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THE STUDY OF POETRY
Poetry, the highest form of literature, is one of the arts of expression, of which painting, sculpture, architecture, and music are others. It differs from these other arts in several ways. It is less distinctly creative than music and architecture, both of which give shape, as it were, to something that did not exist in any shape before. It is less directly imitative than sculpture and painting, since these employ physical likeness of one sort or another, whereas poetry works only through the arbitrary symbols of ideas which we call words. It is thus the least vivid and least sensuous of the arts. It is also probably the narrowest in its appeal. The currency of any particular poem is limited to the currency of the language in which it is written. Ancient Greek poetry spoke fully only to the ancient Greek. If we would understand it, we must either learn its language, which we can never do perfectly, or have it translated for us with much inevitable loss of beauty and significance. This limitation holds to a certain extent in the other arts, but far less fatally. Chinese music, for
instance, does not affect us precisely as it does the Chinese; yet music, like painting and sculpture, comes much nearer to speaking a universal language.
Notwithstanding all this, poetry is assuredly chief of the arts, the most perfect expression of the human spirit. This preeminence it owes to its inclusiveness. The color of the painting, the grace of the statue, the melody of the musical air, may all be in some measure conveyed through one and the same poem. And beyond and above these are aspects of life and nature, shades of thought, and ranges of feeling which only poetry can express. To take a very simple example, note the image and sentiment that constitute the refrain of Victor Hugo's Guitare:
“The wind that blows across the mountain-top
Will drive me mad."'* Or note the combination of melody and picture in William Dunbar's The Merle and the Nightingale:
“Ne'er sweeter noise was heard by living man
Than made this merry, gentle nightingale:
Out through the fresh and flourished lusty vale."
These effects are possible only in poetry. *Le vent qui vient à travers la montagne
Me rendra fou.
THE NATURE AND ATTRIBUTES OF POETRY
Many have attempted to define poetry, but every definition leaves something unsaid. It better therefore to forego definition and rest content with description. And the first thing to be said has been best said by Shakspere when he describes the poet as being “of imagination all compact.” Imagination is the magician that gives poetry its peculiar power. Now imagination may work very simply, merely bringing back the vision of things past and done, reproducing after a fashion what the senses cannot reproduce. But it often becomes in a measure creative. It is often pleased, for instance, to reshape what has been seen or experienced, softening what is harsh, illuminating what is obscure, selecting, it may be, the more congruous elements and combining them into lovelier creations of its own. Or it may take the simple event or object and clothe it with a multitude of relations, penetrating everywhere to the essential life and meaning of things. Or it may, in the exercise of a still higher function, assume to see in the material some type or symbol of the spiritual and through the one “body forth” the other. But in· whatever manner the imagination may assert itself, wherever it is active there is the possibility of poetry; and unless it be active, there can be no poetry at all.
But is not poetry then quite as often concerned with fiction as with truth? Yes, if we choose to put it so. But fiction is not the opposite of truth. Fiction, to be sure, means something that is not fact, something that has no exact counterpart in the actual world, and poetry presents not a little such departure from the literai, physical truth. Take, for example, Mercutio's description of Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet:
Her waggon-spokes made of long spinners' legs.” etc. When Romeo protests that Mercutio is talking of nothing, Mercutio admits that he talks of dreams
“Which are the children of an idle brain,
Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Plato was disposed to condemn such fantasy, and would have had no poets in his ideal Republic, because they were so much given to reciting fables of imaginary gods and heroes. But such a condemnation is too sweeping. Shakspere's invention of a Queen Mab is not meant to deceive and can do no harm; on the