Bliss Carman, et al., eds. The Worlds Best Poetry. Volume VII. Descriptive: Narrative. 1904.
What s the Use of Poetry?
Richard Le Gallienne (18661947)
And idly tuneful, the loquacious throng
Flutter and twitter, prodigal of time,
And little masters make a toy of song
Till grave men weary of the sound of rhyme.
WILLIAM WATSON, in Wordsworths Grave.
THERE is no doubt that manyone might almost say mostpeople are firmly convinced that they do not care for poetry. They have no use for it, they tell you. Either it bores them, as a fantastic, highflown method of saying something that, to their way of thinking, could be better said in plain prose, or they look upon it as the sentimental nonsense of the moonstruck and lovesick young,a kind of intellectual candy all very well for women and children, but of no value to grown men with the serious work of the world on their shoulders.
It is not at all difficult to account for, and, indeed, to sympathize with, this attitude. To begin with, of course, there is a large class outside our present consideration which does not care for poetry, simply because it does not care for any literature whatsoever.
Serious reading of any kind does not enter into its scheme of life. Beyond the newspapers and magazines and an occasional novel of the hour, idly taken up and indifferently put aside, it has no literary needs. With this listless multitude we have not to concern ourselves, but rather with that sufficiently heterogeneous body known as the reading public, the people for whom Mr. Carnegie builds libraries, and the publishers display their wares. Of course, among these there must necessarily be a considerable percentage temperamentally unappreciative of poetry,just as there are numbers of people born with no ear for music, and numbers, again, born with no color-sense. The lover of poetry is no less born than the poet himself. Yet, as the poet is made as well as born, so is his reader; and there are many who really love poetry without knowing it, but who think they do not care for it,either because they have contracted a wrong notion of what poetry is, or because they have some time or other made a bad start with the wrong kind.
I am convinced that one widespread provocative of the prevailing impression of the foolishness of poetry is the mediocre magazine verse of the day. In an age when we go so much to the magazines for our reading, we may rely on finding there the best work being done in every branch of literature exceptthe highest. The best novelists, the best historians, and the best essayists write for the magazines; but the best poets must be looked for in their high-priced volumes, and a magazine reader must rely for his verse on lady amateurs and tuneful college boys. Thus he too often approaches poetry not through the great masters, but throughthe little misses; and he forms his naturally contemptuous notion of poetry from feeble echoes and insipid imitations. No wonder, therefore, that he should refuse to waste his good eyesight on anything in the shape of verse, and should conceive of poetry as a mild mental dissipation for young ladies, a sickly sweetmeat made of molasses and moonshine.
If the magazine editors of the world would only bind themselves to publish no verse except the best, and, failing to obtain a contemporary supply of the best, would fill their spare corners of space with reprints of the old fine things, I am convinced that they would do a great deal toward rectifying this widespread misconception of an art which, far from being trivial and superficial, is, of all the arts, the most serious and most vitally human. I am not saying that all poetry is for all readers. There is a section of poetry which has been called poets poetry, which, of necessity, can appeal only to those in whom the sense of beauty and verbal exquisiteness has become specialized. Spenser and Keats, for example, are poets of the rainbow. For the average reader their poems are the luxuries rather than the necessities of literature,though, in making a distinction so rough and ready, it must not be forgotten that beauty, happily, is becoming more and more a general necessity; nor must it be forgotten, either, that rainbows, refined and remote as they are, belong also to the realities. It is the reality of poetry that I wish, if possible, to bring home to readers in this article. Some flowers, says George Meredith, have roots deep as oaks. Poetry is one of those flowers, and, instead of its being a superficial decoration of life, it is, rightly understood, the organic expression of lifes deepest meaning, the essence in words of human dreams and human action. It is the truth of life told beautifully,and yet truthfully.
There is only one basis for the longevity of human forms. That basis is reality. No other form of human expression has continued with such persistent survival from the beginning until now as poetry,from The Iliad to The Absent-Minded Beggar. It and the wild flowers, for all their adventurous fragility, are as old, and no less stable, than the hills, and for the same reason,because they are no less real. The world is apt to credit prose with a greater reality than poetry; but the truth is that the prose of life is real only in proportion as it is vitalized by that spirit of poetry that breathes in all created things. Life exacts practical reasons for the survival of all its forms of expression, and, unless poetry served some practical purpose of existence, it would long since have perished. It is because poetry has a practical work to do in the world that it continues, and will continue, to exist; because it is one of the motive forces of the universe,lifes motive meaning, one might almost say,the nerve force of existence. A great man has defined it as the finer spirit of all knowledge, and the phrase, though limited, may help us to a broader and deeper apprehension of poetry, and help us to say, too, that poetry is the finer spirit of all impulse, the finer meaning of all achievement. There is no human interest desiring to be displayed in all its essential vividness that does not realize the value of a poetical expression.
