Making and Judging Poetry
Last spring two distinguished Englishmen were nominated to fill the chair of Professor of Poetry at Oxford University, W. H. AUDEN and Harold Nicolson. There was heated argument among the dons and undergraduates; signs reading“Auden for Prof” were chalked on the walls; and when at last the votes were counted, it was indeed the poet who had been elected. On his inauguration Mr. Auden, after paying his respects to the office and to the line of distinguished scholars and poets who had preceded him, began to speak of the Censor, that inner voice and self-critic who occupies and determines each individual poet in his time.
by W. H. AUDEN
I BEGAN writing poetry because one Sunday afternoon in March 1922, a friend suggested that I should: the thought had never occurred to me. I scarcely knew any poems — The English Hymnal, the Psalms, Struwwelpeter, and the mnemonic rhymes in Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer are about all I remember — and I look little interest in what is called Imaginative Literature. Most of my reading had been related to a private world of Sacred Objects. Aside from a few stories like George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and Jules Verne’s The Child of the Cavern, the subjects of which touched upon my obsessions, my favorite books bore such titles as Underground Life, Machinery for Metalliferous Mines, Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moor, and my conscious purpose in reading them had been to gain information about my sacred objects. At the time, therefore, the suggestion that I write poetry seemed like a revelation from heaven for which nothing in my past could account.
Looking back, however, I now realize that I had read the technological prose of my favorite books in a peculiar way. A word like pyrites, for example, was for me not simply an indicative sign; it was the Proper Name of a Sacred Being, so that , when I heard an aunt pronounce it pirrits, I was shocked. Her pronunciation was more than wrong, it was ugly. Ignorance was impiety. If my friend’s suggestion met with such an unexpected response, the reason may have been that, without knowing it, I had been enjoying the poetic use of language for a long time.
A beginner’s efforts cannot be called bad or imitative. They are imaginary. A bad poem has this or that fault which can be pointed out, an imitative poem is a recognizable imitation of this or that poem, this or that poet. But about an imaginary poem no criticism can be made since it is an imitation of poetry-in-general. Never again will a poet feel so inspired, so certain of genius, as he feels in these first days as his pencil flies across the page. Yet something is being learned even now. As he scribbles on he is beginning to get the habit of noticing metrical quantities, to see that any two-syllable word in isolation must be either a ti-tum, a tum-ti or, occasionally, a tum-tum, but that when associated with other words it can sometimes become a ti-ti; when he discovers a rhyme he has not thought of before, he stores it away in his memory, a habit which an Italian poet may not need to acquire but which an English poet will find useful.
And, though as yet he can only scribble, he has started reading real poems for pleasure and on purpose. Many things can be said against anthologies, but for an adolescent to whom even the names of most of the poets are unknown, a good one can be an invaluable instructor. I had the extraordinary good fortune to be presented one Christmas with the de la Mare anthology Come Hither. This had, for my purposes, two great virtues. Firstly, its good taste. Reading it today, I find very few poems which I should have omitted and none which I should think it bad taste to admire. Secondly, its catholic taste. Given the youthful audience for which it was designed, there were certain kinds of poetry which it did not represent, but within those limits the variety was extraordinary. Particularly valuable was its lack of literary class-consciousness, its juxtaposition on terms of equality of unofficial poetry, such as counting-out rhymes, and official poetry, such as the odes of Keats. It taught me at the start that poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.
A poet who wishes to improve himself should certainly keep good company, but for his profit as well as for his comfort the company should not be too far above his station. It is by no means clear that the poetry which influenced Shakespeare’s development most fruitfully was the greatest poetry with which he was acquainted. Even for readers, when one thinks of the attention that a great poem demands, there is something frivolous about the notion of spending every day with one. Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit.
I am not trying to defend the aesthetic heresy that one subject is no more important than any other, or that a poem has no subject or that there is no difference between a great poem and a good one — a heresy which seems to me contrary to human feeling and common sense - but I can understand why it exists. Nothing is worse than a bad poem which was intended to be great. So a would-be poet begins to learn that poetry is more various than he imagined and that he can like and dislike different poems for different reasons.
IF POETRY were in great public demand so that there were overworked professional poets, I can imagine a system under which an established poet would take on a small number of apprentices who would begin by changing his blotting paper, advance to typing his manuscripts, and end up by ghost-writing poems for him which he was too busy to start or finish. The apprentices might really learn something for, knowing that he would get the blame as well as the credit for their work, the Master would be extremely choosy about his apprentices and do his best to teach them all he knew.
