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THE NECESSITY
OF POETRY

An Address given to the

Tredegar & District Co-operative Society

Nov. 22, 1917

by

ROBERT BRIDGES

Poet Laureate



Price Two Shillings net

Oxford

At the Clarendon Press
1918



THE NECESSITY
OF POETRY

An Address given to the

Tredegar & District Co-operative Society

Nov. 22, 1917

by

ROBERT BRIDGES

Poet Laureate



Oxford
At the Clarendon Press



OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS

LONDON EDINBURGH GLASGOW NEW YORK
TOBONTO MELBOUBNE BOMBAY

HUMPHREY MILFORD

PUBLISBTEB TO THE UNIVERSITY



THE NECESSITY OF POETRY

PART I

I AM here to talk about Poetry, and you little
think how surprised you ought to be. I have
refused many invitations to lecture on Poetry :
but most of us now-a-days are doing what we
most dislike, and it has come about that I have
myself chosen the subject.

Let me explain why an artist is unwilling to
discourse on his own art. The fact is that in
every art it is only the formal side which can be
formulated ; and that is not what people congre-
gate to hear about, when they call for Art-lec-
tures. The grammar of any art is dry and un-
intelligible to the layman : it seems unrelated to
the magic of its delight. In Poetry it is even
deemed beneath the dignity of a poet to betray
any consciousness of such detail. But, if you
bid the artist leave this dull and solid ground to
expatiate on Beauty, you invite him on to a field V
where speculations appear to him fanciiul and
unsound : and the venture cannot rashly be in-
dulged in.

However here I am ; and I hope to give such a



' ; - T-HE' N E c E s s i T Y

theoretic view of the fundamental basis of Poetry
as may interest us both, and justify the claim of
Poetry to that high place which is and always has
been granted to it by almost universal consent
in all countries and languages.

In a little house which I rented for a month
of last summer a volume of Macaulay's Essays
stood on the shelves an inscription in it re-
corded how it had been won by its owner in
a whist-drive and I took it up, and read the
greater part of it. I fear that I risk losing
either your esteem or your complete confidence,
when I say that this classical work was almost
new to me. But, if I had never read much in
it before, I now made up for past indolence or
prejudice ; and I was taken aback when I found
Macaulay praising Shelley in these terms :

We doubt (he says) whether any modern poet
has possessed in an equal degree some of the
highest qualities of the greatest ancient masters.
The words Bard and Inspiration, which seem so
cold and affected when applied to other modern
writers, have a perfect propriety when applied to
him. He was not an author but a bard. His
poetry seems not to have been an art but an
inspiration.

It is this magic of language, which won the
wide-ranging but somewhat uncongenial mind



OF POETRY 5

of Macaulay, that I intend to explore; and I
shall avoid philosophical terms and questionable
assumptions.

Words the medium of Poetmj

Poetry is an Art, that is, it is one of the Fine
Arts, and, using the word in this recognised
sense, all Art is the expression of Ideas in some
sensuous material or medium. And the Ideas,
in taking material forms of beauty, make a direct
appeal to the emotions through the senses.

Thus the material or medium, as it is called,
of Sculpture is stone or marble, and so on ; the
medium of Painting is colours ; the medium of
Music is sound ; and the medium of Poetry is
words.

Now while it would be manifestly preposterous
to begin the study of Sculpture by an examina-
tion of stones, you will admit that in Painting
a knowledge of Colours is less remote, and is
even a necessary equipment of the artist : and
you will further grant that in Music the study
of the Sounds i. e. the notes of the scale and
their mutual relations is an indispensable pre-
liminary. So that in these three Arts, if they
are taken in this order, Sculpture, Painting,
Music, we see the medium in its relation to the
Art rising step by step in significance : and I






6 THE NECESSITY

think it is evident that in Poetry the importance
of the material is even greater than it is in Music ;
and the reason is very plain.

All Art, we said, was the expression of Ideas
in a sensuous medium. Now Words, the medium
of Poetry, actually are Ideas ; whereas neither
Stone nor Colour nor mere Sound can be called
Ideas, though they seem in this order to make
a gradual approach towards them.

I hope this may reconcile you to the method
of inquiring into Poetry by the examination of
Words. I propose to consider Words, first as
Ideas, secondly as Vocal Sounds.

