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AN ANSWER TO THE QUESTION
WHAT IS POETRY!
REMARKS ON VERSIFICATION.
Poetry, strictly and artistically so called, that is to say, considered not merely as poetic feeling, which is more or less shared by all the world, but as the operation of that feeling, such as we see it in the poet's book, is the utterance of a passion for truth, beauty and power, embodying and illustrating its conceptions by imagination and fancy, and modulating its language on the principle of variety in uniformity. Its means are whatever the universe contains; and its ends, pleasure and exaltation. Poetry stands between nature and convention, keeping alive among us the enjoyment of the external and spiritual world : it has constituted the most enduring fame of nations; and, next to Love and Beauty, which are its parents, is the greatest proof to man of the pleasure to be found in all things, and of the probable riches of infinitude.
Poetry is a passion,* because it seeks the deepest impressions; and because it must undergo, in order to convey them.
It is a passion for truth, because without truth the impression would be false or defective.
It is a passion for beauty, because its office is to exalt and refine by means of pleasure, and because beauty is nothing but the loveliest form of pleasure.
* Passio, suffering in a good sense, ardent subjection of one's self to emotion
It is a passion for power, because power is impression tri. umphant, whether over the poet, as desired by himself, or over the reader, as affected by the poet.
It embodies and illustrates its impressions by imagination, or images of the objects of which it treats, and other images brought in to throw light on those objects, in order that it may enjoy and impart the feeling of their truth in its utmost convic. tion and affluence.
It illustrates them by fancy, which is a lighter play of imagi. nation, or the feeling of analogy coming short of seriousness, in order that it may laugh with what it loves, and show how it can decorate it with fairy ornament.
It modulates what it utters, because in running the whole round of beauty it must needs include beauty of sound; and because, in the height of its enjoyment, it must show the per. fection of its triumph, and make difficulty itself become part of its facility and joy.
And lastly, Poetry shapes this modulation into uniformity for its outline, and variety for its parts, because it thus realizes the last idea of beauty itself, which includes the charm of diversity within the flowing round of habit and ease.
Poetry is imaginative passion. The quickest and subtlest test of the possession of its essence is in expression; the variety of things to be expressed shows the amount of its resources; and the continuity of the song completes the evidence of its strength and greatness. He who has thought, feeling, expression, imagination, action, character, and continuity, all in the largest amount and highest degree, is the greatest poet.
Poetry includes whatsoever of painting can be made visible to the mind's eye, and whatsoever of music can be conveyed by sound and proportion without singing or instrumentation. But it far surpasses those divine arts in suggestiveness, range, and intellectual wealth ;—the first, in expression of thought, combination of images, and the triumph over space and time; the second, in all that can be done by speech, apart from the tones and modulations of pure sound. Painting and music, however, include all those portions of the gift of poetry that can be expressed and heightened by the visible and melodious.' Painting, in a certain apparent manner, is things themselves; music, in a certain audible manner, is their very emotion and grace. Mu. sic and painting are proud to be related to poetry, and poetry loves and is proud of them.
Poetry begins where matter of fact or of science ceases to be merely such, and to exhibit a further truth; that is to say, the connexion it has with the world of emotion, and its power to produce imaginative pleasure. Inquiring of a gardener, for in. stance, what flower it is that we see yonder, he answers, “a lily.” This is matter of fact. The botanist pronounces it to be of the order of “ Hexandria Monogynia.” This is matter of science. It is the “lady” of the garden, says Spenser; and here we begin to have a poetical sense of its fairness and grace. It is
The plant and flower of light,
says Ben Jonson; and poetry then shows us the beauty of the flower in all its mystery and splendor.
If it be asked, how we know perceptions like these to be true, the answer is, by the fact of their existence,-by the consent and delight of poetic readers. And as feeling is the earliest teacher, and perception the only final proof, of things the most demonstrable by science, so the remotest imaginations of the poets may often be found to have the closest connexion with matter of fact; perhaps might always be so, if the subtlety of our perceptions were a match for the causes of them. Consider this image of Ben Jonson's—of a lily being a flower of light. Light, undecomposed, is white ; and as the lily is white, and light is white, and whiteness itself is nothing but light, the two things, so far, are not merely similar, but identical. A poet might add, by an analogy drawn from the connexion of light and color, and there is a “golden dawn” issuing out of the white lily, in the rich yellow of the stamens. I have no desire to push this similarity further than it may be worth. Enough has been stated to show that, in poetical as in other analogies, “the same feet of Nature," as Bacon says, may be seen “ treading in different paths ;' and that the most scornful, that is to say,
dullest disciple of fact, should be cautious how he betrays the shallowness of his philosophy by discerning no poetry in its depths.
But the poet is far from dealing only with these subtle and analogical truths. Truth of every kind belongs to him, provided it can bud into any kind of beauty, or is capable of being illustrated and impressed by the poetic faculty. Nay, the sim. plest truth is often so beautiful and impressive of itself, that one of the greatest proofs of his genius consists in his leaving it to stand alone, illustrated by nothing but the light of its own tears or smiles, its own wonder, might, or playfulness. Hence the complete effect of many a simple passage in our old English ballads and romances, and of the passionate sincerity in general of the greatest early poets, such as Homer and Chaucer, who flourished before the existence of a “literary world,” and were not perplexed by a heap of notions and opinions, or by doubts how emotion ought to be expressed. The greatest of their successors never write equally to the purpose, except when they can dismiss everything from their minds but the like simple truth. In the beautiful poem of “Sir Eger, Sir Graham, and Sir Gray-Steel” (see it in Ellis's Specimens, or Laing's Early Metrical Tales), a knight thinks himself disgraced in the eyes of his mistress :
Sir Eger said, “If it be so,
Sir Gray-Steel is killed :
Gray-Steel into his death thus throws (throes ?)
grass up draws ;
The abode of Chaucer's Reve, or Steward, in the Canterbury Tales, is painted in two lines, which nobody ever wished longer :
His wonning (dwelling) was full fair upon an heath,
Every one knows the words of Lear, “most matter-of-fact, most melancholy.”
Pray do not mock me;
It is thus, by exquisite pertinence, melody, and the implied power of writing with exuberance, if need be, that beauty and truth become identical in poetry, and that pleasure, or at the very worst, a balm in our tears, is drawn out of pain.
It is a great and rare thing, and shows a lovely imagination, when the poet can write a commentary, as it were, of his own, on such sufficing passages of nature, and be thanked for the addition. There is an instance of this kind in Warner, an old Elizabethan poet, than which I know nothing sweeter in the world. He is speaking of Fair Rosamond, and of a blow given her by Queen Eleanor.
With that she dash'd her on the lips,
So dyèd double red:
Soft were those lips that bled.
There are different kinds and degrees of imagination, some of them necessary to the formation of every true poet, and all of them possessed by the greatest. Perhaps they may be enume. rated as follows:- First, that which presents to the mind any object or circumstance in every-day life ; as when we imagine a man holding a sword, or looking out of a window ;-Second, that which presents real, but not every-day circumstances; as King Alfred tending the loaves, or Sir Philip Sidney giving up the water to the dying soldier ;-Third, that which combines character and events directly imitated from real life, with imitative realities of its own invention; as the probable parts of the histories of Priam and Macbeth, or what may be called natural