Bliss Carman, et al., eds. The Worlds Best Poetry. Volume VI. Fancy. 1904.
The Place of Poetry in Life
Charles Francis Richardson (18511913)
BEAUTY, sooner or later, comes to its own; but no man perceives it all at once. Even the undying poetry of the world around us must be brought to the notice of growing minds. It is no wonder, then, that a taste for poetry in literature is often undeveloped.
Some people read a great deal of poetry, with constant zest and unfailing advantage; others, though they may be great readers of other classes of literature, find little pleasure or profit in poetry. Is it a duty to read poetry? Should those who seem to have no natural taste for it endeavor to cultivate a taste; or should they rest content with the conclusion that certain minds appreciate, and profit by, poetical compositions, while other minds have no capacity for their enjoyment?
It may not be a downright duty to like poetry, or to try to like it; but certainly it is a misfortune that so large and lovely a division of the worlds literature should be lost to any reader. The absence of a poetic taste is a sad indication of a lack of the imaginative faculty; and without imagination what is life?
If a reader finds that the ideal has little or no place in his intellectual existence or in his daily processes of thought and feeling, then he should consider, with all soberness, the fact that a God-given power is slipping away from hima power without which his best faculties must become atrophied; without which he loses the greater part of the enjoyment of life, day by day; without which, in very truth, he cannot see all the glory of the open door of the Kingdom of Heaven. Children are poets; they find fairy-land in a poor broken set of toy crockery or in a ragged company of broken-nosed dolls. Their powers of imagination ought never to be lost in the humdrum affairs of a work-a-day world; their habit of discovering the ideal in the real is one which cannot be laid aside without great detriment to the individual life and character. There may, then, be persons who have no capacity for poetry, and who cannot cultivate a taste for it; but this inability, if real, is to be mourned as a mental blindness and deafness, shutting out the greater part of the universe from sight and hearing: for the most real things in the world are those that neither men nor children can see.
There is, of course, a great deal of nobly imaginative literature which is not poetry, in the technical sense; but if one can read Hawthorne or the Waverley Novels with pleasure, he is quite sure to find no stumbling-block in Ulalume or The Lady of the Lake. It is the poetic spirit that we should recognize and take to our hearts, whatever may be the outward form in which it may be enshrined. Poetry, said Poe, is the rhythmical creation of beauty;that is, it is one of many ways of expressing in permanently beautiful form mans ideas of what he has seen or imagined. No other division of creative art possesses such universality, such intelligibility, as does this art of song.
The beginning of the love of poetry lies in the individual mind; for its development one must seek his material from the treasures around him, and must work out his methods of utilizing that material with the same care that he applies to other departments of intellectual exercise. Let him, if he finds his taste in need of cultivation, begin with such poems as he likes; read them more than once; learn their teachings; apprehend their inner spirit and purpose. Whatever the beginning, it is sure to lead to something better, if the reader will but resolutely determine to know what the writer meant to say; to see the picture that he portrayed; and to share his enthusiasm and warmth of feeling.
This cultivation of the intelligence is essential to the highest success even in daily drudgery, in politics, and in the commercial business of the world. No one is too dull, or too prosaic, or too much absorbed in the routine of practical life, to be absolved from the care of his imaginative powers; and no one is likely to find that this care will not repay him even in a practical sense. It is the old alternative of eyes and no eyes. He who thinks wisely, he who perceives quickly that which others do not see at all, is better equipped for any work than one whose mind works slowly and feebly, and whose apprehensions have grown rusty from disuse.
Poetry is not for the few, but for the many, for all. The worlds greatest poems, with few exceptions, have been poems whose meaning has been perfectly clear and whose language has been simple,poems which have addressed themselves to the direct intelligence of men. Homer, and Chaucer, and Shakespeare need no mystical commentary to explain their meaning; like Mark Antony, they only speak right on. If a poem is obscure, after a reasonably intelligent reading, you may know by that mark alone that it is not worth your while to vex your brain over it. If a poet has not made himself clear, it is his fault and not yours, if you are a person of intellectual capacity. Sunlight, air, water, these are not for the few; nor is poetry to be cooped and confined any more than these.
