**** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE **** **** ROTATE ****

Find this Story

Print, a form you can hold

Wireless download to your Amazon Kindle

Look for a summary or analysis of this Story.

Enjoy this? Share it!


Poets On Their Own Art
by [?]

“Is not this a glorious way to talk?” demanded the Rev. T.E. Brown of this last passage, when he talked about Sidney, the other day, in Mr. Henley’s New Review. “No one can fail,” said Mr. Brown, amiably assuming the fineness of his own ear to be common to all mankind–“no one can fail to observe the sweetness and the strength, the outspokenness, the downrightness, and, at the same time, the nervous delicacy of pausation, the rhythm all ripple and suspended fall, the dainty but, the daintier and forsooth, as though the pouting of a proud reserve curved the fine lip of him, and had to be atoned for by the homeliness of the chimney-corner.”

Everybody admires Sidney’s prose. But how of this?–

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science. Emphatically it may be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare has said of man, ‘that he looks before and after.’ He is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.”

It is Wordsworth who speaks–too rhetorically, perhaps. At any rate, the prose will not compare with Sidney’s. But it is good prose, nevertheless; and the phrase I have ventured to italicise is superb.

Their high claims for Poesy.

As might be expected, the poets in this volume agree in pride of their calling. We have just listened to Wordsworth. Shelley quotes Tasso’s proud sentence–“Non c’è in mondo chi merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta”: and himself says, “The jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.” Sidney exalts the poet above the historian and the philosopher; and Coleridge asserts that “no man was ever yet a great poet without being at the same time a profound philosopher.” Ben Jonson puts it characteristically: “Every beggarly corporation affords the State a mayor or two bailiffs yearly; but Solus rex, aut poeta, non quotannis nascitur.” The longer one lives, the more cause one finds to rejoice that different men have different ways of saying the same thing.

Inspiration not Improvisation.

The agreement of all these poets on some other matters is more remarkable. Most of them claim inspiration for the great practitioners of their art; but wonderful is the unanimity with which they dissociate this from improvisation. They are sticklers for the rules of the game. The Poet does not pour his full heart

“In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”

On the contrary, his rapture is the sudden result of long premeditation. The first and most conspicuous lesson of this volume seems to be that Poetry is an art, and therefore has rules. Next after this, one is struck with the carefulness with which these practitioners, when it comes to theory, stick to their Aristotle.

Poetry not mere Metrical Composition

For instance, they are practically unanimous in accepting Aristotle’s contention that it is not the metrical form that makes the poem. “Verse,” says Sidney, “is an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets.” Wordsworth apologizes for using the word “Poetry” as synonymous with metrical composition. “Much confusion,” he says, “has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact or Science. The only strict antithesis to Prose is Metre: nor is this, in truth, a strict antithesis, because lines and passages of metre so naturally occur in writing prose that it would be scarcely possible to avoid them, even were it desirable.” And Shelley–“It is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the harmony, which is its spirit, be observed…. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.” Shelley goes on to instance Plato and Bacon as true poets, though they wrote in prose. “The popular division into prose and verse,” he repeats, “is inadmissible in accurate philosophy.”

Its philosophic function.

Then again, upon what Wordsworth calls “the more philosophical distinction” between Poetry and Matter of Fact–quoting, of course, the famous +”Philosophôteron kai spoudaioteron”+ passage in the Poetics–it is wonderful with what hearty consent our poets pounce upon this passage, and paraphrase it, and expand it, as the great justification of their art: which indeed it is. Sidney gives the passage at length. Wordsworth writes, “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writings: it is so.” Coleridge quotes Sir John Davies, who wrote of Poesy (surely with an eye on the Poetics):

“From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light on her celestial wings.

“Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then reclothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.”

And Shelley has a remarkable paraphrase, ending, “The story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

In fine, this book goes far to prove of poetry, as it has been proved over and over again of other arts, that it is the men big enough to break the rules who accept and observe them most cheerfully.