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The Passing of the Poet

Studies in what may be termed collective psychology are
essentially in keeping with the spirit of the present
century. The examination of the mental tendencies, the
intellectual habits which we display not as individuals,
but as members of a race, community, or crowd, is offering
a fruitful field of speculation as yet but little exploited.
One may, therefore, not without profit, pass in review
the relation of the poetic instinct to the intellectual
development of the present era.

Not the least noticeable feature in the psychological
evolution of our time is the rapid disappearance of
poetry. The art of writing poetry, or perhaps more fairly,
the habit of writing poetry, is passing from us. The poet
is destined to become extinct.

To a reader of trained intellect the initial difficulty
at once suggests itself as to what is meant by poetry.
But it is needless to quibble at a definition of the
term. It may be designated, simply and fairly, as the
art of expressing a simple truth in a concealed form of
words, any number of which, at intervals greater or less,
may or may not rhyme.

The poet, it must be said, is as old as civilization.
The Greeks had him with them, stamping out his iambics
with the sole of his foot. The Romans, too, knew
him--endlessly juggling his syllables together, long and
short, short and long, to make hexameters. This can now
be done by electricity, but the Romans did not know it.

But it is not my present purpose to speak of the poets
of an earlier and ruder time. For the subject before us
it is enough to set our age in comparison with the era
that preceded it. We have but to contrast ourselves with
our early Victorian grandfathers to realize the profound
revolution that has taken place in public feeling. It is
only with an effort that the practical common sense of
the twentieth century can realize the excessive
sentimentality of the earlier generation.

In those days poetry stood in high and universal esteem.
Parents read poetry to their children. Children recited
poetry to their parents. And he was a dullard, indeed,
who did not at least profess, in his hours of idleness,
to pour spontaneous rhythm from his flowing quill.

Should one gather statistics of the enormous production
of poetry some sixty or seventy years ago, they would
scarcely appear credible. Journals and magazines teemed
with it. Editors openly countenanced it. Even the daily
press affected it. Love sighed in home-made stanzas.
Patriotism rhapsodized on the hustings, or cited rolling
hexameters to an enraptured legislature. Even melancholy
death courted his everlasting sleep in elegant elegiacs.

In that era, indeed, I know not how, polite society was
haunted by the obstinate fiction that it was the duty of
a man of parts to express himself from time to time in
verse. Any special occasion of expansion or exuberance,
of depression, torsion, or introspection, was sufficient
to call it forth. So we have poems of dejection, of
reflection, of deglutition, of indigestion.

Any particular psychological disturbance was enough to
provoke an excess of poetry. The character and manner of
the verse might vary with the predisposing cause. A
gentleman who had dined too freely might disexpand himself
in a short fit of lyric doggerel in which "bowl" and
"soul" were freely rhymed. The morning's indigestion
inspired a long-drawn elegiac, with "bier" and "tear,"
"mortal" and "portal" linked in sonorous sadness. The
man of politics, from time to time, grateful to an
appreciative country, sang back to it, "Ho, Albion, rising
from the brine!" in verse whose intention at least was
meritorious.

And yet it was but a fiction, a purely fictitious
obligation, self-imposed by a sentimental society. In
plain truth, poetry came no more easily or naturally to
the early Victorian than to you or me. The lover twanged
his obdurate harp in vain for hours for the rhymes that
would not come, and the man of politics hammered at his
heavy hexameter long indeed before his Albion was finally
"hoed" into shape; while the beer-besotted convivialist
cudgelled his poor wits cold sober in rhyming the light
little bottle-ditty that should have sprung like Aphrodite
from the froth of the champagne.

I have before me a pathetic witness of this fact. It is
the note-book once used for the random jottings of a
gentleman of the period. In it I read: "Fair Lydia, if
my earthly harp." This is crossed out, and below it
appears, "Fair Lydia, COULD my earthly harp." This again
is erased, and under it appears, "Fair Lydia, SHOULD my
earthly harp." This again is struck out with a despairing
stroke, and amended to read: "Fair Lydia, DID my earthly
harp." So that finally, when the lines appeared in the
Gentleman's Magazine (1845) in their ultimate shape--"Fair
Edith, when with fluent pen," etc., etc.--one can realize
from what a desperate congelation the fluent pen had been
so perseveringly rescued.

There can be little doubt of the deleterious effect
occasioned both to public and private morals by this
deliberate exaltation of mental susceptibility on the
part of the early Victorian. In many cases we can detect
the evidences of incipient paresis. The undue access of
emotion frequently assumed a pathological character. The
sight of a daisy, of a withered leaf or an upturned sod,
seemed to disturb the poet's mental equipoise. Spring
unnerved him. The lambs distressed him. The flowers made
him cry. The daffodils made him laugh. Day dazzled him.
Night frightened him.

This exalted mood, combined with the man's culpable
ignorance of the plainest principles of physical science,
made him see something out of the ordinary in the flight
of a waterfowl or the song of a skylark. He complained
that he could HEAR it, but not SEE it--a phenomenon too
familiar to the scientific observer to occasion any
comment.

In such a state of mind the most inconsequential inferences
were drawn. One said that the brightness of the dawn--a fact
easily explained by the diurnal motion of the globe--showed
him that his soul was immortal. He asserted further that he
had, at an earlier period of his life, trailed bright clouds
behind him. This was absurd.

With the disturbance thus set up in the nervous system
were coupled, in many instances, mental aberrations,
particularly in regard to pecuniary matters. "Give me
not silk, nor rich attire," pleaded one poet of the period
to the British public, "nor gold nor jewels rare." Here
was an evident hallucination that the writer was to become
the recipient of an enormous secret subscription. Indeed,
the earnest desire NOT to be given gold was a recurrent
characteristic of the poetic temperament. The repugnance
to accept even a handful of gold was generally accompanied
by a desire for a draught of pure water or a night's rest.

It is pleasing to turn from this excessive sentimentality
of thought and speech to the practical and concise diction
of our time. We have learned to express ourselves with
equal force, but greater simplicity. To illustrate this
I have gathered from the poets of the earlier generation
and from the prose writers of to-day parallel passages
that may be fairly set in contrast. Here, for example,
is a passage from the poet Grey, still familiar to
scholars:

"Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can honour's voice invoke the silent dust
Or flattery soothe the dull cold ear of death?"

Precisely similar in thought, though different in form,
is the more modern presentation found in Huxley's
Physiology:

"Whether after the moment of death the ventricles of the
heart can be again set in movement by the artificial
stimulus of oxygen, is a question to which we must impose
a decided negative."

How much simpler, and yet how far superior to Grey's
elaborate phraseology! Huxley has here seized the central
point of the poet's thought, and expressed it with the
dignity and precision of exact science.

I cannot refrain, even at the risk of needless iteration,
from quoting a further example. It is taken from the poet
Burns. The original dialect being written in inverted
hiccoughs, is rather difficult to reproduce. It describes
the scene attendant upon the return of a cottage labourer
to his home on Saturday night:

"The cheerfu' supper done, wi' serious face
They round the ingle form in a circle wide;
The sire turns o'er, wi' patriarchal grace,
The big ha' Bible, ance his father's pride:
His bonnet rev'rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin an' bare:
Those strains that once did sweet in Zion glide,
He wales a portion wi' judeecious care."

Now I find almost the same scene described in more apt
phraseology in the police news of the Dumfries Chronicle
(October 3, 1909), thus: "It appears that the prisoner
had returned to his domicile at the usual hour, and,
after partaking of a hearty meal, had seated himself on
his oaken settle, for the ostensible purpose of reading
the Bible. It was while so occupied that his arrest was
effected." With the trifling exception that Burns omits
all mention of the arrest, for which, however, the whole
tenor of the poem gives ample warrant, the two accounts
are almost identical.

In all that I have thus said I do not wish to be
misunderstood. Believing, as I firmly do, that the poet
is destined to become extinct, I am not one of those who
would accelerate his extinction. The time has not yet
come for remedial legislation, or the application of the
criminal law. Even in obstinate cases where pronounced
delusions in reference to plants, animals, and natural
phenomena are seen to exist, it is better that we should
do nothing that might occasion a mistaken remorse. The
inevitable natural evolution which is thus shaping the
mould of human thought may safely be left to its own
course.

Stephen Leacock