Bliss Carman, et al., eds. The Worlds Best Poetry. Volume II. Love. 1904.
The Future of Poetry
John Vance Cheney (18481922)
IS the future of poetry, as Matthew Arnold prophesied, immense? For the answer to this very important question, we must turn to the past,to man, his nature and his needs as there recorded. If the past answers that poetry has been of immense influence upon the life of man, we are warranted by the stability of the forces operative about us and within us, in asserting that poetry will continue to be of immense influence; indeed, we cannot, with any show of reason, come to a contrary conclusion.
What is the answer of the past? All that is written rests on oral delivery,tradition, and the tradition was poetry; that is, the verbal expression of the fresh, astonished outlook of the child-man, an ardent utterance of matter instinct with imagination, addressed, as poetry is always addressed, to both the mind and the heart, to the intellect and to the emotions. Our history and our literature, sacred and secular, rest on folklore, which is always suffused with poetry, luminous with it, and on minstrelsy, which is song itself. War-songs and hymns of praise, lyric voicings of the powers and processes of naturethese lie at the bottom. The matter of our Hesiod and of our Homer belongs not to them, but to the Hesiods and Homers of others, long before them, singing in brightness so far back that it was to the gaze of ancient Greece impenetrable shadow. As it is with the writings of the Greeks, so it is with the writings of all nations; be the substance sacred or profane,is it not all sacred?be the form, now or hereafter, verse or prose, the original was matter of imagination, which always speaks with the accent of song. The heart of the older portion of our Bible, as of all Bibles, is poetry. It is not the priest, not the scribe, that holds us in this new day; it is the prophet, who, massing the idyllic and lyric traditions of a past voiceful with the music of youth, and touching them with the fresh, fusing fire of genius and devotion, sings the might and glory of the God of righteousness. Farther and farther we may wander away from the old concepts, but the old arc of glory bends overhead, unbroken, and the old music sounds on. Ideas change, but the first heart-gleams flash yet, the burning early words keep the first far-off splendor.
The master secret of poetry is its power to seize and keep the attention; the appeal is double, taking at once the mind and the heart, enchaining the intellect and the affections. An old Eastern poet is reported to have said of himself, Saadis whole power lies in his sweet words. There is much in the saying; for, though prose may have the substance of poetry, it can never have the music and the splendor of poetry,the supernal charm, the rapture.
Our Bible rests largely on poetry; and as our religion rests largely on our Bible, our religion rests largely on poetry. Now, if the world has all along had a religion resting largely on poetry, we run little risk in saying that the religion of the future will rest largely on poetry. The indications are, indeed, that the world will rest its religion on poetry more heavily in the future than it has rested it in the past. Never man spoke truer words than old Homers where he says, Men cannot go on without the gods. The future of religion is immense; from this there is no escape; and poetry is, and must continue to be, the corner-stone of the spiritual building,which is but another way of saying that the future of poetry is immense.
But our way is not continually on the hills of religion. Beauty, in and for itself, is, perhaps, the next necessity after religion to one that would get the most out of life. We are haunted by the ideal, by the vision of perfection, by the high dream, the lustre of which, glinting down at fortunate moments, irradiates the common way of toil and care. In the region of the beautiful, the perfect, in the realm of ideality lying between mans yearning toward God and his efforts in the performance of the humblest duty,in this wide region poetry reigns as it reigns in the realm of religion, supreme. Here, also, it is the ruling power, supplementing faith, patience, and reverence with health-giving, joy-giving beauty, spread lavishly as the sunlight is showered on the mountains and into the valleys. The significant situations and experiences of everyday life, the pleasing phenomena of nature, are here woven together in imperishable melody, which wells up hourly in the hearts of those familiar with it, dispelling the gloom and softening the harshness that make heavy the lot of him that knows not the divine delightfulness of song. The mind, the heart, that is fed on poetry, is conscious of a perpetual influx of strength, buoyancy and courage. The way, after all, has a thousand flowers to one thorn, has myriad happy airs to one wail of want, of doubt, or despair. Poetry doth raise and erect the mind. There is something in the very movement of the words, a happy valiancy, which invigorates and enlivens, makes us strong and joyous, proof against the harassing little hurts, the stings of the gnat-swarm infesting the general air as we journey. Many a wayfarer, in need of a mental or a moral tonic, would rather recall a few lines from Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, or Emerson than the gist of the longest doctrinal sermon; in preference to the battle-cry of an army of schoolmen, would have for martial inspiration one perfect utterance aglow with the gold of the morning of the heart, ringing with the music of eternal youth, the music that only the poet can wake. Recall the farewell scene between crested Hector and Andromache of the fragrant bosom; summon before the minds eye Helen nearing the wall, shedding around her unspeakable loveliness as she comes; look on wayworn Ulysses, striving to clasp his shadowy mother in the dim Land of the Dead; stand in the presence of Prospero as, laying aside his magic cloak, he turns to that whitest embodiment of innocence, his daughter, and asks,
Canst thou remember
A time before we came unto this cell?
behold in Paradise Lost the chariot instinct with spirit, the wheels set with beryl, aflame with careering fires,behold the chariot of the Most High rolling on, bearing him that stepped into it from the right hand of glory;let the mind fix itself for a moment on some one among the thousand thousand splendors of poetry new or old, then name another source from which the whole being can catch the exhilaration that it gives, can take the sudden strength that it imparts. There is little danger of exaggerating the resources of the poets for strength and joy. Those souls of the steadfast-looking habit, those souls that see so deep and wide, and tell what they have seen in heavenly melody,what hallowing experience escapes them, what vision of healing beauty? The petrifaction of bodies in the grave is rare; but the petrifaction of spirits in life is common. The great preventive against this petrifactionis it not poetry? To the poetswith the poets are included always the musical composerswe must look first, not only for the highest support and encouragement, but for the gentle ministration that is our consolation and joy through all the vast region stretching between the highland of religion and the valley of toil.