In fact, of course, a would-be poet serves his apprenticeship in a library. This has its advantages. Though the Master is deaf and dumb and gives neither instruction nor criticism, the apprentice can choose any Master he likes, living or dead, the Master is available at any hour of the day or night, lessons are all for free, and his passionate admiration of his Master will ensure that he work hard to please him.
To please means to imitate and it is impossible to do a recognizable imitation of a poet without attending to every detail of his diction, rhythms, and habits of sensibility. In imitating his Master, the apprentice acquires a Censor. Anyone who writes poetry will be familiar with this critic who is only interested in one author and only concerned with works that do not yet exist. From his Censor, the poet learns that, no matter how he finds it, by inspiration, by potluck, or after hours of laborious search, there is only one word or rhythm or form that is the right one. The right one is still not yet the real one, for the apprentice is ventriloquizing but he has got away from poetry-in-general; he is learning how a poem is written. Later in life, incidentally, he will realize how important is the art of imitation, for he will not infrequently be called upon to imitate himself.
My first Master was Thomas Hardy, and I think I was very lucky in my choice. He was a good poet, perhaps a great one, but not too good. Much as I loved him, even I could see that his diction was often clumsy and forced and that a lot of his poems were plain bad. This gave me hope where a flawless poet might have made me despair. He was modern without being too modern. His world and sensibility were close enough to mine — curiously enough bis face bore a striking resemblance to my father’s — so that, in imitating him, I was being led towards not away from myself, but they were not so close as to obliterate my identity. If I looked through his spectacles, at least I was conscious of a certain eyestrain. Lastly, his metrical variety, his fondness for complicated stanza forms, were an invaluable training in the craft of making, I am also thankful that my first Master did not write in free verse or I might then have been tempted to believe that free verse is easier to write than stricter forms, whereas I know it is infinitely more difficult.
Presently the curtain rises on a scene rather like the finale to Act II of Die Meistersinger. Let us call it The Gathering of the Apprentices. The apprentices gather together from all over and discover that they are a new generation; somebody shouts the word “modern" and the riot is on. The New Iconoclastic Poets and Critics are discovered when I was an undergraduate a critic could still describe Mr. T. S. Eliot, O.M., as “a drunken helot" - the poetry which these new authorities recommend becomes the Canon, that on which they frown is thrown out of the window. There are gods whom it is blasphemy to criticize and devils whose names may not be mentioned without execrations. The apprentices have seen a great light while their tutors sit in darkness and the shadow of death.
An apprentice discovers that there is a significant relation between the statement “Today I am nineteen" and the statement. “Today is February the twenty-first, 1926.” If the discovery goes to his head, it is, nevertheless, a discovery he must make for, until he realizes that all the poems he has read, however different they may be, have the one common characteristic that they have all been written, his own writing will never cease to be imitative. He will never know what he himself can write until he has a general sense of what needs to be written. And this is the one thing his elders cannot teach him, just because they are his elders; he can only learn it from his fellow apprentices with whom he shares one thing in common, they are contemporaries.
The discovery is not wholly pleasant. If the young speak of the past as a burden which it is a joy to throw off, behind their words may often lie a resentment and fright at realizing that the past will not carry them on its back.
The critical statements of the Censor are always polemical advice to his poet , meant not as objective truths but as pointers, and in youth which is trying to discover its own identity, the exasperation at not having yet succeeded naturally tends to express itself in violence and exaggeration.
If an undergraduate announces to his tutor one morning that Gertrude Stein is the greatest writer who ever lived or that Shakespeare is no good, he is really only saying something like this: “I don’t know what to write yet or how, but yesterday while reading Gertrude Stein, I thought I saw a clue" or “Reading Shakespeare yesterday, I realized that one of the faults in what I write is a tendency to rhetorical bombast.”
Fashion and snobbery are also valuable as a defense against literary indigestion. Regardless of their quality, it is always better to read a few books carefully than skim through many, and, short of a personal taste which cannot be formed overnight, snobbery is as good a principle of limitation as any other.
I am eternally grateful, for example, to the musical fashion of my youth which prevented me from listening to Italian Opera until I was over thirty, by which age I was capable of really appreciating a world so beautiful and so challenging to my own cultural heritage.
The apprentices do each other a further mutual service which no older and sounder critic could do. They read each other’s manuscripts. At this age a fellow apprentice has two great virtues as a critic. When he reads your poem, he may grossly overestimate it, but if he does, he really believes what he is saying; he never flatters or praises merely to encourage. Secondly, he reads your poem with that passionate attention which grown-up critics only give to masterpieces and grown-up poets only to themselves. When he finds fault, his criticisms are intended to help you to improve.
