Eneas Sweetland Dallas



Poetics: An Essay on Poetry


The Nature of Poetry
I. The Law of Imagination
II. The Law of Harmony
III. The Law of Unconsciousness

The Lyric



The Nature of Poetry.


[43] HERE again comes the old salutation, What is Poetry? Most persons think they know what it is well enough, but, if they try, they will find that they know it no better than Augustine knew Time: If you ask me, he says, what Time is, I cannot tell; but I know very well if you do not ask me. As though some wicked sphinx were the questioner, no sooner are we asked what poetry is than all poetry has fled, and is seen like the mirage far away behind us and before. I am in hopes that in treading this wilderness, the foregoing remarks will afford a clue, so that we may find our way to something like a sure and definite answer. Let it only be remembered that by poetry is meant poetic feeling, however it may have been awakened, whether at first-hand by contact with nature, or at second-hand by converse with a poet; and further let it be granted that, although we have only to do with the nature of inward feelings, we are allowed to discover these by referring to their [44] objective expression in poesy. What kind of pleasure, then, is poetry?

It strikes one at a glance that it is pleasure of a very high order: of all mere earthly pleasures it is indeed the highest. There is, however, a more heavenly happiness. It hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive of bliss loftier than that ecstasy which fills the mind of the worshipper when in visionary hour he holds fellowship with God on high. Although this, our greatest joy, be not of needs poetic, we may still venture to say here what I shall afterwards endeavour to prove, that it is almost always attended by those activities which entitle it to the name of poetry. Its noblest title is that which it receives by charter of inspiration – Joy of the Holy Ghost; but it does not scorn the meaner title, and this title it shares with the very lowest of our pleasures. In days of chivalry, a king was not born a knight any more than a squire was: they had both to win their spurs. In like manner, neither the most spiritual nor the most sensuous pleasure is of itself poetry, but any and every pleasure may become so. Poetry has thus a very wide range: it embraces every pleasure of which man is capable, and gives it a peculiar tone; a tone with regard to which it will ever hold good, that of two minds enjoying the same thing, the one in poetic, the other in unpoetic mood, the former has a pleasure more refined, keener better far than that which is felt by the latter.



Chapter I.  The Law of Imagination.


[45] BUT by the question, What kind of pleasure is poetry? we are at once launched into a consideration of the first law. For, as was remarked in closing the analysis of pleasure, the third law slides into the second, and both slide into the first, like the pieces of a telescope; so that to ask what kind of pleasure this or that may be, is simply to ask what may be the kind of its activity. In the present case, Shakspere will answer:

"The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
 Are of imagination all compact."

He speaks of three individuals having the same build; but there is not that difference between them which would enable us logically to divide them into three. They might all very well exist in one and the same person, like those three suns which Edward and Richard saw rise on the plain near Mortimer's Cross, and which were immediately afterwards resolved into one. As one and the same goddess was called Luna in heaven. [46] Diana on earth, and Hecate in the shades below, so one and the same man is loftily hailed a poet, is called in commonplace a lover, and is damned by the name of a lunatic.

But it is not necessary to prove that imagination is the kind of activity belonging to poetry: the fact is unquestioned. By imagination Stewart and some others understand the faculty which looks? to the possible but unknown – as a hippogriff – what the schools called beings of reason, entia rationis; and the mirror of the real they have called, in defiance of philosophic usage, conception. Imagination is in these pages employed with the double meaning – as the faculty which represents every show possible to sense, the productive and the reproductive Logos.

Although warmth of imagination is the mark by which poetry has ever and everywhere been distinguished from, other pleasure, an objection to this doctrine very naturally arises; and we ought to determine precisely how we are to understand it. Imagination either enters into or plays about every word that we utter, and almost every thought that we think. The shows of the sensuous world fall upon the mind, like oil dropt upon water, to spread a film of glorious colouring on the surface of every thought and every feeling. It may therefore be objected that imagination belongs in no especial manner to poetic apart from other pleasure and that the only difference in this respect is one of [47] degree. Imagination mingles with every pleasure, but the largest share goes to poetry. This is true; but it is not the less true that a difference of degree will often in a certain sense constitute a difference of kind. Add a little warmth and ice will become water; a little more heat will turn the water into steam. Thus will a mere increase of imagination thaw the most stubborn reason, melt the hardest prose, and make it flow forth in song; and thus, too, might we speak of genius as different from talent. There is, of course, no authoritative means of ascertaining –by measure, by weight or by tale – the exact amount of imagination that renders pleasure poetic: each mind, each country, as every atmosphere, every climate, has a standard of its own. And every pleasure, too, has a degree of its own at which it becomes poetry, just as ice, glass, and iron have each a degree at which they melt. Not to carry the comparison further, I will only add, that as some things in nature are always found fluid, so certain moods of the mind, such as love and feeling generally, contain so much imagination as to be almost always poetic. Love, whatever its kind, is the staple of our daily and homebred poetry. For as the opposite affections are owing to a want of faith, so love bursts from the fulness of faith, and faith itself is the ripe fruit of a strong and full-blown imagination – hope.

