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Title: On English Poetry - Being an Irregular Approach to the Psychology of This Art, - from Evidence Mainly Subjective
Author: Graves, Robert
Language: English
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                            ENGLISH POETRY

                       _POEMS BY ROBERT GRAVES_

                      FAIRIES AND FUSILEERS [1918]
                      COUNTRY SETTLEMENT [1920]
                      THE PIER-GLASS [1921]

                           ON ENGLISH POETRY

            _Being an Irregular Approach to the Psychology
             of This Art, from Evidence Mainly Subjective_

                           BY ROBERT GRAVES

                       [Illustration: colophon]


                          COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY
                         ALFRED A. KNOPF, INC.

                        _Published, May, 1922_

     _Set up and printed by the Vail-Ballou Co., Binghamton, N. Y. Paper
     furnished by Henry Lindenmeyr & Sons, New York, N. Y. Bound by the
     H. Wolff Estate, New York, N. Y._


     _To T. E. Lawrence of Arabia and All Soul’s College, Oxford, and to
     W. H. R. Rivers of the Solomon Islands and St. John’s College,
     Cambridge, my gratitude for valuable critical help, and the
     dedication of this book._

            ... Also of the Mustarde Tarte: Suche
            problemis to paynt, it longyth to his arte.
                                       JOHN SKELTON.

            Poetry subdues to union under its light yoke
            all irreconcilable things.
                                       P. B. SHELLEY.


The greater part of this book will appear controversial, but any critic
who expects me to argue on what I have written, is begged kindly to
excuse me; my garrison is withdrawn without a shot fired and his
artillery may blow the fortress to pieces at leisure. These notebook
reflections are only offered as being based on the rules which regulate
my own work at the moment, for many of which I claim no universal
application and have promised no lasting regard. They have been
suggested from time to time mostly by particular problems in the writing
of my last two volumes of poetry. Hesitating to formulate at present a
comprehensive water-tight philosophy of poetry, I have dispensed with a
continuous argument, and so the sections either stand independently or
are intended to get their force by suggestive neighbourliness rather
than by logical catenation. The names of the glass houses in which my
name as an authority on poetry lodges at present, are to be found on a
back page.

It is a heartbreaking task to reconcile literary and scientific
interests in the same book. Literary enthusiasts seem to regard poetry
as something miraculous, something which it is almost blasphemous to
analyse, witness the outcry against R. L. Stevenson when he merely
underlined examples of Shakespeare’s wonderful dexterity in the
manipulation of consonants; most scientists on the other hand, being
either benevolently contemptuous of poetry, or if interested,
insensitive to the emotional quality of words and their associative
subtleties, themselves use words as weights and counters rather than as
chemicals powerful in combination and have written, if at all, so
boorishly about poetry that the breach has been actually widened. If any
false scientific assumptions or any bad literary blunders I have made,
be held up for popular execration, these may yet act as decoys to the
truth which I am anxious to buy even at the price of a snubbing; and
where in many cases no trouble has apparently been taken to check
over-statements, there is this excuse to offer, that when putting a cat
among pigeons it is always advisable to make it as large a cat as

R. G.



I DEFINITIONS,                                                        13

II THE NINE MUSES,                                                    15

III POETRY AND PRIMITIVE MAGIC,                                       19

IV CONFLICT OF EMOTIONS,                                              22

V THE PATTERN UNDERNEATH,                                             24

VI INSPIRATION,                                                       26

VII THE PARABLE OF MR. POETA AND MR. LECTOR,                          27

VIII THE CARPENTER’S SON,                                             31

IX THE GADDING VINE,                                                  33

X THE DEAD END AND THE MAN OF ONE POEM,                               36

XI SPENSER’S CUFFS,                                                   38

XII CONNECTION OF POETRY AND HUMOUR,                                  40

XIII DICTION,                                                         41

XIV THE DAFFODILS,                                                    42

XV VERS LIBRE,                                                        45

XVI MOVING MOUNTAINS,                                                 50

XVII LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI,                                        50

XVIII THE GENERAL ELLIOTT,                                            55

XIX THE GOD CALLED POETRY,                                            62

XX LOGICALIZATION,                                                    66

XXI LIMITATIONS,                                                      69

XXII THE NAUGHTY BOY,                                                 71

XXIII THE CLASSICAL AND ROMANTIC IDEAS,                               72

XXIV COLOUR,                                                          76

XXV PUTTY,                                                            78

XXVI READING ALOUD,                                                   81

XXVII L’ARTE DELLA PITTURA,                                           82

XXVIII ON WRITING MUSICALLY,                                          83

XXIX THE USE OF POETRY,                                               84

XXX HISTORIES OF POETRY,                                              86

XXXI THE BOWL MARKED DOG,                                             87

XXXII THE ANALYTIC SPIRIT,                                            88

XXXIII RHYME AND ALLITERATION,                                        89

XXXIV AN AWKWARD FELLOW CALLED ARIPHRADES,                            90

XXXV IMPROVISING NEW CONVENTIONS,                                     92

XXXVI WHEN IN DOUBT...,                                               93

XXXVII THE EDITOR WITH THE MUCKRAKE,                                  94

XXXVIII THE MORAL QUESTION,                                           94

XXXIX THE POET AS OUTSIDER,                                           96

XL A POLITE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT,                                          97

XLI FAKE POETRY, BAD POETRY AND MERE VERSE,                           97

XLII A DIALOGUE ON FAKE POETRY,                                      101

XLIII ASKING ADVICE,                                                 102

XLIV SURFACE FAULTS, AN ILLUSTRATION,                                103

XLV LINKED SWEETNESS LONG DRAWN OUT,                                 106

XLVI THE FABLE OF THE IDEAL GADGET,                                  108

XLVII SEQUELS ARE BARRED,                                            111

XLVIII TOM FOOL,                                                     111

XLIX CROSS RHYTHM AND RESOLUTION,                                    113

L MY NAME IS LEGION, FOR WE ARE MANY,                                116

LI THE PIG BABY,                                                     121

LII APOLOGY FOR DEFINITIONS,                                         122

LIII TIMES AND SEASONS,                                              124

LIV TWO HERESIES,                                                    125

LV THE ART OF EXPRESSION,                                            126

LVI GHOSTS IN THE SHELDONIAN,                                        129

LVII THE LAYING-ON OF HANDS,                                         130

LVIII WAYS AND MEANS,                                                132

LIX POETRY AS LABOUR,                                                134

LX THE NECESSITY OF ARROGANCE,                                       134

LXI IN PROCESSION,                                                   137

    APPENDIX: THE DANGERS OF DEFINITION,                             143



There are two meanings of Poetry as the poet himself has come to use the
word:--first, Poetry, the unforeseen fusion in his mind of apparently
contradictory emotional ideas; and second, Poetry, the more-or-less
deliberate attempt, with the help of a rhythmic mesmerism, to impose an
illusion of actual experience on the minds of others. In its first and
peculiar sense it is the surprise that comes after thoughtlessly rubbing
a mental Aladdin’s lamp, and I would suggest that every poem worthy of
the name has its central idea, its nucleus, formed by this spontaneous
process; later it becomes the duty of the poet as craftsman to present
this nucleus in the most effective way possible, by practising poetry
more consciously as an art. He creates in passion, then by a reverse
process of analyzing, he tests the implied suggestions and corrects them
on common-sense principles so as to make them apply universally.

Before elaborating the idea of this spontaneous Poetry over which the
poet has no direct control, it would be convenient to show what I mean
by the Poetry over which he has a certain conscious control, by
contrasting its method with the method of standard Prose. Prose in its
most prosy form seems to be the art of accurate statement by suppressing
as far as possible the latent associations of words; for the convenience
of his readers the standard prose-writer uses an accurate logical
phrasing in which perhaps the periods and the diction vary with the
emotional mood; but he only says what he appears at first to say. In
Poetry the implication is more important than the manifest statement;
the underlying associations of every word are marshalled carefully. Many
of the best English poets have found great difficulty in writing
standard prose; this is due I suppose to a sort of tender-heartedness,
for standard prose-writing seems to the poet very much like turning the
machine guns on an innocent crowd of his own work people.

Certainly there is a hybrid form, prose poetry, in which poets have
excelled, a perfectly legitimate medium, but one that must be kept
distinct from both its parent elements. It employs the indirect method
of poetic suggestion, the flanking movement rather than the frontal
attack, but like Prose, does not trouble to keep rhythmic control over
the reader. This constant control seems an essential part of Poetry
proper. But to expect it in prose poetry is to be disappointed; we may
take an analogy from the wilder sort of music where if there is
continual changing of time and key, the listener often does not “catch
on” to each new idiom, so that he is momentarily confused by the changes
and the unity of the whole musical form is thereby broken for him. So
exactly in prose poetry. In poetry proper our delight is in the
emotional variations from a clearly indicated norm of rhythm and
sound-texture; but in prose poetry there is no recognizable norm. Where
in some notable passages (of the Authorised Version of the Bible for
instance) usually called prose poetry, one does find complete rhythmic
control even though the pattern is constantly changing, this is no
longer prose poetry, it is poetry, not at all the worse for its
intricate rhythmic resolutions. Popular confusion as to the various
properties and qualities of Poetry, prose poetry, verse, prose, with
their subcategories of good, bad and imitation, has probably been caused
by the inequality of the writing in works popularly regarded as
Classics, and made taboo for criticism. There are few “masterpieces of
poetry” that do not occasionally sink to verse, many disregarded
passages of Prose that are often prose poetry and sometimes even poetry



I suppose that when old ladies remark with a breathless wonder “My dear,
he has _more_ than _mere talent_, I am convinced he has a _touch of
genius_” they are differentiating between the two parts of poetry given
at the beginning of the last section, between the man who shows a
remarkable aptitude for conjuring and the man actually also in league
with the powers of magic. The weakness of originally unspontaneous
poetry seems to be that the poet has only the very small conscious part
of his experience to draw upon, and therefore in co-ordinating the
central images, his range of selection is narrower and the links are
only on the surface. On the other hand, spontaneous poetry untested by
conscious analysis has the opposite weakness of being liable to surface
faults and unintelligible thought-connections. Poetry composed in sleep
is a good instance of the sort I mean. The rhymes are generally
inaccurate, the texture clumsy, there is a tendency to use the same
words close together in different senses, and the thought-connections
are so free as to puzzle the author himself when he wakes. A scrap of
dream poetry sticks in my mind since my early schooldays:

    “It’s Henry the VIII!
     It’s Henry the VIII!
     I know him by the smile on his face
     He is leading his armies over to France.

Here _eighth_ and _face_ seemed perfect rhymes, to the sleeping ear, the
spirit was magnificent, the implications astonishing; but the waking
poet was forced to laugh. I believe that in the first draft of
Coleridge’s _Kubla Khan_, _Abora_ was the rhyme for _Dulcimer_, as:--

    “A damsel with a dulcimer
     Singing of Mount Abora”

because “saw” seems too self-conscious an assonance and too far removed
from “Abora” to impress us as having been part of the original dream
poem. “Could I revive within me” again is surely written in a waking
mood, probably after the disastrous visit of the man from Porlock.

Henceforward, in using the word _Poetry_ I mean both the controlled and
uncontrollable parts of the art taken together, because each is helpless
without the other. And I do not wish to limit Poetry, as there is a new
tendency to do, merely to the short dramatic poem, the ballad and the
lyric, though it certainly is a convenience not to take these as the
normal manifestations of Poetry in order to see more clearly the
inter-relation of such different forms as the Drama, the Epic, and the
song with music. In the Drama, the emotional conflict which is the whole
cause and meaning of Poetry is concentrated in the mental problems of
the leading character or characters. They have to choose for instance
between doing what they think is right and the suffering or contempt
which is the penalty, between the gratification of love and the fear of
hurting the person they love, or similar dilemmas. The lesser actors in
the drama do not themselves necessarily speak the language of poetry or
have any question in their minds as to the course they should pursue;
still, by throwing their weight into one scale or another they affect
the actions of the principals and so contribute to the poetry of the
play. It is only the master dramatist who ever attempts to develop
subsidiary characters in sympathy with the principals.

The true Epic appears to me as an organic growth of dramatic scenes,
presented in verse which only becomes true poetry on occasion; but these
scenes are so placed in conflicting relation that between them they
compose a central theme of Poetry not to be found in the detachable
parts, and this theme is a study of the interactions of the ethical
principles of opposing tribes or groups. In the Iliad, for instance, the
conflict is not only between the Trojan and Greek ideas, but between
groups in each camp. In the Odyssey it is between the ethics of
sea-wandering and the ethics of the dwellers on dry land. I would be
inclined to deny the _Beowulf_ as an epic, describing it instead as a
personal allegory in epical surroundings. The Canterbury Tales are much
nearer to an English Epic, the interacting principles being an imported
Eastern religion disguised in Southern dress and a ruder, more vigorous
Northern spirit unsubdued even when on pilgrimage.

The words of a song do not necessarily show in themselves the emotional
conflict which I regard as essential for poetry, but that is because the
song is definitely a compound of words and music, and the poetry lies in
this relation. Words for another man’s music can hardly have a very
lively independent existence, yet with music they must combine to a
powerful chemical action; to write a lyric to conflict with imaginary
music is the most exacting art imaginable, and is rather like trying to
solve an equation in _x_, _y_ and _z_, given only _x_.

I wonder if there are as many genuine Muses as the traditional nine; I
cannot help thinking that one or two of them have been counted twice
over. But the point of this section is to show the strong family
likeness between three or four of them at least.



One may think of Poetry as being like Religion, a modified descendant of
primitive Magic; it keeps the family characteristic of stirring wonder
by creating from unpromising lifeless materials an illusion of
unexpected passionate life. The poet, a highly developed witch doctor,
does not specialize in calling up at set times some one particular minor
divinity, that of Fear or Lust, of War or Family Affection; he plays on
all the emotions and serves as comprehensive and universal a God as he
can conceive. There is evidence for explaining the origin of poetry as I
have defined it, thus:--Primitive man was much troubled by the
phenomenon of dreams, and early discovered what scientists are only just
beginning to acknowledge, that the recollection of dreams is of great
use in solving problems of uncertainty; there is always a secondary
meaning behind our most fantastic nightmares. Members of a primitive
society would solemnly recount their dreams to the wise ones of the clan
and ask them to draw an inference. Soon it happened that, in cases of
doubt, where the dream was forgotten and could not be recalled, or where
it was felt that a dream was needed to confirm or reverse a decision,
the peculiarly gifted witch doctor or priestess would induce a sort of
self-hypnotism, and in the light of the dream so dreamed, utter an
oracle which contained an answer to the problem proposed. The compelling
use of rhythm to hold people’s attention and to make them beat their
feet in time, was known, and the witch doctor seems to have combined the
rhythmic beat of a drum or gong with the recital of his dream. In these
rhythmic dream utterances, intoxicating a primitive community to
sympathetic emotional action for a particular purpose of which I will
treat later, Poetry, in my opinion, originated, and the dream symbolism
of Poetry was further encouraged by the restrictions of the _taboo_,
which made definite reference to certain people, gods and objects,

This is not to say that verse-recital of laws or adventures or history
did not possibly come before oracular poetry, and whoever it was who
found it convenient that his word stresses should correspond with beat
of drum or stamp of feet, thereby originated the rhythm that is common
both to verse and to poetry. Verse is not necessarily degenerate poetry;
rhymed advertisement and the _memoria technica_ have kept up the honest
tradition of many centuries; witty verse with no poetical pretensions
justifies its existence a hundred times over; even the Limerick can
become delightful in naughty hands; but where poetry differs from other
verse is by being essentially a solution to some pressing emotional
problem and has always the oracular note.

Between verse, bad poetry and fake poetry, there is a great distinction.
Bad poetry is simply the work of a man who solves his emotional problems
to his own satisfaction but not to anybody else’s. Fake poetry, the
decay of poetry, corresponds exactly with fake magic, the decay of true
magic. It happens that some member of the priestly caste, finding it
impossible to go into a trance when required, even with the aid of
intoxicants, has to resort to subterfuge. He imitates a state of trance,
recalls some one else’s dream which he alters slightly, and wraps his
oracular answer in words recollected from the lips of genuine witch
doctors. He takes care to put his implied meaning well to the fore and
the applicants give him payment and go away as well pleased with their
money’s worth as the readers of Tupper, Montgomery and Wilcox with the
comfortable verses supplied them under the trade name of “Poetry.”

Acrostics and other verses of _wit_ have, I believe, much the same
ancestry in the ingenious _double entendres_ with which the harassed
priestesses of Delphi insured against a wrong guess.



The suggestion that an emotional conflict is necessary for the birth of
true poetry will perhaps not be accepted without illustrative instances.
But one need only take any of the most famous lines from Elizabethan
drama, those generally acknowledged as being the most essential poetry,
and a battle of the great emotions, faith, hope or love against fear,
grief or hate, will certainly appear; though one side may indeed be
fighting a hopeless battle.

When Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus is waiting for the clock to strike twelve
and the Devil to exact his debt, he cries out:

    That Time may cease and midnight never come
    _O lente, lente currite noctis equi_.

Scholastic commentators have actually been found to wonder at the
“inappropriateness” of “Go slowly, slowly, coursers of the night,” a
quotation originally spoken by an Ovidian lover with his arms around the
mistress from whom he must part at dawn. They do not even note it as
marking the distance the scholar Faustus has travelled since his first
dry-boned Latin quotation _Bene disserere est finis logices_ which he
pedantically translates:

    Is, to dispute well, Logicke’s chiefest end.

Far less do they see how Marlowe has made the lust of life, in its
hopeless struggle against the devils coming to bind it for the eternal
bonfire, tragically unable to find any better expression than this
feeble over-sweetness; so that there follows with even greater
insistence of fate:--

    The starres moove stil, time runs, the clocke wil strike,
    The divel wil come and Faustus must be damnd.

When Lady Macbeth, sleep-walking, complains that “all the perfumes of
Arabia will not sweeten this little hand,” these perfumes are not merely
typically sweet smells to drown the reek of blood. They represent also
her ambitions for the luxury of a Queen, and the conflict of luxurious
ambition against fate and damnation is as one-sided as before. Or take
Webster’s most famous line in his Duchess of Malfi:

    Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young,

spoken by Ferdinand over the Duchess’ body; and that word “dazzle” does
duty for two emotions at once, sun-dazzled awe at loveliness,
tear-dazzled grief for early death.

