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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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What is Poetry?

by H. A. Nesbitt, M.A.
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 33-42


The question, What is Poetry? Has been answered in many different ways. Some one quality has often been fixed upon as describing the whole, such as musicalness, imagination, passion. It has been called "Impassioned Truth." I think this was by Ebenezer Elliott, the author of Corn Law Rhymes. But truth may be expressed in the most impassioned manner by an orator—and yet we feel that oratory and poetry are two perfectly distinct things. Again and again we hear the criticism applied to a poem: "Yes, it is eloquent, but hardly poetical." When we feel that there is a difference, a difference must exist; all other appearances, as J. S. Mill observes, may be fallacious, but the appearance of a difference is a real difference. It is, however, true that a poem, to be real poetry, must express passion, or, at least, emotion; and another definition, which is perhaps nearer, is, that poetry is "man's thoughts tinged by his emotions." Even this, however, does not distinguish poetry from eloquence. The difficulty of a satisfactory definition has even led some writers to identify poetry with metrical composition, so that "Hey, diddle diddle" would be poetry and the Book of Job would not. But the real antithesis to poetry is not prose, but, as Wordsworth says, "matter of fact or science." Poetry attaches itself to the feelings, not to the belief. It does its work by moving, not by convincing or persuading.

We have got as far as this, then—that poetry is intended to act on the emotions; but we have not distinguished it from the province of the orator or of the novelist. Indeed, in much true oratory and in all good fiction there is poetry; but the interest felt in a story and the interest felt in poetry are radically different. The one depends on incident, on the ingenious working out of a plot, on the accuracy of the picture of life presented; while in the other, the interest is in the representation of feeling. [c.f Horatius and The Gardener's Daughter.]

Children have little feeling for poetry—their experience does not enable them to understand intense emotion or delicate shades of feeling, but children delight in a story. So it is with primitive nations—the story-teller is everywhere in high repute. Poetry, when it is really such, is truth; and fiction also, if it is good for anything, is truth, but they are different truths. The truth of fiction is to give a true picture of life. When, as in Jane Eyre, the incidents are improbable and unnatural, we yet feel that the writer, if an inferior novelist, is in her delicate delineation of feeling a true poet. Impassioned truth—but is poetry truth? Most poetry refers to fanciful creations of the imagination, so that the word poetical is used humorously to indicate falsity. The truth that there is in poetry is this; it must give a correct picture of the emotion of the writer; if that be affected or fictitious it is not true poetry. It is true that the same poem may have both kinds of interest—the interest of the story and the interest of emotion, and in one kind of poetry, the dramatic, they must both be present. Even then they are perfectly distinguishable, and may exist in unequal quality and the most varied proportion. The plots of Byron's plays are poor and ineffective, while the poetry is of a high order. On the other hand, in such a play as the Lady of Lyons, the plot is effective, while there is not a feeling exhibited which is not either false or commonplace.

Before proceeding I may be allowed to say something of the medium by which thought is conveyed: I mean language. Everything beyond the tangible things about us and our simplest requirements involves the use of metaphor. What is a metaphor? To understand what a metaphor is we must begin with a simile. To say that a cat is like a lion is only a similarity, because there is actual physical resemblance.

"What though my hours of bliss have been
Like angels' visits, few and far between."

This is only a similarity. The hours have been few and far between, and the visits have been few and far between, but—

"By the fair and brave,
Who blushing unite;
Like the sun and wave
When they meet at night."

Here the resemblance is not between the things, but between their relations to one another. As the sun meets the wave so the fair meets the brave.

Or, "the ship cleaves the water like a plough." We mean that the relation of the ship to the water is like the relation of the plough to the land. We might almost put it as a proportion—

Ship : Water : Plough : Land

A simile then is the likeness between relations. Now, if instead of saying that the ship is like a plough, we say that the ship is a plough, we get a metaphor—

"Her timbers yet are sound,
And she may float again;
And charged with England's thunder,
May plough the distant main."

Here we say "may plough." We mean "may act like a plough." A metaphor is then a compresses simile. Every metaphor may be expanded into a simile. If I say a thought strikes me, I mean that a thought suddenly affects the mind, as a stone or a stick suddenly affects the body. All the expressions applied to mental phenomena are metaphorical, and express similes taken from physical nature. "His mind was poisoned"; "the expression stung him"—the word "expression," something forced out of one; "he was petrified by fear," &c., &c.

Now most poetry is full of metaphor, and what do we mean by a poetical metaphor, or a poetical simile?—for they are really the same, one being only the contraction of the other. I remember as a child being puzzled by the description in the Book of Job of the war horse. "His neck clothed with thunder." Of all the impossible kinds of clothing for a horse's neck, thunder seemed to be the most impossible and absurd. But if we consider the emotions roused by a clap of thunder—the mingled awe and admiration, the sense of immediate and violent danger, and then try to picture the emotions caused by the war horse as it dashes towards us with extended neck, carrying an armed enemy, I think we shall see the similarity of the emotions and understand what the poet meant.

Let us take a scientific and a poetical description of a lion. The one tells us that it belongs to the family Felidae of the order Carnivora, that it has a tawny skin, spotted when young, with a black mane, and a tuft to its tail, &c., &c. The other tells us of the terror caused by its roar, its flashing teeth, the magnificent dash with which it springs on its prey. In other words, the one is objective and the other subjective.

Each is true in its way. The one describes the qualities the lion has, the other the effect on the emotions of the describer. Spenser gives us a poetical account of Una's lion, which is quite incorrect scientifically. A lion does not live in woods, but in deserts, it does not run at its prey, but springs, a lion that should lick a young lady's hand would take the skin off, and it would be very unwise for any young lady to venture upon the king of beasts trusting to her maidenhood.

It fortuned out of the thickest wood
A ramping lion rushed suddenly
Hunting full greedy after savage blood;
Soon as the royal virgin he did spy.
With gaping mouth at her ran greedily
To have at once devoured her tender corse:
But to the prey when as he drew more nigh,
His bloody rage assuaged with remorse,
And with the sight amazed forgat his furious force.

Instead whereof he kissed her weary feet,
And licked her lily hands with fawning tongue,
Oh! how can beauty master the most strong
And simple truth subdue avenging wrong.
Whose yielded pride and proud submission,
Still dreading death when she had marked long
Her heart 'gan melt in great compassion,
And drizzling tears did shed in pure affection.

And it does not matter to the poetry that the natural history is wrong. What is true is that if such a circumstance had occurred, it would have affected Una as he makes it do:

'The lion, lord of every beast in field,'
Quoth she, 'his lordly puissance doth abate,
And mighty proud to humble weak doth yield,
Forgetful of the hungry rage which late
Him pricked, in pity of my sad estate.
But he, my lion and my noble lord,
How does he find in cruel heart to hate

Her that him loved, and ever most adored,
As the god of my life. Why has he me abhorred?'

We have not, however, distinguished poetry from oratory—both dealing with the emotions. The difference here is in the object aimed at. A poet tries to make you understand what he feels, and is indifferent as to whether you share his feelings—he has succeeded if he makes you clear as to his own emotion. An orator endeavours to rouse certain feelings in his hearers whether he has those feelings himself or not, and has succeeded if he gives you the emotion he desires. A good example of the very same metaphor used poetically and oratorically is to be found in Julius Caesar where Caesar's wounds are compared to mouths. In the first case, Antony is moved by deep emotion, and feels that the wounds appeal to him:—

"Over thy wounds now do I prophesy,
That, like dumb mouths, do ope their ruby lips
To beg the voice and utterance of my tongue.

This simile has appealed to his own heart, and he thinks that what has moved him may move others. In his speech to the people he says all he does is to

"Shew you sweet Caesar's wounds, poor, poor dumb mouths,
And beg them speak for me."

The speaker's emotion has passed, and this is pure oratory, not poetry.

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy. We may say that oratory is to be heard, poetry must be overheard. The poet utters his thoughts for himself, and must not shew any consciousness of an audience.

The same contrast between the desire of the artist to express his own emotion and his endeavours to rouse an emotion in others, may be seen in the other arts. In painting, for example. Let us compare two highly emotional paintings:—(1) "The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner," by Landseer. Simply the long coffin and the stick and plaid of the shepherd, with his old dog resting his head mournfully upon the case that contains his master's body. This is poetical.

(2) Millais' "North-West Passage." "It can be done, and England should do it," is oratorical. It expresses emotion, influenced by the presence of others. Perhaps we may say that, generally, landscape painting is poetical, historical painting, oratorical; and perhaps this is why the French, the most eloquent nation in Europe, are also the best historical painters. For, in historical paintings, the single figures express the feelings of one person as modified by the presence of others. Two sculptures in the British Museum, Endymlon and Mithras sacrificing a bull, afford a similar contrast.

In music, the Italian school—Verdi and Rossetti—are highly oratorical, so that intense and passionate grief are often expressed by loud and rapid passages, while the German school—Beethoven and Schubert—are poetical, and grief is expressed in plaintive, slow, monotonous music. Compare "Ebben per mia memoria," the duet in La Gazza Ladra, or Beethoven's "Ah Perfido," with Schubert's "Ecco il supreme istante, l'istante del dolor," or Winter's "Paga fui," or compare a Military March with Schubert's "Impromptu."

Poetry is an Art. That is, its chief object is to give pleasure, and though all passions and emotions can be expressed by means of prose, the expression gives far less pleasure than when there is, joined to beautiful sentiments, beauty of form. In other words, true poetry ought to be musically expressed. The earliest poetry was probably intended to be sung, and it is in lyric poetry that we get poetry in its purest form. In epic poetry, we are moved by the incidents, we are excited to admiration or to sympathy with the actions of the heroes of the story. In dramatic poetry, the feelings of the characters of the play are exhibited to us, but in lyrical poetry we have merely the feelings of the poet. But what is a poet? It is not merely the power to write metrically that makes a man a poet. A man may even write genuine poetry and not be a poet. Most people can do that with culture and intelligence. But the word poet is the name of a variety of Man. The poet is one who thinks, as it were, through his feelings. The law of association is this: any idea on which the mind dwells, of necessity suggests other ideas. This may be done in three ways: first, there may be fortuitous coincidence between two things, so that one of them suggests the other. I pass a house and remember that the last time I was there I met Mr. Jones. The thought of the house then suggests Mr. Jones. Or there may be a real connection between the subjects. I think of the king, that leads me to think of his crown, of what his crown means, of the vast empire over which he rules, of the question whether this empire will pass away like other great empires, &c., &c. But there is a third mode of association, viz., when an object raises a feeling in my mind, and that feeling suggests something else that excites a similar feeling, as in the case above quoted, where the neck of the horse suggested thunder, through the similarity of the feelings excited. And a person in whom this is the habitual law of association is endowed with the true poetic nature—to him and to him alone is poetry the spontaneous and natural mode of expression. In this sense that old proverb, Poeta nascitur non fil [poets are born, not made], is true, though not true in the sense in which it is used by those who, as Coleridge says, mistake the desire for poetic fame for poetic inspiration. A man cannot become a poet without culture, and by culture a man may enable himself to write poetry, but the poet of culture sees his object in prose and describes it in poetry. The poet of nature sees it in poetry.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of a born poet was Shelley, and we may compare him with one who wrote real poetry with the aid of assiduous culture—Wordsworth. In Wordsworth, the thought is the chief thing, and the poetry is the mere setting of the thought; he is always anxious to impress some truth, or what he thinks such. The thought may be more or less valuable than the setting, but there can be no question as to which was first in his mind. His poetry may be truly called "Man's thoughts coloured by his emotions."

To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do lie too deep for tears.

And his poetry is liked and admired by many vigorous and cultivated minds, over whose heads poetry of the opposite description would have flown for want of an original organization in sympathy with it. Shelley, on the contrary, is all emotion. He passes, often too rapidly, from one state of feeling to another. Too often his longer poems are like the broken fragments of a mirror, with single images without end, but no picture. On the other hand, Wordsworth's poetry is never bounding, never ebullient; has little even of the appearance of spontaneity; the well is never so full that it overflows. He seems to be poetical because he wills to be so, not because he cannot help it. He never even for a few stanzas seems to be given up to exultation, or grief, or pity, or love, or admiration, or devotion, or even animal spirits. He now and then attempts to make as if he were, and never without leaving any impression of poverty. As in the poem to the skylark:—

Up with me! up with me! into the clouds!
For thy song, lark, is strong;
Up with me! up with me! into the clouds!
Singing, singing.
With clouds and sky about them ringing,
Lift me, guide me, till I find
That spot which seems so to thy mind.

His best poems are those in which he takes an interesting and moving thought and, calmly dwelling upon it, gives it a graceful or beautiful setting of emotion, as in the sonnet to Milton, the sonnet on Westminster Bridge, &c.

Shelley is the reverse of all this—where Wordsworth is strong, he is weak; when Wordsworth is weak, he is strong. Shelley was wanting in culture; voluntary mental discipline had done little for him, the vividness of his emotions had done it all. His small poems, written to exhale a high state of feeling, are the best. The thoughts and imagery are suggested by the feeling. May I be allowed to read a poem, which I choose partly because it is so well known, to illustrate what I mean, and to serve as a contrast to Wordsworth's on the same subject. It is Shelley's "Ode to a Skylark."

[The lecturer read "The Skylark," showing how in each simile the resemblance was in the emotion roused.]

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit! Bird thou never wert—
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art. . .
Read the rest here

What constitutes the poet is not the imagery nor the thoughts nor even the feelings, but the law according to which they are called up. He is a poet, not because he has ideas of any particular kind, but because the succession of his ideas is subordinate to the course of his emotions.

To revert to our original question, "What is Poetry?" I propose as an answer, "The musical expression of emotion."

It must be musical. Browning can be musical. Witness the passage beginning -

O to be in England
Now that April's here!

But too often he goes out of his way, as it seems, to be harsh and unmusical, and in so far as he does this he fails, as it seems to me, to be a poet. In Browning, too, it is the thought rather than the feeling that governs him. Swinburne is musical, but little more. E. A. Poe is a true poet so far as he goes, but his want of culture has prevented him from being a great poet.

It does not, however, follow that a man gifted with the true poetic nature is able to write good poetry. A man may have an exquisite ear and an exquisite touch and not be a great musician. What is wanted is a combination of the poetic temperament with power of expression. Power of expression only comes by culture, and yet the kind of culture given by our ordinary education constantly tends to counteract the poetic faculty and to substitute qualities more suited to success in life. It is remarkable that many poets have been men who owed little of their training to systematic education, the culture required being self-given. Burns, for example, used to learn poems by heart, and then study them as he followed the plough, trying to distinguish the true poetry from affection or fustian. Byron had been at Harrow and Cambridge, but was a half-educated man. His training was given to himself as he meditated on Mr. Pearson's tomb in Harrow Churchyard. Tennyson was not at a public school. Shelley tells us that -

From that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore;
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught,
I cared to learn.

As our system of education improves, as we get, as I hope we are getting, to train our pupils to think instead of merely inculcating traditional opinions, many of them, as human nature is not yet perfect, necessarily false, it is to be hoped that the contest between culture and imagination may be modified, and that culture may tend to develop imagination instead of stunting it.

Wordsworth's theory was that poetry ought to be written in the language of common life, with metre super-added, but this is a theory he does not act upon in his best poetry.

Perhaps some dungeon hears thee groan,
Maimed, mangled by inhuman men;
Or thou upon a desert thrown,
Inheritest the lion's den;
Or hast been summoned from the deep,
Thou, thou and all thy mates, to keep
An incommunicable sleep.

These lines, from the "Afflictions of Margaret," are supposed to be uttered by a poor widow of Penrith. So far from being the language of common life, they are chosen with consummate art. Look at the alliteration—maimed, mangled, men, dungeon, desert, den, deep—consider the words inherited, deep, summoned, incommunicable. Perhaps the answer will be found in what I have said. When people are moved by deep feeling, they do not use the language of common life. The effect of strong feeling is to elevate and refine the language—we find it even in the love letters of uncultured people—there is constantly the effort, not from affectation, but from reverence for the subject, to use the finest and most recondite terms they can find, sometimes with humorously incongruous effect. But the attempt points to the desire for choice and appropriate words with which to express emotion.

Perhaps it is in Tennyson that we find the most perfect balance between culture and emotion. He combined musical effect, power of expression and spontaneous emotion, so that it is difficult to say in which he most excels.

The rain was over, the poet arose,
He passed through the town and out of the street,
A light wind sprung from the gates of the sun,
And waves of shadow went over the wheat.
He sat him down in a lonely place
And chanted a melody loud and sweet
That made the wild swan pause in her cloud
And the lark drop down at his feet.

The swallow stopped as he hunted the bee,
The snake slipped under a spray,
The hawk looked up with the down on his beak
And stared with his foot on the prey;
And the nightingale said, 'I have sung many songs,
But never a one so gay,'
For he sings of what the world will be
When the years have passed away.



Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, Feb 2009