Lewis Morris

 

 

Some Thoughts on Modern Poetry

 

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IF it be true, as has lately been said, that there are signs of a revival of interest in poetry, it is possible that a paper with the above heading may just now be not inopportune. Whatever our definition and view of modern poetry may be, at least there can be no doubt that the last half of the century now drawing to a dose has well-marked poetical characteristics which have not met with the full attention long since directed to the works of its earlier half. A short time ago, indeed, it was the foolish fashion to say that English poetry would die with the survivor of the two best known writers of verse of that day — of whom one, unhappily, is no longer with us. Quite lately there has been a certain revival of this unwisdom, and it has been seriously sought to convince us that in the greater depth and fulness of our modem life and our wider scientific knowledge, the faculty of wonder; and I suppose of emotion, on which poetry must depend in great part, must be henceforth impossible. I differ wholly from this view. I am convinced that at this moment there are in our country at least as many skilled writers of verse, and probably as many poets, as she has possessed at any epoch of her literature. As to the future, it will be, I suspect, very much like the past. There will be times of ebb and flow, as there have been before. But if any one believes that the stream of poetry, here or elsewhere, has run dry, or will — I can only decline to argue so whimsical a thesis. The more complicated the drama of human development becomes, the greater will be the need of poetic interpretation. It is perhaps conceivable that a growth of scientific intelligence, so complete as to leave no room for mystery or speculation, might dry up many springs of poetic thought; just as at present it is only by an effort, not wholly sincere, that we can reproduce the mythology of ancient Greece. But such knowledge itself would necessarily [2] enlarge the bounds of imaginative speculation in directions as yet unsuspected, and moreover its time has by no means arrived as yet. So long as a nation has a full and abounding life, it will find subjects for poems, and hands to treat them, until that slow chill and torpor set in which will mean that the English-speaking races, like the Greek and Roman before them, are played out.

Probably there is no more marked feature of the verse of to-day than the two distinct and opposing currents which stir it — one in the direction of greater strictness of metre and rhyme and elaboration of epithet, the other in that of greater laxity in the same particulars. But on whichever side a writer may range himself, it is clear that he now does so deliberately and of set purpose. The carelessness of Byron and of Shelley is almost impossible to a modem writer of even moderate rank, however deficient in the older writers' splendid audacity and force. The exquisite art of the Laureate is justly held up to admiration; but admirable as it is, it has sometimes, to some minds, the effect of distracting attention from the subject to the treatment, and so of impeding the flow of the narrative. If the only object of a poem were to furnish poetic epithets, this might be all very well; but there can be little doubt that, when carried to excess, the tendency may be a mischievous one. It is a little hard upon writers who have something to say and want to say it, but care little for word-painting, to be perpetually reminded that if an adjective is used, it must be always the best possible — must always sparkle and be picturesque, must never be natural for a moment, under pain of condemnation as flaccid or inert by writers who are wholly incapable of appreciating a long and sustained poem.

The truth is, that while much is gained by care and polish in these respects, there is nothing more fatal to art than an over-elaboration which distracts attention from the real scope of the poem as a whole. That which may be in its place in a clear-cut cameo like Gray's "Elegy" must, in my judgment, seriously detract from the impressiveness of an epic, and if any one will picture to himself what the "Iliad" would have been, or "Paradise Lost," if it had been forbidden to use the same adjective with the same substantive a second time, and the poet was perpetually striving to be in evidence, he will see in what a perilous direction modem theories are really tending. It is not by any means a healthy symptom, as any one can see who has followed the decadence of the literature of Greece and Rome.

[3] Of another excellence, that of improved technical workmanship in verse, the latter part of the present century may certainly boast Slipshod versification is now hardly possible. Rhymes are criticised with a severe care which has something ludicrous in it, and furnish, in the absence of the critical power now so unhappily rare, materials for many lines of useful copy. Such lines as —

