H. E. Warner



Will Poetry Disappear?


THE question is not whether the poetry of the world now existing in printed volumes will – like the Gospel of Bartholomew, for example – wholly disappear. Books are so widely distributed that the total destruction of the work of any author of note is not to be expected, however desirable such a result might be in many cases, and however deep the dust of neglect which hereafter shall settle upon his forgotten pages. Our great libraries, enormously enlarged, will remain, vast and sombre catacombs, to tempt the wandering philologists and Old Mortalities of the future. The question more accurately is, will poetry survive as a mode of thought, an organic part of the civilization and intellectual life of the future, or only as the bones of the [283] mammoth or Irish elk now survive in our museums, objects of scientific study and comparison? If, at some time in the future, it shall cease to be written, or be greatly restricted in its use or in the topics which may still remain to it, it will have disappeared from literature in the sense here intended.

We can form no conception of that which is wholly foreign to our experience. To the dweller in the thirtieth century our lives, literatures, and achievements may seem as far off, as queer and old-fashioned, as colorless and unreal, as those of the Egyptians in the times of the Pharaohs seem to us. The spoken languages of the world may undergo some such change as stenography seems to be making in the method of writing them. A new and wonderfully condensed form of expression may arise upon our present system, in which simple sounds, with few combinations, may take the place of our words, phrases, and sentences. What literature may be to such a language we can form no conception. It would be safe to say that both prose and poetry, as we understand them, would disappear. But, anticipating only such changes in language as have been going on gradually since the dawn of history, is there anything to indicate that there will come a time in the future when poetry will cease to be written, or, if written at all, that it will occupy a much more restricted and humble place than now? Has poetry the capacity to adapt itself to the trend and current of modern life and thought?

A full discussion of the subject would far exceed the limits proposed to this paper. I shall therefore attempt little more than to indicate the direction which our inquiries should take, laying some stress on certain points that seem to suggest an answer to the question. Two general points of view would naturally present themselves to the mind. First, for what purpose and under what circumstances was poetry evolved? How has it thus far adapted itself to the development of the world? What effect has advancing civilization had upon its method and purpose and in enlarging or narrowing its range? In a word, what is the answer of history and experience? On this point I must be brief.

It will not be questioned, I think, that, as literature, poetry has always preceded prose. The latter, as the mere instrument of thought and communication in the every-day work of the world, must, of course, have been first. It will scarcely be questioned that, in the later history of a people, prose has gained immeasurably in relative importance, and has finally to a great extent and in many fields supplanted poetry, which has thus been driven to other fields, to new forms, methods, and purposes. It is also easy to see that the latter state of the poetry of a nation is always worse than the first.

There seems no reason to doubt that poetry was, in its inception, one of the useful rather than one of the fine arts. Rather, perhaps I should say, its purpose was not to give pleasure. It probably originated before the art of writing was known, at least before its practice was common. In the most primitive state of mankind the preservation or dissemination of ideas would not so much as be thought of. Man's sole purpose would be to supply his rude and simple physical [284] wants as they arose. He has at this time scarcely passed the intellectual state of

The infant new to earth and sky.

But, as he begins to realize that he is not one with the external world, and differs specifically from the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, "he questions much." Whence? whither? why? are the questions ever rising before him. His answers, so far as he gives them, are his philosophy and religion. Before long he will desire to disseminate and perpetuate his speculations, whether for the sake of gaining power and authority over his fellows or with a more unselfish purpose of bringing them into harmony with the method and plans of Deity or Fate.

Poetry, no one will question, is far more easily memorized than prose. Whether invented as a species of mnemonics, or already existing in some form, it is easy to see why it would be adopted as the language of early philosophy and religion. Not only would it have the capacity to give a far wider oral publication, but it had something of the character of a record. Alteration would be readily detected. For the dissemination of moral and religious precepts, therefore, poetry would have an immense advantage over prose. But if this early poetry possessed beauty, it is not because that was a leading intention. The subjects of inquiry were grand, lofty, awe-inspiring, but there was no thought of ornamenting them or adding to their attraction by committing them to verse. Other things not grand or beautiful, but which it was thought desirable to preserve for any reason, received the same treatment.

