Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
I. General Introduction
By Carleton Noyes
THE HUMAN heart has ever dreamed of a fairer world than the one it knows. No man, however dark his spirit, however cramped his senses, is quite without the yearning after wider horizons and a purer air. In a happy moment earth seems to hold for all the promise of larger things. The moment passes; and the world closes in again, actual, bare, unyielding, as before. Yet among men there are some endowed with vision, an insight more penetrating and more sustained. To their liberated spirit the world unfolds a farther prospect. Earth clothes itself for them in radiant vesture, mute forms are speaking presences, the riddle of life resolves itself into a meaning. To them it is granted to arrest the moment of illumination, otherwise so fleeting; and, gifted further with a shaping power, they are able to re-create the moment in enduring forms. The men of vision are the seers and prophets; the shapers of the revelation, re-creating it, are the artists and the poets.
What each of us is seeking the poet has already found. Poetry is the step beyond, which we were about to take, but were not certain of the way. In our experience from year to year, we are not without glimpses of beauty in the world, a sense of meaning somewhere within the shows of things. Of this beauty and this meaning poetry is a fuller revelation. The poet gives us back the world we already know, though it is a world transfigured; he draws his material from stores to which we all have access, but with a difference. His vision, clearer and more penetrating, transfigures the facts and discloses the beauty only waiting to be thus revealed. His fresh sight of this beauty quickens in him an emotion of wonder and of joy which impels him to expression. Seeing the world in new combinations, he selects from the common store of experience certain images colored by his mood. Of these images he weaves a pattern of words, which re-create the beauty he has seen and are charged with that deeper significance he has divined within the outward manifestation. It is just because he sees farther and feels more intensely that he is a poet; and then because he is able to phrase his experience in words which have the power to create the vision and the meaning in us. So the poet fashions that fairer world of which the heart has dreamed; and by the mediation of his art it becomes ours for an enduring possession. If this be indeed the office and destiny of poetry, we may well ask whence it draws its inspiration and by what means it accomplishes its high ends.
The older poetry of a people takes shape around a story. Childhood dearly loves a tale; for its simple heart finds the way out of a reality it does not understand by contriving a world of make-believe. The young imagination, not yet beset by too urgent actualities, admits no bounds to its wide exercise. In the childhood of the race, objects are spirits, moved by their own inner life. Natural forces are gods, acting capriciously upon the fortunes of men. A man more cunning or more powerful than his fellows becomes a hero or a demigod in memory and tradition. So a child too animates the common things of his little world with a life of their own that suits the purposes of his active fancy. He endows them with a part in his play, and they act out the story that he weaves around them. The imagination of childhood demands action, deeds done and stories told,high adventures of gods and heroes, or the tangled fortunes of princes and damsels, of knights and captive ladies, of fairies and sprites. So a fable builds itself out of free imaginings.
The love of a story never passes. All through its long history, in every land and among every people, poetry has not ceased to interest itself in all conceivable happenings of life. But the stream of poetry is fed by many sources, and it takes color and volume according to the channels through which it flows. From the Iliad to Enoch Arden, to cite typical instances which by no means set the farther or the nearer bounds of narrative poetry, both the subject and the form have undergone varied and profound changes. This movement, as each nation develops its own art and culture, has been in the direction from the general to the particular, from the interests of the entire nation to the affairs of private persons. Out of the stirrings and strivings of a whole people toward expression is gradually evolved the separate individual artist or poet.
