Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

The Poet's Poet by Elizabeth Atkins

Part 4 out of 6

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.6 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

manner of his inspiration that causes him to doubt his sanity. Not
merely is his mind vacant when the spirit of poetry is about to come
upon him, but he is deprived of his judgment, so that he does not
understand his own experiences during ecstasy. The idea of verbal
inspiration, which used to be so popular in Biblical criticism, has been
applied to the works of all poets. [Footnote: See _Kathrina_, by J.
G. Holland, where the heroine maintains that the inspiration of modern
poets is similar to that of the Old Testament prophets, and declares,

As for the old seers
Whose eyes God touched with vision of the life
Of the unfolding ages, I must doubt
Whether they comprehended what they saw.]

Such a view has been a boon to literary critics. Shakespeare
commentators, in particular, have been duly grateful for the lee-way
granted them, when they are relieved from the necessity of limiting
Shakespeare's meanings to the confines of his knowledge. As for the
poet's own sense of his incomprehension, Francis Thompson's words are
typical. Addressing a little child, he wonders at the statements she
makes, ignorant of their significance; then he reflects,

And ah, we poets, I misdoubt
Are little more than thou.
We speak a lesson taught, we know not how,
And what it is that from us flows
The hearer better than the utterer knows.
[Footnote: _Sister Songs._]

One might think that the poet would take pains to differentiate this
inspired madness from the diseased mind of the ordinary lunatic. But as
a matter of fact, bards who were literally insane have attracted much
attention from their brothers. [Footnote: At the beginning of the
romantic period not only Blake and Cowper, but Christopher Smart, John
Clare, Thomas Dermody, John Tannahill and Thomas Lovell Beddoes made the
mad poet familiar.] Of these, Tasso [Footnote: See _Song for Tasso_,
Shelley; _Tasso to Leonora_, James Thomson, B. V., _Tasso to Leonora_,
E. F. Hoffman.] and Cowper [Footnote: See Bowles, _The Harp and Despair
of Cowper_; Mrs. Browning, _Cowper's Grave_; Lord Houghton, _On Cowper's
Cottage at Olney_.] have appeared most often in the verse of the last
century. Cowper's inclusion among his poems of verses written during
periods of actual insanity has seemed to indicate that poetic madness is
not merely a figure of speech. There is also significance, as revealing
the poet's attitude toward insanity, in the fact that several fictional
poets are represented as insane. Crabbe and Shelley have ascribed
madness to their poet-heroes, [Footnote: See Crabbe, _The Patron_;
Shelley, _Rosalind and Helen_.] while the American, J. G. Holland,
represents his hero's genius as a consequence, in part, at least, of a
hereditary strain of suicidal insanity. [Footnote: See J. G. Holland,
_Kathrina_. For recent verse on the mad poet see William Rose Benet,
_Mad Blake_; Amy Lowell, _Clear, With Light Variable Winds_; Cale Young
Rice, _The Mad Philosopher_; Edmund Blunden, _Clare's Ghost_.]

It goes without saying that this is a romantic conception, wholly
incompatible with the eighteenth century belief that poetry is produced
by the action of the intelligence, aided by good taste. Think of the mad
poet, William Blake, assuring his sedate contemporaries,

All pictures that's painted with sense and with thought
Are painted by madmen as sure as a groat.
[Footnote: See fragment CI.]

What chance did he have of recognition?

This is merely indicative of the endless quarrel between the inspired
poet and the man of reason. The eighteenth century contempt for poetic
madness finds typical expression in Pope's satirical lines,

Some demon stole my pen (forgive the offense)
And once betrayed me into common sense.
[Footnote: _Dunciad_.]

And it is answered by Burns' characterization of writers depending upon
dry reason alone:

A set o' dull, conceited hashes
Confuse their brains in college classes!
They gang in sticks and come out asses,
Plain truth to speak,
And syne they think to climb Parnassus
By dint of Greek.[Footnote: _Epistle to Lapraik_.]

The feud was perhaps at its bitterest between the eighteenth century
classicists and such poets as Wordsworth [Footnote: See the _Prelude_.]
and Burns, but it is by no means stilled at present. Yeats [Footnote:
See _The Scholar_.] and Vachel Lindsay [Footnote: See _The Master of the
Dance_. The hero is a dunce in school.] have written poetry showing the
persistence of the quarrel. Though the acrimony of the disputants
varies, accordingly as the tone of the poet is predominantly thoughtful
or emotional, one does not find any poet of the last century who denies
the superiority of poetic intuition to scholarship. Thus Tennyson warns
the man of learning that he cannot hope to fathom the depths of the
poet's mind. [Footnote: See _The Poet's Mind_.] So Richard Gilder
maintains of the singer,

He was too wise
Either to fear, or follow, or despise
Whom men call science--for he knew full well
All she had told, or still might live to tell
Was known to him before her very birth.
[Footnote: _The Poet's Fame_. In the same spirit is _Invitation_, by J.
E. Flecker.]

The foundation of the poet's superiority is, of course, his claim that
his inspiration gives him mystical experience of the things which the
scholar can only remotely speculate about. Therefore Percy Mackaye makes
Sappho vaunt over the philosopher, Pittacus:

Yours is the living pall,
The aloof and frozen place of listeners
And lookers-on at life. But mine--ah! Mine
The fount of life itself, the burning fount
Pierian. I pity you.
[Footnote: _Sappho and Phaon_, a drama.]

Very likely Pittacus had no answer to Sappho's boast, but when the
average nondescript verse-writer claims that his intuitions are
infinitely superior to the results of scholarly research, the man of
reason is not apt to keep still. And one feels that the poet, in many
cases, has earned such a retort as that recorded by Young:

How proud the poet's billow swells!
The God! the God! his boast:
A boast how vain! what wrecks abound!
Dead bards stench every coast.
[Footnote: _Resignation_.]

There could be no more telling blow against the poet's view of
inspiration than this. Even so pronounced a romanticist as Mrs. Browning
is obliged to admit that the poet cannot always trust his vision. She
muses over the title of poet:

The name
Is royal, and to sign it like a queen
Is what I dare not--though some royal blood
Would seem to tingle in me now and then
With sense of power and ache,--with imposthumes
And manias usual to the race. Howbeit
I dare not: 'tis too easy to go mad
And ape a Bourbon in a crown of straws;
The thing's too common.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_. See also the lines in the same poem,
For me, I wrote
False poems, like the rest, and thought them true
Because myself was true in writing them.]

Has the poet, then, no guarantee for the genuineness of his inspiration?
Must he wait as ignorantly as his contemporaries for the judgment of
posterity? One cannot conceive of the grandly egoistic poet saying this.
Yet the enthusiast must not believe every spirit, but try them whether
they be of God. What is his proof?

Emerson suggests a test, in a poem by that name. He avers,

I hung my verses in the wind.
Time and tide their faults may find.
All were winnowed through and through:
Five lines lasted sound and true;
Five were smelted in a pot
Than the south more fierce and hot.
[Footnote: _The Test_.]

The last lines indicate, do they not, that the depth of the poet's
passion during inspiration corresponds with the judgment pronounced by
time upon his verses? William Blake quaintly tells us that he was once
troubled over this question of the artist's infallibility, and that on a
certain occasion when he was dining with the prophet Elijah, he
inquired, "Does a firm belief that a thing is so make it so?" To which
Elijah gave the comforting reply, "Every poet is convinced that it
does." [Footnote: _The Marriage of Heaven and Hell_, "A Memorable
Fancy."] To the cold critic, such an answer as Emerson's and Blake's is
doubtless unsatisfactory, but to the poet, as to the religious
enthusiast, his own ecstasy is an all-sufficient evidence.

The thoroughgoing romanticist will accept no other test. The critic of
the Johnsonian tradition may urge him to gauge the worth of his impulse
by its seemliness and restraint, but the romantic poet's utter surrender
to a power from on high makes unrestraint seem a virtue to him. So with
the critic's suggestion that the words coming to the poet in his season
of madness be made to square with his returning reason. Emerson quotes,
and partially accepts the dictum, "Poetry must first be good sense,
though it is something more." [Footnote: See the essay on
_Imagination_.] But the poet is more apt to account for his belief
in his visions by Tertullian's motto, _Credo quod absurdum_.

If overwhelming passion is an absolute test of true inspiration, whence
arises the uncertainty and confusion in the poet's own mind, concerning
matters poetical? Why is a writer so stupid as to include one hundred
pages of trash in the same volume with his one inspired poem? The answer
seems to be that no writer is guided solely by inspiration. Not that he
ever consciously falsifies or modifies the revelation given him in his
moment of inspiration, but the revelation is ever hauntingly incomplete.

The slightest adverse influence may jar upon the harmony between the
poet's soul and the spirit of poetry. The stories of Dante's "certain
men of business," who interrupted his drawing of Beatrice, and of
Coleridge's visitors who broke in upon the writing of _Kubla Khan_,
are notorious. Tennyson, in _The Poet's Mind_, warns all intruders
away from the singer's inspired hour. He tells them,

In your eye there is death;
There is frost in your breath
Which would blight the plants.
* * * * *
In the heart of the garden the merry bird chants;
It would fall to the ground if you came in.

But it is not fair always to lay the shattering of the poet's dream to
an intruder. The poet himself cannot account for its departure, so
delicate and evanescent is it. Emerson says,

There are open hours
When the God's will sallies free,
And the dull idiot might see
The flowing fortunes of a thousand years;--
Sudden, at unawares,
Self-moved, fly to the doors,
Nor sword of angels could reveal
What they conceal.
[Footnote: _Merlin_.]

What is the poet, thus shut out of Paradise, to do? He can only make a
frenzied effort to record his vision before its very memory has faded
from him. Benvenuto Cellini has told us of his tantrums while he was
finishing his bronze statue of Perseus. He worked with such fury, he
declares, that his workmen believed him to be no man, but a devil. But
the poet, no less than the molder of bronze, is under the necessity of
casting his work into shape before the metal cools. And his success is
never complete. Shelley writes, "When composition begins, inspiration is
already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been
communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original
conceptions of the poet." [Footnote: _The Defense of Poetry_.]

Hence may arise the pet theory of certain modern poets, that a long poem
is an impossibility. Short swallow flights of song only can be wholly
sincere, they say, for their ideal is a poem as literally spontaneous as
Sordello's song of Elys. In proportion as work is labored, it is felt to
be dead.

There is no lack of verse suggesting that extemporaneous composition is
most poetical, [Footnote: See Scott's accounts of his minstrels'
composition. See also, Bayard Taylor, _Ad Amicos_, and _Proem
Dedicatory_; Edward Dowden, _The Singer's Plea_; Richard Gilder,
_How to the Singer Comes the Song_; Joaquin Miller, _Because the
Skies are Blue_; Emerson, _The Poet_; Longfellow, _Envoi_; Robert
Bridges, _A Song of My Heart_.] but is there nothing to be said on the
other side? Let us reread Browning's judgment on the matter:

Touch him ne'er so lightly, into song he broke.
Soil so quick receptive,--not one feather-seed,
Not one flower-dust fell but straight its fall awoke
Vitalizing virtue: song would song succeed
Sudden as spontaneous--prove a poet soul!
Rock's the song soil rather, surface hard and bare:
Sun and dew their mildness, storm and frost their rage
Vainly both expend,--few flowers awaken there:
Quiet in its cleft broods--what the after-age
Knows and names a pine, a nation's heritage.
[Footnote: _Epilogue to the Dramatic Idyls_. The same thought is in
the sonnet, "I ask not for those thoughts that sudden leap," by James
Russell Lowell, and _Overnight, a Rose_, by Caroline Giltiman.]

