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WHAT IS POETRY?



In preparation, uniform with this volume and with The
Silence of Love, a new volume of Poems, by the same author,
entitled Without and Within.




WHAT fS POETRY?

BY

Eib^OND HOLMES

AUTHOR OF
THE SILENCE OF LOVE.




Of THE

■VERSITY

OF



rifi, I



WHAT IS POETRY?



" Poetic creation, what is this but seeing the thing
sufficiently ? The word that will describe the thing follows
of itself from such intense clear sight of it.

T. Carlyle.



0^



-\\*
'•i\^




WHAT IS POETRY?



PART I.

FEELING.

What is poetry ? There are as many answers
to this question as there are minds that take an
interest in it ; for in the attempt to answer it
each of us is perforce thrown back upon that
unformulated philosophy which is an essential
aspect of his inmost self, a philosophy which
emancipates him from the control of all schools
and sects, and in expounding which (so far
as it admits of exposition) he tells the story
of his heart and makes confession of his faith.
When I ask myself, What is poetry ? I am
setting myself a task which far " exceeds man's
might." I am inviting myself to solve, by
implication, all the master problems of human



thought. And if I take my own answer
seriously, I do so not because I think that the
question can be answered, but because I know
well that it cannot ; not because I flatter myself
that I have succeeded where others have failed,
but because I see in the failure which awaits us
all, convincing proof that the problem is worthy
of our highest endeavours, and that each
answer in turn is as real and true as the
individual life which it summarizes and the
personality which it expresses and reflects.

Cardinal Newman has somewhere said
that without assumptions no one can prove
anything about anything. To prove that
poetry is what I believe it to be is beyond my
power and beyond my aim. But the scope of
Newman's aphorism may surely be extended.
Without assumptions no one can begin to think
about anything. For every enterprise of
thought one needs what soldiers call a base
of operations. I am about to set out on one
of the most desperate of all enterprises ; and
in order to provide myself with a base, I must
ask to be allowed to make two initial assump-
tions : —

(i) that poetry is the expression of
strong and deep feeling ;

(2) that wherever there is feeling,
there is something to be felt.



Let us consider each assumption in turn.

Poetry is the expression of strong and deep
feeling.

By strong feeling I mean feeling that is
vehement, passionate, intense; feeling that burns
rather than broods. By deep feeling I mean
feeling that is subtle, delicate, mystical ; feeling
that broods rather than burns. Is it possible
for feeling to be strong without being deep,
or deep without being strong ? Yes and No.
Strength can exist apart from depth ; and
depth can exist apart from strength. But
neither can develop itself freely or fully ex-
cept it be modified by the other. Feeling
that is strong without being deep is violent ;
in other words, it is not really strong. Feeling
that is deep without being strong is dreamy
and fantastic ; in other words, it is not really
deep. It needs the red light of passion ta
pierce the darkness of the inner life ; but if
the fire of passion burns too furiously, it will
speedily burn itself away. It must be under-
stood then that in poetic emotion, as I con-
ceive of it, strength is inseparable from depth ;
and, therefore, that whenever I apply the term
passionate to poetry or the poet's heart, I take
for granted that the passion is not all flame
and fury, but is strong enough to control itself.

That poetry is the expression of strong



and deep emotion, that, in Wordsworth's well-
known words, it is the "spontaneous overflow
o{ powerful feelings,'' will, I think, be generally-
admitted. When I use the word poelry, I
am of course thinking of the higher kinds
of poetry. I am thinking of the plus vales,
the inspired bard. In ordinary parlance the
word poetry is used as loosely as the word
music. But just as there is an impassable
abyss between the music-hall song of the hour
and the symphony of a great master, so there
are many kinds of verse which are not in the
slightest degree poetical. To try to prove an
assumption is to undermine the very founda-
tions of one's thought ; but if proof were
needed of the truth of my thesis that poetry is
the expression of strong and deep feeling, it
would surely be found in the indisputable fact
that whenever one of the lower kinds of poetic
composition rises for a while to the level of
true poetry, it is lifted above itself by a passing
wave of genuine emotion. Satire, for example,
becomes poetical when, and only when, it is
inspired by saeva indignalio ; and even vers de
sociele, as they are called, become worthy of
the sacred name of poetry when, but only
when, they are pervaded by that subtle humour
which is near of kin to one of the deepest and
most delicate of all feelings, pathos.



There is one significant point of view from
which it may be profitable for us to consider
the connection between poetry and feefing.
The poet is commonly regarded as the typical
embodiment of genius, as the representative of
those who owe their best work to a constrain-
ing power which they cannot control. In
ancient days he was supposed to be divinely
inspired ; and we still speak, not wholly in jest,
of the divine afflatus, of seasons of inspiration,
of the presence of the Muse, and so forth.
Now when we say that true poetry is the
outcome of genius, we imply that the true poet
has an essentially passionate nature. For one
of the leading characteristics of genius, and the
one which more than any other has led men to
regard it as divinely inspired, is its tyranny, the
irresistible nature of its influence, the inevitable
character of its work. On this point the
evidence of those who have felt the storm and
stress of genius must carry special weight.

" I do but sing because I must "

is the cry — the boast shall I call it, or the
apology ? — of every true poet. And there is
no true poet who has not again and again been
mastered by that strange feeling of helplessness
in the hands of an inward and spiritual power,
to which the Hebrew prophet gave memorable



expression : " Then I said, I will not make
mention of Him, nor speak any more in His
Name. But His Word was in mine heart as a
burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was
weary with forbearing and I could not stay."
The belief in inspiration has not wholly died
out ; and I, for one, see no reason why it
should ever die. The doctrine needs but a
change of notation to become entirely true
to fact. The poet is indeed stirred and swayed
by a power which is so far not his own, that he
cannot control its movements or consciously
realize either its origin or its goal. But that
power, though certainly supernormal, is not
supernatural. Nay it is Nature herself, to use
a word whose very comprehensiveness enables
one to use it in safety, it is Nature herself that
inspires the poet, moving him to her own ends
and for her own purposes through the medium
of an inborn bent of his inner being, a per-
sistent pressure which she never relaxes until
he has yielded himself to her will and begun to
follow her guidance. Not that his submission,
however complete it may be, can bring him
lasting relief. For one of the most vital cha-
racteristics of poetic genius is that its claims
upon its victim are infinite ; that as it punishes
his rebellion by blasting his life with the curse
of a clinging sense of failure, the curse of having



missed his destiny and been treasonably false
to his higher self, so it rewards his obedience,
not with peace of mind, but with new unrest,
by filling his heart with new desires, and show-
ing him from each new height that he wins
a higher sky-line and a wider world. The
pressure put upon the poet by this bent of his
nature — a pressure which is now strong and
steady, now sudden and violent — is realized by
him as feeling, so deep and so intense as to
deserve the name of passion. Passion means
suffering. The passionate heart is one that
suffers much. What the poet suffers is not
trouble or sorrow, though even to these he is
perhaps more than ordinarily sensitive, but the
stress of Nature's influence, the despotic might
of his own inborn genius. In fine, the poet's is
a " passionate heart " for this, if for no other
reason, that it is his doom to be constrained
and mastered by forces which are not his own,
as being for ever beyond the control of his
consciousness, and yet again intimately his own,
as coming from his inner nature, as being in
fact part of his buried self.

Perhaps I am dwelling too much on the
emotional side of poetry. Even Wordsworth,
who almost revered passion, remembered that
the poet must think as well as feel. Having
told us that " all good poetry is the spontane-



ous overflow of powerful feelings," he goes on
to say, "though this be true, Poems to which
any value can be attached were never produced
on any variety of subjects but by a man who,
being possessed of more than usual organic
sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.
For our continued influxes of feeling are
modified and directed by our thoughts, which
are indeed the representatives of all our past
feelings." I admit that the poet must have a
reflective as well as a passionate nature, and
that, if he is to do good work, his thought must
interpret and co-ordinate his feelings, and so
deepen, widen, and finally exalt and intensify
them. But I hold that in the poet's mind
thought must operate continuously and half-
unconsciously, and that at the time of inspira-
tion, though its influence must be apparent, it
must itself be in the background ; just as in
the work of poetic composition artistic study
and experience must make themselves felt, but
must not betray their presence. MoreoVer,
thouo;-h it is doubtless true that " our thouofhts
are the representatives of all our past feelings,"
it is not less true that our feelings, which are
being continually *' modified and directed by
our thoughts," are at any given moment repre-
sentative of all our past thoughts ; and per-
haps it is even more essential for the poet's

8



thoughts to be "steeped in feeHng " than for
his feehngs to be controlled by thought. Then
again, the end and aim of thought is to
lead us, by more or less circuitous routes, to
truth. But the moments of exalted feeling are
also moments of " passionate intuition," and,
therefore, of clear and unerring insight ;
moments in which we seek truth no longer,
but embrace it and make it our own. To
quote Wordsworth once more, " the adamantine
holds of truth" are built, not merely by
"reason," but also by

" passion, which itself
Is highest reason in a soul sublime."

Even brooding, which may be defined as the
reverie of passion, and which is the kind of
reflection that is most congenial to the poetic
temperament, is, I think, a higher form of
meditation than thinking (in the strict and
narrow sense of the word) ; for in the former
state the mind lies open to the profound and
subtle influences of Nature, whereas in the
latter consciousness, that transparent mtdium
which is opaque to the higher rays of spiritual
light, interposes itself between the soul and
truth ; and whereas the brooding mind, in the
course of its aimless wanderings, may some-
times come in contact with hidden truth, the



mind of the systematic thinker is led astray by
its very desire for accurate knowledge, and fails
in proportion to the completeness of its success.
In any case, it must, I think, be admitted that
the reflective side of the poet's nature is
always subordinated to the emotional, and that
it is the latter, not the former, which differen-
tiates him from other men.

To what extent, we must now ask our-
selves, is the poet differentiated from other
men ? When we say that he differs from them
in having a stronger and subtler sensibility,
do we mean that the feelings which it is his
mission to express, are peculiarly his own .'*
Do we mean, in other words, that poetic
genius is an accidental departure from what is
real and central in the nature of man ? Surely
not. If poetic genius were a mere freak of
Nature, the poet would sing to himself alone,
in other words, he would not sing at all.
Language always expresses a common mea-
sure of experience. Were the poet's feelings
exclusively his own, he could not possibly com-
municate them to others, for there would be no
common ground on which he could meet his
fellow-men. To give expression to monstrous
or eccentric feelings is not the function of the
poet. The feelings that inspire him belong to
''the general heart of man." Nay, they are of



lO



the Inmost essence of human nature. The
difference between the feeHngs of the poet and
those of ordinary men is, to use the most
pregnant and suggestive of antitheses, the
difference between what is actual and what is
potential. FeeHngs which are actual in the
poet, in the sense of being vividly realized and
brougrht near to the lig"ht of consciousness,
have but a potential existence in the hearts
of ordinary men. But they are there, in the
darkness of the " buried life," waiting to be
actualized ; and it is because they are there
that the message of the poet goes home to the
hearts of his listeners. When we are moved
by poetry there is no transfusion of feeling.
What happens is, that expression is given to
emotions which are ours and which we know to
be ours, though we had not actually experi-
enced them till we listened to the poet's words.
The terms potential and actual are of course
always used comparatively. What is actual
from one point of view is potential from
another. 1 sometimes think that every feeling
is the embryo of another and a deeper feeling,
and this of another, and so on ad injinituin.
Thus the sense of outward beauty is implicit in
the sense of sight : the sense of inward and
spiritual beauty is implicit in the sense of
outward beauty ; and in the sense of inward



II



and spiritual beauty there is endless gradation,
depth beneath depth, dream within dream,
glory beyond glory. It follows from this con-
ception that, in the act of consciously realizing
a given feeling, we are unconsciously coming
into contact with another and a deeper feeling ;
and, further, that the more clearly conscious
we are of what goes on in the more accessible
part of our inner life, the deeper we are able to
go into its darker mysteries. It is in this
respect, I think, that the poet differs most from
ordinary men. The profounder side of human
nature is nearer to the light of consciousness in
him than in them ; and so he is always con-
versant with deeper feelings than they are, —
conscious of feelings of which they are but
dimly conscious, dimly conscious of feelings of
which they are wholly unconscious. The
movement from consciousness to unconscious-
ness is, I need hardly say, as continuous as the
chanee in our northern latitudes from licrht to
darkness ; but to express the contmuity of
Nature's processes is, unhappily, beyond the
power of human speech.

It would seem, then, that the deep and
strong feelings which poetry expresses are
potentially common to all men, and that they
belong to that deeper side of human nature
which is for most of us an unknown land.



12



This unknown land is at last beginning to
interest human thought We hear much
nowadays of the self that lies below the level
of consciousness, the "subliminal self " of the
psychical inquirer, the " buried life " of
Matthew Arnold's beautiful poem, the " vie
profonde,'' the '' dmey' the '' contree lointaine''
of the Belgian mystic. Systematic attempts
are being made to explore this shadowy region,
in the hope of discovering what I may perhaps
venture to call the magnetic pole of existence.
Whatever may be the remoter issue of these
daring enterprises, there is one thing at least
which the explorers will not fail to report to us,
namely, that the "buried life " is the home of
those inward and spiritual feelings which it is
the mission of poetry to express and reveal.

Let us now consider the second of my
initial assumptions.

Wherever there is feeling, there is some-
thing to be felt.

This proposition is, I think, "as true as
truth's simplicity." Feeling must have its
object, for it is always the product, direct or
indirect, of experience ; and experience means
contact with fact. We may, if we please,
define feeling as the line or surface of contact
between one's self and one's environment. It is



13



only through the medium of our feelings that
*' things," as we call them, are revealed to us :
and though we find it convenient to assume
that things exist apart from the feelings that
they generate, this distinction always breaks
down when onr thought leans heavily on it ;
and in the last resort we find ourselves com-
pelled to confess that feelings and things are
inseparable- The apparent exceptions to the
rule that I have formulated, the cases of (so-
called) illusion, need not detain us long. For,
in the first place, there may well be more in the
phenomenon of mental illusion than is dreamed
of in our philosophy ; and, in the second place,
the rule which these abnormal occurrences
seem to violate does not pretend to be, and
for my purpose need not be, more than
approximately correct.

Feelings then are generated by experience
of things ; and as there are different kinds of
feelings, so we may assume that, corresponding
to these, there are different orders of things,
different aspects of existence, different strata of
reality. In some respects the different feelings
are incommensurable with one another ; but
there is at least one point of view from which
it seems to be possible to classify them, to
arrange them, one might almost say, in order
of merit. Some feelings announce themselves



14



to us as being higher, purer and nobler than
others, and also (the one announcement being
implicit in the other) els having been generated
by higher realities. For example, the sense
of beauty announces itself to us as being a
higher sense than the sense of sight ; and in
and through this announcement it tells us that
beauty is a more real property of things than
either colour or form. So, again, the pleasure
which we derive from hearing one of
Beethoven's symphonies announces itself to us
as being far higher and purer than the pleasure
which we derive from eating a well-seasoned
dish ; and we feel instinctively that the things,
whatever they may be, which generate the
former kind of pleasure are immeasurably
higher in the scale of reality than the things
which gratify the sense of taste. Here, then,
we seem to be provided with an inward
criterion and standard of reality, a scale of
dignity in our feelings which corresponds with
a scale of reality in the things that surround us.
Are we to accept this criterion, this standard
of worth with which Nature has equipped us ?
Well, in the first place, we must accept it ; for,
speaking generally, it may be said that each
feeling in turn constrains us to take it at its
own valuation. And, in the second place, it
may fairly be urged that apart from this inward



15



standard we have no criterion of reality. It is
indeed sometimes contended that the objects
of our bodily senses are real things, and that
the objects of all our other senses are illusions
and dreams. But surely to say that this little
animal which calls itself Man, crawling- about
on the surface of one of the lesser satellites of
one of the least of the innumerable stars, is
able by means of his bodily senses, the senses
which he shares with other animals, to see the
Universe as it really is, is to make the most
audacious and arrogant of all anthropocentric
assumptions. Dismissing this hypothesis as
gratuitous and absurd, we must either sav that
there is no standard of reality, or accept the
inward standard and allow it to control our
notions of what is real and true, and through
this to determine our ideals and regulate our
lives.

Now the strong and deep feelings which
poetry expresses unquestionably belong to that
higher side of one's being which has reality, in
the deeper sense of the word, for its objective
counterpart. Once the validity of the inward
standard has been established, it becomes clear
that the objects of the poet's feelings are as
much more real than the superficial aspects of
Nature and of life, as the feelings themselves
are deeper and stronger than the surface feel-

i6



Ing of the average man ; for all who have ever
experienced poetic emotion, whether in its
creative or its responsive mood, will acknow-
ledge that it sets a high value on itself, that it
is imperiously self-assertive, that its very-
presence is a summons to us to accept its
valuation not of itself alone but of all the
feelings that sway us, and through these of all
the things that we seek or shun. As there
is a buried or subliminal self behind and be-
yond the ordinary self, so there is (we must
believe) a buried world behind and beyond the
ordinary world, — an order of things which far
transcends in grandeur and reality that ap-
parent order of things which, for the average
man in his average moods, is the all-in-all of
existence. To discern this buried world
through the medium of his abnormal sensibility,
and to reveal it to other men through the
medium of kindled emotion, is the true function
of the poet. In opposing the real to the ap-
parent order of things I am using dualistic
language, which I cannot justify except by
pleading that human speech is unable to mea-
sure the infinite subtlety of Nature. I know
well that there are not two orders of things
only, but many orders, and that the movement
from the pole of appearance to the pole of
reality is as continuous as any other natural



t;



movement ; and I can even amuse myself by
imagining that, as we have feeling behind
feeUng, carrying us deeper and deeper into
the darkness of the buried self, so we have
world behind world, carrying us deeper and
deeper into the vie profonde of the Universe.*
Nevertheless, the exigencies of speech being
what they are, I must continue to oppose the
real to the apparent order, trusting that my
readers will interpret the words in the sense
in which I use them.

The poet then sees the real order of things^
and his vision kindles profound emotion in his
heart. That this view of poetry, though
seldom consciously taken, is in substantial
agreement with what I may call the accepted
view, seems to be proved by two significant
facts. In the first place it has ever been held
that in the poet's nature passion has its counter-
part in vision. In bygone days men believed
that the poet was divinely inspired, in other
words that hidden truth was supernaturally
revealed to him ; and this belief has its modern
equivalent in the idea that insight, the power of

* This thought is not wholly fantastic. It means no more
than this, that Reality — the inmost soul of things — reveals itself
under different aspects to the different orders of our perceptive
faculties, from the simplest and most sensuous to the obscurest
and most spiritual, and that each aspect in turn constitutes a
new " world."

i8



seeing into the heart of a thing and discerning
its hidden properties, is of the very essence of
the poetic faculty. In the second place, it is a
commonplace of criticism that in the higher
forms of poetic creation, such as the Drama,
fidelity to Nature is the first thing needful, and
its absence the worst of defects. We are apt
to talk about the poet as if he were a mere
dreamer of idle dreams ; but we know in our
hearts that he is a seer and revealer of hidden
truth. Even the worldling's earnest conviction
that poetry is all moonshine is but a back eddy
on the surface of an irresistible stream.

We must now ask ourselves, where is the
real order of things to be found } Is it in our
hearts or in the Universe that lies around us }
The poet is no metaphysician, but (perhaps for
that very reason) he is the best of philo-
sophers. He resolutely refuses to separate the
inward from the outward, the subjective from
the objective aspects of existence. The real
order of things is in Nature, and Nature is
a living and indivisible -whole. That is the
whole of his philosophy, and it has the twofold


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Online LibraryEdmond Gore Alexander HolmesWhat is poetry? → online text (page 1 of 6)