Those who would depreciate the power of poetry in the sternest practical affairs have only to be reminded how much modern imperialism owes to Rudyard Kipling; and it is by no means trivial to remark that the most successful advertisements have been in verse. So soon as poetry, so called, really is poetry, its appeal is immediately admitted and its force undeniably felt. It is the false poets who account for the false ideas of poetry. One has only to confront a practical man with the real thing to convince him that, without realizing it, he has cared a great deal about poetry all his life. Probably he has imagined that this great stumbling-block has been the verse. Why not say it in plain English? he has impatiently exclaimed,thinking all the time of bad verse, of lifeless, contorted rhyming, and of those metrical inanities of the magazines; and yet, when you bring him a verse that is really alive, in which the metre is felt to be the very life-beat of the thought, you dont find him asking to have it turned into prose. How about Mandalay in prose, for example, or that old bugle-call of Scotts?
Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
To all the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name
or Tennysons Tears, idle tears, or Coleridges
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things, both great and small;
For the dear God, who loveth us,
He made and loveth all
or The quality of mercy is not strained, or Under the greenwood tree, or Mr. Swinburnes
In all these cases the verse is immediately felt to be the very life of the expression,for the reason that it echoes in words the life-rhythms to which, unconsciously, all such human emotions keep time. Say it in prose! Can you say a trumpet in prose, or a tear, or a butterfly? If you can, your prose is really poetry, and will be found to be eloquent with sunken rhythms, not immediately obvious to the ear and eye.
The first thing to realize about poetry is that the metre is the meaning,even more than the words, In Tennysons sad Tears, idle tears, for example, it is not so much the words that are accountable for the wistful sorrow of the general effect as the sad, rain-like melody mysteriously charging the words with sorrow, like some beautiful interpretative voice; and it is this subtly mimetic quality, endlessly adaptable, which is the raison dêtre of metre, and the secret of its power over mankind.
Perhaps it may help us to attempt here a definition of poetry,though it is a bold, even foolhardy thing to do, for there has never yet been a definition of poetry that satisfied any one but the man who made it. We may recall one fashionable in its day,Matthew Arnolds Poetry is a criticism of life. That a poet should have made such a harrowing definition is amazing, though one, of course, understands it, in the light of the fact that the inspiration of Matthew Arnolds muse was almost entirely that of a philosophical criticism of life. Far from being a criticism of life, poetry is much more like a re-creation of it. It is lifein words. But let me timidly launch my own definition:
There is a motive idealism behind all human action of which most of us are unconscious, or to which we ordinarily give but little thought, a romance of impulse, which is the real significance of human effort. The walls of Thebes were built to music, according to the old story,but so were the walls of every other city that has ever been built. The sky-scrapers of New York are soaring to music also,a masterful music of the future, which not all can hear, and of which, perhaps, the music-makers themselves are most ignorant of all. Once more, in Emersons immortal phrase, the builders are building better than they know,these ruthless speculators and stern business men, who are the last to suspect themselves of the poetry which they involuntarily serve.
Human life, in the main, is thus unconsciously poetical, and moves to immortal measures of a mysterious spiritual music. It is this impassioned exaltation, this strange rhythm, this spiritual beauty,the finer spirit of life,which the poet seizes on and expresses, and therewith also that pathos which seems to inhere in all created things. We read him because he gives that value of life which we feel belongs to it, but for which we are unable to find the words ourselves. How often one has heard people say, on reading a poem: Why, that is just what I have always felt, but could never express!and the exclamation was obviously a recognition of the truth of the poem. The poet had made a true observation, and recorded it with all the vividness of truth. It is the business of the poet to be all the time thus recording, and re-creating, life in all its manifestations, not only for those who already possess something of the poetic vision, yet lack the poetic utterance, but also for those who need to be awakened to the ideal meanings and issues of life. Poetry is thus seen to be a kind of lay religion, revealing and interpreting the varied beauty and nobility of life.
But a better way than theorizing to show the usethe sweet usesof poetry is to call up the names of some of the great poets, and ponder what they have meant, and still mean, in the life of humanity,Dante, Milton, and Wordsworth, for example, and to them we might add Tennyson, Browning, and Matthew Arnold. How much these six poets alone have meant to the graver life of humanity: the life of religion, of thought, of conduct! Particularly with regard to the four poets of the last century we are compelled to note how, far more than any professed teachers and thinkers, they were the teachers and thinkers of their age, and did indeed mould the thought of their century. For how many have Wordsworths Prelude, Tennysons In Memoriam, Brownings Rabbi Ben Ezra, and Matthew Arnolds Empedocles been literally sacred books, books of daily exercise and meditation,to name only a few of their more typical poems. They are well worn to-day, but think what forces in the world these lines of Wordsworth have been:
These lines, and many more like them that one could quote, have done definite spiritual service for mankind, have inspired countless men and women with new faith, new hope, and new fortitude, and will remain permanent springs of sustenance for the human spirit.
