Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
Prose as a Means of Expression
By Henry Reed (18081854)
[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1808. Perished in the foundered steamship Arctic, 1854. Lectures on English Literature. 1855.Revised Edition. 1876.]
THE PROSE literature leads us along into the region of actual truth, that which has manifested itself in action, in deeds, in historic events, in biographic incidents. It tells us what men have done, and said, and suffered, or it reasons on the capacity for action and for passion, and so it gives power to the mind, in making us the better know ourselves and our fellow-beings. But most inadequate are his conceptions of truth who thinks it has no range beyond the facts and outward things which observation and research and argument ascertain. Beneath all the visible and audible and tangible things of the worlds history, there lies the deeper region of silent, unseen, spiritual truththat which was shadowed forth in action, and yet the action, which to some minds seems everything, is but the shadow, and the spirit is the reality. The experience of any ones own mind may teach the inadequacy of mere actual truth. Has not every one felt, at the time when any deep emotion stirred him, or any lofty thought animated him, what imperfect exponents of such emotion or thought his words or actions are? Nay, the more profound and sacred the affection, how it shrinks from any outward shape, as too narrow and superficial for it! Is it not in your daily consciousness to recognize the presence of emotions, yearnings, aspirations of your spiritual nature, which baffle expression, even if you wished to bring them forth from the recess of silencemotions of the soul which word nor deed do justice to? Do you not know that there are sympathies, affinities with our fellow-beings, and with the external world of sight and sound, which pass beyond the reach of argument or common speech? So true is it, that there are powers,
This whole range of subjects, of deepest moment in the science of humanity, belongs to the imaginative portion of literature, toward which the prose literature is always tending, whenever it approaches the deep and spiritual and mysterious parts of human nature. When Mr. Lockhart, at the conclusion of his admirable biography of Sir Walter Scott, devotes a chapter to a delineation of Scotts character, with all his familiarity with his subject and his powers as an author, he prefaces his attempt with this remark: Many of the feelings common to our nature can only be expressed adequately, and some of the finest can only be expressed at all, in the language of art, and more especially in the language of poetry. When Arnold, in his History of Rome, portrays the character of Scipio, and especially that deep religious spirit in it which baffled the ancient historiansfeeling the inadequacy of his effort in dealing with characters which, like Scipios and the Protector Cromwells, are the wonders of history, he adds, the genius which conceived the incomprehensible character of Hamlet would alone be able to describe with intuitive truth the character of Scipio, or of Cromwell. Now observe how two authors, of the finest powers in these two high departmentsbiography and historyafter carrying those powers to the farthest, profess their sense of how much remains unaccomplished, and, moreover, their conviction that all of higher or deeper achievement which lies beyond is left to poetry, or left to silence; not that it is less true or less real, but because there is truth which prose can never reach totruth to which a form can be given only by imagination and art, whether using the instrument of words, the pencil, or the chiselthe hand of poet, of painter, or of sculptor. We ought to remember, then, that when we let imaginative studies drop out of our habits of reading, we neglect a whole region of truth and reality which the highest prose authority acknowledges itself unequal to.
The propensity to partial prose reading is attended with further loss, inasmuch as it not only separates us from much of the highest truth human nature can hold communion with, but it makes one lose the finest and deepest-reaching discipline our spiritual being is capable of. Two thousand years ago, the great philosopher of criticism gave his well-known theory of tragic poetry, that it purifies our feelings through terror and pity. But in the large compass of its power, poetry employs also other and kindlier agencies of good. It deals with us in the spirit of the most sagacious morality: it does not single out this or that faculty, and tutor the one till it grows weary or stubborn, or stupid under the narrow teaching and the dull iteration, but it addresses good sense (which true poetry is never heedless of), the intellect, the affections, and what has been well called the great central power of imagination, which brings all the other faculties into harmonious action. Instead of ministering to the mind diseased or the mind enfeebled one drug, or hard, unvaried food, it carries poor suffering humanity to the seaside, or up to the mountain-tops, for the larger contemplation which leads to infinity, and for the health and strength and life of sublimer and purer thoughts and feelings. Were it possible to fathom the mystery which dwells in the serious eyes of infancy, we should learn, I believe, that nature leads the young spirit on to its sense of truth through wonderment and faith; and we do know how the imagination of childhood puts forth its powers into the region of the marvellous, the distant, the shadowy, and the infinite,Robinson Crusoes lonely island, the Arabian wonders, fairy fictions, fables without the morals, which are skipped with better wisdom than they were put there, or travels in far-off lands. These things wear away as the work of life comes on, and, unhappily, the loving, faithful, imaginative spirit wears away too. The imagination is suffered to grow torpid, instead of being cultivated into a wiser activity, and our souls become materialized and sophisticated. There is enough in life to make us practical, but what we more need is to study how to be wisely visionary, to carry the freshness and feelings of childhood (and this has been said to be a characteristic of genius) into the mature reason.