John Henry Newman.

Poetry, with reference to Aristotle's Poetics online

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Entered, according to Act of Congress, in the year 1891,

in the Office of the Librarian of Congress, at Washington.




NEWMAN'S essay challenges the attention of students
of English on three several grounds. The first is his
eminence as a stylist, the second his attempt to deter-
mine fundamental poetic principles, and the third his
inclusion of ancient and modern writers in a single view.

Newman is justly celebrated as a master of lucid,
copious, straightforward, vigorous prose. The simple
manliness of his more popular writing contrasts favor-
ably with the affectation and caprice of many of his
contemporaries, and its qualities will never grow old,
whatever may be the judgment of posterity on some of
its author's opinions. Newman's mind was nourished
by liberal studies, and from those studies he extracted
the kernel of substance, not contenting himself with
the husk of accident. From his acquaintance with
language and literature he gained the ideas of a prince
among men, as well as the accuracy of a grammarian.
The breathing thoughts and burning words with which
he became familiar, at once quickened his intelligence
and enlarged its sphere, so that he became capable of
reasoning both amply and subtly. His convictions,
whether acceptable to others or not, and though subject
to change for what he esteemed sufficient cause, were
at all events based upon inquiry and meditation ; they
were not the mere rags and shreds of others' thought,


iv Introduction.

caught up and worn at secondhand. His definition of
originality, on page 22 of the present essay, might have
been framed from an inspection of the workings of his
own mind. Conviction gives birth to decision, a striking
quality of his prose, and it generates the power of
arrangement, which he discusses on pages 26 and 27.
In fact, his prose casts over the reader the spell exerted
by the excellent novelist or poet. The mind is gentry,
yet firmly, directed into certain channels, and made to
follow the course marked out for it. For the time being,
one feels himself in the hands of a strong yet reason-
able and beneficent master, and has neither the energy
nor the desire to resist his will. It is sufficient that
the superior mind is aware of the goal toward which
our footsteps are guided.

There are some, who, after repeated examination of
Newman's thought, will doubt its sufficiency, yet even
they can not resist the impression produced by its orderly
development. It is the province of all art to cheat us
with gradation. The highest altitude of a bas-relief
may be only some insignificant fraction of an inch, yet
the spectator will persuade himself that he sees in it the
natural proportions of a whole group of human forms.
The setting sun of a landscape piece may be actually
represented by an opaque, dull yellow, yet appear to
glow with the whitest of dazzling light. The novelist's
climax may be an insignificant event, which in real life
would be passed by without remark, yet we shall be
excited to the uttermost as we approach and reach it.
Gradation deceives us with the semblance of wholes, of
adequacy, of truth, of singular importance. Newman
is aware of this, as he explicitly avers, and few modern

Introduction. v

writers have made a more effective use of the principle.
He masses and groups particulars, the individual signifi-
cance of which we can not help confessing, with refer-
ence to a generalization which seems to follow of itself,
unaided by effort on our part or his. Link by link the
chain of his logic is wound about us, and before we
know it we are bound hand and foot in a bondage so
pleasing that we almost prefer it to liberty. Whether
he deliver an address, conduct an argument, or relate
a story, the result always seems predestined ; easily,
insensibly, yet inevitably, the reader feels himself im-
pelled toward a foregone conclusion.

Other marks of Newman's style there doubtless are,
such as the absence of remote and passing allusion ;
the sparing, but convincing, use of simile, of which
there is an example on page 4 ; its stately harmony ; the
mastery of language which he himself recommends, so
that speech becomes the most diaphanous of veils, or
rather like that clear light in which yneas shone, when
the enshrouding mist was parted and resolved itself into
the colors of the sky. But it is no part of my purpose
to write an essay on Newman's style ; it is sufficient to
feel assured that it represents something more than
verbal jugglery, that it stands for art in a larger sense,
that it embodies the features of a personality rather
than the mere dexterities of rhetorical craftsmanship.

A second claim upon our attention arises from his|
inquiry into the principles which underlie great poetry.
It is scarcely too much to say that the best poetry has
been produced at epochs when these principles were
well understood, and that they can only be perfectly
understood in epochs which are capable of producing

vi Introduction.

the best poetry. The fact, therefore, that there is at
present a growing interest in the investigation of the
canons of poetic art is at once an augury rich with hope,
and a monition to which the promptest and most cheer-
ful obedience should be rendered.

The third reason is to be found in the catholicity of
Newman's knowledge and taste. He is not the partisan
of a school or clique. He can admire a scientist like
Aristotle, or tragedians like the immortal three of
Greece. Sophocles does not blind him to the merits
of Euripides, nor yet of Shakespeare. In one breath he
couples Scott and Crabbe, in another Scott and Homer,
and in still another, this time for purposes of censure,
Scott and Cowper. For a certain trait he extols Bernard
Barton, for another he criticises Virgil. One who is
acquainted with so wide a range of poetry, if he be, like
Newman, a person of fine discernment, sound intuitions,
and correct principles of reasoning, may render inestim-
able service to the student at almost any stage of his
progress. To the beginner he offers a method, and to
the more advanced inquirer a means of rectifying partial
or erroneous views ; to all a stimulus to independent
reading and reflection. It is impossible to contrast and
endeavor to harmonize productions of widely sundered
ages and nationalities, yet of the same general design
and character, without winning in the pursuit some of
,the most precious rewards which culture has it in her
power to bestow.

To yield the most satisfactory results, the opinions of
Newman should be compared with those of other writers
on the same subject, with those of Aristotle himself, of
Plato, and of derivative writers like Sidney and Shelley.

Introduction. vii

But it is quite as desirable to attempt a verification of
his judgments by an examination of the authors whom
he cites. A useful auxiliary in the study of the Greek
tragedians will be found in Moulton's Ancient Classical
Drama, which contains a list of available translations ;
with Moulton's suggestive book may be compared
Schlegel's Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature.
Translations of the complete plays of ^Eschylus, Sopho-
cles, and Euripides may now be had in Morley's Uni-
versal Library (published by Routledge & Sons, London
and New York, at a shilling a volume) ; yEschylus
and Sophocles are each contained in a single volume,
Euripides in three. No other English translation of
Euripides is accessible ; better ones of ^schylus and
Sophocles are by Plumptre (published by Isbister,
London, at seven shillings sixpence and four shillings
sixpence respectively). Mrs. Browning has a poetical
rendering of the Prometheus Bound of ^Eschylus, and
Robert Browning of the Alcestis of Euripides, the latter
under the title of Balaustions Adventure. The Iliad
may be had in the prose translation of Lang, Leaf, and
Myers (Macmillan), the Odyssey in that of Butcher and
Lang (Macmillan) or of Palmer (Houghton, Mifflin &
Co.) ; besides these, the poetical translation of both
epics by Bryant (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., each volume
$2.50), and that of the Odyssey by Worsley (Blackwood,
Edinburgh and London, twelve shillings) are to be recom-
mended. There is an English translation of Aristotle's
Poetics by Wharton, with the Greek on opposite pages
(Parker, Oxford and London, two shillings and sixpence),
and one by Twining in Cassell's National Library, with-
out the Greek, but in the same volume with Longinus

viii Introduction.

On the Sublime, for ten cents. With the works men-
tioned, and the English authors referred to by Newman,
a teacher of literature ought to have no difficulty in
framing an attractive and profitable course in poetry
and imaginative writing ; nor would it be time thrown
away to read the essay of Newman by itself.


Announcement of subject, 1 1-3.

I. Whether plot is of chief importance in tragedy, 1 49 23.

A. The Greek tragedies do not confirm Aristotle's theory of plot, 1 4


I. Illustration from the Agamemnon of ^schylus, the (Edipus
Tyrannus of Sophocles, and the Baccha: of Euripides,
5 8-8 3.

B. Discussion of Aristotle's error, 8 49 23, and transition to next head

9 24-8.

II. Poetry a representation of the ideal, 9 2921 25.

A. Beauty and perfection the standard of poetry, 9 2912 27.

1. This differentiates poetry from history and biography, 9 29


2. For the same reason it naturally allies itself with metaphor and

music, 10 2811 20.

3. Portions of otherwise great poems may be unpoetical, 11 21


B. Poetic idealization considered with reference to its subjects,

12 2821 25.

1. Description idealized, 12 2913 32.

a. Description unidealized : Empedocles, Oppian, Thom-

son (?), 12 2913 12.

b. Description properly idealized : Milton, 13 12-20.

c. Description over-idealized : Virgil and Pope, 13 20-28.

2. Narrative idealized, 14 115 8.

a. Narrati%'e unidealized : Horace Smith's Brambletye

House ; and idealized : Scott's Peveril of the Peak,
14 21-28.

b. Anomalous experiences unavailable for poetry, 14 2815 8.

x Analysis.

3. Character idealized, 15 917 27.

a. Circumstances under which idealization is unnecessary,

15 30-16 11.

b. Idealization consistent with individualization, 16 12-23.

c. And with the introduction of imperfect or odious char-

acters, 162317 C.

d. The satisfaction of poetic justice may be referred to a

future life, 17 6-26.

4. Opinions, feelings, manners, and customs idealized, 17 2819 24.

a. Especially in the ode, elegy, sonnet, and ballad, 17 30


b. But also in didactic and moralizing poems, 18 1719 24.

aa. But declamation and poetry are here often con-
founded, though directly opposite in nature,
18 2119 24.

5. The philosophy of mind idealized, 19 2521 25.

a. Delicate characterization in Crabbe and Scott, 20 421 l.

b. Lack of it in Byron, 21 1-22.

III. Relation of originality to poetic talent, 21 2725 19.

A. Poetic talent the originality of right moral feeling, 22 1-3.

B. Definition of originality, 22 4-18.

C. Poetry the originality of grace, refinement, purity, and good feel-

ing, 22 18-29.

1. Whether this doctrine is confirmed by experience, 22 3023 24.

2. Poets who exhibit correct moral perception, 23 2424 1.

3. Some who are deficient in it, 24 1-24.

D. The poetry in religion, 24 2525 19.

IV. Poetical composition, 25 2028 19.

A. The art of composition merely accessory to the poetical talent,

25 21-22.

B. Causes of obscurity in poetical writings, 25 2426 9.

C. Poetical eloquence, 26 1027 16.

1. Power of illustration, 26 14-20.

2. Power of arrangement, 26 2027 4.

3. Command of language, 27 4-16.

D. Attention to language for its own sake to be deprecated, 27 17-31.

E. Examples of adequacy, inadequacy, and affectation of style, 27 32


V. Note on the definition of poetry : Poetry the gift of moving the affec-

tions through the imagination, and its object the beautiful, 29.


WE propose to offer some speculations of our own
on Greek Tragedy, and on Poetry in general, as
suggested by the doctrine of Aristotle on the subject.


Aristotle considers the excellence of a tragedy to
depend upon its plot and, since a tragedy, as such, is 5
obviously the exhibition of an action, no one can deny
his statement to be abstractedly true. Accordingly he
directs his principal attention to the economy of the
fable ; determines its range of subjects, delineates its
proportions, traces its progress from a complication of 10
incidents to their just and satisfactory settlement, in-
vestigates the means of making a train of events striking
or affecting, and shows how the exhibition of character
may be made subservient to the purpose of the action.
His treatise is throughout interesting and valuable. It 15
is one thing, however, to form the beau ideal ot a tragedy
on scientific principles ; another to point out the actual
beauty of a particular school of dramatic composition.
The Greek tragedians are not generally felicitous in the
construction of their plots. Aristotle, then, rather tells 20
us what Tragedy should be, than what Greek Tragedy

2 Poetry, with reference to Aristotle s Poetics.

really was. And this doubtless was the intention of the
philosopher. Since, however, the Greek drama has
obtained so extended and lasting a celebrity, and yet
its excellence does not fall under the strict rules of the
5 critical art, we have to inquire in what it consists.

That the charm of Greek Tragedy does not ordinarily
arise from scientific correctness of plot, is certain as a
matter of fact. Seldom does any great interest arise
from the action ; which, instead of being progressive and

10 sustained, is commonly either a mere necessary condition

of the drama, or a convenience for the introduction of

matter more important than itself. It is often stationary

often irregular sometimes either wants or outlives

the catastrophe. In the plays of ^schylus it is always

1 S simple and inartificial ; in four out of the seven there is
hardly any plot at all ; and though it is of more prom-
inent importance in those of Sophocles, yet even here
the CEdipus at Colonus is a mere series of incidents, and
the Ajax a union of two separate subjects ; while in the

20 Philoctetes, which is apparently busy, the circumstances
of the action are but slightly connected with the ctinoue-
ment. The carelessness of Euripides in the construc-
tion of his plots is well known. The action then will
be more justly viewed as the vehicle for introducing the

25 personages of the drama, than as the principal object of
the poet's art ; it is not in the plot, but in the charac-
ters, sentiments, and diction, that the actual merit and
poetry of the composition are found. To show this to
the satisfaction of the reader would require a minuter

30 investigation of details than our present purpose admits ;
yet a few instances in point may suggest others to the

Poetry, with reference to Aristotle s Poetics. 3

For instance, in neither the CEdipus Coloneus nor the
Philoctetes, the two most beautiful plays of Sophocles,
is the plot striking ; but how exquisite is the delineation
of the characters of Antigone and CEdipus, in the former
tragedy, particularly in their interview with Polynices, 5
and the various descriptions of the scene itself which
the Chorus furnishes ! In the Philoctetes, again, it is
the contrast between the worldly wisdom of Ulysses, the
inexperienced frankness of Neoptolemus, and the sim-
plicity of the afflicted Philoctetes, which constitutes the 10
principal charm of the drama. Or we may instance the
spirit and nature displayed in the grouping of the char-
acters in the Prometheus, which is almost without ac-
tion ; the stubborn enemy of the new dynasty of gods ;
Oceanus trimming, as an accomplished politician, with 15
the change of affairs ; the single-hearted and generous
Nereids ; and Hermes, the favorite and instrument of
the usurping potentate. So again, the beauties of the
Thebas are almost independent of the plot ; it is the
Chorus which imparts grace and interest to the action- 20
less scene ; and the speech of Antigone at the end, one
of the most simply striking in any play, has, scientifi-
cally speaking, no place in the tragedy, which should
already have been brought to its conclusion. Then
again, amid the multitude of the beauties of the irreg- 25
ular Euripides, it would be obvious to notice the char-
acter of Alcestis, and of Clytemnestra in the Electra ;
the soliloquies of Medea ; the picturesque situation of
Ion, the minister of the Pythian temple ; the opening
scene of the Orestes ; and the dialogues between Phaedra 3
and her attendant in the Hippolytus, and the old man
and Antigone in the Phcenissae ;. passages nevertheless

4 Poetry, witJt reference to Aristotle s Poetics.

which are either unconnected with the development of
the plot, or of an importance superior to it.

Thus the Greek drama, as a fact, was modeled on no
scientific principle. It was a pure recreation of the
5 imagination, reveling without object or meaning beyond
its own exhibition. Gods, heroes, kings, and dames,
enter and retire : they may have a good reason for
appearing, they may have a very poor one ; whatever
it is, still we have no right to ask for it ; the question is

10 impertinent. Let us listen to their harmonious and
majestic language, to the voices of sorrow, joy, com-
passion, or religious emotion, to the animated odes of
the chorus. Why interrupt so transcendent a display
of poetical genius by inquiries degrading it to the level

15 of every-day events, and implying incompleteness in the
action till a catastrophe arrives ? The very spirit of
beauty breathes through every part of the composition.
We may liken the Greek drama to the music of the
Italian school ; in which the wonder is, how so much

20 richness of invention in detail can be accommodated to
a style so simple and uniform. Each is the develop-
ment of grace, fancy, pathos, and taste, in the respective
media of representation and sound.

However true then it may be that one or two of the

25 most celebrated dramas answer to the requisitions of
Aristotle's doctrine, still, for the most part, Greek
Tragedy has its own distinct and peculiar praise, which
must not be lessened by a criticism conducted on prin-
ciples, whether correct or not, still leading to excellence

30 of another character. This being as we hope shown, we
shall be still bolder, and proceed to question even the
sufficiency of the rules of Aristotle for the production

Poetry, with reference to Aristotle s Poetics. 5

of dramas of the highest order. These rules, it would
appear, require a fable not merely natural and unaffected,
as a vehicle of more poetical matter, but one labored
and complicated, as the sole legitimate channel of tragic
effect ; and thus tend to withdraw the mind of the poet
from the spontaneous exhibition of pathos or imagination
to a minute diligence in the formation of a plot.


To explain our views on the subject, we will institute
a short comparison between three tragedies, the Aga-
memnon, the CEdipus, and the Bacchae, one of each of 10
the tragic poets, as to which, by reference to Aristotle's
principles, we think it will be found that the most per-
fect in plot is not the most poetical.

1. Of these, the action of the CEdipus Tyrannus is
frequently instanced by the critic as a specimen of judg- 15
ment and skill in the selection and combination of the
incidents ; and in this point of view it is truly a masterly
composition. The clearness, precision, certainty, and
vigor with which the line of the action moves on to its
termination is admirable. The character of CEdipus, 20
too, is finely drawn, and identified with the development
of the action.

2. The Agamemnon of vEschylus presents us with
the slow and difficult birth of a portentous secret an
event of old written in the resolves of destiny, a crime 25
long meditated in the bosom of the human agents. The
Chorus here has an importance altogether wanting in
the Chorus of the CEdipus. They throw a pall of an-
cestral honor over the bier of the hereditary monarch,

6 Poetry, with reference to Aristotle 's Poetics.

which would have been unbecoming in the case of the
upstart king of Thebes. Till the arrival of Agamem-
non they occupy our attention, as the prophetic organ,
not commissioned indeed, but employed by heaven, to
5 proclaim the impending horrors. Succeeding to the
brief intimation of the watcher who opens the play, they
seem oppressed with forebodings of woe and crime which
they can neither justify nor analyze. The expression of
their anxiety forms the stream in which the plot flows

10 everything, even news of joy, takes a coloring from
the depth of their gloom. On the arrival of the king,
they retire before Cassandra, a more regularly commis-
sioned prophetess ; who, speaking first in figure, then in
plain terms, only ceases that we may hear the voice of

'5 the betrayed monarch himself, informing us of the strik-
ing of the fatal blow. Here, then, the very simplicity
of the fable constitutes its especial beauty. The death
of Agamemnon is intimated at first it is accomplished
at last ; throughout we find but the growing in volume

20 and intensity of one and the same note it is a work-
ing up of one musical ground, by figure and imitation,
into the richness of combined harmony. But we look
in vain for the progressive and thickening incidents of
the CEdipus.

2 5 3. The action of the Bacchae is also simple. It is the
history of the reception of the worship of Bacchus in
Thebes; who, first depriving Pentheus of his. reason,
and thereby drawing him on to his ruin, reveals his own
divinity. The interest of the scene arises from the

3 gradual process by which the derangement of the The-
ban king is effected, which is powerfully and originally
described. It would be comic, were it unconnected with

Poetry, with reference to Aristotle s Poetics. 7

religion. As it is, it exhibits the grave irony of a god
triumphing over the impotent presumption of man, the
sport and terrible mischievousness of an insulted deity.
It is an exemplification of the adage, " Quern deus vult
perdere, prius dementat." So delicately balanced is the 5
action along the verge of the sublime and grotesque,
that it is both solemn and humorous, without violence
to the propriety of the composition : the mad fire of the
Chorus, the imbecile mirth of old Cadmus and Tiresias,
and the infatuation of Pentheus, who is ultimately in- 10
duced to dress himself in female garb to gain admit-
tance among the Bacchic, are made to harmonize with
the terrible catastrophe which concludes the life of the
intruder. Perhaps the victim's first discovery of the
disguised deity is the finest conception in this splendid '5
drama. His madness enables him to discern the em-
blematic horns on the head of Bacchus, which were hid
from him when in his sound mind ; yet this discovery,
instead of leading him to an acknowledgment of the
divinity, provides him only with matter for a stupid and 20
perplexed astonishment :

A Bull, thou seenvst to lead us ; on thy head
Horns have grown forth : wast heretofore a beast?
For such thy semblance now.

This play is on the whole the most favorable speci- 25
men of the genius of Euripides not breathing the
sweet composure, the melodious fulness, the majesty
and grace of Sophocles ; nor rudely and overpoweringly
tragic as ./Eschylus ; but brilliant, versatile, imaginative,
as well as deeply pathetic. Here then are two dramas 30
of extreme poetical power, but deficient in skilfulness of

8 Poetry, with reference to Aristotle s Poetics.

plot. Are they on that account to be rated below the
CEdipus, which, in spite of its many beauties, has not
even a share of the richness and sublimity of either ?


Aristotle, then, it must be allowed, treats dramatic

5 composition more as an exhibition of ingenious work-
manship than as a free and unfettered effusion of

1 3

Online LibraryJohn Henry NewmanPoetry, with reference to Aristotle's Poetics → online text (page 1 of 3)