Imagination is the most stirring faculty that we have. Hobbes but a very little overshoots the mark when he [48] declares that it is the source of all other activity, "the first internal beginner of voluntary motion." His remark would be absolutely true, were it not for those instances in which it originates action only as the occasional cause, and as the sun may be said to cause the business of the day. While imagination is actually our dominant faculty, it is potentially second to a higher – that of spirit or the pure reason; to which it stands in nearly the same relation that a grand vizier bears to a sultan. It wields the influence which rightfully belongs to the higher power, and which the higher power is in our present condition too weak or too sluggish to wield for itself. Between that power and our lower powers, between spirit and our senses, it stands as a minister between the crown and the commons; and according as it advances the interests of the one or of the other, its influence is good or bad. Shelley has said that imagination is the great instrument of good: he ought to have added that it is also the great instrument of evil. Being the interpreter between sense and spirit, it can either spiritualize the former, or sensualize the latter. It will always raise mere sense above itself, and so far well; but, on the other hand, it may degrade spirit, not indeed by the simple fact of giving it a sensuous expression, for it must do so, yet by giving an expression so grossly sensuous that the spiritual meaning is overlaid, if a sensual is not also added. There is undoubtedly danger of this: in its own place, however [49] imagination will always be an helpmeet to that noblest faculty by which we behold spiritual truth; it will give a support that is thankfully received. As we are not satisfied with the heat of a stove, but like to see the face of the fire – a sight that although it cannot make us warmer, will give a livelier sensation of warmth, even so without having power of itself to increase our spiritual knowledge, imagination is able and always endeavours to render it more plain and palpable.

Our knowledge of imagination and of its workings, must depend upon our knowledge of its objects. The faculty and its object are correlatives, each unintelliible, each impossible, without the other. We are therefore driven on to the second law of poetry, the law of harmony.

Before turning to this, however, a few words will not here be misplaced in reference to a question very important as touching the history of art. At what age is the imagination in fullest bloom? In the youth both of men and of races, it is commonly said, whereas there seems to be good ground for the doubt expressed by Samuel Johnson, Dugald Stewart and others, with regard to this wide-spread notion. The notion, indeed, is not founded on facts, but rather on the want of facts. For all the masterpieces of art, so far as known to us, have been the offspring of an age far removed from infancy, as was the age of Homer, the age of Pericles, the Augustan era, that of Al Mamoun among the Arabians, [50] that of Dante in Italy, of Chaucer in England, the date of Leo X., the Elizabethan period in England, the same period in Spain, the time of Louis XIV., and, not to descend later, the days of Queen Anne. Whence, then, has risen the idea? It has arisen in the first place from observing that imagination is by far the powerfullest faculty of youth, that at a more advanced stage it is not relatively so much more powerful than the other faculties, and thence leaping to the conclusion that in the interval it has been weakened. It has really been strengthened, but the other faculties have been strengthened much more, so that there is not the same disproportion as formerly. It has also arisen from finding that the most perfect kind of poesy, the lyrical, begins to flourish earliest, and supposing that to begin with the highest kind is a proof of the highest poetical gift. From which it would follow that the famed Provençal minstrels, who have not left behind them a single great name, are to be placed above him who is supreme in the lower sphere of the drama.



Chapter II.  The Law of Harmony.


[51] THUS far have we arrived in the analysis – that as all pleasure is a concord produced while the mind is in a state of activity, so poetic pleasure is a concord produced while that activity is charged more or less with imagination. The concord therefore will he intensified, imagination having that power. It is the grand harmonist of life; it is the interpreter and peacemaker between mind and matter; it supplies the connecting links between thought and thought; it enters largely into the composition of faith, and, cemented by faith, it forms the pillars and the arches of society. Harmony is its chief end.

Such a concord is of two kinds: it may be imaginary, or it may be only imaginative. An imaginary concord is an agreement between Self and a mental representation of objective reality, as Yarrow yet un visited was to the mind of Wordsworth. The concord is simply imaginative when our nature harmonizes with reality [52] itself, something being added, and perhaps also something cancelled by imagination, as when Wordsworth for a summer month gazed upon the sea by Peele Castle, and beheld upon it "the light that never was on sea or land." Imagination enters wholly into the former, into the latter only in part.

Neither of these should be overlooked, and from the stand-point of the poet himself we shall see both. Bacon, however, in his celebrated definition, has taken account only of the former, and indeed from his peculiar point of view, the latter could hardly be seen. Appearing simply as a reader of poesy, and asking himself what he there found, he said that it is a concord wholly imaginary – "a creation, submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind." But those thoughts and feelings which are second-hand, which are wholly representative, which are imaginary, to us who get them by reading, are original in the poet's mind, and spring from contact with reality. Nothing need here be said of the former, the imaginary concord, as it is largely illustrated in the common psychological textbooks: we turn to that imaginative agreement wherein the mind is face to face with reality, and the imagination appears only as an helpmeet.

There are two realities with which man is privileged to hold communion, a spiritual and a sensuous, God and Nature. By widely different powers do we behold these realities: the spirit has no eye for the natural [53] and mere sense cannot see the divine. The two powers, however, are connected, and the realities which they regard are bridged by the imagination. Imagination is the ladder reaching from earth to heaven, a musical ladder from sense to spirit.

But while imagination is a fellow-worker both with spirit and with sense, it must evidently have a different manner of working with each. God is always far more than we can think of, whereas Nature does not always come up to our wish. If, therefore, on the one hand, it has to raise nature, on the other, it must rise to God. Bacon says, that while the imagination is employed in adapting the shows of things to the heart's desire, it is the part of reason to buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things. But this is only true for the things of sense: the province of the imagination in spiritual things is to buckle and bow the mind to embrace these as they are. It has thus always a twofold work to accomplish – a subjective as well as an objective raising; in the one case, exalting the realities of sense to our human ideal; in the other, elevating our human thought to a mount from which, as from Carmel and Pisgah, or on which, as on Horeb, Sinai and Tabor, spiritual realities may be witnessed.

If this judgment be well grounded, it will enable us to see the one-sidedness and utter weakness of Johnson's daring assertion, that there can be no religious [54] poesy; a statement put so plausibly that such men as Christopher North, John Keble, and James Montgomery have thought it worth their while to sift it in detail, and almost word by word; and which, often as it has been thus called in question, has not often been fairly rebutted. Johnson carries all before him, if you but admit that his definition of poetry (the same as that of Bacon) is sufficiently broad; if you admit that poesy always pleases "by exhibiting an idea more grateful to the mind than things themselves afford." The essential part of this definition says, that in poesy a grateful ideal is presented to the mind; it is unessential whether that ideal be more or less than reality. In saying that it must always be more, Johnson begs the whole question; and if this be granted, all is lost; for truly Omnipotence cannot be exalted. Infinity cannot be amplified. Perfection cannot be improved. Reply, however, that religious poesy seeks not to heighten the Divine, but to raise our minds to the perception of the Divine, and he in turn is foiled. His theory is thus at fault à priori; and à posteriori it fares no better. For although it be most true that pure spirit can easily as a sunbeam soar to altitudes which, from want of buoyant air, the wings of imagination can never approach, yet whenever it ventures to employ language (and Johnson would most assuredly not allow that worship ceases to be spiritual when it ceases to be silent) it must evidently have descended into that cloudy region which [55] belongs to imagination even more than to itself; and there, what wonder if the shiny visions of spirit, and the lark-like music of fancy, cross, blend and thrill through each other, as living warp and woof. A distinction however must be noticed between the poetry of heathen worship and that of Christian, since according as our ideal happens to be above or below reality, the work of imagination will be more or less essential. With heathen poets the imagination runs riot and enters the soul of the most spiritual conceptions; for with the most intense anthropomorphism they adapted the nature of their gods to their own desires. The Christian poets endeavour to reach an uncreated God and allow imagination go with them only to the door.

SENSOUS concords – which we must run over very rapidly – may be classed under the five senses. Some philosophers would make six, seven, and even eight senses; but the common reckoning is the most trustworthy.

Of all our senses, hearing seems to be the most poetical; and because it requires most imagination. We do not simply listen to sounds, but whether they be articulate or inarticulate, we are constantly translating them into the language of sight, with which we are better acquainted; and this is a work of the imaginative faculty.

Of seeing, it is nothing beyond a truism to observe [56] that the mere view of any one thing, however agreeable to the eye, is not poetical. Beauty is never a unit; it is plural. (Compare Book III., Part I., Chap. I.) Apart from the associations which belong to them, the sight of a cloudless sky, of a waveless sea, of a green grass plot, does not make poetry. But let any of these be combined with other objects – a sky with clouds or stars, a sea with ships or porpoises, a grassplot with daisies or buttercups; and there is a vision before you which, without help of imagination, you cannot look at so as truly to see it, that is, so as to be able afterwards to picture it before your mind's eye. You cannot behold two things together and recognise them as joined, without imagination; and it is for this reason, that, with all their staring, many see so little. If not one nor two, but dozens and scores of things are mingled together in one picture, as they mostly are, it is not difficult to understand how any gazer whose glance will take them all in, or so much as a tithe, is beholden to imagination even more than to sense. So that the mere survey of anything, especially anything beautiful, whose outline is filled with details not a few, is an act which requires so much imagination as will of itself almost suffice to raise that act to the rank of poetry. And when it is furthermore remembered that the exercise of imagination in one way will be followed by its exercise in many other ways, and must in this instance give motion, by the known laws [57] of association, to innumerable trains of thonght, all beginning in the present show, and connecting it with the past, with the absent and with the future, it will readily be acknowledged that the act must needs be poetical. No man can really behold a landscape, so that, when he turns away, it shall hang like a picture in his mind, and he could sketch it, if he had the art of pencilling, but the mood of his mind so engaged is entitled to the name of poetry.

Smell, however agreeable, is not of itself poetical, but along with other sensations, as the sight of whence it comes, it approaches poetry. And it may be put generally, that any two or more blending sensations enliven and ennoble each other; the sight and hearing of a waterfall, the sight and smell of a rose, the sight and feeling of fire, the sight, taste, and flavour of a pineapple. It is not simply that two pleasures are better than one, but that to encompass both in one act of the mind requires a more perfect, above all, a more active, faculty than mere sense.

Taste is more liable than any other sense to run into grossness, and we take great pains to avoid this. Every boy knows the bad policy of slipping his sugar plums one by one from his pocket into his mouth as fast as he can munch them; and very seldom will he do so, unless from sheer satiety. He understands right well that his pleasure will be heightened in kind as well as strengthened in degree, if he treat his eyes along with his pa[58]late, and stop sometimes to think of the dainty before him. All children have this scientific way of eating, when they eat for enjoyment. And so at the festive board, we attempt by the embellishment of the table, by the witchery of music, and, above all, by the fountains of conversation, to raise the entertainment from that of a mere feed up to a banquet whereof a poet might partake, and which might not be unworthy of his song.

Under the name of touch is comprehended a number of impressions which differ from each other more widely than do the varieties of any other sense, yet few of them blossom into poetry, and still fewer bear the fruits of poesy. Perhaps the reason is not that they are of a grovelling nature, but that, from their being so customary, we pay little attention to them. And if so, we are bound in all modesty not to deny that those who do cultivate the sensations may find them poetical. Scratching the head is a notable way of getting ideas together, and Sir John Suckling seems to have regarded it as not unpoetical; for in his Aglaura, a play which, although it begins in meanness and confusion like a root underground, yet ends in a brilliant flower, he makes not only a lord of the council, but even a prince of the blood perform the operation when feeling at a loss. And have you never read that John Philips, the poet, when at school, would, instead of playing with the other boys, retire to his chamber, and there enjoy what to [59] him was the sovereign pleasure of sitting hour by hour while his hair was combed for him! Of the fine perceptions of that Eastern princess, who, for three hard lumps, raised by three small peas placed underneath the countless layers of feather and down on which she reclined, was utterly unable to sleep, thereby proving her royalty, who will say that they were imfitted to afford her noble pleasure? And who knows but the happiness of the Hindoo dying with a cowtail in his hand may be sublime as hers who breathes her last in a kiss? About such things we must not dispute – the rather, since, of the five palaces built by Vathek to the five senses, that raised to the sense of touch was called the Dangerous. This at least may readily be granted, that a great part of the exhilarating pleasures derived from animal exercise, swimming, riding, running, leaping, and the rest, are contributed by the sense of touch.

Although in the definition of poetry put forth by Bacon and endorsed by Johnson, they deny that those spiritual, and overlook that those other enjoyments which we have been considering, belong to the domain of the poetic; it is right, before leaving this subject, to add that the language of Bacon on this head, as on many another, is sometimes so framed as to stretch like india-rubber, and take in more than he seems to have intended; and that, while Johnson's opinion, as formally expressed in the life of Waller, is thus narrow, and a good illustration of his own oracle, (would it were [60] not always a true oracle) that to circumscribe poetry by a definition will only show the narrowness of the definer, he has not only in other places given glimpses of a more extended theory, but in one remarkable passage, occurring in the life of Milton, has gone the length of stating with his unfailing downrightness, and so broadly as to shame all other attempts of the kind, that whatever pleasure finds a welcome in every bosom must needs be poetic: "that cannot be unpoetic with which all are pleased."



Chapter III.  The Law of Unconsciousniss.


[61] MENTION is made in certain histories of a piece of music composed by Al Farabi (the philosopher who spoke seventy languages), and played before Seifeddoula, Sultan of Syria, the first movement of which threw the prince and his courtiers into fits of laughter (mere imaginative activity); the next melted all into tears (the sense of incongruity vanishing, and sympathy or harmony taking its place); while the last, grandest of all, lulled even the performers to sleep. The story may be taken as an allegory showing that the nobler activities of the mind require the unconsciousness not only of those in whom they are awakened, but also of the awakeners. With the unconsciousness of the artists we have nothing at present to do : that is a subject belonging properly to the theory of poesy. Here we are to treat of unconsciousness as the last and highest law of poetry.

To satisfy the ghost of Locke, let the question be waved, whether in very sound sleep the imagination or any other part of the mind is at work. It will, [62] however, be generally allowed, that in slumber it accomplishes its most astonishing feats, and that this can be said of no other faculty, unless of spirit, whose unconsciousness – the unconsciousness of the entranced seer, is still deeper. This unconsciousness, in the midst of which, and according as it becomes greater, the imagination revels with greater and greater freedom, is the crowning bliss – the native element, of poetry.

We might arrive at the same conclusion by another route. It must be evident that there are but three possible states of the mind, the poetic, the unpoetic or prosaic, and the antipoetic or philosophic. (The prosaic might also be called the unphilosophic.) Prosing cannot be the antipode of poetry, as is sometimes supposed, any more than is indifference the opposite of love; but is that dull, vacant state of the mind, when it has no eye for beauty, and no ear for truth. Philosophy and poetry, however, are true opposites; every active mind being always engaged either in philosophizing or in poetizing, according to its power. And wherein do philosophy and poetry stand opposed? They may be regarded, each as the work of the whole mind, but evolved from opposite poles. The mind, when philosophizing, dwells in the subjective or self; when poetizing, it is thrown into the objective or unself; as a consequence of which it is self-conscious in the one case, in the other self-forgetting. Very much, indeed, of what people study under the name of science or of philosophy ought [63] not so to be termed; for the science really is what Coleridge, with his never-failing happiness, has called "a fairy tale of nature," and the philosophy, not being reflective but contemplative, is called most truly poetic philosophy. Poetry, says Longinus, always brings us to an ecstacy (ἕκστασις) – an outgoing or outstanding. In this broad sense it may be said of every man in his station that he is either a poet or a philosopher. Jago is too self-conscious for a poet; he is one of those philosophers called men of the world, a thoroughly selfish sharper, who declares that in following the Moor, he follows but himself. On the other hand, look at Othello. Othello, the hero and the lover, is a poet – entirely under the rule of dreams, and who so far forgets himself as to destroy the very being where (in his own language) he had garnered up his heart. The life of such a one, as Campbell said of Sir Philip Sidney, is poetry done into action; and still more forcibly has this been expressed by Ben Jonson, who, remarkably happy as he was in his epitaphs, both those which he gave and that which he got, perhaps never wrote a finer one than the following on his son, which indeed would be perfect but for peace and piece, one sound with two meanings.

"Rest in soft peace, and, askt, say here doth lye
 Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry."

A child is the very personification of poetry, it is so unconscious.

[64] The unconsciousness of poetic feeling will further be manifest, if it can be shown that self-consciousness in any form is hurtful to poesy. This will not be difficult. There are three forms in which self-consciousness is most liable to be intruded into a poem, namely, as didactic, as artistic, and as satiric; and none of these can be admitted into a poem without doing much harm.

Take the didactic strain for instance. It is an object with poesy to direct the mind as well as to please. The mind may be directed in two ways; either by precept or by example, either by teaching or by training. The exposition of how, when, and where, as on a map, is teaching; the exercises of a gymnasium constitute training. We see both these methods employed in the services of the Church, in some places the one, and in some the other, being deemed the more important. Sermons are for the most part precept: they expose the anatomy of our own and of other bodies, the arrangements of the different parts, the purposes they falfil, how they act and how they are acted on; the other services, confession, praise, and prayer, are exercises, a noble running, leaping, and wrestling to fit us for battling with the world and becoming fellow-workers with God. The former is instruction in the theory, the latter is instruction in the practice, of a divine music. Now it is in this latter way that the poet endeavours to influence the mind, trusting in the unconscious power of a sympathy that instinctively leads us to imitate whatever we [65] can be brought to admire, and stamps upon our souls, for better for worse, the likeness of that which we attempt to imitate; at least, it is in this way that he endeavours to influence the mind by poems of the dramatic and of the lyrical order. Narrative poems are more akin to sermons in the manner of their influence; but it is to be observed that even sermons have the two methods of influencing. Thus, if the preacher, discoursing about faith, should tell his hearers what it is, and how, and why, and when, and through whom, and by whom, and by what means, it is called into exercise, – should proclaim the duty and the rewards of believing, – should declare the danger of not believing, and should entreat all by their hopes and by their fears to believe and live, his sermon would be of the preceptive order; but if, on the other hand, without saying a word about that faith to awaken which is the supposed aim of his discourse, he should endeavour by a recital of marvellous Power, Wisdom, and Love to place the object of faith vividly before the mind's eye, expecting it thus to be awakened unaware, and as it were by infection from himself, his sermon would belong to the other, the less conscious order. It is in this way that the narrative poet commonly influences the mind; but when his narrative is didactic, he affects the mind by the former, the conscious, method, as in Sir John Davies' poem on the Immortality of the Soul, and in the Georgics of Virgil. The Georgics are considered [66] as Virgil's most finished performance, yet, with the exception of certain episodes which are nothing to the point, they are seldom read out of school. This of itself may show that the conscious method of instruction is unfit for poesy. Of all kinds of poesy, the didactic is that which is least admired, and, from the foregoing short analysis, it will he seen that, as its very name indicates, it differs from every other kind of poesy by being more self-conscious. It is fair therefore to conclude that this kind of self-consciousness at any rate is harmful to poetic feeling.

It needs not to say, but only as a reminder, that the self-consciousness of the artist as such is also damaging to the poesy in which it appears. There are a hundred ways in which it may thus show itself. In the Lay of the Last Minstrel, for instance, we see the antiquarian memory of the poet ever and anon checking his fancy. Thus in Canto IV. 31,

"I know right well that in their lay,
 Full many minstrels sing and say
   Such combat should be made on horse."

Then, again (Canto II. 22,) as if half afraid that his story may be too much for the reader's faith, he puts in such a makeweight as the following :

"I cannot tell how the truth may be;
 I say the tale as 'twas said to me."

Other examples will be found in Cantos V. 6 V. 13 [67] VI. 5. Twice however in the course of the poem such statements come in with very great effect; namely in Canto III. 10,

"Now if you ask who gave the stroke,
 I cannot tell, so mot I thrive:
 It was not given by man alive;"

and again in Canto VI. at the end of the seventh stanza. But the greatest art is to conceal art. The poet is often to his own hurt tempted to let out the secret of his skill. Wordsworth not seldom allows a glimpse behind the scenes and one cannot sufficiently wonder at the hardihood with which he allows it in the midst of that splendid picture which contains the following lines:

"The appearance instantaneously disclosed
 Was of a mighty palace – boldly say
 A wilderness of building."

The school of Boileau, confessedly wanting in genius, has received the praise at least of great art and great taste; yet how clumsy is the art, what can he more tasteless than the art, which directed the French Aristarque, as he is called, to give every the most worthless reading of his various verses! The most laughable instance of this kind is aiforded by another Frenchman, Olivier Maillard, who (about 1500) at a time when it was considered graceful for the preachers to cough as they harangued, published a sermon in which he has |68] taken good care by means of hemm, hemm written in the margin, to point out all the places where he had thus cleared his throat.

As by the didactic and by the artistic, so also by a satiric self-consciousness, poetry is weakened and worsened. Some persons, who are very nice in their poetic taste, will none of wit, whatsoever the quality. By their account, wit is very superficial – abashed in presence of its betters, so that, wherever found, we are assured there can be nothing better along with it. The answer returned is, that froth may be seen even on the deepest waters. In both statements there is an inkling of truth. Wit is certainly not produced where there is any depth, but the energy of the deep passes on to the shallows of the shore, and the sparkling foam which rises there floats out again to sea. Wit is among the fruits of poesy what crabs are among apples, small and often very sour, but the stock from which all have sprung. It is always very difficult to distinguish between friendly wit and poesy, or to say when an expression passes from the one to the other. But there are two kinds of wit, and in one of these kinds is an element which will perhaps explain the misgivings and dislike aforesaid; there is more than wit, there is a sneer. The poet makes us at once pleased with his expression, displeased with his butt; and this jarring of poetic and antipoetic, this duplicity of feeling gives rise to the doubt. Not that satire is always unpoetic [69] it is highly poetic when fired by indignation and wrath; and only when built of cold and heartless mockeries does it fall from this rank. When the satirist wreaks his vengeance by a free and joyous sprite, like the delicate Ariel, every hit, every stroke is a musical beat; but when he has for his minister a close genius, like the little devil that Paracelsus kept prisoner in the pummel of his sword, it will be indeed a wonder if we have much of poetry. Every sneer is an icy thought, a contraction of the mind into itself. We therefore conclude that this kind of self-consciousness also is hurtfal to poetry.

Not only, however, is the poesy weak and sickly where such tares are allowed to grow, but even the finest, the richest, crop is blighted when such mildew falls upon it from the reader. So long as a man chooses to lie trenched within his own mind, he will neither laugh at a jest, nor admire the daring confidence of still higher imaginations; all will be foolishness. And this is very easy; nothing easier than faultfinding; the virtues of a good mouser will do it all. Let us hope that the day of such criticism is gone or far spent, and not soon to return; the day, when as a serpent could not become a dragon without devouring another serpent, a writer cannot become a critic worthy of the name, without first preying upon a brother penman. It is indeed a question whether we are not now going to the other extreme of praising so lavishly, so indiscri[70]minately, that the praise is about as valuable as the delighted cries of a whole henroost when each new egg is laid, whether its destiny be addle or not. It is however the more amiable weakness, and the temper which it indicates a very happy one. Self-consciousness must no doubt belong to the critic in a high degree; but if tainted with the corruption of sneers, will it not be what is called a little too high? It will not be easy to get a pithier description of a good critic than that which Winstanley gives of Matthew Paris, when speaking of his history: "Though he had sharp nails, he had clean hands."

It cannot be denied that the three forms of self-consciousness which have now been referred to, namely the didactic, the artistic, and the satiric, are dangerous to poesy; but unbelief, another form of the same, and which might almost be regarded as a variety of the satiric, is often quietly, if never broadly, asserted, to be in keeping with a poetic state of mind, nay essential to its perfectness. We shall see.

Says Lorenzo to Jessica, "Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold;" and a little boy asks his mother, "Are not the stars nails in the floor of heaven?" Overlooking wholly the manner in which the man gave forth his idea, and the way in which the boy gave his, it will be seen that the feelings of both were the very same up to a certain point both felt poetry, only the former, a moment afterwards, knew that he had been dreaming, while the latter knew it [71] not. People will at once allow that the man felt poetry, but the claims of the boy will perhaps be gainsaid, and simply because he was not so far awake as to know what he was about. In like manner, when we speak of a blushing rose or of a dewy pearl, our words are esteemed poetical; but the Laplanders, who were a held that pearls were truly hardened dewdrops, are not deemed at all poetical, but very matter-of-fact; and simply because they firmly believed what they beautifully imagined. The Greek legend of Aphrodite, the seaborn goddess, and that other legend of the Centaurs, make fine poetry; but there is no poetry, nothing but hard prose, when the West Indians imagine that the Spaniards have indeed sprung from the foam of the sea, and when the Mexicans in their hearts think that the cavalry of Cortes are half man, half horse. According to this view, whatever we can believe, whether the tricks of a fairy, the wonders of science, the rising of the dead, or the dying of a God, would be naught for the poet; and those who read a romance without scenting its utter falsehood, never discover its poetry. The Utopia of Sir Thomas More has justly been regarded as a prose poem. Many, we are told, who took up the book on its first appearance, without being forewarned of its real character, were so thoroughly assured of its truthfulness, that learned men (the very names of some are [72] not withheld, Budeus and Johannes Paludanus) earnestly wished that preachers of the gospel could he sent to convert those islanders whose manners and customs were so pleasing; and sundry in England were very eager to undertake the voyage. Who has not heard also of the reverend gentleman who closed Gulliver's travels with the remark that there were some things in that book which – he – could – not – believe? But little knowledge had these men of poetry, the former none whatever.

If this, the view of Touckstone, and of many greater than he in the same calling, be correct; if poetry be of needs a fable, and its wordgarb a self-bewraying sham, then let every one be heartily thankful whom, with Audrey, the gods have not made poetical. But Mr Touchstone is so great a lover of motley, that he will not quarrel with us if – were it only for the sake of motley – we take a different view, and say that poetiy is poetry only so long as we believe it. The afterthought or awakening is its deathblow, is nothing more than the knowledge that we had been dreaming. The mythology of Greece was poetry to the Greeks, not although, but because they believed it; and it is poetry to us only so long and so far as we can do the same. In the other view, poesy is lowered into a mere word-game, a kind of leasing where we utter self-evident lies by way of amusement, as when we speak of rage boiling when everybody knows that it cannot boil. The mind is thus [73] but playing with itself at bo-peep or hide-and-seek; and if so, we cannot wonder at the old divine who calls poesy the wine of devils, vinum dæmonum; for, being mere fiction or riddle, its advantages become as doubtful and of the same order as that thievery and guile which were allowed the youth of Sparta.

Perhaps an example will show more clearly the need of unconscious believing for the full enjoyment of poesy, whatever may be its real worth. Here are lines known to every one.

          "Behold the throne
Of Chaos, and his dark pavilion spread
Wide on the wasteful deep: with him enthroned
Sat sable-vested Night, eldest of things,
The consort of his reign; and by them stood
Orcus and Ades and the dreaded name
Of Demogorgon!"

We are so drawn out of ourselves by the preceding description, that we come to accept with childlike faith the revelation afterwards given of a name standing side by side with living giants; we believe it, wonder and rejoice. But when Hayley, in his Epitaph on Cowper, says the very same after his own fashion:

"England, exulting in his spotless fame.
 Ranks with her dearest sons his favourite name;"

we have neither belief, wonder nor joy; surely anything but these. For why? we have been walking on flats all the way, looking at our feet and picking our [74] steps; we have never once so far forgotten ourselves as to allow a mortal man palm a rhyme upon our reason. Could we bring ourselves to believe it, imagination the while struggling to encompass it, all glorious and poetic would it be, even as the revelation of Milton. And we may say, generally, that whenever and however faith is thus excited under a press of imagination (which in truth it always is and must be by a necessity of the imaginative faculty) the state of mind so produced, if compared with that in which we read lofty poesy, will be found at bottom to be the very same. This will best be seen in an extreme case.

