Science and Poetry
HABITS that have endured for many thousands of years are not easy to throw off — least of all when they are habits of thought, and when they do not come into open conflict with changing circumstances or do not clearly involve us in loss or inconvenience. Yet the loss may be great without our knowing anything about it. Before 1590 no one knew how inconvenient were our natural habits of thought about the ways in which a stone may fall; yet the modern world began when Galileo discovered what really happens. Nobody before Lister knew that ordinary traditional ideas as to cleanliness are dangerously inadequate. The average duration of human life has increased by about thirty years since he upset them. Nobody before Sir Ronald Ross knew what were the consequences of thinking about malaria in terms of influences and miasmas instead of in terms of mosquitoes. The Roman Empire might perhaps have still been flourishing if someone had found this out before A.D. 100.
When such examples are considered we can no longer, in any department of life, so easily accept what was good enough for our fathers as good enough for ourselves, or for our children. We are forced to wonder whether our ideas even upon subjects apparently of little practical importance, such as poetry, may not be dangerously inadequate. It becomes indeed somewhat alarming to recognize, as we must, that our habits of thought remain, as regards most of our affairs, much as they were five thousand years ago. The sciences are, of course, simply the exceptions to this rule. Outside the sciences — and the greater part of our thinking still goes on outside the sciences — we think very much as our ancestors thought a hundred or two hundred generations ago. Certainly this is so as regards official views about poetry. Is it not possible that these are wrong, as wrong as most ideas of an equally hoary antiquity? Is it not possible that to the men of the future our life to-day will seem a continual, ceaseless disaster due only to our own stupidity, to the nervelessness with which we accept and transmit ideas which do not apply to anything and never have?
Perhaps the most encouraging new feature of modem Western civilization is the number of people who are genuinely asking themselves what they are doing and why they are doing it. General curiosity is waking up; we are beginning to ask pertinaciously what our place in the world really is, and more particularly, when we think, talk, work, vote, fall in love, read poetry, or take up stamp-collecting, what is actually happening and what is the reason, the point, the value, or the justification of these activities. How are we to decide whether what we are doing is worth while or whether we are doing it well or ill?
VOL. 136 — No. 4
In other words we are becoming more critical. Not in the narrow sense of being more apt to find fault, though for many reasons a greater uneasiness is abroad; but in the wider sense in which to be critical is to attempt to judge something reasonably and with a full sense of the whole situation and not merely by unconscious approval or disapproval.
Men are looking around for standards, for reasons why one way of life should be preferred to another. Formerly there was no need to look around. The standards were obtrusively present; and if a man did not know what he ought to think, or to feel, or to do, that was his own fault.
To-day it is not so. Partly because conditions and circumstances have changed (we do not even yet sufficiently realize what a totally different thing modern industrial society is from the society, say, of the seventeenth century) ; partly because, through the extension of science, reasons which used to be thought sound are now seen to be baseless; and partly from other causes, among which may be changes in man himself, we are in great need of a clear, coherent picture of human affairs. The average man is growing more conscious — an extraordinarily significant change. It is probably due to the fact that his life is becoming more complex, more intricate, his desires and needs more varied and more apt to conflict. And as he becomes more conscious he can no longer be content to drift in unreflecting obedience to his instincts. He is forced to reflect. And, if reflection often takes the form of inconclusive worrying, that is no more than might be expected in view of the unparalleled difficulty of the task. To live reasonably is much more difficult to-day than it was in Doctor Johnson’s time, and even then, as Boswell shows, it was difficult enough.
To live reasonably is not to live by reason alone, — the mistake is easy and, if carried far, disastrous, — but to live in a way of which reason, a clear full sense of the whole situation, would approve. And the most important part of the whole situation, as always, is ourselves, our own psychological make-up. The more we learn about the physical world, about our bodies, for example, the more points we find at which our ordinary behavior is out of accord with the facts — inapplicable, wasteful, disadvantageous, dangerous, or absurd. We find, for example, that man has been suffering from goitre for thousands of years merely for lack of a little iodine. We have still to learn how to feed ourselves satisfactorily. Similarly, the little that is yet known about the mind already shows that our ways of thinking and feeling about very many of the things with which we concern ourselves are out of accord with the facts. This is preëminently true of our ways of thinking and feeling about poetry. We think and talk in terms of states of affairs which have never existed. We attribute to ourselves and to things powers which neither we nor they possess.
