E. S. (Eneas Sweetland) Dallas.

Poetics, an essay on poetry online

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Chapter I. The Law of Activity, . . 18

II. The Law of Harmony, . . 22

III. The Law of Unconsciousness, . 27

ianh Second,


Chapter I. The Law of Imagination, . 45

II. The Law of Harmony, . .61

III. The Law of Unconsciousness, . HI


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Part First. The Kinds of Poesy.


Chapter I. General,

. 81

II. The Drama, .

. 120

III. The Epic,

. 136

IV. The Lyric,

. 146

Part Second. The Language of Poesy.

Chapter I. General,

. 153

II. Verse,

. 158

III. Imagery,

. 189

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§ I. Lyric Life,
§ II. Epic Life,
§ III. Dramatic Life.



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Chapter I. On the Defence of Poesy.
II. Beauty of Poesy,

III. Truth of Poesy, .

IV. Good of Poesy,






" To discover the laws of operative power in literary
works, though it claims no small respect under the
name of Criticism, is not commonly considered the work
of a science." These are the words of Dr Whewell in
liis lecture on the Great Exhibition of last year, and it
must be allowed that they are true words. We have
critical opinions in great abundance, and often of great
value, but we have no critical system. The critics feel
their way, do not see it j we walk by faith, not by sight ;
our judgments too often show instinct mthout under-
standing. Hence it happens that now, when literary
criticism cuts deeper than it ever cut before, it is all
the more a labyrinth of confusion, — confusion worse con-
founded, — as vague indeed as it can well be. But, chaos
though it be, it is a chaos pregnant with meaning, and
richly deserving scientific arrangement. Towards the
accomplishment of a work so very important and so
very much needed; to the placing of criticism upon
something like a scientific footing ; in brief, towards a
science of poetry and of poetic expression, I desire to
contribute a mite.


Many are the definitions of poetry that have been
given to the world ; many more the reviews of poetry
in its other bearings, theoretic, practical, historic and
individual; yet never one too many; for, much and
long as the gTound has been ti-avelled over, it is, al-
though trodden somewhat hard, still not only far from
being exhausted, but even very fertile, if you get under
the surface. Therefore, and because, after all that has
been said about poetry, few seem to have any, and very
few to agree in the same, well-defined idea of its nature ;
and since, even by failing, any definition may be at
least as useful as the unlucky ship that grounded at
the battle of Aboukir and did for a waymark to them
that followed ; I hope that I shall not be deemed guilty
of overweening boldness in attempting a new analysis.
I have the greater confidence, however, in laying the
present theory before the reader, inasmuch as glimpses
and tokens of it are fomid in the pages of many of the
best wi'iters ; and I believe that it will thus stand the
test given by Leibnitz to ascertain the soundness of any
body of thought, that it should gather into one united
household, not by heaping and jumbling together, but
by reconciling, proving to be kindred, and causing to
embrace, opinions the most widely sundered and appa-
rently the most hostile.

First of all, we must know the kind of definition
wanted ; what is its breadth, and what is its depth.

Now, with regard to breadth, it ought here in the


very outset to "be laid down as an axiom, that any defi-
nition of poet and poetry which may apply to a chosen
fewj but will not also take in the Avhole bulk of mankind
as poets, is nan'ow and naught. Poetr}^ is human ; the
poet is but a man. It is maintained, however, by some,
that between the so-called poet and his fellow-man, or,
in the phrase of Coleridge, between the man of genius
and the man of talent, there is a cliiFerence not merely
of degree, but even of kind. This opinion is beset with
doubt and difficulty, and is in fact an unfounded opinion.
But those who deny it are placed in the very awkward
position of gainsaying that of which confessedly they
know nothing. If you cannot understand the difference
between touch and sight, you must have been born blind :
if you do not see the essential difference between genius
and talent, it may be said that you have not been born a
genius. When he, therefore, who lays claim to no other
feelings and none other powers than those common to
his brethren, dares give his opinion, he may be told
that in so doing he has begged the whole question, and
that his methinketh must go for nothing, as not pro-
fessing to be founded on a peculiar experience. The
shortest way then of settling the point is by recalling
the fact that men of undoubted genius, such as Johnson,
when speaking of Cowley, of Pope, and of Eeynolds ;
Reynolds himself ; Thomas Gray, when he allows the
possibility of a mute inglorious Milton ; and, in our
own times, Thomas Carlyle — uphold that genius is but


