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Revolution and Poetry


ISSUE:  Winter 1926

Poetry remains an art which turns over and over the experience, the emotion of life, whether the accumulated experience hold the naive story of some ballad or the moral austerity of a Meredith; whether the mental container be that of “Tam Lin” or that of “Modern Love.” Revolving upon experience, poetry seems to flash ever brighter and brighter. Expressive through certain aspects in imagination of primitive types of sympathy, as, for example, the quaint democratic sentiment of the ballad, it moves on towards the highly developed sympathies, delicate, intricate, of our individualistic life of today.

King Solomon inquired of an Arab, “What is language?” “A wind that passes.” “But how can it be held?” “By one art only,” was the reply, “by the art of writing.” Let that Anab have written these four words: “The sea is wide.” This is observation, but there is no personal note to it. If it is language, it is not art. Then Keats writes: “It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often ‘tis in such gentle temper found,
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be mov’d for days from where it sometime fell,
When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.
Oh ye! who have your eye-balls vex’d and tir’d,
Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea.”
The wideness of the sea is not only evident but also that Keats is an Englishman and a poet in his love for it. In those lines is found an imperishable self-revelation, and, so solitary is the heart of every one, man is always eager to know what the heart of another is like.

Schopenhauer has said that style is the physiognomy of the soul. In truth the way a man says a thing, if he be a poet, is the picture or portrait of that poet’s mind, the face of his spirit. For out of his human nature springs all he can say. There is no other way. The price he pays for expression is self-revelation. It is from the facts of life the poet takes his impressions. As the result of these impressions, governed by feeling, art arises. Although the fact is not his main business, the poet cannot do without it. It is at this point, as well as at others, that the arts and sciences become inseparable. The gentle lunatic who loves poetry has after all to deal with ponderable matter. Audrey questions, “I do not know what poetical is; Is it honest in deed and word? Is it a true thing?” Touchstone answers, glad to have a chance to make fun, “No, truly, for the truest poetry is the most feigning.”

By its very nature poetry cannot be misrepresentation and remain authentic. Not only does the poet have to deal with the facts of life, but also he must deal with them from the point of view of an executor. And that means being held to account. The most visionary thing has to be conceived in precise and definite way,—that is, be seen in such fashion. If the poet wishes to produce even the effect of a blur from the point of view of art, he cannot do it by being blurred in his own mind. Clear he must be or there will be no blur. And following upon impression comes expression. William Blake has given what he calls the golden rule of art. It is that “the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.” The great poet is no bungler; he is not led along a path, he knows not where, he knows not why. He possesses and makes use of as much intellectual clearness with regard to ponderable fact as does the scientist. And as he enters upon the business of interpretation—as every poet must upon graduation from things childish—there are other ways in which, more than the laboratory has need of, he makes use of intellectual clearness.

It is for these reasons that poetry may not recede from the facts of life, nor fail in its obligation to the ever-enlarging experience of human nature and its interpretation. Deep at the heart of all poetry, moving upon the curved path of experience, revolution lies embedded. It is a strange thing to watch that to which the vitality of one century gives birth in poetry, tangentially disappear from the curving path of a succeeding era. During the Elizabethan age the mob loved a king. The age was aristocratic and the uses of charity were holy,—if not unchallenged legally. The pride of rank was broadcasted, triumphant, gorgeous, the pageantry of kings. But in two centuries Robert Burns was crying out:

“The rank is but the guinea’s stamp, . . .
A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that! . . .
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brithers be for a’ that.”

The period of youth gone, with it went that natural style which was the glory of Elizabethan poetry at its best. And what had been lovely in that youth, uninformed with new ideas and greater ideals, became ugly in old age, dissipated, as the Restoration Period was dissipated in its poetry as in its life; and in the Age of Pope full of artifice and convention, slander and intrigue. Then suddenly all the folly and frivolity and nastiness of the Restoration; all the slander and trickiness and ambition of the eighteenth century, were swept away by a new Sermon on the Mount and a new Declaration of Independence in Blake singing:

“To Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love
All pray in their distress
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.”

In this way phases of art which become hindrance to the development of man—Euphuisms of caste and literature, of poetry and paste—fall away, and revolution sets in; say, in experience and expression, the democracy of a “Cotter’s Saturday Night;” in theory, the democracy of a “Prometheus Unbound;” in spirit, “Songs of Innocence.” Again by revolution, in this turning over of the facts of life—things about men and within them which are apprehended by means of touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing,—was recovered that sixth “sense” which is the glory of the other five: the apprehension, the desire, for those things which are beyond the experience of the five senses.

Fortunately the generations in art, as in life itself, overlap one another, so that when in one art-form old age has set in, in another form youth is in full flood. The enormous animal vitality of the Elizabethan era was gone. For a time during the eighteenth century it would seem that the only motion man knew was mental. While they thought, they shaped their ideas regarding art. They became a nation of critics. Even their vile slanders but reveal one aspect of the critical instinct. They became debaters on the value of authority versus the value of individual liberty. Amiable, cynical indifference is heard in the words of good old Dr. Johnson to Adam Ferguson: “Sir, I would not give half a guinea to live under one form of government rather than another. It is of no moment to the happiness of an individual. Sir, the abuse of power is nothing to a private man. What Frenchman is prevented from passing his life as he pleases?” But is it William Blake, as he glances up from his engraving, saying, “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid, courted by incapacity?” Is it Coleridge mumbling that the special danger of the times was “an inward prostration of the soul before enormous power and a readiness to palliate and forget all iniquities to which prosperity has wedded itself?” And who is this, charging headlong the dreary dialectic of authority, but honest Tom Paine for whose sake Blake wore the bonnet rouge: “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built on the ruins of the powers of paradise.”

Although the chief gift of the eighteenth century had little or nothing to do with poetry, it made nevertheless in its emotional quiescence a great gift to the coming poets. Because of that fallow time the Georgians became all the richer in their uses of emotion and form. The eighteenth century was an age young in scientific and political inquiry, but growing old in commercial power. To Old Money-Bag opposing Young Freedom, Blake’s quaint lines, found in his note book after his death, must have sounded like the babble of an idiot:

“The accuser of sins by my side doth stand,
And he holds my money bag in his hand;
For my worldly things God makes him pay;
And he’d pay for more, if to him I would pray.

He says if I worship not him for a God,
I shall eat coarser food, and go worse shod;
But as I don’t value such things as these,
You must do, Mr. Devil, just as God please.”

And nothing more absurdly funny can possibly be imagined than dropping a group of Shelley’s lyrics down into the midst of the eighteenth century. They would have been dispatched, clawed, torn to pieces in short order.

If Imagination had become “correct,” under no circumstances was Sympathy allowed to stroll beyond bounds. My Lady Sympathy was within her ladylike character as long as she did nothing. She drew on her gloves in her bedroom—never in public—put a well-filled purse in her pocket and got into her carriage. In her sentimentalities, her correct ways, her delicate inabilities and charming refusals to outrage proprieties by doing anything but extend a carefully gloved hand with money in it to all in trouble, she was the perfect expression of what the eighteenth century considered admirable in a woman. Undreamed of was the voice of Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper.” “Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.”
Miss Arabella Fermor would have closed her fan to consider with amazement such a want of restraint in a voice of such vulgar carrying-power. Wordsworth’s type of perfect woman, with apparently perfect lungs, would have seemed bad enough to Arabella, but at sight of the cropped head of the new woman, she would have fainted outright,—”correctly” of course!

Towards the close of the eighteenth century, men saw only a blurred spot where the future in poetry was to be. They most certainly did not see those rebels, Blake and Burns, Shelley and Byron and Wordsworth. Whenever poetry wanders too far from the uses and understanding of human beings, something happens. And that which happens is revolution. On, forward, upon that curving path of experience, seeking, turning over, interpreting afresh the facts of life, in every age the new poetry travels, as Old Georgianism did some one hundred years ago, as the New Georgianism does today. Now a word that all men know; now a prophecy which men must search out, and, finding follow; now a lamp upon the table to brighten household work; now a light upon the path showing the way to that which is unknown,—every poem a metaphor, covering vast spaces of the soul of man. Through poetry the eye of the mind sees that which it can never forget. With the facts of life as axis, poetry revolves, its law the law of growth and so of change and revolution, its orbit still unmarked in space.

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