In elder days men worked and played together. The single member of the clan or the individual citizen was completely merged in the unity of the tribe or the state. His welfare depended upon the welfare of the group, his interests were bound up inextricably with the life of the community as a whole. This fact explains the range and character of the earlier poetry of any people. All nations have their own distinctive beginnings, and these are widely distributed in time: the term earlier, therefore, is relative to each nation. Examples of such earlier poetry are the Iliad and the Odyssey, on the one handthough these represent the culmination rather than the beginning of an age, which, however, is relatively earlyand on the other hand, the English traditional ballads.1 In point of time these two instances are separated from each other by about two thousand years, but as earlier poetry they have this trait in common, that they are not the work of any one man. Such poetry as this is not made; it grows. It springs as a kind of spontaneous expression of the life of the group. An incident of common concern to the whole people, a situation involving the fortunes of all, furnishes the occasion and the motive of the tale. Necessarily some one, any one,unknown by name,starts it on its course. The story is told and retold: passing from lip to lip, it receives changes and additions. Again, finally, some one, unknown by name, gives it the form in which it is written down and so preserved. But it is the poetry of a people rather than of a man.
This poetry has certain traits which serve to mark it as popular or national. In the case of poems of greater scope, like the Iliad or Beowulf, it deals with action in the large. The heroes whose deeds it celebrates are the possession of the kindred or the race; they are kings and men of might or valor, known to all in the national traditions. Even the gods are not absent; they play a dominant part in the action. Similarly in the popular ballads, the persons of the story, though drawn from humbler life, acquire a legendary interest which makes them typical figures and invests them with general importance. Such poetry, then, mirrors the ideals of the group or the nation. It is shaped and colored by the religious beliefs of the people or by vague questionings and vaguer answers as to the nature and meaning of things. By the kind of persons it sets in action, by the deeds they do and the passions they feel, this poetry becomes the projection and expression of life at its best as the whole people conceives it to be. It is the nations interpretation of itself.
One characteristic these tales have which, apart from their form as verse, makes them poetry. The world which they give back is idealized. They come into being in response to mens love of a story. But the action which they embody is not the petty and commonplace round of daily affairs; the action is heightened and intensified. What we call the glamour of romance is over it. The free imagination is at work to fashion a more engaging and significant world. The stories told are of a time long past, in a happier and golden prime. This, they say, is the world as it was; would that it were so now, or might be again! Across the obscure yearnings of the present need, seen at a distance in the fresh light of mornings gone, the men of an elder age are figured of heroic mould. Their virtues, their passions, and their faults are nobler than the common breed. The world in which they move and do is an ampler scene, bathed in a freer air. This transfiguring of things, making them bright, intense, and full of a farther meaning, is the spirit of poetry.
As civilization progresses, the individual begins to define himself more sharply against the background of his group. The common effort of the group has wrought out for itself the arts of life; the store of culture is gradually enriched by collective striving. Then a time comes when the various functions of life tend to be distributed more and more among the separate members of the community; and to them it becomes possible to develop their own special gifts and aptitudes as potter, weaver, smith. One day a man arises who has the gift of song. Conscious of himself now as an individual, he takes the stories which the fathers have told, threads of legend and tradition, and weaves them into a new pattern. As the earlier poetry was the expression of the collective ideals of the group, so now the poem conceived and shaped by a single maker is animated by his own special purpose; colored by his personal emotion, it reflects the world as he himself sees it: and it becomes in this wise the expression of his individual interpretation of life.2
Thus a new spirit comes into narrative poetry. Less and less it is spontaneous, impersonal, objective; more and more it is the product of a deliberate, self-conscious art; the choice of subject and the manner of presenting it are determined by the poets own feeling. The world from which he draws his material is nearer home. His characters are more immediate to everyday experience; what they lose in glamour they gain in directness of appeal. Interest in the action for its own sake does not flag, but the persons who move in it are more closely and definitely expressive of what the poet thinks and feels. He chooses his characters because they embody concretely and so exemplify the conception he has formed of a significant situation. The story of the mythical hero Beowulf and his fight with the weird sea-monster Grendel is succeeded by Chaucers Canterbury Tales.3 Here the poet assembles a motley company, of high and low degree, of clerical and lay, sketched from the life with exquisitely humorous fidelity. The stories they tell to pass the stages of their pilgrimage are as varied as themselvesnone, however, more characteristic of the new temper of poetry than the Nuns Priests tale. Now
And the hero of the tale is Chauntecleer! The cock discourses learnedly of dreams, and for authorities he invokes the great names of antiquity. But he succumbs to inexorable fate, figured by Russel the fox, while the denizens of the barnyard act the chorus to his tragedy. The poem in its mock heroics is a sly satire of the grand manner of the romantic epic. But beyond the entertainment it furnishes by the way, in it is reflected Chaucers own genial though shrewd criticism of life; and we enjoy this contact with the poets own personality. So in all narrative poetry of conscious art, whether the Faerie Queene or Paradise Lost, Keatss Endymion or Enoch Arden, whether it portrays the figures of romance and fable, or whether it treats the high argument of Gods ways with man or a tragedy of humble souls, we discern the image of a heightened and intenser world, which serves finally to express the poets own way of conceiving life, his interpretation of experience.
