A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
Part II: The Lyric in Particular
“O hearken, love, the battle-horn! The triumph clear, the silver scorn! O hearken where the echoes bring. Down the grey disastrous morn, Laughter and rallying!" WILLIAM VAUGHN MOODY
THE FIELD OF LYRIC POETRY
“’Lyrical,’ it may be said, implies a form of musical utterance in words governed by overmastering emotion and set free by a powerfully concordant rhythm." ERNEST RHYS, Lyric Poetry That “confusion of the genres” which characterizes so much of contemporary art has not obliterated the ancient division of poetry into three chief types, namely, lyric, epic and dramatic. We still mean by these words very much what the Greeks meant: a “lyric” is something sung, an “epic” tells a story, a “drama” sets characters in action. Corresponding to these general purposes of the three kinds of poetry, is the difference which Watts-Dunton has discussed so suggestively: namely, that in the lyric the author reveals himself fully, while in the “epic” or narrative poem the author himself is but partly revealed, and in the drama the author is hidden behind his characters. Or, putting this difference in another way, the same critic points out that the true dramatists possess “absolute" vision, i.e. unconditioned by the personal impulses of the poet himself, whereas the vision of the lyrist is “relative,” conditioned by his own situation and mood. The pure lyrist, says Watts-Dunton, has one voice and sings one tune; the epic poets and quasi-dramatists have one voice but can sing several tunes, while the true dramatists, with their objective, “absolute” vision of the world, have many tongues and can sing in all tunes.
1. A Rough Classification Passing over the question of the historical origins of those various species of poetry, such as the relation of early hymnic songs and hero-songs to the epic, and the relation of narrative material and method to the drama, let us try to arrange in some sort of order the kinds of poetry with which we are familiar. Suppose we follow Watts-Dunton’s hint, and start, as if it were from a central point, with the Pure Lyric, the expression of the Ego in song. Shelley’s “Stanzas Written in Dejection near Naples,” Coleridge’s “Ode to Dejection,” Wordsworth’s “She dwelt among the untrodden ways,” Tennyson’s “Break–Break” will serve for illustrations. These are subjective, personal poems. Their vision is “relative” to the poet’s actual circumstances. Yet in a “dramatic lyric” like Byron’s “Isles of Greece” or Tennyson’s “Sir Galahad” it is clear that the poet’s vision is not occupied primarily with himself, but with another person. In a dramatic monologue like Tennyson’s “Simeon Stylites” or Browning’s “The Bishop orders his Tomb in St. Praxed’s Church” it is not Tennyson and Browning themselves who are talking, but imaginary persons viewed objectively, as far as Tennyson and Browning were capable of such objectivity. The next step would be the Drama, preoccupied with characters in action–the “world of men,” in short, and not the personal subjective world of the highly sensitized lyric poet.
Let us now move away from that pure lyric centre in another direction. In a traditional ballad like “Sir Patrick Spens,” a modern ballad like Tennyson’s “The Revenge,” or Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” is not the poet’s vision becoming objectified, directed upon events or things outside of the circle of his own subjective emotion? In modern epic verse, like Tennyson’s “Morte d’Arthur,” Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum,” Morris’s “Sigurd the Volsung,” and certainly in the “Aeneid” and the “Song of Roland,” the poet sinks his own personality, as far as possible, in the objective narration of events. And in like manner, the poet may turn from the world of action to the world of repose, and portray Nature as enfolding and subduing the human element in his picture. In Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” Shelley’s “Autumn,” in Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper," Browning’s “Where the Mayne Glideth,” we find poets absorbed in the external scene or object and striving to paint it. It is true that the born lyrists betray themselves constantly, that they suffuse both the world of repose and the world of action with the coloring of their own unquiet spirits. They cannot keep themselves wholly out of the story they are telling or the picture they are painting; and it is for this reason that we speak of “lyrical” passages even in the great objective dramas, passages colored with the passionate personal feelings of the poet. For he cannot be wholly “absolute” even if he tries: he will invent favorite characters and make them the mouthpiece of his own fancies: he will devise favorite situations, and use them to reveal his moral judgment of men and women, and his general theory of human life.
2. Definitions While we must recognize, then, that the meaning of the word “lyrical” has been broadened so as to imply, frequently, a quality of poetry rather than a mere form of poetry, let us go back for a moment to the original significance of the word. Derived from “lyre,” it meant first a song written for musical accompaniment, say an ode of Pindar; then a poem whose form suggests this original musical accompaniment; then, more loosely, a poem which has the quality of music, and finally, purely personal poetry. [Footnote: See the definitions in John Erskine’s Elizabethan Lyric, E. B. Heed’s English Lyrical Poetry, Ernest Rhys’s Lyric Poetry, F. E. Schelling’s The English Lyric, John Drinkwater’s The Lyric, C. E. Whitmore in Pub. Mod. Lang. Ass., December, 1918.] “All songs, all poems following classical lyric forms; all short poems expressing the writer’s moods and feelings in rhythm that suggests music, are to be considered lyrics,” says Professor Reed. “The lyric is concerned with the poet, his thoughts, his emotions, his moods, and his passions.... With the lyric subjective poetry begins,” says Professor Schelling. “The characteristic of the lyric is that it is the product of the pure poetic energy unassociated with other energies,” says Mr. Drinkwater. These are typical recent definitions. Francis T. Palgrave, in the Preface to the Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics, while omitting to stress the elements of musical quality and of personal emotion, gives a working rule for anthologists which has proved highly useful. He held the term “lyrical” “to imply that each poem shall turn on a single thought, feeling or situation.” The critic Scherer also gave an admirable practical definition when he remarked that the lyric “reflects a situation or a desire.” Keats’s sonnet “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Charles Kingsley’s “Airlie Beacon” and Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” (Oxford Book of Verse, Nos. 634, 739 and 743) are suggestive illustrations of Scherer’s dictum.
3. General Characteristics But the lyric, however it may be defined, has certain general characteristics which are indubitable. The lyric “vision,” that is to say, the experience, thought, emotion which gives its peculiar quality to lyric verse, making it “simple, sensuous, passionate” beyond other species of poetry, is always marked by freshness, by egoism, and by genuineness.
To the lyric poet all must seem new; each sunrise ’herrlich wie am ersten Tag.” “Thou know’st ’tis common,” says Hamlet’s mother, speaking of his father’s death, “Why seems it so particular with thee?” But to men of the lyrical temperament everything is “particular.” Age does not alter their exquisite sense of the novelty of experience. Tennyson’s lines on “Early Spring,” written at seventy-four, Browning’s “Never the Time and the Place” written at seventy-two, Goethe’s love-lyrics written when he was eighty, have all the delicate bloom of adolescence. Sometimes this freshness seems due in part to the poet’s early place in the development of his national literature: he has had, as it were, the first chance at his particular subject. There were countless springs, of course, before a nameless poet, about 1250, wrote one of the first English lyrics for which we have a contemporary musical score:
“Sumer is icumen in, Lhude sing cuccu.”
But the words thrill the reader, even now, as he hears in fancy that cuckoo’s song,
“Breaking the silence of the seas Beyond the farthest Hebrides.”
Or, the lyric poet may have the luck to write at a period when settled, stilted forms of poetical expression are suddenly done away with. Perhaps he may have helped in the emancipation, like Wordsworth and Coleridge in the English Romantic Revival, or Victor Hugo in the France of 1830. The new sense of the poetic possibilities of language reacts upon the imaginative vision itself. Free verse, in our own time, has profited by this rejuvenation of the poetic vocabulary, by new phrases and cadences to match new moods. Sometimes an unwonted philosophical insight makes all things new to the poet who possesses it. Thus Emerson’s vision of the “Eternal Unity,” or Browning’s conception of Immortality, afford the very stuff out of which poetry may be wrought. Every new experience, in short, like falling in love, like having a child, like getting “converted," [Footnote: See William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience.] gives the lyric poet this rapturous sense of living in a world hitherto unrealized. The old truisms of the race become suddenly “particular” to him. “As for man, his days are as grass. As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.” That was first a “lyric cry” out of the depths of some fresh individual experience. It has become stale through repetition, but many a man, listening to those words read at the burial of a friend, has seemed, in his passionate sense of loss, to hear them for the first time.
Egoism is another mark of the lyric poet. “Of every poet of this class," remarks Watts-Dunton, “it may be said that his mind to him ’a kingdom is,’ and that the smaller the poet the bigger to him is that kingdom.” He celebrates himself. Contemporary lyrists have left no variety of physical sensation unnoted: they tell us precisely how they feel and look when they take their morning tub. Far from avoiding that “pathetic fallacy” which Ruskin analysed in a famous chapter, [Footnote: Modern Painters, vol. 3, chap. 12.] and which attributes to the external world qualities which belong only to the mind itself, they revel in it. “Day, like our souls, is fiercely dark,” sang Elliott, the Corn-Law Rhymer. Hamlet, it will be remembered, could be lyrical enough upon occasion, but he retained the power of distinguishing between things as they actually were and things as they appeared to him in his weakness and his melancholy. “This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!... And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
Nevertheless this lyric egoism has certain moods in which the individual identifies himself with his family or tribe:
“O Keith of Ravelstone, The sorrows of thy line!”
School and college songs are often, in reality, tribal lyrics. The choruses of Greek tragedies dealing with the guilt and punishment of a family, the Hebrew lyrics chanting, like “The Song of Deborah,” the fortunes of a great fight, often broaden their sympathies so as to include, as in “The Persians” of Aeschylus, the glory or the downfall of a race. And this sense of identification with a nation or race implies no loss, but often an amplification of the lyric impulse. Alfred Noyes’s songs about the English, D’Annunzio’s and Hugo’s splendid chants of the Latin races, Kipling’s glorification of the White Man, lose nothing of their lyric quality because of their nationalistic or racial inspiration. Read Wilfrid Blunt’s sonnet on “Gibraltar” (Oxford Book of Verse, No. 821):
“Ay, this is the famed rock which Hercules And Goth and Moor bequeath’d us. At this door England stands sentry. God! to hear the shrill Sweet treble of her fifes upon the breeze, And at the summons of the rock gun’s roar To see her red coats marching from the hill!”
Are patriotic lyrics of this militant type destined to disappear, as Tolstoy believed they ought to disappear, with the breaking-down of the barriers of nationality, or rather with the coming of
“One common wave of thought and joy, Lifting mankind again”
over the barriers of nationality? Certainly there is already a type of purely humanitarian, altruistic lyric, where the poet instinctively thinks in terms of “us men” rather than of “I myself.” It appeared long ago in that rebellious “Titanic” verse which took the side of oppressed mortals as against the unjust gods. Tennyson’s “Lotos-Eaters” is a modern echo of this defiant or despairing cry of the “ill-used race of men.” The songs of Burns reveal ever-widening circles of sympathy,–pure personal egoism, then songs of the family and of clan and of country-side, then passion for Scotland, and finally this fierce peasant affection for his own passes into the glorious
“It’s comin’ yet for a’ that, That man to man the world o’er Shall brithers be for a’ that.”
One other general characteristic of the lyric mood needs to be emphasized, namely, its genuineness. It is impossible to feign
“the lyric gush, And the wing-power, and the rush Of the air.”
Second-rate, imitative singers may indeed assume the role of genuine lyric poets, but they cannot play it without detection. It is literally true that natural lyrists like Sappho, Burns, Goethe, Heine, “sing as the bird sings.” Once endowed with the lyric temperament and the command of technique, their cry of love or longing, of grief or patriotism, is the inevitable resultant from a real situation or desire. Sometimes, like children, they do not tell us very clearly what they are crying about, but it is easy to discover whether they are, like children, “making believe.”
4. The Objects of the Lyric Vision Let us look more closely at some of the objects of the lyric vision; the sources or material, that is to say, for the lyric emotion. Goethe’s often-quoted classification is as convenient as any: the poet’s vision, he says, may be directed upon Nature, Man or God.
And first, then, upon Nature. One characteristic of lyric poetry is the clearness with which single details or isolated objects in Nature may be visualized and reproduced. The modern reflective lyric, it is true, often depends for its power upon some philosophical generalization from a single instance, like Emerson’s “Rhodora” or Wordsworth’s “Small Celandine.” It may even attempt a sort of logical or pseudo-logical deduction from given premises, like Browning’s famous
“Morning’s at seven; The hillside’s dew-pearled; The lark’s on the wing: The snail’s on the thorn; God’s in his Heaven– All’s right with the world!“
The imagination cannot be denied this right to synthesize and to interpret, and nevertheless Nature offers even to the most unphilosophical her endless profusion of objects that awaken delight. She does not insist that the lyric poet should generalize unless he pleases. Moth and snail and skylark, daisy and field-mouse and water-fowl, seized by an eye that is quick to their poetic values, their interest to men, furnish material enough for lyric feeling. The fondness of Romantic poets for isolating a single object has been matched in our day by the success of the Imagists in painting a single aspect of some phenomenon–
“Light as the shadow of the fish That falls through the pale green water–”
any aspect, in short, provided it affords the “romantic quiver,” the quick, keen sense of the beauty in things. What an art-critic said of the painter W. M. Chase applies equally well to many contemporary Imagists who use the forms of lyric verse: “He saw the world as a display of beautiful surfaces which challenged his skill. It was enough to set him painting to note the nacreous skin of a fish, or the satiny bloom of fruit, or the wind-smoothed dunes about Shinnecock, or the fine specific olive of a woman’s face.... He took objects quite at their face value, and rarely invested them with the tenderness, mystery and understanding that comes from meditation and remembered feelings.... We get in him a fine, bare vision, and must not expect therewith much contributary enrichment from mind and mood." [Footnote: The Nation, November 2, 1916.] Our point is that this “fine, bare vision” is often enough for a lyric. It has no time for epic breadth of detail, for the rich accumulation of harmonious images which marks Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum” or Keats’s “Eve of St. Agnes.”
The English Romantic poets were troubled about the incursion of scientific fact into the poet’s view of nature. The awful rainbow in heaven might be turned, they thought, through the curse of scientific knowledge, into the “dull catalogue of common things.” But Wordsworth was wiser than this. He saw that if the scientific fact were emotionalized, it could still serve as the stuff of poetry. Facts could be transformed into truths. No aspect of Tennyson’s lyricism is more interesting than his constant employment of the newest scientific knowledge of his day, for instance, in geology, chemistry and astronomy. He set his facts to music. Eugene Lee-Hamilton’s poignant sonnet about immortality is an illustration of the ease with which a lyric poet may find material in scientific fact, if appropriated and made rich by feeling. [Footnote: Quoted in chap. VIII, section 7.]
If lyric poetry shows everywhere this tendency to humanize its “bare vision” of Nature, it is also clear that the lyric, as the most highly personalized species of poetry, exhibits an infinite variety of visions of human life. Any anthology will illustrate the range of observation, the complexity of situations and desires, the constant changes in key, as the lyric attempts to interpret this or that aspect of human emotion. Take for example, the Elizabethan love-lyric. Here is a single human passion, expressing itself in the moods and lyric forms of one brief generation of our literature. Yet what variety of personal accent, what kaleidoscopic shiftings of mind and imagination, what range of lyric beauty! Or take the passion for the wider interests of Humanity, expressed in the lyrics of Schiller and Burns, running deep and turbid through Revolutionary and Romantic verse, and still coloring–perhaps now more strongly than ever–the stream of twentieth-century poetry. Here is a type of lyric emotion where self-consciousness is lost, absorbed in the wider consciousness of kinship, in the dawning recognition of the oneness of the blood and fate of all nations of the earth.
The purest type of lyric vision is indicated in the third word of Goethe’s triad. It is the vision of God. Here no physical fact intrudes or mars. Here thought, if it be complete thought, is wholly emotionalized. Such transcendent vision, as in the Hebrew lyrists and in Dante, is itself worship, and the lyric cry of the most consummate artist among English poets of the last generation is simply an echo of the ancient voices:
“Hallowed be Thy Name–Hallelujah!”
If Tennyson could not phrase anew the ineffable, it is no wonder that most hymn-writers fail. They are trying to express in conventionalized religious terminology and in “long and short metre” what can with difficulty be expressed at all, and if at all, by the unconscious art of the Psalms or by a sustained metaphor, like “Crossing the Bar” or the “Recessional.” The medieval Latin hymns clothed their transcendent themes, their passionate emotions, in the language of imperial Rome. The modern sectaries succeed best in their hymnology when they choose simple ideas, not too definite in content, and clothe them, as Whittier did, in words of tender human association, in parables of longing and of consolation.
5. The Lyric Imagination The material thus furnished by the lyric poet’s experience, thought and emotion is reshaped by an imagination working simply and spontaneously. The lyrist is born and not made, and he cannot help transforming the actual world into his own world, like Don Quixote with the windmills and the serving-women. Sometimes his imagination fastens upon a single trait or aspect of reality, and the resultant metaphor seems truer than any logic.
“Death lays his icy hand on Kings.”
“I wandered lonely as a cloud.”
Sometimes his imagination fuses various aspects of an object into a composite effect:
“A lily of a day Is fairer far in May, Although it fall and die that night; It was the plant and flower of light.”
The lyric emotion, it is true, does not always catch at imagery. It may deal directly with the fact, as in Burns’s immortal
“If we ne’er had met sae kindly, If we ne’er had loved sae blindly, Never loved, and never parted, We had ne’er been broken-hearted.”
The lyric atmosphere, heavy and clouded with passionate feeling, idealizes objects as if they were seen through the light of dawn or sunset. It is never the dry clear light of noon.
“She was a phantom of delight.”
“Thy soul was like a star, and dwelt apart, Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea, Pure as the naked heavens....”
This idealization is often not so much a magnification of the object as a simplification of it. Confusing details are stripped away. Contradictory facts are eliminated, until heart answers to heart across the welter of immaterialities.
Although the psychologists, as has been already noted, are now little inclined to distinguish between the imagination and the fancy, it remains true that the old distinction between superficial or “fanciful" resemblances, and deeper or “imaginative” likenesses, is a convenient one in lyric poetry. E. C. Stedman, in his old age, was wont to say that our younger lyrists, while tuneful and fanciful enough, had no imagination or passion, and that what was needed in America was some adult male verse. The verbal felicity and richness of fancy that characterized the Elizabethan lyric were matched by its sudden gleams of penetrative imagination, which may be, after all, only the “fancy” taking a deeper plunge. In the familiar song from The Tempest, for example, we have in the second and third lines examples of those fanciful conceits in which the age delighted, but that does not impair the purely imaginative beauty of the last three lines of the stanza,–the lines that are graven upon Shelley’s tombstone in Rome:
“Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.”
So it was that Hawthorne’s “fancy” first won a public for his stories, while it is by his imagination that he holds his place as an artist. For the deeply imaginative line of lyric verse, like the imaginative conception of novelist or dramatist, often puzzles or repels a poet’s contemporaries. Jeffrey could find no sense in Wordsworth’s superb couplet in the “Ode to Duty”:
“Thou dost preserve the stars from wrong; And the most ancient heavens, through Thee, are fresh and strong.”
And oddly enough, Emerson, the one man upon this side of the Atlantic from whom an instinctive understanding of those lines was to be expected, was as much perplexed by them as Jeffrey.
6. Lyric Expression Is it possible to formulate the laws of lyric expression? “I do not mean by expression,” said Gray, “the mere choice of words, but the whole dress, fashion, and arrangement of a thought." [Footnote: Gray’s Letters, vol. 2, p. 333. (Gosse ed.)] Taking expression, in this larger sense, as the final element in that threefold process by which poetry comes into being, and which has been discussed in an earlier chapter, we may assert that there are certain general laws of lyric form. One of them is the law of brevity. It is impossible to keep the lyric pitch for very long. The rapture turns to pain. “I need scarcely observe,” writes Poe in his essay on “The Poetic Principle,” “that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychical necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags–fails–a revulsion ensues–and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.”
In another passage, from the essay on “Hawthorne’s ’Twice-Told Tales,’" Poe emphasizes this law of brevity in connection with the law of unity of impression. It is one of the classic passages of American literary criticism:
“Were we bidden to say how the highest genius could be most advantageously employed for the best display of its own powers, we should answer, without hesitation–in the composition of a rhymed poem, not to exceed in length what might be perused in an hour. Within this limit alone can the highest order of true poetry exist. We need only here say, upon this topic, that, in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of the greatest importance. It is clear, moreover, that this unity cannot be thoroughly preserved in productions whose perusal cannot be completed at one sitting. We may continue the reading of a prose composition, from the very nature of prose itself, much longer than we can preserve, to any good purpose, in the perusal of a poem. This latter, if truly fulfilling the demands of the poetic sentiment, induces an exaltation of the soul which cannot be long sustained. All high excitements are necessarily transient. Thus a long poem is a paradox. And, without unity of impression, the deepest effects cannot be brought about. Epics were the offspring of an imperfect sense of Art, and their reign is no more. A poem too brief may produce a vivid, but never an intense or enduring impression. Without a certain continuity of effort–without a certain duration or repetition of purpose–the soul is never deeply moved.”
Gray’s analysis of the law of lyric brevity is picturesque, and too little known:
“The true lyric style, with all its flights of fancy, ornaments, and heightening of expression, and harmony of sound, is in its nature superior to every other style; which is just the cause why it could not be borne in a work of great length, no more than the eye could bear to see all this scene that we constantly gaze upon,–the verdure of the fields and woods, the azure of the sea-skies, turned into one dazzling expanse of gems. The epic, therefore, assumed a style of graver colors, and only stuck on a diamond (borrowed from her sister) here and there, where it best became her.... To pass on a sudden from the lyric glare to the epic solemnity (if I may be allowed to talk nonsense)...." [Footnote: Gray’s Letters, vol. 2, p. 304. (Gosse ed.)]
It is evident that the laws of brevity and unity cannot be disassociated. The unity of emotion which characterizes the successful lyric corresponds to the unity of action in the drama, and to the unity of effect in the short story. It is this fact which Palgrave stressed in his emphasis upon “some single thought, feeling, or situation.” The sonnets, for instance, that most nearly approach perfection are those dominated by one thought. This thought may be turned over, indeed, as the octave passes into the sextet, and may be viewed from another angle, or applied in an unexpected way. And yet the content of a sonnet, considered as a whole, must be as integral as the sonnet’s form. So must it be with any song. The various devices of rhyme, stanza and refrain help to bind into oneness of form a single emotional reflection of some situation or desire.
Watts-Dunton points out that there is also a law of simplicity of grammatical structure which the lyric disregards at its peril. Browning and Shelley, to mention no lesser names, often marred the effectiveness of their lyrics by a lack of perspicuity. If the lyric cry is not easily intelligible, the sympathy of the listener is not won. Riddle-poems have been loved by the English ever since Anglo-Saxon times, but the intellectual satisfaction of solving a puzzle may be purchased at the cost of true poetic pleasure. Let us quote Gray once more, for he had an unerring sense of the difficulty of moulding ideas into “pure, perspicuous and musical form.”
“Extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical, is one of the grand beauties of lyric poetry. This I have always aimed at, and never could attain; the necessity of rhyming is one great obstacle to it: another and perhaps a stronger is, that way you have chosen of casting down your first ideas carelessly and at large, and then clipping them here and there, and forming them at leisure; this method, after all possible pains, will leave behind it in some places a laxity, a diffuseness; the frame of a thought (otherwise well invented, well turned, and well placed) is often weakened by it. Do I talk nonsense, or do you understand me?" [Footnote: Gray’s Letters, vol. 2, p. 352. (Gosse ed.)]
Poe, whose theory of poetry comprehends only the lyric, and indeed chiefly that restricted type of lyric verse in which he himself was a master, insisted that there was a further lyric law,–the law of vagueness or indefiniteness. “I know,” he writes in his “Marginalia,” “that indefiniteness is an element of the true music–I mean of the true musical expression. Give to it any undue decision–imbue it with any very determinate tone–and you deprive it, at once, of its ethereal, its ideal, its intrinsic and essential character. You dispel its luxury of dream. You dissolve the atmosphere of the mystic upon which it floats. You exhaust it of its breath of faëry. It now becomes a tangible and easily appreciable idea–a thing of the earth, earthy.”
This reads like a defence of Poe’s own private practice, and yet many poets and critics are inclined to side with him. Edmond Holmes, for instance, goes quite as far as Poe. “The truth is that poetry, which is the expression of large, obscure and indefinable feelings, finds its appropriate material in vague words–words of large import and with many meanings and shades of meaning. Here we have an almost unfailing test for determining the poetic fitness of words, a test which every true poet unconsciously, but withal unerringly, applies. Precision, whether in the direction of what is commonplace or of what is technical, is always unpoetical." [Footnote: What is Poetry, p. 77. London and New York, 1900.] This doctrine, it will be observed, is in direct opposition to the Imagist theory of “hardness and economy of speech; the exact word,” and it also would rule out the highly technical vocabulary of camp and trail, steamship and jungle, with which Mr. Kipling has greatly delighted our generation. No one who admires the splendid vitality of “McAndrew’s Hymn" is really troubled by the slang and lingo of the engine-room.
One of the most charming passages in Stedman’s Nature and Elements of Poetry (pp. 181-85) deals with the law of Evanescence. The “flowers that fade,” the “airs that die,” “the snows of yester-year,” have in their very frailty and mortality a haunting lyric value. Don Marquis has written a poem about this exquisite appeal of the transient, calling it “The Paradox”:
“’T is evanescence that endures; The loveliness that dies the soonest has the longest life.”
But we touch here a source of lyric beauty too delicate to be analysed in prose. It is better to read “Rose Aylmer,” or to remember what Duke Orsino says in Twelfth Night:
“Enough; no more: ’T is not so sweet now as it was before.”
7. Expression and Impulse A word must be added, nevertheless, about lyric expression as related to the lyric impulse. No one pretends that there is such a thing as a set lyric pattern.
“There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, And every single one of them is right.”
No two professional golfers, for instance, take precisely the same stance. Each man’s stance is the expression, the result, of his peculiar physical organization and his muscular habits. There are as many “styles” as there are players, and yet each player strives for “style,” i.e. economy and precision and grace of muscular effort, and each will assert that the chief thing is to “keep your eye on the ball” and “follow through.” “And every single one of them is right.”
Apply this analogy to the organization of a lyric poem. Its material, as we have seen, is infinitely varied. It expresses all conceivable “states of soul.” Is it possible, therefore, to lay down any general formula for it, something corresponding to the golfer’s “keep your eye on the ball" and “follow through”? John Erskine, in his book on The Elizabethan Lyric, ventures upon this precept: “Lyric emotion, in order to express itself intelligibly, must first reproduce the cause of its existence. If the poet will go into ecstasies over a Grecian urn, to justify himself he must first show us the urn.” Admitted. Can one go farther? Mr. Erskine attempts it, in a highly suggestive analysis: “Speaking broadly, all successful lyrics have three parts. In the first the emotional stimulus is given–the object, the situation, or the thought from which the song arises. In the second part the emotion is developed to its utmost capacity, until as it begins to flag the intellectual element reasserts itself. In the third part the emotion is finally resolved into a thought, a mental resolution, or an attribute." [Footnote: The Elizabethan Lyric, p. 17.] Let the reader choose at random a dozen lyrics from the Golden Treasury, and see how far this orderly arrangement of the thought-stuff of the lyric is approximated in practice. My own impression is that the critic postulates more of an “intellectual element” than the average English song will supply. But at least here is a clear-cut statement of what one may look for in a lyric. It shows how the lyric impulse tends to mould lyric expression into certain lines of order.
Most of the narrower precepts governing lyric form follow from the general principles already discussed. The lyric vocabulary, every one admits, should not seem studied or consciously ornate, for that breaks the law of spontaneity. It may indeed be highly finished, the more highly in proportion to its brevity, but the clever word-juggling of such prestidigitators as Poe and Verlaine is perilous. Figurative language must spring only from living, figurative thought, otherwise the lyric falls into verbal conceits, frigidity, conventionality. Stanzaic law must follow emotional law, just as Kreisler’s accompanist must keep time with Kreisler. All the rich devices of rhyme and tone-color must heighten and not cloy the singing quality. But why lengthen this list of truisms? The combination of genuine lyric emotion with expertness of technical expression is in reality very rare. Goethe’s “Ueber alien Gipfeln ist Ruh" and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” are miracles of art, yet one was scribbled in a moment, and the other dreamed in an opium slumber. The lyric is the commonest, and yet, in its perfection, the rarest type of poetry; the earliest, and yet the most modern; the simplest, and yet in its laws of emotional association, perhaps the most complex; and it is all these because it expresses, more intimately than other types of verse, the personality of the poet.