On Certain Vagaries of the Poets

WE are used to the Whitmanites: we do not mind them any more, though sometimes we may wish they would not divide their rather complicated sentences into lines quite so arbitrarily. Even a simple prose sentence takes on difficulty as well as dignity when it is printed as a five-line stanza, thus: —

I got
Up and found
The kitchen
Fire had gone

Still this is intelligible, if the reader will only put his mind to it. But another school of poets of a different mettle has appeared. Instead of loafing and inviting their souls, these gentlemen fly to the uttermost parts of the earth in search of verbal monstrosities, and return with hordes of barbaric captives. Not satisfied with this, they seize and torture beyond recognition respectable native citizens of the language. Borrowing a word from one of their own number, we may call them the “strepitous” school. Adapting a well-known epigram, we might briefly define them and their work as the Unintelligent in full pursuit of the Unintelligible,

The other day I picked up a magazine and glanced over the verse it contained. Infourshort and harmless-looking, albeit apparently serious compositions, I discovered the following words: “dunching,” “planished,” “skelloch,” “heveril,” “strepitous,” “riffling,” besides the more familiar “wastrel,” “guidon,” and, of course, “rede” and “sib.” These poems, as I said, were all serious in intention; three of them were deathly serious, — at least they had something to do with death, just what, I could not tell. Yet poor Lewis Carroll, if he were alive, would hide his diminished head; clearly, he is out-Carrolled. If the Baker had only thought of dunching the Boojum, he might have returned home in safety.

The strepitous school have not confined themselves to verse that “dunches” and “riffles.” If they had, we might thank them for adding to the gayety of nations. But they have laid violent hands on respectable English words, and tried to force the poetry out of them, as our ancestors used to force confessions out of malefactors, on the rack. This, as Jeffrey used to say, will never do. We cannot look at it with equanimity. To take a mild instance, — an extreme one would be too painful, — in another magazine I find: “Phaeton headlong ruining down the sky.” Presumably the author means that Phaeton is going to ruin: but “ ruin ” as a verb is transitive, and by using it intransitively the author does not make it poetical, but only ungrammatical and ambiguous. Perhaps he meant that Phaeton was destroying the welkin; if so, why does he add “down” ? He does not need it to fill out the metre. After this calamity to Phaeton or the heavens, it is refreshing to be told (in the next poem) that “all this earth’s misrule is glamoured into grace,” Perhaps there is some hope even for Phaeton; at least he had a fair chance to be “glamoured;” let us hope it was “into grace.”

Joubert once said that great poets are of two kinds: the kings of words, and the tyrants of words. Virgil and Milton are kings; Browning is a tyrant. Shakespeare is a king who grew a little tyrannical in his later years. To make a Phaeton-like descent, the “strepitous” poets are the bullies of words. Dante is reported to have remarked that though he had often compelled words to say what they did not mean, they had never compelled him to say what he did not mean. When the “strepitous” poet applies compulsion to words, the upshot generally is that a noise is made, but nothing at all is said. He may make them shriek, but he cannot make them sing. The odd thing is that he generally prefers to bully the big and strange words, — perhaps because he thinks that words are poetical in proportion to their size and strangeness. But words, like horses and men, know their masters; the smallest and commonest will turn to perfect poetry at the touch of a Keats; —

“ The stars look very cold about the sky And I have many miles on foot to fare.”