Page images

on to speak of a fathom-line. The reader gets merely an impression of vast depth. Whether the statement even approaches exactness is a matter of comparative indifference. Most frequently, indeed, the poet avoids all reference to such standards of measurement as feet, hours, and the like. When Spenser would tell us the

time, he says:

"By this the northern Wagoner had set."

When Keats would indicate a certain distance, he writes:

"About a young bird's flutter from the wood."

The legions of Satan, according to Milton, lay on the lake of fire,

"Thick as autumnal leaves that strow the brooks In Vallombrosa."

In every case we are referred directly to the powers of sense-perception.

While poetry

Suggestion and Association. sometimes achieves its end of giving delight by the simple method of filling the mind with pleasing tales and pictures, more often perhaps, the end is attained by opening avenues of contemplation and stimulating the mind to create its own images. By the art of suggestion, or by playing

upon the law of association, the poet may set up such a creative activity in the mind of his auditor as yields perhaps the keenest of all imaginative pleasures. For instance, he may compress a dozen images into a single word, as when Collins speaks of "sallow Autumn"; or by a striking epithet he may start a long train of thought, as when Shakspere discourses of the "hungry ocean." An admirable instance of the effectiveness of suggestion may be seen in the word "silent" as used by Keats in the last line of his sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman's Homer. The ellipses so frequently found in verse, the compounding of nouns, the suppression of verbs, the resort to exclamatory forms, all owe part of their effectiveness to the fact that they substitute suggestion for complete expression.

The laws of mental association may likewise be counted upon to stimulate this imaginative activity. Words carry with them long trains of associated ideas, varying of course with the knowledge and experience of the individual. The poet instinctively seeks that language which is richest in associations. Milton, in L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, plays upon classical mythology and literature in a way to give intense delight to those versed in that lore.

The first stanza of Shelley's Ode to the West Wind calls up in succession all that we have read or known of the mysteries of witchcraft, of the horrors of plague, of funeral trains, mustering armies, and shepherded flocks.

"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes! O thou
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
Each like a corpse within its grave, until
Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow
Her clarion o'er the dreaming earth, and fill
(Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
With living hues and odours plain and hill:
Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; Hear, oh hear!"

Imagination and Fancy. We have already used the word imagination in a broad sense as virtually synonymous with all poetic or creative activity. In a somewhat narrower sense, however, it is applied only to the higher and nobler phases of this activity, while the word fancy is employed to distinguish the lower phases. The marks of fancy are to be found in such poetry as deals with the merely pretty or amusing, the diminutive, the superficial, the ephemeral, the sentimental, and the like. At the lowest it may descend to the palpably false. When Pope,

for instance, in one of his early pastorals, declares that at the nightingale's song "all the aerial audience clapped their wings," he strains his fancy quite to the verge of the ridiculous. Most of the stock images of poetry, like "rosy cheeks" and "ivory brow," and especially those which attempt to adorn nature with the attributes of art, such as "silken wings" and "jewelled skies," must be regarded as creations of a not very worthy fancy. From its worthier exercise, however, may spring such an admirable poem as, for instance, Gray's playful Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat, or the numerous graceful trifles of Herrick, or the best of the sentimental effusions of Moore. A good example of fancy passing into imagination may be seen in Gray's Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude.

On the other hand, the heat and glow of the pure imagination are at once stronger and steadier than the passing gleams of fancy. Imagination ranges beyond the immediate, deals freely with the vast in space or power, penetrates appearances and seizes and reveals whatever is fundamentally true, beautiful, and good. It is the native gift of the supreme poets. We may trace its workings upon every page of Shakspere, the greatest master of both the secrets of nature and the passions of men. It illuminates

as with a kind of celestial radiance the lines of Wordsworth's inspired odes. Unconditioned by time or space, it freely transcends fact, but never truth. Ideal truth is indeed one of its essential characteristics. When Wordsworth makes Nature say of Lucy that

"Beauty born of murmuring sound
Shall pass into her face,"

we are at first startled as by something merely fanciful and untrue. But a second thought makes us see that this is no idle fancy, but the profoundest of imaginative truth. Indeed, we may conceive it to be the literal fact-that harmonies which pass through the senses to the mind may be reproduced in the organs of the body. Literalness, however, is no necessary quality. When Milton ventures upon the high imaginings of a Paradise Lost, he does not bind himself to fact, that is, to actual human experience. Much of the machinery of that great poem is a palpable fiction. Through its daring symbolism, however, it sets forth what Milton conceived to be the deepest truths of the moral and spiritual universe.

Select Diction. - Coleridge said that whereas prose is simply "words in their best order," poetry, in his definition, is "the best words in the best order." Naturally poetry, being con

« PreviousContinue »