Page images

It is hard to shake off the conviction that the old order of things had the advantage of picturesqueness. Is it because it is so hard to free ourselves from the illusions of time and distance ? Charm, enticement, dwell with the remote, the unfamiliar. The now, the here, are vulgar and commonplace. We find it hard to realize that the great deeds were done on just such a day as this, and that the actors in them were just such men as we see about us. Then the days of one's youth seem strange and incredible; how different their light from this hard, prosy glare! Our distrust of our own day and land as furnishing suitable material for poetry and romance doubtless springs largely from this illusion.

At the same time, a mechanical and industrial age like ours no doubt offers a harder problem to the imaginative producer than the ages of faith and fanaticism of the past. The steam whistle, the type of our civilization, what can the poet make of it? The clank of machinery, it must be confessed, is less inspiring than the clash of arms; the railroad is less pleasing to look upon than the highway, because it is more arbitrary and mechanical. In the same way,

the steamship seems unrelated to the great forces and currents of the globe. Yet to put these things in poetry only requires time, only requires a more complete adjustment of our lives to them, and hence the proper vista and association. As is always the case, it is a question of the man and not of the material. Goethe said to Eckermann, "Our German æsthetical people are always talking about poetical

and unpoetical objects, and in one respect they are not quite wrong; yet at bottom no real object is unpoetical, if the poet knows how to use it properly," if he can throw enough feeling into it. I lately read a poem by one of our younger poets on an entirely modern theme, the building of the railroad, -the gang of men cutting through hills, tunneling mountains, filling valleys, bridging chasms, etc. But, though vividly described, it did not quite reach the poetical; it lacked the personal and the human; it was realistic without the freeing touch of the idealistic. Some story, some interest, some enthusiasm overarching it, would have supplied an atmosphere that was lacking. We cannot be permanently interested in the gigantic or in sheer brute power unless they are in some way related to life and its aspirations. The battle of man with man is more interesting than the battle of man with rocks and chasms, because men can strike back, and victory is not to be had on such easy terms.

[ocr errors]

The same objection cannot be urged against Mr. William Vaughn Moody's poem on the steam engine, which he treats under the figure of "The Brute," a poem of great imaginative power in which the human interest is constantly paramount. The still small voice of humanity is always heard through the Brute's roar, as may be seen in the first stanza :

"Through his might men work their wills;

They have boweled out the hills

For food to keep him toiling in the cages they have wrought;

And they fling him hour by hour

Limbs of men to give him power,

Brains of men to give him cunning; and for dainties to devour Children's souls, the little worth; hearts of women, cheaply


He takes them and he breaks them, but he gives them scanty thought."

Quite different is the treatment of "The Lightning Express" by a western poet, Mr. J. P. Irvine, yet the poetic note is clearly and surely struck in his stanzas too :

"In storm and darkness, night and day,
Through mountain gorge or level way,
With lightening rein and might unspent,
And head erect in scorn of space,
Holds, neck-and-neck, with time a race,
Flame-girt across a continent.

Think not of danger; every wheel

Of all that clank and roll below
Rings singing answers, steel for steel,
Beneath the hammer's testing blow;
And what though fields go swirling round,
And backward swims the mazy ground,
So swift the herds seem standing still,
As scared they dash from hill to hill;
And though the brakes may grind to fire
The gravel as they grip the tire
And holding, strike a startling vein
Of tremor through the surging train,
The hand of him who guides the rein
Is all-controlling and intent;

Fear not, although the race you ride
Is on the whirlwind, side by side,
With time across a continent."

What are the sources of the interesting in life? Novelty is one, but it is short-lived; beauty and sublimity are others, and are more lasting. But the

main source of the interesting is human association.

The landscape that is written over with human history, how it holds us and draws us! All phases of modern industrial life the miner, the lumberman, the road-builder, the engineer, the factory-hand, are available for poetic treatment to him who can bring the proper fund of human association, who can make the human element in these things paramount over the mechanical element. The more of nature you get in, the more the picture has a background of earth and sky, or of great human passions and heroisms, the more the imagination is warmed and moved. The railroad is itself a blotch upon the earth, but it has a mighty background. In itself it is at war with every feature of the landscape it passes through; it stains the snows, it befouls the water, it poisons the air, it smuts the grass and the foliage, it expels the peace and the quiet, it puts to rout every rural divinity. It adapts itself to nothing; it is as arbitrary as a cyclone and as killing as a pestilence. Yet a train of cars thundering through storm and darkness, racing with winds and clouds, is a sublime object to contemplate; it is sublime because of its triumph over time and space, and because of the danger and dread that compass it about. It has a tremendous human background. The body-killing and soul-blighting occupations peculiar to our civilization are not of themselves suggestive of poetic thoughts; but if Dante made poetry out of hell, would not a nature copious and powerful enough make poetry out of the vast and varied elements of our materialistic civilization ?



WHERE does eloquence end, where does poetry

begin?" inquires Renan in his "Future of Science." And he goes on to say, "The whole difference lies in a peculiar harmony, in a more or less sonorous ring, with regard to which an experienced faculty never hesitates."

Is not the "sonorous ring," however, more characteristic of eloquence than of poetry? Poetry does begin where eloquence ends; it is a higher and finer harmony. Nearly all men feel the power of eloquence, but poetry does not sway the multitude; it does not sway at all, — it lifts, and illuminates, and soothes. It reaches the spirit, while eloquence stops with the reason and the emotions.

Eloquence is much the more palpable, real, available; it is a wind that fills every sail and makes every mast bend, while poetry is a breeze touched with a wild perfume from field or wood. Poetry is consistent with perfect tranquillity of spirit; a true poem may have the calm of a summer day, the placidity of a mountain lake, but eloquence is a torrent, a tempest, mass in motion, an army with banners, the burst of a hundred instruments of music. Tennyson's "Maud " is a notable blending of the two.

« PreviousContinue »