Two Books About Poetry

IT is sometimes charged against American scholarship that it does not produce books. Journal articles on special topics, dissertations on the infinitely minute, monographs on remote obscurities, — these we have in abundance, but hardly a book. The larger grasp necessary for handling facts in their more general bearings is said to be lacking; or, if it exists, it is unaccompanied by the courage to state those generalizations which are, after all, the main end of scholarship. This indictment, if it were substantiated, would seem to indicate that our scholars are yet largely in the stage of apprenticeship ; but we may at least take comfort in the fact that the fault is one springing from caution and modesty, and so, if we judge from other manifestations of the national spirit, not likely to be fatal or permanent.

The appearance, however, of such a work as Professor Gummere’s Beginnings of Poetry 1 suggests that the accusation is too sweeping. Here, at any rate, is no mere laborious accumulation of facts, but a book ; laden with erudition as wide and deep as any German of them all can show, yet revealing a mind alert, many-sided, profound, mastering and not mastered by its learning. Further, Mr. Gummere has a style. The brilliance of phrasing, the richness of allusion, the breeziness and rapidity which are familiar to readers of his previous writings, are here vigorously sustained, with an advance in clearness and explicitness.

The subject of investigation is the nature of the earliest poetical production. This is not, of course, the national epic, once called primitive, nor even the traditional ballad and the folk song as these are extant to-day. It is something still more remote, known to us chiefly by certain survivals that may be detected in the less sophisticated forms of literature. This point has not always been made sufficiently clear by the supporters of that communal theory of which Mr. Gummere is now the most prominent exponent, but he is satisfactorily explicit: “The present object is not to assert communal authorship, in any literal sense, for the ballad of the collections, but to show in it elements which cannot be referred to individual art, and which are of great use in determining the probable form and origins of primitive poetry.”

“Rhythmic utterance with mainly emotional origin ” is Gummere’s working definition of poetry, and he justifies it in a spirited examination of a great mass of poetic theory. The decision in favor of rhythmic utterance as the essential fact is not merely conveniently simple, but is significant of the drift of the whole argument; for here at once he finds proof of the fundamentally social character of poetry, “In rhythm, in sounds of the human voice, timed to movements of the human body, mankind first discovered that social consent which brought the great joys and the great pains of life to a common utterance. ”

The three central chapters of the work deal with the all-important distinction between the communal and the artistic elements in poetry. The poetry of art the author regards as distinguished by the fact that it is primarily the expression of the solitary poet. To him belong the idea of literary property and the desire of fame, — conceptions unknown in more primitive ages. The assumption of interest in his own personality, self-consciousness, sentiment, the “lyric cry,” these are some of the marks of the individual artist. Communal characteristics, on the other hand, are regarded as survivals of the period when the actual making of poetry was in the hands, not of the individual, but of the throng. Among these he notes and examines the elements of chorus, refrain, and repetition, — especially that “incremental repetition ” so familiar in the traditional ballad; the traces of improvisation, singing, and dancing; the absence of figure, of individuality in portraiture, and of the personality of the singer. The evidence on these points, derived from the actual texts of surviving ballads and songs, is supported by a large mass of material drawn from ethnology and folk lore. Then, since, the farther back we go into primitive times, the elements pointing to a communal origin increase in importance, while the elements characterizing the individual artist dwindle, it is argued that we are justified in inferring the beginnings of poetry to have been purely the utterance of the throng.

The argument is largely cumulative, so that it is impossible to indicate its weight by an outline. The tribal lament for the dead, the rhythmical chants accompanying labor and festal dances and processions, are some of the primitive practices adduced in support; and evidence for the universality and antiquity of these is gathered from an immense field. The book closes with two chapters tracing the growth of the individual elements in poetry from the time when the occasional improviser emerges from the crowd dancing and singing in chorus, down to the modern era of the artist, busy in solitude with his sonnet, “ that apartment for a single gentleman in verse.”

Professor Gummere’s task has been complicated by the necessity of disposing of the arguments of many predecessors in various parts of his field. This has been done with a quite exceptional vivacity; and while at times the mass of this criticism tends to obscure the main thread of the argument, it makes it possible to regard the present volume as the starting point of future discussion. A glance at the footnotes reveals the magnitude of the service implied. It is seldom that a student enjoys the spectacle of so great a mass of learning handled with such ease, such balance, and such humor.

At the other extreme of the field of poetics lie Professor Courthope’s recent Oxford lectures on Life in Poetry and Law in Taste.2 Here we have a subject-matter already so familiar that it precludes the possibility of such novel speculation as adds zest to the reading of Mr. Gummere’s treatise. The old questions of the secret of vitality in poetry and of the existence of absolute standards of taste are once more raised and once more settled — till the next book appears. Yet it would be a mistake to regard these lectures as a useless threshing of old straw. It is true that he returns once more to Aristotle ; but he treats the dicta of the Poetics in the light of the illuminating commentaries of Butcher, and he applies them to modern literary productions with much freshness and independence.

The volume opens with an inaugural address on Liberty and Authority in Matters of Taste. Courthope holds that society in all ages has insisted on the existence of standards of taste, and concludes that “in every art the standard is the example of the great artist, the practice of those who are acknowledged to be masters in the art.” His method, then, is to be inductive. It is from an examination of those masterpieces that have stood the test of time that he is to derive the “laws and conditions on which the life of Poetry depends. ” These laws he attempts to trace in the phenomena of Poetical Conception, Poetical Expression, and Poetical Decadence.

In the matter of Poetical Conception, the essential requisites are that the subject should be seized by the mind of the poet in an individual way, and that it should have in it the element of the Universal. An interesting application of this double test is made to some modern poets, and the author suggests the danger to the permanence of the position of, say, Browning and Kipling, from the prominence in their work of matters of eccentric or merely temporary interest.

In this balance of the individual and universal elements in Poetry Courthope finds also the law of Poetical Expression, and in its overthrow the explanation of Poetical Decadence. From an examination of periods of decadence, like the decline of the Greek drama in Euripides, of Greek epic in Apollonius Rhodius, the Senecan drama in Rome and the drama of the Restoration in England, he shows that the characteristic symptoms of decay were the domination of individual over universal elements, and the abdication by society of the right to judge, in favor of individuals and coteries. The principles thus derived he uses as a test of the state of contemporary poetry in France and England.

The second course of lectures, on Law in Taste, is based on a more detailed discussion of Aristotelian theory. The meaning of Aristotle’s insistence on the Universal as the object of imitation in Fine Art is interestingly illustrated by reference to various phases of modern art; and it is supplemented by the statement of a Law of National Character, — “that the law of taste in each nation consists in the development of its own genius or character, in conformity with its sense of natural beauty.” This national law is applied in three lectures to the history of poetry in France, Germany, and England; and its working is further illustrated by discussions of Chaucer, Milton, Pope, Tennyson, and Byron as “types of poetical art in different periods of English history. ” Professor Courthope concludes by pleading for the application of the Laws of Taste which he has sought to establish to contemporary criticism and education, as a check to the æsthetic anarchism of the current maxim, “De gustibus non est disputandum. ”

No critic attempting such a wide sweep as is implied in the foregoing statement of the scope of this work could fail to raise at times in the reader the desire to controvert. Thus one is moved to protest against the almost complete ignoring of music, in making generalizations on the nature and laws of Fine Art as a whole. The result is, of course, excessive emphasis on the intellectual as opposed to the emotional elements in art. Again, Mr. Courthope is not always quite consistent. In one lecture he speaks of the decline of the modern lyric, and says : “Sound reasoning would seem rather to point to the conclusion that, since the subjective and lyrical forms of poetry languish, the sources of life are rather to be sought on the objective side, and in the dramatic, ethical, and satiric forms of the art.” Later on he amends Macaulay’s maxim about the decline of poetry with the advance of civilization, thus: “When society readies the stage at which selfconsciousness is widely diffused, the epic, dramatic, and it may be added the didactic forms of poetry decline; and where poetry survives as an art, men mainly seek to express their ideas of nature in the lyric form.” Yet he does not indicate that he holds the position, which, though far from plausible, is the only one capable of reconciling the two passages, that the modern world is ceasing to be self - conscious.

On the whole, however, Mr. Courthope’s book is sane and suggestive, a typical outcome of conservative English culture. But if the question of originality is raised, and Mr. Gummere’s volume called in comparison, it is not hard to give a verdict. It happens that both authors have occasion to discuss the question as to whether metre is of the essence of poetry. Both hold that it is: the contrast appears in the reasons offered. Courthope tells us that “the laws of artistic expression oblige ” poets to write in metre, and his proof of this obligation consists merely in quoting specimen passages of poetry, and pointing out that the same result could never have been achieved in prose. “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 audacity of saying that a face launched ships and burned towers by escaping from the limits of ordinary language, and conveying his metaphor through the harmonious and ecstatic movements of rhythm and metre. ”

Contrast Mr. Gummere’s suggestion that rhythmical utterance and poetry are bound together by a common social origin : “This, then, is why rhythm will not be banished from poetry so long as poetry shall remain emotional utterance; for rhythm is not only sign and warrant of a social contract stronger, deeper, vaster, than any fancied by Rousseau, but it is the expression of a human sense more keen even than the fear of devils and the love of gods, — the sense and sympathy of kind.”

William Allan Neilson.

  1. The Beginnings of Poetry. By FRANCIS B. GUMMERE. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1901.
  2. Life in Poetry. Law in Taste. By W. J. COURTHOPE. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1901.