Is it possible that the one epic poem which is a man's life work may be
as truly inspired as is the lyric that leaps to his lips with a sudden
gush of emotion? Or is it true, as Shelley seems to aver that such a
poem is never an ideal unity, but a collection of inspired lines and
phrases connected "by the intertexture of conventional phrases?"
[Footnote: _The Defense of Poetry_.]

It may be that the latter view seems truer to us only because we
misunderstand the manner in which inspiration is limited. Possibly poets
bewail the incompleteness of the flash which is revealed to them, not
because they failed to see all the glories of heaven and earth, but
because it was a vision merely, and the key to its expression in words
was not given them. "Passion and expression are beauty itself," says
William Blake, and the passion, so far from making expression inevitable
and spontaneous, may by its intensity be an actual handicap, putting the
poet into the state "of some fierce thing replete with too much rage."

Surely we have no right to condemn the poet because a perfect expression
of his thought is not immediately forthcoming. Like any other artist, he
works with tools, and is handicapped by their inadequacy. According to
Plato, language affords the poet a more flexible implement than any
other artist possesses, [Footnote: See _The Republic_, IX, 588 D.]
yet, at times, it appears to the maker stubborn enough. To quote Francis

Our untempered speech descends--poor heirs!
Grimy and rough-cast still from Babel's brick-layers;
Curse on the brutish jargon we inherit,
Strong but to damn, not memorize a spirit!
[Footnote: _Her Portrait_.]

Walt Whitman voices the same complaint:

Speech is the twin of my vision: it is unequal to measure itself;
It provokes me forever; it says sarcastically,
"Walt, you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?"
[Footnote: _Song of Myself_.]

Accordingly there is nothing more common than verse bewailing the
singer's inarticulateness. [Footnote: See Tennyson, _In Memoriam_,
"For words, like nature, half reveal"; Oliver Wendell Holmes, _To my
Readers_; Mrs. Browning, _The Soul's Expression_; Jean Ingelow, _A Lily
and a Lute_; Coventry Patmore, _Dead Language_; Swinburne, _The Lute and
the Lyre, Plus Intra_; Francis Thompson, _Daphne_; Joaquin Miller,
_Ina_; Richard Gilder, _Art and Life_; Alice Meynell, _Singers to Come_;
Edward Dowden, _Unuttered_; Max Ehrmann, _Tell Me_; Alfred Noyes, _The
Sculptor_; William Rose Benet, _Thwarted Utterance_; Robert Silliman
Hillyer, _Even as Love Grows More_; Daniel Henderson, _Lover and
Lyre_; Dorothea Lawrence Mann, _To Imagination_; John Hall Wheelock,
_Rossetti_; Sara Teasdale, _The Net_; Lawrence Binyon, _If I Could Sing
the Song of Her_.]

Frequently these confessions of the impossibility of expression are
coupled with the bitterest tirades against a stupid audience, which
refuses to take the poet's genius on trust, and which remains utterly
unmoved by his avowals that he has much to say to it that lies too deep
for utterance. Such an outlet for the poet's very natural petulance is
likely to seem absurd enough to us. It is surely not the fault of his
hearers, we are inclined to tell him gently, that he suffers an
impediment in his speech. Yet, after all, we may be mistaken. It is
significant that the singers who are most aware of their
inarticulateness are not the romanticists, who, supposedly, took no
thought for a possible audience; but they are the later poets, who are
obsessed with the idea that they have a message. Emily Dickinson,
herself as untroubled as any singer about her public, yet puts the
problem for us. She avers,

I found the phrase to every thought
I ever had, but one;
And that defies me,--as a hand
Did try to chalk the sun.

To races nurtured in the dark;--
How would your own begin?
Can blaze be done in cochineal,
Or noon in mazarin?

"To races nurtured in the dark." There lies a prolific source to the
poet's difficulties. His task is not merely to ensure the permanence of
his own resplendent vision, but to interpret it to men who take their
darkness for light. As Emerson expresses it in his translation of
Zoroaster, the poet's task is "inscribing things unapparent in the
apparent fabrication of the world." [Footnote: _Essay on Imagination_.]

Here is the point where poets of the last one hundred years have most
often joined issues. As writers of the eighteenth century split on the
question whether poetry is the product of the human reason, or of a
divine visitation, literal "inspiration," so poets of the nineteenth
century and of our time have been divided as to the propriety of
adapting one's inspiration to the limitations of one's hearers. It too
frequently happens that the poet goes to one extreme or the other. He
may either despise his audience to such a degree that he does not
attempt to make himself intelligible, or he may quench the spark of his
thought in the effort to trim his verse into a shape that pleases his

Austin Dobson takes malicious pleasure, often, in championing the less
aristocratic side of the controversy. His _Advice to a Poet_ follows,
throughout, the tenor of the first stanza:

My counsel to the budding bard
Is, "Don't be long," and "Don't be hard."
Your "gentle public," my good friend,
Won't read what they can't comprehend.

This precipitates us at once into the marts of the money changers, and
one shrinks back in distaste. If this is what is meant by keeping one's
audience in mind during composition, the true poet will have none of it.
Poe's account of his deliberate composition of the _Raven_ is
enough to estrange him from the poetic brotherhood. Yet we are face to
face with an issue that we, as the "gentle reader," cannot ignore. Shall
the poet, then, inshrine his visions as William Blake did, for his own
delight, and leave us unenlightened by his apocalypse?

There is a middle ground, and most poets have taken it. For in the
intervals of his inspiration the poet himself becomes, as has been
reiterated, a mere man, and except for the memories of happier moments
that abide with him, he is as dull as his reader. So when he labors to
make his inspiration articulate he is not coldly manipulating his
materials, like a pedagogue endeavoring to drive home a lesson, but for
his own future delight he is making the spirit of beauty incarnate. And
he will spare no pains to this end. Keats cries,

O for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
My soul has to herself decreed.
[Footnote: _Sleep and Poetry_. See also the letter to his brother
George, April, 1817.]

Bryant warns the poet,

Deem not the framing of a deathless lay
The pastime of a drowsy summer day;
But gather all thy powers
And wreak them on the verse that thou dost weave.
[Footnote: _The Poet_.]

It is true that not all poets agree that these years of labor are of
avail. Even Bryant, just quoted, warns the poet,

Touch the crude line with fear
But in the moments of impassioned thought.
[Footnote: _The Poet_.]

Indeed the singer's awe of the mysterious revelation given him may be so
deep that he dares not tamper with his first impetuous transcription of
it. But as a sculptor toils over a single vein till it is perfect, the
poet may linger over a word or phrase, and so long as the pulse seems to
beat beneath his fingers, no one has a right to accuse him of
artificiality. Sometimes, indeed, he is awkward, and when he tries to
wreathe his thoughts together, they wither like field flowers under his
hot touch. Or, in his zeal, he may fashion for his forms an embroidered
robe of such richness that like heavy brocade it disguises the form
which it should express. In fact, poets are apt to have an affection,
not merely for their inspiration, but for the words that clothe it.
Keats confessed, "I look upon fine phrases as a lover." Tennyson
delighted in "jewels fine words long, that on the stretched forefinger
of all time sparkle forever." Rossetti spoke no less sincerely than
these others, no doubt, even though he did not illustrate the efficacy
of his search, when he described his interest in reading old manuscripts
with the hope of "pitching on some stunning words for poetry." Ever and
anon there is a rebellion against conscious elaboration in dressing
one's thoughts. We are just emerging from one of the noisiest of these.
The vers-librists insist that all adornment and disguise be stripped
off, and the idea be exhibited in its naked simplicity. The quarrel with
more conservative writers comes, not from any disagreement as to the
beauty of ideas in the nude, but from a doubt on the part of the
conservatives as to whether one can capture ideal beauty without an
accurately woven net of words. Nor do the vers-librists prove that they
are less concerned with form than are other poets. "The poet must learn
his trade in the same manner, and with the same painstaking care, as the
cabinet maker," says Amy Lowell. [Footnote: Preface to _Sword Blades
and Poppy Seed_.] The disagreement among poets on this point is
proving itself to be not so great as some had supposed. The ideal of
most singers, did they possess the secret, is to do as Mrs. Browning
advises them,

Keep up the fire
And leave the generous flames to shape themselves.
[Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.]

Whether the poet toils for years to form a shrine for his thought, or
whether his awe forbids him to touch his first unconscious formulation
of it, there comes a time when all that he can do has been done, and he
realizes that he will never approximate his vision more closely than
this. Then, indeed, as high as was his rapture during the moment of
revelation, so deep is likely to be his discouragement with his powers
of creation, for, however fair he may feel his poem to be, it yet does
not fill the place of what he has lost. Thus Francis Thompson sighs over
the poet,

When the embrace has failed, the rapture fled,
Not he, not he, the wild sweet witch is dead,
And though he cherisheth
The babe most strangely born from out her death,
Some tender trick of her it hath, maybe,
It is not she.
[Footnote: _Sister Songs_.]

We have called the poet an egotist, and surely, his attitude toward the
blind rout who have had no glimpse of the heavenly vision, is one of
contemptuous superiority. But like the priest in the temple, all his
arrogance vanishes when he ceases to harangue the congregation, and goes
into the secret place to worship. And toward anyone who sincerely seeks
the revelation, no matter how feeble his powers may be, the poet's
attitude is one of tenderest sympathy and comradeship. Alice Gary

Hear me tell
How much my will transcends my feeble powers,
As one with blind eyes feeling out in flowers
Their tender hues.
[Footnote: _To the Spirit of Song_.]

