Calvin Thomas





Have We Still Need of Poetry ?


HOWEVER bright the nimbus that still invests the great poetry of the past, it seems to be very generally felt that in our time the art has fallen upon evil days of waning influence and decadent production. It would appear that poetry is no longer a power in the lives of men, but, at the best, merely the delight of refined connoisseurs, – a competitor of rare orchids and delicate china. All admit that the connoisseurs are pretty numerous, and that there is no sign that the springs of production are drying up. On the contrary, it is a well-understood fact that a much larger number of persons than ever before can now make verses that are pretty good. The paragrapher must have his fling at our magazine poetry; but the fact remains that not a little of it, taken as it runs, is really better, from an artistic point of view, than much that can be found in the pages of the Immortals. This is something that the pessimist ought not to forget, since it testifies that, in spite of all the adverse influences of which we hear so much, the poetic art is really loved and cultivated by many. And publishers corroborate the evidence.

On the other hand, there is no denying that the great bulk of our newest poetry seems to lack the sovereign quality of inevitableness. It is not the spontaneous overflow of a burdened soul, often not even the product of a rapt mood: it is a spray which sparkles prettily in the sunlight, perhaps, but is well understood by the judicious to have been pumped up from a hidden reservoir of artificial emotion. Its note, at the best, is the note of clever craftsmanship rather than of weignty utterance. Here, perhaps, it gives mellifluous expression to some strange conceit that never would have occurred to anyone not on the lookout for strange conceits. There, it takes a theme which really lies near to the general heart, and proceeds to spin out of it a web of fantastic and impossible emotion. Again, it feigns a fervid excitement over some simple matter which the most of us do not find exciting at all. I say these things, fully aware that the description is not universally apt. How could it be when one is attempting to generalize upon so large a subject? There is some recent verse which is neither hollow [504] nor far-fetched nor tuneful trifling; and let us by all means cultivate thankfulness for the blessings we enjoy, and keep hearts and minds open to the poets who are yet with us.

But, with all due respect to the lights that are still burning, it must be said – and they themselves would be the first to admit – that they do not shine with the full-orbed lustre of their forebears. The vocation of the poet – it is now usually an avocation – has lost somewhat of its old impressiveness. Wordsworth and Tennyson and Browning and Longfellow and Lowell have no living successors whom the mantle of the seer seems perfectly to fit. It is hard to think of Swinburne Societies as a possible development of the future; and Mr. Aldrich, conscientious and delightful artist as he is, – Serus in calum redeat! – has always seemed to possess, rather than to be possessed by, his art. When the present Laureate of England was invested with the bays of Tennyson, well-informed people in two hemispheres might have been heard whispering to each other, "Who is Alfred Austin?" And yet Mr. Austin is a poet of many volumes and, of course, undeniable gifts. Nor is it in the English-speaking world alone that the poetic art is now represented in the upper altitudes by clever artificers who sing for each other and for connoisseurs, – ministering to a fastidious taste for novel emotions and graceful effects, – but are not taken very seriously by the great serious public because of a rooted suspicion that they have nothing of importance to say.

Now all this invites speculation, and suggests many a query which one would like to put to the sphinx of evolution. What is the matter? Is the fault with the public, with the poets, or with the times? What are the real causes of the decline we seem to notice in the prestige and influence of verse? Are the causes ephemeral? It is a well-known fact of literary history that periods of magnificent production alternate more or less regularly with periods of comparative sterility, and that the sterile periods are very apt to be characterized by excessive attention to the matters of form and technic. Are we living now in one of those less-favored epochs from which we may reasonably hope to emerge pretty soon into a new renaissance of great creation, or have we reached a final level? Have we, as many seem to think, entered at last upon an era in which verse-making is to have only the status of an elegant amusement, while the really soul-stirring things will find expression in prose? Or may we look forward to new triumphs of song like those we have known in the past? To put the problem in the only form which admits of any discussion that is not pure guesswork: Are [505] there any far-reaching influences at work in these latter days which bode a lasting impairment of the prestige and influence of poetry?

