Bliss Carman, et al., eds. The Worlds Best Poetry. Volume I. Of Home: of Friendship. 1904.
Young People and the Poets
William Darnall MacClintock (18581936)
WHEN it comes to poetry all of us are equally young and gay. The only thing your older friend, the critic, has a right to do is to run ahead, calling and beckoning you to fine pleasures a little higher up or over the hill.
The poets write first of all not to teach us, but to give us pleasure. If you will read them happily you will like them, you will remember and delight to say over their great lines. They will take you to a bright, romantic world of interesting people and places, where everything is choice, well arranged, full of warmth, of color, of movement, and where even sad things are sweet. That is almost enough; for he who gives you joy wherein you know you are not abusing some sacred faculty nor taking joy from some one else, brings a gift into whose perfection you need not inquire.
By the imagination also poets take many bits of things they have seen, heard or felt, and build them into new wholes which they have never seen, yet which are beautiful and inspiring. These new creations always have some satisfying idea in them, as of things that might be or should be on earth, as showing justice or mercy at work, as delighting our sense of peace or beauty better than anything we have known, or as filled with charming people doing delightful things. Just above our human world there is made this new world, smaller but nearer our ideals, in which we live freely and happily.
We say, further, that it is by the imagination we spread the atmosphere of a gentle feeling over the face of a sharp image,as the golden light of evening over a clear but hard landscape. So it is with the artistic word sleep (noted by Ruskin) in Lorenzos exclamation:
Read the poets, then, because they fill your mind with these lively pictures, teach you to make them for yourselves, make you eager to create new wholeshouses, landscapes, creatures, people and their actionsand then make all these full of meaning and value for you. The poets world is a living, moving world, and you have living emotions toward it.
Best of all, the poets will train your imaginations, as well as arouse them into activity. It would be unfortunate if your imaginations should become merely fanciful, making up accidental, idle combinationslike those of a kaleidoscopewithout any truth or wisdom in them. These new creations of the imagination should have in each some principle of physical or human nature, should be consistent, presenting things you would like to see and handle. Now whatever the great poets build up has in it these qualities. When you read them much you will be delighted to see your mere childish games of fancy begin to give place for the new but real beings who do not walk the earth, and yet are of it. They make you, like the great inventors, constantly create new objects, yet always desire that these creations should please and serve mankind.
It is good to read and memorize poetry because it brings us so immediately into the presence of art and distinction. Too easily we grow limp and slovenly, doing things rather more or less, as Kipling says. Most of us must be taught, even urged, to do things in the best way, to speak, and write, and play, and work as perfectly as possible.
Loving beauty and making art, the poet is always trying to be perfect. His words are costly and very expressive, he wishes to waste nothing and never idly repeats himselfjust running on; how compact and orderly is his work; and after its outlines are well constructed how lovingly he carves and decorates each line!
Reading it, you are put in an elevated mood, you are tuned up. You at once speak more choicely, your manners improve, your work is more orderly, you are not pleased with coarse or merely foolish pleasures. This artistic mood is not something for artists only; it is for everybody, doing everything.
To be sure, it doesnt come at once and always stay with us. It can be easily scoffed out of the mind, and the lazy, slipshod ways come back. But read the great verses often and you will reap the spirit of art in all thingsthe spirit that elevates, that gives skill, that fascinates the mind with perfection.
Another splendid service poets perform is that of bringing you to a fresh, distant, enchanted land. They satisfy your longing for escape, for sea and land travel, for new scenes, for the heroic unknown. Reading them, your
Life, even to the happiest, is often tiresome, too full of work, having the same people and objects about us. Young people soon exhaustfor the momenttheir first pleasures in their homes, play, studies, their mates and even their dreams. Then, too, your instincts are drawing you out from yourselves, making you become part of other and richer worlds. You are not permitted to be a small, fixed, narrow soul. Hence these passions in you for things distant, for always learning something new,
This restless eagerness can become a disease, of course, leading to idle discontent. We must learn too the good that lies in lifes familiar face. But first of all we have a right to send our souls journeying with these poet-romancers to old times, to Spain and India, to romantic castles, to wild mountains and deep forests and wave-breaking sea-shores, to people even lovelier than smile upon us here.
Wordsworth thought that young people had a decided liking for a world loftier, more adorned, more highly colored, than that of their ordinary life, and that their expectation is always standing on tiptoe for
The poets do present us their pictures highly colored and adorned. They see things at their best, in their most typical states. Hence their pages glow with carvings, and colors, and decorations, and all minor beauties. They see many more details than duller mortals, and they point out many more dainty hues and patterns. The painter Turner once had a visitor who said to him of one of his pictures, Mr. Turner, I cant see anything in it. He replied, more sharply than kindly, Madam, dont you wish you could? When you dont see anything in a poets picture, ask yourself first if it isnt your fault, and so look more intently. If you have been in the woods in the deep summer night, you remember the breathing of the forest. How carefully a poet describes it when he says the tall oaks
At first this highly colored and decorated world may seem false, exaggerated, or merely invented by the poet. And of course some poets are artificial and untrue to any facts of life. But in all the poetry you will be asked to read, the poets are seeing and hearing what existsto their delicate senses. They idealize by seeing the rare, by rejecting the commonplace and meaningless, and they perceive with their feelings as well as with their physical organs. But so should all young people, taking care only that their scientific and historical training in accuracy keeps pace with their love of poetry. The poets, therefore, make a world of beauty, and they make you aware of beauty all about you,in every human face and motion, as all the forests and places of flowers, in the sky by day and night, and on the shores of oceans and riversas Wordsworth expresses it, they show you beauty an hourly neighbour.
Then too the poets are hopeful, they make us feel happy over the something evermore about to be. With them we seem to be always travelling or moving up to higher forms of life, or expecting the nobler man and society yet to be. Reading them you do not lose heart, which is fine tonic for your soul just at the time when your childs dreams begin to have hard sledding in the roads of the world.
You doubtless have many emotions, you are sometimes swept by waves of passion, like a water by a strong wind. But you need to have feelings about more people and aspects of nature, about institutions and ideas. It is a small or an uninstructed mind which has only a few matters about which it has lively feelings. Hence it grows narrow, prejudiced, and intemperate. Poets take you about a wide and lovely world, they introduce you to hosts of delightful people, they make you love the common life and things near you, they set before you splendid heights of character which you admire and wish to climb. About all this they are never indifferent, but state all as having real valueslove of good and fear of evil.
Particularly they arouse genuine feeling in you about the rare new things you have never seen. Hence they fill you with expectation and make you wish to know more and more of life. But, just as much, they make you sensitive to the beauty and good of things familiar. Browning says the artists make us love things we have passed perhaps a hundred times, nor cared to see, that
Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.
Browning: Fra Lippo Lippi.
Then too we have often cheap or coarse feelings about our daily environment. We need to have it all elevated, made to feel solid and bright and admirable. Look at the next pool of water you pass in the street: you can see it just as an ugly puddle, or, if you will select what you see, you can have a wonderful brown mirror with pictures of romantic colors and shapes. Whatever they are to others, let your father to your own heart be Father, your home be Home, your work be Joy. This, great poets will teach you to doto select, to idealize, to fill with meaning all your world.
The feelings you have are probably strong, sometimes wild and hard to control. They make you say great, rash, weedy words. How can you so refine them that they are in control, that you are satisfied with them when you speak?
The first way is by having many feelings. They balance and refine one another. If, for example, you have feelings of respect for other nations, the love for your own country will not rush into foolish, raw, unjust patriotism.
Then, you most come to feel more delicately about smaller objects, more quiet colors, and less striking people. At first we see and love high colors, big and very active things, and those irregular and strange. But the artists calm us down, make us subtle, show us smaller beauties, and so refine our feelings.
The poets especially help us to express our feelings. You know that the language of emotion is naturally exaggerated. You remember how violent and unmanageable yours sometimes is even when you feel nobly and wish to speak to make others love you. Well, the poets have choice words, and figures, and images. These make good channels for our strong feelings to run in, so that we can convey them to others without distressing them. If you will memorize many poems, the words and phrases become like lovely melodies of musicians, forms into which your emotions delight to flow, and always at your call.
Every young person should delight in the music of such words,pleasant-sounding words in themselves and more so when set in lines with others. There are two things to accomplish here: first, to train our own speech and make it soft, and low, and full, and vibrant, like a wonderful musical instrument. Nothing shows more certainly a cultivated and experienced person than such a musical throat. And secondly, to train the ear to take pleasure in words set in tuneful order,the bright, or large, or rapid, or stately rhythms of great poets. To do this at least three matters must be observed:
You must read aloud. All other musical instruments must appeal to the earwe cannot see music in them. So must the human throat. To read with the eye only is to miss this first, most significant art of the poethis singing, his musical words. Read all your poetry with free open throat, as if you were singing it.
Do not read too loud nor too fast. Either bad practice strains the voice, spoils the poets music and ideas, and gets us into singsong. You need to develop your deep chest tones, your quiet, gentle, tender sounds, rather than your high, hard headtones.
Thinking happily about the poets ideas or his pictures and situations, you will let your voice rise or fall, hurry or go slow, be tender or severe, naturally. When you read poetry, expect not to be lazy and merely indulgent, but to think with your poet, put yourself in his situations and seek carefully for the beauty that lies in his full lines.
To get the greatest joy from poetry, you must croon over the lines and stanzas, sing them, recite them as you walk about. That s the way Burns wrote his fine songs, and Tennyson also used constantly to recite his poems, writing them with his ear as well as his eye.
As you already know, language is the chief means we have for expressing our ideas and communicating with our fellows. We can express ourselves in many other wayspictures and sculpture, buildings, music, hand-work, gesture, machines; and we are free in our day to use any and all of these. Still, language remains the quickest, most universal of all. How vastly important then that this instrument should be perfect, as large and flexible as our souls!
Now the poets, of all men, care most for their words. These are to them as the tools to the builder, the violin to the player, the color-box to the painter. If you will let them, they will give you a rich storehouse of words, making your speech both refined and strong.
As said before, they study musical words and have nice ears for the combination of sounds; from this you learn pleasant-sounding words. And they also are most skilful in fitting sounds to ideas, so that the words help to express the things they name. Hear these artistic fittings of word to thing:
I chatter over stony ways,
In little sharps and trebles:
I bubble into eddying bays,
I babble on the pebbles
Tennyson: The Brook
where some words and lines suggest the high note of a shallow, running water, and others the low sounds of deep places; and this:
Again, you will notice that poets love rare words, seldom heard in common speech. This is because they love the rare things expressed. Listening to them, you also are surrounded by uncommon objects and peoples; and romance, the fairy world, the distant and unworn things, splendid deeds and the feelings that go with them, are all your hourly neighbors.
The great poets, also, love exact words, to name very accurate shades and aspects of things. And when single words will not answer, they understand how to combine words into phrases and choose delicate modifiers. They dislike vagueness even when they talk about indistinct objects; and if they see and hear slight differences among things they must have words to express them. They will train you therefore in discriminating, in being particular. You know how often you say, I know or I feel it, but I cant say it. The more you read good poetry the less often you will make that remark.
Then, too, many feelings that are vague in themselves cannot be directly expressed, but must be suggested, hinted at, said indirectly. Hence poets invent many figures for suggesting to us what would be unclear or weak. See this beautiful one about the things that will help to cure the spirit of fighting in mans heart:
Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soiled world.
Pope said that reading poetry was profitable because verse was more compact than prose and more easily carried by the memory, and that the binding together of short lines into stanzas by rhyme also helped in remembering the ideas expressed. Never forget that when you are young you memorize easily and what you then learn, you keep; it will not be so as you grow in years. You are to be envied if some parent or teacher, or, better, your own happy choice, is urging you to memorize many lines of noble poetry. You have stored away in your consciousness beautiful, true, and solving ideas. These float into your mind when you most need them,to speak nobly to your fellows, to thwart some unhappy temptation, to feed the mind with wholesome thoughts when it must otherwise live upon rubbish. Suppose you were lying in vacant or pensive mood, and this bright picture of Launcelot should flash into your mind:
Here, then, are beautiful pictures, romantic situations, noble philosophy, in just the best condition to be grasped by your ready memories and stored up for enriching the mind, for refining you by being at the very fountain of your emotions, and for making you efficient when you confer with others.
We grow by what we admire, and nothing more sad could be said of you than these swift words of the poet:
Not to admire was all the art she knew.
Where, then, will you get ideal things to admire, to imitate, to grow toward? You will get them first from things and people about you, and happy are you if you have near you a friend, a parent, a heroic man or woman of affairs or social activity, who is ideal to you. Most fortunate are you if you have learned to see ideals of life working themselves out in society just about youyour home, school, church, or city. Oftenest, these ideals are stated for us in our books. Here exist pictures of people and their ways more ideal than those shown by daily life, or put in such surroundings and made to do such deeds as render the ideals they stand for easier to be seen. Here are things shown as they might or ought to or will be; here things are active, warm, complete, and beautiful.
They cut away the commonplace features of life and let the rare, the perfect ones stand out alone. All men have ideal moments when their motives and actions are fine, expressive of their best selves. These the poets portray and simply leave unmentioned the other sordid or merely plain matters that go to make up the actual men.
They heighten or even exaggerate the ideal aspects of life. This, at times, makes the artist seem false to us because we know the people and their deeds on their ordinary levels. But we soon learn to read for the splendid enthusiasm produced in us by these ideal characters and circumstances, and learn to interpret the actual world in terms of this ideal one lying above.
Ideals are created by selecting from different people, different institutions, different actions, their best qualities and combining them into new, sometimes strange but still possible, beings or deeds.
Here among the ideals is lifted up before you some Hector or Achilles for bravery, some Odysseus for cunning and love of adventure, some King Arthur for courtesy and nobleness of soul, some Crusoe for self dependence when thrown on his own resources, some Galahad for purity and for devotion to great causes. They are rare creations, but not too good for this earth, and you are inspired by their examples.
Just as much, another fine group show you how to regard the daily life of work and play, of simple people and simple things, so that they seem delightful, the very best possible, the ideal at work. They steady you, they inspire and satisfy you, and the ideal society is before your eyes because you have learned to see and select it in lifes familiar face.
Now among all peoples the poets have seen and taught the highest ideals. They dislike the sordid and ill-done, the wasteful, and all ugliness. Their dreams and pictures are often far ahead of what men have attained to, and the lazy or indulgent people call the poets mere dreamers. But so are great inventors, and discoverers, and prophets,all of them creators of better things yet to be. They are noble teachers whenever their dreams are possible for men, however difficult or far off the accomplishment.
Then finally, poetry makes us believe in life and the world. You are just at the age when it often seems that dreams do not come true; when you meet many disappointments, when others hurt your feelings, when conditions seem too hard for your ideals to become actual, when you hear of so many unlovely people. But, just
The great poets give you things to love, they make you believe in goodness and they portray our old earth as a brave good place to live and work in. In their pages, in spite of all that seems evil and all that is so, good men triumph at last, for
The solutions they offer you are not worldly pay or success, not freedom from pain or work, but beautylike the dawn of a sweet May morning: and peacelike waters on starry nights: and companionshiplike a good friend for a walk in the woods: and the love of Godthat friend that sticketh closer than a brother: and the sense of a never-ending life.
8. Write a good deal of verse yourself (not for publication). It will make you choice in pleasant, accurate, suggestive words: it will make you look for lovely things and deep truth; it will give you feelings of distinction in that you express your ideas in the most perfect form you can command.