment," or accepting the theory of our fathers that imagination "is the whole mind thrown into the process of imagining," the present generation has been taught by psychologists like Charcot, James and Ribot that we are chiefly concerned with "imaginations," that is, a series of visual, auditory, motor or tactile images flooding in upon the mind, and that it is safer to talk about these "imaginations" than about "the Imagination." Literary critics will continue to use this last expression—as we are doing in the present chapter—because it is too convenient to be given up. But they mean by it something fairly definite: namely, the images swarming in the stream of consciousness, and their integration into wholes that satisfy the human desire for beauty. It is in its ultimate aim rather than in its immediate processes that the "artistic" imagination differs from the inventor's or scientist's or philosopher's imagination. We no longer assert, as did Stopford Brooke some forty years ago, that "the highest scientific intellect is a joke compared with the power displayed by a Shakespeare, a Homer, a Dante." We are inclined rather to believe that in its highest exercise of power the scientific mind is attempting much the same feat as the highest type of poetic mind, and that in both cases it is a feat of imaginative energy.
2. Creative and Artistic Imagination
The reader who has hitherto allowed himself to think of a poet as a sort of freak of nature, abnormal in the very constitution of his mind, and achieving his results by methods so obscure that "inspiration" is our helpless name for indicating them, cannot do better than master such a book as Ribot's Essay on the Creative Imagination. [Footnote: Th. Ribot, Essai sur l'Imagination creatrice. Paris, 1900. English translation by Open Court Co., Chicago, 1906.] This famous psychologist, starting with the conception that the raw material for the creative imagination is images, and that its basis lies in a motor impulse, examines first the emotional factor involved in every act of the creative imagination. Then he passes to the unconscious factor, the involuntary "coming" of the idea, that "moment of genius," as Buffon called it, which often marks the end of an unconscious elaboration of the idea or the beginning of conscious elaboration. [Footnote: See the quotation from Sir William Rowan Hamilton, the mathematician, in the "Notes and Illustrations" for this chapter.] Ribot points out that certain organic changes, as in blood circulation— the familiar rush of blood to the head—accompany imaginative activity. Then he discusses the inventor's and artist's "fixed idea," their "will that it shall be so," "the motor tendency of images engendering the ideal." Ribot's distinction between the animal's revival of images and the true creative combination of images in the mental life of children and of primitive man bears directly upon poetry, but even more suggestive to us is his diagram of the successive stages by which inventions come into being. There are two types of this process, and three stages of each: (A) the "idea," the "discovery" or invention, and then the verification or application; or else (B) the unconscious preparation, followed by the "idea" or "inspiration," and then by the "development" or construction. Whether a man is inventing a safety-pin or a sonnet, the series of imaginative processes seems to be much the same. There is of course a typical difference between the "plastic" imagination, dealing with clear images, objective relations, and seen at its best in the arts of form like sculpture and architecture, and that "diffluent" imagination which prefers vaguely outlined images, which is markedly subjective and emotional, and of which modern music like Debussy's is a good example. But whatever may be the specific type of imagination involved, we find alike in inventor, scientist and artist the same general sequence of "germ, incubation, flowering and completion," and the same fundamental motor impulse as the driving power.
Holding in mind these general characteristics of the creative imagination, as traced by Ribot, let us now test our conception of the distinctively artistic imagination. Countless are the attempts to define or describe it, and it would be unwise for the student, at this point, to rest satisfied with any single formulation of its functions. But it may be helpful to quote a paragraph from Hartley B. Alexander's brilliant and subtle book, Poetry and the Individual: [Footnote: Putnam's, 1906.]
"The energy of the mind or of the soul—for it welds all psychical activities—which is the agent of our world-winnings and the procreator of our growing life, we term imagination. It is distinguished from perception by its relative freedom from the dictation of sense; it is distinguished from memory by its power to acquire—memory only retains; it is distinguished from emotion in being a force rather than a motive; from the understanding in being an assimilator rather than the mere weigher of what is set before it; from the will, because the will is but the wielder of the reins—the will is but the charioteer, the imagination is the Pharaoh in command. It is distinguished from all these, yet it includes them all, for it is the full functioning of the whole mind and in the total activity drives all mental faculties to its one supreme end—the widening of the world wherein we dwell. Through beauty the world grows, and it is the business of the imagination to create the beautiful. The imagination synthesises, humanises, personalises, illumines reality with the soul's most intimate moods, and so exalts with spiritual understandings."