The essential features of poetry, and the old need of it, remain; poetry endures, however, and must more and more endure, under new conditions. Questions religious, social and political are not now what they have been. Poetry recognizes this, and will recognize it more and more; or perception, and pliancy to the demand of the hour, are of the fibre of its might. There should be no fear that science will destroy poetry; poetry, though opposed to science in method, is the faithful ally of science. The thoughts of God are not internecine. The master forces of mind and heart are never at war among themselves; step by step, they push peacefully forward together toward perfection. The old poetry was given to prophecy; it had to do the work of the powers of exact knowledge. The new poetry, while it will not cease, on occasion, to anticipate the findings of science, will occupy itself mainly, it is safe to say, in warming and coloring, in transfiguring, the findings of science for the sustenance and solace, for the stay and delight, of the world.
Wordsworth foresaw the change that has come, and the greater change in waiting:
If the time should ever come when what is now called science becomes familiarized to men, then the remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, the mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poets art as any upon which it can be employed. He will be ready to follow the steps of the man of science; he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of science itself.
The charm of beauty will, of itself, preserve poetry, maintain it in the old position of supremacy. But it is in much more than the charm of beauty that poetry is supreme; it is in much more than the charm of beauty that we find assurance that, whatever changes come, it will hold the old place and power. Poetry deals with an order of truth in the pursuit of which art has no rival; it and the parent power, music, win access, by methods wholly their own, to high and secret places reached by no other ministrant. Besides sharing with science dominion over mans intellect, poetry holds and must ever hold in sole supremacy his heart, his soul. Exact knowledge may not hope to suffice for the support and solace of the emotions, of the affections. Exact knowledge, multiplied a thousand times, may not hope to suffice for the future man; still will weigh the heavy
Of doubts, disputes, distractions, fears.
As science brings each noble task to a noble end, poetry must take up the work, and carry it on to the perfection that assures the satisfaction of the whole man,of the brain and the heart. The brain may be the man,
After the astronomer has spoken, there is a word left to say,a word in no wise conflicting, but additional and important. After science has spoken its words of analysis and explanation of the phenomena of nature, there is need of a word further,the transfiguring word of the poet concerning the Power behind the phenomena, the Power
To inquire profitably into the beauty and might that the poet rears on a foundation of science, we must come this side of DanteDante, who mastered and bent to his use the knowledge of his timedown to our own day, to Tennyson. Throughout Tennysons music are plainly to be heard the undertones of science; the great facts recently unearthed, the mold of ages clinging to them, are launched, and borne along the golden current side by side with the lightest fancies. The laureate had the advantage of his predecessors, living, as he did, at a time when science could become a basis for the superstructure of imagination. We turn to him first, among his contemporaries, because he it was, in particular, that nature and training enabled to seize this momentous advantage and act upon it. The use he made of the new stock of knowledge bears out the belief that the poetry of the future will give no inconsiderable proportion of its force to the quickening, the warming, of fact, to the kindling of it into the mystic ignition the flame of which the soul loves, and moves in as in its own native element. Tennyson strengthens us in the conviction that
When Science reaches forth her arms
To feel from world to world, and charms
Her secret from the latest moon,
the poet will give liberally of his strength toward the completion of the victory by setting the secret in transfiguring words. This will be done. It must be done, before the importance and meaning of the secret can burn into the mind and heart of the world, and so set aglow the general life. Hope and love, with the voice of music, must rehabilitate, yes, reshape and vitalize, ignite, the fact if we are not to stop with mere intellectual apprehension, if we are to pass on to assimilation, to perfect appropriation and practice.
Says Professor Shaler in his thoughtful little volume, The Interpretation of Nature,
So long as learning remains in the shape in which the investigator leaves it, it is generally useless to the uninitiated in the science. It is only when the poet does his work, when he phrases the truth in a form to appeal to the imagination that the public has a profit from the inquiry.
Science does not speak with this accent, nor does it add this final, consummating word.
Let knowledge grow from more to more,
sings the same poet, with the great facts of science in mind, then adds yet again the consummating word: so do we move on to
The closing cycle rich in good.
Firm is the faith in growing knowledge; but the end must be rich in good. When growing knowledge leads to another goal than this, then shall it be thrust aside,
Not only cunning casts in clay:
Let Science prove we are, and then
What matters Science unto men?
The immortality of life and love, the end rich in goodthese science itself will not be permitted to violate. At these its authority stops; at these the poet makes a beginning, puts on his prophets robe, and presses hopefully forward.
Such, roughly speaking, is the attitude of poetry toward science; but while bearing it in mind, we are not to forget that the poet has, beyond the power of summarizing and revoicing the knowledge uncovered by others, that surpassing gift, his own peculiar might in original investigation,