The Nature and Elements of Poetry/Melancholia
We have considered ancient poetry, the Hebraic and the classic, from which we so largely Subjective undertone of later epic masterpieces.derive, finding even in that of the Augustan prime a marked departure from the originative temper of the earlier literatures. Centuries afterward, in Persia, the "Shah Nameh," or Book of Kings, furnished a striking instance of heroic composition: the work of a royal genius,—Firdusi, whose name, signifying Paradise, Firdusi.was given him by the great Mahmoud because he had made that Caliph's court as resplendent as Eden through his epic of "Rustem and Sohrab," his song of "the rise, combats, death" of the Parsee religion and nationality. To produce an epic deliberately that would simulate the primitive mould and manner, in spite of a subjective, almost modern, spirit, seems to have been the privilege of an Oriental, and, from our point of view, half-barbaric, race.
The strength of the Homeric poems and of the sagas of the North betrays the gladness out of which they sprang, the joy that a man-child is born into the world. They were men-children indeed. Compared Tasso, Ariosto, Camoëns.with our own recitals,—with even Tasso's "Jerusalem," Ariosto's "Orlando," or the "Lusiad" of Camoëns,—their voice is that of the ocean heard before the sighing of reeds along a river's brim. Nevertheless, we must note that of the few great world-poems the subjective element claims its almost equal share.
As we leave the classic garden, there stands one The "Divina Commedia."mighty figure with the archangelic flaming sword. After Dante it may be said that "the world is all before" us "where to choose." Behind him, strive as we may with renaissance and imitation, we need not and cannot return. Heine says that "every epoch is a sphinx which plunges into the abyss as soon as its problem is solved." After a thousand years of the fermentation caused by the pouring in of Christianity upon the lees of paganism, a cycle ended; the shade of Dante arose, and brooded above the deep. From his time there was light again. A climacteric epoch had expired in giving him birth. His own age became Dante, as if by one of the metamorphoses in the "Inferno." And the "Divine Comedy" is equally one with its creator. The age, the poem, the poet, alike are Dante; his epic is a trinity in spirit as in form. Its passion is the incremental heat that serves to weld antique and modern conceptions, the old dispensation and the new.
It is said that great poets are always before or behind their ages; Dante was no exception,Dante. yet he preëminently lived within his time. Above all else, his epic declares the intense personality that must have voice; not merely expression of the emotion that inspired his minor numbers—themselves enough for fame—addressed to Beatrice, but also of his insight concerning the master forces of human life and faith and the historic turmoil of his era. It was composed when he had matured through knowledge and experience to that ethical comprehension which is the sustaining energy of Job, of the Greek dramatists, of Shakespeare, Milton, and Goethe. Then he cast his spirit, as one takes a mould of the body, in the matrix of the "Divina Commedia." In this self-perpetuation he interpreted his own time as no modern genius can hope to do,—and this is the achievement of personality at its highest. That he might succeed, he was disciplined by controversy, war, grief, exile, until the scales fell from his eyes, and he saw, within the glory of his Church's exaltation, the vice, tyranny, superstition, of that Church at that time, of his people, of his native state. His heart was strengthened for judgment, his manhood for hate, and his vision was set heavenward for an ideal. His epic, then, while dramatically creative, is The man, the age, and the poem.at the apex of subjective poetry, doubly so from its expression of both the man and the time; hence our chief example of the mixed type,—that which is compounded of egoism and inventive imagination. Its throes are those of a transition from absolute art to the sympathetic method of the new day.
Dante could effect this only by a symbolism combining the supreme emblems of pagan and Christian schools.
In his allegory of Hell, Purgatory, and, above all, of Paradise, he is the most profound and aspiring of ethical teachers. The feebler handling of symbolism, for art's sake and beauty's, and with an affectation of the virtues, is seen in the "Faërie Queene" of our courtly Spenser, the poet's poet, yet one who never reached the mountain-top of absolute ethics. The tinker Bunyan's similitudes—and he was essentially a poet, writing in English beyond a mere scholar's mastery—are more intrinsically dramatic. But they illustrate a rigid creed, and are below the imagery that sets forth equally human crime and "On a Bust of Dante." By T. W. Parsons.nobleness, the vision that illumines life, churchcraft, statecraft, nationality, art, and religion. Within the eternal blazon of that saturnine bard whose
Betrays no spirit of repose,
The sullen warrior sole we trace,
The marble man of many woes.
Such was his mien when first arose
The thought of that strange tale divine,
When hell he peopled with his foes,
Dread scourge of many a guilty line.
War to the last he waged with all
The tyrant canker-worms of Earth;
Baron and duke, in hold and hall,
Cursed the dark hour that gave him birth;
He used Rome's harlot for his mirth;
Plucked bare hypocrisy and crime;
But valiant souls of knightly worth
Transmitted to the rolls of Time."
The antique charm, meanwhile, had fled to England, ever attaching itself to the youth of From Chaucer to Milton.poesy in each new land. The English springtime!—to be young in it is very heaven, since it is the fairest of all such seasons in all climes. It gladdens the meadows and purling streams of Dan Chaucer's Tales and Romaunts, and in their minstrelsy he forgot himself, like a child that roams afield in May. With Spenser, and the Tudor sonneteers, the self-expressive poetry of England fairly begins. They, and their common antique and Italian models, were the teachers of Milton in his youth. The scholar gave us what is still in the front rank of our English masterpieces and, with one exception, the latest of those rhythmical creations which belong to the world at large.
Milton in his epic appears less determinedly as the rhapsodist in person than Dante in "Paradise Lost."the "Divine Comedy." He sees his vision by invocation of the Muse, while the Florentine is "personally conducted," one may say, on his tour through the three phantasmal abodes. Doubtless "Paradise Lost" is the more objective work; but with the unparalleled Miltonic utterance, its author's polemic creeds of liberty and religion are conveyed throughout. He also stands foremost among the bards of qualified vision, by virtue of "Samson Agonistes," a classical drama in which he himself indubitably towers as the blind and fettered protagonist.
Milton's early verse is the flower of his passion The minor poems of Milton.for beauty and learning, and exquisite beyond that of any young English poet then or now, his pupil Keats excepted. Had he died after "Il Penseroso," "L'Allegro," and "Lycidas," he would have been mourned like Keats; for their perfection is to-day the model (though usually at second hand) of artists in English verse. In "Lycidas" he freed our rhythm from its first enslavement; its second lasted from Pope's time until the Georgian revival. One mark of the subjectivity of his early poems often has been noted,—they are none too realistic in their transcripts of nature. Milton, as in his greater work, looked inward, and drew his landscape from the Arcadian vistas thus beheld. Besides, he was such a master of the Greek, Latin, and Italian literatures as to be native to their idioms His self-expression in the great Puritan epic.and spirit. His more resolute self-assertion came in argument and song after experience of imposing national events and sore private calamities, when the man was ripe in thought, faith, suffering, and all that makes for character and exaltation. The universe, as he conceived it, was his theme. His hero, the majestic Satan of his own creation, outvies the Æschylean demigod. The Puritan bard, like Dante, idealized an era and a religion. In the matter and style of the sublimest epic of Christendom its maker's individuality everywhere is felt. The blind seer seems dictating it throughout. We see his head bowed upon his breast; we hear the prophetic voice rehearsing its organ-tones; and thus we should see and hear, even if we could forget that outburst at the opening of the Third Book, wherein, after the radiant conception of the "Eternal coeternal beam," the sonorous declaration of his purposed higher flight, and the pathetic references to his blindness, his final invocation enables all after-time to recognize the inward light from which his imagination drew its splendor:
"So much the rather thou, celestial Light,
Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers
Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence
Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell
Of things invisible to mortal sight."
Milton's eventide sonnets, incomparable for virility and eloquence, are also nobly pathetic; His sonnets.there are no personal strains more full of heroic endurance. Not again was there a minstrel so resolved on personal expression, yet so creative, so full of conviction that often begat didacticism, yet so sensitive to impressions of beauty, until we come to Shelley—and his flight, alas! was ended, while, as Arnold says, he was still "beating in the void his luminous wings in vain."
But the nineteenth century, complex through its Our modern and characteristic poetry of self-expression.interfusion of peoples and literatures, and with all history behind it, has developed the typical poetry of self-expression, and withal a new interpretation of life and landscape through the impressionism of its artists and poets. All this began with the so-called romantic movement.
Kingsley, in his "Hypatia," brings the pagan The Romantic Movement.Goths of the North, fair-haired worshippers of Odin, giants in their barbaric strength, to Christian Alexandria, where they loom above the Greek, the Roman, and the Jew. In time they overran and to some extent blended with the outer world. It is strange how little they affected its art and letters. Not until after the solvent force of Christianity had done its work could the Northern heart and imagination suffuse the stream of classicism with the warm yet beclouded quality of their own tide. Passion and understanding, as Menzel has declared, represent the antique; the romantic—the word being Latin, the quality German—is all depth and tenderness. To comprehend the modern movement,—vague, emotional, transcendental,—which really began in Germany, read Heine on "The Romantic School," of which he himself, younger than Arnim and Goethe, was a luxuriant offshoot. It came into England with Coleridge, with Leigh Hunt and Keats, and found its extreme in Byron. Later still, it fought a victorious campaign in France, under the young Hugo and his comrades. In fine, with color, warmth, feeling, picturesqueness, the iridescent wave swept over Europe, and to the Western world,—affecting our own poetry and fiction since the true rise of American ideality. Upon its German starting-ground the imperial Goethe Goethe.was enthroned, but he has been almost the only universalist and world-poet of its begetting. For he not only produced with ease the lyrics that made all younger minstrels his votaries, but was fertile in massive and purposely objective work. The drama was his life-study, and he sought to be, like Shakespeare, dramatist and manager in one. "Faust," the master-work of our century, is an "Faust."epochal creation. Yet even "Faust" is the reflection of Goethe's experience as the self-elected archetype of Man, and is subjective in its ethical intent and individuality. Still, the master's tranquil, almost Jovian, nature enabled him often to separate his personality from his inventions. This Hugo.more rarely is the case with the only Frenchman comparable to him in scope and dramatic fertility,—superior to him in energy of lyrical splendor. Melodramatic power and imagination are the twin genii of Hugo, and his human passion is intense; but his own strenuous, untamed temperament compels us everywhere, even in his romantic and historic plays. He was the true creator of modern French literature, for which he furnished a new vocabulary, and he brought France out of her frigid classicism into line with the Northern world. Then came Lamartine Other French romanticists.with his sentiment, and Musset and Gautier, children of Paris and Helen, consecrate from birth to the abandon of emotion and beauty, and equally with Lamartine to the poetry of self-expression.
Long before, in Scotland, a more spontaneous minstrel Burns.also had sung out of the fulness of the music born within him, but with a tone that separated him from the choir of purely subjective poets. Burns was altruistic, because his songs were those of his people. In his notes amid the heather, Scotia's lowly, independent children found a voice. It was his own, and it was theirs; he looked out and not in, or, if in, upon himself as the symbol of his kind. Of all our poets, lyric and idyllic, he is most truly nature's darling; his pictures were life, his voice was freedom, his heart was strength and tenderness. Yet Burns,
"who walked in glory and in joy,
Following his plough, along the mountain-side,"
is not a child of the introspective Muse. Relatively late as was his song, he stands glad and brave among the simple, primitive, and therefore universal minstrels.
No; it is in Byron, with his loftier genius and more self-centred emotions, that we find our main example of voice and vision conditioned by the temperament of their possessor. Objective Byron the typical subjective poet.poetry, being native to the youth of a race before self-torturing sophistry has wrought bewilderment, seemingly should appeal to the youth of an individual. And thus it does, but to the youngest youth,—that of a wonder-loving child, whom the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," or Scott's epical romances, delight, and who can make little of metrical sentimentalism. The world-weary veteran also finds it a refreshment; his arrogance has been lessened, and he has been taught that his griefs and dreams are but the common lot.
Yet it is plain that subjective poetry, if sensuous and passionate, strongly affects susceptible The ferment of new wine.natures at a certain stage of immaturity. Now that town life is everywhere, we see the Wertherism of former days replaced by a kind of jejune æstheticism, with its own peculiar affectation of wit and indifference. But to the secluded youth, not yet concerned with action and civic life, subjective poetry still makes a mysterious appeal. Sixty years ago the young poet of the period, consciously or otherwise, became a Childe Harold, among men, "but not of them;" one who had "not loved the world, nor the world" him. He found a mild dissipation in contemplating his fancied miseries, and was a tragic personage in his own eyes, and usually a coxcomb in those of the unfeeling neighborhood. This mock-heroic pose, so often without a compensating gift, was and is due to the novel consciousness of individuality that comes to each and all,—to the over-consciousness of it which many sentimentalists, against a thousand slights and failures, retain by arrested development to the end of their days. At its best, we have poetic sensibility intensified by egotism. Keats understood this Keats and his unflinching self-analysis.clearly, even when experiencing it. In spite of the real tragedy of his career, he manfully outgrew it; his poetry swiftly advanced to the robust and creative type, as he wasted under a fatal illness and even in his heart's despair. And what better diagnosis of a young poet's greensickness than these words from the touching preface to "Endymion"?
It was preordained that even this limbo of life should have an immortal voice, and that voice was Byron. Until his time the sturdy English folk had escaped the need of it. This came with a peculiar agitation of the national sentiment. That Byron found his fame, and the instant power to create an audience for his captivating monodrama, restricted him to a single and almost lifelong mood. This was the more prolonged since it was thoroughly in temper with an eager generation. The French Revolution led to a perception of the insufficiency and brutalism of contemporary systems. Rebellion was in the air, and a craving for some escape Byron and his period.to political, spiritual, and social freedom. Byron pointed out the paths by land and sea to a proud solitude, to a refuge with nature and art which the blunted public taste had long forgotten, and he sang so eloquently withal that he drew more than a third part of the rising stars of Europe after him. Their leader is the typical bard of self-expression, not only for the superb natural strength, and directness, and passion of a lyrical genius that forces us to bear with its barbaric ignorance of both art and realism, but because he sustained it to the end of his career in a purely romantic atmosphere. This pervades even the kaleidoscopic "Don Juan," the main achievement of his ripest years, strengthened as it is by the vigor of which humor is the surplusage and an easy-going tolerance the disposition. It must always be considered, in so far as his development was arrested, that Byron was a lord, born and bred in the British Philistinism against which his nature protested, and that the protest was continued because the fortress did not yield to assault. And he had no Byron for a predecessor, as an object-lesson in behalf of naturalness and common sense.
Shelley, who came and went like a spirit, and whose poetry seemed the aureole of a strayed visitor from some translunary sphere, is even more Shelley.present to us than Byron, with whom, by the law that brings the wandering moths of nightfall together, his life touched closely during its later years. His self-portrayal is as much more beautiful and poetic than Byron's as it is more truthful, unaffected,—drawn wholly for self-relief. That it had no theatrical motive is clear from internal evidence, and from his biographer's avowal that he had gained scarcely fifty readers when he died. Byron was consciously a soliloquist on the stage, with the whole reading world to applaud him from the auditorium. Again, while nothing can be more His self-utterance.poignantly intense than Shelley's self-delineation in certain stanzas of the "Adonais," and throughout "Alastor," selfishness and egotism had no foothold in his nature. He was altruism incarnate. His personal sufferings were emblematic of wronged and baffled humanity. Thus His creative productions, and those of Keats, Landor, and Coleridge.it was that when removed somewhat from the battle-field, and in the golden Italian clime of beauty and song, his art instinct asserted itself; his poetic faculty at once became more absolute, and he produced "The Cenci," "Prometheus Unbound," and shorter lyrical pieces more than sufficient to prove his greatness in essentially creative work. And thus it was, as we have seen, with Keats, who caught by turns the spirits of Greece, of Italy, of the North. Landor did the same, with his "Hellenics," with his "Pericles and Aspasia," "Pentameron," and "Citation of Shakespeare." But Landor, with the fieriest personal temper conceivable, was, like Alfieri, though of a totally different school, another being when at work, an artist to his fingers' ends. So was Coleridge at times, when he shook himself like Samson: not the subjective brother-in-arms of Wordsworth, but the Coleridge of the imagination and haunting melody and sovereign judgment unparalleled in his time,—Coleridge of "The Ancient Mariner," and "Christabel," and "Kubla Khan," whose loss to the highest field of poetic design is something for which one never can quite forgive theology and metaphysics. Of Wordsworth, the real master of the Wordsworth.Victorian self-absorption, I shall speak at another time, with respect to our modern conception of the sympathetic quality of nature. To conclude, the prodigal Georgian school, springing from The Georgian School.a soil that had lain fallow for a hundred years, was devoted as a whole to self-utterance, but magnificently so. Of course a reaction set in, and we now complete the more restrained, scholarly, analytic, artistic Victorian period,—a time, I fully believe, of equally imaginative effort, yet of an effort, as we shall see, that usually has taken, so far as concerns dramatic invention, a direction other than rhythmic.
Meanwhile, Heinrich Heine, of the intermediate generation, and the countryman of Goethe, Heine.began, one might say, where Byron left off. His whole song is the legacy of his personal mood, but that was full of restless changes from tears and laughter, from melody and love and tenderness, to scorn and cynicism, and again from agnosticism to faith. In youth, and at intervals until his death, his dominant key was like Byron's,—dissatisfaction, longing, the pursuit of an illusive ideal, the love of love and fame. There was an apparent decline, after disordered years, in Byron's powers both physical and mental. Yet his Greek campaign bade fair to bring him to something better than his best. He had the soldier's temperament. Action of the heroic kind was what he needed, and might have led to the "sudden making" of a still more splendid name. Heine was many beings in one: a Jew by race, a German by birth, a Parisian by adoption, taste, and instinct for the beautiful. His outlook, then, was broader than that of the English poet. His writing was also a revolt, but against the age as that of a Jew, and against contemporary Philistinism as that of an Arcadian. Byron became a cosmopolite; Heine was born one. In the world's theatre he stood behind the scenes of the motley "Most musical, most melancholy."human drama. He wrought its plaint and laughter into a fantastic music of his own, with a genius both sorrowful and sardonic; always like one enduring life as a penance, and suffering from the acute consciousness of some finer existence the clew to which was denied him:—
"In every clime and country
There lives a Man of Pain,
Whose nerves, like chords of lightning,
Bring fire into his brain:
To him a whisper is a wound,
A look or sneer a blow;
More pangs he feels in years or months
Than dunce-throng'd ages know."
Heine felt, and avowed, that the actual song-motive is a heart-wound, without which "the true poet cannot sing sweetliest." His mocking note, The mocking note.which from its nature was not the sanest art, was quickly caught by younger poets, and repeated as if they, too, meant it, and for its air of experience and maturity. With real maturity they usually hastened to escape from it altogether.
I think that the impersonal element in art may be termed masculine, and that there is something The major and minor keys of lyric song.feminine in a controlling impulse to lay bare one's own heart and experience. This is as it should be: certainly a man's attributes are pride and strength,—strength to wrestle, upon occasion, without speech until the daybreak. The fire of the absolutely virile workman consumes its own smoke. But the artistic temperament is, after all, androgynous. The woman's intuition, sensitiveness, nervous refinement join with the reserved power and creative vigor of the man to form the poet. As those or these predominate, we have the major strain, or the minor appeal for human sympathy and the proffer of it. A man must have a notable gift or a very exalted nature to make people grateful for his confessions. The revelations of the feminine heart are the more beautiful and welcome, because the typical woman is purer, more unselfish, more consecrated, than the typical man. Through her ardent self-revelations our ideals of sanctity are maintained. She may even, like a child, be least self-conscious when most unrestrained in self-expression. Assuredly this was so in the case of the Mrs. Browning.greatest woman-poet the modern world has known. Mrs. Browning's lyrics, every verse sealed with her individuality, glowing with sympathy, and so unconsciously and unselfishly displaying the nobility of her heart and intellect, have made the earth she trod sacred, and her resting-place a shrine. Her impassioned numbers are her most artistic. The "Sonnets from the Portuguese," at the extreme of proud self-avowal, are equal in beauty, feeling, and psychical analysis to any series of sonnets in any tongue,—Shakespeare's not excepted.
I have alluded to Alfieri. The poets of modern National sentiment.Italy, romantic as they are, still derive closely from the antique, and they have applied themselves considerably to the drama and to the higher lyrical forms of verse. Chafing as they did so long under the Austrian sway, their more elevated odes, as you will see in Mr. Howells's treatise, have been charged with "the longing for freedom, the same impulse toward unity, toward nationality, toward Italy." Poetry that has been the voice and force of a nation occupies, as I have said, a middle ground between our two extremes. It has an altruistic quality. The same generous fervor impetuously distinguished the trumpet-tongued lyrics of our Hebraic Whittier, and the unique outgivings of Lowell's various muse, in behalf of liberty and right. Those were "Noble Numbers;" and, in truth, the representative national sentiment—of which ideas of liberty, domesticity, and religion are chief components—pervades the lyrics of our elder American poets from Bryant to Taylor and Stoddard. Whitman's faith in the common people, in democracy strong and simple, has gained him world-wide honor. Subjective as they are, few poets, in any era or country—and historians will come to recognize this clearly—have been more national than our own.
The latest school, with its motto of art for art's sake, has industriously refined music, Self-conscious technicists.color, design, and the invention of forms. But its poets and painters show a kind of self-consciousness in the ostentatious preference of their art to themselves, even in their prostration at the feet of "Our Lady of Beauty." Their motive is so intrusive that the result, although alluring, often smacks of artisanship rather than of free and natural art. Their early leaders, such as the young Tennyson and Rossetti in England, and Gautier in France, effected a potent, a charming, a sorely needed restoration of the beautiful. But the Laureate has lived to see another example of his own saying that a good fashion may corrupt the world. The French Parnassiens, the English-writing Neo-Romanticists, are more constructive than spontaneous, and decorative most of all. They have so diffused the technic of finished verse that the making of it is noFin de siècle. more noteworthy than a certain excellence in piano playing. They plainly believe, with Schopenhauer, that "everything has been sung. Everything has been cursed. There is nothing left for poetry but to be the glowing forge of words."
This curious, seemingly impersonal poetry, composedLatter-day verse. with set purpose, finds a counterpart in some of the bewildering recent architecture. How rarely can we say of the architect and his work,
"He builded better than he knew:
The conscious stone to beauty grew."
The artist and the builder are too seldom one. The poet just quoted, when on a trip to New Hampshire, found a large building going up in a country town. "Who is the architect?" he said. "Oh, there isn't any architect settled upon as yet," was the reply; "I'm just a-building it, you see, and there's a chap coming from Boston next month to put the architecture into it." So it is with a good deal of our latter-day verse. It does not rise "like an exhalation." It is merely the similitude of the impersonal, and art for the artist's sake rather than Its lack of the creative impersonality.for the sake of art. Its one claim to objectivity is, in fact, the lack of any style whatever, except that derived by the rank and file from their study of the chiefs. It is all in the fashion, and all done equally well. Even the leaders, true and individual poets as they have been,—Tennyson, Rossetti, Swinburne, Morris, Sully Prudhomme, Banville, often have seemed to compose perfunctorily, not from inspired impulse. Read "The Earthly Paradise," that seductive, tranquillizing, prolonged, Morris and Walter Scott: an illustration.picturesque rehearsal of the old wonder-tales. Its phantasmagoric golden haze, so often passing into twilight sadness, has veiled the quality of youth in those immortal legends. What is this that Morris fails to capture in his forays upon the "Odyssey," the "Decameron," Chaucer, the "Gesta Romanorum," the "Edda," the "Nibelungen Lied"? Can it never come again? Has it really passed away? Did it wake for the last time in those lusty octosyllabic romances of the Wizard of the North, such as "Marmion" and the "Lay of the Last Minstrel"? Careless, faulty, diffuse as they were, those cantos were as alive as Scotland herself, and fresh with the same natural genius, disdaining to hoard itself, that produced the Waverley novels. If Scott has had no successor, it is doubtless because the age has needed none. We have moved into another plane, not necessarily a lower but certainly a different one.
With respect to style, Swinburne is the most subjective of contemporary poets, yet he has made notable successes in dramatic verse,—chief of all, and earliest, the "Atalanta in Calydon," with whose Swinburne.auroral light a new star arose above our horizon. Nothing had been comparable to its imaginative music since the "Prometheus Unbound," and it surpassed even that—for its author had Shelley for a predecessor—in miracles of rhythmic melody. The "Prometheus" surges with its author's appeal from tyranny; "Atalanta" is a pure study in the beautiful, as statuesque as if done in Pentelican marble. Its serene verse, impressive even in the monometric dialogue, its monologues and transcendent choruses,—conceived in the spirit of Grecian art, but introducing cadences unknown before,—all these are of the first order. The human feeling that we miss in "Atalanta" is, on the other hand, a dramatic factor in Swinburne's Trilogy of Mary Stuart. But in his most impersonalThe worth and disadvantage of a strongly individual style. work his fiery lyrical gift and individuality will not be suppressed. The noble dramas of Henry Taylor and Hengist Horne are more objective, but cannot vie with Swinburne's in poetic splendor. Now, as you know, this unrivalled voice is instantly recognized in his narrative romances, or in any strophe or stanza of his plenteous odes and songs. The result is that his vogue has suffered. His metrical genius is too specific, too enthralling, to be over-long endured. Thus the distinctive tone, however beautiful, which soonest compels attention, as quickly satiates the public. The subjective poets who restrict their fertility, or who die young, are those whom the world canonizes before their bones are dust.
While, then, a few modern poets, at times as absorbed as Greeks in their work, have Temperament. been strenuously impulsive in temper and in the conduct of life, among them Alfieri, Foscolo, Hugo, Landor, Horne, and various lights of the art-school from Keats onward,—the artist's temperament usually in the end determines the order of his product: clearly so in such cases as those of Leopardi, James Thomson, Baudelaire, Poe. Sympathetic examination of the poetry will give you the poet. A fine recent instance of an introspective Arnold's conflict with his genius.nature overcoming the purpose formed by critical judgment was that of Matthew Arnold. A preface to the second edition of his poems avowed and defended his poetic creed. Reflection upon the antique, and the study of Goethe, had convinced him that only objective art is of value, and that the most of that which is infected with modern sentiment is dilettanteism. Art must be preferred to ourselves. Action is the main thing; more than human dramatic greatness alone saves even Shakespeare's dramas from being weakened by "felicities" of thought and expression. The poet-critic accordingly proffered his two heroic episodes, "Balder Dead" and "Sohrab and Rustum,"—both His objective studies."Homeric echoes," though in their slow iambic majesty violating his own canon that the epic movement should be swift. These are indeed the tours de force of intellect and constructive taste. There are fine things in both, but the finest passages are reflective, Arnoldian, or, like the sonorous impersonation of the river Oxus, and the picture of Balder's funeral pyre, elaborately descriptive, and unrelated to the action of the poems. Now, these blank-verse structures are not quite spontaneous; they do not possess what Arnold himself calls the "note of the inevitable." The ancients, doing by instinct what he bade us imitate, had no cause to lay down such a maxim as his,—that the poet "is most fortunate when he most entirely succeeds in effacing himself." They worked in the manner of their time. Schlegel points out that when even the Greeks imitated Greeks their triumph ended. A modern, who does this upon principle, virtually fails to profit by their example. In the end he has to yield. Arnold was beloved by His more spontaneous expression.his pupils—by those whom he stimulated as Emerson stimulated American idealists—for the poetry wherein he was in truth most fortunate, that is, in which he most entirely and unreservedly expressed himself; in verse, for the tender, personal, subtly reflective lyrics that seem like tremulous passages from a psychical journal; most of all, perhaps, for those which so convey the spirit of youth,—the youth of his own doubting, searching, freedom-sworn Oxonian group—a group among whom he and Clough, his scholar-gypsy, were leaders in their search for unsophisticated nature and life, in their regret for inaction, their yearning for new light, their belief that love and hope are the most that we can get from this mortal existence. It was Arnold's sensitive and introspective temperament, so often saddening him, that brought his intellect into perfect comprehension of Heine, Joubert, Sénancour, and, doubtless, Amiel. His career "Look in thy heart and write.".strengthens my belief that the true way is the natural one,—that way into which the artist is led by impulse, modified by the disposition of his time. Burns was a force because he was not Greek, nor even English, but Scottish, entirely national, and withal intensely personal. Scott's epics are founded in the true romantic ballads of the North. A few of us read and delight in "Balder Dead;" "Marmion," a less artistic poem, gave pleasure far and wide, and still holds its own. I confess that this again suggests my old question concerning Landor, "Shall not the wise, no less than the witless, have their poets?" and that, whether wise or otherwise, I prefer to read "Balder Dead;" but I have observed that poetry, however admirable, A consideration.which appeals solely to a studious class rarely becomes in the end a part of the world's literature. Palgrave, in the preface to "The Golden Treasury," significantly declares that he "has found the vague general verdict of popular Fame more just than those have thought who, with too severe a criticism, would confine judgments on poetry to 'the selected few of many generations.'"
Like Arnold, nearly all his famous peers of the recent composite period have made attractive experiments in the objective and antique fields, though less openly upon conviction. Yet Tennyson and Browning are essentially English and modern, as Emerson, Longfellow, Whittier, are American and New-English, while Lowell's memorable verse is true to the atmosphere, landscape, national spirit, dialect, of his own land, and always true to his ethical convictions. Our minor artists in verse succeed as to simplicity and sensuousness in their renaissance work, but fail with respect to its passion,—for to simulate that requires vigorous dramatic power. The latter is rarely displayed; its substitute is the note of Self. If this be so, let us make the best of it, and furnish striking individualities for some future age to admire, as we admire the creations of our predecessors. At all events, the poet must not dare anything against nature. Let him obey Wordsworth's injunction,
"If thou indeed derive thy light from Heaven,
Then, to the measure of that heaven-born light,
Shine, Poet! in thy place, and be content."
But are there, then, no dramatic works in recent literature? Yes; more than in any former time, if you do not insist upon poetic form and rhythm. While the restriction adopted for these The modern creative spirit and its chief mode of activity.lectures excludes that which is merely inventive composition, you know that prose fiction is now the principal result of our dramatic impulse. The great modern novels are Our prose fiction. Cp. "Poets of America": p. 463.more significant than much of our best poetry. What recent impersonal poem or drama, if you except "Faust," excels in force and characterization "Guy Mannering" and the "Bride of Lammermoor," "Notre Dame de Paris," "Les Trois Mousquetaires," "Père Goriot," "On the Heights," "Dimitri Rudini," "Anna Karénina," "With Fire and Sword," "Vanity Fair," "Henry Esmond," "The Newcomes," "Bleak House," "The Tale of Two Cities," "The Cloister and the Hearth," "Westward Ho!" "Adam Bede," "Romola," "Lorna Doone," "Wuthering Heights," "The Pilot," "The Scarlet Letter," "The Deluge," and other prose masterpieces with which you are as familiar as were the Athenians with the plays of Euripides? More than one of them, it is true, reflects the author's inner life (but so does "Faust"), and is all the more intense for it. The free nature of the novel seems to make subjectivity itself dramatic. Certainly, the individuality of a Bronté, a Thackeray, a Hawthorne, or a Meredith does not lead us to prefer G. P. R. James, or put them on a lower plane than the strictly objective one of De Foe, Jane Austen, Dumas. Our second-rate novels are chiefly mechanical inventions turned off for a market which the modern press has created and is ominously enlarging. However, with such an outlet for the play of the invention which, three centuries ago, spent its strength upon the rhythmical drama, it is no wonder that even our foremost poets look out to rival ranges, with now and then still another peak above them; and these lectures would seem an anachronism were it not that it is a good time to observe the nature of an object when it is temporarily inactive.
Except for this prose fiction superadded to the The nineteenth century: its literary distinction.best poetic achievements of the modern schools, the nineteenth century would not have been, as I believe it to have been, nearly equal in general literary significance (as in science it is superior) to the best that preceded it. It is difficult for critics to project themselves beyond their time; perceiving its shortcomings, they are prone to underestimate what in after time may seem a peculiar literary eminence. To all the splendor of our greatest fiction must be united the romance of the Georgian poetic school and the composite beauty and thought of the Victorian, that this statement may be sound with respect to the literature of our own language. While poetry and fiction both have to do with verities, Mill was not wrong when he said that the novelist gives us a true picture of life, but the poet, the truth of the soul.
From our survey, after granting that only a few world-poems exhibit the absolute epic and dramatic impersonality, it by no means follows—in spite of common assertion—that the worth of Objectivity not the chief test of poetic genius.other poetry is determined by an objective standard. The degree of self-expression is of less moment than that of the poet's genius. Subjective work is judged to be inferior, I take it, from its morbid examples. The visits of the creative masters have been as rare as those of national demigods, and ordinary composers fall immeasurably short of their station. We have the perfect form, historical or fanciful impersonations, but few striking conceptions. The result is less sincere, less inevitable, than the spontaneous utterance of true poets who yield to the passion of self-expression.
Yet we have seen that a line can be rather clearly drawn between the pagan and Christian The old and new dispensations.eras, and that there has been a loss. To think of this as a loss without some greater compensation is to believe that modern existence defies the law of evolution and is inferior as a whole to the old; that the soul of Christendom, because more perturbed and introspective, is less elevated than that of antiquity. Contrast the two, and what do we find? First, a willing self-effacement as against the distinction of individuality; secondly, the simple zest of art-creation, as against the luxury of human feeling—a sense that nourishes the flame of consolation and proffers sympathy even as it craves it;—
"That from its own love Love's delight can tell,
And from its own grief guess the shrouded Sorrow;
From its own joyousness of Joy can sing;
That can predict so well
From its own dawn the lustre of to-morrow,
The whole flight from the flutter of the wing."
This sympathy, this divinely human love, is our legacy from the Teacher who read all joys and sorrows by reading his own heart, being of like passions with ourselves,—a process wisely learned by those fortunate poets who need not fear to obey the maxim, "Look in thy heart and write!"
The Christian motive has intensified the self-expression Conventual introspection.of the modern singer. That he is subject to dangers from which the pagan was exempt, we cannot deny. His process may result in egotism, conceit, the disturbed vision of eyes too long strained inward, delirious extremes of feeling, decline of the creative gift. Probably the conventual, middle-age Church, with its retreats, penances, ecstasies, was the nursery of our self-absorption and mysticism, the alembic of the vapor which Heine saw infolding and chilling the Homeric gods when the pale Jew, crowned with thorns, entered Dürer's "Melencolia" as the Muse of Christendom.and laid his cross upon their banquet-table. It is not the wings alone of Dürer's mystic "Melencolia" that declare her to be a Christian figure. She sits among the well-used emblems of all arts, the ruins of past achievements, the materials for effort yet to come. Toil is her inspiration, exploration her instinct: she broods, she suffers, she wonders, but must still explore and design. The new learning is her guide, but to what unknown lands? The clew is almost found, yet still escapes her. Of what use are beauty, love, worship, even justice, when above her are the magic square and numbers of destiny, and the passing-bell that sounds the end of all? Before, stretches an ocean that hems her in. What beyond, and after? There is a rainbow of promise in the sky, but even beneath that the baneful portent of a flaming star. Could Dürer's "Melencolia" speak, she might indeed utter the sweet and brave, yet pathetic, poetry of our own speculative day.
Our view of the poetic temperament is doubtless a modern conceit. The ancient took life Neurotic sensitiveness.as he found it, and was content. Death he accepted as a law of nature. Desire, the lust for the unattainable, aspiration, regret,—these are our endowment, and our sufferings are due less to our slights and failures than to our own sensitiveness. Effort is required to free our introspective rapture and suffering from the symptoms of a disease. Yet there is no inevitable relation between disease and genius, and it is chiefly in modern song that "great wits are sure to madness near allied." Undoubtedly at feverish crises a flood of wild imaginings overwhelms us. Typical poets have acknowledged this,—Coleridge, Byron, Heine, who cite also the cases of Collins, Cowper, Novalis, Hoffmann, and other children of fantasy and sorrow. Coleridge pointed to those whose genius and pursuits are subjective, as often being diseased; while men of equal fame, whose pursuits are objective and universal, the Newtons and Leibnitzes, usually have been long-lived and in robust health. Bear in mind, however, the change latterly exemplified by Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Hugo, and our vigorous American Pleiad of elder minstrels, who have exhibited the sane mind in the sound body. But the question of neurotic disorder did not occur to the age of Sophocles The health of nature.and Pindar. Impersonal effort is as invigorating as nature itself: so much so that Ruskin recognizes the great writer by his guiding us far from himself to the beauty not of his creation; and Couture, a virile figure, avowed that "the decline of art commenced with the appearance of personality." Goethe, in spite of his own theory, admitted that the real fault of the new poets is that "their subjectivity is not important, and that they cannot find matter in the objective." The young poets of our own tongue are not in a very different category. The best critic, then, is the universalist, who sees the excellence of either phase of expression according as it is natural to one's race and period. A laudable subjectivity dwells in naturalness,—the lyrical force of genuine emotions, including those animated by the Zeitgeist of one's own day. All other kinds degenerate into sentimentalism.
If we have lost the antique zest, the animal happiness, the naïveté of blessed children who Modern ideality: the loss and gain.know not the insufficiency of life, or that they shall love and lose and die, we gain a new potency of art in a sublime seriousness, the heroism that confronts destiny, the faculty of sympathetic consolation, and that "most musical, most melancholy" sadness which conveys a rarer beauty than the gladdest joy,—the sadness of great souls, the art-equivalent of the melancholy of the Preacher, of Lincoln, of Christ himself, who wept often but was rarely seen to smile. The Christian world has added the minor notes to the gamut of poesy. It discovers that if indeed "our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought," it is better to suffer than to lose the power of suffering.
Commonplace objective work, then, is of no worth compared with the frank revelation of an "To thine own self be true."inspiring soul. Our human feeling now seeks for the personality of the singer to whom we yield our heart. Even Goethe breaks out with "Personality is everything in art and poetry;" Schlegel declares that "a man can give nothing to his fellow-man but himself;" and Joubert whom Sainte-Beuve has followed—says, "We must have the man.... It is human warmth and almost human substance which gives to all things that quality which charms us." This fact is a stronghold for the true impressionists. The special way in which his theme strikes the artist is his latter-day appeal. And what is style? That must be subjective. Some believe it to be the only thing which is the author's own. The modern mind understands that its compensation for the loss of absolute vision is the increase of types, the extension of range and variousness. These draw us nearer the plan of nature, that makes no two leaves alike. The value of a new piece of art now is the tone peculiar to its maker's genius. Death in art, as in nature, is now the loss of individuality,—a resolution into the elements. We seek the man behind the most impersonal work; more, the world conceives for itself ideals of its poets, artists, and heroes, plainly different from what they were, yet adapted to the suggestions received from their works and deeds.
My summary, then, is that the test of poetry is The essential rule of judgment.not by its degree of objectivity. Our inquiry concerns the poet's inspiration, his production of beauty in sound and sense, his imagination, passion, insight, thought, motive. Impersonal work may be never so correct, and yet tame and ineffective. Such are many of the formal dramas and pseudo-classical idyls with which modern literature teems. Go to, say their authors, let us choose subjects and make poems. The true bard is chosen by his theme. Lowell "waits" for "subjects that hunt me." Where the nature of the singer is noble, his inner life superior to that of other men, the more he gives us of it the more deeply we are moved. We suffer with him; he makes us sharers of his own joy. In any case the value of the poem lies in the credentials of the poet.
It is the same with all other speculations upon art: with that, for instance, concerning Disputed methods in art.realism and romanticism, of late so tediously bruited. Debate of this sort, even when relating to the Southern and the Wagnerian schools of music, or to impressional and academic modes of painting, is often inessential. It has, perchance, a certain value in stimulating the members of opposing schools. The true question is, How good is each in its kind? How striking is the gift of him who works in either fashion? Genius will inevitably find its own fashion, and as inevitably will pursue it.
- Gosse's Introduction to Miss Zimmern's Stories Retold from Firdusi.