STRIKING resemblance between the theory of art originated
by François Delsarte, and that suggestive but
ill-digested little book, "The Laws of Verse,"
by Professor Sylvester, is the method of classification
by triads. Readers of my previous articles on "Poetics"
in THE INDEPENDENT must have already noticed the employment
of this method, and, I doubt not, some have rebelled
against it. I did, when the Delsartean theory was first
brought to my attention. It seemed too much like laying
out the world with square and compass. Sylvester, too,
was evidently troubled at the apparent formality of
his results; for he is at pains to tell us how he was
forced by the facts of the subject to a triadic classification.
He goes on to suggest that a principle is doubtless
involved, which, if understood, might be made the
basis of a general science of "Æsthetico-Technic,"
as he rather cumbrously called it. Now this is exactly
what Delsarte had done, years before Sylvester made
his fancied discovery. More than this, Delsarte gave
a reason for his method which alters the whole face
of the matter and substitutes for the apparent formalism
a natural and necessary order.
is system imposed from without and having no causal
connection with the things it systematizes. True system
develops for within, and is the logical consequence
of the nature of that from which it grows. Delsarte
found the basis of his trinities of expression in the
fundamental trinity of human nature itself. All art,
said he, has for its final object to express man, and
through expression to develop the qualities expressed.
It is essential in man to have three natures, physical,
mental and moral. Subtract any one of these, and the
result would no longer be human. These three are entirely
distinct, and cannot be confused with one another. The
activity of the first is life and sensation, of the
second thought, of the third love or its opposite. The
aim of the first is strength, of the second truth, of
the third goodness. The reward of the first is pleasure,
of the second wisdom, of the third freedom. Yet these
three activities inhere in one and the same indivisible
personality; these three aims, strength, goodness and
truth, are but phases of the one divine beauty; and
these three rewards, pleasure, wisdom and freedom, shall
in the perfect man become one happiness.
Such, as I
interpret it, is the outline of the psychology which
was taught by Delsarte. If it be true, and I cannot
argue that question in this article, we have at once
the point of view for the explanation of the pertinacious
appearance of our triads. Art arises from the insistence
of human nature to express itself. But each phase of
human nature feel the same compelling necessity of expression
as the others. Moreover, man's three natures usually,
and in our better moments always, act together and harmoniously.
Thus man's expression, which in its highest potency
we call Art, comes to have a threefoldness in its manifestations,
each element of man's nature calling forth its special
mode of utterance. The expression must correspond to
the thing expressed, otherwise it is no expression;
and if there be a trinity in man, there must be a trinity
in any speech that adequately reveals him. Looked at
with this insight, the objectionable triads cease to
seem a mechanical and meaningless formula, and are seen
to be necessary and rational. So much empty mysticism
has been written about the number three and its cabalistic
properties, that one who uses the trinity in a proper
and legitimate manner in his reasoning is in perpetual
danger of being misunderstood. But in the present hypothesis
there is no such mysticism at all. I am far from wishing
to deny that there may be a reason in the nature of
things why the constitution of man should be triune,
and this reason philosophy may discover; but, so far
as the present purely scientific inquiry is concerned,
man might have had four or five or a dozen natures,
in which case our classification would have been different.
As he has three, it is what it is.
application of this point of view a little further,
it becomes evident that each of the three primary elements
of poetic technic (sounds, words and images) has a special
affinity for expressing a particular phase of man's
nature. The effects of sound used in poetry are produced
by the physical organism and are the only phenomena
of poetic technic that appeal directly to the senses.
They are thus the physical part of poetic expression.
It is only necessary to listen to a fine poem in some
unknown tongue, well read, to become aware that a certain
amount of sensuous beauty is possible through these
effects alone. But in our own tongue, in which we are
at ease, we cannot avoid receiving some ideas from the
words; and if these ideas be commonplace, no amount
of beauty of sound will save the verse from being trivial.
It will be, as we say, mere verse and not poetry at
all; for, it be observed, no one of the elements of
poetry is of much value except when conjoined with the
other two. When, however, the contrast between sonorous
verse and unmeaning words is carried to extremes, when
portentous metrical effects are used to introduce—nothing,
the effect is frequently comic to a high degree, as
where in "Alice in Wonderland,"
Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
whiffling through the turleygood
burbled as he came."
reverse the illustration and show what is the result
when all the other relations are present and those of
sound only are eliminated, let us take and transform
the opening lines of Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur":
all day long the noise of battle rolled
the mountains by the wintry sea;
King Arthur's army, man by man,
fallen in Lyonesse about their lord,
a splendid and full-voiced exordium. Now, we cannot
entirely subtract all effects of sound from these voices,
for even in reading silently with the eye we imagine
for the ear. But by a very slight shifting of the phrases
we can, without altering one of the words or injuring
the naturalness of their order, destroy the whole set
of sound-relations which the poet has created. Thus:
"So the noise of battle rolled all day long by
the wintry sea among the mountains; until King Arthur's
army had fallen man by man about their lord, King Arthur,
in Lyonesse." Not a word has been altered—the
phrases are the same, the grammatical structure is unimpaired,
the categorical statements are still there, and even
the mental picture, the image, is unmarred; and yet
the life is gone out of it. Not only has the sensuous
beauty disappeared, but the vitality, the effectiveness
are no longer there; and these, mark you, are all physical
qualities. How, then, can we avoid the conclusion that
these were expressed by those relations of sound,
which alone were removed by our changes?
in their functions as such, are the most mental of all
our means of expression. They stand for ideas, not for
things. The word "tree," for example, does
not mean this or that particular tree; it does not correspond
to any tree that exists physically anywhere; it denotes
the general notion or concept of a tree, which has no
physical existence but which applies equally well to
all the innumerable trees that have. And it is not only
mental in signification but in origin. For noting such
a general concept—and all words except proper
names, of which more hereafter, do denote general concepts)
without previously analyzing, abstracting, comparing
and classifying the impression which we receive from
particular trees. And these processes of abstraction
and generalization are purely mental. It is natural,
then, that that part of poetic technic which deals with
the nature and arrangement of words as such, which are
thus shown to be mental in origin and mental in meaning,
should be used by man to express more particularly the
mental phase of his personality.
and all those figures of speech which do not involve
imagery belong in this category. Their effect is to
give sharpness of outline and intellectual sparkle to
our discourse. Pope and the other overmentalized poets
are full of them. Pope's
with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
without sneering, teach the rest to sneer,"
over violent, or over civil,
every man with him was god or devil.
squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
went unrewarded but desert.
by fools, whom still he found too late,
had his jest, and they had his estate,"
good examples. We can hardly imagine such writing as
this moving the heart or the passions; it pleases the
mind only. It has a natural tendency to become wit;
and wit is the intellectual species of comicality, as
burlesque or fun is the physical, and humor the emotional.
Naturally, we find Pope the wittiest of poets.
hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
wretches hang that jurymen may dine."
thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea."
so on through innumerable instances. Punning also comes
under this head, which, as sound bears some part in
it, may be called the physical branch of wit.
In this same
general division must be classed those apt words and
happy phrases, those precise and accurate verbal felicities,
which form the chief charm of beautiful diction. In
innumerable laughter of the Sea"—the adjective
"innumerable" is such a felicity. The same
quality inheres in the phrase "a sad sincerity,"
in Emerson's "Problem":
hand that rounded Peter's dome,
groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
in a sad sincerity.
from God he could not free."
verbal nicety may take the form of a contrast between
words of adjacent shades of meaning;
thou familiar, but by no means vulgar";
such balancing of subtle discriminations has been carried
to absurd lengths by some writers, like Dr. Johnson
and Macaulay. Witness Sidney Smith's happy burlesque
of the mannerism:
whom Dr. Parr might be happy to say, that they have
profundity without obscurity, perspicuity without prolixity,
ornament without glare, terseness without barrenness,
penetration without subtlety, comprehensiveness without
depression, and a great number of other things without
a great number of other things."
its finest, however, this exactness of diction gives
the reader keen intellectual delight and seizes upon
the memory for continual quotation. So Pope is the most
quotable of poets, after Shakespeare. Perhaps this quality
was never better defined than in an anecdote which Mr.
Howells tells of the late George Pellew:
remember how we talked over some phrases which I did
not like, in one of his sonnets, and which he changed
where he could. Where he found it difficult or impossible,
he acknowledged the imperfection, as in the line,
knowing, did not choose to keep them sound.'
isn't the best word, of course,' he said, 'but it is
justifiable. All you can say is that it isn't a
close fit'; and then he laughed out his joy in
the phrase which was a close fit."
all, mere mind, without vitality and without love, is
a poor thing enough; and so if these mental beauties
preponderate too largely in our expression, even their
wit becomes tiresome. The antitheses begin to seem acrobatic,
and the "close-fit" phrases tailor-made. It
is the language of diplomacy. There is too much finesse
and not enough feeling. The patness becomes an impertinence;
and we incline at last to quarrel with the author for
his very cleverness.