Critical Essays by Amy Lowell
WHY WE SHOULD READ POETRY
WHY should one read Poetry? That seems to me a good deal like asking: Why should one eat? One eats because one has to, to support life, but every time one sits down to dinner one does not say, I must eat this meal so that I may not die.' On the contrary, we eat because we are hungry, and so eating appears to us as a pleasant and desirable thing to do.
The necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race. But naturally we do not take that into account, any more than we take into account that dinner, and the next day again, dinner, is the condition of our remaining alive. Without poetry the soul and heart of man starves and dies. The only difference between them is that all men know, if they turn their minds to it, that without food they would die, and comparatively few people know that without poetry they would die.
When trying to explain anything, I usually find that the Bible, that great collection of magnificent and varied poetry, has said it before in the best possible way. Now the Bible says that 'man shall not live by bread alone.' Which, in modern words, means--cannot live on the purely material things. It is true, he cannot, and he never does. If he did, every bookshop would shut, every theatre would close its doors, every florist and picture dealer would go out of business, even the baseball grounds would close. For what is baseball but a superb epic of man's swiftness and sureness, and his putting forth the utmost of the sobriety and vigour that is in him in an ecstasy of vitality and movement? And the men who watch are carried away by this ecstasy, out of themselves and the routine of their daily lives, into a world romantic with physical force. But you object that they don't think of it in this way. Of course they don't; if they did they would be poets, and most men are not poets. But this is really what stirs them, for without it, throwing a little ball about a field, and trying to hit it with a stick, isn't really very interesting. A baseball game is a sort of moving picture of what Homer wrote in his Iliad. I do not believe there is a boy in America who would not like Butcher and Lang's translation of the Odyssey, if no one had ever told him it was a schoolbook.
That is what poetry really is. It is the height and quintessence of emotion, of every sort of emotion. But it is always somebody feeling something at white heat, and it is as vital as the description of a battle would be, told by a soldier who had been in it.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not mean that every book, or every play, contains this true poetry. Many, most, alas! are poor imitations; some are merely sordid and vulgar. But books and plays exist because man is groping for a life beyond himself, for a beauty he needs, and is seeking to find. And the books and plays which live are those which satisfy this need.
Somebody once said to me that to make goodness dull was a great crime. In poetry, those men who have written without original and vital feeling, without a flaming imagination, have much to answer for. It is owing to them that poetry has come to mean a stupid and insipid sort of stuff, quite remote from people's lives, fit only for sentimental youth and nodding old age. That sort of poetry is what is technically called 'derivative,' which means that the author copies some one else's emotion often some one else's words, and commonplace verses are written about flowers, and moonlight, and love, and death, by people who would never be moved by any of these things if sincere poets had not been writing about them from the beginning of the world. People who like to hear the things they are used to repeated say, I That is beautiful poetry'; simple, straightforward people say, 'Perhaps it is. But I don't care for poetry.' But once in a while there comes along a man with knowledge and courage enough to say, 'That is not poetry at all, but insincere bosh!'
Again I do not mean that all poetry can be enjoyed by everybody. People have different tastes and different training. A man at forty seldom cares for the books which delighted him as a boy. People stop developing at all ages. Some men never mature beyond their teens; others go on growing and changing until old age. Because B likes a book is no reason why A should. And we are the inheritors of so splendid a literature that there are plenty of books for everybody, Many people enjoy Kipling's poems who would be confused by Keats; others delight in Burns who would be utterly without sympathy for Blake. The people who like Tennyson do not, as a rule, care much about Walt Whitman, and the admirers of Poe and Coleridge may find Wordsworth unattractive, and again his disciples might feel antagonized by Rossetti and Swinburne. It does not matter, so long as one finds one's own sustenance. Only, the happy men who can enjoy them all are the richest. The true test of poetry is sincerity and vitality. It is not rhyme, or metre, or subject. It is nothing in the world but the soul of man as it really is. Carlyle's 'French Revolution' is a great epic poem; so are Trevelyan's three volumes on 'Garibaldi and the Italian War of Independence.' That they are written in prose has nothing to do with the matter. That most poems are written rhythmically, and that rhythm has come to be the great technical fact of poetry, was, primarily, because men under stress of emotion tend to talk in a rhythmed speech. Read Lincoln's 'Address at Gettysburg' and 'Second Inaugural,' and you will see.
Nothing is more foolish than to say that only such and such forms are proper to poetry. Every form is proper to poetry, so long as it is the sincere expression of a man's thought. That insincere men try bizarre forms of verse to gain a personal notoriety is true, but it seems not very difficult to distinguish them from the real artists. And so long as men feel, and think, and have the need of expressing themselves, so long will their modes of expression change. For expression tends to become hackneyed and devitalized, and new methods must be found for keeping the sense of palpitant vigour.
There are signs that we are living at the beginning of a great poetic renaissance. Only three weeks ago the 'New York Times' printed some remarks of Mr. Brett, the head of The Macmillan Company, in which he said that poetry was pushing itself into the best-seller class. And the other day a London publisher, Mr. Heinemann, announced that he should not publish so many novels, as they were a drug on the market. England has several magazines devoted exclusively to poetry and poetic drama. Masefield is paid enormous sums for his work, and a little book entitled 'The Georgian Book of Poetry,' containing the work of some of the younger men, which has been out barely two years, is already in its ninth edition. Here, in America, we have 'The Poetry Journal,' published in Boston, and 'Poetry,' published in Chicago. England counts among her poets W. B. Yeats, Robert Bridges, John Masefield, Wilfred Wilson Gibson, D. H. Lawrence, F. L. Flint, James Stevens, Rudyard Kipling, and, although on a somewhat more popular level, Alfred Noyes. England also boasts, as partly her own, the Bengal poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who has just been awarded the Nobel Prize, and Ezra Pound, who, although an American by birth and happily therefore ours to claim, lives in London. In America we have Josephine Preston Peabody, Bliss Carman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Anna Hempstead Branch, Hermann Hagedorn, Grace Fallow Norton, Fanny Stearns Davis, and Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. These lists represent poets with many differing thoughts and modes of thought, but they point to the great vitality of poetry at the moment.
Have I answered the question? I think I have. We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods -- in the most beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his love, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.
Poetry and history are the textbooks to the heart of man, and poetry is at once the most intimate and the most enduring.
from Amy Lowell, Poetry and Poets: Essays (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930) 3-9. Previously published in Boston American, May 3, 1914.
POETRY, IMAGINATION, AND EDUCATION
PERHAPS there never was a time when education received so much general attention as it does today. The world is deluged with books, pamphlets, and reviews on the subject, new systems are continually jostling the old out of place, new methods are constantly being applied, the very end and aim of education itself seems to change from time to time.
That the object of education should be to fit the child for life is such a trite and well-worn saying that people smile at its commonplaceness even while they agree with its obvious common sense. But the many ways of fitting the child, and the very various and diverse lives that have to be fitted for, are so perplexing that it is small wonder that curriculums multiply and still, multiply their subjects in order to keep up with the complexity of modern existence.
More and more of late years has the old education by means of the humanities been broken down, and instead of it we see substituted a sort of vocational training. Children are now taught to do, where, in the older systems, they were taught to think. It is as if we had learnt to distrust what we cannot see, to demand an immediate tangible result for the outlay of preparation. This is perhaps largely due to our national temper. We are always in a hurry. But does this constant haste produce the results desired? 'Evolution, not revolution, is the order of development,' says Mr. Hughes, in his book on comparative education, and education is a process requiring much time. Nature cannot be hurried; there is no such thing as cramming possible to her methods. A congested curriculum results in the proper assimilation of no one subject, and what can we think of a primary school, boasting only one teacher, in which children were taught seventeen subjects, with fifteen minutes given to each subject, as was the case some years ago in a school which came under my observation.
No educator is so insensate as to approve of such a method, and it is just in the hope of simplifying education that this idea of dropping the humanities has been evolved. But, in considering the means as the end, to what are we led? What is the result of an over-insistence upon fact, and an under-emphasis upon the development of faculties? It is a result little realized for the most part; one which may fit in with the views of the more extreme socialists, perhaps, but hardly in accord with those rights of the individual which have always been America's brightest ideal. For it is precisely the humanities which develop individuality. A knowledge of facts does not make us men; it is the active use of brains which does that. Whatever tends to make the brain supple and self-reliant is a direct help to personality.
Perhaps the two qualities which more than any others go to the making of a strong personality are character and imagination. Character means courage, and there is a great difference between the collective courage of a mass of people all thinking the same way and the courage of a man who cares not at all for public opinion but follows his own chosen path unswervingly. Our national ideal as to the moral attitude is high; what the people understand, and what they all agree about, that they will do; but it is not so easy to find men who are willing to think and act at variance with the opinions of their neighbours. We see this trait constantly in those people who live beyond their Incomes; who must have this and that because their friends have it. This weakness gnaws at the foundation of our national existence like an insidious disease. For, with all our talk of individualism, we are among the least individual of nations. The era of machine-made articles has swept over the land, and nowhere is its product more deteriorating than in the machine-made types which our schools turn out.
I do not wish to be misunderstood; I do not mean that these types are poor or bad types -- on the contrary, machines work with a wonderful precision -but these types are ran in a mould, or rather several moulds. The result is a high state of mediocrity. But there is a danger here which we do not quite foresee. Machines are controlled by the men who make and work them. Upon the few with the brains to create and guide, the destinies of the others therefore depend. There has never been such a machine-made people as the Germans; and we can see clearly to-day, as we could not some years ago, what happens to such a people when the guiding powers are unscrupulous and wrought upon by an overweening ambition.
A democracy can only succeed through an enlightened proletariat. If character and imagination are the essentials to a strong personality, one capable of directing itself and not at the mercy of demagogues and fanatics, then we should leave no stones unturned to gain this end. I think I make no unwise statement when I say that it is only in those minds possessing but a modicum of imagination that the value of the humanities as an educational factor is denied.
It is clearly not my purpose, in this paper, to speak of character building, neither have I space to go into all the ways in which the faculty of imagination might be stimulated, but there is one, and I think the most important one, the value of which is only imperfectly understood. I mean literature, and more especially poetry, and more especially still, contemporary poetry.
We all agree that the aim of education is to fit the child for life. But the differences of opinion as to how that fitting is to be done are almost as many as there are men to hold them. Again, we all agree as to the necessity of building up a strong character, but here again we are at variance as to how this is to be done. Still, upon these points the world is in accord; the point on which it differs radically is precisely that of imagination. Fully a of our pedagogues cannot see that imagination is the root of all civilization. Like love, it may very fairly be said to 'make the world go round. But as it works out of sight, it is given very little credit for what it performs.
Pedagogy is being treated as a science, which would seem a start in the right direction, were it not that true science must be exact, mathematically so, and capable of being proved backwards. The slightest mistake in facts or reasoning throws the result hopelessly out. Is it possible that, with all our scientific pretensions, we have overlooked a primary link in a logical chain? Is it possible that that link is the importance of the subconscious? Can it be said that the very lack of imagination in the pedagogic mind is responsible for this fatal error? But let us leap to no conclusions. Even if we think we see an end, let us not postulate upon it until we have reached it, step by step, and have proved its existence.
Character is no new thing in the world, neither is imagination, nor, indeed, education. Our ancestors were as much interested in these things as we are. Like us, they talked of character and education, and, like us, they did not talk of imagination. And yet I think it can easily be proved that their methods were more favourable to its development than our own.
Let us forget theories for the moment and take our stand upon an unassailable truism, namely that the object of education is to educate. Now, once more, forgetting the dusty cobwebs of twentieth-century discussion, let us consider the old dictionary definition of 'to educate,' which is 'to bring forth and form the natural faculties.' To bring forth and form the natural faculties, to bring out the best that the child has in him so that no talent nor power shall be left latent, and then so to train and cultivate these talents and powers that the child shall obtain perfect control over them, and make them of the fullest use.
Nothing is said here about fitting the child for life. Our ancestors considered that so obvious a fact as to need no stating, and this very reticence proves an imaginative attitude which we seem to have lost to-day.
It might be said quite truthfully that no one was ever taught anything; that one learned, but was not taught; that what the mind was ready for the mind received, that what the mind was not ready for fell away and was forgotten. Therefore the true end of education as such must be to train the mind. Another truism, you will say. Granted but how is this same training to be done?
The last generation believed in the old classical education; they had forgotten why in many cases, but the prejudice remained that Greek and Latin were the best training. The reason was a perfectly valid one: Greek and Latin were hard to learn and needed brain application, also they could not be learnt by rote; the boy had to use his mind and his imagination, and, being accustomed to using his mind and imagination in his studies, he brought them to bear on other things as well.
We have not dropped the old classical education entirely, but we have added many other things to it, and in so doing have diminished the amount of time and thought given to it, and consequently the amount of benefit to be derived from it. Of the things which we have added, some are really good, others appear so, but the total effect does not seem so very far in advance of the old method after all.
Our children are turned out with a smattering of many subjects, but can we say that they are any better educated than the men and women that preceded them? Are they better equipped for life? do they find the problems that they have to solve easier of solution? For there is one great fault in our educational systems to-day; they teach, but they do not train; and the one faculty without which no other can come to fruition is never really trained at all, for we cannot deny that imagination is forced to strive against adverse circumstances both at home and in school.
Years ago, before the education of little children was considered so important a subject as it is now, lessons were given in certain well-defined subjects; reading, writing, and ciphering (as it was then called) formed the staple of the school course, supplemented by geography, Latin, and, in the case of little girls, sewing.
Dreary enough these lessons must have been, for a-b, ab, many times repeated fails to germinate any interesting train of thought, and pot-hooks and hangers scrawled in interminable succession with a squeaky slate pencil on a slate leave the imagination cold.
But even if the lessons themselves were not in the least alluring, this same imagination wag stimulated by the best of all methods, by the good old-fashioned fairy story; either told by some old nurse, or read out of enchanting books with innumerable quaint woodcuts, so that forever after the names of certain tales were inseparably bound up with the woodcuts in question, and to name the one was to see the other. There was no moral hidden away in these stories, except the wholesome one that the good always triumphed in the end; their aim was to amuse, to charm, and even sometimes to terrify, to beguile the child along the paths of unreality into the great and beautiful world of romance. Romance is a grasp of the ideal, an endeavour to express by symbols the great truths of life. Wedded to rhythm, it becomes poetry. It is the striving of the soul after the unattainable. And into this rich world the little child entered through the portals of the fairy story, as thousands of years before the nations in their childhood had entered; as the Nibelungen Lied, the Norse sagas, and the myths of every land are here to testify.
But to-day the fairy story is discountenanced, or if the child is beguiled into reading a book purporting to be about a certain Jack Frost, a sprightly elf, he speedily discovers that he is really reading a treatise on the action of frost. One child's magazine absolutely forbids fairy stories, and in all, information, whether given outright or cleverly disguised as in the Jack Frost story, preponderates. This is a work-a-day world and solid information is at a premium. So we have 'Life in a Lighthouse,' ' Careers of Danger and Daring,' 'How a Big City is Lighted,' 'The Children's Room at the Smithsonian" 'English Public Schools,' 'The Fairy Land of Science,' and many more articles and books, very informing, doubtless, but doubtless also very uninspiring.
These deal with the facts of life, and facts are most important things, but fancies are important too, and the fancies are not much cultivated today.
It is doubtful if fancy can be cultivated directly, it is too subtle and elusive, it must grow of itself, but conditions can be made conducive or the reverse. To be conducted through the realms of poetry and romance by a grown-up person, as one of a class of children all with differing needs and perceptions, at a given rate of speed, is not conducive to such growth.
To gain the greatest amount out of a book, one must read it as inclination leads; some parts are to be hurried over quickly, others read slowly and many times over; the mind will take what it needs, and dwell upon it, and make it its own.
Its connotations are really what make a book of use in stimulating the imagination. As a musical note is richer the more overtones it has, so a book is richer the more it ramifies into trains of thought. But there must be time and space for the thought to develop; the reader must not be interrupted by impertinent comments and alien suggestions.
We all hate the poetry we learnt in school. Why? Is it because it was in school that we learnt it, or is it because the conditions were such that we never really learnt it at all, the fine inner sense of it and its beauty of expression were both hidden from us?
Children never know why a thing is beautiful, but if their taste has not been perverted they often feel that it is so. This feeling can be cultivated and improved until the time comes when the child can know why.
There are two ways in which books stimulate the imagination; one is by beauty of thought, the other is by beauty of form. It takes a much wiser head than a little child's to say why certain combinations of words are beautiful, but even a little child can feel their charm. A story well told and a story ill told are as the poles asunder. At first one might deny that a child could have artistic perception enough to notice the difference. But that would be merely to confuse with technical jargon. The primary test of good writing is really very simple. It consists in the effect produced. The well-told story will make the child thrill with delight, its scenes will be real to him, its people his own dear friends; the ill-told story will not keep his attention, and nothing in it will interest him much.
For the object of writing is to produce a given effect. The writing will be good acc9rding as the effect is produced or not. Simple actions are easily described; the old spelling-book did not need to be possessed of much literary ability when it told us that 'The boy is on the box,' but it was good writing as far as it went. From that to Shakespeare's poetry and Pater's prose is merely a question of degree. The effect is infinitely more subtle, more penetrating, but the words are equally adequate, and convey the meaning in the same succinct manner.
At first the child merely knows that this story or that story is interesting, that certain other stories are not interesting, he does not attempt to analyse why. Later he will make his first true criticism; he will say, 'It does not seem real,' or 'Nobody would do so.' He has detected bad writing; his imagination refuses to give credence to what its instinct declares not to be true. Gradually these criticisms of matter are added to by criticisms of form, and we have 'Nobody would talk like that.'
What makes the child think that nobody would do thus and so, or that nobody would talk in such and such a way? Partly his knowledge of life as he has lived it, of course. Though he has lived a very small life and his experiences have necessarily been few, yet through the life of his imagination he has been able to live much more, he has gained a conception of life far beyond anything that he has ever experienced.
If one can imagine oneself a child of twelve years old denuded of any knowledge or idea of anything except what he can have known or seen in his daily life, one will at once see how much more meagre his conceptions would be than is actually the case. Therefore what makes the child think that this or that thing that he is reading about is false is the knowledge that he has gained through his imagination.
The power of judgment is like water running up hill; water cannot rise higher than its own level, and judgment cannot go beyond the experience which informs it. To be sure that the judgment is sound, the school in which the experience is gained must be true to life. Only the best in literature and art is this, and it is with the best in literature and art that our children must be familiar.
There is a popular impression that so-called 'children's books' are the proper reading for children, and certainly very few children's books can be classed as belonging to the best in literature. But also the really great books are few in any literature, and there is much inspiration and profit to be got from books below this highest grade. Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare are like mountain-peaks, the horizon is wider on the heights, the air purer and more invigorating; but literature has its byways, and shady lanes, and quiet sequestered places as well, and because we enjoy mountain-climbing does not prove that there is no profit to be got in rambling through these simpler paths.
Many books purporting to be written for children are very good, have become classics, indeed; 'Alice in Wonderland,' 'Through the Looking-Glass,' George Macdonald's 'Princess and the Goblin,' and Thackeray's 'The Rose and the Ring' come under this class. But the mass of children's books are poor, with a poverty only varying in degree. This brings us to the question of whether children's reading should be confined to juvenile books.
The old argument that children do not understand grown-up books is really a groundless one. Some books written for older people are more enjoyed in childhood than they ever will be later. Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' is a good example of this, and in the case of many people it would be true also of the novels of both Scott and Dickens.
Even in cases where the full meaning is only faintly grasped, there is often much pleasure to be gained and consequently much profit. This is especially true of poetry. Children are often captivated by poetry which they cannot possibly understand, and the charm lies partly in the images it conjures up and partly in the music of the syllables; the main purport of the poem remaining forever concealed. But who shall say that this enjoyment in something so balanced and beautiful as a great poem has not a stimulating effect upon the imagination?
James Russell Lowell has told us that when he was a very little boy his sister used to read him to sleep with Spenser's 'Faery Queen! It was the first poem he ever heard and he was very fond of it, but it was not until many years later that he discovered that it had a double meaning. How much his early intimacy with Spenser and other authors of the same class had in determining the extreme delicacy of his literary perception it is impossible to tell, but it is certain that it was not without effect.
It is always difficult to decide how much early environment has to do with later development, but all education is based on the belief that it has much to do with it, and one could cite instance after instance to prove this theory.
There is a remarkable example in the case of Charlotte Bronte. Her style has great vigour and beauty. It is exquisitely proportioned, quick, sure, and subtle. This seems extraordinary in the daughter of a poor country clergyman, whose nominal education was got at an inferior boarding school, whose life was passed in a little country town, only varied by a few attempts at teaching as a governess in the country houses of richer families, and by one year and ten months in a pension in Brussels. But when we consider what her reading was as a child it does not seem so strange. In Mrs. Ward's introduction to 'Jane Eyre,' in the Haworth edition of Miss Bronte's novels, is the following passage: 'There were no children's books at Haworth Parsonage. The children were nourished upon the food of their elders: the Bible, Shakespeare, Addison, Johnson, Sheridan, Cowper for the past; Scott, Byron, Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, "Blackwood's Magazine," "Fraser's Magazine," and Leigh Hunt for the moderns; on a constant supply of newspapers, Whig and Tory Charlotte once said to a friend that she had taken an interest in politics since she was five years old; on current biographies, such as Lockhart's "Life of Burns," Moore's "Lives of Byron and Sheridan, Southey's "Nelson," Wolfe's "Remains"; and on miscellaneous readings of old Methodist magazines, Mrs. Rowe's "Letters from the Dead to the Living," the "British Essayists," collected from the "Rambler," the "Mirror," and elsewhere, and stories from the "Lady's Magazine." They breathed, therefore, as far as books were concerned, a bracing and stimulating air from the beginning. Nothing was softened or adapted for them.'
