Edmund Clarence Stedman



Elements of the Art of Poetry.



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ART is the application of scientific laws to the construction of some work, and neither of the fine arts, not even Poetry, can be classed as an exception to this general statement. The poet may construct admirably, without recognition of the rules under which his art moves and has its being, but they nevertheless exist, and there is no reason why he should not consider them. We cannot doubt that poetical minds of the first order, with the logical faculty superadded to their intuitions, have, even in the most unscientific ages, discovered and respected these laws, after a very brief creative experience. But the analysis of our modern period declares that the elements of no existing process, however subtile, are able to escape the domain of methodization. It not only lays its assured hand upon the invisible, electric forces of the material world, but upon the phenomena of the mind and soul of man. It justly claims, moreover, that what it has hitherto not succeeded in reducing to logical propositions, will yet be thus formulized in the progress of discovery and with the arrival of a competent investigation.

They are in error, therefore, who say: "We feel what poetry is, but it can never be defined, nor can the sensations which it inspires. We may only write about it, and around it, as all past thinkers have been compelled to do." Though poetry may not have been defined, it is none the less definable. A modern writer, in essaying a consideration of its elements, is not extending his own insight beyond that of great predecessors who have confessedly failed. He avails himself of the additional strength and discoveries of the maturer period into which he is horn. A child, who knows that the earth moves around the sun, has exceeded the knowledge of Archimedes, and his information is placed neither to the discredit of the philosopher nor to the honor of himself.

In this paper we make no attempt at any radical or comprehensive discourse of the nature and principles of the poetic art. Such a work, indeed, remains to be constructed by worthier hands; it should be thorough, analytical, and establishing true judicial methods by which to estimate the utterances of the poets. Our own purpose is merely, and within the pages of a magazine article, to refer to a few of the accepted canons of poetry, in such order as they occur to us, and to make suggestions toward a philosophical regard of its elements.

Coleridge said that Poetry is the proper antithesis to Science. This does not conflict with our statement, that there is a science of poetry, which must commence with its definition. It is essential to a complete definition that it should distinguish the thing defined from every other object, and embody the essence of the thing itself. Coleridge added that the object of poetry, in distinction from that of science – which is the communication of truth – is that of the communication of pleasure. He then perceived that he had made the [409] old mistake of telling the truth, but not the whole truth, since his definition, thus far, includes novels and other species of pleasurable composition which we do not call poems. This compelled him to add the Aristotelian element of Enthusiasm, as displayed in the excitement of the poet communicating itself to the listener or reader. But his proposition was no more complete than before; no, not even when he adjoined, and eloquently commented upon Milton's declaration, that poetry is "simple, sensuous, passionate;" certainly the finest thing ever said about the requirements of the art, but not a definition of the art itself.

Aristotle's assertion – "Poetry is the language of enthusiasm" – instantly suggests the questions: What, then, is Eloquence? And does poetical or eloquent language of itself constitute a poem? Plato, in the Republic, estimates all poetry as either narrative or imitative, and excludes poets, as a dangerous set of fellows; from his model city – their stories and imitations injuriously exalting the passions and distracting the judgment of the people at large. But in Ion, and elsewhere, he repels the idea of art in connection with poetry, and makes the latter the product of a divine madness, in which the bard becomes the passive mouthpiece of the gods.

In some such manner, from Plato and Aristotle down to the innumerable philosophers and poets of our own time, many a writer has added his portion to the thought amassed concerning this ethereal entity. Why have its veritable spirit, and proportions as yet eluded us? Is it not partly because every one has observed them by a subjective method, commingling them with the impression most agreeable to himself, and not faithfully seeking out that description which must be accepted by all mankind? Each has defined poetry after the method of the candid polemic – "Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is another man's doxy." The question is not what poetry may be to Coleridge, or Goethe, or Hazlitt, or Hunt, or to any greater or lesser comprehension, but what is it in itself? Can we not reduce it to exact terms? For our own part, we are fully impressed with the power of man's highest corporal faculty, speech, to express in words the nature of any influence to which his being is fairly subjected. The late Mr. Poe, though often superficial in his researches, was a believer in this adequacy, and made an effort after the philosophical manner when conceiving his formula – "Poetry is the rhythmical creation of Beauty." His error lay in the subsequent explanation of his terms, by which he limited Beauty almost to the department of the Sensuous, and somewhat restricted the poet to mechanical processes and effects.