Æschylus more than once speaks of seeing a sound; others of the Greek poets the same, and among them we find even Sophocles; Buffon somewhere says of the dog, that it sees a smell (qu'il voit l'odorat); and Wordsworth speaks of an eye both deaf and silent. Thus to endow one sense whith the powers of another is one of the most daring outrages that poesy can commit upon our common sense; it is a stumbling-block in every one's way, it will startle most, it will disgust not a few. No great bard can be guilty of such an extravagance, but when soaring to the loftiest heights of lyrical song, and no reader can endure it unless hurried onward recklessly, believingly and joyfally before a mighty rushing wind. All right: he takes it for granted, and away he goes without stopping to think. If he stop to think, [75] he will coldly sneer, and declare it to be nonsense; as the ice will break under a slow skater, which is, notwithstanding, strong enough to bear one skimming at full speed. Let the mind be arrested as it glances at lightning-pace over such a passage; and let us suppose it still confiding and pleased, but its heat much lowered and its speed much lessened: wherein does such a mood of mind differ from that of Sir Kenelm Digby when, with imagination wondering and pleased, he calmly and undoubtingly tells of a Spanish nobleman who could hear by his eyes, and see words as they fell from the lip? As he was ever the true, the

"Prevailing poet, whose undoubting mind
 Believed the magic wonders that he sung;"

so has he alone a deep sympathy with that song, who, for the time at least, regards it, word and thing, more certain than the everlasting hills. We therefore again conclude that the crosslights of self-consciousness are hurtful to poetic feeling.

[76] Having thus considered in due order the three laws of poetry, let us look to the result. In the First Book was examined the nature of Pleasure: in the present Book has been examined the nature of Poetic Pleasure. Poetic pleasure has been shown to differ from other pleasure by being imaginative, so that Poetry may shortly be defined to be Imaginative Pleasure; and if for the latter of these two words we substitute a definition, Poetry will then more fully be defined. The imaginative, harmonious, and unconscious activity of the soul. Although perhaps enough has now been brought forward to warrant this definition, I may be allowed in conclusion to cover it with a passage from a poet than whom, whatever may have been his practice, it may safely be said that, in the present century, no English poet, unless it be Coleridge, has evinced a deeper insight into the nature, into the ends, and into the requirements of poesy; and Coleridge excelled him not so much in the knowledge as in the understanding of these important points. Great, manifold, and manifest as were the failings of John Keats, perhaps in the whole history of letters there is not another instance to be found of a man dying so early and at the same time leaving so profound an impression upon the mind of his age; although indeed it must be admitted that his influence, however strong, is not likely to be lasting, and that erelong he will share the fate of Sir Philip Sidney, who, being the idol of his own day, is now little [77] heard of, far less known, and least of all read. The following lines will no doubt have been regarded as a mere ranting upcry of poesy by those of his readers who have not remarked the depth of meaning contained in all his utterances on this his favourite theme; and, for myself, I will own that years ago I passed over them without stopping to consider, far less to discover, the truth of which now, when better prepared, I can see that they are full. We do not understand Keats; we do not understand comets; perhaps we never will. Here are the lines:

                            "A drainless shower
Of light is poesy: 'tis the supreme of power;
'Tis might half-slumbering on its own right arm."

The first of these verses declares the first law of poetry, its imaginative activity; the next implies the second law, harmonious power; and the last proclaims the third law, unconscious might. Thus by a single glance and a short flight of the intuitive faculty, heights are attained which the understanding, footsore with trying to be surefooted, can reach only after much, long, painful, and painstaking clambering.

As in the case of pleasure, the foregoing definition accounts for the difficulty that has always been and ever will be felt in fully explaining the nature of poetry. There may be other reasons for failure, and for our knowing next to nothing of the laws of imagination, [78] while the laws of thought have been fathomed to the bottom; such as that the Thinker will have little imagination, and therefore little knowledge of its doings, while the Dreamer, having much, will be unable to wield the scalpel-knife of the former; but the main cause must evidently be the self-blindness occasioned by imaginative activity, and necessary to a sense of pleasure; a deficiency which can be entirely overcome only by a manysided mind of great reach, with great powers of memory; in short, by such a mind as never yet has appeared, and perhaps never will, – a dreamy Aristotle.




The Lyric.


[146] IN the drama, outward shows are represented; in the epic, these are represented while the hidden life is also exhibited; in the lyric is represented the inward life alone. Thus it will be seen that in the drama, things are shown as they appear; in the epic, things are shown not only as they appear but also as they are; in the lyric, things are what they seem, a perfect lyric being the perfect expression of feeling, and more than this, a perfect expression of the singer's own feeling. The highest lyric is never imitative. Great lyrics have indeed been written from a dramatic point of view, and perhaps in these romantic times the greater number have been so written. Seldom is Tennyson more dramatic than when he is most lyrical; dramatic in the sense of giving utterance to the supposed poetry of another, as well as in the sense of giving utterance to the supposed feelings of another: so that although he has written no regular drama, though he has reared no single [147] edifice of this kind to be compared with the palaces of an avowed dramatist, still his various pieces may be arranged, like the various houses of a town, into a mass of building not unworthy of a great dramatist. Here he builds a house for Shelley, here for Wordsworth, here for Coleridge, here for himself, here for the monks, here for the knights, here for the ladies. Such also is the character of most of our lyrical poesy, lyrical in form, imitative in conception; another illustration of the dramatism of Christian art. And it is for this reason that the English have so signally failed in the lyric that you can almost count on the fingers of one hand all the songs in the English language that are worthy of the name, at least, all those written by Englishmen. The English poets, whose stronghold has ever been the drama, where truly they have outshone all rivalry, have the dramatic rage so strong that they dramatize the lyric, singing in every character but their own. Or perhaps I should say the very reverse; that it is not because of their excellence in the drama that they are weak in the lyric; but because they dread the open-heartedness of a lyric that they take refuge in the drama: not willing to sing in their own characters, they will sing for any and everybody else. However this be, it is plain enough that the English lyric is dramatic, that there lies its weakness, and that this weakness is fatal. There are drinking-songs by teetotallers who trespass in ginger-beer; love-songs by [148] men to whom love is a jest; home-songs by bachelors who live at their clubs; work-songs by the veriest idlers; hunting-songs by those whose noblest game have been rats and mice, and such small deer; war-songs by gentle ladies; sea-songs by landsmen who get sick in crossing a river; matin-songs by sluggards who never saw the sun rise; vespers by good fellows to whom evening is the beginning of the day; mad-songs by men who are never in a passion; and sacred-songs by men who are never in a church.

