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Poetry: An Interpreter of Life


Poetry, music, and painting are three correlated arts, connected not merely by an accidental classification, but by their intrinsic nature. For they all possess the same essential function, namely, to interpret the uninterpretable, to reveal the undiscoverable, to express the inexpressible. They all attempt, in different forms and through different languages, to translate the invisible and eternal into sensuous forms, and through sensuous forms to produce in other souls experiences akin to those in the soul of the translator, be he poet, musician, or painter. That they are three correlated arts, attempting, each in its own way and by its own language, to express the same essential life, is indicated by their co-operation in the musical drama. This is the principle which Wagner saw so clearly, and has used to such effective purpose in his so-called operas, whose resemblance to the Italian operas which preceded them is more superficial than real. In the drama Wagner wishes you to consider neither the music apart from the scenery, nor the scenery apart from the acting, nor the three apart from the poetry. Poetry, music, and art combine with the actor to interpret truths of life which transcend philosophic definition. Thus in the first act of "Parsifal," innocence born of ignorance, remorse born of the experience of temptation and sin, and reverence bred in an atmosphere not innocent yet free from the experience of great temptation, mingle in a drama which elevates all hearts, because in some one of these three phases it touches every heart. And yet certain of the clergy condemned the presentation as irreverent, because it expresses reverence in a symbolism to which they were unaccustomed.

But while it is true that these three arts are correlative and co-operative, they do not duplicate one another. Each not only speaks in a language of its own, but expresses in that language a life which the others cannot express. As color and fragrance combine to make the flower, but the color expresses what the fragrance cannot express, and the fragrance expresses what the color cannot express, so in the musical drama, music, poetry, and painting combine, not by duplicating but by supplementing each other. One may describe in language a symphony; but no description will produce the effect which the symphony produces. One may describe a painting; but no description will produce the effect which the painting will produce. So neither music, nor painting, nor both combined, can produce the same effect on the soul as poetry. The "Midsummer Night's Dream" enacted in pantomime, with Mendelssohn's music, would no more produce the same effect on the auditors which would be produced by the interpretation of the play in spoken words, than would the reading of the play at home produce the same effect as the enacting of the play with what are miscalled the accessories of music and scenery. The music and scenery are no more accessories to the words than the words are accessories to the music and scenery. The three combine in a triple language to express and produce one life, and it can be expressed and produced in no other way than by the combination of the three arts in harmonious action. This is the reason why no parlor readings can ever take the place of the theatre, and no concert performance can ever take the place of the opera. This is the reason why all attempts to suppress the theatre and opera are and always will be in vain. They are attempts to suppress the expression and awakening of a life which can neither be expressed nor awakened in any other way; and suppression of life, however successfully it may be accomplished for a time, is never permanently possible.

These arts do not truly create, they interpret. Man is not a creator, he is only a discoverer. The imagination is not creative, it is only reportorial. Ideals are realities; imagination is seeing. The musician, the artist, the poet, discover life which others have not discovered, and each with his own instrument interprets that life to those less sensitive than himself. Observe a musician composing. He writes; stops; hesitates; meditates; perhaps hums softly to himself; perhaps goes to the piano and strikes a chord or two. What is he doing? He is trying to express to himself a beauty which he has heard in the world of infinite phenomena, and to reproduce it as well as sensuous sounds can reproduce it, that those with duller hearing than himself may hear it also. Observe a painter before his easel. He paints; looks to see the effect; erases; adds; modifies; reexamines; and repeats this operation over and over again. What is he doing? He is copying a beauty which he has seen in the invisible world, and which he is attempting to bring out from its hiding so that the men who have no eyes except for the sensuous may also see it. In my library is an original sonnet by John G. Whittier. In almost every line are erasures and interlineations. In some cases the careful poet has written a new line and pasted it over the rejected one. What does this mean? It means that he has discovered a truth of moral beauty and is attempting to interpret his discovery to the world. His first interpretation of his vision did not suit him, nor his second, nor his third, and he has revised and re-revised in the attempt to make his verse a true interpretation of the truth which he had seen. He did not make the truth; it eternally was. Neither did the musician make the truth of harmony, nor the painter the truth of form and color. They also eternally were. Poet, musician, painter, have seen, heard, felt, realized in their own souls some experience of life, some potent reality which philosophy cannot formulate, nor creed contain, nor eloquence define; and each in his own way endeavors to give it to the world of men; each in his own way endeavors to lift the gauzy curtain, impenetrable to most souls, which hides the invisible, the inaudible, the eternal, the divine from men; and he gives them a glimpse of that of which he himself had but a glimpse.

In one sense and in one only can art be called creative: the artist, whether he be painter, musician, or poet, so interprets to other men the experience which has been created in him by his vision of the supersensible and eternal, that he evokes in them a similar experience. He is a creator only as he conveys to others the life which has been created in himself. As the electric wire creates light in the home; as the band creates the movement in the machinery; thus and only thus does the artist create life in those that wait upon him. He is in truth an interpreter and transmitter, not a creator. Nor can he interpret what he has not first received, nor transmit what he has not first experienced. The music, the painting, the poem are merely the instruments which he uses for that purpose. The life must first be in him or the so-called music, painting, poem are but dead simulacra; imitations of art, not real art. This is the reason why no mechanical device, be it never so skillfully contrived, can ever take the place of the living artist. The pianola can never rival the living performer; nor the orchestrion the orchestra; nor the chromo the painting. No mechanical device has yet been invented to produce poetry; even if some shrewd Yankee should invent a printing machine which would pick out rhymes as some printing machines seem to pick out letters, the result would not be a poem. This is the reason too why mere perfection of execution never really satisfies. "She sings like a bird." Yes! and that is exactly the difficulty with her. We want one who sings like a woman. The popular criticism of the mere musical expert that he has no soul, is profound and true. It is soul we want; for the piano, the organ, the violin, the orchestra, are only instruments for the transmission of soul. This is also the reason why the most flawless conductor is not always the best. He must have a soul capable of reading the soul of the composer; and the orchestra must receive the life of the composer as that is interpreted to them through the life of the conductor, or the performance will be a soulless performance.

Into each of these arts, therefore—music, painting, poetry—enter two elements: the inner and the outer, the truth and the language, the reality and the symbol, the life and the expression. Without the electric current the carbon is a mere blank thread; the electric current is not luminous if there be no carbon. The life and the form are alike essential. So the painter must have something to express, but he must also have skill to express it; the musician must have music in his soul, but he must also have a power of instrumentation; the poet must feel the truth, or he is no poet, but he must also have power to express what he feels in such forms as will create a similar feeling in his readers, or he is still no poet. Multitudes of women send to the newspapers poetical effusions which are not poems. The feeling of the writer is excellent, but the expression is bad. The writer has seen, but she cannot tell what she has seen; she has felt, but she cannot express her experience so as to enkindle a like experience in others. These poetical utterances of inarticulate poets are sometimes whimsical but oftener pathetic; sometimes they are like the prattle of little children who exercise their vocal organs before they have anything to say; but oftener they seem to me like the beseeching eyes of a dumb animal, full of affection and entreaty for which he has no vocal expression. It is just as essential that poetical feeling should have poetical expression in order to constitute poetry as it is that musical feeling should have musical expression in order to constitute music. And, on the other hand, as splashes of color without artistic feeling which they interpret are not art, as musical, sounds without musical feeling which they interpret are not music, so poetical forms without poetical feeling are not poetry. Poetical feeling in unpoetical forms may be poetical prose, but it is still prose. And on the other hand, rhymes, however musical they may be to the ear, are only rhymes, not poetry, unless they express a true poetical life.

But these two elements are separable only in thought, not in reality. Poetry is not common thought expressed in an uncommon manner; it is not an artificial phrasing of even the higher emotions. The higher emotions have a phrasing of their own; they fall naturally—whether as the result of instinct or of habit need not here be considered—into fitting forms. The form may be rhyme; it may be blank verse; it may be the old Hebrew parallelism; it may even be the indescribable form which Walt Whitman has adopted. What is noticeable is the fact that poetical thought, if it is at its best, always takes on, by a kind of necessity, some poetical form. To illustrate if not to demonstrate this, it is only necessary to select from literature any fine piece of poetical expression of a higher and nobler emotion, or of clear and inspiring vision, and attempt to put it into prose form. The reader will find, if he be dealing with the highest poetry, that translating it into prose impairs its power to express the feeling, and makes the expression not less but more artificial. If he doubt this statement, let him turn to any of the finer specimens of verse in this volume and see whether he can express the life in prose as truly, as naturally, as effectively, as it is there expressed in rhythmical form.

These various considerations may help to explain why in all ages of the world the arts have been the handmaidens of religion. Not to amplify too much, I have confined these considerations to the three arts of music, painting, and poetry; but they are also applicable to sculpture and architecture. All are attempts by men of vision to interpret to the men who are not equally endowed with vision, what the invisible world about us and within us has for the enrichment of our lives. This is exactly the function of religion: to enrich human lives by making them acquainted with the infinite. It is true that at times the arts have been sensualized, the emphasis has been put on the form of expression, not on the life expressed; and then reformers, like the Puritans and the Quakers, have endeavored to exclude the arts from religion, lest they should contaminate it. But the exclusion has been accomplished with difficulty, and to maintain it has been impossible. It is neither an accident, nor a sign of decadence, that painting and sculpture are creeping back into the Protestant churches, to combine with poetry and music in expressing the religious life of man. For the intellect alone is inadequate either to express that life as it exists, or to call it into existence where it does not exist. The tendency to ritual in our time is a tendency not to substitute æsthetic for spiritual life, though there is probably always a danger that such a substitution may be unconsciously made, but to express a religious life which cannot be expressed without the aid of æsthetic symbols. The work of the intellect is to analyze and define. But the infinite is in the nature of the case indefinable, and it is with the infinite religion has to do. All that theology can hope to accomplish is to define certain provinces in the illimitable realm of truth; to analyze certain experiences in a life which transcends all complete analysis. The Church must learn to regard not with disfavor or suspicion, but with eager acceptance, the co-operation of the arts in the interpretation of infinite truth and the expression of infinite life. Certainly we are not to turn our churches into concert rooms or picture and sculpture galleries, and imagine that æsthetic enjoyment is synonymous with piety. But as surely we are not to banish the arts from our churches, and think that we are religious because we are barren. All language, whether of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, or oratory, is legitimately used to express the divine life, as all the faculties, whether of painter, sculptor, architect, musician, poet, orator, and philosopher, are to be used in reaching after a more perfect knowledge of Him who always transcends and always will transcend our perfect knowing.

Thus the study of poetry is the study of life, because poetry is the interpretation of life. Poetry is not a mere instrument for promoting enjoyment; it does not merely dazzle the imagination and excite the emotions. Through the emotions and the imagination it both interprets life and ministers to life. When the critic attempts to express that truth, that is, to interpret the interpreter, which he can do only by translating the poetry into prose, and the language of imagination and emotion into that of philosophy, he destroys the poem in the process, much as the botanist destroys the flower in analyzing it, or the musical critic the composition in disentangling its interwoven melodies and explaining the mature of its harmonic structure. The analysis, whether of music, art, or poetry, must be followed by a synthesis, which, in the nature of the case, can be accomplished only by the hearer or reader for himself. All that I can do here is to illustrate this revelatory character of poetry by some references to the poems which this volume contains. I do not attempt to explain the meaning of these poems; that is a task quite impossible. I only attempt to show that they have a meaning, that beneath their beauty of form is a depth of truth which philosophical statement in prose cannot interpret, but the essence of which such statement may serve to suggest. I do not wish to expound the truth of life which is contained in the poet's verse; I only wish to show that the poet by his verse reveals a truth of life which the critic cannot express, and that it is for this reason pre-eminently that such a collection of poetry as this is deserving of the reader's study.

If for example the student turns to such a volume as Newman Smyth's "Christian Ethics," he will find there a careful though condensed discussion of the right and wrong of suicide. It is cool, deliberate, philosophical. But it gives no slightest hint of the real state of the man who is deliberating within himself whether he will commit suicide or no; no hint of the real arguments that pass in shadow through his mind:—the weariness of life which summons him to end all; the nameless, indefinable dread of the mystery and darkness and night into which death carries us, which makes him hesitate. If we would really understand the mind of the suicide, not merely the mind of the philosopher coolly debating suicide, we must turn to the poet.

"To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, 't is a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin! Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourne
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action."

This first the poet does: he draws aside the veil which hides the working of men's hearts, and lets us see their hidden life. But he does more. Not merely does he afford us knowledge, he imparts life. For we know feeling only by participating in the feeling; and the poet has the art not merely to describe the experiences of men but so to describe them that for the moment we share them, and so truly know them by the only process by which they can be known. Who, for instance, can read Thomas Hood's "The Bridge of Sighs" and not, as he reads, stand by the despairing one as she waits a moment upon the bridge just ready to take her last leap out of the cruelty of this world into, let us hope, the mercy of a more merciful world beyond?

"Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Homeless by night.

"The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life's history,
Glad to death's mystery
Swift to be hurled—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world.

"In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran,—
Over the brink of it!
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can.

"Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashioned so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!"

No analysis of philosophy can make us acquainted with the tragedy of this life as the poet can; no exhortation of preacher can so effectively arouse in us the spirit of a Christian charity for the despairing wanderer as the poet.

Would you know the tragedy of a careless and supercilious coquetry which plays with the heart as the fisherman plays with the salmon? Read "Clara Vere de Vere." Would you know the dull heartache of a loveless married life, growing at times into an intolerable anguish which no marital fidelity can do much to medicate? Read "Auld Robin Gray." Who but a poet can interpret the pain of a parting between loving hearts, with its remorseful recollections of the wholly innocent love's joys that are past?

"Had we never loved sae kindly,
Had we never loved sae blindly,
Never met—or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken hearted."

Who but a poet can depict the perils of an unconscious drifting apart, such as has destroyed many a friendship and wrecked many a married life, as Clough has depicted it in "Qua Cursum Ventus"? If you would know the life-long sorrow of the blind man at your side, would enter into his life and for a brief moment share his captivity, read Milton's interpretation of that sorrow in Samson's Lament. If you would find some message to cheer the blind man in his darkness and illumine his captivity, read the same poet's ode on his own blindness:

"God doth not need,Either man's work, or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait."

No prison statistics, no police reports, no reformer's documents, no public discussions of the question, What to do with the tramp, will ever so make the student of life participant of the innermost experience of the tramp, his experience of dull despair, his loss of his grip on life, as Béranger's "The Old Vagabond." No expert in nervous diseases, no psychological student of mental states, normal and abnormal, can give the reader so clear an understanding of that deep and seemingly causeless dejection, which because it seems to be causeless seems also to be well-nigh incurable, as Percy Bysshe Shelley has given in his "Stanzas written near Naples." No critical expounder of the Stoical philosophy can interpret the stoical temper which interposes a sullen but dauntless pride to attacking sorrow as William Ernest Henley has done:

"Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

"In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed."

Nor can any preacher put in so vital a contrast to this despairing defiance with which pride challenges sorrow, the joyous victory which a trusting love wins over it by submitting to it, as John Greenleaf Whittier has done in "The Eternal Goodness":

"I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,Assured alone that life and death
His mercy underlies.

"I know not where His islands lift
Their fronded palms in air:I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care."

No philosophical treatise can interpret bereavement as the great poets have interpreted it. The mystery of sorrow, the bewilderment it causes, the wonder whether there is any God or any good, the silence that is the only answer to our call for help, the tumult of emotion, the strange perplexity of mind, the dull despair, the inexplicable paralysis of feeling, intermingling in one wholly inconsistent and incongruous experience: where, in all the literature of Philosophy can we find such an exposition and echo and interpretation of this experience as in that great Hebrew epic—the Book of Job? And where in all the literature of Philosophy can we find such interpreters of the two great comforters of the soul, faith and hope, as one finds in the poets? They do not argue; they simply sing. And, as a note struck upon one of a chime of bells will set the neighboring bell vibrating, so the strong note of faith and hope sounded by the poet, sets a like note vibrating in the mourner's heart. The mystery is not solved, but the silence is broken. First we listen to the poet, then we listen to the same song sung in our own hearts,—the same, for it is God who has sung to him and who sings to us. And when the bereaved has found God, he has found light in his darkness, peace in his tempest, a ray in his night.

"As a child,Whose song-bird seeks the wood forevermore,
Is sung to in its stead by mother's mouth;
Till, sinking on her breast, love-reconciled,
He sleep the faster that he wept before."

The visitor to the island of Catalina, off the coast of California, is invited to go out in a glass-bottomed boat upon the sea. If he accepts the invitation and looks about him with careless curiosity, he will enjoy the blue of the summer sky and ocean wave, and the architectural beauty of the island hills; but if he turns his gaze downward and looks through the glass bottom of the boat in which he is sailing, he will discover manifold phases of beauty in the life beneath the sea waves: in goldfish darting hither and thither, in umbrella-shaped jellyfish lazily swimming by, in starfish and anemones of infinite variety, in sea-urchins brilliant in color, and in an endless forest of water-weeds exquisitely delicate in their structure. Perhaps he will try to photograph them; but in vain: his camera will render him no report of the wealth of life which he has seen. So he who takes up such a volume of poetry as this will find ample repayment in the successive pictures which it presents to his imagination, and the transient emotions which it will excite in him. But besides this there is a secret life which the careless reader will fail to see, and which the critic cannot report, but which will be revealed to the thoughtful, patient, meditative student. In this power to reveal an otherwise unknown world, lies the true glory of poetry. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what the poet has to say to him.