"You trample our beds of ranunculus,
While you 'Tommy-make-room-for-your-uncle' us,"

seem to excite connoisseurs to a kind of delirium of praise. There is hardly a frivolous form of French verse, rondeau or ballade or triolet, which has not been practised in English with an assiduity which for years made the magazines things of fear. The structure of the sonnet gives rise to endless disquisitions and immense displays of useless learning. The chant royal, in which the Muse is made to dance — not, it must be confessed, without charm — in the straitest of fetters, has attracted at least as much favour as it deserves. Not long since a writer quite competent to have and express an opinion on most literary topics, gravely stated in print, for the confusion of a popular writer, "that people who write epics in blank verse must be content to forfeit whatever little reputation they may have gained by rhymed lyrics or couplets." The temptation was, of course, immense to bid "the young man go and tag his rhymes," as Milton did long ago, and not dare to revile the finest, the grandest, and the most harmonious instrument of poetry since the days of the Iambic senarius. Still, it is impossible not to sympathise with the purists to a certain extent. Verse which assumes to be written in a certain metre ought generally to conform to its rules. If the metre is irregular, as in the case of the great majority of poems which assume the ode-form, the poet is a law to himself, and should have at least as much latitude as was allowed to Pindar. If he is desirous of enriching the list of English metres by a proximate reproduction of the Latin hexameter, or elegiac, it is absurd and pedantic to debar him from so writing because, judged by the rules of a language which depended entirely upon quantity, a poem which has a pleasing cadence and rhythm of its own does not scan satisfactorily. In such a case it is the rules that must go to the wall. "Take care of the sound, and the sense will take care of itself," is no doubt a popular dictum among present-day critics, but its literary value is doubtful.

The other tendency is in the direction of emancipation from all [4] rules that may embarrass the flow of the writer's inspiration,, whether in the matter of rhyme, or even of rhythm itself. This is the discovery which will immortalize the American Whitman, when the long controversies which he excites as to the limits of plain speaking or reticence in treatment — nay, even the fine catholic and universalist spirit of his writings — shall have ceased to interest Probably, like most pioneers, he goes somewhat further in pursuit of emancipation than is at all desirable. But no sensible man can read some of the more moderate of his poems without feeling that with him a new power has been bom into the Englisli-speaking world with which we shall have to deal very largely in future. My own idea is that rhythm is an absolute necessity in a poem, which is indeed neither more nor less than a combination of words, having a certain metrical or rhythmical order, composed for the purpose of exciting noble emotion. But there is very little more need for rhyme — there is some, no doubt-— in English than in Latin or in Greek, and I hope to see it used with much greater economy than it is now, though I neither expect nor wish it absolutely abolished. Only we must assert and maintain the full measure of literary freedom to which we are bom, in spite of the condemnation of latter-day critics, who are of narrower views than our own. I look forward confidently to the time when the ordinary ten-syllabled line will not be the only metre which shall appear in blank verse, but when many others, both regular and irregular, shall free themselves from the trammels of rhyme — if not altogether, at any rate in great part.

There is one initial defect in much poetry, both of the past and present, which I sincerely hope the poet of the future will avoid. It is the neglect of the intending modern writer to follow the Horatian maxim which enjoins that in choice of a subject you should well consider what your shoulders will bear, and should only attempt subjects suited to your strength. I think, too, we might fairly expect to have the preliminary question well weighed, how far the proposed work is likely to be of human interest. It seems to me that the whole history of English poetical literature — since Shakespeare, at any rate — is, in the main, one of splendid failures, which might have been splendid successes, had the writers given the most moderate attention to this preliminary question; or of successes achieved in spite of entire disregard of it. There is no lack of great subjects, nor ever has been. The treasures of Greek fable, the high futures of our own and other races, the pathetic and ever-widening story of human life, from the cradle to the grave [5] furnish surely enough subjects of interest for verse. But will any one seriously maintain that "Paradise Lost," treated as it has been treated, was the best possible subject for an immortal poem, or, except in the hands of a very great writer, a possible subject at all; or that Spenser did not throw himself away over the abstractions of the "Faery Queen;" or that Dryden, with his fugitive political satires; or Pope, with the frivolous "Rape of the Lock," were not wasting great gifts on unworthy matter? What to any but the professed student of literature is the human interest of much of Shelley's great mass of magnificent verse; or, so far as regards its framework, of the interminable and very trying "Excursion"? Or is there any reasonable person who does not think that the present Laureate's fine powers are greater than could fairly be devoted with advantage to the somewhat provincial Arthurian legends, or that the wayward genius which brought itself down to an obscure Italian criminal process might not have been better employed? I remember the dictum of "Orion" Home on this matter well "Sir," he said, "I should like to shut up Mr. A. and Mr. B. (naming two eminent writers of verse) in a tower, deprived of all means to write, until they had fixed upon a satisfactory subject, when they should be let out and set to work." Probably it would not be an unmixed loss if such an enforced term of seclusion were to make impossible certain poetical efforts, in which success must, in the nature of things and of the subject, be entirely out of the question. On the other hand, few men of sensibility, who have treated with any success great and popular subjects, can help wishing in the interests of literature that they had been occupied long ago by their betters, and wondering that they were not It is absurd to suppose that there can ever be any lack of subjects, so long as man has a history, so long as there are passions — love and hate, and greed and lust, and jealousy — in the world. And the list of motives will surely grow larger and more complex with time, even though there seem for the moment no one to treat them. The best way to encourage the writing of good poetry among the young men who seem for a time to have deserted the art, would be to abolish by any means, fair or foul, the mischievous crew who, whenever a book of verse appears, are always ready to crush it with vulgar insults, or unmerited neglect, and for the most part succeed.