mind of greater strength and larger growth than ordi-
nary, carried hither or thither — to poetry, to philosophy,
or to action — with a fair wind, and the tide of the age
and a thousand chance currents, all more or less un-
known and unknowable, but all under the eye and gov-
ernance of that Almighty Wisdom which from the be-
ginning foresees the end. Mind of such an order soon
becomes alive to the powers with which it has been
gifted ; and fearlessly trusting in the same, shaking off,
not indeed the guidance, but the yoke of authority, and
going forward in its own indwelling strength, utters
and fulfils itself in works quickened and bedewed with
that freshness commonly called originality. We may
therefore conclude, -with Yv^ordswortli, that among those
qualities which go to form a poet '' is nothing differing
in kind from other men, but only in degree."

While the breadth, or in logical phrase the extension,
of the definition should thus embrace all men, and not
simply the well-starred few on whom, have been be-
stowed, and justly bestowed, the most dazzling names,
its depth or intension ought to reach from the very
highest to the very lowest forms of poetry. We want
not the knowledge of that which sometimes or even
very often waits upon poetry as a kind of handmaiden,
but the discovery of what is essential to poetic feeling,
and that in all its stages, high, and low, and middling.
It is remarkable that two of the world's greatest think-
ers, Aristotle and Bacon, have defined poetry not in


itself, but by its accidents ; the former laying stress on
the fact that it is imitative and truthful, the latter on
the fact that it is creative or feigned. And yet how
thoroughly these are accidental is herein shown, that
while Plato, in his Banquet, and by the mouth of
Socrates himself reporting the words of an inspired
prophetess, declares poetry to be a creation, neverthe-
less his grand objection to it in another work is, that it is
but an imitation at third-hand. Circum.stances equally
accidental enter into other definitions. Were a man to
explain anger by saying that it is a box on the ear, his
description w^ould be as good and of the same kind as
many of the definitions of poetry. Simonides among
the Greeks, for instance, and Darwin among ourselves,
make poetry word-painting. Now, although Avord-
painting be very often the means of aAvakening poetic
feeling, it is no more essential to that end than a blow,
far less a blow on any particular spot, is needed for
anger ; and as one man waxes wroth when another in
the same strait is unmoved, so what is poetry to one
mind is not to another. Therefore we are not to ask
what are the things that give birth to poetic feeling,
which would be as idle as to reckon up all the things
that make one angry ; but we have to determine that
state or mood of the mind called poetic. The definition
must put no school beyond its pale ; it must ban neither
the Greek, nor the Gothic, nor the Asiatic; it must
open its arms to all poetries alike, dramatic, epic, lyrical ;


and it must apply to every variety of poem, wlietlier
glowing with all the colours of Shakespere, or naked as
from the hands of Crabbe. The unadorned works, in-
deed, of such a stern painter as Crabbe have been the
rocks upon which many trim definitions have split ; and
witty and humorous pieces form another such reef. The
wanderings and shortcomings of definitions are not
wonderful, however ; nor need we wonder at the rav-
ings of those who, instead of defining, have been car-
ried away into wild description. As Longinus thought
to write sublimely on the sublime, as Addison wrote
wittily about wit, as Horace, Yida, Boileau, Roscom-
mon, Pope, and others have written poems on the poetic
art, it is at present the fashion with some to indite a
prose poem whenever the subject to be handled is poetry;
quite forgetting that a poem without verse can be no
more than the movement of a watch without the dial-
plate. In the following sheets there will assuredly be
no such highflying; but, as it is not so easy to sail
clear of other errors, I dare only hope to be on the right

Before attempting to define, however, we must know
precisely what it is that we are going to define. Poetry
may be packed between the covers of a book, but we
know that it had its being and home within the poet's
bosom before he thus embodied it in words and gave it an
outward dwelling-place on paper. He felt it, and then
he spoke out in words of fire. Now, although we may



be unable to give such or any utterance to our feelings
we may be sure from reason beforehand, and are doubly
sure from trial afterward, that the poet, as such, has no
more, and no other, and not always even stronger feelings
than oiu'selves ; and that therefore what marks out the
poet, commonly so called, is not simply loftier feelings
or brighter visions, but power to give these forth, and
to make others see what he has seen, and feel what he
has felt. We may not have to boast of the accomplish-
ment of verse ; our muse may be Tacita, the silent one,
beloved of Numa ; but those feelings of the poet which
precede expression are shared with us and with all men.
This truth may be gathered partly from the very use of
words. We speak of the romance of childhood, of a
romantic adventure, of the poetry of life in general :
thus also Keats, making mention of what is in plain
English the rapture of a kiss, says that the lips ijoesied
with each other. As heat is found in all bodies, poetry
dwells with quickening power in every man's soul ; but
only here and there, not always, however, where it may
be hottest, it breaks out into visible fire. Here, then,
are two things instead of one to be defined ; first, that
frame of the mind wherein poetry is felt; next, that
mood of mind wherein it is uttered — poetry, and the
art of poetry. This distinction will henceforward be
observed, at least, wherever there is need of accuracy ;
and I therefore beg leave to call the feeling poetry^ and
to call the expression of it in words poesy ^ or song. But


it mil be seen that to ansv\^er vrliat is commonly mider-
stood by the question, IVhat is poetry? we have only to
do with the former, namely, with the feeling of poetry,
however it may have arisen, whether miaware and from
the imknown depths of om' own soul, or by reading the
pages of a book, or by gazing on the broadside of na-
tm*e ; and that to answer the other question, or what is
tlie state of the mind gi^^ng birth to song, belongs
rather to the whole art of composition or utterance than
to this one corner of it. For poetry is uttered in other
ways than by speech ; as in visible forms, in musical
sounds, in dumb show ; in any, or in all together.

Now, in entering upon the wide field that here stretches
before us, we are met in the very gateway by the fact
that both the dreamer and the thinker, the singer and
the sayer, have declared the immediate aim of poesy to
be pleasure. They are at war on many another point,
but here they are at one. It is the pleasure of a tiaith,
says Aristotle ; it is that of a lie, says Bacon ; but both
feel and admit that, wliatever other aims poesy may have
in view, pleasure is the main thing. Whatsoever we
do has happiness for its last end, but with poesy it is
the first as well as the last. This is not all, however ;
the tie is much closer. Poesy is not only meant for
pleasure, but is founded on pleasure, and is the embodi-
ment of all om' happiness, past, present, and to come.
It is built on, and of, and in, and for happiness. " It
is the record," as Shelley has it, " of the best and


happiest moments of tlie best and happiest minds."
True, it often deals with sorrow, but none of our sor-
rows are without a ray of comfort ; and as black In
the sunshine appears brighter than white in the shade,
so that oftentimes we cannot tell black from white,
there Is often a luxury in grief with which we would
not part for anything short of the highest bliss.
Some have gone so far as to say that the pleasure
wrung from sorrow is the greatest of all,* as Shelley,
that it is '' sweeter far than the pleasure of pleasure It-
self." Without going so far. Bishop Butler, In his ser-
mon on Compassion, says, that we sympathize oftener
and more readily with sorrow than with joy ; and Adam
Smith maintains that our sympathy with grief is gen-
erally a more lively sensation than our sympathy with
joy. If these statements be true, they of course afford
the very strongest reasons why poesy should deal with
sorrow. But they may well be doubted ; for It Is a
characteristic of pleasure, as will In due time be shown
more fully, that we do not think of it, while, on the
other side, we do think of our pains ; we count every
minute of woe, while years of happiness are unaware
gliding over om^ heads ; and we are thus very liable to
make a false reckoning of the values of our pleasurable
and painful feelings and fellow-feelings. Be they right
or wrong, however, there is here at any rate no call for
such extreme views : it Is reason enough why poesy
should treat of sorrow that we know so little of weal


except tlirough woe — a fact so well understood that it
has passed into proverbial wit, as when Erskine "RTOte
to Lady Payne, '' He never knew pleasure who never
knew pain." Moreover, it always treats of a sorrow
that can sing, and whenever the grief begins to harrow,
it ceases to be lit for song.

Here, then, is the upshot of all, that poesy, on the
one hand, is the record of pleasure, and, on the other,
is intended to produce pleasure in the reader's mind.
The poetic feeling, therefore, which has been thus re-
corded by the poet, and so produced in the reader, is
pleasure. It is pleasm'e, but what kind of pleasure ?
This cannot be settled, and we cannot go a step farther,
until we know somewhat the nature of enjoyment ; and
to this examination we now turn.





There is often so mucli pleasure in the midst of trouble
that one is not seldom tempted to agree with the old
philosopher who held that there is no such thing as
pain. And in fact, without mocking our own distress,
we might be infidel of pain, as men of science are infidel
of cold. For even at the freezing point of carbonic acid
gas, between which and freezing water there is a greater
difference than between freezing water and boiling-
even when he has thus attained the utmost degree of
cold, the man of science must allow that there is not
cold, but only a great exhaustion of heat, which, how-
ever, is not wholly exhausted. In like manner, there
is an under-song of pleasure amid the wailing of sorrow;
the fiercest pain is dashed with enjoyment ; the remem-
brance of suffering is often a pleasure unalloyed.

But while our joys thus far outweigh and outnumber
our soiTows, we seem to be little aware of it ; and we
seem to be better acquainted with the miseries than
with the happiness of life. This is shadowed forth by


the fact, that in at least the English language the words
to express what is good and pleasurable are fewer by a
great deal than those for the bad and painful. We
have colours to paint every shade of wickedness, and
strokes for every stage of woe: let the crime be the
blackest, we can give it a name ; let the cup be the bit-
terest, we can tell of the very lees. But to tell of the
varying lights of pleasure, and all the winning ways of
goodness, we are wholly at a loss ; and the most we
can say of the greatest goodness is, that there is an un-
known, indescribable charm about it ; the most we can
say of the highest bliss, that it is unutterable.

Whether this be owing to that vein of sadness which
runs through the whole Saxon mind, or whether it be a
difference traceable in all languages alike, we need not
at present stay to inquire. It is enough to remark the
failures that have always and every^^here been made in
defining happiness. Yeiy many who have defined it,
like those who have defined poetry, tell not what is,
but what gives happiness, or that short happiness called
pleasure. Thus Helvetius wrote a poem showing that
it lies in the cultivation of letters and the fine arts.
Those, again, who have truly attempted a definition of
the feeling itself, have often made it dark and loose,
and always awanting. A good reason will afterwards
be forthcoming why in our notions of happiness, as in
those of poetry, we have ever been and still are to
seek, and may never reach a perfect knowledge of all,


and especially of its higher^ manifestations. Meany/hile
must be given as fall an explanation of it as lies in our
power 5 and this I shall endeavour to do, overlooking en-
tirely the outward circumstances favourable to it, health,
wealth, and the like, which are so thoroughly acciden-
tal that — as Clement of Eome has well said — often the
very abundance of those things which we hope and
run after, becomes at once the fire and the fuel (yiro-
Oeat^ Kol vKrj) of all that we dread and shun. We
must confine ourselves to inward and necessary condi-

Pleasure, then, may be defined to be — The harmoni-
ous and unconscious activity of the soul. This definition
recognises three great laws, which are to be considered
in their order.




In the first place, Enjoyment is an Activity. This is
very clear, and is a very old doctrine. Aristotle, for
instance, (X. Ethics, ix. 9, sec. 5) says that it is an en-
ergy — 7; evSacfjiovta ivepyetd tl^ earLv. In like manner,
Hobbes makes it a motion^ which indeed expresses our
whole idea of activity. Dugald Stewart, however, in
reckoning the various pleasm-es which go to make up
happiness, while he gives Activity the first rank, places
beside it the pleasures of sense, of imagination, of the
understanding, and of the heart, as if in these there
were no activity. It is quite evident that all these
pleasures are but particular kinds of action.

But when action is said to be a law of pleasm'e,
something more is meant than that all enjoyment is
active ; it is of course meant that the amount of enjoy-
ment is measured by the degi'ee of activity. The only
happiness which seems to outlie the pale of this rule, is
that of tranquillity, or rest. Eest, however, is very far
from death, or stoppage, or listless ease ; it is but the


lull of strife, linny, toil, strain, and not only admits of
the greatest activity, but is the very condition of its
existence. As railway motion is not only easy, but
quick ; as an eagle goes sailing athwart the sun with
the swiftness of wind, and yet calm as a slumberer ,* as
this ball of earth is rolled through the skies with speed
at the uttermost, and yet seems as wafted with the soft-
ness of a feather on the gentle breath of evening ; as
wide nature, however still she may appear, is stirring
ever and everywhere around us w^ith unimaginable
power ; so the mind, for all its hush, may be up and
doing at once with the strength of a giant, and the
nimbleness of a fairy. On the other hand, it may per-
chance be fast asleep or sluggish in its movements, but
assuredly, in such a case, there is very little pleasure

It is, indeed, a very common mistake to oppose rest
and action.

" Some place the bliss in action, some in ease,"

are the words of Pope, as if action might not be full of
ease. Young makes even a much wider separation be-
tween the two. He says,

" Witliout employ,
The soul is on a rack, the rack of rest.
To souls most adverse ; action all their joy."

Many also mistake the day of rest for a day of idleness ;
and in the same spirit, Hobbes, while he places the


felicity of this life in action, denies it repose, and de-
clares that the joys of the next are to us upon earth utterly
incomprehensible ; he means, because they are said in
Scripture to partake so much of rest. (Leviathan, § 11,
compared with § 6.) This is in strange conti'ast with
the very intelligible tortures which, for a heresy that
he never held, and that is said to render the heretic
worse than any devil, to wit, the denial of a God, John
Bunyan, in his Vision of Hell, made the philosopher of
Malmesbury not only undergo, but also most learnedly
describe, the tortm'es of a fire quite unlike '^ culinary fire,"
as he calls it, putting into the mouth of a philosopher a
phrase peculiarly acceptable to a tinker. Yet, perhaps,
with Hobbes, it is rather a misuse of words than anything
else ; for, by '^ the repose of a mind satisfied," he after-
wards explains himself to mean ^' desu'e at an end, sense
and imagination at a stand." When he speaks of repose
and tranquillity in this sense, we may fall in with what
he says, but have a right to fall out with his langTiage.
Greatly should we wrong those sages who have placed
happiness in the quiet of the mind, were we to understand
them thus. Socrates had no such idea as the sophist
supposed who charged him with placing happiness in
the stillness of a stone : he but objected to that unsettled
enjoyment which to him appeared nothing better than
an itch. Even those — the Brahmins — who push the
doctrine to the fm'thest extreme, making it the highest
happiness to sit still and think of nothing, cannot be so


understood^ inasmuch as the end which they propose is
so far beyond our powers, that, in struggling to reach
it, the utmost energies of the mightiest minds may be
called forth in vain. And equally unwarrantable would
it be to put such a meaning on the heavenly rest pro-
mised to all believers, and which is akin to that of God
himself, who, rest how he may, never slumbereth, but
du sein du repoSj in the magnificent words of Buffon,
from the bosom of repose, with a power unfailing as
time, unbounded as space, and swifter than light, jour-
neys ever on, by countless, invisible, arterial ways, to
animate and sustain the innumerable constellations that
in him alone live, and move, and have their being.




That rest^ tlierefore, wherein the highest enjoyment
lies, is not inactivity nor stockstilkiess ; it is only an-
other name for the second law of pleasure, which is its

By this harmony is understood not only agreement
between certain faculties or capacities (Active or Passive
Powers), and things fitted to supply their cravings, as
between praise and the love of praise, Avater and thirst ;
but also such an enlarged agreement, bearing on every

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Online LibraryE. S. (Eneas Sweetland) DallasPoetics, an essay on poetry → online text (page 1 of 18)