Skip to main content

The Psychologist Looks at Poetry

ISSUE:  Autumn 1935

Mr. I. A. Richards is a British psychologist devoted to a very special career, which is the application of his science to poetry. He has certainly improved the public reception of poetry, but it does not follow that he has yet perfected the apparatus. Put together the analytic power of modern psychology (he says in effect) and the healing yet obscure and today not quite reputable influence of poetry upon the mind, and the future of poetry will be indeed immense, and you will have a revolution of Copernican importance for our happiness. Mr. Max Eastman, the American psychologist, thinks also that we have not understood poetry, and will not till psychology comes to the rescue. But Mr. T. S. Eliot, a literary man of the old or amateur school, is not at all impressed by the claim.

Mr. Richards is already a voluminous author, but in describing his doctrine I shall not attend to all the volumes; saving for a conclusion the latest, “Coleridge on Imagination,” because it seems to show an author breaking with his own past; and not drawing on the very early one, “The Meaning of Meaning,” because I have not the heart, though I have the documentary evidences. It is a book which does not justify its pretentiousness, but it is an early book. Its interest for us principally is that it shows the psychological bias from which Mr. Richards started, and from which he has never quite worked free; this is contained in his jaunty faith in what “modern psychology” says, his denial of metaphysics and formal philosophy, and his occasional impression that psychology is a branch of physics.

He is a sort of behaviorist. I quote from “Principles of Literary Criticism,” the most comprehensive of his books:

That the mind is the nervous system, or rather a part of its activity, has long been evident, although the prevalence among psychologists of persons with philosophic antecedents has delayed the recognition of the fact in an extraordinary fashion. . . . It is true that as our knowledge of the nervous system stands at present much of the detail of the identification is impenetrably obscure, and the account which we give must frankly be admitted to be only a degree less fictitious than one in terms of spiritual happenings.

And this:

Some relation [among the mental phenomena] at present hidden from us in the jungles of neurology.

And this:

The joy which is so strangely the heart of the experience is not an indication that “all’s right with the world” or that “somewhere, somehow, there is Justice”; it is an indication that all is right here and now in the nervous system.

The effect of these passages is to say that the author regards spiritual happenings as unsatisfactory for the purpose of scientific data, and wishes that neural or physical happenings might be substituted; which is an expression, I believe, of behavioristic attitude. He talks as if neurology will eventually make this possible; though “at present” the neurological account is “only a degree less fictitious” than the account it wants to replace. Most readers will retort, of course, that in the very large majority of cases the spiritual happenings are at present the only happenings we have observed, and the neural happenings are only what the behaviorists would like to observe. At present the mental datum is the fact and the neural datum is the inference.

This is very debonair of Mr. Richards. Probably behaviorism has its uses—new doctrines are generally stimulating and productive for a little while—but it is a strange profession of faith for a psychologist, particularly for one reporting poetry. It looks like the sign of a scientist who has got into the wrong science, and is seeking effects that belong to some other science—such as objectivity of data, certainty of generalization, precision rather than delicacy of judgment. At the risk of being very commonplace I feel like repeating a well-known gradation of the sciences which goes back to Aristotle or perhaps further. At the bottom is placed physical science, concerned with masses, their composition out of other masses, and their motions; very simple qualitatively, very precise quantitatively, very binding, very useful; a gross science, comparatively speaking, but otherwise the perfect example of effectiveness. Next comes biological science, concerned with the form, genetics, growth, and physiology of the living being. We observe that the living being is composed of physical masses and is therefore responsive to the laws of physical science; but that, beyond this, it is governed by biological, not physical, laws. The relation of the oak to the acorn is not one that physical science can define or predict. But the laws which operate here are less exact and determining than those of physics and inorganic chemistry. Finally we come to psychology, with the associated anthropological sciences, concerned with the mind of man. Man is a physical being, therefore under physical science; a living being, therefore under biological science; but also a mind, and to that extent not understood by either of those sciences. The data of psychology are mental data, and the science is the hardest and least definitive of all. It is a great pity, but there it is.

Mr. Richards treats of mental data, on the whole, but not without many a look backward into the simpler orders of data. He brings into the account of poetry an unusual set of terms; and their principle seems to be that, if they are not quite physical terms, they will not be so very spiritual. I suppose they are orthodox terms in the new psychology. The analysis of a poetic experience given in “Science and Poetry” reads like the study of a brain. We encounter a surface—the impression of the printed words on the retina— and an agitation which goes deeper and deeper and involves images; then two streams, the bigger one composed of rushing feelings and emotions, the smaller one being the intellectual stream; then a great many “interests” clashing and balancing; and finally the attitudes, or outward-looking adjustments which complete the response to the original stimulus. Some of these terms are physical, and most of the others are barely psychological. The importance of the term intellectual is played down. Mr. Richards partakes of the behavioristic aversion to the concept of thought. He writes that man “is not in any sense primarily an intelligence; he is a system of interests.” The common conception of man as primarily an intelligence is a mistake, of which Mr. Richards writes:

The whole traditional analysis of the working of the mind has been turned upside down. It is largely as a remedy from the difficulties which this mistake involves that poetry may have so much importance in the future.

Mr. Richards emphasizes the complexity of a poetic experience. It is great, and he is right; his rightness is a reproach against many highly connected critics who have thought poetry was simple, and have been prepared to recite very promptly and in a few words what they define as the “meaning” of a poem. (It turns out to be only the moral or the intellectual meaning.) But what is this complexity like? Mr. Richards is not the man to let it reside in the object experienced, he has to have it in the head of the subject experiencing; that is, the complexity is not constitutional to nature but to the mind. It is difficult not to wonder whether he finds it all there, or puts some of it there; “plants” it, as they say of the gentlemen with faked gold mines to sell. He starts out to show how elaborate is the experience of reading Wordsworth’s sonnet on Westminster Bridge; but after a good start discovers that he is reciting not the detail of the reader’s mind but the detail of the poem; and gives up that project and resorts to an impressive metaphor about the wonderful organization of the “interests” in the mind:

Suppose that we carry a magnetic compass about in the neighborhood of powerful magnets. The needle waggles as we move and comes to rest pointing in a new direction whenever we stand still in a new position. Suppose that instead of a single compass we carry an arrangement of many magnetic needles, large and small, swung so that they influence one another, some able only to swing horizontally, others vertically, others hung freely. As we move, the perturbations in this system will be very complicated. But for every position in which we place it there will be a final position of rest for all the needles into which they will in the end settle down, a general poise for the whole system. But even a slight displacement may set the whole assemblage of needles busily readjusting themselves.

One further complication. Suppose that while all the needles influence one another, some of them respond only to some of the outer magnets among which the system is moving. The reader can easily draw a diagram if his imagination needs a visual support.

The mind is not unlike such a system if we imagine it to be incredibly complex. The needles are our interests, varying in their importance, that is, in the degree to which any movement they make involves movement in the other needles. Each new disequilibrium, which a shift of position, a fresh situation, entails, corresponds to a need; and the wagglings which ensue as the system rearranges itself are our responses, the impulses through which we seek to meet the need.

Mr. Richards has a tricky explanation somewhere of the business of metaphor. It brings in a fresh object when there is not enough to the original object, feeding the interests when they are not getting their sustenance out of the given straightforward account. I wonder if that is not the purpose of Mr. Richards’ own metaphor here. He cannot identify, at least he has not yet identified, as many as several of the little magnetic needles that go through such agitations and finally come to rest. They are probably not there. If in one line of the sonnet,

Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie,

Wordsworth conveys five separate objects for the mind to feed upon, does it follow that there are five separate little interests clamoring there, the first one for ships, the second one for towers, and so on? I suspect that Mr. Richards’ zeal on behalf of the little interests contains some pious fraud. If the interests are going to be very tiny, very many, and very private, how does it happen that a poet’s chance recital of things is going to “touch off” precisely the set of interests that a reader seeks to gratify?

Mr. Richards will have to reduce his idea of the number of organic interests, and then name a few of them to show his good faith. They will be quite general and classifiable interests, and each will be flexible enough to function over a wide range of particulars. But he will have to refer the particularity to external nature.


What is the value of a poetic experience for Mr. Richards? He has many statements about that. Sometimes he finds a social value, being a sociologist as well as a psychologist. It is quite the usual one. We are all aware that poetry has charms to soothe the savage breast. The poets, says Mr. Richards, offer us their charming myths and create a Nature that is not the same as the soulless one given by the physical sciences:

It is such a Nature that the religions in the past have attempted to provide for man. And it is with such a Nature that the political mythologizing of the more cramped sections of humanity—a Nature including Nordic destinies and Japanese ‘missions’—is endeavoring to direct world affairs.

If the races can be persuaded by myths into programs and actions, then they should have good myths that will bring them to World Peace. I do not know of any objection to this argument. But the harder and more important question is about the value of poetry to the mind that entertains it; the intrinsic or aesthetic value, not the extrinsic or utilitarian value.

It is certainly this question which Mr. Richards prefers to discuss. But he is defeated, as I think, by his characteristic rejection of the cognitive element of the poetic experience. The cognitions offered in poetry are constantly scorned, now on the ground that they are false, again on the ground that they are of no importance. He conceives that poetry, without having recourse to any knowledge, can somehow serve the emotions, or interests, or attitudes. It makes the magnetic needles oscillate, and we suppose that the oscillation makes them happy. But he emphasizes very strongly the conclusion of the experience, which is balance, poise, and peace. As if to escape from holding the experience as (literally) too cheap, he proposes that it is a gigantic feat of ordering and organizing the system of clashing interests, setting a valuable example for the human economy to follow when it has real business to pursue. But he makes no effort to show how a poem can perform this ordering. It is inevitable in his account that the poem should simply agitate the interests, and that the interests should then fight it out and order themselves automatically by the law of the survival of the strongest. There seems to be again a little fraud, as Mr. Richards imputes magic to the poet in the following manner:

He uses these words because the interests which the situation calls into play combine to bring them, just in this form, into his consciousness as a means of ordering, controlling and consolidating the whole experience.

The italics are his. He nowhere offers the least circumstantial account of this matter.

The theory of poetry as agitation gives us a muscular or gymnastic view of poetry: the poem resembles a gymnasium with plenty of dumbbells and parallel bars for all the member interests; and what the interests obtain from it is exercise, a workout, which does not pretend to have any relation to affairs. Now emphasize the gratifications and the pleasures they receive from it, and we obtain a hedonistic view. But think how imaginary and unreal are the objects that engage them, and we come to a view of poetry as a form of self-abuse. Then talk about the inalienable right of the little interests to “function” just as freely as the big public ones, and it becomes an expressionistic view. Mr. Richards does not sponsor these various views, but he is not far off; they are proper corollaries to his view. To me they all look like the views that would come under the head of a psychology of abnormality and disorder, not a psychology of poetry.

I cannot see how the interests can function if they are not interested, and I do not believe they can be interested in something which they persuade the imagination to invent for them ad hoc, or for the express purpose of interesting them. The psychic “healer” puts his disordered patient on a chaise longue, induces relaxation, and then repeats a lot of words until some one word makes the patient jump because it has a special application to his secret or Freudian interest; but the rigmarole of the healer does not constitute a poem. Mr. Richards has a multitude of little interests to satisfy. But the one thing they have in common is that they are all interests in external reality. Inter-esse means to be environed, and interest means sensitiveness to environment. To be interested is to try to obtain a cognition, to do what Mr. Richards forever denies to the poetic experience and grants exclusively to science: to seek the truth. I think the biologist would justify this conception of the function of our interest.

The imagination supplies the form of knowledge for poetry. I should not define imagination as Mr. Richards does, nor even as Coleridge is represented in Mr. Richards’ latest book as having done. I should say that imagination is an organ of knowledge whose technique is images. It presents to the reflective mind the particularity of nature; whereas there is quite another organ, working by a technique of universals, which gives us science. The image presented by the imagination ordinarily means to be true. The poet ordinarily is sincere and means his images to be true, and I do not think that readers of my acquaintance will put up with a poet’s imagery long if it is not true. It is probably true in the commonest sense of true: verifiable; based on observation.


Mr. Richards has not stood still. His progress as an aesthetician consists in his reluctant and gradual adoption of the view that cognition is the essential element in a poetic experience. (Poetry is a form of knowledge.) He is increasingly concerned over the fact that the poet makes assertions; but unfortunately they seem to be only mythical: “pseudo-statements” which science has to reject. He comforts himself somewhere with the remark that the “greatest poets” will be found not to make many assertions. He evidently considers that when they offer only images they are not making assertions. But their images are perceptions, and perceptions are assertions; perceptions are as true and as false as propositions. Mr. Richards’ readers will not suggest that he read the stock philosophers, for he has read them all, but that he ought to read them attentively. The Neo-Hegelians, for instance; it is from them that I have the impression of having received my fullest understanding of what is implied in a perception. Or even the Greek aestheticians, with their doctrine of imitation—a term meant to confer upon the artistic images at least the dignity of truthfulness.

Poets make plenty of assertions; if the predication is not overt, so that grammar can recognize it, it is implicit. (“The oak, ancient, moaning in pain its splendors gone,” commits the poet as much as if he had said, “The oak moans in pain.”) But these assertions (the one just cited, for example) may be “mythical” ones, and what will be their status as cognition? They are supposed not to appear in science. Are we to believe them, and in what sense? It is one of the hardest problems in the theory of poetry. And no modern writer has wrestled with it more manfully and more continuously than Mr. Richards.

We cannot believe these assertions at all, Mr. Richards says; but we can ignore them and make use of the accompanying details (or images) to feed the interests; or we can “suspend” our beliefs, forget what we really do believe. He feels that poetry can be saved to the world only by a new and cunning technique of suspended belief. He does not venture to give any instruction in it, though he concedes that it will be a difficult technique for the public to acquire. It will; the public is given to taking its poetry more seriously than Mr. Richards does; in fact, the public expects not only the statements in the poetry but even the images to be true.

An account of poetry as knowledge by images, reporting the fulness or particularity of nature, would of course not be acceptable to Mr. Richards. But it permits us to do what Mr. Richards, with all his argument about the mythi-ness of poetry, has never tried to do: to classify with respect to their verifiability or scientific standing the kinds of assertions which poets make. It need not be very tedious.

A great deal of poetry is analogous to ordinary painting; it simply presents its objects in detail without ever exceeding actual observation: “The trees stood up against the sky.” Of course the context is diffuse; that is, it contains a great multitude of details, or an inexhaustible particularity, and distinguishes itself from a scientific study in the fact that no single detail is abstracted out of it. It is a context made of images, and the images are attended to and dwelt on.

This is poetry of a primary or simplest order. It does not give us scientific truth, for that is the abstracted or universal aspect of the picture. But every detail in it is accurate detail, or it should be. If poetry did no more than this, it would still be eternally distinct as a form of knowledge, and it would be needless to ask what we wanted it for. It views the world as particularity, and we have to have the world in that sense.

The poetic impulse is much too insistent to stop there. The poet proceeds next to assert properties and behaviors in the object which are not verifiable, or not sufficiently so to be approved by the strict canon of science. It animates nature. It confers mentality upon the rock, the tree, the star, which do not discoverably have it, which do not discoverably have the organs for it; it makes the mountain brood protectively over the mountaineer, and the Easter bird sing carols. Poetry does this by what is called the pathetic (sympathetic) fallacy. The poet invests the lower form of animal life, or even the inorganic body, with his own mentality. (His procedure in elevating an object to a higher classification is opposite to that of the behaviorist, who degrades it into a lower classification.)

There is still another variety of this bolder sort of poetic assertion. The poet now takes up the purely instrumental terms which the sciences have arrived at, which do not have even the lowest degree of objective existence, and animates them too; abstract qualities, abstract collective or quantitative terms; and gives them body, life, and mind. The poet in Plato did this for certain very fine terms, like truth, goodness, and beauty, capitalizing their names as if they were persons, and giving them a residence in the sky as if they were personages; but being guarded about the detail because he had trained himself to love universals and despise particulars. There are terms so valuable as instruments for the human society that they receive political and ecclesiastical honors like persons. There is the State; a pure abstraction, but clothed with countless images, and in various personalities, such as Leviathan, Fatherland, John Bull. The terms good and evil fall into the hands of poets and become first, perhaps, Forces, then Spirits, then Gods, then God and Satan, and the work is not finished until each is invested with a kingdom, a court, and a host of ministering angels. The doctrines of religion are poetry in this sense, and certainly religion cannot outlast poetry; the religion that surrenders its images to the scientific censors is about to go out of business as religion and become Social Service, or Rotarianism, or Humanism—with a capital letter as the last ikon it has preserved.

Society in the past has been prodigiously hospitable to these systems of imagery. Now, however, the iconoclasts are in power, and the weapon they employ is the charge of falsity, superstition, and weakmindedness. Mr. Richards expresses his concern over this situation:

Countless pseudo-statements—about God, about the universe, about human nature, the relations of mind to mind, about the soul, its rank and destiny—pseudo-statements which are pivotal points in the organization of the mind, vital to its well-being, have suddenly become, for sincere, honest and informal minds, impossible to believe. For centuries they have been believed; now they are gone, irrecoverably; and the knowledge which has killed them is not of a kind upon which an equally fine organization of the mind can be based.

If such pseudo-statements are contradictory to knowledge I think their case is indeed lost, and poetry of this kind—all poetry except the primary and simpler kind—will have to cease to be written. It is quite possible that they will disappear, and that poetry will reduce itself to a transcript of the mere or verifiable natural world, and become an art of about the same scope as painting. But their case is not quite like this, and not quite so desperate, I hope, as Mr. Richards thinks.

I prefer to think that these images or assertions which exceed observation are the form that certain cognitions take with us because of our natural propensities as knowers; perhaps that is a Kantian sort of position. The poet wants to particularize his objects in order to understand them fully, and images of this sort are habitual to our particularization. This argument makes them natural, and therefore makes them stubborn.

The aesthetic doctrine of empathy, which circulates widely, has an application here that seems more important than the one generally ascribed. The empathists look at paintings of objects and even at buildings and report that they—the generic spectators—read into the physical objects their own muscular tensions; read consciousness into them. But of course the painter and the architect (or the poet of the primary order) do not exactly write the consciousness in by some sort of objective record. The spectator supplies it; and so the doctrine of empathy seems to claim that it has discovered the psychological law that in reading objects as particulars we involuntarily observe them under the forms with which our own minds are familiar. If the doctrine is correct, the poet who ascribes mentality to the lower orders and even to purely instrumental and abstract terms is doing no more than we all do without being aware of what we do. It seems very likely. Perhaps it is just as hard for a higher being to understand a lower as for the lower to understand the higher. Perhaps intelligent beings are the only ones intelligible to us. A pure mechanical cause is certainly too simple for us; for instance, the pull of objects toward each other by gravitation, or the pushing of one object away from another; if we care to make images of these operations, probably we are forced to construe them in the terms of “spiritual happenings.” Kant said that the world of living things looks purposive, which means that we cannot but attribute purpose to it. Imagination, the organ by which we secure the particularity of objects, is not going to be prohibited from certain fields on the ground that they offer less particularity than it likes, or offer none at all.


But imagination, without ceasing to be persistent, has got to be very conscientious and responsible. It does not intend to contradict observation but to exceed it. It assumes that the bare scientific properties in the object do not exclude other properties, and therefore the aesthetic reading of the object is supplementary to science. The squeamish scientist does not disprove poetic assertions so much as he successfully challenges the poet to verify them by objective observation. I take it that the world which science knows is not so full that it has room no longer for a God; but the trouble with old Gods is that in their detail they contradict or are inconsistent with facts which a new science has acquired.

Great tracts of imagery become obsolete when they have lost contact with scientific knowledge. The classical instance is in the picture of the celestial system. The shift in the world-picture caused by the adoption of Copernicanism destroyed the availability of thousands of Ptolemaic images. The fashions in imagery change under this compulsion. They also change by preference, since any fashion becomes stale; each new period refreshes itself with new kinds of images, and the poet must fall in with the intellectual convention of his times.

In what sense may we still read Homer, Dante, some parts of Shakespeare with his ghosts and miracles, the scholastic Donne, and “Paradise Lost”? Mr. Richards has not told us very specifically how this remarkable feat is possible. There are poetries for the sake of which he says we suspend belief, in that we suspend our insistence upon verification; but here the assertions arouse positive disbelief, and how may we suspend disbelief?

In “Practical Criticism,” Mr. Richards performed an educational service. He gave a dozen or so poems, with the criticism which a group of British collegians had passed upon them without having had previous acquaintance with them. But in one sense he placed these critics at an unfair disadvantage; he places his reader at the same disadvantage so far as the reader cares to play the game and tries his own criticism without turning to the Appendix to see the dates and authors of the poems. How can a critic work without knowing the date of composition? It makes a great deal of difference. Donne’s sonnet about the resurrection of the body must be read one way if we know that it was written in the early seventeenth century, but another way if we take it to be a poem of our own time. “Macbeth” is wholly admirable so long as a man wrote it over three centuries ago, but it would arouse invincible misgivings if some living poet had composed it yesterday. There are several among the test-poems in Mr. Richards’ book which raise this difficulty. I think he might have supplemented his valuable instructions on the reading of poetry with a principle which would be called the Historical Canon.

It would go like this. The mind pursuing its knowledge by images is not only sensitive to the object itself, but sensitive to the current scientific report of the object, which it does not intend to controvert. But in following the set of images reported by a given poet the mind is sensitive to a third item, the scientific report which that poet in his particular period received; and this third item takes the place for the most part of the second item. This is by an exercise of sympathy under what we call the historical sense. It is a genuine case of “suspension”; what we suspend being the scientific knowledge which has intervened between then and now. In reading an old poetry we always, if we are trained historically, make this adaptation. Having made it we can read the old poetry as long as its imagery seems original and fruitful. This sort of historical capacity is very valuable; its development is probably the main objective in college departments of literature.

But I suppose we cannot defer to this principle to the extent of permitting our contemporary poets to adopt the racial mind at some earlier stage, and to build up the images accordingly. That might be easier for the poet to do, but it would require us to live aesthetically in the past while we live practically in the present, and to confess that the way of a living poetic knowledge was now closed to us forever. The contemporary poet must particularize the world he inhabits. The employment of the historical sense to avoid this necessity would be its abuse, and it would expose the poets (and their readers) to the suspicion of the pathologists.


Suspended belief is the formula of the writer whom I have been representing as the author of certain earlier books. But he is now the author of the volume on Coleridge, and voids much of the criticism which I have made of him. The new work is an attempt to recover, defend, and recommend to the modern critics the doctrine of imagination which Coleridge propounded. That would be no ordinary project for any man’s book; but Coleridge, a not always intelligible adapter of German idealism, cloudy and rhetorical and insistently metaphysical, is the last influence which would have been expected to bear upon Mr. Richards. I do not know enough of his private history to understand how this attachment arose, and it would not be the business of a critic to know anyhow; certainly Mr. Richards in the other books has been citing Coleridge with increasing frequency. Now he has adopted what most people will call the idealist philosophy, though he himself is inclined to quibble over the term. His doubts of the truth of the poetic assertions disappears, and poetry becomes as strong as science.

(A point of literary origins is this. The change in Mr. Richards might have come without Coleridge. He has chafed under his earlier philosophy, as is apparent from reading his books in succession, and he has also spent a time in the Orient, where the understanding of imagery seems to be immeasurably superior to our own; he has written “Mencius on the Mind,” a study in Chinese philosophy. This inevitably had something to do with it.)

Following Coleridge, Mr. Richards comes finally to the doctrine which has either one of two versions:

  1. The mind of the poet at moments, penetrating “the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude,” gains an insight into reality, reads Nature as a symbol of something behind or within Nature not ordinarily received.
  2. The mind of the poet creates a Nature into which his own feelings, his aspirations and apprehensions, are projected.

But it docs not matter which version you accept; they are the same doctrine. The knowledge of Nature is either something you read out of Nature or something you read into Nature, but the point is that the poet and the physicist obtain it in the same way. You cannot treat one set of assertions as objective and the other set as subjective. They are exposed to the same hazard, and they come out with equal success. (The mind is in the ambiguous position of an observer of a moving body under the hypothesis of relativist physics: he cannot tell whether the motion is his or that of the thing observed.)

So all knowledge is equally real, or all is equally mythical. We find Mr. Richards talking with a pretty easiness about the myths of physics, but we also find him relieving his vocabulary forever of such phrases as “pseudo-statements,” in which he used to offer his apologies for the untruthfulness of poetry. His change is like what the evangelists call a “conversion.”

But I applaud the regeneration with misgivings. It is philosophical to say that all knowledge is an impure product, or compound, of two factors, a subjective constitution and an external object, but in having said that we have not necessarily solved the aesthetic problems. We have laid down a proposition which governs the data of all our knowledge, and governs them equally whether they appear in poems or in sciences. But a good many things happen after that. The primary order of poetry—the one that does not go beyond the data of this inscrutable world of knowledge—seems to be in precisely the same predicament as science, or the same dignity; the poetry being faithful to the profusion and fullness of the data as they cluster in some local unit, and the science abstracting very carefully from the data for its much more focussed and practical intention. But what of the other poetry?

It does not seem that science exhibits anything in its record to correspond with what we term the myths of poetry and religion; that science resorts to empathy. When we refer to “myths” in the literature of science we mean the poetic and religious intrusions which have got there without attracting the notice of the scientists; who being human are potential poets and religionists, after all; but science may be regarded as a body of knowledge ideally superior to the actual scientists.

Poetry is “creative” in a sense in which science is not. It is such an eager cognitive impulse that it overreaches its object. That is its glory, and one of the causes of its delight-fulness perhaps, and certainly the source of its bad reputation. This last may perhaps be improved if poetry will watch closely after its own innocence; that is, be careful not to pervert by positive misrepresentation that compounded affair of our primary knowledge, the world. Even so, it is inclined to make very free in its path through that world. It makes a second version, perhaps a better one but still a new and not clearly authorized version, of the world. And this is a matter which, with due respect to Coleridge and Mr. Richards, I do not think they have settled at all.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading