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What is Poetry? What Poets Say About Poetry and More

Considering the immense volume of poetical writing produced, and lost or accumulated, by all nations through the ages, it is of curious interest that no generally accepted definition of the word "Poetry" has ever been made. Of course, all versifiers aim at "poetry"; yet, what is poetry?

Many definitions have been attempted. Some of these would exclude work by poets whom the world agrees to call great; others would shut out elements that are undeniably poetic; still others, while not excluding, do not positively include much that must be recognized as within the poetical realm. In brief, all are more or less partial.

Perhaps a few examples may make this clearer, and show, too, the difficulty of the problem.

Poetry: The Best and Happiest Moments

"Poetry," says Percy Bysshe Shelley, "is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds." But how can this include that genuine poetic genius, Lord Byron, who gloried in being neither good nor happy? Lord Jeffrey, one of the keenest of critics, says that the term may properly be applied to "every metrical composition from which we derive pleasure without any laborious exercise of the understanding." In this category, what becomes of Browning, whom Sharp characterizes "the most profoundly subtle mind that has exercised itself in poetry since Shakespeare"? Wordsworth, who has influenced all the poets since his day, declares poetry to be "the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is the countenance of all science." Matthew Arnold accepts this dictum, and uses it to further his own idea of the great future of poetry as that to which mankind will yet turn, "to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us,"—even in place of religion and philosophy. And yet, some of the highest and finest of known poetic flights have been in the expression of religious and philosophical truth; while on the other hand Wordsworth's characterization of poetry turns the cold shoulder to that which is neither knowledge nor science, the all-powerful passion of Love—probably the most universal fount and origin of poetry since the human race began to express its thoughts and feelings at all. Coleridge enlarges Wordsworth's phrase, and makes poetry "the blossom and fragrance of all human knowledge, human thought, human passions, emotions, language." This is fine; yet it is but a figure, denoting the themes and ignoring the form of poetic production.

Poetry: Music in Words

Quaint old Thomas Fuller gives a pretty simile when he says that "Poetry is music in words, and music is poetry in sound"; and, in so far as melodious form and harmonious thought express and arouse emotion, he gives a hint of the truth.

The German Jean Paul Richter says an admirable thing: "There are so many tender and holy emotions flying about in our inward world, which, like angels, can never assume the body of an outward act; so many rich and lovely flowers spring up, which bear no seed, that it is a happiness poetry was invented, which receives into its limbus all these incorporeal spirits, and the perfume of all these flowers." True: but the tremendous domain of Tragedy—emotion neither holy nor tender—has been most fruitful of poetic power, and that finds here no recognition.

Edmund Burke's rather disparaging remark that poetry is "the art of substituting shadows, and of lending existence to nothing," has yet a vital suggestion, reminding one of Shakespeare's graphic touch in "The Tempest":

  "And, as imagination bodies forth
  The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
  Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothings
  A local habitation and a name";

and this again recalls in Holy Writ that clarifying description of the imaginative power of "seeing the invisible" which is called "faith," as being "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

These varied sayings concern the elements of poetry, and help to an apprehension of its scope and power; yet they but partially satisfy the desire to know what is meant by that familiar word,—which we constantly use, and use understandingly, while yet the very makers of poetry find difficulty in telling just what is signified by it.

Poetry: Imaginative Language or Composition

Let us turn to the dictionary, and see how the matter looks to the cold-minded definer. Webster gives Poetry as "the art of apprehending and interpreting ideas by the faculty of the imagination; the art of idealizing in thought and in expression;" and then, specifically, "imaginative language or composition, whether expressed rhythmically or in prose." This seems to come nearer the mark; although, by admitting poetical prose, the popular idea of poetry is expanded to include all writing that is infused with the imaginative quality. Thus is found place for Walt Whitman, who defies all metre, and who yet lays strong hold upon the reader—despite his whimsicalities—by the very multiplicity and suggestiveness of his imaginings among real things.

Poetry: Rhythmical Expression of Emotion and Ideality

Perhaps as satisfactory a presentation of the matter as can be found is in a casual phrase of Stedman's in the Introduction to his "American Anthology." This true poet and master-critic, in pursuit of another idea, alludes to poetry as "being a rhythmical expression of emotion and ideality." Here at last we have form, spirit, and theme combined in one terse utterance. In poetry we look for the musical metre, the recurrent refrain of rhythm; while that which inspires it arises from the universal motives which Coleridge names as ministers to Love,—

"All thoughts, all passions, all delights, Whatever stirs this mortal frame."

With this view, then, of the vast range of poetical thinking and feeling—such as most arouse interest in all possible moods of the reader, and recalling the fact that the aim of the poet is to set forth his strains in musical measures that allure the attention and satisfy the sense of perfect expression, it will be of interest to note a few passages concerning this art of all arts from notable thinkers.

In his introduction to Ward's admirable selections from "The English Poets," Matthew Arnold—critic and poet—to whom allusion has already been made, says:

"The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay….

"We are here invited to trace the stream of English poetry. But whether we set ourselves, as here, to follow only one of the several streams that make the mighty river of poetry, or whether we seek to know them all, our governing thought should be the same. We should conceive of poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies, than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto. More and more mankind will discover that we have to turn to poetry to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us….

"But if we conceive thus highly of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence.

… The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present."

Macaulay in his brilliant essay on Milton, which, published in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, gave him instant recognition as "a new literary power," set up an interesting theory. A few extracts will give it:—

"Milton, it is said, inherited what his predecessors created; he lived in an enlightened age; he received a finished education; and we must therefore, if we would form a just estimate of his powers, make large deductions for these advantages.

"We venture to say, on the contrary, paradoxical as the remark may appear, that no poet has ever had to struggle with more unfavorable circumstances than Milton….

"We think that, as civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines. Therefore, though we admire those great works of imagination which have appeared in dark ages, we do not admire them the more because they have appeared in dark ages. On the contrary, we hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilized age….

"Of all people, children are the most imaginative. They abandon themselves without reserve to every illusion. Every image which is strongly presented to their mental eye produces on them the effect of reality…. In a rude state of society, men are children with a greater variety of ideas. It is therefore in such a state of society that we may expect to find the poetical temperament in its highest perfection. He who, in an enlightened and literary society, aspires to be a great poet, must first become a little child. He must take to pieces the whole web of his mind. He must unlearn much of that knowledge which has perhaps constituted hitherto his chief title to superiority. His very talents will be a hinderance to him. His difficulties will be proportioned to his proficiency in the pursuits which are fashionable among his contemporaries; and that proficiency will in general be proportioned to the vigor and activity of his mind….

"If these reasonings be just, no poet has ever triumphed over greater difficulties than Milton. He received a learned education. He was a profound and elegant classical scholar; he had studied all the mysteries of Rabbinical literature; he was intimately acquainted with every language of modern Europe from which either pleasure or information was then to be derived. He was perhaps the only great poet of later times who has been distinguished by the excellence of his Latin verse."

And yet Macaulay goes on to say:

"The public has long been agreed as to the merit of the most remarkable passages, the incomparable harmony of the numbers, and the excellence of that style which no rival has been able to equal, and no parodist to degrade, which displays in their highest perfection the idiomatic powers of the English tongue, and to which every ancient and every modern language has contributed something of grace, of energy, or of music."

But how would it have been possible for Milton to have enriched his poetry with all these elements in a primaeval age, when many of them did not exist? Indeed, Milton's own words show how he regarded the task of writing the "Paradise Lost," to which he had consecrated his energies, In a pamphlet issued in 1641 he wrote:

"Neither do I think it shame to covenant with any knowing reader, that for some few years yet I may go on trust with him toward the payment of what I am now indebted, as being a work not to be raised from the heat of youth or the vapors of wine, like that which flows at waste from the pen of some vulgar amorist, or the trencher-fury of a riming parasite, nor to be obtained by the invocation of Dame Memory and her Siren daughters, but by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his Seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases. To this must be added industriously select reading, steady observation, insight into all seemly and generous arts and affairs—till which in some measure be compassed at mine own peril and cost, I refuse not to sustain this expectation from as many as are not loth to hazard so much credulity upon the best pledges that I can give them."

The poem was published in 1667, so that for at least twenty-six years the poet was utilizing all the available resources of civilization and scholarship to make himself "more fit."

But we may cite against Macaulay's theory also a brief passage in the essay on Burns by Thomas Carlyle—surely a prose-poet, if ever there was one. Treating of the achievement of Burns in spite of his crude surroundings, ignorance, and lack of most that distinguishes civilization from that childlike simplicity of primaeval life which Macaulay regards as the more favorable to developing poetical temperament, Carlyle says of the ploughman-poet:

"Let it not be objected that he did little. He did much, if we consider where and how. If the work performed was small, we must remember that he had his very materials to discover; for the metal he worked in lay hid under the desert moor, where no eye but his had guessed its existence; and we may almost say, that with his own hand he had to construct the tools for fashioning it. For he found himself in deepest obscurity, without help, without instructions, without model; or with models only of the meanest sort. An educated man stands, as it were, in the midst of a boundless arsenal and magazine, filled with all the weapons and engines which man's skill has been able to devise from the earliest time; and he works, accordingly, with a strength borrowed from all past ages. How different is his state who stands on the outside of that storehouse, and feels that its gates must be stormed, or remain forever shut against him! His means are the commonest and rudest; the mere work done is no measure of his strength. A dwarf behind his steam-engine may remove mountains; but no dwarf will hew them down with a pickaxe; and he must be a Titan that hurls them abroad with his arms.

Poetry: A Vehicle of Thought

"It is in this last shape that Burns presents himself…. Impelled by the expansive movement of his own irrepressible soul, he struggles forward into the general view; and with haughty modesty lays down before us, as the fruit of his labor, a gift, which Time has now pronounced imperishable."

But why should one read poetry, at all, where there is so much good prose to be read? Herbert Spencer in his essay on "Style" gives some reasons for the superiority of poetry to prose. He says:

"Poetry, we shall find, habitually adopts those symbols of thought and those methods of using them which instinct and analysis agree in choosing, as most effective, and becomes poetry by virtue of doing this.

"Thus, poetry, regarded as a vehicle of thought, is especially impressive, partly because it obeys all the laws of effective speech and partly because in so doing it imitates the natural utterances of excitement. While the matter embodied is idealized emotion, the vehicle is the idealized language of emotion. As the musical composer catches the cadences in which our feelings of joy and sympathy, grief and despair, vent themselves, and out of these germs evolves melodies suggesting higher phases of these feelings; so the poet develops from the typical expressions in which men utter passion and sentiments those choice forms of verbal combination in which concentrated passion and sentiment may be fitly presented."

And the language which Spencer regards as the "most effective" is tersely set forth by that poetic and spiritual preacher, Frederick W. Robertson, in his idea of poetry: "The natural language of excited feeling, and a work of imagination wrought into form by art."

Another point in connection with the language of poetry is that, compelled by their limitations of rhythm, rhyme, and the compression of much thought and feeling into brief space, the poets have become the finest artists in the use of words. The examples of word-use in the dictionaries are largely drawn from the poets. Joseph Joubert, the French epigrammatist, says:

"Like the nectar of the bee, which turns to honey the dust of flowers, or like that liquor which converts lead into gold, the poet has a breath that fills out words, gives them light and color. He knows wherein consists their charm, and by what art enchanted structures may be built with them."

Familiarity with poetry thus becomes to the attentive reader an insensible training in language, as well as an elevation of mind and spirit. Superiority of spirit and of form, then, offers good reasons why the intelligent—whether for stimulation, consolation, self-culture, or mere amusement in idle hours—should avail of a due proportion of this finest expression of the sweetest, the highest, and the deepest emotional experiences of life, in the realms of nature, of art, and of humanity itself.

A few words from the gifted William Ellery Channing the elder epitomize some striking thoughts on this subject:

"We believe that poetry, far from injuring society, is one of the great instruments of its refinement and exaltation. It lifts the mind above ordinary life, gives it a respite from depressing cares, and awakens the consciousness of its affinity with what is pure and noble. In its legitimate and highest efforts it has the same tendency and aim with Christianity,—that is, to spiritualize our nature…. The present life, which is the first stage of the immortal mind, abounds in the materials of poetry, and it is the highest office of the bard, to detect this divine element among the grosser pleasures and labors of our earthly being. The present life is not wholly prosaic, precise, tame, and finite. To the gifted eye it abounds in the poetic….

"It is not true that the poet paints a life which does not exist. He only extracts and concentrates, as it were, life's ethereal essence, arrests and condenses its volatile fragrance, brings together its scattered beauties, and prolongs its more refined but evanescent joys: and in this he does well; for it is good to feel that life is not wholly usurped by cares for subsistence and physical gratifications, but admits, in measures which may be indefinitely enlarged, sentiments and delights worthy of a higher being."

In his Introduction to the "Plymouth Collection of Hymns and Tunes"—the pioneer book of all such aids to church congregational singing—Henry Ward Beecher gave a noble view of the power of a hymn arising out of experience:

"No other composition is like an experimental hymn. It is not a mere poetic impulse. It is not a thought, a fancy, a feeling threaded upon words. It is the voice of experience speaking from the soul a few words that condense and often represent a whole life….

"One great hope may come to fruit only at the end of many years, and as the ripening of a hundred experiences. As there be flowers that drink the dews of spring and summer, and feed upon all the rains, and only just before the winter comes burst forth into bloom, so it is with some of the noblest blossoms of the soul. The bolt that prostrated Saul gave him the exceeding brightness of Christ; and so some hymns could never have been written but for a heart-stroke that well-nigh crushed out the life. It is cleft in two by bereavement, and out of the rift comes forth, as by resurrection, the form and voice that shall never die out of the world. Angels sat at the grave's mouth; and so hymns are the angels that rise up out of our griefs and darkness and dismay.

"Thus born, a hymn is one of those silent ministers which God sends to those who are to be heirs of salvation. It enters into the tender imagination of childhood, and casts down upon the chambers of its thought a holy radiance which shall never quite depart. It goes with the Christian, singing to him all the way, as if it were the airy voice of some guardian spirit. When darkness of trouble, settling fast, is shutting out every star, a hymn bursts through and brings light like a torch. It abides by our side in sickness. It goes forth with us in joy to syllable that joy.

"And thus, after a time, we clothe a hymn with the memories and associations of our own life. It is garlanded with flowers which grew in our hearts. Born of the experience of one mind, it becomes the unconscious record of many minds…. Thus sprung from a wondrous life, hymns lead a life yet more wonderful. When they first come to us they are like the single strokes of a bell ringing down to us from above; but, at length, a single hymn becomes a whole chime of bells, mingling and discoursing to us the harmonies of a life's Christian experience."

Passing from this very human and sympathetic view of the profoundest use of poetry, note how the veteran Bryant confirms it. In treating of the beautiful mythologies of Greece and Rome, so much of which entered into the warp and woof of ancient poetry, he grants their poetical quality, but doubts whether, on the whole, the art gained more than it lost by them, because, having a god for every operation of nature, they left nothing in obscurity; everything was accounted for; mystery—a prime element of poetry—existed no longer. Moreover:

"That system gave us the story of a superior and celestial race of beings, to whom human passions were attributed, and who were, like ourselves, susceptible of suffering; but it elevated them so far above the creatures of earth in power, in knowledge, and in security from the calamities of our condition, that they could be the subjects of little sympathy. Therefore it is that the mythological poetry of the ancients is as cold as it is beautiful, as unaffecting as it is faultless….

"The admirers of poetry, then, may give up the ancient mythology without a sigh. Its departure has left us what is better than all it has taken away: it has left us men and women; it has left us the creatures and things of God's universe, to the simple charm of which the cold splendor of that system blinded men's eyes, and to the magnificence of which the rapid progress of science is every day adding new wonders and glories. It has left us, also, a more sublime and affecting religion, whose truths are broader, higher, nobler than any outlook to which its random conjectures ever attained."

Poetry: Words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty!

Yet, after all, returning from this consideration of poetic themes to the question of the poetic principle itself; we may find a sturdy assertion of it in a few words by Edgar Allan Poe—perhaps the most acute of the many debaters of this apparently simple yet evasive problem. After discussing the elements of poetry in music, painting, and other art, Poe writes:

"I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as the Rhythmical Creation of Beauty! Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect, or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever with Duty or with Truth….

"In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is excitement of the Heart. I make Beauty, therefore—using the word as inclusive of the sublime—I make Beauty the province of the poem….

"It by no means follows, however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work:—but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real essence of the poem."

Lest one should conclude that this is the verdict of an exclusively artistic spirit, bent upon the development of "art for art's sake" alone, disregardful of the spiritual essence involved, let him read the following passage by Dr. William Hayes Ward, scholar, archæologist, critic, editor of a great religious journal. Treating of "The Elements of True Poetry," he lays down this:

"What, then, is poetry? It is the verbal expression of thought under the paramount control of the principle of beauty. The thought must be as beautiful as possible; the expression must be as beautiful as possible. Essential beauty and formal beauty must be wedded, and the union is poetry. Other principles than beauty may govern a literary production. The purpose may be, first, absolute clearness. That will not make poetry. It will make good mathematical demonstration; it may make a good news item; but not poetry. The predominant sentiment may be ethical. That may give us a sermon, but it will not give a poem. A poem is first of all beautiful, beautiful in its content of thought, and beautiful in its expression through words….

"The first and chief element in a poem is beauty of thought, and that beauty may relate to any department, material, mental, or spiritual, in which beauty can reside. Such poetry may describe a misty desert, a flowery mead, a feminine form, a ruddy sky, a rhythmic waterfall, a blue-bird's flutterings, receding thunder, a violet's scent, the spicy tang of apples, the thrill of clasped arms and a lover's kiss. Or it may rise higher, and rest in the relations of things, in similes and metaphors; it may infuse longing and love and passion; it may descant fair reason and meditative musing. Or, in highest flight, beauty may range over the summits of lofty purpose, inspiring patriotism, devotion, sacrifice, till it becomes one with the love of man and the love of God, even as the fading outline of a mountain melts into the blue sky which envelops it….

"Dominant over all beauty is moral beauty. All highest flights of poetry must range in the empyrean."

Thus, in poetry, all other graces and powers, be they lower or higher, must come under control of the principle of beauty—the pleasing harmony that brings delight. And the almost "infinite variety" of beautiful modes and styles offered in such a gathering of poems as the present finds argument for its worth in the brief extract with which our mélange of opinions may well conclude. It is taken from a series of articles in the New York Independent on "A Theory of Poetry," by the Southern poet, Henry Timrod. Making a protest against the limitation of taste and the poetic vision in certain directions, instead of cultivating a broader range of taste, he says:

"I have known more than one young lover of poetry who read nothing but Browning, and there are hundreds who have drowned all the poets of the past and present in the deep music of Tennyson. But is it not possible, with the whole wealth of literature at our command, to attain views broad enough to enable us to do justice to genius of every class and character? That certainly can be no true poetical creed that leads directly to the neglect of those masterpieces which, though wrought hundreds or thousands of years ago, still preserve the freshness of perennial youth…. The injury [of such neglect] falls only on such as slight them; and the penalty they pay is a contracted and a contracting insight, the shutting on them forever of many glorious vistas of mind, and the loss of thousands of images of grace and grandeur.

"Oh! rest assured that there are no stereotyped forms of poetry. It is a vital power, and may assume any guise and take any shape, at one time towering like an Alp in the darkness and at another sunning itself in the bell of a tulip or the cup of a lily; and until one shall have learned to recognize it in all its various developments he has no right to echo back the benison of Wordsworth:

  "'Blessings be on them and eternal praise,
    The poets, who on earth have made us heirs
    Of truth and pure delight in heavenly lays.'"

* * * * *

By no means, then, to attempt a new definition where so many more competent have failed, we may nevertheless gather some points of certainty from the opinions cited above.

Poetry concerns itself with the ideal and the emotional, in nature, life, and thought. Its language must be choice, for aptness of expression and for melodious sound. Its form will embody the recurrence of rhythmic measures, which, however elaborated and varied in later times, originated in the dim past, when singing and dancing moved hand in hand for the vivid utterance of feeling—in mirthful joy and in woe, love and hate, worshipful devotion and mortal defiance, the fierceness of battle and the serenity of peace. While through all and over all must breathe the informing spirit of Beauty—whether of the delicate or the sublime, whether of sweetness or of power—harmonizing both the interior essence and its outward expression.

In the ejaculations of delight, fear, or wonder of primitive man at the phenomena of nature—in his imaginative efforts to explain the mystery of power behind light, darkness, the seasons, storm, calm—lie the beginnings of poetry; and religion grows from the same seed—the desire of the finite to lay hold on the Infinite. Every man is a potential poet, just so far as he responds to these yearnings after some expression of the ideal and the ineffable.

Poetry, indeed, finds its inspiration in all things, from the humblest creation to the Creator himself,—nothing too low or too high for its interest. In turn, it has inspired humanity's finest deeds; and so long as humanity's aims and joys and woes persist, will mankind seek uplift and delight in its charm.


[Signature: JR Howard]

Courtesy or Project Gutenberg