Popular Science Monthly/Volume 57/September 1900/Discussion and Correspondence



In spite of the occasional croak of prophets of evil, poetry is not in danger of being crowded out of the hearts of men by the materialism of science. It is true that just now there are no poets of surpassing genius with whom the reading public is popularly acquainted. It is true that the development of our material civilization through the surprisingly rapid advance of scientific discovery is a thing which engages attention to a very great degree. It is true that the necessity of dealing continually with practical, matter-of-fact details, whether of the office, or the factory, or the laboratory, is not in itself distinctly poetical. It is true that planning practical uses for the Röntgen rays or liquid air is not essentially stimulating to a love for poetry, but this is only one aspect of the case.

A great deal of the appeal of poetry comes through what it suggests of the unknown and mysterious, suggestions, not of the strange and the fanciful, but of the beautiful, hints of a something beyond the beauty to which our eyes have yet come, a beauty to which, perhaps, for all our longing, they may never come. A man for whom the problems of existence have ceased to be problems, a man whose theology is a settled thing, who believes certain things definitely and rests with assured ease in his belief, a man for whom the vague anticipations of a world of doubt as yet beyond his ken "make no purple in the distance," such a man can neither have appreciation for a wide range of poetry, nor will he write verse that can take any serious place as poetry for modern readers. The poetry of a primitive people, dealing with primitive emotions, finds in more elementary things, like the boy in Wordsworth's "Intimations of Immortality," hints and suggestions of a "something that is gone," "the glory and the freshness of a dream." These emotions become our emotions sympathetically, and not because they are quite the normal feelings for the mature reader of poetry to-day. The things that were a wonder to the Greek of Homer's time have ceased to be a wonder to us, and if a poet would excite the same feelings in us he must employ other means. Science, in giving us absolute knowledge in regard to many things which not so long ago were full of strangeness for us, has taken out of them the olden poetry and the trees have nymphs that direct their growth no longer, the streams that were once dæmon-haunted are now merely water courses, and the other spirits of the earth and air have gone far away into the world's forgetfulness. But while we have been pushing out into the unknown and annexing portions of it to the region of the known, we have been merely enlarging the boundary, not obliterating it. More than this man never can do. Always beyond the farthest vision of his telescope and microscope will lie the unknowable, growing smaller, perhaps, but seeming larger as it gives up some of its secret places for the inhabiting of the dwellers in the known. And this is the significant thing, that, as our knowledge grows, our sense of what lies beyond that knowledge finds an increasing number of things that may excite wonder. Every new scientific discovery, at least in certain departments of science, simply acts as an index finger pointing the way to related phenomena not yet understood. And so it will be ever. The most learned man that the schools, and the fields and the sky aided by the finest instruments human skill can devise, can produce, will only find himself awed by the vast darkness of the unknown into which his eyes cannot pierce.

There is another phase of the question that must not pass unnoticed. As the region of the unknown widens it offers more objects of interest and may thereby more fully absorb attention. When reality is sufficiently rich in experience we do not care to indulge in dreams. When the present satisfies us and answers all our needs we are less inclined to look forward to the future, whether that glows before us with the hues of promise or darkens with the threat of coming storm. But the fullest life may weary at times and wish, for the mere rest of change, to go outside of itself and find in the strangeness of something new and not yet known a relaxation and recreation for the tired hand and brain. And so the strenuousness of modern life with its ceaseless outreaching for new pleasures and new truths will be ready always for the soothing restfulness of a poetry that gives the form of beauty to things just beyond the wonderland of the known.

But how to make poetry of these things is the perplexing problem. Truth, whether of the world of fact or of the world of imagination reaching out into the spiritual realm, is not poetry until in some fashion it is made beautiful in its appeal to our sensibilities. A hundred years ago the things that were fitting subjects for poetic treatment were much more elementary and as emotional stimulus they reached consciousness in a much more immediate and direct fashion than the themes that are fitted for poetry now. The poet who would achieve distinct success in the higher walks of poetry to-day must be master of an art surpassing that of all but a few of his brethren of the craft who have gone before him. The world of the known is so large, comparatively, now, and the individual is so far removed from the boundaries of the unknown, save, perhaps, at one point, that more art is required to induce him to travel the longer distance out of the world of cold fact into the borderland of strangeness where suggestions of new truth and new beauty may come to quicken aspirations.