The value of such a description, presented without any context, will vary with the training of the individual reader, but its quickening power will be recognized even by those who are incapable of grasping all the intellectual distinctions involved.
3. Poetic Imagination in Particular
We are now ready, after this consideration of the creative and artistic imagination, to look more closely at some of the qualities of the poetic imagination in particular. The specific formal features of that imagination lie, as we have seen, in its use of verbal imagery, and in the combination of verbal images into rhythmical patterns. But are there not functions of the poet's mind preceding the formation of verbal images? The psychology of language is still unsettled, and whether a man can think without the use of words is often doubted. But a painter can certainly "think" in terms of color, as an architect or mathematician can "think" in terms of form and space, or a musician in terms of sound, without employing verbal symbols at all. And are there not characteristic activities of the poetic imagination which antedate the fixation and expression of images in words? Apparently there are.
The reader will find, in the "Notes and Illustrations" for this chapter, a quotation from Mr. Lascelles-Abercrombie, in which he refers to the "region where the outward radiations of man's nature combine with the irradiations of the world." That is to say, the inward-sweeping stream of consciousness is instantly met by an outward-moving activity of the brain which recognizes relationships between the objects proffered to the senses and the personality itself. The "I" projects itself into these objects, claims them, appropriates them as a part of its own nature. Professor Fairchild, who calls this self-projecting process by the somewhat ambiguous name of "personalizing," rightly insists, I believe, that poets make a more distinctive use of this activity than other men. He quotes some of the classic confidences of poets themselves: Keats's "If a sparrow come before my window I take part in its existence and pick about the gravel"; and Goethe on the sheep pictured by the artist Roos, "I always feel uneasy when I look at these beasts. Their state, so limited, dull, gaping, and dreaming, excites in me such sympathy that I fear I shall become a sheep, and almost think the artist must have been one." I can match this Goethe story with the prayer of little Larry H., son of an eminent Harvard biologist. Larry, at the age of six, was taken by his mother to the top of a Vermont hill-pasture, where, for the first time in his life, he saw a herd of cows and was thrilled by their glorious bigness and nearness and novelty. When he said his prayers that night, he was enough of a poet to change his usual formula into this:
"Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me, Bless thy little cow to-night"—
Larry being the cow.
"There was a child went forth every day,"
records Walt Whitman,
"And the first object he look'd upon that object he became."
Professor Fairchild quotes these lines from Whitman, and a few of the many passages of the same purport from Coleridge and Wordsworth. They are all summed up in Coleridge's heart-broken
"Oh, Lady, we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does Nature live."
This "animism," or identifying imagination, by means of which the child or the primitive man or the poet transfers his own life into the unorganic or organic world, is one of the oldest and surest indications of poetic faculty, and as far as we can see, it is antecedent to the use of verbal images or symbols.
Another characteristic of the poetic temperament, allied with the preceding, likewise seems to belong in the region where words are not as yet emerging above the threshold of consciousness. I mean the strange feeling, witnessed to by many poets, of the fluidity, fusibility, transparency—the infinitely changing and interchangeable aspects—of the world as it appears to the senses. It is evident that poets are not looking—at least when in this mood—at our "logical" world of hard, clear fact and law. They are gazing rather at what Whitman called "the eternal float of solution," the "flowing of all things" of the Greeks, the "river within the river" of Emerson. This tendency is peculiarly marked, of course, in artists possessing the "diffluent" type of imagination, and Romantic poets and critics have had much to say about it. The imagination, said Wordsworth, "recoils from everything but the plastic, the pliant, the indefinite." [Footnote: Preface to 1815 edition of his Poems.] "Shakespeare, too," says Carlye, [Footnote: Essay on Goethe's Works.] "does not look at a thing, but into it, through it; so that he constructively comprehends it, can take it asunder and put it together again; the thing melts as it were, into light under his eye, and anew creates itself before him. That is to say, he is a Poet. For Goethe, as for Shakespeare, the world lies all translucent, all fusible we might call it, encircled with Wonder; the Natural in reality the Supernatural, for to the seer's eyes both become one."