Day by day, in recent years, man is getting more out of place in nature. Where he is going to he does not yet know, he has not yet decided. As a consequence he finds life more and more bewildering, more and more difficult to live coherently. Thus he turns to consider himself, his own nature. For the first step toward a reasonable way of life is a better understanding of human nature. Fortunately the labors of psychologists have at last made this possible.
It has long been recognized that, if only something could be done in psychology remotely comparable to what has been achieved in physics, practical consequences might be expected even more remarkable than any that the engineer can contrive. The first positive steps in the science of the mind have been slow in coming, but already they are beginning to change man’s whole outlook. The time has come to attempt some practical applications. What light does the science of the mind throw upon poetry?
Extraordinary claims have often been made for poetry, — Matthew Arnold’s words quoted at the head of this essay are an example, — claims which very many people are inclined to view with astonishment or with the smile which tolerance gives to the enthusiast. Indeed, a more representative modern view would be that the future of poetry is nil. Peacock’s conclusion in his Four Ages of Poetry finds a more general acceptance: ‘A poet in our times is a semibarbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. . . . In whatever degree poetry is cultivated, it must necessarily be to the neglect of some branch of useful study: and it is a lamentable thing to see minds, capable of better things, running to seed in the specious indolence of these empty aimless mockeries of intellectual exertion. Poetry was the mental rattle that awakened the attention of intellect in the infancy of civil society: but for the maturity of mind to make a serious business of the playthings of its childhood is as absurd as for a grown man to rub his gums with coral, and cry to be charmed asleep by the jingle of silver bells.’ And with more regret many others — Keats was among them — have thought that the inevitable effect of the advance of science would be to destroy the possibility of poetry.
What is the truth in this matter? How is our estimate of poetry going to be affected by science? And how will poetry itself be influenced? The extreme importance which has in the past been assigned to poetry is a fact which must be accounted for whether we conclude that it was rightly assigned or not, and whether we consider that poetry will continue to be held in such esteem or not. It indicates that the case for poetry, whether right or wrong, is one which turns on important issues. We shall not have dealt adequately with it unless we have raised questions of great importance.
Very much toil has gone to the endeavor to explain the high place of poetry in human affairs, with, on the whole, few satisfactory or convincing results. This is not surprising. For in order to show how poetry is important it is first necessary to discover to some extent what it is. Until recently this preliminary task could be only very incompletely carried out. The psychology of instinct and emotion was too little advanced, and, moreover, the wild speculations natural in prescientific inquiry definitely stood in the way. Neither the professional psychologist, whose interest in poetry is frequently not intense, nor the man of letters, who as a rule has no adequate ideas of the mind as a whole, has been equipped for the investigation. Both a passionate knowledge of poetry and a dispassionate capacity for psychological analysis are required if it is to be satisfactorily prosecuted.
It will be best to begin by asking ‘What kind of thing, in the widest sense, is poetry?’ When we have answered this we shall be ready to ask ‘How can we use and misuse it?' and ‘What reasons are there for thinking it valuable?’
Let us take an experience, ten minutes of a person’s life, and describe it in broad outline. It is now possible to indicate its general structure, to point out what is important in it, what trivial and accessory, which features depend upon which, how it has arisen, and how it is probably going to influence his future experience. There are, of course, plenty of gaps in this description; none the less it is at last possible to understand in general how the mind works in an experience and what sort of stream of events the experience is.
A poem — let us say Wordsworth’s ‘Westminster Bridge’ sonnet — is such an experience; it is the experience the right kind of reader has when he peruses the verses. And the first step to an understanding of the place and future of poetry in human affairs is to see what the general structure of such an experience is. Let us begin by reading it very slowly, preferably aloud, giving every syllable time to make its full effect upon us. And let us read it experimentally, repeating it, varying our tone of voice until we are satisfied that we have caught its rhythm as well as we are able and, whether our reading is such as to please other people or not, we ourselves at least are clear as to how it should ‘go.’
