Part 3 out of 6
And rise again to immortality.
Oh, if she cease to smile, as thy looks say,
What if? I shall have drained my splendor down
To the last flaming drop! Then take me, darkness,
And mirk and mire and black oblivion,
Despairs that raven where no camp-fire is,
Like the wild beasts. I shall be even blest
To be so damned.
Most often this conception of love's flamelike lightening of life for
the poet is applied to Sappho. Many modern English poets picture her
living "with the swift singing strength of fire." [Footnote: See
Southey, _Sappho_; Mary Robinson (1758-1800), _Sappho and Phaon_; Philip
Moren Freneau, _Monument of Phaon_; James Gates Percival, _Sappho_;
Charles Kingsley, _Sappho_; Lord Houghton, _A Dream of Sappho_;
Swinburne, _On the Cliffs_, _Anactoria_, _Sapphics_; Cale Young Rice,
_Sappho's Death Song_; Sara Teasdale, _Sappho_; Percy Mackaye, _Sappho
and Phaon_; Zoe Akins, _Sappho to a Swallow on the Ground_; James B.
Kenyon, _Phaon Concerning Sappho_, _Sappho_ (1920); William Alexander
Percy, _Sappho in Levkos_ (1920).] Swinburne, in _On the Cliffs_, claims
this as the essential attribute of genius, when he cries to her for
For all my days as all thy days from birth
My heart as thy heart was in me as thee
Fire, and not all the fountains of the sea
Have waves enough to quench it; nor on earth
Is fuel enough to feed,
While day sows night, and night sows day for seed.
This intensity of perception is largely the result, or the cause, of the
poet's unusually sensitive consciousness of the ephemeralness of love.
The notion of permanence often seems to rob love of all its poetical
quality. The dark despair engendered by a sense of its transience is
needed as a foil to the fiery splendors of passion. Thus Rupert Brooke,
in the sonnet, _Mutability_, dismisses the Platonic idea of eternal
love and beauty, declaring,
Dear, we know only that we sigh, kiss, smile;
Each kiss lasts but the kissing; and grief goes over;
Love has no habitation but the heart:
Poor straws! on the dark flood we catch awhile,
Cling, and are borne into the night apart,
The laugh dies with the lips, "Love" with the lover.
Sappho is represented as especially aware of this aspect of her love.
Her frenzies in _Anactoria_, where, if our hypothesis is correct,
Swinburne must have been terribly concerned over his natural coldness,
arise from rebellion at the brevity of love. Sappho cries,
What had all we done
That we should live and loathe the sterile sun,
And with the moon wax paler as she wanes,
And pulse by pulse feel time grow through our veins?
Poetry, we are to believe, arises from the yearning to render eternal
the fleeting moment of passion. Sappho's poetry is, as Swinburne says,
[Footnote: In _On the Cliffs_.] "life everlasting of eternal fire."
In Mackaye's _Sappho and Phaon_, she exults in her power to
immortalize her passion, contrasting herself with her mother, the sea:
Her ways are birth, fecundity and death,
But mine are beauty and immortal love.
Therefore I will be tyrant of myself--
Mine own law will I be! And I will make
Creatures of mind and melody, whose forms
Are wrought of loveliness without decay,
And wild desire without satiety,
And joy and aspiration without death.
And on the wings of these shall I, I, Sappho!
Still soar and sing above these cliffs of Lesbos,
Even when ten thousand blooms of men and maidens
Are fallen and withered.
To one who craves an absolute aesthetic standard, it is satisfactory to
note how nearly unanimous our poets are in their portrayal of Sappho.
[Footnote: No doubt they are influenced by the glimpse of her given in
Longinus, _On the Sublime_.] This is the more remarkable, since our
enormous ignorance of her life and poetry would give almost free scope
to inventive faculty. It is significant that none of our writers have
been attracted to the picture Welcker gives of her as the respectable
matronly head of a girl's seminary. Instead, she is invariably shown as
mad with an insatiable yearning, tortured by the conviction that her
love can never be satisfied. Charles Kingsley, describing her
Night and day
A mighty hunger yearned within her heart,
And all her veins ran fever,
conceives of her much as does Swinburne, who calls her,
Love's priestess, mad with pain and joy of song,
Song's priestess, mad with pain and joy of love.
[Footnote: _On the Cliffs_.]
It is in this insatiability that Swinburne finds the secret of her
genius, as opposed to the meager desires of ordinary folk. Expressing
her conception of God, he makes Sappho assert,
But having made me, me he shall not slay:
Nor slay nor satiate, like those herds of his,
Who laugh and love a little, and their kiss
It is, no doubt, an inarticulate conviction that she is "imprisoned in
the body as in an oyster shell," [Footnote: Plato, _Phaedrus_, sec. 250.]
while the force that is wooing her is outside the boundary of the
senses, that accounts for Sappho's agonies of despair. In Sara
Teasdale's _Sappho_ she describes herself,
Who would run at dusk
Along the surges creeping up the shore
When tides come in to ease the hungry beach,
And running, running till the night was black,
Would fall forspent upon the chilly sand,
And quiver with the winds from off the sea.
Ah! quietly the shingle waits the tides
Whose waves are stinging kisses, but to me
Love brought no peace, nor darkness any rest.
[Footnote: In the end, Sara Teasdale does show her winning content,
in the love of her baby daughter, but it is significant that this
destroys her lyric gift. She assures Aphrodite,
If I sing no more
To thee, God's daughter, powerful as God,
It is that thou hast made my life too sweet
To hold the added sweetness of a song.
* * * * *
I taught the world thy music; now alone
I sing for her who falls asleep to hear.]
Swinburne characteristically shows her literally tearing the flesh in
her quest of the divinity that is reflected there. In _Anactoria_
she tells the object of her infatuation:
I would my love could kill thee: I am satiated
With seeing thee alive, and fain would have thee dead.
* * * * *
I would find grievous ways to have thee slain,
Intense device and superflux of pain.
And after detailing with gusto the bloody ingenuities of her plan of
torture, she states that her motive is,
To wring thy very spirit through the flesh.
The myth that Sappho's agony resulted from an offense done to Aphrodite,
is several times alluded to. In _Sappho and Phaon_ she asserts her
independence of Aphrodite's good will, and in revenge the goddess turns
Phaon's affection away from Sappho, back to Thalassa, the mother of his
children. Sappho's infatuation for Phaon, the slave, seems a cruel jest
of Aphrodite, who fills Sappho with a wholly blind and unreasoning
passion. In all three of Swinburne's Lesbian poems, Aphrodite's anger is
mentioned. This is the sole theme of _Sapphics_, in which poem the
goddess, displeased by Sappho's preferment of love poetry to the actual
delights of love, yet tried to win Sappho back to her:
Called to her, saying "Turn to me, O my Sappho,"
Yet she turned her face from the Loves, she saw not
Tears or laughter darken immortal eyelids....
Only saw the beautiful lips and fingers,
Full of songs and kisses and little whispers,
Full of music; only beheld among them
Soar as a bird soars
Newly fledged, her visible song, a marvel
Made of perfect sound and exceeding passion,
Sweetly shapen, terrible, full of thunders,
Clothed with the wind's wings.
It seems likely that this myth of Aphrodite's anger is an allegory
indicating the tragic character of all poetic love, in that, while
incarcerated in the body, the singer strives to break through the limits
of the flesh and to grasp ideality. The issue is made clear in Mackaye's
drama. There Sappho's rival is Thalassa, Phaon's slave-mate, who
conceives as love's only culmination the bearing of children. Sappho, in
her superiority, points out that mere perpetuation of physical life is a
meaningless circle, unless it leads to some higher satisfaction. But in
the end the figure of "the eternal mother," as typified by Thalassa, is
more powerful than is Sappho, in the struggle for Phaon's love. Thus
Aphrodite asserts her unwillingness to have love refined into a merely
Often the greatest poets, as Sappho herself, are represented as having
no more than a blind and instinctive apprehension of the supersensual
beauty which is shining through the flesh, and which is the real object
of desire. But thus much ideality must be characteristic of love, it
seems obvious, before it can be spiritually creative. Unless there is
some sense of a universal force, taking the shape of the individual
loved one, there can be nothing suggestive in love. Instead of waking
the lover to the beauty in all of life, as we have said, it would, as
the non-lover has asserted, blind him to all but the immediate object of
his pursuit. Then, the goal being reached, there would be no reason for
the poet's not achieving complete satisfaction in love, for there would
be nothing in it to suggest any delight that he does not possess.
Therefore, having all his desire, the lover would be lethargic, with no
impulse to express himself in song. Probably something of this sort is
the meaning of the Tannhauser legend, as versified both by Owen Meredith
and Emma Lazarus, showing the poet robbed of his gift when he comes
under the power of the Paphian Venus. Such likewise is probably the
meaning of Oscar Wilde's sonnet, _Helas_, quoted above.
While we thus lightly dismiss sensual love as unpoetical, we must
remember that Burns, in some of his accounts of inspiration, ascribes
quite as powerful and as unidealistic an effect to the kisses of the
barmaids, as to the liquor they dispense. But this is mere bravado, as
much of his other verse shows. Byron's case, also, is a doubtful one.
The element of discontent is all that elevates his amours above the
"swinish trough," which Alfred Austin asserts them to be. [Footnote: In
_Off Mesolonghi_.] Yet, such as his idealism is, it constitutes the
strength and weakness of his poetical gift. Landor well says, [Footnote:
In _Lines To a Lady_.]
Although by fits so dense a cloud of smoke
Puffs from his sappy and ill-seasoned oak,
Yet, as the spirit of the dream draws near,
Remembered loves make Byron's self sincere.
The puny heart within him swells to view,
The man grows loftier and the poet too.
Ideal love is most likely to become articulate in the sonnet sequence.
The Platonic theory of love and beauty, ubiquitous in renaissance
sonnets, is less pretentiously but no less sincerely present in the
finest sonnets of the last century. The sense that the beauty of his
beloved is that of all other fair forms, the motive of Shakespeare's
Thy bosom is endeared with all hearts
Which I by lacking have supposed dead,
is likewise the motive of Rossetti's _Heart's Compass_,
Sometimes thou seemest not as thyself alone,
But as the meaning of all things that are;
A breathless wonder, shadowing forth afar
Some heavenly solstice, hushed and halcyon,
Whose unstirred lips are music's visible tone;
Whose eyes the sungates of the soul unbar,
Being of its furthest fires oracular,
The evident heart of all life sown and mown.
Thus also Mrs. Browning says of her earlier ideal loves,
Their shining fronts,
Their songs, their splendors (better, yet the same,
As river water hallowed into founts)
Met in thee.
[Footnote: _Sonnets of the Portuguese_, XXVI.]
Reflection of this sort almost inevitably leads the poet to the
conviction that his real love is eternal beauty. Such is the progress of
Rossetti's thought in _Heart's Hope_:
Lady, I fain would tell how evermore
Thy soul I know not from thy body nor
Thee from myself, neither our love from God.
The whole of Diotima's theory of the ascent to ideal beauty is here
implicit in three lines. In the same spirit Christina Rossetti
identifies her lover with her Christian faith:
Yea, as I apprehend it, love is such
I cannot love you if I love not Him,
I cannot love Him if I love not you.
[Footnote: _Monna Innominata_, VI. See also Robert Bridges, _The of
Love_ (a sonnet sequence).]
It is obvious that, from the standpoint of the beloved at least, there
is danger in this identification of all beauties as manifestations of
the ideal. It is unpropitious to lifelong affection for one person. As a
matter of fact, though the English taste for decorous fidelity has
affected some poets, on the whole they have not hesitated to picture
their race as fickle. Plato's account of the second step in the ascent
of the lover, "Soon he will himself perceive that the beauty of one form
is truly related to the beauty of another; and then if beauty in general
is his pursuit, how foolish would he be not to recognize that the beauty
in every form is one and the same," [Footnote: _Symposium_, Jowett
translation, sec.210.] is made by Shelley the justification of his shifting
enthusiasms, which the world so harshly censured. In _Epipsychidion_
I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion....
True love in this differs from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away.
Love is like understanding, that grows bright
Gazing on many truths....
Narrow the heart that loves, the brain that contemplates,
The life that wears, the spirit that creates
One object and one form, and builds thereby
A sepulchre for its eternity.
These last lines suggest, what many poets have asserted, that the
goddess of beauty is apt to change her habitation from one clay to
another, and that the poet who clings to the fair form after she has
departed, is nauseated by the dead bones which he clasps. [Footnote: See
Thomas Hardy's novel, _The Well Beloved_.] This theme Rupert Brooke
is constantly harping upon, notably in _Dead Men's Love_, which
There was a damned successful poet,
There was a woman like the Sun.
And they were dead. They did not know it.
They did not know his hymns
Were silence; and her limbs
That had served love so well,
Dust, and a filthy smell.
The feeling that Aphrodite is leading them a merry chase through
manyforms is characteristic of our ultra-modern poets, who anticipate at
least one new love affair a year. Most elegantly Ezra Pound expresses
his feeling that it is time to move on to a fresh inspiration:
As a bathtub lined with white porcelain
When the hot water gives out or goes tepid,--
So is the slow cooling of our chivalrous passion,
My much praised, but not altogether satisfactory lady.
As each beautiful form is to be conceived of as reflecting eternal
beauty from a slightly different angle, the poet may claim that flitting
affection is necessary to one who would gain as complete as possible
vision of ideality. Not only so, but this glimpsing of beauty through
first one mistress, then another, often seems to perform the function of
the mixed metaphor in freeing the soul from bondage to the sensual. This
is the interpretation of Sappho's fickleness most popular with our
writers, who give her the consciousness that Aphrodite, not flesh and
blood, is the object of her quest. In her case, unlike that of the
ordinary lover, the new passion does not involve the repudiation or
belittling of the one before. In Swinburne's _Anactoria_ Sappho
compares her sensations
Last year when I loved Atthis, and this year
When I love thee.
In Mackaye's _Sappho and Phaon_, when Alcaeus pleads for the love
of the poetess, she asserts of herself,
I doubt if ever she saw form of man
Or maiden either whom, being beautiful,
She hath not loved.
When Alcaeus protests, "But not with passion!" she rejoins,
That breathes to her is passion, love itself
The inevitability of fickleness arising from her idealism, which fills
her with insuperable discontent, is voiced most clearly by the
nineteenth century Sappho through the lips of Sara Teasdale, in lines
wherein she dismisses those who gossip about her:
How should they know that Sappho lived and died
Faithful to love, not faithful to the lover,
Never transfused and lost in what she loved,
Never so wholly loving nor at peace.
I asked for something greater than I found,
And every time that love has made me weep
I have rejoiced that love could be so strong;
For I have stood apart and watched my soul
Caught in a gust of passion as a bird
With baffled wings against the dusty whirlwind
Struggles and frees itself to find the sky.
She continues, apostrophizing beauty,
In many guises didst thou come to me;
I saw thee by the maidens when they danced,
Phaon allured me with a look of thine,
In Anactoria I knew thy grace.
I looked at Cercolas and saw thine eyes,
But never wholly, soul and body mine
Didst thou bid any love me as I loved.
The last two lines suggest another reason for the fickleness, as well as
for the insatiability of the poet's love. If the poet's genius consists
of his peculiar capacity for love, then in proportion as he outsoars the
rest of humanity he will be saddened, if not disillusioned, by the
half-hearted return of his love. Mrs. Browning characterizes her
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal grace.
It is clear that a lesser soul could not possibly give an adequate
response to such affection. Perhaps it is one of the strongest evidences
that Browning is a genuine philosopher, and not a prestidigitator of
philosophy in rhyme, that Mrs. Browning's love poetry does not conclude
with the note either of tragic insatiability or of disillusionment.
[Footnote: The tragedy of incapacity to return one's poet-lover's
passion is the theme of Alice Meynell's _The Poet and his Wife_. On
the same theme are the following: Amelia Josephine Burr, _Anne
Hathaway's Cottage_ (1914); C. J. Druce, _The Dark Lady to Shakespeare_
(1919); Karle Wilson Baker, _Keats and Fanny Brawne_ (1919); James B.
Kenyon, _Phaon concerning Sappho_ (1920).]
Since the poet's soul is more beautiful than the souls of other men, it
follows that he cannot love at all except, in a sense, by virtue of the
fact that he is easily deceived. Here is another explanation of the
transience of his affections,--in his horrified recoil from an unworthy
object that he has idealized. This blindness to sensuality is accounted
for by Plato in the figure, "The lover is his mirror in whom he is
beholding himself, but he is not aware of this." [Footnote: _Phaedrus_,
255.] [Footnote: Browning shows the poet, with his eyes open, loving an
unworthy form, in _Time's Revenges_.] This is the figure used in Sara
Teasdale's little poem, _The Star_, which says to the pool,
O wondrous deep,
I love you, I give you my light to keep.
Oh, more profound than the moving sea,
That never has shown myself to me.
* * * * *
But out of the woods as night grew cool
A brown pig came to the little pool;
It grunted and splashed and waded in
And the deepest place but reached its chin.
The tragedy in such love is the theme of Alfred Noyes' poem on Marlowe,
_At the Sign of the Golden Shoe_. The dramatist comes to London as
a young boy, full of high visions and faith in human nature. His
innocence makes him easy prey of a notorious woman:
In her treacherous eyes,
As in dark pools the mirrored stars will gleam,
Here did he see his own eternal skies.
But, since his love is wholly spiritual, it dies on the instant of her
revelation of her character:
Clasped in the bitter grave of that sweet clay,
Wedded and one with it, he moaned.
* * * * *
Yet, ere he went, he strove once more to trace
Deep in her eyes, the loveliness he knew,
Then--spat his hatred in her smiling face.
It is probably an instance of the poet's blindness to the sensual, that
he is often represented as having a peculiar sympathy with the fallen
woman. He feels that all beauty in this world is forced to enter into
forms unworthy of it, and he finds the attractiveness of the courtesan
only an extreme instance of this. Joaquin Miller's _The Ideal and the
Real_ is an allegory in which the poet, following ideal beauty into
this world, finds her in such a form. The tradition of the poet
idealizing the outcast, which dates back at least to Rossetti's
_Jenny_, is still alive, as witness John D. Neihardt's recent poem,
_A Vision of Woman_. [Footnote: See also Kirke White, _The Prostitute_;
Whitman, _To a Common Prostitute_; Joaquin Miller, _A Dove of St. Mark_;
and Olive Dargan, _A Magdalen to Her Poet_.]
To return to the question of the poet's fickleness, a very ingenious
denial of it is found in the argument that, as his poetical love is
purely ideal, he can indulge in a natural love that in no way interferes
with it. A favorite view of the 1890's is in Ernest Dowson's _Non Sum
Qualis Eram Bonae sub Regno Cynarae_:
Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion;
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.
The poet sometimes regards it as a proof of the supersensual nature of
his passion that he is, willing to marry another woman. The hero of May
Sinclair's novel, _The Divine Fire_, who is irresistibly impelled
to propose to a girl, even while he trembles at the sacrilege of her
touching a book belonging to his soul's mistress, is only a _reductio
ad absurdum_ of a rather popular theory. All narratives of this sort
can probably be traced back to Dante's autobiography, as given in the
_Vita Nuova_. We have two poetic dramas dealing with Dante's love,
by G. L. Raymond, [Footnote: _Dante_] and by Sara King Wiley.
[Footnote: _Dante and Beatrice_] Both these writers, however, show
a tendency to slur over Dante's affection for Gemma. Raymond represents
their marriage as the result solely of Dante's compromising her by
apparent attention, in order to avoid the appearance of insulting
Beatrice with too close regard. Sara King Wiley, on the other hand,
stresses the other aspect of Dante's feeling for Gemma, his gratitude
for her pity at the time of Beatrice's death. Of course both dramatists
are bound by historical considerations to make the outcome of their
plays tragical, but practically all other expositions of the poet's
double affections are likewise tragic. Cale Young Rice chooses another
famous Renaissance lover for the hero of _A Night in Avignon_, a
play with this theme. Here Petrarch, in a fit of impatience with his
long loyalty to a hopeless love for Laura, turns to a light woman for
consolation. According to the accepted mode, he refuses to tolerate
Laura's name on the lips of his fancy. Laura, who has chosen this
inconvenient moment to become convinced of the purity of Petrarch's
devotion to her, comes to his home to offer her heart, but, discovering
the other woman's presence there, she fails utterly to comprehend the
subtle compliment to her involved, and leaves Petrarch in an agony of
Marlowe, in Josephine Preston Peabody's drama, distributes his
admiration more equally between his two loves. One stimulates the
dramatist in him, by giving him an insatiable thirst for this world; the
other elevates the poet, by lifting his thoughts to eternal beauty. When
he is charged with being in love with the Canterbury maiden who is the
object of his reverence, the "Little Quietude," as he calls her, he,
comparing her to the Evening Star, contrasts her with the object of his
burning passion, who seems to him the fruit of the tree of knowledge of
good and evil. He explains,
I serve a lady so imperial fair,
June paled when she was born. Indeed no star,
No dream, no distance, but a very woman,
Wise with the argent wisdom of the snake;
Fair nurtured with that old forbidden fruit
That thou hast heard of ...
... I would eat, and have all human joy,
And know,--and know.
But, for the Evening Star, I have it there.
I would not have it nearer. Is that love
As thou dost understand? Yet is it mine
As I would have it: to look down on me,
Not loving and not cruel; to be bright,
Out of my reach; to lighten me the dark
When I lift eyes to it, and in the day
To be forgotten. But of all things, far,
Far off beyond me, otherwise no star.
Marlowe's closing words bring us to another important question, _i. e._,
the stage of love at which it is most inspiring. This is the subject of
much difference of opinion. Mrs. Browning might well inquire, in one of
her love sonnets,
How, Dearest, wilt thou have me for most use?
A hope, to sing by gladly? or a fine
Sad memory with thy songs to interfuse?
A shade, in which to sing, of palm or pine?
A grave, on which to rest from singing? Choose.
[Footnote: _Sonnets from the Portuguese_, XVII.]
Each of these situations has been celebrated as begetting the poet's
To follow the process of elimination, we may first dispose of the
married state as least likely to be spiritually creative. It is true
that we find a number of poems addressed by poets to their wives. But
these are more likely to be the contented purring of one who writes by a
cozy fireside, than the passionate cadence of one whose genius has been
fanned to flame. One finds but a single champion of the married state
considered abstractly. This is Alfred Austin, in whose poem, _The Poet
and the Muse_, his genius explains to the newly betrothed poet:
How should you, poet, hope to sing?
The lute of love hath a single string.
Its note is sweet as the coo of the dove,
But 'tis only one note, and the note is love.
But when once you have paired and built your nest,
And can brood thereon with a settled breast,
You will sing once more, and your voice will stir
All hearts with the sweetness gained from her.
And perhaps even Alfred Austin's vote is canceled by his inconsistent
statement in his poem on Petrarch, _At Vaucluse_,
Let this to lowlier bards atone,
Whose unknown Laura is their own,
Possessing and possessed:
Of whom if sooth they do not sing,
'Tis that near her they fold their wing
To drop into her nest.
Let us not forget Shelley's expression of his need for his wife:
Ah, Mary dear, come to me soon;
I am not well when thou art far;
As twilight to the sphered moon,
As sunset to the evening star,
Thou, beloved, art to me.
[Footnote: _To Mary_.]
Perhaps it is unworthy quibbling to object that the figure here suggests
too strongly Shelley's consciousness of the merely atmospheric function
of Mary, in enhancing his own personality, as contrasted with the
radiant divinity of Emilia Viviani, to whom he ascribes his
creativeness. [Footnote: Compare Wordsworth, _She Was a Phantom of
Delight_, _Dearer Far than Life_; Tennyson, _Dedication of
It is customary for our bards gallantly to explain that the completeness
of their domestic happiness leaves them no lurking discontent to spur
them onto verse writing. This is the conclusion of the happily wedded
heroes of Bayard Taylor's _A Poet's Journal_, and of Coventry
Patmore's _The Angel in the House_; likewise of the poet in J. G.
Holland's _Kathrina_, who excuses his waning inspiration after his
She, being all my world, had left no room
For other occupation than my love.
... I had grown enervate
In the warm atmosphere which I had breathed.
Taken as a whole, the evidence is decidedly in favor of the remote love,
prevented in some way from reaching its culmination. To requote Alfred
Noyes, the poet knows that ideal love must be
Far off, beyond me, otherwise no star.
In _Sister Songs_ Francis Thompson asserts that such remoteness is
essential to his genius:
I deem well why life unshared
Was ordained me of yore.
In pairing time, we know, the bird
Kindles to its deepmost splendour,
And the tender
Voice is tenderest in its throat.
Were its love, forever by it,
Never nigh it,
It might keep a vernal note,
The crocean and amethystine
In their pristine
Lustre linger on its coat.
[Footnote: Possibly this is characteristic only of the male singer.
Christina Rossetti expresses the opposite attitude in _Monna Innominata_
XIV, mourning for
The silence of a heart that sang its songs
When youth and beauty made a summer morn,
Silence of love that cannot sing again.]
Byron, in the _Lament of Tasso_, causes that famous lover likewise
to maintain that distance is necessary to idealization. He sighs,
Successful love may sate itself away.
The wretched are the faithful; 'tis their fate
To have all feeling save the one decay,
And every passion into one dilate,
As rapid rivers into ocean pour.
But ours is bottomless and hath no shore.
The manner of achieving this necessary remoteness is a nice problem. Of
course the poet may choose it, with open eyes, as the Marlowe of Miss
Peabody's imagination does, or as the minstrel in Hewlitt's _Cormac,
Son of Ogmond_. The long engagements of Rossetti and Tennyson are
often quoted as exemplifying this idiosyncrasy of poets. But there is
something decidedly awkward in such a situation, inasmuch as it is not
till love becomes so intense as to eclipse the poet's pride and joy in
poetry that it becomes effective as a muse. [Footnote: See Mrs.
Browning, Sonnet VII.
And this! this lute and song, loved yesterday,
Are only dear, the singing angels know
Because thy name moves right in what they say.]
The minor poet, to be sure, is often discovered solicitously feeling his
pulse to gauge the effect of love on his rhymes, but one does not feel
that his verse gains by it. Therefore, an external obstacle is usually
made to intervene.
As often as not, this obstacle is the indifference of the beloved. One
finds rejected poets by the dozens, mourning in the verse of our period.
The sweetheart's reasons are manifold; her suitor's inferior station and
poverty being favorites. But one wonders if the primary reason may not
be the quality of the love offered by the poet, whose extreme humility
and idealization are likely to engender pride and contempt in the lady,
she being unaware that it is the reflection of his own soul that the
poet is worshipping in her. One can feel some sympathy with the lady in
Thomas Hardy's _I Rose Up as My Custom Is_, who, when her lover's
ghost discovers her beside a snoring spouse, confesses that she is
content with her lot:
He makes no quest into my thoughts,
But a poet wants to know
What one has felt from earliest days,
Why one thought not in other ways,
And one's loves of long ago.
It may be, too, that an instinct for protection has something to do with
the lady's rejection, for a recent poet has openly proclaimed the effect
of attaining, in successful love, one step toward absolute beauty:
O beauty, as thy heart o'erflows
In tender yielding unto me,
A vast desire awakes and grows
Unto forgetfulness of thee.
[Footnote: "A. E.," _The Fountain of Shadowy Beauty_.]
Rejection is apt to prove an obstacle of double worth to the poet, since
it not only removes him to a distance where his lady's human frailties
are less visible, so that the divine light shining through her seems
less impeded, but it also fires him with a very human ambition to prove
his transcendent worth and thus "get even" with his unappreciative
beloved. [Footnote: See Joaquin Miller, _Ina_; G. L. Raymond,
_"Loving,"_ from _A Life in Song_; Alexander Smith, _A Life Drama_.
Richard Realf in _Advice Gratis_ satirically depicts the lady's
altruism in rejecting her lover:
It would strike fresh heat in your poet's verse
If you dropped some aloes into his wine,
They write supremely under a curse.]
There is danger, of course, that the disillusionment produced by the
revelation of low ideals which the lady makes in her refusal will
counterbalance these good effects. Still, though the poet is so
egotistical toward all the world beside, in his attitude toward his lady
the humility which Emerson expresses in _The Sphinx_ is not without
parallel in verse. Many singers follow him in his belief that the only
worthy love is that for a being so superior that a return of love is
impossible. [Footnote: See _The Sphinx_--
Have I a lover who is noble and free?
I would he were nobler than to love me.
See also Walt Whitman, _Sometimes with One I Love_, and Mrs. Browning,
"I never thought that anyone whom I could love would stoop to love
me--the two things seemed clearly incompatible." Letter to Robert
Browning, December 24, 1845.]
To poets who do not subscribe to Emerson's belief in one-sided
attachments, Alexander Smith's _A Life Drama_ is a treasury of
suggestions as to devices by which the poet's lady may be kept at
sufficient distance to be useful. With the aid of intercalations Smith
exhibits the poet removed from his lady by scornful rejection, by
parental restraint, by an unhappy marriage, by self-reproach, and by
death. All these devices have been popular in our poetry.
The lady's marriage is seldom felt to be an insuperable barrier to love,
though it is effective in removing her to a suitable distance for
idealization. The poet's worship is so supersensual as to be
inoffensive. To confine ourselves to poetic dramas treating historical
poets,--Beatrice,[Footnote: G. L. Raymond's and S. K. Wiley's dramas,
_Dante_, and _Dante and Beatrice_.] Laura, [Footnote: Cale Young Rice,
_A Night in Avignon_.] Vittoria Colonna, [Footnote: Longfellow, _Michael
Angelo_.] and Alison [Footnote: Peabody, _Marlowe_.] are all married to
one man while inspiring another. A characteristic autobiographical love
poem of this type, is that of Francis Thompson, who asserts the ideality
of the poet's affection in his reference to
This soul which on thy soul is laid,
As maid's breast upon breast of maid.
[Footnote: See also _Ad Amicam_, _Her Portrait_, _Manus Animon Pinxit_.]
There is no other barrier that so elevates love as does death.
Translation of love into Platonic idealism is then almost inevitable.
Alexander Smith describes the change accomplished by the death of the
Two passions dwelt at once within his soul,
Like eve and sunset dwelling in one sky.
And as the sunset dies along the west,
Eve higher lifts her front of trembling stars
Till she is seated in the middle sky,
So gradual one passion slowly died
And from its death the other drew fresh life,
Until 'twas seated in the soul alone,
The dead was love, the living, poetry.
The mystic merging of Beatrice into ideal beauty is, of course,
mentioned often in nineteenth century poetry, most sympathetically,
perhaps, by Rossetti. [Footnote: See _On the Vita Nuova of Dante_;
also _Dante at Verona_.] Much the same kind of translation is
described in _Vane's Story_, by James Thomson, B.V., which appears
to be a sort of mystic autobiography.
The ascent in love for beauty, as Plato describes it, [Footnote:
_Symposium._] might be expected to mark at every step an increase
of poetic power, as it leads one from the individual beauties of sense
to absolute, supersensual beauty. But it is extremely doubtful if this
increase in poetic power is achieved when our poets try to take the last
step, and rely for their inspiration upon a lover's passion for
disembodied, purely ideal beauty. The lyric power of such love has,
indeed, been celebrated by a recent poet. George Edward Woodberry, in
his sonnet sequence, _Ideal Passion_, thus exalts his mistress, the
abstract idea of beauty, above the loves of other poets:
Dante and Petrarch all unenvied go
From star to star, upward, all heavens above,
The grave forgot, forgot the human woe.
Though glorified, their love was human love,
One unto one; a greater love I know.
But very few of our poets have felt their genius burning at its
brightest when they have eschewed the sensuous embodiment of their love.
Plato might point out that he intended his theory of progression in love
as a description of the development of the philosopher, not of the poet,
who, as a base imitator of sense, has not a pure enough soul to soar
very high away from it. But our writers have been able partially to
vindicate poets by pointing out that Dante was able to travel the whole
way toward absolute beauty, and to sublimate his perceptions to
supersensual fineness without losing their poetic tone. Nineteenth and
twentieth century writers may modestly assert that it is the fault of
their inadequacy to represent poetry, and not a fault in the poetic
character as such, that accounts for the tameness of their most
However this may be, one notes a tendency in much purely idealistic and
philosophical love poetry to present us with a mere skeleton of
abstraction. Part of this effect may be the reader's fault, of course.
Plato assures us that the harmonies of mathematics are more ravishing
than the harmonies of music to the pure spirit, but many of us must take
his word for it; in the same way it may be that when we fail to
appreciate certain celebrations of ideal love it is because of our
"muddy vesture of decay" which hinders our hearing its harmonies.
Within the last one hundred and fifty years three notable attempts, of
widely varying success, have been made to write a purely philosophical
love poem.[Footnote: Keats' _Endymion_ is not discussed here, though it
seems to have much in common with the philosophy of the _Symposium_. See
Sidney Colvin, _John Keats_, pp. 160ff.]
Bulwer Lytton's _Milton_ was, if one may believe the press notices,
the most favorably received of his poems, but it is a signal example of
aspiring verse that misses both the sensuous beauty of poetry, and the
intellectual content of philosophy. Milton is portrayed as the life-long
lover of an incarnation of beauty too attenuated to be human and too
physical to be purely ideal. At first Milton devotes himself to this
vision exclusively, but, hearing the call of his country in distress, he
abandons her, and their love is not suffered to culminate till after
death. Bulwer Lytton cites the _Phaedrus_ of Plato as the basis of
his allegory, reminding us,
The Athenian guessed that when our souls descend
From some lost realm (sad aliens here to be),
Dim broken memories of the state before,
Form what we call our reason...
... Is not Love,
Of all those memories which to parent skies
Mount struggling back--(as to their source, above,
In upward showers, imprisoned founts arise:)
Oh, is not Love the strongest and the clearest?
Greater importance attaches to a recent treatment of the theme by George
Edward Woodberry. His poem, _Agathon_, dealing with the young poet of
Plato's _Symposium_, is our most literal interpretation of Platonism.
Agathon is sought out by the god of love, Eros, who is able to realize
his divinity only through the perfection of man's love of beauty. He
chooses Agathon as the object of instruction because Agathon is a poet,
one of those
Whose eyes were more divinely touched
In that long-memoried world whence souls set forth.
As the poem opens, Agathon is in the state of the favorite poet of
nineteenth century imagination, loving, yet discontented with, the
beauty of the senses. To Diotima, the wise woman of the _Symposium_,
he expresses his unhappiness:
Still must I mourn
That every lovely thing escapes the heart
Even in the moment of its cherishing.
Eros appears and promises Agathon that if he will accept his love, he
may find happiness in eternal beauty, and his poetical gift will be
Eros I am, the wooer of men's hearts.
Unclasp thy lips; yield me thy close embrace;
So shall thy thoughts once more to heaven climb,
Their music linger here, the joy of men.
Agathon resolves to cleave to him, but at this point Anteros,
corresponding to Plato's Venus Pandemos, enters into rivalry with Eros
for Agathon's love. He shows the poet a beautiful phantom, who describes
the folly of one who devotes himself to spiritual love:
The waste desire be his, and sightless fate,
Him light shall not revisit; late he knows
The love that mates the heaven weds the grave.
Agathon starts to embrace her, but seeing in her face the inevitable
decay of sensual beauty, he recoils, crying,
In its fiery womb I saw
The twisted serpent ringing woe obscene,
And far it lit the pitchy ways of hell.
In an agony of horror and contrition, he recalls Eros, who expounds to
him how love, beginning with sensuous beauty, leads one to ideality:
Let not dejection on thy heart take hold
That nature hath in thee her sure effects,
And beauty wakes desire. Should Daphne's eyes,
Leucothea's arms, and clinging white caress,
The arch of Thetis' brows, be made in vain?
But, he continues,
In fair things
There is another vigor, flowing forth
From heavenly fountains, the glad energy
That broke on chaos, and the outward rush
Of the eternal mind;...
... Hence the poet's eye
That mortal sees, creates immortally
The hero more than men, not more than man,
The type prophetic.
Agathon, in an ecstasy of comprehension, chants the praises of love
which Plato puts into his mouth in the _Symposium_. In conclusion,
Urania sums up the mystery of love and genius:
For truth divine is life, not love,
Creative truth, and evermore
Fashions the object of desire
Through love that breathes the spirit's fire.
We may fittingly conclude a discussion of the poet as lover with
the _Epipsychidion_, not merely because it is the most idealistic of
the interpretations of Platonic love given by nineteenth century poets,
but because by virtue of the fact that it describes Shelley's personal
experience, it should be most valuable in revealing the attitude toward
love of one possessing the purest of poetic gifts. [Footnote: Treatment
of this theme is foreshadowed in _Alastor_.]
The prominence given to Shelley's earthly loves in this poem has led J.
A. Symonds to deny that it is truly Platonic. He remarks,
While Shelley's doctrine in _Epipsychidion_ seems Platonic, it will
not square with the _Symposium_.... When a man has formed a just
conception of universal beauty, he looks back with a smile on those who
find their soul's sphere in the love of some mere mortal object. Tested
by this standard, Shelley's identification of Intellectual Beauty with
so many daughters of earth, and his worshipping love of Emilia, is
spurious Platonism.[Footnote: _Shelley_, p. 142.]
Perhaps this failure to break altogether with the physical is precisely
the distinction between the love of the poet and the love of the
philosopher with whom Plato is concerned. I do not believe that the
Platonism of this poem is intrinsically spurious; the conception of
Emilia seems to be intended simply as a poetic personification of
abstract beauty, but it is undeniable that at times this vision does not
mean abstract beauty to Shelley at all, but the actual Emilia Viviani.
He has protested against this judgment, "The _Epipsychidion_ is a
mystery; as to real flesh and blood, you know that I do not deal with
those articles." The revulsion of feeling that turned him away from
Emilia, however, taught him how much of his feeling for her had entered
into the poem, so that, in June, 1822, Shelley wrote,
The _Epipsychidion_ I cannot bear to look at. I think
one is always in love with something or other; the
error, and I confess it is not easy for spirits cased in
flesh and blood to avoid it, consists in seeking in a
mortal image the likeness of what is perhaps eternal.
Shelley begins his spiritual autobiography with his early mystical
intuition of the existence of spiritual beauty, which is to be the real
object of his love throughout life. By Plato, of course, this love is
made prenatal. Shelley says,
She met me, robed in such exceeding glory
That I beheld her not.
As this vision was totally disjoined from earthly objects, it won the
soul away from all interest in life. Therefore Shelley says,
She met me, Stranger, upon life's rough way
And lured me towards sweet death.
This early vision passed away, however,
Into the dreary cone of our life's shade.
This line is evidently Shelley's Platonic fashion of referring to the
obscurity of this life as compared to the world of ideas. As the vision
has embodied itself in this world, it is only through love of its
concrete manifestations that the soul may regain it. When it is
regained, it will not be, as in the beginning, a momentary intuition,
but an abiding presence in the soul.
The first step toward this goal was a mistaken one. Shelley describes
his marriage with Harriet as a yielding to the senses merely, in other
words, as slavery to the Venus Pandemos. He describes this false vision,
Whose voice was venomed melody.
* * * * *
The breath of her false mouth was like sweet flowers,
Her touch was as electric poison.
Shelley was more successful in his second love, for Mary, whom he calls
the "cold, chaste moon." The danger of this stage in the ascent toward
beauty is that one is likely to be content with the fragmentary glimpse
of beauty gained through the loved one, and by losing sight of its other
embodiments fail to aspire to more complete vision. So Shelley says of
this period, "I was laid asleep, spirit and limb." By a great effort,
however, the next step was taken,--the agonizing one of breaking away
from the bondage of this individual, in order that beauty in all its
forms may appeal to one. Shelley writes,
What storms then shook the ocean of my sleep,
Blotting that moon, whose pale and waning lips
Then shrank as in the sickness of eclipse.
Finally, the dross of its earthly embodiments being burned away by this
renunciation, ideal beauty is revealed to the poet, not merely in a
flash of inspiration, as at the beginning of his quest, but as an
abiding presence in the soul. At least this is the ideal, but, being a
poet, Shelley cannot claim the complete merging with the ideal that the
philosopher possesses. At the supersensual consummation of his love,
Shelley sinks back, only half conceiving of it, and cries,
Woe is me!
The winged words on which my soul would pierce
Into the height of Love's rare universe
Are chains of lead around its flight of fire;
I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire.
THE SPARK FROM HEAVEN
Dare we venture into the holy of holies, where the gods are said to come
upon the poet? Is there not danger that the divine spark which kindles
his song may prove a bolt to annihilate us, because of our presumptuous
intrusion? What voice is this, which meets us at the threshold?
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread--
It is Coleridge, warning us of our peril, if we remain open-eyed and
curious, trying to surprise the secret of the poet's visitation.
Yet are we not tolerably safe? We are under the guidance of an initiate;
the poet himself promises to unveil the mystery of his inspiration for
us. As Vergil kept Dante unscathed by the flames of the divine vision,
will not our poet protect us? Let us enter.
But another doubt, a less thrilling one, bids us pause. Is it indeed the
heavenly mystery that we are bid gaze upon, or are we to be the dupe of
self-deceived impostors? Our intimacy is with poets of the last two
centuries,--not the most inspired period in the history of poetry. And
in the ranks of our multitudinous verse-writers, it is not the most
prepossessing who are loudest in promising us a fair spectacle. How
harsh-voiced and stammering are some of these obscure apostles who are
offering to exhibit the entire mystery of their gift of tongues! We see
more impressive figures, to be sure. Here is the saturnine Poe, who with
contemptuous smile assures us that we are welcome to all the secrets of
his creative frenzies. Here is our exuberant Walt Whitman, crying, "Stop
this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all
poems." [Footnote: _Song of Myself_.] But though we scan every face
twice, we find here no Shakespeare promising us the key to creation of a
Still, is it not well to follow a forlorn hope? Among the less
vociferous, here are singers whose faces are alight with a mysterious
radiance. Though they promise us little, saying that they themselves are
blinded by the transcendent vision, so that they appear as men groping
in darkness, yet may they not unawares afford us some glimpse of their
If we refuse the poet's revelation, we have no better way of arriving at
the truth. The scientist offers us little in this field; and his account
of inspiration is as cold and comfortless as a chemical formula. Of
course the scientist is amused by this objection to him, and asks, "What
more do you expect from the effusions of poets? Will not whatever secret
they reveal prove an open one? What will it profit you to learn that the
milk of Paradise nourishes the poetic gift, since it is not handled by
an earthly dairy?" But when he speaks thus, our scientific friend is
merely betraying his ignorance regarding the nature of poetry. Longinus,
[Footnote: _On the Sublime,_ I.] and after him, Sidney, [Footnote:
_Apology for Poetry._] long ago pointed out its peculiar action,
telling us that it is the poet's privilege to make us partakers of his
ecstasy. So, if the poet describes his creative impulses, why should he
not make us sharers of them?
This is not an idle question, for surely Plato, that involuntary poet,
has had just this effect upon his readers. Have not his pictures, in the
_Phaedrus_ and the _Ion_, of the artist's ecstasy touched Shelley and
the lesser Platonic poets of our time with the enthusiasm he depicts?
Incidentally, the figure of the magnet which Plato uses in the
Ion may arouse hope in the breasts of us, the humblest readers of
Shelley and Woodberry. For as one link gives power of suspension to
another, so that a ring which is not touched by the magnet is yet
thrilled with its force, so one who is out of touch with Plato's
supernal melodies, may be sensitized by the virtue imparted to his
nineteenth century disciples, who are able to "temper this planetary
music for mortal ears."
Let us not lose heart, at the beginning of our investigation, though our
greatest poets admit that they themselves have not been able to keep
this creative ecstasy for long. To be sure this is disillusioning. We
should prefer to think of their silent intervals as times of insight too
deep for expression; as Anna Branch phrases it,
When they went
Unto the fullness of their great content
Like moths into the grass with folded wings.
[Footnote: _The Silence of the Poets._]
This pleasing idea has been fostered in us by poems of appeal to silent
singers. [Footnote: See Swinburne, _A Ballad of Appeal to Christina
Rossetti_; and Francis Thompson, _To a Poet Breaking Silence_.]
But we have manifold confessions that it is not commonly thus with the
non-productive poet. Not merely do we possess many requiems sung by
erst-while makers over their departed gift, [Footnote: See especially
Scott, _Farewell to the Muse_; Kirke White, _Hushed is the Lyre_;
Landor, _Dull is My Verse_, and _To Wordsworth_; James Thomson, B. V.,
_The Fire that Filled My Heart of Old_, and _The Poet and the Muse_;
Joaquin Miller, _Vale_; Andrew Lang, _The Poet's Apology_; Francis
Thompson, _The Cloud's Swan Song_.] but there is much verse indicating
that, even in the poet's prime, his genius is subject to a mysterious
ebb and flow. [Footnote: See Burns, _Second Epistle to Lapraik_; Keats,
_To My Brother George_; Winthrop Mackworth Praed, _Letter from Eaton_;
William Cullen Bryant, _The Poet_; Oliver Wendell Holmes, _Invita
Minerva_; Emerson, _The Poet, Merlin_; James Gates Percival, _Awake My
Lyre_, _Invocation_; J. H. West, _To the Muse_, _After Silence_; Robert
Louis Stevenson, _The Laureate to an Academy Class Dinner_; Alice
Meynell, _To one Poem in Silent Time_; Austin Dobson, _A Garden Idyl_;
James Stevens, _A Reply_; Richard Middleton, _The Artist_; Franklin
Henry Giddings, _Song_; Benjamin R. C. Low, _Inspiration_; Robert
Haven Schauffler, _The Wonderful Hour_; Henry A. Beers, _The Thankless
Muse_; Karl Wilson Baker, _Days_.] Though he has faith that he is not
"widowed of his muse," [Footnote: See Francis Thompson, _The Cloud's
Swan Song_.] she yet torments him with all the ways of a coquette, so
that he sadly assures us his mistress "is sweet to win, but bitter to
keep." [Footnote: C. G. Roberts, _Ballade of the Poet's Thought_.] The
times when she solaces him may be pitifully infrequent. Rossetti, musing
over Coleridge, says that his inspired moments were
Like desert pools that show the stars
Once in long leagues.
[Footnote: _Sonnet to Coleridge_.]
Yet, even so, upon such moments of insight rest all the poet's claims
for his superior personality. It is the potential greatness enabling him
at times to have speech with the gods that makes the rest of his life
sacred. Emerson is more outspoken than most poets; he is not perhaps at
variance with their secret convictions, when he describes himself:
I, who cower mean and small
In the frequent interval
When wisdom not with me resides.
[Footnote: _The Poet_.]
However divine the singer considers himself in comparison with ordinary
humanity, he must admit that at times
Discrowned and timid, thoughtless, worn,
The child of genius sits forlorn,
* * * * *
A cripple of God, half-true, half-formed.
[Footnote: Emerson, _The Poet_. See also George Meredith, _Pegasus_.]
Like Dante, we seem disposed to faint at every step in our revelation.
Now a doubt crosses our minds whether the child of genius in his
crippled moments is better fitted than the rest of us to point out the
pathway to sacred enthusiasm. It appears that little verse describing
the poet's afflatus is written when the gods are actually with him. In
this field, the sower sows by night. Verse on inspiration is almost
always retrospective or theoretical in character. It seems as if the
intermittence of his inspiration filled the poet with a wistful
curiosity as to his nature in moments of soaring. By continual
introspection he is seeking the charm, so to speak, that will render his
afflatus permanent. The rigidity in much of such verse surely betrays,
not the white heat of genius, but a self-conscious attitude of readiness
for the falling of the divine spark.
One wonders whether such preparation has been of much value in hastening
the fire from heaven. Often the reader is impatient to inform the
loud-voiced suppliant that Baal has gone a-hunting. Yet it is alleged
that the most humble bribe has at times sufficed to capture the elusive
divinity. Schiller's rotten apples are classic, and Emerson lists a
number of tested expedients, from a pound of tea to a night in a strange
hotel. [Footnote: See the essay on Inspiration. Hazlitt says Coleridge
liked to compose walking over uneven ground or breaking through
straggling branches.] This, however, is Emerson in a singularly
flat-footed moment. The real poet scoffs at such suggestions. Instead,
he feels that it is not for him to know the times and seasons of his
powers. Indeed, it seems to him, sometimes, that pure contrariety marks
the god's refusal to come when entreated. Thus we are told of the god of
Vainly, O burning poets!
Ye wait for his inspiration.
* * * * *
Hasten back, he will say, hasten back
To your provinces far away! There, at my own good time
Will I send my answer to you.
[Footnote: E. C. Stedman, _Apollo_. _The Hillside Door_ by the same
author also expresses this idea. See also Browning, _Old Pictures
in Florence_, in which he speaks "of a gift God gives me now and then."
See also Longfellow, _L'Envoi_; Keats, _On Receiving a Laurel Crown_;
Cale Young Rice, _New Dreams for Old_; Fiona Macleod, _The Founts of
Then, at the least expected moment, the fire may fall, so that the poet
is often filled with naive wonder at his own ability. Thus Alice Meynell
greets one of her poems,
Who looked for thee, thou little song of mine?
This winter of a silent poet's heart
Is suddenly sweet with thee, but what thou art,
Mid-winter flower, I would I could divine.
But if the poet cannot predict the time of his afflatus, he indicates
that he does know the attitude of mind which will induce it. In certain
quarters there is a truly Biblical reliance upon faith as bringer of the
gift. A minor writer assures us, "Ah, if we trust, comes the song!"
[Footnote: Richard Burton, _Singing Faith_.] Emerson says,
The muses' hill by fear is guarded;
A bolder foot is still rewarded.
[Footnote: _The Poet_.]
And more extreme is the counsel of Owen Meredith to the aspiring artist:
The genius on thy daily walks
Shall meet, and take thee by the hand;
But serve him not as who obeys;
He is thy slave if thou command.
[Footnote: _The Artist_.]
The average artist is probably inclined to quarrel with this last
high-handed treatment of the muse. Reverent humility rather than
arrogance characterizes the most effectual appeals for inspiration. The
faith of the typical poet is not the result of boldness, but of an
aspiration so intense that it entails forgetfulness of self. Thus one
poet accounts for his inspired hour:
Purged with high thoughts and infinite desire
I entered fearless the most holy place;
Received between my lips the sacred fire,
The breath of inspiration on my face.
[Footnote: C. G. Roberts, _Ave_.]
Another writer stresses the efficacy of longing no less strongly;
The unsatiated, insatiable desire
Which at once mocks and makes all poesy.
[Footnote: William Alexander, _The Finding of the Book_. See also Edward
Dowden, _The Artist's Waiting_.]
There is nothing new in this. It is only what the poet has implied in
all his confessions. Was he inspired by love? It was because thwarted
love filled him with intensest longing. So with his thirst for purity,
for religion, for worldly vanities. Any desire, be it fierce enough, and
hindered from immediate satisfaction, may engender poetry. As Joyce
Kilmer phrases it,
Nothing keeps a poet
In his high singing mood,
Like unappeasable hunger
For unattainable food.
But the poet would not have us imagine that we have here sounded the
depths of the mystery. Aspiration may call down inspiration, but it is
not synonymous with it. Mrs. Browning is fond of pointing out this
distinction. In _Aurora Leigh_ she reminds us, "Many a fervid man
writes books as cold and flat as gravestones." In the same poem she
indicates that desire is merely preliminary to inspiration. There are,
Two states of the recipient artist-soul;
One forward, personal, wanting reverence,
Because aspiring only. We'll be calm,
And know that when indeed our Joves come down,
We all turn stiller than we have ever been.
What is this mysterious increment, that must be added to aspiration
before it becomes poetically creative? So far as a mere layman can
understand it, it is a sudden arrest, rather than a satisfaction, of the
poet's longing, for genuine satisfaction would kill the aspiration, and
leave the poet heavy and phlegmatic. Inspiration, on the contrary, seems
to give him a fictitious satisfaction; it is an arrest of his desire
that affords him a delicate poise and repose, on tiptoe, so to speak.
[Footnote: Compare Coleridge's statement that poetry is "a more than
usual state of emotion with more than usual order." _Biographia
Literaria_, Vol. II, Chap. I, p. 14, ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge.]
Does not the fact that inspiration works in this manner account for the
immemorial connection of poetic creativeness with Bacchic frenzy? To the
aspiring poet wine does not bring his mistress, nor virtue, nor
communion with God, nor any object of his longing. Yet it does bring a
sudden ease to his craving. So, wherever there is a romantic conception
of poetry, one is apt to find inspiration compared to intoxication.
Such an idea did not, of course, find favor among typical eighteenth
century writers. Indeed, they would have seen more reason in ascribing
their clear-witted verse to an ice-pack, than to the bibulous hours
preceding its application to the fevered brow. We must wait for William
Blake before we can expect Bacchus to be reinstated among the gods of
song. Blake does not disappoint us, for we find his point of view
expressed, elegantly enough, in his comment on artists, "And when they
are drunk, they always paint best." [Footnote: _Artist Madmen: On the
Great Encouragement Given by the English Nobility and Gentry to
As the romantic movement progresses, one meets with more lyrical
expositions of the power in strong drink. Burns, especially, is never
tired of sounding its praise. He exclaims,
There's naething like the honest nappy.
* * * * *
I've seen me daist upon a time
I scarce could wink or see a styme;
Just ae half mutchkin does me prime;
Aught less is little,
Then back I rattle with the rhyme
As gleg's a whittle.
[Footnote: _The First Epistle to Lapraik_.]
Again he assures us,
But browster wives and whiskey stills,
They are my muses.
[Footnote: _The Third Epistle to Lapraik_.]
Then, in more exalted mood:
O thou, my Muse, guid auld Scotch drink!
Whether through wimplin' worms thou jink,
Or, richly brown, ream o'er the brink
In glorious faem,
Inspire me, till I lisp and wink
To sing thy name.
[Footnote: _Scotch Drink_.]
Keats enthusiastically concurs in Burns' statements. [Footnote: See the
_Sonnet on the Cottage Where Burns Was Born_, and _Lines on the Mermaid
Landor, also, tells us meaningly,
Songmen, grasshoppers and nightingales
Sing cheerily but when the throat is moist.
[Footnote: _Homer_; _Laertes_; _Agatha_.]
James Russell Lowell, in _The Temptation of Hassan Khaled_,
presents the argument of the poet's tempters with charming sympathy:
The vine is nature's poet: from his bloom
The air goes reeling, typsy with perfume,
And when the sun is warm within his blood
It mounts and sparkles in a crimson flood,
Rich with dumb songs he speaks not, till they find
Interpretation in the poet's mind.
If wine be evil, song is evil too.
His _Bacchic Ode_ is full of the same enthusiasm. Bacchus received
his highest honors at the end of the last century from the decadents in
England. Swinburne, [Footnote: See _Burns_.] Lionel Johnson,[Footnote:
See _Vinum Daemonum_.] Ernest Dowson, [Footnote: See _A Villanelle of
the Poet's Road_.] and Arthur Symonds, [Footnote: See _A Sequence to
Wine_.] vied with one another in praising inebriety as a lyrical agent.
Even the sober Watts-Dunton [Footnote: See _A Toast to Omar Khayyam_.]
was drawn into the contest, and warmed to the theme.
Poetry about the Mermaid Inn is bound to take this tone. From Keats
[Footnote: See _Lines on the Mermaid Inn_.] to Josephine Preston
Peabody [Footnote: See _Marlowe_.] writers on the Elizabethan
dramatists have dwelt upon their conviviality. This aspect is especially
stressed by Alfred Noyes, who imagines himself carried back across the
centuries to become the Ganymede of the great poets. All of the group
keep him busy. In particular he mentions Jonson:
And Ben was there,
Humming a song upon the old black settle,
"Or leave a kiss within the cup
And I'll not ask for wine,"
But meanwhile, he drank malmsey.
[Footnote: _Tales of the Mermaid Inn_.]
Fortunately for the future of American verse, there is another side to
the picture. The teetotaler poet is by no means non-existent in the last
century. Wordsworth takes pains to refer to himself as "a simple,
water-drinking bard," [Footnote: See _The Waggoner_.] and in lines
_To the Sons of Burns_ he delivers a very fine prohibition lecture.
Tennyson offers us _Will Waterproof's Lyrical Monologue, a reductio ad
absurdum_ of the claims of the bibulous bard. Then, lest the
temperance cause lack the support of great names, Longfellow causes the
title character of _Michael Angelo_ to inform us that he "loves not
wine," while, more recently, E. A. Robinson pictures Shakespeare's
inability to effervesce with his comrades, because, Ben Jonson confides
Whatso he drinks that has an antic in it,
He's wondering what's to pay on his insides.
[Footnote: _Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford_. See also
Poe's letter, April 1, 1841, to Snodgrass, on the unfortunate results of
No, the poet will not allow us to take his words too seriously, lest we
drag down Apollo to the level of Bacchus. In spite of the convincing
realism in certain eulogies, it is clear that to the poet, as to the
convert at the eucharist, wine is only a symbol of a purely spiritual
ecstasy. But if intoxication is only a figure of speech, it is a
significant one, and perhaps some of the other myths describing the
poet's sensations during inspiration may put us on the trail of its
meaning. Of course, in making such an assumption, we are precisely like
the expounder of Plato's myths, who is likely to say, "Here Plato was
attempting to shadow forth the inexpressible. Now listen, and I will
explain exactly what he meant." Notwithstanding, we must proceed.
The device of Chaucer's _House of Fame_, wherein the poet is carried to
celestial realms by an eagle, occasionally occurs to the modern poet as
an account of his _Aufschwung_. Thus Keats, in _Lines to Apollo_, avers,
Aye, when the soul is fled
Too high above our head,
Affrighted do we gaze
After its airy maze
As doth a mother wild
When her young infant child
Is in an eagle's claws.
"Poetry, my life, my eagle!" [Footnote: _Aurora Leigh_.] cries Mrs.
Browning, likening herself to Ganymede, ravished from his sheep to the
summit of Olympus. The same attitude is apparent in most of her poems,
for Mrs. Browning, in singing mood, is precisely like a child in a
swing, shouting with delight at every fresh sensation of soaring.
[Footnote: See J. G. Percival, _Genius Awaking_, for the same
Again, the crash of the poet's inspiration upon his ordinary modes of
thought is compared to "fearful claps of thunder," by Keats [Footnote:
See _Sleep and Poetry_.] and others. [Footnote: See _The Master_, A. E.
Cheney.] Or, more often, his moment of sudden insight seems a lightning
flash upon the dark ways in which he is ordinarily groping. Keats says
that his early visions were seen as through a rift of sheet lightning.
[Footnote: See _The Epistle to George Keats_.] Emerson's impression is
the same; visions come "as if life were a thunderstorm wherein you can
see by a flash the horizon, and then cannot see your hand." [Footnote:
_Essay on Inspiration_.] Likewise Alexander Smith declares,
Across the midnight sea of mind
A thought comes streaming like a blazing ship
Upon a mighty wind,
A terror and a glory! Shocked with light,
His boundless being glares aghast.
[Footnote: _A Life Drama_.]
Perhaps this is a true expression of the poet's feelings during the
deepest inspiration, yet we are minded of Elijah's experience with the
wind and the fire and the still small voice. So we cannot help
sympathizing with Browning's protest against "friend Naddo's" view that
genius is a matter of bizarre and grandiose sensations. [Footnote:
_Sordello_.] At least it is pleasant to find verse, by minor
writers though it be, describing the quietude and naturalness of the
poet's best moments. Thus Holmes tells us of his inspiration:
Soft as the moonbeams when they sought
Endymion's fragrant bower,
She parts the whispering leaves of thought
To show her full-leaved flower.
[Footnote: _Invita Minerva_.]
Edwin Markham says,
She comes like the hush and beauty of the night.
And Richard Watson Gilder's mood is the same:
How to the singer comes his song?
How to the summer fields
Come flowers? How yields
Darkness to happy dawn? How doth the night
[Footnote: _How to the Singer Comes His Song?_]
Various as are these accounts which poets give of their inspired
moments, all have one point in common, since they indicate that in such
moments the poet is wholly passive. His thought is literally given to
him. Edward Dowden, in a sonnet, _Wise Passiveness_, says this
Think you I choose or that or this to sing?
I lie as patient as yon wealthy stream
Dreaming among green fields its summer dream,
Which takes whate'er the gracious hours will bring
Into its quiet bosom.
To the same effect is a somewhat prosaic poem, _Accident in Art_,
by Richard Hovey. He inquires,
What poet has not found his spirit kneeling
A sudden at the sound of such or such
Strange verses staring from his manuscript,
Written, he knows not how, but which will sound
Like trumpets down the years.
Doubtless it is a very natural result of his resignation to this
creative force that one of the poet's profoundest sensations during his
afflatus should be that of reverence for his gift. Longfellow and
Wordsworth sometimes speak as if the composition of their poems were a
ceremony comparable to high mass. At times one must admit that verse
describing such an attitude has a charm of its own. [Footnote: Compare
Browning's characterization of the afflatus of Eglamor in _Sordello_,
Book II.] In _The Song-Tree_ Alfred Noyes describes his first sensation
as a conscious poet:
The first note that I heard,
A magical undertone,
Was sweeter than any bird
--Or so it seemed to me--
And my tears ran wild.
This tale, this tale is true.
The light was growing gray,
And the rhymes ran so sweet
(For I was only a child)
That I knelt down to pray.
But our sympathy with this little poet would not be nearly so intense
were he twenty years older. When it is said of a mature poetess,
She almost shrank
To feel the secret and expanding might
Of her own mind,
[Footnote: _The Last Hours of a Young Poetess_, Lucy Hooper.]
the reader does not always remain in a sympathetically prayerful mind.
Such reverence paid by the poet to his gift calls to mind the multiple
Miss Beauchamp, of psychologic fame, and her comment on the vagaries of
her various personalities, "But after all, they are all me!" Too often,
when the poet is kneeling in adoration of his Muse, the irreverent
reader is likely to suspect that he realizes, only too well, that it is
However, if the Philistine reader sets up as a critic, he must make good
his charges. Have we any real grounds for declaring that the alleged
divinity who inspires the poet is merely his own intelligence, or lack
of it? Perhaps not. And yet the dabbler in psychology finds a good deal
to indicate the poet's impression that the "subconscious" is shaping his
verse. Shelley was especially fascinated by the mysterious regions of
his mind lying below the threshold of his ordinary thought. In fact,
some of his prose speculations are in remarkable sympathy with recent
scientific papers on the subject. [Footnote: See _Speculations on
Metaphysics_, Works, Vol. VI, p. 282, edited by Buxton Forman.] And
in _Mont Blanc_ he expresses his wonder at the phenomenon of
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark--now glittering--now reflecting gloom--
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Again, in _The Defense of Poetry_ he says,
The mind in creation is a fading coal, which some invisible
influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory
brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a
flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the
conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its
approach or departure.
Wordsworth, too, thinks of his gift as arising from the depths of his
mind, which are not subject to conscious control. He apprises us,
A plastic power
Abode with me, a forming hand, at times
Rebellious, acting in a devious mood,
A local spirit of its own, at war
With general tendency, but for the most
Subservient strictly to external things
With which it communed. An auxiliary light
Came from my mind which on the setting sun
Bestowed new splendor--
[Footnote: _The Prelude_.]
Occasionally the sudden lift of these submerged ideas to consciousness
is expressed by the figure of an earthquake. Aurora Leigh says that upon
her first impulse to write, her nature was shaken,
As the earth
Plunges in fury, when the internal fires
Have reached and pricked her heart, and throwing flat
The marts and temples, the triumphal gates
And towers of observation, clears herself
To elemental freedom.
We have a grander expression of the idea from Robert Browning, who
relates how the vision of _Sordello_ arises to consciousness:
Upthrust, out-staggering on the world,
Subsiding into shape, a darkness rears
Its outline, kindles at the core--.
Is this to say that the poet's intuitions, apparently so sudden, have
really been long germinating in the obscure depths of his mind? Then it
is in tune with the idea, so prevalent in English verse, that in sleep a
mysterious undercurrent of imaginative power becomes accessible to the
"Ever when slept the poet his dreams were music," [Footnote: _The
Poet's Sleep_.] says Richard Gilder, and the line seems trite to us.
There was surely no reason why Keats' title, _Sleep and Poetry_,
should have appeared ludicrous to his critics, for from the time of
Caedmon onward English writers have been sensitive to a connection here.
The stereotyped device of making poetry a dream vision, so popular in
the middle ages,--and even the prominence of _Night Thoughts_ in
eighteenth century verse--testify that a coupling of poetry and sleep
has always seemed natural to poets. Coleridge, [Footnote: See his
account of the composition of _Kubla Khan_.] Keats, Shelley, [Footnote:
See _Alastor_, and _Prince Athanase_. See also Edmund Gosse,
_Swinburne_, p. 29, where Swinburne says he produced the first three
stanzas of _A Vision of Spring_ in his sleep.]--it is the romanticists
who seem to have depended most upon sleep as bringer of inspiration. And
once more, it is Shelley who shows himself most keenly aware that,
asleep or waking, the poet feels his afflatus coming in the same manner.
Thus he tells us of the singer in _Prince Athanase:_
And through his sleep, and o'er each waking hour
Thoughts after thoughts, unresting multitudes,
Were driven within him by some secret power
Which bade them blaze, and live, and roll afar,
Like lights and sounds, from haunted tower to tower.
Probably our jargon of the subconscious would not much impress poets,
even those whom we have just quoted. Is this the only cause we can give,
Shelley might ask, why the poet should not reverence his gift as
something apart from himself and truly divine? If, after the fashion of
modern psychology, we denote by the subconscious mind only the welter of
myriad forgotten details of our daily life, what is there here to
account for poesy? The remote, inaccessible chambers of our mind may, to
be sure, be more replete with curious lumber than those continually
swept and garnished for everyday use, yet, even so, there is nothing in
any memory, as such, to account for the fact that poetry reveals things
to us above and beyond any of our actual experiences in this world.
Alchemist Memory turned his past to gold,
[Footnote: _A Life Drama._]
says Alexander Smith of his poet, and as an account of inspiration, the
line sounds singularly flat. There is nothing here to distinguish the
poet from any octogenarian dozing in his armchair.
Is Memory indeed the only Muse? Not unless she is a far grander figure
than we ordinarily suppose. Of course she has been exalted by certain
artists. There is Richard Wagner, with his definition of art as memory
of one's past youth, or--to stay closer home--Wordsworth, with his
theory of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquillity,--such artists
have a high regard for memory. Still, Oliver Wendell Holmes is tolerably
representative of the nineteenth century attitude when he points memory
to a second place. It is only the aged poet, conscious that his powers
are decaying, to whom Holmes offers the consolation,
Live in the past; await no more
The rush of heaven-sent wings;
Earth still has music left in store
While memory sighs and sings.
[Footnote: _Invita Minerva_.]
But, though he would discourage us from our attempt to chain his genius,
like a ghost, to his past life in this world, the poet is inclined to
admit that Mnemosyne, in her true grandeur, has a fair claim to her
title as mother of the muses. The memories of prosaic men may be, as we
have described them, short and sordid, concerned only with their
existence here and now, but the recollection of poets is a divine thing,
reaching back to the days when their spirits were untrammeled by the
body, and they gazed upon ideal beauty, when, as Plato says, they saw a
vision and were initiated into the most blessed mysteries ... beholding
apparitions innocent and simple and calm and happy as in a mystery;
shining in pure light, pure themselves and not yet enshrined in the
living tomb which we carry about, now that we are imprisoned in the
body, as in an oyster shell. [Footnote: _Phaedrus_, 250.]
For the poet is apt to transfer Plato's praise of the philosopher to
himself, declaring that "he alone has wings, and this is just, for he is
always, according to the measure of his abilities, clinging in
recollection to those things in which God abides, and in beholding which
He is what He is." [Footnote: _Ibid_., 249.]
If the poet exalts memory to this station, he may indeed claim that he
is not furtively adoring his own petty powers, when he reverences the
visions which Mnemosyne vouchsafes to him. And indeed Plato's account of
memory is congenial to many poets. Shelley is probably the most serious
of the nineteenth century singers in claiming an ideal life for the
soul, before its birth into this world. [Footnote: See _Prince
Athanase_. For Matthew Arnold's views, see _Self Deception_.]
Wordsworth's adherence to this view is as widely known as the _Ode on
Immortality_. As an explanation for inspiration, the theory recurs in
verse of other poets. One writer inquires,
Are these wild thoughts, thus fettered in my rhymes,
Indeed the product of my heart and brain?
[Footnote: Henry Timrod, _Sonnet_.]
and decides that the only way to account for the occasional gleams of
insight in his verse is by assuming a prenatal life for the soul.
Another maintains of poetry,
Her touch is a vibration and a light
From worlds before and after.
[Footnote: Edwin Markham, _Poetry_. Another recent poem on prenatal
inspiration is _The Dream I Dreamed Before I Was Born_ (1919), by
Dorothea Laurence Mann.]
Perhaps Alice Meynell's _A Song of Derivations_ is the most natural
and unforced of these verses. She muses:
... Mixed with memories not my own
The sweet streams throng into my breast.
Before this life began to be
The happy songs that wake in me
Woke long ago, and far apart.
Heavily on this little heart
Presses this immortality.
This poem, however, is not so consistent as the others with the Platonic
theory of reminiscence. It is a previous existence in this world, rather
than in ideal realms, which Alice Meynell assumes for her inspirations.
I come from nothing, but from where
Come the undying thoughts I bear?
Down through long links of death and birth,
From the past poets of the earth,
My immortality is there.
Certain singers who seem not to have been affected by the philosophical
argument for reminiscence have concurred in Alice Meynell's last
statement, and have felt that the mysterious power which is impressing
itself in their verse is the genius of dead poets, mysteriously finding
expression in their disciple's song. A characteristic example of this
attitude is Alfred Noyes' account of Chapman's sensations, when he
attempted to complete Marlowe's _Hero and Leander_. Chapman tells
his brother poets:
I have thought, sometimes, when I have tried
To work his will, the hand that moved my pen
Was mine and yet--not mine. The bodily mask
Is mine, and sometimes dull as clay it sleeps
With old Musaeus. Then strange flashes come,
Oracular glories, visionary gleams,
And the mask moves, not of itself, and sings.
[Footnote: _At the Sign of the Golden Shoe_.]
The best-known instance of such a belief is, of course, Browning's
appeal at the beginning of _The Ring and the Book_, that his dead
wife shall inspire his poetry.
One is tempted to surmise that many of our young poets, especially have
nourished a secret conviction that their genius has such an origin as
this. Let there be a deification of some poet who has aroused their
special enthusiasm,--a mysterious resemblance to his style in the works
which arise in their minds spontaneously, in moments of ecstasy,--what
is a more natural result than the assumption that their genius is, in
some strange manner, a continuation of his? [Footnote: Keats wrote to
Haydn that he took encouragement in the notion of some good
genius--probably Shakespeare--presiding over him. Swinburne was often
called Shelley reborn.] The tone of certain Shelley worshipers suggests
such a hypothesis as an account for their poems. Bayard Taylor seems to
be an exception when, after pleading that Shelley infuse his spirit into
his disciple's verses, he recalls himself, and concludes:
I do but rave, for it is better thus;
Were once thy starry nature given to mine,
In the one life which would encircle us
My voice would melt, my voice be lost in thine;
Better to bear the far sublimer pain
Of thought that has not ripened into speech.
To hear in silence Truth and Beauty sing
Divinely to the brain;
For thus the poet at the last shall reach
His own soul's voice, nor crave a brother's string.
[Footnote: _Ode to Shelly._]
In the theory that the genius of a past poet may be reincarnated, there
is, indeed, a danger that keeps it from appealing to all poets. It
tallies too well with the charge of imitativeness, if not downright
plagiarism, often brought against a new singer. [Footnote: See Margaret
Steele Anderson, _Other People's Wreaths,_ and John Drinkwater,
_My Songs._] If the poet feels that his genius comes from a power
outside himself, he yet paradoxically insists that it must be peculiarly
his own. Therefore Mrs. Browning, through Aurora Leigh, shrinks from the
suspicion that her gift may be a heritage from singers before her. She
My own best poets, am I one with you?
. . . When my joy and pain,
My thought and aspiration, like the stops
Of pipe or flute, are absolutely dumb
Unless melodious, do you play on me,
My pipers, and if, sooth, you did not play,
Would no sound come? Or is the music mine;
As a man's voice or breath is called his own,
Inbreathed by the life-breather?
Are we exaggerating our modern poet's conviction that a spirit not his
own is inspiring him? Does he not rather feel self-sufficient as
compared with the earlier singers, who expressed such naive dependence
upon the Muse? We have been using the name Muse in this essay merely as
a figure of speech, and is this not the poet's usage when he addresses
her? The casual reader is inclined to say, yes, that a belief in the
Muse is indeed dead. It would be absurd on the face of it, he might say,
to expect a belief in this pagan figure to persist after all the rest of
the Greek theogony has become a mere literary device to us. This may not
be a reliable supposition, since as a matter of fact Milton and Dante
impress us as being quite as deeply sincere as Homer, when they call
upon the Muse to aid them in their song. But at any rate everyone is
conscious that such a belief has degenerated before the eighteenth
century. The complacent turner of couplets felt no genuine need for any
Muse but his own keen intelligence; accordingly, though the machinery of
invocation persists in his poetry, it is as purely an introductory
flourish as is the ornamented initial letter of a poem. Indeed, as the
century progresses, not even the pose of serious prayer is always kept
up. John Hughes is perhaps the most persistent and sober intreater of
the Muse whom we find during this period, yet when he compliments the
Muse upon her appearance "at Lucinda's tea-table," [Footnote: See _On
Lucinda's Tea-table_.] one feels that all awe of her has vanished. It
is no wonder that James Thomson, writing verses _On the Death of His
Mother_, should disclaim the artificial aid of the muses, saying that
his own deep feeling was enough to inspire him. As the romantic movement
progressed, it would be easy to show that distaste for the eighteenth
century mannerism resulted in more and more flippant treatment of the
goddesses. Beattie refers to a contemporary's "reptile Muse, swollen
from the sty." [Footnote: See _On a Report of a Monument to a Late
Author_.] Burns alludes to his own Muse as a "tapitless ramfeezled
hizzie," [Footnote: See the _Epistle to Lapraik_.] and sets the
fashion for succeeding writers, who so multiply the original nine that
each poet has an individual muse, a sorry sort of guardian-angel, whom
he is fond of berating for her lack of ability. One never finds a writer
nowadays, with courage to refer to his muse otherwise than
apologetically. The usual tone is that of Andrew Lang, when he
confesses, apropos of the departure of his poetic gift:
'Twas not much at any time
She could hitch into a rhyme,
Never was the muse sublime
Who has fled.
[Footnote: _A Poet's Apology_.]
Yet one would be wrong in maintaining that the genuine poet of to-day
feels a slighter dependence upon a spirit of song than did the world's
earlier singers. There are, of course, certain poetasters now, as
always, whose verse is ground out as if by machinery, and who are as
little likely to call upon an outside power to aid them as is the horse
that treads the cider mill. But among true poets, if the spirit who
inspires poesy is a less definitely personified figure than of old, she
is no less a sincerely conceived one and reverently worshiped. One
doubts if there could be found a poet of merit who would disagree with
Shelley's description of poetry as "the inter-penetration of a diviner
nature through our own." [Footnote: _Defense of Poetry_.]
What is the poet's conception of such a divinity? It varies, of course.
There is the occasional belief, just mentioned, in the transmigration of
genius, but that goes back, in the end, to the belief that all genius is
a memory of pre-existence; that is, dropping (or varying) the myth, that
the soul of the poet is not chained to the physical world, but has the
power of discerning the things which abide. And this, again, links up
with what is perhaps the commonest form of invocation in modern poetry,
namely, prayer that God, the spirit of the universe, may inspire the
poet. For what does the poet mean when he calls himself the voice of
God, but that he is intuitively aware of the eternal verities in the
world? Poets who speak in this way ever conceive of God as Shelley did,
in what is perhaps the most profoundly sincere invocation of the last
century, his _Hymn to Intellectual Beauty_. All poets are
There is yet another view of the spirit who inspires poetry, which may
seem more characteristic of our poets than are these others. It
is expressed in the opening of Shelley's _Alastor_, and informs the
whole of the _Ode to the West Wind_. It pervades Wordsworth, for if
he seldom calls upon his natural environment as muse, he is yet
profoundly conscious that his song is an inflowing from the heart of
nature. This power has become such a familiar divinity to later singers
that they are scarcely aware how great is their dependence upon her.
There is nothing artificial or in any sense affected in the modern
poet's conviction that in walking out to meet nature he is, in fact,
going to the source of poetic power. Perhaps nineteenth and twentieth
century writers, with their trust in the power of nature to breathe song
into their hearts, are closer to the original faith in the muses than
most of the poets who have called the sisters by name during the
intervening centuries. This deification of nature, like the other modern
conceptions of the spirit of song, signifies the poet's need of bringing
himself into harmony with the world-spirit, which moulds the otherwise
chaotic universe into those forms of harmony and beauty which constitute
Whether the poet ascribes his infilling to a specific goddess of song or
to a mysterious harmony between his soul and the world spirit, a coming
"into tune with the infinite," as it has been called, the mode of his
communion is identical. There is a frenzy of desire so intolerable that
it suddenly fails, leaving the poet in trancelike passivity while the
revelation is given to him,--ancient and modern writers alike describe
the experience thus. And modern poets, no less than ancient ones, feel
that, before becoming the channel of world meaning, they must be
deprived of their own petty, egocentric thoughts. So Keats avers of the
One hour, half-idiot, he stands by mossy waterfall;
The next he writes his soul's memorial.
[Footnote: _A Visit to Burns' Country_.]
So Shelley describes the experience:
Meaning on his vacant mind
Flashed like strong inspiration.
The poet is not, he himself avers, merely thinking about things. He
becomes one with them. In this sense all poets are pantheists, and the
flash of their inspiration means the death of their personal thought,
enabling them, like Lucy, to be
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks and stones and trees.
Hence the singer has always been called a madman. The modern writer
cannot escape Plato's conclusion,
There is no invention in him (the poet) until he has been
inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer
in him: when he has not attained to this state he is
powerless and unable to utter his oracles. [Footnote:
There is a ... kind of madness which is a possession of the
Muses; this enters into a delicate and virgin soul, and
there inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric and all other
numbers.... But he who, not being inspired, and having no
touch of madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks
he will get into the temple by the help of art, he, I say,
and his poetry are not admitted; the sane man is nowhere at
all when he enters into rivalry with the madman. [Footnote:
_Phaedrus_, sec. 245.]
Even Aristotle, that sanest of philosophers, so far agrees with Plato as
Poetry implies either a happy gift of nature, or a strain of
madness. In the one case, a man can take the mold of any
character; in the other he is lifted out of his proper self.
[Footnote: _Poetics_, XVII.]
One must admit that poets nowadays are not always so frank as earlier
ones in describing their state of mind. Now that the lunatic is no
longer placed in the temple, but in the hospital, the popular imputation
of insanity to the poet is not always favorably received. Occasionally
he regards it as only another unjust charge brought against him by a
hostile world. Thus a brother poet has said that George Meredith's lot
Like Lear's--for he had felt the sting
Of all too greatly giving
The kingdom of his mind to those
Who for it deemed him mad.
[Footnote: Cale Young Rice, _Meredith_.]
In so far as the world's pronouncement is based upon the oracles to
which the poet gives utterance, he always repudiates the charge of
madness. Such various poets as Jean Ingelow, [Footnote: See _Gladys
and Her Island_.] James Thomson, B. V., [Footnote: See _Tasso to
Leonora_.] Helen Hunt Jackson, [Footnote: See _The Singer's
Hills_.] Alice Gary, [Footnote: See _Genius_.] and George Edward
Woodberry, [Footnote: See _He Ate the Laurel and is Mad_.] concur
in the judgment that the poet is called insane by the rabble simply
because they are blind to the ideal world in which he lives. Like the
cave-dwellers of Plato's myth, men resent it when the seer, be he
prophet or philosopher, tells them that there are things more real than
the shadows on the wall with which they amuse themselves. Not all the
writers just named are equally sure that they, rather than the world,
are right. The women are thoroughly optimistic. Mr. Woodberry, though he
leaves the question, whether the poet's beauty is a delusion, unanswered
in the poem where he broaches it, has betrayed his faith in the ideal
realms everywhere in his writings. James Thomson, on the contrary, is
not at all sure that the world is wrong in its doubt of ideal truth. The
tone of his poem, _Tasso and Leonora_, is very gloomy. The Italian
poet is shown in prison, reflecting upon his faith in the ideal realms
where eternal beauty dwells. He muses,
Yes--as Love is truer far
Than all other things; so are
Life and Death, the World and Time
Mere false shows in some great Mime
By dreadful mystery sublime.
But at the end Tasso's faith is troubled, and he ponders,
For were life no flitting dream,
Were things truly what they seem,
Were not all this world-scene vast
But a shade in Time's stream glassed;
Were the moods we now display
Less phantasmal than the clay
In which our poor spirits clad
Act this vision, wild and sad,
I must be mad, mad,--how mad!
However, this is aside from the point. The average poet is as firmly
convinced as any philosopher that his visions are true. It is only the