William Archer
Poets of the Younger Generation








This brings me to the last point in my confession of faith. Having sketched the growth of my taste for poetry, outlined my knowledge and my ignorance and made a clean breast of my preferences and prejudices, it is time that I should try to state in general terms what I understand by the word poetry. A hopeless task, yet it must be attempted. Though I cannot define the indefinable, I can let the reader see in what sense I would define it if I could.

Wordsworth has given a poet's definition of poetry: "The breath and finer spirit of all knowledge." Coleridge has tried to sum it up in an epigram: "The best words in the best order" – which, however, fails to differentiate it from the best prose. Poe, to my thinking, came as near the mark as it was possible to come in five words, when he called poetry "The rhythmical creation of beauty." Oliver Wendell Holmes, with his usual winning fancifulness, wrote: "There are words that have loved each other since the birth of the language, and when they meet that is poetry." This goes to the heart of the matter: the sense of predestination which it carries with it is one unfailing mark of fine poetry. When words are rightly wedded, we feel that the poet was but the officiating priest – the marriage was made in heaven.

The same thought, however, may be stated rather more comprehensively. The essence of poetry, to my mind, is its magical, its miraculous quality. When we feel that the artist has done something which could not possibly have been accomplished by the highest intelligence, culture and industry – when his words seem to have flown together, not at the bidding of his mere reason, but in obedience to some incommunicable spell – then "This," we say, "is [20] poetry." What is a miracle? We define it as a phenomenon not referable to any general law or reproducible by any process explicable to the reason, but appearing to depend on some mystic effluence from a particular personality, human or divine. But true poetry is precisely such a phenomenon. It may be the simplest thing in the world, yet not all the world can compass it save one particular man; and he cannot tell you how he does it, or, for all the wealth in the world, teach any one else the secret. Take, for instance, such a mere versicle as this:


Row us out from Desenzano, to your Sirmione row!
So they rowed, and there we landed – "O venusta Sirmio!"
There to me through all the groves of olive in the summer glow,
There beneath the Roman ruin where the purple flowers grow,
Came that "Ave atque Vale" of the Poet's hopeless woe,
Tenderest of Roman poets nineteen hundred years ago,
"Frater Ave atque Vale" – as we wandered to and fro,
Gazing at the Lydian laughter of the Garda Lake below
Sweet Catullus's all-but-island, olive-silvery Sirmio.

There is here no thought, no wit, no wisdom, no passion, no drama, nothing that can even be called description. There is not a word, except the two or three words of Latin, which a child of seven would not understand. All the writer says is, "We rowed to a certain place and a certain Latin phrase ran in my head." But because the writer happens to be Tennyson, he creates out of this nothing an ineffably beautiful, immortal something, an "unearned increment" of beauty to the English tongue, a miracle – in short, a poem. And, Tennyson dead, all the king's horses and all the king's men cannot work just such a miracle over again. Other poets (thank heaven!) can work other miracles, and rhymesters can produce echoes of this particular miracle which may be clever enough in their way, but are at once dismissed as worthless, simply because there is nothing miraculous about [21] them. Tennyson's lines are not in the least clever. So far as their substance is concerned, they might have been written by a man of the scantiest intelligence. They are magical, that is all: and the abracadabra which summoned them out of nothingness passed away with the magician,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep
          Turned again home.

Moreover, Tennyson had two brothers, constituted like himself, educated like himself, and devoted hke himself to the poet's craft. There is nothing to show that their intelligence, their general brain-power, was notably inferior to his; at all events, any difference there may have been was as nothing in comparison with the gulf that separates his poetry from theirs. And why? There is only one possible answer – because Nature (or if you prefer the older mythology, the Muses) whispered to Alfred in his cradle some word of magic might, which Charles and Frederick only half heard, or misheard, or heard not at all.

It may be objected that this theory, or rather this apologue, for it is no more, breaks down on the question of imitation. The poetic miracle, it may be said, is notoriously imitable; was it not Tennyson himself who wrote

All may grow the flower now,
For all have got the seed?

Yes – but who has grown the flower? Where is the second Tennyson who has equalled by imitating him? or who has won anything more than a spurious and transient reputation, among people incapable of distinguishing the paste from the diamond, the mock-miracle from the real one? There is of course an imitable element – even a large element – in all poetry; but it is precisely the inimitable final touch, crowning and consecrating the whole, that constitutes the miracle and proclaims the poet. The greatest poets have [22] imitated the imitable element in others, but they have made the work their own by adding to it their own inimitable somewhat, transmuting it by their own spell. Up to a certain point, Pharaoh's magicians imitated the miracles of Moses; but it was his inimitable masterpieces that proved his divine calling and election.

It is no new idea – it is as old as the first babbling of criticism round the primeval camp-fire – to insist on this magical quality as the true differentia of poetry. All poets, I think, recognise it, and feel that their truly immortal work is that which seems to have written itself, they cannot tell how. In Tennyson's Life (vol. i. p. 152) he is recorded to have said: "Keats, with his high spiritual vision, would have been, if he had lived, the greatest of us all. . . . There is something magic and of the innermost soul of poetry in almost everything which he wrote." Mr. Ruskin has given the theory his own peculiar twist, and has almost transmuted it into poetry, in these exquisite words: "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."

A paragraph in Mr. Leslie Stephen's Studies of a Biographer puts the same theory in a somewhat different light, and suggests a re-statement of it in somewhat less figurative terms. Mr. Stephen writes:

Arnold must, on the whole, take a lower place than Tennyson and Browning. But, though I cannot avoid falling into the method of comparison, I do not accept with satisfaction the apparently implied doctrine that poets can be satisfactorily arranged in order of merit. We cannot give so many marks for style and so many for pathos or descriptive power. It is best to look at each poet by himself. We need only distinguish between the sham and the genuine article; and my own method of distinguishing is a simple one. I believe in poetry which learns itself by heart. There are poems which dominate and haunt one; which, once admitted, sting and cling to one; the tune of which comes up and runs in one's head at odd moments; and which suddenly revive, after years of [23] forgetfulness, as vigorous and lively as ever. Such poetry, as Wordsworth told Arnold, has the characteristic of being "inevitable" – a phrase which has become something of a nuisance, but cannot always be avoided. You feel that the thing had to be said just as it was said; and that, once so said, nothing said by anybody else will ever hit just the same mark.

This is, in other words, nothing but the classical theory of "inspiration" – a true theory, no doubt, or, rather, a luminous symbol. The wise ancients recognised that a poet, at any rate in his great moments, was simply the mouthpiece of "something not himself that made for" – perfect utterance. They saw that the beauties we really value and worship in poetry are those which we feel to be unattainable by any conscious effort of will or skill, and which we therefore ascribe to the intervention of some superhuman power. To state the thing in plain prose, these beauties are the result of mental processes which transcend the experience of ordinary men and defy our gross methods of analysis. One day, perhaps, science may provide us with a formula for "inspiration," showing that it depends on some slightly abnormal volatility of the cerebral corpuscles; but in the meantime we find it shorter, more convenient, and more agreeable to use the consecrated mythological term.

One mark of inspiration, as Mr. Stephen says, is the tendency of the thing inspired to "learn itself by heart" – to sting and cling to us, to haunt and possess us. But before erecting this tendency into a law, we must reflect that some great poems are long, and that most human memories are short. Take the Æneid, for example. Mr. Stephen, I presume, would not restrict the term "poetry" or "inspired poetry" to those passages which every one knows by heart. Nor would he deny The Faery Queen to be great poetry because not one man in ten thousand can recite three whole stanzas of it. Nor would he declare Ye Mariners of England a greater achievement than Tennyson's Ballad of the "Revenge," because fifty people, probably, [24] could rattle it off, for one who could recite the longer and less jingling poem. I prefer, then, to modify Mr. Stephen's statement, and recognise as the mark of the true poem, not that it "learns itself by heart," but that when once we have read it and taken it in, its ghost, its disembodied spirit, released from its verbal integuments, haunts us for ever after. To think of the Æneid, or The Faery Queen, or Paradise Lost, is to hear, in each case, a peculiar strain of harmony, entirely divorced from words. By conscious effort, indeed, we can summon up a few fragments of the different poems, but they do not make the haunting harmonies any clearer or more unmistakable to "that inward ear which is the bliss of solitude." So, too, with Ye Mariners of England and The "Revenge" Campbell's song has probably run in our head from boyhood, and will remain with us, along with other "trivial fond records," to the end of our days; but to think of Tennyson's poem is to summon up the ghost of something stately and moving and splendid, before which the actual substance of the good old ditty (of which, nevertheless, I desire to speak with respect and affection) seems to vanish into nothingness. This is simply to say, in other words, that the fundamental and imperishable quality of great poetry is style; for style is the more prosaic term for that ghostly harmony.

Let us note, too – for this must be emphasised whenever a large number of contemporary poets are to be passed in review – that style can be as clearly manifested in small as in great poetry, in the versicle as in the epic. It is unmistakable, for instance, in those three stanzas of Sir Henry Wotton's which I have quoted above. They have a physiognomy, an accent, an individuality of their own. It is not entirely unsusceptible of analysis. If it were worth while, pages might be devoted to expounding the characteristics of conception, diction, metre, and stanza which give this poem its individuality; but the ultimate secret would [25] escape us after all. Again, if all the works of Tennyson were to vanish from earth save the nine lines of Frater Ave atque Vale, a critic, coming across them, would be able to say with confidence, "Here was a true poet, a man with a miraculous accent of his own." It follows, too, from the very theory of inspiration, of the miracle, that it may occur very rarely, or only once, in a whole lifetime. A man may write only one "copy of verses," and they may proclaim him incontestably a poet. Or he may doggedly turn out his tale of fifty lines a day, with never a line worth reading, until, on a particular day of days, the inspiration comes, the miracle happens, and he writes two or three stanzas which will sing in men's souls till the end of time. Such cases, of course, are very rare, perhaps purely theoretical; but they are merely over-statements of perfectly common cases. And the principle on which this book is based is that inspiration is inspiration, style is style, even if it comes to a man only half a dozen times in as many years. All poets live by their happy moments; but we are apt, in looking at the past, to lose our sense of perspective, and forget or ignore the proportion of uninspired to inspired writing in the works of all but the very greatest; thus doing injustice to the contemporaries whom we see from a different angle. The classics come to us foreshortened, like a fleet of great galleons bearing down on us from the horizon, the sunlight of renown on each high-piled tower of canvas, and the pennant of immortality floating from every main-mast-head.

Whatever the errors, oversights, or limitations of the criticism contained in the following pages, I cannot but feel that it has been my privilege to bring together, in my quotations and selections, a very remarkable body of poetry. I have already called attention to its variety, but its strength, beauty, and general originality seem to me no [26] less striking. If the reader will bear in mind that by far the greater number of the poems here quoted have been written within the past ten years, I think he will admit that the last decade of the nineteenth century has been anything but a barren period. For my part, I do not hesitate to express my conviction that the poetry of the eighteen-nineties does no discredit whatever to a century so glorious in the annals of song that even the resplendent seventeenth century will have much ado to outshine it.

If I thought otherwise – if I believed in the decadence of which we hear so much – I should be sad indeed. It would show a strange and ominous change in the spirit of the nation if England ceased to utter her exultations and her agonies, her faith and hope and doubt and pride and love, in noble and vital verse. For three centuries and a quarter (not to go back to the very "morning star of song") her poetry has indeed been "the breath and finer spirit of all [her] knowledge," the supreme glory of her literature.

And were she the same England, made to feel
A brightness gone from out those starry eyes,
A splendour from that constellated brow?

It is a purblind practicality that thinks of poetry as one of the mere decorations of life, an idle toying with baubles of speech set in scroll-works of rhythm. Poetry is actually a great force, and potentially the greatest, in the world. It has the religion of the future in its hands. What is the vital element in the religion of the present?. Not, certainly, its dogma, not its metaphysics, not even its ethics, but simply the poetry of the life, character, and utterances of its Founder, reinforced by the more magnificent but less penetrating poetry of the lyrists and rhapsodists who preceded him, and the didactic and apocalyptic poetry of his immediate successors. In like manner must the religion of the future spring from some body of poetry potent [27] enough to give the spirit of man a new elevation and a larger outlook upon nature and destiny.

The poet speaks to the imagination, and through the imagination to the will. Imagination is the greatest of spiritual forces. The frame of things is plastic to its touch, as clay in the hands of the potter. The world will be whatever the imagination of mankind decrees that the world shall be. It is the present impotence of man to imagine a peaceful and beautiful world that prevents or defers its realisation. If a poet mighty enough to overcome this impotence were to arise to-morrow, the world would be re-created in three generations. He need not have greater genius than the great poets of the past, but he must know more than they. Miracles do not happen, and even the poet requires knowledge as well as divination. But knowledge is being rapidly garnered; and when LAW is sufficiently ascertained, there will arise a great poet to absorb, co-ordinate, transfigure, and promulgate it, touched with magical persuasiveness, to the renovation of the spirit of man.

In the meantime, let us cherish the habit, and perfect and keep bright the mechanism, of song. One supreme world-poet – the poet of the world-pageant – has already spoken in our English tongue. The other supreme world-poet – the poet of love and law – must needs speak in the same tongue if he is to find, as it is essential to his calling that he should find, the largest possible audience. Let us, then, preserve and enrich for him, to the best of our power, the language and the rhythms of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and Tennyson.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

William Archer: Poets of the Younger Generation.
London u. New York: John Lane 1902, S. 1-27.

Unser Auszug: S. 19-27.

URL: https://archive.org/details/poetsofyoungerge00archrich
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000559899

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).





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Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer