We are not concerned with the question what Shakespeare might have been if he had lived in his prime to-day. He might perhaps have become a superlative novel-writer, since that is the field in which creation appears to be playing its chief part. But our concern is to perceive what causes helped to fashion him to that which he in fact became.
Let us first glance for a few moments at those spacious times of great Elizabeth. Why so wondrously prolific in song and play? Why so provocative of genius?
First, we may lay down the proposition that it is not times of national misery and poverty, not times of insecurity and fear, not times of weak convictions and cynicism, that produce a wealth of either great poets or great art. There is not one distinguished literary or artistic period of any country at which the national spirit was not full of the animation, enterprise, and confidence of a general well-being, or at which it was not possessed by high ideas and strong aims or strong convictions. I am speaking in broad summary. Whatever qualifications may be made for unique phenomena, this statement in the main is true. At such periods the mental vitality of a community is high; the air is charged with intellectual and artistic electricity, and great talents everywhere become the receivers and gathering-points of those electric currents. Hence poets, artists, and other creators appear simultaneously in clusters; production is abundant both in matter and in kind. At such times there is nothing withdrawn or particularly refined about the creations which pour forth. There is no room for the dilettante or petit maitre, and not much for the professional critic; it is the age of strong men; writing, painting, sculpture are full of vigour, inspiration, earnestness.
It was so at Athens in that glorious age of Pericles and the succeeding generation, the age of the great tragedians, of Thucydides, of Aristophanes and of Phidias. It was so—though with men of less original genius—in the Augustan Rome of Virgil, Horace and Livy. It was so in the rich and ardent cities of Renaissance Italy, where Da Vinci, Raphael, Michel Angelo, and Titian flourished in the same space of thirty years. It was so in the France of Louis Quatorze, when Corneille, Racine, Moliere, Pascal, and numbers of others of hardly smaller note, were writing side by side. And it was so in the times of great Elizabeth. According to Emerson there is a mental zymosis or contagion prevailing in society at such epochs. Some one has said that "No member of either house of the British Parliament will be ranked among the orators whom Lord North did not see or who did not see Lord North." If so, the cause will be found to lie in the encouragement which noble oratory then received, whereas at a later day it has "fallen into abatement and low price."
The age of Elizabeth was one of material prosperity and comfort. It was, in the main, well with men's bodies and well with their minds. They possessed not only the leisure, not only the means, but also the disposition to enjoy. It is not for the artist in any field to scorn the material prosperity of the community in which he works. After all, as history will show, it is that prosperity which makes him possible. "Plain living and high thinking" is good for himself; it is good for a nation; but plain living does not mean poverty, squalor or starvation, while high thinking cannot be done without leisure and resource. You cannot build glorious Gothic cathedrals or order sublime Madonnas out of nothing.
Elizabethan England lived in comfort. It lived also in the security of at least internal peace. The Civil Wars, which had unsettled men of all ranks and distracted their thoughts and energies, were over. Those thoughts and energies now sought another outlet. On the whole it was also an age of tolerance. England had not entered upon its phase of Puritan bigotry, nor on its licentious Anti-Puritan vengeance. Religion was in less degree a battle-ground. There were, of course, hostilities of Protestants, Catholics, and Brownists, but the two hundred and odd sects of the twentieth century were still far off, and men's time and intellectual energies—of which there is but a limited amount—were not wasted in futile discussion of sectarian minutiae.
At ease in mind, body and estate, it was natural that the age should be one of frank enjoyment—enjoyment of all that gladdens mind or eye or ear, enjoyment of rich clothes, fine houses, shows, pageantries, music, song, stories, and plays. In the revels which Scott in his Kenilworth makes Leicester prepare for the reception of Elizabeth, he is drawing upon his study of the times. Above all entertainments the play was the thing, and whether performed before the mixed auditory of the new theatres of Shoreditch or on the Southwark side, or before the Benchers of the Inns of Court, or before the Queen's Majesty herself, the drama received a welcome compared with which its appreciation in our midst is as cold as it is stinted.
And yet all this might have produced in literature and art nothing but pomp and show, or amusement more or less vulgar. In the theatre it might have ended in farce or melodrama. But happily, along with prosperity and the feeling for enjoyment, conditions were at work which made for the keenest activity of mind and every form of intellectual expansion. It would be to enlarge upon a trite theme indeed, if one dwelt upon the enterprise and discovery of bold spirits like Francis Drake, and upon the eager curiosity, the ready imagination, the universal open-mindedness, which ran through the nation, as new worlds were opened or looked for in the western or southern seas.
More important, all-important in truth, was the avid mastery of new knowledge which had followed the Renaissance and the invention of printing. The ancient writers of Greece and Rome were all recovered, and were being greedily absorbed. Old thoughts, ideas, fancies, knowledge—long buried and shamefully forgotten—had become new again. The curiosity which followed the voyages of Drake or Raleigh to America, followed also the explorations of the scholar in the ever-opening seas of ancient literature. The age became one of wide and plenteous reading. Moreover men read then, as they ought to read, for the matter. They tore the heart out of books, from Homer to Seneca; they were greedy for the substance, the thoughts, the imaginations, the fancies. If they could not read the originals, they insisted on the translations. Nor did they stay at the classics. They devoured books in Italian and French. Never has England been so cosmopolitan, at least so European, in its absorption of ideas and knowledge. It is only since the icebound Puritan days that England has become insular, self-contained, in part hugely conceited, and in part absurdly diffident, concerning itself. The best work of Byron and Shelley aimed at breaking down this attitude, and if we are again growing out of our insularity—which is open to much doubt—it is in no small measure due to writers of their kind.
I do not offer all these commonplaces as information. I offer them simply as reminders, and as a necessary introduction to the remark which I have next to make—that the enlightenment, the education, above all the spirit, derived from this wealth of reading were precisely that sort of enlightenment and education and spirit which make for splendid poetry. The learning of the day was in no wise scientific in the narrower modern sense. It was not of the material and utilitarian, still less of the sordid, kind. The age was the least Philistine of all epochs of English history. We were not yet a nation of shopkeepers. It is inevitable that nowadays an immense proportion of our study and reading should run to social and economic questions, to applied sciences, to the investigation of germs and gases, political problems, electric forces, and manures. There is, I have often maintained, no necessary antagonism whatever between these intellectual pursuits and the pursuit of art and literature. One should be but the complement of the other. Goethe and Shelley could combine the love of both science and poetry. If the physicist and the artistic creator quarrel, then each is blind in one mental eye.
Be that as it may, the fact for us just now is that the reading and learning of those spacious Elizabethan days were such that, with the brightening of the intellect, there was no dimming of the imagination. On the contrary, the effect of the recovery and the spread of all the rich, warm, many-coloured creations of the world's best minds, was to steep the English nation in enthusiasm for great lyrics, great dramas, any great production which carried with it the warmth and brightness and exhilarating breath of noble poetry.
There was no weakening of character in this, no loss of practical efficiency. A Sidney or a Raleigh could fight as well as turn a verse; a Shakespeare could prove as sound a man of business as he was a poet. Elizabethan men were all-round men, like the best men in Periclean Athens.
Moreover, the recovered classics imparted not only enthusiasm, but standards. An ambitious writer of the Elizabethan age must do his best to live up to Homer and Plato, to Virgil and Catullus, just as he must live up to Petrarch.
And one thing more. When Spenser or Shakespeare or their contemporaries took up their pens, there was ready to their use the magnificent Elizabethan English tongue—a store inexhaustibly rich, and all the richer for being free from huge piles of needless rubbish, called vocabulary, which modern times have heaped into the long-suffering dictionary. The speech of the English Bible, which rightly seems to us so inimitably noble in its simplicity, was but the contemporary speech of educated England. Fine expressive words had not yet been soiled with all ignoble use. They had not been debauched by slang or vulgarized by affectation. The Elizabethan language possessed the noble solid grandeur of a statue of Phidias or Angelo. At its best now it is apt to pose like the enervated Apollo Belvedere or an over-refined production of Canova. Says that vigorous writer, Lowell: "In reading Hakluyt's Voyages, we are almost startled now and then to find that even common sailors could not tell the story of their wanderings without rising to an almost Odyssean strain, and habitually used a diction that we should be glad to buy back from desuetude at any cost."
Here, then, is an epoch of history, prosperous, high-spirited, tolerant, enterprising, joyous, alert for knowledge, enamoured of high fancies and imagination. Here also is a language of ample scope and noble powers. And into the midst of a London like this there comes up from Stratford, we know not how, a man marvellously dowered with all those supreme gifts which I have endeavoured to describe.
Towards the making of Shakespeare, Nature has contributed her utmost. For the full encouragement of his genius the environment is most apt. It remains briefly to see what experience did for him, or what he did for himself. What was his preparation?
His origin was lowly, and, as with Robert Burns, we may be glad of it. He thus saw intimately certain sides of life and conditions of men which otherwise he might never have touched so closely. He learned to know all their strange and naive humours, their ignorance and muddlement. From them he realised those strong and elemental passions which finer folk attenuate or disguise. He acquired a stock of sinewy and home-coming Saxon phrase, which often stood him in good stead, and which forms no small factor in his vast eloquence. He is manifestly a man who forgot nothing. In after days he mingled with wits and players, with poets and peers, but, while ever acquiring diction of wider range and choicer degree, he kept always ready to hand the language of peasant and clown. No man ever enjoyed more full instruction in the speech, the thoughts, or the manners, of all degrees of men.
