Some soldier poets/The Best Poetry

Some soldier poets  (1920) 
The Best Poetry


I shall attempt to show you why the best poetry usually passes unobserved, and how you may train yourselves to recognise it.

Matthew Arnold, our greatest literary critic in the last century, thought that if we were to draw full benefit from poetry "we must accustom ourselves to a high standard and to a strict judgment," and thus learn to recognise "the best in poetry."

No easy task, you think.

Yet the means whereby it may be accomplished are simple.

First: A habit of making the mind up as to which poem among those we read satisfies us best; not to rest there, nor until we know whether the whole poem causes our admiration or whether parts of it are only accepted as introduction or sequel to this or that passage; till, if possible, we discriminate the most perfect line, phrase or rhythm.

Secondly: A determination to become intimate only with verse that stands the test of our most active moods, instead of letting the luckless day, with its relaxed temper, console itself with something that we have perceived to be second-rate. For in proportion as we are loyal to our taste, it will become more difficult to please until at last a really sound judgment is acquired.

Perhaps you will think I speak too confidently, and that good taste in poetry is not within the reach of every honest endeavour.

For a while please imagine that you may be mistaken, and admit that the method of developing taste is possibly both simple and native to mankind.

Difficulty really arises through the mind's preoccupations, which prevent a sufficiency of consideration being applied to æsthetic experience. So manifold and strong are these distractions that perhaps not more than half-a-dozen men in a generation continue to form their taste through many years together.

The probability of this will appear if we roughly sketch the accidents which deter us from persevering, even though we leave out of sight all those which deprive taste of opportunity, and indicate merely such as induce bad habits of mind.

Many readers, supposing them to have set out unprejudiced, may soon be committed to praise or blame, and then prove reluctant to revise and reject those so confident judgments. This unwillingness to renounce infallibility already seduces their minds to continue a higher strain of praise or a more rigorous blame than now appears due; and such disloyalty spreading will even blight the roots of admiration.

More modest souls are, on the contrary all ears for others' opinions; yet the very openness of their minds may let in such a crowd of contradictory voices that in the din and confusion their own poor reason, unable to hold its own, by degrees acquiesces in silence.

Some, again, read verse so quickly or in such quantities that energy fails them for searching, sifting and listening to their genuine impressions with ardour and thoroughness: while others will desist from effort through mere indolence, and so making fewer and fewer discoveries of excellence, will gradually take less interest in poetry, till they no longer find it worth while to read any.

Then there are those who conclude that great poets produce nothing but great poetry, and drown their taste in forced admiration for a sea of failure, since success crowns the efforts of poetical geniuses far less frequently than those of skilled artisans.

Taste, in minds more orderly than appreciative, is often suffocated by scholarship. Knowledge concerning man, period or text absorbs them, till beauty, whose supposed presence was their pretext for study, is habitually overlooked by their familiarity.

Again, ardent partisans will find the poetry whose beauty most delights them tainted with convictions to which they are opposed—heterodox religious dogmas, or ultra Tory or ultra Radical theories with which they have no patience: or it may even happen that some true poet shocks their respectability with what they can honestly call gross immorality.

In all these ways, and many more, men habitually stunt and adulterate their taste instead of allowing it to refresh, refine and reform their minds, even when they have started unprejudiced, and alert for discovery.

Now a still greater mass of individuals are biassed against poetry from the start. Its mere unfamiliarity appals them. Like old-fashioned servants, they keep their lives consistently downstairs in regard to it. Whether vice or virtue, it is not for the likes of them.

Their bolder brothers are ashamed to associate so fantastic a mode of speech with business-like cogitations. Rhyme is all very well in a music hall song; but what an inconceivable nuisance to a man who wishes to be undistracted! And even when not so alienated by ignorance, or the inhuman circumstances of their lives, they may alone be impressionable through some enthusiasm, and thus become exclusive readers of imperialistic or socialistic verse because they are aglow with sympathy for the poet's ideas, and remain immovable by similar or superior beauties not so associated.

In this way many folk enjoy hymns to whom all other poetry is distasteful, or are ravished by limericks who could not be tempted to open a Golden Treasury.

Again the kindling eloquence of some critic, the voice and manner of some reader, cause their taste to be passionately espoused: when the same ardent hero-worship which transplants it may prove the enemy of its further growth. For discipleship will often take a perverse pride in refusing to admire and love, except where it has the warrant of its master's actual example.

All these are kinds of initial bigotries which may easily be so ingrained in a person of fourteen that hardly any upheaval can be conceived which should lay bare the foundations of their humanity to this most congenial of influences, the power of the best poetry.

A third class are those who are meanly corrupt; endowed with a little taste, they have employed it on personal or social ends, instead of desiring to be employed by it in the discovery of excellence. They have sought sentimental consolations or a pick-me-up for enthusiasm, and used and abused this nectar as others use and abuse alcohol.