True poetry has a far nobler mission than to puzzle, or to amuse, or even to excite; it is the voice of all that is best in humanity, speaking from man to man. Not all of us can thus speak, but we can hear, and incorporate the poetic spirit in our best and fullest life, day by day.
What is that spirit? Many have been the attempts to define it; but, after all, we can only say, in the words of Shelley, All feel, yet see thee never. Or again, is not poetry to be described, as nearly as we can describe it, in two more lines from the same fine song of the Voice in the Air?
Matter is ruled by mind, and the best power of mind is sentiment. The Kingdom of God, said the founder of the Christian religion, is within you. It is the mission of poetry, by means of noble words in fit metrical forms, to show to man the supernal beauty of the world of things and thought and action, and to lead him therewith to broaden his own life and other lives in the eternal upward march.
Of all the cities in the world, none is so rich as Florence in memorials of mind. As one stands beneath the magisterial pinnacle of the Palazzo Vecchio, beholds the unrivalled proportions of Brunelleschis dome, marks the serious yet cheerful unity of Giottos tower, studies the stories on the bronze gates of the Baptistery, reads the mortuary inscriptions in the somewhat monotonous nave of the church of Santa Croce, bares his head in the cell of Savonarola, springs heavenward with the thought and the vision of Fra Angelicos angels, is touched with the humanity of Andrea del Sartos tenderly sweet Madonna on the frescoed wall, or roams through the incomparable riches of the Uffizi and the Pitti, the glory of the City of Flowers seems an epitome of all that man has ever done or dreamed. On the steps of Santa Maria Novella, Boccaccios gay refugees, in all the lust of life, stood preparing their flight from the plague-smitten town; through Florentine streets walked Petrarch with the soul of Laura imprisoned in his heart; and in the shade of the cathedral is still shown that Sasso di Dante where sat the greatest poet of mediæval Europe as he gazed with sad eyes on the men and women and children passing by. And all these towers and domes, these narrow streets and unspacious squares, these rich treasures of church and convent and gallery, make up the Florence of powerpower displayed in the loves and hates a half-a-thousand years agone.
Indeed, if all these treasures of the Florentine past were to perish save one alone
Though the many lights dwindle to one light,
There is help if the heaven has one,
if only a single picture in a single art gallery remained, it would still tell us (if that picture were the Primavera of Botticelli) what it was that informed this strange city of the past, and made poem, palace, dome, tower, gate, cell, fagot, angel, Madonna, and Tribuna the things they were and are. On a westward wall of the Academy of Fine Arts, one of the lesser galleries of prodigal Florence, hangs what the guide-books call an allegorical representation of Spring; on the left Mercury and the Graces, Venus in the middle, and on the right Flora, with a personification of Fertility and a god of wind. Possibly so; perhaps, as others think, an allegory of the four seasons; but surely the first great picture in which there was the unmistakable and perennial glory of pure imagination, amid the conventional mythology or hagiology of the time. With this picture before him one exclaims with Dante: Incipit vita nova; here indeed is an epitome of the Renaissance, as Florence is an epitome of the mediæval world. Life, after all, these lovely figures seem to say, is a poor and cruel thing without beauty of doing and of being; nor can beauty really be, without the heart that makesthe sentiment that shapes and consecrates. And the poet or the painter in our age, as in Botticellis, is he who puts these lessons of the beautiful before the ears and eyes of man.
We usually, says Ruskin, fall into much error by considering the intellectual powers as having dignity in themselves, and separable from the heart; whereas the truth is, that the intellect becomes noble and ignoble according to the food we give it, and the kind of subjects with which it is conversant. So we relearn an old lesson from an old text.
The opening years of the twentieth century are in some ways strikingly similar to the beginning of the eighteenth. The reigns of the Georges, in our motherland, were a period of rationalism; the first years of Edwards rule are a time of materialism, in which the ancient truths of art and righteousness must be restated for an engineering age. Feeling can never die while man lives, nor can art cease to strive to portray what man has seen or dreamed; but in the history of the world a period of imagination is ever followed by a time of criticism and comment or perhaps dull negation. After Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton came Pope and Johnson and the echoes of Voltaire; after Scott and Tennyson Spencer and Huxley. Just a hundred years ago appeared the lyrical ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge, that new world of romantic poetry; and thus genius is ever reincarnated from time to time. The new man must ever and anon be summoned forth by the new prophet; the poet must cry out in the arid waste of a mere life that is not true living. A time of national expansion is the very time for us to exclaim anew that we are children of ideas, and that ideas are born of sentiment.
