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The Study of Poetry

by Francis Hovey Stoddard
Clever men of action, according to Bacon, despise studies, ignorant men too much admire them, wise men make use of them. "Yet," he says, "they teach not their own use, but that there is a wisdom without them and above them won by observation." These are the words of a man who had been taught by years of studiousness the emptiness of mere study. It does not teach its own usefulness, and gives its most important lesson if through it we learn that beyond lies a region from which may come a truer wisdom won by observation. This, when all is said, is the one great defect of any system of study, in that it teaches not its own use. No amount of study of the principles of barter will make a man a great merchant. One can study painting and learn all the characteristics and methods and schools of the art and yet not be able to paint a picture. No amount of study of poetry will make a man a poet. So the crafty men of action "contemn studies," and the wise men who use them look beyond them for their value. "English literature," said a noted professor not long ago, "cannot be taught"; and certain it is that even with the most advanced analytical text-book one cannot get a final satisfaction from "doing a sum" in English literature as one would work a problem in arithmetic. When applied to the higher arts, study, deep and true as one can make it, leaves one the surer that there is a wisdom beyond, which cometh not by study alone.

Least of all can the deepest things in poetry be learned by mere study. Poetry deals with feeling, which study excludes. Study, indeed, seems to belong exclusively to the prose habit; it seems to be of the intellect and not of the emotions; to be of the mind and not of the spirit. We cannot write a text-book in poetry, nor can we ever in a text-book written in prose put all the secret of poetry. Beyond the text-book always lies the higher wisdom born of that which Bacon called observation, which most of us now call insight, that immediate apprehension of the highest relations which comes as a revelation in our inspired moments.

In spite of all this the study of poetry has an important function, and it is the purpose of this article to show how to use it most effectively. Poetry is one of the most difficult of all arts to study, so difficult that it has had few text-books and no complete exposition. The inquirer searching for help will find only a few hand-books, the most useful of which are these: Gummere: "Beginnings of Poetry" and "Hand-book of Poetry"; Schipper: "Metrik"; Lanier: "Science of English Verse"; Guest: "English Rhythms"; Stedman: "The Nature and Elements of Poetry." Excellent as these are, he may lament when he has read them that he has found the history of poetic forms, and the technique of poetic method, where he hoped to find the secret of poetry. He will be likely to get as much help from writings on poetry that are not text-books, such as Matthew Arnold's Essays: "On Translating Homer," "Last Words on Translating Homer," "Celtic Poetry," "Introduction to the Poetry of Wordsworth," and the "Introduction to Humphry Ward's English Poets"; Emerson's Essays: "The Poet" and "Poetry and Imagination"; Wordsworth's Introduction to the "Lyrical Ballads"; Poe's striking little essays on the art of poetry; Aristotle's "Rhetoric"; Macaulay's "Essay on Milton"; Lowell's "Essay on Dryden"; and many a passage of illuminative comment from Milton, from Pope, from Dryden, from Coleridge and from many another. For one who has not known and read much poetry the best introduction to its study may well be the pleasurable reading of some, or of all, of these works, though remembering that such reading is not study, but only the reviewing of records of work done by others, useful mainly as a preparation for the real study which is to follow.

From all these works the student will not be likely to get a definition of poetry which will satisfy him. One may say indeed with truth that poetry is such expression as parallels the real and the ideal by means of some rhythmic form. But this is not a complete definition. Poetry is not to be bounded with a measuring line or sounded with a plummet. The student must feel after its limits as these authors have done, and find for himself its satisfactions. One can feel more of its power than the mind can define; for definitions are prose-forms of mind action, while poetry in its higher manifestations is pure emotion, outpassing prose limits. Yet one can know poetry if he cannot completely define it. The one essential element which distinguishes it from prose is rhythm. In its primal expressions this is mainly a rhythm of stresses and sounds—of accents and measures, of alliterations and rhymes. Poetry began when man, swaying his body, first sang or moaned to give expression to his joy or sorrow. Its earliest forms are the songs which accompany the simplest emotions. When rowers were in a boat the swinging oars became rhythmic, and the oarsman's chant naturally followed. When the savage overcame his enemy, he danced his war dance, and sang his war song around his campfire at night, tone and words and gestures all fitting into harmony with the movement of his body. So came the chants and songs of work and of triumph. For the dead warrior the moan of lamentation fitted itself to the slower moving to and fro of the mourner, and hence came the elegy. In its first expression this was but inarticulate, half action, half music, dumbly voicing the emotion through the senses; its rhythms were all for the ear and it had little meaning beyond the crude representation of some simple human desire and grief.

It became poetry when it put a thrill of exultation in work, of delight in victory, or of grief at loss by death, into some rhythmic form tangible to the senses. There grew up thereafter a body of rhythmic forms—lines, stanzas, accents, rhythms, verbal harmonies. These forms are the outward dress of poetry, and may rightly be the first subject of the student's study. We properly give the name of poetry to verses such as Southey's "Lodore," Poe's "Bells," or Lanier's "Song of the Chattahoochee," which do little more than sing to our ears the harmonies of sound, the ultimate rhythms of nature. Yet it is not merely the brook or the bell or the river, that we hear in the poem, but the echoing of that large harmony of nature of which the sound of the brook or the bell is only the single strain. Through the particular it suggests the universal, as does all poetry, leading through nature up to something greater, far beyond. This rhythm is best studied in poems that were written to be sung or chanted. If one could read Greek, or Anglo-Saxon, or Old High German, or the English of Chaucer's day, he could quickly train his ear to be independent of the hand-books on versification, by reading aloud, or listening as one read aloud, the "Odyssey" or the "Beowulf," or the "Nibelungen Lied" or the "Canterbury Tales." These would be better for this purpose than any modern verses, for the reason that they were intended to be sung or chanted, and so all the rhythms are real to the senses. Since the barrier of language bars out for most of us this older verse, we can read the early ballads, the lyrics of the Elizabethan time, when as yet verses spoke mainly to the ear, or some modern poems of the simpler type, such as "Evangeline" or "Hiawatha."

Such poetry, which is mainly to delight and charm the ear, is really a primal form of verse and we may properly call it the poetry of the Senses. In studying it Lanier's "Science of English Verse" is a delightful companion, and many minor hand-books besides those named above, such as are found in most schools, and some of the shorter accounts of versification such as are found in works on rhetoric, will give assistance.

Yet the pathway to the mastery of the problems of metre is for each student to tread alone. The best plan is to read aloud a considerable quantity. Then the technical language of the books will lose its terrors and the simplicity of construction of good poetry will become apparent. If the student will read so much of this poetry that his senses become responsive to its music, he will no longer need a hand-book. For this purpose let him read such poems as can be sung, chanted, or spoken to the ear; such as Macaulay's "Lays of Ancient Rome," Scott's "Marmion," Browning's "Pied Piper" and "How They Brought the Good News," Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." Let him read mainly for the senses rather than for the mind, getting the reward in the quickening of life through the throbbing rhythms; then the metrical system of poetry will become as real to him as the rhythmic movements of the planets are to an astronomer. There is no other way to get a feeling for the pulsations of poetry than through this intimate acquaintance. Without this, months of reading of amphibrachs and trochees and dactyls will not avail. It should be read aloud as much as possible to make the swing of its verses perfectly clear. When it sings to us as we read, it has begun to teach the message of its rhythms.

Thus far the text-books have been pleasant companions, even when unable to give as much aid to the student as he could wish; but the fact will come to him at length that there is something more in poetry than the hand-books permit him to consider. These books deal with the forms, and most of them with the forms only. They analyze the methods, work out the metre, show how the parts are woven together, explain how the chords produce the harmonies. But just in proportion as the student becomes learned in these rhythms, and can distinguish minute or subtle variations of metrical structure, does he realize that this study teaches not its own use and that there is something beyond which must be won by his own observation. He finds in his search for rhythmical perfection that there are poems which make little appeal to his senses, whose lines do not sing themselves through his day-dreams, which yet affect his imagination even more powerfully than the musical strains thrilled his senses. He finds that there is much more in poetry than its rhymes and jingles, that there is a rhythm greater than that of the senses. In its more complex forms poetry is rhythm of thought, leading the mind to find relations which prose may describe, but which poetry alone can recreate. There is such a thing as a prose thought and such a thing as a poetic thought. The one gives with exactness the fact as it exists, clearly, honestly, directly, and for all completed and tangible things is the natural medium of expression. The other parallels the actual with a suggestion of an ideal rhythmically consonant with the motive underlying the fact. Justice, for example, deals in prose fashion with a crime and awards the punishment which the law allows; poetic justice suggests such recompense as would come of itself in a community perfectly organized. The prose of life is honest living, a worthy endeavor to do the best one can in the world as it is; the poetry of life is the feeling for, and the striving after, the bringing of this life into harmony with a nobler living. So we rightly give the name of poetry to such verse as Goldsmith's "Deserted Village," Johnson's "London," Gray's "Elegy," Wordsworth's "Excursion," Milton's "Paradise Lost," Chaucer's "Knight's Tale," Browning's "King and the Book," Tennyson's "In Memoriam," which do not much stir our senses. They parallel the real with the ideal, suggesting the eternal rhythms of infinite mind as the poetry of the senses suggests the eternal rhythms of omnipotent nature.

This poetry of the Intellect is the second great division of the poetic realm. Beyond it lies still another; for there are spiritual harmonies which the mind alone cannot compass, and which the senses alone cannot interpret. The hand-books know little of spiritual harmonies, and do not go beyond their academic classifications of lyric and epic, and their catalogues of pentameters, hexameters, or alexandrines. But the student can for himself push his observation beyond, and come to the poetry of the higher imagination, where he can be forgetful of the mere form and disdainful of the merely logical relations, where his spirit can as it were see face to face the truth beyond the seeming. This is the poetry of the spirit, and ought to come as a revelation to the searcher. He may first find it in some pure lyric such as Shelley's "Skylark," or in some mystical fantasy such as Moore's "Lallah Rookh" or Coleridge's "Christabel," or in some story of human abnegation such as Tennyson's "Enoch Arden," or some wail of a soul in pain, as in Shelley's "Adonais," or in some outburst of exultant grief such as Whitman's "Captain, My Captain," or in some revelation of the unseen potencies close about us, as in Browning's "Saul," or in some vision of the mystery of this our earthly struggle such as "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," or in some answer of the spirit to a never stilled question such as Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." When he thus finds it he has come to poetry in its highest use. In his "Alexander's Feast" Dryden hints at two great functions of poetry in the lines:

  "He raised a mortal to the skies,
  She drew an angel down."

The office of poetry is to parallel the actual with the ideal, to cast upon an earthly landscape something of a heavenly glow, to interpret earthly things in terms of the spirit. The poetry of the Senses lifts a mortal to the skies, thinking the thought of one higher than itself as the poet muses, singing the songs of an angelic choir in harmony with the rhythm of the verse. The poetry of the Spirit brings the message of the angels down to men and makes the harmonies they speak the music of this earthly life.

The highest type of poetry lends itself perfectly to earnest and profound study. In class work it is usually better to study poets as well as poems, and to study thoroughly a few works of a great master. Poetry is essentially a synthetic art; it unites the wandering desires of our hearts and spirits to make one single and enduring impression. Poetry speaks also the mood, the aspiration, and the deepest intent of its author; so that the great poet is the one who brings us most directly to understand its art. For most student classes it is best to take a single poet for interpretation, and to study in succession a small number—say six to ten—of his works, making one, or at least two or three, the subject of the conferences for each week. The choice of author will be dependent on many considerations and cannot here be positively advised, but one will not go astray in choosing Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, Longfellow, or Whittier, or three of them, for a season's work. Intelligent direction is of great assistance in making the study definite and progressive. Choose first of all the poems which seem to have influenced men, for to move men is the final test of poetry. If there is no class, and no leader, let the student make his choice by a preliminary examination. Let him read rapidly, and for the single impression, the poems of Wordsworth whose titles seem most familiar to him as he scans them over; such as "Tintern Abbey," "Yarrow Unvisited," "Solitary Reaper," "Lucy," "We are Seven," "The Intimations of Immortality," "She was a Phantom of Delight," and a few of the lyrical ballads; then let him read Tennyson's "Locksley Hall," "Maud," "The Idylls of the King," and a few of the shorter poems; let him read Browning's "Saul," "Abt Vogler," "The Grammarian's Funeral," "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," "Pippa Passes," one or two dramas, and a few of the brief poems in the volume "Men and Women." Then let him make his own list for study, taking those poems which have most stirred him, those which he remembers vividly after his reading, those which have become a part of himself. If the student makes his choice frankly and sincerely, he has, in making it, begun his study. Then let him frame for himself or get from his leader, if he has one, a list of the questions which each poem is to answer for him. If the work be really poetry, its study ought to give a help toward the solution of the first great problems: "What is poetry?" and "What is its revelation to the life of our senses, our hearts, and our souls?" We have a right to ask of each poem three questions: "How does it charm our senses?"; "How does it make the meaning of things clearer for us?"; "How does it bring to us a renewal of life?" The first question is better fitted for private study than for class investigation, the senses being delicate organs and shy in company. Let the minute matters of form and structure be gone over at home. Let the student work out the metre, the typical line, and the variations by which the poet gets his effects, the metaphors, the alliterations, the consonant and vowel harmonies. It will aid if this work be made as definite and as exact as an investigation in a scientific laboratory. But all this should be the student's home work. In the class the large divisions of the poem should be sympathetically shown, so that each student will comprehend the poem as a whole as the poet must have conceived it. Then as some one reads aloud the lines the music of the rhythms will come by assimilation rather than by analysis. Poetry parallels the real with the ideal to make a harmony before undreamed of. So in the lines sound re-echoes sound, and a subtle music but half perceived sings itself out of the moving notes.

What burden this music bears is the second question. Poetry differs from prose in that it lifts the thought so that its highest relations and suggestions are made known. We have a right therefore to parallel the prose sight with the poetic visions and to find in what the one transcends the other. If we are studying the "Idylls of the King," for instance, we may fitly ask what was the story as the poet took it, and into what has he transformed it for us. This study of the thought of the poem is an excellent subject for class work. The questions should be made definite and so grouped that sections of the class can choose one or another phase of the problem; the conferences should be so directed that a few clearly worked-out and thoroughly unified poetic thoughts will be left in the mind of each student.

In all things practice may fitly supplement precept. In a reading circle of which one of the editors of this series was a member the poems of Tennyson were studied by a method closely resembling that advocated in this article. As a suggestion the topics and questions for one of the poems are here given. One of the members acted as leader. A brief essay reciting the history of the poem was read. The entire poem was read aloud by one of the members of the class. Then the topics given below were discussed as presented in turn by groups of students who had given especial attention to one of the topics. In the discussions the entire class joined, and at the close a very brief summing up by the leader gathered up the threads of thought.

Topic: "Locksley Hall" and "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After."

Required Readings: "Locksley Hall"; "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After";
"Lady Clara Vere de Vere"; "Sir Galahad."

Suggested Readings: In connection with the earlier poem, "Ulysses" and "The Two Voices"; in connection with the later poem, "Maud," "Memoir of Tennyson," by Lord Hallam Tennyson.

Suggestions for Study: (A) The physical basis of the poem.

Study the metre. Why called Trochaic Octameter? In what way does this metre resemble and in what way differ from Lowell's "Present Crisis," Swinburne's "Triumph of Time," Browning's "There 's a woman like a dewdrop" (from "The Blot i' the Scutcheon"), and Mrs. Browning's "Rhyme of the Duchess May"? Why is this metre peculiarly adapted to the sentiment of "Locksley Hall"? How does the metre differ in effect from that of Mrs. Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and Bryant's "The Death of the Flowers" and Tennyson's "May Queen"? Is the effect of the rhythm optimistic as opposed to the pessimism of the "Triumph of Time," and why? Why are the lines of this poem so easily carried in the memory? What is there in the use of the words which gives such sweetness to the verses as one reads them aloud. Has the poem for you a music of its own which haunts you like a remembered vision? Find out, if you can, something of the secret of this music.

(B) The intellectual interest of the poem.

(1) Consider the meaning of difficult passages, such as "Fairy tales of science." Explain the meaning of stanzas containing the following quotations: "Smote the chord of self"; "Cursed be social wants"; "That a sorrow's crown of sorrow"; "But the jingling of the guinea"; "Slowly comes a hungry people"; "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers."

(2) How long an interval elapsed between the writing of the above two poems? Does any change in style or trend of thought indicate the lapse of time? The earlier poem was and is immensely popular. Why? Why is the later one less popular?

(3) What is the story in the poem, and in what manner is it told? How is the story continued in "Sixty Years After"? Was Locksley Hall an inland or a seashore residence, and why? Describe the surroundings from suggestions in the poems. Sum up what the hero tells of himself and his love-story. What suggestions are there regarding the characters of Amy and Edith? Is the emotional side of the hero as finely balanced as the intellectual side? What light is thrown on the character of his love by his outbursts against Amy? Would it be fair to judge of Amy and her husband by what he says of them in his first anguish? Does he ever admit that he judged them harshly? If so, do you agree with him altogether? Was it well for Amy to marry as she did? When obedience to parental wishes and love are in conflict, which should be followed? Did the hero's evil prophecies come true? Whose love do you think was the greatest, Amy's, or his, or the Squire's?

(4) How does Tennyson all through the poem make it a parable of human life?

(C) The emotional influence of the poem. How has this poem influenced you? For many persons, Tennyson, out of a simple love-story, has made a prophecy of ideal love. Has he for you? For many persons Tennyson made poetry out of this simple story when he paralleled the tale of earthly passion with a vision of completer life, so vivid that the pain and tragedy of this present life come to be for us but the preparation for the better life to come, as the poet sings to us that "Through the ages one increasing purpose runs And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns."

Has he to you in like manner through his poem given a truer conception of the nature and use of poetry?

Systematic study such as that suggested above will help in answering the questions, "What charm has this poem for us?" and "How does it put a deeper meaning into the events it records?" But it is difficult to frame formal questions the answers to which will show how a poem quickens life. The influence of a poem is so much a matter of temperament and of emotion, both of the author and of the reader, that one has to feel its power rather than to work it out logically. Poetry passes beyond prose in that it quickens life by moving us to feel its nobler emotions. It will teach its own lesson to the appreciative reader, and the student who gets fully into sympathy with a great poem will have his whole life made brighter. Class work, done sympathetically and sincerely, will aid in finding the truest interpretations. Yet studies teach not their own use. The higher blessings come to us unbidden if we as little children hope for them. We shall find the highest uses of poetry in remembering always that it may at its best come to us as an

   "Angel of light
  Singing to welcome the pilgrims of the night."

Book: Shattered Sighs