It is true that there are themes that were new a thousand years ago and will be new a thousand years hence, but a poet to achieve distinct success must strike a note not only individual, but one closely attuned to the thought and feeling of his time. Milton we know rather as a voice of Puritan England than as a poetic genius. We call Wordsworth a great poet and are conscious as we do so, that he deserves the distinction rather because he interpreted to men a new phase of thought and feeling, than because he knew how to make his verse wholly pure poetry rather than bald prose. Even poets of such spiritual elevation as Shelley and Coleridge caught the feeling and the tone of their time, and the revolutionary spirit and the love of nature that was molding Wordsworth finds a distinct voice in them as well. Even Burns, isolated as he was, is not altogether an anomaly, and no one need be told that Byron was in an extreme degree the voice of the reactionary spirit of post-revolutionary Europe. William Morris, retelling old legends of Greek and Saxon, none the less informed his verse with the humanitarian and æsthetic spirit of modern life, and applied his sense of the beautiful to the problems of nineteenth century existence. Swinburne, too, is democratic and in his vision the world moves on to new glories even though the old be not wholly faded from the earth.

Robert Browning is first and fundamentally a painter of character, a student of the more subtle moods that dominate the individual, and toward this the reader of English fiction would hardly fail to see that the development of literature has steadily been advancing for two centuries. Even Mrs. Browning through the somewhat morbid and mawkish sentimentality and the over-strained art of "Aurora Leigh," in the vague and uncertain way of a woman whose contact with reality was necessarily slight, catches at the problems of nineteenth century feeling. Tennyson, as all men know, gave us poetry that was inwrought of the latest word of science, the last aspiration of religious hope, the newest sure conclusion in the field of social endeavor for the betterment of man.

And Tennyson in "In Memoriam," as Browning in "Paracelsus" and Lowell in "The Cathedral," has taught us that abstract truth may be made into poetry and that of the loftiest and most vitalizing kind. And to such poetry the world is ready to give a willing ear, though it will not be satisfied with the mere tricking out in rhyme and meter of scientific truth. The difficulty for the poet to-day is not merely that of new knowledge, but that of a science advancing so rapidly that the poet, whose art is meditative, can hardly avail himself of its latest revelations before their significance has vanished in the light of some new and revolutionary discovery announced from some investigator's laboratory. This is so new a thing that literary conditions have not yet. been adjusted to it, as we may fairly hope that they will be some time in the not distant future.

A thing, almost if not quite, as distinctive of our time as the progress of scientific discovery is the growth of the democratic spirit. This latter has been a thing of common observation for over a century, and about that long ago Wordsworth and Shelley, Burns and Byron voiced with glowing enthusiasm the new revolutionary gospel. Since then it has been the theme of other pens and has become a matter of commonplace, and yet, though it has not lost interest because of the fulfilment of the hopes of man, it is not now a vital force in literature of the better class. The reason for this is, perhaps, not far to seek. In the domain of politics the advance in thought and feeling from a hundred years ago is a matter of no great moment. The poet who would voice for the world a message of brotherhood, thrilled with the spirit of a new humanity, inevitably finds himself harking back; he is compelled to repeat the sentiments of Mrs. Browning's perfervid Italian poems, or Whittier's simple songs, or Shelley's vague theorizing: he ceases to be individual. Under present conditions, strenuously vocal as the world is with the voices of those trying to be heard, failure to be distinctly and positively individual is failure to gain attention.

And it is significant that we are approaching the solution of social problems in the scientific way. The development of a better state of society is to come about, as we now realize, through the operation of natural laws, and not by the sensational process of awakening in the hearts of men a flashing enthusiasm for new forms of government.

