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ASPECTS OF POETRY.
THE PROVINCE OF POETRY.
WERE I to begin my first Lecture from this Chair, in which the kindness of the University has placed me, by following an approved and time-honored usage, I might ask at the outset, What is Poetry ? and try to answer the question either by fallipg back on some one of the old definitions, or by proposing a new one, or perhaps by even venturing on a theory of Poetry. But, as you are all, no doubt, more or less acquainted with the definitions and theories of the past, and probably have not found much profit in them, you will, I believe, readily absolve me from any attempt to add one more to their number. For definitions do not really help us better to understand or appreciate subjects with which we have been long familiar, especially when they are, as poetry is, all life and spirit. As my friend the author of Rab and his Friends has well expressed it," It is with Poetry as with flowers and fruits. We would all rather have them and taste them than talk
about them. It is a good thing to know about a Tily, its scientific ins and outs, its botany, its archæology, even its anatomy and organic radicals; but it is a better thing to look at
the flowers themselves, and to consider how they grow.” So one would rather enjoy poetry than criticise it and discuss its nature. But, as there is a time for studying the botany of flowers, as well as for enjoying their beauty, there is a time also for dwelling on the nature and offices of poetry, and that time seems to have come to-day. I think I shall be able best to bring before you
what I wish to say at present, if, approaching the subject in a concrete rather than in an abstract way, I endeavor at the outset to note some of the more prominent characteristics of the poetic nature, when that nature appears in its largest and most heatthful manifestation.
In doing so I shall have to tread some well-worn ways, and to say things which have often been said before. But I shall willingly incur this risk. For my aim is not so much say things that are new as things that are true. You will therefore bear with me, I hope, if I try to recall to your thoughts a few plain but primal truths regarding that which is most essential in the poetic nature, — truths which are apt to be forgotten amid the fashions of the hour, and to lie buried beneath heaps of superfine criticism.
One of the first characteristics of the genuine and healthy poetic nature is this,- it is rooted rather in the heart than in the head. Human-heartedness is the soil from which all its other gifts originally grow and are continually fed. The true poet is not an eccentric creature, not a mere artist living only for art, not a dreamer or a dilettante, sipping the nectar of existence, while he keeps aloof from its deeper interests. He is, above all things,'a man among his fellow-men, with a heart that beats in sympathy with theirs, a heart not different
theirs, only larger, more open, more sensitive, more intense. It is the peculiar depth, intensity, and fine ness of his emotional nature which kindles his intellect and inspires it with energy. He does not feel differently from other men, but he feels more. There is a larger field of things over which his feelings range, and in which he takes vivid interest. If, as we have been often told, sympathy is the secret of all insight, this holds especially true of poetic insight, which more than any other derives its power of seeing from sympathy with the object seen. There is a kinship between the poetic eye and the thing it looks on, in virtue of which it penetrates. As the German poet says:
“ If the eye had not been sunny,
How could it look upon the sun ?” And herein lies one great distinction between the poetic and the scientific treatment of things. The scientific man must keep his feelings under stern control, lest they intrude into his researches and color the dry light, in which alone Science desires to see its objects. The poet, on the other hand, - it is because his feelings in. '. form and kindla bis intellect that he sees into the life of hings.
Some, perhaps, may recall the names of great poets, though not the greatest, who have fled habitually from auman neighborhood, and dwelt apart in proud isolation. But this does not, I think, disprove the view that human-heartedness is the great background of the poet's strength, for to the poets I speak of, their solitariness has been their misfortune, if not their fault. By some untowardness in their lot, or some malady of their time, they have been compelled to retire into themselves, and to become lonely thinkers. If their isolation has added
some intensity to their thoughts, it has, at the same
time, parrowed the range of their vision, and diminished 1 the breadth and permanence of their influence.
But this vivid human sympathy, though an essential condition or background of all great poetry, by no means belongs exclusively to the poet. Taking other forms, it is characteristic of all men who have deeply moved or greatly benefited their kind, — of St. Augustine, Luther, Howard, Clarkson, and Wilberforce, not less than of Homer, Shakespeare, and Walter Scott.
I must therefore pass on to points more distinctive of the poet, and consider
I What is the object or material with which the poet
- The poet's peculiar domain has generally been said to be Beauty ; and there is so much truth in this that, if the thing must be condensed into a single word, prob ably none better could be found. For it is one large part of the poet's vocation to be a witness for the Beauty which is in the world around him and in huma life. But this one word is too narrow to cover all tha domain over which the poetic spirit ranges. It fits well that which attracts the poet in the face of nature, and applicable to many forms of mental and moral exce) lence. But there are other things which rightly wix his regard, to which it cannot be applied without stretch ing it till it becomes meaningless. Therefore I shoul - the rather say that the whole range of existence, or any poets part of it, when imaginatively apprehended, seized on
alters its ceeding a
But if a
turn to selves
the side of its human interest, may be transfigured into poetry. There is nothing that exists, except things ig. noble and mean, in which the true poet may not find himself at home, — in the open sights of nature, in the occult secrets of science, in the "quicquid agunt homines,” in men's character and fortunes, in their actions and sufferings, their joys and sorrows, their past history, their present experience, their future destiny. All these lie open to him who has power to enter in, and, by. might of imaginative insight, to possess them. And such is the kinship between man and all that exists that, as I have elsewhere said, 6 whenever the soul comes vividly in contact with any fact, truth, or existence, whenever it realizes and takes them home to itself with more than common intensity, out of that meeting of the soul and its object there arises a thrill of joy,, a glow of emotion ; and the expression of that glow, that thrill, is poetry.” But as each' age modifies in some measure men's conceptions of existence, and brings to light new aspects of life before undreamt of, so Poetry, which is the expression of these aspects, is ever changing, in sympathy with the changing consciousness of the A growth old as thought, but ever young,
it alters its form, but renews its vitality, with each sue ceeding age.
As to the specific organ or mental gift through which poets work, every one knows that it is Imagination: But if asked what Imagination is, who can tell?. If we turn to the psychologists, — the men who busy themselves with labelling and ticketing the mental faculties,
they do not much help us. Scattered through the poets here and there, and in some writers on ästhetic subjects, notably in the works of Mr. Ruskin, we find