The same trend toward greater personality in expression which changes the import of narrative poetry gives rise to poetry of a different kind and purpose. As the individual emerges out of the mass into consciousness of himself, he is made aware that life comes to him, in contrast to other men, with a difference. The world is his world, passions are his passions, events take their significance as they relate themselves somehow to his own experience. The great sky arches overhead, brightly blue or piled with tossing clouds. Outward in every direction reaches the broad earth, a crowded pageantry of color and form and sound and stir. Just at the center, the meeting point of all these energies, stands a man, thinking, feeling, willing. Upon him as a focus converge all rays of influence from the inclosing world. Responding to their impact, he perceives a sudden harmony within the tumult of sensation and flashing idea, a harmony which is beauty, and his whole being is flooded with emotion. His joy, wonder, worship, surge to expression. Out of the chaos he compels a new order, the image of his perception; and this he bodies forth in material form through the medium of words, shaping it after the pattern of his perception, and moulding it to his mood. The mighty pulse of nature bids him to sing, to voice his insight and his feeling in accordant rhythm. So out of the fullness of his spirit, quickened by the beauty of the world and its inner meaning, wells a song. The lyric is born.
So the external world weaves endlessly its subtle patterns of beauty and meaning, at times well hidden indeed, but yielding finally their secret to the ardent searchings of the human heart. Often the lyric springs, as it seems spontaneously, out of a sheer joy of things.
The birds note gives the key. The poet responds, his joy overflows into images, his melody voices the music of Spring! As this is one of the earliest lyrics in our language, so it is also, in spirit, form, and content, a veritable spring song of the lyric mood.
The impulse to music is the lyrics source. But the fragile, delicately wrought vessel of lyrical form is capable of inexhaustible variety and wealth of content. It may hold as an aroma the evanescent mood of a moment; or into it may be poured the accumulated treasures of a ripe experience. The only limitation of a lyric is that it shall sing; otherwise it is free to range earth and sky and the inmost chambers of the heart.
The lyric, therefore, is a poets fullest outpouring of himself. More than any other form of poetry it is toned to his mood, and breathes the intensity of his emotion. But it is capable also of a burden of thought, provided only that the thought take wing and rise from the shell of abstraction into the full-embodied life of warm and colored image. In its simplest import the lyric is a cry. A sudden fresh vision of beauty releases the deep sources of joy, and the emotion, gathering about the image that has quickened it, wells forth in rhythmic pulse, into surgent, glowing words.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
The song of a skylark, playing across the strings of the poets interpreting and transfiguring temperament, is etherealized into a rarer music. It floats us back the birds song; but it is the very spirit of poetry.
As poetry, these verses in themselves have not quite the lyric impetus. They move to a stately music suited to the calm elevation of mind, in which the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is now recollected in tranquillity. They describe, however, rather than illustrate, the lyric temper. They are still charged with emotion which heightens and intensifies the actual material stuff out of which they are woven, and so they are true poetry. But the burden of thought tends to impede that upward spring of feeling which is the essence of the lyric mood.
The range of lyric poetry is limited only by the capacities of the human spirit; it is coextensive with the height and depth of mans mind and heart. A lyric is some one poets interpretation of the beauty, the wonder, the profound mystery, of life as he perceives and feels it, by the magic of word-image made visible to the inward eye, by the weaving of tone and measured beat made vocal in the soul. In swift, vivid phrase it may picture a butterfly or a world; in richly-freighted word it may seem, for an illumined moment, to unlock the vast secret of life, discovering truth. The lyric may be an iridescent jet of song, piercing the silence; it may be a mighty hymn, resolving discords and voicing the praise of things. No mood is denied it; joy and sorrow, hope and regret, tears and laughter, lie within its compass. Its characteristic note is intense personality. But the true poet transfigures the beauty he has seen in his little corner of the earth into cosmic vistas, opening to infinity, and transmutes his private joys and griefs into the great passionate fountains of universal happiness and suffering accessible to all men.
Any subject may be turned to the uses of poetry according as the poet conceives it in a certain way. At once more sensitive and more creative than other men, the poet sees life more intensely and more beautifully. He is stirred by the splendor or tenderness of natures pageantry of shifting colors and impressive forms; he is quickened to penetrating thought by his insight into the living principle which shapes the world, and by his sense of the varying significance of mens purposes and destiny. His emotion impels him to express his perception, carrying lightly also its burden of thought, in an ordered pattern of word-symbols, which reproduce images from the external world, but which invest them with associations and implicate further meanings. To this transcript of the immediate and actual world he adds:
The light that never was, on sea or land,
The consecration, and the poets dream.
Thus to transfigure the world and life, under the stimulus of feeling and by the power of insight, is the magic and the mystery of the poet. So, too, poetry may range through the vast, complex whole of experience, to draw thence its inspiration and its material. But life may be thus conceived poetically, and yet the idea may be expressed in prose. To give it poetical expression, there must pulse through the subject matter, whatever guise it wear, that deep upwelling of emotion which prompts the poet to phrase his thought in the word-pattern which is a poem.
The poetic impulse, rising out of vision and emotion, utters itself in speech, but speech flowing in measured pulse and cast in a determinate mould. As the stuff out of which the web of poetry is woven is both intellectual and emotional, though the two elements may combine in varying proportions, so these elements together go to the shaping of the final total form. This form, comprising both the measured flow of words and their ultimate arrangement in a pattern,18 is a poem. And this form is not accidental or arbitrary, but is conditioned by the nature itself of the human mind and spirit.
Within the texture of every poem beats a pulse like the throb of coursing blood in a living body; and this pulse or rhythm is the life of poetic form. Indeed rhythm is the very heart of the universe itself. No manifestation of the active principle in the great frame of things is so intimate or so pervasive. Day and night, flow and ebb, the perfect return of the seasons, the breath of our nostrils and the stars in their courses echo alike its mighty music. In the little practical affairs of life, no less than in earths orbic sweep through stellar spaces, rhythm is a law of movement, to which all sustained action instinctively conforms. It makes movement easier, as in labourwhether the quick tap of a smiths hammer on his anvil or the long-drawn tug of a gang at a rope. Soldiers, marching to an ordered step, lighten the fatigue of weary miles. Rhythm also makes movement pleasurable, as in the dance. And, conversely, the perception of rhythm in things external to oneself is both easy and pleasurable. Alike in its subjective and its objective aspects, therefore, rhythm is in essential harmony with the spirit of man.
As the order of the universe is shot through with a living pulse, so emotion, too, if sustained, tends to express itself in rhythm. The emotional stimulus of the perception of beauty, or the excitement attending insight into the deeper truth of life, quickens the heart-throb; this heightened activity overflows to expression in words which reproduce the measured beat of the impetus out of which they spring. And so a poem comes to birth. In its most primitive forms, some scholars tell us, poetry is but the voice accompaniment to the rhythms of bodily movement in work and play.19 A woman grinding corn back and forth between two stones, keeps time by the crooning of unreasoned words in endless repetition. A fragment of an old spinning song echoes in Ophelias ravings: You must sing Down-a-down, An you call him a-down-a. O, how the wheel becomes it! Lithe-bodied men shout in unison their war chant, as they tread the circle of the dance. Youths and maidens in common festival recite in turn the verses of a ballad, caught and flung back in the refrain. The principle holds true throughout the age-long evolution of poetry. From the earliest to the latest manifestations of the poetic impulse, in the instinctive voicing of physical movement and in the highly wrought creations of mature art, the great deep pulse at the heart of things finds utterance.
This is the origin and reason-why of rhythm in poetry. Whatever the poets mood, whether it be an outburst of sheer joy or the chastened calm of meditation, his verse is the counterpart, made audible, of his emotion, and moves to an accordant rhythm. The swift but sustained flow of Homers dactylic hexameters, reciting the deeds of heroes; the stately procession of Miltons iambic pentameter, unfolding a drama of Heaven and Hell; the soaring flight of Shelleys skylark; the pounding hoof-beats of Brownings mad ride,
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he,
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;21
whether forward thrust or steady march or winged flight,the lilt of the verse expresses the emotional stress and impetus within it.
And more. For the rhythm of verse not only expresses the emotion out of which it springs; this it also communicates. It imparts to the hearer its own energy and kindles him to a like emotion. Poetry has much in common with other kinds of literature. Prose may render a heightened image of the world, as in the novel; it may rouse to action, as in oratory. In essence, imaginative literature may have a constant element within its various manifestations. What primarily distinguishes poetry from prose is this element of definite rhythm. By virtue of it, poetry is more immediate and more intense in its appeal. The imitative movements, psychologists would say, set going in our own organism, rouse in us a corresponding emotion. Rhythm, too, makes for ease of perception, and is in itself a source of pleasure. When rightly managed, it serves also to emphasize the intellectual content of the verse. The rhythm of poetic form is not a mechanical contrivance, but is the inevitable thrust of the passion within. At its best, it is never monotonous. It should not be a regularly recurring series of alternate beats, or sing-song; by subtle variations of stress, corresponding both to the emotional impetus and to the meaning of the words, it may unfold itself in undulations; the surge of the inner tide may break in dancing wave crests, an infinite variety of light and shade, playing over the surface of the great central unity. The meter may change step at need, obedient to an inner law.
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving
And so on through a surpassingly beautiful poem. The meter, or measured foot, is not evident here, but inevitably we feel a deep-drawn throb that lays hold on us, and carries us to its own mood. To such lines as these we gratefully accord the honorable name of poetry.
Rhythm alone, however, is not enough to constitute a poem. A mere drone of words in meaningless repetition, though it may illustrate one of the origins of poetry, is not poetry itself. There must be progress in the recurrence, and the repeat must build itself up into a pattern. Any bit of experience, to be truly understood or vitally assimilated, must be apprehended as a whole. In the tumult of the world external to him the mind of man insistently demands order and significance. Nature has compelled the poet to her own rhythm; that is his inspiration. The poet must now compel nature to his purposes of expression; that is his art. His temperament has vibrated to the sweep of cosmic influences; now his mind enters as a controlling and organizing force to shape his perception and his meaning into a single total unity. Out of rhythm in repetition and combination he frames a harmony. And so his poem presents a wholeness of impression. His pattern is built of the repeat of single elements: metrical bars or feet compose the line or verse; lines combine into stanzas; and stanzas fashioned after a common design succeed one another in progress to the end. Here again, the structure is not mechanical or arbitrary: each verse is measured to the turn of the thought; and the formal unity of the whole poem corresponds to the unity of mood or idea that the poem is framed to express.
The poets medium, or means of expression, is words. The painter works with color, the sculptor with form, the musician with tone. Color and form and tone are pleasurable in themselves, as sensations; they become beautiful and significant by force of what they may be made to express. So words in themselves also have a sensuous value. When used as instruments of beauty, they may add to the rhythmic structure of a poem the element of melody. This tonal quality is secured most easily and obviously by rhyme, which is perfect concord of vowel sounds together with the consonants following to complete the syllable, as in sight, night. Besides adding musical value to the phrase, rhyme, when adroitly managed, serves to define the pattern of the poem and to emphasize the meaning of the words in which it falls. Lesser components of the melodic element are assonance, alliteration, and tone-color. Assonance is the repetition of the same vowel sound within syllables, but with different consonants, as shape, mate. Alliteration is the agreement in sound of initial syllables, as in The lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain. Alliteration, combined with stress, is the essential verse-principle of Anglo-Saxon poetry; it is used to-day at the risk of obscuring the sense by overloading the ornament. The melodic quality of tone-color is more subtle; it is the suggestion of the meaning of the words by the tonal quality and value of their syllables, as in Sweet dimness of her loosened hairs downfall, where the slow change in vowel quality, , , , , seems to invest the image with a kind of penumbra of sound. These are the notes of the poets gamut; the master craftsman employs them with a just reticence to enhance the sensuous appeal of his art.
But poetry is not only emotional and sensuous in its appeal. By virtue of its medium of words, it is adaptedto an extent that the arts of painting, sculpture, and music are notto the expression of intellectual ideas. It gains in potency, however, in the measure that it phrases these ideas not in abstract terms but concretely. Words are not color or form, but they can suggest it by means of images. Emotion always has an object, which calls it out and represents it. The image in the word becomes the expression of the poets own feeling; and it is also the symbol and occasion to others of a like emotion. How much Wordsworths apostrophe to Duty gains in persuasion by the beauty of suggested images! So the idea embodies itself and becomes warm and vivid, rousing the hearers imagination to vision and kindling him to emotion. This evocative power of words is the secret of the poet, and is hardly to be analyzed. It attaches to the tonal beauty of their syllables, in themselves and in rhythmic combination; it derives from their vividness of image, and from the associations, both intellectual and emotional, which cling around them like an aroma and an exhalation.
Who can say wherein lies the witchery of this word-music! It can only be felt. In addition to the common meaning of its terms, therefore, language seems to have a further expressiveness. This new significance is the creation of the poet, wrought out of the familiar words by his cunning manipulation of them. The wonder of the poets craft is like the musicians,
That out of three sounds he frames, not a fourth sound, but a star.24
Poetic form rouses the whole being to sympathetic action by its rhythm; it delights the ear by its melodious tone; the logic of its coherent harmonic structure satisfies the mind; its word-images stimulate the imagination by their power of evocation. So poetry adds to fact its intellectual worth and all the emotional value inhering in it. Finally form and meaning become one. And most intimately so in lyric poetry. Here we feel that just this idea could not be expressed, just that emotion could not be communicated, in any other way. The essence and mystery of the song are in the singing.
A poem is a fragment of life rounded into momentary completeness. It compels the chaos of immediate sense impressions into forms of beauty, and so it builds a fairer world. It catches the rhythms that pulse at the mighty heart of things and weaves them into subtle and satisfying patterns; its verbal melodies waken in the soul dim echoes of the desired music of the spheres. It floods life with unaccustomed light. But it is illusion only in that it sees beyond the changing shows of nature and discerns the loveliness which the human spirit would fain believe is the vesture of the Eternal. Poetry is not illusion, but rather the express image of a higher reality. The poet would compass life and utterly possess it. Not as a patient observer of natures processes, not a passive spectator of the moving play of human fate, he loves what he beholds. To him, as to a lover, the world yields something of its secret. By force of imaginative, creative vision, he sees life in its wholeness, though but for an illumined moment. Emotion and insight fuse into an image of perfection. To the poet truth reveals itself as beauty. But the revelation is never finished. Therefore all great and true poetry is the utterance of an inspiration. It is the dream of a world ever realized and yet ever to be won. In the words of one of its prophets: Poetry is the first and last of all knowledgeit is as immortal as the heart of man.
Note 2. As illustrating the contrast in point of view of the work of the individual poet and of national poetry, it is interesting to compare the acute self-consciousness of Tennysons Ulysses (H.C., xlii, 977) with the downrightness of Homers hero. [back]