that, of course, is the all but universal idea. We are
accustomed to think of poetry as something to be regarded
with a certain amused toleration, or, at best, with
an esoteric appreciation. Poetry, we practically say,
is a matter for women and young people, but not at all
a thing to engage the time of men in a work-a-day world.
It may be very precious, but it is hardly valuable.
yet, even with the most practical of us, this skeptical
view is not always quite sincere. We have the Anglo-Saxon
distaste for exhibiting feeling, and our deepest sentiment
must be concealed at all hazards. Poetry, then, with
its patent and avowed purpose of declaring sentiment
and setting up ideals, comes in for a certain discredit
at once. And many of us have a love for the poetic which
we cannot permit ourselves to avow. We care far more
for the beautiful and the spiritual than is quite consistent
with the severity of business-pure business-and clasp
our real selves with a seeming indifference. But under
this cover of Philistinism there is a heart of sympathy-almost
always. And almost any man, when you know him well enough,
will reveal an unguessed capacity of esthetic enjoyment.
For one touch of true art, no less than one touch of
nature, makes the whole world kin.
too, one must confess, in looking over the range of
contemporary poetry at any given time that the indifference
of the average man is not surprising. One often wonders,
indeed, at the vogue poetry has, rather than at the
indifference it meets. I suppose no one is more aware
of his inefficience than the poet himself. If he has
any sensitiveness at all he must be terribly alive to
the discrepancy between his own grasp of modern life,
modern thought and the real thing called life which
lies about him. The utmost work of a lifetime cannot
compass the hundredth part of what he wishes to do,
and he must stand aghast before his own futile effort,
while the vast pageant of the world goes by ungrasped.
At best he can arrest only the merest scrap of it all.
what would you have? What is the business of poetry
at the present day? What must it say, if (as we are
told) it must voice the sentiment of its age? And is
it to be entirely in accord with its own time, or is
it to stand somewhat at variance with its time, like
the prophetic voice in the wilderness? I suppose the
answer is doubtful. For poetry of both sorts has always
been produced. There is always the art which is born
of the very spirit of the hour, and there is always
the art, and there is always the art which is born of
opposition to that spirit. And it is hardly a question
of which is better, since both are inevitable. It is
just the difference between Tennyson and Browning, for
instance-the one reflecting almost all the changing
phases of thought of the years through which he lived;
the other leading as long a life in the same eventful
period and yet never once giving voice to the sentiments
of his countrymen, nor recording any hint of the events
which were going on all about him. And yet, on this
basis alone, it would hardly be fair to say that one
poet was greater than the other. All one can say is
that they were diametrically different.
one thing, however, they were alike (just as all artists
are alike), they both brought the real world, whether
it was the world of their own times or of other times,
to the test of an ideal normal standard. Their art consisted
in applying ideals to life, in proposing ideal standards
to which life might be made to conform.
is the business of art, and particularly of poetry,
to formulate rules of conduct, canons of taste and tests
of truth. This may seem a rather extensive claim for
art. It may seem that we are claiming for poetry what
belongs to religion. But those authentic utterances
on which all religions have been founded are truly the
very heart of poetry. And although Tolstoi would have
us believe that religion is the mother of the arts,
it is just as true to declare that poetry is the mother
of religion. For religion is but the practise of those
high aspirations which we can embody in poetry and the
fine arts. Art serves to record and perpetuate the living
religion of a race. The dead religion, or the dying
religion, of any time is to be found its accepted creeds
and formulated doctrines and inflexible institute. The
living religion of any time is be found in the arts
and customs and habits and daily usage of the people
of that time.
that is born directly of these is called representative
poetry; but poetry that is born of a spirit of revolt
against them is equally their product. And while the
first is a manifestation of the average man's sentiments,
the second is a manifestation of those unaverage sentiments
which are to dominate the future. Tennyson's popularity
sprang from his nearness to his time, and from his power
of putting the sentiments of his fellow countrymen into
poetry. Browning's popularity was delayed for years
and decades because his ideals and sentiments and point
of view were so far in advance of his time. Tennyson
treated what people cared about; Browning treated what
they were to care about half a century later.
I conceive the business of poetry in our day, it is
not only to embody our national sentiments, but to foreshadow
the sentiments of to-morrow. Naturally these two functions
of poetry will seldom be performed by the same man.
One phase of it will be the natural work of one man,
the other phase will be taken up by a different personality.
And while we have a vigorous and competent poet like
Mr. Kipling expressing finely the tenor of our own thought
and sentiment, we might conceivably (if the gods had
been better to us) have had a second Emerson or a second
Browning, building spiritual temples for our future
is the business of poetry not to disregard the needs
of its time, but to think of those needs first of all.
Indeed, poetry which has nothing to say to the spiritual
question of its age has no excuse for existing at all.
Poetry which is a mere ephemeral and ornamental indulgence
in the artifice of rhyme is more like a pest than a
prophecy. The artist who is alive to all the pressing
and perplexing questions which beset the modern man,
and yet deliberately turns his back on them, is worse
than craven. The be the "idle singer of an empty
day" is an ignoble aspiration. And William Morris
was, for all his sad outcry, one of the noblest of poets.
He was not really the "idle singer of an empty
day" at all. He was a very busy prophet and workman.
The keen sensitiveness which made him appreciate the
vast ennui and ugliness of much of modern life made
him rebel vigorously against it. His life was a splendid
protest against the spirit commercialism which infects
us too often to the exclusion of all else. And while
I should not insist that "The Earthly Paradise"
is inherently greater than "The Seven Seas,"
neither should I care to admit that "The Song
of the Banjo" is better than some of those
strange lyrics in "The Defense of Guenevere."
Artemus Ward's wise dictum is as true in art as
it is in life: one should "never argue agin success."