We heard a critic remark that no great sonnets are being written nowadays. What (he said morosely) is there in the way of a recent sonnet that is worthy to take its place in the anthologies of the future beside those of Sir Philip Sidney, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, Mrs. Browning, Louise Guiney, Rupert Brooke, or Lizette Reese? (These were the names he mentioned.)
This moves us to ask, how can you tell? It takes time for any poem to grow and ripen and find its place in the language. It will be for those of a hundred or more years hence to say what are the great poems of our present day. If a sonnet has the true vitality in it, it will gather association and richness about it as it traces its slender golden path through the minds of readers. It settles itself comfortably into the literary landscape, incorporates itself subtly into the unconscious thought of men, becomes corpuscular in the blood of the language. It comes down to us in the accent of those who have loved and quoted it, invigorated by our subtle sense of the permanent rightness of its phrasing and our knowledge of the pleasure it has given to thousands of others. The more it is quoted, the better it seems.
All this is a slow process and an inscrutable. No one has ever given us a continuous history of any particular poem, tracing its history and adventures after its first publication–the places it has been quoted, the hearts it has rejoiced. It could only be done by an infinity of toil and a prodigal largesse to clipping bureaus. It would be a fascinating study, showing how some poems have fought for their lives against the evaporation of Time, and how they have come through, sometimes, because they were carried and cherished in one or two appreciative hearts. But the point to bear in mind is, the whole question of the permanence of poetry is largely in the hands of chance. If you are interested to observe the case of some really first-class poetry which has been struggling for recognition and yet shows, so far, no sign of breaking through into the clear light of lasting love and remembrance, look at the poems of James Elroy Flecker.
Generally speaking, one law is plain: that it is not until the poet himself and all who knew him are dead, and his lines speak only with the naked and impersonal appeal of ink, that his value to the race as a permanent pleasure can be justly appraised.
There is one more point that perhaps is worth making. It is significant of human experience that the race instinctively demands, in most of the poetry that it cares to take along with it as permanent baggage, a certain honourable sobriety of mood. Consider Mr. Burton E. Stevenson’s great “Home Book of Verse,” that magnificent anthology which may be taken as fairly indicative of general taste in these matters. In nearly 4,000 pages of poetry only three or four hundred are cynical or satirical in temper. Humanity as a whole likes to make the best of a bad job: it grins somewhat ruefully at the bitter and the sardonic; but when it is packing its trunk for the next generation it finds most room for those poets who have somehow contrived to find beauty and not mockery in the inner sanctities of human life and passion. This thought comes to us on reading Aldous Huxley’s brilliant and hugely entertaining book of poems called “Leda.” There is no more brilliant young poet writing to-day; his title poem is nothing less than extraordinary in pagan and pictorial beauty, but as a whole the cynical and scoffish tone of carnal drollery which gives the book its appeal to the humorously inclined makes a very dubious sandal for a poet planning a long-distance run. Please note that we are not taking sides in any argument: we ourself admire Mr. Huxley’s poems enormously; but we are simply trying, clumsily, to state what seem to us some of the conditions attaching to the permanence of beauty as arranged in words.
It is not to be supposed that you have done your possible when you have read a great poem once–or ten times. A great poem is like a briar pipe–it darkens and mellows and sweetens with use. You fill it with your own glowing associations and glosses, and the strong juices seep through, staining and gilding the grain and fibre of the words.