GEORGE H. CALVERT
I. THE BEAUTIFUL
II. WHAT IS POETRY?
IV. DANTE AND HIS LATEST TRANSLATORS
V. SAINTE-BEUVE, THE CRITIC
VI. THOMAS CARLYLE
VIII. NATIONAL DRAMA
IX. USEFULNESS OF ART
The Beautiful is one of the immortal themes. It cannot die; it grows not old. On the same day with the sun was beauty born, and its life runs parallel with the path of that great beautifier. As a subject for exposition, it is at once easy and difficult: easy, from the affluence of its resources; difficult, from the exactions which its own spirit makes in the use of them.
Beauty—what is it? To answer this question were to solve more than one problem. Shall we attempt what has been so often attempted and never fully achieved? Such attempts are profitable. What though we reach not the very heart of the mystery, we may get near enough to hearken to the throb of its power, and our minds will be nerved by the approximation.
To him who has the gift to feel its presence, nature teems with beauty. Whithersoever the senses reach, whenever emotion kindles, wherever the mind seeks food for its finer appetites, there is beauty. It expects us at the dawn; it is about us, "an hourly neighbor," through the day; at night it looks down on us from star-peopled immensities. Glittering on green lawns, glowing in sunsets, flashing through storm-clouds, gilding our wakeful hours, irradiating sleep, it is ever around, within us, eager to sweeten our labors, to purify our thoughts. Nature is a vast treasure-house of beauty, whereof the key is in the human heart.
But many are the hearts that have never opened far enough to disclose the precious key enfolded in their depths. Whole peoples are at this moment ignorant that they live amid such wealth. As with them now, so in the remote primitive times of our own race, before history was, nature was almost speechless to man. The earth was a waste, or but a wide hunting ground or pasturage; and human life a round of petty animal circles, scarcely sweeping beyond the field of the senses; until there gradually grew up the big-eyed Greek and the deep-souled Hebrew. Then, through creative thought,—that is, thought quickened and exalted by an inward thirst for the beautiful,—one little corner of Europe became radiant, and the valley of Tempe and the wooded glens of Parnassus shone for the first time on the vision of men; for their eyes—opened from long sleep by inward stirring—were become as mirrors, and gave back the light of nature:
"Auxiliar light Came from their minds, which on the setting sun Bestowed new splendor."
And man, heated by the throbs of his swelling heart, made gods after his own image,—forms of such life and power and harmony that the fragments of them, spared by time, are still guarded as faultless models of manhood. And the vales and groves and streams were peopled with beauteous shapes. And the high places were crowned with temples which, in their majestic purity, look as though they had been posited there from above by heavenly hands. And by the teemful might of sculptors and painters and poets the dim past was made resurgent and present in glorious transfiguration. And the moral law was grasped at by far-reaching philosophies. In this affluence of genial activity so much truth was embodied in so much beauty, that by the products of the Greek mind even the newer, the deeper, the wiser Christian spirit is still instructed, still exalted.
In Asia, too, a chosen people early made a revelation of the beautiful. The Hebrews were introspective. At once ardent and thoughtful, passionate and spiritual, their vigorous natures were charged with fiery materials for inward conflicts. Out of the secret chambers of troubled souls their poets and prophets sent forth cries of despair and of exultation, of expostulation and self-reproach, that ever find an echo in the conscience-smitten, sorrow-laden bosom of man. The power and wisdom of God they saw as no other ancient people had seen them. In the grandeurs and wonders of creation they could behold the being and the might and the goodness of the Creator. The strong, rich hearts of their seers yearned for a diviner life, in the deep, true consciousness they felt that there can be peace and joy to man only through reconcilement with God. And feeling their own unworthiness and impurity, as well as that of their people, they uttered their spiritual desires, and their aspirations and disappointments and indignations and humiliations, in strains that make their great writings sound like one long, impassioned, rhythmic wail through the bars of a dungeon. Gloomy, wrathful, and intense, their utterances are grand and pathetic and sublime; but the beautiful plays through them, and gilds their highest points as the white crests do the billows of a black, tempestuous sea.
Save these two, no other nations of antiquity, except the Hindoos, seem to have had more than a superficial susceptibility to the beautiful. The Romans learnt the arts from the Greeks, whom they imitated, at a wide distance, in poetry as well as in sculpture and architecture. The remnants of art found in the valley of the Nile prove the Egyptians to have had the germ without the vitality to unfold it. In the literature of the Hindoos there are currents of pure poetry and of biblical depth. In passing down from ancient to modern times the Persians and the Arabians light the long way with scintillations from the beautiful.
The ugly semi-barbarian darkness of the Middle Ages in Europe was first broken by the light that shone from the spires of Gothic cathedrals in the eleventh century. About the twelfth century the German mind was further illuminated by that mysterious, visionary, titanic, Teutonic epic, the Niebelungen Lied; and a little later appeared the troubadours in the south of Europe and the minnesingers (love-singers) in Germany. Next came Dante and Giotto in Italy, then Chaucer in England; so that by the end of the fourteenth century, poetry and the arts, the offspring of the beautiful,—and who can have no other parentage,—had established themselves in the modern European mind, and have since, with varying vigor of life, upheld themselves among Christian nations. To these they are now confined. In the most advanced of Mahometan and heathen peoples sensibility to beauty is hardly awakened, and among savages it seems scarcely to exist, so deeply is it dormant.
Thus to indicate when and by whom the beautiful has been recognized will further us in the endeavor to learn wherein consists that which, enriching the world of man so widely and plenteously, is deeply enjoyed by so few.
Were the beautiful, like size and shape and strength and nimbleness, cognizable by intellectual perception, even the Hottentot would get to know something of it in the forest, along with the grosser qualities of trees and valleys. Were it liable to be seized by the discursive and ratiocinative intellect, the most eminent statesman or lawyer or general would excel too in the capacity to appreciate beauty; the Roman would have shone in arts as in arms; the Spartan would not have been so barren where the Athenian was so prolific. But beauty is felt, not intellectually apprehended or logically deduced. Its presence is acknowledged by a gush from the soul, by a joyous sentimental recognition, not by a discernment of the understanding. When we exclaim, How beautiful! there is always emotion, and delightful, expansive, purifying emotion. Whence this mysterious cleansing thrill? Thence, that the recognition of beauty ever denotes, ever springs out of, sympathy with the creative spirit whence all things have their being.
The beautiful, then, is not subject to the intellect. We cannot demonstrate or coldly discover it; we cannot weigh or measure it. Further to illustrate this position: we do not see with our outward eye any more than we do with spectacles. The apparent ocular apparatus is but the passive, unconscious instrument to transmit images thrown through it upon a fine interior fibre, the optic nerve; and even this does not take cognizance of the object, but is only another conductor, carrying the image still farther inward, to the intellectual nerves of the brain; and not until it reaches them do we see the object, not until then is its individuality and are its various physical qualities, size, shape, etc., apprehended. And now the intellect itself becomes a conductor, transmitting still deeper inward to the seat of emotion the image of the object; and not until it reaches that depth is its beauty recognized.
In all her structures and arrangements Nature is definite, precise, and economical. In subdivision of labor she is minute and absolute, providing for every duty its special exclusive agent. In the mind there is as severe a sundering of functions as in the body, and the intellect can no more encroach upon or act for the mental sensibilities than the stomach can at need perform the office of the heart, or the liver that of the lungs. True, no ripe results in the higher provinces of human life can be without intimate alliance between the mental sensibilities and the intellect; nevertheless they are in essence as distinct from one another as are the solar heat and the moisture of the earth, without whose constant cooeperation no grain or fruit or flower can sprout or ripen.
We live not merely in a world of material facts, and of objects and things cognizable through the senses, but also in a spiritual world. We live not only in presence of visible creation, but in presence of the invisible Creator. With the creation we are in contact through the intellect. Knowledge of all objects and the qualities of objects that are within reach of the senses; distance and other material relations; the bonds of cause and effect and of analogy, that bind all created things in countless multiplicity of subtle relations,—these the intellect gathers in its grasp. But with the Creator we are in communication only through feeling. The presence, the existence of God cannot by pure intellect be demonstrated: it must be felt in order to be proved. The mass of objects and relations presented to us in nature the intellect can learn, count, and arrange; but the life that incessantly permeates the whole and every part, the spirit that looks out from every object and every fact,—of the range and pitch of whose power we have a faint token in the tornado and the earthquake,—of this divine essence we should not have even an intimation through the intellect alone. Not chemists, astronomers, mechanicians have uttered the deepest thoughts about God, but prophets and poets: not Davys, but Coleridges; not Herschels, but Wordsworths. It is a common belief, indeed, that men addicted to the exact sciences are rather wanting than otherwise in power to appreciate the invisible, a belief pungently embodied by Wordsworth in the lines,—
"Physician art thou? one all eyes, Philosopher! a fingering slave, One that would peep and botanize Upon his mother's grave?"
This is as much under the mark as is above it that saying of some one, "An undevout astronomer is mad." A man's being endowed with rare mathematical talent is no cause why he should or should not be devout. His gifts to weigh and measure the stars are purely intellectual; and nature being seldom profuse upon one individual,—as she was upon Pascal and Newton,—the presumption as to an astronomer, of whom we know nothing, would be that what may be termed his emotive appreciation of stars and stellar systems is probably not so full as his intellectual. And no amount or quality of intellectual insight can supply or compensate a want of sensibility. No matter how many hundreds of millions of miles he may pierce into space, he has still to do with the visible and calculable. But religion is the putting of the human mind in relation with the invisible, the incalculable. A man gets no nearer to God through a telescope than through a microscope, and no nearer through either than through the naked eye. Who cannot recognize the divine spirit in the hourly phenomena of nature and of his own mind will not be helped by the differential calculus, or any magnitude or arrangement of telescopic lenses.
That we ever live not only in a material, but also in a spiritual world, can be easily apprehended without at all entangling ourselves in the web-work of metaphysics. The least of our acts or motions, is it not always preceded by a thought, a volition, a something intangible, invisible? All that we voluntarily do is, must be, an offspring of mind. The waving of the hand is never a simple, it is a compound process: mind and body, spirit and matter, concur in it. The visible, corporeal movement is but the outward expression of an inward, incorporeal movement. And so in all our acts and motions, from birth till death; they issue out of the invisible within us; they are feelings actualized, thoughts embodied. The embodiment is perishable, the source of it imperishable. It is not a recondite, super-subtle, metaphysical or psychological postulate, it is a palpable, and may be and ought to be a familiar fact, that each one of us is ruled by the eternal and invisible within us.
Now, just as our words and deeds and movements stand to our mind, as being the utterance and embodiment of that, so do we stand towards Deity, being the utterance and embodiment of the divine thought and will. As all our doings are but exhibitions of our minds, so ourselves are manifestations of God. Through all things shines the eternal soul. The more perfect the embodiment, the more translucent is the soul; and when this is most transparent, making the body luminous with the fullness of its presence, there is beauty, which may be said to be the most intense and refined incarnation and exhibition of the divine spirit.
Behind and within every form of being is immanent the creative power; and thence, in proportion as this power discloses itself, is object, act, or emotion beautiful. Thus is beauty always spiritual, a revelation more or less clear of the creative spirit. Hence our emotion in presence of the truly beautiful, which calms and exalts us. Hence evil never is, cannot be, beautiful: the bad is, must be, ugly. Evil consists in the deficiency of the divine creative spirit, whose fullness gives, is, beauty. Evil is imperfection, unripeness, shapelessness, weakness in, or opposition to, the creative spirit. Evil is life that is unhealthy, short-coming. Wherever there is full, unperverted life, there is, there must be, beauty. The beautiful blossoms on every stem of unpoisoned power. The sap of sound life ever molds itself into forms of beauty.
But however rich the exhibition of the divine soul, however glowing with perfection the form, however noble the act and pure the feeling, the richness, the perfection, the nobleness, the purity will be lost on us, unless within us there be sympathy with the spirit whence they flow. Only by spirit can spirit be greeted.
Thus beauty only becomes visible—I might say only becomes actual—by the fire kindled through the meeting of a perfection out of us and an inward appetite therefor. And it is the flaming of this fire, thus kindled, that lights up to us the whole world wherein we live, the inward and the outward. This fire unlighted, and on the face of nature there is darkness, in our own minds there is darkness. For though all nature teems with the essence and the outward mold of beauty, to the unkindled mind beauty is no more present then was Banquo's ghost to the guests of Macbeth. Macbeth's individual conscience made him see the ghost; nay, by a creative potency summoned it: and so is beauty created there where, without what I may call the aesthetic conscience, it no more exists than do the glories of Titian and Claude to the affectionate spaniel who follows his master into a picture-gallery. To the quadruped, by the organic limitation of his nature, dead forever is this painted life. By the organic boundlessness of his nature, man can grasp the life of creation in its highest, its finest, its grandest manifestations; and from these beauty is indivisible. Wherever the divine energy is most subtle and expressive, there glows ever, in its celestial freshness, the beautiful.
Beauty is the happiest marriage between the invisible and the visible. It may be termed the joyfullest look of God. Blessed is he who can watch and reflect this radiant look. The faculties of such a one become fortified by creative influx. Through the exquisite shock of the beautiful he reaps an accession of mental magnetism. Thus through the beautiful we commune the most directly with the divine; and, other things being equal, to the degree that men respond to, are thrilled by, this vivacity of divine presence, as announced by the beautiful, to that degree are they elevated in the scale of being.
Nature being minute and absolute in subdivision of function, the law of severalty and independence—than which there is no law more important and instructive—pervades creation. Thence the intellectual, the religious, the true, the good, cannot interchange functions. A man may be sincerely religious and do little for others, as is seen in anchorites, and in many one-sided people, of Christian as well as of Mahometan parentage, who are not anchorites. A man may be immensely intellectual and not value truth. But neither a man's intellect, nor his preference for truth, nor his benevolent nor his religious sentiment, can yield its best fruit without the sunshine of the beautiful. Sensibility to the beautiful—itself, like the others, an independent inward power—stands to each one of them in a relation different from that which they hold one to the other. The above and other faculties indirectly aid one the other, and to the complete man their united action is needed; but feeling for the beautiful directly aids each one, aids by stimulating it, by expanding, by purifying.
To the action of every other faculty this one gives vividness and grace. It indues each with privilege of insight into the soul of the object which it is its special office to master. By help of sensibility to the beautiful we have inklings of the essence of things, we sympathize with the inward life that molds the outward form. Hence men highly gifted with this sensibility become creative, in whatever province of work they strive; and no man in any province is truly creative except through the subtle energy imparted to him by this sensibility, this competence to feel the invisible in the visible.
The idea is the invisible; the embodiment thereof is the visible. Hence the beautiful is always ideal; that is, it enfolds, embraces, represents, with more or less success, the idea out of which springs the object it illuminates: it brilliantly enrobes a germinal essence. It is thus a sparkling emanation out of the Infinite, and it leads us thither whence it has come.
Sensibility to the beautiful is thus the light of the whole mind, illuminating its labors. Without it we work in the dark, and therefore feebly, defectively. Infer thence the immensity of its function. Hereby it becomes the chief educator of men and of man; and where its teaching has not been conspicuous, there no elevation has been reached. The Greeks and the Hebrews would not have been so deeply, so greatly, so feelingly known to us, would not have been the pioneers and inspirers of European civilization, would not have lived on through thousands of years in the minds of the highest men, had they not, along with their other rare endowments, possessed, in superior, in unique quality, this priceless gift of sensibility to the beautiful. Through this gift Shakespeare is the foremost man of England, and through it has done more than any other man to educate and elevate England. Because the Italians of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were so rich in this gift, therefore it is that Italy is still a shrine to which the civilized world makes annual pilgrimage.
The supreme function of this sensibility is to develop, to educate, to chasten the highest faculties, our vast discourse of reason, our unselfish aspiration, our deep instinct of truth, our capacious love. To educate these is its cardinal duty, and lacking this they remain uneducated. But its beneficent influence is felt likewise in the less elevated of our efforts. The man who makes shoes, as well as he who makes laws and he who makes poems; the builder of houses, with the builder of theologies or cosmogonies; the engineer, as well as the artist, all work under the rays of this illuminator; and, other things being equal, he excels all others on whose work those rays shine with the most sustained and penetrative force.
"'T is the eternal law, That first in beauty shall be first in might."
In short, whatever the mental gift, in order to get from that gift its best fruit, the possessor must be incited, upborne, enlightened, inspired by the ideal, which burns as a transfiguring flame in his mind, and throws thence its joyful light with every blow of his hand.
All good work is more or less creative, that is, a co-working with the eternal mind; and work is good and productive in proportion to the intensity of this cooeperation. Why is it that we so prize a fragment of Phidias, a few lines traced by Raphael? Because the minds of those workers were, more than the minds of most others, in sympathy with the Infinite mind. While at work their hands were more distinctly guided by the Almighty hand; they felt and embodied more of the spirit which makes, which is, life.