Benjamin Kidd's 'Social Evolution' indicates quite clearly the new point of view from which all problems of society are to be considered, and perhaps, not less remarkable for a like significance is Henry Drummond's 'Ascent of Man.' As the laboratory gives up its secrets, as the mysteries of biology and processes of growth in the organic world become less mysterious, we are approaching nearer and nearer to a knowledge of the laws that are concerned in all growth, whether of the star fish or of the modern state. Assuming that man is the most vitally concerned in the organization of society here in this present world, and with the problem of another world, whether real or imaginary, whether a perfect state, or state of growth as that of earth, one cannot escape the reflection that both these problems have become in a measure problems of science, rather than problems of intuition or authority or emotional susceptibility.

And when science has come so close to all the inmost convictions and aspirations of man, there must follow a poetry of science, fuller, richer, more vitalizing and more enduring than any that has gone before it. It will appeal to a nobler and loftier sense of beauty, a finer and more perfect conception of truth. It will clothe its utterances in an imagery as much more varied as the knowledge of to-day is fuller than that of yesterday. It will be artistic beyond the dreams of other days, and its art will be something more than that of mere intuition. It will glow with color, but no crudeness of taste will guide the artist's brush, and the intelligent, aesthetic sense of a broadly cultured people will find inspiration in it, as once heroes did in the songs of the bards of old.

L. W. Smith.
Tabor, Iowa.


In the letter of Columbus on the discovery of America, facsimile edition, 1892, of the four Latin editions belonging to the Lenox Library, the following occurs in the translation (page 11): "Finally, that I may compress in few words the brief account of our departure and quick return, and the gain, I promise this, that if I am supported by our most invincible sovereigns with a little of their help, as much gold can be supplied as they will need, indeed, as much of spices, of cotton, of chewing gum (which is only found in Chios), also as much of aloeswood, and as many slaves for the navy as their majesties will wish to demand."

The date of this letter is March 14, 1493,—over four hundred years ago. It will be seen by the above that the chewing gum habit is by no means a modern or recent one. and doubtless antedates Columbus' letter by many years.

The reference to Chios, an island in the Grecian Archipelago, is presumably for the purpose of indicating the character of the 'gum.' The Chios 'gum' of the ancients has been described as an earth of a compact character, probably argillaceous, and had the reputation of possessing medicinal qualities. Its consistency and appearance may have been such as to have led to its being popularly called 'gum.'

That the chewing of gum, or some other article or waxy substance suitable for chewing, was in vogue at the time, there can be no doubt, and that the discovery of such a substance would be regarded as an important acquisition is implied by its being specially mentioned and promised by Columbus.

Years ago, more than half a century, shoemakers' wax, so-called, Burgundy pitch and crude spruce-gum were chewed to a considerable extent, as the writer clearly remembers.

Betel chewing, the leaves and the nut mixed in certain proportions with lime, as practiced in Asiatic countries, naturally occurs to the mind in connection with the foregoing, as well as occasional instances of chewing slate pencils and lime mortar, an interesting ease of the latter having been brought to my notice several years since by a well-known physician of Newark, N. J. But these are rather exceptional and individual cases, therefore not to be regarded as general or popular habits. From the chewing of earthy substances to the eating of the same, would appear to be but a natural step. The latter habit, so far as facts are available, is of comparatively infrequent occurrence and restricted to a much smaller number of persons. Beds of white infusorial earth, resembling magnesia in appearance, known as Bergmehl, occur in Lapland and Finland. This is, or has been used in seasons of scarcity, mixed with flour made of some kind of grain or ground birch-bark, and clay-eating probably, to a greater or less extent, still continues to be a habit in North Carolina as in the past. The effect of this habit, as any intelligent person would suppose, is decidedly injurious to the individual that pursues it. In several cases that have come under my observation the results are exhibited in sallowness of complexion, lack-lustre eyes, distension of the abdomen caused by engorgement or clogging of the liver, and other intestinal derangement, listlessness and general debility.

Rob't E. C. Stearns.
Los Angeles, Cal.