Page images
PDF
EPUB

“As a huge stone is sometimes seen to lie

Couched on the bold top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could hither come, and whence;
So that it seems a thing endued with sense:
Like a sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.”

Wordsworth's Excursion." Thought is, of course, the life-containing germ of all poetry; in it the selective chemistry of choice resides ; it gathers into itself all the elements of healthy growth, and fashions all, with a mysterious occultness, into vital reproduction and beauty.

" As the store
Of rainbow colour, which the seed conceals,
Sheds out its tints from its dim treasury

To flush and circle in the flower ;" 80 does the living thought of the poet embody its grace, loveliness, and life, in the choice verse he gives us. Like the violet's beauty and perfume, the bright cosummate excellence of poetry is the result of growth-growth governed and stimulated, not simulated, by art, which is the prudent effort of the wise to bring about, in conformity with the laws of nature, the rarest perfection of which things are susceptible. The supreme law of speech is, that it be an intelligible

expression of thought in the fewest and plainest possible words. The law of parsimony holds here, as everywhere, unless another law interferes. Eloquence adds to the requirement of intelligibility the power of effecting some purpose by affecting the emotions. Poetry demands, besides, the creation of a new delight by the aid of the imagination. All literature, however, seeks something. beyond the mere intelligibility of speech.. It has some purpose in its being, some end to be attained in view. The mere incarnation of thought as seldom satisfies the mind of man as the mere realization of a likeness satisfies a sculptor. Every one knows that it is advantageous to gain entrance into the mind by the beautiful gate; that gladlier welcome waits upon fair-spoken than on ill-expressed thought; that readiness, and excellence, and eloquence of utterance give attractiveness to ideas and opinions which they would not have unless they were spoken "trippingly on the tongue.” Hence the literary exposition of thought has always some characteristics of eloquence and poetry, and superadds to mere intelligibility some pleasantness of form or diction. It thus overleaps the law of parsimony in its restricted sense, though, in reality, all rhetorical artifice whatever founds and bases itself upon this pressing requirement of human existence; for they are all intended to lessen the painfulness either of effort or of endurance-of active exertion of mind to comprehend, or of passive sufferance of undelightful statement, to which it may be our duty to listen. In the former case the law of parsimony demands that such means may be used as. shall most effectively and most briefly, communicate a thought in its entire fulness and power. In the latter case it requires that all due care be taken in the presentation of the thoughts that no more stress of mind should be called for tban is positively and peremptorily required, and that as much orderliness and attractive. ness be given to them as possible. But as the greater part of human speech, especially in its written forms, aims at some end over and above the attainment of intelligibility, such modes of moving men's minds towards the desired ends must be inworked with the expressions employed. This requires in general so to be done that the emotions may be quickened and the will affected in the very act of expressing a thought. Such speech is not presentative only, but also emotive and promotive; is, in fact, so far forth poetic. The study of poetic diction, then, is not one appropriate only to would-be poets or critical readers of verse, but is indeed a duty incumbent on all who seek to use words wisely and well, who desire to employ right and true speech in a worthy and useful manner, and so as to effect its nobler purposes.

Poetry,” according to the definition of the author of “The Christian Year,” “is the indirect expression in words—most appropriately in metrical words—of some overpowering emotion, or ruling taste or feeling, the direct indulgence of which is somehow repressed.". In this definition, however imperfect it may be otherwise, one element of poetic composition has been brought into prominence which has formerly been neglected in considering the subject, viz., the indirectness of poetical expressions, or, as we would rather choose to phrase it, the double-flowering nature of the language of the poet. Take, for instance, the following passage: from the “ Life Drama" of Alexander Smith :

66

“ Lightning, like a wild bright beast,

Leaps from its thunder-lair.”

In it, the word “leaps ” flashes into the intellect the conception of outstarting, swiftness; but at the same time it touches the emotions to the quick by putting the quiver and energy of life into the fiery leven. Hence it invigorates the verse, and gives a twofold impulseto the mind. It is thus an express economy of phrase ; it exerts a double force at a single stroke. It pleases, surprises, and informs. It animates external nature, and brings its energies by suggestion nearer to our own by the sense of likeness it covertly involves.

" These subtle-shining secrecies of poetry, in which we finds conveyed at once a sensible impression and an imaginative decipher-ment of the hidden

“ Affinities
In objects where no brotherhood oxists
To passive minds,"

are, of course, noticeable by all; but many question with them. selves whether there is a vital and organic union between the two upfolded significations, or whether the one is only an auxiliar light” used by the poet to bestow new splendour on his verse. This question might admit of much debate; for the term poetry in our day covers an immense extent of various literature. For our own part, we think that the noblest and best of our poets have constantly seen a double life in nature-one of outward sensuous. ness, and another of inward analogy to humanity,—a life having not only a rootage of truth, but a fruitage of beauty. Hence it is that they not only make nature live and yearn with passion, changing with the surges of their own feelings, but also bestow upon the coinage of their brains " those bodiless creations ecstasy is cunning in "-external form and outward-seeming life. All existence appears to be soul-filled; so that form suggests spiritual energy, and that which merely exists in the hidden places of thought takes form in the soul, and receives the fashion of life.

Genius is inborn. It creates, realizes, and increases. It is always original and originative. Genius possesses the power of growth, and flowers out into beauty or usefulness. It yearns to make its ideas facts, to inspirit them with life and effectiveness. In the activity of self-development it finds its earliest delight. But mere productiveness soon ceases to satisfy it; it wishes to perfect its products, and enters into partnership with art to aid it in the construction of that which it has planned. Genius is fulness of thought; art gives gracefulness to thought. Genius plans, gathers together the materials, and imparts the first incitement to schemes : that is, it originates: art inspects, assays, and tests the materials ; adjudicates upon the plan, and decides on what ornamentation or what species of attractiveness can be combined with its accomplishment. Genius is neither self-sufficing nor all-suflicient, Had it been so, we should surely, least of all men, have found Shakspere, in whose mind art itself was nature, feeling a faintness of the heart at the inequality between his designings and accomplishings, and therefore

“Desiring this man's art and that man's scope.” Art imparts a completer life to all that genius with its fresh instincts desires to bring into being. Genius begets; art nourishes and cherishes the products of genius. Genius gives, but art adorns life. Genius is the male genitor of poetry, art is the gestator and trainer of it. Genius possesses a spirit of life. It insinuates that life into nature, and makes the outward world throw out from it in replication the feelings of humanity. Hence it supplies us with such gracious passages as this :

The daughters of the year
One after one through that still garden passed;
Each garlanded with her peculiar flower,
Danced into light, and died into the shade;

:

HE

And each, in passing, touched with some new grace,
Or seemed to touch her, so that day by day,
Like one that never can be wholly known,
Her beauty grew."

Tennyson's Gardener's Daughter." In the following lines from Bryant, too, we have the baste of time vitalized very strikingly :

“ Slow pass our days
In childhood, and the hours of light are long
Betwixt the morn and eve; with swifter lapse
They glide in manhood, and in age they fly,
Till days and seasons flit before the mind
As flit the snowflakes in a winter's storm,

Seen rather than distinguished.”
It is to the inner life of genius that the choice of poetic diction
is due; its assimilative life vivifies not only nature, but the
dictionary. At its summon the conscripts for its levies come on
being called, and live with the new life of its intents, take, the
places and do the work that assigned to them. Genius super-
adds its preciousness to the mere verbal elements by which thought
is expressed, and all their choiceness results from the invigorating
energy which is transfused into them by the mind-force which it
flashes abroad. All the ideas of prose are explicit; much of the
delight of poetry arises from its implicit suggestions, the implica-
tions of its language, and the tone of emotion it induces. Choosing
the due medium between the familiar and the new, the ordinary
usages of speech and the less usual licences granted to it, genius
harmonizes into oneness all the powers of thought, language, and
emotion, and gives the threefold energy of the mind a single
corporate being. It is not in the sense but in the implications of
language that translators fail. The meaning and scope of a passage
are easily renderable; the emotive lustre cannot be so readily
reproduced. A genius of splendid capacity alone can bring, by
the fine selectiveness of his choice, out of the treasuries of one
language the phrases and the diction which are tinged and touched
by the “purple light” of similar emotive associations, and so make
them reproduce almost the effect of a new birth or transmigration
of the poetry of other ages and nations. These show how great a
potency dwells in the wonderful melodies of poetic diction, and
how essentially different it is from the plain, forthright, and single-
aiming speech of the prose author. Poetry prefers the language
of the emotions, while prose chooses the words to which the intellect
gives force.

The prime charm of poetic diction is suggestiveness. Intelligibility is an essential of speech. If the language we employ is merely and intentionally, intelligible, it is prose, because therein we prosecute our mind's aim forthrightly. If to this we add emotional attractiveness, we speak out of the common strain, and are eloquent. But

66

if we pursue our quarry indirectly, and turn the mind to our way of thinking by suggesting images and ideas favourable to our purposes, we not only write in verse, but we exert a certain amount of creativeness wbich gives, as its result, poetry. Poetic diction is intelligible, and a good deal more; it is besides pleasing, effective on the emotions, and suggestive to the imagination. Poetry,” as Francis Turner Palgrave says, “ gives treasures more golden than gold, leading us in higher and healthier ways than those of the world, and interpreting to us the lessons of nature.”

“ He who hath
The vision penetrant of poesy
Beholds the mystic spirits of our life,
Hope gleaming smiles upon uncertainty-
Peace waving slow the wand that stilleth strife-
And love (wing'd laughing spirit!), bright and free,

Turning the flowery wreaths that link my heart to thee !" To get at and to give out this interpretation of the phenomena around us the poet must have sympathy, with many forms of passion, a clear and delicate perception of the beautiful, vividness of emotional feeling, seriousness of thought, and a masterful skill in the use and magical power over the music of words. Thus it is that the works of our poets become storehouses of delight, and are found to contain the most trustworthy exemplifications of the uses and significations of words.

The language of true poetry operates like a sort of inspiration,

as if

[ocr errors]

“The ear,

Nigh-spheared in heaven, its native strains could hear.” It seems to confer a new power on human consciousness, and to make all things transparent, so that their inner nature and meaning may be seen. In our perusal of the best poets we come every now and again upon words and phrases which have not only such a plenitude of meaning, but such a fascination in their place, sound, or suggestions, that there seems to be a magnetic power latent in them to arrest our thoughts, and bring them up with all their power to a consideration of the signification of them, and to detain us irresistibly that we may attend to them. But just in proportion to the delight they give us, such "curiosa felicitas"-i. e., happy

results of a well-directed and assiduous care

e-abhor analysis ; and poetry, like life, defies the investigator's scalpel ;

“The principle of action once explore,

That instant 'tis a principle no more." All criticized extracts, separated from their context and living relationship of emotive efflux and stir, appear as destitute of vitality as the preparations illustrative of anatomy employed in the class-room of the lecturer on surgery. But the anatomy of language is no

a

« PreviousContinue »