Whenever the horoscope of poetry is darkly cast, whether in gloom or in glee, we usually hear such things as the following: "Ours is a practical age given to money-grubbing and utilitarianism; and its character, as thus defined, tends to become more pronounced with the lapse of time. We have little time for dreams and fancies; and our children will have less." Again, the scientific spirit is made in some way responsible for the blight; and as science has no doubt come to stay, and to dominate our minds more and more, a glacial epoch for poetry is evidently impending. Still more often, probably, it is urged that life is a tremendously solemn thing, and grows more solemn as we comprehend it better in the light of a new science and a new ethics. There is work to do for serious people; and poetry is frivolous play.

Now I have no intention of traversing systematically all the ground marked off by these lines of observation. In most of its aspects the subject has been pretty thoroughly debated. But there are two or three that suggest some considerations which seem worth presenting.

And first, this of the frivolity of poetry is interesting. The attitude of Carlyle is well remembered. His rugged nature demanded a stern grapple with what he called realities, and could not brook the jingling rhymester peddling bon-bons and rose-water to a wicked and perverse generation that needed the bread of life. So, too, Count Tolstoï is an enemy of poetry in metrical form; but his point of view is a little different. He holds that rhythm and rhyme chain down thought, and that whatever interferes with the complete expression of the idea is an evil. Therefore he regards the decline in our esteem for verse as an evidence of progress, a sign that we are putting away childish things and becoming sensible. This way of looking at the matter, whether Carlyle's or Tolstoï's, is well enough brought out by one of the speakers in George Eliot's poem, "A College Breakfast-party," in which scorn is poured upon our modern art and poesy under the image of

. . . "two stalwart greybeards, imbecile,
With limbs still active, playing at belief
That hunt the slipper, football, hide-and-seek,
Are sweetly merry, donning pinafores
And lisping emulously in their speech."

With regard to all this, it seems pertinent, if not profound, to remark, that whether poetry, in its relation to the ideals and aspirations of an epoch, is frivolous or not depends not on the nature of things, [506] but upon the nature of the poetry. At the very time when Carlyle was pronouncing verse an anachronism, Tennyson was producing some of the noblest verse in English literature. Is there any less of manly seriousness in "In Memoriam" than in "Sartor Resartus"? And as for Tolstoï's objection to the clogging element of rhythm, it can be urged with equal force against the constraints of style in prose. In the Count's Utopia there will be, it would seem, no artistic expression whatever; since rules and conventions that operate as a constraint are of its very essence. If it is child's play to make words sing, it must be child's play to make them preach. The play theory of art was formerly made much of in æsthetic discussion, notably by Schiller. I have never been able to get much help from it; but if there is anything at all in it, we must clearly regard the "Kreutzer Sonata" as coming under the head of play no less than a song or a sonnet.

Frivolity, like most of the abstract nouns we bandy about in debate, is a relative term. It denotes a point of view as well as a kind of conduct. If anyone thinks the poetry of to-day frivolous, he will probably not be converted by argument. Still it will do him no harm to recall that Plato thought Homer frivolous. Poets have always been more or less taxed with frivolity by persons of a severe disposition; and the moralists have very often been wrong. About the middle of the last century there was in Germany a flood of Anacreontic verse which struck the sedate mind, and still strikes it, as very frivolous indeed. Nevertheless we can now see that a genuine seriousness underlay it. The Germans were just escaping from the tyranny of theological standards that had imposed a very austere view of life, and their exultation in the new freedom found expression in endless babble about Chloe and kisses and vine-wreaths; the chorus being swelled by many steady-going citizens, who really kept their service of love and wine within the limits of law and propriety. Is there not some comfort in the reflection that frivolous poetry may turn out after a while to have meant something? It is a large world, with room in it for all kinds of people to amuse themselves in their own way. The most that the moralist can reasonably demand is, that the amusements shall be harmless; and surely the making of verses that seem to have nothing in them must count among the least noxious of vices.

I have been trying to suggest the thought that cynical views of poetry, based upon its alleged lack of seriousness, are very inconclusive. They are nothing new in the world, and need to be heavily discounted. Seriousness manifests itself variously in different natures, according to [507] the time and place. The hostile attitude of Carlyle was not a matter of logic, but grew out of his personal limitations and prejudices. While himself a wonderful artist in prose, he was a poor performer in verse, and was, moreover, inclined to see unrealities all about him in every phase of contemporary life. Bent as he was upon the spiritual regeneration of his poor, weak fellow-men, he conceived life much too strenuously from the moralist's point of view. He did not sufficiently consider what his converts were to do with themselves, and how their lives were to be enriched, after they had cleared their minds of cant, swallowed the formulæ, and become decent citizens of this spacious and interesting world. He was no doubt right in thinking that for the purposes of preaching, at least for the lower, hortatory kind, prose is the best vehicle of expression. But man cannot live by preaching alone.

And now a word as to the blighting effect of the scientific spirit. Coleridge is quoted as having said in conversation that the real antithesis of poetry is not prose, but science. If this is true, it seems reasonable, at first blush, to expect that the development of science will gradually render poetry superfluous, if not impossible. That this is bound to take place, and is already taking place on a large scale, is an idea that seems to have found lodgment in many minds. But when one inquires just how the result is to be brought about, one gets no very clear or conclusive answer. Is it that the scientific habit of mind tends to make people indifferent to everything but hard facts and logical conclusions? If this were so, we might still be moderately cheerful about the future of poetry, because the scientific habit of thought is not making such a swift conquest of the general mind as to occasion immediate alarm. Men of science, who take a deeper view of the matter, can only wonder and groan that its progress is after all so discouragingly slow. But it is a groundless and calumnious assumption, that the study of science has any such effect. On the contrary, its natural effect, under normal conditions, is to increase a man's susceptibility to whatever makes for the enrichment of life. It is true that long and unremitting attention to the details of scientific work or any other work will usually result in impairing the imaginative faculty and the capacity to be moved by an æsthetic appeal. The case of Darwin, who gradually lost all interest in music and poetry, is in point. But this instance, which is offset by the case of Goethe, only illustrates the familiar truth that any organ or faculty will decay if not exer cised. A man of science, like a lawyer or doctor, may bury himself completely in his facts and problems, and let his æsthetic nature un[508]dergo atrophy; but if he does so it is his own fault and not that of his business. There are many scientific men who are lovers and connoisseurs of poetry, and who would scout the idea that there is anything in their vocation which tends exceptionally to paralyze the æsthetic nerve-centres. It is all a matter of temperament, early training, and continued cultivation. A youthful susceptibility to poetry and romance needs to be cherished, otherwise the absorbing pursuits of later life will be apt to kill it. This is an old, old story. I believe, however, that the pursuit of accurate knowledge is, if anything, rather less lethal than most other pursuits.

There is another phase of this anxiety about the effects of science – a phase with which it is difficult to deal fairly in a few words. The idea prevails quite widely that the tendency of science is to destroy faith in the reality and importance of things spiritual. If that were so we should have to regard it indeed as the deadly enemy of poetry, But it is not so. The effect of science is to transform, not to destroy, our inheritance of thought and feeling; and the welfare of poetry is not bound up with any particular forms of emotion or conviction. When we speak of science, we ought to mean all the sciences together. Now the idealism of science, taken in this sense, is the love of the whole truth. It cannot despiritualize the world: for it deals with facts, with all the facts; and the human mind is the most important among them. Whatever science may have in store, however ruthlessly it may lay its hand upon particular beliefs and illusions, human beings will always be what nature made them; that is, not primarily thinking-machines, but emotional creatures who must live much more in what they feel than in what they can prove, – creatures for whom affection, joy, hope, aspiration, will always play a more important rôle than logic. And this, which is the domain of poetry, is not shrinking, but enlarging, with the lapse of time. The gain of positive knowledge, which renders the spectacle of life more complicate, opens at the same time new domains of feeling, and calls for a continual readjustment of relations between the head and the heart. And so it must be forever, while

". . . still, as we proceed,
The mass swells more and more,
Of volumes yet to read,
Of secrets yet to explore."