Of women toward the social summits he perhaps never knew so much, but he had not studied their humbler sisters in vain, and beneath all the width of ruff and opulence of silk, he knew well enough what primal feelings lurked, what affections, what jealousies, what caprices of the eternal feminine. As for the mere externals of their behaviour, he had abundant opportunities of noting them.
When modern readers censure Shakespeare for dubious things which he makes his gentlewomen say and do, they are apt to forget how surprising were the canons of behaviour and decorum for gentlewomen under good Queen Bess. For my part I am prepared in all such cases to give their keen-eyed and marvellous contemporary the benefit of the doubt. He would not represent ladies as any coarser than they were.
Of his education, in the narrower sense, we can really make sure of little; but, like that of Burns, it was indisputably far more liberal than the devotees of miracle are wishful to suppose. To-day no competent inquirer doubts that, with the grammar-school at Stratford opening its doors free to the son of John Shakespeare, burgess and alderman, the opportunity was grasped by that struggling but ambitious person. Nor is it doubted that there, under some Holofernes or Sir Hugh Evans, the boy learned his Lyly's grammar, and read his share of Latin authors—his Terence, Ovid, and Seneca, together with Baptista "the old Mantuan." In French he assuredly did more than dabble, if his Henry V be taken as any proof. The other day Mr. Churton Collins essayed to prove, by an array of quotations, that he was tolerably read in Greek. For my own part I confess that I find, in the passages of AEschylus cited with passages of Shakespeare, no more than happy coincidences in the thinking of two kindred original minds. Yet some Greek at least he had. Our witness is Ben Jonson. Rare Ben was himself a monument of learning, and to him the ordinary mortal's modicum was but a trifle. When he observes "and though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek," we should do well to take him as meaning precisely what he says. If he had meant "no Latin and no Greek," he would have written it so; the line would have scanned as easily, and the desired point would have been made still more effective. Add to these studies of Shakespeare his early study in the Bible; early familiarity with that book, apart from all questions of character and religion, will always shoot a rich woof of word and thought through all the warp of writing.
Remember that Shakespeare at school was not distracted by hours of mathematics and other agreeable but alien pursuits. Remember also—what is so strangely forgotten—that he was a genius, whose capacious mind would grasp and retain with unique facility. Remember that at school there are boys and boys, and that, while some of them waste time in laboriously endeavouring to assimilate the shells of knowledge along with the oysters, others instinctively use their powers of secretion to better purpose. Remember also that in Elizabethan times school-boy study was a far more strenuous matter than it is in these degenerate days, and that it was not chiefly directed towards examinations.
Be assured that Shakespeare's school education was as good as your own; or, if you are not convinced of that, be at least assured that an illiterate man never did, and never will, write even tolerable poetry.
It may seem as if I were acting the traitor to my own profession when I rejoice that Shakespeare was never turned into what is technically called a learned man. He was something better, he was an educated man. You do not need erudition to be a creator of great works of imagination, whether it be erudition concerning Latin syntax or concerning the Origin of the Concept or concerning the life-history of the worm. What you chiefly require to know is the human heart; and the best books for that knowledge are human beings. Learning is after all but the milch-cow of education. If Shakespeare had been as learned as Ben Jonson, or the so-called University Wits, he might perchance have come to view mankind too much through the medium of books, as Jonson himself did, instead of through his own keen natural orbs of vision.
His soul proud science never taught to stray Far as the Solar walk or Milky Way.
No! but he had soared otherwise to the Solar walk and the Galaxy, he had gladdened at the sight of the sun flattering all Nature with his sovereign eye, and he had felt the full sense of the nocturnal heavens, thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. A learned man, says Bagehot, may study butterflies till he forgets that they are beautiful. On the other hand, it is only fair to say that he need forget nothing of the kind. So a man may study Aristotle till he forgets that Aristotle derived his psychology from men and not men from Aristotle.
The real scandalum to Greene and the scholar playwrights was not that Shakespeare was illiterate, but that, not having studied by Cam or Isis, he had no business to be literate. He was an "upstart crow," and what right had he to be "as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you?" The attitude was perhaps natural to jealous rivals, but it should never have been used to show that Shakespeare was destitute of a decent school education. Perhaps the most regrettable outcome of this notion is that Milton should have written the amazing line which tells how Shakespeare
Warbled his native woodnotes wild.
Like the famous description of the crab as the little red fish which walks backwards, it contains only three demonstrable errors. Shakespeare does not warble, his notes are not woodnotes, and they are not wild.
He was, moreover, a man of the sort whose education—even book education—never ceases. At a later date in London he manifestly absorbed numerous translations. He knew his way about his Golding's Ovid and North's Plutarch. Before he attempted those splendid poetical exercises the Venus and Adonis, the Lucrece, and the early sonnets, he had studied, like every one else, the models for sonneteers and lyrists which came from Italy and France, from Petrarch or Du Bellay. It is clear that he was familiar with the Essays of Montaigne. Earlier English literature was no sealed book to him. He also read his own contemporaries. Hence his Lucrece is part Ovid, part Chaucer, part Daniel or Watson; his Venus and Adonis is part Ovid, part Lodge.
Better still than reading is conversation, the rubbing of wits and furbishing of knowledge amid well-informed and bright-minded company. Tradition tells us that Shakespeare was a member of that brilliant coterie of the Mermaid Tavern, where rare Ben presided, as glorious John presided at a later day in his favoured Coffee-house. Fuller describes the wit-combats between Shakespeare and his learned confrere, and there is no reason to doubt that the nimble man-of-war and the heavy galleon fought many a bout. Of that coterie Beaumont writes to Jonson:—
What things have we seen Done at the Mermaid! Heard words that have been So nimble and so full of subtle flame, As if that every one from whence they came Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest.
The classical quotation, the apt allusion, would fly freely in that society. The matter of books new and old would be talked of and discussed. For the purpose of Shakespeare, here was learning to be picked up of the most telling sort. For, let us repeat, reading was then pursued on high levels, and intellectual curiosity was eager. And let us remember always that Shakespeare must have possessed an astonishing instinct for seizing the essentials, which he shaped for himself "in the quick forge and working-house of thought."
Also among the actors into whose company he was perpetually thrown there were men who had, as we should call it, toured through England and Scotland, and sometimes abroad to France, Germany, or Denmark. Scores of his acquaintances must have travelled in Italy, even if they did not return diavoli incarnati. Each man brought back description, information, story, which the vivid imagination of Shakespeare, as he listened, turned into abiding picture; and this, after he had chosen his theme from Cinthio or Bandello or elsewhere, he would employ for the background in his Verona or his Venice. How powerfully this can be done by the imagination of genius is well exemplified in Wilhelm Tell, which, from its opening verses of Es laechelt der See, carries in it the whole sense of Swiss landscape and Swiss air, although Schiller had never set foot in Switzerland.
Over and above all this, a man whose heart and whose interests are alike engaged in a particular profession, be he physician, or inventor, or artist, and who is ambitious to excel and prosper in that profession, will be for ever alert to every hint or lesson which will make for success. Shakespeare was from his heart a playwright; he was at the same time a shrewd business man as partner in a theatre. Not only did he love his work with all the passion of a creator, he was also concerned to outvie his professional rivals. The plays of the Globe must be better than the plays of the Fortune. He therefore studied existing dramas, in order to surpass them, if possible, at every point. He began by recasting or improving the plays of feebler writers, and so learned to distinguish what was effective from what was not. He then went on in the effort—an easy effort it proved to him—to transcend the plays of writers of strength; to transcend them in construction, in characterisation, in intellectual matter, in humour, and in diction; and this means that his aim was, by compulsion, high.
The standard already set was a lofty one. Marlowe's mighty line was not easy to surpass. There is nothing which provokes the best efforts of genius so powerfully as formidable predecessors and rivals. It is as with the forest trees; if some grow tall, the rest will struggle to grow taller, so that they may escape from the shade into the sun. The University Wits and scholar poets, who had "climbed to the height of Seneca his style," deserve no little thanks for the making of our Shakespeare. If his pieces were to be performed before the Queen's Majesty, or the King's Majesty, and all that cultivated court, or if they were to receive the applause of the learned Benchers of Gray's Inn, they must attain a distinguished level both of living interest and of admirable poetry. Shakespeare's precursors had rendered this high perfection indispensable.
Let me insist also on another consideration, too often overlooked. The Elizabethan stage was without scenery. The bare boards, a curtain at the back, a table and inkstand to represent a court of justice, two or three ragged foils to disgrace the name of Agincourt, and the imagination of the audience did the rest. All the gorgeousness of the modern mise-en-scene; all the painting, mechanical contrivances, and elaborate furnishing, were wanting. There was none of that modern realism, which consists in driving a real train across a painted country or eating real sandwiches under a property tree. To a great extent all this elaborate staging has been the death of dramatic art. Among the Elizabethans, the interest depended solely on the action and the acting, on the piece and its language. All these must be excellent. They were not yet considered inferior to those of optical effect. The Elizabethans listened with their minds, not solely with their eyes.
Thus, from his teaching at school, from his wide reading, from bright and varied conversation, from assiduous exercise, Shakespeare derived perpetual education. If, as Bacon declares, "reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man," then Shakespeare was trebly well equipped.
But there was another element in his training, which, for the dramatist, was worth all the rest. This was his habit of observation, an observation shrewd but sympathetic, of all sorts and conditions of men. The experience lying between his youthful escapades at Stratford and his sober retirement thither was doubtless a wonderful polychrome. He had plodded his way among many peculiar folk as he passed from Warwickshire to London by way of Banbury or Oxford. He had stopped at inns in strange company of fools and knaves, pedlars, roisterers and swashbucklers. He had hobnobbed with dull-pated village constables. He had consorted with
Stephen Sly and old John Naps of Greece, And Peter Turf and Henry Pimpernel.
In London he had foregathered with Mrs. Quickly and haply with Doll Tearsheet. All the whimsical miscellany of the Bohemians must have been known to him. We need not doubt that he had sowed wild oats. Doubtless, if he lived the same life now, he would be looked upon askance by good people who knew nothing of his temptations. But he was no neurotic; no genius of the first rank ever is or was. He never lost control of himself, and so did not, like some of his brilliant contemporaries, tread the primrose path which leads down to futility and death. He was always pre-eminently sane. While composing his transcendent Lear and Othello, he was suing Philip Rogers for L1 15s. 10d. While his fancy roamed in the fairyland of Midsummer Night's Dream, his investments were in the highest degree judicious.
Elizabethan life, whether in town or country, whether among earls or tapsters, was infinitely more frank, varied, and picturesque than it can ever be again. Men and women displayed more freely their natural idiosyncrasies. Nor did the traveller rush at fifty miles an hour through all this variegated world. He saw it lingeringly and intimately, as Chaucer saw his Pilgrims, or Goldsmith his Village, or Scott his Border peasants.
Bagehot says truly that, to have experiences, one must have the experiencing nature. To make observations, one must have an observing nature, and that nature Shakespeare possessed as no other man has possessed it. He noted everything. So might another, but the superlative merit of Shakespeare's observation is that he noted all and always with humorous and universal sympathy, with an eye absolutely free from the jaundice of Carlyle, as it was free from the bookish astigmatism of Ben Jonson. His mental retina formed a perfect mirror to hold up to nature. Whether it be true or not that he had seen a veritable Dogberry at Grendon, Bucks, it is certain that he had seen the type somewhere. Best of all, he had not seen it in irritation or contempt. If we are told that Shakespeare presents "no entire and perfect hero, no entire and perfect villain," it is simply because he had—like ourselves—never set eyes on either of those monsters. He also never made the mistake of reading himself into other men, any more than he made the artistic mistake of unlocking his heart and taking a hundred and fifty sonnets to do it. His clear objective picture is never vitiated by the desire to preach. He has no system of ethics, politics, or anything else to teach. Doubtless Shakespeare had his own views on all important matters of life and death; but in the drama the artist's business is to present us with the kaleidoscope of life, not to insist upon our interpreting it to certain ends, of which he is to be the arbiter. You cannot, perhaps, read Lear without being a better man, or Hamlet without being a wiser; but you are permitted to be better and wiser in your own way, and not in some way ready mapped out for you. Do not let us talk of the ethical purpose of Shakespeare's plays. Let us only speak of their ethical effect. What that effect is has been expressed by Shelley thus: "The gentleness and elevation of mind connected with sacred emotions render men more amiable, more generous and wise, and lift them out of the dull vapours of the little world of self."
Last element in the making of our Shakespeare was one which I dare hardly name, in fear of the deluge of contempt which the minor prophets of artistry will pour upon my head. Well, I take my Philistine courage in my hands, and say that he was thus great because he never wrote for any special class of the illuminati; he never troubled his soul with any other theory of art than that it should present interesting and universal truth, truth so manifestly true that it should appeal to all the world of men and women. When Angelo was asked by a sculptor in what light a certain statue should be viewed, his answer was, "in the light of the public square." A statue which will not bear the criticism of that place is assuredly untrue. Shakespeare wrote for the public square, not for exhibition in the gallery of some ephemeral school of taste, nor for the private collection of some self-elected critic, who holds a pouncet-box while he applies his little artificial canons of correctness.
Doubtless a man who writes in this large massive spirit, overlooks some trifling blemishes. "Nice customs curtesy to great kings." "Great men," says Landor, "often have greater faults than smaller men can find room for." Shakespeare has his, but, of all wise things that Ruskin has said of art, this—which describes our Shakespeare—is perhaps the truest: "There are two characters in which all greatness of art consists—first, the earnest and intense seizing of natural facts; then the ordering those facts by strength of human intellect, so as to make them, for all who look upon them, to the utmost serviceable, memorable and beautiful."
Literature and Life
The Literature Society of Melbourne meets monthly in order to assimilate true literature and to study its principles. If its President is entitled to speak its corporate mind, it approaches this task in a grateful and docile spirit.
There is, I believe, no necessity to defend the existence and aims of a Literature Society. It would be enough if we simply confessed that we meet for the enjoyment of a rational and not unelevating pleasure. It would be enough if we said that literature, like pictorial art and music, is one of the recognized resources for the gladdening of life, and that we meet in order to get as much of that high refreshment as possible in each other's company. And this, indeed, we do so far frankly acknowledge and confess.
But we also claim that there is a more serious aspect of our association. We believe that great literature and its zealous study produce most powerful effects, both upon our inner selves and upon the value and happiness of our lives; that they supply us with a rich equipment, both for our private thinking and feeling and also for social action and social intercourse; that from great literature we derive indefeasible resources, which form glorious company in the midst of solitude, abundant wealth in the midst of poverty, and an unfailing refuge from the too frequent harshness of circumstance.
Our objects are not those of mere dilettanti, although for my part I should blame no association which boldly inscribed "dilettanti" on its breezy flag. Our "literature" is not mere elegant trifling—although men who do choose to spend an occasional evening in trifling with elegance are men whom we can still afford to respect and perhaps to envy. But literature, as we understand it, is no trifling, however elegant. By literature we mean what Milton has called the "seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books"; and the seasoned life of man is no trifle. We mean something of which the influence—or the effluence—may profoundly determine the quality of our lives, both as they affect others and as they affect ourselves.
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We do not mean simply printed books. The vaster proportion of what is printed is not literature. It may be statements of fact and items of information; it may be sound science and unimpeachable record; it may be truism; it may be platitude; it is often sheer bathos or doggerel. We do not count these things as literature. A good deal of singing, piano-beating and tin-whistling is not music. It is only in virtue of a certain fine quality that books are literature. According to Emerson, literature is "a record of the best thoughts." According to Matthew Arnold it is "the best that has been thought and said in the world." If literature is a collection of great books, then we may recall Milton's description of a great book, as "the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." And so literature becomes a store of inexhaustible vials, filled with the most generous elixir decanted from the world's master-spirits. Listen again to Vauvenargues: "Good literature is the essence of the best minds, the abstract of their knowledge, the fruit of their long vigils." Or let us drop metaphor, and accept, as entirely satisfying and luminous, the account given by Mr. John Morley, that "literature consists of all books ... where moral truth and human passion are touched with a certain largeness, sanity, and attraction of form."
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Such is the sense in which we interpret the term "literature."
The range and variety of such true literature are as wide and varied as human genius. It includes, for instance, the novel, whenever the novel, as in Balzac, Thackeray, and Fielding, shows this fine, large, sane, attractive touch; it includes verse, when, and only when, moral truth and human passion are touched finely or nobly in this way. Its forms are manifold, and its themes include—
All thoughts, all passions, all delights Whatever stirs this mortal frame.
In its shape and form literature may be a hard-headed essay of Bacon or an impassioned lyric of Shelley; its sound may be the majestic organ-peal of Milton or the sumptuous flute music of Keats; its mood may be the scathing fervour of Carlyle or the genial humour of Lamb; its manner may be the rugged strength of Browning or the fastidious grace of Arnold; but, whatever it be, it everywhere contains this high distinction; it touches some vital truth or human passion with "a certain largeness and sanity and attraction of form." What is not sane and large and expressive is not the literature which we meet to study and absorb.
Literature, then, is no mere "elegant trifling." It is no mere belles lettres. We do not, indeed, pretend, and none but a human machine will pretend, to despise the graces and charms of belles lettres. That would be as ridiculous and inhuman as to despise the delights of music or architecture. But literature is more than belles lettres; it is something of far superior intellectual weight and dignity, of far superior moral force and energy. In its contents it is a body of the wisest, most suggestive, most impressive utterance of the world's best minds, at their best moments, from the Psalmist to Wordsworth, from the Iliad to The Ring and the Book. Meanwhile its outward vesture is full of art and beauty.
And without going further we ask, how can one stand in habitual communion with wise, seminal and impressive speech; how can one saturate oneself with its wisdom and energy, without being the better equipped for the demands of both the life within and the life without? "Consider," says Emerson, "what you have in the smallest chosen library. A company of the wisest and wittiest men that could be picked out of all civil countries have set in their best order the results of their wisdom and learning." Well, let us keep company like that, and what is the result? The value of great literature is that it conveys an endless number of eternal truths for the use and enrichment of human life: moreover it conveys them by a medium of language of such peculiar power and beauty that those truths penetrate keenly into the heart and brain, and, at least in some measure, and often in very large measure, they find a fixed and perennial lodgment there. They enter the blood which reddens our whole mental complexion.
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This is true of literature in general, but, though the wisdom and the wit and the passion are found in both prose and verse, the crowning form of literature—and that which all literary societies inevitably study most—is great poetry. The supreme mastery and our supreme interest lie with Dante or Shakespeare or Goethe. It is astounding how commonly the function and the brain power of the great poet are misconceived and underrated. The supreme poets are no dainty or fragile sentimentalists; in reality they are the very flower of human penetration. Not because they write in splendid verse. That, indeed, is the appropriate vehicle of their power; the harmonies and melodies of verse represent and reproduce the tone and colour vibrations of their singularly rich natures; but verse is only their vehicle. These great writers are supreme, not for this versification, however magnificent, but because that utterance of theirs is the voice of the seer, the voice of a marvellous insight into vital truths, of a sane and ripe philosophy of life, of a wide and profound sympathy with the myriad thoughts and emotions of mankind. They write in verse simply because, as Hazlitt describes it, poetry is "the most vivid form of expression that can be given to our conception of anything." They write in verse because Nature herself insists on having—
High and passionate thoughts To their own music chanted.
Their verse alone is a charm and a joy. But their primary value to us is that they are among the rare beings who have possessed "the vision and the faculty divine," who, to quote Ruskin, can "startle our lethargy with the deep and pure agitation of astonishment." There is about them nothing incomprehensibly transcendental, nothing "unpractical," nothing aloof from the life we live—if we live it fully—but wholly the contrary. Those who say otherwise are but exposing their own short sight, their own creeping imagination, their own narrowness of sympathy.
Take Shakespeare. What he possesses is not only the most stupendous eloquence ever owned by man. It is profound knowledge of humanity, gathered by a keen and open-eyed Olympian contemplation of all sorts and conditions of men, from the egregious Bottom, and Dogberry the muddled, up to Hamlet and Imogen; it is the broad myriad-minded understanding which feels with every class, and, withal, suffers even fools gladly. His prime value is that he saw—saw life steadily and saw it whole—saw clearly into and round that thought, that sentiment, that passion, that apparent contradiction, which commoner minds have only perceived as a vague nebula. It is so that Carlyle describes the poet: "An inspired soul, once more vouchsafed to us direct from Nature's own fire heat, to see the truth and speak it." The sovereign poets do this with such godlike ease that we seldom realize their vast achievement.
It is not the greatest masters who surround their expression with a haze, even with a glory haze. It is not the greatest masters who express things vaguely because they see them dimly. They see the thing and speak it.
But the supreme poet not only sees thus with his intellect; he experiences with his feelings. He possesses "the experiencing nature." Emerson declares that "among partial men he stands for the complete man, the representative of man, in virtue of having the largest power to receive and impart." This is, of course, said of the best; it is not to be said of the scribblers and the poetasters in their thousands; it is not to be said of the innumerable warblers whose feeble songs "grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw"; it is not true even of a canorous rhetorician, such as Swinburne, or a dreamy teller of tales like William Morris; but it is beyond question true of a Shakespeare or a Goethe. These were men of three-storied brain and also of thrice capacious soul.
Says Coleridge: "No man was ever yet a great poet without being a profound philosopher." For poetry is the blossom and the fragrance of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language; and Carlyle tells us of Goethe, "His resources have been accumulated from nearly all the provinces of human intellect and activity," while his culture was learned "not from art and literature alone, but also by action and passion in the rugged school of experience."
It is, therefore, not for nothing that Lowell declares—
I believe the poets; it is they Who utter wisdom from the central deep.
Nor is it for nothing that Wordsworth declares poetry to be "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge." The student of poetry may doubtless be studying aesthetics, but he is not merely dallying with aesthetics. If he is communing thoughtfully with mighty spirits like these—the penetrators to the central deep—is he not gaining, by the most royal road known to humanity, the most liberal education for the fullest life?
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But we are not, it is true, always with the greatest poets. We are not always breathing the keen air of the very mountain tops. There is permanent value to be drawn also from writers in a rank below these greatest seers and creators. A Pope or a Dryden has packed into clear, rememberable, and serviceable shape considerable masses of wisdom and good sense—shrewd and enlightening, if not always lofty or original. The terse and pregnant essays of Bacon, the brusque, cant-hating wit and wisdom of Samuel Johnson, the critical sagacities of Hazlitt, the remorseless searchings of Carlyle, the brilliant expositions of Macaulay—to listen to these, to ponder and assimilate their best, is both to train the mind and to furnish it. Nay, even if a Plato or a Ruskin leave not one single dogma consciously grasped by the student's faith, they have, nevertheless, been in the highest degree invigorating and ennobling company. To associate with a Scott is to associate with high and wholesome character.
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Such are the great writers of the first rank and second rank who form great literature; and to them the student has recourse when in quest of "the best that has been thought and said in the world." If what he gathers is not applied by him to life, then the fault is his own. If he does apply it, what then? Is there any such application, practical and living?
This is said to be a "practical" age. If I know anything whatever of history, I maintain that this age is no more "practical" than any other. All sensible ages are practical. The present age, it is true, possesses more ingenious and labour-increasing machinery, and, when it is minded to do what it euphoniously describes as "hustle," it can doubtless "hustle" with a more deplorable rapidity than in times ancient. But it is not one whit more "practical." If we ask for a practical application of literature to life, so did the Greeks and so did the Romans. The object of their literary study was to fit a man to play his part in affairs, to know his world, to know both himself and other men, and to train him for a distinguished social place. They knew that literary study did this; if it had not, they would have called it a pastime, and left it to provide for itself as such. A training for the living of a life—is that object not sufficiently practical for the modern man? Is, after all, the final cause of society to be simply manufacturing and underselling, eating, drinking, and sleeping? None of us really believe that. We cannot glance at our public libraries, our art-galleries and museums, and seriously assert that society even looks like believing it. Any one who maintains that there actually and consciously prevails such a basely materialistic meaning of "practical" is but a poor cynic maligning the world which tolerates him. When the world calls for a "practical" outcome of literary study, we mean what the Greeks meant, and what the Romans meant—some discoverable adaptation of the results of literary study to the various activities of human life—human life in its fulness—life of the helpful citizen, life of the partner in social intercourse, life in the silence of oneself.
Go and fetch in the first respectable-looking man from the street, and prove to him that literary study tends, as Bacon requires, "to civilize the life of man"; prove to him that, as Montesquieu requires, it "increases the excellence of our nature, and makes an understanding being yet more understanding," and the man—type though he may be of the modern practical age—will admit your claim and applaud your effort.
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Well, literary study, to be worth anything beyond entertainment, ends in application to life, and to that end it is admirably fitted. I am not intending to compare in detail the value of one study with that of another. I make no pretence at estimating their relative potentialities. That proceeding may be left to the ignorance or the intolerance of the man of one idea. He will settle it for us, and we will duly disregard him. It is, for example, not the cultivated scientist, not the wise scientist, who urges those huge and exorbitant claims which are sometimes advanced for physical science in these days—for electricity and chemistry and ologies. The true scientist may perhaps prefer that his kine should be the fat kine—for he is but human—but he does not desire them to be the only kine and to eat up all the rest.
But, though we are not to compare all the possibilities of this and that study, we can appeal to one unquestionable fact. When it comes to the tasks of citizenship, to settling human questions for legislation and the arguments of justice, to intelligent voting and the like, the student of those human documents which we call literature is found more often to the front than the student of anything else whatsoever. It would be worth while, if we had the time, to make a list of the great statesmen and great initiators who have been men of letters or of literary culture. Not physical science, not the region of mathematics, seem to have equipped the mind so fully for this complex, this motive-determined department of life.
Literature deals with man and the mind of man, and, whether it be right or no to hold that "the proper study of mankind is man," we must acknowledge that man, and the workings of his mind and spirit, play the preponderating part in the region of social order and social happiness. It is literature and no other study which embraces the wide, the all-round, the long-practised survey "of man, of nature, and of human life" necessary for a luminous intelligence.
A Huxley will remind us that, in any case, what we are bound to study is "not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways, and the fashioning of the affections and the will." Doubtless we must observe as well as read. But our own observation of life, however shrewd, is insufficient; it is narrow and partial. We see but the minutest fraction of time and the minutest fraction of humanity. It is from literature that we learn most vividly and most efficaciously all that can really be known "of men and their ways, the affections and the will."
There are, of course, self-complacent human beings who cannot realize that past literature has in this domain anything to teach them. They imagine that the world was born when they were born. These persons we must perhaps leave to the error of their ways. In earnest truth, there is no real literature too foreign or too old—nor, for the matter of that, too near or too young—to enlighten us concerning human feeling, human thought, and human motive. In these things the world did not have to wait for wisdom and insight until the modern scientific epoch. Age cannot wither the essential truth nor stale the potency of great literature in this respect. Aristophanes, Thucydides, Plato, Tacitus, Dante, or Shakespeare would have nothing to learn of the human mind and heart from Haeckel or from Herbert Spencer.
Nor, again, has human capacity—thinking capacity—appreciably advanced since great literature first arose. "Telephones," says Mr. Frederic Harrison, "microphones, pantoscopes, steam presses, and ubiquity engines in general may, after all, leave the poor human brain no bigger and no stronger than the brains of men who heard Moses speak and saw Aristotle pondering over a few worn rolls of crabbed manuscript." One assuredly cannot say of the twentieth-century man with more truth than Shakespeare's Hamlet said it of man three centuries ago—certainly not with more truth than it might have been said of Shakespeare himself—"How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In apprehension how like a god!" There was, indeed, none of the modern scientific terminology in Thucydides, or AEschylus, or Aristotle, but, in respect of sheer brain power and sanity, literature is at least as lofty in AEschylus as in Browning, in Aristotle as in Spencer. That is why the classics—classics of all languages, classics of Greece, of Italy, of England—are for ever fresh, and can never die.
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Literature, therefore, is a mass of written enlightenment concerning human beings, human hearts, and human thought. Name, if you will, any other study which could better fit a man for grappling with the problems of humanity in that portion of his life which we call public.
But man is something more than a public instrument. We cannot separate the man of citizen life, playing his part in the practical world, from the man of private intercourse, and the man of inward culture and resource. There is a sufficiently "practical" outcome of literary study if it makes the man wiser in himself, if it makes him truer in his judgment, richer and broader in his feelings, makes him put forth antennae of tact and sympathy, if also it supplies him with such inward resources that he can dispense with unattainable luxuries or with vulgar methods of passing his time. Such results are surely a profoundly useful application of the results of study to life.
Take a human being in the loneliness—the absolute isolation or the intellectual isolation—of the bush; take one who is disabled by illness or disease; take one who is perforce environed all his days by company which is ignoble and dull; take one who can ill afford any of the distractions of the wealthy. How shall he keep alive his higher part, or fill his leisure with contentment and delight, except by constant intercourse with the mightiest minds in the history of the thinking world? Said Rousseau: "Let one destine my pupil to the army, to the church, the bar, or anything else; yet, before his parents have chosen his vocation, nature has called him to the vocation of human life; living is the trade I want to teach him." All the rest is but means to an end. "We live," asserts the poet, "by admiration, hope, and love." And nothing can stimulate these sensations like great literature.
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In this connexion I must insist for a few minutes upon the relations of literature to the intellectual idol of to-day—to wit science—science in the popular, if inaccurate, sense. I have to maintain that literature—and particularly poetry—is the indispensable ally and complement of science; that it is, in the end, the means by which the essential truths of science will reach their application to life; that it supplies the force by which the great facts of science are made to operate for good upon our thinking and our feeling. Literature supplies that which science alone cannot supply.
I am aware there are those who fancy that science itself is sufficient guide and equipment for human existence. Huxley, if I remember rightly, asserted in his nonage that science would even afford us a newer and more enlightened morality. But I have never heard any scientist repeat that doctrine; I have never heard any scientist claim that the altruism of the Sermon on the Mount or of Buddha had been superseded by the dry light of scientific conclusions. Physical science and its inventions have not obviously advanced the delicacy of sentiments or of ethical ideas. Chaucer's notion of a "parfit gentil knight," and his "poure parsoun of a toun" could not be bettered for anything discovered in all the five centuries since. It is not easy to see how science can stimulate us to warm-hearted charity, to self-sacrificing love and loyalty, to patriotism, and other manifestations of qualities which we universally recognize as virtues, and as things without which human life would be a dreary and intolerable waste. Without them suicide were almost best. And the cultivation of the emotions belongs to literature, not to objective science.
Will you pardon me if I repeat an illustration which has been used before, though I forget where? There are two ways of regarding tears. They may be the infinitely appealing outward and visible signs of some great inward troubling of the spirit. They may "rise in the heart and gather to the eyes" from "the depths of some divine despair." On the other hand they may be what they were to a certain character in Balzac. The physicist Baltazar retorts in answer to an outburst of tears, "Ah! tears! I have analysed them; they contain a little phosphate of lime, chloride of sodium, mucin, and water!" I do not happen to know if that is a correct analysis, but I do know that both these aspects of tears are true aspects. There is nothing contradictory about them. The one is the aspect of objective science; the other—the human and moral aspect—is that of literature. Is there any doubt which aspect ultimately concerns us the more as human beings, livers of human lives?
There is no conflict between science and literature, especially between science and poetry.
The astronomer tells us the immense distances and immense sizes of the stars—great facts, most interesting facts; but the imagination of literature gets hold of all the vastness and wonder and suggestion of such a universe, and by the gift of expression it makes us realize them, makes us feel an awe and admiration, which may at least lend some chastening to minds which sorely need it. I believe that all true men of science recognise this power of literature, and that they are no more satisfied than the veriest poet with the mere facts of nature without the beauty and marvel and moral stimulation. They do not wish that a flower should be rendered less beautiful because they dissect it and classify it under a hard dog-Latin name. "A primrose by the river's brim a dicotyledon was to him, and it was nothing more." That is not their attitude.
There is not much influence on the higher side of life to be got from a study of nothing else but metals, or nothing else but triangles, or nothing else but germs. But literature exerts a most potent influence on this higher side of life; for it not only supplies thoughts and expresses feelings, but it is in itself—thanks to its expression—a force to make them felt and to give them effective life. It not only instructs—it moves. For, remember, great literature was never produced by cynicism nor by affectation: men of weak convictions or feelings have never been supreme writers. As at Athens, at Rome, or in Elizabethan England, great literature belongs to periods full of animation, of enterprise, of high ideals, of strong aims or strong beliefs. In that prevailing spirit the great writers share, and they impart it forever to us who read. There exhales from what they write an inspiring power of earnestness. As Longinus phrases it, we seem to be possessed by a divine effluence from those mighty minds.
It is often complained, in regard to our schools, that moral teaching without religious stimulation is futile. The reason assents, but the will is unmoved. "We want," says Shelley, "the generous impulse to act that which we perceive." Great literature lends this impulse. Let us have plenty of great literature in our schools.
I do not, indeed, claim that literature always and completely conveys the requisite impulsion, but I claim that, in its impressiveness or its charm, by its appeal to the imagination and the sensibilities, it can go far, as Heine thought of Schiller's poetry, to "beget deeds." "Let me," said Fletcher, "make the songs of a people, and let who will make its laws." "Certainly," declares that flower of chivalry, Sir Philip Sidney, "I must confess ... I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet." Bare psychology teaches us; bare history teaches us; but great literature both teaches and inspires; it gives not only light, but warmth. "Reading good books of morality," Bacon sadly confesses, "is a little flat and dead." Great literature puts the breath of life into this deadness. Not merely to peruse, but to assimilate, the King Lear of Shakespeare or the Vita Nuova of Dante cannot fail to turn the current of our minds strongly towards right feeling—in the one case of duty and compassion, in the other of purest loyalty in love.
The most vivid conception of high conduct—the one which we can least shake off—is hardly to be gathered from the didactic moral treatise; it is hardly ever derived from set sermons, unless the preacher impose it upon us by some magnetism of his personality; it is more often impressed by some literary embodiment which has been made to live and move and have a being—by a Cordelia or a Jeanie Deans, by a Galahad or a Parson Adams. Such embodiments as these are instruments for that which Matthew Arnold holds to be the object of poetry, namely, the powerful and beautiful application of "ideas to life."
But, it may be objected, the influence of a writer may indeed thus stimulate, but what if it stimulates irrationally and amiss? Yet herein, precisely, lies one great superiority of the study of literature. It is the best means known to humanity of encouraging breadth of mind, many-sidedness of comprehension. That is, of course, with the proviso that your literary worship is not a monotheism. The genuine literary student is not a student of one author, much less of one book. It is true that Shakespeare is in himself almost a compendium of humanity, and that to study Shakespeare alone is as profitable as to study a score of less comprehensive mortals. Nevertheless, even Shakespeare has his limitations. He could not wholly escape the limitations of his times, spacious though these were.
Literary study in the proper sense is as wide as time and opportunity can make it. It includes alike the Divine Comedy and the human comedy. As far as possible it ignores differences of nationality, of language, of date. It seeks to know the best that has been thought and said in the world, wherever and whenever. It ransacks the Hebrew mind, the Greek mind, the Roman mind, the Italian, French, German and English mind. It gathers opinions, suggestions, points of view, elements of culture from all sources. If Shakespeare holds the mirror up to nature as she shows herself in human actions and passions, Wordsworth reflects the manifestations of her spirit as seen in her physical works. If Homer gives us the naive and simple grandeur of pagan life, Dante gives us the mystic grandeur of the Catholic conception, Milton the severer grandeur of the semi-Puritan. The literary student thus approaches truth from every side. He approaches it variously with Bacon, with Johnson, with Voltaire, with Goethe, with Wordsworth, with Carlyle, with Newman. He feels the various emotions of a hundred lyrists. Led by a score of dramatists and novelists he sees into the complexities of human character, motive and mood. Getting away from the narrow and biassed bickerings, gropings, and caprices of the day, he associates with hundreds of the best minds of the past, whose interests were altogether outside the temporary prejudices and passions which now surround us. And what preparation for life could surpass that of the student who has thus taken all literature for his province? He is in reality better equipped with practical psychology than many a professed psychologist.
The professional student of history studies history from books in which long series of facts and their possible relations are presented in the light in which they are seen by Mommsen or Gibbon or Macaulay or Froude. Meanwhile the student of literature sees incidentally, but, so far as he goes, more vividly, into the actual life of breathing men through the legend of Beowulf or the Vision of Piers Plowman, through Chaucer or the Spectator, through Ben Jonson's Humours or Horace Walpole's Letters, through Clarissa Harlowe or Pride and Prejudice.
I know, of course, full well one frequent consequence of the broad-mindedness which results. I realize how promptly the unread man, filled to the lips with the frothy spirit of his own infallibility, will condemn him whose knowledge of men and motives makes him pause and suspend his judgment. But what of that? Some one has said that thinking makes you wise but weak, while action makes you narrow but strong. A terse sentence, but one which will not bear inspection. The man of half-lights who acts with a promptitude often disastrous, is indeed narrow, but I deny that he is strong. He is opinionated and audacious. Far stronger, in a more reasonable world, is the man who can withhold his yea or nay, when neither yea nor nay happens to be the one answer of that truth which is great and will prevail.
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These, then, are the virtues which we claim for the study of literature.
Literature enlarges our imagination; it expands our judgment; it widens our sympathies; it enriches the world to our eyes and minds, by revealing to us the marvels, delights, tendernesses and suggestions which are all around us in man and nature; it keeps alive our better part in places and circumstances when that better part might perish with disease and atrophy; it continually irrigates with benign influences the mind which might grow arid and barren, and so it enables all the little seeds and buds of our intellectual and moral nature to germinate and produce some fruit.
And, therefore, this Society meets to study literature, and, as I said at the beginning, it meets to study in a spirit which is open-minded, grateful, and docile.
The Future of Poetry
A thoughtful friend of mine—but one who withal affects a philistinism which I know to be only skin-deep—is fond of assuring me that "poetry" can no longer justify its existence, that the world of the future will regard it as a trifling and artificial thing, and that therefore serious men will cease to devote themselves either to producing it or to reading it. In our discussions upon the subject, I have asked him whether he merely means that men will cease to compose verses, or whether he believes that "the poetry" is actually going out of life and literature, and that the imaginative and emotional way of looking at things, which belongs to "poetry," will give place to the rigidly philosophical and practical. He answers, of course, that men will continue to have ardours, aspirations, joys, sorrows, and sympathies, which they will and must express as vividly as they can, to their own relief and to the solace or encouragement of their fellow-men; but he asserts that all this can be done in prose, and will be done in prose, seeing that rhymes and regular numbers of syllables are a sort of primitive barbarian device, mechanical, cramping, and, in a certain way, productive of untruth. When we press this latter point, it is admitted that prose itself is capable of inexhaustible rhythms and magnificent melodies, and that these qualities show signs of being more and more developed, more and more adapted to the mood and sentiment of that which is to be expressed. When we get thus far, it appears that we have been very much in agreement all along. To me—and by this time, I hope, to him—poetry is nothing else but this same impassioned expression of ardour and emotion, sensibility and imagination, no matter whether the form it takes be obviously regulated verse or subtly rhythmic "prose."
But, when we have reached our agreement, there are others who confront us with that too well-known sentence from Macaulay: "In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses and even of good ones; but little poetry. Men will judge and compare, but they will not create." It is a fashion nowadays to make little of Macaulay as a thinker, to damn him with faint praise as a brilliant rhetorician. It is not to join unreservedly in that censure, if we remark that Macaulay pronounced his dictum on poetry when he was very young. But, young or not, he utterly misses a sound view of the nature and scope of poetry. He asserts that "men will judge and compare, but they will not create"; and particularly, he meant, create epics and romances. If Macaulay is to be taken literally, poetry is to him mainly the creation of stories; it is summed up in Iliads, AEneids, Orlandos, Faerie Queenes. Let us for the moment suppose—what, however, there is no ground in fact or reason for supposing—that creations such as these, at least in verse, will engage enlightened men no more. Is there no room for lyrics and for the poetical expression of great truths? "But little poetry!" What else should this imply, except that there will be but little feeling or emotion, but little ecstasy, hope, grief, loveliness, awe, or mystery in all the "wide gray lampless deep unpeopled world" of the future? It is these things which are the most copious and most stimulating subject-matter of poetry, and Macaulay surely never meant to say, and never did say, that these would some day fail.
The poets of the last generation are dead—Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Swinburne. The great "makers" have passed away, and there remain to us but certain highly dexterous word-artificers and melodists, a varied chorus of dainty, musical, scholarly, but mostly uninspired, writers of verse. We have passed the crest of the poetical wave, and are sunk into its trough. It is not unnatural, therefore, that we should, at this particular juncture, feel some misgivings. Finding no immediate successor worthy to fill the place of those great departed, we cry out in our haste that "science" is killing poetry, or that "democracy" is crushing out poetry, or that we are "living too fast" for poetry. Poetry was dead in England for a century and three-quarters between Chaucer and Spenser; in a large sense it was dead for four generations between Milton and Burns. In Italy there was almost no real poetry for the thirteen hundred years between Virgil and Dante. In France nearly two centuries before Victor Hugo may be treated as a blank. Yet the revival came, and came with strength. We forget, or do not know, that the complaint of the decay of poetry is a hackneyed tale, familiar to Addison as to Macaulay. We do not, in fact, look the question frankly in the face. When one assures us of the decline of poetry as a fact and as inevitable, we have a right to ask him two questions. One is: "What signs of weakening and degeneracy in poetic genius, or of failing interest in its creations, do you actually discover in the course of history?" the other: "From what arguments are we to conclude that the future must of necessity prove barren of poetry?" Is there evidence in fact? Is there in theory?
We can imagine some champion of the Muses pointing to the mass and excellence of the poetry which has been created during the last hundred years; to the work of Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Coleridge, Scott, Beranger, Victor Hugo, De Musset, Leopardi, Longfellow, Browning, Arnold, Tennyson, Morris; to the immense and varied fertility, to the creative and emotional power, of makers like these, displayed during the most "enlightened"—that is to say, we presume, the most rationalistic and scientific—century the world has yet passed through. We can imagine him asking whether, in all the past history of the human race, so great a zeal for poetry, romantic, lyrical-descriptive, speculative, has ever been manifested at once in such force and width in England, Germany, France, America. And we can fancy him completely satisfied with that single phenomenon. We can also imagine him setting opinion against opinion, outweighing Macaulay with the greater name of Wordsworth and Macaulay's disciples with the name of Matthew Arnold. We can hear him answering the assertion that in "the advance of civilization" poetry must necessarily decline, with the declaration of the most single-hearted poet of our century, that "poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science ... carrying the sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself." And we can suppose our champion willing to abide in that faith, because "the master hath said it."
But it is our present concern to go somewhat more closely to the heart of the question, to consider without bias how much truth there really is in this prediction that poetry must of necessity decline with the advance of science and the "progress" of society.
Of the preliminary question what is poetry, we may spare the discussion. If there are those who are misled by words and who will insist that poetry is simply identical with good expression in verse, it will be impossible to say anything helpful to the sect. Nor, indeed, will anything be needed, for they will entertain no apprehensions about the future. Does not even Macaulay tell them that there will be "abundance of verses, even of good ones"? With those, again, who accept Macaulay's unspeakably miserable definition of poetry as "the art of employing words in such a manner as to produce an illusion on the imagination" we shall find no common footing. Nor need we dispute with those who follow the thin dry criticism of Addison or Johnson, and who imagine the poetical elements in poetry to consist of figures of speech, images, and technical devices. It may well be, as Macaulay predicts, that the enlightened world will indeed resent and cease to practise "illusions" on the imagination, or on any other faculty. It may be the case also that the stock poetical diction and mechanism of Addison's time, with the "Delias" and "Phyllises," "nymphs," "swains," "lyres," and other tinsel elegancies in which it delights, will be—nay, are already—the abomination of a discerning world. But if by "poetry" is meant what should be meant—the vivid, impassioned and rhythmical expression of rare emotions and exquisite thoughts, the revelation by genius of the ideal and spiritual side of things, the crystallizing of the floating and fugitive sentiments and aspirations of the contemporary mind into clear aim and purpose by words of luminous beauty; if there is meant a power which seizes and utters subtle truths "of man, of nature, and of human life"; if there is meant the urgent desire and the power to body forth by the imagination in exquisite language the shapes of things unknown, things of beauty, glamour, pathos, or refreshment; if, as Wordsworth once more puts it, "the objects of the poet's thoughts are everywhere"; then, with those who maintain that poetry in this sense must inevitably wither before the blighting touch of science and democracy, we may join issue with a light heart. Assuredly the men of science would be the first to rise in remonstrance at the charge that the beauty, wonder and moral effluence of nature must all be from the earth "with sighing sent" because contempt for them has been bred by the familiarity of scientific knowledge.
And, first, is there any basis whatever in history for the notion that poetry flourishes best where enlightenment is least; that it is some sort of noxious weed which cannot bear the intellectual sunshine? Do we find the most consummate poets in a semi-barbarian world? Do we find our Anglo-Saxon fore-fathers in this respect superior to Chaucer, Chaucer superior to Shakespeare? Is Goethe the inferior of Hans Sachs in any poetic quality, or still more the inferior of the nameless author of the Nibelungen Lied? Is the verse of Caedmon of imagination more compact than Paradise Lost? Or is the Roman de la Rose more poetical, in any sense ever attributed to the term, than La Legende des Siecles? No one, however bold, will say "yes" to questions put with this undisguised directness.
The poetical pessimists will not dispassionately examine plain facts. They take English literature and point to the now remote date of Shakespeare; they take Italian literature and remind us that Dante has been dead nearly six centuries; they take the literature of Greece and triumphantly observe that its greatest poet, Homer, was its earliest. They ignore the essential fact that transcendent genius is the phenomenon of a thousand years; that we must not demand a recurrence even of second-rate genius in every generation or even in every century. Without the altogether extraordinary genius of Shakespeare, English poetry culminates, not in the age of Elizabeth, but in the nineteenth century. Without the unique marvel of the mind of Dante, the poetry of Italy is at its highest in the sixteenth century of Tasso and Ariosto, not in the fourteenth century of the subtle amorist Petrarch. Remove the one name of Homer, and you bring the crowning glory of Grecian poetry at least three or four centuries later, to the era of Pindar, AEschylus, and Sophocles. We cannot judge the laws of general progress by unique instances of individual genius. These are the comets and meteors of the literary heavens. To judge of a generation's capacity for poetry, we must compare, not a Shakespeare with a Shelley or a Wordsworth, but the average spirit, the average power of insight and expression, of Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson, with those of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats. And who will maintain, that in force of imagination, in truth of vision, in grasp of the ideal side of things, in beautiful expression of elusive thoughts, in lyric rapture, the Elizabethans are equal to the Georgian and Victorian poets?
Our own day is, we boast, the age of light and reason. The days of Chaucer were times of childlike ignorance, credulity, naivete. Yet who will tell us that Tennyson looks out on nature or on man with a colder, less imaginative, eye than Chaucer? That the advances of science have made him gaze less lovingly, less wonderingly, upon any created thing? That the progress of philosophy has hardened Browning's heart to accesses of passion, or cramped his creative imagination? And yet it should be so, if enlightenment means decay of poetry.
Science, we are told, and philosophy are but an inclement atmosphere for poetry to thrive in. Their spiteful frost nips the young buds and tender shoots of imagination, of fancy, of "sentiment." Well, at what date was modern science born? At what date philosophy? Does philosophy date from Kant, or from Bacon, or from Plato? Does modern science begin with Darwin, with Newton, with Copernicus, or with Aristotle? Let us, for argument's sake, accept the common account that the age par excellence of science and philosophy began in England, in France, in Germany, somewhere about the end of the seventeenth century. Since that time we have doubtless discovered and elaborated many a detail. None the less the air of all the eighteenth century was full of scientific inquiry and mechanical invention, full of philosophical discussion, full of religious and moral scepticism. If ever there was an age when it looked to the pessimist as if science and philosophy would change the aspect of nature and the heart of man, it was that eighteenth century. Now note that, if some holder of Macaulay's view had risen up in the year 1770 or thereabouts, he might have addressed his contemporaries to great effect in words like these: "The age of philosophy and science is upon us all, and poetry is dead. See how in Germany not a single worthy note of a poet's singing is heard amid the din of critics, philosophers, jurists, scientists. See how in France we find historians, letter-writers, philosophers, moralists, but not a verse worth hearing since the dry-light prose-versicles of Voltaire. Observe how in England our so-called poetry is but prose sawed into lines of five feet each, and contains not one drop of the sap of nature, unless it be some suggestion in Thomson and a half-ashamed trace in Collins or in Gray. As for the last really great figure, Pope, and all his rhyming brood, they are but arguers, critics, moralists, describers, satirists in verse. They show no inspiration, and could show none, because science and reasoning forbade it to them. The wings of their imaginations are cropped close by the hard facts and knowledge of our time. Let us cry Ichabod over poetry, for its glory is departed, and departed for ever."
It would scarcely have been an unnatural thing for an observant lover of poetry at that date to make such a speech, and, without the light of later experience, it would have been impossible to confute him. Yet had that same man lived the length of another human life, seen still more scientists make their steps forward in discovery, seen another crop of even subtler philosophers at their analytic work, witnessed the "Triumph of Reason and Democracy" in the shape of the French Revolution:—had he lived to see all this, he would have beheld meanwhile something which shows how fallible is prophecy. He would have seen, to wit, a most marvellous, rich and widespread outburst of the strenuous natural poetry he thought dead. From amid the critical rationalism of Germany would come the fullest, most fervid voices of poetry with which that land had ever echoed—voices full of vigour and passion, full of imagination and music, singing of romance and story, of nature and man and human life—the voices of Lessing, Schiller, Goethe, Heine, Wieland. From France would be heard Beranger's stirring songs and the deepening romantic notes of Lamartine and Victor Hugo. From Scotland would sound the passionate song of Burns and later the romantic lays of Scott; and soon would arise in England the graver tones of Wordsworth, Nature's high-priest, the deep, half-romantic, half-religious music of the mystic Coleridge, the fiery ecstasies of Shelley, the rebellious melancholies of Byron, the sensuous raptures of Keats,—these and other tones of less compass or less power.
And as our mistaken pessimist listens, what then becomes of his theory that science and philosophy have killed the poet in mankind? Might not some reasoner of the more cheerful school urge in triumph just the contrary? Might he not say that it was precisely the new light shed by the dawning Renaissance which elicited the poetry of Dante's day? That it was precisely the flood of illumination on English thought in the sixteenth century which called forth the Elizabethan outburst? That it was precisely the eminent scientific and critical toiling of the eighteenth century which led up to that pronounced and unanimous romantic movement of recent times in England, Germany and France? We need not at present strongly urge that argument. It is enough to have shown the unsoundness of its contrary.
It may, however, be answered that science hitherto is only a preface to what is to come, that even the last generation of discovery is nothing in comparison with the expansion of our knowledge and the enslavement of natural forces which must be looked for in the years on which we enter. Well, we are not sure of that. It has been a foible of many an era to think itself remarkable as a time when "the world's great age begins anew." But let us grant, if you choose, that we are moving into an incomparable age of scientific light and clearness, and at the same time of unprecedented social change. Is it necessary that this clear light of science should be dry and cold? And is it inevitable that the destined social existence shall be arid and hard, cramping, drab, and dreary? Will analysis destroy all wonder, or classification annihilate all beauty? And will human nature be so transformed by some system of social contract that a man will no longer feel love or grief, or any other of those emotions which have been his, and increasingly his, since the days of Adam?
There is, we have seen, no basis in history for assuming that poetry will cease. Is there any ground in speculation? The assertion goes that imagination will be shrivelled by the chill of scientific practicality, that minds trained and informed by physical and mental science will possess too overpowering a sense of logic, too habitual a consciousness of the matter-of-fact, to indulge in the visions and imaginings which are supposed to be the life of poetry. It is urged that, when every inch of the world has rendered its hard statistics to the blue-books, and when the variety of the nations has disappeared before common appliances and familiar intercourse, there will be nothing to stimulate the romantic fancy, nay, romance in any sort will but come into conflict with man's ever-present realization of actual conditions.
Is this the just account? Is it just to the meaning of "poetry" or just to the nature of mankind?
One might perhaps fall back on what a man of science declared to Mr. Stedman: "The conquest of mystery leads to greater mystery: the more we know, the greater the material for the imagination." Or one might assert by right of intuition that, in face of the new world of science, we shall feel as Shakespeare's Miranda felt in the presence of new realities:—
O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That hath such people in't!
We too may expect to call it a "brave new world," to exclaim "how beauteous"—and not only how beauteous, but how awesome—"Nature is!" "how many goodly creatures are there here!" And in this goodliness, beauty, and awesomeness poetry will find unfailing material, while it seeks to express the emotions they evoke and to relate them with power to man's inner life. The objects of poetry are everywhere; and Wordsworth, who should know, if any one can know, will have it that "the remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist or mineralogist will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed."
One might, then, simply fall back on statements such as these. But we need a closer treatment. We require to see in what manner poetry and science will work side by side as partners and not, as enemies, struggle with each other until poetry is exterminated.
Whatever the future may be like, there are, and will be, two sides to human life. There is the material, commonplace, and in a sense, vulgar existence; there is also life's ideal side. Give a man, who is a man and not a mere biped animal, all the comforts and enjoyments of physical life, good food, good habitation, safety and health, even a clear intellect, and give him nothing else. Would he not scorn and weary of such a life as that, which merely adds empty day to empty day, so many ciphers of existence, which, after all, amount to nothing? There is in man, just in proportion as he rises above the beasts, a demand for something which he holds more vital, for the things of the mind and spirit. We live, not by bread alone, but "we live by admiration, hope and love." Man must have ideals and aspirations and mental ecstasies. And this, in other words, means that he must live the poetical as well as the material half of life.
What is our own state of mind—yours and mine—when we contemplate the threatened unpoetical future? Is it not one of alarm and disgust? Do we not almost rejoice to think that we ourselves shall not live to shiver in its bleakness? When we contemplate such a time, we say with Wordsworth—
Great God, I'd rather be A pagan, suckled in a creed outworn, So might I, standing on the pleasant lea, Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn
than the dull and melancholy prospect which is conjured up before us. Even in this age of science, we entertain such feelings. And if we ourselves feel so, it is simply because humanity is so constituted, and no science, no democracy, no learning, invention or legislation can ever drive out human nature from human beings. It is on grounds like these that Matthew Arnold declares, "More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us. Without Poetry our science will appear incomplete." "Incomplete" is a right word, though a very weak one; "incomplete," not untrue, not pernicious, but terribly inadequate. For there are two manners of looking at the universe and at the life of men, and human nature demands that we should exercise and enjoy them both. "The words poetry, philosophy, art, science," says Renan, "betoken not so much different objects proposed for the intellectual activity of man, as different manners of looking at the same object—which object is existence in all its manifestations," and, "if we understand by poetry the faculty which the soul has of being touched in a certain manner, of giving forth a certain sound of a particular and indefinable nature in the face of the beauty of things, he who is not a poet is not a man." True poetry does not imply fiction, unreality, misrepresentation. The true poet is not a deluded dreamer and a visionary. The scientist tells us certain facts about existing things, the poet draws forth the beauties and suggestions of those facts, brings them into moral and emotional connexion with ourselves, makes them, at his best, effective on our conduct. Human nature can never be satisfied with the bare objective facts. It must "disengage the elements of beauty" and goodness from them.
It is too generally assumed that to know a thing scientifically is to divest it of all touching beauty, of all romantic glamour, of all spiritual suggestion,—to make it, in fact, incapable of yielding poetry. We can, indeed, no longer call the sun a god and construct myths of Phoebus, nor can we seriously picture the moon descending to dally with Endymion. We can no longer see Hamadryads in the oaks or Naiads in the streams. We do not hear Zeus or Thor in the thunderclap, nor recognize in volcanic eruptions the struggles of imprisoned Titans breathing flame. But what of that? Does the essence of poetry lie at all in myths and superstitions? Because we know of what the sun is made, and how many miles distant he is, do we find his risings and settings less moving in their endless splendours? Do we less marvel at the stupendous order of the solar and astral circles? Do we feel less awe before the infinitude of space and the insignificance of our own selves? Do waterfalls "haunt us like a passion" any the less because the water is chemically known as H_2O and because we believe no longer in nymphs and water-sprites? On the contrary, if there is one fact in the history of literature more certain than another, it is the fact that the passion for natural beauty and the emotions it evokes are things of very modern date. In France Rousseau, in England Wordsworth, are practically the first to give to them that loving rapture of expression into which we of this scientific age enter so naturally.
It is true that Keats, in a moment of that petulance which is one of his less happy characteristics, writes like this:—
Do not all charms fly At the mere touch of cold philosophy? There was an awful rainbow once in heaven; We know her woof, her texture; she is given In the dull catalogue of common things. Philosophy will clip an angel's wings, Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, Empty the haunted air and gnomed mine, Unweave a rainbow.
But assuredly it was in his haste that Keats let slip those lines. To him at least, loving as he did the "principle of beauty in all things," to him, to whom a "thing of beauty is a joy for ever," the rainbow was not given in the dull catalogue of common things. Nor is it to us, though we might render ever so scientifically accurate an account of the origin of rainbows.
Shelley, who had dabbled in chemistry for the love of science, knew, as well as we know, that a cloud is but moisture evaporated from the earth, that there is no Valkyrie in it. But that does not hinder him from making such a cloud a thing of life, and causing it to sing—
I wield the flail of the lashing hail And whiten the green plains under; And then again I dissolve it in rain And laugh as I pass in thunder. I sift the snow on the mountains below, And their great pines groan aghast; And all the night 'tis my pillow white, While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Neither his studies in natural science, nor his economic and moral readings in Godwin and Condorcet could repress, or even tended to repress, the flight of Shelley's imagination. Nor did Goethe's original and almost professional scientific work in botany, anatomy, and optics prevent the creation of his Faust or the singing of his touching ballads. And when we question the compatibility of historical knowledge with the poetry of epic or romantic creations, do we suppose that Tennyson, while writing the Idylls of the King, believed in the stories of Arthur, of Lancelot, of Galahad, or of the Holy Grail? When Morris composed the Earthly Paradise, had his imagination no freedom of flight because stubborn facts of history and geography clipped its pinions?
The truth is that there are two ways of looking at existing things, two ways of handling them; and neither way is false. The scientist's way we all understand. It is the way of the microscope and the crucible. It arrives at definite physical facts. It sets forth the material constitution and physical laws of objects. But to the poet, says Mrs. Browning—
Every natural flower which grows on earth Implies a flower on the spiritual side.
And what is true of flowers is true of suns and stars and living creatures and all that science contemplates. Science is knowledge, while poetry, asserts Wordsworth, is "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge"; it is "the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science." There is a poetic truth, and there is a scientific truth, compatible one with the other, complementary one to the other. Perhaps the most prosaic mind that ever existed was that of Jeremy Bentham, and "poetry," said that worthy, "is misrepresentation." One may be pardoned for a passing impatience when the poetical side of man is treated as a kind of amiable delusion; when one hears the shallow argument, containing a begged question, that, inasmuch as the poet imagines in things what is really not there at all, he is so far a wanderer from the truth and an enemy of science. The answer is very brief; the poet does not imagine something which is not there. A beauty or a suggestion is a truth, and the poet sees a beauty or a suggestion. He would indeed be false and an enemy to science if he said that a primrose by the river's brim was a buttercup, or that it was red when it is yellow, but it is no fiction when he declares that the primrose tells him this or that of nature or of God. It may not tell the scientist anything of the kind, but that is because the scientist does not look for such a thing in it, does not understand or seek to understand its language. "The eye of the intellect," says Carlyle, "sees in all objects what it brings with it the means of seeing." Say, if you like, that it is really the poet himself who puts the language, the message, into flower or tree or waterfall. That only removes the argument a step further back. How is he prompted to find such language there?
And who knows but that, by his exquisite sensibility and gift of sympathy, the poet may be discovering truths more valuable to us in the end than all the truths of science? The Newtons and Faradays and Lyells perform their several tasks in the region of great literal physical facts and laws; the Shakespeares and Wordsworths and Shelleys perform theirs in the region of things ideal, in the expression of potent suggestions and stimulations. We cannot afford to treat as weak fantastic enthusiasts those to whom
The meanest flower that blows can give Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
Nor can we too soon recognize the fact that what the world requires is the combined result of both forms of genius. It requires that the genius of science and the genius of poetry should unite their powers and their discoveries into one grand harmony of happiness in faith and hope and love.
One can do no better than quote from Wordsworth a passage which shows how the moral mood is transformed through the medium of the eye, when the eye gazes with poetic sympathy on nature:—
O then what soul was his, when on the top Of the high mountains he beheld the sun Rise up and bathe the world in light! He looked— Ocean and earth, the solid frame of earth, And ocean's liquid mass, beneath him lay In gladness and deep joy. The clouds were touched, And in their silent faces did he read Unutterable love. Sound needed none Nor any voice of joy. His spirit drank The spectacle; sensation, soul and form All melted into him; they swallowed up His animal being; in them did he live, And by them did he live; they were his life.
There are people who find little satisfaction in Wordsworth. His reputation is a puzzle to them. They look for fine passages and too rarely discover them. They judge him by the test of mere brilliance of language, not by the higher and truer poetic gift, the power of seeing "into the life of things," the power and exquisite feeling whereby outward facts are brought to serve as inward forces.
And, quite apart from this function as the receiver of impressions and the communicator of them; quite apart from the function of the poet as moral and spiritual teacher working side by side with that teacher of facts, the man of science, there is room, and will always be room, for the artist-poet who simply refreshes and entertains. For poetry lies also in epics and romances, in "feigned history" and descriptions, when the poet, as Longinus says, "by a kind of enthusiasm or extraordinary emotion of the soul," makes it seem to us that we behold those things which he paints—a feat which he performs through his gift of imagination, whereby he bodies forth the shapes of things unknown and gives to airy nothings of beauty and delight and pathos a local habitation and a name. The world of the future will find refreshment in such creations no less than the world of the present. We know that romantic novels are unreal, but we read them with keen enjoyment none the less. So those romantic poems the Idylls of the King and The Earthly Paradise, like The Tempest, or the Faerie Queene, though they cause us no real illusion as to fact, nevertheless absorb our interest, and charm us with their unliteral beauties. We know in our hearts that there is no magic and no fairyland. But it is a pitiably dull and mollusc mind which finds no delight in peering through those
Charm'd magic casements opening on the foam Of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.
There remains, then, this function too of the poet who gives "exquisite expression" to an "exquisite impression"—the function of entertaining us nobly with tender thought and touching story, embodied in words of beauty, and graced with melodious cadences. Of such sort is the writer of the Earthly Paradise, who confesses his own modest aims in words like these:—
Of heaven or hell I have no power to sing; I cannot ease the burden of your fears, Or make quick-coming death a little thing, Or bring again the pleasure of past years, Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears, Or hope again for aught that I can say, The idle singer of an empty day.
But rather, when aweary of your mirth, From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh, And, feeling kindly unto all the earth, Grudge every minute as it passes by, Made the more mindful that the sweet days die, Remember me a little then, I pray, The idle singer of an empty day.
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time, Why should I strive to set the crooked straight? Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme Beat with light wing against the ivory gate, Telling a tale not too importunate To those who in the sleepy region stay, Lulled by the singer of an empty day.
We have dealt with the poet's place in the world of growing scientific light. We might also treat of the poet's place in the world of social progress. But he is a bold man who will prophesy whither society is tending. To some of us, its evolution has no terrors. But, whatever be the course of institutions, whatever the changing shapes of the social organism, there is one conviction we may most firmly hold. It is that, as ecstasies of love and grief, hope and fear, joy and suffering, must still exist, so the poet will ever exist to give them utterance. The drama, the lyric, the elegy, can never be effete so long as men have hearts and feel with them.
But why, it may be asked, should all this exquisite expression of nature and man and life take shape in verse? Why should we not, with Carlyle, declare verse out of date, an artificial thing, which expresses under crippling encumbrances what could be expressed in prose more clearly and more truthfully? To this question we may reply that rhymes and recurrences of equal syllables are indeed no essentials of true poetry. Poetry has existed without them, and will exist without them. But, if not rhymes and equal syllables, yet rhythm and melody, moving concurrences of sounds, must for all time be elements of poetic utterance. The reason should be manifest. There is an indefinable sympathy between the spoken sound and the conceiving mood of the poet. The poet conceives in moments of unusual sensibility, his mental part is vibrating, and that sensibility lends a corresponding movement to his language. When a poet says of himself—