Scottish lyrics, on the other hand, express the genuine sentiments of the individual singer; and hence their superiority. The Scottish poets have not been afraid to commit themselves by a show of feeling; the English poets have. Even of such a public virtue as patriotism the Englishman is often very slow to make confession; and yet no one is prouder of his fatherland. After the manner of Balaam the son of Beor, he gives a blessing to nations that he cordially hates; and his love for England gushes forth in words of reviling, if not in some dreadful malison. “England! with all thy faults, I love thee still," says Cowper; and then he goes on to enumerate her faults, without mentioning a single excellence, only hinting at English mind and manners; still, he says, as though it were a hard job, he will manage to love his country. How truly English! and how different from the "Rule Britannia," of Thomson; from the "Ye Mariners," of Campbell; [149] from Scott's burst of enthusiasm when addressing the "Land of brown heath and shaggy wood"; from Beattie, even from Byron, at least when he sings of Scotland, and above all, from Burns. The songs of Burns owe their success to this egotism, this personality, this outpouring of the inmost soul which the English avoid as they do the confessional. In his Essay on Burns, perhaps of all his compositions the most thoroughly beautiful, Carlyle would lay the success of those lyrics to the account of their sincerity; which indeed comes to the same thing. It is the same reason stated less formally, and more, if not too, strongly. Why should a man be charged with insincerity for avowedly expressing the feelings of another, not his own feelings? It is surely enough to say that he is dramatist, – a bad dramatist, if you will; and that he has utterly mistaken the meaning of a lyric in supposing that it can well be dramatic, or can be other than the perfect expression of the singer's personality. How keenly is this felt in sacred songs! When from hearsay, or from a busier tell-tale, the poem itself, we have any misgiving that it has been written by a man to whom religious feeling is strange; that, in short, it is dramatic in spirit, lyrical only in form, how impossible does it become to sing that song save with the mouth. If it was deemed becoming in the early Italian painters, (dramatists as they were) that they should lead a strictly religious life, much more is it meet that he, whose [150] hymns would ever carry like doves to the ear of God the messages of men, should so attune his life that his hymns being ascertained to have come from heaven, it may be assuredly felt that thither also they return.

This brings us to the leading idea of the present kind of poesy. The higher lyric is not less religious than the higher epic. But there is this difference betwixt the two, that whereas the epic begins with God, the lyric ends with God. The epic sees in God the first cause of all things; the lyric sees in God the ultimate end of all things. The lyric is an aspiration; its banner has the strange device, Excelsior. It is a prayer for good to come, while it is seen afar like a ship seen by a castaway; or it is the praise of good enjoyed with the assurance that it will last and grow better still; or it is a lament for good flown, with the hope that it may soon return, as birds return in the summer. This in every drinking-song; this in Anacreon as well as in King David; but the higher lyric recognises God as the only and sovereign good, and rightly so. "Rightly so: can there be any doubt of the fact?" I do not suppose that there can be any doubt of God's being the only and all good; but it has been doubted whether even the best of men are ever so unselfish as to see in. God the last end of their being. What is or ought to be the last or chief end of man? With the Westminster Assembly of Divines we all answer: “Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever." To [151] that answer, however, we may give two very different interpretations. Our own happiness, and what is theologically termed the glory of God; our own pleasure and the pleasure of God are one; but which is our ultimate end? Do we seek to please God for the sake of our own happiness? or do we secure our own happiness while endeavouring after God? The latter, I think. For, in exhibiting the third law of pleasure, I attempted to prove, and whether proven or not proven, whether paradoxical or not paradoxical, it is true that man cannot be happy in seeking his own happiness. Man is happy only, then, when he pursues an object apart from himself; and he is happy in God only when he gives himself up to God with utter self-forgetfulness. The higher lyric is therefore justified in regarding God, not our own happiness, as to us the sovereign good. As God is the unfathomable beginning of all things; so likewise He is not only the end beyond which there is no end, but is also accounted such by his creatures.

It will be seen that this idea of God is vitally connected with that of Immortality. The notion of Immortality in fact involves such an idea of God, not as being the Eternal Cause, the lost beginning of all things, but as the end-all and the be-all, an everlasting consequence, effect producing effect, producing effect far beyond ken of human thought. The English free-thinkers of last century felt that they could escape from the bugbear of Immortality, if they could only show to the [152] idea of God a door out of the universe. Some one replied, Not quite so fast, good sirs! you have not yet got rid of Immortality; since, if chance brought you into this particular world, why then, at death, chance may also send you to the bottomless pit, and keep you there for ever. The retort was fair enough, and a good argumentum ad homines; but of course, without resting on the idea of God, we can conceive our Immortality no more than our creation.

The subject of this part is resumed in the latter portion of Book Fourth.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

E. S. Dallas: Poetics: An Essay on Poetry.
London: Smith, Elder, and Co. 1852.
S. 43-78 (Book Second): The Nature of Poetry.
S. 146-152 (Book Third, Part First, Chapter IV): The Lyric.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

PURL: http://mdz-nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:bvb:12-bsb10573690-6
PURL: https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc2.ark:/13960/t86h4pb3r
URL: https://archive.org/details/cu31924103992107
URL: https://books.google.fr/books?id=lNUCAAAAYAAJ





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