It was a contention of Macaulay, that, as knowledge extends and reason develops itself, the imaginative arts must decay; and I have [509] lately read of a college entrance-examination in which a formal proof of this proposition, or one of quite similar import, was set as a theme for composition. But, though the doctrine seems to be widely accepted as commonplace truth, there is really nothing in it. It is only one of those illusions to which we are all more or less liable through generalizing too widely from the movement of our own minds, or from a limited range of observation. From the condition of our private larder we forebode that soon there will be "no more cakes and ale" anywhere. Having ourselves passed the age of youth and romance, we imagine that the world is growing old. But the world does not grow old in any but a geological sense. It renews its youth continually. Each generation sets out with fresh eagerness, as if it were a new thing to live. Under slightly different forms it dreams the same old dreams and kindles to the same old passions as in the days of Homer. It is touched anew by the same sorrows, and finds joy in the same old sources. Now it is this ever-renewed youth of the human heart that guarantees the future of poetry. We need have no fear of a permanent decadence of the art. It will have its ups and downs. Old forms will wear themselves out; but others will come to take their place. There will be sterile epochs like our own, in which men will wonder, as many do now, if poetry has not really had its day. And then it will flourish again, appropriating new domains and exerting its old influence as the most intellectual and the most useful of the arts. It is an ancient effluence of the human soul, has lived through all kinds of vicissitudes, and will survive in the future for the same reason as in the past. And that reason is, in a word, that it meets and satisfies, as no other art can, certain fundamental and imperishable needs of human nature. I contend that we have need of poetry, and that the need is not diminishing with the lapse of time.

We need it, in the first place, for pleasure. Just in proportion as our modern life tends to assume a very solemn aspect and to become, for the great majority, a treadmill or a struggle, do we need to guard all the more jealously our available resources of elevating pleasure. If the poet, with his bagatelles of fancy, can beguile us now and then to forget the awful burden of our responsibility for the world's welfare, we should bless him as a benefactor, instead of chiding him for his frivolity. As a means of pleasure, poetry has some obvious advantages over its chief modern competitors. It is less expensive than a yacht or a cottage by the sea. It has not the nameless drawbacks of an ocean voyage; and it is more accessible than the Alps or Venice or the [510] Louvre. It does not afflict one with backache, like the picture-galleries, nor prepare the way for a sad morrow, like the festive banquet. It is easy to come at; and you do not need to dress for it. You are tolerably sure of good society; and if you chance to be bored, escape is quickly practicable. You are not dependent upon a course of technical training; and you can dispense with the services of an interpreter.

This would make, I trow, an impregnable case, were it not that all these advantages can be claimed likewise for prose fiction. Ours is a generation of novel-readers; wherefore, one who is arguing that we still have need of poetry must be prepared to show that prose fiction cannot altogether "fill the bill." But this is no very hard task. Let it be granted that very good novels can do, in some degree, the work of poetry; still they can do it only in a degree, not perfectly. There is a long descent from the best poetry to the best fiction; and as for ordinary novels, they hardly do the work of poetry at all. They are better, perhaps, for rest, and form a more acceptable substitute for narcotics in the case of those who are deficient in literary sense. This explains their greater popularity. Take any one of the myriads who read novels, but eschew poetry, inquire into the grounds of his preference, and you will probably get an answer equivalent to this: "Poetry is too hard reading. It demands greater alertness and concentration, hurrying one from image to image and compelling one to think, to visualize, perhaps even to parse. On the other hand, the prose tale adapts itself more readily to a lethargic condition of the mind, whether this result from fatigue or from a natural ineptitude for cerebral effort." But if the jaded or indolent mind finds its account in prose fiction, which is apt to fix attention on the matter, the alert and active mind has the keener pleasure in verse, which appeals more decidedly to the sense of form.

It is of course useless to urge the pleasure-giving qualities of poetry upon those who, as a matter of fact, find no pleasure in it. That the name of this class is to-day legion, even among the cultivated, is the effect partly of recent educational developments. As long as education was an aristocratic distinction and was mainly occupied with poetry and matters germane thereto, the reading-public was relatively small; but nearly all cared for poetry who cared for anything in the domain of mind and art. Now the poet must bring his wares to an immensely greater public, that has all sorts of intellectual and æsthetic interests, and is overwhelmed with books, reviews and magazines. And a very large part of this public have contrived to get through school and college, and take the prescribed dose of literary study in a number of different languages [511] without acquiring a very fervid interest in good literature of any kind. They have found their account in other fields. Poetry does not appeal to them. It is this state of affairs, I am persuaded, which has given rise to the widespread illusion, that the world is growing weary of poetry. The number of those who seemingly ought to care for it, but do not, is enormous. But, on the other hand, the number of those who do care for it is much greater than ever before, and is bound to increase. For them the art is a living source of pleasure which has lost none of its old potency.

In the second place, I do not hesitate to argue that we need poetry for instruction. The dogma of art for art's sake has done good service as a battle-cry. It was in the beginning a wholesome protest against narrow views of the relation of art to conventional morality and religion. The time had come to proclaim forcibly that art was in no need of leading-strings, but had a right to take things as they are and be judged by its own standards. But it was putting good doctrine to a bad use, to appeal to it in defence of poetry that has no excuse for being except to titillate the depraved æsthetic sense of moral degenerates. It is carrying the protest too far, to maintain that poetry has nothing to do with making us wiser and better. Thus stated, the theory is unsound; and some of the practice to which it has given rise in Europe is simply detestable.

We get our best instruction from the poets by a very indirect process, through the widening of intellectual sympathies and the deepening of emotional life. They teach us, as Goethe expresses it, by "calling our attention to that whereof instruction were desirable"; and our gain comes not in the form of rules and maxims, but in the culture which enables us to test the worth of all rules and maxims whatsoever. In other words, they teach us by putting us more and more in a position to teach ourselves – always the most precious kind of instruction. It was a saying of Matthew Arnold, that "the noblest nations are those which know how to make the best use of poetry." This means that, as the world has been, poetry is our best discipline in nobility. Will it be otherwise in the future? Are we outgrowing the need of the wisdom which the poets teach? Can science or formal philosophy take its place? Will the mighty forces that make for the vulgarization of life be able to prevail against it? I do not think so. It will rather grow strong to meet the enemy.

Again, we have need of poetry for consolation. When the times seem out of joint; when we are appalled at the tremendous strength of [512] the wrong, and are moved to cynicism because of the slow progress of the good cause we have at heart; when we are disheartened by the fatuity of our politicians, judges, teachers, ministers of religion, and so forth, there is always comfort in the poets, who show us benignly that all those multifarious reprobates have appeared on earth before, and have not succeeded in making it uninhabitable. In the stress of our partisanship, in the vehemence of our indignation, we get relief by taking now and then the artistic point of view, comparing our misguided brethren with their predecessors of long ago, and thus learning to regard them as necessary manifestations of the eternal power not ourselves that makes for deviltry. And for the times of private sorrow and depression, for the moods of gloom and revolt, there is also nepenthe in the poets. It is true they cannot instantly assuage a poignant grief; but they do that which is better – they transfigure it. And this they effect by letting us see that our personal woes are not unprecedented; that many others have borne a like burden or a greater, and in bearing have not been crushed, but have found their benediction. This is what Wordsworth meant by

"The soothing thoughts that spring
 Out of human suffering."

Finally, we have need of poetry for joy – "the joy of elevated thoughts." It is here that the art of arts performs its most precious benefaction. I speak now more especially of the great poets and of the total effect of long occupation with them. As we come to know them intimately and as life discloses ever more fully the meaning and the truth of their words, as their messages take on a personal tinge through association with our own crises and turning-points, their ministry of the lower benefits that I have mentioned deepens at last into a ministry of pure joy like that we have in the love of a dear friend. This, rather than the æsthetic culture that vaunteth itself in critical estimates and learned discussions, is the finest fruitage of the study of the poets. They have not done their perfect work until admiration of artistic genius has kindled into the joy of a personal affection.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Forum.
Bd. 25, März-August 1898, Juni, S. 503-512.

Gezeichnet: CALVIN THOMAS.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).

The Forum   online





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