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Poetry and Criticism

by J. Middleton Murry

Nowadays we are all vexed by this question of poetry, and in ways peculiar to ourselves. Fifty years ago the dispute was whether Browning was a greater poet than Tennyson or Swinburne; to-day it is apparently more fundamental, and perhaps substantially more threadbare. We are in a curious half-conscious way incessantly debating what poetry is, impelled by a sense that, although we have been living at a time of extraordinarily prolific poetic production, not very much good has come out of it. Having thus passed the stage at which the theory that poetry is an end in itself will suffice us, we vaguely cast about in our minds for some fuller justification of the poetic activity. A presentiment that our poetic values are chaotic is widespread; we are uncomfortable with it, and there is, we believe, a genuine desire that a standard should be once more created and applied.

What shall we require of poetry? Delight, music, subtlety of thought, a world of the heart's desire, fidelity to comprehensible experience, a glimpse through magic casements, profound wisdom? All these things—all different, yet not all contradictory—have been required of poetry. What shall we require of her? The answer comes, it seems, as quick and as vague as the question. We require the highest. All that can be demanded of any spiritual activity of man we must demand of poetry. It must be adequate to all our experience; it must be not a diversion from, but a culmination of life; it must be working steadily towards a more complete universality.

Suddenly we may turn upon ourselves and ask what right we have to demand these things of poetry; or others will turn upon us and say: 'This is a lyrical age.' To ourselves and to the others we are bound to reply that poetry must be maintained in the proud position where it has always been, the sovereign language of the human spirit, the sublimation of all experience. In the past there has never been a lyrical age, though there have been ages of minor poetry, when poetry was no longer deliberately made the vehicle of man's profoundest thought and most searching experience. Nor was it the ages of minor poetry which produced great lyrical poetry. Great lyrical poetry has always been an incidental achievement, a parergon, of great poets, and great poets have always been those who believed that poetry was by nature the worthiest vessel of the highest argument of which the soul of man is capable.

Yet a poetic theory such as this seems bound to include great prose, and not merely the prose which can most easily be assimilated to the condition of poetry, such as Plato's Republic or Milton'sAreopagitica, but the prose of the great novelists. Surely the colloquial prose of Tchehov's Cherry Orchard has as good a claim to be called poetry as The Essay on ManTess of the D'Urbervillesas The Ring and the BookThe Possessed as Phèdre? Where are we to call a halt in the inevitable process by which the kinds of literary art merge into one? If we insist that rhythm is essential to poetry, we are in danger of confusing the accident with the essence, and of fastening upon what will prove to be in the last analysis a merely formal difference. The difference we seek must be substantial and essential.

The very striking merit of Sir Henry Newbolt's New Study of English Poetry is that he faces the ultimate problem of poetry with courage, sincerity, and an obvious and passionate devotion to the highest spiritual activity of man. It has seldom been our good fortune to read a book of criticism in which we were so impressed by what we can only call a purity of intention; we feel throughout that the author's aim is single, to set before us the results of his own sincere thinking on a matter of infinite moment. Perhaps better, because subtler, books of literary criticism have appeared in England during the last ten years—if so, we have not read them; but there has been none more truly tolerant, more evidently free from malice, more certainly the product of a soul in which no lie remains. Whether it is that Sir Henry has like Plato's Cephalus lived his literary life blamelessly, we do not know, but certainly he produces upon us an effect akin to that of Cephalus's peaceful smile when he went on his way to sacrifice duly to the gods and left the younger men to the intricacies of their infinite debate.

Now it seems to us of importance that a writer like Sir Henry Newbolt should declare roundly that creative poetry and creative prose belong to the same kind. It is important not because there is anything very novel in the contention, but because it is opportune; and it is opportune because at the present moment we need to have emphasis laid on the vital element that is common both to creative poetry and creative prose. The general mind loves confusion, blest mother of haze and happiness; it loves to be able to conclude that this is an age of poetry from the fact that the books of words cut up into lines or sprinkled with rhymes are legion. An age of fiddlesticks! Whatever the present age is—and it is an age of many interesting characteristics—it is not an age of poetry. It would indeed have a better chance of being one if fifty instead of five hundred books of verse were produced every month; and if all the impresarios were shouting that it was an age of prose. The differentia of verse is a merely trivial accident; what is essential in poetry, or literature if you will, is an act of intuitive comprehension. Where you have the evidence of that act, the sovereign æsthetic process, there you have poetry. What remains for you, whether you are a critic or a poet or both together, is to settle for yourself a system of values by which those various acts of intuitive comprehension may be judged. It does not suffice at any time, much less does it suffice at the present day, to be content with the uniqueness of the pleasure which you derive from each single act of comprehension made vocal. That contentment is the comfortable privilege of the amateur and the dilettante. It is not sufficient to get a unique pleasure from Mr De la Mare'sArabia or Mr Davies's Lovely Dames or Miss Katherine Mansfield's Prelude or Mr Eliot's Portrait of a Lady, in each of which the vital act of intuitive comprehension is made manifest. One must establish a hierarchy, and decide which act of comprehension is the more truly comprehensive, which poem has the completer universality. One must be prepared not only to relate each poetic expression to the finest of its kind in the past, or to recognise a new kind if a new kind has been created, but to relate the kind to the finest kind.

That, as it seems to us, is the specifically critical activity, and one which is in peril of death from desuetude. The other important type of criticism which is analysis of poetic method, an investigation and appreciation of the means by which the poet communicates his intuitive comprehension to an audience, is in a less perilous condition. Where there are real poets—and only a bigot will deny that there are real poets among us now: we have just named four—there will always be true criticism of poetic method, though it may seldom find utterance in the printed word. But criticism of poetic method has, by hypothesis, no perspective and no horizons; it is concerned with a unique thing under the aspect, of its uniqueness. It may, and happily most often does, assume that poetry is the highest expression of the spiritual life of man; but it makes no endeavour to assess it according to the standards that are implicit in such an assumption. That is the function of philosophical criticism. If philosophical criticism can be combined with criticism of method—and there is no reason why they should not coexist in a single person; the only two English critics of the nineteenth century, Coleridge and Arnold, were of this kind—so much the better; but it is philosophical criticism of which we stand in desperate need at this moment.

A good friend of ours, who happens to be one of the few real poets we possess, once wittily summed up a general objection to criticism of the kind we advocate as 'always asking people to do what they can't.' But to point out, as the philosophical critic would, that poetry itself must inevitably languish if the more comprehensive kinds are neglected, or if a non-poetic age is allowed complacently to call itself lyrical, is not to urge the real masters in the less comprehensive kinds to desert their work. Who but a fool would ask Mr De la Mare to write an epic or Miss Mansfield to give us a novel? But he might be a wise man who called upon Mr Eliot to set himself to the composition of a poetic drama; and without a doubt he would deserve well of the commonwealth who should summon the popular imitators of Mr De la Mare, Mr Davies, or Mr Eliot to begin by trying to express something that they did comprehend or desired to comprehend, even though it should take them into thousands of unprintable pages. It is infinitely preferable that those who have so far given evidence of nothing better than a fatal fluency in insipid imitation of true lyric poets should fall down a precipice in the attempt to scale the very pinnacles of Parnassus. There is something heroic about the most unmitigated disaster at such an altitude.

Moreover, the most marked characteristic of the present age is a continual disintegration of the consciousness; more or less deliberately in every province of man's spiritual life the reins are being thrown on to the horse's neck. The power which controls and disciplines sensational experience is, in modern literature, daily denied; the counterpart of this power which envisages the ideal in the conduct of one's own or the nation's affairs and unfalteringly pursues it is held up to ridicule. Opportunism in politics has its complement in opportunism in poetry. Mr Lloyd George's moods are reflected in Mr ——'s. And, beneath these heights, we have the queer spectacle of a whole race of very young poets who somehow expect to attain poetic intensity by the physical intensity with which they look at any disagreeable object that happens to come under their eye. Perhaps they will find some satisfaction in being reckoned among the curiosities of literature a hundred years hence; it is certainly the only satisfaction they will have. They, at any rate, have a great deal to gain from the acid of philosophical criticism. If a reaction to life has in itself the seeds of an intuitive comprehension it will stand explication. If a young poet's nausea at the sight of a toothbrush is significant of anything at all except bad upbringing, then it is capable of being refined into a vision of life and of being expressed by means of the appropriate mechanism or myth. But to register the mere facts of consciousness, undigested by the being, without assessment or reinforcement by the mind is, for all the connection it has with poetry, no better than to copy down the numbers of one's bus-tickets.

We do not wish to suggest that Sir Henry Newbolt would regard this lengthy gloss upon his book as legitimate deduction. He, we think, is a good deal more tolerant than we are; and he would probably hesitate to work out the consequences of the principles which he enunciates and apply them vigorously to the present time. But as a vindication of the supreme place of poetry as poetry in human life, as a stimulus to critical thought and a guide to exquisite appreciation of which his essay on Chaucer is an honourable example—A New Study of English Poetry deserves all the praise that lies in our power to give.

Book: Reflection on the Important Things