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky —
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
We may best make our analysis of the experience that arises through reading these lines from the surface inward, to speak metaphorically. The surface is the impression of the printed words on the retina. This sets up an agitation which we must follow as it goes deeper and deeper.
The first things to occur — if they do not, the rest of the experience will be gravely inadequate — are the sound of the word ‘in the mind’s ear’ and the feel of the word imaginarily spoken. These together give the full body, as it were, to the words, and it is with the full bodies of words that the poet works, not with their printed signs. But many people lose nearly everything in poetry through these indispensable parts escaping them.
Next arise various pictures ‘in the mind’s eye’—not of words, but of things for which the words stand; perhaps of ships, perhaps of hills; and together with them, it may be, other images of various sorts. Images of what it feels like to stand leaning on the parapet of Westminster Bridge. Perhaps that odd thing, an image of ‘silence.’ But, unlike the image-bodies of the words themselves, these other images of things are not vitally important. Those who have them may very well think them indispensable, and for them they may be necessary; but other people may not require them at all. This is a point at which differences between individual minds are very marked.
Thence onward the agitation which is the experience divides, though its two streams have innumerable interconnections and affect one another intimately.
One branch we will call the intellectual stream, the other the instinctive or emotional stream.
The intellectual stream is fairly easy to follow; it follows itself, so to speak; but it is the less important of the two. In poetry it matters only as a means, as directing and exciting the instinctive emotional stream. It is made up of thoughts, which are not static little entities that bob up into consciousness and down again out of it, but fluent happenings, events, which reflect or point to the things the thoughts are ‘of.’ Exactly how they do this is a matter which is still much disputed.
This pointing to or reflecting things is all that thoughts do. It is the instinctive stream which deals with the things that thoughts reflect or point to.
Some people who read verse — they do not often read much of it — are so constituted that very little more happens than this intellectual stream of thoughts. It is perhaps superfluous to point out that they miss the real poem. To exaggerate this part of the experience, and give it too much importance on its own account, is a notable current tendency and for many people explains why they do not read poetry.
The other branch, the instinctive stream, is what really matters; from the instincts all the energy of the whole agitation comes. The thinking which goes on is somewhat like the play of an ingenious and invaluable ‘governor,’ run by, but controlling, the main machine. Every experience is essentially some instinct or group of instincts working itself out.
An instinct is an impulse, ultimately an impulse to do something of a characteristic kind, set off by a characteristic situation. Normally what the impulse does is something which meets the needs of the situation.
In man, as in the animals, the main kinds of primary impulses which drive all the activities of the mind seem to number about a dozen. Each of these kinds is an instinct. The protective (or parental), the combative, the submissive, the self-assertive, the acquisitive, the constructive, the food-seeking, and the gregarious instincts, and those of sex, of escape, of curiosity, and of repulsion (or disgust) — such is the most generally accepted list, that of Professor McDougall. It may seem a far cry from any interplay of these to the impulses which make up ‘Westminster Bridge,’ but these primary drives have, as it were, long been multiplying among themselves. Their offspring show nowadays an amazing variety. None the less they seem still to be entirely dependent upon their grandparents. Any force which the derived activity possesses comes to it from these primary drives and may, so to speak, at any moment be turned off at the main. The derivative impulses, highly specialized things that they are, — the impulse to solve crossword puzzles or to throw stones through the windowpanes of empty houses, — are ways in which the great primary drives work themselves out. They are not independent activities, and when the instincts find other means of satisfaction these derivative activities lose their force and cease.
We must picture, then, the main stream of every experience as the play of these disguised and transferred instincts. We are reading the poem in the first place only because we are in some way interested in doing so, only because some instinct is attempting to satisfy itself thereby. And whatever happens as we read happens only for a similar reason. We understand the words (the intellectual branch of the stream goes on its way successfully) only because an instinct — it may be merely curiosity — is acting through that means, and the rest of the experience is equally but more evidently instinctive adaptation working itself out.
