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De Se*lincourt, Ernest
The study of poetry
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LIBRARY of the
UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO
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THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION
Pamphlet No. 40
The Study of Poetry
E. de Selincourt, D.Litt.
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THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION
Pamphlet No. 40
The Study of Poetry
E. de Selincourt, D.Litt.
Printed by Frederick Hall^ at the University Press
THE STUDY OF POETRY 1
I MI t.i\ my lecture with an apology for the subject which I have
chosen. There is nothing new to be said about it, and if there
were, it is not likely that I should have discovered it. Yet what
has often been well said may be worth saying once more. If I may
trust my own feelings, we do not always desire to hear some new
thing. And to-day we have most of us less inclination to break
fresh ground than to fall back upon the tried and the familiar,
testing old truths in the light of our present experience. In this
mood we are somewhat impatient of the oversubtle or the para-
doxical. ' Paradox 1 , said Landor, ' bears the appearance of originality,
but it is usually the talent of the superficial, the perverse and the
obstinate.' He might have added that it is often the refuge of the
intellectual coward. For it is the first duty of the critic to state
his conviction as clearly and simply as he can, even at the risk of
uttering what his hearers may dismiss as commonplace. In our
fear of platitude we sometimes miss the truth. What we despise
as platitude is often merely truth without its vitality, whereas the
paradox is generally mere vitality without either truth or the desire
for it. Conviction, if it be at once intelligent and sincere, may do
as much as originality to quicken into an active principle a half-
forgotten though oft- repeated faith.
My excuse, then, in treating so well-worn a subject this evening
lies simply in my belief that the study of poetry, always important,
is supremely important for us to-day. Never was our need deeper
for a deliverance from the pressure of actuality. ' Against this rage
of sad mortality ' we do well ' to hold a plea for beauty ', even
though 'its action is no stronger than a flower', and our surest
comfort lies in realizing to the full our great alliance with ' exulta-
tions, agonies, And Love, and Man's unconquerable mind '.
In this, poetry is our chief strength ; and such of you as have
had occasion to test the value of poetry as something more vital
than an elegant taste or accomplishment will not blame me for
attempting, however imperfectly, to vindicate its appeal and to
justify its claims to serious study.
1 A lecture given to members of the Association at King's College, London
November 16, 1917.
4 THE STUDY OF POETRY
Poetry, I suppose, is simply an effort to express or to suggest
the ideal ; it is the struggle of a finite being, conscious of his finite
nature, to apprehend, by means of reasonable emotion, something
of that perfection which he can never grasp by means of reason
untouched by emotion. Man's reason alone, though it is continually
enlarging the boundaries of his empire, can never satisfy his insatiable
zest for expansion ; but imagination forestalls the tardier advance
of his intellect, and grants him entry into regions which his intellect
slowly consolidates and absorbs into its dominion. Poetry is thus
the expression of a divine discontent. It is divine, because its
impulse is essentially creative, and because, if the creation in the
least answers to the artist's conception, it repeats in him the joy
of the Creator who looked upon His work and saw that it was good ;
nor is there any real contradiction in the phrase ' divine discontent ',
for though the first Creator saw that His work was good, He did not
deem it perfect, but left room in it for continual development.
Poetry presupposes an ideal existence outside actual human ex-
perience, to which human experience is essentially related, in much
the same manner as science has its ideal in what are called laws
of nature and presupposes an intelligible world which is, as yet,
but partially known to us ; and just as each fresh scientific discovery
has its value, not only as adding to our knowledge of the world,
but also as lending support to our presuppositions, or as correcting
them, so each poem is, as it were, a fresh revelation of the relation
of human experience to the ideal, or a correction of our former
conception of it. In that perfect state known to the theologian
as heaven, both science and art would be impossible, for the ideal
would be actualized. Science would then be impossible, because
everything would be known ; art would be impossible because we
should no longer write poems or paint pictures, but be them, . . .
and the song of them that triumph would have no more aesthetic
value than the shout of them that feast.
In the meantime we are sustained by the ideal. Bacon remarks
somewhere that ideals are like the stars, they give little light
because they are so high. But if this was meant in any derogatory
sense it was Bacon the time-serving and not very successful politician
who spoke, and not that Bacon whom Shelley placed among our
greatest poets. Thus much at least may be urged in defence of
the stars, that often, on these nights, they give us all the light we
have, and it is all we need. Surely Bacon would have employed
a juster simile had he likened ideals to the sun, which is indeed
high enough, yet not only gives us the light by which we direct our
THE STUDY OF POETRY 5
lives, but also the warmth and the energy without which the most
(biz/ling radiance would be vain.
We live by admiration, hope and love,
And even as these are well and wisely fixed,
In dignity of being we ascend.
The ideal is essential to human existence. Man feels his higher
self to be curbed, baffled, thwarted at every turn by the hard
conditions that time has put upon him, and he seeks in art to
create something, or, if he is merely a student of art, to find some-
thing, which shall present his own life before him, without that
emphasis on the accidental and the adventitious which makes it
seem inexplicable, so that for the moment he may view it with some
satisfying sense of harmony and completeness.
A common mistake concerning poetry, that the lover of poetry
is almost as prone to make as the despiser of it, though he will,
of course, couch it in somewhat different terms, lies in the supposi-
tion that poetry has no relation with truth, and that the part of our
nature to which it appeals is necessarily opposed to the reason. This
error lay at the root of the old quarrel between the poet and the
philosopher, and it vitiated all the literary criticism of the Greeks.
Thus the highest state of which man is capable Aristotle conceives
of as Of&pia, or a kind of divine speculation, in which, by dint of
long training in philosophic thought, he has learnt to abstract
himself from his emotional nature and is able to contemplate all
time and existence in the light of pure reason, i. e. reason purged
of emotion. With this conception art is necessarily relegated to
-a lower sphere, and the philosopher who would justify its existence
is forced to regard it not as an end in itself, but as subsidiary to
his ideal and aiding him in some way or other to attain it. And
hence Aristotle's famous definition of tragedy, which apologists have
often attempted to explain away, but which, in fact, teaches us that
tragedy has as its object to help us to get rid of our emotions of pity
and fear, just as a medical purge rids us of an unhealthy condition
of the body a conception which is false psychologically, the effect
of a great tragedy being always to quicken and intensify our
capacity for feeling. Aristotle's theory is the reductio ad absurdum
of the view that the function of poetry is to give an outlet to the
emotions so that they can escape without danger to the individual
or the community ; whereas the true object of poetry is to educate
them and to keep them alive in a world where petty interests and
selfish solicitude tend to stifle and to misdirect their action.
And this absurd quarrel between the poet and the philosopher
6 THE STUDY OF POETRY
lost to literary criticism one who was far more highly gifted with
aesthetic perception. If any one ever knew the real nature of poetry
it was Plato, yet writing as a citizen and a moralist he pays but
slight direct attention to our subject and is only betrayed into
giving us incidental hints, which tell us little, though indeed they
suggest that he could have told us all. What would we not sacrifice,
even from the Poetics of Aristotle, for a study from the hand of Plato
of the Agamemnon or the Antigone? Who would not gladly have
been present at that night-long Symposium when Socrates compelled
his auditors to acknowledge that the genius of comedy was the same
with that of tragedy, and that the true artist in tragedy was an
artist in comedy also ? But the auditors, Plato tells us, were only
constrained to assent being drowsy, and not quite following the
argument, and what the argument was Plato himself disdains to
tell us, so that the world had to wait 2,000 years to recognize,
in Shakespeare's drama, the soundness of his contention. The
Platonic Socrates concerns himself far more with the evil effects
of bad poetry than with the essential character of the art
itself, and with the deepest irony he banishes the poet from his
Republic. Then, when the poet is safely out of earshot, he dons
the singing robes himself, and in that poetry which he affects to
despise he expresses the highest truth he sees.
A kindred error, which finds its eloquent advocates to-day, 1 is
that which regards poetry as appealing to a semi-conscious state,
to what one critic has termed a kind of vegetable existence. And
it must be admitted that the poet himself, by speaking of his work
as dreams, often appears to lend support to this view. Yet this
should not mislead us 4 A dream itself, 1 says Shelley, addressing
the unimaginative mind :
A dream itself is less a dream than that
Thou call'st reality ;
or, as Browning has somewhat provocatively put it, ' The poet never
dreams : we prosemen always do ' ; and in fact if we are to appreciate
good poetry we must awaken all our reason and not merely give
way to our emotions, the difference between the poet's dream and
our own being simply this, that the one is reasonable, and follows
reasonable laws, whereas the other is capricious, and follows none.
What the poet asks you to do, if you would sympathize with his
conception, is not to take an opiate that will dull your intellect,
but, in fact, to lay aside your preoccupation in the trivialities of
life, to disentangle yourself from the temporal and the accidental.
1 e. g. J. A. Stewart, The Myths of Plato.
THE STUDY OF POETRY 7
The enemy to poetry, i. e., is not reason, but worldliness, for the
essence of worldliness is to exaggerate the importance of unimportant
things, so as to lose sight of the main i^u<- of lift surely an unrea-
sonable thing to do. When the poet falls into the error, as he
sometimes does, of asking you to lay aside your reason, he always
suffers for it by a loss of power; and even if he deceives some simple
souls, who have not much understanding to boast of, he alienates
those readers whom he should value most, he moves iln-m not with
a sense of beauty, but with a sense of absurdity.
The root error lies in regarding reason and emotion as opposites,
and in failing to recognize that in the human mind, though for pur-
poses of analysis we may differentiate them, the one cannot exist
without the other. Reason or understanding, as apart from emotion,
is a mere philosophical abstraction, and conversely emotion is not
essentially and necessarily unreasonable. Poetry, like science, though
in its own peculiar way, has for its object the revelation of truth its
object is not pure emotion on the one hand, which is mere animal
instinct, nor yet scientific truth on the other, which is often merely
fact, but truth as applied to human life and experience, and revealed in
terms of beauty. And as this material upon which the poet works
lies entirely in his human experience, the value of his work will depend
partly upon the character and the intensity of his experience and
partly upon his genius for giving it adequate utterance ; while the
test of its true value to us lies in its power to convince us not merely
as sentient, but also as intelligent beings. If it sets our reason at
variance with our emotions we do not accept it as great art : we reject
it as a spurious imitation. And just as the man of science, from his
data, makes discoveries by what can only be termed a scientific
imagination, so the poet, from a deep contemplation of human life as
it is, is carried beyond the present limitations of his subject and sees
it in the light of imaginative truth. There is nothing unreasonable
in this. On the contrary, it is, as Wordsworth has told us, ' reason
in her most exalted mood'.
It need not dismay us, however, that imaginative truth cannot be
logically defined. For the poets, who are most conscious of its action
and attain it in an eminent degree, either do not trouble to talk about
it, or, when they do, rarely show themselves to be possessed of that
type of mind which is necessary for their immediate task. And if
the philosopher, as a study of the history of philosophy can show,
finds no difficulty in demolishing the system of his predecessor, leav-
ing in its place a system as surely to be demolished by those that
follow him, we, cannot wonder that he will be able, to his own satis-
8 THE STUDY OF POETRY
faction at least, to dispose of the conception of a poet, whose bent ot
mind lies towards creation rather than analysis. Yet what may
baffle exposition in good set terms may, perhaps, be apprehended in
a concrete instance.
Look, for example, at what may appear to some of you a humble
illustration of it, Wordsworth's poem of the Leech-gatherer, r ther
unfortunately entitled Resolution and Independence. I choose it
because, as it happens, we have a prose account in Dorothy Words-
worth's journal of the incident which gave rise to its composition, and
we can thus compare the two, and see how the imagination works
upon the facts of life. ' When William ', says Miss Wordsworth,
4 returned from accompanying Jones, we met an old man almost double.
He had a coat thrown over his shoulders . . . under this he carried a
bundle and had an apron on, and a night cap. His face was interest-
ing. . . . His trade was to gather leeches, but now leeches were scarce,
and he had not strength for it. He lived by begging. He said
leeches were scarce, partly because of the dry season ; but many years
they had been scarce. He supposed it was owing to their being much
sought after, that they did not breed fast and were of slow growth.
Leeches were formerly 2s. 6d. the 100, now they were 30$. . . .'
Here are the facts, and vapid as they may appear to the ordinary
reader, different seekers after truth will see in them a different value.
The naturalist interested in pond life may inquire into the possible
causes, other than their extraction from the pools, that have brought
about this scarcity of leeches, and what effect their scarcity may have
upon other pond life. The political economist may find in the rise
and fall of the price corresponding with the scarcity an illustration of
the relation of supply to demand, and he may argue that in all prob-
ability the man is no worse off than he was before. The humanitarian
may enlarge, as Wordsworth himself does in a somewhat prosaic note,
upon the necessities which an unjust state of society has laid upon
the old man, and he will probably be ready to lay before a long-
suffering public his pet scheme for ameliorating the condition of the
aged and deserving poor. The poet does none of these things. He
discards some of the facts, he even alters some. We hear nothing
about Jones some readers of Wordsworth x wish that we heard
nothing about Jones in other poems of his he omits the apron, the
nightcap, and the statistics, he associates the man, not with the road
upon which he had actually met him, but with some other scene emi-
nently characteristic of his lowly calling ; he places him, on a morning
of that radiant calm which often succeeds a night blustering with
1 The writer, however, is not among the number.
THE STUDY OF POETRY 9
storm and rain, beside a mountain pool upon a lonely moor; and in
this setting, by comparing him with objects either inanimate, or
barely endowed with sense, he draws him closer into connexion with
his surroundings, so that his figure gains in depth and solemnity, and
the scene of which he is the centre becomes transfused with something
of his own life and
As a huge stone is some! in . to lie
Couched on the bald top of an eminence ;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could thither come, and whence;
So that it seems a thing endued with sense;
Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself;
Such seemed this Man, not all alive nor dead,
Nor all asleep in his extreme old age. . . .
Motionless as a cloud the old Man stood,
That heareth not the loud winds when they call ;
And moveth all together, if it move at all.
The imaginative truth that the poet conveys can only be realized by
reading the whole poem, and not by reading with the eye only. But
something of it is at least evident, in the inherent dignity of the man,
in the serene beauty of a tranquil old age, in the indomitable fortitude
of the human spirit, in the power of sympathy, innate in us all,
though most richly developed in the poet, by which we enter, as it
were, into the spiritual life of the world. The poet, by his imagina-
tion, has penetrated his material and revealed its inner meaning. And
the conception he has given us is not opposed to our reason. On the
contrary, our reason will corroborate it. The poverty of the old man
and the scarcity of leeches are no more surely accepted of the reason
than the fact that, by the extraordinary power of the mind, and
our capacity for sympathy, an essential quality of human nature, the
old man is the inspiration of an almost religious awe and thankful-
ness. The conception which the great artist presents may not be
logically demonstrable, but it will only be denied by those who debase
their notion of reason to a mere calculating process. What the poet's
imagination has attained and his poem expressed is essentially a form
Truth is, in fact, a many-sided thing, and poetry, science, morals,
metaphysics, each of them seeks in its own way to give expression
to different aspects of truth no one aspect being absolutely truer
than another, though relatively to man and to human experience
one may at one time be of greater value than another. Thus
science has discarded the Ptolemaic conception of the universe
10 THE STUDY OF POETRY
in favour of the Copernican. Yet without any violation of truth
Coleridge can write :
The Sun came up upon the left,
Out of the sea came he !
And he shone bright, and on the right
Went down into the sea.
Scientifically speaking, the sun did nothing of the sort. And when
Milton addressed the sun :
O thou that with surpassing glory crowned
Lookst from thy sole dominion like the God
Of this new world, at whose sight all the stars
Hide their diminished heads
the man of science can easily expose to his own complete satisfaction
the absurdity of the statement. Yet it is true. It is an expression
as unquestionable as the most authenticated fact, as to what the sun
is composed of, or as to its size, or its distance from our world, of a
power the sun has to affect us, to give us certain ideas and emotions
to satisfy, in a word, the poetic side of our nature. And what is the
difference between the lines I have read and the familiar quatrain :
The Sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might ;
And this was odd because it was
The middle of the night
unless indeed it is, as I suggest, that the one is false and the others
are true ? In point of fact what Ruskin most unfortunately calls the
pathetic fallacy is often merely the poetic way of getting at truth.
The poet is content to lay aside for the time truth to fact in his desire
to express the higher truth his own relation with the ideal.
This ideal in the light of which the artist sees the world and inter-
prets it is always and essentially beauty. The desire for beauty is
often the only conscious incentive of the creative artist, and he is right
in feeling that if he really attains it all else will be added unto him.
His primary object is not pleasure in the ordinary sense of the word,
still less is it utility, practical or moral. When the poet speaks of
his work in terms of morality or practical utility he must not deceive
us he is then speaking as a moralist or a citizen, not as an artist.
Milton may be right when he says that ' he who would not be frus-
trate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought
himself to be a true poem \ But this is not Milton the pure artist
who is speaking. It is Milton the ARTIST who writes to his friend
' for whatever the Deity has bestowed upon me in other respects, he
has certainly inspired me, if ever any was inspired, with a passion
THE STUDY OF POKTKV 11
for the good and fair. Nor did Ceres, according to the fable, ever
seek her daughter Proserpine with such unceasing solicitude as I have
sought this TOV KaXov iStav, this perfect model of the beautiful in all
the forms and appearances of things \ This passion for the good and
fair, which is no more sensuous than it is intellectual and spiritual,
lies at the root of the artistic instinct. It is the only source of the
poet's impulse to write, and of ours to read him.
This position is easy enough to accept in the case of poems whose
subject is what is ordinarily called beautiful, as with the Epithalamion
of Spenser, or with Blake's Songs of Innocence. But, as Keats has
told us, 'all passions, in their sublime, are creative of essential
beauty,' and there is no part of human experience which, if really felt,
is not capable of artistic expression. One cannot fail to notice*" that
those emotions and situations which are most harassing in life have an
irresistible attraction to the poet, that his greatest triumph is to make
Sorrow more beautiful than Beauty's self.
Tragedy has its source and inspiration in a passionate sense of the
power and goodness of human nature a sense which is roused all the
more keenly by the spectacle of the havoc and waste wrought by evil.
King Lear, the greatest of the world's tragedies, is also the most
remorseless. It is redeemed from a mere sordid tale of folly and
crime by the spirit of poetry that pervades it. This sense of beauty
finds its expression, doubtless, in the melody and the imagery of
the verse, but that is not mere ornament to hide what is ugly or
distressful, it is the outward and visible sign of the temper in which
the artist has viewed his subject and interpreted its meaning.
And we turn to the play again and again, not because it deceives
us into thinking life different from what it is, still less because it
makes us care less for the pain of our own personal life, but because,
above the horror and cruelty of it all, the poetry makes us feel its
essential beauty that it is well worth while. If Dr. Johnson found
King Lear too terrible to read, it was not that he felt more keenly
than Shakespeare the sorrows of the world, it was because he had
a less vital perception of beauty, and was less able to translate
his own emotions into the world of ideal emotion. He was no cynic
who said 'the artist must love life and see that it is beautiful,
without him we should doubt it '. For this sense of beauty simply
convinces us, in spite of all that may seem to disprove it, that
life is worth while, and if it is not, then the whole fabric of man's
reason crumbles at once for the primary instincts of our nature,
our clinging to life, and our desire to reproduce it, are the motiveless
actions of madmen
12 THE STUDY OF POETRY
if this fail
The pillar'd firmament is rottenness
And earth's base built on stubble.
Even Satire, which would seem to have little to do with the
sense of ideal beauty, yet does so implicitly. For it springs from
a belief in the essential dignity and sanity of human nature
a belief which is outraged and stung to railing by the falling short
from the ideal of some particular society or individual. The poetic
treatment of painful or ugly themes differs inevitably from their
prose treatment because in poetry the sense of the good, in the light
of which the evil is viewed, is suggested in the high beauty of the
form. It is of the essence of poetry that when the poet expresses his
own sorrow or despair, or projects himself by imaginative sympathy
into that of others, he makes us feel it far more acutely than we
should from a mere bald recital of what we call the facts, but we
feel it in a way that exalts instead of depressing us. For he reveals
Sorrow that is not sorrow, but delight,
* And miserable love, that is not pain
To hear of, for the glory that redounds
Therefrom to human kind, and what we are.
As it appears before us in a picture and moves to the melody of
music, we see it in the light of the ideal, we realize its essential
worth, its beauty.
Poetry, then, gives voice to human experience in terms of beauty*
i. e. in a manner that convinces us that that experience has a real
value for us. It arrests, as it were, a situation, a phase of life or
emotion whose significance would otherwise escape us, and reveals its
essential character ; it gives
To one brief moment caught from Heeting time
The appropriate calm of blest eternity.
It does so, not merely that we may feel it, but that we may
understand it as reasonable beings, and realize it to be in itself
beautiful. And this might be said to have a practical, ^even a
utilitarian value, for it makes it possible for us to live.
This essential function of poetry, neglected and comparatively
ignored in periods when material and worldly preoccupations seem
to absorb man's ^entire energy and deaden his spiritual life, leaps
into recognition in times like the present, when the inspiration
of a common ideal and a bond of universal sorrow awaken the
desire for some fitting outlet to the higher emotions. No student
of literature can fail to be struck by the mass of poetry that is both
THE STUDY OF POETRY 13
written and read to-day, often by those from whom in normal times
we should him- least expected it, who probably would not have
expected it tliom*el\es. That this i^ ><> i^ proof enough, if proof
were needed, that the spirit of poetry is still vigorously alne;
and we are profoundly grateful for it. But the high claim that
we have advanced for poetry must save us from losing our sense
of perspective in judging the worth of this contemporary song;
and greatly as I value all of it for its intention and much of it
for its achievement, I must yet assert my conviction that we are
in real danger of overestimating its intrinsic poetic quality ; and
of failing to recognize the true place art should take in our lives.
Contemporary poetry, in comparison with the greatest, is often
uncertain in its mastery of form, and loose and vague in thought.
The highest tribute we can pay to poetry is to say that it makt> u*.
see more clearly, think more accurately, understand more closely, as
well as feel more strongly. Contemporary verse kindles the emotions
only too readily, for it deals for the most part with experience that
has an intense and immediate interest for us. But it does less to
brace the mental faculties. Its moving power springs often not so
much from anything inherent in the poetry as from the atmosphere
of sentiment in which we, as well as the writer, are all wrapped in
these days of tragic stress. We should be dull indeed if we could
read without a poignant sympathy songs written by men who have
fallen in our battles, and by their friends and lovers. But the desire
to unpack the heart in words is not always transmuted into poetry.
Ideal truth is too often obscured by the obsession of a raw experience
that has not been passed through the alembic of imagination ;
sentiment of an exalted but personal and ephemeral kind is too often
the substitute for real poetic passion. It is not without significance
that some of those writers who were acclaimed as immortal only three
years ago are already on the road to oblivion. ' Few ashes ', it has
been said, ' are lighted sooner than those of incense, and few things
burn out sooner. 1 We do well to read this poetry, as they did well
to write it, but let us not fall into the generous delusion that it offers
us all that poetry has to bestow. The whole of literature, past and
present, is indeed a living and thriving growth out of which emerge
the higher forms of poetry ; or it may be likened to a luxuriant,
not too-well-kept garden * in the courts of poetry. Its outer
pleasaunces should be valued because they may lead us by easy
steps on to the temple itself. But too many of us are tempted to dally
outside ; for those who would enter the temple must be prepared for
a rarer atmosphere, a severer orderliness, a sharper discipline of
14 THE STUDY OF POETRY
thought and passion. The poetry of to-day attracts its readers
because it seems to them an immediate revelation of life as we
live it. But the revelation that we most need is of things permanent,
secure from the accidents of time and place. We have a natural predi-
lection for the topical, but let us not exaggerate its importance. For
though history never exactly repeats itself the problems that confront
the human mind from one age to another vary only in their external
form. The emotions that throb in us to-day are but an echo of
a cry that has vibrated down the ages and has been truly coherent
only on the lips of the masters of song. In them not their own time
alone is vocal; they have what Coleridge defined as the quality
of the seer, whose utterances on the present contain within them
the germ of a prophecy. Thus we have in Wordsworth far the
greatest of all poets of war. He wrote indeed of the struggle with
Napoleon ; but no writer of to-day has probed so searchingly the
spiritual issues involved in the present clash of armies, or has so
magnificently interpreted the true significance of nationality. No
poet, like Milton, can stiffen our backs in adversity, uphold our faith
even among the faithless, and inspire us, whether it be with the fiery
courage of the combatant or with the patience and heroic fortitude,
perhaps more hardly won, of those who seem but to stand and wait.
And for all Milton's contempt for the people as
a herd confused,
A miscellaneous rabble who extol
Things vulgar and, well-weighed, not worth the praise,
it is he who can best expand to a democratic age that ideal spirit of
liberty on which alone the future can rest secure. And further, if we
feel the need and who does not ? of some consolation, when the in-
dividual mind, brooding over private hopes and sorrows, keeps her own
inviolate retirement, where can be found an utterance of the eternal
mysteries of love and death at once so moving in its subtle beauty and
so pregnant with sublime suggestion as in the Sonnets of Shakespeare ?
The supreme poets of the world not only present to us the emo-
tional side of our experience, but, by their keenly penetrative thought,
A whetstone to our dull intelligence
Which tears where it should cut.
The very fact that the issues that confronted them were not identical
with ours throws into relief the permanent truths that lie behind
changing circumstance and thus they express the essential part of our
own experience more fully than the contemporary poet, who may even
distract us from the essential by his absorption in the present.
THE STUDY OF POKTKY 15
But the poetry of the great masters is not so easy to read as the verse
that pours from the press to-day. To enter into its spirit we need a
more streimou^ e\erri>e of thought and imagination, and a certain
knowledge and mental equipment which can only he acquired by
patient study. Nothing that is worth having, certainly not a taste for
good poetry, is acquired without persistent effort. For poetry, a
have seen, is one of the noblest forms of truth, and truth is always on
the serene heights above us :
On a huge hill
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
For those of us who have not ourselves wings the access is arduous,
for it is on our own feet that we must go; but if the methods of
approach are pedestrian they are only wearisome to those who forget
the object of their ascent.
It is because poetry is reasonable, and its beauty a thing that we
cannot only feel instinctively, but come in a measure to understand,
that it forms the subject of serious study. How is that study
to be pursued ?
Our primary need is for what may broadly be termed historical
study. We must learn to defeat that insidious onset of time which
tends to obscure from us the spiritual relation of the present with
the past. ... If we are to understand a poem we must enter
into the spirit in which it was conceived, so that we can view it in the
light in which the artist viewed his subject. ' Poets ', says Shelley,
k are a very chameleonic race : they take their colours not only from
that on which they feed, but from the very leaves under which they
pass. 1 We must reconstruct for ourselves a bygone age in its ideas
as well as its actions, and we must appreciate how the artist was
affected by them, and the standpoint from which he would view them
we must be able to distinguish between the conventional habit of the
age and the spirit of the artist who for all the originality of his genius
is yet a creature of his time. And together with a study of the poet's
environment must go a study of the material on which his art is
based. Books are as real a world to him as the world of nature and
human life that lay about him. They are a vital part of his expe-
rience. The society in which he moved we can never know as inti-
mately as he knew it. But the books he read are often as accessible
to us as they were to him, and to trace the manner in which a story,
a situation, even of a phrase from a predecessor, kindled his imagination
or stirred his thought will often light up for us his whole nature and
16 THE STUDY OF POETRY
give us a key to the distinctively original quality of his genius. Only
when we have realized his environment, have gauged the extent and
the limitations of his material, and know his education in the fullest
sense of the word, and all the influences that made him what he was,
can we see his work in its true perspective. Then, if we are fitly to
appreciate him, we must lay aside our own prejudices and those of our
day, and let his conditions become for the time our conditions. It is easy
enough for us, with the accumulation of centuries of knowledge, to set
the artist right on some points of fact or theory ; but poetry has this
in common with religion, that with inaccurate premisses it may yet
reach true conclusions. I have met those people who think it is a
sufficient excuse for their inability to appreciate Milton to tell you
that they have outgrown his theology. Their attitude is a clear
proof of their misunderstanding of the nature of poetic truth, but it
is at least preferable to that of the critic who speaks as though
Milton did not believe in it himself, and regarding his divine and
angelic persons as so much mere poetical machinery, considers him
merely as a stylist, as though Milton's style were anything but the
expression of a passionate sincerity. The fault in each case is the
lack of the historic imagination in its true sense an inability to
understand the author and to take the author's point of view.
But not only must we study our author historically, in the widest
sense of the meaning of history, we must make a study of his medium
of expression. And first of all we must understand the meaning of
the words he uses. The poet differs from the musician or the painter
in that he can only express himself through words, which are in the
first place intellectual symbols, addressed to the understanding ; and
we cannot put ourselves into his position unless the symbols have the
same nicety of value to us as they had to him. I should be ashamed
to mention so obvious a point were it not for the fact that this branch
of his study the student of poetry is often most loath to investigate.
It is true that it is often exaggerated, as indeed source-hunting is
exaggerated, into an end in itself, but, as Dryden remarks, ab usu ad
abusum non conseqmntia ; and because means are often mistaken for
ends, we can hardly afford to. neglect them.
The same is true of the subtler question of aesthetic values, whether
of words or their combination in cadence, metre, rhyme. To say that
the sound must be an echo of the sense is a crude and unphilosophical
way of stating a profound truth about the poetic art. For in good
poetry you cannot distinguish the sound from the sense. It is in
a great measure by means of effects of sound that the poet expresses
his relation with his subject, and so, in a philosophical sense, the
THE STUDY OF POETRY 17
subject itself. For the subject in poetry is not the thing talked of
but the poet's relation with that thing. Herein lies what may justly
be called the metaphysk- of poetic form. Why, we ask ourselves, is
a certain regular cadence of rhythm and metre if not indispensable to
poetry at least an almost invariable accompaniment of it? Most
poets have accepted the fact without question, but those who have
speculated upon it have seen in the regularity and harmony of form
a symbol of the attitude of the poet to his subject as a whole and also
a necessary result of it, the relation of the ordinary to the poetic
view of life being in some way parallel to the relation of ordinary
familiar language to the poetic language of metre and cadence. It is
essential for us to remember this. To talk, as Wordsworth inadver-
tently does, of rhyme and metre being superaddedis assuredly a grave
error ; for the poem would be an essentially different thing without it.
Absent thee from felicity awhile
in no way differs logically from
Put off your happiness a little.
The difference between them does not lie in the fact that no two
words are exactly synonyms, though that may be true ; it lies in the
fact that cadence, rhythm, melody have all an essential and a reason-
able, though not always a demonstrable, value in expressing the poet's
relation with his subject. In any real sense the two phrases have
a totally different meaning. Spenser uttered a profound critical
truth when he said :
For of the soul the body form doth take,
For soul is form and doth the body make.
Nothing will teach better than an attempt at translation of poetry,
and the inevitable failure of the attempt, the interdependence in all
great literature of form and matter the lesson that style is not an
external but is essentially expression.
If this is so a detailed study of poetic forms, a comparison of the
alternative readings and the relation of earlier drafts to the complete
and finished work, showing us the poet's struggle to attain to the
proper expression of his idea, a study that is regarded by some as
pedantry, by others as sacrilege, will do much to awaken susceptibility
to the different values of the different artistic media it will help us
to gain the proper equipment for aesthetic appreciation.
In all this study we shall find ourselves greatly helped by the
masters of criticism from Aristotle and Longinus to our great con-
temporaries. We approach poetry in the first place with a vague
and ill-formed sense of likes and dislikes ; we have no constant
18 THE STUDY OF POETRY
principles, we have no reason for the faith that is in us ; and there can
be no surer way of training the judgement than that of studying the
methods and principles by which others have appreciated and justified
their appreciation ; whilst by watching the development of poetic
theory, and balancing the views of one critic against another, we shall
reach at last that fundamental conception which seems most likely to
tally with our own experience.
Many readers, and especially the young, shrink from the study of
criticism in the fear that it may fetter what they call their indepen-
dence of judgement. In doing so they forget that before they are
capable of forming a judgement at all they must have some know-
ledge of what they are to judge, and some standard by which to
judge it. Taste is not pure instinct; it is instinct trained and guided
into a habit of mind, and the instinct can best be guided by those
who have already found a way for themselves. And they mistake the
true nature of criticism. For criticism, if it is worthy of the name,
is not mere judgement ; it is impassioned personal experience ; it is
itself 'the spontaneous expression of powerful feelings 1 aroused by the
poem it interprets, and only second in value to the impression which
a subject has made upon the poet is the impression which the poet's
experience has made upon its worthy interpreter. So that the adequate
criticism of a great work of art may have in it more even of artistic
value than a whole sheaf of minor poetry. And we are no more
fettered in our judgement on a poem by the critic who interprets it
than we are fettered in our appreciation of a sunset by the poet's
vision of it.
And let it not be forgotten that the benefit we gain from a critic's
work is in no way dependent on our agreement with his views. We
learn less from the wisdom of the small than from the errors of the
great. It is a privilege to get near enough to them to see their
faults. We can admit in Dr. Johnson an overbias towards the
didactic, and a dullness of ear to the more subtle harmonies of our
language, and yet learn from his insistence on common sense as
a touchstone of art no less than of life to avoid the common error of
mistaking fustian for sublimity and the vague for the ideal. We can
recognize in Matthew Arnold a critic of the most fastidious taste,
himself an artist bred in the noblest traditions, exquisite in his
appreciation both of individual poets and of the bearing of their
poetry upon life, and yet admit that he was sometimes ensnared in
the meshes of his own catch phrases, or judge him perverse in his
estimate of Shelley and his exaltation of the de Guerins above Keats.
Thus our general attitude towards literary criticism should be
THE STUDY OF POETRY 19
distinctly and avowedly critical. Modesty may easily play us false
and lead us to accept without question the words of a great master
which may be true for him and yet be not true for us. Modesty
indeed is at, least as dangerous as arrogance. Moreover it has an
ugly trick of playing into the hands of laziness; and so far at least
we may agree with the antagonists of all criticism, that if we are
content to see with the eyes of others we shall never see with our
own. In this the more sympathetic a critic is with us the more ought
we to be on our guard against him. When Dr. Johnson condemns
Lycidas or Comus as deficient in musical quality, or Southey condemns
The Ancient Mariner as a ' piece of Dutch sublimity \ we are in no
danger of being misled ; but we often tend to take over the apprecia-
tions of Lamb or of Professor Bradley as though they were our own.
But no critic, charm he never so wisely, should be accepted as a substi-
tute for our own judgement ; for just as no two artists see the world
alike, so no two readers can see the poem alike. All true apprecia-
tion is intensely individual, and it must be our sole endeavour to see
the poem for ourselves as sincerely as the poet saw his subject.
These separate elements in the study of poetry that I have indicated,
historical, philosophical, technical, purely aesthetic, and the study of
literary criticism, have but one ultimate object. They are analytic
processes of the discursive reason, each interesting in itself, doubtless,
but only of real value in relation to that synthetic act of the intuitive
reason, the immediate perception and appreciation of beauty. And
yet, if this is to be possible to us, one more thing is necessary. For if
there is any truth in what I have said already, that poetry enriches
our sense of the value and meaning of life, it is obvious that poetry
cannot be understood unless we already have, of ourselves, something
of that same sense of life and its values. Our feeling for poetry and
our sense of life react upon one another ; we must study both side by
side, and we must love both. The artist has often felt this to be true,
and has instinctively recognized that his poetic development is com-
mensurate with his power to feel ' the giant agony of the world ' and
to hear * the still sad music of humanity '. And as with the poet so
with the student of poetry. No artistic training can atone for a lack
of sympathy. Unless we can see for ourselves 'the wonder of the
human face' or hear for ourselves 'the music of the happy noted
voice ' it is in vain that the poet will attempt to reveal it. In the
last resort, when critical methods have done their most for us, we
have to reckon with ourselves alone. No intellectual equipment of
the schools will help us to understand the words of Constance to her
weeping child, as they are haled to their doom,
20 THE STUDY OF POETRY
Pees, littel son, I will do thee no harm :*
or make us realize what Othello meant when he spoke of himself as
one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe.
No technical study of language will go far to explain the sublime
beauty of two simple words, where Milton tells us how
Proserpin, gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered, which cost Ceres all that pain
To seek her through the world.
Nor can critical formulae reveal to us the truly poetic quality of that
that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.
These things are not for criticism, they are to be 4 felt in the blood
and felt along the heart', and the power to feel their beauty rests
ultimately upon our sense of the beauty and the value of life itself.
Yet, if we have this sympathy, and few of us lack it entirely,
emotion being, as I have suggested, an essential element in human
reason, great poetry will strengthen and purify it, and by the applica-
tion of analytical and critical methods our taste will be matured and
our experience widened. The value of critical training, and of the
various methods of study that I have touched upon, is simply that
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some such mental discipline we shall always be in danger of accepting
the second-rate for a masterpiece, and shall either be content with this
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and beauty for which we can find no personal expression. But though
personal expression, the gift of supreme genius alone, may be denied
us, we can take to ourselves this great consolation, that in our own
sincere appreciation we give another and a fresh life to the artist's work.
For it has been well said, and the words are no more encouraging
than they are true, that really to understand a work of art is in itself
a creative act : it is the act of a poet.
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