It is just this kind of personal criticism which, in later life when the band of apprentices have dispersed, a writer often finds it so hard to get. The verdicts of reviewers, however just, are seldom of any use to him. Why should they be? A critic is dealing with a published work, not a manuscript. His job is to tell the public what that work is, not tell its author what he should and could have written instead. Yet this is the only kind of criticism from which an author can benefit. Those who could do it for him are generally, like himself, too elsewhere, too busy, too married, too selfish.
We must assume that our apprentice does succeed in becoming a poet, that , sooner or later, a day arrives when his Censor is able to say truthfully and for the first time: “All the words are right, and all are yours. ”
His thrill at hearing this does not last long, however, for a moment later comes the thought: “Will it ever happen again?" Whatever his future life as a wage-earner, a citizen, a family man may be, to the end of his days his life as a poet will be without anticipation. He will never be able to say: “Tomorrow I will write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.”In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet: the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps for ever.
IT IS hardly surprising, then, if a young poet seldom does well in his examinations. If he does, then either he is also a scholar in the making, or he is a very good boy indeed. A medical student knows that he must study anatomy in order to become a doctor, so he has a reason for study. A future scholar has a reason, because he knows more or less what he wants to know. But there is nothing a would-be poet knows he has to know. He is at the mercy of the immediate moment because he has no concrete reason for not yielding to its demands and, for all he knows now, surrendering to his immediate desire may turn out later to have been the best thing he could have done. His immediate desire can even be to attend a lecture. I remember one I attended, delivered by Professor Tolkien. I do not remember a single word he said but at a certain point he recited, and magnificently, a long passage of Beowulf. I was spellbound. This poetry, I knew, was going to be my dish. I became willing, therefore, to work at Anglo-Saxon because, unless I did, I should never be able to read this poetry. I learned enough to read it, however sloppily, and AngloSaxon and Middle English poetry have been one of my strongest, most lasting influences.
But this was something which neither I nor anybody else could have foreseen. Again, what good angel lured me into Blackwell’s one afternoon and, from such a wilderness of volumes, picked out for me the essays of William Paton Ker? No other critic whom I have subsequently read could have granted me the same vision of a kind of literary All Souls Night in which the dead, the living, and the unborn writers of every age and in every tongue were seen as engaged upon a common noble and civilizing task. No other could have so instantaneously aroused in me a fascination with prosody, which I have never lost.
You must not imagine, however, that being a bad boy is all fun. During my three years as an undergraduate, I had a high old time, I made some lifelong friends, and I was more unhappy than I have ever been before or since. I might or might not be wasting my time — only the future would show — I was certainly wasting my parents’ money. Nor must you think that, because he fails to study, a young poet looks down his nose at all the scholarly investigations going on around him. Unless he is very young indeed, he knows that if it had not been for scholars working themselves blind copying and collating manuscripts, many poems would be unavailable, including those of Catullus, and many others full of lines that made no sense. Nor has the invention of printing made editors unnecessary. Lucky the poet whose collected works are not full of misprints.
Even a young poet knows or very soon will realize that, but for scholars, he would be at the mercy of the literary taste of a past generation, since, once a book has gone out of print and been forgotten, only the scholar with his unselfish courage to read the unreadable will retrieve the rare prize. How much Donne, even, would he have read, had it not been for Professor Grierson? What would he know of Clare or Barnes or Christopher Smart but for Messrs. Blunden, Grigson, Force-Stead, and Bond? Nor is editing all that scholars have already done for him. There is that blessed combination of poet and scholar, the translator. How, for example, without the learning and talent of Sir Arthur Waley, could he have discovered, and without the slightest effort on his part, an entirely new world of poetry, that of the Chinese? And then, however different they may be in other ways, poets and scholars have one thing in common. They are not gentlemen. The U is that which both, being non-U, with passion worship.