The rest of the experience is made up of emotions and attitudes. Emotions are what the instinctive reaction, with its reverberation in bodily changes, feels like. Attitudes are the impulses toward one kind of behavior or another which are set ready by the instinct. They are, as it were, the outwardgoing part of the instinct. Sometimes, as here in ‘Westminster Bridge,’ they are very easily overlooked. But consider a simpler case — a fit of laughter which it is absolutely essential to conceal, in church or during a solemn interview, for example. You contrive not to laugh; but there is no doubt about the activity of the impulses in their restricted form. The much more subtle and elaborate impulses which a poem excites are not different in principle. They do not show themselves as a rule, they do not come out into the open, largely because they are so complex. When they have adjusted themselves to one another and become organized into a coherent whole, the instincts which are their driving forces are satisfied. In a fully developed man a state of readiness for action will take the place of action when the full appropriate situation for action is not present. The essential peculiarity of poetry, as of all the arts, is that the full appropriate situation is not present. It is an actor we are seeing upon the stage, not Hamlet. So imaginative readiness for action takes the place of actual behavior.
This is the main plan, then, of the experience. Signs on the retina, taken up by sets of instinctive needs (remember how many other impressions all day long remain entirely unnoticed because they do not lend themselves to instinctive response); thence an elaborate agitation of impulses, one branch of which is thoughts of what the words mean, the other an emotional response leading to the development of attitudes, — preparations, that is, for actions which may or may not take place,
— the two branches being in intimate connection.
We must look nowa little more closely at these connections. It may seem odd that we do not more definitely make the thoughts the rulers and causes of the rest of the response. To do just this has been, in fact, the grand error of traditional psychology. Man prefers to stress the features which distinguish him from monkey, and chief among these are his intellectual capacities. Important though they are, he has given them a rank to which they are not entitled. Intellect is an adjunct to the instincts, a means by which they operate more successfully. Man is not in any sense primarily an intelligence; he is a system of instincts. Intelligence helps man, but does not run him.
Partly through this natural mistake, and partly because intellectual operations are so much easier to study, the whole traditional analysis of the working of the mind has been turned upside down. It is largely as a remedy for the difficulties which this mistake involves that poetry may have so much importance in the future. But let us look again more closely at the poetic experience.
In the first place, why is it essential in reading poetry to give the words their full imagined sound and body? What is meant by saying that the poet works with this sound and body? The answer is that even before the words have been intellectually understood, and the thoughts they occasion formed and followed, the movement and sound of the words are playing deeply and intimately upon the instincts. How this happens is a matter which has yet to be successfully investigated, but that it happens no sensitive reader of poetry doubts. A good deal of poetry and even some great poetry exists — for example, some of Shakespeare’s Songs and, in a different way, much of the best of Swinburne — in which the sense of the words can be almost entirely missed or neglected without loss. Never, perhaps, entirely without effort, however, though sometimes, as in Meredith, with advantage. But the plain fact that the relative importance of grasping the sense of the words may vary — compare Browning’s ‘Before’ with his ‘After’ — is enough for our purpose.
In nearly all poetry the sound and feel of the words, what is often called the form of the poem in opposition to its content, get to work first, and the sense in which the words are taken is subtly influenced by this fact. Most words are ambiguous as regards their plain sense, especially in poetry. We can take them as we please, in a variety of senses. The sense we are pleased to choose is the one which most suits the impulses already stirred through the form of the verse. The same thing can be noticed in conversation. Not the strict logical sense of what is said, but the tone of voice and the occasion are the primary factors by which we interpret. Science, it is worth noting, endeavors with increasing success to bar out these factors. We believe a scientist because he can substantiate his remarks, not because he is eloquent or forcible in his enunciation. In fact we distrust him when he seems to be influencing us by his manner.
In its use of words poetry is just the reverse of science. Very definite thoughts do occur, but not because the words are so chosen as logically to bar out all possibilities but one. No. But because the manner, the tone of voice, the cadence, and the rhythm play upon our instincts and make them pick out from among an indefinite number of possibilities the precise particular thought which they need. This is why poetical descriptions often seem so much more accurate than prose descriptions. Language logically and scientifically used cannot describe a landscape or a face. To do so it would need a prodigious apparatus of names for shades and nuances, for precise particular qualities. These names do not exist, so other means have to be used. The poet — even when, like Ruskin or De Quincey, he writes in prose — makes the reader pick out the precise particular sense required from an indefinite number of possible senses which a word, phrase, or sentence may carry. The means by which he does this are many and varied. Some of them have been mentioned above, but the way in which he uses them is the poet’s own secret, something which cannot be taught. He knows how to do it, but he does not himself know how it is done.
Misunderstanding and underestimation of poetry are mainly due to overestimation of the thought in it. We can see still more clearly that thought is not the prime factor if we consider for a moment not the experience of the reader but that of the poet. Why does the poet use these words and no others? Not because they stand for a series of thoughts which in themselves are what he is concerned to communicate. He is not writing as a scientist. But because the instincts which the situation calls into play combine to bring these words, just in this form, into the poet’s consciousness as a means of ordering, controlling, and consolidating the whole experience. The experience itself, the tide of impulses sweeping through the mind, is the source and the sanction of the words. They represent this experience itself, not any set of perceptions or reflections, though often to a reader who approaches the poem wrongly they will seem to be only a series of remarks about other things. But to a suitable reader the words — if they actually spring from experience and are not due to verbal habits, to the desire to be effective, to factitious excogitation, to imitation, to irrelevant contrivances, or to any other of the failings which prevent most people from writing poetry — the words will reproduce in his mind a similar play of instincts putting him for the while into a similar situation and leading to the same response.
Why this should happen is still somewhat of a mystery. An extraordinarily intricate concourse of impulses brings the words together. Then in another mind the affair in part reverses itself, the words bring into being a similar concourse of impulses. The words which seem to be the effect of the experience, in the first instance, seem to become the cause of a similar experience in the second. A very odd thing to happen, not exactly paralleled outside communication. But this description is not quite accurate. The words, as we have seen, are not simply the effect in one case, or the cause in the other. In both cases they are the part of the experience which binds it together, which gives it a definite structure and keeps it from being a mere welter of disconnected impulses. They are the key, to borrow a useful metaphor from McDougall, for this particular combination of impulses. So regarded, it is less strange that what the poet wrote should reproduce his experience in the mind of the reader.
Enough, perhaps, as to the kind of thing a poem is, as to the general structure of these experiences. Let us now turn to the further questions: ‘Of what use is it? ‘ ‘ Why and how is it valuable? ‘ The first point to be made is that poetic experiences are valuable — when they are — in the same ways as any other experiences. They are to be judged by the same standards. What are these?
Extraordinarily diverse views have been held upon this point. Very naturally, since such very different ideas have been entertained as to what kind of thing an experience is; for our opinions as to the differences between good and bad experiences depend inevitably upon what we take an experience to be. As fashions have changed in psychology, men’s ethical theories have followed suit. When a created, simple, and eternal soul was the pivotal point, Good was conformity with the will of the creator, Evil was rebellion. When the associationist psychologists substituted a swarm of sensations and images for the soul, Good became pleasure and Evil became pain, and so on. A long chapter of the history of opinions has still to be written tracing these changes. Now that the mind is seen to be a hierarchy of impulses, what will for this account be the difference between Good and Evil?
It is the difference between free and wasteful organizations, between fullness and narrowness of life. For if the mind is a systematic concourse of impulses, and if experience is their play, the worth of experience is a matter of the number, force, and freedom of the impulses which make it up.
This is a first approximation. It needs qualifying and expanding if it is to become a satisfactory theory. Let us see how some of these amendments would run.
Each hour of any person’s life holds out innumerable possibilities. Which of these are realized depends upon two main groups of factors: the external situation in which he is living, his surroundings, including the other people with whom he is in contact; and, secondly, his psychological make-up. The first of these, the external situation, is often given too much importance. To recognize this fact we have only to notice what very different experiences different people undergo when in closely similar situations.