There is another characteristic of modem poetry which, I think, should be noticed. I mean its extraordinary tendency to prolixity. Life is somewhat longer, it is true, than it was a [6] century ago, but not very much. But the length and bulk of modern poems seem to be increasing by leaps and bounds. Not merely do important poems of a heroic character expand into portly volumes, but even the lyric, which above all should be brief and inspiring, becomes enormously lengthy. "Adonais" itself would have been twice as effective if half as long. In more than one beautiful modem lyric, somewhere about the 50th stanza, lines which appeared in the beginning of the poem are repeated from mere forgetfulness, to reappear again at the 150th from similar forgetfulness, and very likely at the 300th. The lines of a wellknown romantic poem are to be counted by myriads. A recent weekly periodical contained a lyric many hundreds of lines in length, by a writer of genius, containing fine things enough to furnish a dozen beautiful poems, but which, flung forth as they were in reckless profusion, could only fatigue the ear. It is impossible for a poet to live in more than a selection of his works, and it is sheer cruelty to unoffending people with a love of poetry to force them to wade through thousands — nay, tens of thousands — of lines where a few hundreds might have sufficed to produce a better effect We are indeed, all of us, too lengthy in these days, and the first question which a writer, who desires to live, must ask himself, is simply whether he has put what he has to say in the tersest and most effective manner, without a superfluous line. In verse, at any rate, the half is far more than the whole. The only way to make a long poem palatable to modem tastes is to break it up into a number of brief connected episodes. A modem poem, like a lawyer's abstract of title, should, as a rule, be capable of perusal at a sitting, if its whole scope and treatment is to be properly taken in; and if the sheer length of the necessary narrative makes this impossible, the difficulty must be met by such a sub-division as I have indicated into several subordinate poems, of moderate length, all tending to the development of the whole.

Of the modem vice of obscurity I can hardly bring myself to speak, because for the moment the merit of a poem is by many excellent people measured by its obscurity. For my own part, I hotly resent this tendency, in the interests of English literature. No more certain sign of the decadence of a literature and of a nation can be imagined, as every student of classical literature knows well. Obscure poems, obscure in subject or in treatment, can never be poetry at all, can never awake a noble emotion, or stimulate the heart or the soul. They may be excellent as [7] philosophy, as psychological studies, as instances of subtle analysis of motive, but so far as they are obscure, and therefore almost certainly unmelodious, they are not poems at all, but only dissertations, which are none the more poems because they simulate metrical form. It is beside the question to urge that they provide innocent recreation for a great many well-meaning people of some ability. So did double acrostics and spelling-bees. A good honest collection of conundrums would be equally profitable and less mistaken. On the other hand, it must be remembered that obscurity of expression has not been unusual in literature of the best period, as in the Greek Æschylus and Thucydides, the Roman Tacitus, or the English prose of Bacon and Milton, and that obscurity arising from the nature of the subject is due to the limitations of language as an instrument of thought, and is by no means confined to verse. And we shall do well also to remember that, years ago, "In Memoriam" — which, in comparison with our later poetical experiences, seems a model of limpid clearness, — was annotated and paraphrased, and generally made intelligible, just as if it had been the Cassandra of Lycophron, or the satires of Persius, or Sordello, or the sonnets of the late Mr. Rossetti. I should only feel inclined to predict that, in the press of modern life and thought, the poet who will not be at the trouble to express himself with moderate clearness runs a great risk of neglect by the very class of readers to which he must mainly appeal. The one hope of literature lies in the fact that if a poet writes obscurely, he nevertheless has some meaning, though it may be ill expressed. If he has not, I believe he will be found out, and that very quickly. But I look forward to such a change in critical canons as shall restore the old qualities of sweet and lucid expression to the place which they occupied, until dethroned by a not very wise clique led astray by the example of two or three men of genius.

I am afraid there is another defect, which it is impossible not to mention, and that is the pedantry of much modem verse and criticism of verse. Of course, a writer who has devoted, perhaps unfortunately, much time to classical literature, must be prepared for the assaults of second-hand superior persons, from New Grub Street or Wall Street, with a nodding acquaintance with the Latin grammar, all of whom agree that he gets his epithets from the "Gradus" and his story from Lempriire. And he must be content to endure the grotesque ill-will of foul-mouthed Thersites, and Tom Fool belabouring his betters with a paste[8]board bludgeon and a bladder of wind. It is of no use wasting time on such people. They know no better, or are not sincere — they are satisfied with their prejudices. No amount of exposure or argument will silence them. But what of writers, some of them of fine and commanding genius, who set themselves to reproduce the Greek spirit by the harmless devices of our school days? Turns of phrase, idioms, grammatical constructions, natural in Greek but impossible in English, are pressed into the service in the vain hope of capturing the Greek spirit The result is hardly what was intended. That spirit is not to be caught by such devices. The only result is a kind of literary mummy, with scarcely a semblance of living form; and one seems to be listening to a dramatist speaking broken English with a Greek accent, like a Cockney at Boulogne speaking with what he supposes is a French accent, in the vain hope of making himself understood. No more complete or futile waste of time and talent can be imagined, even where there is a technical success, and no splendour of lyrical genius can redeem it. Conceive a Greek writer, with all his reverence for Egypt, thus imitating Egyptian literary models, or Phidias or Praxiteles reproducing the Sphinx! Even the Romans, who were nothing if they were not imitators of Greek models, never went further than a general imitation, although they studded their familiar letters with little Greek phrases ΰ-propos of nothing, as if they were latter-day critics larding their ill-nature with morsels of bookseller's French, stale and yet raw, or the Lady Flabella herself. But beyond this they did not go in imitativeness. To say nothing of distinguished living writers and their works, it is not to Mr. Arnold's "Merope," constructed on the strictest lines of the ancient drama, that we turn for the Hellenic spirit, but to the same author's "Empedocles on Ætna," or the beautiful "Marsyas," not indeed antique in form, but inspired in every line with the true fire of old Greece.

Of the modern pseudo-French school of English verse, I know not what to say that shall be strong enough and yet not give offence. To desert the beautiful harmonies of our English poetry for the artificialities of the one European language in which poetry is well-nigh impossible, seems to me the act of madmen. The French language, with its noble and lucid prose, is fit for anything rather than poetry. It may attain to fine rhetoric, it may even mount to the height of a tender and graceful lyric, but beyond this it cannot go, and the imitation of these beauties by foreign writers in their own languages is a mere waste of time. [9] Nothing that an Englishman has to say in verse can be better said by means of an imitation of French form and spirit, than it can through English form and in an English spirit. It is even a more futile form of imitation than that of the pseudo-Hellenists, because they at least have an ideal before their eyes as high, and perhaps higher, than they can find in their own language, while the pseudo-French are voluntarily devoting themselves to one in every respect feebler and lower, and neglecting a noble instrument of their own, for one with which they cannot be thoroughly familiar, and which at best has a narrower compass. For the pessimism, the unsatisfied longings, the baulked individuality, the ignoble realism, the morbid melancholy, all derived from this source, which are making the magazines of to-day as fearsome as they were in the worst times of the ballade or the triolet, it is very fervently to be hoped that they may vanish into the same limbo, and that as quickly as possible.

Now, when we have got rid of the devastating pests of obscurity and frivolity; when our poems are again lucid, and not enormously long; when our subjects possess some human interest; when pedantry has been rooted out, and we imitate Greek and other models in the spirit and not the letter — will all have been done that can be done for English poetry? By no means. We shall have done something to improve the position, it is true. But if we or our successors are really to confute those who say that poetry is dead, a good deal more must be done than this. We must remodel and reconsider altogether our rules for the use of rhyme. We must claim to be emancipated from the absurd fetters which, in the case of heroic verse, at one time came very near to trampling out the last spark of poetic fire. We must depend upon metrical harmonies, subtle and difficult, in preference to the jingle of sound, which is, in so many cases, fatal to all natural expression of feeling. And when we have so far perfected our instrument, we must proceed to play upon it, not the old tunes, but a deeper and more satisfying music.

