“Poems are painted window panes.
If one looks from the square into the church,
Dusk and dimness are his gains–
Sir Philistine is left in the lurch!
The sight, so seen, may well enrage him,
Nor anything henceforth assuage him.
“But come just inside what conceals;
Cross the holy threshold quite–
All at once ’tis rainbow-bright,
Device and story flash to light,
A gracious splendour truth reveals.
This to God’s children is full measure,
It edifies and gives you pleasure!”
This is true concerning every form in which truth is embodied, whether it be sight or sound, geometric diagram or scientific formula. Unintelligible, it may be dismal enough, regarded from the outside; prismatic in its revelation of truth from within. Such is the world itself, as beheld by the speculative eye; a thing of disorder, obscurity, and sadness: only the child-like heart, to which the door into the divine idea is thrown open, can understand somewhat the secret of the Almighty. In human things it is particularly true of art, in which the fundamental idea seems to be the revelation of the true through the beautiful. But of all the arts it is most applicable to poetry; for the others have more that is beautiful on the outside; can give pleasure to the senses by the form of the marble, the hues of the painting, or the sweet sounds of the music, although the heart may never perceive the meaning that lies within. But poetry, except its rhythmic melody, and its scattered gleams of material imagery, for which few care that love it not for its own sake, has no attraction on the outside to entice the passer to enter and partake of its truth. It is inwards that its colours shine, within that its forms move, and the sound of its holy organ cannot be heard from without.
Now, if one has been able to reach the heart of a poem, answering to Goethe’s parabolic description; or even to discover a loop-hole, through which, from an opposite point, the glories of its stained windows are visible; it is well that he should seek to make others partakers in his pleasure and profit. Some who might not find out for themselves, would yet be evermore grateful to him who led them to the point of vision. Surely if a man would help his fellow-men, he can do so far more effectually by exhibiting truth than exposing error, by unveiling beauty than by a critical dissection of deformity. From the very nature of the things it must be so. Let the true and good destroy their opposites. It is only by the good and beautiful that the evil and ugly are known. It is the light that makes manifest.
The poem “Christmas Eve,” by Robert Browning, with the accompanying poem “Easter Day,” seems not to have attracted much notice from the readers of poetry, although highly prized by a few. This is, perhaps, to be attributed, in a great measure, to what many would call a considerable degree of obscurity. But obscurity is the appearance which to a first glance may be presented either by profundity or carelessness of thought. To some, obscurity itself is attractive, from the hope that worthiness is the cause of it. To apply a test similar to that by which Pascal tries the Koran and the Scriptures: what is the character of those portions, the meaning of which is plain? Are they wise or foolish? If the former, the presumption is that the obscurity of other parts is caused not by opacity, but profundity. But some will object, notwithstanding, that a writer ought to make himself plain to his readers; nay, that if he has a clear idea himself, he must be able to express that idea clearly. But for communion of thought, two minds, not one, are necessary. The fault may lie in him that receives or in him that gives, or it may be in neither. For how can the result of much thought, the idea which for mouths has been shaping itself in the mind of one man, be at once received by another mind to which it comes a stranger and unexpected? The reader has no right to complain of so caused obscurity. Nor is that form of expression, which is most easily understood at first sight, necessarily the best. It will not, therefore, continue to move; nor will it gather force and influence with more intimate acquaintance. Here Goethe’s little parable, as he calls it, is peculiarly applicable. But, indeed, if after all a writer is obscure, the man who has spent most labour in seeking to enter into his thoughts, will be the least likely to complain of his obscurity; and they who have the least difficulty in understanding a writer, are frequently those who understand him the least.