A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
THE PROVINCE OF POETRY
“The more I read and re-read the works of the great poets, and the more I study the writings of those who have some Theory of Poetry to set forth, the more am I convinced that the question What is Poetry? can be properly answered only if we make What it does take precedence of How it does it." J. A. STEWART, The Myths of Plato
In the previous chapter we have attempted a brief survey of some of the general aesthetic questions which arise whenever we consider the form and meaning of the fine arts. We must now try to look more narrowly at the special field of poetry, asking ourselves how it comes into being, what material it employs, and how it uses this material to secure those specific effects which we all agree in calling “poetical,” however widely we may differ from one another in our analysis of the means by which the effect is produced.
Let us begin with a truism. It is universally admitted that poetry, like each of the fine arts, has a field of its own. To run a surveyor’s line accurately around the borders of this field, determining what belongs to it rather than to the neighboring arts, is always difficult and sometimes impossible. But the field itself is admittedly “there,” in all its richness and beauty, however bitterly the surveyors may quarrel about the boundary lines. (It is well to remember that professional surveyors do not themselves own these fields or raise any crops upon them!) How much map-making ingenuity has been devoted to this task of grouping and classifying the arts: distinguishing between art and fine art, between artist, artificer and artisan; seeking to arrange a hierarchy of the arts on the basis of their relative freedom from fixed ends, their relative complexity or comprehensiveness of effect, their relative obligation to imitate or represent something that exists in nature! No one cares particularly to-day about such matters of precedence–as if the arts were walking in a carefully ordered ecclesiastical procession. On the other hand, there is ever-increasing recognition of the soundness of the distinction made by Lessing in his Laokoon: or the Limits of Painting and Poetry; namely, that the fine arts differ, as media of expression, according to the nature of the material which they employ. That is to say, the “time-arts"–like poetry and music–deal primarily with actions that succeed one another in time. The space-arts–painting, sculpture, architecture–deal primarily with bodies that coexist in space. Hence there are some subjects that belong naturally in the “painting” group, and others that belong as naturally in the “poetry” group. The artist should not “confuse the genres,” or, to quote Whistler again, he should not push a medium further than it will go. Recent psychology has more or less upset Lessing’s technical theory of vision, [Footnote: F. E. Bryant, The Limits of Descriptive Writing, etc. Ann Arbor, 1906.] but it has confirmed the value of his main contention as to the fields of the various arts.
1. The Myth of Orpheus and Eurydice An illustration will make this matter clear. Let us take the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been utilized by many artists during more than two thousand years assuredly, and how much longer no one knows. Virgil told it in the Georgics and Ovid in the Metamorphoses. It became a favorite theme of medieval romance, and whether told in a French lai or Scottish ballad like “King Orfeo,” it still keeps, among all the strange transformations which it has undergone, “the freshness of the early world.” Let us condense the story from King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon version of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae: “There was once a famous Thracian harper named Orpheus who had a beautiful wife named Eurydice. She died and went to hell. Orpheus longed sorrowfully for her, harping so sweetly that the very woods and wild beasts listened to his woe. Finally, he resolved to seek her in hell and win her back by his skill. And he played so marvelously there that the King of Hell to reward him gave him back his wife again, only upon the condition that he should not turn back to look at her as he led her forth. But, alas, who can constrain love? When Orpheus came to the boundary of darkness and light, he turned round to see if his wife was following–and she vanished.”
Such was the myth in one of its manifold European forms. It deals obviously with a succession of events, with actions easily narratable by means of a “time-art” like poetry. The myth itself is one of fascinating human interest, and if a prose writer like Hawthorne had chosen to tell it in his Wonder-Book, we should doubtless speak of it as a “poetic” story. We should mean, in using that adjective, that the myth contained sentiment, imagination, passion, dramatic climax, pathos–the qualities which we commonly associate with poetry–and that Hawthorne, although a prose writer, had such an exquisite sympathy for Greek stories that his handling of the material would be as delicate, and the result possibly as lovely, as if the tale had been told in verse. But if we would realize the full value of Lessing’s distinction, we must turn to one of the countless verse renderings of the myth. Here we have a succession of actions, indeed, quite corresponding to those of the prose story. But these images of action, succeeding one another in time, are now evoked by successive musical sounds,–the sounds being, as in prose, arbitrary word-symbols of image and idea,–only that in poetry the sounds have a certain ordered arrangement which heightens the emotional effect of the images evoked. Prose writer and poet might mean to tell precisely the same tale, but in reality they cannot, for one is composing, no matter how cunningly, in the tunes of prose and the other in the tunes of verse. The change in the instrument means an alteration in the mental effect.
Now turn to Lessing’s other exemplar of the time-arts, the musician–for musicians as well as poets, painters and sculptors have utilized the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. What can the musician do with the theme? Gluck’s opera may serve for answer. He cannot, by the aid of music alone, call up very definite ideas or images. He cannot tell the Orpheus story clearly to one who has never heard it. But to one who already knows the tale, a composer’s overture–without stage accessories or singing actors or any “operatic” devices as such–furnishes in its successions and combinations of musical sound, without the use of verbal symbols, a unique pleasurable emotion which strongly and powerfully reinforces the emotions suggested by the Orpheus myth itself. Certain portions of the story, such as those relating to the wondrous harping, can obviously be interpreted better through music than through the medium of any other art.
What can Lessing’s “space-arts,” sculpture and painting, do with the material furnished by the Orpheus myth? It is clear that they cannot tell the whole story, since they are dealing with “bodies that coexist” rather than with successive actions. They must select some one instant of action only, and preferably the most significant moment of the whole, the parting of husband and wife. In the museum at Naples there is the wonderful Greek treatment of this theme, in sculptured high relief. The sculptor has chosen the moment of parting. Hermes, the messenger of the gods to recall Eurydice, has twined his hand gently around the left hand of the woman. With her right hand she still touches her husband, but the dread instant is upon them all. The sculptor, representing the persons in three dimensions, as far as high relief allows, has sufficiently characterized their faces and figures, and with exquisite sense of rhythm and balance in his composition has fulfilled every requirement of formal beauty that marble affords.
In Sir Frederick Leighton’s painting of Orpheus and Eurydice and in many another less famous painter’s rendering of the theme, there is likewise the portrayal of an arrested moment. But the painter represents the personages and the background in two dimensions. He can separate his figures more completely than the sculptor, can make their instant of action more “dramatic,” can portray certain objects, such as the diaphanous robe of Eurydice as she vanishes into mist, which are beyond the power of the sculptor to represent, and above all he can suggest the color of the objects themselves, the degree of light and shade, the “atmosphere” of the whole, in a fashion unapproachable by the rival arts.
The illustration need not be worked out more elaborately here, though the student may profitably reflect upon the resources of the modern moving picture–which is a novel combination of the “time” and “space” arts–and of the mimetic dance, as affording still further opportunities for expressing the artistic possibilities of the Orpheus story. But the chief lesson to be learned by one who is attempting in this way to survey the provinces of the different arts is this: no two of all the artists who have availed themselves of the Orpheus material have really had the same subject, although the title of each of their productions, if catalogued, might conveniently be called “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Each has had his own conception of the theme, each his own professional technique in handling his chosen medium, each his own habits of brain, each, in a word, has found his own subject. “Are these children who are playing in the sunlight,” said Fromentin, “or is it a place in the sunlight in which children are playing?” One is a “figure” subject, that is to say, while the other is a landscape subject.
The whole topic of the “provinces” of the arts becomes hopelessly academic and sterile if one fails to keep his eye upon the individual artist, whose free choice of a subject is conditioned solely by his own artistic interest in rendering such aspects of any theme as his own medium of expression will allow him to represent. Take one of the most beautiful objects in nature, a quiet sea. Is this a “painter-like” subject? Assuredly, yet the etcher has often rendered the effect of a quiet sea in terms of line, as a pastellist has rendered it in terms of color, and a musician in terms of tone-feeling, and a poet in terms of tone-feeling plus thought. Each one of them finds something for himself, selects his own “subject,” from the material presented by the quiet sea, and whatever he may find belongs to him. We declaim against the confusion of the genres, the attempt to render in the terms of one art what belongs, as we had supposed, to another art, and we are often right in our protest. Yet artists have always been jumping each other’s claims, and the sole test of the lawfulness of the procedure is the success of the result. If the border-foray of the impressionist or imagist proves successful, well and good, but a triumphant raid should not be mistaken for the steady lines of the main campaign.
2. The Special Field What then do we mean by the province of poetry? Simply that there is a special field in which, for uncounted centuries, poets have produced a certain kind of artistic effect. Strictly speaking, it is better to say “poets” rather than “the poet,” just as William James confesses that strictly speaking there is no such thing as “the Imagination,” there are only imaginations. But “the poet” is a convenient expression to indicate a man functioning qua poet–i.e. a man poetizing; and we shall continue to use it. When we say that “the poet” in Sir Walter Scott inspires this or that utterance, while “the novelist” or “the historian” or “the critic” in him has prompted this or that other utterance, we are within our rights.
The field of poetry, as commonly understood, is that portion of human feeling which expresses itself through rhythmical and preferably metrical language. In this field “the poet” labors. The human feeling which he embodies in verse comes to him originally, as feeling comes to all men, in connection with a series of mental images. These visual, auditory, motor or tactile images crowd the stream of consciousness as it sweeps inward to the brain. There the images are subjected to a process of selection, modification, transformation. [Footnote: “The finest poetry was first experience; but the thought has suffered a transformation since it was an experience.” Emerson, Shakespeare: The Poet.] At some point in the process the poet’s images tend to become verbal,–as the painter’s or the musician’s do not,–and these verbal images are then discharged in rhythmical patterns. It is one type of the threefold process roughly described at the close of Chapter I. What is peculiar to the poet as compared with other men or other artists is to be traced not so much in the peculiar nature of his visual, auditory, motor or tactile images–for in this respect poets differ enormously among one another–as in the increasingly verbal form of these images as they are reshaped by his imagination, and in the strongly rhythmical or metrical character of the final expression.
Let carbon represent the first of the stages, the excited feeling resulting from sensory stimulus. That is the raw material of poetic emotion. Let the diamond represent the second stage, the chemical change, as it were, produced in the mental images under the heat and pressure of the imagination. The final stage would be represented by the cutting, polishing and setting of the diamond, by the arrangement of the transformed and now purely verbal images into effective rhythmical or metrical designs.
Wordsworth once wrote of true poets who possessed
“The vision and the faculty divine, Though wanting the accomplishment of verse.”
Let us venture to apply Wordsworth’s terminology to the process already described. The “vision” of the poet would mean his sense-impressions of every kind, his experience, as Goethe said, of “the outer world, the inner world and the other world.” The “faculty divine,” into which vision blends insensibly, would mean the mysterious change of these sense-impressions– as they become subjected to reflection, comparison, memory, “passion recollected in tranquillity,"–into words possessing a peculiar life and power. The “accomplishment of verse” is easier to understand. It is the expression, by means of these words now pulsating with rhythm–the natural language of excitement–of whatever the poet has seen and felt, modified by his imagination. The result is a poem: “embodied feeling.”
Browning says to his imaginary poet:
“Your brains beat into rhythm–you tell What we felt only.”
There is much virtue, for us, in this rudely vigorous description of “the poet.” Certainly all of us feel, and thus far we are all potential poets. But according to Browning there is, so to speak, a physiological difference between the poet’s brain and ours. His brain beats into rhythm; that is the simple but enormous difference in function, and hence it is that he can tell what we only feel. That is, he becomes a “singer” as well as “maker,” while we, conscious though we may be of the capacity for intense feeling, cannot embody our feelings in the forms of verse. We may indeed go so far as to reshape mental images in our heated brains–for all men do this under excitement, but to sing what we have thus made is denied to us.
3. An Illustration from William James No one can be more conscious than the present writer of the impossibility of describing in plain prose the admittedly complicated and mysterious series of changes by which poetry comes into being. Those readers who find that even the lines just quoted from Wordsworth and Browning throw little new light upon the old difficulties, may nevertheless get a bit of help here by turning back to William James’s diagram of the working of the brain. It will be remembered that in Chapter I we used the simplest possible chart to represent the sensory stimulus of a nerve-centre and the succeeding motor reaction, and we compared the “in-coming” and “out-going" nerve processes with the function of Impression and Expression in the arts. But to understand something of what takes place in the making of poetry we must now substitute for our first diagram the slightly more complicated one which William James employs to represent, not those lower nerve-centres which “act from present sensational stimuli alone,” but the hemispheres of the human brain which “act from considerations." [Footnote: Psychology, Briefer Course, pp. 97, 98. Henry Holt.] Considerations are images constructed out of past experience, they are reproductions of what has been felt or witnessed.
“They are, in short, remote sensations; and the main difference between the hemisphereless animal and the whole one may be concisely expressed by saying that the one obeys absent, the other only present, objects. The hemispheres would then seem to be the chief seat of memory.“
Then follows the accompanying diagram and illustration.
“If we liken the nervous currents to electric currents, we can compare the nervous system, C, below the hemispheres to a direct circuit from sense-organ to muscle along the line S... C... M. The hemisphere, H, adds the long circuit or loop-line through which the current may pass when for any reason the direct line is not used.
[Illustration: M ?––- C ?––- H ?––- C ?–– S ]
“Thus, a tired wayfarer on a hot day throws himself on the damp earth beneath a maple-tree. The sensations of delicious rest and coolness pouring themselves through the direct line would naturally discharge into the muscles of complete extension: he would abandon himself to the dangerous repose. But the loop-line being open, part of the current is drafted along it, and awakens rheumatic or catarrhal reminiscences, which prevail over the instigations of sense, and make the man arise and pursue his way to where he may enjoy his rest more safely.”
William James’s entire discussion of the value of the hemisphere “loop-line” as a reservoir of reminiscences is of peculiar suggestiveness to the student of poetry. For it is along this loop-line of “memories and ideas of the distant” that poetry wins its generalizing or universalizing power. It is here that the life of reason enters into the life of mere sensation, transforming the reports of the nerves into ideas and thoughts that have coherence and general human significance. It is possible, certainly, as the experiments of contemporary “imagists” prove, to write poetry of a certain type without employing the “loop-line.” But this is pure sensorium verse, the report of retinal, auditory or tactile images, and nothing more. “Response to impressions and representation of those impressions in their original isolation are the marks of the new poetry. Response to impressions, correlation of those impressions into a connected body of phenomena, and final interpretation of them as a whole are, have been, and always will be the marks of the enduring in all literature, whether poetry or prose." [Footnote: Lewis Worthington Smith, “The New Naiveté,” Atlantic, April, 1916.] To quote another critic: “A rock, a star, a lyre, a cataract, do not, except incidentally and indirectly, owe their command of our sympathies to the bare power of evoking reactions in a series of ocular envelopes or auditory canals. Their power lies in their freightage of association, in their tactical position at the focus of converging experience, in the number and vigor of the occasions in which they have crossed and re-crossed the palpitating thoroughfares of life. ... Sense-impressions are poetically valuable only in the measure of their power to procreate or re-create experience." [Footnote: O. W. Firkins, “The New Movement in Poetry,” Nation, October 14, 1915.]
One may give the fullest recognition to the delicacy and sincerity of imagist verse, to its magical skill in seeming to open new doors of sense experience by merely shutting the old doors of memory, to its naive courage in rediscovering the formula of “Back to Nature." [Footnote: See the discussion of imagist verse in chap. III.] Like “free verse,” it has widened the field of expression, although its advocates have sometimes forgotten that thousands of “imagist” poems lie embedded in the verse of Browning and even in the prose of George Meredith. [Footnote: J. L. Lowes, “An Unacknowledged Imagist,” Nation, February 24, 1916.] We shall discuss some of its tenets later, but it should be noted at this point that the radical deficiency of imagist verse, as such, is in its lack of general ideas. Much of it might have been written by an infinitely sensitive decapitated frog. It is “hemisphereless” poetry.
4. The Poet and Other Men The mere physical vision of the poet may or may not be any keener than the vision of other men. There is an infinite variety in the bodily endowments of habitual verse-makers: there have been near-sighted poets like Tennyson, far-sighted poets like Wordsworth, and, in the well-known case of Robert Browning, a poet conveniently far-sighted in one eye and near-sighted in the other! No doubt the life-long practice of observing and recording natural phenomena sharpens the sense of poets, as it does the senses of Indians, naturalists, sailors and all outdoors men. The quick eye for costume and character possessed by a Chaucer or a Shakspere is remarkable, but equally so is the observation of a Dickens or a Balzac. It is rather in what we call psychical vision that the poet is wont to excel, that is, in his ability to perceive the meaning of visual phenomena. Here he ceases to be a mere reporter of retinal images, and takes upon himself the higher and harder function of an interpreter of the visible world. He has no immunity from the universal human experiences: he loves and he is angry and he sees men born and die. He becomes according to the measure of his intellectual capacity a thinker. He strives to see into the human heart, to comprehend the working of the human mind. He reads the divine justice in the tragic fall of Kings. He penetrates beneath the external forms of Nature and perceives her as a “living presence.” Yet the faculty of vision which the poet possesses in so eminent a degree is shared by many who are not poets. Darwin’s outward eye was as keen as Wordsworth’s; St. Paul’s sense of the reality of the invisible world is more wonderful than Shakspere’s. The poet is indeed first of all a seer, but he must be something more than a seer before he is wholly poet.
Another mark of the poetic mind is its vivid sense of relations. The part suggests the whole. In the single instance there is a hint of the general law. The self-same Power that brings the fresh rhodora to the woods brings the poet there also. In the field-mouse, the daisy, the water-fowl, he beholds types and symbols. His own experience stands for all men’s. The conscience-stricken Macbeth is a poet when he cries, “Life is a walking shadow,” and King Lear makes the same pathetic generalization when he exclaims, “What, have his daughters brought him to this pass?” Through the shifting phenomena of the present the poet feels the sweep of the universe; his mimic play and “the great globe itself” are alike an “insubstantial pageant,” though it may happen, as Tennyson said of Wordsworth, that even in the transient he gives the sense of the abiding, “whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.”
But this perception of relations, characteristic as it is of the poetic temper, is also an attribute of the philosopher. The intellect of a Newton, too, leaps from the specific instance to the general law; every man, in proportion to his intelligence and insight, feels that the world is one; while Plato and Descartes play with the time and space world with all the grave sportiveness of Prospero.
Again, the poets have always been the “genus irritabile"–the irritable tribe. They not only see deeply, but feel acutely. Often they are too highly sensitized for their own happiness. If they receive a pleasure more exquisite than ours from a flower, a glimpse of the sea, a gracious action, they are correspondingly quick to feel dissonances, imperfections, slights. Like Lamb, they are “rather squeamish about their women and children.” Like Keats, they are “snuffed out by an article.” Keener pleasures, keener pains, this is the law of their life; but it is applicable to all persons of the so-called artistic temperament. It is one of the penalties of a fine organism. It does not of itself describe a poet. [Footnote: I have here utilized a few paragraphs from my chapter on “Poetry” in Counsel upon the Reading of Books, Houghton Mifflin Company.]
The real difference between “the poet” and other men is rather to be traced, as the present chapter has tried to indicate, in his capacity for making and employing verbal images of a certain kind, and combining these images into rhythmical and metrical designs. In each of his functions–as “seer,” as “maker,” and as “singer"–he shows himself a true creator. Criticism no longer attempts to act as his “law-giver,” to assert what he may or may not do. The poet is free, like every creative artist, to make a beautiful object in any way he can. And nevertheless criticism–watching countless poets lovingly for many a century, observing their various endowments, their manifest endeavors, their victories and defeats, observing likewise the nature of language, that strange medium (so much stranger than any clay or bronze!) through which poets are compelled to express their conceptions–criticism believes that poetry, like each of the sister arts, has its natural province, its own field of the beautiful. We have tried in this chapter to suggest the general direction of that field, without looking too narrowly for its precise boundaries. In W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions the reader will remember how a few sticks and stones, laid upon a hilltop, were used as markers to indicate the outlines of a continent. Criticism, likewise, needs its poor sticks and stones of commonplace, if it is to point out any roadway. Our own road leads first into the difficult territory of the poet’s imaginings, and then into the more familiar world of the poet’s words.