The effect of these distractions of mind is so often an appeal to our
pity, even for the murderers or for the man who has had his fill of
“vaine pleasure for 24 yeares” that to rouse this pity has been taken,
wrongly, I think, as the chief end of poetry. Poetry is not always
tragedy; and there is no pity stirred by Captain Tobias Hume’s love song
“Faine would I change this note, To which false love has charmed me,” or
in Andrew Marvell’s Mower’s address to the glow-worms:

    Ye country comets that portend
      No war nor prince’s funeral,
    Shining unto no higher end
      Than to presage the grass’s fall.

There is no pity either for Hume’s lover who suddenly discovers that he
has been making a sad song about nothing, or for Marvell’s glow-worms
and their rusticity and slightness of aim. In the first case Love stands
up in its glory against the feeble whining of minor poets; in the
second, thoughts of terror and majesty, the heavens themselves blazing
forth the death of princes, conflict ineffectually with security and
peace, the evening glow-worm prophesying fair weather for mowing next
morning, and meanwhile lighting rustic lovers to their tryst.



The power of surprise which marks all true poetry, seems to result from
a foreknowledge of certain unwitting processes of the reader’s mind, for
which the poet more or less deliberately provides. The underlying
associations of each word in a poem form close combinations of emotion
unexpressed by the bare verbal pattern.

In this way the poet may be compared with a father piecing together a
picture-block puzzle for his children. He surprises them at last by
turning over the completed picture, and showing them that by the act of
assembling the scattered parts of “Red Riding Hood with the Basket of
Food” he has all the while been building up unnoticed underneath another
scene of the tragedy--“The Wolf eating the Grandmother.”

The analogy can be more closely pressed; careless arrangement of the
less important pieces or wilfully decorative borrowing from another
picture altogether may look very well in the upper scene, but what
confusion below!

The possibilities of this pattern underneath have been recognized and
exploited for centuries in Far Eastern systems of poetry. I once even
heard an English Orientalist declare that Chinese was the only language
in which true poetry could be written, because of the undercurrents of
allusion contained in every word of the Chinese language. It never
occurred to him that the same thing might be unrecognizedly true also of
English words.



People are always enquiring how exactly poets get their “inspiration,”
perhaps in the hope that it may happen to themselves one day and that if
they know the signs in advance, something profitable may come of it.

It is a difficult conundrum, but I should answer somehow like this:--The
poet is consciously or unconsciously always either taking in or giving
out; he hears, observes, weighs, guesses, condenses, idealizes, and the
new ideas troop quietly into his mind until suddenly every now and again
two of them violently quarrel and drag into the fight a group of other
ideas that have been loitering about at the back of his mind for years;
there is great excitement, noise and bloodshed, with finally a
reconciliation and drinks all round. The poet writes a tactful police
report on the affair and there is the poem.

Or, to put it in a more sober form:--

When conflicting issues disturb his mind, which in its conscious state
is unable to reconcile them logically, the poet acquires the habit of
self-hypnotism, as practised by the witch doctors, his ancestors in

He learns in self-protection to take pen and paper and let the pen solve
the hitherto insoluble problem which has caused the disturbance.

I speak of this process of composition as self-hypnotism because on
being interrupted the poet experiences the disagreeable sensations of a
sleep-walker disturbed, and later finds it impossible to remember how
the early drafts of a poem ran, though he may recall every word of a
version which finally satisfied his conscious scrutiny. Confronted
afterwards with the very first draft of the series he cannot in many
cases decipher his own writing, far less recollect the process of
thought which made him erase this word and substitute that. Many poets
of my acquaintance have corroborated what I have just said and also
observed that on laying down their pens after the first excitement of
composition they feel the same sort of surprise that a man finds on
waking from a “fugue,” they discover that they have done a piece of work
of which they never suspected they were capable; but at the same moment
they discover a number of trifling surface defects which were invisible



Mr. Poeta was a child of impulse, and though not really a very careful
student of Chaucer himself, was incensed one day at reading a literary
article by an old schoolfellow called Lector, patronizing the poet in an
impudent way and showing at the same time a great ignorance of his best
work. But instead of taking the more direct and prosaic course of
writing a letter of protest to the review which printed the article, or
of directly giving the author a piece of his mind, he improvised a
complicated plot for the young man’s correction.

On the following day he invited Mr. Lector to supper at his home and
spent a busy morning making preparations. He draped the dining-room
walls with crape, took up the carpet, and removed all the furniture
except the table and two massive chairs which were finally drawn up to a
meal of bread, cheese and water. When supper-time arrived and with it
Mr. Lector, Mr. Poeta was discovered sitting in deep dejection in a
window seat with his face buried in his hands; he would not notice his
guest’s arrival for a full minute. Mr. Lector, embarrassed by the
strangeness of his reception (for getting no answer to his knock at the
door he had forced his way in), was now definitely alarmed by Mr.
Poeta’s nervous gestures, desultory conversation and his staring eyes
perpetually turning to a great rusty scimitar hanging on a nail above
the mantelpiece. There was no attendance, nor any knife or plate on the
board. The bread was stale, the cheese hard, and no sooner had Mr.
Lector raised a glass of water to his lips than his host dashed it from
his hands and with a bellow of rage sprang across the table. Mr. Lector,
saw him seize the scimitar and flourish it around his head, so for want
of any weapon of defence, the unfortunate young man reacted to
terror-stricken flight. He darted from the room and heard the blade
whistle through the air behind him.

Out of an open window he jumped and into a small enclosed yard; with the
help of a handy rainwater tub he climbed the opposite wall, then dashed
down a pathway through a shrubbery and finding the front door of a
deserted cottage standing open, rushed in and upstairs, then
breathlessly flinging into an empty room at the stairhead, slammed the

By so slamming the door he had locked it and on recovering his presence
of mind found himself a close prisoner, for the only window was stoutly
barred and the door lock was too massive to break. Here then, he stayed
in confinement for three days, suffering severely until released by an
accomplice of Mr. Poeta, who affected to be much surprised at finding
him there and even threatened an action for trespass. But cold, hungry
and thirsty, Mr. Lector had still had for companion in his misery a
coverless copy of Chaucer which he found lying in the grate and which he
read through from beginning to end with great enjoyment, thereupon
reconsidering his previous estimate of the poet’s greatness.

But he never realized that every step he had taken had been
predetermined by the supposed maniac and that once frightened off his
balance, he had reacted according to plan. Mr. Poeta did not need to
pursue him over the wall or even to go any further than the dining-room
door; he counted on the all-or-none principle of reaction to danger
finishing the job for him. So out at the window went Mr. Lector and
every recourse offered for escape he accepted unquestioningly. Mr. Poeta
knew well enough that Mr. Lector would eventually treasure that copy of
Chaucer prepared for him, as a souvenir of his terrible experience, that
he would have it rebound and adopt the poet as a “discovery” of his own.

The reader in interpreting this parable, must not make too close a
comparison of motives; the process is all that is intended to show. The
poet, once emotion has suggested a scheme of work, goes over the ground
with minute care and makes everything sure, so that when his poem is
presented to the reader, the latter is thrown off his balance
temporarily by the novelty of the ideas involved. He has no critical
weapons at his command, so he must follow the course which the poet has
mapped out for him. He is carried away in spite of himself and though
the actual words do not in themselves express all the meaning which the
poet manages to convey (Mr. Poeta, as has been said, did not pursue) yet
the reader on recovering from the first excitement finds the implied
conclusion laid for him to discover, and flattering himself that he has
reached it independently, finally carries it off as his own. Even where
a conclusion is definitely expressed in a poem the reader often deceives
himself into saying, “I have often thought that before, but never so
clearly,” when as a matter of fact he has just been unconsciously
translating the poet’s experience into terms of his own, and finding the
formulated conclusion sound, imagines that the thought is originally



Fables and analogies serve very well instead of the psychological jargon
that would otherwise have to be used in a discussion of the poet’s
mental clockwork, but they must be supported wherever possible by
definite instances, chapter and verse. An example is therefore owed of
how easily and completely the poet can deceive his readers once he has
assumed control of their imagination, hypnotizing them into a receptive
state by indirect sensuous suggestions and by subtle variations of
verse-melody; which hypnotism, by the way, I regard as having a physical
rather than a mental effect and being identical with the rhythmic
hypnotism to which such animals as snakes, elephants or apes are easily

Turn then to Mr. Housman’s classic sequence “A Shropshire Lad,” to No.
XLVII “The Carpenter’s Son,” beginning, “Here the hangman stops his
cart.” Ask any Housman enthusiasts (they are happily many) how long it
took them to realize what the poet is forcing on them there. In nine
cases out of ten where this test is applied, it will be found that the
lyric has never been consciously recognized as an Apocryphal account of
the Crucifixion; and even those who have consciously recognized the
clues offered have failed to formulate consciously the further daring
(some would say blasphemous) implications of its position after the last
three pieces “Shot, lad? So quick, so clean an ending,” “If it chance
your eye offend you” and the momentary relief of “Bring in this timeless
grave to throw.”

Among Jubilee bonfires; village sports of running, cricket, football; a
rustic murder; the London and North Western Railway; the Shropshire
Light Infantry; ploughs; lovers on stiles or in long grass; the ringing
of church bells; and then this suicide by shooting, no reader is
prepared for the appearance of the historic Son of Sorrow. The poet has
only to call the Cross a gallows-tree and make the Crucified call His
disciples “Lads” instead of “My Brethren” or “Children,” and we are
completely deceived.

In our almost certain failure to recognize Him in this context lies, I
believe, the intended irony of the poem which is strewn with the
plainest scriptural allusions.

In justification of the above and of my deductions about “La Belle Dame
sans Merci” in a later section I plead the rule that “Poetry contains
nothing haphazard,” which follows naturally on the theory connecting
poetry with dreams. By this rule I mean that if a poem, poem-sequence or
drama is an allegory of genuine emotional experience and not a mere
cold-blooded exercise, no striking detail and no juxtaposition of
apparently irrelevant themes which it contains can be denied at any rate
a personal significance--a cypher that can usually be decoded from
another context.



When we say that a poet is born not made, it is saying something much
more, that Poetry is essentially spontaneous in origin, and that very
little of it can therefore be taught on a blackboard; it means that a
man is not a poet unless there is some peculiar event in his family
history to account for him. It means to me that with the apparent
exceptions given in the next section, the poet, like his poetry, is
himself the result of the fusion of incongruous forces. Marriages
between people of conflicting philosophies of life, widely separated
nationalities or (most important) different emotional processes, are
likely either to result in children hopelessly struggling with
inhibitions or to develop in them a central authority of great resource
and most quick witted at compromise. Early influences, other than
parental, stimulate the same process. The mind of a poet is like an
international conference composed of delegates of both sexes and every
shade of political thought, which is trying to decide on a series of
problems of which the chairman has himself little previous
knowledge--yet this chairman, this central authority, will somehow
contrive to sign a report embodying the specialized knowledge and
reconciling the apparently hopeless disagreements of all factions
concerned. These factions can be called, for convenience, the poet’s

It is obviously impossible to analyze with accuracy the various elements
that once combined to make a phrase in the mind of a poet long dead, but
for the sake of illustration here is a fanciful reconstruction of the
clash of ideas that gave us Milton’s often quoted “Gadding Vine.” The
words, to me, represent an encounter between the poet’s
sub-personalities “B” and “C.” Says “B”:--

“What a gentle placid fruitful plant the vine is; I am thinking of
putting it in one of my speeches as emblem of the kindly weakness of the

C replies very tartly:--

“Gentle placid fruitful fiddle-sticks! Why, my good friend, think of the
colossal explosive force required to thrust up that vast structure from
a tiny seed buried inches deep in the earth; against the force of
gravity too, and against very heavy winds. Placidity! Look at its leaves
tossing about and its greedy tendrils swaying in search of something to
attack. Vegetable indeed! It’s mobile, it’s vicious, it’s more like a
swarm of gad-flies.” B continues obstinate, saying “I never heard such
nonsense. A vine is still a vine, in spite of your paradoxes.”

“Anyhow, the juice of the vine makes you gad about pretty lively,
sometimes,” says C.

“Grapes are the conventional fruit for the sick-room,” retorts B.

“Well, what did the Greeks think about it?” pursues C. “Wasn’t Dionysos
the god of the Vine? He didn’t stop rooted all his life in some
miserable little Greek valley. He went gadding off to India and brought
back tigers.”

“If you are going to appeal to the poets,” returns B, “you can’t
disregard the position of the vine in decorative art. It has been
conventionalized into the most static design you can find, after the
lotus. When I say _Vine_, that’s quite enough for me, just V for

They are interrupted by A the master spirit who says with authority:--

“Silence, the two of you! I rule a compromise. Call it a “gadding vine”
and have done with it.”

       *       *       *       *       *

The converse of the proposition stated at the beginning of this section,
namely that every one who has the sort of family history mentioned above
and is not the prey of inhibitions, will become a poet, is certainly not
intended. Poetry is only one outlet for peculiar individual expression;
there are also the other arts, with politics, generalship, philosophy,
and imaginative business; or merely rhetoric, fantastic jokes and
original swearing--



The question of why Poets suddenly seem to come to a dead end and stop
writing true Poetry, is one that has always perplexed literary critics,
and the poets themselves still more. The explanation will probably be
found in two causes.

In the first case the poet’s preoccupation with the clash of his
emotions has been transmuted into a calmer state of meditation on
philosophic paradox: but poetry being, by accepted definition, sensuous
and passionate is no vehicle of expression for this state. Impersonal
concepts can perhaps be expressed in intellectual music, but in poetry
the musical rhythm and word-texture are linked with a sensuous imagery
too gross for the plane of philosophic thought. Thus dithyramb, by which
I mean the essentially musical treatment of poetry in defiance of the
sense of the words used, is hardly a more satisfactory medium than
metaphysical verse: in which even a lyrical sugar-coating to the pill
cannot induce the childish mood of poetry to accept philosophic
statements removed beyond the plane of pictorial allegory.

In the second case the conflict of the poet’s subpersonalities has been
finally settled, by some satisfaction of desire or removal of a cause of
fear, in the complete rout of the opposing parties, and the victors
dictate their own laws, uncontradicted, in legal prose or (from habit)
in verse.

Distinction ought to be drawn between the poet and the man who has
written poetry. There are certainly men of only one poem, a James
Clarence Mangan, a Christopher Smart, a Julian Grenfell (these are
instances more convenient than accurate) who may be explained either as
born poets, tortured with a lifelong mental conflict, though able
perhaps only once in their life to “go under” to their own
self-hypnotism, or as not naturally poets at all but men who write to
express a sudden intolerable clamour in their brain; this is when
circumstances have momentarily alienated the usually happy members of
their mental family, but once the expression has brought reconciliation,
there is no further need of poetry, and the poet born out of due time,
ceases to be.

This temporary writing of poetry by normal single-track minds is most
common in youth when the sudden realization of sex, its powers and its
limited opportunities for satisfactory expression, turns the world
upside down for any sensitive boy or girl. Wartime has the same sort of
effect. I have definite evidence for saying that much of the
trench-poetry written during the late war was the work of men not
otherwise poetically inclined, and that it was very frequently due to an
insupportable conflict between suppressed instincts of love and fear;
the officer’s actual love which he could never openly show, for the boys
he commanded, and the fear, also hidden under a forced gaiety, of the
horrible death that threatened them all.



The poet’s quarrelsome lesser personalities to which I have referred are
divided into camps by the distinction of sex. But in a poet the dominant
spirit is male and though usually a feminist in sympathy, cannot afford
to favour the women at the expense of his own sex. This amplifies my
distrust of poets with floppy hats, long hair, extravagant clothes and
inverted tendencies. Apollo never to my knowledge appears in Greek art
as a Hermaphrodite, and the Greeks understood such problems far better
than we do. I know it is usual to defend these extravagances of dress by
glorifying the Elizabethan age; but let it be remembered that Edmund
Spenser himself wore “short hair, little bands and little cuffs.”

If there is no definite sexual inversion to account for breaking out in
fancy dress, a poet who is any good at all ought not to feel the need of
advertising his profession in this way. As I understand the poet’s
nature, though he tries to dress as conventionally as possible, he will
always prove too strong for his clothes and look completely ridiculous
or very magnificent according to the occasion.

This matter of dress may seem unimportant, but people are still so shy
of acknowledging the poet in his lifetime as a gifted human being who
may have something important to say, that any dressing up or unnecessary
strutting does a great deal of harm.

I am convinced that this extravagant dressing up tendency, like the
allied tendency to unkemptness, is only another of the many forms in
which the capricious child spirit which rules our most emotional dreams
is trying also to dominate the critical, diligent, constructive
man-spirit of waking life, without which the poet is lost beyond
recovery. Shelley was a great poet not because he enjoyed sailing paper
boats on the Serpentine but because, in spite of this infantile
preference he had schooled his mind to hard thinking on the
philosophical and political questions of the day and had made friends
among men of intellect and sophistication.

It is from considerations rather similar to these that I have given this
book a plain heading and restrained my fancy from elaborating a gay
seventeenth-century title or sub-title:--“A Broad-side from Parnassus,”
“The Mustard Tart,” “Pebbles to Crack Your Teeth,” or “Have at you,
Professor Gargoyle!” But I am afraid that extravagance has broken down
my determination to write soberly, on almost every page. And ... no, the
question of the psychology of poetesses is too big for these covers and
too thorny in argument. When psycho-analysis has provided more evidence
on the difference between the symbolism of women’s dreams and men’s,
there will be something to say worth saying. Meanwhile it can only be
offered as a strong impression that the dreams of normally-sexed women
are, by comparison with those of normally-sexed men, almost always of
the same simple and self-centred nature as their poetry and their



It was no accident that gave Chaucer, Shakespeare and Keats a very sly
sense of humour, because humour is surely only another product of the
same process that makes poetry and poets--the reconciliation of

When, for instance, Chaucer says that one of his Canterbury characters
could trip and dance “after the schole of Oxenforde” he is saying two

     I. That Absalom thought he could dance well.

     II. That the professors of the University of Oxford are hardly the
     people from whom one would expect the most likely instruction in
     that art,

and to point the joke he adds to “trip and dance” the absurd “and with
his legges casten to and fro.” A sympathetic grin, as poets and other
conjurors know, is the best possible bridge for a successful illusion.
Coleridge was the first writer, so far as I know, to see the connection
between poetry and humour, but his argument which uses the Irish Bull “I
was a fine child but they changed me” to prove the analogy, trails off



Ideally speaking, there is no especially poetic range of subjects, and
no especially poetic group of words with which to treat them. Indeed,
the more traditionally poetical the subject and the words, the more
difficult it is to do anything with them. The nymph, the swain, the
faun, and the vernal groves are not any more or less legitimate themes
of poetry than Motor Bicycle Trials, Girl Guides, or the Prohibition
Question, the only difference being a practical one; the second category
may be found unsuitable for the imaginative digestion because these
words are still somehow uncooked; in the former case they are unsuitable
because overcooked, rechauffé, tasteless. The cooking process is merely
that of constant use. When a word or a phrase is universally adopted and
can be used in conversation without any apologetic accentuation, or in a
literary review without italics, inverted commas or capital letters,
then it is ready for use in poetry.

As a convenient general rule, Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie has pointed out
in his admirable pamphlet “Poetry and Contemporary Speech,” the poet
will always be best advised to choose as the main basis of his diction
the ordinary spoken language of his day; the reason being that words
grow richer by daily use and take on subtle associations which the
artificially bred words of literary or technical application cannot
acquire with such readiness; the former have therefore greater poetic
possibilities in juxtaposition.

       *       *       *       *       *

An objection will be raised to the term “universal” as applied to the
audience for poetry; it is a limited universality when one comes to
consider it. Most wise poets intend their work only for those who speak
the same language as themselves, who have a “mental age” not below
normal, and who, if they don’t perhaps understand all the allusions in a
poem, will know at any rate where to go to look them up in a work of



Art of every sort, according to my previous contentions, is an attempt
to rationalize some emotional conflict in the artist’s mind. When the
painter says “That’s really good to paint” and carefully arranges his
still life, he has felt a sort of antagonism between the separate parts
of the group and is going to discover by painting on what that
antagonism is founded, presenting it as clearly and simply as he knows
how, in the slightly distorting haze of the emotion aroused. He never
says, “I think I’ll paint a jug or bottle, next,” any more than the poet
says “I’ve a free morning on Saturday; I’ll write an ode to the Moon or
something of that sort, and get two guineas for it from the _London
Mercury_.” No, a particular jug or bottle may well start a train of
thought which in time produces a painting, and a particular aspect of
the moon may fire some emotional tinder and suggest a poem. But the Moon
is no more the _subject_ of the poem than the murder of an Archduke was
the cause of the late European War.

Wordsworth’s lines “I wandered lonely as a cloud” are, as he would have
said, about “something more” than yellow daffodils at the water’s brim.
I have heard how schoolmasters and mistresses point out in the “Poetry
Lesson” that the whole importance of this poem lies in Wordsworth’s
simple perception of the beauty of Spring flowers; but it seems to me to
be an important poem only because Wordsworth has written spontaneously
(though perhaps under his sister’s influence) and recorded to his own
satisfaction an emotional state which we all can recognize.

These daffodils have interrupted the thoughts of an unhappy, lonely man
and, reminding him of his childhood, become at once emblems of a golden
age of disinterested human companionship; he uses their memory later as
a charm to banish the spectres of trouble and loneliness. I hope I have
interpreted the poem correctly. Let us now fantastically suppose for the
sake of argument that Wordsworth had been intentionally seeking solitude
like a hurt beast hating his kind, and had suddenly come across the same
daffodil field: he surely might have been struck with a sudden horror
for such a huge crowd of flower-faces, especially if his early memories
of flower picking had been blighted by disagreeable companionship and
the labour of picking for the flower market. He would then have written
a poem of exactly the opposite sense, recording his sudden feeling of
repulsion at the sight of the flowers and remarking at the end that
sometimes when he is lying on his couch in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash across that inward eye which is the curse of solitude,

    “_Oh then my heart with horror fills_
     _And shudders with the daffodils._”

For readers to whom he could communicate his dislike of daffodils on the
basis of a common experience of brutal companionship in childhood and
forced labour, the poem would seem a masterpiece, and those of them who
were schoolmasters would be pretty sure to point out in _their_ Poetry
Lessons that the importance of the poem lay in Wordsworth’s “perception
of the dreadfulness of Spring Flowers.”

Again the scholastic critic finds the chief value of Wordsworth’s
“Intimations of Immortality” in the religious argument, and would not be
interested to be told that the poet is being disturbed by a melancholy
contradiction between his own happy childhood, idealistic boyhood and
disappointed age. But if he were to go into the psychological question
and become doubtful whether as a matter of fact, children have not as
many recollections of Hell as of Heaven, whether indeed the grown mind
does not purposely forget early misery and see childhood in a deceptive
haze of romance; and if he therefore suspected Wordsworth of reasoning
from a wrong premise he would have serious doubts as to whether it was a
good poem after all. At which conclusion even the most pagan and
revolutionary of modern bards would raise a furious protest; if the poem
holds together, if the poet has said what he means honestly,
convincingly and with passion--as Wordsworth did--the glory and the
beauty of the dream are permanently fixed beyond reach of the scientific
lecturer’s pointer.



The limitation of _Vers Libre_, which I regard as only our old friend,
Prose Poetry, broken up in convenient lengths, seems to be that the poet
has not the continual hold over his reader’s attention that a regulated
(this does not mean altogether “regular”) scheme of verse properly used
would give him. The temporary loss of control must be set off against
the freedom which _vers libre_-ists claim from irrelevant or stereotyped
images suggested by the necessity of rhyme or a difficult metre.

This is not to say that a poet shouldn’t start his race from what
appears to hardened traditionalists as about ten yards behind scratch;
indeed, if he feels that this is the natural place for him, he would be
unwise to do otherwise. But my contention is that _vers libre_ has a
serious limitation which regulated verse has not. In _vers libre_ there
is no natural indication as to how the lines are to be stressed. There
are thousands of lines of Walt Whitman’s, over the pointing of which,
and the intended cadence, elocutionists would disagree; and this seems
to be leaving too much to chance.

I met in a modern _vers libre_ poem the line spoken by a fallen angel,
“I am outcast of Paradise”; but how was I to say it? What clue had I to
the intended rhythm, in a poem without any guiding signs? In regulated
verse the reader is compelled to accentuate as the poet determines. Here
is the same line introduced into three nonsensical examples of

    Satan to the garden came
    And found his Lordship walking lame,
    “Give me manna, figs and spice,
    I am outcast of Paradise.”

or quite differently:--

    “Beryls and porphyries,
      Pomegranate juice!
    I am outcast of Paradise
      (What was the use?)

or one can even make the reader accept a third alternative, impressively
dragging at the last important word:--

    He came to his Lordship then
      For manna, figs and spice,
    “I am chief of the Fallen Ten,
      I am outcast of Paradise.”

The regulating poet must of course make sure at the beginning of the
poem that there is no possible wrong turning for the reader to take.
Recently, and since writing the above, an elder poet, who asks to remain
anonymous, has given me an amusing account of how he mis-read
Swinburne’s “Hertha,” the opening lines of which are:--

    I am that which began;
      Out of me the years roll;
    Out of me, God and man;
      I am equal and whole;
    God changes, and man, and the form of them bodily. I am the soul.

My informant read the short lines as having four beats each:--

    I´ am thát || whích begán;
      Oút of mé || the yeárs róll;
    Oút of mé || Gód and mán;
      I´ am équal || ánd whóle

and thought this very noble and imposing, though the “équal ánd whóle”
was perhaps a trifle forced. The next stanza told him that something was
amiss and he discovered that it was only a two-beat line after all. “It
was Swinburne’s impudence in putting the Almighty’s name in an
unaccented place of the line, and accenting the name of Man, that put me
on the wrong track,” he said. Swinburne’s fault here, for such as agree
with the accusation, was surely in his wrong sense of material; he was
making muslin do the work of camel’s hair cloth. He was imposing a metre
on his emotions, whereas the emotions should determine the metre--and
even then constantly modify it. Apropos of the _vers libre_-ists, my
friend also denied that there was such a thing as _vers libre_ possible,
arguing beyond refutation that if it was _vers_ it couldn’t be truly
_libre_ and if it was truly _libre_ it couldn’t possibly come under the
category of _vers_.

Perhaps the most damaging criticism (if true) of the _vers libre_ school
of today is that the standard which most of its professors set
themselves is not a very high one; with rhythmic freedom so dearly
bought, one expects a more intricate system of interlacing implications
than in closer bound poetry. Natural rhythms need no hunting; there is
some sort of rhythm in every phrase you write, if you break it up small
enough and make sufficient allowances for metric resolutions. There is
often a queer, wayward broken-kneed rhythm running through whole
sentences of standard prose. The following news item has not had a word
changed since I found it in _The Daily Mirror_.

    Jóhn Fráin
    Of Bállyghaderéen
    Was indícted at Roscómmon for the múrder of his fáther;
    He báttered his fáther, an óld man, to deáth with a poúnder;
    The júry foúnd him unáble to pléad
    And hé was commítted
      Tó an as´ylum.

One doesn’t “listen” when reading prose, but in poetry or anything
offered under that heading a submerged metre is definitely expected.
Very few readers of Mr. Kipling’s “Old Man Kangaroo” which is printed as
prose, realize that it is written in strict verse all through and that
he is, as it were, pulling a long nose at us. The canny _vers librist_
gets help from his printer to call your attention to what he calls
“cadence” and “rhythmic relations” (not easy to follow) which might have
escaped you if printed as prose; _this_ sentence, you’ll find, has its
thumb to its nose.



Perhaps some people who buy this book will be disappointed at not being
told the correct way of writing triolets and rondeaux. Theirs is the
same practical type of mind that longs to join a Correspondence School
of Art and learn the formulas for drawing a washer-woman or trousers or
the stock caricature of Mr. Winston Churchill.

But poetry is not a science, it is an act of faith; mountains are often
moved by it in the most unexpected directions against all the rules laid
down by professors of dynamics--only for short distances, I admit;
still, definitely moved. The only possible test for the legitimacy of
this or that method of poetry is the practical one, the question, “Did
the mountain stir?”



The psalmist explains an outburst of sorrowful poetry as due to a long
suppression of the causes of his grief. He says, “I kept silent, yea,
even from good words. My heart was hot within me and while I was thus
musing, the fire kindled, and at the last I spake with my tongue.” So
it was I believe with Keats in the composition of this compellingly
sorrowful ballad. Sir S. Colvin’s “Life of Keats” gives the setting well
enough. We do not know exactly what kindled the fire but I am inclined
to think with Sir S. Colvin, that Keats had been reading a translation
ascribed to Chaucer from Alan Chartier’s French poem of the same title.
The poet says:--

    “I came unto a lustie greene vallay
    Full of floures ...
    ... riding an easy paas
    I fell in thought of joy full desperate
    With great disease and paine, so that I was
    Of all lovers the most unfortunate ...”

Death has separated him from the mistress he loved.... We know that
Keats’ heart had been hot within for a long while, and the suppressed
emotional conflict that made him keep silent and muse is all too plain.
He has a growing passion for the “beautiful and elegant, graceful,
silly, fashionable and strange ... MINX” Fanny Brawne; she it was who
had doubtless been looking on him “as she did love” and “sighing full
sore,” and this passion comes into conflict with the apprehension, not
yet a certainty, of his own destined death from consumption, so that the
Merciless Lady, to put it baldly, represents both the woman he loved and
the death he feared, the woman whom he wanted to glorify by his poetry
and the death that would cut his poetry short. Of shutting “her wild,
wild eyes with kisses four” which makes the almost intolerable climax to
the ballad, he writes in a journal-letter to his brother George in
America, with a triviality and a light-heartedness that can carry no
possible conviction. He is concealing the serious conditions of body and
of heart which have combined to bring a “loitering indolence” on his
writing, now his livelihood; he does not want George to read between the
lines; at the same time it is a relief even to copy out the poem. George
knows little of Fanny beyond the purposely unprepossessing portraits of
her that John himself has given, but the memory of their beloved brother
Tom’s death from consumption is fresh in the minds of both. George had
sailed to America not realizing how ill Tom had been, John had come back
tired out from Scotland, to find him dying; he had seen the lily on
Tom’s brow, the hectic rose on his cheek, his starved lips in horrid
warning gaping, and, as the final horrible duty, had shut his brother’s
wild staring eyes with coins, not kisses. Now Fanny’s mocking smile and
sidelong glance play hide and seek in his mind with Tom’s dreadful
death-mask. It was about this time that Keats met Coleridge walking by
Highgate Ponds and it is recorded that Keats, wishing with a sudden
sense of the mortality of poets, to “carry away the memory” of meeting
Coleridge, asked to press his hand. When Keats had gone, Coleridge,
turned to his friend Green and said, “There is death in that hand.” He
described it afterwards as “a heat and a dampness”--but “fever-dew” is
Keats’ own word.

There are many other lesser reminiscences and influences in the poem, on
which we might speculate--Spenser’s “Faery Queen,” the ballad of Thomas
the Rhymer, Malory’s “Lady of the Lake,” Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with
its singing maiden and the poet’s honey-dew, traceable in Keats’ “honey
wild and manna dew,” an echo from Browne “Let no bird sing,” and from
Wordsworth “her eyes are wild”; but these are relatively unimportant.

History and Psychology are interdependent sciences and yet the field of
historical literary research is almost overcrowded with surveyors, while
the actual psychology of creative art is country still pictured in our
text-books as Terra Incognita, the rumoured abode of Phoenix and
Manticor. The spirit of adventure made me feel myself a regular Sir John
Mandeville when I began even comparing Keats’ two descriptions of Fanny
as he first knew her with the lady of the poem, noting the “tolerable”
foot, the agreeable hair, the elfin grace and elvish manners, in
transformation: wondering, did the Knight-at-arms set her on his steed
and walk beside so as to see her commended profile at best advantage?
When she turned towards him to sing, did the natural thinness and
paleness which Keats noted in Fanny’s full-face, form the
association-link between his thoughts of love and death? What was the
real reason of the “kisses four”? was it not perhaps four because of
the painful doubleness of the tragic vision--was it extravagant to
suppose that two of the kisses were more properly pennies laid on the
eyes of death?

The peculiar value of the ballad for speculation on the birth of poetry
is that the version that we know best, the one incorporated in the
journal-letter to America, bears every sign of being a very early draft.
When Keats altered it later, it is noteworthy that he changed the
“kisses four” stanza to the infinitely less poignant:--

    ... there she gazed and sighèd deep,
    And here I shut her wild sad eyes--
      So kissed asleep.

Sir S. Colvin suggests that the kisses four were “too quaint”: Keats may
have told himself that this was the reason for omitting them, but it is
more likely that without realizing it he is trying to limit the painful
doubleness: the change of “wild wild eyes” which I understand as meaning
“wild” in two senses, elf-wild and horror-wild, to “wild sad eyes” would
have the same effect.

In writing all this I am sorry if I have offended those who, so to
speak, prefer in their blindness to bow down to wood and stone, who
shrink from having the particular variety of their religious experience
analyzed for them. This section is addressed to those braver minds who
can read “The Golden Bough” from cover to cover and still faithfully,
with no dawning contempt, do reverence to the gods of their youth.



It is impossible to be sure of one’s ground when theorizing solely from
the work of others, and for commenting on the half-comedy of my own,
“The General Elliott,” I have the excuse of a letter printed below. It
was sent me by an American colonel whose address I do not know, and if
he comes across these paragraphs I hope he will understand that I
intended no rudeness in not answering his enquiries.

This is the poem:--


    He fell in victory’s fierce pursuit,
      Holed through and through with shot,
    A sabre sweep had hacked him deep
      Twixt neck and shoulderknot ...

    The potman cannot well recall,
      The ostler never knew,
    Whether his day was Malplaquet,
      The Boyne or Waterloo.

    But there he hangs for tavern sign,
      With foolish bold regard
    For cock and hen and loitering men
      And wagons down the yard.

    Raised high above the hayseed world
      He smokes his painted pipe,
    And now surveys the orchard ways,
      The damsons clustering ripe.

    He sees the churchyard slabs beyond,
      Where country neighbours lie,
    Their brief renown set lowly down;
      _His_ name assaults the sky.

    He grips the tankard of brown ale
      That spills a generous foam:
    Oft-times he drinks, they say, and winks
      At drunk men lurching home.

    No upstart hero may usurp
      That honoured swinging seat;
    His seasons pass with pipe and glass
      Until the tale’s complete.

    And paint shall keep his buttons bright
      Though all the world’s forgot
    Whether he died for England’s pride
      By battle, or by pot.

And this is the letter:

“April, 1921.

“_My dear Mr. Graves_,--

     “Friday, I had the pleasure of reading your lines to “The General
     Elliott” in _The Spectator_. Yesterday afternoon, about sunset, on
     returning across fields to Oxford from a visit to Boar’s Hill, to
     my delight and surprise I found myself suddenly confronted with the
     General Elliott himself, or rather the duplicate presentment of
     him--nailed to a tree. But could it be the same, I asked. He did
     not grip the tankard of brown ale that spills a generous foam--nor
     did his seasons seem to pass with pipe and glass--and alas, nor did
     paint keep his tarnished buttons bright. In spite of your
     assertion, is the general’s tale not already complete? Was he not
     (like me) but a “temporory officer”? Or have I perhaps seen a
     spurious General Elliott? He _should_ not die; the post from which
     he views the world is all too lonely for his eyes to be permitted
     to close upon that scene, albeit the churchyard slabs do not come
     within the range.... May _I_ help to restore him?


“J---- B----

“Lt. Col. U. S. A.”

To which letter I would reply, if I had his address:--

_My dear Colonel B_----

    ... The poet very seldom writes about what he is observing at the
     moment. Usually a poem that has been for a long while maturing
     unsuspected in the unconscious mind, is brought to birth by an
     outside shock, often quite a trivial one, but one which--as
     midwives would say--leaves a distinct and peculiar birthmark on the

     The inn which you saw at Hinksey is the only “General Elliott” I
     know, but I do not remember ever noticing a picture of him. I
     remember only a board


     and have never even had a drink there; but once I asked a man
     working in the garden who this General Elliott was, and he answered
     that really he didn’t know; he reckoned he was a fine soldier and
     killed somewhere long ago in a big battle. As a matter of fact, I
     find now that Elliott was the great defender of Gibraltar from 1779
     to 1783, who survived to become Lord Heathfield; but that doesn’t
     affect the poem. Some months after this conversation I passed the
     sign board again and suddenly a whole lot of floating material
     crystallized in my mind and the following verse came into my
     head--more or less as I quote it:--

    “Was it Schellenberg, General Elliott,
      Or Minden or Waterloo
    Where the bullet struck your shoulderknot,
      And the sabre shore your arm,
    And the bayonet ran you through?”

     On which lines a poem resulted which seemed unsatisfactory, even
     after five drafts. I rewrote in a different style a few days later
     and after several more drafts the poem stood as it now stands.
     There appear to be more than one set of conflicting emotions
     reconciled in this poem. In the false start referred to, the 1. A.
     idea was not properly balanced by 1. B. and 1. C., which
     necessitated reconstruction of the whole scheme; tinkering wouldn’t
     answer. I analyze the final version as follows:--


     A. Admiration for a real old-fashioned General beloved by his whole
     division, killed in France (1915) while trying to make a broken
     regiment return to the attack. He was directing operations from the
     front line, an unusual place for a divisional commander in modern

     B. Disgust for the incompetence and folly of several other generals
     under whom I served; their ambition and jealousy, their
     recklessness of the lives of others.

     C. Affection, poised between scorn and admiration, for an
     extraordinary thick-headed, kind-hearted militia Colonel, who was
     fond enough of the bottle, and in private life a big farmer. He was
     very ignorant of military matters but somehow got through his job
     surprisingly well.


     A. My hope of settling down to a real country life in the sort of
     surroundings that the two Hinkseys afford, sick of nearly five
     years soldiering. It occurred to me that the inn must have been
     founded by an old soldier who felt much as I did then. Possibly
     General Elliott himself, when he was dying, had longed to be back
     in these very parts with his pipe and glass and a view of the
     orchard. It would have been a kind thought to paint a signboard of
     him so, like one I saw once (was it in Somerset or Dorset?)--“The
     Jolly Drinker” and not like the usual grim, military scowl of
     “General Wellington’s” and “General Wolfe’s.”

     B. I ought to have known who Elliott was because, I used once to
     pride myself as an authority on military history. The names of
     Schellenberg, Minden, Malplaquet, The Boyne (though only the two
     middle battles appear on the colours as battle honours) are
     imperishable glories for the Royal Welch Fusilier. And the finest
     Colonel this regiment ever had, Ellis, was killed at Waterloo; he
     had apparently on his own initiative moved his battalion from the
     reserves into a gap in the first line.


     A. My own faith in the excellent qualities of our national

     B. A warning inscription on a tomb at Winchester over a private
     soldier who died of drink. But his comrades had added a
     couplet--“An honest soldier ne’er shall be forgot, Whether he died
     by musket or by pot.”

There are all sorts of other sentiments mixed up, which still elude me,
but this seems enough for an answer....

Yours sincerely,

R. G.--(late Captain R. W. F.)

Poe’s account of the series of cold-blooded deliberations that evolved
“The Raven” is sometimes explained as an attempt in the spirit of “Ask
me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies,” to hoodwink a too curious
Public. A juster suggestion would be that Poe was quite honest in his
record, but that the painful nature of the emotions which combined to
produce the poem prompted him afterwards to unintentional dishonesty in
telling the story. In my account of “The General Elliott” there may be
similar examples of false rationalization long after the event, but that
is for others to discover: and even so, I am not disqualified from
suggesting that the bird of ill omen, perching at night on the head of
Wisdom among the books of a library, is symbolism too particularly
applicable to Poe’s own disconsolate morbid condition to satisfy us as
having been deducted by impersonal logic.

It is likely enough that Poe worked very hard at later drafts of the
poem and afterwards remembered his deliberate conscious universalizing
of an essentially personal symbolism: but that is a very different
matter from pretending that he approached “The Raven” from the first
with the same cold reasoning care that constructed, for instance, his
Gold-Bug cipher.



A piece with this title which appeared in my “Country Sentiment” was the
first impulse to more than one of the main contentions in this book, and
at the same time supplies perhaps the clearest example I can give of the
thought-machinery that with greater luck and cunning may produce
something like Poetry. I wrote it without being able to explain exactly
what it was all about, but I had a vision in my mind of the God of
Poetry having two heads like Janus, one savage, scowling and horrible,
the face of Blackbeard the Pirate, the other mild and gracious, that of
John the Evangelist. Without realizing the full implication of the
symbolism, I wrote:-

    Then speaking from his double head
    The glorious fearful monster said,
      “I am _Yes_ and I am _No_
    Black as pitch and white as snow;
    Love me, hate me, reconcile
    Hate with love, perfect with vile,
    So equal justice shall be done
    And life shared between moon and sun.
    Nature for you shall curse or smile;
    A poet you shall be, my son.”

The poem so far as I can remember was set going by the sight of ... a
guard of honour drilling on the barrack-square of a camp near Liverpool!
I was standing at the door of the Courts-Martial room where I was
shortly to attend at the trial of a deserter (under the Military Service
Act) who had unsuccessfully pleaded conscientious objection before a
tribunal and had been in hiding for some weeks before being arrested.
Now, I had been long pondering about certain paradoxical aspects of
Poetry and, particularly, contrasting the roaring genius of Christopher
Marlowe with that of his gentle contemporary Shakespeare; so, standing
there watching the ceremonial drill, I fancifully made the officer in
command of the guard, a young terror from Sandhurst, into a Marlowe
strutting, ranting, shouting and cursing--but making the men _move_;
then I imagined Shakespeare in his place. Shakespeare would never have
done to command a guard of honour, and they would have hated him at
Camberley or Chelsea. He would have been like a brother-officer who was
with me a few weeks before in this extremely “regimental” camp; he hated
all the “sergeant-major business” and used sometimes on this barrack
square to be laughing so much at the absurd pomposity of the drill as
hardly to be able to control his word of command. I had more than once
seen him going out, beltless, but with a pipe and a dog, for a pleasant
walk in the country when he should really have been on parade. In
France, however, this officer was astonishing: the men would do anything
for him and his fighting feats had already earned him the name of _Mad
Jack_ in a shock-division where military fame was as fugitive as life.
This brother-officer, it is to be noted, was a poet, and had a violent
feeling against the Military Service Act. I wondered how he would behave
if he were in my place, sitting on the Court-Martial; or how would
Shakespeare? Marlowe, of course, would thunder “two years” at the
accused with enormous relish, investing the cause of militarism with a
magnificent poetry. But Shakespeare, or “Mad Jack”?

That night in the quarters which I had once shared with “Mad Jack,” I
began writing:--

     _“I begin to know at last,_
    _These nights when I sit down to rhyme,_
    _The form and measure of that vast_
    _God we call Poetry...._

    _ ... I see he has two heads_
    _Like Janus, calm, benignant this,_
    _That grim and scowling. His beard spreads_
    _From chin to chin; this God has power_
    _Immeasurable at every hour...._

    _The black beard scowls and says to me_
    _“Human frailty though you be_
    _Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh;_
    _They’ll obey you in the end,_
    _Hill and field, river and marsh_
    _Shall obey you, hop and skip_
    _At the terrour of your whip,_
    _To your gales of anger bend._

    _The pale beard smiles and says in turn_
    _“True, a prize goes to the stern_
    _But sing and laugh and easily run_
    _Through the wide airs of my plain;_
    _Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,_
    _And draw my creatures with soft song;_
    _They shall follow you along_
    _Graciously, with no doubt or pain._”

      _Then speaking from his double head, etc._

The rather scriptural setting of what the pale beard said was probably
suggested by the picture I had formed in my mind of the conscientious
objector, whom I somehow sympathetically expected to be an earnest
Christian, mild and honest; as a matter of fact, he turned out to be the
other kind, violent and shifty alternately. He was accordingly sentenced
by Major Tamburlaine and Captains Guise and Bajazeth, to the customary
term of imprisonment.

And by the way, talking of Marlowe and Shakespeare;--

    Here ranted Isaac’s elder son,
    The proud shag-breasted godless one
    From whom observant Smooth-cheek stole
    Birth-right, blessing, hunter’s soul.



    John King is dead, that good old man
      You ne’er shall see him more.
    He used to wear a long brown coat
      All buttoned down before.

Apparently a simple statement, this rustic epitaph has for any sensitive
reader a curiously wistful quality and the easiest way I can show the
mixed feelings it stirs, is by supposing a typical eighteenth-century
writer to have logicalized them into a polite epigram. The poem would
appear mutilated as follows:--

    Hereunder lies old John Brown’s honoured dust:
    His worthy soul has flown to Heav’n we trust.
    Yet still we mourn his vanished russet smock
    While frowning fates our trifling mem’ries mock.

Many of the subtler implications are necessarily lost in the formal
translation for in poetry the more standardized the machinery of logical
expression, the less emotional power is accumulated. But the force of
the words “he used to wear” is shown in more obvious opposition to the
words “dead” and “good.” The importance of “good” will appear at once if
we substitute some word like “ancient” for “good old” and see the
collapse of the poetic fabric, still more if we change “good” to “bad”
and watch the effect it has in our imaginations on the “you ne’er shall
see him more,” the cut of his coat, and the reasons John King had for
buttoning it. _Good_ John King wore a long brown coat because he was old
and felt the cold and because, being a neat old man, he wished to
conceal his ragged jacket and patched small-clothes. _Bad_ John King
kept pheasants, hares, salmon and silver spoons buttoned for concealment
under his. How did good John King die? A Christian death in bed
surrounded by weeping neighbours, each begging a coat-button for
keepsake. Bad John King? Waylaid and murdered one dark night by an
avenger, and buried where he fell, still buttoned in his long brown

The emotional conflict enters curiously into such one-strand songs as
Blake’s “Infant Joy” from the _Songs of Innocence_, a poem over which
for the grown reader the sharp sword of Experience dangles from a single
horsehair. The formal version (which I beg nobody to attempt even in
fun) logicalized in creaking sonnet-form would have the octave filled
with an address to the Melancholy of Sophistication, the sestet reserved

    But thou, Blest Infant, smiling radiantly
    Hast taught me etc, etc.

An immoral but far more entertaining parlour game than
logicalization--perhaps even a profitable trade--would be to extract the
essentials from some long-winded but sincere Augustan poem, disguise
the self-conscious antitheses, modernize the diction, liven up the
rhythm, fake a personal twist, and publish. Would there be no pundit
found to give it credit as a poem of passion and originality? I hope
this suggestion for a New-Lamps-for-Old Industry will not meet the eye
of those advanced but ill-advised English Masters who are now beginning
to supervise with their red-and-blue pencils the writing of English
Poetry in our schools.

Now, the trouble about the use of logic in poetry seems not to be that
logic isn’t a very useful and (rightly viewed) a very beautiful
invention, but that it finds little place in our dreams: dreams are
illogical as a child’s mind is illogical, and spontaneous undoctored
poetry, like the dream, represents the complications of adult experience
translated into thought-processes analogous to, or identical with, those
of childhood.

This I regard as a very important view, and it explains, to my
satisfaction at any rate, a number of puzzling aspects of poetry, such
as the greater emotional power on the average reader’s mind of simple
metres and short homely words with an occasional long strange one for
wonder; also, the difficulty of introducing a foreign or unusual prosody
into poems of intense passion: also the very much wider use in poetry
than in daily speech of animal, bird, cloud and flower imagery, of
Biblical types characters and emblems, of fairies and devils, of
legendary heroes and heroines, which are the stock-in-trade of
imaginative childhood; also, the constant appeal poetry makes to the
childish habits of amazed wondering, sudden terrors, laughter to signify
mere joy, frequent tears and similar manifestations of uncontrolled
emotion which in a grown man and especially an Englishman are considered
ridiculous; following this last, the reason appears for the strict
Classicist’s dislike of the ungoverned Romantic, the dislike being
apparently founded on a feeling that to wake this child-spirit in the
mind of a grown person is stupid and even disgusting, an objection that
has similarly been raised to the indiscriminate practice of
psycho-analysis, which involves the same process.



One of the most embarrassing limitations of poetry is that the language
you use is not your own to do entirely what you like with. Times
actually come when in the conscious stage of composition you have to
consult a dictionary or another writer as to what word you are going to
use. It is no longer practical to coin words, resurrect obsolete ones
and generally to tease the language as the Elizabethans did. A great
living English poet, Mr. Charles Doughty, is apparently a disquieting
instance to the contrary. But he has lost his way in the centuries; he
belongs really to the sixteenth. English has never recovered its
happy-go-lucky civilian slouch since the more than Prussian stiffening
it was given by the eighteenth century drill-sergeants.

It is intolerable to feel so bound compared with the freedom of a
musician or a sculptor; in spite of the exactions of that side of the
art, the poet cannot escape into mere rhythmic sound; there is always
the dead load of sense to drag about with him. I have often felt I would
like to be a painter at work on a still life, puzzling out ingenious
relationships between a group of objects varying in form, texture and
colour. Then when people came up and asked me: “Tell me, sir, is that a
Spode jar?” or “Isn’t that a very unusual variety of lily?” I would be
able to wave them away placidly; the questions would be irrelevant. But
I can’t do that in poetry, everything _is_ relevant; it is an omnibus of
an art--a public omnibus.

There are consolations, of course; poetry, to be appreciated, is not,
like music, dependent on a middleman, the interpretative artist; nor,
once in print, is it so liable to damage from accident, deterioration or
the reproducer as the plastic arts.



Bound up with the business of controlling the association-ghosts which
haunt in their millions every word of the English language, there is the
great mesmeric art of giving mere fancy an illusion of solid substance.
The chief way this is done, and nobody has ever done it better than
Keats, is constantly to make appeals to each of the different bodily
senses, especially those more elementary ones of taste, touch, smell,
until they have unconsciously built up a scene which is as real as
anything can be. As an example of the way Keats rung the changes on the
senses, take his “Song about Myself”:--

    There was a naughty Boy
      And a naughty boy was he
    He ran away to Scotland
      The people for to see
        Then he found
        That the ground
        Was as hard,
        That a yard
        Was as long,
        That a song
        Was as merry,
        That a cherry
        Was as red--
        That lead
        Was as weighty,
        That fourscore
        Was as eighty,
        That a door
        Was as wooden
        As in England--

    So he stood in his shoes
      And he wonder’d,
      He wonder’d,
    He stood in his shoes
      And he wonder’d.

Here we have a succession of staccato notes, but in the “Eve of St.
Agnes” or “Ode to Autumn” almost every phrase is a chord, the individual
notes of which each strike a separate sense.



When Aristotle lays down that poets describe the thing that might be,
but that the historian (like the natural historians above mentioned)
merely describes that which has been, and that poetry is something of
“more philosophic, graver import than history because its statements are
of a universal nature” so far his idea of poetry tallies with our own.
But when he explains his “might be” as meaning the “probable and
necessary” according to our every-day experience of life, then we feel
the difference between the Classical and Romantic conceptions of the
art--Aristotle was trying to weed poetry of all the symbolic
extravagances and impossibilities of the dream state in which it seems
to have originated, and to confine it within rational and educative
limits. Poetry was with him only an intuitive imitation of how typical
men think and react upon each other when variously stimulated. It was
what we might call the straight goods of thought conveyed in the
traditional magic hampers; but there proved to be difficulties in the
packing; the Classical ideal was, in practice, modified by the use of
heroic diction and action, conventional indications to the audience that
“imitation” was not realism, and that there must be no criticisms on
that score; every one must “go under” to the hypnotic suggestion of the
buskin and the archaic unnatural speech, and for once think ideally. For
the same reason the Classical doctrine lays stress on the importance of
the set verse-forms and the traditional construction of drama. For the
benefit of my scientific readers, if my literary friends promise not to
listen to what I am saying, I will attempt a definition of Classical and
Romantic notions of Poetry:--

Classical is characteristic and Romantic is Metamorphic, that is, though
they are both expressions of a mental conflict, in Classical poetry this
conflict is expressed within the confines of waking probability and
logic, in terms of the typical interaction of typical minds; in
Romantic poetry the conflict is expressed in the illogical but vivid
method of dream-changings.

The dream origin of Romantic Poetry gives it the advantage of putting
the audience in a state of mind ready to accept it; in a word, it has a
naturally hypnotic effect. Characteristic poetry, which is social rather
than personal, and proudly divorced from the hit-and-miss methods of the
dream, yet feels the need of this easy suggestion to the audience for
ideal thinking; and finds it necessary to avoid realism by borrowing
shreds of accredited metamorphic diction and legend and building with
them an illusion of real metamorphism. So the Hermit Crab, and once it
has taken up a cast-off shell to cover its nakedness, it becomes a very
terror among the whelks. The borrowed Metamorphism is hardened to a
convention and a traditional form, and can be trusted almost inevitably
to induce the receptive state in an average audience wherever used. Such
a convention as I mean is the May-day dream of the Mediaeval rhymed
moralities or the talking beasts of the fabulists.

Sometimes, however, owing to a sudden adventurous spirit appearing in
the land, a nation’s Classical tradition is broken by popular ridicule
and the reappearance of young Metamorphic Poets. But after a little
paper-bloodshed and wranglings in the coffee-houses, the Classical
tradition reappears, dressed up in the cast-off finery of the pioneer
Metamorphics (who have by this time been succeeded by licentious and
worthless pyrotechnists), and rules securely again. It is only fair to
observe that the Romantic Revivalist often borrows largely from some
Classical writer so obscured by Time and corrupt texts as to seem a
comparative Romantic. This complicated dog-eat-dog process is cheerfully
called “The Tradition of English Poetry.”

There is an interesting line of investigation which I have no space to
pursue far, in a comparison between the Classicism of Wit and the
Romanticism of Humour.

Wit depends on a study of the characteristic reactions of typical men to
typically incongruous circumstances, and changed little from
Theophrastus to Joe Miller. It depends for its effect very largely on
the set form and careful diction, e. g:--

A certain inn-keeper of Euboea, with gout in his fingers, returned to
his city after sacrificing an Ox to Delphic Apollo.... The celebrated
wit, Sidney Smith, one day encountered Foote the comedian, in the
Mall.... An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotchman agreed on a wager of
one hundred guineas....

That is Classicism.

Romantic humour is marked by the extravagant improbability of
dream-vision and by the same stereoscopic expression as in Romantic

Would Theophrastus have deigned to laugh at the _fabliau_ of “The Great
Panjandrum himself with the little round button at top?” I think not.
Our leading living Classical poet was recently set a Romantic riddle as
a test of his humour, “What did the tooth-paste say to the tooth brush?”
Answer: “Squeeze me and I’ll meet you outside the Tube.” The bard was
angry. “Who on earth squeezes his tube of tooth-paste with his tooth
brush? Your riddle does not hold water.” He could understand the fable
convention of inanimate objects talking, but this other was not “the
probable and necessary.”



The naming of colours in poetry may be used as a typical instance of the
circumspection with which a poet is forced to move. The inexperienced
one drenches his poems in gold, silver, purple, scarlet, with the idea
of giving them, in fact, “colour.” The old hand almost never names a
colour unless definitely presenting the well-known childish delight for
bright colours, with the aid of some other indication of childhood, or
unless definitely to imply a notable change from the normal nature of
the coloured object, or at least some particular quality such as the
ripeness of the cherry in Keats’ song just quoted. But even then he
usually prefers to find a way round, for the appeal to the sense of
colour alone is a most insecure way of creating an illusion; colours
vary in mood by so very slight a change in shade or tone that pure
colour named without qualification in a poem will seldom call up any
precise image or mood.

To extemporize a couple of self-conscious blackboard examples:--

  I. “Then Mary came dressed in a robe that was green
  And her white hands and neck were a sight to be seen.”

  II. “Mary’s robe was rich pasture, her neck and her hands
  Were glimpses of river that dazzled those lands.”

The first couplet has not nearly so much colour in it as the second,
although in the first the mantle is definitely called green and the
lady’s hands and neck, white, while in the second no colour is mentioned
at all. The first robe is as it were coloured in a cheap painting-book;
the green paint has only come off the cake in a thin yellowish solution
and the painting-book instructions for colouring the hands and neck were
“leave blank.” The second robe derives its far richer colour from the
texture that the pasture simile suggests; the flesh parts get their
whiteness from the suggestion of sun shining on water.



The conscious part of composition is like the finishing of roughly
shaped briars in a pipe factory. Where there are flaws in the wood,
putty has to be used in order to make the pipe presentable. Only an
expert eye can tell the putty when it has been coloured over, but there
it is, time will reveal it and nobody is more aware of its presence now
than the man who put it there. The public is often gulled into paying
two guineas for a well-coloured straight-grain, when a tiny patch of
putty under the bowl pulls down its sentimental value to ten shillings
or so.

It is only fair to give an example of putty in a poem of my own; in
writing songs, where the pattern is more fixed than in any other form,
putty is almost inevitable. This song started sincerely and cheerfully

    Once there came a mighty furious wind
      (So old worthies tell).
    It blew the oaks like ninepins down,
    And all the chimney stacks in town
      Down together fell.
    That was a wind--to write a record on,
                to hang a story on,
                to sing a ballad on,
      To ring the loud church bell!
    But for one huge storm that cracks the sky
    Came a thousand lesser winds rustling by,
    And the only wind that will make me sing
    Is breeze of summer or gust of spring
    But no more hurtful thing.

This was leading up to a final verse:--

    Once my sweetheart spoke an unkind word
      As I myself must tell,
    For none but I have seen or heard
    My sweetheart to such cruelty stirred
      For one who loved her well.
    That was a word--to write no record on,
                to hang no story on,
                to sing no ballad on,
      To ring no loud church bell!
    Yet for one fierce word that has made me smart
    Ten thousand gentle ones ease my heart,
    So all the song that springs in me
    Is “Never a sweetheart born could be
    So kind as only she.”

Half-way through this verse I was interrupted, and had to finish the
poem consciously as best I could. On picking it up again, apparently I
needed another middle verse of exactly the same sort of pattern as the
first, to prepare the reader for the third. Searching among natural
phenomena, I had already hit on drought as being a sufficiently
destructive plague to be long remembered by old worthies. This would
make the second verse.

So without more ado I started:--

    Once there came a mighty thirsty drought
      (So old worthies tell).
    The quags were drained, the brooks were dried,
    Cattle and sheep and pigs all died,
      The parson preached on Hell.
    That was a drought--to write a record on etc.

So far I had concealed the poverty of my inspiration well enough, I
flattered myself, but here we were stuck, my self-conscious muse and I.
What was a pleasing diminutive of _drought_?--Pleasant sunshine? Not
quite; the thirstiness of nature doesn’t show in pleasant sunshine at
all. So, knowing all the time that I was doing wrong, I took my putty
knife and slapped the stuff on thick, then trimmed and smoothed over

    But for one long drought of world-wide note
    Come a thousand lesser ones on man’s throat,
    And the only drought for my singing mood
    Is a thirst for the very best ale that’s brewed,
    Soon quenched, but soon renewed.

In manuscript, the putty didn’t show, somehow, but I am ashamed to say I
published the song. And in print, it seemed to show disgracefully. “It
was the best butter,” said the _March Hare_. “It was the best putty,” I
echoed, to excuse myself. But there is too much of it; the last half of
the last verse even, is not all sound wood. This poem has been on my
conscience for some time.

If spontaneous poetry is like the Genie from Aladdin’s Lamp, this
conscious part of the art is like the assemblage of sheet, turnip-head,
lighted candle and rake to make the village ghost.

    As I were a trapesin’
    To Fox and Grapes Inn
      To get I a bottle of ginger wine
    I saw summat
    In they old tummut
      And Lordie how his eyes did shine!

    _Suffolk rhyme._
    (_Cetera desunt_)

The Genie is the most powerful magic of the two, and surest of its
effect, but the Turnip Ghost is usually enough to startle rustics who
wander at night, into prayer, sobriety, rapid movement or some other
unusual state.



Though it is a sound principle that the poet should write as if his work
were first of all intended to be repeated from mouth to mouth,
recitation or reading aloud actually distracts attention from the
subtler properties of a poem, which though addressed nominally to the
ear, the eye has to see in black and white before they can be
appreciated. A beautiful voice can make magic of utter nonsense; I have
been taken in by this sort of thing too often. The eye is the most
sophisticated organ of sense and is therefore the one to which the poet
must make a final appeal in critical matters, but as limited an appeal
as possible when he is engaged in the art of illusion. The universal use
of printing has put too much work on the eye: which has learned to skip
and cut in self-defence. Ask any one who has read CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
the name of the hero. It is probable that he will remember the initial
letter, possible that he will be able to repeat the whole name more or
less recognizably, unlikely that he will be able to spell it correctly,
almost certain that he will not have troubled to find out the correct
pronunciation in Russian.



A scientific treatise _could_, I suppose, be written on how to
manipulate vowels and consonants so as to hurry or slow down rhythm, and
suggest every different emotion by mere sound sequence but this is for
every poet to find out for himself and practise automatically as a
painter mixes his paints.

There was once an old Italian portrait painter, who coming to the end of
his life, gathered his friends and pupils together and revealed to them
a great discovery he had made, as follows:--

“The art of portrait painting consists in putting the High Lights in
exactly the right place in the eyes.”

When I come to my death-bed I have a similarly important message to

“The art of poetry consists in knowing exactly how to manipulate the
letter S.”



In true poetry the mental bracing and relaxing on receipt of sensuous
impressions, which we may call the rhythm of emotions, conditions the
musical rhythm. This rhythm of emotions also determines the
sound-texture of vowels and consonants, so that Metre, as schoolboys
understand it when they are made to scan:--Friĕnds, Rōm|ans,
count|rymēn, lĕnd mē|your eārs!, has in spontaneous poetry only a
submerged existence. For the moment I will content myself by saying that
if all words in daily speech were spoken at the same rate, if all
stressed syllables and all unstressed syllables, similarly, were dwelt
on for exactly the same length of time, as many prosodists assume,
poetry would be a much easier art to practise; but it is the haste with
which we treat some parts of speech, the deliberation we give to others,
and the wide difference in the weight of syllables composed of thin or
broad vowels and liquid or rasping consonants, that make it impossible
for the Anglo-French theory of only two standardized sound values, long
or short, to be reasonably maintained. A far more subtle notation must
be adopted, and if it must be shown on a black-board, poetry will appear
marked out not in “feet” but in convenient musical bars, with the
syllables resolved into quaver, dotted crotchet, semibreve and all the
rest of them. Metre in the classical sense of an orderly succession of
iambuses, trochees or whatnot, is forced to accept the part of policeman
in the Harlequinade, a mere sparring partner for Rhythm the Clown who
with his string of sausages is continually tripping him up and beating
him over the head, and Texture the Harlequin who steals his truncheon
and helmet. This preparatory explanation is necessary because if I were
to proclaim in public that “the poet must write musically” it would be
understood as an injunction to write like Thomas Moore, or his disciples
of today.



At this stage the question of the use of poetry to its readers may be
considered briefly and without rhapsody. Poetry as the Greeks knew when
they adopted the Drama as a cleansing rite of religion, is a form of
psycho-therapy. Being the transformation into dream symbolism of some
disturbing emotional crisis in the poet’s mind (whether dominated by
delight or pain) poetry has the power of homoeopathically healing other
men’s minds similarly troubled, by presenting them under the spell of
hypnosis with an allegorical solution of the trouble. Once the allegory
is recognized by the reader’s unconscious mind as applicable the
affective power of his own emotional crisis is diminished. Apparently on
a recognition of this aspect of poetry the Greeks founded their splendid
emblem of its power--the polished shield of Perseus that mirrored the
Gorgon’s head with no hurtful effect and allowed the hero to behead her
at his ease. A well chosen anthology is a complete dispensary of
medicine for the more common mental disorders, and may be used as much
for prevention as cure if we are to believe Mr. Housman’s argument in
“Terence, this is stupid stuff” no. LXII of his _Shropshire Lad_.

The musical side of poetry is, properly understood, not merely a
hypnotic inducement to the reader to accept suggestions, but a form of
psycho-therapy in itself, which, working in conjunction with the
pictorial allegory, immensely strengthens its chance of success.



The History of English Poetry is a subject I hope I shall never have to
undertake, especially as I have grave doubts if there really is such a
thing. Poets appear spasmodically, write their best poetry at uncertain
intervals and owe nothing worth mentioning to any school or convention.
Most histories of English Poetry are full of talk about “schools” or
they concentrate on what they are pleased to call “the political
tendencies” of poetry, and painfully trace the introduction and
development in English of various set forms like the Sonnet, Blank
Verse, and the Spenserian Stanza. This talk about politics I read as an
excuse of the symmetrical-minded for spreading out the Eighteenth
Century poets famous in their day to a greater length than the quality
of their work can justify. As for the history of metric forms it is, in
a sense, of little more vital importance to poetry than the study of
numismatics would appear to an expert in finance.

       *       *       *       *       *

An undergraduate studying English Literature at one of our oldest
universities was recently confronted by a senior tutor, Professor X,
with a review of his terminal studies and the charge of

“I understand from Prof. Y,” he explained, “that your literary judgments
are a trifle summary, that in fact you prefer some poets to others.”

He acknowledged the charge with all humility.



“I am sorry, nephew, that I cannot understand your Modern Poetry. Indeed
I strongly dislike it; it seems to me mostly mere impudence.”

“But, uncle, you are not expected to like it! The old house-dog goes at
dinner time to the broken biscuits in his bowl marked DOG and eats
heartily. Tomorrow give him an unaccustomed dainty in an unaccustomed
bowl and he will sniff and turn away in disgust. Though tempted to kick
him for his unrecognizing stupidity, his ingratitude, his ridiculous
preference for the formal biscuit, yet refrain!

“The sight and smell associations of the DOG BOWL out of which he has
eaten so long have actually, scientists say, become necessary for
bringing the proper digestive juices into his mouth. What you offer him
awakes no hunger, his mouth does not water; he is puzzled and insulted.

“But give it to the puppies instead; they’ll gobble it up and sniff
contemptuously afterwards at the old dog and his bowl of biscuit.”



In England, since--shall we name the convenient date 1851, the year of
the Great Exhibition?--the educated reading public has developed
analytic powers which have not been generally matched by a corresponding
development of the co-ordinating arts of the poet. Old charms will no
longer hold, old baits will no longer be taken; the reader has become
too wary. The triumph of the analytic spirit is nowhere better shown
than in these histories of Poetry just mentioned, where the interest in
fake poetry is just as strong or even stronger than the interest in
poetry itself.

As Religions inevitably die with their founders, the disciples having
either to reject or formularize their master’s opinions, so with Poetry,
it dies on the formation of a poetic school. The analytic spirit has
been, I believe, responsible both for the present coma of religion among
our educated classes and for the disrespect into which poetry and the
fine arts have fallen. As for these histories of poetry, the very fact
that people are interested in failures of the various “Schools” to
universalize the individual system of a master, is a great
discouragement to a poet trying by every means in his power to lay the
spirit of sophistication.

But the age of poetry is not yet over if poets will only remember what
the word means and not confuse it with acrostic-making and similar
ingenious Alexandrianisms. Earlier civilizations than ours have
forgotten the necessarily spontaneous nature of the art, and have tried
(for lack of any compelling utterance) to beat the sophisticated critics
of their day by piling an immense number of technical devices on their
verses, killing what little passion there was, by the tyranny of
self-imposed rules. The antithetical couplet of Pope or the Ovidian
hexameter-and-pentameter are bad enough, but the ancient Irish and Welsh
bards were even more restricted by their chain-rhymes and systems of
consonantal sequence, the final monstrosity being the Welsh _englyn_ of
four lines, governed by ninety-odd separate rules. The way out for
Poetry does not lie by this road, we may be sure. But neither on the
other hand do we yet need to call in the Da-da-ists.



Rhymes properly used are the good servants whose presence gives the
dinner table a sense of opulent security; they are never awkward, they
hand the dishes silently and professionally. You can trust them not to
interrupt the conversation of the table or allow their personal
disagreements to come to the notice of the guests; but some of them are
getting very old for their work.

The principle governing the use of alliteration and rhyme appear to be
much the same. In unsophisticated days an audience could be moved by the
profuse straight-ahead alliteration of _Piers Plowman_, but this is too
obvious a device for our times. The best effects seem to have been
attained in more recent poetry by precisely (if unconsciously) gauging
the memory length of a reader’s mental ear and planting the second
alliterative word at a point where the memory of the first is just
beginning to blurr; but has not quite faded. By cross-alliteration on
these lines a rich atmosphere has resulted and the reader’s eye has been
cheated. So with internal and ordinary rhyme; but the memory length for
the internal rhyme appears somewhat longer than memory for alliteration,
and for ordinary rhyme, longer still.



Aristotle defended poetical “properties” that would correspond nowadays
with “thine” and “whensoe’er” and “flowerets gay,” by saying “it is a
great thing indeed to make proper use of these poetic forms as also of
compounds and strange words. The mere fact of their not being in
ordinary speech, gives the diction a non-prosaic character.” One
Ariphrades had been ridiculing the Tragedians on this score; and
Aristotle saw, I suppose, that a strange diction has for the
simple-minded reader a power of surprise which enables the poet to work
on his feelings unhindered, but he did not see that as soon as a single
Ariphrades had ridiculed what was becoming a conventional surprise, a
Jack-in-the-Box that every one expected, then was the time for the
convention to be scrapped; ridicule is awkwardly catching.

The same argument applies to the use of rhyme to-day; while rhyme can
still be used as one of the ingredients of the illusion, a compelling
force to make the reader go on till he hears an echo to the syllable at
the end of the last pause, it still remains a valuable technical asset.
But as soon as rhyme is worn threadbare the ear anticipates the echo and
is contemptuous of the clumsy trick.

The reader must be made to surrender himself completely to the poet, as
to his guide in a strange country; he must never be allowed to run ahead
and say “Hurry up, sir, I know this part of the country as well as you.
After that ‘snow-capped mountain’ we inevitably come to a ‘leaping
fountain.’ I see it ‘dancing’ and ‘glancing’ in the distance. And by the
token of these ‘varied flowers’ on the grass, I know that another few
feet will bring us to the ‘leafy bowers’ which, if I am not mistaken,
will protect us nicely from the ‘April showers’ for a few ‘blissful
hours.’ Come on, sir! am I guiding you, or are you guiding me?”

However, the time has not yet come to get rid of rhyme altogether: it
has still plenty of possibilities, as _Dumb Crambo_ at a Christmas party
will soon convince the sceptical; and assonances separated even by the
whole length of the mouth can work happily together, with or without the
co-operation of ordinary rhyme.

These are all merely illustrations of the general principle that as soon
as a poem emerges from the hidden thought processes that give it birth,
and the poet reviews it with the conscious part of his mind, then his
task is one not of rules or precedents so much as of ordinary



There is a great dignity in poetry unaffectedly written in stern stiff
traditional forms and we feel in spite of ourselves that we owe it the
reverence due to ruined abbeys, prints of Fujiyama, or Chelsea
pensioners with red coats, medals, and long white beards. But that is
no reason for following tradition blindly; it should be possible for a
master of words to improvise a new convention, whenever he wishes, that
will give his readers just the same notion of centuried authority and
smoothness without any feeling of contempt.



A young poet of whose friendship I am very proud was speaking about
poetry to one of those University literary clubs which regard English
poetry as having found its culmination in the last decade of the
nineteenth century and as having no further destiny left for it. He said
that he was about to tell them the most important thing he knew about
poetry, so having roused themselves from a customary languor, the young
fellows were disappointed to hear, not a brilliant critical paradox or a
sparkling definition identifying poetry with decay, but a mere rule of
thumb for the working poet:

    When in Doubt
    Cut it Out.



Ordinary readers may deplore the habit of raking up the trivial and bad
verse of good poets now long dead, but for living poets there is nothing
more instructive in the world than these lapses, and in the absence of
honest biography they alone are evidence for what would be naturally
assumed, that these great poets in defiance of principle often tried to
write in their dull moments just because they longed for the exquisite
excitement of composition, and thought that the act of taking up a pen
might induce the hypnotic state of which I have spoken. But afterwards
they forgot to destroy what they produced, or kept it in the hope that
it was some good after all.



Modern treatises on Poetry usually begin with definitions; ancient
treatises with a heavy weight of classical authority and a number of
grave reflections on the nature of the Poet, proving conclusively that
he should be a man of vast experience of life, apt judgment, versatile
talent, and above all unimpeachable moral character. Authority seems to
count for nothing in these days, compared with the value set on it by
Sir Philip Sidney in his “Apologie for Poetrie,” and the modern treatise
would never ask its reader more than to admit a negative conclusion on
the moral question, that poets who think they can combine indiscriminate
debauch with dyspeptic Bohemian squalor and yet turn out good work
merely by applying themselves conscientiously and soberly in working
hours, are likely to be disappointed; however, my personal feeling is
that poets who modify the general ethical principles first taught them
at home and at school, can only afford to purchase the right to do so at
a great price of mental suffering and difficult thinking. Wanton,
lighthearted apostasies from tradition are always either a sign or a
prophecy of ineffectual creative work.

Art is not moral, but civilized man has invented the word to denote a
standard of conduct which the mass demands of the individual and so
poetry which makes a definitely anti-moral appeal is likely to
antagonize two readers out of three straight away, and there is little
hope of playing the confidence trick on an enemy. Being therefore
addressed to a limited section even of the smallish class who read
poetry, such poetry will tend like most high-brow art to have more
dexterity than robustness.

For a complete identification of successful art with morality I always
remember with appreciation what an Irishman, a complete stranger, once
said to my father on hearing that he was author of the song “Father
O’Flynn”--“Ye behaved well, sir, when ye wrote that one.”



The ethical problem is further complicated for poets by the tussle in
their nature between the spontaneous and the critical biases. The
principle of loyalty on which the present non-religious system of
English manners depends is strained in them to breaking point by the
tendency to sudden excitement, delight or disgust with ideas for which
mature consideration entirely alters the values, or with people who
change by the same process from mere acquaintances to intimate friends
and back in a flash. Which should explain many apparently discreditable
passages in, for instance, the life and letters of Keats or Wordsworth,
and should justify Walt Whitman’s outspoken “Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The poet is the outsider who sees most of the game, and, by the same
token, all or nearly all the great English poets have been men either of
ungenteel birth or of good family which has been scandalized by their
subsequent adoption of unusual social habits during the best years of
their writing. To the polite society of their day--outsiders to a man.



     DEAR SIR,--

     Many thanks for the volume of your poems you have sent me. Though I
     had never seen any of your compositions before, they are already
     old friends--that is, I like them but I see through them.

Yours cordially, Etc.



As in household economics, you cannot take out of a stocking more than
has been put in, so in poetry you cannot present suffering or romance
beyond your own experience. The attempt to do this is one of the chief
symptoms of the fake poet; ignorance forces him to draw on the
experience of a real poet who actually has been through the emotional
crises which he himself wants to restate. The fake is often made worse
by the theft of small turns of speech which though not in any sense
irregular or grotesque, the poet has somehow made his own; it is like
stealing marked coins, and is a dangerous practice when Posterity is
policeman. Most poets visit Tom Tiddler’s ground now and then, but the
wise ones melt down the stolen coin and impress it with their own

There is a great deal of difference between fake poetry and ordinary bad
poetry. The bad poet is likely to have suffered and felt joy as deeply
as the poet reckoned first class, but he has not somehow been given the
power of translating experience into images and emblems, or of melting
words in the furnace of his mind and making them flow into the channels
prepared to take them. Charles Sorley said, addressing the good poets on
behalf of the bad poets (though he was really on the other side):--

    We are the homeless even as you,
      Who hope but never can begin.
    Our hearts are wounded through and through
      Like yours, but our hearts bleed within;
    We too make music but our tones
    Scape not the barrier of our bones.

Mere verse, as an earlier section has attempted to show, is neither bad
poetry nor fake poetry necessarily. It finds its own categories, good
verse, bad verse and imitation. In its relation to poetry it stands as
chimpanzee to man: only the theory that a conflict of emotional ideas is
a necessary ingredient of verse to make it poetry, will satisfactorily
explain why many kinds of verse, loosely called Poetry, such as Satire
and Didactic verse are yet popularly felt not to be the “highest” forms
of Poetry. I would say that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred these
bear no real relation to Poetry, even though dressed up in poetical
language, and that in the hundredth case they are poetry in spite of
themselves. Where the writer is dominated by only one aim, in satire,
the correction of morals; in didactic verse, instruction; there is no
conflict and therefore no poetry. But in rare cases where some Juvenal
slips through feelings of compunction to a momentary mood of self-satire
and even forgets himself so much as to compliment his adversary; or in
didactic verse where a sudden doubt arises and the teacher admits
himself a blind groper after truth (so Lucretius time and time again)
and breaks his main argument in digressions after loveliness and terror,
only then does Poetry appear. It flashes out with the surprise and shock
of a broken electric circuit.

Even the _memoria technica_ can slide from verse into poetry. The rhyme
to remember the signs of the Zodiac by, ends wonderfully:--

    The Ram the Bull, the Heavenly Twins,
    And next the Crab, the Lion shines,
      The Virgin and the Scales,
    The Scorpion, Archer and He Goat,
    The Man who carries the Watering Pot,
      The Fish with glittering tails.

The language of science makes a hieroglyphic, or says “The sign of
Aquarius”; the language of prose says “A group of stars likened by
popular imagery to a Water Carrier”; the language of Poetry converts the
Eastern water carrier with his goatskin bag or pitcher, into an English
gardener, then puts him to fill his watering pot from heavenly waters
where the Fish are darting. The author of this rhyme has visualized his
terrestrial emblems most clearly; he has smelt the rankness of the Goat,
and yet in the “Lion shines” and the “glittering tails” one can see that
he has been thinking in terms of stars also. The emotional contradiction
lies in the stars’ remote aloofness from complications of this climatic
and smelly world, from the terror of Lion, Archer, Scorpion, from the
implied love-interest of Heavenly Twins and Virgin, and from the daily
cares of the Scales, Ram, Bull, Goat, Fish, Crab and Watering Pot.

The ready way to distinguish verse from poetry is this, Verse makes a
flat pattern on the paper, Poetry stands out in relief.



     Q. When is a fake not a fake?

     A. When hard-working and ingenious conjurors are billed by common
     courtesy as ‘magicians.’

     Q. But when is a fake not a fake?

     A. When it’s a Classic.

     Q. And when else?

     A. When it’s “organ-music” and all that.

     Q. Elaborate your answer, dear sir!

     A. A fake, then, is not a fake when lapse of time has tended to
     obscure the original source of the borrowing, and when the textural
     and structural competence that the borrower has used in
     synthesising the occasional good things of otherwise indifferent
     authors is so remarkable that even the incorruptible Porter of
     Parnassus winks and says “Pass Friend!”

     Q. Then the Fake Poet is, as you have hinted before, a sort of
     Hermit Crab?

     A. Yes, and here is another parable from Marine Life. Poetry is the
     protective pearl formed by an oyster around the irritations of a
     maggot. Now if, as we are told, it is becoming possible to put
     synthetic pearls on the market, which not even the expert with his
     X-ray can detect from the natural kind, is not our valuation of the
     latter perhaps only a sentimentality?



There is a blind spot or many blind spots in the critical eye of every
writer; he cannot find for himself certain surface faults which anybody
else picks out at once. Especially there is a bias towards running to
death a set of words which when he found them, were quite honest and
inoffensive. Shelley had a queer obsession about “caves,” “abysses,” and
“chasms” which evidently meant for him much more than he can make us
see. A poet will always be wise to submit his work, when he can do no
more to straighten it, to the judgment of friends whose eyes have their
blind spots differently placed; only, he must be careful, I suppose, not
to be forced into making any alterations while in their presence.

A poet reveals to a friend in a fit of excitement “I say, listen, I am
going to write a great poem on such-and-such! I have the whole thing
clear in my mind, waiting to be put down.” But if he goes on to give a
detailed account of the scheme, then the act of expression (especially
prose expression) kills the creative impulse by presenting it
prematurely with too much definiteness. The poem is never written. It
remains for a few hopeless days as a title, a couple of phrases and an
elaborate scheme of work, and is then banished to the lumber room of the
mind; later it probably becomes subsidiary to another apparently
irrelevant idea and appears after a month or two in quite a different
shape, the elaboration very much condensed, the phrase altered and the
title lost.

Now this section is as suitable as any other for the prophecy that the
study of Poetry will very soon pass from the hands of Grammarians,
Prosodists, historical research men, and such-like, into those of the
psychologists. And what a mess they’ll make of it; to be sure!



The later drafts of some lines I wrote recently called CYNICS AND
ROMANTICS, and contrasting the sophisticated and ingenuous ideas of
Love, give a fairly good idea of the conscious process of getting a poem
in order. I make no claim for achievement, the process is all that is
intended to appear, and three or four lines are enough for

_1st Draft._

    In club or messroom let them sit,
    Let them indulge salacious wit
    On love’s romance, but not with hearts
    Accustomed to those healthier parts
    Of grim self-mockery....

_2nd Draft._ (Consideration:--It is too soon in the poem for the angry
jerkiness of “Let them indulge.” Also “Indulge salacious” is hard to
say; at present, this is a case for being as smooth as possible.)

    In club or messroom let them sit
    Indulging contraversial wit
    On love’s romance, but not with hearts

_3rd Draft._ (Consideration:--No, we have the first two lines beginning
with “In.” It worries the eye. And “sit, indulging” puts two short “i’s”
close together. “Contraversial” is not the word. It sounds as if they
were angry, but they are too blasé for that. And “love’s romance” is
cheap for the poet’s own ideal.)

    In club or messroom let them sit
    At skirmish of salacious wit
    Laughing at love, yet not with hearts

_4th Draft._ (Consideration:--Bother the thing! “Skirmish” is good
because it suggests their profession, but now we have three S’s,--“sit,”
“skirmish,” “salacious.” It makes them sound too much in earnest. The
“salacious” idea can come in later in the poem. And at present we have
two “at’s” bumping into each other; one of them must go. “Yet” sounds
better than “but” somehow.)

    In club or messroom let them sit
    With skirmish of destructive wit
    Laughing at love, yet not with hearts

_5th Draft._ (Consideration:--And now we have two “with’s” which don’t
quite correspond. And we have the two short “i’s” next to each other
again. Well, put the first “at” back and change “laughing at” to
“deriding.” The long “i” is a pleasant variant; “laughing” and “hearts”
have vowel-sounds too much alike.)

    In club or messroom let them sit
    At skirmish of destructive wit
    Deriding love, yet not with hearts

_6th Draft._ (Consideration:--Yes, that’s a bit better. But now we have
“_des_tructive” and “_der_iding” too close together. “Ingenious” is more
the word I want. It has a long vowel, and suggests that it was a really
witty performance. The two “in’s” are far enough separated. “Accorded”
is better than “accustomed”; more accurate and sounds better. Now

    In club or messroom let them sit
    At skirmish of ingenious wit
    Deriding love, yet not with hearts
    Accorded etc.

                        (Consideration:--It may be
rotten, but I’ve done my best.)

The discussion of more radical constructive faults is to be found in



In this last section, besides an attempt at a greater accuracy of
meaning and implication than the first slap-dash arrangement of words
had provided, there may have been noticed three other technical
considerations which are especially exacting in this case, where I am
intending by particularly careful craftsmanship to suggest the
brilliance of the conversation I am reporting.

The first is a care to avoid unintentional echoes, as for example “_In_
club or messroom ... _in_dulging.”

The second is a care which all song writers and singing masters
understand, to keep apart words like “indulge salacious,” where the j
and s sound coming together interfere with easy breathing.

The third is an attempt to vary the vowel sounds so far as is consistent
with getting the right shade of meaning; it pleases the mental ear like
stroking pleases a cat (note the vowel sequence of the phrase that heads
this section. John Milton knew a thing or two about texture, worth
knowing). At the same time I am trying to arrange the position of
consonants and open vowels with much the same care.

But all these three considerations, and even the consideration for
lucidity of expression, can and must be modified where an emotional mood
of obscurity, fear, difficulty or monotony will be better illustrated by
so doing.

Keats was very conscious of the necessity of modification. Leigh Hunt
recounts in his Autobiography:--

“I remember Keats reading to me with great relish and particularity,
conscious of what he had set forth, the lines describing the supper[1]
and ending with the words,

    “‘And lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon.’”

 [1] St. Agnes’ Eve.

Mr. Wordsworth would have said the vowels were not varied enough; but
Keats knew where his vowels were _not_ to be varied. On the occasion
above alluded to, Wordsworth found fault with the repetition of the
concluding sound of the participles in Shakespeare’s line about bees:--

    “‘The _singing_ masons _building_ roofs of gold.’”

This, he said, was a line which Milton would never have written. Keats
thought, on the other hand, that the repetition was in harmony with the
continued note of the singers, and that Shakespeare’s negligence, if
negligence it was, had instinctively felt the thing in the best manner.”

Keats here was surely intending with his succession of short i-sounds, a
gourmet’s fastidious pursing of lips. Poets even of the
Virgil-Milton-Tennyson-Longfellow metrical tradition will on occasion
similarly break their strict metric form with an obviously imitative
“quadrepedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum,” but the manipulation
of vowels and consonants is for them rather a study in abstract grandeur
of music than a relation with the emotional content of the poetry.



No poem can turn out respectably well unless written in the full
confidence that this time at last the poet is going to attain perfect
expression. So long as this confidence survives he goes on revising the
poem at intervals for days or months until nothing more can be done, and
the inevitable sense of failure is felt, leaving him at liberty to try
again. It is on this inevitable failure that the practice of every art
is made conditional.

       *       *       *       *       *

A man once went into an ironmonger’s shop and said hesitatingly, “Do you
sell those gadgets for fixing on doors?”

“Well, sir,” replied the assistant, “I am not quite sure if I understand
your requirements, but I take it you are needing a patent automatic

“Exactly,” said the customer. “One to fix on my pantry door which, by
the way, contains a glass window.”

“You will want a cheap one, sir?”

“Cheap but serviceable.”

“You will prefer an English make, sir?”

“Indeed, that’s a most important consideration.”

“You will perhaps want one with ornamentations, scroll work and roses
for instance?”

“Oh no, nothing of that sort, thank you. I want it as plain and
unobtrusive as possible.”

“You would like it made of some rustless metal, sir?”

“That would be very convenient.”

“And with a strong spring?”

“Well, moderately strong.”

“To be fixed on which side, sir?”

“Let me see; the right-hand side.”

“Now, sir,” said the assistant, “I will go through each point, one by
one. You want an efficient (but not too costly) English made,
unobtrusive, rustless, unornamented, patent automatic door closer, to be
fixed right-handed with a moderately strong spring to a pantry door with
a glass window. Is there any further desideratum, sir?”

“Well, it’s very good of you to help me like this (“Not at all, sir”). I
should like it easily adjusted and easily removed, and above all it must
not squeak or need constant oiling.”

“In fact, sir, you want an apparatus combining a variety of qualities,
in a word, an absolutely silent, efficient, economical, invisible,
corrosive proof, unornamented, not-too-heavily-springed, easily
adjustable, readily removable, British-made, right-handed, patent
automatic door closer, ideally fitted in every possible respect for
attaching to your pantry door which (I understand you to say) contains a
glass window. How is that, sir?”

“Splendid, splendid.”

“Well, sir, I regret that there has never been any article of that
description put on the market, but if you care to visit our wholesale
department across the road, you may perhaps be able to make your choice
from a reasonably large selection of our present imperfect models. Good
day, sir.”



If you solve a problem to the best of your ability, it never bothers you
again. Enough said: but the following emblem may be taken to heart:--


    He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
      This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
    So in the end he could not change the tragic habits
      This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.



There is a saying that “More people know Tom Fool than Tom Fool knows”;
that may be all right if it means recognizing him in the street, but he
has to be a wonder before he can, without eccentricity, make his work
immediately recognized in print and be even distinguishable from the
best efforts of imitators. This proverb was obviously in the head of the
man or woman who wrote the following sonnet, in the _Spectator_ (I
think) about a year ago; I have lost the cutting and the reference, and
ask to be pardoned if I misquote:--

    Cunning indeed Tom Fool must be to-day
      For us, who meet his verses in a book,
    To cry “Tom Fool wrote that.... I know his way....
    ... Unsigned, yet eyed all over with Tom’s look....
      Why see! It’s pure Tom Fool, I’m not mistook....
    Fine simple verses too; now who’s to say
    How Tom has charmed these worn old words to obey
      His shepherd’s voice and march beneath his crook?
    Instead we ponder “I can’t name the man,
      But he’s been reading Wilde,” or “That’s the school
    Of Côterie.... Voices.... Pound ... the Sitwell clan ...”
      “_He_ ‘knows his Kipling’” ... “_he_ accepts the rule
    Of Monro ... of Lord Tennyson ... of Queen Anne”
      How seldom, “There, for a ducat, writes,
                             TOM FOOL.

The writer evidently had a keen eye for the failings of others, but is
convicted out of his own mouth, for I have met nobody who can identify
this particular Tom Fool for me.

Hateful as is the art of the parodist when it spoils poems which have
delighted and puzzled us, parody has its uses. A convincing parody is
the best possible danger signal to inform a poet that he is writing
sequels, repeating his conjuring tricks until they can be seen through
and ridiculously imitated. “That awkward fellow Ariphrades,” much as we
dislike him, is one of the most useful members of our republic of



I have already attempted to show Poetry as the Recorder’s _précis_ of a
warm debate between the members of the poet’s mental Senate on some
unusually contraversial subject. Let the same idea be expressed less
personally in the terms of coloured circles intersecting, the space cut
off having the combined colour of both circles. In the Drama these
circles represent the warring influences of the plot; the principal
characters lie in the enclosed space and the interest of the play is to
watch their attempts to return to the state of primary colouring which
means mental ease; with tragedy they are eventually forced to the
colourless blackness of Death, with comedy the warring colours disappear
in white. In the lyrical poem, the circles are coinciding
stereoscopically so that it is difficult to discover how each individual
circle is coloured; we only see the combination.

If we consider that each influence represented by these circles has an
equivalent musical rhythm, then in the drama these rhythms interact
orchestrally, tonic theme against dominant; in lyrical poetry where we
get two images almost fused into one, the rhythms interlace
correspondingly closely. Of the warring influences, one is naturally
the original steady-going conservative, the others novel, disquieting,
almost accidental. Then in lyrical poetry the established influence
takes the original metre as its expression, and the new influences
introduce the cross rhythm modifying the metre until it is half
submerged. Shakespeare’s developments of blank verse have much
distressed prosodists, but have these ever considered that they were not
mere wantonness or lack of thought, that what he was doing was to send
emotional cross-rhythms working against the familiar iambic five-stress

I remember “doing Greek iambics” at Charterhouse and being allowed as a
great privilege on reaching the Upper School to resolve the usual
short-long foot into a short-short-short or even in certain spots into a
long-short. These resolutions I never understood as having any reference
to the emotional mood of the verse I was supposed to be translating, but
they came in very conveniently when proper names had too many short
syllables in them to fit otherwise.

A young poet showed me a set of English verses the other day which I
returned him without taking a copy but I remember reading somewhat as

    T-tum, t-tum, t-tum, t-tum, t-tum
    A midnight garden, where as I went past
    I saw the cherry’s moonfrozen delicate ivory.

“Good heavens,” I said, “what’s that last line all about?”

“Oh, it’s just an experiment in resolution.”

“Take a pencil, like a good fellow, and scan it for me in the old
fashioned way as we used to do at school together.”

He did so:--

    I sāw | thĕ cherr|(y’s) moŏnfrōz|ĕn dĕl|ic(ate) īv|(ory)

“It’s a sort of anapaestic resolution,” he explained.

“Anapaestic resolution of what?”

“Of an iambic decasyllabic line.”

“Excuse me, it’s not. Since we’re talking in that sort of jargon, it’s a
spondaic resolution of a dactylic line.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve put in four extra syllables for your resolution. I’ll put
in a fifth, the word “in.” Now listen!

    Swimmery | floatery | bobbery | duckery | divery--
    _I_ saw the | cherries moon | frozen in | delicate | ivory

In this case the cross-rhythm, which my friend explained was meant to
suggest the curious ethereal look of cherry blossoms in moonlight, had
so swamped the original metre that it was completely stifled. The poet
has a licence to resolve metre where the emotion demands it, and he is a
poor poet if he daren’t use it; but there is commonsense in restraint.



One goes plodding on and hoping for a miracle, but who has ever
recovered the strange quality that makes the early work (which follows a
preliminary period of imitation) in a sense the best work? There is a
fine single-heartedness, an economy of material, an adventurous delight
in expression, a beginner’s luck for which I suppose honest hard work
and mature observation can in time substitute certain other qualities,
but poetry is never the same again.

I will attempt to explain this feeling by an analogy which can be
pressed as closely as any one likes: it is an elaboration of what has
been said of the poet as a “peculiarly gifted witch doctor.” Cases of
multiple personality have recently been investigated in people who
believed themselves to be possessed by spirits. Analysis has proved
pretty conclusively that the mediums have originally mimicked
acquaintances whom they found strange, persons apparently selected for
having completely different outlooks on life, both from the medium and
from each other, different religions, different emotional processes and
usually different dialects. This mimicry has given rise to unconscious
impersonations of these people, impersonations so complete that the
medium is in a state of trance and unconscious of any other existence.
Mere imitation changes to a synthetic representation of how these
characters would act in given circumstances. Finally the characters get
so much a part of the medium’s self that they actually seem to appear
visibly when summoned, and a sight of them can even be communicated to
sympathetic bystanders. So the Witch of Endor called up Samuel for King
Saul. The trances, originally spontaneous, are induced in later stages
to meet the wishes of an inquisitive or devout séance-audience; the
manifestations are more and more presented (this is no charge of
charlatanism) with a view to their effect on the séance. It is the
original unpremeditated trances, or rather the first ones that have the
synthetic quality and are no longer mere mimicry, which correspond to
Early Work.

But it is hardly necessary to quote extreme cases of morbid psychology
or to enter the dangerous arena of spiritualistic argument in order to
explain the presence of subpersonalities in the poet’s mind. They have a
simple origin, it seems, as supplying the need of a primitive mind when
confused. Quite normal children invent their own familiar spirits, their
“shadows,” “dummies” or “slaves,” in order to excuse erratic actions of
their own which seem on reflection incompatible with their usual habits
or code of honour. I have seen a child of two years old accept
literally an aunt’s sarcasm, “Surely it wasn’t my little girl who did
that? It must have been a horrid little stranger dressed just like you
who came in and behaved so badly. My little girl always does what she’s
told.” The child divided into two her own identity of which she had only
recently become conscious. She expected sympathy instead of scolding
when the horrid little stranger reappeared, broke china and flung water
all over the room. I have heard of several developments of the dummy, or
slave idea; how one child used his dummy as a representative to send out
into the world to do the glorious deeds which he himself was not allowed
to attempt; on one occasion this particular dummy got three weeks’
imprisonment after a collision with the police and so complete was his
master’s faith in the independent existence of the creature that he
eagerly counted the days until the dummy’s release and would not call on
his services, however urgently needed, until the sentence had been
completed. Another child, a girl, employed a committee of several
dummies each having very different characteristics, to whom all social
problems were referred for discussion.

Richard Middleton, the poet, in a short essay, “Harold,” traces the
development of a dummy of this sort which assumed a tyranny over his
mind until it became a recurrent nightmare. Middleton says, and it
immensely strengthens my contention if Middleton realized the full
implications of the remark, that but for this dummy, Harold, he would
never have become a poet.

Two or three poets of my acquaintance have admitted (I can confirm it
from my own experience) that they are frequently conscious of their own
divided personalities; that is, that they adopt an entirely different
view of life, a different vocabulary, gesture, intonation, according as
they happen to find themselves, for instance, in clerical society, in
sporting circles, or among labourers in inns. It is no affectation, but
a _mimesis_ or sympathetic imitation hardened into a habit; the
sportsman is a fixed and definite character ready to turn out for every
sporting or quasi-sporting emergency and has no interest outside the
pages of the _Field_, the clerical dummy pops up as soon as a clergyman
passes down the road and can quote scripture by the chapter; the rustic
dummy mops its brow with a red pocket handkerchief and murmurs “keeps
very dry.” These characters have individual tastes in food, drink,
clothes, society, peculiar vices and virtues and even different

The difficulty of remaining _loyal_, which I mention elsewhere, is most
disastrously increased, but the poet finds a certain compensation in the
excitement of doing the quick change. He also finds it amusing to watch
the comments of reviews or private friends on some small batch of poems
which appear under his name. Every poem though signed John Jones is
virtually by a different author. The poem which comes nearest to the
point of view of one critic may be obnoxious to another; and _vice
versa_; but it all turns on which “dummy” or “sub-personality” had
momentarily the most influence on the mental chairman.

In a piece which represents an interlude in a contemplated collection of
poems, the following passage occurs to give the same thought from a
different angle. I am asking a friend to overlook irreconcilabilities in
my book and refer him to two or three poems which are particularly
hostile to each other.

    “Yet these are all the same stuff, really,
    The obverse and reverse, if you look closely,
    Of busy imagination’s new-coined money--
    And if you watch the blind
    Phototropisms of my fluttering mind,
    Whether, growing strong, I wrestle Jacob-wise
    With fiendish darkness blinking threatfully
    Its bale-fire eyes,
    Or whether childishly
    I dart to Mother-skirts of love and peace
    To play with toys until those horrors leave me,
    Yet note, whichever way I find release,
    By fight or flight,
    By being wild or tame,
    The Spirit’s the same, the Pen and Ink’s the same.”



“Multiple personality, perhaps,” says some one. “But does that account
for the stereoscopic process of which you speak, that makes two
sub-personalities speak from a double head, that as it were prints two
pictures on the same photographic plate?” The objector is thereupon
referred to the dream-machinery on which poetry appears to be founded.
He will acknowledge that in dreams the characters are always changing in
a most sudden and baffling manner. He will remember for example that in
“Alice in Wonderland,” which is founded on dream-material, the Duchess’
baby is represented as turning into a pig; in “Alice through the Looking
Glass” the White Queen becomes an old sheep. That is a commonplace of

When there is a thought-connection of similarity or contrast between two
concepts, the second is printed over the first on the mental
photographic plate so rapidly that you hardly know at any given moment
whether it is a pig or a baby you are addressing. “You quite make me
giddy,” said Alice to the Cheshire Cat who was performing similar
evolutions. One image starts a sentence, another image succeeds and
finishes it, almost, but the first reappears and has the last word. The
result is poetry--or nonsense. With music much the same happens; I
believe that those wonderful bursts of music heard in sleep are
impossible to reproduce in a waking state largely because they consist
of a number of melodies of different times and keys imposed on one



In my opening definition I have given rather an ideal of English Poetry
than an analysis of the ruling poetics of this, that and the other
century. If those who rally to the later Pope and those who find in the
prophetic Blake the true standard of Poetry, equally deny that my
definition covers their experience of the word, I admit that in an
encyclopediac sense it is quite inadequate, and indeed a fusion of two
contradictory senses; indeed, again, a typically poetic definition.

But how else to make it? Blake’s poetry dictated by angels (a
too-impulsive race) with its abstruse personal symbolism and tangled
rhythms, and Pope’s elegantly didactic generalizations, in rigidly
metrical forms, on the nature of his fellow man, have a common factor so
low as hardly to be worth recovering; my justification is based on the
works of our everywhere acknowledged Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare,
Keats, Shelley and the rest, where the baffling Metamorphism of Romance
and the formal Characterism of Classical Poetry, often reconcile their
traditional quarrel and merge contentedly and inseparably as Jack Spratt
and Mrs. Spratt, dividing the fat and the lean in equable portions.

       *       *       *       *       *

Here let me then, for the scientific interest, summarize my conception
of the typical poet:--

A poet in the fullest sense is one whom some unusual complications of
early environment or mixed parentage develop as an intermediary between
the small-group consciousnesses of particular sects, clans, castes,
types and professions among whom he moves. To so many of these has he
been formally enrolled as a member, and to so many more has he virtually
added himself as a supernumerary member by showing a disinterested
sympathy and by practising his exceptionally developed powers of
intuition, that in any small-group sense the wide diffusion of his
loyalties makes him everywhere a hypocrite and a traitor.

But the rival sub-personalities formed in him by his relation to these
various groups, constantly struggle to reconciliation in his poetry, and
in proportion as these sub-personalities are more numerous more varied
and more inharmonious, and his controlling personality stronger and
quicker at compromise, so he becomes a more or less capable spokesman of
that larger group-mind of his culture which we somehow consider greater
than the sum of its parts: so that men of smaller scope and more
concentrated loyalties swallow personal prejudices and hear at times in
his utterances what seems to them the direct voice of God.



Each poet finds that there are special times and seasons most suitable
for his work; for times, I have heard mentioned with favour the hour
before breakfast and the hour after the usual bed-time, for seasons, the
pause between the exuberance of Spring and the heaviness of Summer seems
popular, also the month of October. There are also places more free from
interruption and distraction than others, such as caves, attics barely
furnished, lonely barns, woods, bed, which make the hypnotic state
necessary for poetry easier to induce. The poet has to be very honest
with himself about only writing when he feels like it. To take pen in
hand at the self-conscious hour of (say) nine A.M., for a morning’s
poetry, and with a mental arena free of combatants, is to be
disappointed, and even “put off” poetry for some time to come.

I have often heard it said that a poet in intervals between inspirations
should keep his hand in by writing verse-exercises, but that he should
on such occasions immediately destroy what he has written.

That seems all wrong, it is an insult to the spontaneity of true poetry
to go through a ritual farce of this sort and the poet will only be
blunting his tools. He ought not to feel distressed at the passage of
time as if it represented so many masterpieces unwritten. If he keeps
mentally alive and has patience, the real stuff may arrive any moment;
when it doesn’t, it isn’t his fault, but the harder he tries to force
it, the longer will it be delayed.



Among the most usual heresies held about poetry is the idea that the
first importance of the poet is his “message”; this idea probably
originated with the decline of polite sermon-writing, when the poet was
expected to take on the double duty; but it is quite untenable. The poet
is only concerned with reconciling certain impressions of life as they
occur to him, and presenting them in the most effective way possible,
without reference to their educational value. The cumulative effect of
his work is to suggest a great number of personal obsessions the sum of
which compose if you like his “message,” but the more definitely
propagandist the poet, the less of a poet is the propagandist.

With this is bound up a heresy of about the same standing that poetry
should only be concerned with presenting what is beautiful, beautiful in
the limited sense of the picture-postcard. This romantic obsession
(using the word “romantic” in the sense of optimistic loose thinking) is
as absurd as that of the blood-and-guts realists. Poetry is no more a
narcotic than a stimulant; it is a universal bitter-sweet mixture for
all possible household emergencies, and its action varies according as
it is taken in a wineglass or tablespoon, inhaled, gargled, or rubbed on
the chest (like the literary Epic) by hard fingers covered with rings.



It is as foolish to sneer at the Very Wild Men as it is to assume that
the Very Tame Men are all right because they are “in the tradition.” The
Very Wild Men are at any rate likely to have done work which has
explored the desert boundaries of the art they profess, and the Very
Tame Men have never done anything worth doing at all. The only excusable
quarrel is with the pretended Wild Men who persist in identically
repeating the experiments in which their masters have already failed,
and with those whose Very Wilderness is traceable to this--that they
are satisfied with the original spontaneity of their work and do not
trouble to test it in the light of what it will convey to others, whom
they then blame for want of appreciation. What seems to be the matter
with Blake’s Prophetic Books is just this, he connected his images by a
system of free association the clue to which was lost by his death: for
instance his enemy, Schofield, a soldier who informed against him,
suddenly enters “Jerusalem” and its strange company of abstractions, in
the guise of a universal devil “Skofeld.”

Suppose that one Hodge, a labourer, attempted in a fit of homicidal
mania to split my skull with a spade, but that my faithful bloodhound
sprang to the rescue and Hodge barely escaped with his life. In my
imagination, Hodge’s spade might well come to symbolize murder and
madness, while the bloodhound became an emblem of loyal assistance in
the hour of discomfiture. With this experience in my mind I might be
inclined to eulogize a national hero as

    “Bloodhound leaping at the throat of Hodge
      Who stands with lifted spade,”

and convey a meaning directly contrary to the one intended and having an
apparent reference to agrarian unrest. But conscious reflection would
put my image into line with a more widely favoured conception of Man the
Attacker, and Dog the Rescuer; I would rewrite the eulogy as

    “_Watchdog_ leaping at the _burglar’s_ throat
    Who stands with _pistol aimed_.”

One of the chief problems of the art of poetry is to decide what are the
essentials of the image that has formed in your mind; the accidental has
to be eliminated and replaced by the essential. There is the double
danger of mistaking a significant feature of the image for an accident
and of giving an accident more prominence than it deserves.

Too much modern country-side poetry is mere verbal photography,
admirably accurate and full of observation but not excited by memories
of human relationships, the emotional bias which could make Bunyan see
the bee as an emblem of sin, and Blake the lion’s loving-kindness.

Now, if Wordsworth had followed the poetical fashion of the day and told
the world that when wandering lonely as a cloud he had seen a number of
vernal flowers, the poem would have fallen pretty flat--if however,
anticipating the present century he had quoted the order, the species
and the subspecies and remarked on having found among the rest no fewer
than five double blooms, we would almost have wished the vernal flowers
back again.

Mr. Edmund Blunden lately called my attention to a message from Keats to
John Clare sent through their common publisher, Taylor. Keats thought
that Clare’s “Images from Nature” were “too much introduced without
being called for by a particular sentiment.” Clare, in reply, is
troubled that Keats shows the usual inaccuracies of the townsman when
treating of nature, and that when in doubt he borrows from the Classics
and is too inclined to see “behind every bush a thrumming Apollo.”



The most popular theory advanced to account for the haunting of houses
is that emanations of fear, hate or grief somehow impregnate a locality,
and these emotions are released when in contact with a suitable medium.
So with a poem or novel, passion impregnates the words and can make them
active even divorced from the locality of creation.

An extreme instance of this process was claimed when Mr. Thomas Hardy
came to Oxford to receive his honorary degree as Doctor of Literature,
in the Sheldonian Theatre.

There were two very aged dons sitting together on a front bench, whom
nobody in the assembly had ever seen before. They frowned and refrained
from clapping Mr. Hardy or the Public Orator who had just described him
as “Omnium poetarum Britannicorum necnon fabulatorum etiam facile
princeps,” and people said they were certainly ghosts and identified
them with those masters of colleges who failed to answer Jude the
Obscure when he enquired by letter how he might become a student of the
University. It seems one ought to be very careful when writing



While still in my perambulator about the year 1899,[2] I once received
with great alarm the blessing of Algernon Charles Swinburne who was
making his daily journey from “The Pines” in Putney to the _Rose and
Crown_ public house on the edge of Wimbledon Common. It was many years
before I identified our nursery bogey man, “mad Mr. Swinburne,” with the
poet. It interests me to read that Swinburne as a young man once asked
and received the blessing of Walter Savage Landor who was a very old man
indeed at the time, and that Landor as a child had been himself taken to
get a blessing at the hand of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and that the great
lexicographer in his childhood had been unsuccessfully “touched” by
Queen Anne for the King’s Evil. And what the moral may be, I cannot say,
but I have traced the story back to Queen Anne because I want to make my
grimace at the sacerdotalists; for I must confess, I have been many
times disillusioned over such “poetry in the great tradition” as
Authority has put beyond criticism.

 [2] See Mr. Max Beerbohm’s AND EVEN NOW, page 69.

In caution, and out of deference to my reader’s sensibilities I will
only quote a single example. Before reading a line of Swinburne I had
been frequently told that he was “absolutely wonderful,” I would be
quite carried away by him. They all said that the opening chorus, for
instance, of _Atalanta in Calydon_ was the most melodious verse in the
English language. I read:

    When the hounds of Spring are on Winter’s traces,
    The Mother of months in meadow and plain, ...

and I was not carried away as far as I expected. For a time I persuaded
myself that it was my own fault, that I was a Philistine and had no
ear--but one day pride reasserted itself and I began asking myself
whether in the lines quoted above, the two “in’s” of _Spring_ and
_Winter_ and the two “mo’s” of _Mother_ and _Months_ did not come too
close together for euphony, and who exactly was the heroine of the
second line, and whether the heavy alliteration in _m_ was not too
obvious a device, and whether _months_ was not rather a stumbling-block
in galloping verse of this kind, and would it not have been better....

Thereupon faith in the “great tradition” and in “Authority” waned.

Still, I would be hard-hearted and stiff-necked indeed if I did not
wish to have had on my own head the blessing that Swinburne received.



It is true that Genius can’t lie hid in a garret nowadays; there are too
many people eager to get credit for discovering and showing it to the
world. But as most of the acknowledged best living poets find it
impossible to make anything like a living wage from their poetry, and
patronage has long gone out of fashion (a great pity I think) the poet
after a little fuss and flattery is obliged to return disconsolately to
his garret. The problem of an alternative profession is one for which I
have never heard a really satisfactory solution. Even Coleridge (whose
Biographia Literaria should be the poet’s Bible) could make no more
hopeful suggestion than that the poet should become a country parson.

Surely a most unhappy choice! The alternative profession should be as
far as possible removed from, and subsidiary to, poetry. True priesthood
will never allow itself to become subordinate to any other calling, and
the dangerous consanguinity of poetry and religion has already been
emphasized. It is the old difficulty of serving two masters; with the
more orthodox poets Herbert and Vaughan, for example, poetry was all
but always tamed into meek subjection to religious propaganda; with
Skelton and Donne it was very different, and one feels that they were
the better poets for their independence, their rebelliousness towards
priestly conventions.

Schoolmastering is another unfortunate subsidiary profession, it is apt
to give poetry a didactic flavour; journalism is too exacting on the
invention, which the poet must keep fresh; manual labour wearies the
body and tends to make the mind sluggish; office-routine limits the
experience. Perhaps Chaucer as dockyard inspector and diplomat,
Shakespeare as actor manager, and Blake as engraver, solved the problem
at best.

These practical reflections may be supplemented by a paragraph lifted
from the New York _Nation_ _apropos_ of a trans-Atlantic poet whose
works have already sold a million copies; a new volume of his poems has
evidently broken the hearty muscular open-prairie tradition of the
’fifties and ’sixties and advanced forty years at a stride to the
Parisian ecstasies of the naughty ’nineties;--

    “That verse is in itself a hopelessly unpopular
     form of literature is an error of the sophisticated
     but imperfectly informed. Every period has its
     widely read poets. Only, these poets rarely rise
     into the field of criticism since they always echo
     the music of the day before yesterday and express
     as an astonishing message the delusions of the
     huge rear-guard of civilization.”



A book of verses must be either priceless or valueless and as the
general reading public is never told which by the council of critics
until fifty years at least after the first publication, poets can only
expect payment at a nominal rate. If they complain that the labourer is
worthy of his hire, the analogy is not admitted. The public denies
poetry to be labour; it is supposed to be a gentle recreation like
cutting out “Home Sweet Home” from three-ply wood with a fretsaw, or
collecting pressed flowers.



To say of any poet that there is complete individuality in his poems
combined with excellent craftsmanship amounts to a charge of arrogance.
Craftsmanship in its present-day sense seems necessarily to imply
acquaintance with other poetry; polish is only learned from the
shortcomings and triumphs of others, it is not natural to the
back-woodsman. A poet who after reading the work of those whom he
recognizes as masters of the craft, does not allow himself to be
influenced into imitation of peculiar technical tricks (as we often find
ourselves unwittingly influenced to imitate the peculiar gestures of
people we admire or love), that poet must have the arrogance to put his
own _potential_ achievements on a level with the work he most admires.

Then is asked the question, “But why _do_ poets write? Why do they go on
polishing the rough ideas which, once on paper, even in a crude and
messy form, should give the mental conflict complete relief? Why, if the
conflict is purely a personal one, do they definitely attempt to press
the poem on their neighbour’s imagination with all the zeal of a

There is arrogance in that, the arrogance of a child who takes for
granted that all the world is interested in its doings and clever
sayings. The emotional crises that make Poetry, imply suffering, and
suffering usually humiliation, so that the poet makes his secret or open
confidence in his poetic powers a set-off against a sense of alienation
from society due to some physical deformity, stigma of birth or other
early spite of nature, or against his later misfortunes in love.

The expectation and desire of a spurious immortality “fluttering alive
on the mouths of men” is admitted by most poets of my acquaintance, both
the good and the bad. This may be only a more definitely expressed form
of the same instinct for self-perpetuation that makes the schoolboy cut
his name on the leaden gutter of the church porch, or the rich man give
a college scholarship to preserve his name _in perpetuo_. But with the
poet there is always the tinge of arrogance in the thought that his own
poetry has a lasting quality which most of his contemporaries cannot

The danger of this very necessary arrogance is that it is likely so to
intrude the poet’s personal eccentricities into what he writes that the
reader recognizes them and does not read the “I” as being the voice of
universality.... It was the first night of a sentimental play in an
Early English setting; the crisis long deferred was just coming, the
heroine and hero were on the point of reconciliation and the long
embrace, the audience had lumps in their throats. At that actual instant
of suspense, a man in evening-dress leaped down on the stage from a box,
kicked the ruffed and doubleted hero into the orchestra, and began to
embrace the lady. A moment’s silence; then terrible confusion and rage.
The stage manager burst into tears, attendants rushed forward to arrest
the desperado.

“But, ladies and gentlemen, I am the author!! I have an artist’s right
to do what I like with my own play.”

“Duck him! scratch his face! tar and feather him!”

       *       *       *       *       *

Arrogance? Yes, but a self-contradictory arrogance that takes the form
of believing that there is nobody beside themselves who could point out
just where in a given poem they have written well, and where badly.
They know that it contains all sorts of hidden lesser implications
(besides the more important ones) which, they think, a few sensitive
minds may feel, but none could analyze; they think that they have
disguised this or that bit of putty (of which no poem is innocent) so
that no living critic could detect it. They are arrogant because they
claim to understand better than any rivals how impossible an art poetry
is, and because they still have the courage to face it. They have most
arrogance before writing their poem of the moment, most humility when
they know that they have once more failed.



This piece was written a few weeks after the remainder of the book: I
had no cold-blooded intention of summarizing the paradox of poetic
arrogance contained in the last section, but so it happened, and I print
it here.

    Donne (for example’s sake)
    Keats, Marlowe, Spenser, Blake,
    Shelley and Milton,
    Shakespeare and Chaucer, Skelton--
    I love them as I know them,
    But who could dare outgo them
    At their several arts
    At their particular parts
    Of wisdom, power and knowledge?
    In the Poet’s College
    Are no degrees nor stations,
    Comparisons, rivals,
    Stern examinations,
    Class declarations,
    Senior survivals;
    No creeds, religions, nations
    Combatant together
    With mutual damnations.
    Or tell me whether
    Shelley’s hand could take
    The laurel wreath from Blake?
    Could Shakespeare make the less
    Chaucer’s goodliness?

    The poets of old
    Each with his pen of gold
    Gloriously writing
    Found no need for fighting,
    In common being so rich;
    None need take the ditch,
    Unless this Chaucer beats
    That Chaucer, or this Keats
    With other Keats is flyting:
    See Donne deny Donne’s feats,
    Shelley take Shelley down,
    Blake snatch at his own crown.
    Without comparison aiming high,
    Watching with no jealous eye,
    A neighbour’s renown,
    Each in his time contended
    But with a mood late ended,
    Some manner now put by,
    Or force expended,
    Sinking a new well when the old ran dry.
    So, like my masters, I
    Voice my ambition loud,
    In prospect proud,
    Treading the poet’s road,
    In retrospect most humble
    For I stumble and tumble,
    I spill my load.

    But often half-way to sleep,
    On a mountain shagged and steep,
    The sudden moment on me comes
    With terrible roll of dream drums,
    Reverberations, cymbals, horns replying,
    When with standards flying,
    A cloud of horsemen behind,
    The coloured pomps unwind
    The Carnival wagons
    With their saints and their dragons
    On the screen of my teeming mind,
    The _Creation_ and _Flood_
    With our Saviour’s Blood
    And fat Silenus’ flagons,
    With every rare beast
    From the South and East,
    Both greatest and least,
    On and on,
    In endless variable procession.
    I stand on the top rungs
    Of a ladder reared in the air
    And I speak with strange tongues
    So the crowds murmur and stare,
    Then volleys again the blare
    Of horns, and Summer flowers
    Fly scattering in showers,
    And the Sun rolls in the sky,
    While the drums thumping by
    Proclaim me....
      Oh then, when I wake
    Could I recovering take
    And propose on this page
    The words of my rage
    And my blandishing speech
    Steadfast and sage,
    Could I stretch and reach
    The flowers and the ripe fruit
    Laid out at the ladder’s foot,
    Could I rip a silken shred
    From the banner tossed ahead,
    Could I call a double flam
    From the drums, could the Goat
    Horned with gold, could the Ram
    With a flank like a barn-door
    The dwarf and blackamoor,
    Could _Jonah and the Whale_
    And the _Holy Grail_
    With the “_Sacking of Rome_”
    And “_Lot at his home_”
    The Ape with his platter,
    Going clitter-clatter,
    The Nymphs and the Satyr,
    And every other such matter
    Come before me here
    Standing and speaking clear
    With a “how do ye do?”
    And “who are ye, who?”
    Could I show them to you
    That you saw them with me,
    Oh then, then I could be
    The Prince of all Poetry
    With never a peer,
    Seeing my way so clear
    To unveil mystery.

    Telling you of land and sea
    Of Heaven blithe and free,
    How I know there to be
    Such and such Castles built in Spain,
    Telling also of Cockaigne
    Of that glorious kingdom, Cand
    Of the Delectable Land,
    The Land of Crooked Stiles,
    The Fortunate Isles,
    Of the more than three score miles
    That to Babylon lead,
    A pretty city indeed
    Built on a foursquare plan,
    Of the land of the Gold Man
    Whose eager horses whinney
    In their cribs of gold,
    Of the lands of Whipperginny
    Of the land where none grow old.

    Especially I could tell
    Of the Town of Hell,
    A huddle of dirty woes
    And houses in endless rows
    Straggling across all space;
    Hell has no market place,
    Nor point where four ways meet,
    Nor principal street,
    Nor barracks, nor Town Hall,
    Nor shops at all,
    Nor rest for weary feet,
    Nor theatre, square or park,
    Nor lights after dark,
    Nor churches nor inns,
    Nor convenience for sins,
    Hell nowhere begins,
    Hell nowhere ends,
    But over the world extends
    Rambling, dreamy, limitless, hated well:
    The suburbs of itself, I say, is Hell.

    But back to the sweets
    Of Spenser and Keats
    And the calm joy that greets
    The chosen of Apollo!
    Here let me mope, quirk, holloa
    With a gesture that meets
    The needs that I follow
    In my own fierce way,
    Let me be grave-gay
    Or merry-sad,
    Who rhyming here have had
    Marvellous hope of achievement
    And deeds of ample scope,
    Then deceiving and bereavement
    Of this same hope.


The following letter I reprint from Tract No. 6 issued by the Society
for Pure English, but put it as an appendix because it explains my
attitude to the careful use of language by prose writers as well as by
poets. It is intended to be read in conjunction with my section on

     _To the Editor of the S. P. E. tracts._


     As one rather more interested in the choice, use, and blending of
     words than in the niceties of historical grammar, and having no
     greater knowledge of etymology than will occasionally allow me to
     question vulgar derivations of place-names, I would like to sound a
     warning against the attempt to purify the language too much--“one
     word, one meaning” is as impossible to impose on English as “one
     letter, one sound.” By all means weed out homophones, and wherever
     a word is overloaded and driven to death let another bear part of
     the burden; suppress the bastard and ugly words of journalese or
     commerce; keep a watchful eye on the scientists; take necessary
     French and Italian words out of their italics to give them an
     English spelling and accentuation; call a bird or a flower by its
     proper name, revive useful dialect or obsolescent words, and so on;
     that is the right sort of purification, but let it be tactfully
     done, let the Dictionary be a hive of living things and not a
     museum of minutely ticketed fossils. A common-sense precision in
     writing is clearly necessary; one has only to read a page or two of
     Nashe, Lyly, or (especially) the lesser Euphuists to come to this
     conclusion; their sentences often can have meant no more to
     themselves than a mere grimace or the latest sweep of the hat
     learned in Italy. A common-sense precision, yes, but when the
     pedantic scientist accuses the man in the street of verbal
     inexactitude the latter will do well to point out to the scientist
     that of all classes of writers, his is the least accurate of any in
     the use of ordinary words. Witness a typical sentence, none the
     better for being taken from a book which has made an extremely
     important contribution to modern psychological research, and is
     written by a scientist so enlightened that, dispensing almost
     entirely with the usual scientific jargon, he has improvised his
     own technical terms as they are needed for the argument. Very good
     words they are, such as would doubtless be as highly approved by
     the Society for Pure English, in session, as they have been by the
     British Association. This Doctor X is explaining the unaccountable
     foreknowledge in certain insects of the needs they will meet after
     their metamorphosis from grub to moth. He writes:

     ... This grub, after a life completely spent within the channels in
     a tree-trunk which it itself manufactures....

     “Yes,” said Doctor X to me, “somehow the two it’s coming together
     look a bit awkward, but I have had a lot of trouble with that
     sentence and I came to the conclusion that I’d rather have it
     clumsy than obscure.” I pointed out have the “tree-trunk which” was
     surely not what he meant, but that the faults of the sentence lay
     deeper than that. He was using words not as winged angels always
     ready to do his command, but as lifeless counters, weights,
     measures, or automatic engines wrongly adjusted. A _grub_ cannot
     _manufacture_ a _channel_. Even a human being who can manufacture a
     boot or a box can only _scoop_ or _dig_ a channel. And you can only
     have a _channel_ on the outer surface of a tree; inside a tree you
     have _tunnels_. A tunnel you _drive_ or _bore_. A grub cannot be
     _within_ either a channel or a tunnel (surely) in the same way as a
     fly is found _within_ a piece of amber. Doctor X excused himself by
     saying that “scientists are usually functionally incapable of
     visualization,” and that “normal mental visualization is dangerous,
     and abnormal visualization fatal to scientific theorizations, as
     offering tempting vistas of imaginative synthetical concepts
     unconfirmed by actual investigation of phenomena”--or words to that
     effect. Unaware of the beam in his own eye, our Doctor complains
     more than once in his book of the motes in the public eye, of the
     extended popular application of scientific terms to phenomena for
     which they were never intended, until they become like so many
     blunted chisels. On the other hand, he would be the first to
     acknowledge that over-nice definition is, for scientific purposes,
     just as dangerous as blurring of sense; Herr Einstein was saying
     only the other day that men become so much the slaves of words that
     the propositions of Euclid, for instance, which are abstract
     processes of reason only holding good in reference to one another,
     have been taken to apply absolutely in concrete cases, where they
     do not. Over-definition, I am trying to show, discourages any
     progressive understanding of the idea for which it acts as
     hieroglyph. It even seems that the more precisely circumscribed a
     word, the less accurate it is in its relation to other
     closely-defined words.

     There is a story of a governess who asked her charges what was the
     shape of the earth? “It may conveniently be described as an oblate
     spheroid” was the glib and almost mutinous answer. “Who told you
     girls that?” asked the suspicious Miss Smithson. A scientific elder
     brother was quoted as authority, but Miss Smithson with commendable
     common sense gave her ruling, “Indeed that may be so, and it may be
     not, but it certainly is _nicer_ for little girls to say that the
     earth is more or less the shape of an orange.”

     From which fruit, as conveniently as from anywhere else, can be
     drawn our homely moral of common sense in the use of words. As
     every schoolboy I hope doesn’t know, the orange is the globose
     fruit of that rutaceous tree the _citrus aurantium_, but as every
     schoolboy certainly is aware, there are several kinds of orange on
     the market, to wit the ordinary everyday sweet orange from Jaffa
     or Jamaica, the bitter marmalade orange that either comes or does
     not come from Seville, the navel orange, and the excellent “blood,”
     with several other varieties. Moreover the orange has as many
     _points_ as a horse, and parts or processes connected with its
     dissection and use as a motor-bicycle. “I would I were an Orange
     Tree, that busie Plante,” sighed George Herbert once. I wonder how
     Herbert would have anatomized his Orange, then a rarer fruit than
     today when popular affection and necessary daily intercourse have
     wrapped the orange with a whole glossary of words as well as with
     tissue-paper. Old gentlemen usually _pare_ their oranges, but the
     homophonic barrage of puns when Jones _père_ prepares to pare a
     pair of--even oranges (let alone another English-grown fruit), has
     taught the younger generations either to peel a norange or skin
     their roranges. _Peel_ (subst.) is ousting _rind_; a pity because
     there is also _peal_ as a homophone; but I am glad to say that what
     used to be called _divisions_ are now almost universally known as
     _fingers_ or _pigs_ (is the derivation from the tithe-or parson’s
     pig known by its extreme smallness?); the seeds are “pips,” and
     quite rightly too, because in this country they are seldom used for
     planting, and “pip” obviously means that when you squeeze them
     between forefinger and thumb they are a useful form of minor
     artillery; then there is the white pithy part under the outer rind;
     I have heard this called _blanket_, and that is pretty good, but I
     have also heard it called _kill-baby_, and that is better; for me
     it will always remain _kill-baby_. On consulting _Webster’s
     International Dictionary_ I find that there is no authority or
     precedent for calling the withered calix on the orange the _kim_,
     but I have done so ever since I can remember, and have heard the
     word in many respectable nurseries (it has a fascination for
     children), and I can’t imagine it having any other name. Poetical
     wit might call it “the beauty-patch on that fairy orange cheek”;
     heraldry might blazon it, on _tenne_, as a _mullet, vert, for
     difference_; and contemporary slang would probably explain it as
     that “rotten little star-shaped gadget at the place where you shove
     in your lump of sugar”; but _kim_ is obviously the word that is
     wanted, it needs no confirmation by a Dictionary Revisal Committee
     or National Academy. There it is, you can hardly get away from it.
     Misguided supporters of the Society for Pure English, resisting the
     impulse to say casually “the yellow stuff round my yorange” and
     “the bits inside, what you eat,” and knowing better than to give us
     _exocarp_, _carpel_, and _ovule_, will, however, perhaps
     misunderstand the aims of the Society by only using literary and
     semi-scientific language, by insisting on _paring_ the _integument_
     and afterwards removing the _divisions_ of their fruit for
     _mastication_. But pure English does not mean putting back the
     clock; or doing mental gymnastics. Let them rather (when they don’t
     honestly push in that lump of sugar and suck) _skin_ off the
     _rind_, ignoring the _kim_ and scraping away the _kill-baby_, then
     pull out the _pigs_, _chew_ them decently, and put the _pips_ to
     their proper use.

     Good English surely is clear, easy, unambiguous, rich,
     well-sounding, but not self-conscious; for too much pruning

                                THE END

                   *       *       *       *       *

       Typographical errors corrected by the etext transcriber:

   He fell in victory’s pierce pursuit=> He fell in victory’s fierce
                            pursuit {pg 55}

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