No, what prevents the young poet from academic study is not conceited ingratitude but a law of mental growth. Except in matters of life and death, temporal or spiritual, questions must not be answered until they have been asked, and at present he has no questions. At present he makes little distinction between a book, a country walk, and a kiss. All are equally experiences to store away in his memory. Could he look into a memory, the literary historian would find many members of that species which he calls books, but they are curiously changed from the books he finds in his library. The dates are all different. In Memoriam is written before The Dunciad, the thirteenth century comes after the sixteenth. He always thought Robert Burton wrote a big book about melancholy. Apparently he only wrote ten pages. He is accustomed to the notion that a book can only be written once. Here some are continually rewritten. In his library, books are related to each other in an orderly way by genre or subject. Here the commonest principle of association seems to be by age groups. Piers Ploughman III is going about with Kierkegaard’s Journals, Piers Ploughman IV with The Making of the English Landscape. Most puzzling of all, instead of only associating with members of their own kind, in this extraordinary democracy every species of being knows every other and the closest friend of a book is rarely another book. Gulliver’s Travels walks arm in arm with a love affair, a canto of Il Paradiso sits with a singularly good dinner, War and Peace never leaves the side of a penniless Christmas in a foreign city, the tenth Winter’s Tale exchanges greetings with the first complete La Favorita.
Yet this is the world out of which poems are made. Yeats describes it as a “rag and bone shop.”Let me use the less drab but no less anarchic image of a Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party.
IN SO reading to stock his memory with images upon which later he may be able to draw in his own work, there is no critical principle by which a poet can select his books. The critical judgment “This book is good or bad" implies good or bad at all times, but in relation to a reader’s future a book is good now if its future effect is good, and, since the future is unknown, no judgment can be made. The safest guide, therefore, is the naïve uncritical principle of personal liking. A person at least knows one thing about his future, that however different it may be from his present, it will be his. However he may have changed, he will still be himself not somebody else. What he likes now, therefore, whether an impersonal judgment approve or disapprove, has the best chance of becoming useful to him later.
A poet is all the more willing to be guided by personal liking because he assumes, I think with reason, that, since he wants to write poetry himself, his taste may be limited but it will not be so bad as to lead him astray. The chances are that most of the books he likes are such as a critic would approve of. Should it come to a quarrel between liking and approving, however, I think he will always take the side of liking.
In judging a work of the past, the question of the historical critic: “What was the author of this work trying to do? How far did he succeed in doing it?", important as he knows it to be, will always interest a poet less than the question: “What does this work suggest to living writers now? Will it help or hinder them in what they are trying to do?”
A few years ago I came across the following lines: —
Leaving his enterprise with paine and crye,
And there him hideth and not appeareth.
What may I do? when my master feareth,
But in the field with him to live and die,
For good is the life, ending faithfully.
I found the rhythm of these lines strangely beautiful, they haunted me and I know that they have had an influence upon the rhythm of certain lines of my own.
Of course I know that all the historical evidence suggests that Wyatt was trying to write regular iambics, that the rhythm he was after would have his lines run thus: —
What may I do? when my master feareth,
But in the field with him to live and die,
For good is the life, ending faithfully.
Since they cannot be read this way without sounding monstrous, one must say that Wyatt failed to do what he was trying to do, and a literary historian of the sixteenth century will have to censure him.
Luckily I am spared this duty and can without reservation approve. Between Wyatt and the present day lie four hundred years of prosodic practice and development. Thanks to the work of our predecessors any schoolboy can today write the regular iambics which Wyatt, struggling to escape from the metrical anarchy of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, found so difficult. Our problem in the twentieth century is not how to write iambics but how not to write in them from automatic habit when they are not to our genuine purpose. What for Wyatt was a failure is for us a blessing. Must a work be censored for being beautiful by accident? I suppose it must, but a poet will always have a sneaking regard for luck because he knows the role which it plays in poetic composition. Something unexpected is always turning up, and though he knows that the Censor has to pass it, the memory of the lucky dip is what he treasures.
A young poet may be conceited about his good taste, but he is under no illusions about his ignorance. He is well aware of how much poetry there is that he would like but of which he has never heard, and that there are learned men who have read it. His problem is knowing which learned man to ask, for it is not just more good poetry that he wants to read, but more of the kind he likes. He judges a scholarly or critical book less by the text than by the quotations, and all his life, I think, when he reads a work of criticism, he will find himself trying to guess what taste lies behind the critic’s judgment. Like Matthew Arnold I have my Touchstones, but they are for testing critics, not poets. Many of them concern taste in other matters than poetry or even literature, but here are four questions which, could I examine a critic, I should ask him: —
Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle:
1. Long lists of proper names such as the Old Testament genealogies or the Catalogue of ships in The Iliad?
2. Riddles and all other ways of not calling a spade a spade?
3. Complicated verse forms of great technical difficulty, such as Englyns, Drott-Kvaetts, Sestinas, even if their content is trivial?
