May 11, 1895. A Prelude to Poetry.
“To those who love the poets most, who care most for their ideals, this little book ought to be the one indispensable book of devotion, the credo of the poetic faith.” “This little book” is the volume with which Mr. Ernest Rhys prefaces the pretty series of Lyrical Poets which he is editing for Messrs. Dent & Co. He calls it The Prelude to Poetry, and in it he has brought together the most famous arguments stated from time to time by the English poets in defence and praise of their own art. Sidney’s magnificent “Apologie” is here, of course, and two passages from Ben Jonson’s “Discoveries,” Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of “Lyrical Ballads,” the fourteenth chapter of the “Biographia Literaria,” and Shelley’s “Defence.”
Poets as Prose-writers.
What admirable prose these poets write! Southey, to be sure, is not represented in this volume. Had he written at length upon his art–in spite of his confession that, when writing prose, “of what is now called style not a thought enters my head at any time”–we may be sure the reflection would have been even more obvious than it is. But without him this small collection makes out a splendid case against all that has been said in disparagement of the prose style of poets. Let us pass what Hazlitt said of Coleridge’s prose; or rather let us quote it once again for its vivacity, and so pass on–
“One of his (Coleridge’s) sentences winds its ‘forlorn way obscure’ over the page like a patriarchal procession with camels laden, wreathed turbans, household wealth, the whole riches of the author’s mind poured out upon the barren waste of his subject. The palm tree spreads its sterile branches overhead, and the land of promise is seen in the distance.”
All this is very neatly malicious, and particularly the last co-ordinate sentence. But in the chapter chosen by Mr. Rhys from the “Biographia Literaria” Coleridge’s prose is seen at its best–obedient, pertinent, at once imaginative and restrained–as in the conclusion–
“Finally, good sense is the body of poetic genius, fancy its drapery, motion its life, and imagination the soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.”
The prose of Sidney’s Apologie is Sidney’s best; and when that has been said, nothing remains but to economize in quoting. I will take three specimens only. First then, for beauty:–
“Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapistry, as divers Poets have done, neither with plesant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers: nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden: but let those things alone and goe to man, for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is imployed, and know whether shee have brought forth so true a lover as Theagines, so constant a friende as Pilades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a Prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Aeneas….”
Next for wit–roguishness, if you like the term better:–
“And therefore, if Cato misliked Fulvius, for carrying Ennius with him to the field, it may be answered, that if Cato misliked it, the noble Fulvius liked it, or else he had not done it.”
And lastly for beauty and wit combined:–
“For he (the Poet) doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweete a prospect into the way, as will intice any man to enter into it. Nay he doth, as if your journey should lye through a fayre Vineyard, at the first give you a cluster of Grapes: that full of that taste, you may long to passe further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse: but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the well inchanting skill of Musicke: and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you: with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.”