The Poet's Poet
Elizabeth Atkins

Part 5 out of 6

best, transmit only a faint glimmering of an idea. To Dr. Thomas
Arnold's mind Wordsworth's concern with the flower which brought
"thoughts which do often lie too deep for tears" was ridiculously
excessive, since, at most, a flower could be only the accidental cause
of great thoughts, a push, as it were, that started into activity ideas
which afterward ran on by their own impulsion. Tennyson has indicated,
however, that the poetical feeling aroused by a flower is, in its utmost
reaches, no more than a recognition of that which actually abides in the
flower itself. He muses,

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;--
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower--but if I could understand
What you are, root and all and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

By whatever polysyllabic name the more consciously speculative poets
designate their philosophical creed, this belief in the infinite meaning
of every object in the physical world is pure pantheism, and the
instinctive poetical religion is inevitably a pantheistic one. All
poetical metaphor is a confession of this fact, for in metaphor the
sensuous and the spiritual are conceived as one.

A pantheistic religion is the only one which does not hamper the poet's
unconscious and unhampering morality. He refuses to die to this world as
Plato's philosopher and the early fathers of the church were urged to
do, for it is from the physical world that all his inspiration comes. If
he attempts to turn away from it, he is bewildered, as Christina
Rossetti was, by a duality in his nature, by

The foolishest fond folly of a heart
Divided, neither here nor there at rest,
That hankers after Heaven, but clings to earth.
[Footnote: _Later Life,_ Sonnet 24.]

On the other hand, if he tries to content himself with the merely
physical aspects of things, he finds that he cannot crush out of his
nature a mysticism quite as intense as that of the most ascetic saint.
Only a religion which maintains the all-pervasive oneness of both
elements in his nature can wholly satisfy him.

Not infrequently, poets have given this instinctive faith of theirs a
conscious formulation. Coleridge, with his indefatigable quest of the
unity underlying "the Objective and Subjective," did so. Shelley devoted
a large part of _Prometheus Unbound_ and the conclusion of _Adonais_ to
his pantheistic views. Wordsworth never wavered in his worship of the
sense world which was yet spiritual,

The Being that is in the clouds and air,
That is in the green leaves among the groves,
[Footnote: _Hart Leap Well._]

and was led to the conclusion,

It is my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
[Footnote: _Lines Written in Early Spring._]

Tennyson, despite the restlessness of his speculative temper, was ever
returning to a pantheistic creed. The same is true of the Brownings.
Arnold is, of course, undecided upon the question, and now approves, now
rejects the pessimistic view of pantheism expressed in _Empedocles on
AEtna,_ in accordance with his change of mood putting the poem in and
out of the various editions of his works. But wherever his poetry is
most worthy, his worship of nature coincides with Wordsworth's
pantheistic faith. Swinburne's _Hertha_ is one of the most thorough
going expressions of pantheism. At the present time, as in much
of the poetry of the past, the pantheistic feeling is merely implicit.
One of the most recent conscious formulations of it is in Le Gallienne's
_Natural Religion,_ wherein he explains the grounds of his faith,

Up through the mystic deeps of sunny air
I cried to God, "Oh Father, art thou there?"
Sudden the answer like a flute I heard;
It was an angel, though it seemed a bird.

On the whole the poet might well wax indignant over the philosopher's
charge. It is hardly fair to accuse the poet of being indifferent to the
realm of ideas, when, as a matter of fact, he not only tries to
establish himself there, but to carry everything else in the universe
with him.

The charge of the puritan appears no more just to the poet than that of
the philosopher. How can it be true, as the puritan maintains it to be,
that the poet lacks the spirit of reverence, when he is constantly
incurring the ridicule of the world by the awe with which he regards
himself and his creations? No power, poets aver, is stronger to awaken a
religious mood than is the quietude of the beauty which they worship.
Wordsworth says that poetry can never be felt or rightly estimated
"without love of human nature and reverence for God," [Footnote: Letter
to Lady Beaumont, May 21, 1807.] because poetry and religion are of the
same nature. If religion proclaims cosmos against chaos, so also does
poetry, and both derive the harmony and repose that inspire reverence
from this power of revelation.

But, the puritan objects, the overweening pride which is one of the
poet's most distinctive traits renders impossible the humility of spirit
characteristic of religious reverence.

It is true that the poet repudiates a religion that humbles him; this is
one of the strongest reasons for his pantheistic leanings.

There is no God, O son!
If thou be none,
[Footnote: _On the Downs._]

Swinburne represents nature as crying to man, and this suits the poet
exactly. Perhaps Swinburne's prose shows more clearly than his poetry
the divergence of the puritan temper and the poetical one in the matter
of religious humility. "We who worship no material incarnation of any
qualities," he wrote, "no person, may worship the Divine Humanity; the
ideal of human perfection and aspiration, without worshipping any god,
any person, any fetish at all. Therefore I might call myself, if I
wished, a kind of Christian (of the Church of Blake and Shelley) but
assuredly in no sense a theist." [Footnote: Edmund Gosse, _Swinburne_,
p. 309.]

Nothing less than complete fusion of the three worlds spoken of by
Goethe, will satisfy the poet. If fusion of the outer world and the
other world results in the pantheistic color of the poet's religion, the
third element, the inner world, makes it imperative that the poet's
divinity should be a personal one, no less, in fact, than a deification
of his own nature. This tendency of the poet to create God in his own
image is frankly acknowledged by Mrs. Browning in prayer to the "Poet
God." [Footnote: _A Vision of Poets_.]

Of all English writers, William Blake affords the clearest revelation of
the poet's instinctive attitude, because he is most courageous in
carrying the implications of poetic egotism to their logical conclusion.
In the _Prophetic Books_, in particular, Blake boldly expresses all
that is implicit in the poet's yearning for a religion which will not
humble and thwart his nature, but will exalt and magnify it.

Even the puritan cannot affirm that the poet's demand for recognition,
in his religious belief, of every phase of his existence, has not
flowered, once, at least, in most genuinely religious poetry, for the
puritan himself feels the power of Emily Bronte's _Last Lines,_ in which
she cries with proud and triumphant faith,

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void;
Thou, Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

There remains the plain man to be dealt with. What, he reiterates, has
the poet to say for his orthodoxy? If he can combine his poetical
illusions about the divinity of nature and the superlative and awesome
importance of the poet himself with regular attendance at church; if
these phantasies do not prevent him from sincerely and thoughtfully
repeating the Apostle's creed, well and good. The plain man's religious
demands upon the poet are really not excessive, yet the poet, from the
romantic period onward, has taken delight in scandalizing him.

In the eighteenth century poets seem not to have been averse to
placating their enemies by publishing their attendance upon the
appointed means of grace. Among the more conservative poets, this
attitude lasted over into the earlier stages of the romantic movement.
So late a poet as Bowles delighted to stress the "churchman's ardor" of
the poet. [Footnote: See his verse on Southey and Milton.] Southey also
was ready to exhibit his punctilious orthodoxy. Yet poor Southey was the
unwitting cause of the impiety of his brothers for many years, inasmuch
as Byron's _A Vision of Judgment,_ with its irresistible satire on
Southey, sounded the death-knell of the narrowly religious poet.

The vogue which the poet of religious ill-repute enjoyed during the
romantic period was, of course, a very natural phase of "the renaissance
of wonder." The religious "correctness" of the eighteenth century
inevitably went out of fashion, in poetic circles, along with the rest
of its formalism. Poets vied with one another in forming new and daring
conceptions of God. There was no question, in the romantic revolt, of
yielding to genuine atheism. "The worst of it is that I _do_ believe,"
said Byron, discussing his bravery under fear of death. "Anything but
the Church of England," was the attitude by which Byron shocked the
orthodox. "I think," he wrote, "people can never have enough of
religion, if they are to have any. I incline myself very much to the
Catholic doctrine." [Footnote: Letter to Tom Moore, March 4, 1822. See
also the letter to Robert Charles Dallas, January 21, 1808.] _Cain,_
however, is not a piece of Catholic propaganda, and the chief
significance of Byron's religious poetry lies in his romantic delight in
arraigning the Almighty as well as Episcopalians.

Shelley comes out even more squarely than Byron against conventional
religion. In _Julian and Maddalo_, he causes Byron to say of him,

You were ever still
Among Christ's flock a perilous infidel.

Shelley helped to foster the tradition, too, that the poet was
persecuted by the church. In _Rosalind and Helen_, the hero was
hated by the clergy,

For he made verses wild and queer
Of the strange creeds priests hold so dear,

and this predilection for making them wild and queer resulted in
Lionel's death, for

The ministers of misrule sent
Seized on Lionel and bore
His chained limbs to a dreary tower,
For he, they said, from his mind had bent
Against their gods keen blasphemy.

The most notable illustration of this phase of Shelley's thought is
_The Revolt of Islam,_ wherein the poets, Laon and Cythna, are put
to death by the priests, who regard them as their worst enemies.

Burns, also, took a certain pleasure in unorthodoxy, and later poets
have gloried in his attitude.

Swinburne, in particular, praises his daring, in that he

Smote the God of base men's choice
At God's own gate.
[Footnote: _Burns._]

Young poets have not yet lost their taste for religious persecution. It
is a great disappointment to them to find it difficult to strike fire
from the faithful in these days. Swinburne in his early poetry denounced
the orthodox God with such vigor that he roused a momentary flutter of
horror in the church, but nowadays the young poet who craves to manifest
his spiritual daring is far more likely to find himself in the position
of Rupert Brooke, of whom someone has said, "He imagines the poet as
going on a magnificent quest to curse God on his throne of fire, and

The poet's youthful zest in scandalizing the orthodox is likely,
however, to be early outgrown. As the difficulties in the way of his
finding a God worthy of his adoration become manifest to him, it may be,
indeed, with a sigh that he turns from the conventional religion in
which so many men find certitude and place. This is the mood,
frequently, of Browning, [Footnote: See _Christmas Eve_ and _Easter
Day._] of Tennyson, [Footnote: See _In Memoriam._] of Arnold, [Footnote:
See _Dover Beach._] of Clough. [Footnote: See _The New Sinai, Qui
Laborat Orat, Hymnos Amnos, Epistrausium._] So, too, James Thomson muses
with regret,

How sweet to enter in, to kneel and pray
With all the others whom we love so well!
All disbelief and doubt might pass away,
And peace float to us with its Sabbath bell.
Conscience replies, There is but one good rest,
Whose head is pillowed upon Truth's pure breast.
[Footnote: _The Reclusant._]

In fact, as the religious world grows more broad-minded, the mature poet
sometimes appeals to the orthodox for sympathy when his daring religious
questing threatens to plunge him into despair. The public is too quick
to class him with those whose doubt is owing to lassitude of mind,
rather than too eager activity. Tennyson is obliged to remind his

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

Browning, as always, takes a hopeful view of human stupidity when he
expresses his belief that men will not long "persist in confounding, any
more than God confounds, with genuine infidelity and atheism of the
heart those passionate impatient struggles of a boy toward truth and
love." [Footnote: _Preface_ to the Letters of Shelley (afterwards
proved spurious).]

The reluctance of the world to give honor too freely to the poet who
prefers solitary doubt to common faith is, probably enough, due to a
shrewd suspicion that the poet finds religious perplexity a very
satisfactory poetic stimulus. In his character as man of religion as in
that of lover, the poet is apt to feel that his thirst, not the
quenching of it, is the aesthetic experience. There is not much question
that since the beginning of the romantic movement, at least, religious
doubt has been more prolific of poetry than religious certainty has
been. Even Cowper, most orthodox of poets, composed his best religious
poetry while he was tortured by doubt. One does not deny that there is
good poetry in the hymn books, expressing settled faith, but no one will
seriously contend, I suppose, that any contentedly orthodox poet of the
last century has given us a body of verse that compares favorably, in
purely poetical merit, with that of Arnold.

Against the imputation that he deliberately dallies with doubt, the poet
can only reply that, again as in the case of his human loves, longing is
strong enough to spur him to poetic achievement, only when it is a
thirst driving him mad with its intensity. The poet, in the words of a
recent poem, is "homesick after God," and in the period of his blackest
doubt beats against the wall of his reason with the cry,

Ah, but there should be one!
There should be one. And there's the bitterness
Of this unending torture-place for men,
For the proud soul that craves a perfectness
That might outwear the rotting of all things
Rooted in earth.
[Footnote: Josephine Preston Peabody, _Marlowe._]

The public which refuses to credit the poet with earnestness in his
quest of God may misconceive the dignified attempts of Arnold to free
himself from the tangle of doubt, and deem his beautiful gestures
purposely futile, but before condemning the poetic attitude toward
religion it must also take into account the contrary disposition of
Browning to kick his way out of difficulties with entire indifference to
the greater dignity of an attitude of resignation; and no more than
Arnold does Browning ever depict a poet who achieves religious
satisfaction. Thus the hero of _Pauline_ comes to no triumphant
issue, though he maintains,

I have always had one lode-star; now
As I look back, I see that I have halted
Or hastened as I looked towards that star,
A need, a trust, a yearning after God.

The same bafflement is Sordello's, over whom the author muses,

Of a power above you still,
Which, utterly incomprehensible,
Is out of rivalry, which thus you can
Love, though unloving all conceived by man--
What need! And of--none the minutest duct
To that out-nature, naught that would instruct
And so let rivalry begin to live--
But of a Power its representative
Who, being for authority the same,
Communication different, should claim
A course, the first chosen, but the last revealed,
This human clear, as that Divine concealed--
What utter need!

There is, after all, small need that the public should charge the poet
with deliberate failure to gain a satisfactory view of the deity. The
quest of a God who satisfies the poet's demand that He shall include all
life, satisfy every impulse, be as personal as the poet himself, and
embody only the harmony of beauty, is bound to be a long one. It appears
inevitable that the poet should never get more than incomplete and
troubled glimpses of such a deity, except, perhaps, in

The too-bold dying song of her whose soul
Knew no fellow for might,
Passion, vehemence, grief,
Daring, since Byron died.
[Footnote: Said of Emily Bronte. Arnold, _Haworth Churchyard._]

A complete view of the poet's deity is likely always to be as disastrous
as was that of Lucretius, as Mrs. Browning conceived of him,

Who dropped his plummet down the broad
Deep universe, and said, "No God,"
Finding no bottom.
[Footnote: _A Vision of Poets._]

If the poet's independent quest of God is doomed to no more successful
issue than this, it might seem advisable for him to tolerate the
conventional religious systems of his day. Though every poet must feel
with Tennyson,

Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they,
[Footnote: _In Memoriam._]

yet he may feel, with Rossetti, that it is best to

Let lore of all theology
Be to thy soul what it can be.
[Footnote: _Soothsay._]

Indeed, many of the lesser poets have capitulated to overtures of
tolerance and not-too-curious inquiry into their private beliefs on the
part of the church.

In America, the land of religious tolerance, the poet's break with
thechurch was never so serious as in England, and the shifting creeds of
the evangelical churches have not much hampered poets. In fact, the
frenzy of the poet and of the revivalist have sometimes been felt as
akin. Noteworthy in this connection is George Lansing Raymond, who
causes the heroes of two pretentious narrative poems, _A Life in Song,_
and _The Real and the Ideal,_ to begin by being poets, and end by
becoming ministers of the gospel. The verse of J. G. Holland is hardly
less to the point. The poet-hero of Holland's _Bitter Sweet_ is a
thoroughgoing evangelist, who, in the stress of temptation by a woman
who would seduce him, falls upon his knees and saves his own soul and
hers likewise. In _Kathrina,_ though the hero, rebellious on account of
the suicide of his demented parents, remains agnostic till almost the
end of the poem, this is clearly regarded by Holland as the cause of his
incomplete success as a poet, and in the end the hero becomes an
irreproachable churchman. At present Vachel Lindsay keeps up the
tradition of the poet-revivalist.

Even in England, the orthodox poet has not been nonexistent. Christina
Rossetti portrays such an one in her autobiographical poetry. Jean
Ingelow, in _Letters of Life and Morning_, offers most conventional
religious advice to the young poet. And in Coventry Patmore's _The
Angel in the House_, one finds as orthodox a poet as any that the
eighteenth century could afford.

The Catholic church too has some grounds for its title, "nursing mother
of poets." The rise of the group of Catholic poets, Francis Thompson,
Alice Meynell, and Lionel Johnson, in particular, has tended to give a
more religious cast to the recent poet. If Joyce Kilmer had lived,
perhaps verse on the Catholic poet would have been even more in
evidence. But it is likely that Joyce Kilmer would only have succeeded
in inadvertently bringing the religious singer once more into disrepute.
There is perhaps nothing nocuous in his creed, as he expressed it in a
formal interview: "I hope ... poetry ... is reflecting faith ... in God
and His Son and the Holy Ghost." [Footnote: Letter to Howard Cook, June
28, 1918, _Joyce Kilmer: Poems, Essays and Letters_, ed. Robert
Cortes Holliday.] But Kilmer went much farther and advocated the
suppression of all writings, by Catholics, which did not specifically
advertise their author's Catholicism. [Footnote: See his letter to Aline
Kilmer, April 21, 1918, _Joyce Kilmer, Poems, Essays and Letters_,
ed. Robert Cortes Holliday.] And such a doctrine immediately delivers
the poet's freedom of inspiration into the hands of censors.

Perhaps a history of art would not square with the repugnance one feels
toward such censorship. Conformance to the religious beliefs of his time
certainly does not seem to have handicapped Homer or Dante, to say
nothing of the preeminent men in other fields of art, Phidias, Michael
Angelo, Raphael, etc. Yet in the modern consciousness, the theory of art
for art's sake has become so far established that we feel that any
compromise of the purely aesthetic standard is a loss to the artist. The
deity of the artist and the churchman may be in some measure the same,
since absolute beauty and absolute goodness are regarded both by poets
and theologians as identical, but there is reason to believe that the
poet may not go so far astray if he cleaves to his own immediate
apprehension of absolute beauty as he will if he fashions his beliefs
upon another man's stereotyped conception of the absolute good.

Then, too, it is not unlikely that part of the poet's reluctance to
embrace the creed of his contemporaries arises from the fact that he, in
his secret heart, still hankers for his old title of priest. He knows
that it is the imaginative faculty of the poet that has been largely
instrumental in building up every religious system. The system that
holds sway in society is apt to be the one that he himself has just
outgrown; he has, accordingly, an artist's impatience for its
immaturity. There is much truth to the poet's nature in verses entitled
_The Idol Maker Prays_:

Grant thou, that when my art hath made thee known
And others bow, I shall not worship thee,
But as I pray thee now, then let me pray
Some greater god,--like thee to be conceived
Within my soul.
[Footnote: By Arthur Guiterman.]



No matter how strong our affection for the ingratiating ne'er-do-well,
there are certain charges against the poet which we cannot ignore. It is
a serious thing to have an alleged madman, inebriate, and experimenter
in crime running loose in society. But there comes a time when our
patience with his indefatigable accusers is exhausted. Is not society
going a step too far if, after the poet's positive faults have been
exhausted, it institutes a trial for his sins of omission? Yet so it is.
If the poet succeeds in proving to the satisfaction of the jury that his
influence is innocuous, he must yet hear the gruff decision, "Perhaps,
as you say, you are doing no real harm. But of what possible use are
you? Either become an efficient member of society, or cease to exist."
Must we tamely look on, while the "light, winged, and holy creature," as
Plato called the poet, is harnessed to a truck wagon, and made to
deliver the world's bread and butter? Would that it were more common for
poets openly to defy society's demands for efficiency, as certain
children and malaperts of the poetic world have done! It is pleasant to
hear the naughty advice which that especially impractical poet, Emily
Dickinson, gave to a child: "Be sure to live in vain, dear. I wish I
had." [Footnote: Gamaliel Bradford, _Portraits of American Women_,
p. 248 (Mrs. Bianchi, p. 37).] And one is hardly less pleased to hear
the irrepressible Ezra Pound instruct his songs,

But above all, go to practical people, go, jangle their door-bells.
Say that you do no work, and that you will live forever.
[Footnote: _Salutation the Second_.]

Surely no one else has had so bad a time with efficiency experts as has
the poet, even though everyone whose occupation does not bring out sweat
on the brow is likely to fall under their displeasure. The scholar, for
instance, is given no rest from their querulous complaints, because he
has been sitting at his ease, with a book in his hand, while they have
dug the potatoes for his dinner. But the poet is the object of even
bitterer vituperation. He, they remind him, does not even trouble to
maintain a decorous posture during his fits of idleness. Instead, he is
often discovered flat on his back in the grass, with one foot swinging
aloft, wagging defiance at an industrious world. What right has he to
loaf and invite his soul, while the world goes to ruin all about him?

The poet reacts variously to these attacks. Sometimes with (it must be
confessed) aggravating meekness, he seconds all that his beraters say of
his idle ways. [Footnote: For verse dealing with the idle poet see James
Thomson, _The Castle of Indolence_ (Stanzas about Samuel Patterson, Dr.
Armstrong, and the author); Barry Cornwall, _The Poet and the Fisher_,
and _Epistle to Charles Lamb on His Emancipation from the Clerkship_;
Wordsworth, _Expostulation and Reply_; Emerson, _Apology_; Whitman,
_Song of Myself_; Helen Hunt Jackson, _The Poet's Forge_; P. H. Hayne,
_An Idle Poet Dreaming_; Henry Timrod, _They Dub Thee Idler_; Washington
Allston, _Sylphs of the Seasons_; C. W. Stoddard, _Utopia_; Alan Seeger,
_Oneata_; J. G. Neihardt, _The Poet's Town_.] Sometimes he gives them
the plaintive assurance that he is overtaxed with imaginary work. But
occasionally he seems to be really stung by their reproaches, and tries
to convince them that by following a strenuous avocation he has done his
bit for society, and has earned his hours of idleness as a poet.

When the modern poet tries to establish his point by exhibiting singers
laboring in the business and professional world, he cannot be said to
make out a very good case for himself. He has dressed an occasional
fictional bard in a clergyman's coat, in memory, possibly, of Donne and
Herbert. [Footnote: See G. L. Raymond, _A Life in Song_, and _The Real
and the Ideal_.] In politics, he has exhibited in his verses only a few
scattered figures,--Lucan, [Footnote: See _Nero_, Robert Bridges.]
Petrarch, [Footnote: See Landor, _Giovanna of Naples_, and _Andrea of
Hungary_.] Dante, [Footnote: See G. L. Raymond, _Dante_.] Boccaccio,
Walter Map, [Footnote: See _A Becket_, Tennyson.] Milton [Footnote: See
_Milton_, Bulwer Lytton; _Milton_, George Meredith.]--and these, he must
admit, belong to remote periods. Does D'Annunzio bring the poet-
politician down to the present? But poets have not yet begun to
celebrate D'Annunzio in verse. Really there is only one figure, a
protean one, in the realm of practical life, to whom the poet may look
to save his reputation. Shakespeare he is privileged to represent as
following many callings, and adorning them all. Or no, not quite all,
for a recent verse-writer has gone to the length of representing
Shakespeare as a pedagogue, and in this profession the master dramatist
is either inept, or three centuries in advance of his time, for the
citizens of Stratford do not take kindly to his scholastic innovations.
[Footnote: See _William Shakespeare, Pedagogue and Poacher_, a drama,
Richard Garnett.]

If the poet does not appear a brilliant figure in the business world, he
may turn to another field with the confidence that here his race will
vindicate him from the world's charges of sluggishness or weakness. He
is wont proudly to declare, with Joyce Kilmer,

When you say of the making of ballads and songs that it is a woman's
You forget all the fighting poets that have been in every land.
There was Byron, who left all his lady-loves, to fight against the
And David, the singing king of the Jews, who was born with a sword
in his hand.
It was yesterday that Rupert Brooke went out to the wars and died,
And Sir Philip Sidney's lyric voice was as sweet as his arm was
And Sir Walter Raleigh met the axe as a lover meets his bride,
Because he carried in his heart the courage of his song.
[Footnote: Joyce Kilmer, _The Proud Poet_.]

It was only yesterday, indeed, that Rupert Brooke, Francis Ledwidge,
Alan Seeger and Joyce Kilmer made the memory of the soldier poet
lasting. And it cannot be justly charged that the draft carried the
poet, along with the street-loafer, into the fray, an unwilling victim.
From Aeschylus and David to Byron and the recent war poets, the singer
may find plenty of names to substantiate his claim that he glories in
war as his natural element. [Footnote: For poetry dealing with the poet
as a warrior see Thomas Moore, _The Minstrel Boy, O Blame Not the Bard,
The Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls, Shall the Harp then be Silent,
Dear Harp of My Country_; Praed, _The Eve of Battle_; Whitman, _Song of
the Banner at Daybreak_; E. C. Stedman, _Jean Prouvaire's Song at the
Barricade, Byron_; G. L. Raymond, _Dante, A Song of Life_; S. K. Wiley,
_Dante and Beatrice_; Oscar Wilde, _Ravenna_; Richard Realf, _Vates,
Written on the Night of His Suicide_; Cale Young Rice, _David,
Aeschylus_; Swinburne, _The Sisters_; G. E. Woodberry, _Requiem_; Rupert
Brooke, _1914_; Joyce Kilmer, _In Memory of Rupert Brooke, The Proud
Poet_; Alan Seeger, _I Have a Rendez-vous with Death, Sonnet to Sidney,
Liebestod_; John Bunker, _On Bidding Farewell to a Poet Gone to the
Wars_; Jessie Rittenhouse, _To Poets Who Shall Fall in Battle_; Rossiter
Johnson, _A Soldier Poet_; Herbert Kaufman, _Hell Gate of Soissons_;
Herbert Asquith, _The Volunteer_; Julian Grenfil, _Into Battle_; Grace
Hazard Conkling, _Francis Ledwidge_; Richard Mansfield, 2d, _Song of the
Artists_; Norreys Jephson O'Connor, _In Memoriam: Francis Ledwidge_;
Donald F. Goold Johnson, _Rupert Brooke_.] A recent writer has said,
"The poet must ever go where the greatest songs are singing," [Footnote:
See Christopher Morley, Essay on Joyce Kilmer.] and nowhere is the
poetry of life so manifest as where life is in constant hazard. The
verse of Rupert Brooke and Alan Seeger surely makes it plain that
warfare was the spark which touched off their genius, even as it might
have done Byron's,

When the true lightning of his soul was bared,
Long smouldering till the Mesolonghi torch.
[Footnote: Stephen Phillips, _Emily Bronte_.]

But no matter how heroic the poet may prove himself to be, in his
character of soldier, or how efficient as a man of affairs, this does
not settle his quarrel with the utilitarians, for they are not to be
pacified by a recital of the poet's avocations. They would remind him
that the world claims the whole of his time. If, after a day of
strenuous activity, he hurries home with the pleasant conviction that he
has earned a long evening in which to woo the Muse, the world is too
likely to peer through the shutters and exclaim, "What? Not in bed yet?
Then come out and do some extra chores." If the poet is to prove his
title as an efficient citizen, it is clear that he must reveal some
merit in verse-making itself. If he can make no more ambitious claims
for himself, he must, at the very least, show that Browning was not at
fault when he excused his occupation:

I said, to do little is bad; to do nothing is worse,
And wrote verse.
[Footnote: Ferishtah's Fancies.]

How can the poet satisfy the philistine world that his songs are worth
while? Need we ask? Business men will vouch for their utility, if he
will but conform to business men's ideas of art. Here is a typical
expression of their views, couched in verse for the singer's better

The days of long-haired poets now are o'er,
The short-haired poet seems to have the floor;
For now the world no more attends to rhymes
That do not catch the spirit of the times.
The short-haired poet has no muse or chief,
He sings of corn. He eulogizes beef.
[Footnote: "The Short-haired Poet," in _Common-Sense_, by E. F. Ware.]

But the poet utterly repudiates such a view of himself as this, for he
cannot draw his breath in the commercial world. [Footnote: Several poems
lately have voiced the poet's horror of materialism. See Josephine
Preston Peabody, _The Singing Man_; Richard Le Gallienne, _To R. W.
Emerson, Richard Watson Gilder_; Mary Robinson, _Art and Life_.] In vain
he assures his would-be friends that the intangibilities with which he
deals have a value of their own. Emerson says,

One harvest from thy field
Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield
Which I gather in a song.
[Footnote: _Apology_]

But for this second crop the practical man says he can find absolutely
no market; hence overtures of friendliness between him and the poet end
with sneers and contempt on both sides. Doubtless the best way for the
poet to deal with the perennial complaints of the practical-minded, is
simply to state brazenly, as did Oscar Wilde, "All art is quite
useless." [Footnote: Preface to _Dorian Gray_.]

Is the poet justified, then, in stopping his ears to all censure, and
living unto himself? Not so; when the hub-bub of his sordid accusers
dies away, he is conscious of another summons, before a tribunal which
he cannot despise or ignore. For once more the poet's equivocal position
exposes him to attacks from all quarters. He stands midway between the
spiritual and the physical worlds, he reveals the ideal in the sensual.
Therefore, while the practical man complains that the poet does not
handle the solid objects of the physical world, but transmutes them to
airy nothings, the philosopher, on the contrary, condemns the poet
because he does not wholly sever connections with this same physical
world, but is continually hovering about it, like a homesick ghost.

Like the plain man, the philosopher gives the poet a chance to vindicate
his usefulness. Plato's challenge is not so age-worn that we may not
requote it. He makes Socrates say, in the _Republic_,

Let us assure our sweet friend (poetry) and the sister arts of imitation
that if she will only prove her title to exist in a well-ordered state,
we shall be delighted to receive her.... We are very conscious of her
charms, but we may not on that account betray the truth.... Shall I
propose, then, that she be allowed to return from exile, but on this
condition only, that she makes a defense of herself in lyrical or some
other meter? And we may further grant to those of her defenders who are
lovers of poetry and yet not poets the permission to speak in prose on
her behalf. Let them show not only that she is pleasant but also useful
to states and to human life, and we will listen in a kindly spirit.
[Footnote: _Republic_, Book X, 607.]

* * * * *

One wonders why the lovers of Poetry have been so much more solicitous
for her cause than Poetry herself has appeared to be. Aristotle, and
after him many others,--in the field of English literature, Sidney,
Shelley, and in our own day G. E. Woodberry,--have made most eloquent
defenses in prose, but thus far the supreme lyrical defense has not been
forthcoming. Perhaps Poetry feels that it is beneath her dignity to
attempt a utilitarian justification for herself. Yet in the verse of the
last century and a half there are occasional passages which give the
impression that Poetry, with childishly averted head, is offering them
to us, as if to say, "Don't think I would stoop to defend myself, but
here are some things I might say for myself, if I wished."

Since the Platonic philosopher and the practical man stand for antipodal
conceptions of reality, it really seems too bad that Plato will not give
the poet credit for a little merit, in comparison with his arch-enemy.
But as a matter of fact, the spectator of eternity and the sense-blinded
man of the street form a grotesque fraternity, for the nonce, and the
philosopher assures the plain man that he is far more to his liking than
is the poet. Plato's reasoning is, of course, that the plain man at
least does not tamper with the objects of sense, through which the
philosopher may discern gleams of the spiritual world, whereas the poet
distorts them till their real significance is obscured. The poet
pretends that he is giving their real meaning, even as the philosopher,
but his interpretation is false. He is like a man who, by an ingenious
system of cross-lights and reflections, creates a wraithlike image of
himself in the mirror, and alleges that it is his soul, though it is
really only a misleading and worthless imitation of his body.

Will not Plato's accusation of the poet's inferiority to the practical
man be made clearest if we stay by Plato's own humble illustration of
the three beds? One, he says, is made by God, one by the carpenter, and
one by the poet. [Footnote: See the _Republic_ X, 596 B ff.] Now
the bed which a certain poet, James Thomson, B. V., made, is fairly well
known. It speaks, in "ponderous bass," to the other furniture in the

"I know what is and what has been;
Not anything to me comes strange,
Who in so many years have seen
And lived through every kind of change.
I know when men are bad or good,
When well or ill," he slowly said,
"When sad or glad, when sane or mad
And when they sleep alive or dead."
[Footnote: _In the Room_]

Plato would say of this majestic four-poster, with its multifarious
memories "of births and deaths and marriage nights," that it does not
come so near the essential idea of bedness as does the most non-descript
product of the carpenters' tools. James Thomson's poem, he would say, is
on precisely the same plane as the reflection of one's bed in the mirror
across the room. Therefore he inquires, "Now do you suppose that if a
person were able to make the original as well as the image, he would
seriously devote himself to the image-making branch? Would he allow
imitation to be the ruling principle of his life, as if he had nothing
higher in him? ... Imitation is only a kind of play or sport."
[Footnote: _Republic_ X, 599 A.]

It has long been the fashion for those who care for poetry to shake
their heads over Plato's aberration at this point. It seems absurd
enough to us to hear the utility of a thing determined by its number of
dimensions. What virtue is there in merely filling space? We all feel
the fallacy in such an adaptation of Plato's argument as Longfellow
assigns to Michael Angelo, causing that versatile artist to conclude:

Painting and sculpture are but images;
Are merely shadows cast by outward things
On stone or canvas, having in themselves
No separate existence. Architecture,
As something in itself, and not an image,
A something that is not, surpasses them
As substance shadow.
[Footnote: _Michael Angelo_.]

Yet it may be that the homeliness of Plato's illustration has misled us
as to the seriousness of the problem. Let us forget about beds and
buildings and think of actual life in the more dignified way that has
become habitual to us since the war. Then it must appear that Plato's
charge is as truly a live issue here and now as it ever was in Athens.
The claims for the supremacy of poetry, set forth by Aristotle, Sidney
and the rest, seem to weaken, for the time being, at least, when we find
that in our day the judgment that poetry is inferior to life comes, not
from outsiders, but from men who were at one time most ardent votaries
of the muse. Repudiation by verse-writers of poetry's highest claims we
have been accustomed to dismiss, until recently, as betrayal of a streak
of commonness in the speaker's nature,--of a disposition to value the
clay of life more highly than the fire. We were not, perhaps, inclined
to take even so great a poet as Byron very seriously when he declared,
"I by no means rank poets or poetry high in the scale of the intellect.
It is the lava of the imagination, whose eruption prevents an
earthquake. I prefer the talents of action." But with the outbreak of
the world war one met unquestionably sincere confession from more than
one poet that he found verse-writing a pale and anemic thing. Thus "A.
E." regretted the time that he spent on poetry, sighing,

He who might have wrought in flame
Only traced upon the foam.
[Footnote: _Epilogue_]

In the same spirit are Joyce Kilmer's words, written shortly before his
death in the trenches: "I see daily and nightly the expression of beauty
in action instead of words, and I find it more satisfactory." [Footnote:
Letter, May 7, 1918. See Joyce Kilmer's works, edited by Richard Le
Gallienne.] Also we have the decision of Francis Ledwidge, another poet
who died a soldier:

A keen-edged sword, a soldier's heart,
Are greater than a poet's art,
And greater than a poet's fame
A little grave that has no name.
[Footnote: _Soliloquy_.]

Is not our idealization of poets who died in war a confession that we
ourselves believe that they chose the better part,--that they did well
to discard imitation of life for life itself?

It is not fair to force an answer to such a question till we have more
thoroughly canvassed poets' convictions on this matter. Do they all
admit the justice of Plato's characterization of poetry as a sport,
comparable to golf or tennis? In a few specific instances, poets have
taken this attitude toward their own verse, of course. There was the
"art for art's sake" cry, which at the end of the last century surely
degenerated into such a conception of poetry. There have been a number
of poets like Austin Dobson and Andrew Lang, who have frankly regarded
their verse as a pastime to while away an idle hour. There was
Swinburne, who characterized many of his poems as being idle and light
as white butterflies. [Footnote: See the _Dedication to Christina
Rossetti_, and _Envoi_.] But when we turn away from these
prestidigitators of rhymes and rhythms, we find that no view of poetry
is less acceptable than this one to poets in general. They are far more
likely to earn the world's ridicule by the deadly seriousness with which
they take verse writing. If the object of his pursuit is a sport, the
average poet is as little aware of it as is the athlete who suffers a
nervous collapse before the big game of the season.

But Plato's more significant statement is untouched. Is poetry an
imitation of life? It depends, of course, upon how broadly we interpret
the phrase, "imitation of life." In one sense almost every poet would
say that Plato was right in characterizing poetry thus. The usual
account of inspiration points to passive mirroring of life. Someone has
said of the poet,

As a lake
Reflects the flower, tree, rock, and bending heaven,
Shall he reflect our great humanity.
[Footnote: Alexander Smith, _A Life Drama_.]

And these lines are not false to the general view of the poet's
function, but they leave us leeway to quarrel over the nature of the
reflection mentioned, just as we quarrel over the exact connotations of
Plato's and Aristotle's word, imitation. Even if we hold to the narrower
meaning of imitation, there are a few poets who intimate that imitation
alone is their aim in writing poetry. Denying that life has an ideal
element, they take pains to mirror it, line for line, and blemish for
blemish. How can they meet Plato's question as to their usefulness? If
life is a hideous, meaningless thing, as they insinuate, it is not clear
what merit can abide in a faithful reflection of it. Let us take the
case of Robert Service, who prided himself upon the realism of his war
poetry. [Footnote: See _Rhymes of a Red Cross Man_.] Perhaps his
defense depends, more truly than he realized, upon the implication
contained in his two lines,

If there's good in war and crime,
There may be in my bits of rhyme.
[Footnote: See _Ibid_.]

Yet the realist may find a sort of justification for himself; at least
James Thomson, B.V., thinks he has found one for him. The most
thoroughly hopeless exposition of the world's meaninglessness, in
English poetry, is doubtless Thomson's _City of Dreadful Night_.
Why does the author give such a ghastly thing to the world? In order, he
says, that some other clear-eyed spectator of the nightmare of existence
may gain a forlorn comfort from it, since he will know that a comrade
before him has likewise seen things at their blackest and worst. But
would Plato accept this as a justification for realistic poetry? It is
doubtful. No one could be comforted by a merely literal rendering of
life. The comfort must derive from the personal equation, which is the
despair engendered in the author by dreams of something better than
reality; therefore whatever merit resides in such poetry comes not from
its realism, but from the idealism of the writer.

We must not think that all poets who regard their poetry as a reflection
of this world alone, agree in praising glaring realism as a virtue.
Rather, some of them say, the value of their reflection lies in its
misty indistinctness. Life may be sordid and ugly at first hand, but let
the artist's reflection only be remote enough, and the jagged edges and
dissonances of color which mar daily living will be lost in the purple
haze of distance. Gazing at such a reflection, men may perhaps forget,
for a space, how dreary a thing existence really is.

And they shall be accounted poet-kings
Who simply tell the most heart-easing things,
[Footnote: _Sleep and Poetry_.]

said Keats in his youth. Such a statement of the artist's purpose
inevitably calls up William Morris:

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
Beats 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.
[Footnote: _Prologue to the Earthly Paradise_.]

Would Plato scoff at such a formulation of the artist's mission? He
would rather condemn it, as fostering illusion and falsehood in men's
minds. But we moderns are perhaps more world-weary, less sanguine about
ideal truth than the ancients. With one of our war poets, we often plead
for "song that turneth toil to rest," [Footnote: Madison Cawein,
_Preludes_.] and agree with Keats that, whether art has any other
justification or not, it has one "great end, to soothe the cares of
man." [Footnote: _Sleep and Poetry_.]

We are not to imagine that many of our poets are content with the idea
that poetry has so minor a function as this. They play with the thought
of life's possible insignificance and leave it, for idealism is the
breath of life to poets, and their adherence to realism amounts to
suicide. Poetry may be comforting without being illusive. Emerson says,

'Tis the privilege of art
Thus to play its cheerful part
Man on earth to acclimate
And bend the exile to his fate.
[Footnote: _Art_.]

It is not, obviously, Emerson's conception that the poetry which brings
this about falsifies. Like most poets, he indicates that art
accomplishes its end, not merely by obscuring the hideous accidents of
life, but by enabling us to glimpse an ideal element which abides in it,
and is its essence.

Is the essence of things really a spiritual meaning? If so, it seems
strange that Plato should have so belittled the poet's capacity to
render the spiritual meaning in verse. But it is possible that the
artist's view as to the relation of the ideal to the physical does not
precisely square with Plato's. Though poets are so constitutionally
Platonic, in this one respect they are perhaps more truly Aristotelians.
Plato seems to say that ideality is not, as a matter of fact, the
essence of objects. It is a light reflected upon them, as the sun's
light is reflected upon the moon. So he claims that the artist who
portrays life is like one who, drawing a picture of the moon, gives
usonly a map of her craters, and misses entirely the only thing that
gives the moon any meaning, that is, moonlight. But the poet, that lover
of the sensuous, cannot quite accept such a view as this. Ideality is
truly the essence of objects, he avers, though it is overlaid with a
mass of meaningless material. Hence the poet who gives us a
representation of things is not obscuring them, but is doing us a
service by simplifying them, and so making their ideality clearer. All
that the most idealistic poet need do is to imitate; as Mrs. Browning

Paint a body well,
You paint a soul by implication.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.]

This firm faith that the sensual is the dwelling-place of the spiritual
accounts for the poet's impatience with the contention that his art is
useless unless he points a lesson, by manipulating his materials toward
a conscious moral end. The poet refuses to turn objects this way and
that, until they catch a reflection from a separate moral world. If he
tries to write with two distinct purposes, hoping to "suffice the eye
and save the soul beside," [Footnote: _The Ring and the Book_.] as
Browning puts it, he is apt to hide the intrinsic spirituality of things
under a cloak of ready-made moral conceptions. In his moments of deepest
insight the poet is sure that his one duty is to reveal beauty clearly,
without troubling himself about moralizing, and he assures his readers,

If you get simple beauty and naught else,
You get about the best thing God invents.
[Footnote: _Fra, Lippo Lippi_.]

Probably poets have always felt, in their hearts, what the radicals of
the present day are saying so vehemently, that the poet should not be
expected to sermonize: "I wish to state my firm belief," says Amy
Lowell, "that poetry should not try to teach, that it should exist
simply because it is created beauty." [Footnote: Preface to _Sword
Blades and Poppy Seed_. See also Joyce Kilmer, Letter to Howard W.
Cook, June 28, 1918.]

Even conceding that the ideal lives within the sensual, it may seem that
the poet is too sanguine in his claim that he is able to catch the ideal
and significant feature of a thing rather than its accidents. Why should
this be? Apparently because his thirst is for balance, proportion,
harmony--what you will--leading him to see life as a unity.

The artist's eyes are able to see life in focus, as it were, though it
has appeared to men of less harmonious spirit as

A many-sided mirror,
Which could distort to many a shape of error
This true, fair world of things.
[Footnote: Shelley, _Prometheus Unbound_.]

It is as if the world were a jumbled picture puzzle, which only the
artist is capable of putting together, and the fact that the essence of
things, as he conceives of them, thus forms a harmonious whole is to him
irrefutable proof that the intuition that leads him to see things in
this way is not leading him astray. James Russell Lowell has described
the poet's achievement:

With a sorrowful and conquering beauty,
The soul of all looked grandly from his eyes.
[Footnote: _Ode_.]

"The soul of all," that is the artist's revelation. To him the world is
truly a universe, not a heterogeneity of unrelated things. In different
mode from Lowell, Mrs. Browning expresses the same conception of the
artist's imitation of life, inquiring,

What is art
But life upon the larger scale, the higher,
When, graduating up a spiral line
Of still expanding and ascending gyres
It pushes toward the intense significance
Of all things, hungry for the infinite.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.]

The poet cannot accept Plato's characterization of him as an imitator,
then, not if this implies that his imitations are inferior to their
objects. Rather, the poet proudly maintains, they are infinitely
superior, being in fact closer approximations to the meaning of things
than are the things themselves. Thus Shelley describes the poet's work:

He will watch from dawn to gloom
The lake-reflected sun illume
The yellow bees in the ivy bloom,
Nor heed nor see, what things they be;
But from these create he can
Forms more real than living man,
Nurslings of immortality.
[Footnote: _Prometheus Unbound_.]

Therefore the poet has usually claimed for himself the title, not of
imitator, but of seer. To his purblind readers, who see men as trees
walking, he is able, with the search-light of his genius, to reveal the
essential forms of things. Mrs. Browning calls him "the speaker of
essential truth, opposed to relative, comparative and temporal truth";
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.] James Russell Lowell calls him "the
discoverer and revealer of the perennial under the deciduous";
[Footnote: _The Function of the Poet_.] Emerson calls him "the only
teller of news." [Footnote: _Poetry and Imagination_. The following are
some of the poems asserting that the poet is the speaker of ideal truth:
Blake, _Hear the Voice of the Ancient Bard;_ Montgomery, _A Theme for a
Poet;_ Bowles, _The Visionary Boy;_ Wordsworth, _Personal Talk;_
Coleridge, _To Wm. Wordsworth;_ Arnold, _The Austerity of Poetry;_
Rossetti, _Sonnet, Shelley;_ Bulwer Lytton, _The Dispute of the Poets;_
Mrs. Browning, _Pan is Dead;_ Landor, _To Wordsworth_; Jean Ingelow,
_The Star's Monument_; Tupper, _Wordsworth_; Tennyson, _The Poet_;
Swinburne, _The Death of Browning_ (Sonnet V), _A New Year's Ode_;
Edmund Gosse, _Epilogue_; James Russell Lowell, Sonnets XIV and XV on
_Wordsworth's Views of Capital Punishment_; Bayard Taylor, _For the
Bryant Festival_; Emerson, _Saadi_; M. Clemmer, _To Emerson_; Warren
Holden, _Poetry_; P. H. Hayne, _To Emerson_; Edward Dowden, _Emerson_;
Lucy Larcom, _R. W. Emerson_; R. C. Robbins, _Emerson_; Henry Timrod, _A
Vision of Poesy_; G. E. Woodberry, _Ode at the Emerson Centenary_;
Bliss Carman, _In a Copy of Browning_; John Drinkwater, _The Loom of
the Poets_; Richard Middleton, _To an Idle Poet_; Shaemas O'Sheel, _The
Poet Sees that Truth and Passion are One_.]

Here we are, then, at the real point of dispute between the philosopher
and the poet. They claim the same vantage-point from which to overlook
human life. One would think they might peacefully share the same
pinnacle, but as a matter of fact they are continuously jostling one
another. In vain one tries to quiet their contentiousness. Turning to
the most deeply Platonic poets of our period--Coleridge, Wordsworth,
Shelley, Arnold, Emerson,--one may inquire, Does not your description of
the poet precisely tally with Plato's description of the philosopher?
Yes, they aver, but Plato falsified when he named his seer a philosopher
rather than a poet. [Footnote: In rare cases, the poet identifies
himself with the philosopher. See Coleridge, _The Garden of Boccaccio_;
Kirke White, _Lines Written on Reading Some of His Own Earlier Sonnets_;
Bulwer Lytton, _Milton_; George E. Woodberry, _Agathon_.] Surely if the
quarrel may be thus reduced to a matter of terminology, it grows
trivial, but let us see how the case stands.

From one approach the dispute seems to arise from a comparison of
methods. Coleridge praises the truth of Wordsworth's poetry as being

Not learnt, but native, her own natural notes.
[Footnote: _To William Wordsworth_.]

Wordsworth himself boasts over the laborious investigator of facts,

Think you, mid all this mighty sum
Of things forever speaking,
That nothing of itself will come,
We must be ever seeking?
[Footnote: _Expostulation and Reply_.]

But the dispute goes deeper than mere method. The poet's immediate
intuition is superior to the philosopher's toilsome research, he
asserts, because it captures ideality alive, whereas the philosopher can
only kill and dissect it. As Wordsworth phrases it, poetry is "the
breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; the impassioned expression
which is in the countenance of all science." Philosophy is useful to the
poet only as it presents facts for his synthesis; Shelley states,
"Reason is to the imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the
body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance." [Footnote: _A
Defense of Poetry_.]

To this the philosopher may rejoin that poetry, far from making
discoveries beyond the bourne of philosophy, is a mere popularization, a
sugar-coating, of the philosopher's discoveries. Tolstoi contends,

True science investigates and brings to human perception such
truths and such knowledge as the people of a given time and
society consider most important. Art transmits these truths
from the region of perception to the region of emotion. And
thus a false activity of science inevitably causes a
correspondingly false activity of art. [Footnote: _What is

Such criticisms have sometimes incensed the poet till he has refused to
acknowledge any indebtedness to the dissecting hand of science, and has
pronounced the philosopher's attitude of mind wholly antagonistic to

Philosophy will clip an angel's wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
[Footnote: _Lamia_.]

Keats once complained. "Sleep in your intellectual crust!" [Footnote:
_A Poet's Epitaph_.]

Wordsworth contemptuously advised the philosopher, and not a few other
poets have felt that philosophy deadens life as a crust of ice deadens a
flowing stream. That reason kills poetry is the unoriginal theme of a
recent poem. The poet scornfully characterizes present writers,

We are they who dream no dreams,
Singers of a rising day,
Who undaunted,
Where the sword of reason gleams,
Follow hard, to hew away
The woods enchanted.
[Footnote: E. Flecker, _Donde Estan_.]

One must turn to Poe for the clearest statement of the antagonism. He

Science, true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes,
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? Or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek for shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarund tree?
[Footnote: _To Science_.]

If this sort of complaint is characteristic of poets, how shall the
philosopher refrain from charging them with falsehood? The poet's
hamadryad and naiad, what are they, indeed, but cobwebby fictions, which
must be brushed away if ideal truth is to be revealed? Critics of the
poet like to point out that Shakespeare frankly confessed,

Most true it is that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely,

and that a renegade artist of the nineteenth century admitted, "Lying,
the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art."
[Footnote: Oscar Wilde, _The Decay of Lying_.] If poets complain that
all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy,
[Footnote: _Lamia_.]

are they not admitting that their vaunted revelations are mere ghosts of
distorted facts, and that they themselves are merely accomplished liars?

In his rebuttal the poet makes a good case for himself. He has
identified the philosopher with the scientist, he says, and rightly, for
the philosopher, the seeker for truth alone, can never get beyond the
realm of science. His quest of absolute truth will lead him, first, to
the delusive rigidity of scientific classification, then, as he tries to
make his classification complete, it will topple over like a lofty tower
of child's blocks, into the original chaos of things.

What! the philosopher may retort, the poet speaks thus of truth, who has
just exalted himself as the supreme truth-teller, the seer? But the poet
answers that his truth is not in any sense identical with that of the
scientist and the philosopher. Not everything that exists is true for
the poet, but only that which has beauty. Therefore he has no need
laboriously to work out a scientific method for sifting facts. If his
love of the beautiful is satisfied by a thing, that thing is real.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty"; Keats' words have been echoed and
reechoed by poets. [Footnote: A few examples of poems dealing with this
subject are Shelley, _A Hymn to Intellectual Beauty_; Mrs. Browning,
_Pan Is Dead_; Henry Timrod, _A Vision of Poesy_; Madison Cawein,
_Prototypes_.] If Poe's rejection of

The loftiest star of unascended heaven,
Pinnacled dim in the intense inane,

in favor of attainable "treasures of the jewelled skies" be an offense
against truth, it is not, poets would say, because of his
non-conformance to the so-called facts of astronomy, but because his
sense of beauty is at fault, leading him to prefer prettiness to
sublimity. As for the poet's visions, of naiad and dryad, which the
philosopher avers are less true than chemical and physical forces, they
represent the hidden truth of beauty, which is threaded through the ugly
medley of life, being invisible till under the light of the poet's
thought it flashes out like a pattern in golden thread, woven through a
somber tapestry.

It is only when the poet is not keenly alive to beauty that he begins to
fret about making an artificial connection between truth and beauty, or,
as he is apt to rename them, between wisdom and fancy. In the eighteenth
century when the poet's vision of truth became one with the scientist's,
he could not conceive of beauty otherwise than as gaudy ornaments,
"fancies," with which he might trim up his thoughts. The befuddled
conception lasted over into the romantic period; Beattie [Footnote: See
_The Minstrel_.] and Bowles [Footnote: See _The Visionary Boy_.] both
warned their poets to include both fancy and wisdom in their poetry.
Even Landor reflected,

A marsh, where only flat leaves lie,
And showing but the broken sky
Too surely is the sweetest lay
That wins the ear and wastes the day
Where youthful Fancy pouts alone
And lets not wisdom touch her zone.
[Footnote: See _To Wordsworth_.]

But the poet whose sense of beauty is unerring gives no heed to such

If the scientist scoffs at the poet's intuitive selection of ideal
values, declaring that he might just as well take any other aspect of
things--their number, solidarity, edibleness--instead of beauty, for his
test of their reality, the poet has his answer ready. After all, this
poet, this dreamer, is a pragmatist at heart. To the scientist's charge
that his test is absurd, his answer is simply, It works.

The world is coming to acknowledge, little by little, the poet points
out, that whatever he presents to it as beauty is likewise truth. "The
poet's wish is nature's law," [Footnote: _Poem Outlines_.] says Sidney
Lanier, and other poets, no less, assert that the poet is in unison with
nature. Wordsworth calls poetry "a force, like one of nature's."
[Footnote: _The Prelude_.] One of Oscar Wilde's cleverest paradoxes is
to the effect that nature imitates art, [Footnote: See the Essay on
Criticism.] and in so far as nature is one with human perception, there
is no doubt that it is true. "What the imagination seizes as beauty must
be truth," Keats wrote, "whether it existed before or not." [Footnote:
Letter to B. Baillie, November 17, 1817.] And again, "The imagination
may be compared to Adam's dream--he awoke and found it truth."
[Footnote: Letter to B. Baillie, November 17, 1817.]

If the poet's intuitions are false, how does it chance, he inquires,
that he has been known, in all periods of the world's history, as a
prophet? Shelley says, "Poets are ... the mirrors of the gigantic
shadows which futurity casts upon the present," and explains the
phenomenon thus: "A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, the
one; so far as related to his conceptions, time and place and number are
not." [Footnote: _A Defense of Poetry_.] In our period, verse dealing
with the Scotch bard is fondest of stressing the immemorial association
of the poet and the prophet, and in much of this, the "pretense of
superstition" as Shelley calls it, is kept up, that the poet can
foretell specific happenings. [Footnote: See, for example, Gray, _The
Bard_; Scott, _The Lady of the Lake_, _The Lay of the Last Minstrel_,
_Thomas the Rhymer_; Campbell, _Lochiel's Warning_.] But we have many
poems that express a broader conception of the poet's gift of prophecy.
[Footnote: See William Blake, Introduction to _Songs of Experience_,
_Hear the Voice of the Bard_; Crabbe, _The Candidate_; Landor, _Dante_;
Barry Cornwall, _The Prophet_; Alexander Smith, _A Life Drama_; Coventry
Patmore, _Prophets Who Cannot Sing_; J. R. Lowell, _Massaccio_, Sonnet
XVIII; Owen Meredith, _The Prophet_; W. H. Burleigh, _Shelley_; O. W.
Holmes, _Shakespeare_; T. H. Olivers, _The Poet_, _Dante_; Alfred
Austin, _The Poet's Corner_; Swinburne, _The Statue of Victor Hugo_;
Herbert Trench, _Stanzas on Poetry_.] Holmes' view is typical:

We call those poets who are first to mark
Through earth's dull mist the coming of the dawn,--
Who see in twilight's gloom the first pale spark
While others only note that day is gone;
For them the Lord of light the curtain rent
That veils the firmament.
[Footnote: _Shakespeare_.]

Most of these poems account for the premonitions of the poet as Shelley
does; as a more recent poet has phrased it:

Strange hints
Of things past, present and to come there lie
Sealed in the magic pages of that music,
Which, laying hold on universal laws,
Ranges beyond these mud-walls of the flesh.
[Footnote: Alfred Noyes, _Tales of the Mermaid Inn_.]

The poet's defense is not finished when he establishes the truth of his
vision. How shall the world be served, he is challenged, even though it
be true that the poet's dreams are of reality? Plato demanded of his
philosophers that they return to the cave of sense, after they had seen
the heavenly vision, and free the slaves there. Is the poet willing to
do this? It has been charged that he is not. Browning muses,

Ah, but to find
A certain mood enervate such a mind,
Counsel it slumber in the solitude
Thus reached, nor, stooping, task for mankind's good
Its nature just, as life and time accord.
--Too narrow an arena to reward
Emprize--the world's occasion worthless since
Not absolutely fitted to evince
Its mastery!
[Footnote: _Sordello_.]

But one is inclined to question the justice of Browning's charge, at
least so far as it applies peculiarly to the poet. Logically, he should
devote himself to sense-blinded humanity, not reluctantly, like the
philosopher descending to a gloomy cave which is not his natural
habitat, but eagerly, since the poet is dependent upon sense as well as
spirit for his vision. "This is the privilege of beauty," says Plato,
"that, being the loveliest of the ideas, she is also the most palpable
to sight." [Footnote: _Phaedrus_.] Accordingly the poet has no
horror of physical vision as a bondage, but he is fired with an
enthusiasm to make the world of sense a more transparent medium of
beauty. [Footnote: For poetry dealing with the poet's humanitarian
aspect, see Bowles, _The Visionary Boy_, _On the Death of the
Rev. Benwell_; Wordsworth, _The Poet and the Caged Turtle Dove_;
Arnold, _Heine's Grave_; George Eliot, _O May I Join the Choir
Invisible_; Lewis Morris, _Food Of Song_; George Meredith, _Milton_;
Bulwer Lytton, _Milton_; James Thomson, B. V., _Shelley_; Swinburne,
_Centenary of Landor_, _Victor Hugo_, _Victor Hugo in 1877_, _Ben
Jonson_, _Thomas Decker_; Whittier, _To J. P._, and _The Tent on the
Beach_; J. R. Lowell, _To The Memory of Hood_; O. W. Holmes, _At a
Meeting of the Burns Club_; Emerson, _Solution_; R. Realf, _Of Liberty
and Charity_; W. H. Burleigh, _Shelley_; T. L. Harris, _Lyrics of the
Golden Age_; Eugene Field, _Poet and King_; C. W. Hubner, _The Poet_; J.
H. West, _O Story Teller Poet_; Gerald Massey, _To Hood Who Sang the
Song of the Shirt_; Bayard Taylor, _A Friend's Greeting to Whittier_;
Sidney Lanier, _Wagner_, _Clover_; C. A. Pierce, _The Poet's Ideal_; E.
Markham, _The Bard_, _A Comrade Calling Back_, _An April Greeting_; G.
L. Raymond, _A Life in Song_; Richard Gilder, _The City_, _The Dead
Poet_; E. L. Cox, _The Master_, _Overture_; R. C. Robbins, _Wordsworth_;
Carl McDonald, _A Poet's Epitaph_.] It is inevitable that every poet's
feeling for the world should be that of Shelley, who says to the spirit
of beauty,

Never joy illumed my brow
Unlinked with hope that thou wouldst free
This world from its dark slavery.
[Footnote: _Hymn to Intellectual Beauty_.]
For, unlike the philosopher, the poet has never departed from the world
of sense, and it is hallowed to him as the incarnation of beauty.
Therefore he is eager to make other men ever more and more transparent
embodiments of their true selves, in order that, gazing upon them, the
poet may have ever deeper inspiration. This is the central allegory in
_Enydmion_, that the poet must learn to help humanity before the mystery
of poetship shall be unlocked to him. Browning comments to this effect
upon Bordello's unwillingness to meet the world:

But all is changed the moment you descry
Mankind as half yourself.

Matthew Arnold is the sternest of modern poets, perhaps, in pointing out
the poet's responsibility to humanity:

The poet, to whose mighty heart
Heaven doth a quicker pulse impart,
Subdues that energy to scan
Not his own course, but that of man.
Though he move mountains, though his day
Be passed on the proud heights of sway,
Though he hath loosed a thousand chains,
Though he hath borne immortal pains,
Action and suffering though he know,
He hath not lived, if he lives so.
[Footnote: _Resignation_.]

It is obvious that in the poet's opinion there is only one means by
which he can help humanity, and that is by helping men to express their
essential natures; in other words, by setting them free. Liberty is
peculiarly the watch-word of the poets. To the philosopher and the
moralist, on the contrary, there is no merit in liberty alone. Men must
be free before they can seek wisdom or goodness, no doubt, but something
beside freedom is needed, they feel, to make men good or evil. But to
the poet, beauty and liberty are almost synonymous. If beauty is the
heart of the universe (and it must be, the poet argues, since it abides
in sense as well as spirit), there is no place for the corrupt will. If
men are free, they are expressing their real natures; they are

Is this our poet's view? But hear Plato: "The tragic poets, being wise
men, will forgive us, and any others who live after our manner, if we do
not receive them into our state, because they are the eulogists of
tyranny." [Footnote: _Republic._] Few enemies of poets nowadays
would go so far as to make a charge like this one, though Thomas
Peacock, who locked horns with Shelley on the question of poetry,
asserted that poets exist only by virtue of their flattery of earth's
potentates. [Footnote: See _The Four Ages of Poetry._] Once, it must
be confessed, one of the poets themselves brought their name into
disrepute. In the heat of his indignation over attacks made upon his
friend Southey, Landor was moved to exclaim,

If thou hast ever done amiss
It was, O Southey, but in this,
That, to redeem the lost estate
Of the poor Muse, a man so great
Abased his laurels where some Georges stood
Knee-deep in sludge and ordure, some in blood.
Was ever genius but thyself
Friend or befriended of a Guelf?

But these are insignificant exceptions to the general characterization
of the modern poet as liberty-lover.

Probably Plato's equanimity would not be upset, even though we presented
to him an overwhelming array of evidence bearing upon the modern poet's
allegiance to democracy. Certainly, he might say, the modern poet, like
the ancient one, reflects the life about him. At the time of the French
revolution, or of the world war, when there is a popular outcry against
oppression, what is more likely than that the poet's voice should be the
loudest in the throng? But as soon as there is a reaction toward
monarchical government, poets will again scramble for the post of

The modern poet can only repeat that this is false, and that a resume of
history proves it. Shelley traces the rise and decadence of poetry
during periods of freedom and slavery. He points out, "The period in our
history of the grossest degradation of the drama is the reign of Charles
II, when all the forms in which poetry had been accustomed to be
expressed became hymns to the triumph of kingly power over liberty and
virtue." Gray, in _The Progress of Poesy_, draws the same
conclusion as Shelley:

Her track, where'er the goddess roves,
Glory pursue, and generous shame,
The unconquerable will, and freedom's holy flame.

Other poets, if they do not base their conclusions upon history, assert
no less positively that every true poet is a lover of freedom.
[Footnote: See Gray, _The Bard_; Burns, _The Vision_; Scott, _The Bard's
Incantation_; Moore, _The Minstrel Boy_, _O Blame Not the Bard_, _The
Harp That Once Through Tara's Halls_, _Shall the Harp then be Silent_,
_Dear Harp of My Country_; Wordsworth, _The Brownies' Cell_, _Here
Pause_; Tennyson, _Epilogue_, _The Poet_; Swinburne, _Victor Hugo_, _The
Centenary of Landor_, _To Catullus_, _The Statue of Victor Hugo_, _To
Walt Whitman in America_; Browning, _Sordello_; Barry Cornwall,
_Miriam_; Shelley, _To Wordsworth_, _Alastor_, _The Revolt of Islam_,
_Hymn to Intellectual Beauty_, _Prometheus Unbound_; S. T. Coleridge,
_Ode to France_; Keats, _Epistle to His Brother George_; Philip Freneau,
_To a Writer Who Inscribes Himself a Foe to Tyrants_; J. D. Percival,
_The Harper_; J. R. Lowell, _Ode_, _L'Envoi_, Sonnet XVII, _Incident in
a Railway Car_, _To the Memory of Hood_; Whittier, _Proem_, _Eliot_,
Introduction to _The Tent on the Beach_; Longfellow, _Michael Angelo_;
Whitman, _Starting from Paumaak_, _By Blue Ontario's Shore_, _For You_,
_O Democracy_; W. H. Burleigh, _The Poet_; W. C. Bryant, _The Poet_;
Bayard Taylor, _A Friend's Greeting to Whittier_; Richard Realf, _Of
Liberty and Charity_; Henry van Dyke, _Victor Hugo_, _To R. W. Gilder_;
Simon Kerl, _Burns_; G. L. Raymond, _Dante_, _A Life in Song; Charles
Kent, _Lamartine in February_; Robert Underwood Johnson, _To the Spirit
of Byron_, _Shakespeare_; Francis Carlin, _The Dublin Poets_,
_MacSweeney the Rhymer_, _The Poetical Saints_; Daniel Henderson, _Joyce
Kilmer_, _Alan Seeger_, _Walt Whitman_; Rhys Carpenter, _To Rupert
Brooke_; William Ellery Leonard, _As I Listened by the Lilacs_; Eden
Phillpotts Swinburne, _The Grave of Landor_.] It is to be expected that
in the romantic period poets should be almost unanimous in this view,
though even here it is something of a surprise to hear Keats, whose
themes are usually so far removed from political life, exclaiming,

Where's the poet? Show him, show him,
Muses mine, that I may know him!
'Tis the man who with a man Is an equal, be he king
Or poorest of the beggar clan.
[Footnote: _The Poet_.]

Wordsworth's devotion to liberty was doubted by some of his brothers,
but Wordsworth himself felt that, if he were not a democrat, he would be
false to poetry, and he answers his detractors,

Here pause: the poet claims at least this praise,
That virtuous Liberty hath been the scope
Of his pure song.

In the Victorian period the same view holds. The Brownings were ardent
champions of democracy. Mrs. Browning averred that the poet's thirst for
ubiquitous beauty accounts for his love of freedom:

Poets (hear the word)
Half-poets even, are still whole democrats.
Oh, not that they're disloyal to the high,
But loyal to the low, and cognizant
Of the less scrutable majesties.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.]

Tennyson conceived of the poet as the author of democracy. [Footnote:
_See The Poet_.] Swinburne prolonged the Victorian paean to the
liberty-loving poet [Footnote: See _Mater Triumphilis_, _Prelude_,
_Epilogue_, _Litany of Nations_, and _Hertha_.] till our new group of
singers appeared, whose devotion to liberty is self-evident.

It is true that to the poet liberty is an inner thing, not always
synonymous with suffrage. Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, all came to
distrust the machinery of so-called freedom in society. Likewise
Browning was not in favor of too radical social changes, and Mrs.
Browning went so far as to declare, "I love liberty so much that I hate
socialism." Mob rule is as distasteful to the deeply thoughtful poet as
is tyranny, for the liberty which he seeks to bring into the world is
simply the condition in which every man is expressing the beauty of his
truest self.

If the poet has proved that his visions are true, and that he is eager
to bring society into harmony with them, what further charge remains
against him? That he is "an ineffectual angel, beating his bright wings
in the void." He may see a vision of Utopia, and long that men shall
become citizens there, but the man who actually perfects human society
is he who patiently toils at the "dim, vulgar, vast, unobvious work"
[Footnote: See _Sordello_.] of the world, here amending a law, here
building a settlement house, and so on. Thus the reformer charges the
poet. Mrs. Browning, in _Aurora Leigh_, makes much of the issue,
and there the socialist, Romney Leigh, sneers at the poet's
inefficiency, telling Aurora that the world

To rhyme the cry with which she still beats back
Those savage hungry dogs that hunt her down
To the empty grave of Christ ...
... Who has time,
An hour's time--think!--to sit upon a bank
And hear the cymbal tinkle in white hands.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_. See also the letter to Robert Browning,
February 17, 1845.]

The poet has, occasionally, plunged into the maelstrom of reform and
proved to such objectors that he can work as efficiently as they. Thomas
Hood, Whittier, and other poets have challenged the respect of the
Romney Leighs of the world. Yet one hesitates to make specialization in
reform the gauge of a poet's merit. Where, in that case, would Keats be
beside Hood? In our day, where would Sara Teasdale be beside Edwin
Markham? Is there not danger that the poet, once launched on a career as
an agitator, will no longer have time to dream dreams? If he bases his
claims of worth on his ability as a "carpet-duster," [Footnote: See
_Aurora Leigh_.] as Mrs. Browning calls the agitator, he is merely
unsettling society,--for what end? He himself will soon have
forgotten--will have become as salt that has lost its savor. Nothing is
more disheartening than to see men straining every nerve to make other
men righteous, who have themselves not the faintest appreciation of the
beauty of holiness. Let reformers beware how they assert the poet's
uselessness, our singers say, for it is an indication that they
themselves are blind to the light toward which they profess to be
leading men. The work of the reformer inevitably degenerates into the
mere strenuosity of the campaign,

Unless the artist keep up open roads
Betwixt the seen and unseen, bursting through
The best of our conventions with his best,
The speakable, imaginable best
God bids him speak, to prove what lies beyond
Both speech and imagination.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.]

Thus speaks Mrs. Browning.

The reforms that make a stir in the world, being merely external, mean
little or nothing apart from the impulse that started them, and the poet
alone is powerful to stir the impulse of reform in humanity. "To be
persuaded rests usually with ourselves," said Longinus, "but genius
brings force sovereign and irresistible to bear upon every hearer."
[Footnote: _On the Sublime_.] The poet, in ideal mood, is as
innocent of specific designs upon current morality as was Pippa, when
she wandered about the streets of Asolo, but the power of his songs is
ever as insuperable as was that of hers. It is for this reason that
Emerson advises the poet to leave hospital building and statute revision
for men of duller sight than he:

Oft shall war end and peace return
And cities rise where cities burn
Ere one man my hill shall climb
Who can turn the golden rhyme.
Let them manage how they may,
Heed thou only Saadi's lay.
[Footnote: _Saadi_.]

Here the philosopher may demur. If the poet were truly an idealist,--if
he found for the world conceptions as pure as those of mathematics,
which can be applied equally well to any situation, then, indeed, he
might regard himself as the author of progress. But it is the poet's
failing that he gives men no vision of abstract beauty. He represents
his visions in the contemporary dress of his times. Thus he idealizes
the past and the present, showing beauty shining through the dullness
and error of human history. Is he not, then, the enemy of progress,
since he will lead his readers to imagine that things are ideal as they

Rather, men will be filled with reverence for the idealized portrait of
themselves that the poet has drawn, and the intervention of the reformer
will be unnecessary, since they will voluntarily tear off the shackles
that disfigure them. The poet, said Shelley, "redeems from decay the
visitations of the divinity in man." Emerson said of Wordsworth, "He
more than any other man has done justice to the divine in us." Mrs.
Browning said (of Carlyle) "He fills the office of a poet--by analyzing
humanity back into its elements, to the destruction of the conventions
of the hour." [Footnote: Letter to Robert Browning, February 27, 1845.]
This is what Matthew Arnold meant by calling poetry "a criticism of
life." Poetry is captivating only in proportion as the ideal shines
through the sensual; consequently men who are charmed by the beauty
incarnate in poetry, are moved to discard all conventions through which
beauty does not shine.

Therefore, the poet repeats, he is the true author of reform. Tennyson
says of freedom,

No sword
Of wrath her right arm whirled,
But one poor poet's scroll, and with his word
She shook the world.
[Footnote: _The Poet_.]

This brings us back to our war poets who have so recently died. Did they
indeed disparage the Muse whom they deserted? Did they not rather die to
fulfill a poet's prophesy of freedom? A poet who did not carry in his
heart the courage of his song--what could be more discreditable to
poetry than that? The soldier-poets were like a general who rushes into
the thick of the fight and dies beside a private. We reverence such a
man, but we realize that it was not his death, but his plan for the
engagement, that saved the day.

If such is the poet's conception of his service to mankind, what is his
reward? The government of society, he returns. Emerson says,

The gods talk in the breath of the woods,
They talk in the shaken pine,
And fill the long reach of the old seashore
With dialogue divine.
And the poet who overhears
Some random word they say
Is the fated man of men
Whom the nations must obey.
[Footnote: Fragment on _The Poet_.]

What is the poet's reward? Immortality. He is confident that if his
vision is true he shall join

The choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man's search
To vaster issues.
[Footnote: George Eliot, _The Choir Invisible_.]

Does this mean simply the immortality of fame? It is a higher thing than
that. The beauty which the poet creates is itself creative, and having
the principle of life in it, can never perish. Whitman cries,

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not today is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental,
greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me!
[Footnote: _Poets to Come_.]

Browning made the only apparent trace of Sordello left in the world, the
snatch of song which the peasants sing on the hillside. Yet, though his
name be lost, the poet's immortality is sure. For like Socrates in the
_Symposium_, his desire is not merely for a fleeting vision of
beauty, but for birth and generation in beauty. And the beauty which he
is enabled to bring into the world will never cease to propagate itself.
So, though he be as fragile as a windflower, he may assure himself,

I shall not die; I shall not utterly die,
For beauty born of beauty--that remains.
[Footnote: Madison Cawein, _To a Windflower_.]



Not even a paper shortage has been potent to give the lie to the author
of _Ecclesiastes_, but it has fanned into flame the long smouldering
resentment of those who are wearily conscious that of making many books
there is no end. No longer is any but the most confirmed writer suffered
to spin out volume after volume in complacent ignorance of his readers'
state of mind, for these victims of eye-strain and nerves turn upon the
newest book, the metaphorical last straw on the camel's load, with the
exasperated cry, Why? Why? and again Why?

Fortunately for themselves, most of the poets who have taken the poet's
character as their theme, indulged their weakness for words before that
long-suffering bookworm, the reader, had turned, but one who at the
present day drags from cobwebby corners the accusive mass of material on
the subject, must seek to justify, not merely the loquacity of its
authors, but one's own temerity as well, in forcing it a second time
upon the jaded attention of the public.

If one had been content merely to make an anthology of poems dealing
with the poet, one's deed would perhaps have been easier to excuse, for
the public has been so often assured that anthologies are an economical
form of publication, and a time-saving form of predigested food, that it
usually does not stop to consider whether the material was worth
collecting in the first place. Gleaner after gleaner has worked in the
field of English literature, sorting and sifting, until almost the last
grain, husk, straw and thistle have been gathered and stored with their
kind. But instead of making an anthology, we have gone on the assumption
that something more than accidental identity of subject-matter holds
together the apparently desultory remarks of poets on the subject of the
poet's eyebrows, his taste in liquors, his addiction to midnight
rambles, and whatnot. We have followed a labyrinthine path through the
subject with faith that, if we were but patient in observing the clues,
we should finally emerge at a point of vantage on the other side of the

The primary grounds of this faith may have appeared to the skeptic
ridiculously inadequate. Our faith was based upon the fact that, more
than two thousand years ago, a serious accusation had been made against
poets, against which they had been challenged to defend themselves. This
led us to conclude that there must be unity of intention in poetry
dealing with the poet, for we believed that when English poets talked of
themselves and their craft, they were attempting to remove the stigma
placed upon the name of poet by Plato's charge.

Now it is easy for a doubter to object that many of the poems on the
subject show the poet, not arraying evidence for a trial, but leaning
over the brink of introspection in the attitude of Narcissus. One need
seek no farther than self-love, it may be suggested, to find the motive
for the poet's absorption in his reflection. Yet it is incontrovertible
that the self-infatuation of our Narcissus has its origin in the
conviction that no one else understands him, and that this conviction is
founded upon a very real attitude of hostility on the part of his
companions. The lack of sympathy between the English poet and the public
is so notorious that Edmund Gosse is able to state as a truism:
While in France poetry has been accustomed to reflect the
general tongue of the people, the great poets of England have
almost always had to struggle against a complete dissonance
between their own aims and interests and those of the nation.
The result has been that England, the most inartistic of the
modern races, has produced the largest number of exquisite
literary artists. [Footnote: _French Profiles_, p. 344.]

Furthermore, even though everyone may agree that a lurking sense of
hostile criticism is back of the poet's self-absorption, another ground
for skepticism may lie in our assumption that Plato is the central
figure in the opposition. It is usually with purpose to excite the envy
of contemporary enemies that poets call attention to their graces, the
student may discover. Frequently the quarrels leading them to flaunt
their personalities in their verses have arisen over the most personal
and ephemeral of issues. Indeed, we may have appeared to falsify in
classifying their enemies under general heads, when for Christopher
North, Judson, Belfair, Friend Naddo, Richard Bame, we substituted faces
of cipher foolishness, abstractions which we named the puritan, the
philosopher, the philistine. Possibly by so doing we have given the
impression that poets are beating the air against an abstraction when
they are in reality delivering thumping blows upon the body of a
personal enemy. And if these generalizations appear indefensible, still
more misleading, it may be urged, is an attempt to represent that the
poet, when he takes issue with this and that opponent, is answering a
challenge hidden away from the unstudious in the tenth book of Plato's
_Republic_. It is doubtful even whether a number of our poets are
aware of the existence of Plato's challenge, and much more doubtful
whether they have it in mind as they write.

Second thought must make it clear, however, that to prove ignorance of
Plato's accusation on the part of one poet and another does not at all
impair the possibility that it is his accusation which they are
answering. So multiple are the threads of influence leading from the
_Republic_ through succeeding literatures and civilizations that it
is unsafe to assert, offhand, that any modern expression of hostility to
poetry may not be traced, by a patient untangler of evidence, to a
source in the _Republic_. But even this is aside from the point.
One might concede that the wide-spread modern antagonism to poetry would
have been the same if Plato had never lived, and still maintain that in
the _Republic_ is expressed for all time whatever in anti-aesthetic
criticism is worthy of a serious answer. Whether poets themselves are
aware of it or not, we have a right to assert that in concerning
themselves with the character of the ideal poet, they are responding to
Plato's challenge.

This may not be enough to justify our faith that these defensive
expositions lead us anywhere. Let us agree that certain poets of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries have answered Plato's challenge. But
has the Poet likewise answered it? If from their independent efforts to
paint the ideal poet there has emerged a portrait as sculpturally clear
in outline as is Plato's portrait of the ideal philosopher, we shall
perhaps be justified in saying, Yes, the Poet, through a hundred mouths,
has spoken.