4. Conscious theatrical exaggeration, pieces of baroque flattery like Dryden’s welcome to the Ducthess of Ormond?
If a critic could truthfully answer “yes” to all four, then I should trust his judgment implicitly on all literary matters.
IT is not uncommon, it is even usual, for a poet to write reviews, compile anthologies, compose critical introductions. It is one of his main sources of income. He may even find himself lecturing. In such chores he has little to offset his lack of scholarship, but that little he has.
His lazy habit of only reading what he likes will at least have taught him one lesson, that to be worth attacking a book must first be worth reading. The greatest critical study of a single figure that I know of, The Case of Wagner, is a model of what such an attack should be. Savage as he often is, Nietzsche never allows the reader to forget for one instant that Wagner is an extraordinary genius and that, for all which may be wrong with it, his music is of the highest importance. Indeed it was this book which first taught me to listen to Wagner, about whom I had previously held silly preconceived notions. Another model is D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classical American Literature. I remember my disappointment when, after reading the essay on Fenimore Cooper which is highly critical, I hurried off to read him. Unfortunately, I did not find Cooper nearly as exciting as Lawrence had made him sound.
The second advantage which a poet possesses is that such satisfactions to the ego as the writing of poetry can provide have been taken care of in his case. I should not expect a poet turned critic to become either a prig, a critic’s critic, a romantic novelist, or a maniac. By the prig, I mean the critic for whom no actual poem is good enough since the only one that would be is the poem be would like to write himself but cannot. Reading his criticism, one gets the impression that he would rather a poem were bad than good. His twin, the critic’s critic, shows no obvious resentment; indeed, on the surface he appears to idolize the poet about whom he is writing; but his critical analysis of his idol’s work is so much more complicated and difficult than the work itself as to deprive someone who has not yet read it of all wish to do so. He too, one suspects, has a secret grievance. He finds it unfortunate and regrettable that before there can be criticism there has to be a poem to criticize. For him a poem is not a work of art by somebody else; it is his own discovered document.
The romantic novelist is a much jollier figure. His happy hunting ground is the field of unanswerable questions, particularly if they concern the private lives of authors. Since the questions to which he devotes his life — he is often an extremely learned gentleman — can never be answered, he is free to indulge his fancies without misgivings. And why shouldn’t he? How much duller the Variorum edition of the Shakespeare sonnets would be without him. Jolliest of all is the maniac. The commonest of his kind is the man who believes that poetry is written in ciphers, but there are many other kinds. My favorite is the John Bellendon Ker who set out to prove that English nursery rhymes were originally written in a form of Old Dutch invented by himself.
Whatever his defects, a poet at least thinks a poem more important than anything which can be said about it, he would rather it were good than bad, the last thing he wants is that it should be like one of his own. and his experience as a maker should have taught him to recognize quickly whether a critical question is important, unimportant but real, unreal because unanswerable, or just absurd.
He will know, for example, that knowledge of an artist’s life, temperament, and opinions is unimportant to an understanding of his art, but that a similar knowledge about a critic may be important to an understanding of his judgments. If we knew every detail of Shakespeare’s life, our reading of his plays would be little changed, if at all; but how much less interesting The Lives of the Poets would be if we knew nothing else about Johnson.
He will know, to take an instance of an unanswerable question, that if the date of the Shakespeare sonnets can ever be lixed, it will not be fixed by poring over Sonnet CVII. His experience as a maker of poems will make him reason something like this: The feeling expressed here is the not uncommon feeling — All’s well with my love and all’s well with the world at large. The feeling that all is well with the world at large can be produced in many ways. It can be produced by an occasion of public rejoicing, some historical event like the defeat of the Armada or the successful passing of the Queen’s climacteric, but it does not have to be. The same feeling can be aroused by a fine day. The figures employed in the lines
And the sad augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured
And peace proclaims olives of endless age
come from literature and contain no specific historical reference. They could have been suggested to Shakespeare by some historical event, but he could have written them without one. Further, even if they were so prompted, the date of the event does not have to be contemporary with the occasion celebrated in the sonnet. A present instance of a feeling always recalls past instances and their circumstances, so that it is possible, if the poet chooses, to employ images suggested by the circumstances of a past occasion to describe the present if the feeling is the same. What Shakespeare has written contains no historical clue.
Because of his limited knowledge, a poet would generally be wise, when talking about poetry, to choose either some general subject upon which if his conclusions are true in a few cases, they must be true in most, or some detailed matter which only requires the intensive study of a few works. He may have something sensible to say about woods, even about leaves, but you should never trust him on trees.
Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: “What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?”
And you must not be surprised if he should have nothing but platitudes to say; firstly because he will always find it hard to believe that a poem needs expounding, and secondly because he doesn’t consider poetry quite that important; any poet, I believe, will echo Miss Marianne Moore’s words: “I, too, dislike it.”
AWAY back we left a young poet who had just written his first real poem and was wondering if it would be his last. We must assume that it was not, that he has arrived on the literary scene in the sense that now people pass judgment on his work without having read it. Twenty years have gone by. The table of his Mad Hatter’s Tea-Party has gotten much longer and there are thousands of new faces, some charming, some quite horrid. Down at the far end, some of those who used to be so amusing have turned into crashing bores or fallen asleep, a sad change which has often come over later guests after holding forth for a few years. Boredom does not necessarily imply disapproval; I still think Rilke a great poet though I cannot read him any more.
Many of the books which have been most important to the poet have not been works of poetry or criticism but books which have altered his way of looking at the world and himself, and a lot of these, probably, are what an expert in their field would call “unsound.” The expert, no doubt, is right, but it is not for a poet to judge; his duty is to be grateful.
And among the experiences which have influenced his writing, a number may have been experiences of other arts. I know, for example, that through listening to music I have learned much about how to organize a poem, how to obtain variety and contrast through changes of tone, tempo, and rhythm, though I could not say just how. Man is an analogydrawing animal; that is his great good fortune. His danger is of treating analogies as identities, of saying, for instance, “Poetry should be as much like music, as possible.” I suspect that the people who are most likely to say this are the tone-deaf. The more one loves another art, the less likely it is that one will wish to trespass upon its domain.
During these twenty years, one thing has never changed since he wrote his first poem. Every time he writes a new one, the same question occurs to him: “Will it ever happen again?”, but now he begins to hear his Censor saying: “It must never happen again.” Having spent twenty years learning to be himself, he finds that he must now start learning not to be himself. At first he may think this means no more than keeping a sharper lookout tor obsessive rhythms, tics of expression, privately numinous words, but presently he discovers that the command not to imitate himself can mean something harder than that. It can mean that he should refrain from writing a poem which might turn out to be a good one, and even an admired one. He learns that, if on finishing a poem he is convinced that it is good, the chances are that the poem is a self-imitation. The most hopeful sign that it is not is the feeling of complete uncertainty: “Either this is quite good or it is quite bad, I can’t tell.” And, of course, it may very well be quite bad. Discovering oneself is a passive process because the self is already there. Time and attention are all that it takes. But changing oneself means changing in one direction rather than another, and towards one goal rather than another. The goal may be unknown but movement is impossible without an hypothesis as to where it lies. It is at this point, therefore, that a poet often begins to take an interest in the theory of poetry and even to develop one of his own.
The evidence upon which the poet bases his conclusions consists of his own experiences in writing and his private judgments upon his own work. Looking back, he sees many occasions on which he took a wrong turning or walked up a blind alley, mistakes which, it seems to him now, he could have avoided, had he been more conscious at the time of the choice he was making. Looking over the poems he has written, he finds that, irrespective of their merits, there are some which he particularly dislikes and some which are his favorites. Of one he may think: “This is full of faults, but it is the kind of poem I ought to write more of”; of another: “This may be all right in itself but it’s exactly the sort of thing I must never do again.” The principles he formulates, therefore, are intended to guard himself against making unnecessary mistakes and provide him with a guesswork map of the future. They are as fallible, of course, as all guesses. But there is a difference between a project which may fail and one which must.
In trying to formulate principles, a poet may have a desire to justify his writing poetry at all, and in recent years this motive seems to have grown stronger. The Rimbaud Myth — the tale of a great poet who ceases writing, not because, like Coleridge, he has nothing more to say, but because he chooses to stop — may not be true, I am pretty sure it is not, but as a myth it haunts the artistic conscience of this century.
KNOWING all this, and knowing that you know it, I shall now proceed to make some general statements of my own. I hope they are not nonsense, but I cannot be sure. At least, even as emotive noises, I find them useful to me.
Some cultures make a social distinction between the sacred and the profane, certain human beings arc publicly regarded as numinous, and a clear division is made between certain actions which are regarded as sacred rites of great importance to the well-being of society, and everyday profane behavior. In such cultures, if they are advanced enough to recognize poetry as an art, the poet has a public — even a professional status — and his poetry is either public or esoteric.
