Dilemma of the Modern Poet
ART carries a mirror on her back. When she turns her face away from the Past, her kneeling worshipers see in the reflection the proof of a changing Present. A pagan suspicious of his idol, the modern poet has discovered that the winged Pegasus is only a painted flying machine. He finds himself, not upon the trembling pinions that in flights of fancy carried the ancestral bards up the slope of Parnassus, but astride a swerving steed, bulging with springs of steel and rocked with electric lunges. The clammy finger of Finance tinkers with every lever. Contrary winds of Trade worry every sail. But like a lark the singer is launched to his song. He grows giddy with the ascension. He throws overboard the ballast that kept him low among his fellows. Higher he mounts. Watching him are men with one eye on his flight, and the other on the dim trail of little grains of gold he drops as he rises. The higher he soars, the thinner the air that bears him upward, the slower the speed of his balking Pegasus. He is lost to the wind that sent him up ; his faint canticle is drowned by the choirs that sing above him. Too low of note to swell the music of the upper spheres, too thin and delicate and pure of tone to send his echoes to the throngs he left upon the plain below, midway between earth and sky, the poet falters in the circles of his song.
How many a wee Milton has cheerily climbed up the ladder of harpstrings, only to pause, out of breath, and find himself lost in the dreary waste of silence between the highest note in the chords of his bold heart and the lowest note in the range of his master ! It is the place where clouds drift. It is the region where mists gather. It is the corner of the sky where hopeful rainbows fade, where stars go blind. It is the shadowy rooftree on the house of song, where the mad lightnings strike down the silver shingles and let in the chill rain. When they fall in a hail of shining fragments, like atoms from a moon-kissed meteor ; when the songs — not one complete — fall upon your ears like tired bird notes from weary distances dropped, then go out to the lowest rung in the ladder of harpstrings, if you would see Defeat come home on her own wings, in the rain. For you may know then that at last the poet has deserted his arbitrary Pegasus, — his painted flying machine, — and is coming down : he cannot go up.
Forbear to ask him whither he has soared. Lead him to the fire, nor ask him to sing, like a cricket, on your hearthstone now ; for he has felt the mad lightning, the cloud, and the rain, and his heart is cold.