WORDS AS IDEAS

Whether or no the first step of human lan-
guage was to recognise certain vocal sounds as
signs or symbols of objects perceived by the
senses, we must now in our perfected speech admit
the nouns or names of objects to be the simplest
elements.

But the name of an object must have a dif-
ferent meaning to different persons, according
^ as they know more or less about it ; and it must
convey a different emotion as they are differently
affected towards it. And since knowledge con-
cerning any one thing is really of an infinite
character, for complete knowledge of any one



OFPOETRY 7

thing would include its relations to everything
else, which is more knowledge than any man may
possess these words, which appear so simple as
mere names of objects, are, each one of them, of
wide capacity of signification ; and pass from
being names of definite objects to being names
of various and indefinite ideas or conceptions of
things.

It is impossible to prevent a name from being
the name of an idea ; and (unless we make the
doubtful exception of certain abstract ideas) it
is impossible to keep the idea always similar and
definite.

It is really a matter for wonder how rational
intercourse through the medium of language can
be so complete and easy as it is, when the ideas
conveyed by the words are so different in each
person. And yet in common talk and the ordi-
nary business of life we find little inconvenience
from the discrepancy of our ideas, and usually
disregard it. A man who wants to go from
London to Manchester, and is informed that his
train will leave Euston at 10 a.m., and arrive at
Manchester about 3 p.m., has no occasion to
trouble himself because his informant's idea of
Manchester is totally dissimilar to his own. We
need not labour this point. All our practical
life is carried on in this way, and whether a man



8 THE NECESSITY

speak or write, we say that he speaks or writes
well, according as his meaning is plain, his ideas
clear, and his language unambiguous. And this
current speech, which is a most elaborate instru-
ment, for it has symbols not only for all the
objects of the senses, but for actions and emotions,
and the subtlest notions of our intellect, and no
less for their relations to each other is accom-
modated by delicate self-adjustment to the prac-
tical needs of life, and has been further elaborated
by Reason to become the sufficient apparatus for
all our business, politics, science, history, and
law, and whatever else is concerned with human
affairs ; and through printing it has become the
indestructible storehouse of human knowledge.
So that one may well inquire what more could
be desired or expected of it ; and it is common
to find that practical folk call Poetry 'tosh 1 , and
maintain that if you have anything to say, it is
best to say it as simply as possible.

Sir Isaac Newton, of blessed memory, wrote
a book on the Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms :
and the first words of his introduction are
these :

The Greek Antiquities are full of Poetical
fictions, because the Greeks wrote nothing in
prose before the conquest of Asia by Cyrus the
Persian. Then Pherecydes Scyrius and Cadmus
Milesius introduced the writing in prose.



OF POETRY 9

Now whatever appreciation or respect Newton
may have had for the Iliad, he is complaining
that it was of no use to him as a scientific his-
torian, and I imagine him asking why those old
poets could not tell us plainly what they really
knew, instead of inventing ' irrelevant false fan-
cies ' about the Gods, and things that never
were ?

The opposition which he implies between
Poetry and Prose cannot be absolutely insisted
on : but we may take him to witness that Poetry
has a field of its own, which is repudiated by
Science as well as by Common-sense. The dis-
tinction is very real. The claim of prose is
obviously high, and I could say more to exalt
it : what I have to say will come later.

Insufficiency of Philosophy and Science

And here I would remind you of something
which amid the routine and practical concerns of
life we are apt to lose sight of, and that is the
incomplete and insufficient character of our best
knowledge. I do not mean those individual
differences that I have spoken of, nor that limita-
tion which each one of us must feel if we compare
ourselves with the wisest : but, take the wisest
man on earth, or all the wisest that have ever

1124 A 3



10 THE NECESSITY

lived, the one thing that they agree about is that
the human intellect is incapable of solving the
profounder problems of life, with which we are
faced when we begin to think. 1

I am saying nothing derogatory of science and
philosophy, nor need one be in any sense a sceptic
in affirming that our highest efforts of intellect
do not inform us even on that primary interest
of all, namely for what purpose mankind exists
on the earth, nor whether there be any such pur-
pose. The so-called Laws of Nature, which we
imagine to rule us, are but the latest improve-
v ments of our own most satisfactory guesses con-
I ^erning the physical order of the universe : and
when we ask how it is that our material bodies
are able to be conscious of themselves, and to
! [think, not only have we no answer, but we cannot
v imagine any kind of possible explanation.
'( Man does not know, and maybe never will
know what he is. Let me quote the utterance of
the good- hearted atheist in Anatole France's
recent novel. He speaks frankly and typically
as a convinced scientist, thus :

Nature, my only mistress and my sole teacher,

has never given me any sign that she would have

me think the life of a man to be of any value :

<on the contrary she informs me by all manner

1 See note on p. 48.



OF POETRY 11

of indications that it is of no account whatever.
The one final cause of all living creatures seems
N^ to be that they should be the food of other liv-
ing creatures, who are themselves destined to
the same end. Murder has her sanction. . . .
And yet I must confess that there is something
rebellious in my instinct ; for I do not like to
see blood flow : and that is a weakness from
which all my philosophy has never been able to
wean me.

He cannot reconcile his better human feelings
with his Epicurean science.

How does the brag of scientific learning, the
vaunt of its scrupulous well-informed prose look
now ? Does it not seem that in trying to make
our ideas definite we are confining ourselves to
a method which refuses to deal with the mysteries
of life ? and is driven to that refusal not because
it can deny the mysteries, but only because
it can make nothing of them ? Are we not
building up our language into something of a
prison house? And is it not just because they
have never done this, that untaught men are
often more contented and at home in the world,
x far more like the ideal ' wise man ' than the best
instructed men of science ?

Charles Darwin in his early book on the voy-
age of the Beagle quotes from Shelley's meta-
physical poem Mont Blanc : and in his autobio-
graphy he writes :

A 4



12 THE NECESSITY

Up to the age of thirty or beyond it, Poetry
of many kinds, such as the works of Milton,
Gray, Byron, Wordsworth and Shelley gave
me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I
took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . But
now for many years I cannot endure to read a
line of Poetry. I have tried lately to read Shake-
\ speare, and found it so intolerably dull that it
nauseated me. . . . My mind seems to have be-
come a kind of machine for grinding general
laws out of a large collection of facts.

He regretted this, and said that if he had to
live his life again, he would try to keep the
poetic side of his mind alive.

Why did Darwin lose his interest in poetry ?
And why was he right in judging that his mental
life had become poorer by the loss ? His almost
bitterly scornful description of his state shows
that he meant (even if not quite consciously)
something more than that he had lost what his
memory told him was a source of keen pleasure.
It is difficult to quiet a suspicion that the
\ natural indefinite quality of our ideas may be a
v healthy condition ; and that the key to the mys-
teries of life, which is withheld from philosophi-
' cal exactitudes, may lie in that very condition of
'i our thought which Reason rejects as unseizable
! and delusive.



OF POETRY 13

Account of Concepts

Suppose we look into our minds, and try to see
these ideas at home, and picture to ourselves the
manner of their behaviour. This may seem a
difficult task. I will read a passage from a liv-
ing writer which I think illuminating. It must of
course be a visual picture, and therefore a clumsy
translation into solids, but that is unavoidable.

It needs some introduction. Consider then

by what gradual stages an idea is formed in the

mind. There is a familiar example in the word

\ father^ which is very commonly misapplied by

children to all grown-up men. 1 This mistake is

1 The first arisings of the identification of the parent
with a special sound or name are very hazy, and I should

"* mistrust any general statement. The mere bubblings and
babblings of the infant mouth, ma-ma and pa-pa, are taken
up and with varying success appropriated by the parents,
who may often be deceived. The word father comes later,
when the child may be supposed to have labels for objects.
But the identification of the father is no doubt very different
in different children, not only from the great difference in
their actual contact and experience, but also because (as I
know from observation) children come at mental profi-

ciency in quite different ways 'some are born thinking,

^ some have difficulty in learningTo think)

The name for the father must in all cases come to the
child only in connexion with his father. If he had no
father living he would not hear the name : if his father
were a white, and all other men that he saw were blacks,
then he would probably not extend its application.



14 THE NECESSITY

corrected, and the conception of father gradu-
ally clears itself, but cannot be completed until
the child is himself grown up to manhood, and
\ has himself become a father. For though as a
bachelor he may have a very true conception of
fatherhood, it must yet be imperfect, because emo-
tions only imagined are not the same as emotions
actually felt, and these, when they come, will add
a new experience. And you must note that all,
or almost all our natural ideas are coloured or
warmed with emotion. It was absence of this
indefinite blur in Peter Bell's understanding that
Wordsworth so deplored when he wrote the
famous lines,

A primrose by a river's brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.

I will strengthen our illustration with another
example, a child on first hearing a church organ.
Contrast the vague wonder in his mind with
\ his ideas and feelings when he has become an
accomplished organist or organ-builder.

These ideas in the mind, of which words are
the symbols, are called CONCEPTS. We may use
that name.

Now my author compares a CONCEPT in the
Mnind to a precious stone, say a diamond, and



OFPOETRY 15

the first state of the CONCEPT father or % organ in
^ the child's mind will be like the rough diamond,
"as it comes from the pit. He compares its
growth to the change which comes over the dia-
mond under the hand of the expert gem-cutter;
who transforms it into a brilliant jewel with
many structural facets, which reflect and refract
all the light that falls on them.
I can now give you his picture.

Let us suppose (he writes) that our minds
contain large numbers of such myriad-sided
and many-coloured jewels, grouped together in
various ways and forms; and then that light
flashes through this grouped mass, darting into
an d through and between the several j e wels. An d
further let us imagine that simultaneously with
this flashing movement of the light through and
between these myriad-sided jewels, there is also
a stir and reshaping of the jewels themselves ;
a change of form by which they acquire new
facets and a movement which brings them ever
into new relations with one another, but again
fitting closely together, joining themselves into
new combinations of form and colour, linking
themselves into new and ever-changing clusters.
The movement of the light into and through
and between the jewels, and the simulta-
neous change and remodelling and regrouping
of the jewels themselves, the two latter move-
ments often caused by the former, may serve



16 T H E N E C E S S I T Y

us for an image of what we call Thought, the
miracle or alchemy of Thought. And the jewels,
which tumble apart and reform themselves into
new and ever-changing harmonious combina-
tions and clusters, are Concepts, and the light
which flashes through and between them, and is
often the cause of their movement and change
of grouping, is the stream of new percepts (or
perceptions), which the mind is unceasingly
acquiring from the sense-data furnished by the
nerves and sense organs. 1

I think this image of great value, and we may
use its definite terms as a common basis of
phraseology in this difficult subject, so that we
can talk of it with the confidence of mutual
understanding.

There are several remarks to make.

First, You see that the flashing light, which
disturbs the jewels and causes their growth and
regrouping, is the fresh experience of our senses.
Our senses, while we are awake, are continuously
supplying us with fresh material: and it is
chiefly in this way that we learn, correcting our
concepts by new experience.

1 This quotation is shortened and simplified from the
original to adapt it to oral communication. The author,
Mr. Campion, had sent me the proofs of an essay not yet
published.



OFPOETRY 17

Secondly, That these concepts, lying stored in
our minds, are not all of them in that part of the
mind which we can get at when we choose. The
place where they are supposed to dwell is very
deep, and the depths of it are almost altogether
out of our reach. The strange tricks that Memory
plays us show that there are many things in our
minds which we cannot call up at will : and it is
certain that there are many which we never
bring into consciousness at all.

Thirdly, That the fresh experience of the
senses, which we suppose to be the main agent in
stimulating the concepts, need not be a conscious
experience. A sight or sound may pass from the
eye or ear into the brain, and do its work in the
mind, without our observing (i.e. being con-
scious) that any virtue has passed into us.

Fourthly, That these concepts have a spon-
taneous life and growth of their own ; and in this
respect are more like a crowd of men in a market-
place, talking together in twos and threes, shift-
ing about at will, and grouping themselves differ-
ently for different purposes ; gathering informa-
tion, hailing and calling to each other, as one
man sees a creditor to whom he has promised
payment, another an acquaintance to whom he
would sell something : a scene of confusion where
every one is active and intent on his own affairs,

2184 A 5



18 THE NECESSITY

yet busily working out the common industry of
the market.

