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Title: Thamyris : or, Is there a future for poetry?
Author: Trevelyan, R. C. (Robert Calverley)
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Thamyris : or, Is there a future for poetry?" ***



_DÆDALUS, or Science and the Future_
    By J. B. S. Haldane

_ICARUS, or The Future of Science_
    By the Hon. Bertrand Russell, F.R.S.

    By F. G. Crookshank, M.D. _Fully Illustrated_

    By Prof. A. M. Low. _With four Diagrams._

_NARCISSUS, An Anatomy of Clothes_
    By Gerald Heard. _Illustrated_

_TANTALUS, or The Future of Man_ By F. C. S. Schiller

    By Prof. C. J. Patten, M.A., M.D., Sc.D., F.R.A.I.

_CALLINICUS, A Defence of Chemical Warfare_
    By J. B. S. Haldane

_QUO VADIMUS? Some Glimpses of the Future_
    By E. E. Fournier d’Albe, D.Sc., F.Inst.P.

    By H. W. S. Wright, M.S., F.R.C.S.

_HYPATIA, or Woman and Knowledge_
    By Dora Russell (The Hon. Mrs. Bertrand Russell)

_LYSISTRATA, or Woman’s Future and Future Woman_
    By A. M. Ludovici

    By the Hon. Bertrand Russell, F.R.S.

_PERSEUS, or Of Dragons_ By H. F. Scott Stokes, M.A.

_THE FUTURE OF SEX_ By Rebecca West


_AESCULAPIUS, or Disease and The Man_
    By F. G. Crookshank, M.D.

_PROTEUS, or The Future of Intelligence_ By Vernon Lee

_THAMYRIS, or Is there a Future for Poetry?_
    By R. C. Trevelyan

_PROMETHEUS, or Biology and the Advancement of Man_
    By H. S. Jennings

_PARIS, or The Future of War_
    By Captain B. H. Liddell Hart

_Other Volumes in Preparation_




  Is there a Future for





  _All Rights Reserved_



  _The Memory of_




  I THE MUSES IN HEAVEN                                                1

  II THE MEDIUM OF SPOKEN VERSE                                       13

  III THE EVOLUTION OF TECHNIQUE                                      29

  IV POETIC MATERIAL                                                  47

  V MISCELLANEOUS                                                     67

  VI THE CHILDREN OF THAMYRIS                                         81




There is an old Teutonic legend that every year, upon All Souls’ Day,
the archangel Raphael is sent down to the classical ward of Hell, where
the dispossessed deities of heathendom are confined, with a summons
for the nine Muses to appear and give a command performance before
the throne of Jehovah and the assembled Host of Heaven. So the poor
embarrassed ladies, ushered before that critical and unsympathetic
audience, reluctantly tune their lyres, and begin some ancient
Hellenic chant, some ode, it may be, that they had once sung in the
feasting-hall of Olympus, or at the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia.
At first their strange pagan minstrelsy seems harsh and unpleasing to
blessed ears, accustomed only to the angelical modes of “saintly shout
and solemn jubilee”; but before long, in spite of themselves, the
angels are touched and troubled by this disquieting music, burdened
with all the passions and sighs of humanity, until at last celestial
visages are stained with tears, and the sound of weeping is heard in

But on one of these occasions, not so very long ago, after the Muses
had come to the end of their program, several of the more literary
archangels expressed a desire to hear some examples of post-classical
poetry, of which they knew little or nothing. As the Muses could
not gratify their curiosity, Satan, who, as in the _Book of Job_,
was paying one of his rare visits to the court of Jehovah, stepped
into the breach, and beguiled several hours with poetical specimens
from different periods, which he had picked up during his ceaseless
wanderings to and fro upon the earth. At first his audience was
enchanted. He had an excellent ear and memory, and could reproduce
perfectly the several styles of the troubadours and minnesingers,
and of the various courtly or popular minstrels of the Middle Ages.
But gradually a change came over his performance. The saints and
angels grew puzzled and restless, as the element of song, and even
of intonation, progressively disappeared, until at last they found
themselves listening with pain and indignation to mere naked, spoken
verse. And what verse? Rime they were familiar with in their hymns,
and liked. But soon even rime began to fade, and threatened to vanish
altogether. Metre too dissolved and degenerated from all regular
recognisable form; and when finally Satan jerked out the latest jewel
of American _vers libre_, he was greeted, as once before in Hell, with
a dismal universal hiss, the sign of public scorn. The Muses had long
ago fled down horror-stricken to Hades; and Satan, who always dislikes
unpopularity, smiled, bowed, and retired. The choirmaster, Gabriel,
tapped the desk with his baton, and a moment later the Heavenly Host
was purging its offended ears with the strains of a noble Gregorian

Now what lesson, if any, may we draw from this apologue?
Were the angels right or wrong, or perhaps neither? Has the
history of poetry been merely a deplorable tale of decadence, a
progressive impoverishment and deterioration, through senility and
second-childishness, towards an unlamented death in a bastard and
graceless prose? Or on the contrary has the gradual divorce of poetry
from music and intoning meant its liberation for subtler and more
rational, but no less truly poetic purposes? Before attempting to
answer such questions, let us first look at the historical facts.

Homer, the fountain-head of Hellenic, and so of European poetry, though
originally sung to the accompaniment of a lyre, was in later times
intoned by professional rhapsodists, much as most Oriental poetry is
intoned to this day. Greek lyrical poetry was of course always sung,
whether chorally or by soloists. The dialogue of Greek plays was not
sung, but was probably intoned, or at least declaimed in a highly
conventional and rhythmical manner, which was perhaps not so very
unlike the still-surviving tradition of the Japanese Nō play-actors.
It is uncertain whether Horace intended his _Odes_ to be read, or to
be sung to the lyre: but Lucretius and Virgil undoubtedly wrote their
poems to be read. Virgil indeed gave public readings of his _Eclogues_.
Probably, could we hear gramophone records of his performances, we
should say that he was intoning rather than reading. However that may
be, his example set a fashion that was disastrous for Latin poetry.
His successors wrote more and more with a view to declamation, not in
the noble Homeric manner, but in a style that was both bombastic and
amateurish; and so poetry soon degenerated into stale rhetoric and

When after the lapse of centuries poetry emerged again, rejuvenated,
its infant energies were still schooled by the same two mistresses,
music and intonation. The art of the rhapsodists of the _Chanson
de gestes_ may have been ruder than that of the Homeridae, but its
æsthetic character and its social function were much the same. And
for centuries the medieval lyric was intended to be sung, not read.
But with the multiplication of books the inevitable change began to
operate, and the medium of poetry came more and more to be verse spoken
and read, rather than performed.

The poetical drama of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was, from
a historical point of view, no more than a brief and glorious episode.
The declamation of dramatic verse may well have been a great art on the
English, French and Spanish stage; but, if so, it has not survived into
our own time, and shows little sign of resurrection. The development of
polyphonic and instrumental music, while it has made modern opera and
the _Lieder_ of Schubert and Brahms possible, seems to have destroyed
all hope of an equal marriage between music and lyrical poetry. Modern
polyphony is a great art, but a tyrannous; and though a beautiful poem
may still inspire a beautiful setting, the medium of the resulting
work of art will be musical, and not poetic. Verse no doubt can still
be declaimed, whether on the stage or elsewhere; but actors have
generally neither taste nor tradition; the poets themselves have seldom
enough skill or training to be effective; and professional reciters
are “abominable, unutterable, and worse.” Thus it would seem that all
the avenues which might lead to the public performance of poetry are
blocked. There are either no roads at all, or those that exist are in
the possession of road-hogs. Is this state of things a disaster or no?
And if it be a disaster, are there any remedies to be found?

