THE POET'S POET
Essays on the Character and Mission of the Poet As Interpreted in English Verse of the Last One Hundred and Fifty Years
ELIZABETH ATKINS, PH.D.
Instructor in English, University of Minnesota
HARTLEY AND NELLY ALEXANDER
Utterances of poets regarding their character and mission have perhaps received less attention than they deserve. The tacit assumption of the majority of critics seems to be that the poet, like the criminal, is the last man who should pass judgment upon his own case. Yet it is by no means certain that this view is correct. Introspective analysis on the part of the poet might reasonably be expected to be as productive of aesthetic revelation as the more objective criticism of the mere observer of literary phenomena. Moreover, aside from its intrinsic merits, the poet's self-exposition must have interest for all students of Platonic philosophy, inasmuch as Plato's famous challenge was directed only incidentally to critics of poetry; primarily it was to Poetry herself, whom he urged to make just such lyrical defense as we are to consider.
The method here employed is not to present exhaustively the substance of individual poems treating of poets. Analysis of Wordsworth's Prelude, Browning's Sordello, and the like, could scarcely give more than a re-presentation of what is already available to the reader in notes and essays on those poems. The purpose here is rather to pass in review the main body of such verse written in the last one hundred and fifty years. We are concerned, to be sure, with pointing out idiosyncratic conceptions of individual writers, and with tracing the vogue of passing theories. The chief interest, however, should lie in the discovery of an essential unity in many poets' views on their own character and mission.
It is true that there is scarcely an idea relative to the poet which is not somewhere contradicted in the verse of this period, and the attempt has been made to be wholly impartial in presenting all sides of each question. Indeed, the subject may seem to be one in which dualism is inescapable. The poet is, in one sense, a hybrid creature; he is the lover of the sensual and of the spiritual, for he is the revealer of the spiritual in the sensual. Consequently it is not strange that practically every utterance which we may consider,—even such as deal with the most superficial aspects of the poet, as his physical beauty or his health,—falls naturally into one of two divisions, accordingly as the poet feels the sensual or the spiritual aspect of his nature to be the more important Yet the fact remains that the quest of unity has been the most interesting feature of this investigation. The man in whose nature the poet's two apparently contradictory desires shall wholly harmonize is the ideal whom practically all modern English poets are attempting to present.
Minor poets have been considered, perhaps to an unwarranted degree. In the Victorian period, for instance, there may seem something grotesque in placing Tupper's judgments on verse beside Browning's. Yet, since it is true that so slight a poet as William Lisles Bowles influenced Coleridge, and that T. E. Chivers probably influenced Poe, it seems that in a study of this sort minor writers have a place. In addition, where the views of one minor verse-writer might be negligible, the views of a large group are frequently highly significant, not only as testifying to the vogue of ephemeral ideas, but as demonstrating that great and small in the poetic world have the same general attitude toward their gift. It is perhaps true that minor poets have been more loquacious on the subject of their nature than have greater ones, but some attempt is here made to hold them within bounds, so that they may not drown out the more meaningful utterances of the master singers.
The last one hundred and fifty years have been chosen for discussion, since the beginning of the romantic movement marked the rise of a peculiarly self-conscious attitude in the poet, and brought his personality into new prominence. Contemporary verse seems to fall within the scope of these studies, inasmuch as the "renaissance of poetry" (as enthusiasts like to term the new stirring of interest in verse) is revealing young poets of the present day even more frank in self-revealment than were poets of twenty years ago.
The excursion through modern English poetry involved in these studies has been a pleasant one. The value and interest of such an investigation was first pointed out to me by Professor Louise Pound of the University of Nebraska. It is with sincere appreciation that I here express my indebtedness to her, both for the initial suggestion, and for the invaluable advice which I have received from her during my procedure. I owe much gratitude also to President Wimam Allan Neilson of Smith College, who was formerly my teacher in Radcliffe College, and to Professor Hartley Burr Alexander, of the department of Philosophy at the University of Nebraska, who has given me unstinted help and generous encouragement.
I. THE EGO-CENTRIC CIRCLE
Apparent futility of verse dealing with the poet.—Its justification.—The poet's personality the hidden theme of all verse,—The poet's egotism.—Belief that his inspirations are divine.—Belief in the immortality of his poems.—The romantic view that the creator is greater than his creations.—The poet's contempt for uninspired men.—Reaction of the public to the poet's contempt.—Its retaliation in jeers.—The poet's wounded vanity.—His morbid self-consciousness.—His self-imposed solitude.—Enhancement of his egotism by solitude.
II. THE MORTAL COIL
View that genius results from a happy combination of physical conditions.—The poet's reluctance to embrace such a theory.—His heredity.—Rank.—Patricians vs. children of the soil.—His body.—Poetic beauty.—Features expressing alert and delicate senses.—Contrary conception of poet rapt away from sense.— Blindness.—Physique.—Health.—Hypersensibility of invalids.— Escape from fleshly bondage afforded by perfect health.—The poet's sex.—Limitations of the woman poet.—Her claims.—The poet's habitat.—Vogue of romantic solitude.—Savage environment.—Its advantages.—Growing popularity of the city poet.—The wanderer.— The financial status of the poet.—Poverty as sharpener of sensibility.—The poet's age.—Vogue of the young poet.—Purity of youthful emotions.—Early death.—Claims of the aged poet.— Contemplation after active life.
III. THE POET AS LOVER
The classic conception.—Love as a disturbing factor in composition.—The romantic conception.—Love the source of inspiration.—Fusion of intense passion with repose essential to poetry.—Poetic love and Platonic love synonymous.—Sensual love not suggestive.—The poet's ascent to ideal love.—Analogy with ascent described in Plato's Symposium.—Discontent with ephemeralness of passion.—Poetry a means of rendering passion eternal.—Insatiability of the poet's affections.—Idealization of his mistress.—Ideal beauty the real object of his love.—Fickleness.—Its justification.—Advantage in seeing varied aspects of ideal beauty.—Remoteness as an essential factor in ideal love.—Sluggishness resulting from complete content.—Aspiration the poetic attitude.—Abstract love-poetry, consciously addressed to ideal beauty.—Its merits and defects.—The sensuous as well as the ideal indispensable to poetry.
IV. THE SPARK FROM HEAVEN
Reticence of great geniuses regarding inspiration.—Mystery of inspiration.—The poet's curiosity as to his inspired moments.—Wild desire preceding inspiration.—Sudden arrest rather than satisfaction of desire.—Ecstasy.—Analogy with intoxication.—Attitude of reverence during inspired moments.—Feeling that an outside power is responsible.—Attempts to give a rational account of inspiration.—The theory of the sub-conscious.—Prenatal memory.—Reincarnation of dead geniuses.—Varied conceptions of the spirit inspiring song as the Muse, nature, the spirit of the universe.—The poet's absolute surrender to this power.—Madness.—Contempt for the limitations of the human reason.—Belief in infallibility of inspirations.—Limitations of inspiration.—Transience.—Expression not given from without.—The work of the poet's conscious intelligence.—Need for making the vision intelligible.—Quarrel over the value of hard work.
V. THE POET'S MORALITY
The poet's reliance upon feeling as sole moral guide.—Attack upon his morals made by philosophers, puritans, philistines.—Professedly wicked poets.—Their rarity.—Revolt against mass-feeling.—The aesthetic appeal of sin.—The morally frail poet, handicapped by susceptibility to passion.—The typical poet's repudiation of immorality.—Feeling that virtue and poetry are inseparable.—Minor explanations for this conviction.—The "poet a poem" theory.—Identity of the good and the beautiful.—The poet's quarrel with the philistine.—The poet's horror of restraint.—The philistine's unfairness to the poet's innocence.—The poet's quarrel with the puritan.—The poet's horror of asceticism.—The poet's quarrel with the philosopher.—Feeling upon which the poet relies allied to Platonic intuition.
VI. THE POET'S RELIGION
Threefold attack upon the poet's religion.—His lack of theological temper.—His lack of reverence.—His lack of conformance.—The poet's defense.—Materialistic belief deadening to poetry.—His idealistic temper.—His pantheistic leanings.—His reverence for beauty.—His repudiation of a religion that humbles him.—Compatibility of pride and pantheism.—The poet's nonconformance.—His occasional perverseness.— Inspiring nature of doubt.—The poet's thirst for God.—The occasional orthodox poet.
VII. THE PRAGMATIC ISSUE
The poet's alleged uselessness,—His effeminacy.—His virility.—The poet warrior.—Incompatibility of poets and materialists.—Plato'scharge that poetry is inferior to actual life.—The concurrence of certain soldier poets in Plato's charge.—Poetry as an amusement only.—The value of faithful imitation.—The realists.—Poetry as a solace.—Poetry a reflection of the ideal essence of things.—Love of beauty the poet's guide in disentangling ideality from the accidents of things.—Beauty as truth.—The poet as seer.—The quarrel with the philosopher.—The truth of beauty vs. cold facts.—Proof of validity of the poet's truth.—His skill as prophet.—The poet's mission as reformer.—His impatience with practical reforms.—Belief in essential goodness of men, since beauty is the essence of things.—Reform a matter of allowing all things to express their essence.—Enthusiasm for liberty.—Denial of the war-poet's charge.—Poets the authors of liberty.—Poets the real rulers of mankind.—The world's appreciation of their importance.—Their immortality.
VIII. A SOBER AFTERTHOUGHT
Denial that the views of poets on the poet are heterogeneous.—Poets' identity of purpose in discussing poets.—Apparent contradictions in views.-Apparent inconsistency in the thought of each poet.—The two-fold interests of poets.—The poet as harmonizer of sensual and spiritual.— Balance of sense and spirit in the poetic temperament.—Injustice to one element or the other in most literary criticism.—Limitations of the poet's prose criticism.—Superiority of his critical expressions in verse.—The poet's importance.—Poetry as a proof of the idealistic philosophy.
THE EGOCENTRIC CIRCLE
Most of us, mere men that we are, find ourselves caught in some entanglement of our mortal coil even before we have fairly embarked upon the enterprise of thinking our case through. The art of self-reflection which appeals to us as so eminent and so human, is it after all much more than a vaporous vanity? We name its subject "human nature"; we give it a raiment of timeless generalities; but in the end the show of thought discloses little beyond the obstreperous bit of a "me" which has blown all the fume. The "psychologist's fallacy," or again the "egocentric predicament" of the philosopher of the Absolute, these are but tagged examples of a type of futile self-return (we name it "discovery" to save our faces) which comes more or less to men of all kinds when they take honest-eyed measure of the consequences of their own valuations of themselves. We pose for the portrait; we admire the Lion; but we have only to turn our heads to catch-glimpse Punch with thumb to nose. And then, of course, we mock our own humiliation, which is another kind of vanity; and, having done this penance, pursue again our self-returning fate. The theme is, after all, one we cannot drop; it is the mortal coil.
In the moment of our revulsion from the inevitable return upon itself of the human reason, many of us have clung with the greater desperation to the hope offered by poetry. By the way of intuition poets promise to carry us beyond the boundary of the vicious circle. When the ceaseless round of the real world has come to nauseate us, they assure us that by simply relaxing our hold upon actuality we may escape from the squirrel-cage. By consenting to the prohibition, "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss!" we may enter the realm of ideality, where our dizzy brains grow steady, and our pulses are calmed, as we gaze upon the quietude of transcendent beauty.
But what are we to say when, on opening almost any book of comparatively recent verse, we find, not the self-forgetfulness attendant upon an ineffable vision, but advertisement of the author's importance? His argument we find running somewhat as follows: "I am superior to you because I write poetry. What do I write poetry about? Why, about my superiority, of course!" Must we not conclude that the poet, with the rest of us, is speeding around the hippodrome of his own self-centered consciousness?
Indeed the poet's circle is likely to appear to us even more viciousthan that of other men. To be sure, we remember Sir Philip Sidney's contention, supported by his anecdote of the loquacious horseman, that men of all callings are equally disposed to vaunt themselves. If the poet seems especially voluble about his merits, this may be owing to the fact that, words being the tools of his trade, he is more apt than other men in giving expression to his self-importance. But our specific objection to the poet is not met by this explanation. Even the horseman does not expect panegyrics of his profession to take the place of horseshoes. The inventor does not issue an autobiography in lieu of a new invention. The public would seem justified in reminding the poet that, having a reasonable amount of curiosity about human nature, it will eagerly devour the poet's biography, properly labeled, but only after he has forgotten himself long enough to write a poem that will prove his genius, and so lend worth to the perusal of his idiosyncratic records, and his judgments on poetic composition.
The first impulse of our revulsion from the self-infatuated poet is to confute him with the potent name of Aristotle, and show him his doom foreordained in the book of poetic Revelations. "The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person," we read, "for it is not this that makes him an imitator." [Footnote: Poetics, 1460 a.] One cannot too much admire Aristotle's canniness in thus nipping the poet's egotism in the bud, for he must have seen clearly that if the poet began to talk in his own person, he would soon lead the conversation around to himself, and that, once launched on that inexhaustible subject, he would never be ready to return to his original theme.
We may regret that we have not Aristotle's sanction for condemning also extra-poetical advertisements of the poet's personality, as a hindrance to our seeing the ideal world through his poetry. In certain moods one feels it a blessing that we possess no romantic traditions of Homer, to get in the way of our passing impartial judgment upon his works. Our intimate knowledge of nineteenth century poets has been of doubtful benefit to us. Wordsworth has shaken into what promises to be his permanent place among the English poets much more expeditiously than has Byron. Is this not because in Wordsworth's case the reader is not conscious of a magnetic personality drawing his judgment away from purely aesthetic standards? Again, consider the case of Keats. For us the facts of his life must color almost every line he wrote. How are we to determine whether his sonnet, When I Have Fears, is great poetry or not, so long as it fills our minds insistently with the pity of his love for Fanny Brawne, and his epitaph in the Roman graveyard?
Christopher North has been much upbraided by a hero-worshiping generation, but one may go too far in condemning the Scotch sense in his contention:
Mr. Keats we have often heard spoken of in terms of great kindness, and we have no doubt that his manners and feelings are calculated to make his friends love him. But what has all this to do with our opinion of their poetry? What, in the name of wonder, does it concern us, whether these men sit among themselves with mild or with sulky faces, eating their mutton steaks, and drinking their porter? [Footnote: Sidney Colvin, John Keats, p. 478.]
If we are reluctant to sponsor words printed in Blackwoods, we may be more at ease in agreeing with the same sentiments as expressed by Keats himself. After a too protracted dinner party with Wordsworth and Hunt, Keats gave vent to his feelings as follows:
Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing that enters into one's soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! How they would lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, "Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!".... I will cut all this—I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular.... I don't mean to deny Wordsworth's grandeur and Hunt's merit, but I mean to say that we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive. [Footnote: Ibid., p. 253.]
If acquaintance with a poet prevents his contemporaries from fixing their attention exclusively upon the merits of his verse, in how much better case is posterity, if the poet's personality makes its way into the heart of his poetry? We have Browning's dictum on Shakespeare's sonnets,
With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Once more Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he. [Footnote: House.]
Did Browning mean that Shakespeare was less the poet, as well as less the dramatist, if he revealed himself to us in his poetry? And is this our contention?
It seems a reasonable contention, at least, the more so since poets are practically unanimous in describing inspiration as lifting them out of themselves, into self-forgetful ecstasy. Even that arch-egoist, Byron, concedes this point. "To withdraw myself from myself—oh, that accursed selfishness," he writes, "has ever been my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all." [Footnote: Letters and Journals, ed, Rowland E. Prothero, November 26, 1813.] Surely we may complain that it is rather hard on us if the poet can escape from himself only by throwing himself at the reader's head.
It would seem natural to conclude from the selflessness of inspiration that the more frequently inspired the poet is, the less will he himself be an interesting subject for verse. Again we must quote Keats to confute his more self-centered brothers. "A poet," Keats says, "is the most unpoetical of anything in existence, because he has no identity; he is continually in for, and filling, some other body. The sun, the moon, the stars, and men and women who are creatures of impulse are poetical and have about them an unchangeable attribute; the poet has none, no identity." [Footnote: Letter to Richard Woodhouse, October 27, 1818.] The same conviction is differently phrased by Landor. The poet is a luminous body, whose function is to reveal other objects, not himself, to us. Therefore Landor considers our scanty knowledge of Shakespeare as compared with lesser poets a natural consequence of the self-obliterating splendor of his genius:
In poetry there is but one supreme, Though there are many angels round his throne, Mighty and beauteous, while his face is hid. [Footnote: On Shakespeare.]
But though an occasional poet lends his voice in support of our censure, the average poet would brush aside our complaints with impatience. What right have we to accuse him of swerving from the subject matter proper to poetry, while we appear to have no clear idea as to what the legitimate subject matter is? Precisely what are we looking for, that we are led to complain that the massive outlines of the poet's figure obscure our view?
Now just here we who assail the poet are likely to turn our guns upon one another, for we are brought up against the stone wall of age-old dispute over the function of the poet. He should hold up his magic mirror to the physical world, some of us declare, and set the charm of immortality upon the life about us. Far from it, others retort. The poet should redeem us from the flesh, and show us the ideal forms of things, which bear, it may be, very slight resemblance to their imitations in this world.
Now while we are sadly meditating our inability to batter our way through this obstacle to perfect clarity, the poets championing the opposing views, like Plato's sophistic brothers, Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, proceed to knock us from one to the other side, justifying their self-centered verse by either theory. Do we maintain that the poet should reflect the life about him? Then, holding the mirror up to life, he will naturally be the central figure in the reflection. Do we maintain that the poet should reveal an ideal world? Then, being alone of all men transported by his vision into this ideal realm, he will have no competitors to dispute his place as chief character.
At first thought it may have appeared obvious to us that the idealistic poet, who claims that his art is a revelation of a transcendental entity, is soaring to celestial realms whither his mundane personality cannot follow. Leaving below him the dusty atmosphere of the actual world, why should he not attain to ideas in their purity, uncolored by his own individuality? But we must in justice remember that the poet cannot, in the same degree as the mathematician, present his ideals nakedly. They are, like the Phidian statues of the Fates, inseparable from their filmy veiling. Beauty seems to be differentiated from the other Platonic ideas by precisely this attribute, that it must be embodied. What else is the meaning of the statement in the Phaedrus, "This is the privilege of beauty, that, being the loveliest (of the ideas) she is also the most palpable to sight?" [Footnote: Sec. 251.] Now, whatever one's stand on the question of nature versus humanity in art, one must admit that embodying ideals means, in the long run, personifying them. The poet, despising the sordid and unwieldy natures of men, may try, as Wordsworth did, to give us a purer crystallization of his ideas in nature, but it is really his own personality, scattered to the four winds, that he is offering us in the guise of nature, as the habiliments of his thought. Reflection leads us to agree with Coleridge:
In our life alone does nature live, Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shrowd. [Footnote: Ode to Dejection.]
The poet may not always be conscious of this, any more than Keats was; his traits may be so broadcast that he is in the position of the philosopher who, from the remote citadel of his head, disowns his own toes; nevertheless, a sense of tingling oneness with him is the secret of nature's attraction. Walt Whitman, who conceives of the poet's personality as the most pervasive thing in the universe, arrives at his conviction by the same reflection as that of Keats, telling us,
There was a child went forth every day, And the first object he looked upon, that object he became.
Perhaps Alice Meynell has best expressed the phenomenon, in a sonnet called The Love of Narcissus:
Like him who met his own eyes in the river, The poet trembles at his own long gaze That meets him through the changing nights and days From out great Nature; all her waters quiver With his fair image facing him forever: The music that he listens to betrays His own heart to his ears: by trackless ways His wild thoughts tend to him in long endeavor. His dreams are far among the silent hills; His vague voice calls him from the darkened plain; With winds at night vague recognition thrills His lonely heart with piercing love and pain; He knows again his mirth in mountain rills, His weary tears that touch him in the rain.
Possibly we may concede that his fusion with all nature renders the poet's personality so diaphanous that his presence is unobtrusive in poetry of ideas, but we may still object to his thrusting himself into realistic poetry. Shelley's poet-heroes we will tolerate, as translucent mediums of his thought, but we are not inclined to accept Byron's, when we seek a panoramic view of this world. Poetry gains manifold representation of life, we argue, in proportion as the author represses his personal bias, and approximates the objective view that a scientist gives. We cannot but sympathize with Sidney Lanier's complaint against "your cold jellyfish poets that wrinkle themselves about a pebble of a theme and let us see it through their substance, as if that were a great feat." [Footnote: Poem Outlines.]
In answer, champions of the ubiquitous poet in recent realistic verse may point to the Canterbury Tales, and show us Chaucer ambling along with the other pilgrims. His presence, they remind us, instead of distorting his picture of fourteenth-century life, lends intimacy to our view of it. We can only feebly retort that, despite his girth, the poet is the least conspicuous figure in that procession, whereas a modern poet would shoulder himself ahead of the knight, steal the hearts of all the ladies, from Madame Eglantine to the Wife of Bath, and change the destinies of each of his rivals ere Canterbury was reached.
We return to our strongest argument for the invisible poet. What of Shakespeare? we reiterate. Well, the poets might remind us that criticism of late years has been laying more and more stress upon the personality of Shakespeare, in the spirit of Hartley Coleridge's lines,
Great poet, 'twas thy art, To know thyself, and in thyself to be Whate'er love, hate, ambition, destiny, Or the firm, fatal purpose of the heart Can make of man. [Footnote: Shakespeare.]
If this trend of criticism is in the right direction, then the apparent objectivity of the poet must be pure camouflage, and it is his own personality that he is giving us all the time, in the guise of one character and another. In this case, not his frank confession of his presence in his poetry, but his self-concealment, falsifies his representation of life. Since we have quoted Browning's apparent criticism of the self-revealing poet, it is only fair to quote some of his unquestionably sincere utterances on the other side of the question. "You speak out, you," he wrote to Elizabeth Barrett; [Footnote: January 13, 1845.] "I only make men and women speak—give you truth broken into prismatic hues, and fear the pure white light." Again he wrote, "I never have begun, even, what I hope I was born to begin and end,—'R.B.', a poem." [Footnote: Letter to Elizabeth Barrett, February 3, 1845.] And Mrs. Browning, usually a better spokesman for the typical English poet than is Browning himself, likewise conceives it the artist's duty to show us his own nature, to be "greatly himself always, which is the hardest thing for a man to be, perhaps." [Footnote: Letter to Robert Browning, September 9, 1845.]
"Art," says Aristotle, "is an imitation of life." "L'art, mes enfants," says the modern poet, speaking through the lips of Verlaine, "c'est d'etre absolument soi-meme." Of course if one concedes that the poet is the only thing in life worth bothering about, the two statements become practically identical. It may be true that the poet's universal sympathies make him the most complex type that civilization has produced, and consequently the most economical figure to present as a sample of humanity. But Taine has offered us a simpler way of harmonizing the two statements, not by juggling with Aristotle's word "life," but with the word "imitation." "Art," says Taine, "is nature seen through a temperament."
Now it may be that to Aristotle imitation, Mimeseis, did mean "seeing through a temperament." But certainly, had he used that phrase, he would have laid the stress on "seeing," rather than on "temperament." Aristotle would judge a man to have poetic temperament if his mind were like a telescope, sharpening the essential outlines of things. Modern poets, on the other hand, are inclined to grant that a person has poetic temperament only if his mind resembles a jeweled window, transforming all that is seen through it, if by any chance something is seen through it.
If the modern poet sees the world colored red or green or violet by his personality, it is well for the interests of truth, we must admit, that he make it clear to us that his nature is the transforming medium, but how comes it that he fixes his attention so exclusively upon the colors of things, for which his own nature is responsible, and ignores the forms of things, which are not affected by him? How comes it that the colored lights thrown on nature by the stained windows of his soul are so important to him that he feels justified in painting for us, notnature, but stained-glass windows?
In part this is, as has often been said, a result of the individualizing trend of modern art. The broad general outlines of things have been "done" by earlier artists, and there is no chance for later artists to vary them, but the play of light and shade offers infinite possibilities of variation. If one poet shows us the world highly colored by his personality, it is inevitable that his followers should have their attention caught by the different coloring which their own natures throw upon it. The more acute their sense of observation, the more they will be interested in the phenomenon. "Of course you are self-conscious," Elizabeth Barrett wrote to Robert Browning. "How could you be a poet otherwise?" [Footnote: February 27, 1845.]
This modern individualizing trend appears equally in all the arts, of course. Yet the poet's self-consciousness appears in his work more plainly than does that of painters and sculptors and musicians. One wonders if this may not be a consequence of the peculiar nature of his inspiration. While all art is doubtless essentially alike in mode of creation, it may not be fanciful to conceive that the poet's inspiration is surrounded by deeper mystery than that of other geniuses, and that this accounts for the greater prominence of conscious self-analysis in his work. That such a difference exists, seems obvious. In spite of the lengths to which program music has been carried, we have, so far as I know, practically no music, outside of opera, that claims to have the musician, or the artist in general, for its theme. So sweeping an assertion cannot be made regarding painting and sculpture, to be sure. Near the beginning of the history of sculpture we are met by the legend of Phidias placing his own image among the gods. At the other extreme, chronologically, we are familiar with Daniel Chester French's group, Death Staying the Hand of the Sculptor. Painters not infrequently portray themselves and their artist friends. Yet it is improbable that the mass of material concerned with the poet's view of the artist can be paralleled. This is due in part, obviously, to the greater plasticity to ideas of his medium, but may it not be due also to the fact that all other arts demand an apprenticeship, during which the technique is mastered in a rational, comprehensible way? Whereas the poet is apt to forget that he has a technique at all, since he shares his tool, language, with men of all callings whatever. He feels himself, accordingly, to be dependent altogether upon a mysterious "visitation" for his inspiration.
At least this mystery surrounding his creations has much to do with removing the artist from the comparative freedom from self-consciousness that we ascribe to the general run of men. In addition it removes him from the comparative humility of other thinkers, who are wont to think of their discoveries as following inevitably upon their data, so that they themselves deserve credit only as they are persistent and painstaking in following the clues. The genesis of Sir Isaac Newton's discovery has been compared to poetical inspiration; yet even in this case the difference is apparent, and Newton did not identify himself with the universe he conceived, as the poet is in the habit of doing.
Not being able to account for his inspirations, the poet seems to be driven inevitably either into excessive humility, since he feels that his words are not his own, or into inordinate pride, since he feels that he is able to see and express without volition truths that other men cannot glimpse with the utmost effort. He may disclaim all credit for his performance, in the words of a nineteenth-century verse-writer:
This is the end of the book Written by God. I am the earth he took, I am the rod, The iron and wood which he struck With his sounding rod. [Footnote: L. E. Mitchell, Written at the End of a Book.]
a statement that provokes wonder as to God's sensations at having such amateurish works come out under his name. But this sort of humility is really a protean manifestation of egotism, as is clear in the religious states that bear resemblance to the poet's. This the Methodist "experience meeting" abundantly illustrates, where endless loquacity is considered justifiable, because the glory of one's experience is due, not to one's self, but to the Almighty.
The minor American poets in the middle of the last century are often found exhorting one another to humility, quite after the prayer-meeting tradition. Bitter is their denunciation of the poet's arrogance:
A man that's proud—vile groveller in the dust, Dependent on the mercy of his God For every breath. [Footnote: B. Saunders, To Chatterton.]
Again they declare that the poet should be
Self-reading, not self-loving, they are twain, [Footnote: Henry Timrod, A Vision of Poesy.]
Think not of thine own self, [Footnote: Richard Gilder, To the Poet.]
Always, O bard, humility is power. [Footnote: Henry Timrod, Poet If on a Lasting Fame.]
One is reminded of Mrs. Heep's repeated adjuration, "Be 'umble, Ury," and the likeness is not lessened when we find them ingratiatingly sidling themselves into public favor. We hear them timidly inquiring of their inspiration,
Shall not the violet bloom? [Footnote: Mrs. Evans, Apologetic.]
and pleading with their critics,
Lightly, kindly deal, My buds were culled amid bright dews In morn of earliest youth. [Footnote: Lydia M. Reno, Preface to Early Buds.]
At times they resort to the mixed metaphor to express their innocuous unimportance, declaring,
A feeble hand essays To swell the tide of song, [Footnote: C. H. Faimer, Invocation.]
and send out their ideas with fond insistence upon their diminutiveness:
Go, little book, and with thy little thoughts, Win in each heart and memory a home. [Footnote: C. Augustus Price, Dedication.]
But among writers whose names are recognizable without an appeal to a librarian's index, precisely this attitude is not met with. It would be absurd, of course, to deny that one finds convincingly sincere expressions of modesty among poets of genuine merit. Many of them have taken pains to express themselves in their verse as humbled by the genius above their grasp. [Footnote: See Emerson, In a Dull Uncertain Brain; Whittier, To my Namesake; Sidney Lanier, Ark of the Future; Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Last Reader; Bayard Taylor, L'Envoi; Robert Louis Stevenson, To Dr. Hake; Francis Thompson, To My Godchild.] But we must agree with their candid avowals that they belong in the second rank. The greatest poets of the century are not in the habit of belittling themselves. It is almost unparalleled to find so sweeping a revolutionist of poetic traditions as Burns saying of himself:
I am nae poet, in a sense, But just a rhymer like, by chance, And hae to learning nae pretense, Yet what the matter? Whene'er my muse does on me glance, I jingle at her. [Footnote: Epistle to Lapraik.]
Most of the self-depreciatory writers, by their very abnegation of the title, exalt the supreme poet. There are few indeed so unconcerned about the dignity of the calling as is Sir Walter Scott, who assigns to the minstrels of his tales a subordinate social position that would make the average bard depicted in literature gnash his teeth for rage, and who casually disposes of the poet's immortality:
Let but the verse befit a hero's fame; Immortal be the verse, forgot the author's name. [Footnote: Introduction to Don Roderick.]
Mrs. Browning, to be sure, also tries to prick the bubble of the poet's conceit, assuring him:
Ye are not great because creation drew Large revelations round your earliest sense, Nor bright because God's glory shines for you. [Footnote: Mountaineer and Poet.]
But in her other poetry, notably in Aurora Leigh and A Vision of Poets, she amply avows her sense of the preeminence of the singer, as well as of his song.
While it is easy to shake our heads over the self-importance of the nineteenth century, and to contrast it with the unconscious lyrical spontaneity of half-mythical singers in the beginning of the world, it is probable that some degree of egotism is essential to a poet. Remembering his statement that his name was written in water, we are likely to think of Keats as the humblest of geniuses, yet he wrote to a friend, "You will observe at the end of this, 'How a solitary life engenders pride and egotism!' True—I know it does: but this pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than anything else could, so I will indulge it." [Footnote: Letter to John Taylor, August 23, 1819.] No matter how modest one may be about his work after it is completed, a sense of its worth must be with one at the time of composition, else he will not go to the trouble of recording and preserving it.
Unless the writer schools himself to keep this conviction out of his verse, it is likely to flower in self-confident poetry of the classic type, so characteristic of the Elizabethan age. This has such a long tradition behind it that it seems almost stereotyped, wherever it appears in our period, especially when it is promising immortality to a beloved one. We scarcely heed such verses as the lines by Landor,
Well I remember how you smiled To see me write your name upon The soft sea-sand, "O! what a child, You think you're writing upon stone!" I have since written what no tide Shall ever wash away, what men Unborn shall read, o'er ocean wide, And find Ianthe's name again,
or Francis Thompson's sonnet sequence, Ad Amicam, which expresses the author's purpose to
Fling a bold stave to the old bald Time, Telling him that he is too insolent Who thinks to rase thee from my heart or rhyme, Whereof to one because thou life hast given, The other yet shall give a life to thee, Such as to gain, the prowest swords have striven, And compassed weaker immortality,
or Yeats' lines Of Those Who Have Spoken Evil of His Beloved, wherein he takes pride in the reflection:
Weigh this song with the great and their pride; I made it out of a mouthful of air; Their children's children shall say they have lied.
But a more vibrantly personal note breaks out from time to time in the most original verse of the last century, as in Wordsworth's testimony,
Yet to me I feel That an internal brightness is vouchsafed That must not die, [Footnote: Home at Grasmere.]
or in Walt Whitman's injunction:
Recorders ages hence, Come, I will take you down underneath this impassive Exterior. I will tell you what to say of me. [Footnote: See also, Long Long Hence.]
Nowadays, in fact, even minor poets for the most part frankly avow the importance of their works. We find George Edward Woodberry in the clutches of the old-fashioned habit of apology, to be sure, [Footnote: See My Country.]—perhaps this is one reason the radicals are so opposed to him; but in the ranks of the radicals themselves we find very few retaining any doubt of themselves. [Footnote: Exceptions are Jessie Rittenhouse, Patrius; Lawrence Houseman, Mendicant Rhymes; Robert Silliman Hillyer, Poor Faltering Rhymes.] Self-assertion is especially characteristic of their self-appointed leader, Ezra Pound, in whose case it is undoubtedly an inheritance from Walt Whitman, whom he has lately acknowledged as his "pig-headed father." [Footnote: Lustra.] A typical assertion is that in Salutation the Second,
How many will come after me, Singing as well as I sing, none better.
There is a delicate charm in the self-assurance appearing in some of the present verse, as Sara Teasdale's confidence in her "fragile immortality" [Footnote: Refuge.] or James Stephens' exultation in A Tune Upon a Reed,
Not a piper can succeed When I lean against a tree, Blowing gently on a reed,
and in The Rivals, where he boasts over a bird,
I was singing all the time, Just as prettily as he, About the dew upon the lawn, And the wind upon the lea; So I didn't listen to him As he sang upon a tree.
If one were concerned only with this "not marble nor the gilded monuments" theme, the sixteenth century would quite eclipse the nineteenth or twentieth. But the egoism of our writers goes much further than this parental satisfaction in their offspring. It seems to have needed the intense individualism of Rousseau's philosophy, and of German idealism, especially the conception of "irony," or the superiority of the soul over its creations, to bring the poet's egoism to flower. Its rankest blossoming, in Walt Whitman, would be hard to imagine in another century. Try to conceive even an Elizabethan beginning a poem after the fashion of A Song of Myself:
I, now thirty-seven years old, in perfect health, begin, Hoping to cease not till death.
Whitman is conscious of—perhaps even exaggerates—the novelty of his task,
Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself (the great pride of man in himself) Chanter of personality.
While our poets thus assert, occasionally, that the unblushing nudity of their pride is a conscious departure from convention, they would not have us believe that they are fundamentally different from older singers. One seldom finds an actual poet, of whatever period, depicted in the verse of the last century, whose pride is not insisted upon. The favorite poet-heroes, Aeschylus, Michael Angelo, Tasso, Dante, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Chatterton, Keats, Byron, are all characterized as proud. The last-named has been especially kept in the foreground by following verse-writers, as a precedent for their arrogance. Shelley's characterization of Byron in Julian and Maddalo,
The sense that he was greater than his kind Had struck, methinks, his eagle spirit blind By gazing on its own exceeding light,
has been followed by many expressions of the same thought, at first wholly sympathetic, lately, it must be confessed, somewhat ironical.
Consciousness of partnership with God in composition naturally lifts the poet, in his own estimation, at least, to a super-human level. The myth of Apollo disguised as a shepherd strikes him as being a happy expression of his divinity. [Footnote: See James Russell Lowell, The Shepherd of King Admetus.] Thus Emerson calls singers
Blessed gods in servile masks. [Footnote: Saadi.]
The hero of John Davidson's Ballad in Blank Verse on the Making of a Poet soars to a monotheistic conception of his powers, asserting
Henceforth I shall be God, for consciousness Is God. I suffer. I am God.
Another poet-hero is characterized:
He would reach the source of light, And share, enthroned, the Almighty's might. [Footnote: Harvey Rice, The Visionary (1864).
In recent years a few poets have modestly disclaimed equality with God. See William Rose Benet, Imagination, and Joyce Kilmer, Trees. The kinship of poets and the Almighty is the theme of The Lonely Poet (1919), by John Hall Wheelock.]
On the other hand, recent poets' hatred of orthodox religion has led them to idealize the Evil One, and regard him as no unworthy rival as regards pride. One of Browning's poets is "prouder than the devil." [Footnote: Waring.] Chatterton, according to Rossetti, was "kin to Milton through his Satan's pride." [Footnote: Sonnet, To Chatterton.] Of another poet-hero one of his friends declares,
You would be arrogant, boy, you know, in hell, And keep the lowest circle to yourself. [Footnote: Josephine Preston Peabody, Marlowe (1911).]
There is bathos, after these claims, in the concern some poets show over the question of priority between themselves and kings. Yet one writer takes the trouble to declare,
Artists truly great Are on a par with kings, nor would exchange Their fate for that of any potentate. [Footnote: Longfellow, Michael Angelo.]
Stephen Phillips is unique in his disposition to ridicule such an attitude; in his drama on Nero, he causes this poet, self-styled, to say,
Think not, although my aim is art, I cannot toy with empire easily. [Footnote: Nero.]
Not a little American verse is taken up with this question, [Footnote: See Helen Hunt Jackson, The King's Singer; E. L. Sprague, A Shakespeare Ode; Eugene Field, Poet and King.] betraying a disposition on the part of the authors to follow Walt Whitman's example and "take off their hats to nothing known or unknown." [Footnote: Walt Whitman, Collect.] In these days, when the idlest man of the street corner would fight at the drop of a hat, if his inferiority to earth's potentates were suggested to him, all the excitement seems absurdly antiquated. There is, however, something approaching modernity in Byron's disposal of the question, as he makes the hero of The Lament of Tasso express the pacifist sentiment,
No!—still too proud to be vindictive, I Have pardoned princes' insults, and would die.
It is clear that his creations are the origin of the poet's pride, yet, singularly enough, his arrogance sometimes reaches such proportions that he grows ashamed of his art as unworthy of him. Of course this attitude harks back to Shakespeare's sonnets. The humiliation which Shakespeare endured because his calling was despised by his aristocratic young friend is largely the theme of a poem, Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford, by Edwin Arlington Robinson. Such a sense of shame seems to be back of the dilettante artist, wherever he appears in verse. The heroes of Byron's and Praed's poems generally refuse to take their art seriously.[Footnote: See W. M. Praed, Lillian, How to Rhyme for Love, The Talented Man; Byron, Childe Harold, Don Juan.] A few of Tennyson's characters take the same attitude.[Footnote: See Eleanor, in Becket; and the Count, in The Falcon.] Again and again Byron gives indication that his own feeling is that imputed to him by a later poet:
He, from above descending, stooped to touch The loftiest thought; and proudly stooped, as though It scarce deserved his verse. [Footnote: Robert Pollock, The Course of Time.]
After Byron's vogue died out, this mood slept for a time. It is only of late years that it is showing symptoms of waking. It harries Cale Young Rice:
I have felt the ineffable sting Of life, though I be art's valet. I have painted the cloud and the clod, Who should have possessed the earth. [Footnote: Limitations.]
It depressed Alan Seeger:
I, who, conceived beneath another star, Had been a prince and played with life, Have been its slave, an outcast exiled far From the fair things my faith has merited. [Footnote: Liebestod.]
It characteristically stings Ezra Pound to expletive:
Great God! if we be damned to be not men but only dreams, Then let us be such dreams the world shall tremble at, And know we be its rulers, though but dreams. [Footnote: Revolt Against the Crepuscular Spirit in Modern Poetry.]
Perhaps, indeed, judging from contemporary tendencies, this study is made too early to reflect the poet's egoism at its full tide.