Again, the mere mention of such names as Goethe, Byron, and Shelley carries with it their tremendous significance in the practical life of the modern world. When we think of such figures as occur over and over again in the history of poetry, we realize that Tennysons one poor poets scroll that shook the world was no mere boyish inflation of the poets mission. That sad musical poet, Arthur OShaughnessy, said no more than the truth when he sang,in verse like the motion of moonlight on water:
To realize what a sheerly political force poetry has been in America alone one has only to recall the poems of Whittier and Lowell, Poe and Longfellow, and Julia Ward Howes immortal Battle Hymn of the Republic.
But, apart from such strenuous and stern services, how many other services no less valuable has poetry rendered to mankind,services of joy and universal sympathy! The poet, often so sad himself, sings all mens joys and sorrows as if they were his own, and there is nothing that can happen to us, nothing we can experience, no stroke of fate, and no mood of heart or mind that we can not find expressed and interpreted for us somewhere in some poets book. Take but one poet,Robert Burns, for instance,and think of the immense addition to the sum total of human pleasure and human consolation that his handful of Scotch songs has made. Who asks, What s the use of poetry? when he joins in Auld Lang Syne, and feels his heart stirred to its tearful depths with the sentiment of human brotherhood, and the almost tragic dearness of friends. And who that has ever been in love has not once in his life felt the brotherly hand of a fellow experience in
Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met,or never parted,
We had neer been broken-hearted,
and been consoled somehow with that mysterious consolation which belongs to the perfect expression of sorrow?
If the simple songs of a Scotch peasant have been of so much use to the world, what of that lordly pleasure-house of Shakespeare? Think of the boundless universe of mere delight that has written over its door, The Works of Shakespeare,the laughter, the wisdom, the beauty, the all-comprehending humanity.
If it be of no use to make men happy, to quicken in them the joy of life, to heighten their pleasures, to dry their tears, to bind up their wounds; if it be of no use to teach them wisdom, to open their eyes, to purify and direct their spirits, to gird them to fight, to brace them to endure, to teach them to be gentle, then, indeed, we may ask, What s the use of poetry? but, while poetry can do all these things, I think it must be allowed by the most practical that it has a very important part to play in the work of the world.
To end, as I began, with that practical man who imagines that he does not care for poetry, I gave one or two explanations of his distaste,but there is one other important one that must not be forgotten. He begins too often with Paradise Lost,I mean that he too often attempts some tough classic, before he is ready for it, and, because he cannot read Milton with pleasure, imagines that he does not care for poetry at all. Thus he finds himself bewildered by the insipid magazine muses on the one hand and the unscalable immortals on the other. Too many make the famous Mr. Boffins mistake of beginning the study of English literature with Gibbons Decline and Fall; and what wonder if a man beginning the study of English poetry with Brownings Sordello should imagine, like Douglas Jerrold in the story, either that his mind was failing him, or that there was something radically wrong with the poet! Actually a man may love poetry very deeply, and care nothing at all for Paradise Lost. He may also find nothing for him in Homer or Æschylus or Dante or Goethe. The great architectural works of such masters may seem too godlike and grim for his gentler human need. But give him a handful of violets from Ophelias grave, or a bunch of Herricks daffodils, or take him out under the sky where Shelleys lark is singing, or try him with a lyric of Heines, or some ballad of
The mistake is in thinking that all poetry is for all readers. On the contrary, the realm of poetry is as wide as the world, for the very reason that each man may find there just what he needs, and leave the rest. The thing is to discover the poetry that was meant for us, and perhaps the best way to do that is to turn over the pages of some well-made selection, and see where our eyes yet caught and held. Palgraves Golden Treasury is, of course, the classical anthology, a little volume filled with the purest gold of English lyrical poetry.1 If a man should read in that for an hour, and find nothing to his taste, it is to be feared that he was born deaf to the sweet rippling of the Pierian spring. But, as I have said, I believe that few have been so hardly treated by nature. A poet died young in every one of us, said some one. I think he did not so much die as fall asleep, nor is he so fast asleep but that the right song sung right would awaken him.
Note 1. The Golden Treasury, when it was publishedmore than forty years agowas certainly the finest anthology that had been made in England; and it still holds its place as a very choice collection of British poetssmall and select. [back]