The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Criticism and the Essay III.


By Professor Bliss Perry

AMONG the various critical essays presented in The Harvard Classics no group is more interesting than that which deals with the theory of poetry. Our consideration of the literary form or quality of the essay has already shown us that we should not expect from the essayist an exhaustive treatise, but rather a free and spirited and suggestive discussion of certain aspects of his subject. To write adequately upon the general theme of poetry, expounding its nature, its æsthetic and social significance, and its technique, would be an enormously difficult task. But there are few poets who have not uttered at one time or another some of the secrets of this craft, or some phase of their admiration for it. Let us glance at the essays of eight English and American poets, ranging in time from the age of Elizabeth to the Victorian epoch: Sidney, Dryden, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Poe, Whitman, and Arnold. Four of this group, Dryden, Coleridge, Poe, and Arnold, are acknowledged adepts in general literary criticism; while Sidney and Shelley, Wordsworth and Whitman, have given expression to some of the most eloquent and revealing things that have ever been written about their own art of poetry.


Sidney's "Defense of Poesy,"[1] like Shelley's, is a reply to an attack, but neither poet is very angry, nor does either believe that his opponent has done much harm. Shelley's antagonist was a humorously Philistine essay by his friend Peacock. Sidney is answering somewhat indirectly a fellow Puritan, Gosson, whose "School of Abuse" (1579) had attacked the moral shortcomings of ancient poetry and the license of the contemporary stage. Yet Sidney's "pitiful defense of poor poetry," as he playfully terms his essay, is composed in no narrowly controversial spirit, but rather in a strain of noble enthusiasm. He brings to his task a sufficient learning, a knowledge of the poetics of Plato and Aristotle, and an acquaintance with the humanistic critics of Italy and France. He knows his Homer and Virgil, his Horace and Ovid, but he does not on that account despise the "old song of Percy and Douglas." The nobility of Sidney's tone and his beauty of phrasing are no less notable than the clear ordering of his thought. In one close-packed paragraph after another, he praises the poet as a teacher and creator, compares poetry with history and philosophy, and finds, as Aristotle has done before him, that it is nobler than either. He discusses the various types of poetry, testing their capacities for teaching and moving the reader. Then, after a skillful refutation of the current objections against poetry, he turns, like a true Englishman, to the poetry of his own race, which was just then beginning, though Sidney did not foresee it, its most splendid epoch. He condemns, for instance, as being "neither right tragedies nor right comedies," that type of tragi-comedy which Shakespeare was soon to make illustrious. This opinion is now reckoned, of course, a heresy, as is Sidney's other opinion that verse is not essential to poetry. Yet no one who loves Sidney can quarrel with him over this or that opinion. His essay has proved itself, for more than three centuries, to be what he claimed for the beautiful art which he was celebrating—a permanent source of instruction and delight.


One hundred years after Sidney's untimely death, the prince of English criticism was John Dryden. He made no pretense of actual government: he "follows the Rules afar off." He is full of contradictions, reflecting the changing hues of contemporary taste, compromising between the classic and the romantic, changing his views as often as he likes, always readable and personal, always, in the best sense, "impressionistic," always, as Professor Ker has said of him, "sceptical, tentative, disengaged." His early essay "Of Dramatic Poesy" is full of youthful zest for Shakespeare and romance. Then he turns conformist, aiming "to delight the age in which I live" and to justify its prevalent neo-classic taste; but presently he comes back to his "incomparable Shakespeare," praises Longinus, and abandons rhyme. In his next period he turns rationalist, and exalts "good sense" and "propriety." In the last dozen years of his life his enthusiasm for highly imaginative literature returns; he translates Juvenal and Virgil, and modernizes Chaucer; he is "lost in admiration over Virgil," though at heart he "prefers Homer." It is in this final stage of his career as a critic that he writes the charming praise of Chaucer, which is reprinted in The Harvard Classics.[2] It is the perfection of essay writing. "Here is God's plenty," as he exclaims of the elder poet, in whom he finds a soul congenial to his own. Dryden did not, it is true, quite understand Chaucer's verse, else he could never have found it "not harmonious," yet he makes royal amends by admitting that "there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect." In his earlier "Apology for Heroic Poetry" (1677) he salutes "the deceased author of 'Paradise Lost,' " then three years dead, and calls Milton's masterpiece "one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced."


Dryden's best pages of criticism tempt one, in brief, to agree with him in declaring that "Poets themselves are the most proper, though I conclude not the only critics." The critical writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge confirm us in that opinion. Wordsworth is less facile than Dryden, and he does not range so far. Coleridge, by natural endowment one of the greatest of literary critics, is desultory and indolent. But the two men, when focusing their masterly powers upon the defense and interpretation of that mode of Romantic poetry in which their own creative energies were for a time absorbed, produced criticism which has affected the whole subsequent development of English literature. Coleridge's lecture on "Poesy or Art,"[3] for instance, is full of those flashes of penetrative insight which reveal the born critic: Art "is the power of humanizing nature"; "passion itself imitates order"; "beauty is the union of the shapely with the vital"; "the subjects chosen for works of art should be such as really are capable of being expressed and conveyed within the limits of those arts." Wordsworth's "Preface"[4] to his epoch-making early poems should be read in connection with Coleridge's comments in the "Biographia Literaria," and in the light of the well-known fact as to the proposed division of labor between the two young poets in the composition of the "Lyrical Ballads." Coleridge intended to treat supernatural objects as if they really existed. Wordsworth wished to find in natural objects elements of novelty and surprise, that is, the romance of everyday experience. The two methods blended of course, like the colors at the extreme edges of the spectrum. Wordsworth's successive statements of his purpose emphasize now his use of "the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes," as if it were mainly a question of poetic diction; then he stresses the necessity of truth to "the primary laws of our nature," and debates the æsthetic question of "the association of ideas in a state of excitement"; finally, he qualifies his first utterances by pointing out that the diction should be a "selection of language really used by men," and that the incidents and situations treated by the poet should have "a certain colouring of the imagination." Such criticism as this, if accompanied by close study of the verbal alterations which Wordsworth made in the text of his poems as his theories changed, is in the highest degree stimulating and profitable.


The influence of Coleridge is traceable throughout Shelley's "Defence of Poetry"[5] (1821). Shelley rides into the lists with as high a heart as Sidney, to repel the attack, not of the "moralists" but of the utilitarians. He is not conscious, like Sidney, Dryden, and Arnold, of the history of criticism. He has steeped himself, it is true, in Plato, but he writes with the enthusiasm of a new and personal vision. Poetry, to him, is primarily the expression of the imagination: "it redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man"; "it is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds"; "a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth"; poetry "acts in a divine but unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness"; "a poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one." Though the student of poetical theory can easily claim that such sentences as these are post-Coleridgean, they are really timeless, like the glorious spirit of Shelley itself.

Poe's essay on "The Poetic Principle,"[6] written to serve as a lecture during the last year (1849) of his brief life, illustrates his conviction that "the truly imaginative mind is never otherwise than analytic." As applied to Shelley, this dictum is far from true, but it expresses Poe's idealization of his own extraordinary gift for logical analysis. He was a craftsman who was never weary of explaining the trade secrets of his art, and though his criticism is uneven in quality and uninformed by deep and accurate scholarship, he expounded certain critical principles with incomparable clearness.

In "The Poetic Principle," together with some popularization of Coleridge, and some admixture no doubt of that "fudge" which Lowell thought so inextricably compounded with Poe's "genius," there will be found the famous definition of the "Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty." Poetry, according to Poe, excites, by elevating the soul. But as all excitements, by psychological necessity, are transient, it is only short poems that are truly poems at all. Such brief and indeterminate glimpses of the supernal loveliness, "the creation of supernal beauty," is the poet's struggle and despair. If Poe's formulation of the task and method of poetry lacks, as it doubtless does, universal validity, it is nevertheless a key to the understanding of his own exquisitely musical fragments of lyric verse.


Walt Whitman, like Poe and Coleridge, is mystic and transcendental in his theory of poetry. Unlike them, he is an arch-rebel in poetic practice. The Preface to "Leaves of Grass"[7] (1855) is not so much a critical essay as a manifesto. It is vociferous, impassioned, inconsecutive. Some paragraphs of it were later turned into verse, so rich was it in emotion. The central theme is the opportunity which the immediate age in America offers to the poet. The past has had its fit poetical expression, but the new world of democracy and science now demands a different type of bard. The qualifications are obdurately clear: he must love the earth and animals and common people; he must be in his own flesh a poem, at one with the universe of things; his soul must be great and unconstrained. He must perceive that everything is miraculous and divine. The poet is to be the priest of the new age, and of all the coming ages. Whitman does not enter, in the Preface, upon the discussion of the technique of his own unmetrical, rhapsodic verse. Yet this verse, which has challenged the attention of two generations, and which is slowly making its way toward general recognition, is scarcely to be understood without a knowledge of the theory of poetry which underlies it. The Preface states that theory, confusedly, if one tries to parse and weigh it sentence by sentence, but adequately, if one watches simply, as Whitman bids, the "drift" of it.


"I do not contest Mr. Walt Whitman's powers and originality," wrote Matthew Arnold in 1866, but he adds this warning: "No one can afford in literature to trade merely on his own bottom and to take no account of what the other ages and nations have acquired: a great original literature America will never get in this way, and her intellect must inevitably consent to come, in a considerable measure, into the European movement." It is not the least useful service of Arnold's own essay on "The Study of Poetry"[8] that it takes us at once into this European movement. The essay was written as a preface to a collection of English verse—"one great contributory stream to the world river of poetry." Arnold insists throughout, in characteristic fashion, upon the necessity of developing a sense for the best, for the really excellent. He points out the fallacies involved in the purely historical and the purely personal estimates. He uses lines and expressions of the great masters as "touchstones" for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality. He takes Aristotle's remark about the "higher truth" and "higher seriousness" of poetry as compared to history, and tests therewith the "classic" matter and manner of English poets.

There are pitfalls, without question, lurking in the path of Arnold's apparently sure-footed and adroit method, but the temper of his performance needs no praise. He brings us steadily and serenely back to "the European movement," to the laws and standards that endure. But he also teaches that life and art are inexhaustible in their resources. "The future of poetry is immense"; that is the first sentence of Arnold's essay; and it will be also the confirmed final truth of any reader who has taken pains to acquaint himself with the utterance of poets about poetry. Walter Bagehot wrote long ago: "The bare idea that poetry is a deep thing, a teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown.... All about and around us a faith in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is not extricated. Some day, at the touch of the true word, the whole confusion will by magic cease; the broken and shapeless notions will cohere and crystallize into a bright and true theory." We are still waiting, no doubt, for that true and final word, but if it is ever spoken, it is likely to be uttered by one of the poets.

  1. Harvard Classics, xxvii, 5ff.
  2. H. C., xxxix, 153ff.
  3. H. C., xxvii, 255ff.
  4. H. C., xxxix, 267ff., 292ff., 311ff.
  5. H. C., xxvii, 329ff.
  6. H. C., xxviii, 371ff.
  7. H. C., xxxix, 388ff.
  8. H. C., xxviii, 65ff.