A situation which is dullness itself for one may be full of excitement for another. What an individual responds to is not the whole situation, but a selection from it, and as a rule few people make the same selection. What is selected is decided by the organization of the individual’s instincts.
Now let us simplify the case by supposing that nothing which happens during this hour is going to have any further consequences either in our hypothetical person’s life or in anyone else’s. He is going to cease to exist when the clock strikes — but for our purposes he must be imagined not to know this — and no one is to be a whit the better or worse whatever he thinks, feels, or does during the hour. What shall we say it would be best for him, if he could, to do?
We need not bother to imagine the detail of the external situation or the character of the man. We can answer our question in general terms without doing so. The man has a certain definite instinctive make-up — the result of his past history, including his heredity. There will be many things which he cannot do which another man could, and many things which he cannot do in this situation, whatever it is, which he could do in other situations. But, given this particular man in this particular situation, our question is, which of the possibilities open to him would be better than which others? How should we, as friendly observers, like to see him living?
Setting pain aside, we may perhaps agree that torpor would be the worst choice. Complete inertness, lifelessness, would be the sorriest spectacle — anticipating too nearly and unnecessarily what is to happen when the hour strikes. We can then perhaps agree, though here more resistance from preconceived ideas may be encountered, that the best choice would be the opposite of torpor—the fullest, keenest, most active, completest kind of life.
Such a life is one which brings into play as many as possible of the positive instincts. We can leave out the negative instincts. It would be a pity for our friend to be frightened or disgusted even for a minute of his precious hour.
But this is not all. It is not enough that many instincts should be awake and active. There is a more important point to be noted.
The depth, and not the tumult, of the soul.
The instincts must come into play and remain in play with as little conflict among themselves as possible. In other words, the experience must be organized so as to give all the impulses of which it is composed the greatest possible degree of freedom.
It is in this respect that people differ most from one another. It is this which separates the happy from the mad. Far more life is wasted through muddled mental organization than through lack of opportunity. Conflicts between different impulses are the greatest evils which afflict mankind.
The best life, then, which we can wish for our friend will be one in which as much as possible of himself is engaged, as many of his impulses as possible. And this with as little conflict, as little mutual interference between different subsystems of his activities, as is possible. The more he lives and the less he thwarts himself, the better. That briefly is our answer.
There are two ways in which conflict can be avoided or overcome. By conquest and by conciliation. One or other of the contesting impulses can be suppressed, or they can come to a mutual arrangement, they can adjust themselves to one another. We owe to psychoanalysis — at present a rather undisciplined branch of psychology — a great deal of striking evidence as to the extreme difficulty of suppressing any vigorous impulse. When it seems to be suppressed it is often found to be really as active as ever, but in some other form, generally a troublesome one. For this reason, as well as for the simpler reason that suppression is wasteful of life, conciliation is always to be preferred to conquest. People who are always winning victories over themselves might equally well be described as always enslaving themselves. Their lives become unnecessarily narrow. The minds of many saints have been like wells; they should have been like lakes or like the sea.
Unfortunately most of us, left to ourselves, have no option but to go in for extensive attempts at self-conquest. It is our only means of escape from chaos. Our impulses must have some order, some organization, or we do not live ten minutes without disaster. In the past, Tradition — a kind of Treaty of Versailles assigning frontiers and spheres of influence to the different instincts, and based chiefly upon conquest — ordered our lives in a moderately satisfactory manner. But Tradition is weakening. Moral authorities are not so well backed by beliefs as they were; their sanctions are declining in force. We are in need of something to take the place of the old order. Not in need of a new balance of power, a new arrangement of conquests, but of a League of Nations for the moral ordering of the impulses — a new order based on conciliation, not on attempted suppression.
Only the rarest individuals hitherto have achieved this new order, and never yet, perhaps, completely. But many have achieved it for a brief while, for a particular phase of experience, and many have recorded it for these phases.
It is my contention that we have these records in poetry.