Here is a frame of canvas, a block of marble, a pile of stones, a vocabulary. Of the canvas you make a screen, you build a dwelling with the pile of stones, chisel a door-sill out of the block, with the vocabulary you write an essay. And in each case you work well and creatively, if your work be in harmony with God's laws, if your screen be light, sightly, and protective, your dwelling healthful and commodious, your sill lie solid and square, your essay be judicious and sound. But if on the canvas you have a Christ's head by Leonardo, out of the pile of stones a Strasburg Cathedral, from the block of marble a Venus of Milo, with the vocabulary a tragedy of Hamlet, you have works which are so creative that they tell on the mind with the vivid, impressive, instructive, never-wearying delight of the works of nature. The men who wrought them were strong to do so through the vigor of their sympathy with what Plato calls the formative principle of the universe, they thereby becoming themselves creators, that is, poets. And we sacredly guard their creations among our best treasures of human gift, because they are so spiritually alive that whenever we put ourselves in relation with them they animate us, they spiritualize our thoughts; and this they do because the minds whence they issued were radiant centers of ideal power, that is, power to conceive the beautiful.
But what is ideal power? the reader may ask. He might likewise ask, What is moral power? And unless he has in his own mind some faculty of moral estimation, no answer will help him. That which comes to us through feeling cannot be intellectually defined, can only be appreciated through feeling. By describing its effects and accompaniments we approach to a knowledge of what it is. By means of a foot-rule you can make clear to every member of a crowd what is the height of the Apollo Belvedere, and the exact length of the statue's face; and each one can for himself verify the accuracy of your statement. But not with a like distinctness and vivacity of assent can you get the crowd to go along with you as to the Apollo's beauty. Acknowledgment of the beautiful in art implies a degree of culture and a native susceptibility not to be found in every accidental gathering. Full and sincere assent to your declaration that the statue is very beautiful presupposes a high ideal in the mind; that is, a lofty pre-attained idea of what is manly beauty. But after all, the want of unanimity of assent to a moral or an aesthetic position, does it not come from the difficulty and subtlety of the idea to be pre-attained? Assent even to an intellectual proposition, does not it too presuppose an ideal in the mind of him who assents? When you show by visible measurement that the statue is eight feet high, whoever understands what you mean must have already in his head the idea of what one foot is; that is, he must carry within him an ideal. No tittle of information, not the slightest accession of knowledge, will you derive from the measurement even of the area of a hall or of the cubic contents of a block, unless you bring with you in your mind an idea, an ideal, of what is a superficial or a cubic square foot.
Attempts to give a notion of what the beautiful is, by enumerating some of the physical conditions that are found to be present in artistic figures or persons distinguished for beauty, or attempts to produce what shall be beautiful, by complying with these conditions, come no nearer to the aim than do compounded mineral waters to the briskness and flavor of a fresh draught from the original spring. In the analysis there may be no flaw; the ingredients are chemically identical in quality and proportion; but the nameless, inimitable, inscrutable life is wanting: the mixing has been done by a mechanical, not by a creative hand. Haydon says, "The curve of the circle is excess, the straight line is deficiency, the ellipsis is the degree between, and that curve, added to or united with proportion, regulates the form and features of a perfect woman." Mr. D.R. Hay, in a series of books, professes to have discovered the principles of beauty in the law of harmonic ratio, without, however, "pretending," as he modestly and wisely declares, "to give rules for that kind of beauty which genius alone can produce in high art." The discovery of Mr. Hay is curious and fascinating, and, like the announcement of Haydon, may give practical hints to artists and others. But no intellectual process or ingenuity can make up for the absence of emotional warmth and refined selection. "Beauty, the foe of excess and vacuity, blooms, like genius, in the equilibrium of all the forces," says Jean Paul. "Beauty," says Hemsterhuis, "is the product of the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time," which is like the Italian definition, il piu nel uno, unity in multiplicity, believed by Coleridge to contain the principle of beauty. On another page of the "Table Talk" Coleridge is made to say, "You are wrong in resolving beauty into expression or interest; it is quite distinct; indeed, it is opposite, although not contrary. Beauty is an immediate presence, between which and the beholder nihil est. It is always one and tranquil; whereas the interesting always disturbs and is disturbed." Hegel, in his "AEsthetic," defines natural beauty to be "the idea as immediate unity, in so far as this unity is visible in sensuous reality." And a few pages earlier he is more brief and distinct, calling the beautiful "the sensuous shining forth of the idea." And Schelling, in his profound treatise on "The Relation of the Plastic Arts to Nature," says, "The beautiful is beyond form; it is substance, the universal; it is the look and expression of the spirit of Nature." Were it not better and more precise to say that it is to us the look and expression of the spiritual when this is peering through choicest embodiments? But we will stop with definitions. After endeavoring, by means of sentences and definitions to get a notion of the beautiful, one is tempted to say, as Goethe did when "the idea of the Divinity" was venturously mentioned to him by Eckermann, "Dear child, what know we of the idea of the Divinity? and what can our narrow ideas tell of the Highest Being? Should I, like a Turk, name it with a hundred names, I should still fall short, and, in comparison with the infinite attributes, have said nothing."
We have called the beautiful the light of the mind; but there must be mind to be illuminated. If your torch be waved in a chamber set round with bits of granite and slate and pudding-stone, you will get no luminous reverberation. But brandish it before rubies and emeralds and diamonds! The qualities in the mind must be precious, in order that the mind become radiant through beauty. To take a broad example.
The Hindoos in their organization have a fine sense of the beautiful, but they lack mental breadth and bottom; and hence their life and literature are not strong and manifold, although in both there are exhibitions of that refinement which only comes of sensibility to the beautiful. The Chinese, on the other hand, are wanting in this sensibility; hence their prosaic, finite civilization. But most noteworthy is the contrast between them in religious development. In that of the Hindoos there was expansion, vastness, self-merging in infinitude; the Chinese are religiously contracted, petty, idolatrous; a contrast which I venture to ascribe, in large measure, to the presence in the one case, and the absence in the other, of the inspiration of the beautiful.
To the same effect individual examples might be cited innumerable. Look at Wordsworth and Byron, both preeminent for sensibility to the beautiful; but, from deep diverseness in other leading mental gifts, the one, through the light of this vivifying power, became a poet of the propensities and the understanding, a poet of passion and wit; the other, a poet of the reason, a poet of nature and meditative emotion.
To do their best the moral feelings, too, need the light and inward stimulus of the beautiful; but if these feelings are by nature weak, no strength or intensity of the sense of beauty will have power to get from a mind thus deficient high moral thought or action. If there be present the accomplishment of verse, we shall have a Byron; or, the other poetic gifts in full measure, with lack of this accomplishment, and we may get a Beckford, who builds Fonthill Abbeys, and with purity and richness of diction describes palaces, actual or feigned, and natural scenery with picturesqueness and genial glow; or, the intellectual endowments being mediocre, we shall have merely a man of superficial taste; or, the moral regents being ineffective, an intellectual sybarite, or a refined voluptuary. Like the sun, the beautiful shines on healthful field and poisonous fen; and her warmth will even make flowers to bloom in the fen, but it is not in her to make them bear refreshing odors or nourishing fruit.
As men have body, intellect, and moral natures, so is there physical, intellectual, and spiritual beauty, and each distinct from the others. Take first a few examples from the domain of art. The body and limbs of the Gladiator in the Louvre may be cited as the exponent of corporeal beauty; the face of the Apollo Belvedere as that of intellectual and physical; and the Santo Sisto Madonna of Raphael, and the Christ of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, for spiritual. Through these radiant creations we look into the transcendent minds of their artists with a chastened, exalting joy, not unmingled with pride in our brotherhood with such beauty-lifted co-workers with God.
Among the higher races, life is affluent in examples of the three kinds of beauty, two of them, and even all three, at times united in one subject. Children and youth offer the most frequent instances of physical beauty. Napoleon's face combined in high degree both physical and intellectual, without a trace of moral beauty. Discoveries in science, and the higher scientific processes, as likewise broad and intense intellectual action, exemplify often intellectual beauty. Of moral beauty history preserves examples which are the brightest jewels, and the most precious, in the casket of mankind's memory; among the most brilliant of which are the trust of Alexander, when he drank the draught from the hand of his physician, though warned that it was poisoned; the fidelity of the paroled Regulus, returning from Rome to the enemy into the jaws of a certain and cruel death; Sir Philip Sidney, wounded unto death, taking the cup of water untasted from his parched lips, to give it to a dying soldier; Luther at the Diet of Worms; the public life of Washington; the life and death of Socrates, and especially that last act of washing his body to save the women the trouble of washing it a few hours later, when it would be a corpse; and, lastly, that most beautiful of lives and most sublime of deaths, which live in the heart of Christendom as its exemplar and ever fresh ideal.
There is no province of honorable human endeavor, no clean inlet opened by the senses or the intellect or the feelings, into which from that vast, deep, oceanic spring, the human soul, the beautiful does not send its fructifying tides. There is no height in history but is illuminated by its gleam. Only through the beautiful can truth attain its full stature; only through the beautiful can the heart be perfectly purified; only with vision purged by the beautiful can anything be seen in its totality. All other faculties it makes prolific; it is the mental generator. It helps to unveil, and then welds, the link between the visible and the invisible. It inspires feeling (which is ever the source of deepest insight) to discover excellence; it quickens the mind to creative activity; it is forever striving upward. Without the spiritual fervor of the beautiful, your religion is narrow and superstitious, your science cramped and mortal, your life unripened. In the mind it kindles a flame that discloses the divinity there is in all things. Lightning bares to the awed vision the night-shrouded earth; more vivid than lightning, the flash of the beautiful reveals to the soul the presence of God.
WHAT IS POETRY?
The better to meet the question, What is poetry? we begin by putting before it another, and ask, Where is poetry? Poetry is in the mind. Landscapes, rainbows, sunsets, constellations, these exist not to the stag, the hare, the elephant. To them nature has no aspects, no appearances modified by feeling. Furnished with neither combining intellect nor transmuting sensibility, they have no vision for aught but the proximate and immediate and the animally necessary. Corporeal life is all their life. Within the life of mind poetry is born, and in the best and deepest part of that life.
The whole world outside of man, and, added to this, the wider world of his inward motions, whether these motions interact on one another or be started and modified by what is without them, all this—that is, all human life, in its endless forms, varieties, degrees, all that can come within the scope of man—is the domain of poetry; only, to enjoy, to behold, to move about in, even to enter this domain, the individual man must bear within him a light that shall transfigure whatever it falls on, a light of such subtle quality, of such spiritual virtue, that wherever it strikes it reveals something of the very mystery of being.
In many men, in whole tribes, this light is so feebly nourished that it gives no illumination. To them the two vast worlds, the inner and the outer, are made up of opaque facts, cognizable, available, by the understanding, and by it handled grossly and directly. Things, conditions, impressions, feelings, are not taken lovingly into the mind, to be made there prolific through higher contacts. They are not dandled joyfully in the arms of the imagination. Imagination! Before proceeding a step further,—nay, in order that we be able to proceed safely,—we must make clear to ourselves what means this great word, imagination.
The simplest intellectual work is to perceive physical objects. Having perceived an object several times, the intellect lifts itself to a higher process, and knows it when it sees it again, remembers it. Perception is the first, the simplest, the initiatory intellectual process, memory is the second. Higher than they, and rising out of them, is a third process, the one whereby are modified and transmuted the mental impressions of what is perceived or remembered. A mother, just parted from her child, recalls his form and face, summons before her mind's eye an image of him; and this image is modified by her feelings, she seeing him in attitudes and relations in which she had never seen him before, cheerful or sad according to her mood. This she could not do by aid of memory alone; she could not vary the impress of her boy left on the brain; she could not vividly reproduce it in shifting, rapidly successive conditions; she could not modify and diversify that impress; in a word, she could not liberate it. Memory could only re-give her, with single, passive fidelity, what she had seen, unmodified, motionless, unenlivened, like a picture of her boy on canvas. Urge intellectual activity to the phase above memory, and the mental image steps out from its immobility, becomes a changeful, elastic figure, brightened or darkened by the lights and shadows cast by the feelings; the intellect, quick now with plastic power, varying the image in position and expression, obedient to the demands of the feelings, of which it is ever the ready instrument. This third process is imagination.
Through this mode of intellectual action the materials gathered in the mind are endlessly combined and modified. In all intellectual activity, beyond bare perception and memory, imagination in some degree is and must be present. It is in fact the mind handling its materials, and in no sphere, above the simplest, can the mind move without this power of firmly holding and molding facts and relations, phenomena and interior promptings and suggestions. To the forensic reasoner, to the practical master-worker in whatever sphere, such a power is essential not less than to the ideal artist or to the weaver of fictions. Imagination is thus the abstract action, that is, the most intense action, of the intellect.
When I run over in my mind, and in the order of their service, the first seven presidents of the United States, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, I exert only memory. The moment I begin to compare or contrast one with another, or to give the character of any of them, I put into play the higher, the imaginative action; for, to draw an historical character, the facts collected by memory must be shaped and colored and organized, the details gathered must be combined into a whole by the intellect, which being a mere tool, the success of the result (the tool being of a temper to do the work laid on it) will depend on the quality of the powers that handle it, that is, on the writer's gifts of sympathy.
The degree and fullness wherewith the imaginative power shall be called upon depending thus on faculties of feeling, thence it is that the word imagination has come to be appropriated to the highest exercise of the power, that, namely, which is accomplished by those few who, having more than usual emotive capacity in combination with sensibility to the beautiful, are hereby stimulated to mold and shape into fresh forms the stores gathered by perception and memory, or the material originated within the mind through its creative fruitfulness. In strictness, this exaltation of intellectual action should be called poetic imagination.
To imagine is, etymologically speaking, with the mind to form in the mind an image; that is, by inward power to produce an interior form, a something substantial made out of what we term the unsubstantial. To imagine is thus always, in a certain sense, to create; and even men of dullest mentality have this power in kind. The degree in which men have it makes one of the chief differences among them. The power is inherent, is implied in the very existence of the human mind. When it is most lively the mind creates out of all it feels and hears and sees, taking a simple sight or hint or impression or incident, and working out images, making much out of little, a world out of an atom. Akin herein to the supreme creative might, the man of highest imagination, the poet, unrolls out of his brain, through vivid energy, new worlds, peopled with thought, throbbing with humanity.
When we imagine, therefore, we hold an image in the mind, grasping it with spiritual fingers, just as by our corporeal fingers a physical substance is grasped. Now the poetic mind in handling the image tosses it with what might be called a sportive earnest delight, and through this power and freedom of play elicits by sympathetic fervor, from its very core, electric rays, wherein the subject glows like the sculpture on an inwardly illuminated urn; rare insights being thus vouchsafed to clearest imaginative vision,—insights gained never but through sensibilities elevated and purified by aspirations after, and gleaming glimpses of, the absolute and ideal, the intellect being used as an obedient cheerful servant.
The sensibility that is so finely strung as to have these glimpses, revels in them as its fullest happiness, and with its whole might seeks and courts them. Hence the mind thus privileged to live nearer than others to the absolutely true, the spiritual ideal, is ever plying its privilege: conceiving, heightening, spiritualizing, according to the vision vouchsafed it; through this vision beholding everywhere a better and fairer than outwardly appears; painting nature and humanity, not in colors fictitious or fanciful, but in those richer, more lucent ones which such minds, through the penetrating insight of the higher imagination, see more truly as they are than minds less creatively endowed.
Thus is imagination a power inherent in, essential to, all intellectual action that ranges above simple perception and memory; a power without which the daily business of life even could not go on, being that power whereby the mind manipulates, so to speak, its materials. In its higher phasis it may be defined as the intellect stimulated by feeling to multiply its efforts for the ends of feeling; and in its highest it may be said to be intellect winged by emotion to go forth and gather honey from the bloom of creation.
Imagination, then, being intellect in keenest chase, and the intellectual part of the mind being, when moved in concert with the effective part, but a tool of this, what are the feelings or conditions of feeling of which intellect becomes the instrument in the production of poetry?
Cast your look on a page filled with the titles of Shakespeare's plays. What worlds of throbbing life lie behind that roll! Then run over the persons of a single drama: that one bounded inclosure, how rich in variety and intensity, and truth of feeling! And when you shall have thus cursorily sent your mind through each and all, tragic, comic, historic, lyric, you will have traversed in thought, accompanied by hundreds of infinitely diversified characters, wide provinces of human sorrow and joy. Why are these pictures of passion so uniquely prized, passed on from generation to generation, the most precious heir-loom of the English tongue, to-day as fresh as on the morning when the paper was moist with the ink wherewith they were first written? Because they have in them more fullness and fineness and fidelity than any others. The poet has more life in him than other men, and Shakespeare has in him more life than any other poet, life manifested through power of intellect exalted through union with power of sympathy, the embodiments whereof are rounded, enlarged, refined, made translucent by that gift of sensibility to the fair and perfect whereby, according to its degree, we are put in more loving relation to the work of God, and gain the clearest insights into his doings and purposes; a gift without which in richest measure Shakespeare might have been a notable historian or novelist or philosopher, but never the supreme poet he is.
 See preceding Essay.
When Coriolanus, having led the Volscians to Rome, encamps under its walls, and the Romans, in their peril and terror, send to him a deputation to move him from his vengeful purpose, the deputies,—the foremost citizens of Rome and the relations and former friends of Coriolanus,—having "declared their business in a very modest and humble manner," he is described by Plutarch as stern and austere, answering them with "much bitterness and high resentment of the injuries done him." What was the temper as well as the power of Coriolanus, we learn distinctly enough from these few words of Plutarch. But the task of the poet is more than this. To our imagination, that is, to the abstracting intellect roused by sympathy to a semi-creative state, he must present the haughty Roman so as to fill us with an image of him that shall in itself embody that momentous hour in the being of the young republic. He must dilate us to the dimensions of the man and the moment; he must so enlarge and warm our feeling that it shall take in, and delight in, the grandeur of the time and the actors. The life of Rome, of Rome yet to be so mighty, is threatened by one of her own sons. This vast history, to be for future centuries that of the world, a Roman seemed about to quench, about to rase the walls that were to embrace the imperial metropolis of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Of what gigantic dimensions must he be, this Roman! Now hear Menenius, a former friend and admirer of Coriolanus, depict him. Having described, in those compressed sinewy phrases which Shakespeare has at command, the change in his nature, he adds, "When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading. He is able to pierce a corselet with his eye; he talks like a knell, and his hum is a battery. He sits in his state, as a thing made for Alexander. What he bids be done is finished with his bidding: he wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in."
Hear how a mother's heart, about to break, from the loss of her son, utters its grief when it has the privilege of using a voice quivering with poetic fervor. The French king bids Lady Constance be comforted: she answers,—
"No, I defy all counsel, all redress, But that which ends all counsel, true redress, Death, death. O amiable lovely death! Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness! Arise forth from the couch of lasting night, Thou hate and terror to prosperity, And I will kiss thy detestable bones; And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows; And ring these fingers with thy household worms; And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust, And be a carrion monster like thyself: Come, grin on me; and I will think thou smil'st: And buss thee as thy wife! Misery's love, O, come to me!"
In these two passages from "Coriolanus" and "King John" what magnificence of hyperbole! The imagination of the reader, swept on from image to image, is strained to follow that of the poet. And yet, to the capable, how the pile of amplification lifts out the naked truth. Read these passages to a score of well-clad auditors, taken by chance from the thoroughfare of a wealthy city, or from the benches of a popular lecture-room. To the expanded mold wherein the passages are wrought, a few—five or six, perhaps, of the twenty—would be able to fit their minds, zestfully climbing the poet's climax. To some they would be dazzling, semi-offensive extravagance, prosaic minds not liking, because seeing but dimly by, the poetically imaginative light. And to some they would be grossly unintelligible, the enjoyment of the few full appreciators seeming to them unnatural or affected.
Now, the enjoyment of the few appreciators, what is its source? By these passages certain feelings in them are made to vibrate and are pitched to a high key. A very comprehensive word is feelings. What is the nature of those feelings thus wrought upon?
The elementary feelings of our nature, when in healthful function, are capable of emitting spiritual light; and, when exalted to their purest action, do and must emit such, the inward fire sending forth clear flame unmixed with smoke. To perceive this light, and, still more, to have your path illuminated thereby, implies the present activity of some of the higher human sensibilities; and to be so organized as to be able to embody in words, after having imagined, personages, conditions, and conjunctions whence this light shall flash on and ignite the sensibilities of others, implies, besides vivid sympathies and delight in the beautiful, a susceptibility to the manifestations of moral and intellectual life which is enjoyed only by him in whom the nobler elements of being are present in such intensity, proportions, and quality, and are so commingled, that he can reproduce life itself with translucent truthfulness, he becoming, through this exalting susceptibility, poet or maker.
What constitutes the wealth of human life? Is it not fullness and richness of feeling? To refine this fullness, to purify this richness, to distill the essence out of this wealth, to educate the feelings by revealing their subtle possibilities, by bringing to light the divinity there is within and behind them, this is the poet's part; and this, his great part, he can only do by being blest with more than common sympathy with the spirit of the Almighty Creator, and thence clearer insight into his work and will. Merely to embody in verse the feelings, thoughts, deeds, scenes of human life, is not the poet's office; but to exhibit these as having attained, or as capable of attaining, the power and beauty and spirituality possible to each. The glorifier of humanity the poet is, not its mere reporter; that is the historian's function. The poet's business is not with facts as such, or with inferences, but with truth of feeling, and the very spirit of truth. His function is ideal; that is, from the prosaic, the individual, the limited, he is to lift us up to the universal, the generic, the boundless. In compassing this noble end he may, if such be his bent, use the facts and feelings and individualities of daily life; and, by illuminating and ennobling them he will approve his human insight, as well as his poetic gift.
The generic in sentiment, the universal, the infinite, can only be reached and recognized through the higher feelings, through those whose activity causes emotion. The simple impulses, the elementary loves, are in themselves bounded in their action near and direct; but growing round the very fountain of life, having their roots in the core of being, they are liable to strike beyond their individual limits, and this they do with power when under their sway the whole being is roused and expanded. When by their movement the better nature is urged to heroism and self-sacrifice, as in the story of Damon and Pythias, the reader or beholder is lifted into the atmosphere of finest emotion; for then the impulse has reached its acme of function, and playing in the noonday of the beautiful, the contemplation of it purges and dilates us. We are upraised to the disinterested mood, the poetical, in which mood there is ever imaginative activity refined by spiritual necessities. It is not extravagant to affirm that when act or thought reaches the beautiful, it resounds through the whole being, tuning it like a high strain of sweetest music. Thus in the poetical (and there is no poetry until the sphere of the beautiful is entered) there is always a reverberation from the emotional nature. Reverberation implies space, an ample vault of roof or of heaven. In a tight, small chamber there can be none. If feeling is shut within itself, there is no reecho. Its explosion must rebound from the roomy dome of sentiment, in order that it become musical.
The moment you enter the circle of the beautiful, into which you can only be ushered by a light within yourself, a light kindled through livelier recognition of the divine spirit,—the moment you draw breath in this circle you find yourself enlarged, spiritualized, buoyed above the self. No matter how surrounded, or implicated, or enthralled, while you are there, be it but for a few moments, you are liberated.
"No more—no more—oh! never more on me The freshness of the heart can fall like dew, Which out of all the lovely things we see Extracts emotions beautiful and new, Hived in our bosoms like the bag o' the bee. Think'st thou the honey with those objects grew? Alas! 't was not in them, but in thy power To double even the sweetness of a flower."
"All who joy would win Must share it; happiness was born a twin."
"He entered in the house,—his home no more, For without hearts there is no home—and felt The solitude of passing his own door Without a welcome; there he long had dwelt, There his few peaceful days Time had swept o'er, There his worn, bosom and keen eye would melt Over the innocence of that sweet child, His only shrine of feelings undefiled."
These three passages are from a poem in which there is more wit than poetry, and more cynicism than either; a poem in spirit unsanctified, Mephistophelian, written by a man of the world, a terrible egotist, blase already in early manhood, in whose life, through organization, inherited temperament, and miseducation, humanity was so cramped, distorted, envenomed, that the best of it was in the fiery sway of the more urgent passions, his inmost life being, as it must always be with poets, inwoven into his verse. From the expiring volcano in his bosom his genius, in this poem, casts upon the world a lurid flame, making life look pale or fever-flushed. With unslumbering vivacity, human nature is exhibited in that misleading light made by the bursting of half-truths that relate to its lower side, a light the more deceptions from the sparkling accompaniment of satire and wit.
Above the pungent secularities, the nimble intellectualities, the specious animalism, the derisive skepticism, the snapping personalities, the witty worldliness, that interlace and constitute the successive cantos of "Don Juan," the passages just quoted and similar ones (they are not many) rise, as above the desires and the discontents, the plots and contentions, the shrewd self-seekings of a heated, noisy city rises a Gothic spire, aspiring, beautiful, drawing most of its beauty from its aspiration, on whose pinnacle, calmly glistening in the upper air, plays the coming and the parting day, while shadows fill the streets below, and whose beauty throws over the town a halo that beckons men from afar. The spire, in its steadfast tranquillity and its beauty, so unlike the restless wrangling dissonance below it, grew nevertheless out of the same hearts that make the dissonance, and, typifying what is spiritual and eternal in them, tends by its ideal presence to enlarge and uplift those by whose eyes it is sought. These upshootings in "Don Juan" irradiate the cantos, giving an attractiveness which draws to them eyes that otherwise would not have known them; and if too pure in their light and too remote to mingle directly with the flare and flash that dazzle without illuminating, silently they shine and steadily, an unconscious heavenly influence, above these coruscations of earthly thoughts,—thoughts telling from their lively numerousness, but neither grand nor deep.
From the same solar center fall frequently single rays that make lines and stanzas glisten, and but for which this poem, lacking their perfusive light, would soon pass into oblivion; for from the beautiful it is that the satire, the wit, the voluptuousness get their sparkle and their sheen. If passages morally censurable are hereby made more captivating, we are not content with saying that God's sun fructifies and beautifies poison-oak and hemlock; but we affirm that the beautiful, being by its nature necessarily pure, communicates of its quality to whoever becomes aware of it, and thus in some measure counterweighs the lowering tendency. Moreover, the morally bad, deriving its character of evil from incompleteness, from the arresting or the perversion of good, like fruit plucked unripe, and being therefore outside the pale of the beautiful (the nature of which is completeness, fullness, perfection of life) cannot by itself be made captivating through the beautiful. Iago and Edmund are poetical as parts of a whole; and when in speech they approach the upper region of thought, it is because the details allotted to them have to be highly wrought for the sake of the general plot and effect, and further, because humanity and truth speak at times through strange organs. Besides, the ideal may be used to show more glaringly the hideousness of evil, and thence Iago and Edmund, as ideal villains, through the very darkness in which only poetic art could have enveloped them, help us by indirection to see and value the lights that surround the noble and the good.
In healthy function all the feelings are pure and moral, those whose action is most earthly and animal and selfish uniting themselves at their highest with the spiritual, for performance whose compass reaches beyond an individual, momentary good. A burglar or a murderer may exhibit courage; but here, a manly quality backing baseness and brutality for selfish, short-sighted ends, there is an introverted and bounded action, no expansive upward tendency, and thence no poetry. But courage, when it is the servant of principle for large, unselfish ends, becomes poetical, exhibiting the moral beautiful, as in the fable of Curtius and the fact (or fable) of Winkelried. In the poetical there is always enlargement, exaltation, purification; animal feeling, self-seeking propensity, becoming so combined with the higher nature as to rise above themselves, above the self.
The lioness, pursuing the robber of her cub, if in her rage she scarcely heed that he (to stay her steps) has dropped the cub in her path, but, casting at it a glance of recognition, bounds with a wilder howl after the robber, the incident is purely bestial, an exhibition of sheer brute fury, and as such repulsive and most unpoetical. But let her, instantly drawing her fiery eye from the robber, stop, and for the infuriated roar utter a growl of leonine tenderness over her recovered cub, and our sympathy leaps towards her. Through the red glare of rage there shines suddenly a stream of white light, gushing from one of the purest fountains: wrathful fury is suddenly subdued by love. A moment before she was possessed with savage fierceness, her blood boiling with hate and revenge; now it glows with a mother's joy. Her nature rises to the highest whereof it is capable. It is the poetry of animalism.
In the poetical, thought is amplified and ripened, while purified, in the calm warmth of emotion. From being emotive, poetry draws in more of the man, and higher, finer powers, than prose. The poetical has, must have, rotundity. No poet ever had a square head. Prose, in its naked quality, is to poetry what a skeleton is to a moving, flesh-and-spirit-endowed body. From the skeleton you can learn osteology, but neither aesthetics nor human nature. Imaginative prose partakes of the spiritual character of poetry. When a page is changed from poetry into prose it is flattened, deadened; when from prose into poetry it is uplifted, enlivened. You get a something else and a something more. Reduced to plain prose, the famous passage from the mouth of Viola in "Twelfth Night" would read somewhat thus: "My father had a daughter who loved a man and would let no one know of her love, but concealed it, until her cheek grew pale with grief, patiently bearing within her bosom the misery of an untold attachment." Now hear the poet:—
"She never told her love, But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud, Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought: And with a green and yellow melancholy She sat like patience on a monument, Smiling at grief."
What has been done with the prose statement? Instead of a bare fact we have a picture, a twofold picture; and this, in its compact, fresh, rose-tinted vividness, carries the whole into our hearts with a tenfold success. Through emotional joy we apprehend, as by the light of an instantaneous ignition, the state of the sufferer. The prose-report is a smoldering fire on the hearth, through whose sleepy smoke there comes a partial heat; the poetic is the flame in full fervor, springing upward, illuminating, warming the heart, delighting the intellect. The imagination of the reader, quickened by illustrations so apt and original, is by their beauty tuned to its most melodious key, while by the rare play of intellectual vitality his mind is dilated. He has become mentally a richer man, enriched through the refining and enlarging of his higher sensibilities, and the activity imparted to his intellect.
To say of a man that he is without imagination were to say he is an idiot; that is, one lacking the inward force and the inward instruments to grasp and handle the materials collected from without by perception and memory, and from within by consciousness. To say of a poet that he is without poetic imagination were to say he is no poet. What is poetic imagination? This, for our theme, is a vital question. Can there be given to it an approximate answer?
Figure to yourself a company of men and women in presence of a September sunset near the sea, the eye taking in at once ocean and a variegated landscape. The company must not be a score of tawny American aborigines, nor of European peasants, nor of individuals whose life of monotonous labor, whether for necessaries or luxuries, has no opportunity or no will for the finer mental culture; but, to give aptness to our illustration, should consist of persons whose being has been unfolded to the tissue of susceptibility to the wonders and beauties of nature, and whose intellect has been tilled sufficiently to receive and nourish any fresh seed of thought that may be thrown upon it; in short, a score of cultivated adults. The impression made by such a scene on such a company is heightened by a rare atmospheric calm. The heart of each gazer fills with emotion, at first unutterable except by indefinite exclamation; when one of the company says,—
"A fairer face of evening cannot be."
These words, making a smooth iambic line, give some utterance, and therefore some relief, to the feeling of all. Then another adds,—
"The holy time is quiet as a nun Breathless with adoration."
Instantly the whole scene, steeped in the beams of the sinking sun, is flooded with a light that illuminates the sunlight, a spiritual light. The scene is transfigured before their eyes: it is as if the heavens had opened, and inundated all its features with a celestial subtilizing aura. How has this been accomplished? The first line has little of the quality of poetic imagination.
"A fairer face of evening cannot be."
is simple and appropriate, but in it there is no fresh glow, no mysterious throb. Above the level of this line rise suddenly the first three words of the second, "the holy time." The presence of a scene where sky, earth, and ocean combine for the delight of the beholders puts them in a mood which crowns the landscape with a religious halo. That the time is holy they all feel; and now, to make its tranquillity appreciable by filling the heart with it, the poet adds—"is quiet as a nun breathless with adoration." By this master-stroke of poetic power the atmospheric earthly calm is vivified with, is changed into, super-earthly calm. By a fresh burst of spiritual light the mind is set aesthetically aglow, as by the beams of the setting sun the landscape is physically. By an exceptionally empowered hand the soul is strung to a high key. Fullness and range of sensibility open to the poet a wide field of illustration; its exacting fineness reveals the one that carries his thought into the depths of the reader's mind, bringing him that exquisite joy caused by keen intellectual power in the service of pure emotion.
Take now other samples from the treasury of choicest poetry. Here is one from Coleridge:—
"And winter, slumbering in the open air, Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring."
Here again the intellect is urged to its highest action, the abstract or imaginative action, to do the hests of a sensibility so finely wrought by the inward impulsion to seek for the most exquisite that nature can furnish, that it yields similitudes most delicate, most apt, most expressive.
Milton thus opens the fifth book of "Paradise Lost:"—
"Now morn, her rosy steps in the eastern clime Advancing, sowed the earth with orient pearl."
Shakespeare makes Romeo describe daybreak:—
"And jocund day Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain-tops."
Keats begins "Hyperion" with these lines:
"Deep in the shady sadness of a vale, Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn."
In the Monody on Keats, Shelley, describing the lamentation of nature at his death, concludes a stanza as follows:—
"Morning sought Her eastern watch-tower, and, her hair unbound, Wet with the tears that should adorn the ground, Dimmed the aerial eyes that kindle day; Afar the melancholy thunder moaned, Pale Ocean in unquiet slumber lay, And the wild winds flew around, sobbing in their dismay."
Such passages are the very flower of poetry, thought exquisitely dyed in sentiment, laying suddenly bare a picture with so much light in it that each passage irradiates its page and the reader's mind. By their happiness the similitudes emphasize and enforce the thought; and they do a higher service than this; for, being a breath from the inner life of genius, they blow power into the reader. To translate these passages into prose were like trying to translate a lily into the mold out of which it springs, or a bar of Beethoven into the sounds of the forum, or the sparkle of stars into the warmth of a coal fire.
The best poetry has a far background; it comes out of deeps within the poet, unfathomed by himself, unfathomable. He feels more than he can express. Hence the imaginative poet always suggests, revealing enough to inspirit the reader's higher faculties to strive for more; not because, with artistic design, he leaves much untold, which he often does, but because through imaginative susceptibility he at times grasps at and partly apprehends much that cannot be embodied. He feels his subject more largely and deeply than he can see or represent it. To you his work is suggestive because to him the subject suggested more than he could give utterance to. Every subject, especially every subject of poetic capability, having infinite relations, he who most apprehends this boundlessness—and indeed because he does apprehend it—can do or say what will open it to you or me; and the degree of his genius is measured by the extent to which he can present or expose it. The unimaginative gives surface-work, and, suggesting nothing, is at once exhausted.
The poetic imagination shows itself in the epithets the poet has at his command, creative insight drawing an epithet out of the heart of an object; whence, there is beneath such an epithet a depth that keeps feeding it with significance, bringing out its aptness the longer we look. Sometimes epithets are brighter than their object; the unimaginative thus futilely striving to impart power instead of deriving it. To be lasting, the light of the epithet must be struck by the imagination out of its object. The inspired poet finds a word so sympathetic with the thought that it caresses and hugs it.
Depth and breadth of nature are implied in the full poetic imagination. The love of the beautiful, wielding a keen intellect, needs furthermore rich material to mold, and only out of the poet's individual resources can this be drawn. To make a high artist, you must have very much of a man. Behind "Paradise Lost" and "Samson Agonistes" is a big Miltonic man. The poet has to put a great deal of himself, and the best of him, into his work; thence, for high poetry, there must be a great deal of high self to put in. He must coin his soul, and have a large soul to coin; the best work cannot be made out of materials gathered by memory and fancy. His stream of thought must flow from springs, not from reservoirs. Hence the universal biographical interest in such men; they have necessarily a rich personality.
The passages I have cited are all pictures of outward nature, natural scenes mirrored on the mind, or rather refracted through it, and in the act transfigured, spiritualized; for such scenes, having the fortune to fall on the minds of poets, are reproduced with joyful revelation of their inmost being, as sunbeams are through a crystal prism. Exhibiting material nature spiritualized, well do these passages show the uplifting character of poetic imagination. But this displays a higher, and its highest power when, striking like a thunderbolt into the core of things, it lays bare mysteries of God and of the heart which mere prosaic reason cannot solve or approach, cannot indeed alone even dimly apprehend.
I will now quote passages, brief ones, wherein through the poet are opened vast vistas into the shining universe, or is concentrated in single or few lines the life of man's finer nature, as in the diamond are condensed the warmth and splendor that lie latent in acres of fossil carbon.
When, in the sixth book of "Paradise Lost," Milton narrates the arrival on the battle-field of the Son,—
"Attended by ten thousand thousand saints,"
and then adds:—
"Far off his coming shone,"
in these five short words is a sudden glare of grandeur that dilates the capable mind with light, and, as the sublime always does, with awe.
When Ferdinand, in "The Tempest," leaps "with hair up-staring" into the sea, crying,—
"Hell is empty, And all the devils are here,"
the mind is suddenly filled with an image of the tumult and flaming rage of a thunder-storm at sea, such as words have never elsewhere carried. What a reach in the imaginative stroke! In the first scene of "Faust," the earth-spirit, whom Faust has evoked, concludes the whirling, dazzling, brief, but gigantic sketch of his function with these words, the majesty of which translation cannot entirely subdue:—
"I ply the resounding great loom of old Time, And work at the Godhead's live vesture sublime."
How ennobling is the idea the mind harbors of humanity, after taking in these lines from Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality:"—
"But trailing clouds of glory do we come From God, who is our home."
With a single epithet, coined for the occasion, Keats flashes upon our imagination the dethroned Saturn and the immensity of his fall:
"Upon the sodden ground His old right hand lay nerveless, listless, dead, Unsceptered; and his realmless eyes were closed."
The "Hyperion" of this transcendent genius, written in his twenty-fourth year, the year before he died, is as great poetry as has ever been treasured in words. In it he lavishes poetic wealth as though gold were with him as plenty as silver; and so on the next page he exceeds, if possible, the sublimity of the above lines, making Thea write in the catalogue of Saturn's colossal deprivations,—
"And all the air Is emptied of thine hoary majesty."
These passages vividly exemplify poetic imagination, which is the illumining of a capable material by a spiritual light, a light thrown into it from the glow kindled in the poet's mind with richest sensibilities, that are refined and sublimated by an exacting, subtle inward demand for the best they can render. A single flash of new thrilling light irradiates a continent of thought. This is the work of genius, and genius is ever marked by a deeper sympathy with and recognition of the creative spirit and the divine action, a sympathy and recognition so sensitive that the spirit and action of the writer are permeated by the divine effluence, he becoming thereby the interpreter of divine law, the exhibitor of divine beauty.
In these passages the thought of the poet is thrust up through the overlaying crust of the common, by a warming, expanding, inward motion, which is sped by a vitality so urgent and irresistible that, to make passage for the new thought, lightly is lifted a load which, but for this spiritual efficacy, could not be stirred, just as heavy stones are raised by delicate growing plants. To exert this power the poet is always moved at the instance of feeling. Poetry having its birth in feeling, no man can enjoy or value it but through feeling. But what moves him to embody and shape his feeling is that ravishing sentiment which will have the best there is in the feeling, the sentiment which seeks satisfaction through contemplation or entertainment of the most divine and most perfect, and ever rises to the top of the refined joy which such contemplation educes.
The poetic imagination is the Ariel of the poet,—his spiritual messenger and Mercury. A clear look into the above passages would show that the source of their power is in the farther scope or exquisite range the imagination opens to us, often by a word. For further illustration I will take a few other examples, scrutinizing them more minutely. Had Lorenzo opened the famous passage in "The Merchant of Venice" thus,—
"How calm the moonlight lies upon this bank,"
and continued to the end of the dozen lines in the same key, saying,—
"There's not the tiniest star that can be seen But in its revolution it doth hum, Aye chanting to the heavenly cherubins,"
his words would not have become celebrated and quotable. But Lorenzo has the privilege of being one of the mouth-pieces of Shakespeare, and so he begins,—
"How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank."
Two words, sweet and sleep, put in the place of calm and lies, lift the line out of prose into poetry. A log lies on a bank; so does a dead dog, and the more dead a thing is the more it lies; but only what is alive sleeps, and thus the word, besides an image of extreme stillness, brings with it what strengthens the image, the idea of change from liveliness to quiet; for that which was awake now sleeps; and the more full the picture of stillness, the more awake is the mind of the reader, awakened by the fitness and felicity of the image. The substitution of sweet for calm is, in a less degree, similarly enlivening; for, used in such conjunction, sweet is more individual and subtle, and imports more life, and thus helps the distinctness and vividness of the picture. How does the poetic Lorenzo word the other three lines?
"There's not the smallest orb which thou behold'st, But in his motion like an angel sings, Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins."
The words or phrases italicized carry a larger, or a deeper or a finer meaning than the corresponding ones in the substituted lines. To behold is more than to see: it is to see contemplatively. The figure prosopopoeia is often but an impotent straining to impart poetic life; but the personification in in his motion is apt and effective. Quiring is an amplification of the immediately preceding sings, and, signifying to sing in company with others, enlarges, while making more specific, the thought. And what an image of the freshness of heaven and of youthful immortality is conveyed by the epithet young-eyed! At every step the thought is expanded and beautiful, reaching at the end of the third line a climax on which the poetically excited mind is left poised in delight.
But the passage transformed, and, as we might say, degraded, is still poetical. There is so much poetry in the thought that the flattening of the phraseology cannot smother it, the lines still remaining poetically alive, their poetry shining through the plainer and less figurative words. And the thought is poetical because it is the result of a flight of intellect made by aid of imagination's wings, these being moved by the soaring demands of the beautiful, and beating an atmosphere exhaled from sensibility. As Joubert says,—herein uttering a cardinal aesthetic principle,—"It is, above all, in the spirituality of ideas that poetry consists." Thought that is poetic will glisten through the plainest words; whereas, if the thought be prosaic or trite, all the gilded epithets in the dictionary will not give it the poetic sheen. Perdita wishes for
"Daffodils That come before the swallow dares, and take The winds of March with beauty."
Note the poetic potency in the simple word dares; how much it carries: the cold which the swallow has not the courage to confront; a mental action, I might almost call it, in the swallow, who, after making a recognizance of the season, determines that it would be rash to venture so far north: all this is in the single word. For dares write does, and the effect would be like that of cutting a gash in a rising balloon: you would let the line suddenly down, because you take the life out of the thought.
"And take The winds of March with beauty."
Every one is taken at some time or other with the beauty of person or thing, and the thought is common; but that the winds of March be taken with the beauty of daffodils, this was a delicate secret which those winds would confide only to one so sympathetic as Shakespeare. This is poetic imagination, the intellect sent on far errands by a sensibility which is at once generous and bold, and fastidious through the promptings and the exactions of the beautiful.
In the opening of "Il Penseroso" Milton describes the shapes that in sprightly moods possess the fancy,
"As thick and numberless As the gay motes that people the sunbeams."
Put shine in the sunbeams, for people, and, notwithstanding the luminousness of the word substituted, you take the sparkle out of the line, which sparkle is imparted by mental activity, and the poetic dash that has the delightful audacity to personify such atomies.
The poetical is the flush on the face of things in the unconscious triumph of their purest life, cognizable by being beheld at the moment when the higher faculties are at their fullest flood, buoyed up on the joy of being and emotional sympathy. The most and the highest of this joy is possessed by him whose imagination is most capable of being poetically agitated; for by such agitation light is engendered within him, whereby objects and sensations that before were dim and opaque grow luminous and pellucid, like great statuary in twilight or moonlight, standing vague and unvalued until a torch is waved over it.
When we begin to speak of poetry, the higher qualities of the mind come up for judgment. No genuine poet is without one or more of these, and a great poet must have most of them. Thence the thought of the poet is pitched on a high key, and even in poets of power the poetry of a page is sometimes shown merely by the sustained tone of the sentiment, giving out no jets of fire, having no passages salient with golden embossings. Through sympathy and sense of beauty, the poet gets nearer to the absolute nature of things; and thence, with little of imagery, or coloring, or passion, through this holy influence he becomes poetic, depicting by re-creating the object or feeling or condition, and rising naturally into rhythmic lines and sentences, the best substance asking for, and readily obtaining, the most suitable form of words. Yet a poet of inward resources can seldom write a page without there being heard a note or bar or passage of the finer melody.
But men wanting this inward wealth, that is, wanting depth and breadth of emotional capacity, have not, whatever their other gifts, the soil needed for highly imaginative poetry. With broad emphasis this aesthetic law is exemplified in the verse of Voltaire, especially in his dramas, and in the verse of one who was deeper and higher than he as thinker and critic, of Lessing. Skillful versifiers, by help of fancy and a certain plastic aptitude and laborious culture, are enabled to give to smooth verse a flavor of poetry and to achieve a temporary reputation. But of such uninspired workmanship the gilding after a while wears off, the externally imparted perfume surely evaporates.
Often the most suitable form of words is made of plainest, commonest parts of speech, and the fewest of them. The more intense and deep the feeling, the greater is the need of briefest, simplest utterance. When in one of those pauses of frantic wrath,—like the sudden rifts that momentarily let the calm stars through a whirling canopy of storm,—Lear utters imploringly that appeal to Heaven, the words are the familiar words of hourly use; but what divine tenderness and what sweep of power in three lines!
"O heavens, If you do love old men, if your sweet sway Allow obedience, if yourselves are old, Make it your cause; send down and take my part!"
The thirty-third canto of the "Inferno" supremely exemplifies the sustaining energy of poetic imagination, that by its sublimating light it can forever hold before the mind, in tearful, irresistible beauty, one of the most woful forms of human suffering, death by starvation. In that terrific picture, in front of which all the generations of men that come after Dante are to weep purifying tears, the most exquisite stroke is given in five monosyllables; but in those five little words what depth of pathos, what concentration of meaning! On the fourth day one of Ugolino's dying sons throws himself at his father's feet, crying,—
"Father, why dost not help me?"
Here let me remark that it is not by witnessing, through poetically imaginative representation, scenes of suffering and agony, as in this case and the tragic drama, that the sensibilities are "purged," according to the famous saying of Aristotle; but it is because such scenes are witnessed by the light of the beautiful. The beautiful always purifies and exalts.
In either of these two passages any piling up of words, any hyperbole of phrase, or boldness or even grandeur of figurative speech, would have proved a hindrance instead of a conductor to the feeling, smothering and not facilitating expression. But when, turned out of doors in "a wild night," by those "unnatural hags," his daughters, Lear, baring his brow to the storm, invokes the thunder to
"Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world,"
there is no tenderness, no folding of the sore heart upon itself; there is the expansion of defiance, outburst of the mighty wrath of an outraged father and wronged and crownless king: and so we have a gush of the grandest diction, of the most tempestuous rhythm, the storm in Lear's mind marrying itself with a ghastly joy to the storm of the elements, the sublime tumult above echoed in the crashing splendor of the verse:—
"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulphurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving-thunderbolts, Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Strike flat the thick rotundity o' the world! Crack nature's moulds, all germins spill at once, That make ingrateful man!"
I know of no other single passage that exhibits so clearly the colossal dimensions of Shakespeare. Here is attained, with almost unique effect, what according to Schiller is the aim of poetry, "no other than to give to humanity its fullest possible expression, its most complete utterance."
The best poetry, like the best music, soars towards the upper light. The genuinely poetical always lifts up the thought on the swell of emotion. The thought moves free and strong because there is a deep, bubbling head of feeling behind it. Feeling, at its best, has an ascending movement, reaching up towards that high sphere where, through their conjunction, the earthly and the spiritual play in freedom in the sunshine of the beautiful. The surest test of the presence of poetry is buoyancy, springiness, which comes from the union, the divine union, of the spiritual and the beautiful. However weighty it may be with thought, the poetical passage floats, thus giving certain sign of life, of a soul irrepressible.
But as in the forest there cannot be height of stem without strength and breadth of root, the highest poetry is the most solid, the firmest set in reality, in truth. The higher a poet is, the closer hold he has of the roots of his subject. He looks at it with a peering, deeply sympathetic insight. The roots, in fact, are in himself; they are in the depths of his soul. Hence a cardinal question about a poem is, How much of it does the poet draw out of himself? Is it his by projection from his inward resources, by injection with his own juices; or is it his only by adoption and adaptation, by dress and adjustment?
Flight of poetic imagination there cannot be unless the wings have been feathered in the heart. Loftiness or grandeur of imagination there cannot be, except there be first innate richness and breadth of feeling. Imagination being simply the tensest action of intellect, is ever, like intellect in all its phases, an instrument of feeling, a mere tool. Height implies inward depth. The gift to touch the vitals of a subject is the test-gift of literary faculty; it is the soul-gift, the gift of fuller, livelier sympathy. Compare Wordsworth with Southey to learn the difference between inward and outward gifts.
Poetry being in the mind, the man who has little poetry within him will find little in nature or in the world or in Shakespeare. The man who has no music in his soul will hear none at the Conservatoire in Paris. Wordsworth sees with the inward eye, Southey too exclusively with the outward. The true poet projects visions and rhythms out from his brain, and gazes at and hearkens to them. The degree of the truthfulness to nature and the vividness of these projections is the measure of his poetic genius and capacity. Only through this intense inwardness can he attain to great visions and rhythmic raptures, and make you see and hear them. What illimitable inward sight must Keats have dwelt in ere, to depict the effect on him of looking into Chapman's Homer, he could write,—
"Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes He stared at the Pacific, and all his men Looked at each other with a wild surmise, Silent, upon a peak in Darien."
Here is a brilliant example of poetic imagination, the intellect urged to its finest action to satisfy the feeling which delights in the grand, the select, the beautiful.
"Silent, upon a peak in Darien."
What an outlook! What a solemn, mysterious, elevating inward moment it creates in us! To ascend to that peak, to carry the reader thither with him, that is the flight of a great poet, of one who has been—as in that choice poem, "The Prelude," Wordsworth, with an electric stroke of poetic imagination, says of Newton—
"Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone."
This vigor of flight in the poet, bearing on his wing the reader, whom he ushers to new, sudden vistas, is a test of poetic genius. Some poets never carry you to heights, but rather make you feel while reading them as if you were moving through shut-in valleys: their verse wants sky. They are not poetically imaginative, are not strung for those leaps which the great poet at times finds it impossible not to make. They have more poetic fancy than poetic imagination. Poetic fancy is a thin flame kindled deliberately with gathered materials; poetic imagination is an intense flash born unexpectedly of internal collisions. Fancy is superficial and comparatively short-sighted; imagination is penetrative and far-sighted, bringing together things widely sundered, apparently diverse and opposite. Fancy divides, individualizes; imagination compounds, builds, globes. Fancy is not so broad or so keen or so warm or so bounding as imagination; is comparatively tame and cold and quiet. Imagination is synthetical. Large exhibitions of poetic imagination are rare even in the greatest poets. At its best it strikes deep into the nature of things, has a celestial quality which invests it with awe. Spenser shows great resources of fancy, but little imagination. The arc of imagination is in him too near its center. Hence there is no reach in his thoughts. He has no exhaustless depths within. He is not, as Coleridge says Shakespeare is, an example of "endless self-reproduction." Cowley, says the same great critic, "is a fanciful writer, Milton an imaginative poet."
As I have already said, the power of imagining, of forming in the mind images, conceptions, is a purely intellectual power, and imagination becomes poetical only when this intellectual power is an agent obeying that emotional power which ardently seeks, intensely longs for, the better, the more perfect, the purer, in one word, the beautiful in each province of multiform life. The willing agent, intellect, is sent out on excursions of discovery, and unexpectedly falls in with and captures all kinds of sparkling booty.
Writers weak in poetic imagination are not visited by those beaming thoughts that come unsummoned out of the invisible, like new stars which, out of the unfathomable deeps of the sky, dart suddenly upon the vision of the heaven-watcher. Such writers deal with the known, with the best commonplace, not the common merely; and under the glance of genius the common grows strange and profound.