Dante, in the great joy of his divinely beloved one, feeling his pale studious lips and cheeks turn into rose-leaves.* Samson Agonistes groaning,—
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrevocably dark, total eclipse,
Without all hope of day.
Macbeth’s last twilight murmur,—
1 have lived long enough; my way of life
Is fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have!
Cleopatra in the heyday of her bliss; the sad shepherd, chasing the footsteps of his love, and warbling in tuneful ecstasy,—
— * Purgatory, xxx. —
25 Here she was wont to go! and here! and here!
Just where those daisies, pinks, and violets grow:
The world may find the spring by following her,
For other print her airy steps ne’er left;
Her treading would not bend a blade of grass,
Or shake the downy blow-ball from his stalk;
But like the soft west wind she shot along,
And where she went the flowers took thickest root,
As she had sow’d them with her odorous foot.
And Bernardo Cenci, in the horror and anguish of that last parting, screaming,—
O life! O world!
Cover me! let me be no more! To see
That perfect mirror of pure innocence
Wherein I gazed, and grew happy and good,
Shiver’d to dust! To see thee, Beatrice,
Who made all lovely thou didst look upon—
Thee, light of life, dead, dark! While I say “sister,”
To hear I have no sister; and thou, mother,
Whose love was a bond to all our loves,—
Dead! the sweet bond broken!
These utterances, one and all, sad or glad, are essentially lyrical, only differing from the first class of lyric utterances in belonging to fictitious personages, not to the writer. Romeo and Juliet swarms with lyrics; every great play of Shakespeare is more or less full of them. They betoken 26 the true dramatic force, and are less distinct in the lesser dramatist. They are plentiful in Beaumont and Fletcher, in Ford, in Webster; less plentiful in Massinger; scarcely audible at all in Shirley and Ben Jonson. Where they should appear in the bombastic tragedies of Dryden, rhetoric and rhodomontade appear instead; and to come down to modern times, where shall we look for the lyrical light in the pretentious tentatives of Sheridan Knowles and Johanna Baillie? If these tentatives sometimes rise to dignity of movement, that is the most which can be said of them. We have powerful emotional situations, and no emotion.
It is here that all professed “imitations” of the classics fail. They reproduce the repose so admirably, as in many cases to send the reader to sleep. But we search in vain in them for the representation of the great fires, the burning passions, of the originals.* Insensibly, as has been
— * The “Philoctetes” of Mr. William Lancaster is to my mind a fine attempt at classic reproduction. It is very noble in parts. Mr. Swinburne’s “Atalanta” is also fine, but it seems, on the whole, less sincere. —
27 shrewdly remarked, we derive our notions of Greek art from Greek sculpture, and forget that although calm evolution was rendered necessary by the requirements of the great amphitheatre, it was no calm life, no dainty passion, no subdued woe, that was thus evolved. The lineaments of the actor’s mask were fixed, but what sort of expression did each mask wear?—the glazed hopeless stare of Œdipus, the white horror-stricken look of Agamemnon, the stony glitter of the eyes of Clytemnestra, the horridly distorted glare of the Promethean furies, the sick, suffering, and ghastly pale features of Philoctetes. Where was the calm here? The movement of the drama was simple and slow, yet there was no calm in the heart of the actors, each of whom must fit to his mask a monotone—the sneer of Ulysses, the blunted groan of Cassandra, the fierce shriek of Orestes. The passion and power have made these plays immortal; not the slow evolution, the necessity of the early stage. They are full of the lyrical light.
But though lyrical emotion is the intensest of all written forms of emotion, and must invariably be 28 attained wherever poetry interprets the keenest human feeling and passion, there are forms of emotion wherein intellect is not coerced so strongly. Two forms may be mentioned, and briefly illustrated here—emotional meditation, and emotional ratiocination. Either of these forms is of subtler and more mixed quality than the purely lyrical form.
We have numberless examples of emotional meditation in Wordsworth; the thought is strong, solemn, unmistakably intellectual, but it is spiritualized withal by profound feeling. Observe, as an example of this, the following portion of the “Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey:”—
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer through the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee,
And now, with gleams of half-extinguished thought,
With many recognitions dim and faint.
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts,
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope.
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe 29
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led; more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For Nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,
And their glad animal movements all gone by,)
To me was all in all. I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, or any interest
Unborrowed from the eye. That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn, nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed, for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on Nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity,
Not harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts: a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air, 30
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
By the side of this exquisite passage, let me place another by the same great reflective writer,—
When, as becomes a man who would prepare
For such an arduous work, I through myself
Make rigorous inquisition, the report
Is often cheering; for I neither seem
To lack that first great gift, the vital soul,
Nor general truths, which are themselves a sort
Of elements and agents, under-powers,
Subordinate helpers of the living mind.
Nor am I naked of external things,
Forms, images, nor numerous other aids
Of less regard, though won perhaps with toil,
And needful to build up a poet’s praise.
Time, place, and manners do I seek, and these
Are found in plenteous store, but nowhere such
As may be singled out with steady choice;
No little band of yet remembered names
Whom I, in perfect confidence, might hope
To summon back from lonesome banishment,
And make them dwellers in the hearts of men
Now living, or to live in future years.
Sometimes the ambitious power of choice, mistaking 31
Proud spring-tide swellings for a regular sea,
Will settle on some British theme, some old
Romantic tale by Milton left unsung;
More often turning to some gentle place
Within the groves of chivalry, I pipe
To shepherd swains, or seated, harp in hand,
Amid reposing knights, by a river side
Or fountain, listen to the grave reports
Of dire enchantments faced and overcome
By the strong mind, and tales of warlike feats,
Where spear encountered spear, and sword with sword
Fought, as if conscious of the blazonry
That the shield bore, so glorious was the strife,
Whence inspiration for a song that winds
Through ever-changing scenes of votive quest;
Wrongs to redress, harmonious tribute paid
To patient courage and unblemished truth,
To firm devotion, zeal unquenchable,
And Christian meekness hallowing faithful loves.
There can be no mistaking the qualities of these two passages. The first is poetry, the second is the merest prose; the emotion in the first extract so breathes on the thought as to fill it with exquisite mnsic and subtle pleasure not to be coerced by meditation. Yet the mood of both is a meditative mood. In the “Prelude,” from which the above extract is taken, and in the “Excursion,” prose and 32 poetry alternate most significantly. Where the feeling is vivid and intense, the lines lose all that cumbrousness and pamphletude which have blinded so many readers to the real merits of these two compositions.
Wordsworth, too, has passages of emotional ratiocination; so also has Milton. But I can better illustrate that mood of poetry by two extracts from Mr. Browning. The first is from the “Epistle of Karsheesh,” a poem wherein an Arab leech details his encounter, during his travels, with the case of Lazarus:—
He holds on firmly to some thread of life,
(It is the life to lead perforcedly,)
Which runs across some vast distracting orb
Of glory on either side that meagre thread
Which, conscious of, he must not enter yet,—
The spiritual life around the earthly life.
The law of that is known to him as this,
His heart and brain move there, his feet stay here.
So is the man perplext with impulses,
Sudden to start off crosswise, not straight on,
Proclaiming what is Right and Wrong across,
And not along this black thread through the blaze.
“It should be” balked by “here it cannot be,”
And oft the man’s soul springs into his face,
As if he saw again and heard again
His sage, that bade him “Rise,” and he did rise. 33
Something, a word, a tick of the blood within
Admonishes; then back he sinks at once
To ashes, that was very fire before,
In sedulous recurrence to his trade
Whereby he earneth him the daily bread;
And studiously the humbler for that pride,
Professedly the faultier that he knows
God’s secret, while he holds the thread of life.
Indeed the especial marking of the man
Is prone submission to the Heavenly will,—
Seeing it, what is it, and why is it?
Sayeth, he will wait patient to the last,
For that same death which must restore his being
To equilibrium, body loosening soul,
Divorced even now by premature full growth.
The second extract is from “A Death in the Desert,” in which John the Evangelist is supposed to detail his opinions of his contemporaries, and, in a spirit impossibly prophetic, to review the arguments, in the “Leben Jesu,” against miracles:—
I say that man was made to grow, not stop;
That help, he needed once, and needs no more,
Having grown up but an inch by, is withdrawn:
For he hath new needs, and new helps to these.
This imports solely, man should mount on each
New height in view; the help whereby he mounts,
The ladder rung his foot has left, may fall,
Since all things suffer change save God the Truth.
34 Man apprehends Him newly at each stage
Whereat earth’s ladder drops, its service done;
And nothing shall prove twice what once was proved.
You stick a garden plot with ordered twigs
To show inside lie germs of herbs unborn,
And check the careless step would spoil their birth;
But when herbs wave, the guardian twigs may go.
Since should ye doubt of virtues, question kinds,
It is no longer for old twigs ye look,
Which proved once underneath lay store of seed,
But to the herb’s self, by what light ye boast,
For what fruit’s signs are. This book’s fruit is plain,
Nor miracles need prove it any more.
Doth the fruit show? Then miracles bade ware
At first of root and stem, saved both till now
From trampling ox, rough boar, and wanton goat.
What? Was man made a wheel work to wind up,
And be discharged, and straight wound up anew?
No!—grown, his growth lasts; taught, he ne’er forgets:
May learn a thousand things, not twice the same.
This might be pagan hearing: now hear mine.
I say, that as the babe you feed awhile
Becomes a boy and fit to feed himself,
So minds at first must be spoon-fed with truth:
When they can eat, babe’s nurture is withdrawn.
I fed the babe whether it would or no:
I bid the boy or feed himself or starve.
I cried once, “That ye may believe in Christ,
Behold this blind man shall receive his sight!”
35 I cry now, “Urgest thou, for I am shrewd
And smile at stories how John’s word could cure—
Repeat that miracle arid take my faith?
I say, that miracle was duly wrought
When, save for it, no faith was possible.
Whether a change were wrought i’ the shows o’ the world,
Whether the change came from our minds which see
Of the shows of the world so much as and no more
Than God wills for His purpose,—(what do I
See now, suppose you, there where you see rock
Round us?)—I know not; such was the effect,
So faith grew, making void more miracles
Because too much; they would compel, not help.
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it,
And has so far advanced thee to be wise.
Wouldst thou unprove this to reprove the proved?
In life’s mere minute, with power to use that proof,
Leave knowledge and revert to how it sprung?
Thou hast it; use it and forthwith, or die!
Both these passages are ratiocinative; yet one is a poem, the other not even art. There is a flash of ecstasy through the strangely cautious description of Karsheesh; every syllable is weighed and thoughtful, yet everywhere the lines swell into perfect feeling. What shall be said, however, to St. John on Strauss? The violence 36 of the imaginative effort to reach St. John’s views on miracles precludes all emotion; and because there is no emotion, false notes occur in every page of the poem. The mind has forced itself into a certain attitude, instead of suffering itself to be coerced by powerful feeling.
All these moods, indeed, are but the consequence of that first mood, wherein the Seer receives his impression. If that first mood be too purely intellectual, if the Seer be not stirred extremely in the process of assimilation, there is a certainty that, in spite of clear vision, he will produce prose,—as Milton did occasionally, as Wordsworth did very often; as Shakespeare seldom or never does, and as Keats never did.
It is certain, then, that clear vision can exist independently of emotion; that, however, emotion is generally dependent on clear vision; and that, in short, he who sees vividly will in most cases feel deeply, but not in all cases.
Let me mention one more notable case in point. I mean Crabbe,—the writer to whom modern writers are fondest of alluding, and whom, to judge from their blunders concerning him, 37 they appear to have been least fond of reading. A careful study of his works has revealed to me abundant knowledge of life, considerable sympathy, little or no insight, and no emotion. The poems are photographs, not pictures. There is no spiritualization, none of that fine selective instinct which invariably accompanies deep artistic feeling. There is too constant a consciousness of the “reader,” too painful an attempt to gain force by means of vivid details. Now, these are not the poetic characteristique. The poet derives his force from the vividness of the feeling awakened by his subject or by his meditation; he does not betray himself by clumsy efforts to gain attention. A thought—a touch—a gleam of colour—often suffice for him. Whereas Crabbe betrays his purely intellectual attitude at every step. He describes every cranny of a cottage, every gable, every crack in the wall, every kitchen utensil,—when his story concerns the soul of the inmate. He pieces out a churchyard like so much grocery, into so many lives and graves. There is no glamour in his eyes when he looks on death;—he is noting the bedroom furniture and the dirty 38 sheets. There is no weird music in his ears when he stands in a churchyard;—he is recording the quality of the coffin-wood, sliding off into an account of the history of the parish beadle, and observing whose sheep they are that browse inside the stone wall of the holy place.
III. I am now led directly to the discussion of the third poetic gift,—that of music; for metrical speech is the most concentrated of all speech, and proportions itself to the quality of the poetic emotion. The most powerful form of emotion is lyrical emotion, and the sweetest music is lyrical music.
Poetic vision culminates in sweet sound,—always inadequate, perhaps, to represent the whole of sight, but interpenetrating through the medium of emotion with the entire mystery of life. Nothing, indeed, so distinguishes the variety of Seers as their melody. It is the soul’s perfect speech. A break in the harmony not seldom betrays a dizziness of the eyes, an inactivity of the heart. A false note betrays the false maestro. A cold or forced expression indicates insincerity.
39 This music, this last wondrous gift, carries with it its own significance and wisdom; it has a wondrous glamour of its own, like the dim light that is in falling snow. What exquisite sound is this,—where the thought and the emotion die away into a murmur like the wash of a summer sea?—
Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown.
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears among the alien corn;
The same that oft-times hath
Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.
Or this,—so perfect in its fleeting rapture:—
Sound of vernal showers,
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Joyous, and clear, and sweet, thy music doth surpass.
Teach us, sprite or bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a rapture so divine!
40 Teach me half the gladness
That thy brain must know,
Such harmonious madness
From my lips would flow,—
The world should listen then, as I am listening now.
Or these lines from the “Willow, Willow,” of Alfred de Musset:—
Mes chers amis, quand je mourrai,
Plantez un saule au cimetière.
J’aime son feuillage éploré,
La pâleur m’en est douce et chère,
Et son ombre sera légère
A la terre où je dormirai.
I might fill pages with such quotations.
The examples just given are examples of purely lyrical music,—from its personal nature, the most concentrated of all music. For the sake of contrast, now, let me turn to the least concentrated form of all, as it is represented in particular writers.
At a first view, it would seem that epic poetry is most apt to be unmelodious, on account of the diffuse character of its materials as generally conceived. But this is an error à priori. The materials are not diffuse—they are only large and 41 various; and the music is emotional and concentrated, though not to the extent noticeable in less dignified forms of writing. Like dramatic poetry, it is all-embracing, and includes in its compass all elements, from lyrical feeling to emotional meditation. The stateliness and constancy of its movement do not preclude the sharp lyrical cry or the deep meditative pause. Homer is the most various of singers. His successors are less various, precisely because they are less great. Again and again in the sharp solemn progress of Dante through Hell are we startled by bursts of wilder melody. Even in “Paradise Lost” there are some occasions when the deep organ bass changes into a scream.
This is but saying what has been already said of lyrical emotion. In brief, lyrical emotion and lyrical music as its expression intersect all great poetry, whatever its nature; and the reason need not be further explained. Lyric music is the ideal speech of intense personal feeling; and that is why the exquisite music of Greek tragedy is not confined to the choruses.
But just as all emotion is not markedly 42 personal, all music is not lyrical. No music is so exquisite, so profoundly interesting to men; but there are more complex kinds of expression, sounds more variegated and diffuse. Take the following passage from the “Paradise Lost” of Milton:—
For now, and since first break of dawn, the Fiend,
Mere serpent in appearance, forth was come,
And on his quest, where likeliest he might find
The only two of mankind, but in them
The whole included race, his purpos’d prey.
In bower and field he sought where any kind
Of grove or garden plot more pleasant lay,
Their tendence or plantation for delight;
By fountain or by shady rivulet
He sought them both, but wish’d his hap might find
Eve separate; he wish’d but not with hope
Of what so seldom chanc’d, when to his wish,
Beyond his hope, Eve separate he spies,
Veil’d in a cloud of fragrance, where she stood,
Half spy’d, so thick the roses blushing round
About her glow’d, oft stooping to support
Each flower of slender stalk, whose head, though gay
Carnation, purple, azure, or specked with gold,
Hung drooping, unsustain’d; them she upstays
Gently with myrtle band, mindless the while
Herself, tho’ fairest unsupported flower,
From her best prop so far, and storm so nigh.
Nearer he drew, and many a walk travers’d
43 Of stateliest covert, cedar, pine, or palm,
Then voluble and bold, now hid, now seen
Among thick-woven arborets and flowers
Imborder’d on each bank, the hand of Eve:
Spot more delicious than those gardens feign’d,
Or of reviv’d Adonis, or renown’d
Alcinous, host of old Laertes’ son.
Or that, not mystic, where the sapient king
Held dalliance with his fair Egyptian spouse.
* * * * *
So spake the enemy of mankind, enclos’d
In serpent, inmate bad, and toward Eve
Address’d his way, not with indented wave,
Prone on the ground, as since, but on his rear,
Circular base of rising folds, that tower’d
Fold above fold, a surging maze, his head
Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes;
With burnish’d neck of verdant gold, erect
Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass
Floated redundant; pleasing was his shape
And lovely; never since of serpent kind
Lovelier, not those that in Illyria chang’d
Hermione and Cadmus, or the God
In Epidaurus; nor to which transform’d
Ammonian Jove, or Capitoline was seen
He with Olympias, this with her who bore
Scipio the height of Rome. With tract oblique
At first, as one who sought access, but fear’d
To interrupt, side-long he works his way:
As when a ship, by skilful steersman wrought
Nigh river’s mouth, or foreland, where the wind
44 Veers oft, as oft so steers and shifts her sail:
So varied he, and of his tortuous train
Curl’d many a wanton wreath in sight of Eve,
To lure her eye; she, busied, heard the sound
Of rustling leaves, but minded not, as us’d
To such disport before her through the field,
From every beast, more duteous at her call
Than at Circean call the herd disguis’d.
He bolder now, uncall’d before her stood,
But as in gaze admiring: oft he bow’d
His turret crest, and sleek enamel’d neck,
Fawning, and lick’d the ground whereon she trod.
In these exquisite passages of pure description, the music perfectly represents the subdued emotion of the artist; there is no excitement, but vivid presentment;—and we hear the very movement of the snake in the involution and picturesqueness of the lines. I cannot do better than place by the side of the above a passage from the same great poet, which seems to me especially false and inharmonious. It is very brief:—
The Most High
Eternal Father, from his secret cloud.
Amidst in thunder utter’d thus his voice:
Assembled angels, and ye powers return’d
From unsuccessful charge, be not dismay’d,
Nor troubled at these tidings from the earth,
45 Which your sincerest care could not prevent,
Foretold so lately what would come to pass,
When first this Tempter cross’d the gulf from Hell.
I told ye then he should prevail and speed
On his bad errand, man should be seduc’d
And flatter’d out of all, believing lies
Against his Maker; no decree of mine
Concurring to necessitate his fall.
Or touch with lightest moment of impulse
His free will, to her own inclining left
In even scale. But fall’n he is, and now
What rests but that the mortal sentence pass
On his transgression, death denounc’d that day?
Which he presumes already vain and void,
Because not yet inflicted, as he fear’d,
By some immediate stroke; but soon shall find
Forbearance no acquittance ere day end.
Justice shall not return as bounty scorn’d.
But whom send I to judge them? whom but thee
Vicegerent Son? to thee I have transferr’d
All judgment, whether in Heaven, or Earth, or Hell.
Easy it may be seen that I intend
Mercy colleague with justice, sending thee
Man’s friend, his mediator, his designed
Both ransome and redeemer voluntary,
And destin’d man himself to judge men fall’n.
Where is the thunder here? Where is the solemn music? Instead of awe-inspiring sound, we have bald and turgid prose, pieced out clumsily into 46 ten-syllable lines, every one of which limps like Vulcan. And why? Precisely because Milton had no spiritual glamour of the Highest, such as he had of Satan, for example,—felt no real emotion in recording His utterances, not even the cold meditative emotion which just redeems many other parts of “Paradise Lost” from sheer prose. He was forcing his mind to hear a voice, attempting to represent the utterance of a personality ungrasped by his imagination.
Mere rhetorical music is the least poetic of all, although sometimes it has an exceeding charm, as in Virgil’s famous lines on Marcellus, and much of the poetry of rhetorical periods in England.
Akin to such rhetorical music is the melody of the ornate school of writers, singers who mar expression by too elaborate effort. Melody, indeed, as represented in our true singers, may be divided into three kinds, just as the singers themselves may be divided into three classes,—the simple, the ornate, and the grotesque. The first kind is the sweetest and best; we find it in the great lyrists, from Sappho to Burns. Wherever Shelley sings perfectly, as in the “Ode to the Skylark,” his music 47 loses all its insincerities and affectations. Ornate and grotesque music have common faults,—the first sacrifices the emotion and meaning by thinning and straining them too carefully; the second loses in portent what it gains in mannerism; and both, therefore, betray that dangerous intellectual self-consciousness which is a barrier to the production of true poetry. A thing cannot be uttered too briefly and simply if it is to reach the soul. Music that conceals, instead of expressing, thought, music that is nothing but sweet sounds and luscious alliterations, is not poetry. We have the sweet sounds everywhere, in fact: in the wash of the sea, in the rustle of leaves, in the song of birds, in the murmur of happy living things. The world is full of them, its heart aches with them; they are mystical and they are homeless. It is the office of poetry not barely to imitate them, but to link them with the Soul, and by so doing to use them as symbols of definite form and meaning. They issue from the soul’s voice with a new wonder in their tones, and are then ready to be used as man’s perfect language and speech to God.
48 I need delay little more on this branch of poetic power, which, indeed, contains matter for a whole volume. It is clear that there is no poetry without music, but that music varies extremely, according to the quality and intensity of the emotion. It may safely be affirmed that no subject is unfit for poetic treatment which can be spiritualized to this uttermost form of harmonious and natural numbers. So closely is melody woven in with and representative of emotion and of sight, that it has been called the characteristique of the true Seer. But let us never lose sight of the fact that music is representative, and valuable, not for the sole sake of its own sweetness, not for the sole sake of the emotion it represents, but mainly and clearly valuable for the sake of the poetic thought and vision which it brings to completion. There may be melodious sound without meaning, fine versification without thought; but the most exquisite melody and versification are those which convey the most exquisite forms of poetic vision.
The tongue must be guided by the eye, if the heart is to be reached by the ear; a series of sighs is not a poem.
49 Thus, then, have been briefly described the qualities of the Poet. He is cardinally the Seer, the man who beholds what others behold not, and the consequence of his vision is deep emotion finding its expression in beautiful music. None of the gifts may be dispensed with; how many a pretender, how many a laurel-wearer, must truth dethrone, because he lacks eyes. How many must be set aside because, in spite of nearly perfect sight, they are too cold and impassive. A number, too, must be rejected solely because they cannot sing. Southey and Bowles are examples of defective vision; Scott and Crabbe are examples of defective emotion; Bacon and Walt Whitman are examples of defective music.
Nor let it be conceived that vision can exist in its highest splendour in other men than the born Seers. The vision which moves so deeply as to turn the very breath of the soul into music is equalled by no other vision: its discoveries are the most supreme, its significance the most divine. The proof of perfect sight is perfect song; other men may see clearly, but the Poets are the discoverers and watchmen of the world; they stand 50 on an eminence and see far into the happy valleys. There is, indeed, a growing tendency in modern life to separate poetry from the poet; but how much is the effect of true song enhanced by the solitary singer on the headland, his white robes blowing in the wind. On such a headland the poet should stand; his face must shine—bright, individual, beautiful—in the midst of his creations. It is not entirely by the character of the vision that we intuitively recognize a genuine “bit” by Milton, or by Dante, or by Burns; we recognize them chiefly by the temper of the emotion, as expressed in the music; and thus, through all great and genuine poetry, runs that personal note which we call the characteristique of the singer. He who is wholly sunk in his art dies with his art. Arts do die; but the true history of literature is the life of men.
The perfectly approven Seer is a sacer vates, a priest in the great Temple of Poesy. What are his priestly functions? Is he merely a chaunter in the great choirs of nature,—an intoner of responses,—a swinger of incense before the altar. Nay; his office is white and ministerial, fulfilling daily 51 functions of divine significance. He is a justifier of the ways of God to men. Without that perfect sight of his, why should God have selected him? Had not very God selected him, how should he be so moved? Were his voice unmusical, how should men heark to his news? But once invested, once clearly persuaded that he is a vates, he finds his task become easy to him. He has only to sing aloud, and his heart is eased, and he is glad. Whether his tidings be sad or merry, he is glad; for he is serving an exquisitely beautiful Master. “It is,” says Emerson, “dislocation and detachment from God that makes things ugly.” He should have said seeming dislocation; no things are quite separated from God, and it is the poet’s office to see the faint lines of communication. Those lines detected, the ugly thing is ugly no more, but is glorified in the strange and tender sweetness issuing from God’s eyes.
And here we have the clue to all these Proteus-tricks in which the Seers, from Shakespeare downwards, delight. Everything, everybody, illustrates the poetic discovery. What the Seer beholds as an idea he rushes to corroborate in life, 52 and so creates ideals. He is certain of his truth, but he is never tired of fresh verification. Again and again he approaches us in disguise,—now he is one man, then another man, now one woman, then another woman; but the same revelation is heard, albeit qualified by the character of the personage. By one mouth or another he is bent on reaching our souls. That is the dramatic fortitude, the vivida vis of song. But where one Seer illustrates his truth by human beings, his brother Seer seeks verification in nature, finds sermons in stones, and corroborate wisdom in all things. While Shakespeare plays Proteus, Wordsworth calls hills and woods and streams to witness. Seers there are also who gaze at one aspect of nature, so lost in looking that they can only cry, “See! see!” The light streams straight into their eyes; they will not stir, lest it die away;—they desire no verification beyond the tears on their own cheeks, the ache in their own hearts. Such an one was David Gray.
If Hamlet and the great voices cannot reach us, cannot stir us, tongues have been given to the very hills. If the hills and great forces cannot 53 move us, there are Seers translating the voice of the running brook. If the running brook and gentle powers have no spell upon us, the cry of a departing voice shall warn us of our souls. Blessings even on the childish voices, which utter tiny truths in tender syllables, dulcet to ears not over keen to the hearing of sounds from the world of spirits.
Let this, moreover, be said,—the Seer never lies. He is the man of truth, who cannot disturb the order and inferences of things, however much he may upset the order and inferences of idealists. He will admit no prevarications, no tawdry insincerities; he is largely sane and beautiful, and need not imitate the devices of the eyeless.
Is it objected that there have been great Poets who have sung things which modern culture admits to be false, not true? But eternal truth is one matter, and contemporary truth is another. We may not believe now in the terror and vengefulness of the Lord God Avatar of the Hebrews, although that belief dwelt in the thunder-cloud of Ezekiel’s life, and issued from it in a lightning flash of prophecy. We may not believe in Dante’s 54 Inferno, nor in Mahomet’s Paradise, nor in the seventy angels of a Mussulman, nor in Milton’s devil,—but these are great, either as contemporary or poetic facts, true spiritually. For it is doubtless the business of the Seers to mark the great epochs in the march of man; and on each occasion of chronicling, the Seer (being not God, but the finite priest) deems in all sincerity that the mystery of things is solved, and bursts into rapturous song. The voice of Job, in eternal wail, sounds over the tracts of time, sounding the weariness of human speculation. The spirit of Æschylus darkly commemorates supematuralism at strife with intellect. Plato is an awful rumour of all that the unassisted mind of man can conceive of immortality. All these and such things were new, and true; and the intensity of the contemporary revelation, acting through the splendour of the eternal truth, has made them endure for ever. I pin my faith on the Incarnation, but I can admit the spiritual truth of other men who deny the Incarnation,—Plotinus, Proclus, Voltaire, Rousseau, and all others.
For the Temple of Nature, where the poet 55 ministers, is a wondrous prism, in shining through which the perfect whiteness of God’s truth is merely turned into its constituent colours. None of these colours are false, and none are quite true; here, then, before the prism, all creeds may join the Poet. He may enter in, who knows any one of the thousand names of God, which are scattered for mysterious sounds up and down the earth. Within the temple no blasphemy is heard. The prismatic radiance of God strikes across the altar. A medley of strange tongues is heard on every side,—tongues of all lands, from China to Cana of Galilee, crying together