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Title: Poetry for Poetry's Sake - An Inaugural Lecture Delivered on June 5, 1901
Author: Bradley, A. C. (Andrew Cecil), 1851-1935
Language: English
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_Poetry for Poetry's Sake_


HENRY FROWDE, M.A.
PUBLISHER TO THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
LONDON, EDINBURGH
NEW YORK



_Poetry
For Poetry's Sake_

AN INAUGURAL LECTURE

DELIVERED ON JUNE 5, 1901


BY

A. C. BRADLEY, M.A., LL.D.

PROFESSOR OF POETRY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
FORMERLY FELLOW OF BALLIOL COLLEGE


OXFORD
AT THE CLARENDON PRESS
1901



NOTE.--This Lecture is printed almost as it was delivered. I am aware
that, especially in the earlier pages, difficult subjects are treated in
a manner far too summary, but they require an exposition so full that it
would destroy the original form of the Lecture, while a slight expansion
would do little to provide against misunderstandings.

                                                           A. C. B.



POETRY FOR POETRY'S SAKE


One who, after twenty years, is restored to the University where he was
taught and first tried to teach, and who has received at the hands of
his Alma Mater an honour of which he never dreamed, is tempted to speak
both of himself and of her. But I remember that you have come to listen
to my thoughts about a great subject, and not to my feelings about
myself; and, of Oxford, who that holds this Professorship could dare to
speak, when he recalls the exquisite verse in which one of his
predecessors described her beauty, and the prose in which he gently
touched on her illusions and protested that they were as nothing when
set against her age-long warfare with the Philistine? How, again,
remembering him and others, should I venture to praise my predecessors?
It would be pleasant to do so, and even pleasanter to me and you if,
instead of lecturing, I quoted to you some of their best passages. But I
could not do this for five years. Sooner or later, my own words would
have to come, and the inevitable contrast. Not to sharpen it now, I will
be silent concerning them also; and will only assure you that I do not
forget them, or the greatness of the honour of succeeding them, or the
responsibility which it entails.

Since I left Oxford one change has taken place in its educational
system which may be thought to affect the Professorship of Poetry. A
School of English Language and Literature has been founded, and has
attracted a fair number of candidates. Naturally I rejoice in this
change, knowing from experience the value of these studies; and knowing
also from experience, if I may speak boldly, how idle is that dream
which flits about in Oxford and whispers that the mastering of Old
English, on the basis of Teutonic phonology, and the conquest of the
worlds opened by Chaucer and Shakespeare and Swift and Burke and twenty
more, is a business too slight and a discipline not severe enough for
undergraduates. I should be glad to lighten their labours, and, if it
should seem advisable to those who can judge, I propose to give in one
of the three Terms of the year, in addition to my statutory lecture, a
few others intended specially for those who are reading for the School
of English. I wish I could do more, but I resigned my chair in Glasgow
with a view to work of another kind, and I could not have parted from my
students there, to whom I am bound by ties of the most grateful
affection, in order to take up similar duties even in the University of
Oxford.

The charming poem with which my predecessor opened his literary career,
and his admirable contributions to poetical history and criticism, prove
that it would have been easy to him to devote his lectures to the
interpretation of particular poets and poems. I believe, however, that
he thought it better to confine himself chiefly to questions in Poetics
or Aesthetics. I can well understand his choice; but, partly because he
made it, I propose to make another, and to discuss these questions, if
at all, only as they are illustrated by particular writers and works.
Still in an inaugural lecture it is customary to take some wider
subject; and so I fear you may have to-day to lament the truth of
Addison's remark: 'There is nothing in nature so irksome as general
discourses, especially when they turn chiefly upon words.' Mine turns
entirely upon words.

[Sidenote: POETRY]

The words 'Poetry for poetry's sake' recall the famous phrase 'Art for
Art.' It is far from my purpose to examine the possible meanings of that
phrase, or all the questions it involves. I propose to state briefly
what I understand by 'Poetry for poetry's sake,' and then, after
guarding against one or two misapprehensions of the formula, to consider
more fully a single problem connected with it. And I must premise,
without attempting to justify them, certain explanations. We are to
consider poetry in its essence, and apart from the flaws which in most
poems accompany their poetry. We are to include in the idea of poetry
the metrical form, and not to regard this as a mere accident or a mere
vehicle. And, finally, poetry being poems, we are to think of a poem as
it actually exists; and, without aiming here at accuracy, we may say
that an actual poem is the succession of experiences--sounds, images,
thoughts, emotions--through which we pass when we are reading as
poetically as we can. Of course this imaginative experience--if I may
use the phrase for brevity--differs with every reader and every time of
reading: a poem exists in innumerable degrees. But that insurmountable
fact lies in the nature of things and does not concern us now.

What then does the formula 'Poetry for poetry's sake' tell us about this
experience? It says, as I understand it, these things. First, this
experience is an end in itself, is worth having on its own account, has
an intrinsic value. Next, its _poetic_ value is this intrinsic worth alone.
Poetry may have also an ulterior value as a means to culture or
religion; because it conveys instruction, or softens the passions, or
furthers a good cause; because it brings the poet fame or money or a
quiet conscience. So much the better: let it be valued for these reasons
too. But its ulterior worth neither is nor can directly determine its
poetic worth as a satisfying imaginative experience; and this is to be
judged entirely from within. And to these two positions the formula
would add, though not of necessity, a third. The consideration of
ulterior ends, whether by the poet in the act of composing or by the
reader in the act of experiencing, tends to lower poetic value. It does
so because it tends to change the nature of poetry by taking it out of
its own atmosphere. For its nature is to be not a part, nor yet a copy,
of the real world (as we commonly understand that phrase), but to be a
world by itself, independent, complete, autonomous; and to possess it
fully you must enter that world, conform to its laws, and ignore for the
time the beliefs, aims, and particular conditions which belong to you in
the other world of reality.

[Sidenote: POETIC VALUE INTRINSIC]

Of the more serious misapprehensions to which these statements may give
rise I will glance only at one or two. The offensive consequences often
drawn from the formula 'Art for Art' will be found to attach not to the
doctrine that Art is an end in itself, but to the doctrine that Art is
the whole or supreme end of human life. And as this latter doctrine,
which seems to me absurd, is in any case quite different from the
former, its consequences fall outside my subject. The formula 'Poetry is
an end in itself' has nothing to say on the many questions of moral
judgement which arise from the fact that poetry has its place in a
many-sided life. For anything it says, the intrinsic value of poetry
might be so small, and its ulterior effects so mischievous, that it had
better not exist. The formula only tells us that we must not place in
antithesis poetry and human good, for poetry is one kind of human good;
and that we must not determine the intrinsic value of this kind of good
by direct reference to another. If we do, we shall find ourselves
maintaining what we did not expect. If poetic value lies in the
stimulation of religious feelings, _Lead, kindly Light_ is no better a
poem than many a tasteless version of a Psalm: if in the excitement of
patriotism, why is _Scots, wha hae_ superior to _We don't want to
fight_? if in the mitigation of the passions, the Odes of Sappho will
win but little praise: if in instruction, Armstrong's _Art of preserving
Health_ should win much.

Again, our formula may be accused of cutting poetry away from its
connexion with life. And this accusation raises so huge a problem that I
must ask leave to be dogmatic as well as brief. There is plenty of
connexion between life and poetry, but it is, so to say, a connexion
underground. The two may be called different forms of the same thing:
one of them having (in the usual sense) reality, but seldom fully
satisfying imagination; while the other offers something which satisfies
imagination but has not (in the usual sense) full reality. They are
parallel developments which nowhere meet, or, if I may use incorrectly a
word which will be useful later, they are analogues. Hence we understand
one by help of the other, and even, in a sense, care for one because of
the other; but hence also, poetry neither is life, nor, strictly
speaking, a copy of it. They differ not only because one has more mass
and the other a more perfect shape; but they have different _kinds_ of
existence. The one touches us as beings occupying a given position in
space and time, and having feelings, desires, and purposes due to that
position: it appeals to imagination, but appeals to much besides. What
meets us in poetry has not a position in the same series of time and
space, or, if it has or had such a position, is taken apart from much
that belonged to it there; and therefore it makes no direct appeal to
those feelings, desires, and purposes, but speaks only to contemplative
imagination--imagination the reverse of empty or emotionless,
imagination saturated with the results of 'real' experience, but still
contemplative. Thus, no doubt, one main reason why poetry has poetic
value for us is that it presents to us in its own way something which we
meet in another form in nature or life; and yet the test of its poetic
value lies simply in the question whether it satisfies our imagination,
the rest of us, our knowledge or conscience, for example, judging it
only so far as they appear transmuted in our imagination. So also
Shakespeare's knowledge or his moral insight, Milton's greatness of
soul, Shelley's 'hate of hate' and 'love of love,' and that desire to
help men by his poetry which influenced this poet or that--not, surely,
in the process of composition but in hours of meditation--all these
have, as such, no poetical worth: they have that worth only when,
passing through the unity of the poet's being, they reappear as
qualities of imagination, and then are indeed mighty powers in the world
of poetry.

I come to a third misapprehension, and so to my main subject. This
formula, it is said, empties poetry of its meaning: it is really a
doctrine of form for form's sake.

[Sidenote: WHERE DOES IT LIE?]

'It matters not what a poet says, so long as he says the thing well. The
_what_ is poetically indifferent: it is the _how_ that counts. Matter,
subject, content, substance, determines nothing; there is no subject
with which poetry may not deal: the form, the treatment, is everything.
Nay, more: not only is the matter indifferent, but it is the secret of
Art to "eradicate the matter by means of the form."' Phrases and
statements like these meet us everywhere in current criticism of
literature and the other arts. They are the stock-in-trade of writers
who understand of them little more than the fact that somehow or other
they are not 'bourgeois.' But we find them also seriously used by
writers whom we must respect, whether they are anonymous or not;
something like one or another of them might be quoted, for example, from
Professor Saintsbury, the late R. A. M. Stevenson, Schiller, Goethe
himself; and they are the watchwords of a school in the one country
where Aesthetics has flourished. They come, as a rule, from men who
either practise one of the arts, or, from study of it, are interested in
its methods. The general reader--a being so general that I may say what
I will of him--is outraged by them. He feels that he is being robbed of
almost all that he cares for in a work of art. 'You are asking me,' he
says, 'to look at the Dresden Madonna as if it were a Persian rug. You
are telling me that the poetic value of _Hamlet_ lies solely in its
style and versification, and that my interest in the man and his fate is
only an intellectual or moral interest. You pretend that, if I want to
enjoy the poetry of _Crossing the Bar_, I must not mind what Tennyson
says there, but must consider solely how he says it. But in that case I
can care no more for a poem than I do for a set of nonsense verses; and
I do not believe that the authors of _Hamlet_ and _Crossing the Bar_
regarded their poems thus.'

These antitheses of subject, matter, substance on the one side, form,
treatment, handling on the other, are the field through which I
especially want, in this lecture, to indicate a way. It is a field of
battle; and the battle is waged for no trivial cause; but the cries of
the combatants are terribly ambiguous. Those phrases of the so-called
formalist may each mean five or six different things. If they mean one,
they seem to me chiefly true; taken as the general reader not
unnaturally takes them, they seem to me false and mischievous. It would
be absurd to pretend that I can end in a few minutes a controversy which
concerns the ultimate nature of Art, and leads perhaps to problems not
yet soluble; but we can at least draw some plain distinctions which, in
this controversy, are too often confused.

In the first place, then, let us take 'subject' in one particular sense;
let us understand by it that which we have in view when, looking at the
title of a poem, we say that the poet has chosen this or that for his
subject. The subject, in this sense, so far as I can discover, is
generally something, real or imaginary, as it exists in the minds of
fairly cultivated people. The subject of _Paradise Lost_ would be the
story of the Fall as that story exists in the general imagination of a
Bible-reading people. The subject of Shelley's stanzas _To a Skylark_
would be the ideas which arise in the mind of an educated person when,
without knowing the poem, he hears the word 'skylark.' If the title of a
poem conveys little or nothing to us, the 'subject' appears to be
either what we should gather by investigating the title in a dictionary
or other book of the kind, or else such a brief suggestion as might be
offered by a person who had read the poem, and who said, for example,
that the subject of _The Ancient Mariner_ was a sailor who killed an
albatross and suffered for his deed.

[Sidenote: VALUE NOT IN SUBJECT]

Now the subject, in this sense (and I intend to use the word in no
other), is not, as such, inside the poem, but outside it. The contents
of the stanzas _To a Skylark_ are not the ideas suggested by the word
'skylark' to the average man; they belong to Shelley just as much as the
language does. The subject, therefore, is not the matter _of_ the poem
at all; and its opposite is not the _form_ of the poem, but the whole
poem. The subject is one thing; the poem, matter and form alike, another
thing. This being so, it is surely obvious that the poetic value cannot
lie in the subject, but lies entirely in its opposite, the poem. How can
the subject determine the value when on one and the same subject poems
may be written of all degrees of merit and demerit; or when a perfect
poem may be composed on a subject so slight as a pet sparrow, and, if
Macaulay may be trusted, a nearly worthless poem on a subject so
stupendous as the omnipresence of the Deity? The 'formalist' is here
perfectly right. Nor is he insisting on something unimportant. He is
contending against our tendency to take the work of art as a mere copy
or reminder of something already in our heads, or at the best as a
suggestion of some idea as little removed as possible from the familiar.
The sightseer who promenades a picture-gallery, remarking that this
portrait is so like his cousin, or that landscape the very image of his
birthplace, or who, after satisfying himself that one picture is about
Elijah, passes on rejoicing to discover the subject, and nothing but the
subject, of the next--what is he but an extreme example of this
tendency? Well, but the very same tendency vitiates much of our
criticism, much criticism of Shakespeare, for example, which, with all
its cleverness and partial truth, still shows that the critic never
passed from his own mind into Shakespeare's; and it may still be traced
even in so fine a critic as Coleridge, as when he dwarfs the sublime
struggle of Hamlet into the image of his own unhappy weakness. Hazlitt
by no means escaped its influence. Only the third of that great trio,
Lamb, appears almost always to have rendered the conception of the
composer.

Again, it is surely true that we cannot determine beforehand what
subjects are fit for Art, or name any subject on which a good poem might
not possibly be written. To divide subjects into two groups, the
beautiful or elevating, and the ugly or vicious, and to judge poems
according as their subjects belong to one of these groups or the other,
is to fall into the same pit, to confuse with our pre-conceptions the
meaning of the poet. What the thing is in the poem he is to be judged
by, not by the thing as it was before he touched it; and how can we
venture to say beforehand that he cannot make a true poem out of
something which to us was merely alluring or dull or revolting? The
question whether, having done so, he ought to publish his poem; whether
the thing in the poet's work will not be still confused by the
incompetent Puritan or the incompetent sensualist with the thing in
_his_ mind, does not touch this point; it is a further question, one of
ethics, not of art. No doubt the upholders of 'Art for art's sake' will
generally be in favour of the courageous course, of refusing to
sacrifice the better or stronger part of the public to the weaker or
worse; but their maxim in no way binds them to this view. Dante Rossetti
suppressed one of the best of his sonnets, a sonnet chosen for
admiration by Tennyson, himself extremely sensitive about the moral
effect of poetry; suppressed it, I believe, because it was called
fleshly. One may regret Rossetti's judgement and at the same time admire
his scrupulousness; but in any case he judged in his capacity of
citizen, not in his capacity of artist.

[Sidenote: SUBJECT NOT INDIFFERENT]

So far then the 'formalist' appears to be right. But he goes too far, I
think, if he maintains that the subject is indifferent and that all
subjects are the same to poetry. And he does not prove his point by
observing that a good poem might be written on a pin's head, and a bad
one on the Fall of Man. That shows that the subject _settles_ nothing,
but not that it counts for nothing. The Fall of Man is really a more
favourable subject than a pin's head. The Fall of Man, that is to say,
offers opportunities of poetic effects wider in range and more
penetrating in appeal. And the truth is that such a subject, as it
exists in the general imagination, has some aesthetic value before the
poet touches it. It is, as you may choose to call it, an inchoate poem
or the débris of a poem. It is not an abstract idea or a bare isolated
fact, but an assemblage of figures, scenes, actions, and events, which
already appeal to emotional imagination; and it is already in some
degree organized and formed. In spite of this a bad poet would make a
bad poem on it; but then we should say he was unworthy of the subject.
And we should not say this if he wrote a bad poem on a pin's head.
Conversely, a good poem on a pin's head would almost certainly
revolutionize its subject far more than a good poem on the Fall of Man.
It might transform its subject so completely that we should say, 'The
subject may be a pin's head, but the substance of the poem has very
little to do with it.'

This brings us to another and different antithesis. Those figures,
scenes, events, that form part of the subject called the Fall of Man,
are not the substance of _Paradise Lost_; but in _Paradise Lost_ there
are figures, scenes, and events resembling them in some degree. These,
with much more of the same kind, may be described as its substance, and
may then be contrasted with the measured language of the poem, which
will be called its form. Subject is the opposite not of form but of the
whole poem. Substance is within the poem, and its opposite, form, is
also within the poem. I am not criticizing this antithesis at present,
but evidently it is quite different from the other. It is practically
the distinction used in the old-fashioned criticism of epic and drama,
and it flows down, not unsullied, from Aristotle. Addison, for example,
in examining _Paradise Lost_ considers in order the fable, the
characters, and the sentiments; these will be the substance: then he
considers the language, that is, the style and numbers; this will be the
form. In like manner, the substance or meaning of a lyric may be
distinguished from the form.

[Sidenote: SUBSTANCE AND FORM]

Now I believe it will be found that a large part of the controversy we
are dealing with arises from a confusion between these two distinctions
of substance and form, and of subject and poem. The extreme formalist
lays his whole weight on the form because he thinks its opposite is the
mere subject. The general reader is angry, but makes the same mistake,
and gives to the subject praises that rightly belong to the
substance[1]. I will read an example of what I mean. I can only explain
the following words of a good critic by supposing that for the moment he
has fallen into this confusion: 'The mere matter of all poetry--to wit,
the appearances of nature and the thoughts and feelings of men--being
unalterable, it follows that the difference between poet and poet will
depend upon the manner of each in applying language, metre, rhyme,
cadence, and what not, to this invariable material.' What has become
here of the substance of _Paradise Lost_--the story, scenery,
characters, sentiments as they are in the poem? They have vanished clean
away. Nothing is left but the form on one side, and on the other not
even the subject, but a supposed invariable material, the appearances of
nature and the thoughts and feelings of men. Is it surprising that the
whole value should then be found in the form?

So far we have assumed that this antithesis of substance and form is
valid, and that it always has one meaning. In reality it has several,
but we will leave it in its present shape, and pass to the question of
its validity. And this question we are compelled to raise, because we
have to deal with the two contentions that the poetic value lies wholly
or mainly in the substance, and that it lies wholly or mainly in the
form. Now these contentions, whether false or true, may seem at least to
be clear; but we shall find, I think, that they are both of them false,
or both of them nonsense: false if they concern anything outside the
poem, nonsense if they apply to something in it. For what do they
evidently imply? They imply that there are in a poem two parts, factors,
or components, a substance and a form; and that you can conceive them
distinctly and separately, so that when you are speaking of the one you
are not speaking of the other. Otherwise how can you ask the question,
In which of them does the value lie? But really in a poem, apart from
defects, there are no such factors or components; and therefore it is
strictly nonsense to ask in which of them the value lies. And on the
other hand, if the substance and the form referred to are not in the
poem, then both the contentions are false, for its poetic value lies in
itself.

[Sidenote: IDENTITY OF SUBSTANCE AND FORM]

What I mean is neither new nor mysterious; and it will be clear, I
believe, to any one who reads poetry poetically and who closely examines
his experience. When you are reading a poem, I would ask--not analysing
it, and much less criticizing it, but allowing it, as it proceeds, to
make its full impression on you through the exertion of your re-creating
imagination--do you then apprehend and enjoy as one thing a certain
meaning or substance, and as another thing certain articulate sounds,
and do you somehow compound these two? Surely you do not, any more than
you apprehend apart, when you see some one smile, those lines in the
face which express a feeling, and the feeling that the lines express.
Just as there the lines and their meaning are to you one thing, not two,
so in poetry the meaning and the sounds are one: there is, if I may put
it so, a resonant meaning, or a meaning resonance. If you read the line,
'The sun is warm, the sky is clear,' you do not experience separately
the image of a warm sun and clear sky, on the one side, and certain
unintelligible rhythmical sounds on the other; nor yet do you experience
them together, side by side; but you experience the one _in_ the other.
And in like manner when you are really reading _Hamlet_, the action and
the characters are not something which you conceive apart from the
words; you apprehend them from point to point _in_ the words.
Afterwards, no doubt, when you are out of the poetic experience, but
remember it, you may by analysis decompose this unity, and attend to a
substance more or less isolated, and a form more or less isolated. But
these are things in your analytic head, not in the poem, which is
_poetic_ experience. And if you want to have the poem again, you cannot
find it by adding together these two products of decomposition; you can
only find it by passing back into poetic experience. And then what you
have again is no aggregate of factors, it is a unity in which you can no
more separate a substance and a form than you can separate living blood
and the life in the blood. This unity has, if you like, various
'aspects' or 'sides,' but they are not factors or parts; if you try to
examine one, you find it is also the other. Call them substance and form
if you please, but these are not the reciprocally exclusive substance
and form to which the two contentions _must_ refer. They do not 'agree,'
for they are not apart: they are one thing from different points of
view, and in that sense identical. And this identity of content and
form, you will say, is no accident; it is of the essence of poetry in so
far as it is poetry, and of all art in so far as it is art. Just as
there is in music not sound on one side and a meaning on the other, but
expressive sound, and if you ask what is the meaning you can only
answer by pointing to the sounds; just as in painting there is not a
meaning _plus_ paint, but a meaning _in_ paint, or significant paint,
and no man can really express the meaning in any other way than in paint
and in _this_ paint; so in a poem the true content and the true form
neither exist nor can be imagined apart. When then you are asked whether
the value of a poem lies in a substance got by decomposing the poem and
present, as such, only in reflective analysis, or in a form arrived at
and existing in the same way, you will answer, 'It lies neither in one,
nor in the other, nor in any addition of them, but in the poem, where
they are not.' And when you are told that you are talking _a priori_
metaphysics, you will not mind. 'Metaphysics' does not mean anything. It
is only a term of abuse applied to the effort to look at facts instead
of repeating _a priori_ fictions.

We have then, first, an antithesis of subject and poem. This is clear
and valid; and the question in which of them does the value lie is
intelligible; and its answer is, In the poem. We have next a distinction
of substance and form. If the substance means ideas, images, and the
like taken alone, and the form means the measured language taken by
itself, this is a possible distinction, but it is a distinction of
things not in the poem, and the value lies in neither of them. If
substance and form mean anything _in_ the poem, then each is involved in
the other, and the question in which of them the value lies has no
sense. No doubt you may say, speaking loosely and perilously, that in
this poet or poem the aspect of substance is the more noticeable, and in
that the aspect of form, and you may pursue interesting discussions on
this basis: but no principle or ultimate question of value is touched by
them. And apart from that question, of course, I am not denying the
usefulness and necessity of the distinction. We cannot dispense with it.
To consider separately the action or the characters of a play, and
separately its style or versification, is both legitimate and valuable,
so long as we remember what we are doing. But the true critic in
speaking of these apart never really thinks of them apart; the whole,
the poetic experience, of which they are but aspects, is always in his
mind; and he is always aiming at a richer, truer, more intense
repetition of that experience. On the other hand, when the question of
principle, of poetic value, is raised, these aspects _must_ fall apart
into components, separately conceivable; and then there arise two
heresies, equally false, that the value lies in one of two things, both
of which are outside the poem where its value cannot lie.

[Sidenote: SUBSTANCE]

On the heresy of the separable substance a few additional words will
suffice. This heresy is seldom formulated, but perhaps some unconscious
holder of it may object: 'Surely the action and the characters of
_Hamlet_ are in the play; and surely I can retain these, though I have
forgotten all the words. I admit that I do not possess the whole poem,
but I possess a part, and the most important part.' And I would answer:
'If we are not concerned with any question of principle, I accept all
that you say except the last words, which do raise such a question.
Speaking loosely, I agree that the action and characters, as you perhaps
conceive them, together with a great deal more, are in the poem. Even
then, however, you must not claim to possess all of this kind that is in
the poem; for in forgetting the words you must have lost innumerable
details of the action and the characters. And, when the question of
value is raised, I must insist that the action and characters, as you
conceive them, are not in _Hamlet_ at all. If they are, point them out.
You cannot do it. What you find at any moment of that succession of
experiences called _Hamlet_ is words. In these words, to speak loosely
again, the action and characters (more of them than you can conceive
apart) are focussed; but your experience is not a combination of them,
as ideas, on the one side, with certain sounds on the other; it is an
experience of something in which the two are indissolubly fused. If you
deny this, to be sure I can make no answer, or can only answer that I
have reason to believe that you cannot read poetically, or else are
misinterpreting your experience. But if you do not deny this, then you
will admit that the action and characters of the poem, as you separately
imagine them, are no part of it, but a product of it in your reflective
imagination, a faint analogue of one aspect of it taken in detachment
from the whole. Well, I do not deny, I would even insist, that, in the
case of so long a poem as _Hamlet_, it may be necessary from time to
time to interrupt the poetic experience, in order to enrich it by
forming such a product and dwelling on it. Nor, in a wide sense of
"poetic," do I question the poetic value of this product, as you think
of it apart from the poem. It resembles our recollections of the heroes
of history or legend, who move about in our imaginations, "forms more
real than living man," and are worth much to us though we do not
remember anything they said. Our ideas and images of the "substance" of
a poem have this poetic value, and more, if they are at all adequate.
But they cannot determine the poetic value of the poem, for (not to
speak of the competing claims of the "form") nothing that is outside
the poem can do that, and they, as such, are outside it[2].'

[Sidenote: STYLE]

Let us turn to the so-called form--style and versification. There is no
such thing as mere form in poetry. All form is expression. Style may
have indeed a certain aesthetic worth in partial abstraction from the
particular matter it conveys, as in a well-built sentence you may take
pleasure in the build almost apart from the meaning. Even then style is
expressive--presents to sense, for example, the order, ease, and
rapidity with which ideas move in the writer's mind--but it is not
expressive of the meaning of that particular sentence. And it is
possible, interrupting poetic experience, to decompose it and abstract
for comparatively separate consideration this nearly formal element of
style. But the aesthetic value of style so taken is not considerable;
you could not read with pleasure for an hour a composition which had no
other merit. And in poetic experience you never apprehend this value by
itself; the style is here expressive also of a particular meaning, or
rather is one aspect of that unity whose other aspect is meaning. So
that what you apprehend may be called indifferently an expressed meaning
or a significant form. Perhaps on this point I may in Oxford appeal to
authority, that of Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, the latter at any
rate an authority whom the formalist will not despise. What is the gist
of Pater's teaching about style, if it is not that in the end the one
virtue of style is truth or adequacy; that the word, phrase, sentence,
should express perfectly the writer's perception, feeling, image, or
thought; so that, as we read a descriptive phrase of Keats's, we
exclaim, 'That is the thing itself'; so that, to quote Arnold, the words
are 'symbols equivalent with the thing symbolized,' or, in our technical
language, a form identical with its content? Hence in true poetry it is,
in strictness, impossible to express the meaning in any but its own
words, or to change the words without changing the meaning. A
translation of such poetry is not really the old meaning in a fresh
dress; it is a new product, something like the poem, though, if one
chooses to say so, more like it in the aspect of meaning than in the
aspect of form.

No one who understands poetry, it seems to me, would dispute this, were
it not that, falling away from his experience, or misled by theory, he
takes the word 'meaning' in a sense almost ludicrously inapplicable to
poetry. People say, for instance, 'steed' and 'horse' have the same
meaning; and in bad poetry they have, but not in poetry that _is_
poetry.

    'Bring forth the horse!' The horse was brought:
    In truth he was a noble steed!

says Byron in _Mazeppa_. If the two words mean the same here, transpose
them:

    'Bring forth the steed!' The steed was brought:
    In truth he was a noble horse!

and ask again if they mean the same. Or let me take a line certainly
very free from 'poetic diction':

    To be or not to be, that is the question.

You may say that this means the same as 'What is just now occupying my
attention is the comparative disadvantages of continuing to live or
putting an end to myself.' And for practical purposes--the purpose, for
example, of a coroner--it does. But as the second version altogether
misrepresents the speaker at that moment of his existence, while the
first does represent him, how can they for any but a practical or
logical purpose be said to have the same sense? Hamlet was well able to
'unpack his heart with words,' but he will not unpack it with our
paraphrases.

[Sidenote: VERSIFICATION]

These considerations apply equally to versification. If I take the
famous line which describes how the souls of the dead stood waiting by
the river, imploring a passage from Charon:

    Tendebantque manus ripae ulterioris amore,

and if I translate it, 'and were stretching forth their hands in longing
for the further bank,' the charm of the original has fled. Why has it
fled? Partly (but we have dealt with that) because I have substituted
for five words, and those the words of Virgil, twelve words, and those
my own. In some measure because I have turned into rhythmless prose a
line of verse which, as mere sound, has unusual beauty. But much more
because in doing so I have also changed the _meaning_ of Virgil's line.
What that meaning is _I_ cannot say: Virgil has said it. But I can see
this much, that the translation conveys a far less vivid picture of the
outstretched hands and of their remaining outstretched, and a far less
poignant sense of the distance of the shore and the longing of the
souls. And it does so partly because this picture and this sense are
conveyed not only by the obvious meaning of the words, but through the
long-drawn sound of 'Tendebantque,' through the time occupied by the
five syllables and therefore by the idea of 'ulterioris,' and through
the identity of the long sound 'or' in the penultimate syllables of
'ulterioris amore'--all this, and much more, apprehended not in this
analytical fashion, nor as _added_ to the beauty of mere sound and to
the obvious meaning, but in unity with them and so as expressive of the
poetic meaning of the whole.

It is always so in fine poetry. The value of versification, when it is
indissolubly fused with meaning, can hardly be exaggerated. The gift for
feeling it, even more perhaps than the gift for feeling the value of
diction, is the _specific_ gift for poetry, as distinguished from other
arts. But versification, taken, as far as possible, all by itself, has a
very different worth. Some aesthetic worth it has; how much, you may
experience by reading poetry in a language of which you do not
understand a syllable. The pleasure is quite appreciable, but it is not
great; nor in actual poetic experience do you meet with it, as such, at
all. For it is not _added_ to the pleasure of the meaning when you read
poetry that you do understand: by some mystery the music is then the
music _of_ the meaning, and the two are one. However fond of
versification you might be, you would tire very soon of reading verses
in Chinese; and before long of reading Virgil and Dante if you were
ignorant of their languages. But take the music as it is _in_ the poem,
and there is a marvellous change. Now

    It gives a very echo to the seat
    Where Love is throned;

or 'carries far into your heart,' almost like music itself, the sound

    Of old, unhappy, far-off things
        And battles long ago.

What then is to be said of the following sentence of the critic quoted
before: 'But when any one who knows what poetry is reads--

    Our noisy years seem moments in the being
    Of the eternal silence,

he sees that, quite independently of the meaning, ... there is one note
added to the articulate music of the world--a note that never will leave
off resounding till the eternal silence itself gulfs it'? I must think
that the writer is deceiving himself. For I could quite understand his
enthusiasm, if it were an enthusiasm for the music of the meaning; but
as for the music, 'quite independently of the meaning,' so far as I can
hear it thus (and I doubt if any one who knows English can quite do so),
I find it gives some pleasure, but only a trifling pleasure. And indeed
I venture to doubt whether, considered as mere sound, the words are at
all exceptionally beautiful, as Virgil's line certainly is. Whatever may
be the consequence, I would back against them, 'quite independently of
the meaning,' this once famous stanza:

    Where is Cupid's crimson motion,
      Billowy ecstasy of woe?
    Bear me straight, meandering ocean,
      Where the stagnant torrents flow.

[Sidenote: IMPERFECT UNITY]

When poetry answers to its idea and is purely or almost purely poetic,
we find the identity of form and content; and the degree of purity
attained may be tested by the degree in which we feel it hopeless to
convey the effect of a poem or passage in any form but its own. Where
the notion of doing so is simply ludicrous, you have quintessential
poetry. But a great part even of good poetry, especially in long works,
is of a mixed nature; and so we find in it no more than a partial
agreement of a form and substance which remain to some extent distinct.
This is so in many passages of Shakespeare (the greatest of poets when
he chose, but not always a conscientious poet); passages where something
was wanted for the sake of the plot, but he did not care about it or was
hurried. The conception of the passage is then distinct from the
execution, and neither is inspired. This is so also, I think, wherever
we can truly speak of merely decorative effect. We seem to perceive that
the poet had a truth or fact--philosophical, agricultural,
social--distinctly before him, and then, as we say, clothed it in
metrical and coloured language. Most argumentative, didactic, or satiric
poems are partly of this kind; and in imaginative poems anything which
is really a mere 'conceit' is mere decoration. We often deceive
ourselves in this matter, for what we call decoration has often a new
and genuinely poetic content of its own; but wherever there is mere
decoration, we judge the poetry to be not wholly poetic. And so when
Wordsworth inveighed against poetic diction, though he hurled his darts
rather wildly, what he was rightly aiming at was a phraseology, not the
living body of a new content, but the mere worn-out body of an old one.

In pure poetry it is otherwise. Pure poetry is not the decoration of a
preconceived and clearly defined matter: it springs from the creative
impulse of a vague imaginative mass pressing for development and
definition. If the poet already knew exactly what he meant to say, why
should he write the poem? The poem would in fact already be written. For
only its completion can reveal, even to him, exactly what he wanted.
When he began and while he was at work, he did not possess his meaning;
it possessed him. It was not a fully formed soul asking for a body: it
was an inchoate soul in the inchoate body of perhaps two or three vague
ideas and a few scattered phrases. The growing of this body into its
full stature and perfect shape was the same thing as the gradual
self-definition of the meaning. And this is the reason why such poems
strike us as creations, not manufactures, and have the magical effect
which mere decoration cannot produce. This is also the reason why, if we
insist on asking for the meaning of such a poem, we can only be answered
'It means itself.'

[Sidenote: THE TWO HERESIES]

And so at last I may explain why I have troubled myself and you with
what may seem an arid controversy about mere words. It is not so. These
heresies which would make poetry a compound of two factors--a matter
common to it with the merest prose, _plus_ a poetic form, as the one
heresy says: a poetical substance _plus_ a negligible form, as the other
says--are not only untrue, they are injurious to the dignity of poetry.
In an age already inclined to shrink from those higher realms where
poetry touches religion and philosophy, the formalist heresy encourages
men to taste poetry as they would a fine wine, which has indeed an
aesthetic value, but a small one. And then the natural man, finding an
empty form, hurls into it the matter of cheap pathos, rancid sentiment,
vulgar humour, bare lust, ravenous vanity--everything which, in
Schiller's phrase[3], the form should extirpate, but which no mere form
can extirpate. And the other heresy--which is indeed rather a practise
than a creed--encourages us in the habit so dear to us of putting our
own thoughts or fancies into the place of the poet's creation. What he
meant by _Hamlet_, or the _Ode to a Nightingale_, or _Abt Vogler_, we
say, is this or that which we knew already; and so we lose what he had
to tell us. But he meant what he said, and said what he meant.

Poetry in this matter is not, as good critics of painting and music
often affirm, different from the other arts; in all of them the content
is one thing with the form. What Beethoven meant by his symphony, or
Turner by his picture, was not something which you can name, but the
picture and the symphony. Meaning they have, but _what_ meaning can be
uttered in no language but their own: and we know this, though some
strange delusion makes us think the meaning has less worth, because we
cannot put it into words. Well, it is just the same with poetry. But
because poetry is words, we vainly fancy that some other words than its
own will express its meaning. And they will do so no more--or, if you
like to speak loosely, only a little more--than words will express the
meaning of the Dresden Madonna. Something a little like it they may
indeed express. And we may find analogues of the meaning of poetry
outside it, which may help us to appropriate it. The other arts, the
best ideas of philosophy or religion, much that nature and life offer us
or force upon us, are akin to it. But they are only akin. Nor is it the
expression of them. Poetry does not present to imagination our highest
knowledge or belief, and much less our dreams and opinions; but it,
content and form in unity, embodies in own irreplaceable way something
which embodies itself also in other irreplaceable ways, such as
philosophy or religion. And just as each of these gives a satisfaction
which the other cannot possibly give, so we find in poetry, which cannot
satisfy the needs they meet, that which by their natures they cannot
afford us. But we shall not find it fully if we look for something else.

[Sidenote: THE FURTHER MEANING OF POETRY]

And yet, when all is said, the question will still recur, though now in
quite another sense, What does poetry mean? This unique expression,
which cannot be replaced by any other, still seems to be trying to
express something beyond itself. And this, we feel, is also what the
other arts, and religion, and philosophy are trying to express: and that
is what impels us to seek in vain to translate the one into the other.
About the best poetry, and not only the best, there floats an atmosphere
of infinite suggestion. The poet speaks to us of one thing, but in this
one thing there seems to lurk the secret of all. He said what he meant,
but his meaning seems to beckon away beyond itself, or rather to expand
into something boundless which is only focussed in it; something also
which, we feel, would satisfy not only the imagination, but the whole of
us; that something within us, and without, which everywhere

                   Makes us seem
    To patch up fragments of a dream,
    Part of which comes true, and part
    Beats and trembles in the heart.

Those who are susceptible to this effect of poetry find it not only,
perhaps not most, in the ideals which she has sometimes described, but
in a child's song by Christina Rossetti about a mere crown of
wind-flowers, and in tragedies like _Lear_, where the sun seems to have
set for ever. They hear this spirit murmuring its undertone through the
_Aeneid_, and catch its voice in the song of Keats's nightingale, and
its light upon the figures on the Urn, and it pierces them no less in
Shelley's hopeless lament, _O world, O life, O time_, than in the
rapturous ecstasy of his _Life of Life_. This all-embracing perfection
cannot be expressed in poetic words or words of any kind, nor yet in
music or in colour, but the suggestion of it is in much poetry, if not
all, and poetry has in this suggestion, this 'meaning,' a great part of
its value. We do it wrong, and we defeat our own purposes when we try to
bend it to them:

    We do it wrong, being so majestical,
    To offer it the show of violence;
    For it is as the air invulnerable,
    And our vain blows malicious mockery.

It is a spirit. It comes we know not whence. It will not speak at our
bidding, nor answer in our language. It is not our servant; it is our
master.


FOOTNOTES.

[1] What is here called 'substance' is what people generally mean when
they use the word 'subject.' I am not arguing against this usage, or in
favour of the usage which I have adopted for the sake of clearness. It
does not matter which we employ, so long as we and others know what we
mean.

[2] These remarks will hold good, _mutatis mutandis_, if by 'substance'
is understood the 'moral' or the 'idea' of a poem, although perhaps in
one instance out of five thousand this maybe found in so many words in
the poem.

[3] Not that to Schiller 'form' meant mere style and versification.


OXFORD: PRINTED AT THE CLARENDON PRESS
BY HORACE HART, M.A., PRINTER TO THE UNIVERSITY





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