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The Faculty of Poets

ISSUE:  Summer 1934

The Name and Nature of Poetry. By a. E. Housrnan. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.00. The Use of Poetry. By T. S. Eliot. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $2.00. Form in Modern Poetry. By Herbert Read. New York: Sheed and Ward. $1.00. Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind. By Charles Williams. New York: Oxford University Press. $2.50.

“If a literary critic happens to be also a poet,” Herbert Read says in opening his discussion of “Form in Modern Poetry,” “he is liable to suffer from dilemmas which do not trouble the philosophic calm of his more prosaic colleagues.” And, he adds, he “must in some way establish an agreement between his theory and his practice.” The plain truth that he has spoken is a mild antidote to the warning one early meets in T. S. Eliot’s “The Use of Poetry,” in Ben Jonson’s words, to wit, that “to judge of poets is only the faculty of poets; and not of all poets, but the best.” If the poet must and does “establish an agreement between his theory and his practice,” it perforce will be one of his more prosaic colleagues who plays the umpire. There forms in the mind an allegory like the Platonic figure used in “The Testament of Beauty,” only here the youth driving would be the personality of the poet himself and the plunging horses, his philosophy and his poetry. It would be as impossible to imagine Mr. Housman writing Charles Williams’ “Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind” as it would to mistake Mr. Williams for the author of Housman’s “The Name and Nature of Poetry”: in these four discussions of poetry, the reader feels that the critic and the poet and the personality behind them, as perhaps always, have collaborated in the writing of each. A. E. Housman’s book, his Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge University, is of a different order from the other three more consciously studied essays. It has the ease and inevitability of expression that implies the utterance of thoughts that are not new to the mind from which they come. Written by any poet, the book would have been a valuable record of poetic experience and a beautiful statement of a poetic creed. But as the matured speech of the author of “A Shropshire Lad,” “The Name and Nature of Poetry” will be garnered up with the essays by poets on poetry, with Sidney’s, with Coleridge’s, with Arnold’s. Housman accepts the tests of physical responses for poetry. “Meaning,” he says, “is of the intellect, poetry is not.” He holds, as Herbert Read does, that in the eighteenth century “the place of poetry” was usurped by wit. Tried by the standard of the great ages of poetry, the poets of that century, “even when not vicious, even when sound and good, fell short.” The true poetic accent was possessed by four men—and they were all four mad: Collins, Christopher Smart, Cowper, and Blake. It is a strong case he makes against Dryden in testing his poetical sense through his rewriting of Chaucer. For example, “The smiler with the knife under the cloke” becomes: Next stood Hypocrisy, with holy leer, Soft smiling and demurely looking down, But hid the dagger underneath the gown.

T. S. Eliot has described his chapters in the book which originated as the Norton Lectures on poetry at Harvard as “a few light sketches to indicate the changes in the self-consciousness of poets thinking about poetry.” From Campion, Daniel, and Sidney, through Ben Jonson, Dryden, and Samuel Johnson, to Arnold and “the modern mind,” he considers the poets and their attitude towards poetry. Fundamentally he seems nearer Housman than Annold in what he demands of poetry. But how different essentially his taste and judgment are from Housman’s is implicit in almost every critical opinion expressed. I am not sure that the latter might not agree that “Gray was overrated” and that, in criticism, with Matthew Arnold “we come to a period of apparent stabilization which was shallow and premature,” but I am not convinced that he would think that in Shelley the “ideas” must be ignored, “so as to be able to enjoy the poetry,” or that Goethe “dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.”

In his discussion of the modern mind, Mr. Eliot quotes for comment from a number of contemporary writers on poetry; Abbe Bremond, Montgomery Belgion, Yeats, Read, Rich-ards, and Maritain. The reader will be disappointed if he expects to find in this essay a startling new theory of poetry. Mr. Eliot is almost nervously afraid that someone may think poetry can take the place of religion. “Nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else.” “Each age demands different things from poetry, though its demands are modified, from time to time, by what some new poet has given.” And quite sanely he concludes, “We must write our poetry as we can, and take it as we find it.” He is tolerant even of “meaning” in a poem, though for some kinds of poetry he thinks its chief use may be to keep the reader’s “mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him.” Yet he could himself scarcely give so high a consideration to Dryden or Donne if meaning were not important to him as a reader. There is relatively little direct comment on the theme that gives the book its title. The poet would like to have some social utility but he must write poetry, “poetry not defined in terms of something else.” Poetry can never be a career, “but a mug’s game.” Among the best uses of poetry are to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it” and be “a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings.” “The Use of Poetry” is a provocative book, covering a vast field in a haphazard way that was inherent in the nature of its origin as a series of lectures. It will also be an irritating book to people of strong tastes and positive feelings; for it is easier to agree with Mr. Eliot that there is need of some critic every hundred years or so to “set the poets and the poems in a new order,” than it is to accept the new order when set.

A debate between Mr. Eliot and Mr. Herbert Read upon the proper order of the poets might make an interesting beginning for this reappraisal of the poets. In his “Form in Modern Poetry,” Mr. Read says things about Dryden with which Mr. Eliot in his book disagrees. But Mr. Read, though with the modesty of a Margaret Fuller he admits that “the past can wait,” says “it is obvious that our critical values, in relation to the poetry of the past, must be radically revised.” On recent poetry he has more opportunity to commit himself; the course of the nineteenth century, he considers, was determined by Wordsworth. “Not one poet—not Shelley nor Keats, not Landor nor Tennyson, not even Swinburne— but was affected by the revolution in poetic diction originated by Wordsworth. . . . Against the magnitude of Wordsworth’s experiment, all the minor tinkerings of the nineteenth century are as nothing—until we come to Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins.” Credit is given to Arnold for experimenting with free verse and to Whitman for a “blind emotional force,” but: “It was” he contends, “with the school which Hulme started and Pound established that the revolution begun by Wordsworth was finally completed.” To Gerard Manley Hopkins he attributes the most important influence of the last decade. Upon the theme, borrowed from Coleridge, that genius cannot be lawless since it has “the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination,” Mr. Read develops his conclusion that modern poetry has re-established contact with a lost tradition, “the tradition of our poetry from Chaucer to Spenser; the tradition, too, of Shakespeare.” Through the emancipation from formal artifice, of diction, rhythm, and metre, the poet is at last free again “to act creatively under laws of his own origination.” “Form in Modern Poetry” gains a unity through the discussion of theories of “organic” and “abstract” art and personality versus character in the poet; for each of these is used as a basis for the solution of his problem of the present: “the relation of the poet to the objective values of a literary tradition.”

In “Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind,” Charles Williams has attempted to mediate between the claims of truth and beauty in poetry. The text from which he gets his trinity, power, reason, and beauty, is from Wordsworth’s “Prelude.” This is a difficult book; its central thesis at times seeming vague and its language not often making the task of the reader easier. The struggle is rewarded plentifully in the chapters on Shakespeare, Milton, and Wordsworth, even if considered merely as essays on certain of the plays, “Paradise Lost,” and “The Prelude.”

There are interesting agreements to be noted in these four very different poet-critics. To misquote Sir Walter Raleigh as quoted by Mr. Read, none of them can walk abroad save on Wordsworth’s shadow, Blake is often mentioned with an importance not at one time given him, and each might have closed with Eliot’s words: “The sad ghost of Coleridge beckons to me from the shadows.” They are in unison, too, in having put aside Matthew Arnold and the “criticism of life” theory of poetry. Form and meaning may be one; but none of them puts meaning first. A. E. Housman says, “Poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it.” Charles Williams implies something similar when he writes of poetry, “We must enter into its own world.” Herbert Read expresses the thought thus: “Poetry always, in every kind, resides in the word and its associations.” Even T. S. Eliot takes issue with Arnold and declares, “If poetry is a form of ‘communication,’ yet that which is to be communicated is the poem itself, and only incidentally the experience and the thought which have gone into it.”


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