Doubtless there has been a process of selection by which the best has been transmitted to us and vast heaps of rubbish have perished. Still, we find in the Iliad a catalogue of the Grecian ships, and in the elder Edda much which no stretch of the imagination can make otherwise than puerile and dull. But, while the intention was as stated, the inventors of poetry builded better than they knew. To its uses as a vehicle for preserving or disseminating thought it added the charm of music. This charm would have been felt even if not designed, and by and by, when poetry lost its useful function, it would naturally attract all kinds of writings in which beauty or pleasure rather than use was the main motive.

It is without doubt the musical element in poetry that has so adapted it to the childhood of the individual as well as to the infancy of the nations. Long before they can read, and almost before they can talk, children begin to indulge in rhyme, and perhaps a little later in rhythm. They put together words without any reference to their meaning, and manufacture words without any meaning at all, making combinations of sound and accent that tickle their ears like music. As they grow older, they soon see the absurdity of this, and abandon the practice. Commonly – not always – they afterwards become susceptible to a different phase of poetry. This is at the period of the greatest emotional development in the young. The feeling may exhibit itself merely as a sensibility to the charm of poetry that others have written, or it may lead to a furtive and stealthy composition. [285] Again, they will not be satisfied until they have poured out their rhapsodies into the ears of sympathizing companions. Very poor stuff the result may be, doubtless, as a rule, but it grows out of the longings after the infinite that we sometimes laugh at, yet which are the source of philosophy, religion, and all art. Usually it does not last long. Contact with the world's work, with the rough crowding and competitions of life, soon brings the young man or woman to sober prose. Later, they look back upon this period with wonder and shamefacedness as indicative in some degree of mental weakness. Now and then, in a peculiar organization, it lasts a lifetime. When it links itself to a fine artistic sense, perception of beauty, nice discrimination in the meaning of words and appreciation of their sounds, deftness in combining them in harmonious groups, and, above all things, the feeling which finds all sounds in nature rhythmic, we call the man a poet and grant him a certain consideration.

Is there a somewhat similar period in the life of the nation? I think there is. Somewhere in the development from savagery to the higher stages of civilization there is a time when the emotional is at its height. It is the period when the poetry of love and war reach their highest development, frank, vigorous, passionate, and unconscious. Still later, poetry occupies itself with the domestic life and relations, with the arts of peace, with the picturesque and scholarly elements of life, or with mere decoration.

Thus much for experience and history. Without drawing final conclusions, the most cursory examination will show us that philosophy and religion have long since passed from the domain of poetry; that in the progress of civilization the emotional period has been passed, and great if not chief sources of the inspiration of poetry have been removed; that the life of the world concerns itself more and more with the practical, the material, and the definite.

The second branch of our inquiry would lead us to compare the two forms of composition, and to ascertain their essential distinctions (if they have any); the methods used by each, and their relative perfection as modes of expression; the fields in which each may be supposed to have its peculiar advantages; and, finally, the relative values of the ends sought.

A great deal of effort has been made, with no marked success, to define poetry. I shall not add to the failures. It appears to me that a thing so complex, with so many sides and aspects, is incapable of simple definition. We must "walk about it, view the towers thereof, and note its buttresses." We may define it with respect to its form; but when we undertake to include its mental and moral basis, and the field of its activities, we find that these are not merely very wide and diverse, but very opposite and contradictory.

Imagination has often been said to be characteristic of poetry. But in what sense? If we mean merely the image-making power, it is true, perhaps, that the poet oftener possesses it than the prose-writer. The latter, however, is not necessarily deficient in it, and there seems no good reason why it should not be freely and effectively employed in prose. But if we mean what is usually meant, the creative faculty, [286] as it is called, the power to recombine the fragments of past experience into something new and strange, to give to the non-existent all the vividness and reality of the actual, then the proposition is untrue. So far from the truth is it, indeed, that the very opposite might better be stated, – that imagination is the special gift of the romancer and the novelist.

In all this we must not forget the personality of the writer and the kind of subject he chooses to treat. These, rather than the medium which he chooses for expressing his thoughts, will determine the qualities we find in the writing.

Poetry, again, is sometimes said to deal with the emotions only, not to address itself to the understanding, and in this to differ radically from prose. But clearly it is not true that poetry addresses itself solely to the emotional nature; and it is equally untrue that prose directs itself wholly to the understanding. So far as words go, prose may quite as fully and satisfactorily express the emotions as poetry. Emotion really has a language of its own. Attitude, gesture, the curve of the lip, the droop of an eyelash, a tone, a look, a single word or exclamation, – these have far more to say than any form of speech. If poetry is better adapted to express emotion, which I neither affirm nor deny, it is by virtue of what we call its suggestiveness. This, it has seemed to me, is somewhat characteristic of poetry, and grows out of what we may call its method. It is partially due also to its mechanical form, whereby it trenches upon the domain of music. It is also to a considerable extent due to the idiosyncrasy of the writer and to the nature of the subject which has through custom rather than from necessity been assigned to the one or other form of composition.

It would be rash, then, to conclude that there is any essential mental or moral quality that distinguishes poetry from prose. Is there a difference in the class of subjects? Clearly there is. While there are great numbers which have been common to both forms of composition, there are some which poetry has never approached; or, if it has, its effort has been met with the most dismal failure. Mathematics, the sciences, theology, biography, – in fact, the entire domain of exact thought and exact statement, – is closed to poetry. On the other hand, there is no field of human thought or feeling from which prose is excluded. Its method is commonly the direct, and its aim is to transfer bodily, as it were, the thought of the writer to the reader. The method of poetry is indirect and its aim is through some subtle suggestion to set in motion certain trains of ideas or feelings in the mind of the reader. To awaken and make conscious the latent thought or emotion already there. Prose may usurp the method and function of poetry, but the converse can never be true. Poetry cannot measure or weigh. It .deals with the vague, the indefinite, the vast, and the infinite. It starts inquiries and asks a multitude of questions, as a child does, but prose answers them. It is wayward, capricious, passionate, and unreasonable. Its purpose may be called selfish. Beauty or pleasure it seeks, but never use. Deformity and pain it may employ, but only by way of contrast, and only so far as employed by painting and sculpture. Both in manner and aim it is the language of youth.

[287] It is true, as I have said, that it started out as a useful art. At that time, if the science of algebra had existed, its propositions would doubtless have been committed to the keeping of the heavenly muse. But in this age of writing, when the need of memorizing is no longer imperative, prose, by reason of its flexibility, its freedom, and its adaptation to exact statement, has taken possession of the entire field of useful knowledge and inquiry, and left poetry only the ornamental. Nor has it left that as an undisputed field, but it enters and works by the side of poetry, and even here seems to be crowding it off into one corner. Religion, philosophy, war, love, domestic relations and life, the arts of peace, and, finally, the dress, manners, small talk, the witticisms and persiflage of society, have formed the narrowing limit of poetry, and even in the last it maintains an unequal contest with prose.

Poetry has lost its place, not because the subjects themselves have become less interesting or worthy, but because of its incapacity to deal with the later phases of them. By its indirect and suggestive method and by its artificial restraints of rhythm and rhyme it is no longer able to compete where analysis, examination, research, and exact expression are needed.

There was a time when every tree and rock, every mountain, river, or spring, the sea, the wind, the cloud, every object indeed in nature, had a life and soul of its own. The mind of man was full of wonder and speculation. All was mysterious, vast, and unknown. Little by little civilization has changed all this. It is not claimed that science has solved or ever will solve all mysteries, but it is affirmed that the tendency is to reduce all things to a system of fixed laws, capable of measurement, analysis, and definite expression. The unknown is no longer awe-inspiring, but merely material not yet handled or examined. When it is examined piecemeal, the examination will be conducted with microscope, telescope, spectrum analysis, and the subtle contrivances of the chemist. The old tales of giants, genii, witches, sorcerers, transformations, are now only a part of the literature of the nursery. It was not so long ago that the idea of a dish running away with a spoon would have been as natural and normal to the wisest of our race as it is now to the child, to whom all things are possible. The same axe has been laid to the root of every tree which has merely delighted us with its form and beauty and not ministered to us with its fruit. The mind and heart of man have been made the subjects of scientific study and reduced to their places in the iron-bound and law-governed system.

What has poetry left to it? Its music. It is impossible to say that it has any other quality or any field which prose does not also share. This music is not dependent on metre alone. That is considered the one thing indispensable in modern poetry at least, but rhyme has much the same effect as rhythm. It is a kind of rhythm indeed, the regular recurrence of certain vowel sounds. Alliteration, again, is a sort of rhythmic grouping of consonant sounds. With a careful and discriminate ear for melody and a tongue that lisps in numbers, the effect is most beautiful, but it is beautiful only as music is. The child finds his nonsense beautiful, as the college poet also finds his. Even with the [288] best examples of the poetic art, if we look diligently for meanings, we are apt to be more or less disappointed.

But if we have at last succeeded in finding the one essential and distinctive element in poetry, as we understand poetry now, does this give us any assurance as to whether it is to continue? Is this one effect of poetry which cannot be imitated or accomplished by prose a sufficient cause for continuing poetical composition? We are not to assume that love of beauty will perish in the strong and ever-increasing competition of the practical arts. Beautiful sounds in the sweet-flowing, streamlike verse of the poet might still delight the ear of coming ages. But how is it with the poet himself? Some kind of metrical arrangement is of course not difficult. Perfection, however, is impossible to those who are not endowed by nature with the rhythmic sense; it is a matter of extreme difficulty and calls for arrangement and rearrangement, very laborious and requiring a vast waste of time and effort. Add to this necessity the additional impediment of rhyme and of the other rhythmic effects mentioned, the subtle suggestions in the sound of words which the poet must discriminate and employ, and we have placed in the path of the poet "Pelion on Ossa piled." Will it be found worth while to surmount these difficulties for the sake of an effect which is the aim of another kindred art in which it receives its full and complete expression? For the purpose of supplying words to music, it will survive, no doubt. It will also survive in the nursery, where the words do not need to have a meaning at all.

Why does not the great American poet put in an appearance? Why is his congener so slow to come forward in England? Why does he linger in France, in Germany, in Italy, in the whole civilized world? It is in no spirit of levity that I ask it. The answer can bring a keener pang to the heart of but few than to my own.

Mr. Howells is perhaps as much entitled to an opinion he expresses as any one can be; and he regards poetry as something that the normal and natural adult man and woman should be ashamed of. The idea of their speaking in rhythm and rhyme calls up the picture of these sane and mature and dignified people dancing and tripping along the street. The result has been good indeed in former ages, but there is enough of it. Have we not all the treasures of the poet? Ah, when it comes to that, when poetry can no longer take its place among the living arts and forces, to do some part of the world's work in the shaping and moulding of human institutions, its mission is fulfilled. Nothing is left to it but the tomb, the tooth of the still bookworm, and the slow-growing, silent dust of the ages to be.





Erstdruck und Druckvorlage

Lippincott's Monthly Magazine.
1899, Februar, S. 282-288.
URL: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/012266475

Gezeichnet: H. E. Warner.

Die Textwiedergabe erfolgt nach dem ersten Druck (Editionsrichtlinien).




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URL: https://archive.org/details/poetsamerica02stedgoog
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011210468

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URL: https://archive.org/details/anamericananthol00stedrich
URL: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100406501



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