Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews




Poetry and Progress

 

I have the honour to deliver this evening the forty-first presidential address of the Royal Society of Canada. It is the custom of our Society that the presidency shall devolve in turn upon each of our Sections, and the Section Literature last year claimed the privilege of nominating the president of the Society.
     I have thought to speak on this occasion of ideals and progress: first, and briefly, on the ideals of the Society,—those who formed it and gave it body and constitution, and then, in a more discursive fashion, about ideals in poetry and the literary life, and their relation to progress. There is, I claim, something unique in the constitution of a society that comprises Literature and Science, that makes room for the Mathematician and the Chemist, the Historian and the Biologist, the Poet and the Astronomer. Every intellectual type can be accommodated under the cloak of our charter, and we have survived forty-one years of varied activity with a degree of harmony and a persistence of effort towards the end and purpose of our creation that is worthy of comment. We are unique also in this, that two languages have equal recognition and authority in our literature sections, and that the premier place is occupied by the first civilized language heard by the natives of this country, which is ever the pioneer language of ideals in freedom and beauty and in the realm of clear logic, criticism and daring speculation. It here represents not a division of race, but a union of nationality, and joins the company of intellectuals by the dual interests of the two great sections of our people. We find our scientific sections welcoming essays in the French language and our literary sections interchanging papers and holding joint sessions on folk-lore and history. The ideal which possessed the founder of this Society and its charter members was undoubtedly that such an organism could live and flourish, that it [page 299] could become a useful institution in Canadian life. We have progressively proved that, we prove it tonight, and we shall, I am confident, continue our demonstration in the future. Is it too fanciful to think or say that the element of cohesion which made this possible is idealism, or that gift of ideality which all workers who use Mind as an instrument possess in varying degree? The mental process by which a poet develops the germ of his poem and perfects it is analogous to the process by which a mathematician develops his problem from vagueness to a complete demonstration, or to the mental process whereby the shadow of truth apprehended by the biologist becomes proven fact. The scientist and mathematician may proceed in diverse ways to give scope to the creative imagination, and their methods are inherent in their problems. They proceed by experiment and by the logical faculty to a point of rest, of completion. The poet is unsatisfied until his idea is cleared of ambiguity and becomes embodied in a perfect form. The art of the poet is to clothe his idea with beauty and to state it in terms of loveliness, but the art of fine writing—style—need not be absent from the record of scientific achievement: it is, in fact, often present in marked degree. I doubt whether the satisfaction of the poet in finishing his work and perfecting it is essentially different or greater than the satisfaction of the scientist who rounds out his experiment and proves his theory. Such delights cannot be weighed or measured, but they are real and are enjoyed in common by all workers who seek perfection. I now boldly make the statement, which I at first put hesitatingly, in the form of a question, that it is ideality that holds our Society together, and that it was founded truly in the imagination of those who thought that such an institution could flourish in our national life.
     During the past forty years many distinguished men have joined in this Fellowship—some have passed from this to greater honours, and others have passed away, but our methods of election and the keenness which our Fellows show in choosing their future colleagues ensure a steady stream of vigorous thought.
     The subjects comprised in Section II, to which I have the honour to belong, are certainly varied,—English Literature, History, Archaeology, Sociology, Political Economy and allied subjects; and some of the allied subjects are most important, such as Philosophy and Psychology. While we have this wealth of subject matter, the scientific sections have an advantage over us in that they have [page 300] greater solidarity of aim, that their groups have clearly-defined objects of study and investigation, and their results are more tangible. We must envy the scientists the excitement of the intellectual world in which they live. Consider for a moment the changes in scientific theory, method, and outlook since the charter members of this Society met together in 1882. It would not become me to endeavour to mention even the most important, but the realm of science appears to an outsider to be a wonderland. By comparison, literature seems to be divorced from life, and we would need to point to some book that had altered definitely the course of the world’s thought to match some of the discoveries of Science which have changed our conceptions of the nature of life and of the universe. Perhaps, in making this remark, I am confusing for a moment the function of pure literature with the functions of Science. Literature in its purest form is vowed to the service of the imagination; its ethical powers are secondary, though important; and it cannot be forced to prove its utility. Literature engaged with the creation of beauty is ageless. The biological notions of Elizabeth’s day are merely objects of curiosity, but Marlowe, Webster and Shakespeare are living forces. Sir Thomas Browne’s medical knowledge is use-less, but his Urn Burial is a wonder and a delight. Created, beauty persists; it has the eternal element in its composition, and seems to tell us more of the secret of the universe than philosophy or logic. But Letters will always envy Science its busyness with material things, and its glowing results which have rendered possible many of the imaginative excursions which poetry, for example, has made into the unknown.