Or by its means they have tried to shine in society, to pass for cultured people cheaply. Or they have learned to understand and theorise about it in order to teach in a school or give an extension lecture; or, through the weakness of all their other tastes, have drifted into literary criticism or a professorship at a university by way of excusing their existence.

In all these ways taste may be harnessed to a market cart, and trot backwards and forwards on the highway, respected among other respectable trades, but stunted, cowed and gelded.

Now, suppose that all these dangers have been avoided—and there are few walks of life not notably infested by one or another of them—right across the road of progress in good taste there then lies waiting a more terrible ogre, who enslaves great geniuses and starves minds potentially as rich as the Indies. He is that species of vanity which admires what is impertinent or accidental because it is a man's own. All satisfaction with mere cleverness, mere daintiness, mere subtlety, oddity, bravado, bluffness, etc., with which fine designs have been teased or disfigured is wound of his dealing. No literature has he scarred more deeply than our English. Shakespeare himself could not defend the grandest poems ever conceived against his barbarity.

"'Be true to your taste,' this mocking giant cries, 'your own taste, not any one else's. Be not overborne by tradition or corrupted by fashion. Dare on your own account and let the ideal take care of itself. What! Correct nature, correct yourself! Amazing nonsense! You are what you are; Nature is what it is. That is all we want to know; all we can admire."

Deluded by this advocate of a specious loyalty to taste, men tie themselves to first thoughts and raw emotions as though these were more essentially their own than thoughts cleared and polished by reflection, or emotion chastened by considerate expression. They will relinquish study in dread of tainting their originality, checking their verve, or confusing their impressions. "I want to put down just what I think, what I feel, nothing more, nothing less," they plead. Alas! had you taken up with that theory in infancy you would be a baby still.

A thriving taste is like a seedling, intensely itself, but determined to be a tree. Its possessor must be loyal to the laws of its growth and provide it with food, light, air. It does not desire instant petrifaction to preserve it from change and inconsistency, but is eager to embrace and attack the unknown in order to obtain new impressions, to arrange and recompose with its own. And as a creator who owns such a taste is constantly recasting, reconsidering and correcting his work, and eschews both haste and lethargy, so an appreciator, whose taste lives, strives after larger comprehension by watching those whom he surmises may possibly possess such; and by sifting and searching his present judgments he will be constantly reconstructing hierarchies of merit, giving marks, 100 for Shakespeare's best sonnet, a duck's egg for his worst.

Mr Lascelles Abercrombie lately published The Sale of St Thomas, a fine poem. He must take up at least half-a-dozen poets and come very near the top of the class. Yet, if in The Emblems of Love, which has appeared since he seems to us to have done but little to secure that preeminence, this also should be promptly admitted.

In a definite number of stanzas Mr Herbert Trench's fine gift of a musical style becomes one with felicity of conception. It is worth while to know it, and to be jealous over a single unit more or less. This ceaseless movement and reorganisation of a man's judgment is a condition of the growth of taste, and enables him to look back on bygone admirations with the conviction that those of to-day are stronger, more definite and yield him purer delight.

But improviser and impressionist accept just what happens to be there, and, while they try to record it unaltered by reason or tendency, it dwindles for lack of the nourishment that a purpose and reconsideration would have given it. Impressionism should not be regarded as the practice of a school of painters; this bad habit is as old as Jubal, the father of all such as handle the harp and organ. Even the modern avowed and vainglorious impressionism impoverished the art not only of Whistler, but that of Meredith; nay, it had infected even such a genius as Browning, and all but justifies what Mr Santayana, perhaps the finest literary critic alive, says of him:

"Now it is in the conception of things fundamental and ultimate that Browning is weak, he is strong in the conception of things immediate. The pulse of emotion, the bobbing up of thought, the streaming of reverie—these he can note down with picturesque force or imagine with admirable fecundity. Yet the limits of such excellence are narrow. For no man can safely go far without the guidance of reason. His long poems have no structure. . . . Even his short poems have no completeness, no limpidity. . . . What is admirable in them is the pregnancy of phrase, vividness of passion and sentiment, heaped-up scraps of observation, occasional flashes of light, occasional beauties of versification, all like—

'The quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match.'

There is never anything largely composed in the spirit of pure beauty, nothing devotedly finished, nothing simple and truly just."[1]

Rossetti called a sonnet "a moment's monument." Fortunately he did not mean all he might have meant by it, and his own sonnets were the result of long hours of meditation, and recast again and again. His phrase, however, epitomises this theory; a moment, not a choice moment, but any single moment, is considered as worthy of an eternal monument. With this end in view the writer is more fortunate than the artist. He may record minute after minute just what words come into his head, till at last none come and his work is finished. And appreciation for such work is acquired in the same manner, by stupefying reason and yielding oneself, like the smoker of opium, to a stream of suggestions.

The out-and-out impressionist would be like a man who should strip his clothes off in order to prove that his honesty needed no disguise, and, when he was naked, must be clapped int an asylum because he had lost his wits. Instead of accumulating resources, the improviser or impressionist whittles them away; though he be rich at the outstart, he will always be poorer in the end. This process has a widespread fascination even in practical life, as the bankruptcy courts attest. Running downhill begets its proper exhilaration, one moves faster and faster; the invigoration derived from ascending must maintain itself in spite of decreasing speed.

Now not only do the victims of these many maladies of taste which I have enumerated miss sound health, but, by implacable necessity, they become passively or actively, here or there, enemies and maltreaters of poetry, who resist and persecute her best.

Why should we then wonder at the ups and downs of literary history, the blindness of contemporaries, the long-continued bigotry of worthless fashions, or at the lives and misfortunes of poets?

Poetry, as distinguished from prose, is formally rhythmic; and the reason why it is so, is that a majority of the finest mentalities have considered formal rhythms capable of greater beauty. Apart from their beauty, they are simply inconvenient.

Browning compares the ravishing depth and warmth of colour, which Keats discovered the secret of, to Tyrian purple, and says that he flooded the literary market with—

"Enough to furnish Solomon
Such hangings for his cedar-house,
That, when gold-robed he took the throne
In that abyss of blue, the Spouse
Might swear his presence shone

Most like the centre-spike of gold
Which burns deep in the blue-bell's womb,
What time, with ardours manifold,
The bee goes singing to her groom,
Drunken and over-bold."

—stanzas whose beauty is worthy to rank with Keats's own work, and which add to his luxurious richness of diction a directness and energy of movement such as he has left no example of.

But Browning continues:

"And there's the extract, flasked and fine
And priced and saleable at last!
And Hobbs, Nobbs, Stokes and Nokes combine
To paint the future from the past,
Put blue into their line.

Hobbs hints blue,—straight he turtle eats:
Nobbs prints blue,—claret crowns his cup:
Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats,—
Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
What porridge had John Keats?"[2]

—stanzas in which the artificial form of verse seems merely to incommode that vigour and directness, so eminently characteristic of Browning, both when he writes poetry and when he distorts prose into its semblance and caricature.

Take another instance of this abuse, from Wordsworth:

"Yes, it was the mountain echo,
Solitary, clear, profound,
Answering to the shouting cuckoo
Giving to her sound for sound.

Unsolicited reply
To a babbling wanderer sent;
Like her ordinary cry
Like—but oh, how different!"

These two stanzas enchant the ear, and kindle the mind to joyous receptiveness. But alas! the poet continues much as the genius of the Salvation Army adapts the tune of a successful music hall song to other words.

"Hears not also mortal life?
Hear not we unthinking creatures
Slaves of folly, love, and strife—
Voices of two different natures?

Have not we too?—yes, we have
Answers, and we know not whence;
Echoes from beyond the grave
Recognised intelligence!

Often as thy inward ear
Catches such rebounds, beware!—
Listen, ponder, hold them dear;
For of God,—of God they are."[3]

And one has almost forgotten that he was inspired when he set out. The Muse was responsible for those first delightful stanzas; Mr Wordsworth, philosophical member of the Church of England, for the three last, commendable in many ways but not as poetry, since all they say might have been expressed as well or even better in prose.

Emerson says:

"The thought, the happy image, which expressed it, and which was a true experience to the poet, recurs to the mind, and sends me back in search of the book. And I wish that the poet should foresee this habit of readers, and omit all but important passages. Shakespeare is made up of important passages, like Damascus steel made up of old nails."[4]

It would have been much better if Wordsworth had published his two stanzas and Browning his two, and omitted the rest of their poems. Why did they not?

Emerson shall tell us:

"Great design belongs to a poem and is better than any skill of execution,—but how rare! I find it in the poems of Wordsworth, Laodamia and the Ode to Dion, and the plan of The Recluse. We want design, and do not forgive the bards if they have only the art of enamelling. We want an architect and they bring us an upholsterer."[5]

It is this demand that makes the poet shy of proffering his fragment of pure gold, and eggs him on to work it into a statue by adding clay, iron, or anything else which he has handy.

That ode on Dion, which Emerson mentions, set out to be the finest ode in our language, and though less complete, less successful than several of Keats's, it still retains some superiority over them. As a magical treatment of the tragedy of heroism, it stands beside Milton's Samson Agonistes, and the scene of the quarrel between Brutus and Cassius in Julius Cæsar. That scene Nietzsche considered the grandest in all Shakespeare, on account of the importance and dignity of its theme; and the ode on Dion may claim a similar advantage among other odes.

Wordsworth's subject was not Dion's tragedy, as told by Plutarch, but his own sense of its import: yet he seems to have felt uneasy at not telling the story, and breaks off to paint a preliminary scene; then the might of his true subject seizes him again, and he rushes on to his goal, the events that carry the moral. Now this moral is the most important inference to be drawn from experience, and raises the question about which men will contend longest.

The facts necessary for the comprehension of the poem, but not easily to be deduced from reading it, are that Dion was a finely gifted man and Plato's disciple; had been unjustly exiled, and on his return, coming to the head of affairs, intended to use power ideally, yet permitted the opponent of his government to be illegally put to death; was reproached for this in a vision, and soon after fell a victim to an assassin's knife.

In reading, I will omit the division of clay; you can all decide whether I am justified in so doing when you read the poem for yourselves at your leisure.

The beauty of Dion's character and its relation to that of Plato are first compared to a white swan sailing in the light of the moon.

"Fair is the swan, whose majesty, prevailing
O'er breezeless water, on Locarno's lake,
Bears him on while proudly sailing
He leaves behind a moon-illumined wake:
Behold! the mantling spirit of reserve
Fashions his neck into a goodly curve;
An arch thrown back between luxuriant wings
Of whitest garniture, like fir-tree boughs
To which, on some unruffled morning, clings
A flaky weight of winter's purest snows!
—Behold!—as with a gushing impulse heaves
That downy prow, and softly cleaves
The mirror of the crystal flood,
Vanish inverted hill, and shadowy wood,
And pendent rocks, where'er, in gliding state,
Winds the mute Creature without visible mate
Or rival, save the Queen of night
Showering down a silver light,
From heaven, upon her chosen favourite!

So pure, so bright, so fitted to embrace,
Where'er he turned, a natural grace
Of haughtiness without pretence,
And to unfold a still magnificence,
Was princely Dion, in the power
And beauty of his happier hour.
Nor less the homage that was seen to wait
On Dion's virtues, when the lunar beam
Of Plato's genius, from its lofty sphere
Fell round him in the grove of Academe,
Softening their inbred dignity austere—
That he, not too elate
With self-sufficing solitude,
But with majestic lowliness endued,
Might in the universal bosom reign,
And from affectionate observance gain
Help, under every change of adverse fate.


Mourn, hills and groves of Attica! and mourn
Illisus, bending o'er thy classic urn!
Mourn, and lament for him whose spirit dreads
Your once sweet memory, studious walks and shades!
For him who to divinity aspired,
Not on the breath of popular applause,
But through dependence on the sacred laws
Framed in the schools where Wisdom dwelt retired,
Intent to trace the ideal path of right
(More fair than heaven's broad causeway paved with stars)
Which Dion learned to measure with delight;—
But he hath overleaped the eternal bars;
And, following guides whose craft holds no consent
With aught that breathes the ethereal element,
Hath stained the robes of civil power with blood,
Unjustly shed, though for the public good.
Whence doubts that came too late, and wishes vain,
Hollow excuses, and triumphant pain;
And oft his cogitations sink as low
As, through the abysses of a joyless heart,
The heaviest plummet of despair can go—
But whence that sudden check? that fearful start!
He hears an uncouth sound—
Anon his lifted eyes
Saw, at a long-drawn gallery's dusky bound,
A shape of more than mortal size
And hideous aspect, stalking round and round!
A woman's garb the Phantom wore,
And fiercely swept the marble floor,—
Like Auster whirling to and fro
His force on Caspian foam to try;
Or Boreas when he scours the snow
That skins the plains of Thessaly,
Or when aloft on Mænalus he stops
His flight, 'mid eddying pine-tree tops!

So, but from toil less sign of profit reaping,
The sullen Spectre to her purpose bowed,
Sweeping—vehemently sweeping—
No pause admitted, no design avowed!
'Avaunt, inexplicable Guest!—avaunt,'
Exclaimed the Chieftain—'Let me rather see
The coronal that coiling vipers make;
The torch that flames with many a lurid flake,
And the long train of doleful pageantry
Which they behold, whom vengeful Furies haunt;
Who, while they struggle from the scourge to flee,
Move where the blasted soil is not unworn,
And, in their anguish, bear what other minds have born!'

But Shapes that come not at an earthly call,
Will not depart when mortal voices bid;
Lords of the visionary eye whose lid,
Once raised, remains aghast, and will not fall!
Ye Gods, thought He, that servile implement
Obeys a mystical intent!
Your minister would brush away
The spots that to my soul adhere;
But should she labour night and day,
They will not, cannot disappear;
Whence angry perturbations,—and that look
Which no philosophy can brook!

Ill-fated chief! there are whose hopes are built
Upon the ruins of thy glorious name;
Who, through the portal of one moment's guilt,
Pursue thee with their deadly aim!
O matchless perfidy! portentous lust
Of monstrous crime!—that horror-striking blade,
Drawn in defiance of the Gods, hath laid
The noble Syracusan low in dust!
Shudder'd the walls—the marble city wept—
And sylvan places heaved a pensive sigh;
But in the calm peace the appointed Victim slept,
As he had fallen in magnanimity;
Of spirit too capacious to require
That Destiny her course should change; too just
To his own native greatness to desire
That wretched boon, days lengthened by mistrust.
So were the hopeless troubles, that involved
The soul of Dion, instantly dissolved.
Released from life and cares of princely state,
He left this moral grafted on his Fate:
'Him only pleasure leads, and peace attends,
Him, only him, the shield of Jove defends
Whose means are fair and spotless as his ends.'"[6]

What magnificent language and rhythm! Nevertheless this poem, compared with the Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, may be classed as unknown; yet it contains more and better poetry.

Unfortunately the last three lines, if not clay, are not pure gold; for it is not true that pleasure leads and peace attends, or that the shield of Jove defends the clean-handed hero, and we notice something trite in the enunciation of the thought. Wordsworth should have found it obviously false, since he accepted Jesus of Nazareth as the perfect type. Yet, means fair and spotless as the end proposed are ideal requirements both in art and heroism. The contention that this scrupulousness, the ideal beauty of which is freely recognised, should control business, is probably the hardest bone of contention with which humanity is provided—the one about which every compromise of necessity begs the question.

Brutus, Dion and Samson (who for Milton represented Cromwell) are such tragic figures because the beauty of their heroism became tarnished and ended in failure.

For my fault-finding with Wordsworth I hope you will think I have made amends; I would fain do as much for Browning, but time and capacity fail me for reading his magnificent Artemis Prologizes, perhaps the most splendid 120 lines of blank verse in English. I will read one of his successful lyrics instead.

Browning imagines a page-boy in love with a queen, and, while tending her hounds and hawks, complaining of this hopeless passion and overheard by her.

"Give her but a least excuse to love me!
How—can this arm establish her above me,
If fortune fixed her as my lady there,
There already, to eternally reprove me?
('Hist!'—said Kate the Queen;
But 'oh!'—cried the maiden, binding her tresses,
''Tis only a page that carols unseen,
Crumbling your hounds their messes!')

Is she wronged?—To the rescue of her honour,
My heart!
Is she poor?—What costs it to be styled a donor?
Merely an earth to cleave, a sea to part?
But that fortune should have thrust all this upon her!
('Nay, list!'—bade Kate the Queen;
And still cried the maiden binding her tresses,
''Tis only a page that carols unseen,
Fitting your hawks their jesses!')"[7]

The turn of rhythm on "when—where—how" is so felicitous that it seems madness for a poet to dream of adding another stanza which, as coming second, should be more perfect.

Yet when we read—

"Is she wronged?—To the rescue of her honour,
My heart!
Is she poor?—What costs it to be styled a donor?"—

we breathe free, and glory in his triumph.

Yet this song is not in the Oxford Book of English Verse, where under Browning's name several obviously inferior things appear.

Ben Jonson, like Browning, produced a mass of work pregnant with intelligence, but which rarely became pure poetry. However, he, like Browning, yields a handful of perfect things. I will read one:

"See the chariot at hand here of Love,
Wherein my lady rideth!
Each that draws is a swan or a dove,
And well the car Love guideth.
As she goes, all hearts do duty
Unto her beauty
And, enamoured, do wish, so they might
But enjoy such a sight,
That they still were to run by her side
Through swords, through seas, whither she would ride.

Do but look on her eyes, they do light
All that Love's world compriseth!
Do but look on her hair, it is bright
As Love's star when it riseth!
Do but mark, her forehead's smoother
Than words that soothe her!
And from her arched brows, such a grace
Sheds itself through the face,
As alone there triumphs to the life
All the gain, all the good, of the elements' strife.

Have you seen but a bright lily grow,
Before rude hands have touched it?
Have you marked but the fall of the snow
Before the soil hath smutched it?
Have you felt the wool of beaver?
Or swan's down ever?
Or have smelt o' the bud o' the brier?
Or the nard in the fire?
Or have tasted the bag of the bee?
O so white! O so soft! O so sweet is she!"[8]

Palgrave failed to observe the marvellous perfection of this song. It is not in his Golden Treasury, which yet contains so much poor stuff. It is by such felicities as the climax—

"O so white! O so soft! O so sweet is she!"—

that the form of every lyric should be a discovery.

The surprise of this kind that seems to have fallen most directly out of heaven is the line—

"Sad true lover never find my grave"—

from the dirge in Twelfth Night.

"Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
Oh, prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.

Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand thousand sighs to save
Lay me, Oh, where
Sad true lover never find my grave
To weep there!"

The difficulty of accounting for the scansion of that disquieted Shakespearean editors for upwards of two hundred years, till at last it was observed that the irregularity was exceedingly beautiful. So easily is the goal of æsthetic research obscured even for men as intelligent as Pope or Capel.

Now, for fear of enervating our taste by an over-constant effort to appreciate what is perfect, let us compare a stanza from the great lyric in Matthew Arnold's Empedocles, and one from Browning's much-vaunted Rabbi Ben Ezra, with one from Shelley's To a Skylark.

"In vain our pent wills fret,
And would the world subdue;
Limits we did not set
Condition all we do;
Born into life we are, and life must be our mould."

Undoubtedly that is a true thought, and expressed with more cogency and clearness than—

"Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith, 'A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God; see all nor be afraid!'"

It is obviously more often than not impossible to obey the command to grow old along with any genial old gentleman; it is often, also, untrue that the best is yet to be. No doubt it would be very consoling if experience bore out the old Rabbi; but it does not.

Now listen to Shelley, for the desired, the enchanting, the ever-acceptable accent which creates beauty and joy even out of depression:

"We look before and after
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought."

True. To a Skylark treats continually of lovely and agreeable things, but so does Rabbi Ben Ezra; he compares passionate youth with serene old age, and, refurbishing the hackneyed image of the potter and the clay, substitutes for the nondescript "vessel" a Grecian urn. Yet with all these opportunities he never turns a single stanza so beautiful as the most abstract of Shelley's.

The fact is, Browning represents Rabbi Ben Ezra as a prosperous old man enjoying a stately decline, who allows his after-dinner optimism to get the better of his observation and experience. He is moved by thought, but less conscious of its truth or beauty than of its supposed efficacy for cheering, that is bamboozling: and this purpose of his cannot beget afflatus sufficient to rise to a fine form and movement, so his utterance is outclassed not only by Shelley's, which is beautiful, but by Arnold's, which, though plain, is sincere.

I mentioned that some of the best poetry has been honestly charged with immorality. Such accusations are usually made by people who regard the fact that poets can and often do preach excellent sermons as the only excuse for verse. Now to elucidate this difficulty we must conceive of English morality as something dependent on the customs and habits of the English, not as an absolute criterion of worth. In practical life it is a mistake to run counter to one's neighbours without a weighty reason without being prepared to suffer as a consequence.

But in the realm of contemplation, whither poetry should lift us, morality, instead of being established, is a project.

There, if it is not to prove futile, neither deed nor doer must be left unconsidered, but the whole reality must be harmoniously reviewed. For this reason we should welcome all who can give fine literary form to any accident, however inconvenient that accident may be in a mundane sphere. An unpalatable truth thus becomes associated with beauty—an object for contemplation, yielding refreshment and recreation.

"It is all very well in a book," as people say of extravagant behaviour, implying that in practice it is less pardonable; and what they say is quite true. Only their tone of voice may be disparaging to literature and betray the penury of their taste.

A consequence of this more comprehensive horizon which poetry demands is that a poem must not only be enthralling by beauty and intensity, but, if it be of any length, by its interest.

Rossetti rightly queried whether a long poem ought not to be as absorbing as a novel. It ought. A novel need only fail of being a poem by that degree of beauty which formal rhythms have over informal. Most novels do fail in many other ways, but many long poems fail just where good novels succeed. It is in vital interest that Shakespeare's Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet and Othello are so superior to Paradise Lost, though that poem perhaps maintains a higher level of beauty than they do.

Can the interest proper to great poems be distinguished from that aroused by imaginative prose? By intensity? Hardly: rather by quality, by perfection. Poetry transports us into its newly created world more delicately, with a finer respect for the bloom of the soul. The superiority is of mood rather than of power. The mind is carried among objects and events with a motion that more nearly satisfies innate desire: even so Zephyros conveyed Psyche from the piled logs on the rocky peak to a lawn in the gardens of Love's house. In like manner dancing contents the body better than walking or running or drilling. In the flight of some birds and in the swimming of certain fish we recognise an ideal smoothness and continuity, but dancing adds to this a conscious ecstasy; skill triumphs over known difficulties, elation lifts the body, which no longer merely serves, but becomes the disinterested vehicle of the soul, its partner and friend. Thus the movement of poetry weds the mind's desire.

Wordsworth found fault with The Ancient Mariner because the chief character remains passive, is acted on but does little. Now perhaps he appealed to a traditional error in thus accounting for the small effect produced by the Lyrical Ballads when first issued. We are, I think, as a matter of fact, as much interested by what happens to a man as by what he does. We do not understand the universe; therefore, though we contemplate the actions of men with more intuitive comprehension, more awe and curiosity is aroused by the working of external agencies as it affects men's lives. Science has not yet explained any force, not even those which we intuitively comprehend because we feel them in motion within; the imagination therefore freely lends a conditional credence to stories of spirits and phantoms, and the knowledge that our forbears were fully contented with them powerfully seconds their appeal.

Still the shooting of an albatross remains a trifling action compared with its results and with the length of the poem, and Hart Leap Well assuredly treats a like theme with more proportion. Yet small actions sometimes have gigantic effects; a sudden shout may dislodge an avalanche, therefore we cannot regard such proportion as essential to a work of art. The only fault with which I can reproach Coleridge's masterpiece was due to Wordsworth's prompting.

"He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small:
For the dear God, who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."

Though these words come quite convincingly from the old sailor, by their position they seem in part addressed to us by the poet, and acquire a tinge of æsthetic impertinence. Besides their insistence detracts from that passionate fondness for the Albatross which caused the lonely spirit to follow the ship nine fathom deep, by treating his action as a cog in the machinery of providence. Apart from this slight strain introduced at Wordsworth's suggestion, we are lifted and absorbed by the story with a delicate completeness unrivalled by any poem of equal or greater length since written. Michael and The Ruined Cottage, profoundly organised though they are, attain nothing like this felicity of movement. Though Enoch Arden and The Ring and the Book are as interesting as novels, they fali like novels also, the one by lack of the distinction that an utter sincerity gives, the other by lack of the conciseness that the love of beauty dictates. Keats's Lamia, Arnold's Empedocles, though less absorbing, more nearly marry a considerable interest to a proportionate beauty; Sohrab and Rustum, which perhaps does more, yet remains too conscious of Homer's example to escape a certain flavour of pedantry. Again, Mr Yeats's dramas succeed in mingling interest and beauty better than any of those by the Victorian poets; though several, like Browning's Strafford, are more powerful, or like Swinburne's Atalanta, more original, or like Tennyson's The Cup, more theatrical.

We, like the folk of many previous ages, have it dinned into our ears that poetry, to be great, must treat of actual preoccupations, and not harp on any which are as notably neglected as was the ideal of justice in Dante's day. Well, well, let us allow that a most worthy kind of people at present discuss plans for mitigating the evils of social inequality. How does the best poetry treat this problem?

Not in Lloyd George's way, nor yet like Mr and Mrs Webb, nor even like Bernard Shaw. Their ways are, of course, aimed at and achieve a different kind of success. But do they as grandly allay our passions and restore us to as propitious a frame of mind?

The opinions of Byron and Shelley took their cue from the advanced political thinkers of that day, but failed to inspire their loftiest verse. Such themes as personal guilt and loneliness, or some woman, some cloud, a skylark or the healing power of night inspired their happiest flights. They chanted freedom, indeed, but are on this theme outclassed by Wordsworth, who was soon to become a hopeless reactionary. However, a poet never praised for thought conceived our problem in very lovely verse, almost as we realise it to-day.

"With her two brothers this fair lady dwelt
Enrichèd from ancestral merchandize,
And for them many a weary hand did swelt
In torchèd mines and noisy factories,
And many once proud-quiver'd loins did melt
In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes
Many all day in dazzling river stood,
To take the rich-or'd driftings of the flood.

For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,
And went all naked to the hungry shark;
For them his ears gush'd blood; for them in death
The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark
Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe
A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:
Half-ignorant, they turned an easy wheel,
That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

Why were they proud? Because their marble founts
Gushed with more pride than do a wretch's tears?—
Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts
Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—
Why were they proud? Because red-lined accounts
Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—
Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,
Why in the name of Glory were they proud?"

That question is so much more winsome than an accusation. What have we, any of us, added to favouring circumstance to warrant pride? Asked not in the name of justice, but of Glory. How universal the difficulty of a reply appears! To rail at tyrants is by comparison as though, when a little girl was naughty, we should scold her dolls; for kings and governors are only the toys of that lust for possessing which makes us all, rich and poor alike, so negligent of nobler things.

Though the first line of Endymion has become a proverb and already smells musty, serious people have not acquired the habit of looking for truth in beauty, where the nearest approach to it can be made. They expect and recommend precisely the opposite course, and approved Lord Tennyson when in Locksley Hall Sixty Years After he set the turbid accusations of Carlyle and Ruskin to tuneful numbers, although he failed of Keats's success. Whereas a living poet, never mentioned by those who plume themselves on preoccupation with these problems has, I think, surpassed those slightly rhetorical stanzas in Keats's Pot of Basil, which had remained the high-water mark of expression on this theme.

A vision of those who suffer ranged like beggars on either side of the streaming street of active life has come to this poet. Like figures conceived by Rembrandt or Rodin, they appeal to us with patience and resignation, and he bids the nimble-footed crowd gaze on these their fellows whose feet are so slow that from age to age they seem to have advanced no more than statues. For him they are the statues cut out of flesh more enduring than marble, that in spite of change is ever the same in its capacity to suffer.

"Tarry a moment, happy feet
That to the sound of laughter glide!
O glad ones of the evening street,
Behold what forms are at your side!

You conquerors of the toilsome day
Pass by with laughter, labour done;
But these within their durance stay;
Their travail sleeps not with the sun.

They like dim statues without end,
Their patient attitudes maintain;
Your triumphing bright course attend,
But from your eager ways abstain.

Now, if you chafe in secret thought,
A moment turn from light distress,
And see how Fate on these have wrought,
Who yet so deeply acquiesce.

Behold them, stricken, silent, weak,
The maimed, the mute. the halt, the blind,
Condemned in hopeless hope to seek
The thing which they shall never find.