There are other cultures, like our own, in which the distinction between the sacred and the profane is not socially recognized. Either the distinction is denied or it is regarded as an individual matter of taste with which society is not and should not be concerned. In such cultures, the poet has an amateur status and his poetry is neither public nor esoteric but private. That is to say, he writes neither as a citizen nor as a member of a group of professional adepts, but as a single person to be read by other single persons. Private poetry is not necessarily obscure; for someone not in the know, ancient esoteric poetry can be more obscure than the wildest modern. Nor, needless to say, is private poetry necessarily worse than other kinds.
In what follows, the terms Primary and Secondary Imagination are taken, of course, from the thirteenth chapter of Biographia Literaria. I have adopted them because, though my description may differ from Coleridge’s, I believe we are both trying to describe the same phenomena.
Herewith, then, what I might describe as a literary dogmatic psalm, a kind of private quicunque vult.
The concern of the Primary Imagination, its only concern, is with sacred beings and sacred events. The sacred is that to which it is obliged to respond; the profane is that to which it cannot respond and therefore does not know. The profane is known to other faculties of the mind, but not to the Primary Imagination. A sacred being cannot be anticipated; it must be encountered. On encounter the imagination has no opt ion but to respond. All imaginations do not recognize the same sacred beings or events, but every imagination responds to those it recognizes in the same way. The impression made upon the imagination by any sacred being is of an overwhelming but undefinable importance — an unchangeable quality, an Identity, as Keats said. Iam-that-I-am is what every sacred being seems to say. The impression made by a sacred event is of an overwhelming but undefinable significance.
The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repulsive—a swan or an octopus-beautiful or ugly — a toothless hag or a fair young child—good or evil—a Beatrice or a Belle Dame sans Merci — historical fact or fiction — a person met on the road or an image encountered in a story or a dream — it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe. The realm of the Primary Imagination is without freedom, sense of time, or humor. Whatever determines this response or lack of response lies below consciousness and is of concern to psychology, not art.
Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times. The Moon, for example, Fire, Snakes, and those four important beings which can only be defined in terms of non-being, Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death. Some, like kings, are only sacred to all within a certain culture, some only to members of a social group — the Latin language among humanists — and some are only sacred to a single imagination. Many of us have sacred landscapes which probably all have much in common, but there will almost certainly be details which are peculiar to each. An imagination can acquire new sacred beings and it can lose old ones to the profane. Sacred beings can be acquired by social contagion but not consciously. One cannot be taught to recognize a sacred being, one has to be converted. As a rule, perhaps, with advancing age sacred events gain in importance over sacred beings.
A sacred being may also be an object of desire but the imagination does not desire it. A desire can be a sacred being but the imagination is without desire. In the presence of the sacred, it is selfforgetful; in its absence the very type of the profane, “The most unpoetical of all God’s creatures.” A sacred being may also demand to be loved or obeyed, it may reward or punish, but the imagination is unconcerned: a law can be a sacred being, but the imagination does not obey. To the imagination a sacred being is self-sufficient, and like Aristotle’s God can have no need of friends.
The Secondary Imagination is of another character and at another mental level. It is active not passive, and its categories are not the sacred and the profane, but the beautiful and the ugly. Our dreams are full of sacred beings and events — indeed, they may well contain nothing else; but we cannot distinguish in dreams — or so it seems to me, I may be wrong—between the beautiful and the ugly. Beauty and ugliness pertain to Form, not to Being. The Primary Imagination only recognizes one kind of being, the sacred, but the Secondary Imagination recognizes both beautiful and ugly forms. To the Primary Imagination a sacred being is that which it is. To the Secondary Imagination a beautiful form is as it ought to be, an ugly form as it ought not to be. Observing the beautiful, it has feelings of satisfaction, pleasure, absence of conflict; observing the ugly, the contrary feelings. It does not desire the beautiful, but an ugly form arouses in it a desire that its ugliness be corrected and made beautiful. It does not worship the beautiful; it approves of it and can give reasons for its approval. The Secondary Imagination has, one might say, a bourgeois nature. It approves of regularity, of spatial symmetry and temporal repetition, of law and order: it disapproves of loose ends, irrelevance, and mess.
Lastly the Secondary Imagination is social and craves agreement with other minds. If I think a form beautiful and you think it ugly, we both cannot help agreeing that one of us must be wrong, whereas if I think something is sacred and you think it is profane, neither of us will dream of arguing the matter.