When a scientist declares that literature is a frill which ought not to have any place in a modern college curriculum, so crowded with scientific and really useful studies, there is need to go back to Botticelli for a fresh start and a little elementary instruction; for to-day, as in his picture, the cold north wind is cruelly blowing upon the gaysome-hearted spirit of creative beauty, and clutching her with his freezing fingers. He who despises, or deems superfluous in a practical age, the frills of Dante or Tennyson, should read for his reproof and instruction in righteousness such wise words as those lately spoken by an American who stood alike for letters and for right living:
Commonly, a man is said to be practical who looks out keenly for his own interests, and succeeds in getting possession of much property. He may do this by industry and thrift, or he may do it by taking advantage of the weakness of his fellows. In either case success entitles him to the reputation of being practical. Or a man may be entitled to this epithet if he concerns himself only with material things, and if the product of his effort is strictly utilitarian. In short, a man is practical if he gets what he wants, and keeps it. This is a low view of life, and wholly leaves out of consideration the most important part of it. The true and broad meaning of practical is a wise adaptation of means to the end in view, and the end in view is an essential part of the practicality. A man who succeeds in making a good sonnet is as practical as a man who manufactures a good wheelbarrow. A perfect sonnet is rare. All the ages have produced only a fewsome say not a hundred altogether. Yet a little group of Shakespeares is of more value, has been of more use to mankind, than the millions of wheelbarrows. Yet the world could get on without sonnets, and it could not dispense with wheelbarrows? Yes: but that depends upon your idea of the world. To me a world constructed wholly on the wheelbarrow plan would be intolerable. It is bad enough with the sonnets mixed in.
In the progress of the world, whether in republic or in monarchy, the few lead and the many are led, often very slowly and imperfectly. The old lessons must be taught anew to every generation. It is not enough to say that progress is in the air; we must define progress with accuracy and promote it with patience as well as zeal. Patriotism, liberty, religion, duty, artthese may be in the air indeed; it is our business to put them into mens souls and lives. Philosophy is the guide of life; but philosophy is more than wisdom, it is the love of wisdom, and love is sentiment. It was sentiment that dominated the work of Jesus and Paul in founding Christian ethics upon the basis of love. The ministry to-day is service, and service of every sort must be consecrated by feeling for the served. The man of medicine, from Sir Thomas Browne and his Christian Morals to John Brown and his Rab and his Friends, may become, and sometimes has become, even more than his fellow-worker from the divinity school, a messenger of intimate good to the individual and the home. American politics and civics would have been poor indeed without the sentiment that shaped the constructive order of our constitutions and laws. Jefferson, with all his varied practicalities, was an idealist; and even in the cool papers composing The Federalist there runs, as through the ages, one increasing purpose that is often a passion. Jefferson, in his first inaugural, spoke of that harmony and affection without which liberty and life itself are but dreary things; and Hamilton, in the opening lines of the first of The Federalist papers, made haste to claim that the settlement of the Union would add the inducements of philanthropy to those of patriotism. Thus the leader, in any field, is he who, as in the Greek torch-race, holds in his hand a burning fire and transmits it to others.
In order to perceive to the full, the intellect must apprehend the wish as well as the fact. Still more is such perception demanded of him who would portray. Said Dryden of Shakespeare: When he describes anything, you more than see it, you feel it too. That is why Dumas declared that the greatest of the Elizabethans has gone to the bottom of everything, divined everything, said everything. There can be no divination without sympathy between the seerand the poet is a seer in a double senseand the seen. Hard and narrow is Drydens famous
Three poets, in three distant ages born,
Greece, Italy, and England did adorn;
The first in loftiness of thought surpassed;
The next, in majesty; in both, the last.
The force of nature could no further go;
To make a third, she joined the former two.
Dryden did not see, or did not say, that a certain lack of sympathy, of sentiment, in a way sets Milton below Chaucer or Shakespeare.