     It would be difficult, nay, impossible, to change radically the methods of pure literature working in the stuff of the imagination. New ideas can be absorbed, new analogies can be drawn, new imagery can be invented, but the age-old methods of artistic expression will never be superseded. Apart from pure literature, or Belles Lettres, those subjects allotted to our section which are capable of scientific treatment, for instance, History, show a remarkable development. The former story-telling function of History and the endless reweaving of that tissue of tradition which surrounded and obscured the life of a people has given place to a higher conception of the duty of the Historian and the obligation to accept no statement without the support of documentary evidence. The exploration   and   study   of   archives   and   the   collation   of   original [page 301]
contemporaneous documents are now held to be essential, and the partisan historian fortified with bigotry and blind to all evidence uncongenial to his preconceptions is an extinct being. International effort and co-operation have taken the place of jealous sectionalism and the desire to unfold the truth has displaced the craze to prove a theory. The new Science of History has its material in archives and collections of original documents, and one must here refer to the growth of our own Dominion collections under the guidance of an Archivist who is one of us, and who is aided by other distinguished Fellows of the Society. It should be remarked that one of the objects set forth by our charter was to assist in the collection of archives and to aid in the formation of a National Museum of Ethnology, Archaeology and Natural History. Let us not weaken for a moment in the discharge of this obligation. The Archives and the Museum exist largely owing to the influence of our Society, exerted constantly with great pressure, and, in times of necessity, with grave insistence. The Museum needs we consider highly important, and, as you are all aware, we intend to assist the Government to come to wise conclusions in these matters, and to keep alive and vigorous all projects that aim at conserving and developing our intellectual resources.
     We talk too often and too lengthily about Canadian poetry and Canadian literature as if it was, or ought to be, a special and peculiar brand, but it is simply poetry, or not poetry; literature or not literature; it must be judged by established standards, and cannot escape criticism by special pleading. A critic may accompany his blame or praise by describing the difficulties of the Canadian literary life, but that cannot be allowed to prejudice our claim to be members of the general guild. We must insist upon it. If there be criticism by our countrymen, all that we ask is that it should be informed and able criticism, and that it too should be judged by universal standards. Future critics will recognize the difficulties which oppress all artistic effort in new countries, as do the best of contemporary critics. As Matthew Arnold wrote, in countries and times of splendid poetical achievement: “The poet lived in a current of ideas in the highest degree animating and nourishing to the creative power; society was, in the fullest measure, permeated by fresh thought, intelligent and alive; and this state of things is the true basis for the creative power’s exercise.” When we seek in our contemporary society for the full permeation of fresh thought, intelligent [page 302] and alive, we do not find it; we do not find it in America or elsewhere, and if the premise is sound we can say, therefore, we do not find an ample and glorious stream of creative power. It is casual, intermittent, fragmentary, because society is in like state. But we may be thankful that in our country there has been and is now a body of thought, intelligent and alive, that gives tangible support to the artist and that has assisted him in his creative work.
     You will note that I am taking high ground, in fact, the highest, in dealing with literature and the highest form of literature—poetry. I am well aware that there is a great increase in our written word during the last twenty-five years, and our writers are now competently meeting the varied demand of readers whose taste does not require anything too finely wrought nor too greatly imagined. I heard one of our successful writers declare the other day that what we should do now is to get the “stuff” down somehow or other and never to mind how it was done so long as it was done. Well, that would give us all the rewards of haste, but would hardly assist in building a literature. There must ever be this contrast between the worker for instant results and the worker who toils for the last perfection. One class is not without honour, the other is precious beyond valuation. As time passes we shall find in this country, no doubt, a growing corpus of stimulating thought that will still more tend to the nourishing and support of creative genius.
     While we do not wish to part Canadian Literature from the main body of Literature written in English, we may lay claim to the pos-session of something unique in the Canadian literary life,—that may be distinguishable to even casual perception by a peculiar blend of courage and discouragement. In truth, there is such lack of the concentration that makes for the drama of literary life that it is almost non-existent. But, nevertheless, our resident authors, those who have not attempted to escape from this environment, have done and are doing important work in imaginative literature. I have thought to touch briefly upon two such lives typical of the struggle for self-expression in a new country.
     If there had existed in our Society a rule that is observed in the French Academy, it would have been my duty to have pronounced, upon taking my chair, a eulogy on Archibald Lampman, who had died the year previous to my election, and to whose chair I succeeded. I would hardly have been as competent then to speak of him and his work as I am now, for both were too near to me then, [page 303] and now I have the advantage of added experience, and, after a lapse of twenty odd years, poetic values shift. But what is poetic truth does not change, and it is a high satisfaction to find that there was so much of poetic truth in the work of my friend, our colleague, truth that fortifies, and beauty that sweetens life. He felt the oppression of the dullness of the life about us more keenly than I did, for he had fewer channels of escape, and his responsibilities were heavier; he had little if any enjoyment in the task-round of every day, and however much we miss the sense of tedium in his best work, most assuredly it was with him present in the days of his week and the weeks of his year. He had real capacity for gaiety and for the width and atmosphere of varied and complex life, not as an actor in it perhaps, but as a keen observer, and as a drifter upon its surface, one in whom the colour and movement of life would have created many beautiful and enchanting forms. But he was compelled to work without that stimulus, in a dull environment and the absence also of any feeling of nationality, a strong aid and incitement to a poet, no matter how much we may talk nowadays about the danger of national feeling. This lack made sterile a broad tract of his mind; it was a discouragement that he could not know that he was interpreting the aspirations and ideals of a national life. We still feel that lack of national consciousness, but perhaps it is a trifle less evident now. His love of country was very strong and took form in his praise of nature, that unsoiled and untrammelled nature that we think of as Canada, and his work in this kind has a verity and vigour that is unmatched. He filled the rigid form of the sonnet with comments on the life of the fields and woods and waters that ring as true as the notes of birds. A single half-hundred of these sonnets of his may be placed in any poetic company and they will neither wilt nor tarnish. Towards the end of his life he chose by sympathy to write more imaginatively about stirrings in the mind and heart of man, and there is a deep and troubled note in these things that gave portent of a new development. His career was closed too soon, and we have but to cherish what is left and rejoice over it as a treasure of our literary inheritance.
     It is twenty-three years since Lampman died, and the period is marked by the death of Marjorie Pickthall, which occurred during April of this year at Vancouver. Hers was a literary life of another and contrasted kind. She was of English parentage, born in [page 304] England, but educated in Canada, and she was in training and sentiment a good Canadian.
     If one were looking for evidence of progress in Canadian literature during the period just referred to, one positive item would be the difference in the reception of the first books published by these two authors. Until the generous review by William Dean Howells of Lampman’s book had been published in Harper’s Magazine, it was here considered, when any consideration whatever was given to the subject, a matter of local importance. But the warm-hearted welcome of Howells led to sudden recognition of the fact that the book was an acquisition to general literature, and was not merely parochial. After that incident, and others like it, we find that recognition of Miss Pickthall’s first book took place at once, and from our independent judgment, as an important addition to poetical literature. Advance is clearly shown by this fact; for until we have faith in the power of our writers we can have no literature worth speaking about; our position in arts and letters will be secured when we find foreign critics accepting a clear lead from us. We accepted Miss Pickthall, and our opinion was confirmed very generally afterwards.
     It is to be deeply regretted that her career is closed and that we shall not again hear, or overhear, that strain of melody, so firm, so sure, floating towards us, to use a phrase of Lampman’s, “as if from the closing door of another world and another lovelier mood.” “Overhear” is, I think, the right word, for there was a tone of privacy, of seclusion, in her most individual poems, not the seclusion of a cloister, but the seclusion of a walled garden with an outlook towards the sea and the mountains. Life was beyond the garden somewhere, and murmurously, rumours of it came between the walls and caused longing and disquiet. The voice could be heard mingling the real appearance of the garden with the imagined forms of life beyond it and with remembrances from dim legends and from the untarnished old romances of the world. Her work was built on a ground bass of folk melody, and wreathed about it were Greek phrases and glamours from the “Song of Songs.” But composite of all these influences, it was yet original and reached the heart with a wistfulness of comfort. She had a feeling for our little brothers of the air and the woods that was sometimes classical, sometimes mediaeval. Fauns and hamadryads peopled her moods, and our familiar birds and flowers took on quaint forms like the [page 305] conventional shapes and mellow colours of tapestries woven long ago. “Bind above your breaking heart the echo of a Song”—that was her cadence, the peculiar touch that gives a feeling of loneliness and then heals it, and if one might have said to her any words at parting, they would have been her own words—“Take, ere yet you say good-bye, the love of all the earth.”
     These two lives are typical of the struggle of those who attempt the literary life in Canada. Lampman existed in the Civil Service, and was paid as any other clerk for the official work he did. Neither his position nor his advances in that position were given in recognition of his literary gifts. From this bleak vantage ground he sent out his version of the beauty of the world. Miss Pickthall was more definitely in the stream of letters, and her contributions to the periodical press in prose and verse gave her an assured standing and due rewards.
     There is no necessity here and now for an apology for poetry nor for a defence of anyone who in Sir Philip Sydney’s words “showeth himself a passionate lover of that unspeakable and everlasting beauty to be seen by the eyes of the mind.” I admire that ideal, set up by the Welsh saying for the perfect man, the man who could “build a boat and sail it, tame a horse and ride it, make an ode and set it to music.” None of us could qualify for perfection under this hard and inclusive test. It covers, you will observe, mastery of several kinds,—mastery of craftsmanship, and fearless daring; mastery of a difficult and most noble animal; and, finally, the crowning mastery of poetry and music. We find it true of all peoples that these two arts are the cap stones of their civilizations. We are as far as ever from an understanding of what poetry really is, although we are at one in giving it supremacy in the arts and we are as far as ever from a perfect definition of poetry. Perhaps the best, the only definition of poetry is a true poem, for poetry and the poetic is a quality or state of mind and cannot be described, it is apprehended by sensation, not comprehended by reason. This renders ineffectual all attempts to answer the question “What is poetry?”, and makes futile the approved definitions.
