Lectures on the Harvard Classics. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
V. The English Anthology
By Carleton Noyes
THE ENGLISH ANTHOLOGY, contained in Volumes XL to XLII of The Harvard Classics, comprises a selection of representative poems in English from Chaucer to Walt Whitman, a period of about five hundred years. In the range and variety of subject and forms, these volumes bear eloquent witness to the manifold creative power of poetry. But the very abundance of their treasures suggests certain problems, at the same time that it offers material for their solution. What is the subject of poetry, and what the meaning of these varied forms? How shall the reader find his way to the poetry that is truly for him, and how may he win from it what it holds of present delight and of lasting service?
It is evident that the spirit of poetry, intensely real but elusive as a sky-born Ariel, may incarnate itself in many forms and wear a rainbow vesture. As indicated in the General Introduction, the shaping purpose of a poem is either the narrative interest or the lyric mood. But these two impulses are subject to wide modifications. The differences do not affect the character of each instance as poetry; to note them, however, furnishes a convenient formula of description and provides a clue to the fuller comprehension of the motive of a given poem.
When the poets interest lies in action, incident, and situation, his poem takes the form of narrative. When such a poem attains a certain magnitude, when the action is on a large scale, and the personages are of sufficient eminence and importance, it becomes an epic. The epic may be relatively primitive and single-hearted like the Iliad, the Odyssey,1 Beowulf,2 or the Nibelungenlied. It may still recite the deeds of heroes in an earlier golden prime and yet be the product of a conscious, highly elaborated literary art, like Virgils Æneid.3 Or again, while celebrating a lofty theme, it may be the deeply personal expression of the poets own interpretation of experience and the world, as with Dante and Milton. In lesser compass than the epic, a narrative poem, like the ballads4 or the more conscious poetical romances and tales,5 may range over the whole wide domain of mens adventures and fortunes, finding nothing human foreign to it.
Narrative thus stories forth the doings of others; the lyric rises out of oneself. And here again the scope is limitless. A lyric may phrase emotion in its purest essence: it is then the absolute lyric or song. The emotion, gathering about a simple little scene in nature, may utter itself briefly and beautifully in an idyl; conceived on a more extensive scale, a poem of rustic life, actual or feigned, becomes a pastoral.6 The passion of grief finds voice in the elegy.7 A lyric may mirror the large aspects of nature as colored by the poets feeling, and so it passes over into descriptive poetry. Sensuous elements may be subordinated to thought or to sympathy; and the poem so inspired expresses reflection and sentiment. Exaltation of thought and mood, moving through sustained and complex metrical form, finds a fitting medium in the ode.8Even wit and satire, if feeling mingle with the intellectual element, are not outside the scope of poetical expression, as in the epigram. Poetry alsoprovided only that it still be poetrymay be didactic. Although the true function of poetry, as of all art, is not to teach, but to interpret life beautifully, to touch the heart and kindle the whole being to heightened activity, yet a poem may voice moral ideas, as in Wordsworths Ode to Duty:
Stern lawgiver! yet thou dost wear
The Godheads most benignant grace;
Nor know we anything so fair
As is the smile upon thy face:
Flowers laugh before thee on their beds,
And fragrance in thy footing treads;
Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong;
And the most ancient Heavens, through thee, are fresh and strong.9
Out of the narrative interest, a primary instinct with men, and out of the interest, only gradually developed, in individual character for its own sake, is evolved a special literary form, called drama. Here the poet embodies his feelings and ideas in the persons of others. He no longer speaks for himself; he endows the figures of his creation or observation with an independent substantive life of their own. The narrative interest is still strong, for the dramatist shows his personages in action, but he allows them to work out their own destiny in accordance with the inner necessity of their natures. In the drama, then, the poets own criticism of life is implied rather than directly expressed. The drama, as a literary form, is a domain by itself. In so far as it is poetical, it does not differ essentially from other kinds of poetry, and the same principles hold true throughout all manifestations of the poetic spirit.
Distinctions of motive and form, though numerous and varied, are not to be emphasized for their own sake. These categories may be recognized in the large, but in concrete, single instances they tend to overlap and to intermingle. The narrative poem has another interest than the lyric, but it may be touched with the lyric passion; the drama is different from either and combines both. For the lover of poetry, however, it is not important to devise labels and apply them correctly. Classification suggests the arrangement of a museum. But poetry is a spirit, a living energy. We cannot imprison it in a definition. It calls for welcome and response.
In essence and in effect poetry is an interpretation of experience. A poem is an expression, in beautiful and significant form, of the poets passion to understand and to possess his world. But, though a poem embodies what some one man has thought and felt, we must not mistake the poets representative character nor fail to grasp the universalizing power of his work. The individual poet is but an instrument: he speaks for all men. So, in our turn, as we enter by imaginative sympathy into his mind and feeling, we re-create his experience in ourselves. The kind of poetry which finds us first is that which relates itself somehow to our immediate interests. Its appeal depends upon what we bring to it of our own knowledge and sensibility. We understand it because it phrases what we have ourselves perceived and felt, though vaguely. Thus it interprets our present lot, intensifying its quality and weaving its tangled threads into a satisfying pattern. The poetry which seems to beckon to us and is able to hold us longer is the figuring forth of experience, already ours in part, into which we may enter more abundantly; it helps us to take the step beyond. The poetry to which we finally make our waythe great things of all timeis the revelation of farther depths of insight, of unsounded depths of emotion. Such poetry as this compels us to its own temper and mood. It is not only revelation, it is creation; for out of the otherwise common things of life it builds a quite new world for our possession.
If we seek a standard by which to try the quality and value of a poem, we find it most immediately in our present need. But we must be sure that the need is real, not a passing caprice, that it is intrinsically and profoundly a part of our expanding life. That poem is truly for us, and so far good, which reveals beauty to us and some kind of significance; for it can thus sustain and nourish us and minister to our growth. But there is an objective standard as well. This is found first of all in the poets genuineness of feeling. Does the word exactly measure the emotion it is intended to express? Without this primary and underlying sincerity of purpose, all the graces of form and phrase cannot satisfy for long. Granted this sincerity, however, we may say that that greatest poetry is that which gathers into itself and radiates the most of reality, that which discloses the deepest insight into life, and is charged with the fullest intensity of emotion, matched by the greatest fitness and power of expression.
By the witchery of its music and the radiance of image, poetry may rightly give pleasure to a leisure moment. Apprehended in its deeper import, it may be one of the serious pursuits of life. To see the world poetically is itself a kind of success. Although some quiet spirits are content with the passive reception of beauty in nature and in art, yet the poetic interpretation of life is not incompatible with high moral endeavor, and may even be a stimulus to it, kindling in us a passionate ardor to know and to do. The revelation which poetry affords carries us beyond the enjoyment of the instant; as it leads us out into a more beautiful world, it brings us deeper into the true significance of things, and so it widens our spiritual horizon. As we see farther and feel more intensely, we are enabled more amply to understand the meaning of our own life in its relation to the whole.
The reading of poetry, therefore, helps toward the organization of experience. The ideal waits in the actual. It is the privilege of the poet, gifted with vision, to discern the ideal, and by the energy of creative phrase to summon it into warm and vivid reality. He marshals the fragments of experience into a harmony with which we may link up our own broken efforts; disclosing the inner meaning of our blind purposes, he brings them into a unity of direction and achievement. So he reveals us to ourselves. As the poet interprets it for us, the big scheme of things is seen to be more beautiful and more intelligible. In effect, the real appreciation of poetry is communion with the great souls of earth: In their struggles and their conquests we read the purpose of our own efforts and the aspiration of our hearts.
Yet the beauty and significance which perhaps we had missed without his leading the poet but restores to us after all. For the poet is not final; nor is poetry, with the appreciator, an end in itself. In the result it sends us back to life, to possess the world more abundantly in ourselves. It gives us, in terms of wide-ranging subject and in varied forms, the great moments of experience; but it is to make those moments intimately and wholly our own. We must love poetry, if we are to understand it: appreciation, therefore, is a discipline and a development. But if we are to win from poetry its deepest final meaning, we must actually live it. Though it has power to console, sustain, inspire, poetry is not a substitute for life, it is not an escape or refuge. Rather, it is a challenge to fuller living; and to that end it is a guide and a support.
Poetry is a fruition and a promise. Exhaustless and immortal, the spirit of poetry is ever conquering new beauty and new truth. So equally there is no limit set to what we may compass for ourselves in appreciation. Our enjoyment at any moment is the measure of our own capacity. Like the seas horizon, the bounds of poetry are traced only by the sweep of our vision. The oceans verge advances always before us with our progress; there is always an infinite which still awaits.
This day before dawn I ascended a hill and lookd at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of everything in them, shall we be filld and satisfied then?
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond.10