So much of art depends upon portrayal in painting, sculpture, music, words, that too much emphasis can hardly be put upon this truth. It is the business of intellectual leadership, especially in every form of art, to unfold or to interpret what men have missed or but half understood, in life or in its background of the natural world. Art, averred Coleridge, cannot exist without, or apart from, nature; and what has man of his own to give to his fellow-men but his own thoughts and feelings, and his observations, so far as they are modified by his own thoughts or feelings? So Ruskin: The grandest aim of imaginative art [is] to give men noble grounds for noble emotion. We move in a circle, or rather we receive and give; sympathy and sentiment perceive, art interprets, and the receiver of the artists gift transmits that gift to others. If there is
that spirit is assuredly something more than hard intellectuality. Intellect, after all, is human and mortal; soul is divine and eternal. Never in my life did this sense of the verities of the universe and the triumph of life over death come nearer to my mind than when once I stood on that hillock in Concords Sleepy Hollow cemetery where rest, almost side by side, Hawthorne and Emerson, with the Alcotts and Thoreau not far away. From their graves the spirits of our first writer and of our chief philosopher of optimism rise to tell us that we too have our Westminster Abbeys and St. Pauls, though overhanging branches replace upspringing arches of stone, and the dome of the blue vault is substituted for that which Christopher Wren upreared. When such dust was laid in mother earth men said not,
Him to his land, a lump of mold the more
but, instead, Now our soil is consecrated, and made part of the universe of mind as well as of matter.
The restless sea resounds along the shore,
The light land-breeze flows outward with a sigh,
And each to each seems chanting evermore
A mournful memory of days gone by.
Here, where they lived, all holy thoughts revive,
Shelley, I suppose, represented more than any poet of his time a sort of ethereal mentality in the nature of his imaginative genius. Yet it was he who said, in his Defense of Poetry: The great instrument of moral good is imagination . What were virtue, love, patriotism, friendshipwhat were the scenery of this beautiful universe which we inhabit, what were our consolations on this side of the grave, and what were our aspirations beyond it, if poetry did not ascend to bring light and fire from those eternal regions where the owl-winged faculty of calculation dare not ever soar? Andrew Lang had the same thought in mind when he declared that Coleridge is, or may be reckoned, a great poet, because every now and again he captures in verse that indefinable emotion which is less articulately expressed in music, and in some unutterable way he transports us into the world of dream and desire. This is a very vague fashion of saying what hardly permits itself to be said. We might put it that Coleridge has, on occasion, the power to move us, as we are moved by the most rarely beautiful cosmic effects of magic lights and shadows; by the silver on lakes for a chosen moment in the dawn or twilight; by the fragrant deeps of dewy forests; by sudden infrequent passions of heart and memory, and by unexpected potencies of imagination. Pitifully did Shelley and Coleridgenot less than Milton himselffall short of Miltons declaration that he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things ought himself to be a true poem. Literary men are as human as other folks, and a little more so. But sometimes the stream appears to rise higher than its source, because we do not really know what the artists highest level is. An artists creations are the best test of his nature. When we do not know all the facts of a mans lifeand how seldom we know even half of themit is dangerous to make what facts we do know overbear the evidence of his works. An authors book or a painters picture, we may say, represents both the is and the would-be; and can there be an ideal without aspiration? Benvenuto Cellini was, as he has lately been characterized, a scoundrel, but his Perseus did not come from the scoundrelly part of him. Many of the great artists of the world have been moral weaklings, while some of its noblest souls have lacked not only the creative power, but any apparent sense of appreciation of beautiful things made. But art consecrated by ethics is that which produces a Divina Commedia out of the experiences and ideas of what otherwise would be a mere Comédie Humaine.
The poet, or other artist, is he who scans life and nature, and presents them to us in significant and enduring forms. He stands for what all mankind half hopes to be, and he is directly successful in proportion to his representative power. Ill-regulated superficiality is fatal to the artist, and therefore to the leader;and we ought all to be leaders of something, if only of ourselves. The ruler, the director, must correlate many things. His is the breadth of life. If he finds that honesty is the best policy, he also perceives that he is not an honest man who is honest for this reason. To him, at his best, belongs what Theodore Watts-Dunton calls Tennysonsthat is to say any great poetsinstinct for confronting the universe as a whole. And in the presence of the universe, he solemnly says with the possessor of one of the greatest of American fortuneshow foolish to speak of money and fortune as synonymous!that the poorest man I know is the man who has nothing but money.
The poet beholds and interprets. In the great book of nature and life he reads, and from a thousand texts unfolds to humanity the perennial beauty and the divine lessons of the universe. He learns by insight what others miss in the slow processes of external investigation. For him nature is the mirror of God and the mentor of man. As naturally as a mountain brook, he sings because he must. He studies the whole created universe, and finds God in the bush as well as in the libraries.
American literature furnishes in the case of Longfellow, whom it is now the fashion to decry, a pleasant illustration of the way in which the poet may combine many things for the benefit of his time. He was a college teacher, but no pedant; a text-book maker, but also a singer; an adapter, but not, as Poe called him, a plagiarist; an early follower of Heine, but at last the creator of two of our most characteristically American books, in story and in form; the scholarly student and translator of Dante, but likewise the simple singer of Excelsior and A Psalm of Life. In a sentimental time he knew how to use and to better the fashions of his day; and in the crude and crass period of American isms and ologies he helped us because he was both sympathetic and wise.
The time-spirit, as far as it affects the intellectual life of a people, is simply the intelligence of man, dominated by a high purpose. The countrymen of Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Webster do not need to be reminded that the brain is the servant of the soul, not less in politics than in art. The history of the United States is the history of the evolution of ideas. Evolution is in one sense inexorable; in another and far truer sense it is the sum-total of our own use of the powers and means at hand, which we have inherited or earned. Sentiment is worthless unless transmuted into character, and character demands action. We are ourselves results; we must likewise be causes; if the nineteenth, and eighteenth, and seventeenth centuries have been in some ways good, the twentieth ought to be best of all. The past explains the present, and the present the past. We may interpret the coming century by its predecessors, for, however great its changes may be, from our followers there surely will not depart the quickening spirit of their Aryan ancestors, especially of the Teutonic branch. Though the future be in a true sense an unknown world, with its potencies of material and spiritual developmentfor the child is the son of the centuries, and in truth an Emerson or a Browning can peer beyond the horizon of a Shakespearestill the verities of human nature can never be lost.
We may be living in a literary or artistic interregnum, but the stuff of literature is ever at handof that silent literature which is, as it were, the background of the literature which is written. First the deed, then its eidolon. Not one of the twice four hundred men who went down with Kempenfelt could have written Toll for the Brave; but a great actand one supposes that they died with courageis not far, in essence, from a great creation. Surely, as the century begins, one sees the heroic on every hand; men were never braver than to-daysometimes with a bravery which is glorified by a self-sacrifice all the truer because it is not reckless.
We occasionally speak of our own daysdays of brief wars and of the better victories of peaceful educationas though they were late finalities; who knows but we ourselves are living in the earliest ages of the ancient earth? This is the first period in which social decency has been attained even in any moderate degree; the first in which men have travelled by steam; talked by electricity; multiplied cheap books; relieved the handicraftsman of much of his weary toil; brought fresh food from the ends of the earth for eaters who find it cheaper to buy than to produce. In mechanics we may well be modest so long as man cannot, unaided, fly a ten-foot distance ten inches above the surface of the earth which gave him birth; while in philosophy we have not one glimmer of real knowledge concerning the creating cause or actual character of time, space, matter, life; nor can we tell, any more than the kitten at our feet or the house fly on the ceiling, the connection between the end of a thought and the end of a nerve. The truth is, wrote John Addington Symonds, that in many senses we are still in mid-Renaissance. The evolution has not been completed. The life is our own and is progressive. As in the transformation-scene of some great masque, so here, the waning and the waxing shapes are mingled; the new forms, at first shadowy and filmy, gain upon the old, and now both blend; and now the old scene fades into the background; still, who shall say whether the new scene be finally set up?
The one thing which distinguishes the leader from the led is the vision behind the mist. The poet, as Plato told us long ago, has many functions: His it is to teach and enlighten the state, to make life beautiful, and to draw the soul insensibly into harmony with reason. But among them all none, assuredly, is greater than the mission which he has received from heavento keep alive the senses of a world that is out of sight, and to show how the troubled waves of human life may dimly reflect the beauty and mystery of God.