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AN ESSAY BY JOHN DRINKWATER
If you were to ask twenty intelligent people, “What is the Thames?” the answer due to you from each would be—”a river.” And yet this would hardly be matter to satisfy your enquiring mind. You would more probably say, “What do you know of the Thames?” or, “Describe the Thames to me.” This would bring you a great variety of opinions, many dissertations on geological and national history, many words in praise of beauty, many personal confessions. Here would be the revelation of many minds approaching a great subject in as many manners, confirming and contradicting each other, making on the whole some impression of cumulative judgment, giving you many clues to what might be called the truth, no one of them by itself coming near to anything like full knowledge, and the final word would inevitably be left unsaid.
The question, “What is poetry?” has been answered innumerable times, often by the subtlest and clearest minds, and as many times has it been answered differently. The answer in itself now makes a large and distinguished literature to which, full as it is of keen intelligence and even of constructive vision, we can return with unstaling pleasure. The very poets themselves, it is true, lending their wits to the debate, have left the answer incomplete, as it must—not in the least unhappily—always remain. And yet, if we consider the matter for a moment, we find that all this wisdom, prospering from Sidney’s Apology until to-day, does not strictly attempt to answer the question that is put. It does not tell us singly what poetry is, but it speculates upon the cause and effect of poetry. It enquires into the impulse that moves the poet to creation and describes, as far as individual limitations will allow, the way in which the poet’s work impresses the world. When Wordsworth says “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge,” he is, exactly, in one intuitive word, telling us how poetry comes into being, directing us with an inspired gesture to its source, and not strictly telling us what it is; and so Shelley tells us in his fiery eloquence of the divine functions of poetry. But poetry is, in its naked being and apart from its cause and effect, a certain use of words, and, remembering this simple fact, there has been one perfect and final answer to the question, “What is poetry?” It was Coleridge’s: “Poetry—the best words in the best order.”
This is the fundamental thing to be remembered when considering the art of poetry as such. The whole question of what causes a poet to say this or that and of the impression that is thence made upon us can be definitely narrowed down to the question “How does he say it?” The manner of his utterance is, indeed, the sole evidence before us. To know anything of a poet but his poetry is, so far as the poetry is concerned, to know something that may be entertaining, even delightful, but is certainly inessential. The written word is everything. If it is an imperfect word, no external circumstance can heighten its value as poetry. We may at times, knowing of honourable and inspiriting things in a poet’s life, read into his imperfect word a value that it does not possess. When we do this our judgment of poetry is inert; we are not getting pleasure from his work because it is poetry, but for quite other reasons. It may be a quite wholesome pleasure, but it is not the high æsthetic pleasure which the people who experience it generally believe to be the richest and most vivid of all pleasures because it is experienced by a mental state that is more eager and masterful than any other. Nor is our judgment acute when we praise a poet’s work because it chimes with unexpected precision to some particular belief or experience of our own or because it directs us by suggestion to something dear to our personal affections. Again the poet is giving us delight, but not the delight of poetry. We have to consider this alone—the poet has something to say: does he say it in the best words in the best order? By that, and by that alone, is he to be judged.
For it is to be remembered that this achievement of the best words in the best order is, perhaps, the rarest to which man can reach, implying as it does a coincidence of unfettered imaginative ecstasy with superb mental poise. The poet’s perfect expression is the token of a perfect experience; what he says in the best possible way he has felt in the best possible way, that is, completely. He has felt it with an imaginative urgency so great as to quicken his brain to this flawless ordering of the best words, and it is that ordering and that alone which communicates to us the ecstasy, and gives us the supreme delight of poetry. It should here be added that poetry habitually takes the form of verse. It is, perhaps, profitless to attempt any analysis of the emotional law that directs this choice, nor need it arbitrarily be said that poetry must of necessity be verse. But it is a fact, sufficiently founded on experience, that the intensity of vision that demands and achieves nothing less than the best words in the best order for its expression does instinctively select the definitely patterned rhythm of verse as being the most apt for its purpose. We find, then, that the condition of poetry as defined by Coleridge implies exactly what the trained judgment holds poetry to be. It implies the highest attainable intensity of vision, which, by the sanction of almost universal example, casts its best ordering of the best words into the form of verse. Ruskin wrote, with fine spiritual ardour—
”… women of England! …do not think your daughters can be trained to the truth of their own human beauty, while the pleasant places, which God made at once for their schoolroom and their playground, lie desolate and defiled. You cannot baptize them rightly in those inch-deep founts of yours, unless you baptize them also in the sweet waters which the great Lawgiver strikes forth for ever from the rocks of your native land—waters which a Pagan would have worshipped in their purity, and you worship only with pollution. You cannot lead your children faithfully to those narrow axe-hewn church altars of yours, while the dark azure altars in heaven—the mountains that sustain your island throne—mountains on which a Pagan would have seen the powers of heaven rest in every wreathed cloud—remain for you without inscription; altars built, not to, but by an unknown God.”
Here we have, we may say, words in their best order—Coleridge’s equally admirable definition of prose. It is splendid prose, won only from great nobility of emotion. But it is not poetry, not the best words in the best order announcing that the feeling expressed has been experienced with the highest intensity possible to the mind of man. The tenderness for earth and its people and the heroic determination not to watch their defilement in silence, have been deeply significant things to Ruskin, moving him to excellent words. But could they be more strictly experienced, yet more deeply significant, shaping yet more excellent words? Blake gives us the answer:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
It may be suggested that, for their purpose, Ruskin’s words are perfectly chosen, that as a direct social charge they achieve their purpose better than any others that could have been shaped. Even if we allow this and do not press, as we very reasonably might, the reply that merely in this direction Blake’s poem working, as is the manner of all great art, with tremendous but secret vigour upon the imagination of the people, has a deeper and more permanent effect than Ruskin’s prose, we still remember that the sole purpose of poetry is to produce the virile spiritual activity that we call æsthetic delight and that to do this is the highest achievement to which the faculties of man can attain. If by “the best words” we mean anything, we must mean the best words for the highest possible purpose. To take an analogy: if we say that a democratic government is the best kind of government, we mean that it most completely fulfills the highest function of a government—the realisation of the will of the people. But it is also a function of government to organise the people and—although, just as we may think that Blake’s poem finally beats Ruskin’s prose on Ruskin’s own ground, we may think, too, that the government that best represents the people will finally best organise the people—it may quite plausibly be said that in this business an aristocratic or militant government will, in an imperfectly conditioned civilisation (such as that of the world to-day), excel a democratic government. Nevertheless, we still say with an easy mind that a democratic government is the best government, without qualification, since it excels in the highest purpose of government. Clearly Coleridge implies, and reasonably enough, an elaboration such as this in his definition—the best words in the best order. To say that Blake and Ruskin, in those passages, were giving expression to dissimilar experiences is but to emphasise the distinction between prose and poetry. The closest analysis discovers no difference between the essential thought of the one and the other. But Blake projected the thought through a mood of higher intensity, and, where Ruskin perfectly ordered admirable words, he perfectly ordered the best words. It is the controlling mood that differs, not the material controlled. Hence it is that still another mind, starting from the same radical perception, might transfigure it through a mood as urgent as Blake’s and produce yet another poem of which it could strictly be said that here again were the best words in the best order. We should then have three men moved by the same thought; in the one case the imaginative shaping of the thought would fail to reach the point at which the record and communication of ecstasy become the chief intention, and the expression would be prose; in each of the other cases the shaping would pass beyond that point, and there would be two separate moods expressed, each in the terms of poetry.
One further qualification remains to be made. By words we must mean, as Coleridge must have meant, words used for a purpose which they alone can serve. Poetry is the communication through words of certain experiences that can be communicated in no other way. If you ask me the time, and I say—it is six o’clock, it may be said that I am using the best words in the best order, and that, although the thought in my mind is incapable of being refined into the higher æsthetic experience of which we have spoken, my answer is, if Coleridge was right, poetry. But these are not, in our present sense, words at all. They have no power which is peculiar to themselves. If I show you my watch you are answered just as effectively.
That there is no absolute standard for reference does not matter. All æsthetic appreciation and opinion can but depend upon our judgment, fortified by knowledge of what is, by cumulative consent, the best that has been done. There can be no proof that Blake’s lyric is composed of the best words in the best order; only a conviction, accepted by our knowledge and judgment, that it is so. And the conviction is, exactly, the conviction that the mood to which the matter has been subjected has been of such a kind as to achieve an intensity beyond which we cannot conceive the mind as passing, and it follows that there may be—as indeed there are—many poems dealing with the same subject each of which fulfills the obligations of poetry as defined by Coleridge. For while the subjects of poetry are few and recurrent, the moods of man are infinitely various and unstable. It is the same in all arts. If six masters paint the same landscape and under the same conditions, there will be one subject but six visions, and consequently six different interpretations, each one of which may, given the mastery, satisfy us as being perfect; perfect, that is, not as the expression of a subject which has no independent artistic existence, but as the expression of the mood in which the subject is realised. So it is in poetry. All we ask is that the mood recorded shall impress us as having been of the kind that exhausts the imaginative capacity; if it fails to do this the failure will announce itself either in prose or in insignificant verse.
The question that necessarily follows these reflections is—Are there degrees in poetry? Since a short lyric may completely satisfy the requirements of poetry as here set down, announcing itself to have been created in a poetic or supremely intensified mood, can poetry be said at any time to go beyond this? If we accept these conclusions, can a thing so slight, yet so exquisite, so obviously authentic in source as:
When I a verse shall make,