The main hindrance to a concise definition of poetry is, therefore, metaphysical, and has reference to the arbitrary signification of words. At the commencement of a treatise upon this or any other art, the writer has not only to state his proposition, but to expound the technical meanings of its component parts. These meanings once accepted and familiarized, the definition becomes a basis for the subsequent evolution of the theme. Thus the famous sentence of Fourier – Les attractions sont proportionelles aux destinées – is of itself a Pythian outgiving, but, when the theory which it involves is once understood, it serves an important use through tomes of socialistic philosophy.

Were we required to bring together in a single phrase words that should [410] denote our own conception of the quality of poetry, we should, after what thought we have been able to give the subject, and in default of more satisfactory future rendering, make the following reply:


1. Nature. – The word is here used, in its widest and profoundest sense, to include every aspect and principle of the universe, physical and spiritual, with their correlative attributes of beauty, goodness and truth. It embraces all material forms and forces, all created beings; finally, and the result of all, the passions, intuitions, aspirations, whose presence is the existence, and whose action is the history, of the mind and soul of man. In the most imaginative of philosophical poems, there is a passage which nearly expresses what we desire to comprehend in our use of this generic term:

        " — — — something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."

2. Interpreting. – This term is a portion of our formula with which we are vaguely dissatisfied, and is used because, in a derived meaning, it more nearly serves the purpose than any other word in our language. The phrase illumination of nature conveys our idea, and would be adopted were it not that the adjective "rhythmical," has to do with sound and time, and the noun "illumination," with light. After all, this may present no valid resistance to their conjunction. They have inter-significations, based upon the consension of the fine arts. As heat, motion, and chemical affinity, all resolve themselves into force, under the tests of modern dynamical science, so there may be said to be a gamut of colors and a spectrum of sounds.

The poet, we say, interprets Nature by illuminating her. He develops his theme by exposing it to the flood-light of his own imagination, and infusing this lustre within its minutest parts, thus making them luminous to others, and giving our common vision power to interpenetrate them; or, as it were, endowing us with his own second-sight. Nature, through his offices, undergoes a transfiguration of the mount; for, he is not, in the vulgar sense, an imitator, or reproducer of her external forms. It is his mission to reveal to us, in fortunate moments, the divine glories of her eternal soul.

Pre-Raphaelitism has accomplished, and will periodically accomplish, an honorable mission, in leading back to the study of natural objects those whom conventionalism has taught to receive these objects at second hand. Exact reproduction of visible forms is the duty of the neophyte, who must base upon his perfect mastery of such forms his imaginative, riper work. Further than this, it cannot go. Reproduction is not an end, but a means. There is an inner mystery behind every outward truth, and unto its revelation the mere copyist can never attain.

We perceive, also, that the poet, while interpreting nature's external forms, so glorifies and readjusts them, that we catch for ourselves the beauty of her higher or future combinations. He thus becomes a prophet,

"For he sings of what the world will be
 When the years have died away.”

Through his imagination we feel that we walk upon the borders of the infinite and have glimpses of other existences and far-off, serener worlds.

[411] 3. Imaginative. – This adjective is demanded by the preceding note, and axiomatically belongs to any definition of our art. When rhythmical language ceases to be more or less imaginative, it ceases to be poetry. There is no escape from this law. Imagination must appear in the form, melody or spirit of the poet's verse, or in them all combined; and the light shed upon the theme is in exact ratio with the expenditure of imaginative power.

4. Rhythmical Language. – Form is the object of art. Until the poet's imagination has informed itself in rhythmical words, no poetry has been created. A picture of the mind is not a painting, nor an unheard melody a song. We have to do with the visible results of composition. Poetry must be in words – spoken or inscribed, though Ben Jonson said of language, that "the writing is but an accident." Moreover, these words must be in rhythm, possessed of certain measured, tuneful, or harmonious quantities and sounds. Why we are so exquisitely impressed by "concord of sweet sounds," and by effects of cadence and time, is not our present object of investigation. The fact exists. Elevated prose, then, is not poetry, however poetical or charged with imaginative sentiment. A looseness of expression is common with regard to this point, and, until poets insist upon the technical distinctions of their art, there will be no general appreciation of its essential forms.

5. Corollary. – Under this definition of poetry, a poet is the Maker, and his art is the Making of Rhythmical, Imaginative Language Interpreting Nature.




The foregoing section is presented with diffidence, as the reader will easily understand, but under the present title we write with no such feeling, proposing to briefly regard a few of the most prevalent violations of well-established canons of the poetic art.

The indispensable birthright of the poet is spontaneity. But of two persons, equally endowed by nature, the one who most thoroughly comprehends the laws of his art, mastering them, and not mastered by them, will produce the finest poems. In painting, sculpture and music, from the mechanical dexterity obviously required, we perceive and insist upon the similar fact. In rhythmical composition, owing to the universal faculty of speech, a certain excellence of expression is more readily gained; and yet, poetry, in the attainment of a high and truly noble standard, summons every other art to its aid, and is the most difficult of them all.

While it is true that beauty of conception will elevate the expression of the poet, often causing him to succeed "by the first intention," yet the master-artist has always that self-poise which graces the touch both inspired and skilled. For want of craftsmanship many born poets are painfully irregular and faulty in their compositions. The poet must combine the offices of maker and critic, deciding on the quality of the productions which he sets before the world. The Great Artist not only made the universe, but "saw that it was good."

We have space to select a few only of the heresies, into which those whose art-sense is untrained, are most frequently seen to fall. Some of them concern the temper of the poet, and lie too deep for correction; they are radical errors, for which the critics must utterly condemn a poetic aspirant. Others pertain to the method of expression, but their importance cannot be overlooked.

[412] 1. Absence of Theme. – The want of any genuine theme or inspired purpose is only pardonable in youthful poets – who instinctively try their wings, like new-fledged birds, for the purpose of gaining strength, and with no place to which their flight may be directed. But practiced composers make verses when they have really nothing to say; first, because they have the poetical temperament withtout any commensurate imaginative power; second, and in consequence, having a random sense of pleasing verbal and metrical effects, they toy with them for their own sake, and offer them as substitutes for that of which they should only be the expression.

A. Poetical Material. – Many offer the materia poetica for poetry itself. Those "properties" which have been symbols and exponents from time immemorial, are used inordinately and without purpose. The sun, moon, stars, flowers, gems, colors and other emblems of beautiful thoughts, cannot be set forth as poetry, nor are they often legitimate objects of imaginative treatment.

B. Diction. – A larger class, having the accomplishment of poetical diction, mistake language which is æsthetically correct for poetry, of which it is the veriest husk and outward form. This catch of manner only becomes admirable when words are put together for the sole purpose of musical effect, either by intent, or as the spontaneous outburst of a melodious nature, in the rapid composition of lyrical song.

C. Rhetoric. – Earnestness of purpose will not, by itself, elevate rythmical language to our standard. Zeal is often a symptom of essentially prosaic temperaments, whose possessors mistake eloquence for poetry, and merely succeed in being rhetorical. The quality of the art evades their reach, and is even beyond their vision. There are no missions more dissimilar than those of the orator and the poet.

