A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
THE POET’S WORDS
“Words are sensible signs necessary for communication." JOHN LOCKE, Human Understanding, 3, 2, 1.
“As conceptions are the images of things to the mind within itself, so are words or names the marks of those conceptions to the minds of them we converse with." SOUTH, quoted in Johnson’s Dictionary.
“Word: a sound, or combination of sounds, used in any language as the sign of a conception, or of a conception together with its grammatical relations.... A word is a spoken sign that has arrived at its value as used in any language by a series of historical changes, and that holds its value by virtue of usage, being exposed to such further changes, of form and of meaning, as usage may prescribe...." Century Dictionary.
“A word is not a crystal–transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought, and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used." Justice OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, Towne vs. Eisner.
“I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose = words in their best order;–poetry = the best words in the best order." COLERIDGE, Table Talk.
1. The Eye and the Ear “Literary" language is commonly distinguished from the language of ordinary life by certain heightenings or suppressions. The novelist or essayist, let us say, fashions his language more or less in accordance with his own mood, with his immediate aim in writing, with the capacity of his expected readers. He is discoursing with a certain real or imaginary audience. He may put himself on paper, as Montaigne said, as if he were talking to the first man he happens to meet; or he may choose to address himself to the few chosen spirits of his generation and of succeeding generations. He trusts the arbitrary written or printed symbols of word-sounds to carry his thoughts safely into the minds of other men. The “literary” user of language in modern times comes to depend upon the written or printed page; he tends to become more or less “eye-minded"; whereas the typical orator remains “ear-minded"–i.e. peculiarly sensitive to a series of sounds, and composing for the ear of listeners rather than for the eye of readers.
Now as compared with the typical novelist, the poet is surely, like the orator, “ear-minded.” Tonal symbols of ideas and emotions, rather than visual symbols of ideas and emotions, are the primary stuff with which he is working, although as soon as the advancing civilization of his race brings an end to the primitive reciting of poetry and its transmission through oral repetition alone, it is obvious that he must depend, like other literary artists, or like the modern musicians, upon the written or printed signs for the sounds which he has composed. But so stubborn are the habits of our eyes that we tend always to confuse the look of the poet’s words upon the printed page with the sound of those words as they are perceived by the ear. We are seldom guilty of this confusion in the case of the musician. His “music” is not identified with the arbitrary black marks which make up his printed score. For most of us there is no music until those marks are actually translated into terms of tone– although it is true that the trained reader of music can easily translate to his inner ear without any audible rendering of the indicated sounds.
This distinction is essential to the understanding of poetry. A poem is not primarily a series of printed word-signs addressed to the eye; it is a series of sounds addressed to the ear, and the arbitrary symbols for these sounds do not convey the poem unless they are audibly rendered–except to those readers who, like the skilled readers of printed music, can instantly hear the indicated sounds without any actual rendition of them into physical tone. Many professed lovers of poetry have no real ear for it. They are hopelessly “eye-minded.” They try to decide questions of metre and stanza, of free verse and of emotionally patterned prose by the appearance of the printed page instead of by the nerves of hearing. Poets like Mr. Vachel Lindsay–who recites or chants his own verses after the manner of the primitive bard–have rendered a true service by leading us away from the confusions wrought by typography, and back to that sheer delight in rhythmic oral utterance in which poetry originates.
2. How Words convey Feeling For it must never be forgotten that poetry begins in excitement, in some body-and-mind experience; that it is capable, through its rhythmic utterance of words which suggest this experience, of transmitting emotion to the hearer; and that the nature of language allows the emotion to be embodied in more or less permanent form. Let us look more closely at some of the questions involved in the origin, the transmission and embodiment of poetic feeling, remembering that we are now trying to trace these processes in so far as they are revealed by the poet’s use of words. Rhythm will be discussed in the next chapter.
We have already noted that there are no mental images of feeling itself. The images recognized by the consciousness of poets are those of experiences and objects associated with feeling. The words employed to revive and transmit these images are usually described as “concrete” or “sensuous” in distinction from abstract or purely conceptual. They are “experiential” words, arising out of bodily or spiritual contact with objects or ideas that have been personalized, colored with individual feeling. Such words have a “fringe,” as psychologists say. They are rich in overtones of meaning; not bare, like words addressed to the sheer intelligence, but covered with veils of association, with tokens of past experience. They are like ships laden with cargoes, although the cargo varies with the texture and the history of each mind. It is probable that this very word “ship,” just now employed, calls up as many different mental images as there are readers of this page. Brander Matthews has recorded a curious divergence of imagery aroused by the familiar word “forest.” Half a dozen well-known men of letters, chatting together in a London club, tried to tell one another what “forest” suggested to each:
“Until that evening I had never thought of forest as clothing itself in different colors and taking on different forms in the eyes of different men; but I then discovered that even the most innocent word may don strange disguises. To Hardy forest suggested the sturdy oaks to be assaulted by the woodlanders of Wessex; and to Du Maurier it evoked the trim and tidy avenues of the national domain of France. To Black the word naturally brought to mind the low scrub of the so-called deer-forests of Scotland; and to Gosse it summoned up a view of the green-clad mountains that towered up from the Scandinavian fiords. To Howells forest recalled the thick woods that in his youth fringed the rivers of Ohio; and to me there came back swiftly the memory of the wild growths, bristling unrestrained by man, in the Chippewa Reservation which I had crossed fourteen years before in my canoe trip from Lake Superior to the Mississippi. Simple as the word seemed, it was interpreted by each of us in accord with his previous personal experience. And these divergent experiences exchanged that evening brought home to me as never before the inherent and inevitable inadequacy of the vocabulary of every language, since there must always be two partners in any communication by means of words, and the verbal currency passing from one to the other has no fixed value necessarily the same to both of them." [Footnote: Brander Matthews, These Many Years. Scribner’s, New York, 1917.]
But one need not journey to London town in order to test this matter. Let half a dozen healthy young Americans stop before the window of a shop where sporting goods are exhibited. Here are fishing-rods, tennis racquets, riding-whips, golf-balls, running-shoes, baseball bats, footballs, oars, paddles, snow-shoes, goggles for motorists, Indian clubs and rifles. Each of these physical objects focuses the attention of the observer in more or less exact proportion to his interest in the particular sport suggested by the implement. If he is a passionate tennis player, a thousand motor-tactile memories are stirred by the sight of the racquet. He is already balancing it in his fingers, playing his favorite strokes with it, winning tournaments with it–though he seems to be standing quietly in front of the window. The man next him is already snowshoeing over the frozen hills. But if a man has never played lacrosse, or been on horseback, or mastered a canoe, the lacrosse racquet or riding-whip or paddle mean little to him emotionally, except that they may stir his imaginative curiosity about a sport whose pleasures he has never experienced. His eye is likely to pass them over as indifferently as if he were glancing at the window of a druggist or a grocer. These varying responses of the individual to the visual stimulus of this or that physical object in a heterogeneous collection may serve to illustrate his capacity for feeling. Our chance group before the shop window thus becomes a symbol of all human minds as they confront the actual visible universe. They hunger and thirst for this or that particular thing, while another object leaves them cold.
Now suppose that our half-dozen young men are sitting in the dark, talking–evoking body-and-mind memories by means of words alone. No two can possibly have the same memories, the same series of mental pictures. Not even the most vivid and picturesque word chosen by the best talker of the company has the same meaning for them all. They all understand the word, approximately, but each feels it in a way unexperienced by his friend. The freightage of significance carried by each concrete, sensuous, picture-making word is bound to vary according to the entire physical and mental history of the man who hears it. Even the commonest and most universal words for things and sensations–such as “hand,” “foot,” “dark," “fear,” “fire,” “warm,” “home"–are suffused with personal emotions, faintly or clearly felt; they have been or are my hand, foot, fear, darkness, warmth, happiness. Now the poet is like a man talking or singing in the dark to a circle of friends. He cannot say to them “See this” or “Feel that” in the literal sense of “see” and “feel"; he can only call up by means of words and tunes what his friends have seen and felt already, and then under the excitement of such memories suggest new combinations, new weavings of the infinitely varied web of human experience, new voyages with fresh sails upon seas untried.
It is true that we may picture the poet as singing or talking to himself in solitude and darkness, obeying primarily the impulse of expression rather than of communication. Hence John Stuart Mill’s distinction between the orator and the poet: “Eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience. The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet’s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet’s mind." [Footnote: J. S. Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry,” in Dissertations, vol. 1. See also F. N. Scott, “The Most Fundamental Differentia of Poetry and Prose.” Published by Modern Language Association, 19, 2.] But whether his primary aim be the relief of his own feelings (for a man swears even when he is alone!) or the communication of his feelings to other persons, it remains true that a poet’s language betrays his bodily and mental history. “The poet,” said Thoreau, “writes the history of his own body.”
For example, a study of Browning’s vocabulary made by Professor C. H. Herford [Footnote: Robert Browning, Modern English Writers, pp. 244-66. Blackwood & Sons. 1905.] emphasizes that poet’s acute tactual and muscular sensibilities, his quick and eager apprehension of space-relations:
“He gloried in the strong sensory-stimulus of glowing color, of dazzling light; in the more complex motory-stimulus of intricate, abrupt and plastic form.... He delighted in the angular, indented, intertwining, labyrinthine varieties of line and surface which call for the most delicate, and at the same time most agile, adjustments of the eye. He caught at the edges of things.... Spikes and wedges and swords run riot in his work.... He loved the grinding, clashing and rending sibilants and explosives as Tennyson the tender-hefted liquids.... He is the poet of sudden surprises, unforseen transformations.... The simple joy in abrupt changes of sensation which belonged to his riotous energy of nerve lent support to his peremptory way of imagining all change and especially all vital and significant becoming.”
The same truth is apparent as we pass from the individual poet to the poetic literature of his race. Here too is the stamp of bodily history. Hebrew poetry, as is well known, is always expressing emotion in terms of bodily sensation.
’Anger,” says Renan, [Footnote: Quoted by J. H. Gardiner, The Bible as Literature, p. 114.] “is expressed in Hebrew in a throng of ways, each picturesque, and each borrowed from physiological facts. Now the metaphor is taken from the rapid and animated breathing which accompanies the passion, now from heat or from boiling, now from the act of a noisy breaking, now from shivering. Discouragement and despair are expressed by the melting of the heart, fear by the loosening of the reins. Pride is portrayed by the holding high of the head, with the figure straight and stiff. Patience is a long breathing, impatience short breathing, desire is thirst or paleness. Pardon is expressed by a throng of metaphors borrowed from the idea of covering, of hiding, of coating over the fault. In Job God sews up sins in a sack, seals it, then throws it behind him: all to signify that he forgets them....
“My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God.
“Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto my soul.
“I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me.
“I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God.”
Greek poetry, likewise, is made out of “warm, swift, vibrating” words, thrilling with bodily sensation. Gilbert Murray [Footnote: “What English Poetry may Learn from Greek,” Atlantic Monthly, November, 1912.] has described the weaving of these beautiful single words into patterns:
“The whole essence of lyric is rhythm. It is the weaving of words into a song-pattern, so that the mere arrangement of the syllables produces a kind of dancing joy.... Greek lyric is derived directly from the religious dance; that is, not merely the pattering of the feet, but the yearning movement of the whole body, the ultimate expression of emotion that cannot be pressed into articulate speech, compact of intense rhythm and intense feeling.”
Nor should it be forgotten that Milton, while praising “a graceful and ornate rhetoric,” declares that poetry, compared with this, is “more simple, sensuous and passionate." [Footnote: Tract on Education. ] These words “sensuous” and “passionate,” dulled as they have become by repetition, should be interpreted in their full literal sense. While language is unquestionably a social device for the exchange of ideas and feelings, it is also true that poetic diction is a revelation of individual experience, of body-and-mind contacts with reality. Every poet is still an Adam in the Garden, inventing new names as fast as the new wonderful Beasts–-so terrible, so delightful!–come marching by.
3. Words as Current Coin But the poet’s words, stamped and colored as they are by unique individual experience, must also have a general transmission value which renders them current coin. If words were merely representations of private experience, merely our own nicknames for things, they would not pass the walls of the Garden inhabited by each man’s imagination. “Expression" would be possible, but “communication” would be impossible, and indeed there would be no recognizable terms of expression except the “bow-wow” or “pooh-pooh” or “ding-dong” of the individual Adam––and even these expressive syllables might not be the ones acceptable to Eve!
The truth is that though the impulse to expression is individual, and that in highly developed languages a single man can give his personal stamp to words, making them say what he wishes them to say, as Dante puts it, speech is nevertheless primarily a social function. A word is a social instrument. “It belongs,” says Professor Whitney, [Footnote: W. D. Whitney, Language and the Study of Language, p. 404.] “not to the individual, but to the member of society.... What we may severally choose to say is not language until it be accepted and employed by our fellows. The whole development of speech, though initiated by the acts of individuals, is wrought out by the community.”
... A solitary man would never frame a language. Let a child grow up in utter seclusion, and, however rich and suggestive might be the nature around him, however full and appreciative his sense of that which lay without, and his consciousness of that which went on within him, he would all his life remain a mute.”
What is more, the individual’s mastery of language is due solely to his social effort in employing it. Speech materials are not inherited; they are painfully acquired. It is well known that an English child brought up in China and hearing no word of English will speak Chinese without a trace of his English parentage in form or idiom. [Footnote: See Baldwin’s Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, article “Language."] His own body-and-mind experiences will be communicated in the medium already established by the body-and-mind experiences of the Chinese race. In that medium only can the thoughts of this English-born child have any transmission value. His father and mother spoke a tongue moulded by Chaucer and Shakspere, but to the boy whom we have imagined all that age-long labor of perfecting a social instrument of speech is lost without a trace. As far as language is concerned, he is a Chinaman and nothing else.
Now take the case of a Chinese boy who has come to an American school and college. Just before writing this paragraph I have read the blue-book of such a boy, written in a Harvard examination on Tennyson. It was an exceptionally well-expressed blue-book, in idiomatic English, and it revealed an unusual appreciation of Tennyson’s delicate and sure felicities of speech. The Chinese boy, by dint of an intellectual effort of which most of his American classmates were incapable, had mastered many of the secrets of an alien tongue, and had taken possession of the rich treasures of English poetry. If he had been composing verse himself, instead of writing a college blue-book, it is likely that he would have preferred to use his own mother-tongue, as the more natural medium for the expression of his intimate thoughts and feelings. But that expression, no matter how artistic, would have “communicated” nothing whatever to an American professor ignorant of the Chinese language. It is clear that the power of any person to convey his ideas and emotions to others is conditioned upon the common possession of some medium of exchange.
4. Words an Imperfect Medium And it is precisely here that we face one of the fundamental difficulties of the poet’s task; a difficulty that affects, indeed, all human intercourse. For words are notoriously an imperfect medium of communication. They “were not invented at first,” says Professor Walter Raleigh in his book on Wordsworth, “and are very imperfectly adapted at best, for the severer purposes of truth. They bear upon them all the weaknesses of their origin, and all the maims inflicted by the prejudices and fanaticisms of generations of their employers. They perpetuate the memory or prolong the life of many noble forms of human extravagance, and they are the monuments of many splendid virtues. But with all their abilities and dignities they are seldom well fitted for the quiet and accurate statement of the thing that is.... Beasts fight with horns, and men, when the guns are silent, with words. The changes of meaning in words from good to bad and from bad to good senses, which are quite independent of their root meaning, is proof enough, without detailed illustration, of the incessant nature of the strife. The question is not what a word means, but what it imputes." [Footnote: Raleigh’s Wordsworth. London, 1903.]
Now if the quiet and accurate statement of things as they are is the ideal language of prose, it is obvious that the characteristic diction of poetry is unquiet, inaccurate, incurably emotional. Herein lie its dangers and its glories. No poet can keep for very long to the “neutral style,” to the cool gray wallpaper words, so to speak; he wants more color–-passionate words that will “stick fiery off” against the neutral background of conventional diction. In vain does Horace warn him against “purple patches"; for he knows that the tolerant Horace allowed himself to use purple patches whenever he wished. All employers of language for emotional effect–orators, novelists, essayists, writers of editorials–utilize in certain passages these colored, heightened, figured words. It is as if they ordered their printers to set individual words or whole groups of words in upper-case type.
And yet these “upper-case words” of heightened emotional value are not really isolated from their context. Their values are relative and not absolute. Like the high lights of a picture, their effectiveness depends upon the tone of the composition as a whole. To insert a big or violent word for its own potency is like sewing the purple patch upon a faded garment. The predominant thought and feeling of a passage give the richest individual words their penetrating power, just as the weight of the axe-head sinks the blade into the wood. “Futurist” poets like Marinetti have protested against the bonds of syntax, the necessity of logical subject and predicate, and have experimented with nouns alone. “Words delivered from the fetters of punctuation,” says Marinetti, “will flash against one another, will interlace their various forms of magnetism, and follow the uninterrupted dynamics of force." [Footnote: There is an interesting discussion of Futurism in Sir Henry Newbolt’s New Study of English Poetry. Dutton, 1919.] But do they? The reader may judge for himself in reading Marinetti’s poem on the siege of a Turkish fort:
“Towers guns virility flights erection telemetre exstacy toumbtoumb 3 seconds toumbtoumb waves smiles laughs plaff poaff glouglouglouglou hide-and-seek crystals virgins flesh jewels pearls iodine salts bromide skirts gas liqueurs bubbles 3 seconds toumbtoumb officer whiteness telemetre cross fire megaphone sight-at-thousand-metres all-men-to-left enough every-man-to-his post incline-7-degrees splendour jet pierce immensity azure deflowering onslaught alleys cries labyrinth mattress sobs ploughing desert bed precision telemetre monoplane cackling theatre applause monoplane equals balcony rose wheel drum trepan gad-fly rout arabs oxen blood-colour shambles wounds refuge oasis.”
In these vivid nouns there is certainly some raw material for a poem, just as a heap of bits of colored glass might make material for a rose-window. But both poem and window must be built by somebody: the shining fragments will never fashion themselves into a whole.
5. Predominant Tone-Feeling If each poem is composed in its own “key,” as we say of music, with its own scale of “values,” as we say of pictures, it is obvious that the separate words tend to take on tones and hues from the predominant tone-feeling of the poem. It is a sort of protective coloration, like Nature’s devices for blending birds and insects into their background; or, to choose a more prosaic illustration, like dipping a lump of sugar into a cup of coffee. The white sugar and the yellowish cream and the black coffee blend into something unlike any of the separate ingredients, yet the presence of each is felt. It is true that some words refuse to be absorbed into the texture of the poem: they remain as it were foreign substances in the stream of imagery, something alien, stubborn, jarring, although expressive enough in themselves. All the pioneers in poetic diction assume this risk of using “un-poetic” words in their desire to employ expressive words. Classic examples are Wordsworth’s homely “tubs" and “porringers,” and Walt Whitman’s catalogues of everyday implements used in various trades. Othello was hissed upon its first appearance on the Paris stage because of that “vulgar” word handkerchief. Thus “fork" and “spoon” have almost purely utilitarian associations and are consequently difficult terms for the service of poetry, but “knife” has a wider range of suggestion. Did not the peaceful Robert Louis Stevenson confess his romantic longing to “knife a man”?
But it is not necessary to multiply illustrations of this law of connotation. The true poetic value of a word lies partly in its history, in its past employments, and partly also in the new vitality which it receives from each brain which fills the word with its own life. It is like an old violin, with its subtle overtones, the result of many vibrations of the past, but yet each new player may coax a new tune from it. When Wordsworth writes of
“The silence that is in the starry sky, The sleep that is among the lonely hills,”
he is combining words that are immemorially familiar into a total effect that is peculiarly “Wordsworthian.” Diction is obviously only a part of a greater whole in which ideas and emotions are also merged. A concordance of all the words employed by a poet teaches us much about him, and conversely a knowledge of the poet’s personality and of his governing ideas helps us in the study of his diction. Poets often have favorite words–like Marlowe’s “black,” Shelley’s “light,” Tennyson’s “wind," Swinburne’s “fire.” Each of these words becomes suffused with the whole personality of the poet who employs it. It not only cannot be taken out of its context in the particular poem in which it appears, but it cannot be adequately felt without some recognition of the particular sensational and emotional experience which prompted its use. Many concordance-hunters thus miss the real game, and fall into the Renaissance error of word-grubbing for its own sake, as if mere words had a value of their own independently of the life breathed into them by living men. I recall a conversation at Bormes with the French poet Angellier. He was complaining humorously of his friend L., a famous scholar whose big book was “carrying all the treasures of French literature down to posterity like a cold-storage transport ship.” “But he published a criticism of one of my poems,” Angellier went on, “which proved that he did not understand the poem at all. He had studied it too hard! The words of a poem are stepping-stones across a brook. If you linger on one of them too long, you will get your feet wet! You must cross, vite!” If the poets lead us from one mood to another over a bridge of words, the words themselves are not the goal of the journey. They are instruments used in the transmission of emotion.
6. Specific Tone-Color It is obvious, then, that the full poetic value of a word cannot be ascertained apart from its context. The value is relative and not absolute. And nevertheless, just as the bit of colored glass may have a certain interest and beauty of its own, independently of its possible place in the rose-window, it is true that separate words possess special qualities of physical and emotional suggestiveness. Dangerous as it is to characterize the qualities of the sound of a word apart from the sense of that word, there is undeniably such a thing as “tone-color.” A piano and a violin, striking the same note, are easily differentiated by the quality of the sound, and of two violins, playing the same series of notes, it is usually possible to declare which instrument has the richer tone or timbre. Words, likewise, differ greatly in tone-quality. A great deal of ingenuity has been devoted to the analysis of “bright” and “dark” vowels, smooth and harsh consonants, with the aim of showing that each sound has its special expressive force, its peculiar adaptability to transmit a certain kind of feeling. Says Professor A. H. Tolman: [Footnote: “The Symbolic Value of Sounds,” in Hamlet and Other Essays, by A. H. Tolman. Boston, 1904.]
“Let us arrange the English vowel sounds in the following scale:
[short i] (little) [long i] (I) [short oo] (wood) [short e] (met) [long u] (due) [long ow] (cow) [short a] (mat) [short ah] (what) [long o] (gold) [long e] (mete) [long ah] (father) [long oo] (gloom) [ai] (fair) [oi] (boil) [aw] (awe) [long a] (mate) [short u] (but)
“The sounds at the beginning of this scale are especially fitted to express uncontrollable joy and delight, gayety, triviality, rapid movement, brightness, delicacy, and physical littleness; the sounds at the end are peculiarly adapted to express horror, solemnity, awe, deep grief, slowness of motion, darkness, and extreme or oppressive greatness of size. The scale runs, then, from the little to the large, from the bright to the dark, from ecstatic delight to horror, and from the trivial to the solemn and awful.”
Robert Louis Stevenson in his Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature, and many other curious searchers into the secrets of words, have attempted to explain the physiological basis of these varying “tone-qualities.” Some of them are obviously imitative of sounds in nature; some are merely suggestive of these sounds through more or less remote analogies; some are frankly imitative of muscular effort or of muscular relaxation. High-pitched vowels and low-pitched vowels, liquid consonants and harsh consonants, are unquestionably associated with muscular memories, that is to say, with individual body-and-mind experiences. Lines like Tennyson’s famous
“The moan of doves in immemorial elms And murmuring of innumerable bees”
thus represent, in their vowel and consonantal expressiveness, the past history of countless physical sensations, widely shared by innumerable individuals, and it is to this fact that the “transmission value” of the lines is due.
Imitative effects are easily recognized, and need no comment:
“Brushed with the hiss of rustling wings”
“The mellow ouzel fluting in the elm”
“The wind that’ll wail like a child and the sea that’ll moan like a man.”
Suggestive effects are more subtle. Sometimes they are due primarily to those rhythmical arrangements of words which we shall discuss in the next chapter, but poetry often employs the sound of single words to awaken dim or bright associations. Robert Bridges’s catalogue of the Greek nymphs in “Eros and Psyche” is an extreme example of risking the total effect of a stanza upon the mere beautiful sounds of proper names.
“Swift to her wish came swimming on the waves His lovely ocean nymphs, her guides to be, The Nereids all, who live among the caves And valleys of the deep, Cymodocè, Agavè, blue-eyed Hallia and Nesaea, Speio, and Thoë, Glaucè and Actaea, Iaira, Melitè and Amphinomè, Apseudès and Nemertès, Callianassa, Cymothoë, Thaleia, Limnorrhea, Clymenè, Ianeira and Ianassa, Doris and Panopè and Galatea, Dynamenè, Dexamenè and Maira, Ferusa, Doto, Proto, Callianeira, Amphithoë, Oreithuia and Amathea.”
Names of objects like “bobolink” and “raven” may affect us emotionally by the quality of their tone. Through association with the sounds of the human voice, heard under stress of various emotions, we attribute joyous or foreboding qualities to the bird’s tone, and then transfer these associations to the bare name of the bird.
Names of places are notoriously rich in their evocation of emotion.
“He caught a chill in the lagoons of Venice, And died in Padua.”
Here the fact of illness and death may be prosaic enough, but the very names of “Venice” and “Padua” are poetry–like “Rome,” “Ireland," “Arabia,” “California.”
“Where the great Vision of the guarded mount Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold.”
Who knows precisely where that “guarded mount” is upon the map? And who cares? “The sailor’s heart,” confesses Lincoln Colcord, [Footnote: The New Republic, September 16, 1916.] “refutes the prose of knowledge, and still believes in delectable and sounding names. He dreams of capes and islands whose appellations are music and a song.... The first big land sighted on the outward passage is Java Head; beside it stands Cape Sangian Sira, with its name like a battle-cry. We are in the Straits of Sunda: name charged with the heady languor of the Orient, bringing to mind pictures of palm-fringed shores and native villages, of the dark-skinned men of Java clad in bright sarongs, clamoring from their black-painted dugouts, selling fruit and brilliant birds. These waters are rich in names that stir the blood, like Krakatoa, Gunong Delam, or Lambuan; or finer, more sounding than all the rest, Telok Betong and Rajah Bassa, a town and a mountain–Telok Betong at the head of Lampong Bay and Rajah Bassa, grand old bulwark on the Sumatra shore, the cradle of fierce and sudden squalls.”
It may be urged, of course, that in lines of true poetry the sense carries the sound with it, and that nothing is gained by trying to analyse the sounds apart from the sense. Professor C. M. Lewis [Footnote: Principles of English Verse. New York, 1906.] asserts bluntly: “When you say Titan you mean something big, and when you say tittle you mean something small; but it is not the sound of either word that means either bigness or littleness, it is the sense. If you put together a great many similar consonants in one sentence, they will attract special attention to the words in which they occur, and the significance of those words, whatever it may be, is thereby intensified; but whether the words are ’a team of little atomies’ or ’a triumphant terrible Titan,’ it is not the sound of the consonants that makes the significance. When Tennyson speaks of the shrill-edged shriek of a mother, his words suggest with peculiar vividness the idea of a shriek; but when you speak of stars that shyly shimmer, the same sounds only intensify the idea of shy shimmering.” This is refreshing, and yet it is to be noted that “Titan” and “tittle” and “shrill-edged shriek” and “shyly shimmer” are by no means identical in sound: they have merely certain consonants in common. A fairer test of tone-color may be found if we turn to frank nonsense-verse, where the formal elements of poetry surely exist without any control of meaning or “sense”:
“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame, Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, And burbled as it came!
“’T was brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”
“It seems rather pretty,” commented the wise Alice, “but it’s rather hard to understand! Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas–only I don’t exactly know what they are!”
This is precisely what one feels when one listens to a poem recited in a language of which one happens to be ignorant. The wonderful colored words are there, and they seem somehow to fill our heads with ideas, only we do not know what they are. Many readers who know a little Italian or German will confess that their enjoyment of a lyric in those languages suffers only a slight, if any, impairment through their ignorance of the precise meaning of all the words in the poem: if they know enough to feel the predominant mood–as when we listen to a song sung in a language of which we are wholly ignorant–we can sacrifice the succession of exact ideas. For words bare of meaning to the intellect may be covered with veils of emotional association due to the sound alone. Garrick ridiculed–and doubtless at the same time envied–George Whitefield’s power to make women weep by the rich overtones with which he pronounced “that blessed word Mesopotamia.”
The capacities and the limitations of tone-quality in itself may be seen no less clearly in parodies. Swinburne, a master technician in words and rhythm, occasionally delighted, as in “Nephelidia," [Footnote: Quoted in Carolyn Wells, A Parody Anthology. New York, 1904.] to make fun of himself as well as of his poetic contemporaries:
“Surely no spirit or sense of a soul that was soft to the spirit and soul of our senses Sweetens the stress of surprising suspicion that sobs in the semblance and sound of a sigh; Only this oracle opens Olympian, in mystical moods and triangular tenses,– ’Life is the lust of a lamp for the light that is dark till the dawn of the day when we die.’”
Or, take Calverley’s parody of Robert Browning:
“You see this pebble-stone? It’s a thing I bought Of a bit of a chit of a boy i’ the mid o’ the day. I like to dock the smaller parts o’ speech, As we curtail the already cur-tail’d cur–”
The characteristic tone-quality of the vocabulary of each of these poets–whether it be
“A soul that was soft to the spirit and soul of our senses”
“A bit of a chit of a boy i’ the mid o’ the day"–
is as perfectly conveyed by the parodist as if the lines had been written in dead earnest. Poe’s “Ulalume” is a masterly display of tone-color technique, but exactly what it means, or whether it means anything at all, is a matter upon which critics have never been able to agree. It is certain, however, that a poet’s words possess a kind of physical suggestiveness, more or less closely related to their mental significance. In nonsense-verse and parodies we have a glimpse, as it were, at the body of poetry stripped of its soul.
7. “Figures of Speech” To understand why poets habitually use figurative language, we must recall what has been said in Chapter III about verbal images. Under the heat and pressure of emotion, things alter their shape and size and quality, ideas are transformed into concrete images, diction becomes impassioned, plain speech tends to become metaphorical. The language of any excited person, whether he is uttering himself in prose or verse, is marked by “tropes"; i.e. “turnings"–images which express one thing in the terms of another thing. The language of feeling is characteristically “tropical,” and indeed every man who uses metaphors is for the moment talking like a poet–unless, as too often happens both in prose and verse, the metaphor has become conventionalized and therefore lifeless. The born poet thinks in “figures,” in “pictured" language, or, as it has been called, in “re-presentative" language, [Footnote: G. L. Raymond, Poetry as a Representative Art, chap. 19.] since he represents, both to his own mind and to those with whom he is communicating, the objects of poetic emotion under new forms. If he wishes to describe an eagle, he need not say: “A rapacious bird of the falcon family, remarkable for its strength, size, graceful figure, and extraordinary flight.” He represents these facts by making a picture:
“He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
“The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls." [Footnote: Tennyson, “The Eagle.” ]
Or suppose the poet is a woman, meditating upon the coming of old age, and reflecting that age brings riches of its own. Observe how this thought is “troped"; i.e. turned into figures which re-present the fundamental idea:
“Come, Captain Age, With your great sea-chest full of treasure! Under the yellow and wrinkled tarpaulin Disclose the carved ivory And the sandalwood inlaid with pearl, Riches of wisdom and years. Unfold the India shawl, With the border of emerald and orange and crimson and blue, Weave of a lifetime. I shall be warm and splendid With the spoils of the Indies of age." [Footnote: Sarah N. Cleghorn, “Come, Captain Age."]
It is true, of course, that a poet may sometimes prefer to use unornamented language, “not elevated,” as Wordsworth said, “above the level of prose.” Such passages may nevertheless be marked by poetic beauty, due to the circumstances or atmosphere in which the plain words are spoken. The drama is full of such instances. “I loved you not,” says Hamlet; to which Ophelia replies only: “I was the more deceived.” No figure of speech could be more moving than that.
I once found in an old graveyard on Cape Cod, among the sunny, desolate sandhills, these lines graven on a headstone:
“She died, and left to me This heath, this calm and quiet scene; This memory of what hath been, And nevermore will be.”
I had read the lines often enough in books, but here I realized for the first time the perfection of their beauty.
But though a poet, for special reasons, may now and then renounce the use of figurative language, it remains true that this is the characteristic and habitual mode of utterance, not only of poetry but of all emotional prose. Here are a few sentences from an English sailor’s account of the fight off Heligoland on August 28, 1915. He was on a destroyer:
“Scarcely had we started when from out the mist and across our front, in furious pursuit, came the first cruiser squadron–the town class, Birmingham, etc.–each unit a match for three Mainzes; and as we looked and reduced speed they opened fire, and the clear ’bang-bang!’ of their guns was just a cooling drink....
“The Mainz was immensely gallant. The last I saw of her, absolutely wrecked alow and aloft, her whole midships a fuming inferno, she had one gun forward and one aft still spitting forth fury and defiance like a wildcat mad with wounds.
“Our own four-funnel friend recommenced at this juncture with a couple of salvos, but rather half-heartedly, and we really did not care a d––, for there, straight ahead of us, in lordly procession, like elephants walking through a pack of dogs, came the Lion, Queen Mary, Invincible, and New Zealand, our battle cruisers, great and grim and uncouth as some antediluvian monsters. How solid they looked! How utterly earthquaking!”
The use and the effectiveness of figures depend primarily, then, upon the mood and intentions of the writer. Figures are figures, whether employed in prose or verse. Mr. Kipling does not lose his capacity for employing metaphors as he turns from writing verse to writing stories, and the rhetorician’s analysis of similes, personifications, allegories, and all the other devices of “tropical" language is precisely the same, whether he is studying poetry or prose. Any good textbook in rhetoric gives adequate examples of these various classes of figures, and they need not be repeated here.
8. Words as Permanent Embodiment of Poetic Feeling We have seen that the characteristic vocabulary of poetry originates in emotion and that it is capable of transmitting emotion to the hearer or reader. But how far are words capable of embodying emotion in permanent form? Poets themselves, in proud consciousness of the enduring character of their creations, have often boasted that they were building monuments more enduring than bronze or marble. When Shakspere asserts this in his sonnets, he is following not only an Elizabethan convention, but a universal instinct of the men of his craft. Is it a delusion? Here are words–mere vibrating sounds, light and winged and evanescent things, assuming a meaning value only through the common consent of those who interchange them, altering that meaning more or less from year to year, often passing wholly from the living speech of men, decaying when races decay and civilizations change. What transiency, what waste and oblivion like that which waits upon millions on millions of autumn leaves!
Yet nothing in human history is more indisputable than the fact that certain passages of poetry do survive, age after age, while empires pass, and philosophies change and science alters the mental attitude of men as well as the outward circumstances of life upon this planet.
Some thoughts and feelings, then, eternalize themselves in human speech; most thoughts and feelings do not. Wherein lies the difference? If most words are perishable stuff, what is it that keeps other words from perishing? Is it superior organization and arrangement of this fragile material, “fame’s great antiseptic, style”? Or is it by virtue of some secret passionate quality imparted to words by the poet, so that the apparently familiar syllables take on a life and significance which is really not their own, but his? And is this intimate personalized quality of words “style,” also, as well as that more external “style” revealed in clear and orderly and idiomatic arrangement? Or does the mystery of permanence reside in the poet’s generalizing power, by which he is able to express universal, and hence permanently interesting human experience? And therefore, was not the late Professor Courthope right when he declared, “I take all great poetry to be not so much what Plato thought it, the utterance of individual genius, half inspired, half insane, as the enduring voice of the soul and conscience of man living in society”?
Answers to such questions as these depend somewhat upon the “romantic” or “classic” bias of the critics. Romantic criticism tends to stress the significance of the personality of the individual poet. The classic school of criticism tends to emphasize the more general and universal qualities revealed by the poet’s work. But while the schools and fashions of criticism shift their ground and alter their verdicts as succeeding generations change in taste, the great poets continue as before to particularize and also to generalize, to be “romantic” and “classic” by turns, or even in the same poem. They defy critical augury, in their unending quest of beauty and truth. That they succeed, now and then, in giving a permanently lovely embodiment to their vision is surely a more important fact than the rightness or wrongness of whatever artistic theory they may have invoked or followed.
For many a time, surely, their triumphs are a contradiction of their theories. To take a very familiar example, Wordsworth’s theory of poetic diction shifted like a weathercock. In the Advertisement to the Lyrical Ballads (1798) he asserted: “The following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure.” In the Preface of the second edition (1800) he announced that his purpose had been “to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a poet may rationally endeavour to impart.” But in the famous remarks on poetic diction which accompanied the third edition (1802) he inserted after the words “A selection of language really used by men” this additional statement of his intention: “And at the same time to throw over them a certain colouring of the imagination whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect.” In place of the original statement about the conversation of the middle and lower classes of society, we are now assured that the language of poetry “if selected truly and judiciously, must necessarily be dignified and variegated and alive with metaphors and figures.... This selection will form a distinction ... and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life.”
What an amazing change in theory in four years! Yet it is no more remarkable than Wordsworth’s successive emendations in the text of his poems. In 1807 his blind Highland boy had gone voyaging in
“A Household Tub, like one of those Which women use to wash their clothes; This carried the blind Boy.”
In 1815 the wash-tub becomes
“The shell of a green turtle, thin And hollow–you might sit therein, It was so wide and deep.”
And in 1820 the worried and dissatisfied artist changes that unlucky vessel once more into the final banality of
“A shell of ample size, and light As the pearly car of Amphitrite That sportive dolphins drew.”
Sometimes, it is true, this adventurer in poetic diction had rather better fortune in his alterations. The much-ridiculed lines of 1798 about the child’s grave–
“I’ve measured it from side to side, ’T is three feet long and two feet wide"–
became in 1820:
“Though but of compass small and bare To thirsty suns and parching air.”
Like his friend Coleridge, Wordsworth forsook gradually his early experiments with matter-of-fact phrases, with quaintly grotesque figures. Revolt against conventional eighteenth-century diction had given him a blessed sense of freedom, but he found his real strength later in subduing that freedom to a sense of law. Archaisms, queernesses, flatly naturalistic turns of speech gave place to a vocabulary of simple dignity and austere beauty. Wordsworth attained his highest originality as an artist by disregarding singularity, by making familiar words reveal new potencies of expression.
For after all, we must come back to what William James called the long “loop-line,” to that reservoir of ideas and feelings which stores up the experience of individuals and of the race, and to the words which most effectively evoke that experience. Two classes at Columbia University, a few years ago, were asked to select fifty English words of basic importance in the expression of human life. In choosing these words, they were to aim at reality and strength rather than at beauty. When the two lists were combined, they presented these seventy-eight different words, which are here arranged alphabetically: age, ambition, beauty, bloom, country, courage, dawn, day, death, despair, destiny, devotion, dirge, disaster, divine, dream, earth, enchantment, eternity, fair, faith, fantasy, flower, fortune, freedom, friendship, glory, glow, god, grief, happiness, harmony, hate, heart, heaven, honor, hope, immortality, joy, justice, knell, life, longing, love, man, melancholy, melody, mercy, moon, mortal, nature, noble, night, paradise, parting, peace, pleasure, pride, regret, sea, sigh, sleep, solitude, song, sorrow, soul, spirit, spring, star, suffer, tears, tender, time, virtue, weep, whisper, wind and youth. [Footnote: See Nation, February 23, 1911.]
Surely these words, selected as they were for their significance, are not lacking in beauty of sound. On the contrary, any list of the most beautiful words in English would include many of them. But it is the meaning of these “long-loop” words, rather than their formal beauty alone, which fits them for the service of poetry. And they acquire in that service a “literary" value, which is subtly blended with their “sound" value and logical “meaning" value. They connote so much! They suggest more than they actually say. They unite the individual mood of the moment with the soul of mankind.
And there is still another mode of union between the individual and the race, which we must attempt in the next chapter to regard more closely, but which should be mentioned here in connection with the permanent embodiment of feeling in words,–namely, the mysterious fact of rhythm. Single words are born and die, we learn them and forget them, they alter their meanings, they always say less than we really intend, they are imperfect instruments for signaling from one brain to another. Yet these crumbling particles of speech may be miraculously held together and built into a tune, and with the tune comes another element of law, order, permanence. The instinct for the drumbeat lies deep down in our bodies; it affects our mental life, the organization of our emotions, and our response to the rhythmical arrangement of words. For mere ideas and words are not poetry, but only part of the material for poetry. A poem does not come into full being until the words begin to dance.