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Poetic Form

( Originally Published Early 1900's )


By temperament many are constitutionally unqualified to give any utterance to instinctive promptings, to throw themselves with abandon into anything; but, granted this power, it is often the accuracy, breadth, and largeness of the cultivation received that determine the truth, comprehensiveness, and greatness of the result. A wholly uncultivated man may produce a perfect stanza or sketch; but usually not a long poem or a painting.—The Representative Significance of Form, XIII.


The poet naturally thinks through the use of images. He seems to see outwardly the things that he describes. He seems to hear outwardly the things that he utters. Essay on Teaching in Drawing.


In the phase of consciousness represented in poetry, the man thinks of certain scenes in the external world because they are suggested, not by anything that he is actually, at the time, perceiving there, but by his own recollections of them as they exist in thought. To one likening his action in a battle to that of Wellington at Waterloo and of Grant at Vicksburg, these men are not really present, only ideally so. As objects of thought they are not outside of his mind, they are in it. In the mood represented in painting, the man thinks of external scenes because they are actually before him. He is clearly conscious therefore of two different sources of thought—one within, the other without. The objective world is really present. If he wish to represent this fact, therefore, he cannot use merely words. Words can contain only what is in the mind, or ideally present. In order to represent in any true sense what is really present he must use what is really before him, i. e., an indisputably external medium, as in painting, sculpture, and architecture.... According to the distinction just made, any descriptive details are out of place in poetry other than those of such prominence that a man observing them may reasonably be supposed to be able to retain them in memory;—other than those, to state it differently, which are illustrative in their nature, and truly representative, therefore, of ideas within the mind as excited to conscious activity by influences from without. There is, of course, a certain interest, though sometimes not above that which is merely botanic and topographic, awakened by verbal descriptions of flowers and fields such as a painter on the spot would be able to give while scrutinizing them in order to depict them. But this interest may be just as different from that which, in the circumstances, is demanded, as it would be were it merely didactic or dogmatic; and a poet with sensibilities keen enough to feel the differences between essentially different motives will be loath to yield to the promptings of that which is essentially not poetic. He will refrain from indulging in the kind of writing just indicated, not because it is too difficult for him to master; not because though living at the present time he is unaware that the prevailing taste approves of it, or that, if he fail to follow its whims, he will be accused of having too little love of nature or sympathy with it; but because he wishes to be true to his art, as he recognizes that all the greatest masters have been; and because he knows that, when the present fashion passes away, as it surely will, only that poetry will live which is poetic in the most distinctive sense.—Art in Theory, XIX.

All lengthy descriptions or declamatory passages that have nothing to do directly with giving definiteness, character, and progress to the plot, detract from the interest of the poem, considered as a whole. The effect of these things upon the form is the same as that of rubbish thrown into the current of a stream—it impedes the movement, and renders the water less transparent. This is the chief reason why the works of the dramatists of the age of the history of our literature commonly called classical, like Dryden, Addison, Rowe, Home, and Brooke, notwithstanding much that is excellent in their writings, have not been able to maintain their popularity.—Poetry as a Representative Art, XXII.


Poetic form, for instance, as used by Shakespeare, Cole-ridge, Scott, and Burns, was characterized by apparent ease and facility. Whatever art there was in it, if not wholly concealed, at least called attention, not to itself, but to the thought and feeling for the expression of which alone it is of any use. It is true that, in the times of Queen Anne, form like this was considered insufficient for the purpose. It is also true, though the fact is not often acknowledged, that in our own times there is a similar opinion. But we have learned that the styles of Pope and Dryden were artificial. What will our successors learn about our styles? Certainly, if those older poets cultivated an unnatural rhythmic swing, ours are cultivating an equally unnatural melodic swag, the straightforward movement, which alone is logically appropriate in an art, the medium of which is a series of effects in time, having given place to a succession of side-heaves, occasioned by endeavors to lug along heavy epithets. In the overloaded form, there is scarcely more drift, which used to be considered essential in poetry, than in a fishing smack with every line on board trailing in the water, and every hook at the end of it stuck fast in seaweed. From the levy made upon every possibility of ornamentation within reach, one would suppose that the contemporary muse were the mistress of a South Sea Islander, who never sees beauty where there is no paint.—Essay on The Function of Technique.


Poetry is more than thought; it is more even than a strong and metrical expression of thought. The mere fact that a girl was drowned on the sands of Dee, or that three fisher-men were lost at sea, is not enough to account for the interest that we take in Charles Kingsley's " O Mary, Go and Call the Cattle Home," and " The Fishermen." It is his poetry that interests us; and by his poetry we mean the representative way in which he has told these tales. . The important thing that needs to be borne in mind in judging of poetry, is that it is an art, and partakes of the nature of the fine arts; and that, as such, its one essential is a representative form appealing to a man through that which causes him to admire the beautiful.—Poetry as a Representative Art, XXVII.

Not all, but some of these quotations show us that poetic effect is not dependent wholly upon the presence or absence of poetic thought. On the contrary, that which in verse charms the ear, fixes attention, remains in memory, and passes into a precept or proverb, is sometimes dependent for its popularity almost entirely upon consecutive effects of sound, so arranged as to flow into one another and together form a unity. Certainly, in many cases, the same thought, expressed in sounds less satisfactorily arranged, would not be remembered or repeated.—Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, VII.


The peculiarity of poetry consists in the fact that its medium is composed of words, which words, in turn, are forms of thought. If, therefore, attention be directed too exclusively to the form as form, the thoughts, which alone give it real value, will not produce their legitimate effects. For this reason, there is always an inartistic tendency in any excessive use of alliteration, assonance, or rhyme. . There is a sense in which all art-products are artistic in the degree in which they are natural. They appear most natural, of course, when they appear most spontaneous. But too great attention expended upon the mere selection of letter-sounds interferes with spontaneity of effect. Excessive alliteration, assonance, and rhyme suggest calculation, contrivance, effort, and this of a character not very choice in quality. They are all in themselves comparatively easy to produce; and, unless entering into the formation of a word exactly fitted to convey the meaning that is intended, they suggest an unwarranted sacrifice of sense to the mere jingling of sounds, and, therefore, a cheap form of ornamentation.—Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, Ix.


A poem is a development of language, and language is a representation of thought, and thought always involves motion. A poem, therefore, is a representation of thought and also of motion, or, rather, of thought in motion. But more than this, it is a single art-product; therefore it must represent a single thought in a single motion. This implies, first, one thought to which all the other thoughts of the work must be related by way of complement, or subordinated by way of principality; and second, one motion of thought—i. e., one thought moving in one direction, having one beginning from which all the movements of all the related and subordinated thoughts of the entire poem start; a middle through which they all flow; and an end toward which they all tend.—The Genesis of Art Form, VI.

In speaking of the plan of his "Excursion," Wordsworth, in several places, tells us that his conception of it was that of a cathedral to which his minor poems should stand related like chapels opening from the aisles. In other words, he acknowledges that a method of thought or expression not natural to poetry, but to another art, an art, too, necessitating a body filling space, was present to his mind when considering the general form of his poem. So far as this method had influence, his motive, therefore, was that not of the poet but of the architect. A poem modelled after a cathedral! One might as well talk of a picture modelled after a symphony, or a statue after a running stream. To be sure, if the stream were frozen stiff, and so far lifeless, the statue might image it. Only so far as thought were in a similar condition could a poem that was really like a cathedral, embody it.—Representative Significance of Form, XXV.

This requirement of organic form, as manifested by the arrangement of the chief features of an artistic product, differs not whether a poem be short or long. The degree of excellence in its conception is measured by the degree in which it presents an image of the phase of life with which it deals in a distinct form, by which is meant a form in which are preserved the organic relationships of all the parts to one another and to the whole. When, in speaking of a long poem, such as the " Iliad" or " Paradise Lost, " " Ham-let, " or "Faust," we commend its unity and progress, or the consistency, continuity, and completeness with which certain ideas of which it treats are developed, we mean merely that the poem as a whole presents in distinct organic form a whole image of that which it is designed to present. The difference, therefore, between the ability to produce a long poem and a short one, or what is sometimes the same thing, a great poem and a small one, is simply of the same nature as that which exists between a high and a small order of intellect in other departments,—a difference in the ability to hold the thoughts persistently to a single subject until all its parts have been marshalled into order.—The Genesis of Art-Form, VI.

None of these poems deserve to be placed in the highest rank, because they lack the qualities which, as we have found, must characterize the products of an art, whose form is apprehensible in time. They lack the qualities because they lack the form that necessarily would show these; and they lack the form—i. e., the representative form, —because their authors did not start to compose them with representative conceptions. When Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton first conceived their greatest works, it must have been a picture that appeared to loom before their imaginations. It is doubtful whether Wordsworth, Cowper, and Campbell thought of anything except an argument.—Poetry as a Representative Art, XXVII.


When a man polishes a diamond its beauty is due, in a sense, to its appearance, and to what his polishing has added to its appearance; but, in another sense, the beauty is due still more to the surrounding light which his polishing has enabled the diamond to reflect. The poet who never allows himself to use an imperfect rhyme, or, except for reasons in the sense, to use words containing consecutive letter-sounds that do not harmonize, is likely, on account of the very attention that he pays to the expression, to make the expression seem worthy of attention; and, not only so, but to make that which is expressed seem worthy of attention. We wonder, at times, why certain modern poets prefer to write plays in blank verse. Most of us ascribe the reason to the influence of tradition. But there is a better reason than this. Foot and line impose limits upon expressional form. The necessity for conciseness in the language impels to conciseness in the thought. Thought like light never becomes really brilliant, never flashes, except from a form in which its rays are concentrated. The sun's influence on a bright day is pervasive; it is everywhere; but its beams never sparkle from the whole surface of a pool or lake,----only from places where in this they touch some single small drop, or collection of small drops. Essay on Music as Related to Other Arts.


As this poetry lies concealed in ordinary life, the poet is compelled to do more than simply to represent ordinary life. He must make this appear to be more than it seems to be; and he must do so by making more of his poetic form than can be done in direct representation. We all know how ladies taking up a temporary residence for the summer in small seaside cottages, erected without paint or plaster, make up for the lack of other beautifying elements, by tacking all over the walls Japanese fans and scarfs of innumerable hues, intermingled with wreaths of evergreen and myrtle; or how, when they rent furnished houses in which the colors of the carpets, chairs, and wall papers do not harmonize, they spread tidies, afghans, and ornaments of all possible shades over sofas and mantles, so as to pro-duce effects pleasing by way of combination and variety, where it is impossible to have simplicity and unity. All this is an illustration of cheap ornamentation. Yet it is justifiable in such circumstances. The tendency producing it is exercised unjustifiably only when an architect or upholsterer, with an opportunity to rely upon more worthy methods, tries to produce similar results not as means but as ends. Illustrative representation in poetry is often produced by bringing together all sorts of elements, very much as the Japanese fans are brought together in sea-side cottages; and it is justifiable when it is necessary to make thought attractive which otherwise would not be so. To illustrate how poetry can make this sort of thought attractive, take this description of a luncheon in Tennyson's " Audley Court." In most of the passage we have direct representation; but all the better for this reason, it serves to illustrate what I mean by saying that form can make the unpoetic seem poetic. What could be more unpoetic or commonplace than a meal? Yet notice how by the introduction of picturesque elements like "wrought with horse and hound," "dusky," "costly made," "Like fossils of the rock," "golden" "Imbedded," and the graphic account of the conversation,—all such as could be observed by one looking on, the poet has rendered the whole poetic. It is an admirable illustration of a legitimate way in which by richness of form a poet can make up for poverty of ideas.—Poetry as a Representative Art, XXIII.


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