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The Discipline of Poetry

ISSUE:  Summer 1938

What is the relation of verse to poetry? What advantages can a poet at present hope to gain by accepting constraints which, however useful they may have proved in the past, are now mere conventions? Arbitrary they have always been; suddenly—though not perhaps for the first time — they appear futile. Why should anyone whose aim is communication impose upon himself conditions which the enormously increased range and power of prose have shown to be not only unnecessary, but even, if they are truly as outworn as they seem to be, a little ludicrous?

These are questions that have been placed; and they have had their answers. Some of them are rewarding. I should mention, first, that of Paul Valery in his essay, “Au Sujet d’Adonis,” where, in certain passages, seeming to praise La Fontaine, he is examining those forms which so felicitously served the seventeenth-century poet in an endeavor to discover a beauty which belongs to verse in its own right, a permanent value and a virtue that cannot be alienated by prose.

M, Valery is a poet, and one who, perhaps more than any other now living, assures the continuity of the French tradition; it may be said, indeed, that his most notable achievement has been to bring back into the tradition the somewhat aberrant poetry of such Symbolistes as Mallarme. It is not astonishing that, as a disciple of Mallarme and an admirer of La Fontaine, he should find the virtue that puts verse over prose in its more perfect artifice. To control nature—nothing is more superbly human. And it is the part of the poet to impose upon our natural speech the utmost possible control. The laws to which La Fontaine submitted were actually the instruments of his power; under these constraints, his sensuousness was not crushed, nor did his emotions perish; on the contrary, they combined, they increased, they multiplied. But we are far, as even M. Valery must admit, from La Fontaine. His laws are no longer enforced, nor are they likely to be. To ask now of a reader that he take pleasure in their observance would be to transport him to a baroque court and expect him to move at ease among its forgotten formalities. The question now is not whether the poet can accept these laws. The only laws which a poet can find to obey are those of his own devising, or those which, inherited, he accepts solely because they are among his possible choices. Under the circumstances, there is some doubt as to their validity.

It will be noticed, however, that in M. Valery’s opinion poetry is a force making for civilization. But an opposite view has been expressed, and with no less force, by Edmund Wilson in “Axel’s Castle.” Three of the men whom he, as critic, considers in that volume are poets, Eliot, Yeats, and Valery; and they have their place there only because of his enormous admiration for their work, which is certainly as important to our time as that of any of the prose writers he puts beside them. However, Mr. Wilson seems to feel that poetry is no longer entitled to that prestige which he among others—though unwillingly, it appears—grants it. “Are not prose and verse, after all,” he asks in his essay on Valery, “merely techniques of human intercommunication, and techniques which have played various roles, have been used for various purposes, in different periods and civilizations?” This sounds like common sense. But the period of poetry is the past. For on another page, and after quoting two modest remarks by contemporary poets on the function of their art, he declares: “It is much more likely that for some reason or other, verse as a technique of literary expression is being abandoned by humanity altogether.” The reason at once comes out—”because it is a more primitive and hence a more barbarous technique than prose.”

It is not always easy, reading the reports the papers bring us, to see in what respect the grand siecle was a more barbarous age than our own. But the answer is, it did not have our prose. It had Bossuet and Fenelon; it had Saint-Simon and Madame de La Fayette. But it did not have that prose which came into being with Flaubert and which in the last eighty years has so consistently encroached on the province of poetry that it is possible for Mr. Wilson to suppose that it will end by displacing it altogether.

The positions of M. Valery and Mr. Wilson are so far apart as to seem irreconcilable. They measure, not so much the distance between France and America, between poet and critic, as the extent of the uncertainty which our civilization, as opposed to the seventeenth century, allows both as to the function and the status of verse.


I have taken these two men as examples of the widely divergent views that can be held on the relation of verse to poetry. I have, no doubt, made their positions appear more extreme than they really are. Both are intelligent men, and both, knowing that they might be called on to defend these positions, have made modifications to secure themselves against too easy an attack. We should be grateful that they have advanced their salients so far; whether they are tenable is another matter. At the moment what is most important is to understand how they got there; for each has come to the place where he now stands as the result of one or the other of two movements, both of which have profoundly affected the history of poetry.

From the time of Poe and Baudelaire on, poets have sought to bring their art closer to the condition of music. The music of the mid-nineteenth century no longer impresses us as it did those who first heard it, for to us more seems to happen musically in almost any concerto by Mozart, composed though it may have been for a small orchestra, than in an opera by Wagner. The music of Mozart is unconfused by literature. It was in fact the very confusion of music and literature in Wagner that made him accessible to the poets of his time. Wagner was himself a minor poet, but one who, by an extraordinary chance, was coupled with a composer. He succeeded prodigiously in doing what the romantic poets, with only the modest sound of words at their disposal, had only despairingly dreamed of doing. Their most sonorous phrases seemed no more than the scraping of shells against the sea, when compared to this huge welter of orchestral sound. What was worse, Wagner could be impressive where the man of words with the same aim would have been simply absurd. Those who first heard this music were crushed. They were envious. And they were proud. Out of this pride and envy was conceived a poetry which should attain its ends by the perfection of its form.

Philosophy might precede a poem, but its reflections could have no place in it; for how could a composition in words, which was designed to act directly on the sensibilities, as music did, include, as poems of the past had often done, the formulations of abstract thought? Poetry had already been declared to stand outside contemporary morality; it woidd now show itself proof against the seductions of rhetoric and sentiment. It was, in short, to be pure. A poem was that which was not translatable, which lost, as prose did not, all the significance of its meaning when translated into another language, into other terms. Its significance was in its form, where, as in the God the saints adored, desire and its embodiment were one, the idea and its realization indissoluble.

The ambition to write pure poetry lasted a long time and was known in more countries than one. But the program was worked out in France. And French is, for some reason, a language which has never supported a great philosophical poet; on the other hand, it is peculiarly liable to the abuses of a sort of rhetoric which sounds very well, but whose grandeur ends in inanity. When the first Symbolistes shoved philosophy out of the door, what they were really doing was locking it against poor Alfred de Musset. And when they spoke, as Verlaine did, of taking eloquence and wringing its neck, what they really wanted to do was to choke Victor Hugo. They were doing, in other words, what every generation of poets has to do: getting rid of their predecessors.

Now, pure poetry can exist, but when it comes into being, it is almost always found to rise as statues do from some Renaissance buildings, in such splendor that the walls below seem to have no other purpose than to support them. Actually, they are what they appear to be only because of the surrounding structure; they have that look of perfection only because of where they stand. To aim at pure poetry was to endeavor to create these lofty statues and yet to have no place to put them. It was an attempt to write “Full Fathom Five” without having written “The Tempest.”

That pursuit, as Valery himself has confessed, led away from poetry. It led at last into a region as remote as it was deserted, for it lay beyond the confines of human experience. The air there was very pure indeed; but it could not be breathed. The poets who pursued purity found that another danger waited for them, the same that lies in wait for everyone who undertakes, whether in morals or art, to follow the cult of perfection: sterility. The poet Mallarme was his life long haunted by a horrible fear of impotence. He even managed to write a very good poem about it.

The Symboliste movement—as it has come to be called— did, as a matter of fact, produce an extraordinary amount of poetry, much of it, even today, admirable, and some of it indubitably great. It did so because the poets who followed it wrote as they could and not always as they would. Their muse was not so pure as her reputation: the best that can be said of her is that she had been effectively warned of the seriousness of certain vices. She did not always avoid the dust and heat.


The reaction from a poetry which aimed at the condition of music was a poetry which approached the confines of prose. The writing of prose had acquired a new consciousness with Flaubert, who expended on his novels such scrupulous care as to excite not only the admiration but the envy of the poets. Baudelaire, who was one of the first to understand exactly what Flaubert had accomplished in “Madame Bovary,” had no need to be told by him that the bourgeois were now all mankind. “Les Fleurs du mal” was published in the same year as “Madame Bovary,” so that it was not the direct example of the novelist so much as similar influences, working through the same atmosphere, that had brought upon the poet the necessity of having his own art conform more closely to the age. He saw that poetry must be forced to include, as it had so far done only imperfectly in France, the circumstances, however sordid, of contemporary life.

Baudelaire looked about him in the streets of Paris, in the poor streets, along the quays, even in the common ditch of the dead who have died poor. He looked for poetry there, and before the mirror in his own room. And he found poetry where it is most likely to be found: among the damned.

He was not the first, even in France, to bring into poetry the common man and his misfortunes; but he was the first to know what to do with him when he got him there. Baudelaire, to whom must also be traced the beginnings of the pursuit of pure poetry, was prosecuted in the courts for obscenity and in the schools reproached with being a prosateur froid et alambiqtie. In giving him credit for having started the two most important developments of poetry in the nineteenth century, I am only saying what is true: that he was the greatest poet of the century and that in him all its poetic tendencies are present, certainly in their beginnings, and per* haps also in their end. For neither T. S. Eliot nor Allen Tate would be today what they are had it not been for Baudelaire.

From his time on a certain realism was cultivated, sometimes in opposition to symbolism, but quite as often in the same house with it, sometimes in the same poem. The two tendencies are quite easy to separate critically; it cannot always be done in practice. But a new direction was given this movement toward prose in the first decade of the present century. Flaubert was now dead and had been made a saint by the novelists. Ezra Pound around 1912 began declaring that those principles which Flaubert had laid down for the proper conduct of the novel should be applied to poetry. Baudelaire had carefully excluded from his poetry everything which might just as well be expressed in prose; he had laid his hands often enough on material which might have been thought more appropriate to prose, but he had rigorously held aloof from its methods. But Pound now cried from the housetops that poetry must catch up with prose. And to the generation that heard him, their heads full of Remy de Gourmont, such an aim inevitably brought about a disassociation of verse from poetry.

I do not wish to disparage the poetry of Ezra Pound, which had other sources of power and was subjected to other influences than that of Flaubert, nor do I deny that much that was done under his instigation had at least the beauty of necessity. Various means are available to the poet who must renew his form, but he can hardly renew his substance without coming into contact with contemporary prose. If he falls into its debt, the writers of prose have their own way of collecting. For while he picks up without asking whatever he can use from their store, they retaliate by taking over whatever tools of his craft they can find to fit their hands. Poetry in England may have been in 1912 as far behind the prose of France as Pound said it was; but in general, wherever there is a living prose and a poetry that is alive, their development proceeds together. Nothing can happen in one art without its presently affecting the other.

It is the existence of works like the “Anabase” of St.-J. Perse, which is a poem not written in verse, and the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” of James Joyce, in which prose has adopted all the devices of poetry except meter, that makes it possible for a critic like Mr. Wilson to say there is no absolute difference between poetry and prose, and that since this is so they might just as well be judged on the same basis. There is no absolute difference. There never has been. Mr. Wilson’s mistake is in supposing that this difficulty of distinction is something new. Aristotle was aware of it. The difficulty need not force us into confusion. There is a border line where poetry and prose merge into one. But the fact that there is a province called Alsace should not lead us into saying that France is the same country as Germany.


We constantly use the word verse to cover writing which aims at the state of poetry, but somehow fails to come off. A versifier, in this pejorative sense, is simply a bad poet. But upon examination it is almost certain to be found that he has not only failed to write poetry, he has written bad verses.

Je suis belle, o mortels! comme un reve de pierre.

How, in such a line, segregate the verse from the poetry? It cannot be done, for in this opening verse of one of Baudelaire’s sonnets, as in any other superbly successful work of art, the conviction is carried that in the writing of the line the desire to do and the doing are one. But if we listen to this line so as to be conscious of every sound of which it is composed, their sequence and order, to say nothing of the movement, so startlingly discontinuous, of the whole line, we can hardly escape the conclusion that it is great poetry only because it is at the same time the most expert possible verse. But the contrary will not be found.

The poet is attracted to verse because of the resistance it offers him. This the prose writers find hard to believe, particularly if they happen to be among those who occasionally take time off from the responsibilities of their own craft to write a little verse. To them it is play; and the only trouble, they say, is that the words come too docilely to their call. Ford Madox Ford, Remy de Gourmont, and Bernard Shaw have all, before Edmund Wilson, derided the hardships which the poets pretend to encounter in the exercise of their art. The evidence of the poets, from Dante to Yeats, is quite otherwise:

Better go down upon your marrow bones

And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones

Like an old pauper in all kinds of weather;

For to articulate sweet sounds together

Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set

Of bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen

The martyrs call the world.

And the poets are right. For just as one of the masters of modern prose has defined a writer as one to whom writing comes with more difficulty than to ordinary people, so a poet may perhaps be defined as one to whom verse comes hard.

If we can call poetry what is striving to be said, it will have its own demands, and these should be strong and more often than not conflict with the requirements of the verse. In the line I have quoted from Baudelaire, the conflict is no longer felt, for it has been resolved, and nothing of it remains —since this is but a single line—but an air of intensity and that rather startling caesura. But in a long poem, the struggle is more difficult to conceal; nor is there any reason why it should be, for the poem can only gain by having it continually present. It remains in magnificent suspense in the mature Shakespeare, where the rhythmical forces beat against a not impregnable line, a line which is always about to break, which does break, which holds and is again assaulted. We listen to that insistent dissonance with excitement, as to a constant warfare. There is a struggle here between what is man and not man, between the pulse and the passions of man and time, for the verse, having duration and measure, creates the sensation of time. And in that struggle we cannot but be involved.

But Shakespeare’s force is rare and so is his skill; and even he grew old and in the end was content with his skill. Toward the end he wrote the most beautiful verses anyone has ever written in English—the most beautiful, not the best, By that time he had made a habit of it and against the beat of the verse could thrust the throb of a passion which he felt more in imagination than in heat, on behalf of others much younger than he, or corrupt as he had never been, or jealous as he once was, or wise as he was now.

The contest is not always so even. For when the requirements of the verse are met at the expense of the poetry, the result is apt to be precious. It may be superficial and false. Such poetry—for where there is craft enough it will come so near to poetry that there is no other name for it—is never of the greatest, but it is capable of affording great pleasure and within its range complete satisfaction. Much of Valery is of this kind, the best of Pope, and some of Poe.

Onde deserte, et digne Sur son lustre, du lisse effacement d’un cygne.

I do not see how anyone could deny that such lines have the integrity and the radiance of poetry. They are perfect in their artifice.

But where the poetry overcomes the resistance of the verse, what we get is Whitman, or something not nearly so good as Whitman. Where the importance of what is to be said surpasses everything else, we get the later poems of D. H. Lawrence. It would be hard to find a case in which the value of craft is more clearly shown by its absence. Lawrence to every appearance was born to be a poet; he had every gift and only lacked the knowledge. He is the perfect instance of the bitter fact that the man who looks only for expression never succeeds in finding it. When his spirit was with him, he could accomplish a prose as beautiful and moving as any our time has known; but Lawrence died as he had lived, a poet thwarted in what he had to say. “Any poet who does not know exactly what rhymes each word allows,” said Baudelaire, “is incapable of expressing any idea whatever.” He knew. And Lawrence did not. It was a knowledge of which he was, I should guess, contemptuous. All he knew was that he had not at his death succeeded in saying what he was born to say.

Where there is no conflict between the poet and his verse, we get neither verse nor poetry. We get “The People, Yes,” which claims our attention only as communication.


The aim of all the arts is to present the conflict of man with time. This is as true for those arts, like architecture, which we ordinarily call spatial, as it is for those arts which, like music, are strictly temporal. And the famous release which the arts afford is essentially a release from time. In the western world this is brought about by an assertion of control, in the east apparently by providing an escape from the inescapable; for there the arts aim to bring the listener or the beholder into a state of beatitude in which there is no longer an awareness of time and its duration.

Now obviously man cannot control time; what he controls, if he is an artist, is the consciousness of it. That he can order, that he can measure, that he can cause to come to a definite close—but only within the limits of his art. The means which the poet uses to that end is verse. For this it was devised, and for this it will doubtless continue to be used as long as time remains for man a living condition of his thought and not merely an abstract or mechanical conception.

The function of rhythm is to convey to us a sense of duration, which in itself is a frightening thing; in order that it should also be a source of delight, it is necessary, not only that it should be controlled at every point, but that it should come to an end. Hence, rather strangely, we rejoice when we see the Shakespearean stage littered with corpses and no one left alive save those who, like Horatio, survive only to prolong the tragedy in report and those who, like Fortinbras, are capable of starting a new tragic action outside the limits which the poet has laid down for this one.

But the creator of rhythm must work within even closer limits in order to feel a more immediate resistance. Though one form may offer a greater freedom than another—that is to say, a greater range of choice—there is no such thing as free verse. The one freedom which is allowed the poet is the possibility of expanding or contracting these limits. To do away with them entirely is to lose, not only the chief advantage his craft allows him, but his fecundity. In art, as in love, nothing is more sterile than limitless desire. The pauses which the verse introduces into the text, against the sense, will now perhaps no longer seem to us arbitrary. For they bring to the passage of poetic time a seeming necessity. They give it an objective reality, in which we can, as long as we are willing to accept the convention, believe. Only a rhythm marked by recurrent accents, or their equivalent, can give us this immediate perception of time. All the other devices which poets use, and which make for a continual charm of complicated sound, serve to increase this perception. They make more happen, poetically speaking, within a given measure of time.

What is controlled in verse is not so much natural speech, as Valery suggests, for in some very great poetry the speech is so close to nature that if it departs from it, it is not easy to say where; what is controlled is not so much the words as their movement. That movement is not simply measured and made to pause at predetermined but completely arbitrary intervals; meter does that much, and so much anybody can learn to do. But in good poetry, as I have earlier pointed out, there is a contest between the rhythm and the meter, and upon its complication a great deal of the quality of the poetry depends; but more than this, there must also be assured an artifice of harmonious sound. This is not merely to allow the speech to come agreeably to the ear, to provide a musical accompaniment to whatever is being said, but even more to convey an impression of continuity in the midst of change. Only in this way can words be given a life of their own, apart from whatever life they may have simply because they are derived from a living speech. The line I have already quoted from Baudelaire, “Je suis belle, o mortels! comme un reve de pierre,” has an identity of its own, which depends as much on the repetition of certain sounds as it does on the importance of the statement. It is precisely the quality of a living thing that it can change without its identity being destroyed.

Now the novelist, if he aspires to the status of an artist, has also to create a sense of duration. It is notorious that one of the most difficult technical problems which the writer of fiction has to face is to produce the illusion of a passage of time. But he cannot do it with words. The “Three years passed in this manner” which Balzac used is one of the most derided sentences in the history of the novel.

The means at the disposal of the poet are words, and he has no other; if he is sufficiently their master, he needs no other to create and control time. But the novelist can only do this by a proper ordering of his incidents; though he must write in words, they are important only as they contribute to the credibility and significance of the events he narrates. But it is quite possible to write in prose and have quite other aims than those we associate with the novelist. What Mr. Joyce is after in that fragment of “Work in Progress” to which I have already referred is by no means to record men and women and the many changes time works in them, as Tolstoi does in “War and Peace.” What he wishes to do in “Anna Livia Plurabelle” is to communicate directly to us the passage of time. He is not here concerned with a few hours in the life of Earwicker; what he wants us to feel is a thousand years, with all the complications for Ireland carried in their flow. Once this aim is granted, for an artist like Mr. Joyce there was really no choice; in writing what is ostensibly prose, he employs the methods of poetry.

But suppose, on the other hand, the aim of a poet was to prepare us for images of space, to show us an Asiatic people, a wandering, barbarous tribe, forever moving about, in whom there is an awareness of the manifestations of time in nature and in men and women; they know youth and age, growth and decay; but there is in them no consciousness of time as we in the West know it—only a sense of endlessness in which one century passes very much like another. If he were wise, he would drop verse. And that, in order to write “Anabase,” is just what M. Perse has done.

That the position of the poet in the world at present is anything but reassuring, I should be the last to deny. But who can suppose that, when enormous floods of words pour daily from the press, conveying information that may be temporarily true or permanently false, persuading the vast numbers of the literate to opinions whose only significance is that they may one day lead to action, it is the art of prose that is being practiced? Every force in the world which today presses with threats against poetry, tomorrow threatens any prose which, by reasons of intensity and integrity, is comparable to it.

It is not humanity that abandons its arts. It is the arts which desert mankind, because of what it has become, or rather because of what it has ceased to be. Poetry has disappeared, and for centuries at a time; but those centuries have not been periods in which man could be proud of the course of his civilization.


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