A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
THE PRESENT STATUS OF THE LYRIC
“And the same may be said of lust and anger and all the other affections, of desire and pain and pleasure which are held to be inseparable from every action–in all of them poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of withering and starving them; she lets them rule instead of ruling them as they ought to be ruled, with a view to the happiness and virtue of mankind." PLATO’S Republic, Book 10
“A man has no right to say to his own generation, turning quite away from it, ’Be damned!’ It is the whole Past and the whole Future, this same cotton-spinning, dollar-hunting, canting and shrieking, very wretched generation of ours." CARLYLE to EMERSON, August 29, 1842 Let us turn finally to some phases of the contemporary lyric. We shall not attempt the hazardous, not to say impossible venture of assessing the artistic value of living poets. “Poets are not to be ranked like collegians in a class list,” wrote the wise John Morley long ago. Certainly they cannot be ranked until their work is finished. Nor is it possible within the limits of this chapter to attempt, upon a smaller scale, anything like the task which has been performed so interestingly by books like Miss Lowell’s Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, Mr. Untermeyer’s New Era in American Poetry, Miss Wilkinson’s New Voices, and Mr. Lowes’s Convention and Revolt. I wish rather to remind the reader, first, of the long-standing case against the lyric, a case which has been under trial in the court of critical opinion from Plato’s day to our own; and then to indicate, even more briefly, the lines of defence. It will be clear, as we proceed, that contemporary verse in America and England is illustrating certain general tendencies which not only sharpen the point of the old attack, but also hearten the spirit of the defenders of lyric poetry.
1. Plato’s Moralistic Objection Nothing could be more timely, as a contribution to a critical battle which is just now being waged, [Footnote: See the Introduction and the closing chapter of Stuart P. Sherman’s Contemporary Literature. Holt, 1917.] than the passage from Plato’s Republic which furnishes the motto for the present chapter. It expresses one of those eternal verities which each generation must face as best it may: “Poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of withering and starving them; she lets them rule instead of ruling them.” “Did we not imply,” asks the Athenian Stranger in Plato’s Laws, “that the poets are not always quite capable of knowing what is good or evil?” “There is also,” says Socrates in the Phoedrus, “a third kind of madness, which is the possession of the Muses; this enters into a delicate and virgin soul, and there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric and all other members.” This Platonic notion of lyric “inspiration” and “possession” permeates the immortal passage of the Ion:
“For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not as works of art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers, when they are under the influence of Dionysus, but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves tell us; for they tell us that they gather their strains from honied fountains out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; thither, like the bees, they wing their way. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is to utter his oracles. Many are the noble words in which poets speak of actions like your own Words about Homer; but they do not speak of them by any rules of art: only when they make that to which the Muse impels them are their inventions inspired; and then one of them will make dithyrambs, another hymns of praise, another choral strains, another epic or iambic verses–and he who is good at one is not good at any other kind of verse: for not by art does the poet sing, but by power divine. Had he learned by rules of art, he would have known how to speak not of one theme only, but of all; and therefore God takes away the minds of poets, and uses them as his ministers, as he also uses diviners and holy prophets, in order that we who hear them may know that they speak not of themselves who utter these priceless words in a state of unconsciousness, but that God is the speaker, and that through them he is conversing with us." [Footnote: Plato’s Ion, Jowett’s translation.]
The other Platonic notion about poetry being “imitation” colors the well-known section of the third book of the Republic, which warns against the influence of certain effeminate types of lyric harmony:
“I answered: Of the harmonies I know nothing, but I want to have one warlike, which will sound the word or note which a brave man utters in the hour of danger and stern resolve, or when his cause is failing and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by some other evil, and at every such crisis meets fortune with calmness and endurance; and another which may be used by him in times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity–expressive of entreaty or persuasion, of prayer to God, or instruction of man, or again, of willingness to listen to persuasion or entreaty and advice; and which represents him when he has accomplished his aim, not carried away by success, but acting moderately and wisely, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.”
So runs the famous argument for “the natural rhythms of a manly life,” and conversely, the contention that “the absence of grace and rhythm and harmony is closely allied to an evil character.” While it is true that the basis for this argument has been modified by our abandonment of the Greek aesthetic theories of “inspiration” and “imitation,” Plato’s moralistic objection to lyric effeminacy and lyric naturalism is widely shared by many of our contemporaries. They do not find the “New Poetry,” lovely as it often is, altogether “manly.” They find on the contrary that some of it is what Plato calls “dissolute,” i.e. dissolving or relaxing the fibres of the will, like certain Russian dance-music. I asked an American composer the other day: “Is there anything at all in the old distinction between secular and sacred music?” “Certainly,” he replied; “secular music excites, sacred music exalts.” If this distinction is sound, it is plain that much of the New Poetry aims at excitement of the senses for its own sake–or in Plato’s words, at “letting them rule, instead of ruling them as they ought to be ruled.” Or, to use the severe words of a contemporary critic: “They bid us be all eye, no mind; all sense, no thought; all chance, all confusion, no order, no organization, no fabric of the reason.”
However widely we may be inclined to differ with such moralistic judgments as these, it remains true that plenty of idealists hold them, and it is the idealists, rather than the followers of the senses, who have kept the love of poetry alive in our modern world.
2. A Rationalistic Objection But the Philistines, as well as the Platonists, have an indictment to bring against modern verse, and particularly against the lyric. They find it useless and out of date. Macaulay’s essay on Milton (1825) is one of the classic expressions of “Caledonian” rationalism:
“We think that as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines.... Language, the machine of the poet, is best fitted for his purpose in its rudest state. Nations, like individuals, first perceive and then abstract. They advance from particular images to general terms. Hence the vocabulary of an enlightened society is philosophical, that of a half-civilized people is poetical.... In proportion as men know more and think more, they look less at individuals, and more at classes. They therefore make better theories and worse poems.... In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses and even of good ones, but little poetry.” In the essay on Dryden (1828) Macaulay renews the charge: “Poetry requires not an examining but a believing freedom of mind.... As knowledge is extended and as the reason develops itself, the imitative arts decay.”
Even Macaulay, however, is a less pungent and amusing advocate of rationalism than Thomas Love Peacock in The Four Ages of Poetry. [Footnote: Reprinted in A. S. Cook’s edition of Shelley’s Defense of Poetry. Boston, 1891.]
A few sentences must suffice:
“A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.... The highest inspirations of poetry are resolvable into three ingredients: the rant of unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment; and can therefore serve only to ripen a splendid lunatic like Alexander, a puling driveler like Werter, or a morbid dreamer like Wordsworth. It can never make a philosopher, nor a statesman, nor in any class of life a useful or rational man. It cannot claim the slightest share in any one of the comforts and utilities of life, of which we have witnessed so many and so rapid advances.... We may easily conceive that the day is not distant when the degraded state of every species of poetry will be as generally recognized as that of dramatic poetry has long been; and this not from any decrease either of intellectual power or intellectual acquisition, but because intellectual power and intellectual acquisition have turned themselves into other and better channels, and have abandoned the cultivation and the fate of poetry to the degenerate fry of modern rimesters, and their Olympic judges, the magazine critics, who continue to debate and promulgate oracles about poetry as if it were still what it was in the Homeric age, the all-in-all of intellectual progression, and as if there were no such things in existence as mathematicians, historians, politicians, and political economists, who have built into the upper air of intelligence a pyramid, from the summit of which they see the modern Parnassus far beneath them, and knowing how small a place it occupies in the comprehensiveness of their prospect, smile at the little ambition and the circumscribed perceptions with which the drivelers and mountebanks upon it are contending for the poetical palm and the critical chair.”
No one really knows whether Peacock was wholly serious in this diatribe, but inasmuch as it produced Shelley’s Defense of Poetry “as an antidote"–as Shelley said–we should be grateful for it. Both Peacock and Macaulay wrote nearly a century ago, but their statements as to the uselessness of poetry, as compared with the value of intellectual exertion in other fields, is wholly in the spirit of twentieth-century rationalism. Few readers of this book may hold that doctrine, but they will meet it on every side; and they will need all they can remember of Sidney and Shelley and George Woodberry “as an antidote.”
3. An Aesthetic Objection In Aristotle’s well-known definition of Tragedy in the fifth section of the Poetics, there is one clause, and perhaps only one, which has been accepted without debate. “A Tragedy, then, is an artistic imitation of an action that is serious, complete in itself, and of an adequate magnitude.” Does a lyric possess “an adequate magnitude?” As the embodiment of a single aspect of feeling, and therefore necessarily brief, the lyric certainly lacks “mass.” As an object for aesthetic contemplation, is the average lyric too small to afford the highest and most permanent pleasure? “A long poem,” remarks A. C. Bradley in his Oxford Lectures on Poetry, [Footnote: London, 1909. The passage cited is from the chapter on “The Long Poem in the Age of Wordsworth."] “requires imaginative powers superfluous in a short one, and it would be easy to show that it admits of strictly poetic effects of the highest value which the mere brevity of a short one excludes.” Surely the lyric, like the short story, cannot see life steadily and whole. It reflects, as we have seen, a single situation or desire. “Short swallow-flights of song"; piping “as the linnet sings"; have not the lyric poets themselves confessed this inherent shortcoming of their art in a thousand similes? Does not a book of lyrics often seem like a plantation of carefully tended little trees, rather than a forest? The most ardent collector of butterflies is aware that he is hunting only butterflies and not big game. Mr. John Gould Fletcher’s Japanese Prints is a collection of the daintiest lyric fragments, lovely as a butterfly’s wing. But do such lyrics lack “adequate magnitude”?
It seems to the present writer that this old objection is a real one, and that it is illustrated afresh by contemporary poetry, but that it is not so much an argument against the lyric as such, as it is an explanation of the ineffectiveness of certain lyric poems. This defect is not primarily that they lack “magnitude,” but rather that they lack an adequate basis in our emotional adjustment to the fact or situation upon which they turn. The reader is not prepared for the effect which they convey. The art of the drama was defined by the younger Dumas as the art of preparation. Now the lyrics which are most effective in primarily dramatic compositions, let us say the songs in “Pippa Passes” or Ariel’s songs in The Tempest, are those where the train of emotional association or contrast has been carefully laid and is waiting to be touched off. So it is with the markedly lyrical passages in narrative verse–say the close of “Sohrab and Rustum.” When a French actress sings the “Marseillaise” to a theatre audience in war-time, or Sir Harry Lauder, dressed in kilts, sings to a Scottish-born audience about “the bonny purple heather,” or a marching regiment strikes up “Dixie,” the actual song is only the release of a mood already stimulated. But when one comes upon an isolated lyric printed as a “filler” at the bottom of a magazine page, there is no train of emotional association whatever. There is no lyric mood waiting to respond to a “lyric cry.” To overcome this obstacle, Walter Page and other magazine editors, a score of years ago, made the experiment of printing all the verse together, instead of scattering it according to the exigencies of the “make-up.” Miss Monroe’s Poetry, Contemporary Verse, and the other periodicals devoted exclusively to poetry, easily avoid this handicap of intruding prose. One turns their pages as he turns leaves of music until he finds some composition in accordance with his mood of the moment. The long poem or the drama creates an undertone of feeling in which the lyrical mood may easily come to its own, based and reinforced as it is by the larger poetical structure. The isolated magazine lyric, on the other hand, is like one swallow trying to make a summer. Even the lyrics collected in anthologies are often “mutually repellent particles," requiring through their very brevity and lack of relation with one another, a perpetual re-focussing of the attention, a constant re-creation of lyric atmosphere. These conditions have been emphasized, during the last decade, by that very variety of technical experimentation, that increased range and individualism of lyric effort, which have renewed the interest in American poetry.
4. Subjectivity as a Curse I have often thought of a conversation with Samuel Asbury, a dozen years ago, about a friend of ours, a young Southern poet of distinct promise, who had just died. Like many Southern verse-writers of his generation, he had lived and written under the inspiration of Poe. Asbury surprised me by the almost bitter remark that Poe’s influence had been a blight upon the younger Southern poets, inasmuch as it had tended to over-subjectivity, to morbid sensibility, and to a pre-occupation with purely personal emotions. He argued, as he has since done so courageously in his Texas Nativist, [Footnote: Published by the author at College Station, Texas.] that more objective forms of poetry, particularly epic and dramatic handling of local and historic American material, was far healthier stuff for a poet to work with.
This objection to the lyric as an encourager of subjective excitement, of egoistic introspection, like the other objections already stated, is one of old standing. Goethe remarked that the subjectivity of the smaller poets was of no significance, but that they were interested in nothing really objective. But though this indictment of over-individualism has often been drawn, our own times are a fresh proof of its validity. If the revelation of personality unites men, the stress upon mere individuality separates them, and there are countless poets of the day who glory in their eccentric individualism without remembering that it is only through a richly developed personality that poetry gains any universal values. “Nothing in literature is so perishable as eccentricity, with regard to which each generation has its own requirements and its own standard of taste; and the critic who urges contemporary poets to make their work as individual as possible is deliberately inviting them to build their structures on sand instead of rock." [Footnote: Edmond Holmes, What is Poetry, p. 68.] Every reader of contemporary poetry is aware that along with its exhilarating freshness and force there has been a display of singularity and of silly nudity both of body and mind. Too intimate confidences have been betrayed in the lyric confessional. It is a fine thing to see a Varsity eight take their dip in the river at the end of an afternoon’s spin. Those boys strip well. But there are middle-aged poets who strip very badly. Nature never intended them to play the role of Narcissus. Dickens wrote great novels in a room so hung with mirrors that he could watch himself in the act of composition. But that is not the best sort of writing-room for lyric poets, particularly in a decade when acute self-consciousness, race-consciousness and even coterie-consciousness are exploited for commercial purposes, and the “lutanists of October” are duly photographed at their desks.
5. Mere Technique There is one other count in the old indictment of the lyric which is sure to be emphasized whenever any generation, like our own, shows a new technical curiosity about lyric forms. It is this: that mere technique will “carry” a lyric, even though thought, passion and imagination be lacking. This charge will inevitably be made from time to time, and not merely by the persons who naturally tend to stress the content-value of poetry as compared with its form-value. It was Stedman, who was peculiarly susceptible to the charm of varied lyric form, who remarked of some of Poe’s lyrics, “The libretto (i.e. the sense) is nothing, the score is all in all.” And it must be admitted that the “libretto” of “Ulalume,” for instance, is nearly or quite meaningless to many lovers of poetry who value the “score” very highly. In a period marked by enthusiasm for new experiments in versification, new feats of technique, the borderland between real conquests of novel territory and sheer nonsense verse becomes very hazy. The Spectra hoax, perpetrated so cleverly in 1916 by Mr. Ficke and Mr. Witter Bynner, fooled many of the elect. [Footnote: See Untermeyer’s New Era, etc., pp. 320-23.] I have never believed that Emerson meant to decry Poe when he referred to him as “the jingle-man.” Emerson’s memory for names was faulty, and he was trying to indicate the author of the
“tintinnabulation of the bells.”
That Poe was a prestidigitator with verse, and may be regarded solely with a view to his professional expertness, is surely no ground for disparaging him as a poet. But it is the kind of penalty which extraordinary technical expertness has to pay in all the arts. Many persons remember Paganini only as the violinist who could play upon a single string. Every ’amplificolor imperii“–every widener of the bounds of the empire of poetry, like Vachel Lindsay with his experiments in chanted verse, Robert Frost with his subtle renderings of the cadences of actual speech, Miss Amy Lowell with her doctrine of “curves” and “returns” and polyphony–runs the risk of being regarded for a while as a technician and nothing more. Ultimately a finer balance is struck between the claims of form and content: the ideas of a poet, his total vision of life, his contribution to the thought as well as to the craftsmanship of his generation, are thrown into the scale. Victor Hugo is now seen to be something far other than the mere amazing lyric virtuoso of the Odes et Ballades of 1826. Walt Whitman ultimately gets judged as Walt Whitman, and not merely as the inventor of a new type of free verse in 1855. A rough justice is done at last, no doubt, but for a long time the cleverest and most original manipulators of words and tunes are likely to be judged by their virtuosity alone.
6. The Lines of Defence The objections to lyric poetry which have just been rehearsed are of varying degrees of validity. They have been mentioned here because they still affect, more or less, the judgment of the general public as it endeavors to estimate the value of the contemporary lyric. I have little confidence in the taste of professed admirers of poetry who can find no pleasure in contemporary verse, and still less confidence in the taste of our contemporaries whose delight in the “new era” has made them deaf to the great poetic voices of the past. I am sorry for the traditionalist who cannot enjoy Robert Frost and Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg. He is, in my opinion, in a parlous state. But the state of the young rebel who cannot enjoy “Lycidas” and “The Progress of Poesy” and the “Ode to Dejection” is worse than parlous. It is hopeless.
It is not for him, therefore, that these final paragraphs are written, but rather for those lovers of poetry who recognize that it transcends all purely moralistic and utilitarian, as it does all historical and technical considerations,–that it lifts the reader into a serene air where beauty and truth abide, while the perplexed generations of men appear and disappear. Sidney and Campion and Daniel pleaded its cause for the Elizabethans, Coleridge and Wordsworth and Shelley defended it against the Georgian Philistines, Carlyle, Newman and Arnold championed it through every era of Victorian materialism. In the twentieth century, critics like Mackail and A. C. Bradley and Rhys, poets like Newbolt and Drinkwater and Masefield–to say nothing of living poets and critics among our own countrymen–have spoken out for poetry with a knowledge, a sympathy and an eloquence unsurpassed in any previous epoch. The direct “Defence of Poetry” may safely be left to such men as these.
I have chosen, rather, the line of indirect vindication of poetry, and particularly of the lyric, which has been attempted in this book. We have seen that the same laws are perpetually at work in poetry as in all the other arts; that we have to do with the transmission of a certain kind of feeling through a certain medium; that the imagination remoulds the material proffered by the senses, and brings into order the confused and broken thoughts of the mind, until it presents the eternal aspect of things through words that dance to music. We have seen that the study of poetry leads us back to the psychic life of primitive races, to the origins of language and of society, and to the underlying spirit of institutions and nationalities, so that even a fragment of surviving lyric verse may be recognized as a part of those unifying and dividing forces that make up the life of the world. We have found poetry, furthermore, to be the great personal mode of literary expression, a revelation of noble personality as well as base, and that this personal mode of expression has continued to hold its own in the modern world. The folk-epic is gone, the art-epic has been outstripped by prose fiction, and the drama needs a theatre. But the lyric needs only a poet, who can compose in any of its myriad forms. No one who knows contemporary literature will deny that the lyric is now interpreting the finer spirit of science, the drift of social progress, and above all, the instincts of personal emotion. Through it to-day, as never before in the history of civilization, the heart of a man can reach the heart of mankind. It is inconceivable that the lyric will not grow still more significant with time, freighted more and more deeply with thought and passion and touched with a richer and more magical beauty. Some appreciation of it, no matter how inadequate, should be a part of the spiritual possessions of every civilized man.’
“Die Geisterwelt ist nicht verschlossen; Dein Sinn ist zu, dein Herz ist todt! Auf! bade, Schüler, unverdrossen Die ird’sche Brust im Morgenrothl”