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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 Viotor 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 Nightingaie:
“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 is 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 literal, 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 contrary it gives much innocent delight. It is fancy, not falsification. Moreover, the poet's fancy, even while it creates fictions, may be presenting under this guise essential spiritual truth. The hell and purgatory and paradise which Dante describes in such concrete terms in his Divina Commedia cannot possibly exist just as he imagined them, but they are no less essentially true in their portrayal of states of sin, suffering, and happiness in the human soul. In such a case the imagery of the poem may be regarded as fiction if we please, but the poem is none the less truth in the highest sense—truth that is not to be tested by the low and imperfect test of mere physical actuality. In fact we get the highest poetry only when there is a fusion of both fact and fancy in the embodiment of some lofty imaginative truth.
Along with the question of truth arises the question of beauty. Poetry, as one of the fine arts, should work through a medium of beauty and to beautiful ends. In any art we may at times find material which is in itself unlovely, but such material must be so presented as to give no offense, or the art ceases to be art. The actual suffering of Laocoön and his sons in the coils of the serpents would have been an intolerable thing to witness, but the symbolic representation of it in marble, with the signs of physical pain softened and subordinated to the spiritual expression, is contemplated with admiration; the observer is almost made to wish, says Winckelmann, that he could bear misery like that great man. Perhaps poetry ventures farther than the plastic arts in depicting physical or moral deformity and pain, but it does so only to heighten some contrasted beauty, or to body forth some truth the deep significance of which is in itself a beauty. If it stops short with the presentation of deformity, it is not poetry. The wrath of Achilles is redeemed by his friendship for Patroclus and his compassion on Priam. The villainy of Iago, as portrayed by Shakspere, ultimately heightens our admiration of moral worth. So, also, the barest philosophical truth, having in itself neither beauty nor ugliness, may be presented in so engaging a form as to take at once the name of poetry. To be convinced of this, it is only necessary to recall the finished couplets of an artist like Pope.