A Study of Poetry
By Bliss Perry
Public Domain Books
RELATIONSHIPS AND TYPES OF THE LYRIC
’Milk-Woman. What song was it, I pray? Was it ’Come, shepherds, deck your heads’? or, ’As at noon Dulcina rested’? or, ’Phillida flouts me’? or, ’Chevy Chase’? or, ’Johnny Armstrong’? or, ’Troy Town’?" ISAAC WALTON, The Complete Angler We have already considered, at the beginning of the previous chapter, the general relationship of the three chief types of poetry. Lyric, epic and drama, i.e. song, story and play, have obviously different functions to perform. They may indeed deal with a common fund of material. A given event, say the settlement of Virginia, or the episode of Pocahontas, provides situations and emotions which may take either lyric or narrative or dramatic shape. The mental habits and technical experience of the poet, or the prevalent literary fashions of his day, may determine which general type of poetry he will employ. There were born lyrists, like Greene in the Elizabethan period, who wrote plays because the public demanded drama, and there have been natural dramatists who were compelled, in a period when the theatre fell into disrepute, to give their material a narrative form. But we must also take into account the dominant mood or quality of certain poetic minds. Many passages in narrative and dramatic verse, for instance, while fulfilling their primary function of telling a story or throwing characters into action, are colored by what we have called the lyric quality, by that passionate, personal feeling whose natural mode of expression is in song. In Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, for instance, or Victor Hugo’s Hernani, there are superb pieces of lyric declamation, in which we feel that Marlowe and Hugo themselves–not the imaginary Tamburlaine and Hernani–are chanting the desires of their own hearts. Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum,” after finishing its tragic story of the son slain by the unwitting father, closes with a lyric description of the majestic Oxus stream flowing on to the Aral sea. Objective as it all seems, this close is intensely personal, permeated with the same tender stoicism which colors Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and “A Summer Night.” The device of using a Nature picture at the end of a narrative, to heighten, by harmony or contrast, the mood induced by the story itself, was freely utilized by Tennyson in his English Idylls, such as “Audley Court,” “Edwin Morris,” “Love and Duty,” and “The Golden Year.” It adds the last touch of poignancy to Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man.” These descriptive passages, though lacking the song form, are as purely lyrical in their function as the songs in The Princess or the songs in The Winter’s Tale.
1. The Blending of Types While the scope of the present volume, as explained in the Preface, precludes any specific study of drama and epic, the reader must bear in mind that the three main types of poetry are not separated, in actual practice, by immovably hard and fast lines. Pigeonhole classifications of drama, epic and lyric types are highly convenient to the student for purposes of analysis. But the moment one reads a ballad like “Edward, Edward” (Oxford, No. 373) or “Helen of Kirconnell” (Oxford, No. 387) the pigeon-hole distinctions must be subordinated to the actual fact that these ballads are a blend of drama, story and song. The “form” is lyrical, the stuff is narrative, the mode of presentation is often that of purely dramatic dialogue.
Take a contemporary illustration of this blending of types. Mr. Vachel Lindsay has told us the origins of his striking poem “The Congo.” He was already in a “national-theme mood,” he says, when he listened to a sermon about missionaries on the Congo River. The word “Congo” began to haunt him. “It echoed with the war-drums and cannibal yells of Africa.” Then, for a list of colors for his palette, he had boyish memories of Stanley’s Darkest Africa, and of the dances of the Dahomey Amazons at the World’s Fair in Chicago. He had seen the anti-negro riots in Springfield, Illinois. He had gone through a score of negro-saloons–"barrel-houses"– on Eleventh Avenue, New York, and had “accumulated a jungle impression that remains with me yet.” Above all, there was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “I wanted to reiterate the word Congo–and the several refrains in a way that would echo stories like that. I wanted to suggest the terror, the reeking swamp-fever, the forest splendor, the black-lacquered loveliness, and above all the eternal fatality of Africa, that Conrad has written down with so sure a hand. I do not mean to say, now that I have done, that I recorded all these things in rhyme. But every time I rewrote ’The Congo’ I reached toward them. I suppose I rewrote it fifty times in these two months, sometimes three times in one day.”
It is not often that we get so veracious an account of the making of a poem, so clear a conception of the blending of sound-motives, color-motives, story-stuff, drama-stuff, personal emotion, into a single whole.
Nor is there any clear separation of types when we strive to look back to the primitive origins of these various forms of poetry. In the opinion of many scholars, the origins are to be traced to a common source in the dance. “Dances, as overwhelming evidence, ethnological and sociological, can prove, were the original stuff upon which dramatic, lyric and epic impulses wove a pattern that is traced in later narrative ballads mainly as incremental repetition. Separation of its elements, and evolution to higher forms, made the dance an independent art, with song, and then music, ancillary to the figures and the steps; song itself passed to lyric triumphs quite apart from choral voice and choral act; epic went its artistic way with nothing but rhythm as memorial of the dance, and the story instead of dramatic situation; drama retained the situation, the action, even the chorus and the dance, but submitted them to the shaping and informing power of individual genius." [Footnote: Gummere, The Popular Ballad, p. 106.] In another striking passage, Professor Gummere asks us to visualize “a throng of people without skill to read or write, without ability to project themselves into the future, or to compare themselves with the past, or even to range their experience with the experience of other communities, gathered in festal mood, and by loud song, perfect rhythm and energetic dance, expressing their feelings over an event of quite local origin, present appeal and common interest. Here, in point of evolution, is the human basis of poetry, the foundation courses of the pyramid.”
2. Lyrical Element in Drama We cannot here attempt to trace, even in outline, the course of this historic evolution of genres. But in contemporary types of both dramatic and narrative poetry, there may still be discovered the influence of lyric form and mood. We have already noted how the dramatist, for all of his supposed objectivity, cannot refrain from coloring certain persons and situations with the hues of his own fancy. Ibsen, for instance, injects his irony, his love for symbolism, his theories for the reconstruction of society, into the very blood and bone of his characters and into the structure of his plots. So it is with Shaw, with Synge, with Hauptmann, with Brieux. Even if their plays are written in prose, these men are still “makers,” and the prose play may be as highly subjective in mood, as definitely individual in phrasing, as full of atmosphere, as if it were composed in verse.
But the lyric possibilities of the drama are more easily realized if we turn from the prose play to the play in verse, and particularly to those Elizabethan dramas which are not only poetical in essence, but which utilize actual songs for their dramatic value. No less than thirty-six of Shakspere’s plays contain stage-directions for music, and his marvelous command of song-words is universally recognized. The English stage had made use of songs, in fact, ever since the liturgical drama of the Middle Ages. But Shakspere’s unrivalled knowledge of stage-craft, as well as his own instinct for harmonizing lyrical with theatrical effects, enabled him to surpass all of his contemporaries in the art of using songs to bring actors on and off the stage, to anticipate following action, to characterize personages, to heighten climaxes, and to express motions beyond the reach of spoken words. [Footnote: These points are fully discussed in J. Robert Moore’s Harvard dissertation (unpublished) on The Songs in the English Drama.] The popularity of such song-forms as the “madrigal,” which was sung without musical accompaniment, made it easy for the public stage to cater to the prevalent taste. The “children of the Chapel” or “of Paul’s,” who served as actors in the early Elizabethan dramas, were trained choristers, and songs were a part of their stock in trade. Songs for sheer entertainment, common enough upon the stage when Shakspere began to write, turned in his hands into exquisite instruments of character revelation and of dramatic passion, until they became, on the lips of an Ophelia or a Desdemona, the most touching and poignant moments of the drama. “Music within” is a frequent stage direction in the later Elizabethan plays, and if one remembers the dramatic effectiveness of the Easter music, off-stage, in Goethe’s Faust, or the horn in Hernani, one can understand how Wagner came to believe that a blending of music with poetry and action, as exhibited in his “music-dramas,” was demanded by the ideal requirements of dramatic art. Wagner’s theory and practice need not be rehearsed here. It is sufficient for our purpose to recall the indisputable fact that in some of the greatest plays ever written, lyric forms have contributed richly and directly to the total dramatic effect.
3. The Dramatic Monologue There is still another genre of poetry, however, where the inter-relations of drama, of narrative, and of lyric mood are peculiarly interesting. It is the dramatic monologue. The range of expressiveness allowed by this type of poetry was adequately shown by Browning and Tennyson, and recent poets like Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost and Amy Lowell have employed it with consummate skill. The dramatic monologue is a dynamic revelation of a soul in action, not a mere static bit of character study. It chooses some representative and specific occasion,–let us say a man’s death-bed view of his career, as in “The Bishop orders his Tomb” or the first “Northern Farmer.” It is something more than a soliloquy overheard. There is a listener, who, though without a speaking part, plays a very real role in the dialogue. For the dramatic monologue is in essence a dialogue of which we hear only the chief speaker’s part, as in “My Last Duchess,” or in E. A. Robinson’s “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford.” It is as if we were watching and listening to a man telephoning. Though we see and hear but one person, we are aware that the talk is shaped to a certain extent by the personality at the other end of the line. In Tennyson’s “Rizpah,” for example, the characteristics of the well-meaning, Bible-quoting parish visitor determine some of the finest lines in the old mother’s response. In Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” the painter’s wife, Lucrezia, says never a word, but she has a more intense physical presence in that poem than many of the dramatis personae of famous plays. Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and “Sir Galahad” and “The Voyage of Maeldune” are splendid soliloquies and nothing more. The first “Locksley Hall” is likewise a soliloquy, but in the second “Locksley Hall” and “To-Morrow,” where scraps of talk from the unseen interlocutor are caught up and repeated by the speaker in passionate rebuttal, we have true drama of the “confrontation" type. We see a whole soul in action.
Now this intense, dynamic fashion of revealing character through narrative talk–and it is commonly a whole life-story which is condensed within the few lines of a dramatic monologue–touches lyricism at two points. The first is the fact that many dramatic monologues use distinctively lyric measures. The six-stress anapestic line which Tennyson preferred for his later dramatic monologues like “Rizpah” is really a ballad measure, and is seen as such to its best advantage in “The Revenge.” But in his monologues of the pure soliloquy type, like “St. Agnes” and “Sir Galahad,” the metre is brilliantly lyrical, and the lyric associations of the verse are carried over into the mood of the poem. And the other fact to be remembered is that the poignant self-analysis and self-betrayal of the dramatic monologue, its “egoism” and its ultimate and appalling sincerities, are a part of the very nature of the lyric impulse. These revealers of their souls may use the speaking, rather than the singing voice, but their tones have the deep, rich lyric intimacy.
4. Lyric and Narrative In narrative poetry, no less than in drama, we must note the intrusion of the lyric mood, as well as the influence of lyric forms. Theoretically, narrative or “epic” poetry is based upon an objective experience. Something has happened, and the poet tells us about it. He has heard or read, or possibly taken part in, an event, and the event, rather than the poet’s thought or feeling about it, is the core of the poem. But as soon as he begins to tell his tale, we find that he is apt to “set it out” with vivid description. He is obliged to paint a picture as well as to spin a yarn, and not even Homer and Virgil–"objective” as they are supposed to be–-can draw a picture without betraying something of their attitude and feeling towards their material. Like the messenger in Greek drama, their voices are shaken by what they have seen or heard. In the popular epic like the Nibelungen story, there is more objectivity than in the epic of art like Jerusalem Delivered or Paradise Lost. We do not know who put together in their present form such traditional tales as the Lay of the Nibelungs and Beowulf, and the personal element in the narrative is only obscurely felt, whereas Jerusalem Delivered is a constant revelation of Tasso, and the personality of Milton colors every line in Paradise Lost. When Matthew Arnold tells us that Homer is rapid, plain, simple and noble, he is depicting the characteristics of a poet as well as the impression made by the Iliad and the Odyssey. Those general traits of epic poetry which have been discussed ever since the Renaissance, like “breadth,” and “unity” and the sustained “grand" style, turn ultimately upon the natural qualities of great story-tellers. They are not mere rhetorical abstractions.
The narrative poet sees man as accomplishing a deed, as a factor in an event. His primary business is to report action, not to philosophize or to dissect character or to paint landscape. Yet so sensitive is he to the environing circumstances of action, and so bent upon displaying the varieties of human motive and conduct, that he cannot help reflecting in his verse his own mental attitude toward the situations which he depicts. He may surround these situations, as we have seen, with all the beauties and pomps and terrors of the visible world. In relating “God’s ways to man” he instinctively justifies or condemns. He cannot even tell a story exactly as it was told to him: he must alter it, be it ever so slightly, to make it fit his general conceptions of human nature and human fate. He gives credence to one witness and not to another. His imagination plays around the noble and base elements in his story until their original proportions are altered to suit his mind and purpose. Study the Tristram story, as told by Gottfried of Strassburg, by Malory, Tennyson, Arnold, Swinburne and Wagner, and you will see how each teller betrays his own personality through these instinctive processes of transformation of his material. It is like the Roman murder story told so many times over in Browning’s Ring and the Book: the main facts are conceded by each witness, and yet the inferences from the facts range from Heaven to Hell.
Browning is of course an extreme instance of this irruption of the poet’s personality upon the stuff of his story. He cannot help lyricising and dramatizing his narrative material, any more than he can help making all his characters talk “Browningese.” But Byron’s tales in verse show the same subjective tendency. He was so little of a dramatist that all of his heroes, like Poe’s, are images of himself. No matter what the raw material of his narrative poems may be, they become uniformly “Byronic” as he writes them down. And all this is “lyricism,” however disguised. William Morris, almost alone among modern English poets, seemed to stand gravely aloof from the tales he told, as his master Chaucer stood smilingly aloof. Yet the “tone” of Chaucer is perceived somehow upon every page, in spite of his objectivity.
The whole history of medieval verse Romances, indeed, illustrates this lyrical tendency to rehandle inherited material. Tales of love, of enchantment, of adventure, could not be held down to prosaic fact. Whether they dealt with “matter of France,” or “matter of Brittany,” whether a brief “lai” or a complicated cycle of stories like those about Charlemagne or King Arthur, whether a merry “fabliau” or a beast-tale like “Reynard the Fox,” all the Romances allow to the author a margin of mystery, an opportunity to weave his own web of brightly colored fancies. A specific event or legend was there, of course, as a nucleus for the story, but the sense of wonder, of strangeness in things, of individual delight in brocading new patterns upon old material, dominated over the sense of fact. “Time,” said Shelley, “which destroys the beauty and the use of the story of particular facts, stripped of the poetry which should invest them, augments that of poetry, and forever develops new and wonderful applications of the eternal truth which it contains.... A story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”
And in modern narrative verse, surely, the line between “epic” quality and “lyric” quality is difficult to draw. Choose almost at random a half-dozen story-telling poems from the Oxford Book of English Verse, say “The Ancient Mariner,” “The Burial of Sir John Moore,” “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” “Porphyria’s Lover,” “The Forsaken Merman,” “He Fell among Thieves.” Each of these poems narrates an event, but what purely lyric quality is there which cannot be found in “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and “The Ancient Mariner”? And does not each of the other poems release and excite the lyric mood?
We must admit, furthermore, that narrative measures and lyric measures are frequently identical, and help to carry over into a story a singing quality. Ballad measures are an obvious example. Walter Scott’s facile couplets were equally effective for story and for song. Many minor species of narrative poetry, like verse satire and allegory, are often composed in traditional lyric patterns. Even blank verse, admirably suited as it is for story-telling purposes, yields in its varieties of cadence many a bar of music long associated with lyric emotion. Certainly the blank verse of Wordsworth’s “Michael” is far different in its musical values from the blank verse, say, of Tennyson’s Princess–perhaps truly as different as the metre of Sigurd the Volsung is from that of The Rape of the Lock. The perfect matching of metrical form to the nature of the narrative material, whether that material be traditional or firsthand, simple or complex, rude or delicate, demands the finest artistic instinct. Yet it appears certain that many narrative measures affect us fully as much through their intimate association with the moods of song as through their specific adaptiveness to the purposes of narrative.
5. The Ballad The supreme illustration of this blending of story and song is the ballad. The word “ballad,” like “ode” and “sonnet,” is very ancient and has been used in various senses. We think of it to-day as a song that tells a story, usually of popular origin. Derived etymologically from ballare, to dance, it means first of all, a “dance-song,” and is the same word as “ballet.” Solomon’s “Song of Songs” is called in the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 “The Ballet of Ballets of King Solomon.” But in Chaucer’s time a “ballad” meant primarily a French form of lyric verse,–not a narrative lyric specifically. In the Elizabethan period the word was used loosely for “song.” Only after the revival of interest in English and Scottish popular ballads in the eighteenth century has the word come gradually to imply a special type of story-telling song, with no traces of individual authorship, and handed down by oral tradition. Scholars differ as to the precise part taken by the singing, dancing crowd in the composition and perpetuation of these traditional ballads. Professor Child, the greatest authority upon English and Scottish balladry, and Professors Gummere, Kittredge and W. M. Hart have emphasized the element of “communal” composition, and illustrated it by many types of song-improvisation among savage races, by sailors’ “chanties,” and negro “work-songs.” It is easy to understand how a singing, dancing crowd carries a refrain, and improvises, through some quick-tongued individual, a new phrase, line or stanza of immediate popular effect; and it is also easy to perceive, by a study of extant versions of various ballads, such as Child printed in glorious abundance, to see how phrases, lines and stanzas get altered as they are passed from lip to lip of unlettered people during the course of centuries. But the actual historical relationship of communal dance-songs to such narrative lyrics as were collected by Bishop Percy, Ritson and Child is still under debate. [Footnote: See Louise Pound, “The Ballad and the Dance,” Pub. Mod. Lang. Ass., vol. 34, No. 3 (September, 1919), and Andrew Lang’s article on “Ballads” in Chambers’ Cyclopedia of Eng. Lit., ed. of 1902.]
“All poetry,” said Professor Gummere in reply to a critic of his theory of communal composition of ballads, “springs from the same poetic impulse, and is due to individuals; but the conditions under which it is made, whether originally composed in a singing, dancing throng and submitted to oral tradition, or set down on paper by the solitary and deliberate poet, have given birth to that distinction of ’popular’ and ’artistic,’ or whatever the terms may be, which has obtained in some form with nearly all writers on poetry since Aristotle.” Avoiding questions that are still in controversy, let us look at some of the indubitable characteristics of the “popular” ballads as they are shown in Child’s collection. [Footnote: Now reprinted in a single volume of the “Cambridge Poets" (Houghton Mifflin Company), edited with an introduction by G. L. Kittredge.] They are impersonal. There is no trace whatever of individual authorship. “This song was made by Billy Gashade,” asserts the author of the immensely popular American ballad of “Jesse James.” But we do not know what “Billy Gashade” it was who first made rhymes about Robin Hood or Johnny Armstrong, or just how much help he had from the crowd in composing them. In any case, the method of such ballads is purely objective. They do not moralize or sentimentalize. There is little description, aside from the use of set, conventional phrases. They do not “motivate” the story carefully, or move logically from event to event. Rather do they “flash the story at you” by fragments, and then leave you in the dark. They leap over apparently essential points of exposition and plot structure; they omit to assign dialogue to a specific person, leaving you to guess who is talking. Over certain bits of action or situation they linger as if they hated to leave that part of the story. They make shameless use of “commonplaces,” that is, stock phrases, lines or stanzas which are conveniently held by the memory and which may appear in dozens of different ballads. They are not afraid of repetition,–indeed the theory of choral collaboration implies a constant use of repetition and refrain, as in a sailor’s “chanty.” One of their chief ways of building a situation or advancing a narrative is through “incremental repetition,” as Gummere termed it, i.e. the successive additions of some new bits of fact as the bits already familiar are repeated.
“’Christine, Christine, tread a measure for me! A silken sark I will give to thee.’
“’A silken sark I can get me here, But I’ll not dance with the Prince this year.’
“’Christine, Christine, tread a measure for me, Silver-clasped shoes I will give to thee!’
“’Silver-clasped shoes,’” etc.
American cowboy ballads show the same device:
“I started up the trail October twenty-third, I started up the trail with the 2-U herd.”
Strikingly as the ballads differ from consciously “artistic” narrative in their broken movement and allusive method, the contrast is even more different if we consider the naive quality of their refrains. Sometimes the refrain is only a sort of musical accompaniment:
“There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell, (Chorus of Whistlers) There was an old farmer in Sussex did dwell And he had a bad wife, as many knew well. (Chorus of Whistlers)”
“The auld Deil cam to the man at the pleugh, Rumchy ae de aidie.”
Sometimes the words of the choral refrain have a vaguely suggestive meaning:
“There were three ladies lived in a bower, Eh vow bonnie And they went out to pull a flower, On the bonnie banks of Fordie.”
Sometimes the place-name, illustrated in the last line quoted, is definite:
“There was twa sisters in a bower, Edinburgh, Edinburgh, There was twa sisters in a bower, Stirling for aye There was twa sisters in a bower, There came a knight to be their wooer, Bonny Saint Johnston stands upon Tay.”
But often it is sheer faëry-land magic:
“He’s ta’en three locks o’ her yellow hair, Binnorie, O Binnorie! And wi’ them strung his harp sae rare By the bonnie milldams o’ Binnorie." (Oxford, No.376.)
It is through the choral refrains, in fact, that the student of lyric poetry is chiefly fascinated as he reads the ballads. Students of epic and drama find them peculiarly suggestive in their handling of narrative and dramatic material, while to students of folklore and of primitive society they are inexhaustible treasures. The mingling of dance-motives and song-motives with the pure story-element may long remain obscure, but the popular ballad reinforces, perhaps more persuasively than any type of poetry, the conviction that the lyrical impulse is universal and inevitable. As Andrew Lang, scholar and lover of balladry, wrote long ago: “Ballads sprang from the very heart of the people and flit from age to age, from lip to lip of shepherds, peasants, nurses, of all the class that continues nearest to the state of natural man. The whole soul of the peasant class breathes in their burdens, as the great sea resounds in the shells cast up on the shores. Ballads are a voice from secret places, from silent peoples and old times long dead; and as such they stir us in a strangely intimate fashion to which artistic verse can never attain." [Footnote: Encyclopaedia Brittanica, article “Ballads."]
6. The Ode If the ballad is thus an example of “popular” lyricism, with a narrative intention, an example of “artistic” lyricism is found in the Ode. Here there is no question of communal origins or of communal influence upon structure. The ode is a product of a single artist, working not naively, but consciously, and employing a highly developed technique. Derived from the Greek verb meaning “to sing,” the word “ode” has not changed its meaning since the days of Pindar, except that, as in the case of the word “lyric” itself, we have gradually come to grow unmindful of the original musical accompaniment of the song. Edmund Gosse, in his collection of English Odes, defines the ode as “any strain of enthusiastic and exalted lyrical verse directed to a fixed purpose and dealing progressively with one dignified theme.” Spenser’s “Epithalamium” or marriage ode, Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality,” Tennyson’s elegiac and encomiastic “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington,” Lowell’s “Harvard Commemoration Ode,” are among the most familiar examples of the general type.
English poetry has constantly employed, however, both of the two metrical species of odes recognized by the ancients. The first, made up of uniform stanzas, was called “Aeolian” or “Horatian,"–since Horace imitated the simple, regular strophes of his Greek models. The other species of ode, the “Dorian,” is more complex, and is associated with the triumphal odes of Pindar. It utilizes groups of voices, and its divisions into so-called “strophe,” “antistrophe” and “epode” (sometimes called fancifully “wave," “answering wave” and “echo”) were determined by the movements of the groups of singers upon the Greek stage, the “singers moving to one side during the strophe, retracing their steps during the antistrophe (which was for that reason metrically identical with the strophe), and standing still during the epode." [Footnote: See Bronson’s edition of the poems of Collins. Athenaeum Press.]
It must be observed, however, that the English odes written in strictly uniform stanzas differ greatly in the simplicity of the stanzaic pattern. Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland," Collins’s “Ode to Evening,” Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” and Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty” are all in very simple stanza forms. But Collins’s “Ode on the Superstitions of the Highlands,” Shelley’s “Ode to Liberty” and Coleridge’s “Ode to France” follow very complicated patterns, though all the stanzas are alike. The English “Horatian” ode, then, while exhibiting the greatest differences in complexity of stanzaic forms, is “homostrophic.”
To understand the “Pindaric” English ode, we must remember that a few scholars, like Ben Jonson, Congreve and Gray, took peculiar pleasure in reproducing the general effect of the Greek strophic arrangement of “turn,” “counterturn” and “pause.” Ben Jonson’s “Ode to Sir Lucius Cary and Sir H. Morison” (Oxford, No. 194) has been thought to be the first strictly Pindaric ode in English, and Gray’s “Bard” and “Progress of Poesy” (Oxford, Nos. 454, 455) are still more familiar examples of this type. But the great popularity of the so-called “Pindaric” ode in English in the seventeenth century was due to Cowley, and to one of those periodic loyalties to lawlessness which are characteristic of the English. For Cowley, failing to perceive that Pindar’s apparent lawlessness was due to the corruption of the Greek text and to the modern ignorance of the rules of Greek choral music, made his English “Pindaric” odes an outlet for rebellion against all stanzaic law. The finer the poetic frenzy, the freer the lyric pattern! But, alas, rhetoric soon triumphed over imagination, and in the absence of metrical restraint the ode grew declamatory, bombastic, and lowest stage of all, “official,” the last refuge of laureates who felt obliged to produce something sonorous in honor of a royal birthday or wedding. This official ode persisted long after the pseudo-Pindaric flag was lowered and Cowley had become neglected.
With the revival of Romantic imagination, however, came a new interest in the “irregular” ode, whose strophic arrangement ebbs and flows without apparent restraint, subject only to what Watts-Dunton termed “emotional law.” Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality” moves in obedience to its own rhythmic impulses only, like Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan" and Emerson’s “Bacchus.” Metrical variety can nowhere be shown more freely and gloriously than in the irregular ode: there may be any number of lines in each strophe, and often the strophe itself becomes dissolved into something corresponding to the “movement” of a symphony. Masterpieces like William Vaughn Moody’s “Ode in Time of Hesitation” and Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven” reveal of course a firm intellectual grasp upon the underlying theme of the ode and upon the logical processes of its development. But although we may follow with keen intellectual delight these large, free handlings of a lyrical theme, there are few readers of poetry whose susceptibility to complicated combinations of rhyme-sound allows them to perceive the full verbal beauty of the great irregular odes. Even in such regular strophes as those of Keats’s “Grecian Urn,” who remembers that the rhyme scheme of the first stanza is unlike that of the following stanzas? Or that the second stanza of the “Ode to a Nightingale” runs on four sounds instead of five? Let the reader test his ear by reading aloud the intricate sound-patterns employed in such elegies as Arnold’s “Scholar Gypsy” (Oxford, No. 751) or Swinburne’s “Ave atque Vale” (Oxford, No. 810), and then let him go back to “Lycidas" (Oxford, No. 317), the final test of one’s responsiveness to the blending of the intellectual and the sensuous elements in poetic beauty. If he is honest with himself, he will probably confess that neither his ear nor his mind can keep full pace with the swift and subtle demands made upon both by the masters of sustained lyric energy. But he will also become freshly aware that the ode is a supreme example of that union of excitement with a sense of order, of liberty with law, which gives Verse its immortality.
7. The Sonnet The sonnet, likewise, is a lyric form which illustrates the delicate balance between freedom and restraint. Let us look first at its structure, and then at its capacity for expressing thought and feeling.
Both name and structure are Italian in origin, “sonetto” being the diminutive of “suono,” sound. Dante and Petrarch knew it as a special lyric form intended for musical accompaniment. It must have fourteen lines, neither more nor less, with five beats or “stresses” to the line. Each line must end with a rhyme. In the arrangement of the rhymes the sonnet is made up of two parts, or rhyme-systems: the first eight lines forming the “octave,” and the last six the “sestet.” The octave is made up of two quatrains and the sestet of two tercets. There is a main pause in passing from the octave to the sestet, and frequently there are minor pauses in passing from the first quatrain to the second, and from the first tercet to the last.
Almost all of Petrarch’s sonnets follow this rhyme-scheme: for the octave, a b b a a b b a; for the sestet, either c d e c d e or c d c d c d. This strict “Petrarchan” form has endured for six centuries. It has been adopted by poets of every race and language, and it is used to-day as widely or more widely than ever. While individual poets have constantly experimented with different rhyme-schemes, particularly in the sestet, the only really notable invention of a new sonnet form was made by the Elizabethans. Puttenham’s Arte of English Poesie (1589) declares that “Sir Thomas Wyatt the elder and Henry Earl of Surrey, having travelled into Italy and there tasted the sweet and stately measures and style of the Italian poesie,... greatly polished our rude and homely manner of vulgar poesie.... Their conceits were lofty, their style stately, their conveyance cleanly, their terms proper, their metre sweet and well-proportioned, in all imitating very naturally and studiously their Master Francis Petrarch.”
This is charming, but as a matter of fact both Wyatt and Surrey, with natural English independence, broke away from the strict Petrarchan rhyme form. Wyatt liked a final couplet, and Surrey used a rhyme-scheme which was later adopted by Shakspere and is known to-day as the “Shaksperean" form of sonnet: namely, three quatrains made up of alternate rhymes–a separate rhyme-scheme for each quatrain–and a closing couplet. The rhymes consequently run thus: a b a b c d c d e f e f g g. To the Petrarchan purist this is clearly no sonnet at all, in spite of its fourteen five-beat, rhyming lines. For the distinction between octave and sestet has disappeared, there is a threefold division of the first twelve lines, and the final couplet gives an epigrammatic summary or “point” which Petrarch took pains to avoid.
The difference will be still more clearly manifest if we turn from a comparison of rhyme-structure to the ordering of the thought in the Petrarchan sonnet. Mark Pattison, a stout “Petrarchan,” lays down these rules in the Preface to his edition of Milton’s Sonnets: [Footnote: D. Appleton & Co., New York, 1883.]
“a. A sonnet, like every other work of art, must have its unity. It must be the expression of one, and only one, thought or feeling.
“b. This thought or mood should be led up to, and opened in the early lines of the sonnet; strictly, in the first quatrain; in the second quatrain the hearer should be placed in full possession of it.
“c. After the second quatrain there should be a pause, not full, nor producing the effect of a break, as of one who had finished what he had got to say, and not preparing a transition to a new subject, but as of one who is turning over what has been said in the mind to enforce it further.
“d. The opening of the second system, strictly the first tercet, should turn back upon the thought or sentiment, take it up and carry it forward to the conclusion.
“e. The conclusion should be a resultant, summing the total of the suggestion in the preceding lines, as a lakelet in the hills gathers into a still pool the running waters contributed by its narrow area of gradients.
“f. While the conclusion should leave a sense of finish and completeness, it is necessary to avoid anything like epigrammatic point. By this the sonnet is distinguished from the epigram. In the epigram the conclusion is everything; all that goes before it is only there for the sake of the surprise of the end, or dénouement, as in a logical syllogism the premisses are nothing but as they necessitate the conclusion. In the sonnet the emphasis is nearly, but not quite, equally distributed, there being a slight swell, or rise, about its middle. The sonnet must not advance by progressive climax, or end abruptly; it should subside, and leave off quietly.”
Miss Lockwood, in the Introduction to her admirable collection of English sonnets, [Footnote: Sonnets, English and American, selected by Laura E. Lockwood. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916.] makes a still briefer summary of the thought-scheme of the regular Italian sonnet: it “should have a clear and unified theme, stated in the first quatrain, developed or proved in the second, confirmed or regarded from a new point of view in the first tercet, and concluded in the second tercet. It had thus four parts, divided unevenly into two separate systems, eight lines being devoted to placing the thought before the mind, and six to deducing the conclusion from that thought.”
A surprisingly large number of sonnets are built upon simple formulas like “As"–for the octave–and “So"–for the sestet–(see Andrew Lang’s “The Odyssey,” Oxford, No. 841); or “When” and “Then” (see Keats’s “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” Oxford, No. 635). A situation plus a thought gives a mood; or a mood plus an event gives a mental resolve, etc. The possible combinations are infinite, but the law of logical relation between octave and sestet, premise and conclusion, is immutable.
Let the reader now test these laws of sonnet form and thought by reading aloud one of the most familiarly known of all English sonnets–Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:
“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold, And many goodly states and kingdoms seen; Round many western islands have I been Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold. Oft of one wide expanse had I been told That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne; Yet did I never breathe its pure serene Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He stared at the Pacific–and all his men Look’d at each other with a wild surmise– Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”
Read next another strictly Petrarchan sonnet, where the thought divisions of quatrains and tercets are marked with exceptional clearness, Eugene Lee-Hamilton’s disillusioned “Sea-Shell Murmurs”:
“The hollow sea-shell that for years hath stood On dusty shelves, when held against the ear Proclaims its stormy parent; and we hear The faint far murmur of the breaking flood.
“We hear the sea. The sea? It is the blood In our own veins, impetuous and near, And pulses keeping pace with hope and fear And with our feelings’ every shifting mood.
“Lo, in my heart I hear, as in a shell, The murmur of a world beyond the grave, Distinct, distinct, though faint and far it be.
“Thou fool; this echo is a cheat as well,– The hum of earthly instincts; and we crave A world unreal as the shell-heard sea.”
And now read aloud one of the best-known of Shakspere’s sonnets, where he follows his favorite device of a threefold statement of his central thought, using a different image in each quatrain, and closing with a personal application of the idea:
“That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west; Which by and by black night doth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by. This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Where there is beauty such as this, it is an impertinence to insist that Shakspere has not conformed to the special type of beauty represented in the Petrarchan sonnet. He chose not to conform. He won with other tactics. If the reader will analyse the form and thought of the eighty sonnets in the Oxford Book, or the two hundred collected by Miss Lockwood, he will feel the charm of occasional irregularity in the handling of both the Petrarchan and the Shaksperean sonnet. But he is more likely, I think, to become increasingly aware that whatever restraints are involved in adherence to typical forms are fully compensated by the rich verbal beauty demanded by the traditional arrangement of rhymes.
For the sonnet, an intricately wrought model of the reflective lyric, requires a peculiarly intimate union of thinking and singing. It may be, as it often was in the Elizabethan period, too full of thought to allow free-winged song, and it may also be too full of uncontrolled, unbalanced emotion to preserve fit unity of thought. Conversely, there may not be enough thought and emotion to fill the fourteen lines: the idea not being of “sonnet size.” The difficult question as to whether there is such a thing as an “average-sized” thought and lyrical reflection upon it has been touched upon in an earlier chapter. The limit of a sentence, says Mark Pattison, “is given by the average capacity of human apprehension.... The limit of a sonnet is imposed by the average duration of an emotional mood.... May we go so far as to say that fourteen lines is the average number which a thought requires for its adequate embodiment before attention must collapse?”
The proper distribution of thought and emotion, that is, the balance of the different parts of a sonnet, is also a very delicate affair. It is like trimming a sailboat. Wordsworth defended Milton’s frequent practice of letting the thought of the octave overflow somewhat into the sestet, believing it “to aid in giving that pervading sense of intense unity in which the excellence of the sonnet has always seemed to me mainly to consist.” Most lovers of the sonnet would differ here with these masters of the art. Whether the weight of thought and feeling can properly be shifted to a final couplet is another debatable question, and critics will always differ as to the artistic value of the “big” line or “big” word which marks the culmination of emotion in many a sonnet. The strange or violent or sonorous word, however splendid in itself, may not fit the curve of the sonnet in which it appears: it may be like a big red apple crowded into the toe of a Christmas stocking.
Nor must the sonnet lean towards either obscurity–the vice of Elizabethan sonnets, or obviousness–the vice of Wordsworth’s sonnets after 1820. The obscure sonnet, while it may tempt the reader’s intellectual ingenuity, affords no basis for his emotion, and the obvious sonnet provides no stimulus for his thought. Conventionality of subject and treatment, like the endless imitation of Italian and French sonnet-motives and sonnet-sequences, sins against the law of lyric sincerity. In no lyric form does mechanism so easily obtrude itself. A sonnet is either, like Marlowe’s raptures, “all air and fire,” or else it is a wooden toy.