And there is not a poet in the last century of such prominence that he
does not reverence such a confession, [Footnote: Some poems showing the
similarity in such an attitude of great and small alike, follow:
_Epistle to Charles C. Clarke_, Keats; _The Soul's Expression_, Mrs.
Browning; _Memorial Verses to Wm. B. Scott_, Swinburne; _Sister Songs_,
_Proemion to Love in Dian's Lap_, _A Judgment in Heaven_, Francis
Thompson; _Urania_, Matthew Arnold; _There Have Been Vast Displays of
Critic Wit_, Alexander Smith; _Invita Minerva_ and _L'Envoi to the
Muse_, J. R. Lowell; _The Voiceless_, O. W. Holmes; _Fata Morgana_, and
_Epimetheus, or the Poet's Afterthought_, Longfellow; _L'Envoi_,
Kipling; _The Apology_, and _Gleam on Me, Fair Ideal_, Lewis Morris;
_Dedication to Austin Dobson_, E. Gosse; _A Country Nosegay_, and
_Gleaners of Fame_, Alfred Austin; _Another Tattered Rhymster in the
Ring_, G. K. Chesterton; _To Any Poet_, Alice Meynell; _The Singer_, and
_To a Lady on Chiding Me For Not Writing_, Richard Realf; _The Will and
the Wing_ and _Though Dowered with Instincts Keen and High_, P. H.
Haynes; _Dull Words_, Trumbull Stickney; _The Inner Passion_, Alfred
Noyes; _The Veiled Muse_, William Winter; _Sonnet_, William Bennett;
_Tell Me_, Max Ehrmann; _The Singer's Plea_, Edward Dowden; _Genius_, R.
H. Home; _My Country_, George Woodberry; _Uncalled_, Madison Cawein;
Thomas Bailey Aldrich, _At the Funeral of a Minor Poet_; Robert Haven
Schauffler, _Overtones, The Silent Singers_; Stephen Vincent Benet, _A
Minor Poet_; Alec de Candole, _The Poets_.] and aver that he too is an
earnest and humble suppliant in the temple of beauty. For the clearer
his glimpse of the transcendent vision has been, the more conscious he
is of his blindness after the glory has passed, and the more
unquenchable is his desire for a new and fuller revelation.



If English poets of the last century are more inclined to parade their
moral virtue than are poets of other countries, this may be the result
of a singular persistency on the part of England in searching out and
punishing sins ascribed to poetic temperament. Byron was banished;
Shelley was judged unfit to rear his own children; Keats was advertised
as an example of "extreme moral depravity"; [Footnote: By _Blackwoods_.]
Oscar Wilde was imprisoned; Swinburne was castigated as "an unclean
fiery imp from the pit." [Footnote: By _The Saturday Review_.] These are
some of the most conspicuous examples of a refusal by the British public
to countenance what it considers a code of morals peculiar to poets. It
is hardly to be wondered at that verse-writers of the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries have not been inclined to quarrel with Sir Philip
Sidney's statement that "England is the stepmother of poets," [Footnote:
_Apology for Poetry_.] and that through their writings should run a vein
of aggrieved protest against an unfair discrimination in dragging their
failings ruthlessly out to the light.

It cannot, however, be maintained that England is unique in her
prejudice against poetic morals. The charges against the artist have
been long in existence, and have been formulated and reformulated in
many countries. In fact Greece, rather than England, might with some
justice be regarded as the parent of the poet's maligners, for Plato has
been largely responsible for the hue and cry against the poet throughout
the last two millennia. Various as are the counts against the poet's
conduct, they may all be included under the declaration in the
_Republic_, "Poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of
withering and starving them; she lets them rule instead of ruling them."
[Footnote: Book X, 606, Jowett translation.]

Though the accusers of the poet are agreed that the predominance of
passion in his nature is the cause of his depravity, still they are a
heterogeneous company, suffering the most violent disagreement among
themselves as to a valid reason for pronouncing his passionate impulses
criminal. Their unfortunate victim is beset from so many directions that
he is sorely put to it to defend himself against one band of assailants
without exposing himself to attack from another quarter.

This hostile public may be roughly divided into three camps, made up,
respectively, of philistines, philosophers, and puritans. Within recent
years the distinct grievance of each group has been made articulate in a
formal denunciation of the artist's morals.

There is, first, that notorious indictment, _Degeneration_, by Max
Nordau. Nordau speaks eloquently for all who claim the name "average
plain citizen," all who would hustle off to the gallows anyone found
guilty of breaking the lockstep imposed upon men by convention.
Secondly, there is a severe criticism of the poet from an ostensibly
unbiased point of view, _The Man of Genius_, by Cesare Lombroso.
Herein are presented the arguments of the thinkers, who probe the poet's
foibles with an impersonal and scientific curiosity. Last, there is the
severe arraignment, _What Is Art?_ by Tolstoi. In this book are
crystallized the convictions of the ascetics, who recognize in beauty a
false goddess, luring men from the stern pursuit of holiness.

How does it come about that, in affirming the perniciousness of the
poet's passionate temperament, the man of the street, the philosopher,
and the puritan are for the nonce in agreement? The man of the street is
not averse to feeling, as a rule, even when it is carried to egregious
lengths of sentimentality. A stroll through a village when all the
victrolas are in operation would settle this point unequivocally for any
doubter. It seems that the philistine's quarrel with the poet arises
from the fact that, unlike the makers of phonograph records, the poet
dares to follow feeling in defiance of public sentiment. Like the
conservative that he is, the philistine gloats over the poet's lapses
from virtue because, in setting aside mass-feeling as a gauge of right
and wrong, and in setting up, instead, his own individual feelings as a
rule of conduct, the poet displays an arrogance that deserves a fall.
The philosopher, like the philistine, may tolerate feeling within
limits. His sole objection to the poet lies in the fact that, far from
making emotion the handmaiden of the reason, as the philosopher would
do, the poet exalts emotion to a seat above the reason, thus making
feeling the supreme arbiter of conduct. The puritan, of course, gives
vent to the most bitter hostility of all, for, unlike the philistine and
the philosopher, he regards natural feeling as wholly corrupt. Therefore
he condemns the poet's indulgence of his passionate nature with equal
severity whether he is within or without the popular confines of proper
conduct, or whether or not his conduct may be proved reasonable.

Much of the inconsistency in the poet's exhibitions of his moral
character may be traced to the fact that he is addressing now one, now
another, of his accusers. The sobriety of his arguments with the
philosopher has sometimes been interpreted by the man of the street as
cowardly side-stepping. On the other hand, the poet's bravado in defying
the man of the street might be interpreted by the philosopher as an
acknowledgment of imperviousness to reason.

It seems as though the first impulse of the poet were to set his back
against the wall and deal with all his antagonists at once, by
challenging their right to pry into his private conduct. It is true that
certain poets of the last century have believed it beneath their dignity
to pay any attention to the insults and persecution of the public. But
though a number have maintained an air of stolid indifference so long as
the attacks have remained personal, few or none have been content to
disregard defamation of a departed singer.

The public cannot maintain, in many instances, that this vicarious
indignation arises from a sense of sharing the frailties of the dead
poet who is the direct object of attack. Not thus may one account for
the generous heat of Whittier, of Richard Watson Gilder, of Robert
Browning, of Tennyson, in rebuking the public which itches to make a
posthumous investigation of a singer's character. [Footnote: See
Whittier, _My Namesake_; Richard W. Gilder, _A Poet's Protest_, and
_Desecration_; Robert Browning, _House_; Tennyson, _In Memoriam_.]
Tennyson affords a most interesting example of sensitiveness with
nothing, apparently, to conceal. There are many anecdotes of his morbid
shrinking from public curiosity, wholly in key with his cry of

Now the poet cannot die
Nor leave his music as of old,
But round him ere he scarce be cold
Begins the scandal and the cry:
Proclaim the faults he would not show,
Break lock and seal; betray the trust;
Keep nothing sacred; 'tis but just
The many-headed beast should know.

In protesting against the right of the public to judge their conduct,
true poets refuse to bring themselves to a level with their accusers by
making the easiest retort, that they are made of exactly the same clay
as is the _hoi polloi_ that assails them. This sort of recrimination is
characteristic of a certain blustering type of claimant for the title of
poet, such as Joaquin Miller, a rather disorderly American of the last
generation, who dismissed attacks upon the singer with the words,

Yea, he hath sinned. Who hath revealed
That he was more than man or less?
[Footnote: _Burns_ and _Byron_.]

The attitude is also characteristic of another anomalous type which
flourished in America fifty years ago, whose verse represents an
attempted fusion of emasculated poetry and philistine piety. A writer of
this type moralizes impartially over the erring bard and his accusers,

Sin met thy brother everywhere,
And is thy brother blamed?
From passion, danger, doubt and care
He no exemption claimed.
[Footnote: Ebenezer Eliot, _Burns_.]

But genuine poets refuse to compromise themselves by admitting that they
are no better than other men.

They are not averse, however, to pointing out the unfitness of the
public to cast the first stone. So unimpeachable a citizen as Longfellow
finds even in the notoriously spotted artist, Benvenuto Cellini, an
advantage over his maligners because

He is not
That despicable thing, a hypocrite.
[Footnote: _Michael Angelo_.]

Most of the faults charged to them, poets aver, exist solely in the evil
minds of their critics. Coleridge goes so far as to expurgate the poetry
of William Blake, "not for the want of innocence in the poem, but from
the too probable want of it in the readers." [Footnote: Letter to Charles
Augustus Tulk, Highgate, Thursday Evening, 1818, p. 684, Vol. II,
_Letters_, ed. E. Hartley Coleridge.]

The nakedness of any frailties which poets may possess, makes it the
more contemptible, they feel, for the public to wrap itself in the cloak
of hypocrisy before casting stones. The modern poet's weakness for
autobiographical revelation leaves no secret corners in his nature in
which surreptitious vices may lurk. One might generalize what Keats says
of Burns, "We can see horribly clear in the work of such a man his whole
life, as if we were God's spies." [Footnote: Sidney Colvin, _John Keats_,
p. 285.] The Rousseau-like nudity of the poet's soul is sometimes put
forward as a plea that the public should close its eyes to possible
shortcomings. Yet, as a matter of fact, it is precisely in the lack of
privacy characterizing the poet's life that his enemies find their
justification for concerning themselves with his morality. Since by
flaunting his personality in his verse he propagates his faults among
his admirers, the public is surely justified in pointing out and
denouncing his failings.

Poets cannot logically deny this. To do so, they would have to confess
that their inspirations are wholly unaffected by their personalities.
But this is, naturally, a very unpopular line of defense. That unhappy
worshiper of puritan morals and of the muses, J. G. Holland, does make
such a contention, averring,

God finds his mighty way
Into his verse. The dimmest window panes
Let in the morning light, and in that light
Our faces shine with kindled sense of God
And his unwearied goodness, but the glass
Gets little good of it; nay, it retains
Its chill and grime beyond the power of light
To warm or whiten ...
... The psalmist's soul
Was not a fitting place for psalms like his
To dwell in overlong, while wanting words.
[Footnote: _Kathrina._]

But the egotism of the average poet precludes this explanation. No more
deadly insult could be offered him than forgiveness of his sins on the
ground of their unimportance. Far from holding that his personality does
not affect his verse, he would have us believe that the sole worth of
his poetry lies in its reflection of his unique qualities of soul.
Elizabeth Barrett, not Holland, exhibits the typical poetic attitude
when she asks Robert Browning, "Is it true, as others say, that the
productions of an artist do not partake of his real nature,--that in the
minor sense, man is not made in the image of God? It is _not_ true,
to my mind." [Footnote: Letter to Robert Browning, February 3, 1845.]

The glass houses in which the poet's accusers may reside really have
nothing to do with the question. The immorality of these men is of
comparatively slight significance, whereas the importance of the poet's
personality is enormous, because it takes on immortality through his
works. Not his contemporaries alone, but readers of his verse yet unborn
have a right to call him to account for his faults. Though Swinburne
muses happily over the sins of Villon,

But from thy feet now death hath washed the mire,
[Footnote: _A Ballad of Francois Villon._]
it is difficult to see how he could seriously have advanced such a
claim, inasmuch as, assuming Villon's sincerity, the reader, without
recourse to a biography, may reconstruct the whole course of his moral
history from his writings.

Unquestionably if the poet wishes to satisfy his enemies as to the
ethical worth of his poetry, he is under obligation to prove to them
that as "the man of feeling" he possesses only those impulses that lead
him toward righteousness. And though puritans, philosophers and
philistines quarrel over technical points in their conceptions of
virtue, still, if the poet is not a criminal, he should be able, by
making a plain statement of his innocence, to remove the most heinous
charges against him, which bind his enemies into a coalition.

There is no doubt that poets, as a class, have acknowledged the
obligation of proving that their lives are pure. But the effectiveness
of their statements has been largely dissipated by the fact that their
voices have been almost drowned by the clamor of a small coterie which
finds its chief delight in brazenly exaggerating the vices popularly
ascribed to it, then defending them as the poet's exclusive privilege.

So perennially does this group flourish, and so shrill-voiced are its
members in self-advertisement, that it is useless for other poets to
present their case, till the claims of the ostentatiously wicked are
heard. One is inclined, perhaps, to dismiss them as pseudo-poets, whose
only chance at notoriety is through enunciating paradoxes. In these days
when the school has shrunk to Ezra Pound and his followers, vaunting
their superiority to the public, "whose virgin stupidity is
untemptable," [Footnote: Ezra Pound, _Tensone._] it is easy to
dismiss the men and their verse thus lightly. But what is one to say
when one encounters the decadent school in the last century, flourishing
at a time when, in the words of George Augustus Scala, the public had to
choose between "the clever (but I cannot say moral) Mr. Swinburne, and
the moral (but I cannot say clever) Mr. Tupper?" [Footnote: See E.
Gosse, _Life of Swinburne,_ p. 162.] What is one to say of a period
wherein the figure of Byron, with his bravado and contempt for accepted
morality, towers above most of his contemporaries?

Whatever its justification, the excuse for the poets flaunting an
addiction to immorality lies in the obnoxiousness of the philistine
element among their enemies. When mass feeling, mass-morality, becomes
too oppressive, poets are wont to escape from its trammelling
conventions at any cost. Rather than consent to lay their emotions under
the rubber-stamp of expediency, they are likely to aver, with the
sophists of old, that morality is for slaves, whereas the rulers among
men, the poets, recognize no law but natural law.

Swinburne affords an excellent example of this type of reaction. Looking
back tolerantly upon his early prayers to the pagan ideal to

Come down and redeem us from virtue,

upon his youthful zest in leaving

The lilies and languors of virtue
For the roses and raptures of vice,

he tried to dissect his motives. "I had," he said, "a touch of Byronic
ambition to be thought an eminent and terrible enemy to the decorous
life and respectable fashion of the world, and, as in Byron's case,
there was mingled with a sincere scorn and horror of hypocrisy a boyish
and voluble affectation of audacity and excess." [Footnote: E. Gosse,
_Life of Swinburne,_ p. 309.]

So far, so good. There is little cause for disagreement among poets,
however respectable or the reverse their own lives may be, in the
contention that the first step toward sincerity of artistic expression
must be the casting off of external restraints. Even the most
conservative of them is not likely to be seriously concerned if, for the
time being, he finds among the younger generation a certain exaggeration
of the pose of unrestraint. The respectability of Oliver Wendell Holmes
did not prevent his complacent musing over Tom Moore:

If on his cheek unholy blood
Burned for one youthful hour,
'Twas but the flushing of the bud
That bloomed a milk-white flower.
[Footnote: _After a Lecture on Moore_.]

One may lay it down as an axiom among poets that their ethical natures
must develop spontaneously, or not at all. An attempt to force one's
moral instincts will inevitably cramp and thwart one's art. It is
unparalleled to find so great a poet as Coleridge plaintively asserting,
"I have endeavored to feel what I ought to feel," [Footnote: Letter to
the Reverend George Coleridge, March 21, 1794.] and his brothers have
recoiled from his words. His declaration was, of course, not equivalent
to saying, "I have endeavored to feel what the world thinks I ought to
feel," but even so, one suspects that the philosophical part of
Coleridge was uppermost at the time of this utterance, and that his
obligatory feelings did not flower in a _Christabel_ or a _Kubla Khan_.

The real parting of the ways between the major and minor contingents of
poets comes when certain writers maintain, not merely their freedom from
conventional moral standards, but a perverse inclination to seek what
even they regard as evil. This is, presumably, a logical, if
unconscious, outgrowth of the romantic conception of art as "strangeness
added to beauty." For the decadents conceive that the loveliness of
virtue is an age-worn theme which has grown so obvious as to lose its
aesthetic appeal, whereas the manifold variety of vice contains
unexplored possibilities of fresh, exotic beauty. Hence there has been
on their part an ardent pursuit of hitherto undreamed-of sins, whose
aura of suggestiveness has not been rubbed off by previous artistic

The decadent's excuse for his vices is that his office is to reflect
life, and that indulgence of the senses quickens his apprehension of it.
He is apt to represent the artist as "a martyr for all mundane moods to
tear," [Footnote: See John Davidson, A Ballad in Blank Verse.] and to
indicate that he is unable to see life steadily and see it whole until
he has experienced the whole gamut of crime.[Footnote: See Oscar Wilde,
Ravenna; John Davidson, A Ballad in Blank Verse on the Making of a Poet,
A Ballad of an Artist's Wife; Arthur Symons, There's No Lust Like to
Poetry.] Such a view has not, of course, been confined to the nineteenth
century. A characteristic renaissance attitude toward life and art was
caught by Browning in a passage of _Sordello_. The hero, in a momentary
reaction from idealism, longs for the keener sensations arising from
vice and exclaims,

Leave untried
Virtue, the creaming honey-wine; quick squeeze
Vice, like a biting serpent, from the lees
Of life! Together let wrath, hatred, lust,
All tyrannies in every shape be thrust
Upon this now.

Naturally Browning does not allow this thirst for evil to be more than a
passing impulse in Sordello's life.

The weakness of this recipe for poetic achievement stands revealed in
the cynicism with which expositions of the frankly immoral poet end. If
the quest of wickedness is a powerful stimulus to the emotions, it is a
very short-lived one. The blase note is so dominant in Byron's
autobiographical poetry,--the lyrics, _Childe Harold_ and _Don
Juan_--as to render quotation tiresome. It sounds no less inevitably
in the decadent verse at the other end of the century. Ernest Dowson's
_Villanelle of the Poet's Road_ is a typical expression of the
mood. Dowson's biography leaves no doubt of the sincerity of his lines,

Wine and women and song,
Three things garnish our way:
Yet is day overlong.
Three things render us strong,
Vine-leaves, kisses and bay.
Yet is day overlong.
Since the decadents themselves must admit that delight in sin kills,
rather than nurtures, sensibility, a popular defense of their practices
is to the effect that sin, far from being sought consciously, is an
inescapable result of the artist's abandonment to his feelings. Moreover
it is useful, they assert, in stirring up remorse, a very poetic
feeling, because it heightens one's sense of the beauty of holiness.
This view attained to considerable popularity during the Victorian
period, when sentimental piety and worship of Byron were sorely put to
it to exist side by side. The prevalence of the view that remorse is the
most reliable poetic stimulant is given amusing evidence in the
_Juvenalia_ of Tennyson [Footnote: See _Poems of Two Brothers_.]and
Clough, [Footnote: See _An Evening Walk in Spring_.] wherein these
youths of sixteen and seventeen, whose later lives were to prove so
innocuous, represent themselves as racked with the pangs of repentance
for mysteriously awful crimes. Mrs. Browning, an excellent recorder of
Victorian public opinion, ascribed a belief in the deplorable but
inevitable conjunction of crime and poetry to her literary friends, Miss
Mitford and Mrs. Jameson. Their doctrine, Mrs. Browning wrote, "is that
everything put into the poetry is taken out of the man and lost utterly
by him." [Footnote: See letters to Robert Browning, February 17, 1846;
May 1,1846.] Naturally, Mrs. Browning wholly repudiated the idea, and
Browning concurred in her judgment. "What is crime," he asked, "which
would have been prevented but for the 'genius' involved in it?--Poor,
cowardly, miscreated creatures abound--if you could throw genius into
their composition, they would become more degraded still, I suppose."
[Footnote: Letter to Elizabeth Barrett, April 4, 1846.]

Burns has been the great precedent for verse depicting the poet as
yearning for holiness, even while his importunate passions force him
into evil courses. One must admit that in the verse of Burns himself, a
yearning for virtue is not always obvious, for he seems at times to take
an unholy delight in contemplating his own failings, as witness the
_Epistle to Lapraik_, and his repentance seems merely perfunctory,
as in the lines,

There's ae wee faut they whiles lay to me,
I like the lassies--Gude forgie me.

But in _The Vision_ he accounts for his failings as arising from his
artist's temperament. The muse tells him,

I saw thy pulses' maddening play,
Wild, send thee Pleasure's devious way,
And yet the light that led astray
Was light from Heaven.

And in _A Bard's Epitaph_ he reveals himself as the pathetic, misguided
poet who has been a favorite in verse ever since his time.

Sympathy for the well-meaning but misguided singer reached its height
about twenty years ago, when new discoveries about Villon threw a glamor
over the poet of checkered life. [Footnote: See Edwin Markham, _Villon_;
Swinburne, _Burns_, _A Ballad of Francois Villon_.] At the same time
Verlaine and Baudelaire in France, [Footnote: See Richard Hovey,
_Verlaine_; Swinburne, _Ave atque Vale_.] and Lionel Johnson, Francis
Thompson, Ernest Dowson, and James Thomson, B. V., in England, appeared
to prove the inseparability of genius and especial temptation. At this
time Francis Thompson, in his poetry, presented one of the most moving
cases for the poet of frail morals, and concluded

What expiating agony
May for him damned to poesy
Shut in that little sentence be,--
What deep austerities of strife,--
He lived his life. He lived his life.
[Footnote: _A Judgment in Heaven_.]

Such sympathetic portrayal of the erring poet perhaps hurts his case
more than does the bravado of the extreme decadent group. Philistines,
puritans and philosophers alike are prone to turn to such expositions as
the one just quoted and point out that it is in exact accord with their
charge against the poet,--namely, that he is more susceptible to
temptation than is ordinary humanity, and that therefore the proper
course for true sympathizers would be, not to excuse his frailties, but
to help him crush the germs of poetry out of his nature. "Genius is a
disease of the nerves," is Lombroso's formulation of the charge.
[Footnote: _The Man of Genius_.] Nordau points out that the disease
is steadily increasing in these days of specialization, and that the
overkeenness of the poet's senses in one particular direction throws his
nature out of balance, so that he lacks the poise to withstand

Fortunately, it is a comparatively small number of poets that surrenders
to the enemy by conceding either the poet's deliberate indulgence in
sin, or his pitiable moral frailty. If one were tempted to believe that
this defensive portrayal of the sinful poet is in any sense a major
conception in English poetry, the volley of repudiative verse greeting
every outcropping of the degenerate's self-exposure would offer a
sufficient disproof. In the romantic movement, for instance, one finds
only Byron (among persons of importance) to uphold the theory of the
perverted artist, whereas a chorus of contradiction greets each
expression of his theories.

In the van of the recoil against Byronic morals one finds Crabbe,
[Footnote: See _Edmund Shore_, _Villars_.] Praed [Footnote: See _The
Talented Man_, _To Helen with Crabbe's Poetry_.] and Landor. [Footnote:
See _Few Poets Beckon_, _Apology for Gebir_.] Later, when the wave of
Byronic influence had time to reach America, Longfellow took up the
cudgels against the evil poet. [Footnote: See his treatment of Aretino,
in _Michael Angelo_.] Protest against the group of decadents who
flourished in the 1890's even yet rocks the poetic waves slightly,
though these men did not succeed in making the world take them as
seriously as it did Byron. The cue of most present-day writers is to
dismiss the professedly wicked poet lightly, as an aspirant to the
laurel who is unworthy of serious consideration. A contemporary poet
reflects of such would-be riders of Pegasus:

There will be fools that in the name of art
Will wallow in the mire, crying, "I fall,
I fall from heaven!" fools that have only heard
From earth, the murmur of those golden hooves
Far, far above them.
[Footnote: Alfred Noyes, _At the Sign of the Golden Shoe_. See also
Richard Le Gallienne, _The Decadent to his Soul_, _Proem to the
Reader in English Poems_; Joyce Kilmer, _A Ballad of New Sins_.]

Poets who indignantly repudiate any and all charges against their moral
natures have not been unanimous in following the same line of defense.
In many cases their argument is empirical, and their procedure is
ideally simple. If a verse-writer of the present time is convicted of
wrong living, his title of poet is automatically taken away from him; if
a singer of the past is secure in his laurels, it is understood that all
scandals regarding him are merely malicious fictions. In the eighteenth
century this mode of passing judgment was most naively manifest in
verse. Vile versifiers were invariably accused of having vile personal
lives, whereas the poet who basked in the light of fame was conceded,
without investigation, to "exult in virtue's pure ethereal flame." In
the nineteenth century, when literary criticism was given over to
prose-writers, those ostensible friends of the poets held by the same
simple formula, as witness the attempts to kill literary and moral
reputation at one blow, which were made, at various times, by Lockhart,
Christopher North and Robert Buchanan. [Footnote: Note their respective
attacks on Keats, Swinburne and Rossetti.]

It may indicate a certain weakness in this hard and fast rule that
considerable difficulty is encountered in working it backward. The
highest virtue does not always entail a supreme poetic gift, though
poets and their friends have sometimes implied as much. Southey, in his
critical writings, is likely to confuse his own virtue and that of his
protege, Kirke White, with poetical excellence. Longfellow's,
Whittier's, Bryant's strength of character has frequently been
represented by patriotic American critics as guaranteeing the quality of
their poetical wares.

Since a claim for the insunderability of virtue and genius seems to lead
one to unfortunate conclusions, it has been rashly conceded in certain
quarters that the virtue of a great poet may have no immediate
connection with his poetic gift. It is conceived by a few nervously
moral poets that morality and art dwell in separate spheres, and that
the first transcends the second. Tennyson started a fashion for viewing
the two excellences as distinct, comparing them, in _In Memoriam_:

Loveliness of perfect deeds,
More strong than all poetic thought,

and his disciples have continued to speak in this strain. This is the
tenor, for instance, of Jean Ingelow's _Letters of Life and Morning_, in
which she exhorts the young poet,

Learn to sing,
But first in all thy learning, learn to be.

The puritan element in American literary circles, always troubling the
conscience of a would-be poet, makes him eager to protest that virtue,
not poetry, holds his first allegiance.

He held his manly name
Far dearer than the muse,
[Footnote: J. G. Saxe, _A Poet's Elegy_.]

we are told of one poet-hero. The good Catholic verse of Father Ryan
carries a warning of the merely fortuitous connection between poets'
talent and their respectability, averring,

They are like angels, but some angels fell.
[Footnote: _Poets_.]

Even Whittier is not sure that poetical excellence is worthy to be
mentioned in the same breath as virtue, and he writes,

Dimmed and dwarfed, in times like these
The poet seems beside the man;
His life is now his noblest strain.
[Footnote: _To Bryant on His Birthday_.]

When the poet of more firmly grounded conviction attempts to show reason
for his confidence in the poet's virtue, he may advance such an argument
for the association of righteousness and genius as has been offered by
Carlyle in his essay, _The Hero as Poet_. This is the theory that, far
from being an example of nervous degeneration, as his enemies assert,
the poet is a superman, possessing will and moral insight in as
preeminent a degree as he possesses sensibility. This view, that poetry
is merely a by-product of a great nature, gains plausibility from
certain famous artists of history, whose versatility appears to have
been unlimited. Longfellow has seized upon this conception of the poet
in his drama, _Michael Angelo_, as has G. L. Raymond in his drama,
_Dante_. In the latter poem the argument for the poet's moral supremacy
is baldly set forth.

Artistic sensibility, Dante says, far from excusing moral laxity, binds
one to stricter standards of right living. So when Cavalcanti argues in
favor of free love,

Your humming birds may sip the sweet they need
From every flower, and why not humming poets?

Raymond makes Dante reply,

The poets are not lesser men, but greater,
And so should find unworthy of themselves
A word, a deed, that makes them seem less worthy.

Owing to the growth of specialization in modern life, this argument,
despite Carlyle, has not attained much popularity. Even in idealized
fictions of the poet, it is not often maintained that he is equally
proficient in every line of activity. Only one actual poet within our
period, William Morris, can be taken as representative of such a type,
and he does not afford a strong argument for the poet's distinctive
virtue, inasmuch as tradition does not represent him as numbering
remarkable saintliness among his numerous gifts.

There is a decided inconsistency, moreover, in claiming unusual strength
of will as one of the poet's attributes. The muscular morality resulting
from training one's will develops in proportion to one's ability to
overthrow one's own unruly impulses. It is almost universally maintained
by poets, on the contrary, that their gift depends upon their yielding
themselves utterly to every fugitive impulse and emotion. Little modern
verse vaunts the poet's stern self-control. George Meredith may cry,

I take the hap
Of all my deeds. The wind that fills my sails
Propels, but I am helmsman.
[Footnote: _Modern Love_.]

Henley may thank the gods for his unconquerable soul. On the whole,
however, a fatalistic temper is much easier to trace in modern poetry
than is this one.

Hardly more popular than the superman theory is another argument for the
poet's virtue that appears sporadically in verse. It has occurred to a
few poets that their virtue is accounted for by the high subject-matter
of their work, which exercises an unconscious influence upon their
lives. Thus in the eighteenth century Young finds it natural that in
Addison, the author of _Cato_,

Virtues by departed heroes taught
Raise in your soul a pure immortal flame,
Adorn your life, and consecrate your fame.
[Footnote: _Lines to Mr. Addison_.]

Middle-class didactic poetry of the Victorian era expresses the same
view. Tupper is sure that the true poet will live

With pureness in youth and religion in age.
[Footnote: _What Is a Poet_.]

since he conceives as the function of poetry

To raise and purify the grovelling soul,
* * * * *
And the whole man with lofty thoughts to fill.
[Footnote: _Poetry_.]

This explanation may account for the piety of a Newman, a Keble, a
Charles Wesley, but how can it be stretched to cover the average poet of
the last century, whose subject-matter is so largely himself? Conforming
his conduct to the theme of his verse would surely be no more
efficacious than attempting to lift himself by his own boot straps.

These two occasional arguments leave the real issue untouched. The real
ground for the poet's faith in his moral intuitions lies in his
subscription to the old Platonic doctrine of the trinity,--the
fundamental identity of the good, the true and the beautiful.

There is something in the nature of a practical joke in the facility
with which Plato's bitter enemies, the poets, have fitted to themselves
his superlative praise of the philosopher's virtue. [Footnote: See the
_Republic_, VI, 485, ff.] The moral instincts of the philosopher
are unerring, Plato declares, because the philosopher's attention is
riveted upon the unchanging idea of the good which underlies the
confusing phantasmagoria of the temporal world. The poets retort that
the moral instincts of the poet, more truly than of the philosopher, are
unerring, because the poet's attention is fixed upon the good in its
most ravishing aspect, that of beauty, and in this guise it has an
irresistible charm which it cannot hold even for the philosopher.

Poets' convictions on this point have remained essentially unchanged
throughout the history of poetry. Granted that there has been a strain
of deliberate perversity running through its course, cropping out in the
erotic excesses of the late-classic period, springing up anew in one
phase of the Italian renaissance, transplanted to France and England,
where it appeared at the time of the English restoration, growing again
in France at the time of the literary revolution, thence spreading
across the channel into England again. Yet this is a minor current. The
only serious view of the poet's moral nature is that nurtured by the
Platonism of every age. Milton gave it the formulation most familiar to
English ears, but Milton by no means originated it. Not only from his
Greek studies, but from his knowledge of contemporary Italian aesthetics,
he derived the idea of the harmony between the poet's life and his
creations which led him to maintain that it is the poet's privilege to
make of his own life a true poem.

"I am wont day and night," says Milton, "to seek for this idea of the
beautiful through all the forms and faces of things (for many are the
shapes of things divine) and to follow it leading me on as with certain
assured traces." [Footnote: Prose works, Vol. I, Letter VII, Symons ed.]
The poet's feeling cannot possibly lead him astray when his sense of
beauty affords him a talisman revealing all the ugliness and
repulsiveness of evil. Even Byron had, in theory at least, a glimmering
sense of the anti-poetical character of evil, leading him to cry,

Tis not in
The harmony of things--this hard decree,
This ineradicable taint of sin,
This boundless upas, this all-blasting tree
Whose root is earth.
[Footnote: _Childe Harold_.]

If Byron could be brought to confess the inharmonious nature of evil, it
is obvious that to most poets the beauty of goodness has been
undeniable. In the eighteenth century Collins and Hughes wrote poems
wherein they elaborated Milton's argument for the unity of the good and
the beautiful.[Footnote: Collins, _Ode on the Poetical Character_;
John Hughes, _Ode on Divine Poetry_.] Among the romantic poets, the
Platonism of Coleridge,[Footnote: See his essay on Claudian, where he
says, "I am pleased to think that when a mere stripling I formed the
opinion that true taste was virtue, and that bad writing was bad
feeling."] Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats was unflinching in this
particular. The Brownings subscribed to the doctrine. Tennyson's
allegiance to scientific naturalism kept him in doubt for a time, but in
the end his faith in beauty triumphed, and he was ready to praise the
poet as inevitably possessing a nature exquisitely attuned to goodness.
One often runs across dogmatic expression of the doctrine in minor
poetry. W. A. Percy advises the poet,

O singing heart, think not of aught save song,
Beauty can do no wrong.
[Footnote: _Song_.]

Again one hears of the singer,

Pure must he be;
Oh, blessed are the pure; for they shall hear
Where others hear not; see where others see
With a dazed vision,
[Footnote: Henry Timrod, _A Vision of Poesy_.]

and again,

To write a poem, a man should be as pure
As frost-flowers.
[Footnote: T. L. Harris, _Lyrics of the Golden Age_.]

Only recently a writer has pictured the poet as one who

Lived beyond men, and so stood
Admitted to the brotherhood
Of beauty.
[Footnote: Madison Cawein, _The Dreamer of Dreams_.]

It is needless to run through the list of poet heroes. Practically all
of them look to a single standard to govern them aesthetically and
morally. They are the sort of men whom Watts-Dunton praises,

Whose poems are their lives, whose souls within Hold naught in dread
save Art's high conscience bar, Who know how beauty dies at touch of
sin. [Footnote: _The Silent Voices_.]

Such is the poet's case for himself. But no matter how eloquently he
presents his case, his quarrel with his three enemies remains almost as
bitter as before, and he is obliged to pay some attention to their
individual charges.

The poet's quarrel with the philistine, in particular, is far from
settled. The more lyrical the poet becomes regarding the unity of the
good and the beautiful, the more skeptical becomes the plain man. What
is this about the irresistible charm of virtue? Virtue has possessed the
plain man's joyless fidelity for years, and he has never discovered any
charm in her. The poet possesses a peculiar power of insight which
reveals in goodness hidden beauties to which ordinary humanity is blind?
Let him prove it, then, by being as good in the same way as ordinary
folk are. If the poet professes to be able to achieve righteousness
without effort, the only way to prove it is to conform his conduct to
that of men who achieve righteousness with groaning of spirit. It is too
easy for the poet to justify any and every aberration with the
announcement, "My sixth sense for virtue, which you do not possess, has
revealed to me the propriety of such conduct." Thus reasons the

The beauty-blind philistine doubtless has some cause for bewilderment,
but the poet takes no pains to placate him. The more genuine is one's
impulse toward goodness, the more inevitably, the poet says, will it
bring one into conflict with an artificial code of morals. Shelley
indicated this at length in _The Defense of Poetry_, and in both
_Rosalind and Helen_ and _The Revolt of Islam_ he showed his bards
offending the world by their original conceptions of purity. Likewise of
the poet-hero in _Prince Athanase_ Shelley tells us,

Fearless he was, and scorning all disguise.
What he dared do or think, though men might start
He spoke with mild, yet unaverted eyes.

It must be admitted that sometimes, notably in Victorian narrative
verse, the fictitious poet's virtue is inclined to lapse into a
typically bourgeois respectability. In Mrs. Browning's _Aurora
Leigh_, for instance, the heroine's morality becomes somewhat rigid,
and when she rebukes the unmarried Marian for bearing a child, and
chides Romney for speaking tenderly to her after his supposed marriage
with Lady Waldemar, the reader is apt to sense in her a most unpoetical
resemblance to Mrs. Grundy. And if Mrs. Browning's poet is almost too
respectable, she is still not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath
with the utterly innocuous poet set forth by another Victorian, Coventry
Patmore. In Patmore's poem, _Olympus_, the bard decides to spend an
evening with his own sex, but he is offended by the cigar smoke and the
coarse jests, and flees home to

The milk-soup men call domestic bliss.

Likewise, in _The Angel in the House_, the poet follows a most
domestic line of orderly living. Only once, in the long poem, does he
fall below the standard of conduct he sets for himself. This sin
consists of pressing his sweetheart's hand in the dance, and after
shamefacedly confessing it, he adds,

And ere I slept, on bended knee
I owned myself, with many a tear
Unseasonable, disorderly.

But so distasteful, to the average poet, is such cringing subservience
to philistine standards, that he takes delight in swinging to the other
extreme, and representing the innocent poet's persecutions at the hands
of an unfriendly world. He insists that in venturing away from
conventional standards poets merit every consideration, being

Tall galleons,
Out of their very beauty driven to dare
The uncompassed sea, founder in starless night.
[Footnote: _At the Sign of the Golden Shoe_, Alfred Noyes.]

He is convinced that the public, far from sympathizing with such
courage, deliberately tries to drive the poet to desperation. Josephine
Preston Peabody makes Marlowe inveigh against the public,

My sins they learn by rote,
And never miss one; no, no miser of them,
* * * * *
Avid of foulness, so they hound me out
Away from blessing that they prate about,
But never saw, and never dreamed upon,
And know not how to long for with desire.
[Footnote: _Marlowe_.]

In the same spirit Richard Le Gallienne, in lines _On the Morals of
Poets_, warns their detractor,

Bigot, one folly of the man you flout
Is more to God than thy lean life is whole.

If it be true that the poet occasionally commits an error, he points out
that it is the result of the philistine's corruption, not his own. He
acknowledges that it is fatally easy to lead him, not astray perhaps,
but into gravely compromising himself, because he is characterized by a
childlike inability to comprehend the very existence of sin in the
world. Of course his environment has a good deal to do with this. The
innocent shepherd poet, shut off from crime by many a grassy hill and
purling stream, has a long tradition behind him. The most typical
pastoral poet of our period, the hero of Beattie's _The Minstrel_,
suffers a rude shock when an old hermit reveals to him that all the
world is not as fair and good as his immediate environment. The
innocence of Wordsworth, and of the young Sordello, were fostered by
like circumstances. Arnold conceives of Clough in this way, isolating
him in Oxford instead of Arcadia, and represents him as dying from the
shock of awakening to conditions as they are. But environment alone does
not account for a large per cent of our poet heroes, the tragedy of
whose lives most often results from a pathetic inability to recognize
evil motives when they are face to face with them.

Insistence upon the childlike nature of the poet is a characteristic
nineteenth century obsession. Such temperamentally diverse poets as Mrs.
Browning, [Footnote: See _A Vision of Poets_.] Swinburne [Footnote:
See _A New Year's Ode_.] and Francis Thompson [Footnote: See _Sister
Songs_.] agree in stressing this aspect of the poet's virtue. Perhaps it
has been overdone, and the resulting picture of the singer as "an
ineffectual angel, beating his bright wings in the void," is not so
noble a conception as was Milton's sterner one, but it lends to the
poet-hero a pathos that has had much to do with popularizing the type in
literature, causing the reader to exclaim, with Shelley,

The curse of Cain
Light on his head who pierced thy innocent breast
And scared the angel soul that was its earthly guest.

Of course the vogue of such a conception owes most to Shelley. All the
poets appearing in Shelley's verse, the heroes of _Rosalind and Helen,
The Revolt of Islam, Adonais, Epipsychidion_ and _Prince Athanase_,
share the disposition of the last-named one:

Naught of ill his heart could understand,
But pity and wild sorrow for the same.

It is obvious that all these singers are only veiled expositions of
Shelley's own character, as he understood it, and all enthusiastic
readers of Shelley's poetry have pictured an ideal poet who is
reminiscent of Shelley. Even a poet so different from him, in many
respects, as Browning, could not escape from the impress of Shelley's
character upon his ideal. Browning seems to have recognized fleeting
glimpses of Shelley in _Sordello_, and to have acknowledged them in
his apostrophe to Shelley at the beginning of that poem. Browning's
revulsion of feeling, after he discovered Shelley's abandonment of
Harriet, did not prevent him from holding to his early ideal of Shelley
as the typical poet. A poem by James Thomson, B.V., is characteristic of
later poets' notion of Shelley. The scene of the poem is laid in heaven.
Shelley, as the most compassionate of the angels, is chosen to go to the
earth, to right its evils. He comes to this world and lives with "the
saint's white purity," being

A voice of right amidst a world's foul wrong,
* * * * *
With heavenly inspiration, too divine
For souls besotted with earth's sensual wine.
[Footnote: _Shelley_.]

Consequently he is misunderstood and persecuted, and returns to heaven
heart-broken by the apparent failure of his mission.

Aside from Shelley, Marlowe is the historical poet most frequently
chosen to illustrate the world's proneness to take advantage of the
poet's innocence. In the most famous of the poems about Marlowe, _The
Death of Marlowe_, R. H. Horne takes a hopeful view of the world's
depravity, for he makes Marlowe's innocence of evil so touching that it
moves a prostitute to reform. Other poets, however, have painted
Marlowe's associates as villains of far deeper dye. In the drama by
Josephine Preston Peabody, the persecutions of hypocritical puritans
hound Marlowe to his death. [Footnote: _Marlowe._]

The most representative view of Marlowe as an innocent, deceived youth
is that presented by Alfred Noyes, in _At the Sign of the Golden
Shoe_. In this poem we find Nash describing to the Mermaid group
thetragic end of Marlowe, who lies

Dead like a dog in a drunken brawl,
Dead for a phial of paint, a taffeta gown.

While there float in from the street, at intervals, the cries of the
ballad-mongers hawking their latest doggerel,

Blaspheming Tamborlin must die,
And Faustus meet his end;
Repent, repent, or presently
To hell you must descend,

Nash tells his story of the country lad who walked to London, bringing
his possessions carried on a stick over his shoulder, bringing also,
All unshielded, all unarmed,
A child's heart, packed with splendid hopes and dreams.

His manner,

Untamed, adventurous, but still innocent,

exposed him to the clutches of the underworld. One woman, in particular,

Used all her London tricks
To coney-catch the country greenhorn.

Won by her pathetic account of her virtues and trials Marlowe tried to
help her to escape from London-then, because he was utterly unused to
the wiles of women, and was

Simple as all great, elemental things,

when she expressed an infatuation for him, then

In her treacherous eyes,
As in dark pools the mirrored stars will gleam,
Here did he see his own eternal skies.
* * * * *
And all that God had meant to wake one day
Under the Sun of Love, suddenly woke
By candle-light, and cried, "The Sun, the Sun."

At last, holding him wrapped in her hair, the woman attempted to
tantalize him by revealing her promiscuous amours. In a horror of agony
and loathing, Marlowe broke away from her. The next day, as Nash was
loitering in a group including this woman and her lover, Archer, someone
ran in to warn Archer that a man was on his way to kill him. As Marlowe
strode into the place, Nash was struck afresh by his beauty:

I saw his face,
Pale, innocent, just the clear face of that boy
Who walked to Cambridge, with a bundle and stick,
The little cobbler's son. Yet--there I caught
My only glimpse of how the sun-god looked--

Mourning for his death, the great dramatists agree that

His were, perchance, the noblest steeds of all,
And from their nostrils blew a fierier dawn
Above the world.... Before his hand
Had learned to quell them, he was dashed to earth.

Minor writers are most impartial in clearing the names of any and all
historical artists by such reasoning as this. By negligible American
versifiers one too often finds Burns lauded as one whom "such purity
inspires," [Footnote: A. S. G., _Burns_.] and, more astonishingly,
Byron conceived of as a misjudged innocent. If one is surprised to hear,
in verse on Byron's death,

His cherub soul has passed to its eclipse,
[Footnote: T. H. Chivers, _On the Death of Byron_.]

this fades into insignificance beside the consolation offered Byron by
another writer for his trials in this world,

Peace awaits thee with caressings,
Sitting at the feet of Jesus.

Better known poets are likely to admit a streak of imperfection in a few
of their number, while maintaining their essential goodness. It is
refreshing, after witnessing too much whitewashing of Burns, to find
James Russell Lowell bringing Burns down to a level where the attacks of
philistines, though unwarranted, are not sacrilegious. Lowell imagines
Holy Willie trying to shut Burns out of heaven. He accuses Burns first
of irreligion, but St. Paul protests against his exclusion on that
ground. At the charges of drunkenness, and of yearning "o'er-warmly
toward the lasses," Noah and David come severally to his defense. In the
end, Burns' great charity is felt to offset all his failings, and Lowell
adds, of poets in general,

These larger hearts must feel the rolls
Of stormier-waved temptation;
These star-wide souls beneath their poles
Bear zones of tropic passion.
[Footnote: _At the Burns Centennial_.]

Browning is willing to allow even fictitious artists to be driven into
imperfect conduct by the failure of those about them to live up to their
standards. For example, Fra Lippo Lippi, disgusted with the barren
virtue of the monks, confesses,

I do these wild things in sheer despite
And play the fooleries you catch me at
In sheer rage.

But invariably, whatever a poet hero's failings maybe, the author
assures the philistine public that it is entirely to blame.

If the poet is unable to find common ground with the plain man on which
he can make his morality sympathetically understood, his quarrel with
the puritan is foredoomed to unsuccessful issue, for whereas the plain
man will wink at a certain type of indulgence, the puritan will be
satisfied with nothing but iron restraint on the poet's part, and
systematic thwarting of the impulses which are the breath of life to

The poet's only hope of winning in his argument with the puritan lies in
the possibility that the race of puritans is destined for extinction.
Certainly they were much more numerous fifty years ago than now, and
consequently more voluble in their denunciation of the poet. At that
time they found their most redoubtable antagonists in the Brownings.
Robert Browning devoted a poem, _With Francis Furini_, to exposing the
incompatibility of asceticism and art, while Mrs. Browning, in _The
Poet's Vow_, worked out the tragic consequences of the hero's mistaken
determination to retire from the world,

That so my purged, once human heart,
From all the human rent,
May gather strength to pledge and drink
Your wine of wonderment,
While you pardon me all blessingly
The woe mine Adam sent.

In the end Mrs. Browning makes her poet realize that he is crushing the
best part of his nature by thus thwarting his human instincts.

No, the poet's virtue must not be a pruning of his human nature, but a
flowering of it. Nowhere are the Brownings more in sympathy than in
their recognition of this fact. In _Pauline_, Browning traces the poet's
mistaken effort to find goodness in self-restraint and denial. It is a
failure, and the poem ends with the hero's recognition that "life is
truth, and truth is good." The same idea is one of the leading motives
in _Sordello_.

One seems to be coming perilously near the decadent poet's argument
again. And there remains to be dealt with a poet more extreme than
Browning--Walt Whitman, who challenges us with his slogan, "Clear and
sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul,"
[Footnote: _Song of Myself_.] and then records his zest in throwing
himself into all phases of life.

It is plain, at any rate, how the abandon of the decadent might develop
from the poet's insistence upon his need to follow impulse utterly, to
develop himself in all directions. The cry of Browning's poet in

I had resolved
No age should come on me ere youth was spent,
For I would wear myself out,

Omar Khayyam's

While you live
Drink!--for once dead you never shall return,

Swinburne's cry of despair,

Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has
grown gray with thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the
fullness of death,[Footnote: _Hymn to Proserpine_.]

show that in a revulsion from the asceticism of the puritan, no less
than in a revulsion from the stupidity of the plain man, it may become
easy for the poet to carry his _carpe diem_ philosophy very far. His
talisman, pure love of beauty, must be indeed unerring if it is to
guide aright his

principle of restlessness
That would be all, have, see, know, taste, feel, all
[Footnote: _Pauline_.]

The puritan sees, with grim pleasure, that an occasional poet confesses
that his sense of beauty is not strong enough to lead him at all times.
Emerson admits this, telling us, in _The Poet_, that although the
singer perceives ideals in his moments of afflatus which

Turn his heart from lovely maids,
And make the darlings of the earth
Swainish, coarse, and nothing worth,

these moments of exaltation pass, and the singer finds himself a mere
man, with an unusually rich sensuous nature,

Eager for good, not hating ill;
On his tense chords all strokes are felt,
The good, the bad, with equal zeal.

It is not unheard-of to find a poet who, despite occasional expressions
of confidence in the power of beauty to sustain him, loses his courage
at other times, and lays down a system of rules for his guidance that is
quite as strict as any which puritans could formulate. Wordsworth's
_Ode to Duty_ does not altogether embody the aesthetic conception
of effortless right living. One may, perhaps, explain this poem on the
grounds that Wordsworth is laying down principles of conduct, not for
poets, but for the world at large, which is blind to aesthetic
principles. Not thus, however, may one account for the self-tortures of
Arthur Clough, or of Christina Rossetti, who was fully aware of the
disagreeableness of the standards which she set up for herself. She
reflected grimly,

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end!
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn till night, my friend.
[Footnote: _Uphill._]

It cannot be accidental, however, that wherever a poet voices a stern
conception of virtue, he is a poet whose sensibility to physical beauty
is not noteworthy. This is obviously true in the case of both Clough
and Christina Rossetti. At intervals it was true of Wordsworth, whereas
in the periods of his inspiration he expressed his belief that goodness
is as a matter of good taste. The pleasures of the imagination were then
so intense that they destroyed in him all desire for dubious delights.
Thus in the _Prelude_ he described an unconscious purification of
his life by his worship of physical beauty, saying of nature,

If in my youth I have been pure in heart,
If, mingling with the world, I am content
With my own modest pleasures, and have lived
With God and Nature communing, removed
From little enmities and low desires,
The gift is yours.

Dante Gabriel, not Christina, possessed the most purely poetical nature
in the Rossetti family, and his moral conceptions were the typical
aesthetic ones, as incomprehensible to the puritan as they were to
Ruskin, who exclaimed, "I don't say you do wrong, because you don't seem
to know what is wrong, but you do just whatever you like as far as
possible--as puppies and tomtits do." [Footnote: See E. L. Cary, The
Rossettis, p.79.] To poets themselves however, there appears nothing
incomprehensible about the inevitable rightness of their conduct, for
they have not passed out of the happy stage of Wordsworth's _Ode to

When love is an unerring light,
And joy its own felicity.

For the most part, whenever the puritan imagines that the poet has
capitulated, he is mistaken, and the apparent self-denial in the poet's
life is really an exquisite sort of epicureanism. The likelihood of such
misunderstanding by the world is indicated by Browning in _Sordello,_
wherein the hero refuses to taste the ordinary pleasures of life,
because he wishes to enjoy the flavor of the highest pleasure untainted.
He resolves,

The world shall bow to me conceiving all
Man's life, who see its blisses, great and small
Afar--not tasting any; no machine
To exercise my utmost will is mine,
Be mine mere consciousness: Let men perceive
What I could do, a mastery believe
Asserted and established to the throng
By their selected evidence of song,
Which now shall prove, whate'er they are, or seek
To be, I am.

The claims of the puritans being set aside, the poet must, finally, meet
the objection of his third disputant, the philosopher, the one accuser
whose charges the poet is wont to treat with respect. What validity, the
philosopher asks, can be claimed for apprehension of truth, of the
good-beautiful, secured not through the intellect, but through emotion?
What proof has the poet that feeling is as unerring in detecting the
essential nature of the highest good as is the reason?

There is great variance in the breach between philosophers and poets on
this point. Between the philosopher of purely rationalistic temper, and
the poet who

dares to take
Life's rule from passion craved for passion's sake,
[Footnote: Said of Byron. Wordsworth, _Not in the Lucid Intervals._]

there is absolutely no common ground, of course. Such a poet finds the
rigid ethical system of a rationalistic philosophy as uncharacteristic
of the actual fluidity of the world as ever Cratylus did. Feeling, but
not reason, may be swift enough in its transformations to mirror the
world, such a poet believes, and he imitates the actual flux of things,
not with a wagging of the thumb, like Cratylus, but with a flutter of
the heart. Thus one finds Byron characteristically asserting, "I hold
virtue, in general, or the virtues generally, to be only in the
disposition, each a _feeling,_ not a principle." [Footnote: _Letter to
Charles Dallas,_ January 21, 1808.]

On the other hand, one occasionally meets a point of view as opposite as
that of Poe, who believed that the poet, no less than the philosopher,
is governed by reason solely,--that the poetic imagination is a purely
intellectual function. [Footnote: See the _Southern Literary
Messenger,_ II, 328, April, 1836.]

The philosopher could have no quarrel with him. Between the two extremes
are the more thoughtful of the Victorian poets,--Browning, Tennyson,
Arnold, Clough, whose taste leads them so largely to intellectual
pursuits that it is difficult to say whether their principles of moral
conduct arise from the poetical or the philosophical part of their

The most profound utterances of poets on this subject, however, show
them to be, not rationalists, but thoroughgoing Platonists. The feeling
in which they trust is a Platonic intuition which includes the reason,
but exists above it. At least this is the view of Shelley, and Shelley
has, more largely than any other man, moulded the beliefs of later
English poets. It is because he judges imaginative feeling to be always
in harmony with the deepest truths perceived by the reason that he
advertises his intention to purify men by awakening their feelings.
Therefore, in his preface to _The Revolt of Islam_ he says "I would
only awaken the feelings, so that the reader should see the beauty of
true virtue." in the preface to the _Cenci,_ again, he declares,
"Imagination is as the immortal God which should take flesh for the
redemption of human passion."

The poet, while thus expressing absolute faith in the power of beauty to
redeem the world, yet is obliged to take into account the Platonic
distinction between the beautiful and the lover of the beautiful.
[Footnote: _Symposium,_ sec. 204.]

No man is pure poet, he admits, but in proportion as he approaches
perfect artistry, his life is purified. Shelley is expressing the
beliefs of practically all artists when he says, "The greatest poets
have been men of the most spotless virtue, of the most consummate
prudence, and, if we would look into the interior of their lives, the
most fortunate of men; and the exceptions, as they regard those who
possess the poetical faculty in a high, yet an inferior degree, will be
found upon consideration to confirm, rather than to destroy, the rule."
[Footnote: _The Defense of Poetry._]

Sidney Lanier's verse expresses this argument of Shelley precisely. In
_The Crystal,_ Lanier indicates that the ideal poet has never been
embodied. Pointing out the faults of his favorite poets, he contrasts
their muddy characters with the perfect purity of Christ. And in _Life
and Song_ he repeats the same idea:

None of the singers ever yet
Has wholly lived his minstrelsy,
Or truly sung his true, true thought.

Philosophers may retort that this imperfection in the singer's life
arises not merely from the inevitable difference between the lover and
the beauty which he loves, but from the fact that the object of the
poet's love is not really that highest beauty which is identical with
the good. Poets are content with the "many beautiful," Plato charges,
instead of pressing on to discover the "one beautiful," [Footnote:
Republic, VI, 507B.]--that is, they are ravished by the beauty of the
senses, rather than by the beauty of the ideal.

Possibly this is true. We have had, in recent verse, a sympathetic
expression of the final step in Plato's ascent to absolute beauty, hence
to absolute virtue. It is significant, however, that this verse is in
the nature of a farewell to verse writing. In _The Symbol Seduces,_
"A. E." exclaims,

I leave
For Beauty, Beauty's rarest flower,
For Truth, the lips that ne'er deceive;
For Love, I leave Love's haunted bower.

But this is exactly what the poet, as poet, cannot do. It may be, as
Plato declared, that he is missing the supreme value of life by clinging
to the "many beautiful," instead of the "one beautiful," but if he does
not do so, all the colour of his poetical garment falls away from him,
and he becomes pure philosopher. There is an infinite promise in the
imperfection of the physical world that fascinates the poet. Life is to
him "a dome of many colored glass" that reveals, yet stains, "the white
radiance of eternity." If it were possible for him to gaze upon beauty
apart from her sensuous embodiment, it is doubtful if he would find her

This is only to say that there is no escaping the fundamental aesthetic
problem. Is the artist the imitator of the physical world, or the
revealer of the spiritual world? He is both, inevitably, if he is a
great poet. Hence there is a duality in his moral life. If one aspect of
his genius causes him to be rapt away from earthly things, in
contemplation of the heavenly vision, the other aspect no less demands
that he live, with however pure a standard, in the turmoil of earthly
passions. In the period which we have under discussion, it is easy to
separate the two types and choose between them. Enthusiasts may,
according to their tastes, laud the poet of Byronic worldliness or of
Shelleyan otherworldliness. But, of course, this is only because this
time boasts of no artist of first rank. When one considers the
preeminent names in the history of poetry, it is not so easy to make the
disjunction. If the gift of even so great a poet as Milton was
compatible with his developing one side of his genius only, we yet feel
that Milton is a great poet with limitations, and cannot quite concede
to him equal rank with Shakespeare, or Dante, in whom the hybrid nature
of the artist is manifest.



There was a time, if we may trust anthropologists, when the poet and the
priest were identical, but the modern zeal for specialization has not
tolerated this doubling of function. So utterly has the poet been robbed
of his priestly character that he is notorious, nowadays, as possessing
no religion at all. At least, representatives of the three strongest
critical forces in society, philosophers, puritans and plain men, assert
with equal vehemence that the poet has no religion that agrees with
their interpretation of that word.

As was the case in their attack upon the poet's morals, so in the
refusal to recognize his religious beliefs, the poet's three enemies are
in merely accidental agreement. The philosopher condemns the poet as
incapable of forming rational theological tenets, because his temper is
unspeculative, or at most, carries him no farther than a materialistic
philosophy. The puritan condemns the poet as lacking reverence, that is,
as having no "religious instinct." The plain man, of course, charges the
poet, in this particular as in all others, with failure to conform. The
poet shows no respect, he avers, for the orthodox beliefs of society.

The quarrel of the poet and the philosopher has at no time been more in
evidence than at present. The unspeculativeness of contemporary poetry
is almost a creed. Poets, if they are to be read, must take a solemn
pledge to confine their range of subject-matter to fleeting impressions
of the world of sense. The quarrel was only less in evidence in the
period just before the present one, at the time when the cry, "art for
art's sake," held the attention of the public. At that time philosophers
could point out that Walter Pater, the molder of poet's opinions, had
said, "It is possible that metaphysics may be one of the things which we
must renounce, if we would mould our lives to artistic perfection." This
narrowness of interest, this deliberate shutting of one's self up within
the confines of the physically appealing, has been believed to be
characteristic of all poets. The completeness of their satisfaction in
what has been called "the aesthetic moment" is the death of their
philosophical instincts. The immediate perception of flowers and birds
and breezes is so all-sufficing to them that such phenomena do not send
their minds racing back on a quest of first principles. Thus argue

Such a conclusion the poet denies. The philosopher, to whom a
sense-impression is a mere needle-prick, useful only as it starts his
thoughts off on a tangent from it to the separate world of ideas, is not
unnaturally misled by the poet's total absorption in the world of sense.
But the poet is thus absorbed, not, as the philosopher implies, because
he denies, or ignores, the existence of ideas, but because he cannot
conceive of disembodied ideas. Walter Pater's reason for rejecting
philosophy as a handicap to the poet was that philosophy robs the world
of its sensuousness, as he believed. He explained the conception of
philosophy to which he objected, as follows:

To that gaudy tangle of what gardens, after all, are meant
to produce, in the decay of time, as we may think at first
sight, the systematic, logical gardener put his meddlesome
hand, and straightway all ran to seed; to _genus_ and
_species_ and _differentia_, into formal classes,
under general notions, and with--yes! with written labels
fluttering on the stalks instead of blossoms--a botanic or
physic garden, as they used to say, instead of our
flower-garden and orchard. [Footnote: _Plato and

But it is only against this particular conception of philosophy, which
is based upon abstraction of the ideal from the sensual, that the poet
demurs. Beside the foregoing view of philosophy expressed by Pater, we
may place that of another poet, an adherent, indeed, of one of the most
purely sensuous schools of poetry. Arthur Symons states as his belief,
"The poet who is not also philosopher is like a flower without a root.
Both seek the same infinitude; the one apprehending the idea, the other
the image." [Footnote: _The Romantic Movement,_ p. 129.] That is,
to the poet, ideality is the hidden life of the sensual.

Wherever a dry as dust rationalizing theology is in vogue, it is true
that some poets, in their reaction, have gone to the extreme of
subscribing to a materialistic conception of the universe. Shelley is
the classic example. Everyone is aware of his revulsion from Paley's
theology, which his father sternly proposed to read aloud to him, and of
his noisy championing of the materialistic cause, in _Queen Mab_.
But Shelley is also the best example that might be cited to prove the
incompatibility of materialism and poetry. It might almost be said that
Shelley never wrote a line of genuine poetry while his mind was under
the bondage of materialistic theory. Fortunately Shelley was scarcely
able to hold to the delusion that he was a materialist throughout the
course of an entire poem, even in his extreme youth. To Shelley, more
truly perhaps than to any other poet, the physical world throbs with
spiritual life. His materialistic theories, if more loudly vociferated,
were of scarcely greater significance than were those of Coleridge, who
declared, "After I had read Voltaire's _Philosophical Dictionary,_
I sported infidel, but my infidel vanity never touched my heart."
[Footnote: James Gillman, _Life of Coleridge_, p. 23.]

A more serious charge of atheism could be brought against the poets at
the other end of the century. John Davidson was a thoroughgoing
materialist, and the other members of the school, made sceptic by their
admiration for the sophistic philosophy of Wilde, followed Davidson in
his views. But this hardly strengthens the philosopher's charge that
materialistic philosophy characterizes poets as a class, for the
curiously limited poetry which the 1890 group produced might lead the
reader to assume that spiritual faith is indispensable to poets. If
idealistic philosophy, as Arthur Symons asserts, is the root of which
poetry is the flower, then the artificial and exotic poetry of the
_fin de siecle_ school bears close resemblance to cut flowers,
already drooping.

It is significant that the outstanding materialist among American poets,
Poe, produced poetry of much the same artificial temper as did these
men. Poe himself was unable to accept, with any degree of complacence,
the materialistic philosophy which seemed to him the most plausible
explanation of life. One of his best-known sonnets is a threnody for
poetry which, he feels, is passing away from earth as materialistic
views become generally accepted. [Footnote: See the sonnet, _To
Science._] Sensuous as was his conception of poetry, he yet felt that
one kills it in taking the spirit of ideality out of the physical world.
"I really perceive," he wrote in this connection, "that vanity about
which most men merely prate,--the vanity of the human or temporal life."
[Footnote: Letter to James Russell Lowell, July 2, 1844.]

It is obvious that atheism, being pure negation, is not congenial to the
poetical temper. The general rule holds that atheism can exist only
where the reason holds the imagination in bondage. It was not merely the
horrified recoil of orthodox opinion that prevented Constance Naden, the
most voluminous writer of atheistic verse in the last century, from
obtaining lasting recognition as a poet. Verse like hers, which
expresses mere denial, is not essentially more poetical than blank

One cannot make so sweeping a statement without at once recalling the
notable exception, James Thompson, B.V., the blackness of whose
atheistic creed makes up the whole substance of _The City of Dreadful
Night_. The preacher brings comfort to the tortured men in that poem,
with the words,

And now at last authentic word I bring
Witnessed by every dead and living thing;
Good tidings of great joy for you, for all:
There is no God; no fiend with name divine
Made us and tortures us; if we must pine
It is to satiate no Being's gall.

But this poem is a pure freak in poetry. Perhaps it might be asserted of
James Thompson, without too much casuistry, that he was, poetically
speaking, not a materialist but a pessimist, and that the strength of
his poetic gift lay in the thirst of his imagination for an ideal world
in which his reason would not permit him to believe. One cannot say of
him, as of Coleridge, that "his unbelief never touched his heart." It
would be nearer the truth to say that his unbelief broke his heart.
Thomson himself would be the first to admit that his vision of the City
of Dreadful Night is inferior, as poetry, to the visions of William
Blake in the same city, of whom Thomson writes with a certain wistful

He came to the desert of London town,
Mirk miles broad;
He wandered up and he wandered down,
Ever alone with God.
[Footnote: _William Blake._]

Goethe speaks of the poet's impressions of the outer world, the inner
world and the other world. To the poet these impressions cannot be
distinct, but must be fused in every aesthetic experience. In his
impressions of the physical world he finds, not merely the reflection of
his own personality, but the germ of infinite spiritual meaning, and it
is the balance of the three elements which creates for him the
"aesthetic repose."

Even in the peculiarly limited sensuous verse of the present the third
element is implicit. Other poets, no less than Joyce Kilmer, have a dim
sense that in their physical experiences they are really tasting the
eucharist, as Kilmer indicates in his warning,

Vain is his voice in whom no longer dwells
Hunger that craves immortal bread and wine.
[Footnote: _Poets._]

Very dim, indeed, it may be, the sense is, yet in almost every
verse-writer of to-day there crops out, now and then, a conviction of
the mystic significance of the physical. [Footnote: See, for example,
John Masefield, _Prayer,_ and _The Seekers;_ and William Rose Benet,
_The Falconer of God._] To cite the most extreme example of a rugged
persistence of the spiritual life in the truncated poetry of the
present, even Carl Sandburg cannot escape the conclusion that his
birds are

Summer-saulting for God's sake.

Only the poet seems to possess the secret of the fusion of sense and
spirit in the world. To the average eye sense-objects are opaque, or, at

Book of the day: