Chambers's Encyclopædia








Poetry is that one of the fine arts which employs rhythmical language as the medium of its expression. The present form of the word is due to the old French noun poëterie, but both are derived from the Greek ποιεῖν 'to make.' A poet was ποιητής 'a maker or composer,' and poetry ποίησις 'the act of making or forming'. A poem was ποίημα 'a thing made and finished.' Into all these expressions there entered the sense of artistic fashioning, and poetry from the first was felt to be, like sculpture, painting, or music, the work of a creative craftsman. As we cannot conceive of sculpture without something carved or modelled, or of painting without something painted, so poetry cannot, in the first instance, be conceived without the coincident idea of language rhythmically arranged. If this idea be absent the term must be used allusively or figuratively, as its counterparts often and legitimately are in the cases of those other arts. But to the primitive conception of poetry rhythm is absolutely necessary. In other words, it is only by a license, and in a sense which is unscientific, that we can speak of anything which is not composed in verse as poetry. To this rule, however, there are some conventional exceptions which will presently be mentioned.

Verse, therefore, is the essential vehicle of poetry, and on the varieties of versification the external form of any given poetical product depends. That species of rhythm on which verse is founded is the law of regularly recurring succession of articulate sounds. Verse was defined by Dr Edwin Guest as 'a succession of articulate sounds regulated by a rhythm so definite that we can readily foresee the results which follow from its application.' The definiteness, repetition, and formal character of verse-rhythm distinguish it from that laxer and more undulating rhythm which gives charm, to fine prose. The difference is one not of amount but of kind. All good verse must be severely regulated, and must obey the laws of its own prosody. The rhythm of prose, on the contrary, must, in order to be good of its species, be unrecurrent. No greater fault can be committed in prose than the intentional or even accidental introduction of passages which can be read as verse — that is, as recurrent rhythm. Poetry, therefore, in the English sense of the term, is, in its external form, an arrangement of syllables into verses or staves, distinguished by the rhythmical accidents of quantity and accent, and effected by the law of succession.

This definition of the external form of poetry, however, is not sufficient, and to complete it is admittedly so extremely difficult as almost to defy expression. In defining the term poetry [260] nevertheless, as an English word, the lexicographers have probably been too much rather than too little affected by the necessity of including a spiritual meaning. Hardly any one has attempted to say what poetry is without mingling the figurative with the exact sense, or at least without making the definition apply to none but good and original poetry. In speaking of sculpture and painting we do not necessarily exclude all experiments in those arts which are not successful; but poetry, in English, has come to mean something which excludes unsuccessful effort in rhythmical expression. Hence a certain confusion between the external and the internal, between a craft and an ecstasy. It would be well, perhaps, to bring the term back to its more exact meaning, but it is too late to hope to do this. Poetry must continue to mean not merely language arranged in rhythmical sequence, but verse which is also inspired by imagination, and which attains a measure of perfection in that degree at which it aims. The degree may be a low one, but if the aim is fulfilled, and the rhythmical laws are followed, the work produced must not be refused the title of poetry. The word, indeed, is capable of much expansion. Any man who has written what the world accepts as a ποίησις a finished composition in verse, is allowed the name of 'poet,' and his other rhythmical experiments, even though many of them are unsuccessful, are broadly defined as 'poetry. The presence of high imagination, and of a brilliant propriety of language, are presupposed in all that is called poetry, but the word must be extended to much that is not very lofty nor very skilful if we are not to slip into pedantry in its use. Wordsworth at one time was of opinion that the only strict antithesis to Prose was Metre; but it is simpler, as well as more exact, to understand by poetry metrical composition, not troubling ourselves more than is absolutely necessary in its definition about the quality of high imagination. This latter is essential indeed to the best poetry, but not to all poetry in the colloquial use of that term.

In some languages, and particularly in French, rime (constantly misspelt rhyme, which is a meaningless arrangement of letters formed in imitation of rhythm) is an essential part of the form of poetry. In other languages, as in ancient Greek and Latin, rime does not exist. In English poetry final rime, though not essential, is extremely common, and is the necessary ornament of the main classes of lyrical composition. Rime is a correspondence of sound between syllables which occur at regular intervals, and in final rime that recurrence always takes place at the end of a verse. It may be single, double, or even triple. Propriety and vigour in riming are so important a portion of the art of poetry that rime cannot be overlooked in the briefest survey. Where rime is not rejected altogether, as in blank verse (and in some strophic measures of doubtful value), it forms a main ornament of English verse-composition, and some of the most beautiful effects which poetry produces are due to the skilful arrangement of these recurrent sounds. It is only a poet of great resource and infinite accomplishment who can safely dispense with this fortunate regulation of rime. To one who knows his business it offers no real restraint, but rather a support and an encouragement. As Dryden has excellently said, 'That which most regulates the fancy and gives the judgment its busiest employment is like to bring forth the richest and clearest thoughts.'

It is a popular error that the necessity of finding a rime checks the inspiration of a poet, and that he would be more fortunate if he could contrive to do without it. The universal testimony of the poets themselves does not support this notion. The best writers of verse have been unanimous in declaring that the more distinct and spontaneous are the visions which present themselves to the brain for verse-expression the more rapidly and inevitably do the rimes occur in logical sequence, the proper word fitting into its proper place with as little conscious brain-effort as the proper tone or the proper form does in the work of the painter or the sculptor. If this be so, and it seems impossible to doubt it, the difficulty which the unskilful versifier finds in riming is but another safeguard to protect us from incompetence. For those readers who declare that rime gives them no enjoyment, and is only an interruption of the sense, we can but pray that ears may be added to them.

The recognised species of poetical composition are numerous, and are exceedingly difficult to distinguish from one another, because two or more of them may frequently be found existing side by side in the same specimen. Three principal divisions are, however, supposed to include all the minor classes of poetry under general headings. These are lyrical, epical, and dramatic poetry. In the original sense all poetry was Lyrical — that is to say, was composed to be sung to a musical accompaniment, and could not be conceived except in relation to music. But at a very early period this work of song was divided into two parts, that which was regulated by the air, and that which was expressed in recitative. In the former manner were sung all the poems which were inspired by the passions, which reflected moods individual to the poet, or which were devoted to religious aspiration. In the second manner were chanted matters of narration, statements of fact, didactic, hortatory, and philosophical disquisition. The poems on an air remained lyrical poetry proper, and continued to be more or less fitted to be sung to a musical accompaniment. The poems in recitative became what is vaguely known as Epic poetry, with its attendant classes, the Satire, the Epistle, the Tale, and the Fable. From all these the musical accompaniment soon fell away. In some eastern countries, however, narrative poetry is still, when publicly recited, accompanied by a monotonous music on a stringed instrument.

Dramatic poetry has retained, in its principal branches of Tragedy and Comedy, still less of the singing quality than epical poetry. In many cases drama has thrown off the restraints of versification altogether, and is now included in the general category of poetry partly because of its traditional form, and partly because its imaginative character still links it to lyrical and epical work. The origin of drama, however, was wholly lyrical. It was out of the dithyrambic song in honour of Dionysus that tragedy sprang. The litany was chanted by a chorus that danced as it sang, and in the process of time, a single personage began to break away from the chorus at intervals, and either to express aspirations of his own, or to narrate stories of the god, or to incite the chorus to fresh exertions. Comedy had a similar beginning, and by degrees not one but two and then many actors confronted the chorus and drew it into conversation. The development of this new form of poetry was very rapid; it gained variety and a recognised code of forms within a very short time, and we now possess in the tragedies of Æschylus a body of ancient dramatic poetry still capable, as recent experiment has shown, of satisfying the demands of a modern playgoer. Here the purely lyric element, in spite of the prominence of the chorus, is already minimised in favour of the development of personal action and character, so that the subsequent transition to the form of the most modern prose tragedy [261] is really very unessential. All the principles of dramatic poetry may be comprised in an essay on the Agamemnon.

Into these three elements, then, the Song, the Statement, and the Drama, all poetry that is not of a primitive nature is capable of being resolved. That which was primitive — and of this we have to conjecture more than we can prove — was probably Song alone. But, while we divide poetry into these three elements, it is not possible to make the same easy division of poetical literature. Here are found, indeed, the three great classes, but, as has been already said, they are constantly detected existing side by side in one and the same composition. The more elaborate the species of poetry the more likely are we to find upon analysis that the classes are confounded in it. In the Song we still preserve the simplest form of poem. This is a short piece in regular recurrent rhythm, expressing with the utmost conciseness a single enthusiastic and intense personal emotion, which it pours forth without deviation at a breath. When the spontaneous outburst is over the song naturally closes.

No other species of poetry is so simple as this. The Ode, which is often regarded not merely as a lofty form of lyric, but as the typical form par excellence, introduces a complexity. Too long and elaborate to be sung spontaneously, it verges upon drama in calling to its aid a chorus and an antichorus of singers; upon epic by its excursions into narrative and didactic reflection. The ode, in which we include its funereal form the Elegy, remains, however, truly lyrical in its necessary dependence upon melody. Not a line of it but presupposes a musical interpretation. The traditional fixed forms suggest the accompaniment of music to a far less degree. The Sonnet, for instance, with its dignified arrangement of full lines, admitting very slight modification of form, is singularly ill-fitted to be sung. It offers no musical variety, whereas its very beauties, and in particular those subtle harmonies which are secured by a proper attention to the structure of its quatrains and tercets, would not merely gain nothing, but would lose much by being set to music. Yet we can imagine even the sonnet chanted to some simple conventional melody, unobtrusive enough not to conceal its intellectual beauties nor that vein of reflective and pensive narration which links it to the epical order; and we must continue to regard the sonnet as essentially lyrical, notwithstanding its complexity and monotony. Not less than the song, the sonnet requires to consist of the spontaneous expression of a single intense emotion. What is true of the sonnet is true of the other traditional forms, some of which, as, for instance, the Rondeau, approach the song more closely, while others, as, for example, the grandiose Chant Royal, take their place on the further side of the sonnet, between the ode and the latter.

If in the divisions of lyrical poetry we find the other two classes occasionally present, the counterpart is still more true when we turn to a similar examination of epic and dramatic poetry. In the first case we possess an exquisite form, less successfully cultivated in England than in Italy, the Terza Rima, in which the lyrical and the epic forms co-exist to an almost equal degree. Here it is impossible to say whether the art of nariative or the art of song predominates. Even in the pure epic neither the lyrical nor the dramatic element is omitted. Whenever a burst of enthusiasm or passion seizes the narrator he passes without transition into lyric; whenever from describing his personages he proceeds to a record of their conversation, he suddenly transforms his epic into drama. Indeed, the rank of the various sections of the epical order of poetry may almost be determined by the opportunity they give for an admixture of the others. The Epistle is one of the least lyrical sections of all poetry; it may, however, contain an element of the dramatic. Satire, when it comprises no admixture of narrative, is apt to fall very low in the poetic scale. If its passion be enthusiastic and genuine it may attain to a certain lyrical afflatus; but there is little of the instinct of song in mere rage and disdain. Pure satire is commonly sustained solely by its executive ability, and is one of those species of literature which prove the necessity of giving to poetry a definition depending in the first instance not on its truth or beauty as 'a criticism of life,' but on its rhythmical structure.

Drama, as existing in modern Europe, has lost much of the external appearance of poetry. The distinction which admits a comedy in prose within the order of poetical literature and yet excludes a novel seems an arbitiary one. But it can be accounted for on traditional grounds. The novel has always been, from the days of the later Greeks, written in prose, and properly so, for it is independent of regulated form. Comedy, on the other hand, has but very lately, and still not completely, escaped from the bonds of verse. Rhythmical form is still largely used for tragedy, although the tendency in each of the great sections of drama is to dispense with a restraint which adds to the reader's pleasure, but in a much less degree to the spectator's. In other divisions of dramatic literature verse and even rime are still essential. In Opera, which is a combination of song with a conventional species of drama, both are necessary; and Pastoral imperatively demands for its graceful convention the ornament of metre. Dialogue, a dramatic form, may be combined even with an epical species as a medium for giving information or exhortation. Hastily looked at, however, drama appears in its modern aspects to be divorced more and more completely from the sister branches of poetry. It is therefore important to insist on the fact that the great poetical principle of unity in variety rules here as it does in those compositions which seem more completely under its sway. Without a lyrical element holding the parts of a drama together, balancing them, and supplying them with the necessary fire and harmony, the humblest play cannot maintain its existence. It is this more or less concealed dependence upon fixed laws of form which must always distinguish dramatic literature from the varieties of prose fiction. As long as it obeys these laws it holds its place in the order of poetry, although it may have abandoned its rhythmical shape. If it throws off these fortunate restraints it either perishes altogether or it becomes a mere variety of the prose novel.

In the incessant discussion which takes place as to the nature of poetry, the real aspect of the question is too frequently obscured by a confusion between Poetry, as a craft practised by artists, and the Poetical, as a metaphysical conception. The latter, which has been analysed with extraordinary minuteness by the Germans, and in particular by Goethe and by Hegel, is not necessarily combined with any of the external forms of poetical literature. This distinction, admirably laid down by Diotima in the Symposium of Plato, has been generally forgotten by those who have endeavoured to sentimentalise the art and to confuse our ideas of it by such vague and futile definitions as the well-known formula 'Poetry is impassioned truth.' It seems almost waste of words to point out that while the best poetry must be impassioned and must be true, in accordance with Aristotle's dictum that the superiority of poetry consists 'in its possessing a higher truth and a higher seriousness,' yet that no definition which confines itself to moral [262] or sentimental attributes can be adequate to distinguish an art which consists of the making of a certain definite thing in a certain definite form.

In short, and in spite of the extreme unwillingness of the metaphysician to acknowledge it, we must insist that the idea of poetry cannot be divorced from the incident of 'making,' whether we call it with Wordsworth 'impassioned expression' or employ the broader and simpler word 'execution.' Until the passion and the truth are fused into actual speech, and until that speech takes a rhythmical form, those elements may be as 'poetical' as you please, but they do not form poetry. None of the wild words of Mr Ruskin deserve an immortality of repudiation more thorouglily than the following phrase, which is always on the lips of those who write laxly and nebulously .about the poetic art. 'No weight nor mass nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought,' says Mr Ruskin. If this were true, half of the noblest poetry in the world would cease to possess any value. Thought may and often does accompany the expression of the poetic art, but it is not essential to it in the sense in which Mr Ruskin uses the word, as an original act of the intellectual faculty. The few poets, indeed, who have aimed at producing 'chains of valuable thoughts' have rarely succeeded in doing more than giving tuneful expression to thought reflected from other and more ratiocinative minds. Even when a poet, such as Coleridge, has been eminently deductive and argumentative in his prose, he has generally been sensuous and simple in his verse. In the peculiar sense in which Mr Ruskin uses the word 'execution,' as directly distinguished from 'thought,' the work of the great poets has seldom possessed the latter quality in any notable degree.

It is desirable to define what is meant by 'execution,' for on this depends our whole conception of the practice of poetry as an art. It is not confined to an observance of the technical laws of this form of composition, to a correct and beautiful use of rhythm, of stanzaic form, of rime, and of that 'variety in unity' in which the charm of verse consists. All this is part of poetical execution, and an extremely important part. In most cases it may be said to be an indispensable part. But it is not all. Execution in poetry, as in the other fine arts, is the mechanical performance by which the effect desired is produced in the most perfect and most characteristic manner, so as in the happiest combination to illustrate the nature of the art itself and the individuality of the artist. As the medium in which the poet works is language, execution in his case is the arrangement of the best words in the best order, the best order being, in all but a few anomalous cases, a rhythmical one. The technical laws of verse, however, deal only with 'the best order.' There remain, as a part of execution, 'the best words.' This section of the definition covers all the intellectual propriety, the moral passion, the verbal felicity, the myriad charms and graces, of which 'the best order' is but the vehicle. It is part of a poet's technical work, part of his business as a 'maker' to produce this manifold perfection of regulated language, and all these beauties of expression and feeling cannot be rudely divided from that 'execution' of which they are an inherent feature. The bad poet may have the intellect of Locke or of Spinoza; he will learn by the total neglect of his verses that in poetry no weight nor mass of thought can outweigh one grain of executive skill.

It would, nevertheless, be a grave error to insist so emphatically on tbe importance of the outwaril form of poetry as to encourage neglect of its inward character. In a definition of poetry it has been deemed needful to dwell here on the fact that it is primarily an art and subjected to definite laws. But, as Joubert has said, 'the lyre is a winged instrument,' and the closest attention to its constructive mechanism will not give it the power of flight if inspiration be lacking. The vivid pleasure produced by the best poetry is due in large measure to the merits of its execution — its music, the splendour of its images, the harmony and felicity of its arrangement of language. But there is something beyond and above this 'complex feeling of delight;' there is a spiritual emotion which is the spontaneous result of close attention to great poetry, and which is created in the soul only by verse that is of the highest value. This emotion is founded on the Aristotelian qualities of 'the higher truth' and 'the higher seriousness,' and is inseparable from, though not to be confounded with, the mere physical delight in lovely sounds and marshalled groups of images. In this exquisite passion of poetry there is something supernatural, which evades analysis. It combines the experience of life with the hope of immortality, and fuses what has been felt and witnessed into what has only been, and can only be, imagined. The literature of all countries and of all ages has proved that this subtle and divine emotion is produced in its most direct form by the art of language rhythmically arranged, and to this art is given the name of Poetry.

The prose fragment called the Poetics of Aristotle is the earliest and most important treatise on the art of poetry which has come down to us from antiquity. What is commonly known as Horace's 'Art of Poetry' gives us the views of an admirable Latin writer on verse and on the poet. In 1527 Vida published his Latin poem, Ars Poetica, which exercised a great authority, and was by many students preferred to Horace. Of more modern interest is Scaliger's treatise, Poetices Libri Septem (1561). The first manual of modem Italian prosody was Girolamo Muzio's Arte Poetica (1551). In the England of Elizabeth we have three important treatises on the art, An Apology for Poetry (1595), by Sir Philip Sidney; A Discourse of English Poetry (1586), by W. Webbe; and The Art of English Poesy (1589), by George Puttenham. In France the first important treatise on the subject was the Art Poétique Français (1604), by Vauquelin de la Fresnaye. Nicolas Boileau, 'the Lawgiver of Parnassus,' wrote an Art Poétique. Among French works of the 18th century the most important are Traité de la Prosodie Française (1736), by Olivet, and Réflexions sur la Poésie (1752), by Louis Racine. Dryden's Essay on Dramatic Poetry belongs to 1669. Among modern works must be cited that portion of Hegel's Æsthetik. Guest's History of English Rhythms (1838; new ed. 1882) remains the best authority on British prosody, while the Petit Traité da Poésie Française is greatly to be recommended.





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Chambers's Encyclopædia.
A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge.
New Edition.
Volume VIII. London, Edinburgh: Chambers; Philadelphia: Lippincott 1901, S. 259-263.


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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer