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FROM the English poets, from Sidney and Milton, from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and their successors, we have brought together here some of the arguments they have stated on behalf of their infinite art. It is the natural opening to their poetry, the one confession of their faith which may claim to be inspired, and if it does not give us the whole philosophy of the subject, it affords as much theory as is likely to be listened to profitably within hearing of the muse herself.
The Prelude to Poetry originally opened a series of Lyric Poets, whose volumes were too small to give their authors much space. But it was intended one day to reissue the book in a more complete form, printing at length some of the essays on poetry there represented only in brief, such as Campion's Observations and Daniel's vigorous counterblast in his Defence of Ryme. Both these famous disputations are now given in full. Among the later additions to the book are Dryden's essay on "Poetic License and the Heroic in Poetry," Gray's essay on Metre, the salient passages from Byron's reply to Bowles' strictures on Pope, and some notes by Burns from his rough commonplace-book on Scottish songs. In the nineteenth century we have Scott's essay on Ballad Poetry, three brief contributions by Keats from his letters and his preface to Endymion, and Browning's tribute to the genius of Shelley. Then follow some passages from Matthew Arnold's volume, On Translating Homer and last of all an extract from Dr. Robert Bridges' too little known Tredegar address on The Function of Poetry.1
Originally delivered as an address to an audience of Welsh working men at Tredegar, reprinted here by the courtesy and with the consent of the author and the Oxford University Press
In this defence of the poet's art there are some tems that are inevitable and carry their justification on the face of them. The Apologie of Sidney, the Defence of Shelley, the passages from Milton, one essay at least of Dryden, Wordsworth's preface to his Lyrical Ballads, and Coleridge's complementary chapter these must have a place. But when we turn to some other poets, the ground is not so clear. The book may serve, as it is, its function of pocket-guide to Parnassus, which discourses easily, if often argumentatively, on the regions, the laws and liberties, the great language, and the associations of the way. It learns what the old Welsh bards would call a Triad-a definition in three terms, from Milton, and another from Gray. It knits up the fine threads of these poets, and shows their succession in fame and time. Especially, it shows whatever continuity there is in what we may call the lyric line in English poetry, which follows the most simple form of the art, the natural antithesis to prose. Prose is written speech; lyric poetry is written song: that is the beginning of the whole matter, the radical definition which we may elaborate but can hardly make clearer.
We talk more to-day about the art of poetry and less about its inspiration, and indeed the last is a matter about which the poets themselves are not agreed. For that reason, since Plato is so often referred to in the following essays, the passage in Ion, where Socrates declares that poetry is an inspiration and not an art, may be recalled. He says it, no doubt, half with the idea of showing that the poets are an irresponsible race, only noble when they are inspired by the gods. But the passage is one to be remembered now that the primitive inspiration of poetry has become for most of us a mere convention.
All good poets," says Socrates, "epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed. And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their
right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains; but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus, but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; for they tell us that they bring songs from the honeyed fountains, calling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true, for the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him."
This passage leads on naturally to Shelley's Defence; but before he wrote, Lodge and Sidney, Coleridge and Blake, had written making the same high claim. Lodge wrote, Whereas the poets were said to call for the Muses' help, their meaning was no other . . . but to call for heavenly inspiration from above to direct their endeavours. . . Sibylla in her answers to Æneas against her will, as the poet telleth us, was possessed with this fury; yea, weigh considerately but of the writing of poets, and you shall see that when their matter is most heavenly their style is most lofty, a strange token of the wonderful efficacy of the same." Join to it Shakespeare's paraphrase of Plato:
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman; the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt;
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Add Ben Jonson's comment on that poetic rapture
which transcends our human doctrine: "It riseth higher, as by a divine instinct, when it contemns common and known conceptions. . . . Then it gets aloft and flies away with his rider, whither before it was doubtful to ascend." This the poets understood by their Helicon, Pegasus, or Parnassus; and this made Ovid to boast
Est deus in nobis, agitante calescimus illo:
Wordsworth in a later preface-the preface to his volume of 1815-leads us back to the musical, as related to the poetic, idea.
"All poets," he writes, "except the dramatic, have been in the practice of feigning that their works were composed to the music of the harp or the lyre with what degree of affectation this has been done in modern times, I leave to the judicious to determine. For my own part, I have not been disposed to violate probability so far, or to make such a large demand upon the Reader's charity. Some of these pieces are essentially lyrical; and, therefore, cannot have their due force without a supposed musical accompaniment; but, in much the greatest part, as a substitute for the classic lyre of romantic harp, I require nothing more than an animated or impassioned recitation, adapted to the subject.
Since Wordsworth, clearly, we have moved a step, for much that claims to be lyric poetry to-day is pictorial, rather than lyrical, in its conception; written for the eye, and not for the ear. No doubt, as in Wordsworth's own case, some of the best lyric poetry which we possess has been written by poets who have had no ear for music itself. There is a second harmony of words, which may be enough for verse essentially literary. But the true lyric is still first of all a song, and the further away we get from music as the companion of poetry, the further we shall be from "the wellspring of the elder muse." This is one reason why the Elizabethans, and Burns, and a few Scotch song-writers, wrote songs so much more musical and singable than the too literary poets of another day. "If I could hit on some glorious