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Some Moments With the Muse

Among the many letters which the Easy Chair has received after its conference on the state of poetry, one of most decided note was from a writer confessing herself of the contrary-minded. "I love some children, but not childhood in general merely because it is childhood. So I love some poems rather than poetry in general just because it is poetry.... I object to the tinkle. I object to the poetic license which performs a Germanic divorce between subject and verb, so that instead of a complete thought which can be mastered before another is set before the brain, there is a twist in the grammatical sequence that requires a conscious effort of will to keep the original thread. The world is too busy to do this; reading must be a relaxation, not a study.... When poetry conforms in its mental tone to the spirit of the times; when it reflects the life and more or less the common thought of the day, then more of the common people will read it."

There were other things in this letter which seemed to us of so much importance that we submitted it as a whole to a Woman's Club of our acquaintance. The nine ladies composing the club were not all literary, but they were all of æsthetic pursuits, and together they brought a good deal of culture to bear on the main points of the letter. They were not quite of one mind, but they were so far agreed that what they had to say might be fairly regarded as a consensus of opinion. We will not attempt to report their remarks at any length—they ran to all lengths—but in offering a résumé of what they variously said to a sole effect, we will do what we can to further the cause they joined in defending.

The Muses—for we will no longer conceal that this Woman's Club was composed of the tuneful Nine—acknowledged that there was a great deal in what their contrary-minded sister said. They did not blame her one bit for the way she felt; they would have felt just so themselves in her place; but being as it were professionally dedicated to the beautiful in all its established forms, they thought themselves bound to direct her attention to one or two aspects of the case which she had apparently overlooked. They were only sorry that she was not there to take her own part; and they confessed, in her behalf, that it was ridiculous for poetry to turn the language upside down, and to take it apart and put it together wrong-end to, as it did. If anybody spoke the language so, or in prose wrote it so, they would certainly be a fool; but the Muses wished the sister to observe that every art existed by its convention, or by what in the moral world Ibsen would call its life-lie. If you looked at it from the colloquial standpoint, music was the absurdest thing in the world. In the orchestral part of an opera, for instance, there were more repetitions than in the scolding of the worst kind of shrew, and if you were to go about singing what you had to say, and singing it over and over, and stretching it out by runs and trills, or even expressing yourself in recitativo secco, it would simply set people wild. In painting it was worse, if anything: you had to make believe that things two inches high were life-size, and that there were relief and distance where there was nothing but a flat canvas, and that colors which were really like nothing in nature were natural. As for sculpture, it was too laughable for anything, whether you took it in bas-reliefs with persons stuck onto walls, half or three-quarters out, or in groups with people in eternal action; or in single figures, standing on one leg or holding out arms that would drop off if they were not supported by stone pegs; or sitting down outdoors bareheaded where they would take their deaths of cold, or get sun-struck, or lay up rheumatism to beat the band, in the rain and snow and often without a stitch of clothes on.

All this and more the Muses freely conceded to the position of the contrary-minded correspondent of the Easy Chair, and having behaved so handsomely, they felt justified in adding that her demand seemed to them perfectly preposterous. It was the very essence and office of poetry not to conform to "the mental tone and spirit of the times"; and though it might very well reflect the life, it must not reflect "the common thought of the day" upon pain of vulgarizing and annulling itself. Poetry was static in its nature, and its business was the interpretation of enduring beauty and eternal veracity. If it stooped in submission to any such expectation as that expressed, and dedicated itself to the crude vaticination of the transitory emotions and opinions, it had better turn journalism at once. It had its law, and its law was distinction of ideal and elevation of tendency, no matter what material it dealt with. It might deal with the commonest, the cheapest material, but always in such a way as to dignify and beautify the material.

Concerning the first point, that modern poetry was wrong to indulge all those inversions, those translocations, those ground and lofty syntactical tumblings which have mainly constituted poetic license, the ladies again relented, and allowed that there was much to say for what our correspondent said. In fact, they agreed, or agreed as nearly as nine ladies could, that it was perhaps time that poetry should, as it certainly might, write itself straightforwardly, with the verb in its true English place, and the adjective walking soberly before the noun; shunning those silly elisions like ne'er and o'er, and, above all, avoiding the weak and loathly omission of the definite article. Of the tinkle, by which they supposed the contrary-minded sister meant the rhyme, they said they could very well remember when there was no such thing in poetry; their native Greek had got on perfectly well without it, and even those poets at second-hand, the Romans. They observed that though Dante used it, Shakespeare did not, and Milton did not, in their greatest works; and a good half of the time the first-rate moderns managed very well with blank verse.

The Easy Chair did not like to dissent from these ladies, both because they were really great authorities and because it is always best to agree with ladies when you can. Besides, it would not have seemed quite the thing when they were inclining to this favorable view of their sister's contrary-mindedness, to take sides against her. In short, the Easy Chair reserved its misgivings for some such very intimate occasion as this, when it could impart them without wounding the susceptibilities of others, or risking a painful snub for itself. But it appeared to the Chair that the Muses did not go quite far enough in justifying the convention, or the life-lie, by which poetry, as a form, existed. They could easily have proved that much of the mystical charm which differences poetry from prose resides in its license, its syntactical acrobatics, its affectations of diction, its elisions, its rhymes. As a man inverting his head and looking at the landscape between his legs gets an entirely new effect on the familiar prospect, so literature forsaking the wonted grammatical attitudes really achieves something richly strange by the novel and surprising postures permissible in verse. The phrases, the lines, the stanzas which the ear keeps lingering in its porches, loath to let them depart, are usually full of these licenses. They have a witchery which could be as little proved as denied; and when any poet proposes to forego them, and adhere rigidly to the law of prose in his rhythm, he practises a loyalty which is a sort of treason to his calling and will go far toward undoing him.

While the ladies of that club were talking, some such thoughts as these were in our mind, suggested by summer-long reading of a dear, delightful poet, altogether neglected in these days, who deserves to be known again wherever reality is prized or simplicity is loved. It is proof, indeed, how shallow was all the debate about realism and romanticism that the poetic tales of George Crabbe were never once alleged in witness of the charm which truth to condition and character has, in whatever form. But once, long before that ineffectual clamor arose, he was valued as he should be still. Edmund Burke was the first to understand his purpose and appreciate his work. He helped the poet not only with praises but with pounds till he could get upon his feet. He introduced Crabbe's verse to his great friends, to Doctor Johnson, who perceived at once that he would go far; to Sir Joshua Reynolds, who felt the brother-artist in him; to the Lord Chancellor Thurlow, whose oaths were harder than his heart toward the fearlessy fearful young singer. The sympathy and admiration of the highest and the best followed him through his long life to his death. The great Mr. Fox loved him and his rhyme, and wished his tales to be read to him on the bed he never left alive. Earl Grey, Lord Holland, and the brilliant Canning wrote him letters of cordial acclaim; Walter Scott, the generous, the magnanimous, hailed him brother, and would always have his books by him; none of his poems appeared without the warmest welcome, the most discriminating and applausive criticism from Jeffrey, the first critic of his long day.

Crabbe had not only this exquisitely intelligent hearing, but he was accepted on his own terms, as a poet who saw so much beauty in simple and common life that he could not help painting it. He painted it in pieces of matchless fidelity to the fact, with nothing of flattery, but everything of charm in the likeness. His work is the enduring witness of persons, circumstances, customs, experiences utterly passed from the actual world, but recognizably true with every sincere reader. These tales of village life in England a hundred years ago are of an absolute directness and frankness. They blink nothing of the sordid, the mean, the vicious, the wicked in that life, from which they rarely rise in some glimpse of the state of the neighboring gentry, and yet they abound in beauty that consoles and encourages. They are full of keen analysis, sly wit, kindly humor, and of a satire too conscientious to bear the name; of pathos, of compassion, of reverence, while in unaffected singleness of ideal they are unsurpassed.

Will our contrary-minded correspondent believe that these studies, these finished pictures, which so perfectly "reflect the common life ... of the day," are full of the license, the tinkle, the German divorce of verb and subject, the twisted grammatical sequence which her soul abhors in verse? Crabbe chose for his vehicle the heroic couplet in which English poetry had jog-trotted ever since the time of Pope, as it often had before; and he made it go as like Pope's couplet as he could, with the same cæsura, the same antithetical balance, the same feats of rhetoric, the same inversions, and the same closes of the sense in each couplet. The most artificial and the most natural poets were at one in their literary convention. Yet such was the freshness of Crabbe's impulse, such his divine authority to deal with material unemployed in English poetry before, that you forget all the affectations of the outward convention, or remember them only for a pleasure in the quaintness of their use for his purposes. How imperishable, anyway, is the interest of things important to the spirit, the fancy, and how largely does this interest lie in the freshness of the mind bringing itself to the things, how little in the novelty of the things! The demand for strangeness in the things themselves is the demand of the sophisticated mind: the mind which has lost its simplicity in the process of continuing unenlightened. It is this demand which betrays the mediocre mind of the Anglo-Saxon race, the sophistication of the English mind, and the obfuscation (which is sophistication at second-hand) of the American mind. The non-imaginative person is nowhere so much at home as in a voluntary exile; and this may be why it was sometime said that travel is the fool's paradise. For such a person to realize anything the terms are that he shall go abroad, either into an alien scene or into a period of the past; then he can begin to have some pleasure. He must first of all get away from himself, and he is not to be blamed for that; any one else would wish to get away from him. His exaction is not a test of merit; it is merely the clew to a psychological situation which is neither so novel nor so important as to require of our hard-worked civilization the production of an order of more inspired criticism than it has worried along with hitherto.

William Dean Howells