Both kinds of imagination are essential to the health of the mind. Without the inspiration of sacred awe, its beautiful forms would soon become banal, its rhythms mechanical; without the activity of the Secondary Imagination the passivity of the Primary would be the mind’s undoing; sooner or later its sacred beings would possess it, it would come to think of itself as sacred, exclude the outer world as profane and so go mad.
THE impulse to create a work of art is felt when, in certain persons, the passive awe provoked by sacred beings or events is transformed into a desire to express that, awe in a rite of worship or homage, and to be fit homage this rite must be beautiful. This rite has no magical or idolatrous intention; nothing is expected in return. Nor is it, in a Christian sense, an act of devotion. If it praises the Creator, it does so indirectly by praising His creatures, among which may be human notions of the Divine Nature. With God as redeemer, it has, so far as I can see, little if anything to do.
In poetry the rite is verbal; it pays homage by naming. I suspect that the predisposition of a mind towards the poetic medium may have its origin in an error. A nurse, let us suppose, says to a child, “Look at the moon!” The child looks and for him this is a sacred encounter. In his mind the word moon is not a name of a sacred object but one of its most important properties and, therefore, numinous. The notion of writing poetry cannot occur to him, of course, until he has realized that names and things are not identical and that there cannot be an intelligible sacred language, but I wonder if, when he has discovered the social nature of language, he would attach such importance to one of its uses, that of naming, if he had not previously made this false identification.
The pure poem, in the French sense of la poésie pure, would be, I suppose, a celebration of the numinous-in-itself in abstraction from all cases and devoid of any profane reference whatsoever—a sort of sanctus, sanctus, sanctus. If it could be written, which is doubtful, it would not necessarily be the best poem.
A poem is a rite; hence its formal and ritualistic character. Its use of language is deliberately and ostentatiously different from talk. Even when it employs the diction and rhythms of conversation, it employs them as a deliberate informality, presupposing the norm with which they are intended to contrast.
The form of a rite must be beautiful, exhibiting, for example, balance, closure, and aptness to that which it is the form of. It is over this last quality of aptness that most of our aesthetic quarrels arise, and must arise, whenever our sacred and profane worlds differ.
To the Eyes of a Miser, a Guinea is far more beautiful than the Sun & a bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes.
Blake, it will bo noticed, does not accuse the Miser of lacking imagination.
The value of a profane thing lies in what it usefully does, the value of a sacred thing lies in what it is; a sacred thing may also have a function but it does not have to. The apt name for a profane being, therefore, is the word or words that accurately describe his function — a Mr. Smith, a Mr. Weaver. The apt name for a sacred being is the word or words which worthily express his importance — Son of Thunder, The Well-Wishing One.
Great changes in artistic style always reflect some alteration in the frontier between the sacred and profane in the imagination of a society. Thus, to take an architectural example, a seventeenthcentury monarch had the same function as that of a modern state official — he had to govern. But in designing his palace, the Baroque architect did not aim, as a modern architect aims when designing a governmental building, at making an office in which the king could govern as easily and efficiently as possible; he was trying to make a home fit for God’s earthly representative to inhabit; in so far as he thought at all about what the king would do in it as a ruler, he thought of his ceremonial, not his practical actions.
Even today few people find a functionally furnished living room beautiful because, to most of us, a sitting room is not merely a place to sit in; it is also a shrine for father’s chair.
Thanks to the social nature of language, a poet can relate any one sacred being or event to any other. The relation may be harmonious, an ironiccontrast or a tragic contradiction like the great man or the beloved and death; he can relate them to every other concern of the mind, the demands of desire, reason, and conscience, and he can bring them into contact and contrast with the profane. Again the consequences can be happy, ironic, tragic, and, in relation to the profane, comic. How many poems have been written, for example, upon one of these three themes: —
This is sacred but ought it to be?
This is sacred but is that so important?
But it is from the sacred encounters of his imagination that a poet’s impulse to write a poem arises. Thanks to language, he need not name them directly unless he wishes: he can describe one in terms of another and translate those that are private or irrational or socially unacceptable into such as are acceptable to reason and society. Some poems are directly about the sacred beings they were written for, others are not, and in that case no reader can tell what was the original encounter which provided the impulse for the poem. Nor, probably, can the poet himself. Every poem he writes involves his whole past. Every love poem, for instance, is hung with trophies of lovers gone, and among these there may be some very peculiar objects indeed. The lovely lady of the present may number among her predecessors an overshot waterwheel. But the encounter, be it novel or renewed by recollection from the past, must be suffered by a poet before he can write a genuine poem.
Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct — it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do: it must praise all it can for being and for happening.