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Full text of "The study of poetry"

De Se*lincourt, Ernest 
The study of poetry 




Presented to the 
LIBRARY of the 

UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO 



MRS. J. HOME CAMERON 




THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION 

Pamphlet No. 40 



The Study of Poetry 

By 
E. de Selincourt, D.Litt. 



March, 1918 



A copy of this pamphlet is supplied to all fufl members of 
the Association. They can obtain further copies (price Is.) on 
application to the Secretary, Mr. A. V. Houghton, Imperial 
College Union, South Kensington, London, S.W. 7 



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THE ENGLISH ASSOCIATION 

Pamphlet No. 40 



The Study of Poetry 

By 
E. de Selincourt, D.Litt. 



March. 1918 



Oxford 

Printed by Frederick Hall^ at the University Press 



1 03 




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 
of truth. 

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 
to us 

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, 
they are 

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 
song 

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 
they educate our power of appreciation and make it possible for us 
to enter into the life and meaning of the highest poetry. Without 
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 
shallower outlet for our emotions or be inclined to dispute the power 
of art to satisfy us at all. But if we submit our taste for poetry to 
education, the highest in ourselves will be drawn out to meet what is 
highest in the great artist : we shall realize our kinship with him and 
participate in his vision. We are impelled to poetry, as to all art, 
because we are conscious within ourselves of a craving for ideal truth 
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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