D. Sentiment. – Poetical feeling is common to all mankind, or there would be no appreciation and encouragement of art. But a vague diffusion of sentiment throughout a composition will not requite us for the absence of unity, rhythm and creative design.

2. Lowness of Theme. – The poet is ever cognizant of the awe and mystery of common things. He sees that,

"There is in nature nothing mean or base,
 But only as our baseness makes it so."

Yet a chosen and repeated lowness of theme will degrade the tone of his productions. The unattractive or distorted phases of nature should not be the objects of his too frequent contemplation. Her manifestations, in a certain sense, obey the law, that value varies with scarcity. Those of a low order being most frequently met with, require less imagination for their treatment than those of a loftier and less observed quality. It requires the highest technical skill to atone for the pain inflicted by the presentation of a loathsome subject. Hence the golden rule of Aristocracy in Art.

3. Want of General Effect. – Maintenance of synthesis in poetical construction is the surest indication of a true artistic purpose. The poet, like other artists, must contemplate his work as a whole, and invariably, when a question arises between the retention of a favorite passage and the preservation of the general effect, sacrifice the former to the latter. Tone, harmony and connected total expression, are the tests of constructive power. Inferior minds set the part above the whole, and dally with fine phrases and conceits – in themselves attractive, but above or below the key of the poem, arid harmful to its central design. The Spasmodic School is justly accused of [413] turning aside from the direct path to gather baubles, and indulging in quotable lines and striking images, at the expense of conscientious art.

4. Neglect of Details. – A less common and minor heresy lies in the opposite extreme. Poets of a severely masculine cast, somewhat harsh in mental structure and not apt in fancy and word effects, make their compositions too crude and bald by fixing all their purpose upon synthetical effect and neglecting due ornamentation as they move along. While the true path is in a straight and ever-ascending line, our progress should be lightened by certain graces and attractions on the way. The master-artist, while always intent upon his general design, is never slovenly, nor regardless of the finest detail. His work invites the tests of far and near regard. This also, is the recurring method of nature; the tree is perfect – but mark the finish of every leaf!

5. Affectation. – Quaint language, unwonted metres, and other unique forms, though often effective and desirable, cannot of themselves sustain the character of poetic work. That metre must be chosen which most aptly serves the poet's intention. When his genius is of a grotesque or scintillant order, he may do well to invest it with an original rhythm. More frequently the best measure exists, and is wonted to his own and the listener's ear. Let him be assured that no artifice can hide poverty of conception. Artificial garments never make up for the want of natural grace; they deceive not man nor woman. It is sham and trickery that dare not assume a garb adjusted to its true proportions. In lyrical efforts, unstudied melody will embody itself in the most fitting verse; and such a measure, however new to us, never irks us with a sense of quaintness, but commands our attentive respect.

6. Servility. – On the other hand, an elegant observance of the metrical fashions of the day is not the endeavor of the poet. Yet there is no other guise in which charlatanry makes so presentable an appearance. The trained critic is often deceived by it. He is always on his guard against innovation – that seems to challenge analysis – but allegiance to the mode is never aggressive, and effectively passes for true art. To fairly understand this, consider the minor poetry of our own time. What shallow sentiment and elegant nothings flatter our ears and eyes, enshrined in elaborate repetitions of the style of Tennyson and Browning! Take these same utterances and arrange them in the old-fashioned, and, therefore displeasing, methods of Byron, Moore, or Scott, and how hackneyed and unprofitable they would appear! This test of translation is like holding a drawing before a mirror, and much of the attractive poetry of the period would not bear it, even were the composers to apply it for themselves.

7. Didacticism. – The conflict of a prevailing didactic manner with the true poetic spirit is at last most thoroughly understood. To all its faults the sentiment of our late school has added this great excellence, that it is wholly hostile to moralization in verse. The critics perceive that the mission of art is not to teach in homilies, but through the ministrations of the beautiful: to follow the process of nature, setting forth good and lovely images for our affection, and the sinful and loathsome for our avoidance and disgust.

As the poet draws attention to his lesson he ceases to be imaginative. The peerless leaders of early English song rarely fell into this heresy; it had nothing in common with the freshness of their time. Dryden prepared its way in the studious, imitative period following the Restoration; and Pope, yielding himself up to the artificial French influences, stinted his genius (of which "Heloise to Abelard" and "The Universal Prayer" preserve for us [414] a record), in the moral couplets, aptly called "An Essay on Man," but which his disciples hailed as the prelude of a new and worthier literary era. The modern return to nature has changed all that. It is recognized that only preeminent genius and high philosophy will sustain a poet in the character of a direct teacher. We accept the didacticism of Wordsworth, because it concerns the profoundest subjects of our research – those human and cosmical mysteries of which any explanation is imaginative and requires the insight of a seer. But in their ordinary moments, even the teachings of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Bryant become prosaic, and especially of the first-named it may be asserted that his renown would be greater if he had written less.

8. Undue Subjectivity. – Absorption in self exaggerates to the poet the significance of his own endowments and career, and is sure to have a narrowing influence upon his creations. No element is so readily transferred to poetry as the self-conceit of the maker's brain. It incapacitates him for seeing clearly, and interpreting, other existences than his own. His work thus exhibits a want of health, and, as there are many sickly and receptive spirits in the world, it will, if strong in certain respects, inoculate an entire period with its own disease. The genius of Byron, for example, was lessened by this trait, but sowed it broadcast among imitators, who, of course, failed of his merits and readily acquired his faults.

There is no morbid self-consciousness about the productions of the great masters. Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe are many-sided, reflecting every natural phase. You see the objects of their contemplation, but not themselves. If their healthful humility kept such men in renown, how can the personality of lesser artists avoid giving offence?

        — — — "The man whose eye
Is ever on himself, doth look on one,
The least of nature's works, one who might move
The wise man to that scorn which wisdom holds
Unlawful, ever."

And a contemporary thinker has finely said: "Every great writer may be at once known by his guiding the mind far from himself, to the beauty which is not of his creation, and the knowledge which is past his finding out."

9. Undue Objectivity. – Neither must the poet forget that he is a man of like emotions and experiences with those about him: and amid all the harmonies of natural things he must seek for and discover

"The still, sad music of humanity."

To set forth nature in a cold, material, and unsympathetic form, is to fail of elevating the souls of those whom he addresses. He must provide "that neither thought nor imagery shall be simply objective, but that the passio vera of humanity shall animate both." Only passion can arouse passion; flame kindles flame. Hence those are partially in error who would escape the morbid introspection of the romance school, by a return to the severe and frozen objectivity of the antique. Though the poet sings most serenely when forgetful of himself, let him not withdraw his own nature so completely that his hearers cannot discover him if they would.

Subjectivity has also a noble quality, when the personal sympathies and aspirations with which the poet floods his art are of holy and inspiring cast. Such was the generous individuality of Shelley and of Mrs. Browning, and in the self-regard of Milton nations have united with reverence and love.

[415] Subjectivity of style is not to be shunned, for it is the birth mark of the specific genius of a true artist. Thus it is impossible to mistake a line of Shakespeare, Milton or Wordsworth, all assured and healthful poets. This of itself, however, does not distinguish a subjective writer from those of the opposite disposition. From want of clear understanding of this point, we have heard people call Tennyson subjective; though few poets, who have accomplished so much, have displayed themselves so little in their verse. His melody, thought and method of observation, are peculiarly his own, and this fact has given rise to the misappellation.




In our remarks upon the limitations of the poet, we have restricted him to no school of art, and have had no special theory to subserve. It would seem, indeed, as if any confining methods except those which essentially belong to different types of genius, must be wholly harmful in their influence. The poet is endowed with boundless freedom, and adopts or changes all modes at will. Those who would restrict him to Lyrical Song, for example – and who deny the claims of a poem which cannot be read at a single sitting – conform their theory to their own weakness, which is incapable of enduring prolonged or renewed elevation of soul. No: the poet is limited to no rhythm, dialect, locality, incident, or school. He is an universal eclectic, though never an indolent and doubting chooser. At different periods of growth he will incline to diverse forms of art, but at maturity will emerge upon that high table-land, where we respect each form of expression for its special office, and conspicuous or unobtrusive creations for the degree of excellence to which either attains.

In requiring the poet's fidelity to the canons of Art – some of them measurably opposed to others – we shall not be accused of paradoxy by those who carefully regard our meaning. We still assert that he must be sure of purpose, must teach by example, must be lofty in aspiration and theme, must value his art for what it can express, must honor its smallest detail, and, finally, as to his disposition, must be alike humble and proud, and

" — — still suspect, and still revere himself,
 In lowliness of heart."

Depicting nature as he sees her, he must infuse her manifestations with his own spirit, and draw all men to study her through their sympathy with his individuality. This is the high and catholic standard – not one that can be maintained, but one toward which all, who, indeed derive their light from heaven, will perpetually strive.

It only remains to acknowledge that the poet, with all the restrictions imposed by the canons of art, is none the less a rule unto himself. The old fable of "Pegasus in Harness," has more applications than one. Genius is a talisman which will carry its possessor through the dangers of inexperience and pride; it enables him to violate and rise superior to all laws, through the higher law of his own sacred inheritance.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Galaxy.
An Illustrated Magazine of Entertaining Reading.
Bd. 1, 1866, 1. Juli, S. 408-415.

Gezeichnet: Edmund Clarence Stedman.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Galaxy   online
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000054839









Stedman, Laura / Gould, George M.: Life and Letters of Edmund Clarence Stedman.
2 Bde. New York: Moffat, Yard 1910.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000377085
URL: https://archive.org/details/lifeandletterse00goulgoog   [Bd.2]
Bd. 2, S. 613-654: Bibliography.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Elements of the Art of Poetry.
In: The Galaxy. An Illustrated Magazine of Entertaining Reading.
Bd. 1, 1866, 1. Juli, S. 408-415.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000054839

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Victorian Poets.
In: Scribner's Monthly, an Illustrated Magazine for the People.
Bd. 5, 1873, Nr. 3, Januar, S. 357-364.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000544996

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Victorian Poets.
Boston: James R. Osgood 1876 [zuerst: 1875].
URL: https://archive.org/details/cu31924013268697
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001370082

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Edgar Allan Poe.
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin 1881.
URL: https://archive.org/details/edgarallanpoe00stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009591571

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Some London Poets.
In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine.
Bd. 64, 1882, Nr. 384, Mai, S. 874-892.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008919716
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008882057

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Poets of America.
Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1885.
URL: https://archive.org/details/poetsamerica02stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011210468

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: The Twilight of the Poets.
In: The Century Magazine.
Bd. 30, 1885, Nr. 5, September, S. 787-800.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006057380
URL: http://www.unz.com/print/Century/

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: The Nature and Elements of Poetry.
Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1892.
URL: https://archive.org/details/natureelementsof00steduoft
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001899938

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: A Victorian Anthology, 1837-1895.
Illustrating the Editor's Critical Review of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria.
Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1895.
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001111909
URL: https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.178942

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: An American Anthology, 1787-1900.
Selections Illustrating the Editor's Critical Review of American Poetry in the Nineteenth Century.
Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1900.
URL: https://archive.org/details/anamericananthol00stedrich
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100406501

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Victorian Poets.
Revised, and Extended, by a Supplementary Chapter to the Fiftieth Year of the Period Under Review.
Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1903.
URL: https://archive.org/details/victorianpoet00sted
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006544079

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Genius and Other Essays.
New York: Moffat, Yard 1911.
URL: https://archive.org/details/geniusandothere00stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006518627





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