And when all this is done, will the English poet of the future, the poet long overdue, who will be, perhaps, wholly the poet of the 20th century, turn his eyes exclusively, or even mainly, to the past? A great reward of fame awaits the writer of verse who shall so reproduce the emotional features of our modem life, its doubts and its faith, its trials and aspirations, as to transfigure it into a story more real and more touching than any story of a remote past. The great drama of human life is constantly being [10] played on a wider stage, to larger and more critical audiences, with more complicated springs of action, with finer insight, with deeper and more subtle psychological problems to solve, than were possible in old times. It is from these that real and new springs of poetry must flow. I am not, of course, unaware of the difficulty of the task, but that very difficulty is the best incentive. The poet who shall tell in verse a story of contemporary life so as to make it a permanent possession of the nation, if not of the race, and shall so touch the issues of every day with the light that never was on land or sea — not by reflection from a remote past, but drawn directly from the present — has a great future before him. Of course, the task may well be as hard as the production of a modem Madonna or Achilles. Such a dream probably has once haunted many who write in verse, only to fade away when a truer estimate of a man's powers and limitations comes with maturer age. But it is only in this direction that real progress can be made. All the varied impulses and wants of our modem life should find treatment by the poet of the future — the great gains of science should not be ignored by him, nor the insoluble but ever-recurring problems of the relations of the Human to the Divine. Great as is the wealth of English poetry, I confess that to me the great bulk of it — and, indeed, of the poetry of the world — even when it is not mere caterwauling, seems trivial, insincere, and ineffectual to the last degree. Worthier interests and wider knowledge will inevitably generate a higher poetical type, which will be poetry and not prose, though it may throw aside much that to-day seems to differentiate the one from the other. Let us hope that the coming writer will not shrink from a task in which, as Socrates said of the practice of virtue, the struggle is so honourable and the reward so great.

 

 

 

 

Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Murray's Magazine.
Bd. 10, 1891, Juli, S. 1-10.

Gezeichnet: LEWIS MORRIS.

URL: https://archive.org/details/murraysmagazine00unkngoog

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).


Murray's Magazine   online
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Literatur

Brandmeyer, Rudolf: Poetiken der Lyrik: Von der Normpoetik zur Autorenpoetik. In: Handbuch Lyrik. Theorie, Analyse, Geschichte. Hrsg. von Dieter Lamping. 2. Aufl. Stuttgart 2016, S. 2-15.

Bristow, Joseph (Hrsg.): The Fin-de-Siècle poem. English Literary Culture and the 1890s. Athens 2005.

Christ, Carol T.: Victorian Poetics. In: A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Hrsg. von Richard Cronin u.a. Malden, MA 2002, S. 1-21.

Conover, Cheryl S.: Lewis Morris. In: Victorian Poets after 1850. Hrsg. von William E. Fredeman. Detroit, Mich. 1985 (= Dictionary of Literary Biography, 35), S. 135-138.

Dowling, Linda C.: Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siθcle. Princeton, NJ 1986.

Habib, M. A. R. (Hrsg.): The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, 6: The Nineteenth Century, c. 1830-1914. Cambridge 2013.

Marcus, Laura u.a. (Hrsg.): Late Victorian into Modern. Oxford 2016.

Martus, Steffen u.a. (Hrsg.): Lyrik im 19. Jahrhundert. Gattungspoetik als Reflexionsmedium der Kultur. Bern u.a. 2005 (= Publikationen zur Zeitschrift für Germanistik, 11).

O'Neill, Michael (Hrsg.): The Cambridge History of English Poetry. Cambridge u.a. 2010.

Stephens, Meic: Morris, Sir Lewis. In: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (05 January 2012).
URL: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35114

Thomas, Daniel Lleufer: Art. Morris, Lewis. In: Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement, S. 649-652.
URL: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Morris,_Lewis_(DNB12)

Waller, Philip: Writers, Readers, and Reputations. Literary Life in Britain 1870-1918. Oxford 2006.

 

 

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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer