« السابقةمتابعة »
Pope's work by comparing extracts from his writings with such touchstone lines as
'Absent thee from felicity awhile,'
'-all that pain
To seek her through the world,'
beautiful though these lines unquestionably are, we will try to enumerate some of the principal qualities which we expect to find in any work that by common consent is called a poem.
And this we ought to be able to do, if our talk about poetry is to lead to any useful result. For if we cannot agree what qualities a poem must possess in order to be indeed a poem, our discussion whether Pope or anybody else is a poet seems likely to amount to nothing more than idle chatter. Not that there is
any need to confine our notion of poetry within the four corners of a definition. Definitions of poetry are never entirely satisfactory. When Johnson says that 'Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason,' he frames a definition which would include the showman's art in managing a magic-lantern as well as Milton's art in writing Paradise Lost. Few attempts at defining poetry however are so sane as Johnson's. The satisfaction of the craving to say something brilliant or paradoxical is inconsistent with the requirements of logic. Thus when Matthew Arnold tells us that poetry is a criticism of life,' or Coleridge describes prose as 'words in their best order,' and poetry as 'the best words in the best order,' we feel that although these are striking sayings, yet for helping us to understand what poetry really is they are of no service at all.
Poetry then is a fine art, and shares the characteristics of the fine arts generally. Accordingly, its end is pleasure as distinguished from utility, and the kind of pleasure which it aims at producing is æsthetic pleasure, such pleasure, that is to say, as is associated with the emotions of the Beautiful. The materials with which the poet works are the forces and objects of nature, the vicissitudes of human life, the thoughts and feelings of the heart, the relations of man to his fellows. These
materials the poet seizes upon and to them he gives concrete and artistic expression in rhythmical language which rouses emotion, producing in us a sense of fascination or delight.
Poetry is an imitative art and its scope may be usefully contrasted with the scope of other imitative arts. The visible properties of things, their form, or colour, or position-poetry represents less completely than sculpture or painting. Poetry works by means of language, and words may be lacking to suggest ideas which the sculptor or painter would express, or to suggest them with clearness and distinctness equal to his. But the range of poetry in other respects is far wider than that of all the other imitative arts together.
The sculptor is limited to form; the painter to form and colour. Now words will express innumerable things which neither the sculptor nor the painter can imitate,- --a sigh, a movement, the play of emotion, abstract ideas, the field of thought, propositions, arguments, exhortations, entreaties. 'The heart of man is the province of poetry, and of poetry alone...The domain of this imperial art is commensurate with the imaginative faculty1.'
To sum up, we may say that poetry requires—
(1) Imagination, whereby the phenomena of nature and of human life may be at the same time imitated and idealized ;
(2) An aptitude for stirring emotion in the hearer or reader. The poet is opposed to the man of science. The aim of the man of science is the attainment of truth. But the truth when it is found may be revolting, and its pursuit is likely to be arduous. Now poetry excludes whatever is harsh and disagreeable. Pleasure, not truth, is its object. The poet works under the stress of violent emotion which is alien to the calm contemplative spirit of the philosopher. His thought is coloured by emotion, probably distorted by emotion. He arrives at his
1 Macaulay, Essays, 'Life of Byron,' Vol. I. pp. 156-7. The student who is interested in the subject may read with advantage Mr Colvin's Article on the 'Fine Arts' in the Encyclop. Brit. (Vol. IX. pp. 207 et seq.) and Mr Watts's on 'Poetry' (Vol. XIX. pp. 256 et seq.). There are some useful remarks also in Prof. Bain's English Composition, pp. 212—236.
conclusions by emotional bounds, not by the laborious and logical steps of the savant.
(3) A preference therefore for the Concrete as opposed to the Abstract. There is nothing to arouse emotion in the abstract ideas of height, fluidity, velocity. As abstractions they are cold, colourless, difficult to grasp. The poet embodies them in concrete shapes and describes a mountain, a lake, the flight of a swallow. These representations are picturesque. The scientific is here merged in the poetic.
(4) Metrical form. At this point we part company with many persons who would give a general assent to our other remarks on the characteristics of poetry. If a composition in words pourtrays the facts of nature and human life in such a manner as to arouse æsthetic emotion, this composition, in spite of the absence of metrical regularity, they would call a poem. Thus they would say that Carlyle's French Revolution, containing as it does the concrete and artistic expression in rhythmical language of a connected series of important events, impregnated with poetic sentiment, and terminating in a catastrophe, is an epic poem just as the Iliad or Paradise Lost is an epic poem. But the safest course is to employ terms in conformity with the practice of the ordinary man, and to the ordinary man Carlyle's French Revolution is prose. A journalist with a turn for the humorous might describe a lady's costume as a poem, or a gourmet might apply the name to an appetizing dish, without misleading us, for we should understand that the term was thus employed in a vein of pleasantry, but in speaking of prose writings as poems we create confusion and perplexity.
Take the following passage from The Newcomes:—
'At the usual evening hour the chapel bell began to toll, and Thomas Newcome's hands outside the bed feebly beat time. And just as the last bell struck, a peculiar sweet smile shone over his face, and he lifted up his head a little, and quickly said, "Adsum!" and fell back. It was the word we used at school, when names were called; and lo, he, whose heart was that of a little child, had answered to his name, and stood in the presence of The Master';
or this from The Mill on the Floss :
'The boat reappeared-but brother and sister had gone down in
an embrace never to be parted: living through again in one supreme moment the days when they had clasped their little hands in love, and roamed the daisied fields together.'
What do we find?
We find genuine poetic sentiment, pathos, rhythm, the rhythm in the latter instance approaching dangerously near to the regularity of verse:
'-the days when they
Had clasped their little hands in love,
yet we say, This is prose,―beautiful prose, prose brimful of the emotion which we naturally expect in poetry, but prose none the less. Now take for the purpose of comparison this verse of Hood's :
For when the morn came dim and sad
And chill with early showers,
Her quiet eyelids closed-she had
Another morn than ours.'
This, we say at once, is poetry. Yet the difference is not a difference of matter or of spirit: it is simply a difference of form. The rigorous restriction of the rhythm within the limitations of metre has converted poetic prose into poetry.
Nor is this to identify poetry with verse. Language that expresses ideas from which the quality of imagination is absent, language that fails to awaken æsthetic emotion, though metrically arranged with superlative skill, is not poetry, any more than poetic prose is poetry.
'Where is Cupid's crimson motion?
Bear me straight, meandering ocean,
Where the stagnant torrents flow1,'
is admirable as verse for its technique, but it fails as poetry because it is sheer nonsense.
Let us now apply these results to help us to a decision respecting Pope's work in the field of poetry.
The Essay on Criticism, like the Essay on Man, is a didactic poem, and some writers have denied that a
1 Rejected Addresses.
didactic poem is a poem at all. For a didactic work is intended to convey instruction, and pleasure, not instruction, is the immediate end of poetry1. Moreover, the general principles contained in a didactic treatise will find their natural expression in abstract language, and the poet deals not with abstractions, but with their concrete embodiments. These considerations seem to justify Warton's remark, which we quoted at the outset, that works of the didactic and moral kind are 'not of the most poetic species of poetry,' for the poet, in aiming at instruction or the inculcation of morality, is hampering himself in the exercise of his art. In the attempt to combine edification with delight, it is not unlikely that he will fail either to convince the reason or to stimulate the feelings.
'Pope can make no claim to be a philosopher,' says Mr Birrell, and had he been one, verse would have been a most improper vehicle to convey his speculations. No one willingly fights in handcuffs or wrestles to music. For a man with novel truths to promulgate, or grave moral laws to expound, to postpone doing so until he had hitched them into rhyme would be to insult his mission2.'
Yet writers have not been wanting, from the days of Virgil to the days of Wordsworth, who have written poems full of charm in the didactic style. But they have chosen subjects in which the trains of argument are not too rigorous or the abstractions too dry. A caricature of the didactic style is furnished in Canning and Frere's Loves of the Triangles. The difficulty in surrounding mathematical abstractions with the emotional atmosphere congenial to poetry is insuperable.
In the Essay on Criticism Pope has indeed to deal with abstractions, such as literary taste,-principles of versification, -partiality, prejudice, singularity, or candour in critics, but
1 'Delight is the chief if not the only end of poesy: instruction can be admitted but in the second place; for poesy only instructs as it delights.' (Dryden, Defence of Essay on Dramatic Poesie.)
2 Obiter Dicta, Second Series, p. 86. De Quincey has a remark to the same effect upon the absurdity of using rhyme with its restrictions if one really wants to teach. (Collected Works, 'Leaders in Literature,' Vol. VIII. p. 46.)
W. P. E.