The poet's overweening self-esteem may well be the hothouse atmosphere in which alone his genius can thrive, but from another point of view it seems a subtle poison gas, engendering all the ills that differentiate him from other men. Its first effect is likely to be the reflection that his genius is judged by a public that is vastly inferior to him. This galling thought usually drives him into an attitude of indifference or of openly expressed contempt for his audience. The mood is apparent at the very beginning of the romantic period. The germ of such a feeling is to be found even in so modest a poet as Cowper, who maintains that his brother poets, rather than the unliterary public, should pass upon his worth.[Footnote: See To Darwin.] But the average poet of the last century and a half goes a step beyond this attitude, and appears to feel that there is something contemptible about popularity. Literary arrogance seems far from characteristic of Burns, yet he tells us how, in a mood of discouragement,
I backward mused on wasted time, How I had spent my youthful prime, And done naething But stringin' blithers up in rhyme For fools to sing. [Footnote: The Vision.]
Of course it is not till we come to Byron that we meet the most thoroughgoing expression of this contempt for the public. The sentiment in Childe Harold is one that Byron never tires of harping on: I have not loved the world, nor the world me; I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bowed To its idolatries a patient knee.
And this attitude of Byron's has been adopted by all his disciples, who delight in picturing his scorn:
With terror now he froze the cowering blood, And now dissolved the heart in tenderness, Yet would not tremble, would not weep, himself, But back into his soul retired alone, Dark, sullen, proud, gazing contemptuously On hearts and passions prostrate at his feet. [Footnote: Robert Pollock, The Course of Time.]
Of the other romantic poets, Sir Walter Scott alone remains on good terms with the public, expressing a child's surprise and delight over the substantial checks he is given in exchange for his imaginings. But Shelley starts out with a chip on his shoulder, in the very advertisements of his poems expressing his unflattering opinion of The public's judgment, and Keats makes it plain that his own criticisms concern him far more than those of other men.
The consciously aristocratic, sniffing attitude toward the public, which ran its course during Victoria's reign, is ushered in by Landor, who confesses,
I know not whether I am proud, But this I know, I hate the crowd, Therefore pray let me disengage My verses from the motley page, Where others, far more sure to please Pour forth their choral song with ease.
The same gentlemanly indifference to his plebeian readers is diffused all through Matthew Arnold's writing, of course. He casually disposes of popularity:
Some secrets may the poet tell For the world loves new ways; To tell too deep ones is not well,— It knows not what he says. [Footnote: See In Memory of Obermann.]
Mrs. Browning probably has her own success in mind when she makes the young poetess, Aurora Leigh, recoil from the fulsome praise of her readers. Browning takes the same attitude in Sordello, contrasting Eglamor, the versifier who servilely conformed to the taste of the mob, with Sordello, the true poet, who despised it. In Popularity, Browning returns to the same theme, of the public's misplaced praises, and in Pacchiarotto he outdoes himself in heaping ridicule upon his readers. Naturally the coterie of later poets who have prided themselves on their unique skill in interpreting Browning have been impressed by his contempt for his readers. Perhaps they have even exaggerated it. No less contemptuous of his readers than Browning was that other Victorian, so like him in many respects, George Meredith.
It would be interesting to make a list of the zoological metaphors by which the Victorians expressed their contempt for the public. Landor characterized their criticisms as "asses' kicks aimed at his head." [Footnote: Edmund Gosse, Life of Swinburne, p. 103.] Browning alternately represented his public cackling and barking at him. [Footnote: See Thomas J. Wise, Letters, Second Series, Vol. 2, p. 52.] George Meredith made a dichotomy of his readers into "summer flies" and "swinish grunters." [Footnote: My Theme.] Tennyson, being no naturalist, simply named the public the "many-headed beast." [Footnote: In Memoriam.]
In America there has been less of this sort of thing openly expressed by genuine poets. Emerson is fairly outspoken, telling us, in The Poet, how the public gapes and jeers at a new vision. But one must go to our border-line poets to find the feeling most candidly put into words. Most of them spurn popularity, asserting that they are too worthwhile to be appreciated. They may be even nauseated by the slight success they manage to achieve, and exclaim,
Yet to know That we create an Eden for base worms!
If the consciousness of recent writers is dominated by contempt for mankind at large, such a mood is expressed with more caution than formerly. Kipling takes men's stupidity philosophically. [Footnote: See The Story of Ung.] Edgar Lee Masters uses a fictional character as a mask for his remarks on the subject. [Footnote: See Having His Way.] Other poets have expressed themselves with a degree of mildness. [Footnote: See Watts-Dunton, Apollo in Paris; James Stephens, The Market; Henry Newbolt, An Essay in Criticism; William Rose Benet, People.] But of course Ezra Pound is not to be suppressed. He inquires,
Will people accept them? (i.e., these songs) As a timorous wench from a centaur (or a centurion) Already they flee, howling in terror * * * * * Will they be touched with the verisimilitude? Their virgin stupidity is untemptable.
I beg you, my friendly critics, Do not set about to procure me an audience.
Again he instructs his poems, when they meet the public,
Salute them with your thumbs to your noses.
It is very curious, after such passages, to find him pleading, in another poem,
May my poems be printed this week?
The naivete of this last question brings up insistently a perplexing problem. If the poet despises his readers, why does he write? He may perhaps evade this question by protesting, with Tennyson,
I pipe but as the linnets do, And sing because I must.
But why does he publish? If he were strictly logical, surely he would do as the artist in Browning's Pictor Ignotus, who so shrank from having his pictures come into contact with fools, that he painted upon hidden, moldering walls, thus renouncing all possibility of fame. But one doubts whether such renunciation has been made often, especially in the field of poetry. Rossetti buried his poems, of course, but their resurrection was not postponed till the Last Judgment. Other writers have coyly waved fame away, but have gracefully yielded to their friends' importunities, and have given their works to the world. When one reads such expressions as Byron's;
Fame is the thirst of youth,—but I am not So young as to regard men's frown or smile As loss or guerdon of a glorious lot, [Footnote: Childe Harold.]
one wonders. Perhaps the highest genius takes absolutely no account of fame, as the sun-god asserts in Watts-Dunton's poem, Apollo in Paris:
I love the song-born poet, for that he Loves only song—seeks for love's sake alone Shy Poesie, whose dearest bowers, unknown To feudaries of fame, are known to thee. [Footnote: See also Coventry Patmore, from The Angel in the House, "I will not Hearken Blame or Praise"; Francis Carlin, The Home Song (1918).]
But other poets, with the utmost inconsistency, have admitted that they find the thought of fame very sweet. [Footnote: See Edward Young, Love of Fame; John Clare, Song's Eternity, Idle Fame, To John Milton; Bulwer Lytton, The Desire of Fame; James Gates Percival, Sonnet 379; Josephine Peston Peabody, Marlowe.] Keats dwells upon the thought of it. [Footnote: See the Epistle to My Brother George.] Browning shows both of his poet heroes concerned over the question. In Pauline the speaker confesses,
I ne'er sing But as one entering bright halls, where all Will rise and shout for him.
In Sordello, again, Browning analyzes the desire for fame:
Souls like Sordello, on the contrary, Coerced and put to shame, retaining will, Care little, take mysterious comfort still, But look forth tremblingly to ascertain If others judge their claims not urged in vain, And say for them their stifled thoughts aloud. So they must ever live before a crowd: —"Vanity," Naddo tells you.
Emerson's Saadi is one who does not despise fame, Nor can dispense With Persia for an audience. [Footnote: Saadi.]
Can it be that when the poet renounces fame, we must concur with Austin Dobson's paraphrase of his meaning,
But most, because the grapes are sour, Farewell, renown? [Footnote: Farewell Renown.]
Perhaps the poet is saved from inconsistency by his touching confidence that in other times and places human nature is less stupid and unappreciative than it proves itself in his immediate audience. He reasons that in times past the public has shown sufficient insight to establish the reputation of the master poets, and that history will repeat itself. Several writers have stated explicitly that their quarrel with humanity is not to be carried beyond the present generation. Thus Arnold objects to his time because it is aesthetically dead. [Footnote: See Persistency of Poetry.] But elsewhere he objects because it shows signs of coming to life, [Footnote: See Bacchanalia.] so it is hard to determine how our grandfathers could have pleased him. Similarly unreasonable discontent has been expressed by later poets with our own time. [Footnote: See William Ernest Henley, The Gods are Dead; Edmund Gosse, On Certain Critics; Samuel Waddington, The Death of Song; John Payne, Double Ballad of the Singers of the Time(1906).] Only occasionally a poet rebukes his brethren for this carping attitude. Mrs. Browning protests, in Aurora Leigh,
'Tis ever thus With times we live in,—evermore too great To be apprehended near.... I do distrust the poet who discerns No character or glory in his times, And trundles back his soul five hundred years. [Footnote: See Robert Browning, Letter to Elizabeth Barrett, March 12, 1845.]
And Kipling is a notorious defender of the present generation, but these two stand almost alone. [Footnote: See also James Elroy Flecker, Oak and Olive; Max Ehrmann, Give Me Today.]
Several mythical explanations for the stupidity of the poet's own times have been offered in verse. Browning says that poetry is like wine; it must age before it grows sweet. [Footnote: Epilogue to the Pacchiarotto Volume.] Emerson says the poet's generation is deafened by the thunder of his voice. [Footnote: Solution.] A minor writer says that poetry must be written in one's life-blood, so that it necessarily kills one before it is appreciated. [Footnote: William Reed Dunroy, The Way of the World (1897).] Another suggests that a subtle electric change is worked in one's poems by death. [Footnote: Richard Gilder, A Poet's Question.] But the only reasonable explanation of the failure of the poet's own generation to appreciate him seems to be that offered by Shelley, in the Defense of Poetry:
No living poet ever arrived at the fullness of his fame; the jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers.
Of course the contempt of the average poet for his contemporaries is not the sort of thing to endear him to them. Their self-respect almost forces them to ignore the poet's talents. And unfortunately, in addition to taking a top-lofty attitude, the poet has, until recently, gone much farther, and while despising the public has tried to improve it. Most nineteenth century poetry might be described in Mrs. Browning's words, as
Antidotes Of medicated music, answering for Mankind's forlornest uses. [Footnote: Sonnets from the Portuguese.]
And like an unruly child the public struggled against the dose. Whereupon the poet was likely to lose his temper, and declare, as Browning did,
My Thirty-four Port, no need to waste On a tongue that's fur, and a palate—paste! A magnum for friends who are sound: the sick— I'll posset and cosset them, nothing loath, Henceforward with nettle-broth. [Footnote: Epilogue to the Pacchiarotto Volume.]
Yes, much as we pity the forlorn poet when his sensitive feelings are hurt by the world's cruelty, we must still pronounce that he is partly to blame. If the public is buzzing around his head like a swarm of angry hornets, he must in most cases admit that he has stirred them up with a stick.
The poet's vilified contemporaries employ various means of retaliating. They may invite him to dinner, then point out that His Omniscience does not know how to manage a fork, or they may investigate his family tree, and then cut his acquaintance, or, most often, they may listen to his fanciful accounts of reality, then brand him as a liar. So the vicious circle is completed, for the poet is harassed by this treatment into the belief that he is the target for organized persecution, and as a result his egotism grows more and more morbid, and his contempt for the public more deliberately expressed.
At the beginning of the period under discussion the social snubs seem to have rankled most in the poet's nature. This was doubtless a survival from the times of patronage. James Thomson [Footnote: See the Castle of Indolence, Canto II, stanzas XXI-III. See also To Mr. Thomson, Doubtful to What Patron to Address the Poem, by H. Hill.] and Thomas Hood [Footnote: See To the Late Lord Mayor.] both concerned themselves with the problem. Kirke White appears to have felt that patronage of poets was still a live issue. [Footnote: See the Ode Addressed to the Earle of Carlisle.] Crabbe, in a narrative poem, offered a pathetic picture of a young poet dying of heartbreak because of the malicious cruelty of the aristocracy toward him, a farmer's son. [Footnote: The Patron.] Later on Mrs. Browning took up the cudgels for the poet, in Lady Geraldine's Courtship, and upheld the nobility of the untitled poet almost too strenuously, for his morbid pride makes him appear by all odds the worst snob in the poem. The less dignified contingent of the public annoys the poet by burlesquing the grandiose manners and poses to which his large nature easily lends itself. People are likely to question the poet's powers of soul because he forgets to cut his hair, or to fasten his blouse at the throat. And of course there have been rhymsters who have gone over to the side of the enemy, and who have made profit from exhibiting their freakishness, after the manner of circus monstrosities. Thomas Moore sometimes takes malicious pleasure in thus showing up the oddities of his race. [See Common Sense and Genius, and Rhymes by the Road.] Later libelers have been, usually, writers of no reputation. The literary squib that made most stir in the course of the century was not a poem, but the novel, The Green Carnation, which poked fun at the mannerisms of the 1890 poets. [Footnote: Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience made an even greater sensation.] Oddly, American poets betray more indignation than English ones over such lampoons. Longfellow makes Michael Angelo exclaim,
I say an artist Who does not wholly give himself to art, Who has about him nothing marked or strange, But tries to suit himself to all the world Will ne'er attain to greatness. [Footnote: Michael Angelo.]
Sometimes an American poet takes the opposite tack, and denies that his conduct differs from that of other men. Thus Richard Watson Gilder insists that the poet has "manners like other men" and that on thisaccount the world that is eagerly awaiting the future poet will miss him. He repeats the world's query:
How shall we know him? Ye shall know him not, Till, ended hate and scorn, To the grave he's borne. [Footnote: When the True Poet Comes.]
Whitman, in his defense, goes farther than this, and takes an original attitude toward his failure to keep step with other men, declaring
Of these states the poet is the equable man, Not in him but off him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail of their full returns. [Footnote: By Blue Ontario's Shore.]
As for the third method employed by the public in its attacks upon the poet,—that of making charges against his truthfulness,—the poet resents this most bitterly of all. Gray, in The Bard, lays the wholesale slaughter of Scotch poets by Edward I, to their fearless truth telling. A number of later poets have written pathetic tales showing the tragic results of the unimaginative public's denial of the poet's delicate perceptions of truth. [Footnote: See Jean Ingelow, Gladys and her Island; Helen Hunt Jackson, The Singer's Hills; J. G. Holland, Jacob Hurd's Child.]
To the poet's excited imagination, it seems as if all the world regarded his race as a constantly increasing swarm of flies, and had started in on a systematic course of extirpation. [Footnote: See G. K. Chesterton, More Poets Yet.] As for the professional critic, he becomes an ogre, conceived of as eating a poet for breakfast every morning. The new singer is invariably warned by his brothers that he must struggle for his honor and his very life against his malicious audience. It is doubtful if we could find a poet of consequence in the whole period who does not somewhere characterize men of his profession as the martyrs of beauty. [Footnote: Examples of abstract discussions of this sort are: Burns, The Poet's Progress; Keats, Epistle to George Felton Matthew; Tennyson, To —— After Reading a Life and Letters; Longfellow, The Poets; Thomas Buchanan Read, The Master Poets; Paul Hamilton Hayne, Though Dowered with Instincts; Henry Timrod, A Vision of Poesy; George Meredith, Bellerophon; S. L. Fairfield, The Last Song (1832); S. J. Cassells, A Poet's Reflections (1851); Richard Gilder, The New Poet; Richard Realf, Advice Gratis (1898); James Whitcomb Riley, An Outworn Sappho; Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Poet; Theodore Watts-Dunton, The Octopus of the Golden Isles; Francis Ledwidge, The Coming Poet.] Shelley is particularly wrought up on the subject, and in The Woodman and the Nightingale expresses through an allegory the murderous designs of the public.
A salient example of more vicarious indignation is Mrs. Browning, who exposes the world's heartlessness in a poem called The Seraph and the Poet. In A Vision of Poets she betrays less indignation, apparently believing that experience of undeserved suffering is essential to the maturing of genius. In this poem the world's greatest poets are described:
Where the heart of each should beat, There seemed a wound instead of it, From whence the blood dropped to their feet.
The young hero of the poem, to whom the vision is given, naturally shrinks from the thought of such suffering, but the attendant spirit leads him on, nevertheless, to a loathsome pool, where there are bitter waters,
And toads seen crawling on his hand, And clinging bats, but dimly scanned, Full in his face their wings expand. A paleness took the poet's cheek; "Must I drink here?" He seemed to seek The lady's will with utterance meek: "Ay, ay," she said, "it so must be:" (And this time she spoke cheerfully) Behooves thee know world's cruelty.
The modern poet is able to bring forward many historical names by which to substantiate the charges of cruelty which he makes against society. From classic Greece he names Aeschylus [Footnote: R. C. Robbins, Poems of Personality (1909); Cale Young Rice, Aeschylus.] and Euripides. [Footnote: Bulwer Lytton, Euripides; Browning, Balaustion's Adventure; Richard Burton, The First Prize.] From Latin writers our poets have chosen as favorite martyr Lucan, "by his death approved." [Footnote: Adonais. See also Robert Bridges, Nero.] Of the great renaissance poets, Shakespeare alone has usually been considered exempt from the general persecution, though Richard Garnett humorously represents even him as suffering triple punishment,—flogging, imprisonment and exile,—for his offense against Sir Thomas Lucy, aggravated by poetical temperament. [Footnote: See Wm. Shakespeare, Pedagogue and Poacher, a drama (1904).] Of all renaissance poets Dante [Footnote: See G. L. Raymond, Dante; Sarah King Wiley, Dante and Beatrice; Rossetti, Dante at Verona; Oscar Wilde, Ravenna.] and Tasso [Footnote: Byron, The Lament of Tasso; Shelley, Song for Tasso; James Thomson, B. V., Tasso to Leonora.] have received most attention on account of their wrongs. [Footnote: The sufferings of several French poets are commented upon in English verse. Swinburne's poetry on Victor Hugo, Bulwer Lytton's Andre Chenier, and Alfred Lang's Gerard de Nerval come to mind.]
Naturally the adversities which touch our writers most nearly are those of the modern English poets. It is the poets of the romantic movement who are thought of as suffering greatest injustice. Chatterton's extreme youth probably has helped to incense many against the cruelty that caused his death. [Footnote: See Shelley, Adonais; Coleridge, Monody on the Death of Chatterton; Keats, Sonnet on Chatterton; James Montgomery, Stanzas on Chatterton; Rossetti, Sonnet to Chatterton; Edward Dowden, Prologue to Maurice Gerothwohl's Version of Vigny's Chatterton; W. A. Percy, To Chatterton.] Southey is singled out by Landor for especial commiseration; Who Smites the Wounded is an indignant uncovering of the world's cruelty in exaggerating Southey's faults. Landor insinuates that this persecution is extended to all geniuses:
Alas! what snows are shed Upon thy laurelled head, Hurtled by many cares and many wrongs! Malignity lets none Approach the Delphic throne; A hundred lane-fed curs bark down Fame's hundred tongues. [Footnote: To Southey, 1833.]
The ill-treatment of Burns has had its measure of denunciation. The centenary of his birth brought forth a good deal of such verse.
Of course Byron's sufferings have had their share of attention, though, remembering his enormous popularity, the better poets have left to the more gullible rhymsters the echo of his tirades against persecution, [Footnote: See T. H. Chivers, Lord Byron's Dying Words to Ada, and Byron (1853); Charles Soran, Byron (1842); E. F. Hoffman, Byron (1849).] and have conceived of the public as beaten at its own game by him. Thus Shelley exults in the thought,
The Pythian of the age one arrow drew And smiled. The spoilers tempt no second blow, They fawn on the proud feet that laid them low. [Footnote: Adonais.]
The wrongs of Keats, also, are not so much stressed in genuine poetry as formerly, and the fiction that his death was due to the hostility of his critics is dying out, though Shelley's Adonais will go far toward giving it immortality. Oscar Wilde's characterization of Keats as "the youngest of the martyrs" [Footnote: At the Grave of Keats.] brings the tradition down almost to the present in British verse, but for the most part its popularity is now limited to American rhymes. One is rather indignant, after reading Keats' own manly words about hostile criticism, to find a nondescript verse-writer putting the puerile self-characterization into his mouth:
I, the Boy-poet, whom with curse They hounded on to death's untimely doom. [Footnote: T. L. Harris, Lyrics of the Golden Age (1856).]
In even less significant verse the most maudlin sympathy with Keats is expressed. One is tempted to feel that Keats suffered less from his enemies than from his admirers, of the type which Browning characterized as "the foolish crowd of rushers-in upon genius ... never content till they cut their initials on the cheek of the Medicean Venus to prove they worship her." [Footnote: Letter to Elizabeth Barrett, November 17, 1845.]
With the possible exception of Chatterton, the poet whose wrongs have raised the most indignant storm of protest is Shelley. Several poets, as the young Browning, Francis Thompson, James Thomson, B. V., and Mr. Woodberry, have made a chivalrous championing of Shelley almost part of their poetical platform. No doubt the facts of Shelley's life warrant such sympathy. Then too, Shelley's sense of injustice, unlike Byron's, is not such as to seem weak to us, though it is so freely expressed in his verse. In addition one is likely to feel particular sympathy for Shelley because the recoil of the public from him cannot be laid to his scorn. His enthusiasms were always for the happiness of the entire human race, as well as for himself. Everything in his unfortunate life vouches for the sincerity of his statement, in the Hymn to Intellectual Beauty:
Never joy illumed my brow Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free This world from its dark slavery.
Accordingly Shelley's injuries seem to have affected him as a sudden hurt does a child, with a sense of incomprehensibility, and later poets have rallied to his defense as if he were actually a child.[Footnote: See E. C. Stedman, Ariel; James Thomson, B. V., Shelley; Alfred Austin, Shelley's Death; Stephen Vincent Benet, The General Public.]
The vicariousness of the nineteenth century poet in bewailing the hurts of his brethren is likely to have provoked a smile in us, as in the mourners of Adonais, at recognizing one
Who in another's fate now wept his own.
Of course a suppressed personal grudge may not always have been a factor in lending warmth to these defenses. Mrs. Browning is an ardent advocate of the misunderstood poet, though she herself enjoyed a full measure of popularity. But when Landor so warmly champions Southey, and Swinburne springs to the defense of Victor Hugo, one cannot help remembering that the public did not show itself wildly appreciative of either of these defenders. So, too, when Oscar Wilde works himself up over the persecutions of Dante, Keats and Byron, we are minded of the irreverent crowds that followed Wilde and his lily down the street. When the poet is too proud to complain of his own wrongs at the hands of the public, it is easy for him to strike in defense of another. As the last century wore on, this vicarious indignation more and more took the place of a personal outcry. Comparatively little has been said by poets since the romantic period about their own persecutions.[Footnote: See, however, Joaquin Miller, I Shall Remember, and Vale; Francis Ledwidge, The Visitation of Peace.]
Occasionally a poet endeavors to placate the public by assuming a pose of equality. The tradition of Chaucer, fostered by the Canterbury Tales, is that by carefully hiding his genius, he succeeded in keeping on excellent terms with his contemporaries. Percy Mackaye, in the Canterbury Pilgrims, shows him obeying St. Paul's injunction so literally that the parson takes him for a brother of the cloth, the plowman is surprised that he can read, and so on, through the whole social gamut of the Pilgrims. But in the nineteenth century this friendly attitude seldom works out so well. Walt Whitman flaunts his ability to fraternize with the man of the street. But the American public has failed "to absorb him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." [Footnote: By Blue Ontario's Shore.] Emerson tries to get on common ground with his audience by asserting that every man is a poet to some extent,[Footnote: See The Enchanter.] and it is consistent with the poetic theory of Yeats that he makes the same assertion as Emerson:
There cannot be confusion of sound forgot, A single soul that lacks a sweet crystalline cry. [Footnote: Pandeen.]
But when the mob jeers at a poet, it does not take kindly to his retort, "Poet yourself." Longfellow, J. G. Holland and James Whitcombe Riley have been warmly commended by some of their brothers [Footnote: See O. W. Holmes, To Longfellow; P. H. Hayne, To Henry W. Longfellow; T. B. Read, A Leaf from the Past; E. C. Stedman, J. G. H.; P. L. Dunbar, James Whitcombe Riley; J. W. Riley, Rhymes of Ironquill.] for their promiscuous friendliness, but on the whole there is a tendency on the part of the public to sniff at these poets, as well as at those who commend them, because they make themselves so common. One may deride the public's inconsistency, yet, after all, we have not to read many pages of the "homely" poets before their professed ability to get down to the level of the "common man" begins to remind one of pre-campaign speeches.
There seems to be nothing for the poet to do, then, but to accept the hostility of the world philosophically. There are a few notable examples of the poet even welcoming the solitude that society forces upon him, because it affords additional opportunity for self-communion. Everyone is familiar with Wordsworth's insistence that uncompanionableness is essential to the poet. In the Prelude he relates how, from early childhood,
I was taught to feel, perhaps too much, The self-sufficing power of solitude.
Elsewhere he disposes of the forms of social intercourse:
These all wear out of me, like Forms, with chalk Painted on rich men's floors, for one feast night. [Footnote: Personal Talk.]
So he describes the poet's character:
He is retired as noontide dew Or fountain in a noonday grove. [Footnote: The Poet's Epitaph.]
In American verse Wordsworth's mood is, of course, reflected in Bryant, and it appears in the poetry of most of Bryant's contemporaries. Longfellow caused the poet to boast that he "had no friends, and needed none." [Footnote: Michael Angelo.] Emerson expressed the same mood frankly. He takes civil leave of mankind:
Think me not unkind and rude That I walk alone in grove and glen; I go to the god of the wood, To fetch his word to men. [Footnote: The Apology.]
He points out the idiosyncrasy of the poet:
Men consort in camp and town, But the poet dwells alone. [Footnote: Saadi.]
Thus he works up to his climactic statement regarding the amplitude of the poet's personality:
I have no brothers and no peers And the dearest interferes; When I would spend a lonely day, Sun and moon are in my way. [Footnote: The Poet.]
Although the poet's egotism would seem logically to cause him to find his chief pleasure in undisturbed communion with himself, still this picture of the poet delighting in solitude cannot be said to follow, usually, upon his banishment from society. For the most part the poet is characterized by an insatiable yearning for affection, and by the stupidity and hostility of other men he is driven into proud loneliness, even while his heart thirsts for companionship.[Footnote: See John Clare, The Stranger, The Peasant Poet, I Am; James Gates Percival, The Bard; Joseph Rodman Drake, Brorix (1847); Thomas Buchanan Reade, My Heritage; Whittier, The Tent on the Beach; Mrs. Frances Gage, The Song of the Dreamer (1867); R. H. Stoddard, Utopia; Abram J. Ryan, Poets; Richard H. Dana, The Moss Supplicateth for the Poet; Frances Anne Kemble, The Fellowship of Genius (1889); F. S. Flint, Loneliness(1909); Lawrence Hope, My Paramour was Loneliness (1905); Sara Teasdale, Alone.] One of the most popular poet-heroes of the last century, asserting that he is in such an unhappy situation, yet declares:
For me, I'd rather live With this weak human heart and yearning blood, Lonely as God, than mate with barren souls. More brave, more beautiful than myself must be The man whom I can truly call my friend. [Footnote: Alexander Smith, A Life Drama.]
So the poet is limited to the companionship of rare souls, who make up to him for the indifference of all the world beside. Occasionally this compensation is found in romantic love, which flames all the brighter, because the affections that most people expend on many human relationships are by the poet turned upon one object. Apropos of the world's indifference to him, Shelley takes comfort in the assurance of such communion, saying to Mary,
If men must rise and stamp with fury blind On his pure name who loves them—thou and I, Sweet friend! can look from our tranquillity Like lamps into the world's tempestuous night,— Two tranquil stars, while clouds are passing by, That burn from year to year with inextinguished light. [Footnote: Introduction to The Revolt of Islam.]
But though passion is so often the source of his inspiration, the poet's love affairs are seldom allowed to flourish. The only alleviation of his loneliness must be, then, in the friendship of unusually gifted and discerning men, usually of his own calling. Doubtless the ideal of most nineteenth century writers would be such a jolly fraternity of poets as Herrick has made immortal by his Lines to Ben Jonson.[Footnote: The tradition of the lonely poet was in existence even at this time, however. See Ben Jonson, Essay on Donne.] A good deal of nineteenth century verse shows the author enviously dwelling upon the ideal comradeship of Elizabethan poets.[Footnote: Keats' Lines on the Mermaid Tavern, Browning's At the Mermaid, Watts-Dunton's Christmas at the Mermaid, E. A. Robinson's Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford, Josephine Preston Peabody's Marlowe, and Alfred Noyes' Tales of the Mermaid Inn all present fondly imagined accounts of the gay intimacy of the master dramatists. Keats, who was so generous in acknowledging his indebtedness to contemporary artists, tells, in his epistles, of the envy he feels for men who created under these ideal conditions of comradeship.] But multiple friendships did not flourish among poets of the last century,—at least they were overhung by no glamor of romance that lured the poet to immortalize them in verse. The closest approximation to such a thing is in the redundant complimentary verse, with which the New England poets showered each other to such an extent as to arouse Lowell's protest. [Footnote: See A Fable for Critics.] Even they, however, did not represent themselves as living in Bohemian intimacy. Possibly the temperamental jealousy that the philistine world ascribes to the artist, causing him to feel that he is the one elect soul sent to a benighted age, while his brother-artists are akin to the money-changers in the temple, hinders him from unreserved enjoyment even of his fellows' society. Tennyson's and Swinburne's outbreaks against contemporary writers appear to be based on some such assumption. [Footnote: See Tennyson, The New Timon and the Poet; Bulwer Lytton, The New Timon; Swinburne, Essay on Whitman. For more recent manifestation of the same attitude see John Drinkwater, To Alice Meynell (1911); Shaemas O'Sheel, The Poets with the Sounding Gong (1912); Robert Graves, The Voice of Beauty Drowned (1920).]
Consequently the poet is likely to celebrate one or two deep friendships in an otherwise lonely life. A few instances of such friendships are so notable, that the reader is likely to overlook their rarity. Such were the friendships of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and of Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, also that recorded in Landor's shaken lines:
Friends! hear the words my wandering thoughts would say, And cast them into shape some other day; Southey, my friend of forty years, is gone, And shattered with the fall, I stand alone.
The intimacy of Shelley and Byron, recorded in Julian and Maddalo, was of a less ardent sort. Indeed Byron said of it, "As to friendship, it is a propensity in which my genius is very limited.... I did not even feel it for Shelley, however much I admired him." [Footnote: Letter to Mrs. (Shelley?) undated.] Arnold's Thyrsis, Tennyson's In Memoriam, and more recently, George Edward Woodberry's North Shore Watch, indicate that even when the poet has been able to find a human soul which understood him, the friendship has been cut short by death. In fact, the premature close of such friendships has usually been the occasion for their celebration in verse, from classic times onward.
Such friendships, like happy love-affairs, are too infrequent and transitory to dissipate the poet's conviction that he is the loneliest of men. "Thy soul was like a star and dwelt apart," might have been written by almost any nineteenth century poet about any other. Shelley, in particular, in spite of his not infrequent attachments, is almost obsessed by melancholy reflection upon his loneliness. In To a Skylark, he pictures the poet "hidden in the light of thought." Employing the opposite figure in the Defense of Poetry, he says, "The poet is a nightingale who sits in darkness and sings to cheer his own solitude." Of the poet in Alastor we are told,
He lived, he died, he sung, in solitude.
Shelley's sense of his personal loneliness is recorded in Stanzas Written in Dejection, and also in Adonais. In the latter poem he says of himself,
He came the last, neglected and apart,
and describes himself as
companionless As the last cloud of an expiring storm, Whose thunder is its knell.
Victorian poets were not less depressed by reflection upon the poet's lonely life. Arnold strikes the note again and again, most poignantly in The Buried Life, of the poet's sensitive apprehension that all human intercourse is mockery, and that the gifted soul really dwells in isolation. Sordello is a monumental record of a genius without friends. Francis Thompson, with surface lightness, tells us, in A Renegade Poet on the Poet:
He alone of men, though he travel to the pit, picks up no company by the way; but has a contrivance to avoid scripture, and find a narrow road to damnation. Indeed, if the majority of men go to the nether abodes, 'tis the most hopeful argument I know of his salvation, for 'tis inconceivable that he should ever do as other men.
One might imagine that in the end the poet's poignant sense of his isolation might allay his excessive conceit. A yearning for something beyond himself might lead him to infer a lack in his own nature. Seldom, however, is this the result of the poet's loneliness. Francis Thompson, indeed, does feel himself humbled by his spiritual solitude, and characterizes himself,
I who can scarcely speak my fellows' speech, Love their love or mine own love to them teach, A bastard barred from their inheritance, * * * * * In antre of this lowly body set, Girt with a thirsty solitude of soul. [Footnote: Sister Songs.]
But the typical poet yearns not downward, but upward, and above him he finds nothing. Therefore reflection upon his loneliness continually draws his attention to the fact that his isolation is an inevitable consequence of his genius,—that he
Spares but the cloudy border of his base To the foiled searching of mortality. [Footnote: Matthew Arnold, Sonnet, Shakespeare.]
The poet usually looks for alleviation of his loneliness after death, when he is gathered to the company of his peers, but to the supreme poet he feels that even this satisfaction is denied. The highest genius must exist absolutely in and for itself, the poet-egoist is led to conclude, for it will "remain at heart unread eternally." [Footnote: Thomas Hardy, To Shakespeare.]
Such is the self-perpetuating principle which appears to insure perennial growth of the poet's egoism. The mystery of inspiration breeds introspection; introspection breeds egoism; egoism breeds pride; pride breeds contempt for other men; contempt for other men breeds hostility and persecution; persecution breeds proud isolation. Finally, isolation breeds deeper introspection, and the poet is ready to start on a second revolution of the egocentric circle.
THE MORTAL COIL
If I might dwell where Israfel Hath dwelt, and he where I, He might not sing so wildly well A mortal melody,
sighs Poe, and the envious note vibrates in much of modern song. There is an inconsistency in the poet's attitude,—the same inconsistency that lurks in the most poetical of philosophies. Like Plato, the poet sees this world as the veritable body of his love, Beauty,—and yet it is to him a muddy vesture of decay, and he is ever panting for escape from it as from a prison house.
One might think that the poet has less cause for rebellion against the flesh than have other men, inasmuch as the bonds that enthrall feebler spirits seem to have no power upon him. A blind Homer, a mad Tasso, a derelict Villon, an invalid Pope, most wonderful of all—a woman Sappho, suggest that the differences in earthly tabernacles upon which most of us lay stress are negligible to the poet, whose burning genius can consume all fetters of heredity, sex, health, environment and material endowment. Yet in his soberest moments the poet is wont to confess that there are varying degrees in the handicap which genius suffers in the mid-earth life; in fact ever since the romantic movement roused in him an intense curiosity as to his own nature, he has reflected a good deal on the question of what earthly conditions will least cabin and confine his spirit.
Apparently the problem of heredity is too involved to stir him to attempted solution. If to make a gentleman one must begin with his grandfather, surely to make a poet one must begin with the race, and in poems even of such bulk as the Prelude one does not find a complete analysis of the singer's forbears. In only one case do we delve far into a poet's heredity. He who will, may perchance hear Sordello's story told, even from his remote ancestry, but to the untutored reader the only clear point regarding heredity is the fusion in Sordello of the restless energy and acumen of his father, Taurello, with the refinement and sensibility of his mother, Retrude. This is a promising combination, but would it necessarily flower in genius? One doubts it. In Aurora Leigh one might speculate similarly about the spiritual aestheticism of Aurora's Italian mother balanced by the intellectual repose of her English father. Doubtless the Brownings were not working blindly in giving their poets this heredity, yet in both characters we must assume, if we are to be scientific, that there is a happy combination of qualities derived from more remote ancestors.
The immemorial tradition which Swinburne followed in giving his mythical poet the sun as father and the sea as mother is more illuminating, [Footnote: See Thalassius.] since it typifies the union in the poet's nature of the earthly and the heavenly. Whenever heredity is lightly touched upon in poetry it is generally indicated that in the poet's nature there are combined, for the first time, these two powerful strains which, in mysterious fusion, constitute the poetic nature. In the marriage of his father and mother, delight in the senses, absorption in the turbulence of human passions, is likely to meet complete otherworldliness and unusual spiritual sensitiveness.
There is a tradition that all great men have resembled their mothers; this may in part account for the fact that the poet often writes of her. Yet in poetical pictures of the mother the reader seldom finds anything patently explaining genius in her child. The glimpse we have of Ben Jonson's mother is an exception. A twentieth century poet conceives of the woman who was "no churl" as
A tall, gaunt woman, with great burning eyes, And white hair blown back softly from a face Etherially fierce, as might have looked Cassandra in old age. [Footnote: Alfred Noyes, Tales of the Mermaid Inn.]
In the usual description, however, there is none of this dynamic force. Womanliness, above all, and sympathy, poets ascribe to their mothers. [Footnote: See Beattie, The Minstrel; Wordsworth, The Prelude; Cowper, Lines on his Mother's Picture; Swinburne, Ode to his Mother; J. G. Holland, Kathrina; William Vaughan Moody, The Daguerreotype; Anna Hempstead Branch, Her Words.] A little poem by Sara Teasdale, The Mother of a Poet, gives a poetical explanation of this type of woman, in whom all the turbulence of the poet's spiritual inheritance is hushed before it is transmitted to him. Such a mother as Byron's, while she appeals to certain novelists as a means of intensifying the poet's adversities, [Footnote: See H. E. Rives, The Castaway (1904); J. D. Bacon, A Family Affair (1900).] is not found in verse. One might almost conclude that poets consider their maternal heritage indispensable. Very seldom is there such a departure from tradition as making the father bequeather of the poet's sensitiveness. [Footnote: A Ballad in Blank Verse, by John Davidson, is a rare exception.]
The inheritance of a specific literary gift is almost never insisted upon by poets, [Footnote: See, however, Anna Hempstead Branch, Her Words.] though some of the verse addressed to the child, Hartley Coleridge, possibly implies a belief in such heritage. The son of Robert and Mrs. Browning seems, strangely enough, considering his chance of a double inheritance of literary ability, not to have been the subject of versified prophecies of this sort. One expression by a poet of belief in heredity may, however, detain us. At the beginning of Viola Meynell's career, it is interesting to notice that as a child she was the subject of speculation as to her inheritance of her mother's genius. It was Francis Thompson, of course, who, musing on Alice Meynell's poetry, said to the little Viola,
If angels have hereditary wings, If not by Salic law is handed down The poet's laurel crown, To thee, born in the purple of the throne, The laurel must belong. [Footnote: Sister Songs.]
But these lines must not be considered apart from the fanciful poem in which they grow.
What have poets to say on the larger question of their social inheritance? This is a subject on which, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, at least, poets should have had ideas, and the varying rank given to their lyrical heroes is not without significance. The renaissance idea, that the nobleman is framed to enjoy, rather than to create, beauty,—that he is the connoisseur rather than the genius,—seems to have persisted in the eighteenth century, and at the beginning of the romantic movement to have combined with the new exaltation of the lower classes to work against the plausible view that the poet is the exquisite flowering of the highest lineage.
Of course, it is not to be expected that there should be unanimity of opinion among poets as to the ideal singer's rank. In several instances, confidence in human egotism would enable the reader to make a shrewd guess as to a poet's stand on the question of caste, without the trouble of investigation. Gray, the gentleman, as a matter of course consigns his "rustic Milton" to oblivion. Lord Byron follows the fortunes of "Childe" Harold. Lord Tennyson usually deals with titled artists. [Footnote: See Lord Burleigh, Eleanore in A Becket, and the Count in The Falcon.] Greater significance attaches to the gentle birth of the two prominent fictional poets of the century, Sordello and Aurora Leigh, yet in both poems the plot interest is enough to account for it. In Sordello's case, especially, Taurello's dramatic offer of political leadership to his son suffices to justify Browning's choice of his hero's rank. [Footnote: Other poems celebrating noble poets are The Troubadour, Praed; The King's Tragedy, Rossetti; David, Charles di Trocca, Cale Young Rice.]