     These efforts to define what is undefinable inevitably tend to become creative attempts, approximate to poetic utterance, and endeavour to capture the fugitive spirit of poetry by luring it with a semblance of itself. But the question is answered perfectly by even [page 306] the fragment of a true poem. We know instinctively and say, “This is poetry,” and the need for definition ceases.
     The finest criticism of poetry plays about this central quality like lightning about a lovely statue in a midnight garden. The beauty is flashed upon the eye and withdrawn. It is remembered in darkness and is verified by the merest flutter or flash of illumination, but the secret of the beauty is shrouded in mystery. I refer to such sayings as this of Coleridge: “It is the blending of passion with order that constitutes perfection” in poetry; that of Keats, “The excellence of every art is its intensity”; that of Rossetti, “Moderation is the highest law of poetry.” There are numerous like apothegms written by poets and critics about the art of poetry that accomplish perfectly the necessary separation between the art and the spirit of the art, between the means and the effect. They are flashed upon the mystery and isolate it so that it may be apprehended by its aloofness and separation from things and appearances. We can apply Coleridge’s words to any chosen passage of Keats, for example, the familiar “magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in faery lands forlorn.” We acknowledge that the perfection of the passage lies in the romantic passion blended with the order that is the sense of balance and completion, but the poetic quality escapes, it is defined, by the effect of the passage and by that alone.
     We quote the words that Shakespeare puts into Anthony’s mouth—

I am dying, Egypt, dying; only
I here importune death awhile, until
Of many thousand kisses the poor last
I lay upon thy lips.

     We recognize that the excellence of this passage comes from its intensity. And even such an outcry, poignant to the verge of agony, is not inconsistent with the saying of Rossetti; for moderation is a question of scale. The high law of moderation is followed in such an utterance of Anthony’s as competently as when Hamlet says simply “The rest is silence,” because it is true in the scale of emotion.
     Of a truth the ideals of our contemporary poets are not those of the masters of the past,—neither their ideals of matter, of manner, of content or of form. Tennyson’s thought “of one far off divine event to which the whole creation moves” is not only inadequate to express what a poet of the present day feels about the destiny of [page 307] man and about the universe; it fails in appeal, it is merely uninteresting to him; and no modern poet would say as Matthew Arnold said: “Weary of myself, and sick of asking what I am and what I ought to be.” Tennyson and Arnold are comparatively recent leaders of thought and we are more akin to the Elizabethans with their spirit of quest than we are to Wordsworth and Arnold. In our ideals of technique we are farther removed from the eighteenth century, from Pope and Gray, than from Donne and Herrick and Vaughan. Our blank verse at its best shuns all reference to Milton and has escaped once again into the freedom of Shakespeare and the wilderness of natural accent. The best of the work shows it, and from the mouths of the poets themselves we sometimes gather their perception of kinship with masters whose influence was unfelt by the Victorians. I remember well an observation Rupert Brooke made to me one evening during his visit to Ottawa in July, 1913, as we strolled over the golf links. There was a heavy dew on the grass, I remember,—one could feel it in the air, and the sky was crowded full of stars; the night, and peculiarly the coolness of the dew-saturated air recalled some line of Matthew Arnold. “How far away that seems,” Brooke said, “far away from what we are trying to do now,—John Donne seems much nearer to us.” It is the intensity of Donne that fascinated Brooke. It was that intensity that he was endeavouring to reach in his poem “The Blue Room,” or in the stillness of arrested time portrayed in “Afternoon Tea.” The diffuseness in Wordsworth and Arnold was the quality that made them remote. Brooke was fated for other things than to pursue the cult of intensity. Now we think of him as the interpreter of certain emotional states that arose from the war, and we may select Wilfred Owen as the exponent of certain other sharply hostile states.
     The contrast between these typical natures is the contrast between the traditional feeling for glory and the personal feeling of loss and defeat to be laid to the national debit. Brooke identifies himself with the magnificence of all the endeavour that has gone to create national pride; his offering is one of joy, all is lost in the knowledge that he continues the tradition of sacrifice for the national ideal. Wilfred Owen feels only the desperate personal loss, loss of the sensation of high living, the denial by the present of the right of youth to the future. The contrast is known when we place Brooke’s sonnet “Blow Out Ye Bugles Over the Rich Dead,” beside Owen’s, “Apologia.” The first glows with a sort of mediaeval [page 308] ecstasy, the second throbs with immediate sincerity and ironic truth. It is the voice of a tortured human soul. There has been agony before in English poetry, but none like unto this agony. How far removed is it from echoes of the drums and trumpets of old time valour, how far away from such a classic as “The Burial of Sir John Moore”? Here is an accent new to English poetry. There is the old power of courage, the indomitable spirit of the forlorn hope, but the anaesthetic of glory is absent, and the pain of all this futile sacrifice based on human error and perversity is suffered by the bare nerve without mitigation.
     Rupert Brooke’s admiration of that bare technique, fitted to that strange and candescent intellect of Donne’s was forgotten when he touched those incomparable sonnets of his. In them the intensity of feeling takes on a breath and movement which is an amalgam of many traditions in English poetry, traditions of the best with the informing sense of a new genius added, the genius of Rupert Brooke. In his case, as in the case of all careers prematurely closed, it is idle to speculate upon the future course of his genius. It may be said, however, that his prose criticism, his study of Webster and his letters show that his mind was philosophic and that his poetic faculty was firmly rooted in that subsoil and had no mere surface contact with life. Our faith that Keats would have developed had he lived, takes rise from our knowledge of the quality of his mind, as shown in his criticism and in his wonderful letters. We can say confidently that a poetic faculty based on such strong masculine foundation, with such breadth of sympathy, would have continued to produce poetry of the highest, informed with new beauty and with a constant reference to human life and aspirations. With due qualifications the same confidence may be felt in the potential power of Rupert Brooke. He had not Keats’ exquisite gift, but he was even more a creature of his time, bathed in the current of youthful feeling that was freshening the life of those days, and he would have been able to lead that freshet of feeling into new and deep channels of expression. Close association for a week with so eager a mind served to create and enforce such opinions. He seemed, so far as his talk went, more interested in life than art, and there was a total absence of the kind of literary gossip that so often annoys. His loyalty to his friends and confrères was admirable, and he had greater pleasure in telling what they had done than in recounting his own achievements,—what their hopes were rather than his own. I [page 309] remember his saying that he intended to write drama in the future and put himself to the supreme test in this form of art. One cannot think of his figure now except in the light of tragic events that were hidden then, when there was no shadow, only the eagerness of youth and the desire of life.
     Wilfred Owen too, and others of his group, inherited that touch of intensity, but there was bitterness added and he had to bear the shock of actual war which Brooke did not experience,—the horrors of it and the futility. It is to be doubted whether such writers as Owen or Sorley could have assumed or continued a position in post war literature, whether they could have found subjects for the exercise of such mordant talents.
     There was a tremendous activity of verse-writing during the war, and the hope was often expressed that there was to be a renaissance of poetry and our age was to be nobly expressed. But the war ceased; the multitude of war poets ceased to write; the artificial stimulus had departed and they one and all found themselves without a subject. Whatever technique they had acquired for the especial purpose of creating horror or pity was unfitted for less violent matter. The ideals which they had passionately upheld received the cold shoulder of disillusionment. The millennium had not arrived, in very truth it seemed farther off than ever, and the source of special inspiration had dried up. But the elimination of these poets of the moment did not affect the main development of poetry. Those poets, who had been in the stream of tendency, and who were diverted by the violent flood of war feelings and impressions settled back upon the normal. They had not required subjects more stimulating than those ordinary problems or appearances of life and nature which are always present. Their technical acquirements were as adequate as ever and they took up the task of expression where it had been interrupted.
     There are many mansions in the house of poetry; the art is most varied and adaptable; we must acknowledge its adequacy for all forms and purposes of expression,—from the lampoon, through the satire, through mere description and narrative, through the epic, to the higher forms of the lyric and the drama. Rhythm, being the very breath and blood of all art, here lends itself dispassionately and without revolt to the lowest drudgery as well as the highest inspiration. But when so often calling on the name of poetry, I am thinking of that element in the art which is essential, in which the power [page 310] of growth resides, which is the winged and restless spirit keeping pace with knowledge and often beating into the void in advance of speculation; the spirit which Shakespeare called “the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come.” This spirit endeavours to interpret the world in new terms of beauty, to find unique symbols, images and analogies for the varied forms of life. It absorbs science and philosophy, and anticipates social progress in terms of ideality. It is rare, but it is ever present, for what is it but the flickering and pulsation of the force that created the world.
     I remarked a moment ago upon the remoteness of that mood of Matthew Arnold in which he expresses soul weariness and the need of self-dependence. Arnold advises the soul to learn this self-poise from nature pursuing her tasks, to live as the sea and the mountains live. But our modern mood does not seek self-dependence, having no knowledge of that lack, nor does it refer to the unconscious for comfort or example. It asks for deeper experience, for more intense feeling and for expression through action. Science has taught the modern that nature lives and breathes, and in looking at the mountains and the sea, he is moved to feelings based on growing knowledge, unutterable as yet in thought. The modern feels no sickness of soul which requires a panacea of quiescence; he is aware of imperfections and of vast physical and social problems, but life does not therefore interest him less but more. He has the will to live and persistence to grapple with the universal complexities. This becomes evident in the revolt against established forms and in the intellectual daring that forces received opinion before a new jurisdiction.
     This is a critical age and has its peculiar tone of criticism. Compared with other times it more loudly and insistently questions and mocks at the past—the past exists merely “to be the snuff of younger spirits whose apprehensive senses all but new things disdain.” Art that takes on new forms has more than ever a critical outlook, and criticism seems to be based on irritation. The purpose of the effort is not so much, if at all, to create beauty, as to insult older ideas of beauty, to épater le bourgeois, to shock with unwholesome audacities, to inset a grain of sand into each individual oyster shell and set up an irritation, seemingly without any hope of ultimately producing pearls thereby, but with the mere malicious design of awakening protest, the more violent the better. I might continue my quotation of Shakespeare, and say of these ultra modern minds that their “Judgments are mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies [page 311] expire before their fashions”; but no matter how long the present fashion lasts, it may be treated in retrospect as a moment of irony.
     A virus has infected all the arts; the desire for rebellious, violent and discordant expression has invaded even the serene province of Music.
     The extremists in this art invoke satire as their principle divinity. They set out to describe, for example, the feelings of the heir of a maiden aunt who has left him her pet dog instead of fifty thousand pounds. They write waltzes for the piano with the right-hand part in one key, and the left-hand part in another. Masses of orchestral sound move across each other careless of what happens in the passing.
     Perhaps I might be pardoned a short digression here on the subject of Music,—its true progress in the path of perfection; for Music is the art of perfection, and, as Walter Pater declared, all other arts strive towards the condition of Music. The rise and development of modern Music is a matter of barely five hundred years and parallels the growth of modern Science. The developments of both in the future cannot be limited. They may progress side by side,—Science expanding and solving the problems of the universe, and Music fulfilling the definition that Wagner made for it as “the innermost dream-image of the essential nature of the world.” Wagner’s music was once satirically called the “Music of the Future.” It is now firmly and gloriously fixed in the past. But Music is truly the art of the future. Men will come to it more and more as the art which can express the complex emotions of life in terms of purest beauty. It is the art most fitted to give comfort and release to the spirit and to resolve scepticism as it resolves discords. Side by side with a tone of supersensualism that runs through modern Music we have intellectual developments and also a straining towards spiritual thoughts which restore the balance. It is gratifying to note that Britain is taking the place she once occupied as a leader in musical creation. The obstacle to the understanding of Music has not been the absence of natural correspondences in the mind. Music has universal appeal, but because of the fact that it must reach the understanding through the ear, it must be twice created, and the written stuff is dumb until awakened into vibrating life. The invention of mechanical means for the reproduction of Music and their gradual improvement has made Music as accessible as the reproductions of [page 312] fine paintings. The widespread use of these music machines proves the desire of the people to hear and to understand, and the effect upon the public taste will be appreciable. The style of amateur performances will be improved, and it may not be too much to claim for this wide distribution of beautiful and deeply felt music an influence on the creative side and a stimulation to eager youthful spirits to translate their emotions into sound. Music is the great nourisher of the imagination, the prevalence of great music means the production of great verse. Over and against the poets who have been deaf to the stimulation of Music we can quote some of the greatest who have been sensitive to it,—Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, and I may quote the remark of Coleridge, made in 1833: “I could write as good verses as ever I did if I were perfectly free from vexations and were in the ad libitum hearing of fine music, which has a sensible effect in harmonizing my thoughts, and in animating and, as it were, lubricating my inventive faculties.”
     The leaders of what is called the “New Movement in Poetry” have some ground for argument, but make unconvincing uses of it. The most voluble centres of the New Movement are in the United States, and the subject is pursued with all the energy and conviction that we have learned to expect from the adoption of any cause to the south of us. We must willingly confess that Americans are an art-loving people, and that now they are immensely interested in all the arts. From the first they were hospitable to foreign production and absorbed all that was best in the work of other nationalities, and lately they have grown confident of their native artists and reward them with patronage and praise.
     The protagonists of the Modern Movement in Poetry are most hospitable to the old poets; they are orthodox in their inclusions and throw a net wide enough to catch all the masters of the art from the earliest to the latest times. They approve of poets of our own day who use the established verse-forms as well as the writers of vers-libre and the innovators. Their quarrel, therefore, must be with the poetasters, with the slavish imitators, with the purveyors of conventional ideas and the innumerable composers of dead sonnets. But these people have always been among us and have always been intolerable to the children of light. The weariness they occasion is no new experience. They at once fastened themselves on the New Movement and welcomed vers-libre as the medium which would prove them poets. In proclaiming freedom as the war cry of [page 313] the New Movement, the leaders admitted all the rebels against forms which they had never succeeded in mastering, and while they poured into vers-libre a vast amount of loose thinking and loose chatter, as if freedom were to include licence of all kinds, they were still unable to master the form or prevail in any way except to bring it into contempt. The avowed object of the Movement is “a heroic effort to get rid of obstacles that have hampered the poet and separated him from his audience,” and “to make the modern manifestations of poetry less a matter of rules and formulae and more a thing of the spirit and of organic as against imposed rhythm.” A praiseworthy ideal! But has the poet ever been separated from his audience? Can poetry be made more than it ever was, a thing of the spirit? Did Browning separate himself from his audience when he cast his poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad” into its irregular form? Can one create a poem of greater spirituality than Vaughan’s “I Saw Eternity the Other Night”? To exorcise this senseless irritation against rhyme and form, those possessed should intone the phrases of that great iconoclast, Walt Whitman, written in the noble preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. “The profit of rhyme is that it drops seeds of a sweeter and more luxuriant rhyme, and of uniformity that it conveys itself into its own roots in the ground out of sight. The rhyme and uniformity of perfect poems show the free growth of metrical laws, and bud from them as unerringly and loosely as lilacs and roses on a bush, and take shapes as compact as the shapes of chestnuts and oranges, and melons and pears, and shed the perfume impalpable to form.”
     All that I intend to inveigh against in these sentences is the cult that seeks to establish itself upon a false freedom in the realm of art. Sincerity, or, if you will, freedom, is the touchstone of poetry—of any and all art work in fact. Originality is the proof of genius, but all geniuses have imitated. Poetry is an endless chain of imitation, but genius comes dropping in, adding its own peculiar flavour in degree. Sainte Beuve has written it down,—“The end and object of every original writer is to express what nobody has yet expressed, to render what nobody else is able to render....” This may be accepted as axiomatic, it governs production here and elsewhere, present and future, and any literary movement is doomed to failure if it attempts to pre-empt the conception that poetry should be original, should be freshened constantly by the inventions of new and audacious spirits. [page 314]
      The desire of creative minds everywhere is to express the age in terms of the age, and by intuition to flash light into the future. Revolt is essential to progress, not necessarily the revolt of violence, but always the revolt that questions the established past and puts it to the proof, that finds the old forms outworn and invents new forms for new matters.
     It is the mission of new theories in the arts, and particularly of new theories that come to us illustrated by practice, to force us to re-examine the grounds of our preferences, and to retest our accepted dogmas. Sometimes the preferences are found to be prejudices and the dogmas hollow formulae. There is even a negative use in ugliness that throws into relief upon a dark and inchoate background the shining lines and melting curves of true beauty. The latest mission of revolt has been performed inadequately, but it has served to show us that our poetic utterance was becoming formalized. We require more rage of our poets. We should like them to put to the proof that saying of William Blake: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.”
     I may possibly have taken up too much time in referring to modern tendencies in poetry, which are only ephemeral, and in combating the claim, put forward with all gravity, to distinction that flows from a new discovery. Already many of these fads have faded or disappeared. The constancies of these bright spirits have expired before their fashions. They are already absorbed with a new fad. But let it pass, —modernity is not a fad, it is the feeling for actuality.
     If I am ever to make good the title imposed on this address, I must soon do so, and trace a connection between Poetry and Progress, if there be any. Maybe we shall find that there is no connection, and that they are independent, perhaps hostile. It is certain that Poetry has no connection with material progress and with those advances which we think of as specialties of modern life—the utilization of electricity for example. Euripides living in his cave by the seashore, nourished and clothed in the frugalest and simplest fashion, has told us things about the human spirit and about our relation to the gods which are still piercingly true. Dante’s imagination was brooding and intense within the mediaeval walls of Tuscany. Shakespeare, when he lodged in Silver Street with the Mountjoys, was discomfortably treated, judged by our standards, and yet he lives forever in the minds of men. It is useless to elaborate this trite assertion; if material progress, convenience, comfort, [page 315] had any connection with poetry, with expression, our poets would be as much superior to the old poets as a nitrogen electric bulb is to a rush light.  Poetry has commerce with feeling and emotion, and the delight of Nausicaa as she drove the mules in the high wain heaped with linen to the river shore, was not less than the joy which the modern girl feels in rushing her motor car along a stretch of tarmacdam.  Nausicaa also was free of her family for a while and felt akin to the gull that turned on silver wing over the bay; felt the joy of control over the headstrong mules, and the clean limbed maidens who tossed the ball by the wine-dark sea.
     The feeling of delight is the thing, not its cause, and if there be any progress in the art of poetry, it must be proved in the keenness with which we feel the expression of the emotion.  But the emotion gives rise to correspondences.  What were the trains of thought set up in the Greek hearers who listened to the recital of that little journey of Nausicaa to the swift running river with the family washing?  We can imagine they were simple enough, and we can compare them with the collateral ideas set up by the description of a journey in a high-power car set forth in that profane poem on Heaven by one of the moderns.  The power of poetry has here expanded to include a world unknown to Greek expression.  Here is progress of a sort.  The poetry of the aeroplane has yet to be written, but, when it comes, it will pass beyond the expressions of bird-flight in the older poets and will awaken images foreign to their states of feeling.  Shakespeare wrote of “daffodils, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty.”  The aeroplane has a beauty and daring all its own, and the future poet may associate that daring with some transcendent flower to heighten its world-taking beauty.  Here may be found a claim for progress in poetry, that it has proved adequate to its eternal task and gathers up the analogies and implications, the movement and colour of modern life—not as yet in any supreme way, but in a groping fashion.  It is far-fetched to compare the work of Homer to that of a lively modern—an immortal to one of those who perish—but how many poets perished in the broad flood of Homer?  Immortal!  The idea becomes vague and relative when we think of the vestiges of great peoples, confused with the innumerable blown sand of deserts, or dissolved in the brine of oblivious oceans, lost and irretrievable.  Art is immortal, not the work of its votaries, and the poets pass from hand to [page 316] hand the torch of the spirit, now a mere sparkling of light, now flaming gloriously, ever deathless.
     If this be one contact between Poetry and Progress there may be another in the spread of idealism, in the increase in the poetic outlook on life, which is, I think, apparent.  The appeal of poetry has increased and the number of those seeking self-expression has increased.  The technique of the art is understood by many and widely practiced with varying success, but with an astonishing control of form.  This may be regretted in some quarters.  One or our distinguished poets was saying the other day that there are too many of us,—too many verse writers crowding one another to death.  My own complaint, if I have any, is not that we are too many, but that we do not know enough.  Our knowledge of ourselves and the world about us and of the spirit of the age, the true spring of all deep and noble and beautiful work, is inadequate.
     There is evidence of Progress in the growing freedom in the commerce and exchange of ideas the world over.  Poetic minds take fire from one another, and there never was a time when international influences were so strong in poetry as they are to-day.  France and Italy have, from the time of Chaucer, exerted an influence on the literature of England.  The influence is still evident, and to it is added that of the Norse countries, of Russia and of Central Europe.  Oriental thought has touched English minds, and in one instance gave to an English poet the groundwork for an expression in terms of final beauty of the fatalistic view of life.  Of late, mainly through the work of French savants, the innumerable treasures of Chinese and Japanese poetry have been disclosed and have led poets writing in English to envy them the delicate touch, light as “airy air,” and to try to distil into our smaller verse forms that fugitive and breath-like beauty.  English poetry has due influence on the Continent, and there is the constant inter-play of the truest internationalism, the internationalism of ideals and of the ever-changing, ever-advancing laws of the republic of beauty.  National relations will be duly influenced by this free interchange of poetic ideals, and the ready accessibility of new and stimulating thought must eventually prevail in mutual understanding.  We can resolutely claim for Poetry a vital connection with this progress.
     In these relationships between Poetry and Progress, Poetry is working in its natural medium as the servant of the imagination, not as the servant of Progress.  The imagination has always been [page 317] concerned with endeavours to harmonize life and to set up nobler conditions of living; to picture perfect social states and to commend them to the reason.  The poet is the voice of the imagination, and the art in which he works, apart from the conveyed message, is an aid to the cause, for it is ever striving for perfection, so that the most fragile lyric is a factor in human progress as well as the most profound drama.  The poets have felt their obligation to aid in this progress and many of them have expressed it.  The “miseries of the world are misery and will not let them rest,” and while it is only given to the few in every age to crystallize the immortal truths, all poets are engaged with the expression of truth.  Working without conscious plan and merely repeating to themselves, as it were, what they have learnt of life from experience, or conveying the hints that intuition has whispered to them, they awaken in countless souls sympathetic vibrations of beauty and ideality: the hearer is charmed out of himself, his personality dissolves in the ocean of feeling, his spirit is consoled for sorrows which he cannot understand and fortified for trials which he cannot foretell.  This influence is the reward of the poet and his beneficiaries have ever been generous in acknowledging their debt.  The voices are legion, but let me choose from the multitude as a witness one who was not a dreamer, one who was a child of his age and that not a poetical age, one who loved the excitement of an aristocratic society, insolent with the feeling of class, dissolute and irresponsible, one whose genius exerted itself in a political life, soiled with corruption and intrigue but dealing with events of incomparable gravity.  Charles James Fox said of poetry: “It is the great refreshment of the human mind…the greatest thing after all.”  To quote the words of his biographer, the Poets “consoled him for having missed everything upon which his heart was set; for the loss of power and fortune; for his all but permanent exclusion from the privilege of serving his country and the opportunity of benefiting his friends.”
     I should like to close this address upon that tone, upon the idea of the supremacy of poetry in life—not a supremacy of detachment, but a supremacy of animating influence—the very inner spirit of life. Fox felt it in his day, when the conditions in the world during and after the French Revolution were not very different from the confused the terrifying conditions we find around us now.  He took refreshment in that stream of poetry, lingering by ancient sources of the stream, the crystal pools of Greece and Rome.  The poetry of his [page 318] day did not interest him as greatly as classical poetry, but it did interest him.  The poetry of the 18th century was a poetry with the ideals of prose: compared with the Classics and the Elizabethans, it lacked poetic substance.  The poetry of our day may not satisfy us, but we have, as Fox had, possession of the Classics and the Elizabethans, and we have, moreover, the poetry of a later day than his that is filled with some of the qualities that he cherished.
     If the poetry of our generation is wayward and discomforting, full of experiment that seems to lead nowhither, bitter with the turbulence of an uncertain and ominous time, we may turn from it for refreshment to those earlier days when society appears to us to have been simpler, when there were seers who made clear the paths of life and adorned them with beauty. [page 319]

 

[back to Index / Next]