Markets differ much in different parts of the
country: and people differ in nothing more than
in respect both of the quality and activity of
the concepts in the subconscious region of their
minds.

A genius is a man whose mind has most of a
right spontaneous activity of the concepts among
themselves.

This spontaneous activity within the mind is a
definite fact of life : and it seems to me to be the
best evidence that we have of the Reality of
Truth.

Poetic use of Concepts

Now Poetry, when it is performing its essential
function, and thereby provoking censure from
Newton, and nausea in Darwin, uses our concep-
tions in their natural condition. It neither trims
them nor rationalises them. Its art is to repre-
sent these spontaneous conjunctions of concepts,
as they affect the imagination. And it was no
doubt this that aroused the admiration of
Macaulay. Perhaps he had been reading,

On a poet's lips I slept
Dreaming like a love-adept
In the sound his breathing kept ;
Nor seeks nor finds he mortal blisses,



OFPOETRY 19

But feeds on the aereal kisses

Of shapes that haunt thought's wildernesses.

He will watch from dawn till gloom

The lake-reflected sun illume

The yellow bees in the ivy-bloom,

Nor heed nor see what things they be ;

But from these create he can

Forms more real than living man,

Nurselings of immortality.

The value of this spontaneous imagination varies
much. In William Blake it often seems like
insanity : and true insanity is now attributed by
experts to subconscious aberration, to a sort of
mutiny of the concepts, on a theory that would
imply that the men in the market-place combine
together in secret associations for evil purposes.

On the other hand this inspiration is some-
times wholly expended in making vivid emo-
tional pictures of scientific or rational ideas, and
its magic then lies in the imagery which satisfies
even without interpretation. It goes home, as
we say ; and is accepted as easily and naturally
as it was created.

Thus, when Keats is speaking of the riddle of
our life, his lines are :

Stop and consider ! Life is but a day ;
A fragile dewdrop on its perilous way
From a tree's summit ; a poor Indian's sleep
While his boat hastens to the monstrous steep

A6



20 THE NECESSITY

Of Montmorenci. Why so sad a moan ?
Life is the rose's hope while yet unblown ;
The reading of an ever-changing tale ;
The light uplifting of a maiden's veil ;
A pigeon tumbling in clear summer air ;
A laughing schoolboy, without grief or care,
Riding the springy branches of an elm.

Here are six different views of life, which
translated into prose would be : first an atomic
movement in a general flux ; then a dream on
the brink of destruction ; then a budding hope ;
then an intellectual distraction ; then an ecstatic
glimpse of beauty ; and lastly an instinctive
animal pleasure.

Different ways of using the Concepts

At this point I imagine an objector saying to
me, ' You have proved too much. If you have
* truly described the behaviour of Ideas in the
' mind, then there can be no escape from it. All
6 our thought must be more or less subject to this
' shifty and uncertain quality of our ideas, and
4 to their spontaneous uncontrollable behaviour.'

And this is no doubt true. No absolute line
can be drawn. You will remember that I said
a genius was a man whose mind was unusually
rich and active in spontaneous thought : and
that is as true in science as in art. A new
law in mathematics or physics is just as much



OF POETRY 21

a bit of subconscious insight as is a composition
in music by Mozart.

Lines of distinction may however be drawn ;
thus These concepts as we have pictured them
can be regarded either in their definite or in
their indefinite aspects: that is, we may take
them with all their multiple facets or confused
i iridescent fringes, varying in different minds ;
or we may shear them, and pay attention only
to that part of them that we think we best
understand and mostly agree about. And there
seem to be mainly three ways of using them.

To take a simple example, the Concept MAN.
We agreed that no one definitely and sufficiently
knows what man is ; but that does not in any
way hamper our conversation, although we may
be aware that we are talking with a person who
has a very different conception of MAN from
our own ; as in the French story that I quoted,
where the old atheist converses with the priest.
They both fully recognise and even compare
their differences : and in daily intercourse such
differences are assumed and allowed for. And
this is our way in the common conversation of
social life.

But in Science MAN has a definite meaning ;


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Online LibraryRobert Seymour BridgesThe neccessity of poetry, an address given to the Tredegar & district co-operative society, Nov. 22, 1917 → online text (page 1 of 3)