Charles Leonard Moore



The Future of Poetry.


As a critic Matthew Arnold has moments when he irritates; he tempts one at times to lay hands on father Parmenides. He writes occasionally as if he had bought Truth at a fair, as Englishmen used to do their wives, and had put a rope around her neck and led her away by main force to mutual dalliance. But when all allowances are made, what a victorious figure he appears! Sainte-Beuve, a man of peace, is not comparable with him in effectiveness. His life was one long war against fixed ideas and formulas and flourishing mediocrity. He moved with the confident assurance of the Greek hero, clad first in his own invulnerability and then in the armor of the goddess. His main effort was to impose poetry on mankind. He believed that men and women would be, if not saved, at least made more interesting by an habitual use of poetry. He prescribed poetry for most of the maladies of the age. "The future of poetry," he wrote in his introduction to Ward's "English Poets," "is immense."

It is well to recur to such a word as this at a time when we are all taking stock of our poetical assets, when many people are resignedly prepared to think that we have buried poetry with the poets. One can only quote to those who hold this opinion what Sir Guyon says in the garden of Acrasia to the unfortunate being who prefers to retain his porcine shape when his companions are re-translated into humanity: "Let Gryll be Gryll and have his hoggish mind." It is not necessary to regard such creatures, but there are people not really in need of exorcisement who yet fail to give their days and nights to poetry, and with these we may speak. I desire to write, not a defence of poetry, but a statement of some of its rights, privileges, and ancient immunities. Of writing defences of poetry there is indeed no end. Why does not some one write a defence of prose? It ought not to require argument to compel men to do themselves some particular good, but it does. Nearly all the other arts have an official standing. They are endowed, perpetuated, made part of the apparatus of life. But we are as incredulous of poetry as of the sea-serpent, and the affidavits of those who have seen the thing itself do not convince a skeptical world.

[769] There are those among us to-day who admit the power and persuasiveness of poetry but deny the necessity of the formal art. To them one must try to justify the ways of metre to men. There are those who think that faith, idealism, distinction, the very breath of the nostrils of poetry, the light of her countenance, are no longer possible now that science and material welfare and universal democracy have made us all so happy and so good. To such I must whisper that faith, idealism, and distinction are such admirable inventions that if poetry will help us preserve or win them back we ought all to offer up hecatombs to Apollo. And there are those who, seeing the great luminaries of English verse that assembled toward the beginning of the century and marched almost in a body over the sky of literature now sink one by one under the horizon grave, seeing this great collateral movement, feel that the vigor of the race and the resources of the language must be for a time exhausted. To these it is difficult to reply.

In literature nothing will answer but the actual performance. Yet it may be urged that poems, like men, must come of age before they can acquire a legal status. Neither new poems nor new bottles of wine can have that ethereal flavor, that cobwebbed crust which time alone imparts. Fifty years ago Tennyson was "Miss Alfred," Arnold was "a frog croaking upon Helicon," Hawthorne "one of those visionists." The mass of men feel vaguely that there is a divorce between poetry and plain fact. Poets and the critics of poets have indulged in such airs, have perpetrated such flights into the inane, that honest folk rub their eyes and stare and presently condemn as pure folly a business that makes such pretensions. Mrs. Browning with her chrysms and apocalypses and other ecstatic things which she pours so plentifully on the heads of her poets (and she deals mainly in poets), Tennyson with his injunction to "vex not the poet's mind," and others with more in a like vein, have spread abroad the impression that the largest, most humane, in reality the simplest of arts is a thing suitable only for idiots and children. Poetry has claimed a monopoly, a patent royal over imagination, insight, the feeling for truth and beauty, and has treated prose as a mere squatter on the lands of fancy and romance.

Surely prose, the prose of literature or of life, has an equal estate with poetry in all these fine things, though she may become a poor relation by her manner of handling them. Poetry does not need any usurped possessions, and it were better for her to throw all such back into the hotch-pot and have a fresh and fair division with the other heirs. [770] I do not see why Shakespeare must needs resign half his wits when writing the divine talk of his comedies, why Milton's imagination does not fulmine behind his high-banked, heaven-filling prose sentences, why Burke should not be the inspired reporter of the Gazette of the World. No, the ideas of men are the common property of language in whatever form it may utter itself.

It remains for poetry to prove that by its use of language it raises such ideas to a higher power, gives them a more lasting effect. Literature was not invented yesterday and the common consent of mankind allows this claim. Thirtv centuries of succession have made the throne of literature legitimate in the line of poetry. But some of its causes of superiority are simple, are apparent, are almost elementary to state. To begin with, poetry is the shorthand of literature. Verse tends to concentration, prose to diffusion. The aim of all expression is definiteness, the vivid, instantaneous rendering of the thing thought. Verse by the pregnant lucidity to which its close-packed form compels it, by the images and metaphors with which it seeks to evade the use of many words, attains more successfully and more usually than prose the definite and the concrete. This concentration is an immense advantage. Mankind is on a long march and must discard all superfluous impedimenta and content itself with what is easiest carried.

Our memories find themselves more at home with language that has a cadence, a reverberation, an echo, than with unmarked, unmodulated prose. It is the fortune of a pithy saying to be turned to rhythm and tagged with rhyme. The intellects of children begin to walk with the aid of crutches of rhyme, and we older children in our conversation or our writing use the phrases and lines and couplets of the poets as we once did the chairs that helped our tottering steps in infancy. Furthermore, verse has an apparent symmetry, a balance, a proportion of parts which is wanting in prose and seems to answer to some need of the human mind.

There are authors, De Quincey among them, who claim that prose has laws governing its outward form as real if not as rigid as those of verse. But such laws are not discernible to the ordinary eye, and when De Quincey himself tries to exemplify them he seems merely to aim beyond prose and to fall short of poetry. Compared with the drill and discipline of verse, prose has the disorder of a mob, or at least the non-coherent movement of the procession of life in a city street. It may almost be said that verse is to prose as a bird is to the wind in which it floats. One is a complete organism with voli[771]tion and power, the other a blind force. Poetry has a motion whose rapidity begets a heat and brightness that prose knows not. In the quickening revolution the wheel of language disappears, the author forgets himself, and we call the result inspiration. In its best moments poetry seems to bring out that harmony which is in immortal spirits, in the order of nature – and dissonance and discord melt in song.

It is unfortunate that such words as song, measure, harmony, and others are indifferently applied to two arts, poetry and music. Music, the Cinderella of the arts, "made in the last promotion of the blest," seems disposed of late to take advantage of this confusion to subject her elder sister to her rule. "If music and sweet poetry agree" – but do they? I cannot see that poetry and music are any nearer related than mathematics and music. All three have in number a common property. In this sense poetry and music may be one, and so may poetry and the integral calculus and poetry and a great many other things. When we reach back to the basal unity we may call it music or what we will, but in this world of difference it is well enough for every tub to stand on its own bottom. For the confounding of things which are essentially separate is the root of all sophistication. An artist who talks of a "symphony in yellow," or a musician who calls his composition a "tone-poem," is on the road to taking a silk umbrella out of a stand in which he has placed a cotton one. The business of meum and tuum is difficult enough in this enticing world without morality being relaxed in the sphere of art.

Sidney Lanier thought that verse was the art of harmonious sound. In a language like ours where sibilants, and not only sibilants but the dental sounds, hiss like adders, harmonious sound is difficult. Any one who has noticed in congregational singing, where words are pronounced in volume, the hiss which every half-second runs through the house, like the salutation to Satan on his return to the infernal dominions in Milton, must doubt the malleability of words into music. Shelley, in the parlance we have to use, is a musical poet, but he is full of such lines as" In the first, sweet sleep of night," "The earth in fresh leaves drest," which are poetic enough, but fly in the face of music.

A word is an eidolon, an image, very much more than a sound. The order of words in verse is a movement, a dance, an intricate procession marching and countermarching, rather than a musical composition. Of course, as words are symbols of everything, they are necessarily symbols of nature's harmonic sound. But it may be remarked in parenthesis that, taken in large, nature seems to be deaf [772] and dumb. The leaves may whisper as they grow or the stars sing as they roll, but such sounds are not audible. Sound in fact is a minor event in nature's course. If music does not dominate poetry, neither does color nor the art of color. The Greeks, whose mythology is so marvellously acute, made Apollo the deity of both light and music, and modern research establishes the subtle inter-relation of the two forces. Verse uses both but is neither.

Many poets and prose writers have of late descended upon literature with palettes filled with pigment adjectives and have sought to render the effects of nature by direct transference. They seem not to know that poetry may be full of color without the use of color words, nay, may hold itself upright, as Dante said, without adjectives, by the verb and substantive alone. But even with adjectives the greater poets have an indirect way of using them. I have sometimes thought that they employ adjectives of spiritual import when describing material things and words of form and color when the content of the thought is moral or intellectual. This is, however, only a guess. Take Keats for example:

"As when upon a trancèd summer night
 Those green-robed senators of mighty woods,
 Tall oaks branch-charmèd by the earnest stars,
 Dream and so dream all night without a stir."

Here is nothing paintable. One cannot paint a "trancèd night" or "branch-charmèd trees" or "earnest stars." The poet works by association of ideas, by remote metaphors, by mysterious suggestions, and thereby bodies forth a vision almost more real than reality itself.

I have tried to disengage poetry from those other forms of human expression which threaten to crush it out. Ours is an age of confusion. Nothing is allowed to be unless it is something else. It would save a world of trouble if it were recognized that poetry, in logical phrase, is a method, not a system; that it is a way of handling facts, not any segregated number of facts. We have to confront people who want poetry to deal entirely with emotion, entirely with thought, entirely with psychic philosophy, entirely with a dozen different things. There are critics who think that poetry, like charity, should begin at home, and that Pegasus must pace every inch of his native pasture before breaking loose into the wilds of space.

The claims of locality are especially strong in this country. We insist that our poets shall re-create their art out of their own American heads. I remember picking up a translation of the "Æneid" which [773] the author had taken the trouble to do in very tolerable blank-verse and happening on a passage in the preface where he nullified his work by protesting that to American readers a single stanza of our own Whittier was worth more than the entire poetry of Virgil. This disposition to make poetry a protected home industry is unfortunate. Nearly all the great poetry of the world was archaic at the period of its production; it sought out remote times and places so that its divine make-believe might have an air of possibility. No creator has ever come into the world without finding a chaos awaiting him, and whether the chaos be within him or without him or beyond him, matters little if he has the power to fill it with order and life. The poet is our modern substitute for the Universal Pan and the whole world is his province, not any special place or time in it.

De Quincey tells of an old Englishman, fond of discussion, who used to say to his guests: "Here I am, in my own house, at my own table, and not one of you has got the common decency to contradict me." Criticism, of late, has lost its gift of contradiction. We follow Sainte-Beuve's method, the method of the mirror, and write appreciations, subtle delineations of single authors; but we do not draw comparisons. Like Frederick's guards everybody in Sainte-Beuve is six feet high, and I am sure I have read the obituary notices of half a score of English writers as great as Shakespeare.

This seems an excessive allowance of greatness for the last half of the nineteenth century. It is barely possible that the constellation of our times will loom so large in the eyes of posterity. Indeed, it is hardly necessary to go back to Shakespeare to confront our late group of poets with comparisons. The great humanity of Burns, the kindling velocity of Byron, Keats' elemental largeness, and Wordsworth's brooding calm seem to some of us vaster poetical forces than our modern masters possess or are possessed by, and their diction has a sureness of ring, a certainty of stamp, which Tennyson alone of their successors has come near matching. Poets must have limitations, as houses must have walls, and readers unfortunately have limitations too; yet the repeated measuring by many minds of author with author will, in the course of time, give us some accurate verdict of the value of each. As Dr. Johnson says, we cannot call a river large or a mountain high save by comparison with other rivers or mountains. It may seem ingratitude to put our benefactors into the scales of measurement, but it is for their final good and ours.

Under correction, therefore, I am inclined to think that the de[774]cadence of poetry, which, we are told, set in only when the superior allurements of Darwin and Spencer enticed away romantic readers, can be dated back early in the century. Even Tennyson kicks the beam weighed against any of his robust predecessors. By a sort of eclectic selection he seems to have resumed in himself many of the qualities of his immediate masters, but always with a loss of their primal vigor and freshness. Compared with Keats he is Praxiteles after Pheidias; compared with Wordsworth he is a chanter in a cathedral choir beside a Druid of the dawn. Arnold is a classic, but is he not at the foot of his class? Did ever poet before cast his thought into such perfect mould with so little fire to fuse his materials? Browning, since I must speak my mind without fear of those societies which menace the happiness of mankind and make plain people think that poetry, in Hazlitt's phrase, will bite them – Browning seems destined to take the place of Pope and to vex the minds of future generations (for a very different reason, however) with the query, "Is he a poet?" Whatever Pope's deficiency in matter may be, no one ever questioned his supremacy in words. He sent his verbal shafts with the accuracy of Ulysses through all the rings of opinion until they fastened firmly in his target, the human mind. But it would take an order of the King to put any of Browning's phrases into general circulation. A writer may be stimulating, or subtle, or puzzling, but if he is not a master of language what has he to do with poetry?

To turn from these grappling giants of English verse to their American contemporaries and rivals is like leaving an arena where blood and bruises abound and entering the precincts of a cloister where every footfall is a monition to peace. It is also to tread on dangerous ground. There must be no light jests here. Our patriotism, our fidelity to those who have done us service make us regard our accepted poets as sacred beings. Indeed, the way American audiences treat their poets reminds me of a story which Voltaire, I think, tells of a tribe of Indians, who care nothing for their females as long as these are young and blooming, but as soon as they fall into decay conceive a mighty passion for them, so that with every tooth a woman loses or every wrinkle she gains she is sure of a new adorer.

Promotion with us goes by seniority. We grade the rank of our poets by the dates of their first publications. But distinction once gained, incense and burnt sacrifice is their unfailing due. Murder and arson and blasphemy would be better for our literature than this tepid acquiescence in everybody. The fiery enthusiasm which makes the [775] respective adherents of Gray and Collins, Keats and Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron want to burn the idols of the opposing camp is utterly lacking in our way of worshipping our poets. Only Poe has strayed into the strife of the world, has been loved and hated, has become interesting. Patroclus got more honor from the struggle of the heroes over his dismembered body than could have come to him by the most unanimous of funerals. One is tempted but has to fly the joy of saying something natural, something real about our American reputations. It may not be. Our poets have been taken as read, they have been laid on the table; by a vote of the majority they are beyond discussion they are American institutions. Let us honor their names and not venture to ask whether, taken singly or in a body, they can challenge comparison with the masters of haughty Greece or insolent Rome or imperious Albion.

I am reluctant to accept the theory which makes the poet simply a child of his age, a creature of his circumstances. Great poets defy the calculations of average or the laws of evolution. They move the minds of men to make the events we note as epochs, as often as they follow after to record events. But doubtless a ferment of intellect or a rush of action are favorable to the production of poetry. The mountain peaks are lifted up by earthquakes which convulse the globe. Now the greater part of our century has been a time of settlement rather than of upheaval. The things which the revolutions of seventy-six and ninety-three disrooted are getting growth again. Man is taking back into his bosom the kings and dynasties he thought he had got rid of. More than this, he is attempting the laborious, the amazing task of making an aristocracy out of people who have become rich. The masses know what they want. It is material comfort, not equality or power. The next revolution will be for luxury, not for liberty. It is difficult for poetry to become enthusiastic over the distribution of pianos; a capon for dinner every day is not an abstract idea. And such intellectual stir as is known to our time has been inimical to poetry rather than helpful. The hypothesis of evolution, the rationalistic method of inquiry, have done their best to cut the ground from under the feet of faith and idealism. But poetry's killing foe is wealth, and wealth of late has grown beyond the dreams of avarice. Money which can call into existence many of the arts, which can rear architectures, lay out gardens, which can even greatly help in the creation of music and painting – money has no potency over the proud and disdainful Muse.

[776] It is happily ordained for the good of the race that poets shall be miserable. In the old ballads the nightingale always leans her breast against a thorn. I hope there will never be a society for the prevention of cruelty to poets. Even when circumstances are favorable a great poet will manage to get his share of misery. At the highest pitch of his prosperity he will want to retire like Alceste into a wilderness. The comfort and contentment of a well-ordered world can be no joy to one who knows the dark foundations of man's estate; the spectacle of a snug, self-sufficing existence can be no inspiration to him who yearns for greatness and for glory.

One result of the toppling of our faiths in anything greater than ourselves and the vast increase among men of the comfortable belief in their own importance is the comparative disappearance or disesteem of poems of great length, such as are suited to embody the aspirations and instincts of mankind at large, and the production and popularity of lyric poetry in which every human being can utter his own cry of existence. If the process goes on the great epics and dramas of the world will infallibly be gathered into the museums, like the remains of the Pterodactyl or Megatherium, and people will gaze on them with wonder and marvel at the energy of the races which brought forth and endured such gigantic works of art. Every one will be his own poet, and lyrics, those structureless polypes of the sea of song, will be more plentiful than blackberries. Mr. Pater says somewhere, in that celebrated style which one must read with a bookmark, that lyric verse is superior to the other forms of the poetic art because it has a higher unity. It is a curious thought which finds a higher unity in Jock o' Hazeldean than in the Wrath of Achilles or the Fall of Lucifer. But the fact is our minds have become too feeble to take in more than one idea at a time. We can appreciate momentary impressions, the dip of a swallow's wing against the sky, the bending of a flower-stalk; but we are incapable of receiving any impulse from the large, the continuing things of life, from the roll-call of the stars, or the measured march of night and day.

It is ill prophesying when one does not know. The future of poetry is as certain as the future of anything else; but the poetry of the future – to that we cannot give a date or description. At any moment some poet may by a lucky stroke reveal an unsuspected pocket of golden ore and the world will be the richer for it. It may be that the circumstances which seem at war with poetic effort are just those needed to encourage and call it forth. Or we may indulge [777] the hope that the increasing wealth and luxury of men may have their usual end, and that corruption and decay may set in and flame forth in colors of such grain and dye that poets looking on will dip their pencils in the hues of sunset and eclipse and body forth visions to enchant the coming years. Or they may, penetrated with disgust at the spectacle, tune their lyres to hail the dawning of a purer, simpler time, they may sing of new Saturnian reigns – and so the circle round.

I began this article by quoting with joy a saying of Arnold's; I must end it with a reservation in regard to his position on poetry. When Shelley remarks that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, the assertion may have a certain vague and indirect truth, but it is impossible of verification in any exact sense. Poems as they have hitherto been constructed are not entirely schools of virtue, nor could any Justinian codify from literature a system of law or ethics which men would care to substitute for their present jurisprudence and morality. Similarly when Arnold expresses the belief that poetry will more and more draw to itself the forces of religion, he fails in that moderation of opinion and utterance which he so much commends.

Poetry is not going to save anybody's soul; that is what religion at least promises to do. Poetry is not the art of administering affairs nor the art of expounding prophecy. It is the art which fills our minds with the happiest and loftiest images and impressions, it is the art which makes us more contented within ourselves and more agreeable to those about us. It has its office to inspire, to charm, to console; its business is to show us that the things of life which most assert themselves to be realities are neither so real nor so important as they claim to be. Its future is immense, because when actualities oppress, when utilities task, when "tired of all these for restful death we cry," we need merely open our books and without struggle partake the strife, without effort to attain the ease, without putting off mortality to have part in the immortality of those sole things which show a semblance of eternal life – the creations of the divine poets. Ponce de Leon sailed far for his fabled Fountain of Youth, but the wiser man is he who reaches down his Homer or his Shakespeare and discovers therein the spring the Spaniard failed to find.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

The Forum.
1893, Februar, S. 768-777.

Gezeichnet: Charles Leonard Moore.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).




Bendixen, Alfred u.a. (Hrsg.): The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Cambridge 2015.

Moore, Charles Leonard: Incense & Iconoclasm. Studies in Literature. New York and London: Putnam 1915.

Newcomb, John T.: Would Poetry Disappear? American Verse and the Crisis of Modernity. Columbus, Ohio 2004.

Newcomb, John T.: How Did Poetry Survive? The Making of Modern American Verse. Urbana, Ill. u.a. 2012.

Newcomb, John T.: The Emergence of "The New Poetry". In: The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry. Hrsg. von Walter Kalaidjian. Cambridge 2015, S. 11-22.

Newcomb, John T.: The Twentieth Century Begins. In: The Cambridge History of American Poetry. Hrsg. von Alfred Bendixen u.a. Cambridge 2015, S. 497-518.

Renker, Elizabeth: The 'Twilight of the Poets' in the Era of American Realism, 1875-1900. In: The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century American Poetry. Hrsg. von Kerry Larson. Cambridge 2011, S. 135-153.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: Poets of America. Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1885.

Stedman, Edmund Clarence: An American Anthology, 1787-1900. Selections Illustrating the Editor's Critical Review of American Poetry in the Nineteenth Century. Boston u. New York: Houghton, Mifflin 1900.



Lyriktheorie » R. Brandmeyer