SIMPLICITY and directness are essential to the highest class of verse. In the judgment of poetry this principle must never be lost sight of.
Goethe, perhaps the greatest literary mind since Shakespeare, is noted for his simplicity and directness of manner. The effort to dwarf the writing of verse into an obscure cult will fail so long as the people keep themselves familiar with the verse of the great poets of the past— whose work is true and beautiful because of its very character of direct simple naturalness.
It may be difficult to explain to the layman the conditions which produce poetry. But no one of a poetical temperament (and I believe that the greater mass of readers have such an inclination) can fail to appreciate a true poem. The failure to appreciate verse to-day is not owing so much to the inability of the public to recognize a poem, as to the attempt of certain critics to force upon the world as poetry what is after all at the most only clever verse. The result is a confusion in the mind of the ordinary reader who in the past was accustomed to judge by his own feelings.
There is no doubt that poetry is first and last a high [Page v] emotion. It is a sort of instrument which thrills the soul not only by what it reveals but what it suggests. For this reason, a mere esthetic word-picture, no matter how carefully wrought, is not in the true sense poetry.
It may emulate the careful photograph, which seemingly loses nothing yet fails to catch the one necessary insight which the painter who is a genius puts into his picture—that light that never was on sea or land, yet which all men see sometime or other in what the average world may call the dull and commonplace. There may be a danger, however, that a cult to see beauty in the commonplace will grow from the affectation to seem artistic and poetical. After all, the beauty we see in a special verse is in ourselves. There is the universal beauty which all see. That is the real, the lasting beauty. There is the greatness of life as life, the greatness inherent in noble actions and noble aims; the pathos of a great love, a great self-denial or a great despair. There is the greatness of a struggle for a lost cause (how mankind loves a lost cause!) There is a majesty of life and death; the majesty of ocean and shore and lofty hills. All of this is universal, and of this poetry is made.
After all, the real root of all poetry from Shakespeare to the latest singer is in the human heart. The mind is cold and critical. It plans and plots. It examines and sifts. Man with the mind alone were but a mean creature. Man the planner and plotter, the schemer and builder, may move mountains and yet be little better than the ape. It is man the hoper, man the [Page vi] dreamer, the eternal child of delight and despair whose ideals and desires are ever a lifetime ahead of his greatest accomplishments, who is the hero of nature and the darling of the ages. Because of this, true poetry will always be to him a language, speaking to him from the highest levels of his being and a translation from a more divine tongue emanating from the mystery and will of God.
Poetry may have many messages; but above all stands the eternal appeal from life and nature. All description of water and land, sky and earth, summer and winter, is not necessarily poetry, any more than are all verses on life and death and love and despair. But the greatest poetry is that dealing with the human soul. The highest class of poetry, that of Shakespeare, that of the Old Testament, of Goethe, is that dealing with the eternal tragedy of life in the universe. The eternal theme of man is man. But all poetry may not stand on this high level. There are lesser degrees of the divine emotion, and much that is true, beautiful and majestic in the verse of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In the work of the great nature poets, the very strength and beauty of the verse is owing to the fact that the thought and imagination dwell upon the human, and nature as affecting the human, rather than upon the mere objective nature, as solely an esthetic aspect. The greatness of such verse consists in its lofty emotion, whereby it conveys to the soul an impressive sense of the majesty of life and death. It is not merely the work [Page vii] of the literary artist, who paints in words on a sort of literary canvas; but whether the idea be death or a season, the mood is a creation of a soul strongly imbued with a feeling of the sublimity of life. In such verse one is lifted out of the common into an atmosphere of spiritual exaltation such as only true poetry has the power to create.
In dealing with a volume of verse, it is perfectly right that the reader should be guided only by the highest standards in the selection or rejection of poetry as such. To find the true poetry needs no subtle insight into the intricacies of language and the laws of prosody. The soul of the man of pure sentiment and cultured mind is at once influenced by true poetry through those very impressive qualities which mark it out from the body of mere rhyme or unrhymed effusions and literary exercises with which, even in the volumes of our noblest poets, it is sometimes mingled. [Page viii]