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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Future of American Poetry
By Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908)
 
From ‘Poets of America’

THERE are questions that come home to one who would aid in speeding the return of “the Muse, disgusted at” the “age and clime.” Can I, he asks, be reckoned with the promoters of her new reign? Yes, it will be answered, if your effort is in earnest, and if you are in truth a poet. To doubt of this is almost the doubt’s own confirmation. The writer to whom rhythmic phrases come as the natural utterance of his extremest hope, regret, devotion, is a poet of some degree. At the rarest crises he finds that, without and even beyond his will, life and death and all things dear and sacred are made auxiliary to the compulsive purpose of his art; just as in the passion for science, as if to verify the terrible irony of Balzac and Wordsworth, the alchemist will analyze his wife’s tears, the Linnæan will botanize upon his mother’s grave:—
  “Alas, and hast thou then so soon forgot
  The bond that with thy gift of song did go—
  Severe as fate, fixed and unchangeable?
Dost thou not know this is the poet’s lot!”
  1
  If when his brain is in working humor, its chambers filled with imaged pageantry, the same form of utterance becomes his ready servant, then he is a poet indeed. But if he has a dexterous metrical faculty, and hunts for theme and motive,—or if his verse does not say what otherwise cannot be said at all,—then he is a mere artisan in words, and less than those whose thought and feeling are too deep for speech. The true poet is haunted by his gift, even in hours of drudgery and enforced prosaic life. He cannot escape it. After spells of dejection and weariness, when it has seemed to leave for ever, it always, always returns again,—perishable only with himself.  2
  Again he will ask, What are my opportunities? What is the final appraisement of the time and situation? We have noted those latter-day conditions that vex the poet’s mind. Yet art is the precious outcome of all conditions: there are none that may not be transmuted in its crucible. Science, whose iconoclasm had to be considered, first of all, in our study of the Victorian period, has forced us to adjust ourselves to its dispensation. A scientific conflict with tradition always has been in progress, though never so determinedly as now. But the poet and artist keep pace with it, even forestall it, so that each new wonder leads to greater things, and the so-called doom of art is a victorious transition:—
  “If my bark sinks, ’tis to another sea.”
  3
  As to material conditions, we find that the practical eagerness of the age, and of our own people before all, has so nearly satisfied its motive as to beget the intellectual and æsthetic needs to which beauty is the purveyor. As heretofore in Venice and other commonwealths, first nationality, then riches, then the rise of poetry and the arts. After materialism and the scientific stress, the demands of journalism have been the chief counter-sway to poetic activity. But our journals are now the adjuvants of imaginative effort in prose and verse: the best of them are conducted by writers who have the literary spirit, and who make room for ideal literature, even if it does not swell their lists so rapidly as that of another kind. The poet can get a hearing; our Chattertons need not starve in their garrets: there never was a better market for the wares of Apollo; their tuneful venders need not hope for wealth, but if one cannot make his genius something more than its own exceeding great reward, it is because he mistakes the period, or scorns to address himself fitly to his readers. Finally, criticism is at once more catholic and more discriminating than of old. Can it make a poet, or teach him his mission? Hardly; but it can spur him to his best, and point out the heresies from which he must free himself or address the oracle in vain.  4
  Such being our opportunities, we have seen that the personal requirements are coequal, and their summing-up may well be the conclusion of the whole matter. Warmth, action, genuine human interest, must vivify the minstrel’s art: the world will receive him if he in truth comes into his own. Taste and adroitness can no longer win by novelty. Natural emotion is the soul of poetry, as melody is of music: the same faults are engendered by overstudy of either art; there is a lack of sincerity, of irresistible impulse, in both the poet and the composer. The decorative vogue has reached its lowest grade,—that of assumption for burlesque and persiflage; just as Pre-Raphaelitism, at first a reform in art, extended to poetry, to architecture, to wall decoration, to stage-setting, finally to the dress of moonstruck blue-stockings and literary dandies. What has been gained in new design will survive. But henceforth the sense of beauty must have something “far more deeply interfused,”—the ideal, which, though not made with hands of artificers, is eternal on the earth as in the heavens, because it is inherent in the soul. There is also one prerequisite, upon which stress was laid by Dr. Storrs, in his application to modern art of Goethe’s reservation as to the worth of certain engravings: “Still something is wanting in all these pictures,—the Manly…. The pictures lack a certain urgent power,” etc. Culture, I have said, will make a poet draw ahead of his unstudious fellows; but the resolve born of conviction is needed to sustain the advance. The lecturer rightly declared that only “courageous work will suit America, whose race is essentially courageous and stoical.” Our keynote assuredly should be that of freshness and joy; the sadness of declining races only, has the beauty of natural pathos. There is no cause for morbidly introspective verse—no need, I hope, for dilettanteism—in this brave country of ours for centuries to come.  5
  I think, too, we may claim that there is no better ideal of manhood than the American ideal, derived from an aggregation of characteristic types. Our future verse should be more native than that of the past, in having a flavor more plainly distinct from the motherland. Not that our former contingent misrepresented the America of its time. Even Longfellow’s work, with so much of imported theme and treatment, conveyed a sentiment that came, say what we will, from no foreign source. The reason that a decidedly autochthonous kind was not then proffered, unless by Whitman, was that a distinction between the conditions of England and America was not more strongly established. Since the War our novitiate has ended. We welcome home productions; our servility of foreign judgment has lessened, and we apply with considerable self-poise our own standards of criticism to things abroad. We have outlived the greed of childhood that depends on sustenance furnished by its elders; and are far indeed from the senile atrophy which also must borrow to recruit its wasting powers. Our debt to acute foreign critics is none the less memorable. They, in truth, were the first to counsel us that we should lean upon ourselves; to insist that we ought at least to escape Old World limitations,—the first to recognize so heartily anything purely American, even our sectional humor, as to bring about our discovery that it was not necessarily “a poor thing,” although our “own.”  6
  It is agreed that sectional types, which thus have lent their raciness to various productions, are subsidiary to the formation of one that shall be national. A character formed of mingling components must undergo the phases of defective hybridity; our own is just beginning to assume a coherence that is the promise of a similar adjustment in art. As local types disappear there may be special losses, yet a general gain. The lifting of the Japanese embargo was harmful to the purity of the insular art, but added something to the arts of the world at large. Even now our English cousins, seeking for what they term Americanism in our literature, begin to find its flavor stealthily added to their own….  7
  Our people have blundered from isolation: confront them with the models of older lands and they quickly learn to choose the fit and beautiful; and the time is now reached when the finest models are widely attainable. Secondly, our inheritance is a language that is relatively the greatest treasure-house of the world’s literature: at once the most laconic and the most copious of tongues, the sturdiest in its foundations of emotion and utility, the most varied by appropriation of synonyms from all languages, new and old; the youngest and most occidental of the great modes of speech, steadily diffusing itself about the globe, with no possible supplanter or successor except itself at further stages of maturity; finally, elastic and copious most of all in the land which adds to it new idioms, of cisatlantic growth, or assimilated from the dialects of many races that here contribute their diction to its own: a language whose glory is that even corruptions serve to speed its growth, and whose fine achievement long has been to make the neologism, even the solecism, of one generation the classicism of the next. This is the potent and sonorous instrument which our poet has at his command; and the genius of his country, like Ariel, bids him
                      “—take
This slave of music, for my sake.”
  8
  The twilight of the poets, succeeding to the brightness of their first diurnal course, is a favorable interval at which to review the careers of those whose work therewith is ended. Although at such a time public interest may set in other directions, I have adhered to a task so arduous, yet so fascinating to the critical and poetic student. When the lustre of a still more auspicious day shall yield in its turn to the recurring dusk, a new chronicler will have the range of noble imaginations to consider, heightened in significance by comparison with the field of these prior excursions. But if I have not wholly erred in respect to the lessons derivable from the past, he will not go far beyond them. The canons are not subject to change; he, in turn, will deduce the same elements appertaining to the chief of arts, and test his poets and their bequests by the same unswerving laws. And concerning the dawn which may soon break upon us unawares, as we make conjecture of the future of American song, it is difficult to keep the level of restraint—to avoid “rising on the wings of prophecy.” Who can doubt that it will correspond to the future of the land itself,—of America now wholly free and interblending, with not one but a score of civic capitals, each an emulative centre of taste and invention, a focus of energetic life, ceaseless in action, radiant with the glow of beauty and creative power?  9
 
 
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