It is no doubt possible that so summary a diagnosis may be quite
misleading. Chaucer, it might be objected, already wrote for readers;
and so did Milton. Yet many of us find them, and some of their
successors, still quite readable. Surely then great poetry can still be
both produced and enjoyed, even when it is completely divorced from
music or intonation. All this may be true. Yet it is well to remember
that Chaucer was the immediate successor on the one hand of the English
and French minstrels, and on the other of Dante and Boccaccio, whose
art in its turn grew directly out of that of the troubadours and the
Italian minstrels. And who have been the inheritors of Chaucer’s
art? Spenser, let us say, and in our time William Morris. Is it not
possible that both Chaucer and Dante were peculiarly fortunate, in
that their art had only quite recently emerged from the discipline of
a more primitive musical stage? Their successors may be said to have
deteriorated, the more purely literary they became, and the further
removed from the Pierian fountain-head of minstrelsy. Then again
Milton, though more than any other English poet he was consciously the
heir to all the ages, inherited his medium and his metrical technique
directly from Shakespeare’s verse that was written, not for reading,
but for dramatic performance, although no doubt Milton modified it
considerably for his own undramatic purposes. As to the inheritors of
Milton’s art, such as Wordsworth and Keats, Matthew Arnold and Mr.
Bridges, considerable as have been their achievements, are there not
some signs, even in their own work, and still more in the tendency
of recent experiments, of an impulse to break away from Miltonic and
Shakespearian usage, as though the medium of blank verse could no
longer be profitably explored, not at least in its old traditional form?

Nevertheless it might plausibly be maintained that although the poets
of the future are not likely to repeat the particular successes of
Chaucer and Milton and their school, there is no reason why they should
not exploit the medium of spoken verse in quite new ways, just as
successfully as did their predecessors. First however it would be as
well to become somewhat clearer as to the nature of this medium of
spoken and silently read verse, and how it differs from more primitive



When we read Homer or Aeschylus to ourselves, we do not as a rule
attempt to imagine what their poems must have sounded like, when they
were recited or sung. We transpose them, as it were, into a medium more
or less resembling that of modern poetry. Let us try to measure what
our loss must be, and what, if any, the compensations. To begin with,
the elements of music and intonation, and also, in drama, of acting and
dancing, have disappeared altogether. The intensity and mass of our
emotions cannot possibly be the same as they would have been, could
we have heard and beheld the living reality of which the text is but
a pale, colourless shadow. It is true that rhythm is still there,
and the general proportions of the whole: but rhythm and movement,
unembodied and uninterpreted by performers, are far more difficult
for us to realise by the less sensuous, more purely mental process
of reading; while in the absence of musical and histrionic contrasts
and emphasis, even the general proportions are likely to be somewhat
obscured. It is as though we were studying a photograph or a monochrome
copy of a painted picture; or rather we might be said to experience
the same kind of difficulties as when we are contemplating colourless
fragments of Greek sculpture against the background of a museum wall,
at a distance and in a light that were never intended for them by their
creators. How different would be our emotions, could we see the figures
of the Olympian or Parthenon pediments placed in their right relation
to the architecture and to the landscape, unmutilated, and glowing
with colour which harmonised with that of the temples of which they
were an organic part! It is a poor compensation that by long loving
study we may perhaps become more intimate with the indestructible
beauty of certain details, than we could ever have been, had we seen
them less closely as elements of a complex work of art.

In some ways our plight with regard to ancient poetry is less unhappy.
Many of our texts are unmutilated, and when we read the _Oedipus_ to
ourselves, it should seem to us as much an organic unity as _Othello_.
There may also be a real gain in our sensitiveness to the more purely
literary qualities, such as verbal, as distinguished from musical
colour, the suggestive values of words and combinations of words,
their overtones, and the complicated reverberations they evoke in our
minds. As none of the work is being done for us by performers, our
imagination, thrown back on its own unaided resources, should be
all the more wide awake and active. A line drawing is often a more
effective stimulus to the mind than a painting, an unaccompanied violin
sonata than an orchestral symphony; and in the same way poetry, when
merely read to ourselves, though it cannot so imperiously dominate our
physical senses, may well make a subtler and profounder appeal to the
intellectual imagination.

All that has been said with regard to the reading of poetry that was
intended to be sung or chanted, should be even more true of modern
verse that has been written solely in order to be spoken or read. Such
poetry is in fact composed in quite a different medium to the poetry
of Homer and Aeschylus; and I must now try to make it clear what this
medium seems to me to consist of. In order to do so, I must venture
upon a brief excursion over the perilous quicksands of metrical theory.
To save time I shall speak dogmatically, while well aware that none of
my assertions can at best do more than express a part of the truth.

When we read aloud a leading article, or any other piece of utilitarian
and unemotional prose, we are not as a rule in the least aware of the
rhythm of the sentences. But suppose we were to read the same leading
article with a simulated mock-heroic emotion, we should then find, if
we cared to observe, that we were now emphasising the before latent
rhythm in two ways: we should be stressing certain syllables with
greater force; and at the same time we should be making the intervals
between these stressed syllables, not indeed rigidly equal, but far
more nearly equal than they were, when we read the passage with the
lack of emotion which it merited. And we shall find that the same thing
happens whenever we read prose that genuinely moves us. Emotion in
fact always tends to regularise and emphasise rhythm, even in prose.
Now the main function of verse is deliberately, by its structure,
to regularise rhythm, and so to create emotion artificially. Let us
take a normal English verse: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting
day.” The five stressed syllables, _cur-_, _tolls_, _knell_, _par-_,
_day_, are felt to be equi-distant in time. No doubt they are in fact
only approximately equi-distant. The human voice is not an instrument
like a piano or a violin, by means of which we can divide time into
mathematically equal spaces. However, the normal bars, or feet, are
_felt_ to be equal in time; and that is sufficient. The rhythmically
indeterminate words and phrases of everyday speech are forced into this
mould, or rather stretched upon this framework; and that process is a
continuous series of Procrustean operations, of slight lengthenings or
contractions, and imperceptible changes of stress and emphasis. Almost
the most important difference between good and bad verse is that in
good verse this process of moulding and stretching words increases
their emotional expressiveness, whereas in bad verse it does not. Of
course the versification of a good poem is never continuously regular.
Accents are dropped or displaced; unstressed syllables are left out, or
extra syllables inserted. But we are, or should be, always conscious of
the underlying pattern, the ideal rhythmical base.

Such metrical irregularities are necessary not merely in order to
prevent monotony: for any writer who knows his business they are a
powerful instrument for controlling and modifying the emotional values
of language. In Milton’s line,

  Transfix us to the bottom of this gulf,

there are only three stressed syllables. If these words were to occur
in a newspaper article we should probably read them so rapidly that
they would not sound like a blank verse at all. In order that they may
become a verse, we must either put artificial stresses upon _to_ and
_of_, and read, “Trans- | fíx us | tó the | bóttom | óf this | gúlf,”
which, though formally a blank verse, is not English; or else we must
linger upon certain syllables, and stretch them out sufficiently to
compensate for the absent stresses: “Trans | fíx us | to the | bóttom
| of this | gúlf.” What happens here is something of the same nature
as syncopation in music. The two pairs of syllables, _-fix us_ and
_bottom_, are each dwelt upon and prolonged, so that they expand and
bulge over from their own bars into the bars that follow them, and so
push away the unemphatic syllables _to_ and _of_ from the positions
at the beginning of the bar, where a stress would normally occur. We
are in fact compelled, if the line is to make metrical sense, to read
the words slowly and spaciously, which produces the rhetorical and
emotional effect that Milton intended. The following lines from Milton
are instances of the opposite process of forcing into the rhythmical
mould words which in ordinary prose speech would claim more elbow-room
than the metre allows them:

  O’er many a frozen, many a fiery alp,
  Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.

The natural way of spacing these words, if they were prose, would
be: “Rócks, | cáves, | lákes, | féns, | bógs, | déns, and | shádes
of | déath.” But the metrical framework compels us to crowd these
monosyllables together, and read them twice as rapidly as we should in
prose. This hurry and constipation produces an effect of effort and
strain, which is just what is required. An extreme case of this power
of metre to mould and so give life to a phrase, is the line,

  And made him bow to the gods of his wives,

If this be read as a line with four stresses, thus: “And | máde him
| bów to the | góds of his | wíves,” it is then not a Miltonic blank
verse at all. Yet, since we cannot read it, “And | máde him | bów tó
| thé góds | óf his | wíves,” the only thing to be done is to put a
kind of level staccato accent on the last six syllables, thus: “And
máde him bów tó thé góds óf hís wíves,” which spaces the words out, so
that they sound like a blank verse, or at least do the best they can to
sound like one. Thus not only is our ear sufficiently reminded of the
underlying metrical base, but we are obliged to give to the phrase a
kind of fierce indignant or ironic emphasis, which again is, I think,
exactly what Milton intended. I could multiply instances; but these
should be sufficient to illustrate the way in which verse, if it be
well written, adds imaginative expressiveness to words, by forcing us
to space them out and emphasise them, till they acquire new values that
they would not have had in prose.

Another obvious function of a constant metrical framework is that of
heightening the values of words and phrases by mere position, much as
the structure of a cathedral may do with sculpture. Any passage of
Milton, or of Keats’ mature work, might be used to illustrate this

If then the main function of spoken verse be this of building a
framework upon which we may place words in significant and beautiful
relations both with each other and with the rhythmical structure
itself, and upon which we may also stretch out and contract them,
in order to increase their emotional values, it would seem to be
necessary that this framework should be definite and constant. And
it is this necessity that is, I think, the chief objection to some
modern experiments in free verse. Whatever advantages there may be
in emancipation from regularity, we should not forget the price that
has to be paid for it in the loss or diminution of this power of
moulding and vivifying language. It is true that there have been many
successful experiments in more or less free verse, from the choruses in
_Samson Agonistes_ to, let us say, Mr. Waley’s translations of early
Chinese poetry; but I suggest that as a general rule the success is in
proportion to the degree in which we are made aware of a fixed metrical
base underlying the irregularities. But what are we to think of this
kind of thing?

  Come, my songs, let us express our baser passions.
  Let us express our envy for the man with a steady job and no worry
      about the future.

Have these words, by being divided into two lines, acquired any kind
of value they would not have had if they had been printed as prose, in
which case they might be enjoyed as an amusing satirical outburst? But
it would almost seem that at times free verse is no more than an excuse
for uttering futilities and ineptitudes that we should not have dared
to express in honest prose.

There is yet another important aspect of this medium of modern verse
which we must not forget. Ancient poetry was in an obvious and literal
sense an incantation, at once charming and exciting the mind through
the ear. Now modern poetry, though no longer chanted but spoken,
still retains, or should retain, something of its primitive nature
as an incantation. It is notorious that poets, when reading verse,
generally fall into a kind of chanting delivery, which sometimes,
owing to their lack of skill, may seem affected, and even absurd. But
their instinct is none the less right. Poetry read to sound like
prose is intolerable. Thought is not poetic unless it be kindled into
emotion; and the natural language of emotion is different from that of
prose, the vehicle of reason. Not only is it more rhythmical, but it
is more musical; that is to say, though the pitch is not deliberately
regulated, as in song, there is a tendency to a level monotonous
intonation, and changes of pitch, when they occur, are more conscious
and more noticeable. The commonest fault of bad speakers of verse on
the stage is to emphasise individual words by raising the pitch, so
destroying the music that is proper to verse, and incidentally the
rhythm too.

And here I may mention a danger to which both writers and readers of
modern verse are very liable. In order to get the full value out of
poetry (or indeed out of prose too), we ought, as Flaubert insisted, to
read it aloud. But as we cannot always be doing that, we must, when
reading silently to ourselves, listen with our unsensual ear to the
same sounds and the same rhythms, moving at the same pace, as though
we were reading aloud. Otherwise we shall not be reading poetry. It is
indeed quite possible that twenty lines of Milton, read silently thus,
may actually take up somewhat less time than they would if they were
read aloud; but the pace ought not to _seem_ hurried: in so far as it
does, the magic of the medium will be impaired or destroyed. Moreover
poets themselves, when, as they often do, they write more for the eye
and for the mind than for the ear, are not writing literature at all,
let alone poetry.



I have now made it as clear as I am able what I believe the medium
of modern spoken verse to be; and I have tried to indicate some
of the dangers that lie in wait both for poets and their readers.
The best safeguard is that we should fully realise both what the
medium is and what it is not. All art consists in exploiting the
possibilities and limitations of a medium; and any art of which the
medium is misunderstood, and so misused, is likely to degenerate into
gracelessness or triviality, and perish as it deserves.

Now that poetry is generally no longer performed, but read, it is
obvious that its nature has to a certain extent grown more like that
of prose, and that there has been a corresponding increase both in
subtlety of expression, and in the possible range of material. Let
us take full advantage of this change: but let us also remember that
“everything is what it is, and not another thing”; that poetry still
is, and always must be, a different art from prose; and that so long as
it retains its integrity, it will have its own proper subject-matter,
which though it may sometimes resemble, will never be the same as that
of any other art.

Let us also honestly admit the truth that poetry has ceased to be a
great popular and social art. It is no longer possible for it to be
publicly recited or performed in any way. When it ventures upon the
stage, it becomes a cause either of boredom or of laughter, unless it
be travestied until it is unrecognisable. When associated with music,
it is absorbed in the more dominating medium. It is of course possible,
though unlikely, that music will evolve in the direction of greater
simplicity or that some few musicians may grow sufficiently interested
in poetry to devise a special kind of music, so tenuous and transparent
that poetry will be able to live and breathe through it. It is also
conceivable that, although the public of the commercial theatre will
not tolerate poetry on the stage, satisfactory amateur productions of
verse plays may become more common. I have never heard verse spoken
on the stage more beautifully than by Ulysses and Agamemnon in the
Cambridge Marlowe Society’s _Troilus_. If such successes were to become
more frequent, we might hope in time to establish a tradition for
performing verse plays, and to create a fit audience for them, which
would encourage poets to take poetical drama seriously. But if that is
to happen, then modern experiments will have to be risked, and produced
as carefully and as frequently as classical revivals are now.

But though in this direction we may see a kind of dawning hope for
poetical drama, yet I fear it is no more than a dubious glimmering.
Poetry will still have to be written in the main for readers. And
if poets are to continue to find readers, in spite of the growing
competition of the more popular arts of music, the prose drama, the
cinema, and the novel, they will have, I fancy, to take thought how
they may put away childish things, and become, not perhaps more
serious, but more rational, more daring, in fact more interesting. The
material for poetry is the whole realm of the sensuous and intellectual
imagination, and that is infinite. At present poets seem to be
somewhat timid and unenterprising explorers. And I would suggest that
experiments and innovations in technique are likely to be the most
hopeful means of extending the range of expression and of discovering
new material. In every art changes and developments of the medium
require and call forth the invention of appropriate subject-matter; and
the greatest art has always been produced where inspiration has been
refreshed and quickened by technical changes, which have made possible
the exploitation of unfamiliar themes. It would be rash to foretell
with any confidence the directions in which poetical technique will
develop in the future. The poets themselves will go their own ways, for
better or for worse. But I may perhaps venture to indicate what seem to
me the most natural and profitable lines of development.

Whatever may be our theory as to the true æsthetic and emotional
function of metre, the conscious governing principle, according
to which English verse has been written from the time of Chaucer
until recent years, has been that of syllable-counting. Wherever a
decasyllabic line contained more than ten syllables, elision, or the
fiction of elision, was assumed as the explanation. Milton indeed
formulated for himself certain definite rules, which he observed
with great strictness, at least in _Paradise Lost._ But already in
Shakespeare we may perceive a tendency to determine rhythm by stress
rather than by the number of syllables; and during the last hundred
years we find stress becoming more and more the dominant principle of
English prosody. When Mr. Abercrombie writes:

                  And I will show
  This mask the devil wears, this old shipman,
  A thing to make his proud heart of evil
  Writhe like a trodden snake;

or when Mr. Bottomley writes:

  Have I broken the bird’s wings to catch the bird?
  Have I shattered the door of her mind to enter there?

they are following the same principle that allowed Shakespeare to say:

  Dearly my delicate Ariel. Let us approach ...

or again:

  Is goads, thorns, nettles, tails of wasps.

They have in fact adopted an entirely different metrical system not
only from Milton’s, but from such poets as Donne, who when he wrote:

  Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with tears,

did so in the confidence that his readers would be instinctively
conscious of the number of the syllables, and so would not be
disconcerted by the irregular disposition of the stresses.

These two systems of syllabic and stress prosody, though descended from
the same parent, the rhymed couplet of Chaucer, have now grown to be
very different from each other. I would suggest that, just as stress
prosody had its origin in Shakespeare’s need for increased energy and
emphasis in verse that was intended to be declaimed on the stage, so it
may still be found to be the more expressive instrument for dramatic
poetry, or for lyrics that require a free rhythmical structure; whereas
syllabic prosody, of which Milton was the supreme master, is more
suitable for undramatic verse of a deliberate and even movement, or for
meditative lyrical poetry, like that of Donne and Keats. In a recently
published poem, written in alexandrines, Mr. Bridges has carried the
syllabic principle to its logical conclusion, and relying upon the
rigid observance of his rule of twelve syllables to each line, has
ventured upon a far more extensive use of difficult displacements of
accent than even Milton thought possible. It may be that, as often
happens with experimental artists, Mr. Bridges has demanded more effort
from some of his readers than they will be able to give. But if so, it
is to be hoped that he will write more poetry on the same method, so
that the counting of syllables may become as natural and instinctive
a process with us as it evidently is with him. He has already had the
courage to explore the possibilities of English quantitative verse;
yet though some of the poetry he wrote according to that system was
of remarkable beauty, the experiment was perhaps too alien to the
rhythmical genius of our language to be altogether satisfactory. But
his new syllabic experiment, being no mere leap in the dark, but a
natural development of the medium we have inherited from Chaucer and
Milton, deserves our welcome, and is all the more likely to achieve
lasting success.

In discussing the structure of English metre, I have taken my examples
from blank verse, because that is the oldest and most highly elaborated
of our verse-forms. But besides blank verse there are three other
fundamental rhythms, each with a history and future possibilities of
its own. If a musical analogy be permissible, rhythms of the blank
verse kind (with or without rime, and whatever may be the number of
feet to the line) may be said to be in duple time. But there is another
rhythmical variety, which is sometimes not easy to distinguish from
duple time, yet is essentially different.

  And mony was the feather bed
    That flatter’d on the faem;
  And mony was the gude lord’s son
    That never mair came hame.

This seven-stressed couplet, in which so many of our ballads are
written, may be said to be in common time. The first, third, fifth and
seventh stresses are generally stronger than the three intervening
stresses, thus producing a kind of rhythmical undulation, which gives
the line swiftness and lightness. The Elizabethans used this metre
frequently in the form of rimed couplets. Chapman’s translation of the
_Iliad_, for example, is written in it. Blake in his prophetic books
was the first, so far as I know, to dispense with rime, and to give
the line variety by frequently changing the position of the cæsura,
which normally follows the fourth stress. The following lines are from
the _Book of Thel_.

  The daughters of the Seraphim led round their sunny flocks--
  All but the youngest: she in paleness sought the secret air,
  To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day.
  Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard,
  And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew:--
  “O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
  Why fade these children of the spring, born but to smile and fall?
  Ah! Thel is like a watery bow, and like a parting cloud;
  Like a reflection in a glass; like shadows in the water;
  Like dreams of infants, like a smile upon an infant’s face;
  Like the dove’s voice; like transient day; like music in the air.”

Shelley uses this metre lyrically in two of his most beautiful poems,
taking the liberty of omitting the minor even stresses, and the light
syllables that precede them, whenever it suits his purpose.

  Awáy! The móor is dárk beneath the moón.
  Rápid clouds have drúnk the lást pale beams of éven:
  Awáy! the gathering wínds will cáll the darkness sóon,
  And profóundest midnight shróud the seréne lights of héaven.

He concludes with the completely filled-out structure:

  Thy remémbrance, and repéntance, and deep músings are not frée
  From the músic of two vóices and the light of one sweet smíle.

The lines in his _Prometheus_ beginning:

  Ah Síster, Desolátion is a délicate thing,

are also written in this metre, which moreover is sufficiently Protean
to form the basis of several of Gilbert’s most attractive songs, such
as, “If you’re anxious for to shine in the high æsthetic line as a
man of culture rare.” There is no reason why this metre should not be
developed into a very expressive and subtle instrument, especially if
Blake’s experiment be taken as a starting point. Though it may not
have the grandeur of Milton’s blank verse, it has more rapidity and
lightness, and is not without a beauty and dignity of its own.

Triple time was seldom employed by the Elizabethans, except in lyrics
such as Shakespeare’s:

  Merrily, merrily shall I live now
  Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.

The eighteenth century found it an effective comedic rhythm, as in

  When they talked of their Raphaels, Correggios and stuff,
  He shifted his trumpet and only took snuff.

But it was Shelley who first successfully slowed down triple time, and
gave it dignity and variety, as in his _Sensitive Plant_:

  And the jessamine faint, and the sweet tuberose,
  The sweetest flower for scent that blows;
  And all rare blossoms from every clime
  Grew in that garden in perfect prime.

This rhythm has now become, in various forms and disguises, one of
our commonest lyrical metres, easily modulating into duple time, and
adaptable to lines of various lengths.

There is also another slower triple time, quite different to the usual
form. Byron used it, probably without knowing what he was doing,
in several of his lyrics, such as the Song of the Third Spirit in
_Manfred_, and “There be none of Beauty’s daughters”: but the only
instance I know where it has been consciously and deliberately used,
is Professor Murray’s translation of an _Ionic a minore_ ode in the

  Could I take me to some cavern for mine hiding,
  In the hill-tops where the Sun scarce hath trod.

It is unlikely that this difficult rhythm will ever become common; but
in lyric poetry, by way of occasional contrast, very beautiful effects
might well be obtained by it.

So far as I can see, these four are the only fundamental rhythms
in English poetry. Their true nature, their various disguises, and
their difference and relationship with one another, are not always
sufficiently understood, and the result has frequently been confused
and clumsy workmanship, and a failure to exploit their latent
possibilities to the full.

There is one further aspect of the poetic craft which I must now
mention. The Greek lyrical poets, whose metre was quantitative, and
was emphasised by music and dancing movements, were able to build
up far more elaborately organised rhythmical structures than we are
accustomed to, with our simpler lyrical forms. Structure, with us, is
generally delineated and emphasised by rime, rather than by internal
variations and contrasts of rhythm. Even in the unrimed choruses of
_Samson Agonistes_ the rhythm is far more uniform than in the simplest
Greek lyrical poems. I do not suggest that it would be possible or
desirable artificially to change the nature of English poetical rhythm
from an accentual to a quantitative basis, as Ennius did with Latin
prosody. But although no doubt purely quantitative English verse will
always remain somewhat of an exotic curiosity, I feel sure that if more
conscious attention were paid to the quantity of English syllables,
not only would our normal verse-forms, such as blank verse, gain in
subtlety and expressive force, but all sorts of new possibilities of
lyrical structure could be discovered and explored. Rime need not
necessarily be dispensed with; but it would no longer be the only
effective instrument for binding together a complicated lyrical stanza.
Stress would still indicate and govern internal rhythm; but careful
attention to the length and shortness of syllables would make it
possible to build up far more elaborate and varied metrical structures
than have hitherto been attempted. The result might be a verse that was
genuinely free, yet did not degenerate into prose, based upon irregular
but easily comprehensible metrical patterns, that could mould and
dominate language as effectively as the older, more rigid verse-forms.



Difficult as it must be to foresee the evolution of technical methods,
it would be still more hazardous to attempt any prediction as to the
new subject-matter which poets will have to discover, if their art is
to continue as a living growth. The mind of even the most detached
artist is a part of the world into which he was born, and his matter
must to a large extent be a reflection of his environment. But the
material and spiritual world changes far more swiftly than the language
and the rhythmical artifices which constitute the poetic medium.
And so, although I have suggested elsewhere that technique is the
mistress of invention, and that changes in the medium make possible
the discovery of new themes, yet an opposite theory might as easily
be maintained, with perhaps equal truth, that social and intellectual
changes create demands, in satisfying which an intelligent artist will
find his most genial inspiration, and will modify his technique until
it becomes a fit instrument for expressing his new material. But though
for these reasons it would be unwise to indulge in prophecy, we may at
least take a survey of the main possibilities.

To begin with, the innumerable and infinite output of personal lyrics,
good, bad and indifferent, is certain to continue, so long as human
beings are subject to passions and sentimentalities, and can enjoy
the varying moods of nature, and the pleasures of poetic pastiche.
However capriciously the winds of literary fashion may blow, the
countless flock of minor lyricists will always be with us, while the
truly great will be few and far between. One danger indeed we have
little reason to fear. I mean the sterilising tyranny of some dominant
lyrical form, such as the Greek elegiac couplet, or the late-classical
Chinese stanza. Our poetry is already so abundantly rich in types, and
so fertile in breeding new varieties, that neither the spirit of a new
Age, nor genius however individual need be at a loss for appropriate
forms of lyrical self-expression. A twentieth-century Catullus or Heine
would have no cause for complaint if he were to be born an Englishman.

It is with regard to lyrics on a larger, more elaborate scale, that
English poets have hitherto shown least ambition and enterprise. The
Pindarics of Gray are a poor substitute for Pindar; while the _Odes_ of
Keats and Matthew Arnold’s _Thyrsis_ and _Scholar-Gipsy_ are elegiac
rather than lyrical in mood and form. Shelley and Goethe, and at times
Swinburne, have shown themselves to be more truly the successors of
the greater Greek lyric poets; and if they be rightly understood, their
example may yet bear fruit for our delight of altogether unimaginable
quality. But the tendency of the moment seems to be towards poems on
a small scale, of a somewhat anæmic delicacy, or else of an artful
and piquant quaintness, rather than towards the sustained movement,
and elaborate yet highly organised form, which is necessary for the
greatest lyrical poetry.

Another province of literature, which we have seldom as yet attempted
to make our own, is that of comic poetry. We have indeed had many and
various comic writers of first-rate quality; but although, when they
were so minded, Chaucer and Shakespeare and Byron could show themselves
to be masters of comedy in verse, we have as yet had no Aristophanes,
but have been obliged to content ourselves with the charming
trivialities and vulgarities of a Gilbert. If only Ben Jonson, in
addition to stage-craft, Gargantuan comic energy and Titanic eloquence,
had been gifted with a particle of that fiery celestial ether, by
which alone mortal art can become divine, then indeed perhaps....
But of what use are regrets? The future, not the past, is here our
concern. And what a future might there not be for the comic genius
who should be so fortunately inspired as to take the popular Farce,
or even the theatrical Revue, and by giving it the life and the wings
of poetry, so transform it from a poor ephemeral stage-hobby-horse
into an immortal cloud-cruising Pegasus, or at least a serviceable
Hippogryph! Thus sublimely mounted, what regions of the earth and sky
might not such a Bellerophon explore? What monsters and Chimæras might
he not torment and slay with the shafts of his lyrical ridicule? All
that men and women say or think or do, would lie ready as fuel for his
imagination to kindle at will, all our follies and fashions, vices and
virtues, stupidities, cruelties, noble extravagances, religious and
metaphysical dreams. If Socrates could afford to be a good-naturedly
amused spectator of the _Clouds_, so might Freud of some _Comedy of
Dreams_ by our modern Aristophanes: and if he could not, why, so much
the worse for him and his speculations. How wholesome too for our
prominent statesmen and demagogues!--But alas, I am forgetting our
Lord Chamberlain. We are not yet sufficiently enlightened to tolerate
political caricature and Rabelaisian ribaldry upon our stage, and
an English _Knights_ or _Lysistrata_ must remain, I fear, for the
present a poet’s dream. Nevertheless, under a reasonably intelligent
censorship, what Rabelais was for his age, an emancipated imaginative
comedy might well be for our own, except that, whereas the Gallic
genius has always expressed itself most naturally and completely in
prose, ours would expand more congenially into poetry, which, for all
its apparent limitations, should be, at its best, the more universal
interpreter of the spirit of man, whether on the plane of tragedy or of

There is good reason for hoping that the problem of an adequate
stage-performance of imaginative comedy would be less difficult to
solve than it seems to be in the case of serious poetic drama. Actors
are always more ready to understand and do justice to plays that are
good fun as well as good literature. Mr. Bernard Shaw and Gilbert and
Sullivan are apt to meet with better treatment at the hands of our
producers and performers than Ibsen or Wagner. All the same even poetic
tragedy should not be too lightly despaired of. If great plays can be
written, someone sooner or later is likely to have the ambition and the
intelligence to produce them worthily. Something of the kind seems to
have happened at Glasgow, in the case of Mr. Gordon Bottomley’s verse
plays. Let us hope, however cautiously, that what Scotland does to-day,
England may at least begin to think of doing to-morrow. Meantime
there is one wholesome lesson that poets may learn from the undoubted
literary success of Mr. Bottomley’s _Gruach_ and _Lear’s Wife_. It is
continually being dinned into their ears by critics who should know
better, that the time is now gone by when poets might borrow their
material from a remote or legendary past; that a twentieth-century
dramatist must deal only in twentieth-century themes if he hopes to
reach the hearts of twentieth-century men and women, or to win the
good graces of Georgian reviewers. And yet it is unquestionably true
that in every period when poetic tragedy has flourished, mythical,
legendary and historical subjects have been the rule, and contemporary
themes the rare exceptions. Oedipus, Agamemnon and Pentheus were not
fifth-century Athenians any more than Hamlet, Lear and Antony were
Elizabethans, or Andromaque and Phèdre _Parisiennes_ of the _grand
siècle_. The artistic success of the _Persae_, _Othello_ and _Bajazet_
merely make this determined preference for archaic subject-matter seem
the more remarkable. And yet none of these writers were mere literary
antiquarians, but true children of their own age, to whose dramas we
now look first, if we wish to understand the mentality and the moral
standards of the populace that applauded them. Even Goethe, in the
work that perhaps more than any other represents the complexity of
modern ideas and aspirations, went back to a myth that was then two
hundred years old. It would seem as though the poetic imagination, when
it sets itself the most arduous of its tasks, that of alembicating
tragic beauty from human misery and passion, welcomes the limitation
of choice, the simplicity of atmosphere, the freedom from distracting
contemporary preoccupations, which a remote theme brings with it. None
the less Ibsen’s _Brandt_ and _Peer Gynt_ show how a modern, though
scarcely a familiar world, may be made the background of true poetic
tragedy; although in _Peer Gynt_ the almost continued presence of the
Comedic Muse, with her incurable modernity, tempers the difficulty of
the problem. Thus, though it would be unreasonable to maintain that the
Tragic Muse must be unable to live and breathe in the smoky atmosphere
of our present-day world, it would be still more absurd to prohibit her
escape into the purer clime of a legendary or historical past.

The case of narrative poetry is somewhat similar, yet with important
differences. It is true that the Homeric heroes and the society in
which they lived had long ceased to exist when the _Iliad_ and the
_Odyssey_ were composed, and that most of the great epic and narrative
writers, Virgil, Ariosto, Milton and Marlowe, preferred mythical or
purely fantastic settings for their stories. Yet such a limitation
would seem to be hardly so natural to narrative as to tragic poetry.
For the quality of narrative being less intense and passionate, and
its unity more loose, it is able to indulge copiously in decoration,
description and digression, and so should be able to deal all the more
effectively with the variegated modern scene. And yet, except for two
sombre short stories in blank verse by Wordsworth, and Byron’s _Don
Juan_, there has scarcely been any narrative, dealing with modern life
and of first-rate poetical quality, since Chaucer’s _Canterbury Tales_.
This is perhaps because poets have not sufficiently realised that the
telling of a story in verse instead of prose can only be justified
when the sensuous and decorative beauty of the medium is continually
maintained at the highest pitch. For whereas in the intense and
tragic moments of drama exquisiteness and richness of texture may be
unnecessary, or at times even a positive nuisance, bald and graceless
verse narrative is always insupportable. Byron indeed atoned for much
artistic unscrupulousness and slovenly workmanship by his unfailing
energy and wit. But poets will have to take to heart the lesson of
Chaucer’s scrupulous attention to beauty of texture, if they are to
hold their own in rivalry with prose fiction. They will have also to
be aware of the dangers of a too exclusive interest in analytical
psychology. Narrative, when it ceases to narrate, very easily becomes
a bore. Such writers as Proust and Henry James may have been able
successfully to dispense with many of the functions of story-telling,
by laboriously evolving a peculiar prose instrument of their own for
the expression of psychological subtleties. But it is doubtful whether
anything of the kind would be possible in verse, or, if possible,
whether it would be readable. Yet for the direct presentation, serious
or humoristic, of character, mood and emotion, verse in the hands of a
master will always remain an instrument of supreme power.

There are certain other kinds of poetry, more or less akin to
narrative, for which an interesting future may be predicted. The
Victorians seem to have had a special predilection for the Dramatic
Monologue, perhaps because they unconsciously felt their inability to
cope with the problems of drama. _Caliban upon Setebos_ and _The Bishop
orders his Tomb in St. Praxed’s Church_ are notable successes; but
several of Browning’s experiments should be a warning of the danger of
lengthiness and over-elaboration in a form that allows of very little
narrative interest or dramatic contrast. Great and sustained beauty of
language can alone justify a long poem of such a kind; and it is just
in this respect that Browning was most deficient.

Another attractive sub-species of narrative poetry is the Dramatic
Dialogue or Interlude, which has lately been successfully revived
by Mr. Sturge Moore and Mr. Abercrombie. The great master of this
form, as also of the Monologue, is Theocritus, whose _Syracusan
Women_, _Kyniska_, _Thyrsis_, and _Simaitha_ will always remain as
a challenging inspiration to succeeding ages. The great range of
his material within the narrow limits of his surviving work, and
his marvellous blend of naturalism and poetry, should be peculiarly
suggestive to a generation like our own, with its eagerness to find new
paths, or rediscover old ones, to poetic freedom.

It would be presumptuous in one who is not himself a philosopher to
speak with assurance about philosophic poetry: yet I shall venture upon
some obvious reflections. Few would dispute that there has been only
one specifically philosophical work which is also a great poem, the
_De Rerum Natura_ of Lucretius. But those of us who love it best will,
if we are candid, admit that it contains vast tracts of scientific
and metaphysical discussion, which even fervid and eloquent genius
has not wholly succeeded in clothing with the vesture of poetry. It
is true that, for those few who have the courage and wisdom to read
them, these sections should have a very high value as parts of a
sublime imaginative vision of the universe; and they also contain
many scattered episodes of divine poetic loveliness. But the claim
of Lucretius to rank among the world’s greatest writers will always
rest upon those sections, such as the endings of his third, fourth
and fifth books, where the material is already in its essence poetic,
and gives scope to his supreme gift for sensuous description, or for
passionate ethical discourse. It is to be feared that if a poet of
equal genius with Lucretius were to take modern psychology, the physics
of Einstein, or the philosophy of Mr. Russell as his subject-matter,
with the intention of seriously expounding and not of merely poetising
them, he would be unable to avoid similar desert tracts of unpoetical
reasoning. But it is a narrow view which can deny that verse should
ever be employed, unless the result be poetry. If an artist in language
is able to set forth philosophic matter that is of great intrinsic
interest more luminously and attractively in verse than could be done
in prose (which is precisely what Lucretius did with the crabbed
sentences of Epicurus), let us not grudge him the praise and gratitude
that are his due. However, it seems unlikely that scientific philosophy
will ever again inspire an expository treatise such as the _De Rerum
Natura_. It might indeed enter as an all-pervading influence into some
comprehensive epic design, just as religion and scholastic philosophy
pervade the _Divina Commedia_. What is certain is that, as there have
always been, so there always will be philosophically minded poets, and
that they will discover for themselves what forms serve their purpose

The treatise, as a poetic form, would seem to be more suitable for
subjects that are neither strictly philosophic, nor scientific. Yet
though we have had our _Seasons_, _Night Thoughts_, and _Sofas_ in
plenty, Virgil’s _Georgics_ remain still unrivalled. Why should not
an ingenious and erudite poet take some such pregnant subject as
Architecture, the Garden, or the Evolution of Religion, or if he have
the knowledge and the boldness, Machinery, Medicine or Economics, and
dispute Virgil’s supremacy in this field, as Virgil once did Hesiod’s?
How fascinating would he not find the problem of wedding didactic
and historical exposition to perfect loveliness of texture? What
opportunities for description and reflection? And with what entrancing
episodes, serious or playful, might he not delight our fancy?

Not the least noble, nor the least exacting of mistresses, is the
Muse of Satire. “_Facit indignatio versum_,” said Juvenal. But alas,
how fumbling a designer, how banal a metrician, how unscrupulous and
inartistic a poetaster has Indignation generally proved herself to be.
Few satires survive the ephemeral social follies that provoked them,
because, being by nature parasites, when that which supported their
growth decays and perishes, they too must perish, unless indeed they
are rooted deeply in the unchanging soil of imagination and poetry.
Truly great satire will always be very rare. It is still possible
to read with delight Byron’s _Vision of Judgment_, and portions of
his _Age of Bronze_; and there are passages in Pope and Dryden that
fully deserve their reputation. But it is perhaps only in parts of the
_Divina Commedia_, and in the last three hundred lines of the fourth
book of Lucretius, and occasionally in Leopardi, that satire may be
found mingled as the dominating element in poetry of the highest order.
Its taste even there is bitter, but with the divine bitterness of
passion and sincerity.

In the enchanted kingdom of fantasy and the mock-heroic, Pope’s _Rape
of the Lock_ and Lear’s poems still reign supreme. It is perhaps
because they are ostensibly written for the delight of children, that
_The Owl and the Pussycat_, _The Dong_, and the _Quangle-Wangle_
have never, so far as I know, found their way into serious adult
anthologies. Yet if we are really sincere in our quest for lyrical
beauty, verbal euphony and metrical invention, we should not have
tolerated without protest the absence of these poems from the _Oxford
Book of Verse_, where they would more than hold their own in the
company of _Annabel Lee_, _The Lady of Shalott_, and _The Blessed



The main trouble with all attempts at literary classification is that
they are bound to exclude many intermediate types. Much of the most
memorable English poetry is neither in a strict sense lyrical, nor
philosophic, nor anything else than beautiful and shapely verse. No
other literature is so rich as ours in quasi-lyrical poetry, such as
the sonnets of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Gray’s _Elegy_ and Keats’
_Odes_. Future writers will doubtless invent other similar forms for
their new purposes; but it would be a disastrous error to suppose
that, because an art-form has once become classical, it therefore can
no longer be used, except for academic pastiche. No form is ever
superannuated if it be the best possible vehicle for expressing a new
artistic idea. A poet need be no more afraid of using the Shakespearian
or Petrarchian sonnet, than a musician need be ashamed of composing
a classical fugue, provided his inspiration be genuine; and its
genuineness will not be obscured or destroyed by being cast into some
old and well-tried mould. Indeed the most truly academic works are
often those in which some ephemerally fashionable formula has been
blindly adopted without being understood. The mental habits of poets
are as various as those of scientists or politicians. Wordsworth, who
far more than most poets drew his material from his own experience,
was nevertheless inspired to invent his most felicitous work by such
traditional forms as the sonnet or the common ballad stanza: his _Ode
to Duty_ is exactly modelled on a metrical invention of Gray, and the
pattern of his _Leech-Gatherer_, but for one slight variation, is the
same as that of Shakespeare’s _Rape of Lucrece_. On the other hand Walt
Whitman spent many years laboriously floundering in search of a poetic
method, and it was only late in life that his unconscious sense of
form led him to write a few poems that are as perfect in design and as
moving as any fragment of Alcman.

In every fertile and creative age of literature, it will generally be
found that there were two main stimulating influences at work: in the
first place naturalism, or an awakened sensitiveness to the suggestive
beauty of the actual world; and secondly the fascination exercised by
the masterpieces of earlier periods and alien cultures. By this I do
not mean the direct inheritance of a poetic medium. Milton no doubt
learnt his metrical technique from Shakespeare and the Elizabethans,
but in everything else he owed far more to his loving study of Homer,
Euripides, Virgil and the Bible. Thus too the spiritual presence of
Homer is felt everywhere in the Greek lyrical and dramatic writers, and
even in Theocritus; and thus emulous idolatry of Greek and Alexandrine
masterpieces quickened into life all that was best in Latin poetry;
while Virgil and Ovid in their turn became the schoolmasters of Dante
and the Renaissance. The tyranny of Latin over English poetry only
began to wane towards the end of the eighteenth century; then suddenly
in Shelley and Keats, and later in Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, Mr.
Bridges, and even Browning, the Hellenic spirit becomes a veritable
Castalian fountain of inspiration. Now that the knowledge of Greek
is likely to become a rare accomplishment, it is possible that its
influence will die away as quickly as it flowered. Yet the imagination
is sometimes kindled by translations even more potently than by
scholarship, as is shown by the case of Keats, who had small Latin
and less Greek. And indeed, apart from our ever-growing interest in
our own earlier literature, the most helpful and fertile impulse seems
likely in the near future to come through translations of Oriental
poetry, such as those by Mr. Waley and Mr. Nicholson. But from whatever
direction the wind may blow, it will be the most imaginative artists
who will first be sensitive to it, and the most skilful and discreet in
the use they put it to. The lesser crowd will, as ever, follow their
lead, until what was once a renovating breath of inspiration has become
a stale and flatulent academicism.

Even if it be true, as I have suggested earlier in this essay, that
poetry has ceased to be a great popular and social art, there will be
no need to regret the change in so far as it may make it more easy
for poets to disregard fashionable success, and so to retain their
artistic integrity. Yet there are certain dangers to which they will
become increasingly liable. An art which presupposes a select initiated
audience, very quickly becomes over-precious, and, for all its
refinement, essentially parochial. The best art will take nothing for
granted in those to whom it is addressed, except artistic intelligence
and that human nature which is common to us all. Poets whose idiom is
not universal, but calculated for a cultured private coterie, write
with the risk of swift oblivion, so soon as the tide of æsthetic
caprice has turned. This is all the more regrettable, as such poetry is
sometimes of great originality and beauty. The most frequent fault is
obscurity, due either to an Alexandrine love of recondite allusions, or
more often to an apparently studied neglect of transitions. A contempt
for clarity has almost come to be regarded as an artistic virtue,
rather than as a vice, or at best an occasionally inevitable evil.
Nothing in truth can be more fundamentally inartistic than needless
obscurity. Poetry that is intellectually and emotionally complex, is
certain in any case to be difficult enough; and the less a reader is
called upon to make avoidable mental effort, the more convincingly
will the essential context of a poem be communicated to his mind. The
medium of poetry consists not merely of words, but of speech, that is
of words, phrases and sentences in syntactic and logical relations to
one another; and although these relations necessarily tend to be more
emotional and less rational in poetry than in prose, because poetry is
the more emotional medium, yet there are limits which it is dangerous
to exceed. Much no doubt depends upon the nature of the subject-matter.
A chorus of Aeschylus, or a soliloquy of Macbeth may be very difficult
to analyse and construe satisfactorily; yet their general drift is
usually clear enough. Cloudy vagueness or intricate subtlety may well
be necessary and legitimate qualities of a poem; but all superfluous
obscurity is æsthetically pure waste. Gerard Hopkins is a deplorable
example of a poet of sincerity and genius, who damaged much of his best
work by not being sufficiently aware of the nature of his instrument,
which was the English language, or of his audience, who could only be
educated English-speaking people. The admirers of such writers will
often quite honestly deny that they find them unduly difficult. They
probably forget how hard they have had to work in order to obtain their
reward. The trouble is that the poet ought to have done the larger part
of their work for them himself.

Whatever may be the destinies of English poetry, I do not think it is
likely to achieve anything very remarkable until we have grown out of
a doctrine or prejudice that is widely prevalent just now, that is to
say our dislike and suspicion of rhetoric. By rhetoric I mean the sum
of all the artifices and habits of syntax, phrasing and diction which
are necessary in order to sustain the movement and the structure of a
poem that is designed on a large scale, or of a short poem of great
emotional intensity. That may be a loose and unsatisfactory definition,
but it is the best I can come by. Criticism nowadays seems to be mainly
interested in lyrical poetry on a small scale; and this may account
for the disfavour into which the very name of rhetoric has fallen: for
it is true that short lyrics of a certain kind can afford to dispense
with rhetoric, in the sense in which I am using the word. Yet if the
European poets of the past, and their public, had been as shy of
rhetoric as we are at present, it is certain that there would have been
no Homer to begin with, still less an Aeschylus, a Milton, a Racine,
or a Shelley. We might have produced poetry of exquisite charm and
refinement, but its imaginative range and vitality would probably have
been as restricted as that of the Japanese, or of the later Chinese
poets. If we compare in Mr. Waley’s translations the classical Tang
poets with those earlier primitive writers, who were not yet afraid of
composing on a fairly large scale, we shall then see what may be the
fate of a literature that has grown ashamed of employing the breadth
and energy of movement without which great poetry is impossible. Of
course there has always been, and always will be, bad rhetoric, as well
as good. The inferior imitators of Milton, for instance, used to impose
upon their own commonplace poetic conceptions the whole stylistic
apparatus which Milton had elaborated for the purpose of sustaining the
enormous movement of his verse, and enriching its texture. Bad rhetoric
is always stale rhetoric. “No bird,” as Blake says, “soars too high, if
he soars with his own wings.”

But it is an ill wind that blows nobody any good; and we may
gratefully welcome this impatience of rhetoric, in so far as it
serves to purify the air of that pestilential blight which is known
as “poetic,” but would be more truthfully named “prosaic diction.” To
quote Mr. Santayana, “when use has worn down a poetic phrase to its
external import, and rendered it an indifferent symbol for a particular
thing, that phrase has become prosaic. It has also become, by the same
process, transparent and purely instrumental.” Poetry, when it is
healthy and vigorous, is continually discarding such worn-out words and
phrases, as being indeed no longer poetical enough for its purposes.
It is the simpler, homelier words and idioms of everyday speech
that carry with them most poetic suggestion. Not but what rare and
far-fetched diction may not on fit occasions be ornamentally useful,
or justify itself by its grandeur and impressiveness. Shakespeare knew
his business when he wrote, “The multitudinous seas incarnadine”;
but how thankful we should have been if succeeding poets had had the
wisdom to refrain from debasing his coinage! Poetry need not be always
simple, sensuous or passionate; but when it wishes to be decorative
or extravagant, it will do well to remember the fable of the jay in
peacock’s feathers, and grow novel and appropriate plumage of its own.

With regard to poetic inversion, there is bound to be great divergence
both in practice and in critical taste. Swinburne considered Ben
Jonson’s line, “But might I of Jove’s nectar sup,” to be an inexcusable
blemish in an otherwise perfect masterpiece. Yet Jacobean readers would
probably have found the order of the words sufficiently natural and
unforced. It is true that since then there has been a considerable
change in our linguistic sense, due in part to the long dominance
of prose during the eighteenth century, and in part to the waning
influence of Latin. Nevertheless even now the best writers in their
most genuinely poetic moments still assert for themselves, though
within narrower limits, the licence of modifying the strict grammatical
order. This surely is as it ought to be; for though a language like
ours, which has shed most of its inflections, is compelled to have
a more rigid word-order than an inflected language like Latin, yet
emotional stress and the need for rhetorical emphasis will always, even
in prose, tempt writers to violate the conventional rules, and still
more in poetry, where the position of words and phrases in relation to
the line is of such, paramount importance.



There is another legend concerning the ancient Hellenic Muses, which
I would here like to recall. It is said that one of their most gifted
and distinguished pupils, the Thessalian bard Thamyris, having made
certain innovations in the orthodox technique of poetry, and having
moreover enlarged its boundaries by annexing subject-matter that had
hitherto been considered beneath the dignity of classic art, one day
had the audacity to challenge his august schoolmistresses to a contest
of song. Apollo was the umpire, and he, as might have been expected,
adjudged the victory to his divine relatives. The presumptuous mortal
was condemned to lose his eyes, and forbidden henceforth to practise
the sacred art of poesy. The baser medium of prose would be good enough
for such renegade impostors. But the result was far different from
what the Goddesses had expected. Thamyris, though blinded, remained
recalcitrant, and retaining all his former skill and genius, like his
remote descendants, blind Maeonides and Milton, continued to produce
masterpiece after masterpiece. Worse still, he became a popular hero
among the miserable mortal multitude, who naturally sided with the
victim of divine jealousy. Moreover Thamyris soon afterwards became
the father of a numerous family, and their descendants, multiplying
throughout the world, inherited, not his blindness, but his poetical
gifts. Thus it comes about that all true poets and lovers of poetry are
children of Thamyris, and little though they know it, have each some
few drops of his inspired and rebellious blood running in their veins.
If the Muses had wished effectively to stamp out heresy, they would
have been wiser had they followed the example of Apollo, who flayed
alive that other æsthetic mutineer, Marsyas, thus robbing him not only
of life, but of the hope of heretical offspring.

Now it appears to me that this tale must have been a prophetic
fable, intended to symbolise certain important aspects of man’s
poetic evolution. If the Muses and Apollo represent the established,
conservative tradition of poetry, then in Thamyris must be embodied
the perennial revolt of the creative younger generation against the
prestige and authority of the past. Though the penalty of rebellion may
sometimes be blindness, egoism and eccentricity, yet the sacred fire
will remain alive in the heart of the rebel, and will be handed down by
him to his posterity, who, themselves neither blind nor mutinous, will
often become in turn the persecutors of their own children. Thus the
divine flame will never cease to burn, and generation after generation
the youth of poetry will be renewed.

Nevertheless there are those who take a gloomier view of man’s
destinies. Poetry, they tell us, like mythology, religion and
metaphysics, is a primitive and puerile function of the human mind.
It is already becoming superseded by less rudimentary, more rational
means of self-expression. We are entering upon an era of science and
prose, and may as well at once frankly put away poetry, along with
other childish things. At the beginning of this essay I have tried to
suggest how much and how little truth there may be in this view. I have
admitted that the dissociation of poetry from music and intonation has
to a great extent diminished the immediate potency of its sensuous
and emotional appeal; but I have argued that the new medium of spoken
verse, although it may have grown more similar to prose, is yet very
far from being identical with it, either formally, or in the nature
of its subject-matter. Prose is the more transparent, self-effacing
instrument. Its value consists not so much in itself (though it may
possess a real sensuous charm and beauty of its own), but rather in
its intellectual content and the knowledge it conveys. But the value
of poetry resides primarily in the medium itself. If that be not
beautiful, then verse is a thing of naught, and worse than naught.
None the less poetry should be no mere meaningless verbal incantation,
nor yet a melodious transmitter of congenial lies and irresponsible
reverie. It is a means of discourse, of which the content should be
neither science nor history nor speculation in their abstract purity,
but all these and much else besides, enveloped and humanised by
emotion, and presented with all the moving pathos and beauty which is
inherent in them, but which the less imaginative prosaic medium cannot
so effectually reveal. So long as human nature remains what it is now,
as in spite of cynical prognostications it is likely to do for some
time to come, it will both demand and obtain satisfaction for its ideal
needs from literature, as well as from the musical and plastic arts:
and in fact, if verse were to be proscribed or abandoned by general
consent, we should be soon compelled to find an awkward substitute
for it in rhythmical or poetic prose. Yet, in spite of the beauty and
grandeur of our translations of biblical Hebrew verse, and of certain
majestical passages in such writers as Sir Thomas Browne, rhythmical
prose has seldom proved itself able to compete with formal poetry. It
is too primitive, too monotonous and cumbersome to perform more than a
small part of the various functions of modern spoken verse, to which we
should inevitably be driven before long to revert.

Yet though the disappearance of poetry is unlikely, and would be a
real disaster, it is much to be desired that poetry should become
more rational and responsible, more intelligently aware of the best
interests and ideals of its most civilised contemporaries. It would be
childish and unwise for poets to disregard the fact that our habits
of mind are growing continually more scientific. The function of the
imagination is to interpret and illuminate reality, and it cannot
therefore neglect or despise the normal aspects under which reality
presents itself to the human mind. But it must also appeal to the human
heart; and since the passions and dreams of the heart are less mutable
than the intellect, it is in this respect that the nature of poetry is
least likely to suffer any fundamental change. The garment in which it
clothes itself will alter, as language alters, and as poets of genius
are moved to enlarge or contract it. As long as men use articulate
speech, some few among them will take delight in moulding it into
rhythmical forms of harmonious beauty, in order to find the most
perfect expression for the intimate desires and movements of the soul.

Perhaps I should have been more prudent if I had confined my discussion
to the more purely technical aspect of poetry, without venturing upon
the dangerous sea of general reflections upon style and theme, attitude
and tendency. I have at least tried to refrain from dogma and prophecy,
and attempted rather to suggest future possibilities by drawing
attention to the lessons which we can still learn from the past. It may
well be that the only really profitable discussions about poetry are
technical discussions. “The thought of man is not triable. Even the
Devil knoweth not the thought of man,” said the old legal maxim. And
so, to my mind, the thought, the soul of the Muse of modern poetry is
not triable, nor discussable; but her actions are. And what else are
her actions but her successes and failures in exploiting her medium?
Although her golden age may seem to lie in the past, and her future be
uncertain and beset with perils, yet there is no need to despair of her
salvation. To revert to the apologue with which I began, though I may
feel some sympathy with the celestial point of view, I am not really on
the side of the angels.

Transcriber’s Notes

Obvious typographical errors have been silently corrected. Variations
in hyphenation and accents have been standardised but all other
spelling and punctuation remains unchanged.

Italics are represented thus _italic_.

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "Thamyris : or, Is there a future for poetry?" ***

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