A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
RACE, EPOCH AND INDIVIDUAL
“Unless there is a concurrence between the contemporary idioms and rhythms of a period, with the individual idiom of the lyrist, half the expressional force of his ideas will be lost." ERNEST RHYS, Foreword to Lyric Poetry
We have been considering the typical qualities and forms of lyric poetry. Let us now attempt a rapid survey of some of the conditions which have given the lyric, in certain races and periods and in the hands of certain individuals, its peculiar power.
1. Questions that are involved A whole generation of so-called “scientific” criticism has come and gone since Taine’s brilliant experiments with his formula of “race, period and environment” as applied to literature. Taine’s English Literatureremains a monument to the suggestiveness and to the dangers of his method. Some of his countrymen, notably Brunetière in the Evolution de la Poésie Lyrique en France au XIX Siècle, and Legouis in the Défense de la Poésie Française, have discussed more cautiously and delicately than Taine himself the racial and historic conditions affecting lyric poetry in various periods.
The tendency at present, among critics of poetry, is to distrust formulas and to keep closely to ascertainable facts, and this tendency is surely more scientific than the most captivating theorizing. For one thing, while recognizing, as the World War has freshly compelled us to recognize, the actuality of racial differences, we have grown sceptical of the old endeavors to classify races in simple terms, as Madame de Staël attempted to do, for instance, in her famous book on Germany. We endeavor to distinguish, more accurately than of old, between ethnic, linguistic and political divisions of men. We try to look behind the name at the thing itself: we remember that “Spanish” architecture is Arabian, and a good deal of “Gothic” is Northern French. We confess that we are only at the beginning of a true science of ethnology. “It is only in their degree of physical and mental evolution that the races of men are different," says Professor W. Z. Ripley, author of Races in Europe. The late Professor Josiah Royce admitted: “I am baffled to discover just what the results of science are regarding the true psychological and moral meaning of race differences.... All men in prehistoric times are surprisingly alike in their minds, their morals and their arts.... We do not scientifically know what the true racial varieties of mental type really are." [Footnote: See Royce’s Race-Questions. New York, 1908.]
I have often thought of these utterances of my colleagues, as I have attempted to teach something about lyric poetry in Harvard classrooms where Chinese, Japanese, Jewish, Irish, French, German, Negro, Russian, Italian and Armenian students appear in bewildering and stimulating confusion. Precisely what is their racial reaction to a lyric of Sappho? To an Anglo-Saxon war-song of the tenth century? To a Scotch ballad? To one of Shakspere’s songs? Some specific racial reaction there must be, one imagines, but such capacity for self-expression as the student commands is rarely capable of giving more than a hint of it.
And what real response is there, among the majority of contemporary lovers of poetry, to the delicate shades of feeling which color the verse of specific periods in the various national literatures? We all use catch-words, and I shall use them myself later in this chapter, in the attempt to indicate the changes in lyric atmosphere as we pass, for instance, from the Elizabethan to the Jacobean age, or from the “Augustan" to the Romantic epoch in English literature. Is this sensitiveness to the temper of various historic periods merely the possession of a few hundred professional scholars, who have trained themselves, like Walter Pater, to live in some well-chosen moment of the past and to find in their hyper-sensitized responsiveness to its voices a sort of consolation prize for their isolation from the present? Race-mindedness is common, no doubt, but difficult to express in words: historic-mindedness, though more capable of expression, is necessarily confined to a few. Is the response to the poetry of past epochs, then, chiefly a response of the individual reader to an individual poet, and do we cross the frontiers of race and language and historic periods with the main purpose of finding a man after our own heart? Or is the secret of our pleasure in the poetry of alien races and far-off times simply this: that nothing human is really alien, and that poetry through its generalizing, universalizing power, reveals to us the essential oneness of mankind?
2. Graphic Arts and the Lyric A specific illustration may suggest an answer. An American collector of Japanese prints recognizes in these specimens of Oriental craftsmanship that mastery of line and composition which are a part of the universal language of the graphic arts. Any human being, in fact, who has developed a sensitiveness to artistic beauty will receive a measure of delight from the work of Japanese masters. A few strokes of the brush upon silk, a bit of lacquer work, the decoration of a sword-hilt, are enough to set his eye dancing. But the expert collector soon passes beyond this general enthusiasm into a quite particular interest in the handicraft of special artists,–a Motonobu, let us say, or a Sesshiu. The collector finds his pleasure in their individual handling of artistic problems, their unique faculties of eye and hand. He responds, in a word, both to the cosmopolitan language employed by every practitioner of the fine arts, and to the local idiom, the personal accent, of, let us say, a certain Japanese draughtsman of the eighteenth century.
And now take, by way of confirmation and also of contrast, the attitude of an American lover of poetry toward those specimens of Japanese and Chinese lyrics which have recently been presented to us in English translations. The American’s ignorance of the riental languages cuts him off from any appreciation of the individual handling of diction and metre. A Lafcadio Hearn may write delightfully about that special seventeen syllable form of Japanese verse known as the hokku. Here is a hokku by Basho, one of the most skilled composers in that form. Hearn prints it with the translation, [Footnote: Kwaidan, p. 188. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1904.] and explains that the verses are intended to suggest the joyous feeling of spring-time:
“Oki, oki yo! Waga tomo ni sen Néru–kocho!”
(Wake up! Wake up!–I will make thee my comrade, thou sleeping butterfly.) An Occidental reader may recognize, through the translation, the charm of the poetic image, and he may be interested in a technical lyric form hitherto new to him, but beyond this, in his ignorance of Japanese, he cannot go. Here is a lyric by Wang Ch’ang-Ling, a Chinese poet of the eighth century:
Tears in the Spring[Footnote: These Chinese lyrics are quoted from The Lute of Jade, London, 1909. The translations are by L. Cranmer-Byng.]
“Clad in blue silk and bright embroidery At the first call of Spring the fair young bride, On whom as yet Sorrow has laid no scar, Climbs the Kingfisher’s Tower. Suddenly She sees the bloom of willows far and wide, And grieves for him she lent to fame and war.”
And here is another spring lyric by Po Chü-I (A.D. 772-846), as clear and simple as anything in the Greek Anthology:
The Grass[Footnote: These Chinese lyrics are quoted from The Lute of Jade, London, 1909. The translations are by L. Cranmer-Byng.]
“How beautiful and fresh the grass returns! When golden days decline, the meadow burns; Yet autumn suns no hidden root have slain, The spring winds blow, and there is grass again.
“Green rioting on olden ways it falls: The blue sky storms the ruined city walls; Yet since Wang Sun departed long ago, When the grass blooms both joy and fear I know.”
The Western reader, although wholly at the mercy of the translator, recognizes the pathos and beauty of the scene and thought expressed by the Chinese poet. But all that is specifically Chinese in lyric form is lost to him.
I have purposely chosen these Oriental types of lyric because they represent so clearly the difference between the universal language of the graphic arts and the more specialized language of poetry. The latter is still able to convey, even through translation, a suggestion of the emotions common to all men; and this is true of the verse which lies wholly outside the line of that Hebrew-Greek-Roman tradition which has affected so profoundly the development of modern European literature. Yet to express ’ce que tout le monde pense“–which was Boileau’s version of Horace’s ’propria communia dicere“–is only part of the function of lyric poetry. To give the body of the time the form and pressure of individual feeling, of individual artistic mastery of the language of one’s race and epoch;–this, no less than the other, is the task and the opportunity of the lyric poet.
3. Decay and Survival To appreciate the triumph of whatever lyrics have survived, even when sheltered by the protection of common racial or cultural traditions, one must remember that the overwhelming majority of lyrics, like the majority of artistic products of all ages and races and stages of civilization, are irretrievably lost. Weak-winged is song! A book like Gummere’s Beginnings of Poetry, glancing as it does at the origins of so many national literatures and at the rudimentary poetic efforts of various races that have never emerged from barbarism, gives one a poignant sense of the prodigality of the song-impulse compared with the slenderness of the actual survivals. Autumn leaves are not more fugitive. Even when preserved by sacred ritual, like the Vedas and the Hebrew Psalter, what we possess is only an infinitesimal fraction of what has perished. The Sibyl tears leaf after leaf from her precious volume and scatters them to the winds. How many glorious Hebrew war-songs of the type presented in the “Song of Deborah” were chanted only to be forgotten! We have but a handful of the lyrics of Sappho and of the odes of Pindar, while the fragments of lyric verse gathered up in the Greek Anthology tantalize us with their reminder of what has been lost beyond recall.
Yet if we keep to the line of Hebrew-Greek-Roman tradition, we are equally impressed with the enduring influence of the few lyrics that have survived. The Hebrew lyric, in its diction, its rhythmical patterns, and above all in its flaming intensity of spirit, bears the marks of racial purity, of mental vigor and moral elevation. It became something even more significant, however, than the spiritual expression of a chosen race. The East met the West when these ancient songs of the Hebrew Psalter were adopted and sung by the Christian Church. They were translated, in the fourth century, into the Latin of the Vulgate. Many an Anglo-Saxon gleeman knew that Latin version. It moulded century after century the liturgy of the European world. It influenced Tyndale’s English version of the Psalms, and this has in turn affected the whole vocabulary and style of the modern English lyric. There is scarcely a page of the Oxford Book of English Verse which does not betray in word or phrase the influence of the Hebrew Psalter.
Or take that other marvelous example of the expression of emotion in terms of bodily sensation, the lyric of the Greeks. Its clarity and unity, its dislike of vagueness and excess, its finely artistic restraint, are characteristic of the race. The simpler Greek lyrical measures were taken over by Catullus, Horace and Ovid, and though there were subtle qualities of the Greek models which escaped the Roman imitators, the Greco-Roman or “classic” restraint of over-turbulent emotions became a European heritage. It is doubtless true, as Dr. Henry Osborn Taylor has pointed out, [Footnote: See his Classical Heritage of the Middle Ages, chap. 9, and particularly the passage quoted in the “Notes and Illustrations” to chap. v of this volume.] that the Greek and Roman classical metres became in time inadequate to express the new Christian spirit “which knew neither clarity nor measure." “The antique sense of form and proportion, the antique observance of the mean and avoidance of extravagance and excess, the antique dislike for the unlimited or the monstrous, the antique feeling for literary unity, and abstention from irrelevancy, the frank love for all that is beautiful or charming, for the beauty of the body and for everything connected with the joy of mortal life, the antique reticence as to hopes or fears of what was beyond the grave,–these qualities cease in medieval Latin poetry.”
4. Lyrics of Western Europe The racial characteristics of the peoples of Western Europe began to show themselves even in their Latin poetry, but it is naturally in the rise of the vernacular literatures, during the Middle Ages, that we trace the signs of thnic differentiation. Teuton and Frank and Norseman, Spaniard or Italian, betray their blood as soon as they begin to sing in their own tongue. The scanty remains of Anglo-Saxon lyrical verse are colored with the love of battle and of the sea, with the desolateness of lonely wolds, with the passion of loyalty to a leader. Read “Deor’s Lament,” “Widsith," “The Wanderer,” “The Sea-farer,” or the battle-songs of Brunanburh and Maldon in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. [Footnote: See Cook and Tinker, Select Translations from Old English Poetry (Boston, 1902), and Pancoast and Spaeth, Early English Poems(New York, 1911).] The last strophe of “Deor’s Lament,” our oldest English lyric, ends with the line:
“Thaes ofereode, thisses swa maeg” “That he surmounted, so this may I!” The wandering Ulysses says something like this, it is true, in a line of the Odyssey, but to feel its English racial quality one has only to read after it Masefield’s “To-morrow”:
“Oh yesterday our little troop was ridden through and through, Our swaying, tattered pennons fled, a broken beaten few, And all a summer afternoon they hunted us and slew; But to-morrow, By the living God, we ’II try the game again!”
When Taillefer, knight and minstrel, rode in front of the Norman line at the battle of Hastings, “singing of Charlemagne and of Roland and of Oliver and the vassals who fell at Roncevaux,” he typified the coming triumphs of French song in England. [Footnote: See E. B. Reed, English Lyrical Poetry, chap. 2. 1912.] French lyrical fashions would have won their way, no doubt, had there been no battle of Hastings. The banners of William the Conqueror had been blessed by Rome. They represented Europe, and the inevitable flooding of the island outpost of “Germania” by the tide of European civilization. Chanson and carole, dance-songs, troubadour lyrics, the ballade, rondel and Noël, amorous songs of French courtiers, pious hymns of French monks, began to sing themselves in England. The new grace and delicacy is upon every page of Chaucer. What was first Provençal and then French, became English when Chaucer touched it. From the shadow and grimness and elegiac pathos of Old English poetry we come suddenly into the light and color and gayety of Southern France. [Footnote: See the passage from Legouis quoted in the “Notes and Illustrations” for this chapter.] In place of Caedmon’s terrible picture of Hell–"ever fire or frost"–or Dunbar’s “Lament for the Makers” (Oxford, No. 21) with its refrain:
’Timor Mortis conturbat me,“
or the haunting burden of the “Lyke-Wake Dirge” (Oxford, No. 381),
“This ae nighte, this ae nighte, –Every nighte and alle, Fire and sleet and candle-lighte, And Christe receive thy saule,”
we now find English poets echoing Aucassin and Nicolette:
“In Paradise what have I to win? Therein I seek not to enter, but only to have Nicolette, my sweet lady that I love so well. For into Paradise go none but such folk as I shall tell thee now: Thither go these same old priests, and halt old men and maimed, who all day and night cower continually before the altars and in the crypts; and such folk as wear old amices and old clouted frocks, and naked folk and shoeless, and covered with sores, perishing of hunger and thirst and of cold, and of little ease. These be they that go into Paradise; with them I have naught to make. But into Hell would I fain go; for into Hell fare the goodly clerks, and goodly knights that fall in tourneys and great wars, and stout men at arms, and all men noble. With these would I liefly go. And thither pass the sweet ladies and courteous that have two lovers or three, and their lords also thereto. Thither goes the gold and the silver, the cloth of vair and cloth of gris, and harpers and makers, and the prince of this world. With these I would gladly go, let me but have with me Nicolette, my sweetest lady.”
5. The Elizabethan Lyric The European influence came afresh to England, as we have seen, with those “courtly makers” who travelled into France and Italy and brought back the new-found treasures of the Renaissance. Greece and Rome renewed, as they are forever from time to time renewing, their hold upon the imagination and the art of English verse. Sometimes this influence of the classics has worked toward contraction, restraint, acceptance of human limitations and of the “rules” of art. But in Elizabethan poetry the classical influence was on the side of expansion. In that release of vital energy which characterized the English Renaissance, the rediscovery of Greece and Rome and the artistic contacts with France and Italy heightened the confidence of Englishmen, revealed the continuity of history and gave new faith in human nature. It spelled, for the moment at least, liberty rather than authority. It stimulated intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. Literary criticism awoke to life in the trenchant discussions of the art of poetry by Gascoigne and Sidney, by Puttenham, Campion and Daniel. The very titles of the collections of lyrics which followed the famous Tottel’s Miscellany of 1557 flash with the spirit of the epoch: A Paradise of Dainty Devices, A Gorgeous Gallery of Gallant Inventions, A Handfull of Pleasant Delights, The Phoenix Nest, England’s Helicon, Davison’s Poetical Rhapsody. Bullen, Schelling, Rhys, Braithwaite, and other modern collectors of the Elizabethan lyric have ravaged these volumes and many more, and have shown how the imported Italian pastoral tallied with the English idyllic mood, how the study of prosody yielded rich and various stanzaic effects, how the diffusion of the passion for song through all classes of the community gave a marvelous singing quality to otherwise thin and mere “dildido" lines. Mr. Arnold Dolmetsch and his friends have revived the music of the Elizabethan song-books, and John Erskine and other scholars have investigated the relation of the song-books–especially the songs composed by musicians such as Byrd, Dowland and Campion–to the form and quality of the surviving lyric verse. But one does not need a knowledge of the Elizabethan lute and viol, and of the precise difference between a “madrigal” and a “catch” or “air” in order to perceive the tunefulness of a typical Elizabethan song:
“I care not for these ladies, That must be woode and praide: Give me kind Amarillis, The wanton countrey maide. Nature art disdaineth, Here beautie is her owne. Her when we court and kisse, She cries, Forsooth, let go: But when we come where comfort is, She never will say No.”
It is not that the spirit of Elizabethan lyric verse is always care-free, even when written by prodigals such as Peele and Greene and Marlowe. Its childlike grasping after sensuous pleasure is often shadowed by the sword, and by quick-coming thoughts of the brevity of mortal things. Yet it is always spontaneous, swift, alive. Its individual voices caught the tempo and cadence of the race and epoch, so that men as unlike personally as Spenser, Marlowe and Donne are each truly “Elizabethan.” Spenser’s “vine-like” luxuriance, Marlowe’s soaring energy, Donne’s grave realistic subtleties, illustrate indeed that note of individualism which is never lacking in the great poetic periods. This individualism betrays itself in almost every song of Shakspere’s plays. For here is English race, surely, and the very echo and temper of the Renaissance, but with it all there is the indescribable, inimitable timbre of one man’s singing voice.
6. The Reaction If we turn, however, from the lyrics of Shakspere to those of Ben Jonson and of the “sons of Ben” who sang in the reigns of James I and Charles I, we become increasingly conscious of a change in atmosphere. The moment of expansion has passed. The “first fine careless rapture” is over. Classical “authority” resumes its silent, steady pressure. Scholars like to remember that the opening lines of Ben Jonson’s “Drink to me only with thine eyes" are a transcript from the Greek. In his “Ode to Himself upon the Censure of his New Inn” in 1620 Jonson, like Landor long afterward, takes scornful refuge from the present in turning back to Greece and Rome:
“Leave things so prostitute, And take the Alcaic lute; Or thine own Horace, or Anacreon’s lyre; Warm thee by Pindar’s fire.”
The reaction in lyric form showed itself in the decay of sonnet, pastoral and madrigal, in the neglect of blank verse, in the development of the couplet. Milton, in such matters as these, was a solitary survival of the Elizabethans. Metrical experimentation almost ceased, except in the hands of ingenious recluses like George Herbert. The popular metre of the Caroline poets was the rhymed eight and six syllable quatrain:
“Yet this inconstancy is such As thou too shalt adore; I could not love thee, Dear, so much Loved I not Honour more.”
The mystics like Crashaw, Vaughan and Traherne wished and secured a wider metrical liberty, and it is, in truth, these complicated patterns of the devotional lyric of the seventeenth century that are of greatest interest to the poets of our own day. But contemporary taste, throughout the greater portion of that swiftly changing epoch, preferred verse that showed a conservative balance in thought and feeling, in diction and versification. Waller, with his courtier-like instinct for what was acceptable, took the middle of the road, letting Cowley and Quarles experiment as fantastically as they pleased. Andrew Marvell, too, a Puritan writing in the Restoration epoch, composed as “smoothly" as Waller. Herrick, likewise, though fond of minor metrical experiments, celebrated his quiet garden pleasures and his dalliance with amorous fancies in verse of the true Horatian type. “Intensive rather than expansive, fanciful rather than imaginative, and increasingly restrictive in its range and appeal”: that is Professor Schelling’s expert summary of the poetic tendencies of the age.
And then the lyric impulse died away in England. Dryden could be magnificently sonorous in declamation and satire, but he lacked the singing voice. Pope likewise, though he “lisped in numbers,” could never, for all of his cleverness, learn to sing. The age of the Augustans, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, was an age of prose, of reason, of good sense, of “correctness.” The decasyllabic couplet, so resonant in Dryden, so admirably turned and polished by Pope, was its favorite measure. The poets played safe. They took no chances with “enthusiasm," either in mood or metrical device. What could be said within the restraining limits of the couplet they said with admirable point, vigor and grace. But it was speech, not song.
7. The Romantic Lyric The revolt came towards the middle of the century, first in the lyrics of Collins, then in Gray. The lark began to soar and sing once more in English skies. New windows were opened in the House of Life. Men looked out again with curiosity, wonder and a sense of strangeness in the presence of beauty. They saw Nature with new eyes; found a new richness in the Past, a new picturesque and savor in the life of other races, particularly in the wild Northern and Celtic strains of blood. Life grew again something mysterious, not to be comprehended by the “good sense” of the Augustans, or expressible in the terms of the rhymed couplet. Instead of the normal, poets sought the exceptional, then the strange, the far-away in time or place, or else the familiar set in some unusual fantastic light. The mood of poetry changed from tranquil sentiment to excited sentiment or “sensibility,” and then to sheer passion. The forms of poetry shifted from the conventional to the revival of old measures like blank verse and the Spenserian stanza, then to the invention of new and freer forms, growing ever more lyrical. Poetic diction rebelled against the Augustan conventions, the stereotyped epithets, the frigid personifications. It abandoned the abstract and general for the specific and the picturesque. It turned to the language of real life, and then, dissatisfied, to the heightened language of passion. If one reads Cowper, Blake, Burns and Wordsworth, to say nothing of poets like Byron and Shelley who wrote in the full Romantic tide of feeling, one finds that this poetry has discovered new themes. It portrays the child, the peasant, the villager, the outcast, the slave, the solitary person, even the idiot and the lunatic. There is a new human feeling for the individual, and for the endless, the poignant variety of “states of soul.” Browning, by and by, is to declare that “states of soul” are the only things worth a poet’s attention.
Now this new individuality of themes, of language, of moods, assisted in the free expression of lyricism, the release of the song-impulse of the “single, separate person.” The Romantic movement was revelatory, in a double sense. “Creation widened in man’s view"; and there was equally a revelation of individual poetic energy which gave the Romantic lyric an extraordinary variety and beauty of form. There was an exaggerated individualism, no doubt, which marked the weak side of the whole movement: a deliberate extravagance, a cultivated egoism. Vagueness has its legitimate poetic charm, but in England no less than in Germany or France lyric vagueness often became incoherence. Symbolism degenerated into meaninglessness. But the fantastic and grotesque side of Romantic individualism should not blind us to the central fact that a rich personality may appear in a queer garb. Victor Hugo, like his young friends of the 1830’s, loved to make the gray-coated citizens of Paris stare at his scarlet, but the personality which could create such lyric marvels as the Odes et Ballades may be forgiven for its eccentricities. William Blake was eccentric to the verge of insanity, yet he opened, like Whitman and Poe, new doors of ivory into the wonder-world.
Yet a lyrist like Keats, it must be remembered, betrayed his personality not so much through any external peculiarity of the Romantic temperament as through the actual texture of his word and phrase and rhythm. Examine his brush-work microscopically, as experts in Italian painting examine the brushstrokes and pigments of some picture attributed to this or that master: you will see that Keats, like all the supreme masters of poetic diction, enciphered his lyric message in a language peculiarly his own. It is for us to decipher it as we may. He used, of course, particularly in his earlier work, some of the stock-epithets, the stock poetic “properties” of the Romantic school, just as the young Tennyson, in his volume of 1827, played with the “owl” and the “midnight” and the “solitary mere,” stock properties of eighteenth-century romance. Yet Tennyson, like Keats, and for that matter like Shakspere, passed through this imitative phase into an artistic maturity where without violence or extravagance or eccentricity he compelled words to do his bidding. Each word bears the finger-print of a personality.
Now it is precisely this revelation of personality which gave zest, throughout the Romantic period, to the curiosity about the poetry of alien races. It will be remembered that Romanticism followed immediately upon a period of cosmopolitanism, and that it preceded that era of intense nationalism which came after the Napoleonic wars. Even in that intellectual “United States of Europe,” about 1750–when nationalistic differences were minimized, “enlightenment” was supreme and “propria communia dicere” was the literary motto–there was nevertheless a rapidly growing curiosity about races and literatures outside the charmed circle of Western Europe. It was the era of the Oriental tale, of Northern mythology. Then the poets of England, France and Germany began their fruitful interchange of inspiration. Walter Scott turned poet when he translated Burger’s “Lenore.” Goethe read Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus. Wordsworth and Coleridge visited Germany not in search of general eighteenth-century “enlightenment,” but rather in quest of some peculiar revelation of truth and beauty. In the full tide of Romanticism, Protestant Germany sought inspiration in Italy and Spain, as Catholic France sought it in Germany and England. A new sense of race-values was evident in poetry. It may be seen in Southey, Moore, and Byron, in Hugo’s Les Orientales and in Leconte de Lisle’s Poèmes Barbares. Modern music has shown the same tendency: Strauss of Vienna writes waltzes in Arab rhythms, Grieg composes a Scotch symphony, Dvorák writes an American national anthem utilizing negro melodies. As communication between races has grown easier, and the interest in race-characteristics more intense, it would be strange indeed if lovers of lyric poetry did not range far afield in their search for new complexities of lyric feeling.
8. The Explorer’s Pleasure This explorer’s pleasure in discovering the lyrics of other races was never more keen than it is to-day. Every additional language that one learns, every new sojourn in a foreign country, enriches one’s own capacity for sharing the lyric mood. It is impossible, of course, that any race or period should enter fully into the lyric impulses of another. Educated Englishmen have known their Horace for centuries, but it can be only a half-knowledge, delightful as it is. France and England, so near in miles, are still so far away in instinctive comprehension of each other’s mode of poetical utterance! No two nations have minds of quite the same “fringe.” No man, however complete a linguist, has more than one real mother tongue, and it is only in one’s mother tongue that a lyric sings with all its over-tones. And nevertheless, life offers few purer pleasures than may be found in listening to the half-comprehended songs uttered by alien lips indeed, but from hearts that we know are like our own.
“This moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone, It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and thoughtful, It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other dialects, And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become attached to them as I do to men in my own lands, O I know we should be brethren and lovers, I know I should be happy with them.”
9. A Test If the reader is willing to test his own responsiveness, not to the alien voices, but to singers of his own blood in other epochs, let him now read aloud–or better, recite from memory–three of the best-known English poems: Milton’s “Lycidas,” Gray’s “Elegy” and Wordsworth’s “Ode to Immortality.” The first was published in 1638, the second in 1751, and the third in 1817. Each is a “central” utterance of a race, a period and an individual. Each is an open-air poem, written by a young Englishman; each is lyrical, elegiac–a song of mourning and of consolation. “Lycidas” is the last flawless music of the English Renaissance, an epitome of classical and pastoral convention, yet at once Christian, political and personal. Beneath the quiet perfection of Gray’s “Elegy” there is the undertone of passionate sympathy for obscure lives: passionate, but restrained. Wordsworth knows no restraint of form or feeling in his great “Ode"; its germinal idea is absurd to logic, but not to the imagination. This elegy, like the others, is a “lyric cry” of a man, an age, and a race; “enciphered” like them, with all the cunning of which the artist was capable; and decipherable only to those who know the language of the English lyric.
There may be readers who find these immortal elegies wearisome, staled by repetition, spoiled by the critical glosses of generations of commentators. In that case, one may test his sense of race, period and personality by a single quatrain of Landor, who is surely not over-commented upon to-day:
“From you, Ianthe, little troubles pass Like little ripples down a sunny river; Your pleasures spring like daisies in the grass, Cut down, and up again as blithe as ever.”
Find the classicist, the aristocrat, the Englishman, and the lover in that quatrain!
Or, if Landor seems too remote, turn to Amherst, Massachusetts, and read this amazing elegy in a country churchyard written by a New England recluse, Emily Dickinson:
“This quiet Dust was Gentlemen and Ladies, And Lads and Girls; Was laughter and ability and sighing, And frocks and curls. This passive place a Summer’s nimble mansion, Where Bloom and Bees Fulfilled their Oriental Circuit, Then ceased like these.”