They haunt the shadows of your ways
In masks of perishable mould:
Their souls a changing flesh arrays,
But they are changeless from of old.

Their lips repeat an empty call,
But silence wraps their thoughts around.
On them, like snow, the ages fall;
Time muffles all this transient sound.

When Shalmaneser pitched his tent
By Tigris, and his flag unfurled,
And forth his summons proudly sent
Into the new unconquered world;

Or when with spears Cambyses rode
Through Memphis and her bending slaves,
Or first the Tyrian gazed abroad
Upon the bright vast outer waves;

When sages, star-instructed men,
To the young glory of Babylon
Foreknew no ending; even then
Innumerable years had flown,

Since first the chisel in her hand
Necessity, the sculptor, took,
And in her spacious meaning planned
These forms, and that eternal look;

These foreheads, moulded from afar,
These soft, unfathomable eyes,
Gazing from darkness, like a star;
These lips, whose grief is to be wise.

As from the mountain marble rude
The growing statue rises fair,
She from immortal patience hewed
The limbs of ever-young despair.

There is no bliss so new and dear,
It hath not them far-off allured.
All things that we have yet to fear
They have already long endured.

Nor is there any sorrow more
Than hath ere now befallen these,
Whose gaze is as an opening door
On wild interminable seas.

O Youth, run fast upon thy feet,
With full joy haste thee to be filled,
And out of moments brief and sweet
Thou shalt a power for ages build.

Does thy heart falter? Here, then, seek
What strength is in thy kind! With pain
Immortal bowed, these mortals weak
Gentle and unsubdued remain."

That I think is first-rate poetry. It does not attribute to human agency what possibly lies beyond its scope, in order either to praise or blame. It recognises that some virtues are almost always the work of adversity, others of prosperity; some proper to youth and health, others to age and suffering; and it is thus considerate while rapt in an ecstasy of contemplation such as can but clothe itself in delightful phrases and felicitous images.

To my mind the stanza about aged stricken folk is the finest:

"There is no bliss so new and dear,
It hath not them far-off allured.
All things that we have yet to fear
They have already long endured"—

while above all the others I prize the two lines—

"She from immortal patience hewed
The limbs of ever-young despair."

Yet while I thus distinguish, I reprove myself for separating them from the wave of five stanzas, of which they form the crest:

"Since first the chisel in her hand
Necessity, the sculptor, took,
And in her spacious meaning planned
These forms, and that eternal look;

These foreheads, moulded from afar,
These soft, unfathomable eyes,
Gazing from darkness, like a star;
These lips, whose grief is to be wise.

As from the mountain marble rude
The growing statue rises fair,
She from immortal patience hewed
The limbs of ever-young despair.

There is no bliss so new and dear,
It hath not them far-off allured,
All things that we have yet to fear
They have already long endured.

Nor is there any sorrow more
Than hath ere now befallen these,
Whose gaze is as an opening door
On wild interminable seas."

That I think is more successful poetry than any in Browning's Rabbi Ben Ezra or in Tennyson's Locksley Hall; nay, more successful than any produced by those great poets after the first glorious flush had paled on the forehead of their youthful genius. Is it not well described by Shelley's line—

"Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought"?

It is the work of Laurence Binyon, and published in his London Visions.

Now these are merely my opinions, and should not be adopted by you: nor need they ever become yours, unless your progress towards the distant goal of a perfect appreciation of excellence should happen to lead you over the very same spot where I now stand.

Each one of you is a traveller over these delectable mountains, and not what has delighted me or any other pilgrim brings you on your way and holds off fatigue and depression, but what delights you. Only be occupied and ever anew eager in arranging what you admire by order of merit. Examine your preferences, do not rest content with enjoying them, and you will grow aware of niceties and differences in what is admirable that otherwise would have escaped your notice. You will invigorate and render rational what may have seemed the truly mystical fascination which verse exerted over you.

Let me warn you against negative standards. Never record your impressions by enumerating faults, as the newspaper critic so often does. Never accept the absence of apparent flaws as proof of the presence of excellence. Keep to the positive merits and try to define them; merely turn away from what calls for blame. Disparaging warps the mind far worse than over-lauding. Above all, institute comparisons whenever you find two poets treating the same theme or using the same form with felicity to diverse effect, or in any way rivalling one another. Animals see, breathe and feel, man alone discovers, appreciates and admires; it is not enough to passively enjoy; we must create order in our experiences.

  1. Poetry and Religion, "The Poetry of Barbarism," p. 208.
  2. Browning's Works, "Popularity," vol. vi., p. 192.
  3. Poems of the Imagination, xxix.
  4. Letters and Social Aims, "Poetry and Imagination," p. 152.
  5. Letters and Social Aims, "Poetry and Imagination," p. 153.
  6. Poems of the Imagination, xxxii.
  7. Pippa Passes, Part II.
  8. Underwoods, iv.