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Before Beauty
by [?]

Only the greatest works in any department afford any explanation of this wonder we call nature, or aid the mind in arriving at correct notions concerning it. To copy here and there a line or a trait is no explanation; but to translate nature into another language–to bridge it to us, to repeat in some sort the act of creation itself– is the crowning triumph of poetic art.


After the critic has enumerated all the stock qualities of the poet, as taste, fancy, melody, it remains to be said that unless there is something in him that is living identity, something analogous to the growing, pushing, reproducing forces of nature, all the rest in the end pass for but little.

This is perhaps what the German critic, Lessing, really means by action, for true poems are more like deeds, expressive of something behind, more like acts of heroism or devotion, or like personal character, than like thoughts or intellections.

All the master poets have in their work an interior, chemical, assimilative property, a sort of gastric juice which dissolves thought and form, and holds in vital fusion religions, times, races, and the theory of their own construction, naming up with electric and defiant power,–power without any admixture of resisting form, as in a living organism.

There are in nature two types or forms, the cell and the crystal. One means the organic, the other the inorganic; one means growth, development, life; the other means reaction, solidification, rest. The hint and model of all creative works is the cell; critical, reflective, and philosophical works are nearer akin to the crystal; while there is much good literature that is neither the one nor the other distinctively, but which in a measure touches and includes both. But crystallic beauty or cut and polished gems of thought, the result of the reflex rather than the direct action of the mind, we do not expect to find in the best poems, though they may be most prized by specially intellectual persons. In the immortal poems the solids are very few, or do not appear at all as solids,–as lime and iron,–any more than they do in organic nature, in the flesh of the peach or the apple. The main thing in every living organism is the vital fluids: seven tenths of man is water; and seven tenths of Shakespeare is passion, emotion,–fluid humanity. Out of this arise his forms, as Venus arose out of the sea, and as man is daily built up out of the liquids of the body. We cannot taste, much less assimilate, a solid until it becomes a liquid; and your great idea, your sermon or moral, lies upon your poem a dead, cumbrous mass unless there is adequate heat and solvent, emotional power. Herein I think Wordsworth’s “Excursion” fails as a poem. It has too much solid matter. It is an over-freighted bark that does not ride the waves buoyantly and lifelike; far less so than Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” which is just as truly a philosophical poem as the “Excursion.” (Wordsworth is the fresher poet; his poems seem really to have been written in the open air, and to have been brought directly under the oxygenating influence of outdoor nature; while in Tennyson this influence seems tempered or farther removed.)

The physical cosmos itself is not a thought, but an act. Natural objects do not affect us like well-wrought specimens or finished handicraft, which have nothing to follow, but as living, procreating energy. Nature is perpetual transition. Everything passes and presses on; there is no pause, no completion, no explanation. To produce and multiply endlessly, without ever reaching the last possibility of excellence, and without committing herself to any end, is the law of Nature.

These considerations bring us very near the essential difference between prose and poetry, or rather between the poetic and the didactic treatment of a subject. The essence of creative art is always the same; namely, interior movement and fusion; while the method of the didactic or prosaic treatment is fixity, limitation. The latter must formulate and define; but the principle of the former is to flow, to suffuse, to mount, to escape. We can conceive of life only as something constantly becoming. It plays forever on the verge. It is never in loco, but always in transitu. Arrest the wind, and it is no longer the wind; close your hands upon the light, and behold, it is gone.