The Essence of Poetry
— Poetry, distinguished from prose, is the expression of a Living Truth with force and vivacity enough to create an emotional feeling as of actual experience. In the Iliad, elementary impulses are put with such truth to nature as to create the responsive feeling. Even in the list of ships, a word or phrase brings before us the home and habits of that old mob before the gates of Troy. Imagine the battle of Gettysburg told with such accuracy and precision of detail that, two or three thousand years after, one could dig up relics marking the respective headquarters of Meade and Lee, or follow the men of each regiment back to their homes, and know their ways of life ; and all these details given in less space than they occupy in the formal military reports, and set before us as a moving scene in real life.
We must distinguish a poem from an opinion, like Pope’s translation of the poem ; for this calls for different faculties, — critical judgment, approval or dislike; tlie poem only makes us feel.
An error of that kind misled the ancient critics when they rejected lines 433-9 of Book VI. of the Iliad, in the scene describing the pathetic parting of Hector and Andromache, because the wife, after her appeal to her husband to avoid unnecessary exposure for her sake, suggests an unguarded post in the Trojan defenses. It was “ out of character ” for a female to give military advice ; but it was finely in nature for her, pursuing her own anxious solicitude, to suggest a post of duty where her husband would incur less hazard than in his usual impetuous valor at the very front of battle. It is really an exquisitely fine touch for the very reason brought forward as an objection ; it is a wife’s artifice.
Not only a correct appreciation of phrase and incident, but a true sense of the value of words, is necessary to the comprehension ; and even more, because philology, an abstract knowledge of the plain dictionary sense, is of little or no value without the appreciative poetic instinct. An example of error is found in the Oxford translation of tlie Hecuba of Euripides, line 246, in the word ένθανεȋν, which the translator renders “numbered,” adding in it note that this is the only sense that can be made of it, and that Brunck proposes έντακηναί. An American schoolboy would give him the true poetic sense in the slang of the playground :
An easy comparison of the living force of poetic expression, even under the serious embarrassments of translation, is made in the precise, anatomical, detailed description of the megatherium of geology and the same living animal as the behemoth of Job. It is more perfect, because both dwell on the same parts of the animal, the nose which “ piereeth through snares,” recognized by “ the large bones which descend from the zygomatic arch, along the cheekbones, and furnish a powerful means of attaching the motor muscles of the jaw. The anterior part of the muzzle is so fully developed, so riddled with holes for the passage of nerves and vessels which must have been there, not for a trunk, . . . but in the shape of a snout, analogous to the tapir.” Where the poet declares, “His strength is in his loins. . . . He moveth his tail like a cedar. . . . His hones arc as strong pieces of brass ; his bones are like bars of iron ” (Job xl. 16-18), the anatomist says, “the lumbar vertebræ, in a degree corresponding to the enormous enlargement of the pelvis and posterior members.” “ The vertebræ of the tail are enormous.” A like comparison of the ichthyosaurus, which Boyle calls the “whale of the saurians,” with the leviathan of Job xli. 12-34 can be made. This curious monster is described as having the snout of the porpoise, the head of a lizard, the jaws and teeth of the crocodile, the vertebræ of a fish, the sternum of the ornithorhynchus, the paddles of the whale, and the tail of a quadruped. The eyes, sometimes larger than the human head, were fitted with a circular series of thin, bony plates, which served to modify the curvature of the cornea, producing microscopic or telescopic power at will ; and the reflections of which, by a poetic touch, are compared to alternate squares of polished copper and zinc, or other white metal affording the peculiar dazzling quality. In the book of Job we have this tremendous vital engine, strong in the vigor of life ; “ by whose neesings a light doth shine, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning Can there be an error of recognition ? Or can we more clearly distinguish the imagery of the poet, and the carefully exact prose of the anatomist ?
I have necessarily been forced into foreign though familiar illustrations to bring into consideration the vital principle of poetry, because the power of rhythm and melody, like the breath of its life, is too strong to be separated in the analysis. But, accepting the distinction, one can, in selecting a poem, understand the full force of the beauty which makes it one living force. In Lowell’s First Snow-Fall, with the fine opening, “ The snow had begun in the gloaming,” the whole scene and its winter sympathies steal upon us. In the sound alone there is an undertone of sadness in the purity and desolation of that “ silence deep and white.” But we do not know why the heart has been rising and filling until the closing verse comes with its welcome tears, — in the heart, indeed, if not in the eyes ; and we know that poetry is the Living Truth common to all nature.