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New Poetry And The Lingering Line
by [?]

“But the music?” he was urged.

“Oh, the music,” said he, “–the music didn’t bother me.”

But the new poetry does bother me, because I strive to remember not the mere mood or picture of the poem, but the actual words which created them, and I cannot. I want to compel again, at will, the actual poetic experience, and I cannot, without carrying a library in my pocket. The words hover, sometimes, just beyond the threshold of my brain, like a forgotten name (“If you hadn’t asked me, I could have told you”–you know the sensation); but they never come. I have no comfort of them in the still hours of the day when I would be whispering them to myself. Instead, I have to fall back upon the old-fashioned Golden Treasury. I cannot remember a single line that Amy Lowell has written about her Roxbury garden, but I shall never forget what Wordsworth said about that field of gold he passed; I repeat his lines, and then my heart, too, with pleasure fills and dances with his daffodils.

It is an immemorial delight, this pleasure in the lingering line, in the haunting couplet, in the quatrain that will not let you forget. By sacrificing it, the new poetry has sacrificed something precious, something that a common instinct of mankind demands of the minstrel. It will not suffice for the new poets to deny that they are minstrels, to assert that they write for the eye, not speak for the ear, that it is not their mission to emit pretty sounds but so to present their vision of the world that it shall etch itself on men’s minds with the bite of reality. Such a creed is admirable, but defective. It is defective because, in the first place, if the new poets did not write for the ear quite as much as the old poets, there would be no excuse even for rhythm. Any reader who is sensitive enough to care to read poetry is sensitive enough to hear it with his inward ear even as he sees it with his outward eye, and his after-pleasure, as it were, his lingering delight, will be in proportion as his ear retains the echo of the song. All poets are minstrels, still. Such a creed is defective, in the second place, because it has always been the mission of genuine poets to impress their vision of the world vividly on mankind, though their vision included more, sometimes, than what the realists choose to consider reality. There is nothing new in such an effort. In slack ages of poetic inspiration, however, the versifiers have no vision of the world, but only of its pale mirrored reflections in visions dead and gone, and some jolt is needed to bring the poets back to first-hand observation. Such a jolt are the new poets. Spoon River is a medicine, a splendid tonic. But the form of Spoon River is not conditioned by eternal needs, only by temporary ones. Its complete absence of loveliness, of lines that linger, will be its greatest handicap to immortality–for poetic immortality to-day as much as ever is not in the pages of a book on a library shelf, but on the lips of men and women. A poem from which nobody ever quotes is a poem forgotten.

Tennyson was something of an Imagist at times, presenting his mood or picture with a Flaubertian precision of epithet that even Amy Lowell could not criticise. Consider, for example, his famous Fragment on the eagle:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands
Close to the sun in distant lands,
Ringed with the azure world he stands.

Beneath, the wrinkled ocean crawls,
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

The precision of wording here, the tremendousness of scene evoked with stark economy of means, the triumphant vividness of the adjective “wrinkled,” transporting the reader at once to a great height above the plain of the sea, the complete absence of any touch of the “poetic” (surely the beautiful word azure may be admitted in modern company), make this poem a masterpiece without date or time. It is as “new” as the latest Imagist anthology. And, be it noted, I have quoted it correctly, I feel confident, from memory. My copy of Tennyson is in storage, and I have not read the fragment probably in ten or a dozen years. Yet whenever I wish to relive its mood, to see again its incomparable picture, I have only to move my lips, even only to repeat the lines inwardly, in silence, and the poem is mine again.