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LIFE IN POETRY:

POETICAL EXPRESSION1

EXPERIENCE shows me that, in England, it is unsafe to suppose that the most elementary truths of criticism will be accepted as selfevident, or that the most familiar terms can be left without explanation. In opening this series of lectures on 'Life in Poetry,'I began, as I was bound to do, with a definition. I said that · Poetry was the art which produces pleasure for the imagination by imitating human actions, thoughts, and passions in metrical language.' Since poetry had been regarded as an imitative art by a hundred well-known crities from Aristotle downwards, and since not only Aristotle, but such modern and Christian critics as Wordsworth and Coleridge, had agreed that the end of poetry was to produce pleasure for the imagination, I fondly hoped that what I called a 'working' definition might pass without argument. But what happened ? A critic in a weekly paper of high standing supposed that by using the word ' imitation' in relation to poetry I must necessarily mean the photographic reproduction of external objects, and that the word 'pleasure' must by implication carry with it some low and materialistic sense. Reasoning on this hypothesis, he contrived, in the first place, to misinterpret the argument in my lecture to an extent which in my vanity, I had hoped to be impossible, and to convince other people, as appeared from the correspondence which ensued, that I was not only an ignorant but an immoral person.

As I shall need my definition for the purposes of my present lecture, let me say at starting that I regard poetry as a fine art, and therefore subject to the operation of laws which, like those of the other fine arts, are capable of explanation; that I call it an imitative art because its function is to find beautiful forms for the expression of ideas existing universally, but embryonically, in the human imagination ; that while I consider the end of poetry, as of all the fine arts, to be, to produce pleasure for the imagination, this idea of pleasure includes rapture, enthusiasm, even pain of the kind intended by Aristotle when he says that Tragedy effects a purgation of Pity and Terror by means of those passions. I must apologise to my

? A lecture delivered in the University of Oxford on the 7th of November 1896.

present audience for an explanation which they will probably find superfluous, but as I desire to make my argument as clear and convincing as is possible from the nature of the subject, it is best to proceed by the ordinary course of dialectic.

My last lecture was devoted to an investigation of the law of poetical conception, which may be called the soul of poetical life.? We sought for the universal conditions under which an idea must germinate and come into being in the imagination of the individual poet, in order afterwards to enjoy immortal life in the imagination of the world. I shall deal to-day with the laws of poetical expression, in other words, of the outward form or body in which the poet's conception is manifested. And just as in human beings it is the complete union of soul and body which constitutes the harmonious life of each person, so in poetry the beauty and propriety of the imaginative form will proceed from the organic unity of the imaginative conception. This is a truth which requires to be thoroughly realised, and I think I cannot make it clear to you better than by reverting to the words of Horace I have already cited :

Cui lecta potenter erit res,
Nec facundia deseret hunc nec lucidus ordo.

I do not understand Horace to mean that just conception in poetry necessarily inspires the poet with the best form of expression. Such an opinion would be contrary to experience. The history of poetry shows that many true poets, especially young poets-men like Persius and Oldham, for example-bave wanted the perfect art which is needed to do justice to their thoughts. Thus Dryden, in his lines on the death of Oldham, asks:

O early ripe, to thy abundant store
What could advancing age have added more?
It might-what Nature never gives the young-
Have taught the numbers of thy native tongue :
But Satire needs not those, and Wit may shine
Through the harsh cadence of a rugged line.

Horace is speaking of the inward conditions that must be satisfied before a poetical conception can be animated with the spark of life. What are they ? First of all, res ; the poet must be sure that he has something poetical to say. Next, what he has to say must be lecta potenter, chosen suitably or according to capacity,—a phrase which, I think, has a double meaning. The subject must be treated in accordance with the powers of the poet, and conformably with what its own nature requires. Poets are often anxious to excel in styles of poetry for which nature has not qualified them. Tennyson, for example, constantly attempted the poetical drama, but never with success. Keats and Shelley failed conspicuously whenever they aimed at

· Printed in the Nineteenth Century, August 1896.

comic humour. Again, the subject must be treated in the manner which its inherent nature and the circumstances of the age demand. Paradise Lost, as we have already seen, required epic treatment; it could not have properly taken a dramatic form, at least in Milton's time. On the other hand, when the conditions of just conception have been satisfied; when the fruitful subject has been selected; when its true poetical character-be it epic, dramatic, or satiric-has been realised; when the poet has allowed the subject in all its bearings to blend and harmonise with his own imagination; then, as Horace says, he will find himself provided, as if by Nature herself, with the richness of language and the lucid arrangement of thought necessary to give to his conception the appearance of organic life.

We have seen that in every just poetical conception there are two indispensable elements of life-one individual, one universal. Both of these elements must therefore reappear in the form of poetical expression in which the poetical conception is given to the world. Now the individual element in every great poem is imparted to it solely by the genius of the poet. It includes everything relating to the treatment of the subject, all that helps to produce the organic effect; the just distribution of the matter, the particular methods of diction, the peculiar combinations of metrical movement; whatever, in fact, constitutes the distinction, the character, the style of the work. All this resembles the individuality of the human body, and indeed the style of every genuine poet may be compared to that total effect of personality produced by the combination of feature, the expression of the countenance, the complexion, the shape, which makes each single member of the human race in some respect different from every other member of it. To lay down laws of style for poetry is to attempt the impossible. What form other than that of the Divine Comedy could have expressed the universal idea contained in the subject ? Yet what critical analysis could ever have arrived at the form invented by the genius of Dante? In Dante doubtless there is a strong lyrical note; in the epic and dramatic forms of poetry, on the contrary, the universal element predominates; but even in these the individual genius of the poet will always make itself felt by some characteristic mode of expression. The treatment of a tragic subject by Ben Jonson differs from the treatment of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's manner is equally distinguishable from Fletcher's; Pope's satiric style is unlike Dryden's, and Byron's stands apart from both.

We cannot go beyond the simple principle of Horace which says that the right form of expression will spring naturally out of a just mode of conception. In all that portion of the art of poetry which relates to the treatment of the subject, the sole guide of the poet must be his own judgment : the extent of his success in the expression of his ideas will be principally determined by the possession of a

quality which, as a factor of composition, is not less important than imagination and invention.

But while the genius of the individual poet enjoys this large freedom, there are certain universal laws of expression, proper to the art of poetry, which no individual poet can disregard with impunity; and as to the nature of these I think it is perfectly possible, by the inductive method of criticism, to arrive at positive and certain conclusions. I have said that, in my opinion, poetry necessarily produces its effects by means of metrical language. But upon this point there is a dispute; and the question which I am now going to put before you for consideration is, Whether metre is necessary for poetical expression, and, if so, whether this necessity binds the poet to use forms of expression which, even apart from metre, are different from the forms of prose ?

Now as to the first of these questions very opposite opinions have been advanced according to the view which has been taken of the nature of poetry; it has been said, on the one hand, that poetry is merely versification, and, on the other, that verse is not necessary for poetry. The former opinion had its advocates as early as the days of Aristotle, who shows us that certain authorities, of whom he does not speak without respect, considered that poetry consisted in putting words together in a certain order determined by the quantity of their syllables, one critic going even so far as to say that it would be quite easy to make poetry if you were allowed to lengthen or abbreviate syllables at will.3 Opposed to this opinion is one equally extreme, but recommended by the eminent names of Sir Philip Sidney and Shelley. Sidney says, in his Apology for Poetry:

The greatest part of poets have apparelled their poetical inventions in that numberous kind of writing which is called verse. Indeed but apparelled, verse being but an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that have never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets. For Xenophon, who did imitate so excellently as to give us effigiem justi imperü, the portraiture of a just empire under the name of Cyrus (as Cicero saith of him), made therein an absolute heroical poem.

And Shelley says, in his Defence of Poetry:

It is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to the traditional form, so that the ermony which is its spirit be observed. The practice is indeed convenient and popular and to be preferred, especially in such composition as includes much action : but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. . . . Plato was essentially a poet ... the truth and splendour of his imagery and the melody of his language are the most intense that it is possible to conceive. . . . Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm which satisfies the sense no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect.

What Aristotle thought on the matter is not quite clear. He extends the idea of poetical 'imitation' so as to include certain com

3 Aristotle, Poetics, xxii. 5.

positions in prose; but his argument is directed against those who think that poetry lies solely in versification; he does not attempt to prove

that metre is not a necessary accompaniment of the higher conceptions of poetry. This great critic, therefore, cannot be ranged with those who support that extreme opinion, and the arguments of Sidney and Shelley will not stand examination. The fallacy of the examples given by each of these critics is, that they do not take into account the different aims of the writers they cite. The end of Xenophon in the Cyropædeia was not to please but to instruct; if he produced an image pleasing to the fancy, it was only by accident. Shelley's reasoning is still more inconsequent. It does not follow, because the versification of every great poet innovates on the practice of his predecessors, that versification can therefore be dispensed with in poetry. Nor does it follow, because the truth and splendour of Plato's imagery are the most intense that it is possible to conceive, that he was therefore essentially a poet; 'the same might be said of the imagery of a great orator; yet oratory is not poetry. The end of Plato was to convince by dialectic, and though for this purpose he may have resorted to rhetorical and poetical methods of persuasion, that does not take him out of the class 'philosopher,' and transplant him into the class ' poet.' The most that Sidney and Shelley prove is, what every sensible critic would be ready to grant without argument, that poetry does not lie in metrical expression alone.

Against the obiter dicta of these two writers, distinguished as they are, I put the universal practice of the great masters of the art, and I ask, Why have poets always written in metre? The answer is, Because the laws of artistic expression oblige them to do

When the poet has been inspired from without in the way in which we saw Scott was inspired to conceive the Lay of the Last Minstrel—that is to say, when he has found his subject-matter in an idea universally striking to the imagination—when he has received this into his own imagination, and has given it a new and beautiful form of life there-then he will seek to express his conception through a vehicle of language harmonising with his own feelings and the nature of the subject, and this kind of language is called verse. For example, when Marlowe wishes to represent the emotions of Faustus, after he has called up the phantom of Helen of Troy, it is plain that some very rapturous form of expression is needed to convey an adequate idea of such famous beauty. Marlowe rises to the occasion in those 'mighty lines' of his :

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,

And burned the topless towers of Ilium ? But it is certain that he could only have ventured on the sublime

See Aristotle, Poetics, c. i. 6-8. A correspondence with Professor Butcher, the eminent editor of Aristotle's Poetics, convinces me that by widol do you the philosopher means compositions in prose, and net, as I was at first inclined to think, metrical words unaccompanied by music.

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