Frankly, the composite picture which we have been considering has not
sculptural clarity. To the casual observer it bears less resemblance to
an alto-relief than to a mosaic; no sooner do distinct patterns spring
out of myriad details than they shift under the onlooker's eyes to a
totally different form. All that we can claim for the picture is
excellence as a piece of impressionism, which one must scan with
half-closed eyes at a calculated distance, if one would appreciate its
central conception.

Apparently readers of English poetry have not taken the trouble to scan
it with such care. They may excuse their indifference by declaring that
an attempt to discover a common aesthetic principle in a collection of
views as catholic as those with which we have dealt is as absurd as an
attempt to discover philosophical truth by taking a census of general
opinion. Still, obvious as are the limitations of a popular vote in
determining an issue, it has a certain place in the discovery of truth.
One would not entirely despise the benefit derived from a general survey
of philosophers' convictions, for instance. Into the conclusions of each
philosopher, even of the greatest, there are bound to enter certain
personal whimsicalities of thought, which it is profitable to eliminate,
by finding the common elements in the thought of several men. If the
quest of a universal least common denominator forces one to give up
everything that is of significance in the views of philosophers, there
is profit, at least, in learning that the title of philosopher does not
carry with it a guarantee of truth-telling. On the other hand if we find
universal recognition of some fundamental truth, a common _cogito ergo
sum_, or the like, acknowledged by all philosophers, we have made a
discovery as satisfactory in its way as is acceptance of the complex
system of philosophy offered by Plato or Descartes. There seems to be no
real reason why it should not be quite as worth while to take a similar
census of the views of poets.

After hearkening to the general suffrage of poets on the question of the
poet's character, we must bring a serious charge against them if a
deafening clamor of contradiction reverberates in our ears. In such a
case their claim that they are seers, or masters of harmony, can be
worth little. The unbiased listener is likely to assure us that
clamorous contradiction is precisely what the aggregate of poets'
speaking amounts to, but we shall be slow to acknowledge as much. Have
we been merely the dupe of pretty phrasing when we felt ourselves
insured against discord by the testimony of Keats? Hear him:

How many bards gild the lapses of time!
* * * * *
... Often, when I sit me down to rhyme,
These will in throngs before my mind intrude,
But no confusion, no disturbance rude
Do they occasion; 'tis a pleasing chime.

However incompatible the characteristics of the poets celebrated by
Wordsworth and by Swinburne, by Christina Rossetti and by Walt Whitman
may have seemed in immediate juxtaposition, we have trusted that we need
only retire to a position where "distance of recognizance bereaves"
their individual voices, in order to detect in their mingled notes
"pleasing music, and not wild uproar."

The critic who condemns as wholly discordant the variant notes of our
multitudinous verse-writers may point out that we should have had more
right to expect concord if we had shown some discernment in sifting true
poets from false. Those who have least claim to the title of poet have
frequently been most garrulous in voicing their convictions. Moreover,
these pseudo-poets outnumber genuine poets one hundred to one, yet no
one in his right mind would contend that their expressions of opinion
represent more than a straw vote, if they conflict with the judgment of
a single true poet.

Still, our propensity for listening to the rank breath of the multitude
is not wholly indefensible. In the first place pseudo-poets have not
created so much discord as one might suppose. A lurking sense of their
own worthlessness has made them timid of utterance except as they echo
and prolong a note that has been struck repeatedly by singers of
reputation. This echoing, it may be added, has sometimes been effective
in bringing the traditions of his craft to the attention of a young
singer as yet unaware of them. Thus Bowles and Chivers, neither of whom
has very strong claim to the title of bard, yet were in a measure
responsible for the minor note in Coleridge's and Poe's description of
the typical poet.

Even when the voices of spurious bards have failed to chime with the
others, the resulting discord has not been of serious moment. A
counterfeit coin may be as good a touchstone for the detection of pure
silver, as is pure silver for the detection of counterfeit. Not only are
a reader's views frequently clarified by setting a poetaster beside a
poet as a foil, but poets themselves have clarified their views because
they have been incited by declarations in false verse to express their
convictions more unreservedly than they should otherwise have done.
Pseudo-poets have sometimes been of genuine benefit by their
exaggeration of some false note which they have adopted from poetry of
the past. No sooner do they exaggerate such a note, than a concerted
shout of protest from true poets drowns the erroneous statement, and
corrects the misleading impression which careless statements in earlier
verse might have left with us. Thus the morbid singer exhibited in minor
American verse of the last century, and the vicious singer lauded in one
strain of English verse, performed a genuine service by calling forth
repudiation, by major poets, of traits which might easily lead a singer
in the direction of morbidity and vice.

The confusion of sound which our critic complains of is not to be
remedied merely by silencing the chorus of echoic voices. If we dropped
from consideration all but poets of unquestionable merit, we should not
be more successful in detecting a single clear note, binding all their
voices together. When the ideal poet of Shelley is set against that of
Byron, or that of Matthew Arnold against that of Browning, there is no
more unison than when great and small in the poetic world are allowed to
speak indiscriminately.

Does this prove that only the supreme poet speaks truly, and that we
must hush all voices but his if we would learn what is the essential
element in the poetic character? Then we are indeed in a hard case.
There is no unanimity of opinion among us regarding the supreme English
poet of the last century, and if we dared follow personal taste in
declaring one of higher altitude than all the others only a small
percentage of readers would be satisfied when we set up the _Prelude_ or
_Adonais_ or _Childe Harold_ or _Sordello_ beside the _Republic_ as
containing the one portrait of the ideal singer worthy to stand beside
the portrait of the ideal philosopher. And this is not the worst of the
difficulty. Even if we turn from Shelley to Byron, from Wordsworth to
Browning, in quest of the one satisfactory conception of the poet, we
shall not hear in anyone of their poems the single clear ringing note
for which we are listening. When anyone of these men is considering the
poetic character, his thought behaves like a pendulum, swinging back and
forth between two poles.

Thus we ourselves have admitted the futility of our quest of truth, the
critic may conclude. But no, before we admit as much, let us see exactly
what constitutes the lack of unity which troubles us. After its
persistence in verse of the same country, the same period, the same
tradition, the same poet, even, has led us to the brink of despair, its
further persistence rouses in us fresh hope, or at least intense
curiosity, for what impresses us as the swinging of a pendulum keeps up
its rhythmical beat, not merely in the mind of each poet, but in each
phase of his thought. We find the same measured antithesis of thought,
whether he is considering the singer's environment or his health, his
inspiration or his mission.

In treatment even of the most superficial matters related to the poet's
character, this vibration forces itself upon our attention. Poets are
sofar from subscribing to Taine's belief in the supreme importance of
environment as molder of genius that the question of the singer's proper
habitat is of comparative indifference to them, yet the dualism that we
have noted runs as true to form here as in more fundamental issues. When
one takes the suffrage of poets in general on the question of
environment, two voices are equally strong. Genius is fostered by
solitude, we hear; but again, genius is fostered by human companionship.
At first we may assume that this divergence of view characterizes
separate periods. Writers in the romantic period, we say, praised the
poet whose thought was turned inward by solitude; while writers in the
Victorian period praised the poet whose thought was turned upon the
spectacle of human passions. But on finding that this classification is
true only in the most general way, we go farther. Within the Victorian
period Browning, we say, is the advocate of the social poet, as Arnold
is the advocate of the solitary one. But still our classification is
inadequate. Is Browning the expositor of the gregarious poet? It is true
that he feels it necessary for the singer to "look upon men and their
cares and hopes and fears and joys." [Footnote: _Pauline_.] But he
makes Sordello flee like a hunted creature back to Goito and solitude in
quest of renewed inspiration. Is Arnold the expositor of the solitary
poet? True, he urges him to fly from "the strange disease of modern
life". [Footnote: _The Scholar Gypsy_.] Yet he preaches that the
duty of the poet is

to scan
Not his own course, but that of man.
[Footnote: _Resignation_.]

Within the romantic period the same phenomenon is evident. Does
Wordsworth paint the ideal poet dwelling apart from human distractions?
Yet he declares that his deepest insight is gained by listening to "the
still sad music of humanity". In Keats, Shelley, Byron, the same
antithesis of thought is not less evident.

We cannot justly conclude that a compromise between contradictions, an
avoidance of extremes, is what anyone of these poets stands for. It is
complete absorption in the drame of human life that makes one a poet,
they aver; but again, it is complete isolation that allows the inmost
poetry of one's nature to rise to consciousness. At the same time they
make it clear that the supreme poet needs the gifts of both
environments. To quote Walt Whitman,

What the full-grown poet came,
Out spake pleased Nature (the round impassive globe
with all its shows of day and night) saying, He
is mine;
But out spake too the Soul of men, proud, jealous
and unreconciled, Nay, he is mine alone;
--Then the full-grown poet stood between the two and
took each by the hand;
And today and ever so stands, as blender, uniter, tightly
holding hands,
Which he will never release till he reconciles the two,
And wholly and joyously blends them.

The paradox in poets' views was equally perplexing, no matter what phase
of the poetic character was considered. A mere resume of the topics
discussed in these essays is enough to make the two horns of the dilemma
obtrude themselves. Did we consider the financial status of the poet? We
heard that he should experience all the luxurious sensations that wealth
can bring; on the other hand we heard that his poverty should shield him
from distractions that might call him away from accumulation of
spiritual treasure. Did we consider the poet's age? We heard that the
freshness of sensation possessed only by youth carries the secret of
poetry; on the other hand we heard that the secret lies in depth of
spiritual insight possible only to old age. So in the allied question of
the poet's body. He should have

The dress
Of flesh that amply lets in loveliness
At eye and ear,

that no beauty in the physical world may escape him. Yet he should be
absorbed in the other world to such a degree that blindness, even, is a
blessing to him, enabling him to "see, no longer blinded by his eyes."
The question of the poet's health arose. He should have the exuberance
and aplomb of the young animal; no, he should have a body frail enough
to enable him, like the mediaeval mystic, to escape from its
importunatedemands upon the spirit.

In the more fundamental questions that poets considered, relating to the
poet's temperament, his loves, his inspiration, his morality, his
religion, his mission, the same cleavage invariably appeared. What
constitutes the poetic temperament? It is a fickle interchange of joy
and grief, for the poet is lifted on the wave of each new sensation; it
is an imperturbable serenity, for the poet dwells apart with the eternal
verities. What is the distinguishing characteristic of his love? The
object of his worship must be embodied, passionate, yet his desire is
for purely spiritual union with her. What is the nature of his
inspiration? It fills him with trancelike impassivity to sensation; it
comes upon him with such overwhelming sensation that he must touch the
walls to see whether they or his visions are the reality. [Footnote: See
Christopher Wordsworth, _Memoirs of Wordsworth_, Vol. II, p. 480.]
How is his moral life different from that of other men? He is more
fiercely tempted, because he is more sensitive to human passions; he is
shut away from all temptations because his interest is solely in the
principle of beauty. What is the nature of his religious instinct? He is
mad with thirst for God; he will have no God but his own humanity. What
is his mission? He must awaken men to the wonder of the physical world
and fit them to abide therein; he must redeem them from physical
bondage, and open their eyes to the spiritual world.

The impatient listener to this lengthy catalogue of the poet's views may
assert that it has no significance. It merely shows that there are many


Back to Full Books