The Enjoyment of Poetry
BROWNING’S description of the effect of the recital of classic poetry upon a band of piratical Greeks must seem to many persons to be exaggerated : —
And poetry is power, they all outbroke
In a great joyous laughter with much love.”
Because Americans are Americans, and business is business, and time is money, and life is earnest, we take our poetry much more seriously than that. We are ready to form classes to study it and to discuss it, but these solemn assemblies are not likely to be disturbed by outbursts of “ great joyous laughter.’’
We usually accept poetry as mental discipline. It is as if the poet said, “ Go to, now. I will produce a masterpiece.” Thereupon the conscientious reader answers, 舠 Very well; I can stand it. I will apply myself with all diligence, that by means of it I may improve my mind.” Who has not sometimes quailed before the long row of British Poets in uniform binding, standing stiffly side side, like so many British grenadiers on dress parade? Who has not felt his courage ooze away at the sight of those melancholy volumes labeled Complete Poetical Works ? Poetical Remains they used to call them, and there is something funereal in their aspect.
The old hymn says, “ Religion never was designed to make our pleasures less,” and the same thing ought to be said about poetry. The distaste for poetry arises largely from the habit of treating it as if it were only a more difficult kind of prose. We are so much under the tyranny of the scientific method that the habits of the schoolroom intrude, and we try to extract instruction from what was meant to give us joy. The prosaic commentary obscures the beauty of the text, so that
With its fables of faery, its legends of glory,
Is turned to a tedious instruction, not new,
To the children, who read it insipidly through.”
One of the most ruthless invasions of the prosaic faculties into the realm of poetry comes from the thirst for general information. When this thirst becomes a disease, it is not satisfied with census reports and encyclopædia articles, but values literature according to the number of facts presented. Suppose these lines from Paradise Lost to be taken for study : —
In Vallombrosa, where th’ Etrurian shades
High over - arched embower, or scattered sedge
Afloat, when with fierce winds Orion armed
Hath vexed the Red Sea coast, whose waves o’erthrew
Busiri and his Memphian chivalry.”
What an opportunity for the schoolmaster abroad ! What interesting questions are suggested about autumn leaves, Etrurian antiquities, sedge, Orion, and the history of Egypt ! Here is material for exhaustive study in geography, ancient and modern, history, astronomy, botany, meteorology, chronology, and archæology. By following this method, one may get almost as much information from Paradise Lost as from one of those handy compilations of useful knowledge, entitled Ten Thousand Facts, which are sold on the train for twenty-five cents.
Next to the temptation to use a poem as a receptacle for a mass of collateral information is that to use it for the display of one’s own penetration. As in the one case it is treated as if it were an encyclopædia article, in the other it is treated as if it were a verbal puzzle. It is taken for granted that the intention of the poet is to conceal thought, and the game is for the reader to find it out. We are hunting for hidden meanings, and we greet one another with the grim salutation of the creatures in the jungle : “ Good hunting ! ” “ What is the meaning of this passage ?" Who has not heard this sudden question propounded in regard to the most transparent sentence from an author who is deemed worthy of study ? The uninitiated, in the simplicity of his heart, might answer that he probably means what he says. Not at all; if that were so, “what are we here for ? ” We are here to find hidden meanings, and one who finds the meaning simple must be stopped, as Armado stops Moth, with
It is a verbal masquerade to which we have been invited. No knowing what princes in disguise, as well as anarchists and nihilists and other objectionably interesting persons, may be discovered when the time for unmasking comes.
Now, the effect of all this is that many persons turn away from the poets altogether. Why should they spend valuable time in trying to unravel the meaning of lines which were invented to baffle them ? There are plenty of things we do not understand, without going out of our way to find them. Then, as Pope observes,
The real " defense of poesy ” is that it has a different function from prose. It is not to be appreciated by the prosaic understanding, — unless, indeed, that awkward faculty be treated to some Delsartean decomposing exercises to get rid of its stiffness. Poetry is like music ; it is fitted, not to define an idea or to describe a fact, but to voice a mood. The mood may be the mood of a very simple person, — the mood of a shepherd watching his flocks, or of a peasant in the fields ; or, on the other hand, it may be the mood of a philosopher whose mind has been engrossed with the most subtle problems of existence. But in each case the mood, by some suggestion, must be communicated to us. Thoughts and facts must be transfigured; they must come to us as through some finer medium. As we are told that we must experience religion before we know what religion is, so we must experience poetry. The poet is the enchanter, and we are the willing victims of his spells. We are reminded of John Bunyan’s quaint incantation over Ills reader : —
A man i’ th’ clouds and hear him speak to thee ?
Would’st thou be in a dream and yet not sleep ?
Or would’st thou in a moment laugh and weep ?
Wouldest thou lose thyself and catch no harm ?
And find thyself again without a charm ?
And lay my book, thy head and heart together.”
Only the gentle reader who yields to the charm can dream the dream. The poet may weave his story of the most common stuff, but “ there ’s magic in the web of it.” If we are conscious of this magical power, we forgive the lack of everything else. The poet may be as ignorant as Aladdin himself, but he has a strange power over our imaginations. At his word they obey, traversing continents, building palaces, painting pictures. They say, “ We are ready to obey as thy slaves, and the slaves of all that have that lamp in their hands, — we and the other slaves of the lamp.”
This is the characteristic of the poet’s power. He does not construct a work of the imagination,— he makes our imaginations do that. That is why the fine passages of elaborate description in verse are usually failures. The verse-maker describes accurately and at length. The poet speaks a word, and Presto ! change ! We are transported into a new land, and our eyes are “ baptized into the grace and privilege of seeing.” Many have taken in hand to write descriptions of spring; and some few painstaking persons have nerved themselves to read what has been written. I turn to the prologue of the Canterbury Tales ; it is not about spring, it is spring, and I am among those who long to go upon a pilgrimage. A description of a jungle is an impertinence to one who has come under the spell of William Blake’s
In the forest of the night.”
Those fierce eyes glowing there in the darkness sufficiently illuminate the scene. Immediately it is midsummer, and we feel all its delicious languor when Browning’s David sings of
That the water was wont to go warbling so softly and well. ’’
The first essential to the enjoyment of poetry is leisure. The demon Hurry is the tempter, and knowledge is the forbidden fruit in the poet’s paradise. To enjoy poetry, you must renounce not only your easily besetting sins, but your easily besetting virtues as well. You must not be industrious, or argumentative, or conscientious, or strenuous. I do not mean that you must be a person of unlimited leisure and without visible means of support. I have known some very conscientious students of literature who, when off duty, found time to enjoy poetry. I mean that if you have only half an hour for poetry, for that half hour you must be in a leisurely frame of mind.
The poet differs from the novelist in that he requires us to rest from our labors. The ordinary novel is easy reading, because it takes us as we are, in the midst of our hurry. The mind has been going at express speed all the day ; what the novelist does is to turn the switch, and off we go on another track. The steam is up, and the wheels go around just the same. The great thing is still action, and we eagerly turn the pages to see what is going to happen next, — unless we are reading some of our modern realistic studies of character. Even then we are lured on by the expectation that, at the last moment, something may happen. But when we turn to the poets, we are in the land of the lotus-eaters. The atmosphere is that of a perfect day,
Not to be doing, but to be.”
Into this land our daily cares cannot follow us. It is an
But lovely as a landscape in a dream.”
Once in this enchanted country, haste seems foolish. Why should we toil on as if we were walking for a wager ? It is as if one had the privilege of joining Izaak Walton as he loiters in the cool shade of a sweet honeysuckle hedge, and should churlishly trudge on along the dusty highway rather than accept the gentle angler’s invitation: 舠 Pray, let us rest ourselves in this sweet, shady arbor of jessamine and myrtle ; and I will requite you with a bottle of sack, and when you have pledged me, I will repeat the verses I promised you.” One may, as a matter of strict conscience, be both a pedestrian and a prohibitionist, and yet not find it in his heart to decline such an invitation.
The poets who delight us with their verses are not always serious - minded persons with an important thought to communicate. When I read,
A stately pleasure-dome decree,”
I am not a hit wiser than I was before, but I am a great deal happier. I get more enjoyment from the words than from the most elaborate description of the latest twenty-story building in Chicago ; although I have not the slightest idea where Xanadu was, and only the vaguest notion of Kublai Khan, while Chicago is an undoubted fact. There are poets who, when haled before the court of Sound Reason to justify their verses to an intelligent reading public, must take the poor debtor’s oath. They have no intellectual property, real or personal. Yet the world could more easily spare some well-to-do persons.
There are poems that are not meant to be understood. They are mystical and illusive, and in the illusiveness lies their charm. Fancy one’s trying to explain Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel. Yet when the mood is on us we see her, as she leans
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even ;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her hair were seven.”
This is not astronomy nor theology, nor any of the things we know all about; it is only poetry.
Let no one trouble me by attempting to elucidate Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. I do not care for a Baedeker. I prefer to lose my way. I love darkness rather than light. I do not care for a topographical chart of the hills that
Chin upon hand.”
The mood in which we enjoy such poetry is that of Emerson’s Forerunners :
I could never reach their sides.
To hunt upon their shining trails.
Mixed with mist by distant lochs.
I met many travellers
Who the road had surely kept:
They saw not my fine revellers.”
If our thoughts make haste to join these 舠fine revellers,舡 rejoicing in the sense of freedom and mystery, delighting in the mist and the wind, careless of attaining so that we may follow the shining trails, all is well.
As there are poems which are not meant to be understood, so there are poems that are not meant to be read ; that is, to be read through. There is Keats’s Endymion, for instance. I have never been able to get on with it. Yet it is delightful, — that is the very reason why I do not care to get on with it. Wherever I begin, I feel that I might as well stay where I am. It is a sweet wilderness into which the reader is introduced.
Winding through palmy fern and rushes fenny
And ivy banks ; all leading pleasantly
To a wide lawn. . . .
The freshness of the space of heaven above,
Edged round with dark tree-tops ? — through which a dove
Would often beat its wings, and often, too,
A little cloud would move across the blue.”
We are brought into the very midst of this pleasantness. Deep in the wood we see fair faces and garments white. We see the shepherds coming to the woodland altar.
As may be read of in Arcadian books ;
Such as sat list’ning round Apollo’s pipe
When the great deity, for earth too ripe,
Let his divinity o’erflowing die
In music, through the vales of Thessaly.”
We see the venerable priest pouring out the sweet-scented wine, and then we see the young Endymion himself:—
To common lookers-on like one who dreamed
Of idleness in groves Elysian.”
What happened next? What did Endymion do? Really, I do not know. It is so much pleasanter, at this point, to close the book, and dream ” of idleness in groves Elysian.” The chances are that when one turns to the poem again he will not begin where he left off, but at the beginning, and read as if he had never read it before; or rather, with more enjoyment because he has read it so many times : —
Its loveliness increases ; it will never
Pass into nothingness ; but still will keep
A Lower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.”
Shelley describes a mood such as Keats brings to us : —
Upon the liquid waves of thy sweet singing
Far away into regions dim
Of rapture, as a boat with swift sails winging
Its way adown some many-winding river.”
He who finds himself afloat upon the “ many-winding river ” throws aside the laboring oar. It is enough to float on, — he cares not whither.
What greater pleasure is there than in Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, provided only we do not study them, or simply read them, but dream them ! We must enter into the poet’s own mood : —
To sail with Arthur under looming shores,
Point after point, till on to dawn, when dreams
Begin to feel the truth and stir of day.”
It is good to be there, in that far-off time, good to come to Camelot : —
So strange and rich and dim.”
And all we hear of kings, and magicians, and ladies, and knights is “ strange and rich and dim.” Over everything is a luminous haze. There are
And muffled voices heard, and shadows past.”
There is the flashing of swords, the weaving of spells, the seeing of visions. All these things must become real to us ; not simply the stainless king and the sinful queen, the prowess of Lancelot and the love of Elaine, but the magic of Merlin and the sorceries of Vivien, with her charms
And we must stand at last with King Arthur on the shore of the mystic sea, and see the barge come slowly with the three queens, “black-stoled, black-hooded, like a dream ; ” and we must hear across the water a cry,
Of lamentation, like a wind that shrills
All night in a waste land, where no one comes,
Or hath come, since the making of the world.”
But what good is there in all this ? Why waste time on idle dreams ? We hear Walt Whitman’s challenge to romantic poetry : —
Embroidered, dazzling, foreign world, with all its gorgeous legends, myths,
Its kings and castles proud, its priests and warlike lords and courtly dames,
Passed to its charnel vault, coffined with crown and armor on,
Blazoned with Shakspere’s purple page
And dirged by Tennyson’s sweet sad rhyme.”
Away with the old romance! Make room for the modern bard, who is
The intelligent reader, also, is not to be bluffed by any useful things, however unpleasant they may be, but he winces a little as he reads that the “ far superber themes for poets and for art ” include the teaching by the poet of how
To cultivate a turn for carpentering, plastering, painting,
To work as tailor, tailoress, nurse, hostler, porter,
To invent a little something ingenious to aid the washing, cooking, cleaning. ”
The Muse of Poetry shrieks at the mighty lines in praise of 舠leather-dressing, coach-making, boiler-making,” and the rest. Boiler-making, she protests, is a useful industry and highly to be commended, but it is not music. When asked to give a reason why she should not receive all these things as poetry, the Muse is much embarrassed. ” It’s all true,” she says. “ Leather-dressing and boiler - making are undoubted realities. while perhaps Arthur and Lancelot are myths.” Yet she is not quite ready to be off with the old love, and on with the new, — it’s all so sudden.
Whitman himself, under the inspiration of great feeling, gave the best illustration of the difference between poetry and prose. Turn to that marvelous dirge, “ When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed.” There is here no catalogue of facts or events, no parade of glaring realism. Tennyson’s “sweet sad rhyme ” has nowhere more delicious music than we find in the measured cadence of these lines. We are not told the news of the assassination of Lincoln as a man on the street might tell it. It comes to us through suggestion. We are made to feel a mood, not to listen to the description of an event. There is symbolism, suggestion, color mystery. We inhale the languorous fragrance of the lilacs ; we see the drooping star ; in secluded recesses we hear " a shy and hidden bird ” warbling a song; there are dim-lit churches and shuddering organs and tolling bells, and there is one soul heart-broken, seeing all and hearing all.
loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands —and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”
This is real poetry, and yet while we yield to the charm we are conscious that it is made up of the old familiar elements.
Tennyson’s apology to a utilitarian
age was not needed : —
Redeemed it from the charge of nothingness.”
The " modern touches ” we can spare. The modern life we have always with us ; but it is a rarer privilege to enjoy the best things of the past. It is the poet who is the minister of this fine grace. The historian tells us what men of the past did, the philosopher tells us how their civilizations developed and decayed ; we smile at their superstitions, and pride ourselves upon our progress. But the ethereal part has vanished, that which made their very superstitions beautiful and cast a halo over their struggles. These are the elements out of which the poet creates his world, into which we may enter. In the order of historic development chivalry must give way before democracy, and loyalty to the king must fade before the increasing sense of liberty and equality ; but the highest ideals of chivalry may remain. Imaginative and romantic poetry has this high mission to preserve what otherwise would he lost. It lifts the mind above the daily routine into the region of pure joy. Whatever necessary changes take place in the world we find, in
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven’s brink.”
I have said that one may be a true poet without having any very important thought to communicate, but it must be said that most of the great poets have been serious thinkers as well. They have had their philosophy of life, their thoughts about nature and about human duty and destiny. It is the function of the poet not only to create for us an ideal world and to fill it with ideal creatures, but also to reveal to us the ideal element in the actual world.
“ I do not know what poetical is,舡 says Audrey. " Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing? ” We must not answer with Touchstone : " No, truly ! for the truest poetry is the most feigning.”
The poetical interpretation of the world is not feigning ; it is a true thing, — the truest thing of which we can know. The grace and sublimity which we see through the poet’s eyes are real. We must, however, still insist on our main contention. The poet, if he is to hold us, must always be a poet. His thought must be in solution, and not appear as a dull precipitate of prose. He may be philosophical, but he must not philosophize. He may be moral, but he must not moralize. He may be religious, but let him spare his homilies.
“Whatever the philosopher saith should be done,” said Sir Philip Sidney ; “ the peerless poet giveth a perfect picture of it. He yieldeth to the power of the mind an image of that of which the philosopher bestoweth but a wordish description. . . . The poet doth not only show the way, but doth give so sweet a prospect unto the way as will entice any man to enter it. Nay, he doth as if your journey should lie through a fair vineyard, at first give you a cluster of grapes.”
We have a right to ask our poets to be pleasant companions even when they discourse on the highest themes. Even when they have theories of their own about what we should enjoy, let us not allow them to foist upon us 舠 wordish descriptions " of excellent things instead of poetry. When the poet invites me to go with him I first ask. 舠 Let me taste your grapes.”
You remember Mr. By-ends in the Pilgrim’s Progress, — how he said of Christian and Hopeful, “ They are headstrong men who think it their duty to rush on in their journey in all weathers, while I am for waiting for wind or tide. I am for Religion when he walks in his silver slippers in the sunshine.” That was very reprehensible in Mr. By-ends, and he richly deserved the rebuke which was afterward administered to him. But when we change the subject, and speak, not of religion, but of poetry, I confess that I am very much of Mr. By-ends’ way of thinking. There are literary Puritans who, when they take up the study of a poet, make it a point of conscience to go on to the bitter end of his poetical works. If they start with Wordsworth on his Excursion, they trudge on in all weathers. They do the poem, as when going abroad they do Europe in six weeks. As the revival hymn says, “ doing is a deadly thing.” Let me say, good Christian and Hopeful, that though I admire your persistence, I cannot accompany you. I am for a poet only when he puts on his singing robes and walks in the sunshine. As for those times when he goes on prosing in rhyme from force of habit, I think it is more respectful as well as more pleasurable to allow him to walk alone.
The poets are full of great thoughts about nature, about humanity, about religion. In order to enjoy them, we must go to them when the right mood is upon us. To the poet of nature we must go just as we go to nature herself. Not every prospect pleases, and no prospect pleases all the time. There are times when we delight in the sea, and other times when we seek the soothing influence of meadows and hills. As various are the moods to which different poets minister and which they interpret. We speak, for instance, of Wordsworth and Emerson as poets of nature ; and so they were, but how different their interpretations ! There are times when Emerson only bewilders us, and Wordsworth puts us to sleep. Nature to Wordsworth was nature in England. Everywhere it had human associations and memories. The paths he walked had been trodden by successive generations. The thought of the loving constancy of nature took possession of him. His was
That broods and sleeps on his own heart.’’
When we come “ with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony,” he satisfies as few others can.
We turn from Wordsworth to Emerson. We are in the New England climate, — a climate not unfriendly to man, but fickle in its kindness. Emerson suspects in nature what the sober imagination of Wordsworth could not detect, — a certain humorous quality. Nature is for him “ a merry Sphinx,” who delights in incongruities, and is not above enjoying a practical joke. She speaks in oracles, in paradoxes, in swift suggestions. Wisdom comes by flashes. We
By the stairway of surprise.”
We must take the vision as it comes : —
Linger, — thou shall rue the fault:
If Love his moment overstay,
Hatred’s swift repulsions play.”
In the nineteenth century the spirit of the old Vedas was revived, and to the eyes of this American all nature was alive with a divine meaning. Everywhere the light shined ; now like a star, now melting in the purple clouds, now like the flecks of sunshine in the: New England woods, but always wonderful.
And the play of his miracles.”
As we enjoy the poetry of nature in the same way that we enjoy nature itself, so our pleasure in the poetry of humanity is but another form of our enjoyment of human nature. We feel toward the people in books as we do toward our friends and neighbors. What is needed is, not learning, but the quick sympathy that goes out toward all sorts and conditions of men. Here is Shakespeare bringing with him
With human life in endless overflow.”
The natural man enjoys Shakespeare just as he enjoys plunging into the tumultuous life of a great city. He delights in its variety, its activity, its picturesqueness, its infinite suggestiveness. There is so much of it, and it is all alive ! It does not distress him to find some things which he does not understand. He is like a man hurried along by a crowd, who enjoys the scraps of conversation which he hears from persons whom he has never seen before, and never expects to see again. They do not add anything to his stock of systematic knowledge, and yet they have a distinct human interest. They pique the curiosity without satisfying it.
Let him not be disheartened when he is challenged by those solemnly erudite persons, the Shakespearean scholars, who rebuke him for his audacity in presuming to enjoy that which he does not fully understand. They warn him off the premises, informing him that all arttrespassers who have not mastered “ the literature of the subject,” and been prepared by adequate linguistic training to appreciate the peculiarities of Elizabethan English. Alas ! many a man has taken an innocent delight in Shakespeare who has slight interest in Shakespeareana. The natural man must assert his rights. Our old laws distinguish between small ponds, which may be inclosed as private property, and 舠 boatable waters,” from access to which the general public may not be shut out. Shakespeare’s genius belongs to the boatable waters whereon all have equal rights. When we put off in our canoes or skiffs or mud scows, we may snap our fingers at the men on the shore. We turn our backs upon “ the literature of the subject,” and 舠 the original sources,” and 舠 all that is at enmity with joy.” Let Schoolmaster Holofernes object as he may, we will proceed to enjoy our Shakespeare after our own 舠 undressed, unpolished, uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather unlettered, or ratherest unconfirmed fashion.”
The joy of the dramatic representation of life comes from the multiplication of our personality. If it is a gift to see ourselves as others see us, it is a greater gift to see others as they see themselves. Here lies the charm of Robert Browning. He explored human nature as Emerson’s forest seer explored the woods.
And guessed within the thicket’s gloom,
Was showed to this philosopher,
And at his bidding seemed to come.”
The frequent verbal obscurity of Browning is a blemish, but the obscurity of his subjects is another matter. One may not only love the sunny fields, but delight to plunge now and then into the thickets. Browning is then a rare companion. He is at home in the thickets of the soul, and many a shy thing comes at his bidding.
In these days we are likely to hear discourses from the pulpit on the Religion of the Poets. The theme is a noble one, but frequently it is treated in too ponderous a fashion. There is a religion of the poets which comes with power to many who care little for the religion of the priests. But it is not formal or didactic. It is the welling up of that 舠 natural piety ” of which Wordsworth speaks. Shelley describes it when he says, “ Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” To share in the best moments of the best minds, to enter into their happiness, what is this but a religious exercise and privilege ? It is not only poets like Dante and Milton, who sought expression for their theology in verse, who have entered into the sphere of religion. All the greatest poets have grappled with religious problems, and in their best moments they have uttered words of lofty cheer.
Who utter wisdom from the central deep,
And, listening to the inner flow of things,
Speak to the age out of eternity.”
Here, as elsewhere, the great thing is the mood. We cannot enjoy the highest poetry without being in the mood of reverence. Charles Lamb would have a solemn service of music to prepare for the reading of Milton, and Longfellow came to Dante as to a great cathedral.
And leave my burden at this minster gate,
Kneeling in prayer, and not ashamed to pray,
The tumult of the time disconsolate
To inarticulate murmurs dies away,
While the eternal ages watch and wait.
Samuel M. Crothers.