But before going on to this new point let us return for a moment to our hypothetical friend who is enjoying his last hour, and suppose this limitation removed. Instead of such an hour let us consider any hour, one which has consequences for his future and for other people. Let us consider any piece of any life. How far is our argument affectecl? Will our standards of good and evil be altered?
Clearly the case now is, in certain respects, different; it is much more complicated. We have to take these consequences into account. We have to regard his experience, not in itself alone, but as a piece of his life and as a probable factor in other people’s situations. If we are to approve of the experience, it must not only be full of life and free from conflict, but it must be likely to lead to other experiences, both his own and those of other people, also full of life and free from conflict. And often in actual fact it has to be less full of life and more restricted than it might be in order to ensure these results. A momentary individual good has often to be sacrificed for the sake of a later or a general good. Conflicts are often necessary in order that they should not occur later. The mutual adjustment of conflicting impulses may take time, and an acute struggle may be the only way in which they learn to coöperate peacefully in the future.
But all these complications and qualifications do not disturb the conclusion we arrived at through considering the simpler case. A good experience is still one full of life, in the sense which we have explained, or, derivatively, one conducive to experiences full of life. An evil experience is one which is selfthwarting or conducive to stultifying conflicts. So far, then, all is sound and shipshape in the argument and we can go on to consider the poet.
The chief characteristic of poets is their amazing command of words. This is not a mere matter of vocabulary, though it is significant that Shakespeare’s vocabulary is the richest and most varied that any Englishman has ever used. It is not the quantity of words a writer has at his disposal, but the way in which he disposes them, that gives him his rank as a poet. His sense of how they modify one another, how their separate effects in the mind combine, how they fit into the whole response, is what matters. As a rule the poet is not conscious of the reasons why just these words and no others best serve. They fall into their place without his conscious control, and a feeling of rightness, of inevitability, is commonly his sole conscious ground for his certainty that he has ordered them aright. It would as a rule be idle to ask him why he used a particular rhythm or a particular epithet. He might give reasons, but they would probably be mere rationalizations having nothing to do with the matter. For the choice of the rhythm or the epithet was not an intellectual matter, — though it may be capable of an intellectual justification, — but was due to an instinctive impulse seeking to confirm itself, or to order itself with its fellows.
It is very important to realize how deep are the motives which govern the poet’s use of words. No study of other poets which is not an impassioned study will help him. He can learn much from other poets, but only by letting them influence him deeply, not by any superficial examination of their ‘style.’ The motives which shape a poem spring from the root of the mind. The poet’s style is the direct outcome of his instinctive organization. That amazing capacity of his for ordering speech is only a part of a more amazing capacity for ordering his experience.
This is the explanation of the fact that poetry cannot be written by cunning and study, by craft and contrivance. To a superficial glance the productions of the mere scholar, steeped in the poetry of the past and animated by intense emulation and a passionate desire to place himself among the poets, will often look extraordinarily like poetry. His words may seem as subtly and delicately ordered as words can be, his epithets as happy, his transitions as daring, his simplicity as perfect. By every intellectual test he may succeed. But unless the ordering of the words sprang, not from knowledge of the technique of poetry, added to a desire to write some, but from an actual supreme ordering of experience, a closer approach to his work will betray it. Characteristically its rhythm will give it away. For rhythm is no matter of tricks with syllables, but directly reflects personality. It is not separable from the words to which it belongs. Moving rhythm in poetry arises only from genuinely stirred impulses, and is a more subtle index than any other to the order of the instincts.
Poetry, in other words, cannot be imitated; it cannot be faked so as to deceive the only test that ought ever to be applied. It is, unfortunately, true that this test is often very difficult to apply. And it is sometimes hard to know whether the test has or has not been applied. Only genuine poetry will give to the reader who approaches it in the proper manner a response which is as passionate, noble, and serene as the experience of the poet, the master of speech because he is the master of experience itself. But it is easy to read carelessly and shallowly, and easy to mistake for the response something which does not belong to it at all. By careless reading we miss what is in the poem. And in some states of mind — for example, when intoxicated — the silliest doggerel may seem sublime. What happens is not due to the doggerel, but to the drink.