It will be objected that Charlotte Bronte was a genius, that her reading alone would never have enabled her to write as she did. True; but even genius needs to be trained!
But what has style to do with imagination, some people will ask? Style has everything to do with imagination. A really good style cannot exist without imagination. As the test of good writing is in the effect produced, and the object of all writing is to produce a given effect, so that effect must be first clear to the mind of the writer, and this requires imagination.
The writer conceives of his idea through the power of imagination, and through the power of imagination the idea takes form again in the reader's mind; the vehicle of transmission is the writer's style. The more fully developed the imagination of both writer and reader, and the more adequate the style, the more perfectly transmitted is the idea.
Imagination is behind all the great things that have been said and done in the world. All the great discoveries, all the great reforms, they have all been imagined first. Not a poem has been written, not a sermon preached, not an invention perfected, but has been first conceived.
And yet imagination must take a second place to-day and give room for the learning of so-called useful things!
In a list of the books for boys and girls in a large public library near Boston, the subjects are divided under headings. 'Poetry' takes up only a part of one page out of a catalogue of twenty-nine pages; 'Fairy Tales and Folk-Lore' have another page, while one page and a half is devoted to 'Inventions and Occupations' and one page to 'Outdoor Life.' Of course some of the books that come under other headings, such as 'Famous Old Stories' and 'Other Countries,' axe really good literature, but appallingly few. Leaving out those sections devoted to 'Younger Readers' and 'For Older Boys and Girls,' that is, taking the middle section which is especially adapted for children of the grammar-school age, I find, out of a total of four hundred and seven books, the only ones which could be considered good literature are Aldrich's 'Story of a Bad Boy,' Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe,' Hughes's 'Tom Brown's -'School Days,' Stevenson's 'Treasure Island,' Mark Twain's 'The Prince and the Pauper,' Mary Mapes Dodge's 'Hans Brinker,' Kipling's' Jungle Book,' Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress,' 'Don Quixote,' Hawthorne's 'Wonder Book," Tanglewood Tales,' and 'Grandfather's Chair,' ' The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey,' Irving's 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,' Malory's 'King Arthur,' Shakespeare (the Ben Greet Edition), 'Gulliver's Travels,' and Marryat's 'Masterman Ready' and 'Children of the New Forest.'
The poetry list is unaccountably inadequate, consisting almost entirely of individual poems. The only volumes listed are: Longfellow's 'Evangeline' and 'Hiawatha,' Macaulay's 'Lays of Ancient Rome,' Scott's 'The Lady of the Lake' and 'Marmion,' Stevenson's 'A Child's Garden of Verses,' Tennyson's 'Idylls of the King,' and Whittier's 'Snow-Bound.'
There are also collections of poetry, ten of them, of which the best are Henley's 'Lyra Heroica,' Lang's 'Blue Poetry Book,' and Lucas's 'Book of Verses for Children.'
The fairy-tale section is even worse, and how dreary the inclusion of the word 'Folklore' in a catalogue intended for the use of children. Certainly, the erudite person who made this selection never reads fairy stories for amusement. The pseudo-scientific flavour of 'folklore' has intrigued him sadly, else why include Kingsley's 'Greek Heroes' under 'Fairy Tales,' why entirely exclude Thackeray's 'The Rose and the Ring' and George Macdonald's 'Princess and the Goblin' and 'Princess and Curdie,' these last both better books than 'At the Back of the North Wind,' by the same author, which has been allowed? What is the matter with 'Through the Looking-Glass, since 'Alice in Wonderland' is here, and here without the asterisk which tells the child that the library contains other books by the same author. Think of growing up conversant with only half of Alice! Where are the delightful fairy tales of Mrs. Molesworth? where are those of Perrault, of Lord Brabourne? and why are Andrew Lang's long series of coloured fairy books represented by only one, and again with no asterisk? Poor little children, at the mercy of such elders as this compiling gentleman!
The list for older boys and girls is somewhat better, and here we find 'Through the Looking-Glass,' though why it should be considered too advanced for younger readers, I cannot imagine. But the fact that this older section starts out with Miss Addams's 'Twenty Years at Hull House,' is eloquent of the attitude of the present day. Alas for imagination, when the inclusion of such a volume in such a list is possible!
It is true, a child can have any book that the library contains by asking for it. But the children who frequent the library most belong to the poorer classes, and their only chance of becoming familiar with books out of school is at the Public Library. At home, they are not surrounded with a large culture which makes the names of the great writers household words to them. How do they know what to ask for? A catalogue tells them nothing, and the only shelves they have access to until they are eighteen are those containing the books in the list I have been quoting. And this is in a town famous for its educational system!
Probably the catalogues intended for the use of children in our large libraries would show conditions to be less unfortunate, but I think the one I have quoted is at least typical.
There is no education like self-education, and no stimulus to the imagination so good as that which it gives itself when allowed to roam through the pent-up stores of the world's imaginings at will.
There is a class of people known to all librarians as 'browsers.' They wander from shelf to shelf, now reading here, now there. Sometimes dipping into ten books in the hour, sometimes absorbed in one for the whole day. If we look back to our childhood we shall see how large a part 'browsing' had in our education. One book suggested another, and as we finished one we knew the next that was waiting to be begun. They stretched on and on in a delightful and never-ending vista. The joy of those hours when we sat cross-legged' on the floor, or perched on the top of a ladder, a new world hidden behind the covers of every book within reach, and perfect liberty to open the covers and enter at will, can never be forgotten.
We talk about 'creating a demand for books' among the children of the masses, and about ' giving them the reading habit,' and the best way to do this is to have a well-stocked reading-room of good books, books for grown-up people as well as for children, and let the children have free access to the shelves. They will be found reading strange things often, strange from the point of view of the grown-up person, that is. But in most cases their instincts will be good guides, and they will read what is best for them.
There is too much teaching to-day.
We love and admire certain things rather inspite of what people say than because of it. We like to compare notes with some one who enjoys the same things that we do, but the real enjoyment was there before. Beauty cannot be proved as a mathematical problem can. If beauty is its own excuse for being, it is also its own teacher for perceiving. Contact with beautiful things creates a taste for the beautiful, if there is any taste to be created.
Not every one has a great deal of imagination, but every one has a certain amount capable of cultivation to a greater or lesser degree, and the chief stimulaters of imagination are the arts poetry, music, painting; the humanities as opposed to the materialities.
The boy who said that his Shakespeare class was only questioned on the notes, and so, as the boys were pressed for time, they only read the notes, was giving the most eloquent testimony as to the absolute unfitness of his teacher. Doubtless the teacher would have been horrified had he known of this state of things, but his own imagination must have been very much in need of cultivating for him not to have noticed it.
For the last two years of my school course, I attended lectures on Shakespeare by an eminent Harvard professor. I remember those lectures very well; they made an indelible impression. We learnt everything about the plays we studied except the things that mattered. Not a historical allusion, not an antiquarian tit-bit, escaped us. The plays were made mines of valueless information. Out of them we delved all sorts of stray and curious facts which were as unimportant to Shakespeare as to us. Not once in those two years were we bidden to notice the poetry, not once was there a single aesthetic analysis. The plays might have been written in the baldest prose for all the eminent professor seemed to care. They became merely 'quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore,' and if what we learnt at those lectures were a criterion, might indeed have been promptly and satisfactorily forgotten. So much time and energy had been wasted in finding out these things, and when found out their proper goal was the bonfire.
In my own case, however, I was saved, saved from the clutches of ignorant and unimaginative Academia, by coming across a volume in my father's library which opened a door that might otherwise have always remained shut. Browsing about one day, I found Leigh Hunt's 'Imagination and Fancy! I did not read it, I devoured it. I read it over and over, and then I turned to the works of the poets referred to, and tried to read them by the light of the new aesthetic perception I had learnt from Hunt.
So engulfed in this new pursuit was 1, that I used to inveigle my schoolmates up to my room and read them long stretches of Shelley, and Keats, and Coleridge, and Beaumont and Fletcher. Guided by Hunt, I found a new Shakespeare, one of whom I had never dreamed, and so the plays were saved for me, and nothing was left of the professor's lectures except an immense bitterness for the lost time.
I have often thought that in this book of Leigh Hunt's we have an excellent text-book for what should be the proper teaching of literature, and especially of poetry. Poetry is an art, and to emphasize anything else in teaching it is to deny its true function.
The study of what is now called the 'science of aesthetics' is a difficult one. Such a book as Mr. Willard Huntington Wright's 'The Creative Will' is immensely stimulating to the artist, but would only be confusing to school-children, even to those of high-school grade. But much of this volume, much of the many volumes on the subject, could be expressed in simpler terms. Beginning by stimulating the child's artistic perceptions in the very primitive manner of the. child's own reactions, an example of which I mentioned earlier in this article, the teacher can easily inculcate certain rules and touchstones, enlarging upon them from year to year, and in this manner lay a firm foundation for literary understanding; for it is only through understanding that literature, and particularly poetry, can function as a direct stimulus to imagination.
I realize perfectly that this method would put a great strain on our teachers. It is comparatively easy to learn a series of antiquarian allusions and reel them off to a class; to analyse an aesthetic scheme is a much more difficult matter. I was interested to come across this very idea in an essay of Professor Dowden's which I read lately. But, having pointed out the difficulty, the wise professor ignored it, and proceeded to write his paper without the inclusion of a single aesthetic preoccupation. To be sure, he apologized for this in the preface, but the essay was published.
We see, therefore, that to permit poetry to exert its imaginative training upon youth, a complete change must take place in the method by which it is taught. We must lay aside the academic tricks of the trade. Our teachers and expounders must first put themselves to school; they must desert the easy path of historical anecdote, for the difficult one of aesthetic comprehension. They must teach their pupils what poetry is, and why it is good, greater, greatest. They must be enthusiastic pioneers for themselves and for their classes. They must forget the mass of criticism (most of it mischievous) grown up about the classics, and rediscover them with delight. An excellent way to begin would be to conduct a course upon living poets.
The most significant thing in America to-day is the popular demand for poetry. It has grown by leaps and bounds. I read recently in a newspaper that the demand for poetry at the training-camps was extraordinary. In the 'Book News Monthly' for July, is an interesting chart showing the increase in the publication of books on poetry and the drama since 1902. In that year, 220 such books were published in the United States; in 1916, there were 633. More volumes of this kind were issued than of any other kind except fiction, and fiction only exceeded by seventy-three volumes. The publication of fiction has markedly diminished of late years. Why? Simply because poetry is really much more vital than fiction. Once poetry had thrown off its shackles, once it had begun to speak freely, sturdily, with the voice of its own age, it found a ready audience. Even Academia is listening, puzzled a little perhaps, but still becoming daily more attentive. I have had various teachers tell me sadly that the difficulty in speaking of it to a class is that they do not know the good modem poetry from the bad, it is all so 'different.' What is the matter? What has happened to the critical faculty within the walls of learning? I am sorry to have to say it, but the answer is 'pure laziness.' It is so much easier to run through a couple of volumes of somebody else's conclusions and be guided by them, than to form one's own by first-hand contact with works of art. And then, too, it opens one to an awful danger. One may be wrong! Still, the world is growing, and humanists, no more than scientists, can afford to live in an intellectual back-water.
The humanities are not yet a dead letter; one cannot push out of place something which is daily proving itself an emotional force of profound importance. Granted that, as taught, they might as well go, so might science if it taught that the world was flat. Taught as they should be, imagination might once again assert its saving power over a materialistic world.
The printed outline of work for the English Department of one of our high schools begins with the following sentence: 'The primary aim during the first year is to read works of standard authors which, while quickening the imagination and presenting a strong element of interest, shall reinforce the History and the Latin.' Imagination in parenthesis, that is the attitude of education to-day! And until it is once more considered as worthy of being the end of a sentence and the end of an endeavour, education will not be the harmonious and nicely balanced thing that perfect development presupposes.
From Amy Lowell, Poetry and Poets: Essays (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930) 30-58. Previously published in North American Review 206 (1917): 762-777.
Review of Georgian Poetry, 1918-1919. Edited by E. M. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.
It is a profound labour to read this book. Not because, let me hastily say, there is nothing good in it, but because it is all so dreadfully tired.
Is this the exhaustion of the war, or is it the debility of an old habit of mind deprived of the stimulus of a new inspiration? It is an interesting question, for the fatigue is undeniable. Here are nineteen poets, in the heyday of their creating years, and scarcely one of them seems to have energy enough to see personally or forge a manner out of his own, natural speech. They are all respectable poets, each knows his trade and can turn out good enough verse on an old model, but how strangely one man's contribution dovetails into the next man's! This is happily not true of all, but it is true of the majority. Try itfor instance, who wrote this
But this shall be the end of my delight:
That you, my lovely one, shall stoop and see
Your image in the mirrored beauty there.
And did the same man write this?
And Cleopatra's eyes, that hour they shone
The brighter for a pearl she drank to prove
How poor it was compared to her rich love:
But when I look on thee, love, thou dost give
Substance to those fine ghosts, and make them live.
Is this he again, or another?
Thy hand my hand,
Thine eyes my eyes,
All of thee
Caught and confused with me:
My hand thy hand,
My eyes thine eyes,
All of me Sunken and discovered anew in thee.
And who is responsible for this?
Dear Love, whose strength no pedantry can stir
Whether in thine iron enemies,
Or in thine own strayed follower
Bemused with subtleties and sophistries,
Now dost thou rule the garden...
If the reader will play fairly and guess a bit, I think he will find himself sufficiently bewildered. The answer to the riddle is purely arbitrary. The book says that Francis Brett Young is the author of the first quotation and the other names, in order, read: W. H. Davies, John Freeman, and Edward Shanks. But, for all we can see to the contrary, the names might be jumbled about in any order without causing the slightest confusion in style or attitude.
The reason is quite plain, Mr. Young, Mr. Davies, Mr. Freeman, Mr. Shanks are merely taking the place of our old friends Brown, Jones, and Robinson, or, to telescope the whole after the manner of a composite photograph, we might name them collectively John Doe. In other words, these gentlemen are not writing at all, it is their poetic ancestors who are writing, they have made themselves ouija boards for the recrudescence of a dead song.
There are notable exceptions to this, I am glad to say, and I shall come to them later, but on the whole, the book seems pale and spectre-like, haunted by the ghosts of England's vanished bards.
There is really no excuse for this, for even if these English poets choose to ignore the fresh vigour of American poetry, they have Masefield in England, and Ralph Hodgson, and Aldington, and Sassoon. It is stuff and nonsense to try and raise such echoes into the dignity of a poetic creed as Mr. Squire and Mr. Shanks are constantly trying to do. All literature is against them; good poets are not echoes, and never were, and that is the long and the short of it. I am told that Mr. T. S. Eliot is having a great influence in England and, although I am not a complete admirer of Mr. Eliot's style, I can well believe that he is needed in a country where Mr. Young stalks abroad mellifluously bemoaning the duress of poethood in such a new and striking phrase as: 'Whither, 0 my sweet mistress, must I follow thee?' His own words, farther on in the same poem, are more than portrait; they are prophecy: 'The pillared halls of Sleep echoed my ghostly tread,'
He is a wonder, this Mr. Young, I can hardly tear myself away from him. What a memory he has, to be sure. Where have we read:
With all the joy of Spring
And morning in her eyes?
It is foolish to ask where; it would be much more sensible to put it 'where not.' Certainly Mi. Young challenges the spectres right smartly. He speaks of 'snow upon the blast' of the 'livery of death; his moon is quite comfortably 'horned,' with the accent all nicely printed over the last syllable. But let us give him his due, his cacophony is original. Read this aloud:
The frozen fallows glow, the black trees shaken
In a clear flood of sunlight vibrating awaken.
But we must not leave Mr. Young alone in a glorious isolation; that would be to do him too much honour, for does not Mr. Davies speak of 'Yon full moon,' and Mr. Abercrombie complacently watch while 'The sun drew off at last his piercing fires'; even Mr. Gibson, who is usually above such diction, permits himself to call the sea 'the changeless deep.'
One could go on poking fun foreverthere is matter for itbut the thing is not funny; on the contrary, it is desperately sad. They want to be poets so much, these young men. They know they have something to say, they feel it doubtless, but they are like men uttering words in a dream; in the cold light of day, it comes perilously near nonsense, because it is nonsense to repeat by rote a thing which does not express one's thoughts. There is atrophy here; this stale stuff is not merely stale, it is pathological. We know what these young men want to say; the strong spirits among them have told us: they want to say how deeply they love England, how much the English countryside (the most beautiful countryside in the world) means to them; they detest war, and long for the past which cannot come back, and they hope fiercely for a future which, if they can, they will see to it shall be better. But the power to set down all this has been weakened by strain. They have not the energy to see personally, or speak with their own voices. The will to do so is strong; the nervous strength necessary for the task (and it requires much) is lacking.
The English countryside is here, but in all the old tones and colours. Surely never book was so swayed over by the branches of trees. Nightingales and thrushes abound, but seldom does the poet get them alive on the page; he loves them, but he slays them, and more's the pity.
This is not always true. Mr. Drinkwater's 'Chorus from "Lincoln "' is very England, although not quite so fine as his 'In Lady Street,' which is not in this volume, and so is Mr. de la Mare's 'Sunken Garden,' and Mr. Monro's 'Dog' is fully successful. Even Mr. Davies gets himself sometimes, since he can write:
Blink with blind bats' wings, and heaven's bright face
Twitch with the stars that shine in thousands there.
Mr. Davies tries to be himself, and it is unfortunate that we often wish he would not. When he describes a lark as 'raving' above the clouds, we feel that his vocabulary is unwarrantably scanty, and it is nonsense to speak of the 'merry sound of moths' bumping on a ceiling. 'Merry' -- watching the tortured struggles of the poor things to get out -merry! He tells us that he is the 'dumb slave' of a lady who brings 'great bursts' of music out of a harpsichord; 'deaf' I think should be the word, for I doubt if even a Liszt could force that frail and delicate instrument to 'great bursts.' Or, perish the thought, was the lady really playing a piano, and did Mr. Davies merely think 'harpsichord' more poetical?
Yes, they do try, but often only to make a mess of it. When the nightingale does not sing, Mr. Nichols observes, 'Nor has the moon yet touched the brown bird's throat,' which is mighty fine writing of a kind usually found in 'Parlour Albums' and 'Gems from the Poets for Every Day in the Year.' Mr. Nichols has been reading the dictionary, his boughs are 'labyrinthine,' the blossom of a lime tree is a 'Hispid star of citron bloom,' and ' sigils' are burned into his heart and face. A sort of passion for the archaic seems to have got hold of him, we have 'flittest, profferest, blowest, renewest,' all in four lines. Most of these poets love 'thees' and 'thous,' that horrible second person which everyday speech has happily got rid of. But Mr. Nichols is a good poet, only he does not hold himself up. To speak of the trunk of a tree as splitting into massy limbs' is excellent, but he spoils it by having the branches 'bowered in foliage,' and yet the man is often full of insight. Of a squirrel, he can say: 'He scrambled round on little scratchy hands,' and what could be finer than the 'peaked and gleaming face' of the dying man in 'The Sprig of Lime.' That whole poem touches a very high mark, and sets Mr. Nichols quite apart from the John Does.
As one glances through the four volumes of 'Georgian Poetry,' one cannot help wondering on what principle they are edited. Scarcely on that of presenting all the best poetry of the moment, it would seem, since Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, the Sitwells, and Anna Wickham have never been included. Mr. James Stephens, who bad been in from the beginning, has vanished, which is a great loss; and Mr. Hodgson, who appeared in the second and third issues, has also gone. It is understandable why Mr. Chesterton, as belonging to an older group, has left, but Mr. Masefield, by all the laws of literary relationship, should surely have remained. Is the editor, Mr. Marsh, sole arbiter, and if so, why? When former contributors disappear, do they remove themselves, or are they assisted to depart? And again, in either case, why?
It is horrible to reflect on the power of an editor. Poets, at the mercy of editorial selection, may well tremble, reflecting on the fate of the Dutch painter Vermeer, who vanished for nearly three hundred years from the knowledge of men because a contemporary writer with whom he was so ill-advised as to quarrel omitted him from a list of painters which was destined to become the textbook of future generations.
Mr. Marsh edits with well-defined prejudices, evidently, but, on the whole, he has accomplished much, for he has brought the authors of his anthologies a wide publicity. For those who go out, others come in. Mr. Graves, and Mr. Sassoon, who, with Mr. Squire, appeared first in the 1916-17 anthology, are the chiefs of the newcomers. The most powerful poem in the book is Mr. Sassoon's 'Repression of War Experience.' The war made Mr. Sassoon a poet. He needed to be torn and shaken by a great emotion; he has found this emotion in his detestation of war. Nothing stronger than these poems, which are the outgrowth of his suffering, has been written in England since the war 'stopped our clocks.' It would be hard to make a selection of them, and really it does not matter; one side of a heart is a good deal like the other side provided it be a real flesh and blood heart. In this case it is, and wherever you take it, you get the same sensation. There is no rhetoric here, we are not treated to erudite expressions nor literary artifices, and for that reason these poems, and 'Repression' especially, come perilously near to being great. I say 'perilously,' for what is Mr. Sassoon going to do now? When was 'Everyone Sang' written? Perhaps that points a new departure.
Mr. Sassoon and Mr. Graves feel so much that they can afford to joke about it. Mr. Sassoon's joking is a shade more bitter, more ironical. For instance, 'What Does It Matter?' is a trifle harder and heavier than Mr. Graves's 'It's a Queer Time,' which unfortunately is not in this volume. Neither is 'I Wonder What It Feels Like to be Drowned.' But one cannot have all a man's collected works in an anthology, and we have got that fine thing, 'A Frosty Night,' and the possibly even finer 'The Cupboard.' Mr. Graves is that delightful being among poets, a faux naif. He runs his ballad forms hard but so far they do not fade upon the palate.
Miss Shove is a notable addition to this year's anthology. She has originality and a saving sense of the grotesque and macabre. 'The New Ghost' is excellent.
Of the original contributors, Mr. Abercrombie's poetry is always a strange mixture of the quick and the dead. He builds live tales on a pattern of rusty pins. The result is according as one feels about the vexed question of subject and treatment. I confess that I find Mr. Abercrombie worthy of respect, but dull.
Mr. Davies has ardent admirers, and I am quite aware that my making him sit as part portrait for the highly estimable John Doe will probably cause much offence. If only Mr. Davies would always write poems like 'A Child's Pet,' would always keep to such natural speech as that in the first four lines of 'England,' I would readily subtract him from the sum total of my composite hero. But Mr. Davies has read books, and they have remained in his mind alien and undigested. Therefore he must give his quota to John Doe, and I regretfully beg his pardon.
Mr. de la Mare is scarcely at his best in this volume, although 'The Sunken Garden' is very charming. But I cannot forgive him his last line with the false rhyme. False rhyming is often a most happy device, but scarcely here, where there have been no other such rhymes in the poem, and for the last line -- particularly when he had a perfect rhyme in his adjective! Clearly the sound did not trouble Mr. de la Mare's ear, but it teases mine horribly.
Mr. Drinkwater is a poet who must be read in a certain mood. His poems do not yield all their fragrance if they are hastily approached or violently attempted. They grow on the reader as of something becoming conscious. They seem extraordinarily simple, by every preconceived canon they should be dull, and behold, they are neither the one nor the other. The best of them, that is, and two of the best are here: 'Moonlit Apples' and 'Habitation,' while 'Chorus from "Lincoln,"' the first half especially, is nearly as good. What is Mr. Drinkwater's charm? how does he escape the sensation of echo, considering that he chooses to write in a traditional mode? To analyse it with any care would take up too much space here; in brief, I think it lies in his utter abandonment to his poem, in his complete sincerity in regard to it, in his straightforward, unselfconscious love of what he is writing about. He is a quiet poet, he keeps his drama for his plays, but his dramatic sense has taught him the secret of creating atmosphere. 'Moonlit Apples' is beautifully moony. But this simplicity and this atmosphere are not accidental; they are built up with delicate touch after touch throughout the poem. One could wish that 'In Lady Street' had been included and 'Southampton Bells' left out, but, on the whole, his selection is one of the best in the book.
Mr. Gibson's 'Cakewalk' is a good poem, and so is the first stanza of 'Parrots'; the latter is a complete poem by itself; the second stanza adds nothing, it even detracts appreciably. Why must Mr. Gibson bring in his heart? the Parrots did so well without it.
Mr. Lawrence's 'Seven Seals' is in his most mystical and passionate vein. The poem is serious and exalted, but it is a pity that it should be his only contribution; it would stand better were it companioned. As a, poet, Mr. Lawrence is rising in stature year by year; his last volume, 'Bay, is the best book of poetry, pure poetry, that he has written, although it does not reach the startling human poignance of 'Look! We Have Come Through.' It is unfair to Mr. Lawrence to be represented by one poem; the editor should take heed and give us more of him in future.
Mr. Monro improves steadily. I have already mentioned his beautiful and exceedingly satisfactory 'Dog.' I wish I had space to quote it. It is not only good poetry, but good dog. Mr. Monro's work is gaining in muscle. Beauty it has often had, but now there is a firm structure under the beauty -- see, for instance, 'Man Carrying Bail.' 'The Nightingale Near the House' was a bold challenge to Fate, but Mr. Monro has come through fairly successfully. His nightingale lives and sings, and not too reminiscently, which is much for a modern nightingale to do.
For the newer men, Mr. Squire is a clever fellow. His criticisms, even if one disagree with them, are always interesting. His poetry is clever too, and that is not so useful an attribute in poetry. But he has done some good things. 'August Moon,' with its marvellous description of moonlight on water, is not here (really we must quarrel with the editor for leaving it out) but another of his best things, the 'Sonnet,' is. Few modern sonnets are as good as this; the last two lines are magnificent. 'Rivers' begins well, with an original and fluctuating rhythm which gives the lapsing and flowing of river to a remarkable degree, and the slight change between the first and second stanza is well conceived. But then he becomes tangled in his own creation, the metre stiffens into a convention, be comes hard, unimaginative, and cold, and t poem loses itself in a long and rather stupid catalogue.
Mr. Turner, who appears for the second time, has a nice little quality -- he has his own turns, and a very pleasant whimsical touch:
The thronged, massed, crowded multitude of leaves
Hung like dumb tongues that loll and gasp for air
gives an effect we have all seen, most vividly. 'Tinkling like polished tin' has the thin sharpness of tone of a small stream, and ' old wives cried their wares, like queer day owls' is very nice. 'Silence' is a good poem, but the best of those here is 'Talking With Soldiers,' with its refrain 'the mind of the people is like mud,' and then the dreaming iridescence.
Of the remaining poetsbut why catalogue the virtues or record the faults of John Doe?
from Amy Lowell, Poetry and Poets: Essays (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930) 123-136. Previously published in Dial 69(1920): 424-431.
TWO GENERATIONS IN AMERICAN POETRY
Some fifty years ago, more or less, a handful of unrelated men and women took to being born up and down these United States. What impulse was responsible for them, what submerged law of change and contradiction settled upon them as its tools, it is a little hard to sayat least, to say in any sort of reasonable compass. They appear to have been sporadic efforts of some force or other, operating over a period of nearly fifteen years; but so disconnected were they, geographically, socially, and atavistically, that one thing is certain: however they may have derived from a central urge, they did not derive in the least from one another. This little handful of disconnected souls, all unobtrusively born into that America which sighed with Richard Watson Gilder, wept with Ella Wheeler Wilcox, permitted itself to dance delicately with Celia Thaxter, and occasionally to blow a graceful blast on the beribboned trumpet of Louise Imogen Guiney, was destined to startle its progenitors. This was a world of sweet appreciation, a devotee of caged warblers, which species of gentle music-makers solaced it monthly from the pages of the 'Century' or the 'Atlantic Monthly.' How pleasant to turn away for a moment from the rattle of drays and horse-cars and listen to a woodland strain repeated in a familiar and well-loved cadence! That these robins of ours were doing their best to imitate the notes of English blackbirds and nightingales only made their efforts the more precious, and, to be sure, their imitations were done with a modesty worthy of all admiration. They knew their place in the world's harmony and saw to it that they did not overstep it. This was expected and loyally adhered to. What of America had time for these not too exciting titivations of the emotions harkened and was pleased; the busy rest of the populace heeded not at all and missed very little.
Now, how it was that a handful of young persons, growing up in the seventies and eighties (for the widely spaced arrivals lasted so long), found themselves, one and all, so out of sympathy with the chaste and saccharine music wandering through the ambient air of current periodicals, is one of the wonders of psychological phenomena. It is a fact, nevertheless, that with no one to talk to or compare notes with, each as separate as conditions could well make him, one and all they revolted against the taste of their acquaintances, and launched, the whole flotilla of them, out into the turbulent sea of experiment and personal expression.
Upheavals make for art, as is well known. The debacle of the Franco-Prussian war gave France the galaxy of poets and musicians which made the last two decades of the nineteenth century so rich a period in her annals. But here, in America, there had been no war sufficiently recent to cause an effect of leaf-turning. The Civil War was too long gone by. (No, the change in poetry seems to have sprung from something far more prosaic. From the great tide of commerce and manufacture, indeed. Prosperity is the mother of art, no matter how odd such an idea may seem. Look at the Elizabethan age in England. It followed immediately upon an expansion of the world's markets, did it not? But this expansion was all bound up with the romance of daring adventure and exploration. Quite so, and was not ours? A continent crossed and settled at infinite peril; rivers run into clacking factories; electricity caught and chained to wires, forcing the very air to obedient echo -- are not such things as these romantic and adventurous? Whether people had the wit to see them in this light or not, the little devils who rule the psychological currents which man ignores and invariably obeys found them so. Nemesis is extraordinarily ironical. While the men of the race were making fortunes, and the women were going to concerts and puzzling their heads over a Browning whom, having invented themselves, they could not in the least understand, so different was he from dear Mr. Gilderwhile all this was going on, in New England, the Middle West, in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, by one, and one, and one, like beads before they are strung upon a string, the makers of this poetic renaissance of ours were obscurely working all toward one end and that as various as the strands in a piece of rope.
Who the pioneers of this movement were, I am not going to say. They are perfectly well known to every one interested in present-day literature. Besides, we are still too near to them to render absolute statement possible. Were a suffrage taken, some names would appear in all lists, others would differ. Time alone can make the actual personnel of the movement secure. My intention here is to analyse a movement, not criticize individual talents. When I mention such, I do so as illustration merely.
With all their diversity, there was a central aim which bound the group together. Conscious with some, unconscious with others, their aim was to voice America. Now you cannot voice one country in the accents of another. Therefore the immediate object of these poets was to drop the perpetual imitation of England. It is interesting, if painful, to realize what a desperately hard time these young poets had. When they could get themselves printed, which was seldom, they were either completely ignored or furiously lampooned. And still they were alone, none knew the others; but they were a courageous little band, and on they went, writing, and putting their poems in their writing-table drawers.
Suddenly, explosively, the movement came to a head in 1912 and the years immediately succeeding. In October, 1912, Harriet Monroe brought out her magazine 'Poetry,' but, splendid work though that magazine has done, I cannot subscribe to its often expressed opinion that it is largely responsible for the recognition the group began to achieve. Instead I should say that it was another manifestation of the fulminating spirit which produced the poets themselves. Every one of these poets had been writing for years, some of them for many years, others were already the authors of neglected volumes, before 'Poetry' arrived on the scene. It seems to me rather that the ferment had reached a point when it was bound to burst. For burst it did and bore down on the American consciousness with an indomitable violence not to be resisted. Horrified professors shuddered and took to umbrellas and arctics, newspaper fulminators tried all the weapons in their armories from snubs to guffaws. It was no use; what must come, comes. The caged warblers were swept out of court. The people who hated the new poetry were forced back on the classical old which antedated the warbler era. And that alone was a good thing.
But this movement which we speak of so glibly, do we really know what it was? Let us observe it a little. In the first place, it was an effort to free the individual from the expression of the herd; in the second, it had for its object the breaking down of mere temperamental barriers. This looks like paradox, but it is not. The poetry of the two preceding decades had been almost entirely concerned with recording personal emotions, but recording them in a perfectly stereotyped way. The new poetry found that emotions were not confined to the conjugation of the verb to love, and whether it said 'I love' or 'Behold the earth and all that is thereon,' if it followed its natural inclination, it would say it quite differently from the way its fathers had said it. The truth is that this new poetry, whether written by men or women, was in essence masculine, virile, very much alive. Where the nineties had warbled, it was prone to shout. When it concerned itself with love, its speech was natural and unrestrained; when not concerned with love, it found interests as manifold as the humanity crowding on its eyes from every street corner. It had so much to say that it simply could not say it, and so huge a country to speak for that no one poet could do more than present a little bylane of it. It took the whole handful of poets which made up the group to give any adequate expression of the movement or the age which produced it; but, taking the work by and large, book after book, here was a volume of energy, a canvas so wide and sparkling, that something very like the dazzling tapestry of American life, thought, and activities was obtained.
As the poets were, so was their work. One gave simple facts; another approached the central truth obliquely; a third abandoned America as far as direct allusion went, and presented it the more clearly in reactions on distant countries and periods viewed through American eyes. For instance, take Frost and Sandburg and juxtapose them with 'H. D.' Not one of these three could have sprung from any country but America, and yet where Frost and Sandburg portray their special countrysides, town and open, 'H. D.' occupies herself with an ancient loveliness alive again through the eager vision of a young race to which nothing is stale. Wherever posterity may place the group in the role of American poets, one thing it cannot deny them: the endeavour after a major utterance. They may have failed; they dared the stars. They hitched their wagons to the tails of comets. There was nothing the matter with their aim; success is another thing, and not for us to gauge.
The world learnt to like them pretty well, although they were not very much understood. It is not the way of our modern world to accord greatness its due, even when it slyly supposes that it may exist. The very feeble educations which are all most of us can boast tend to caution rather than to acclaim. It is safer to doubt, for then the odds are with you. No, the world was interested, but took refuge in the old cry: 'These men are precursors, we await the great poet for whom they are clearing the way.' And what happened? Rather a curious thing. At first the pioneers rolled up their tallies of disciples. Incipient 'Spoon Rivers' rippled on every side; bits of here, there, and everywhere a la Frost appeared; red-blooded followers travestied Sandburg's least successful pictures, stupidly unaware that it was his tenderness and insight which made him the man he was; the Imagists almost despaired of ever freeing themselves from the milkand-water imitations with which young hopefuls flooded the non-paying magazines. Still the great poet who was to go all of them one better did not make his appearance. Instead came a volte-face. Reaction, by Jove! Or so it appeared. Reaction after ten years! But things move swiftly nowadays.
The bewildered elders rubbed their eyes. Had all their work been in vain? By no means, for the reaction owed more to them than it has ever been willing to acknowledge. Without them, the younger poets could not have existed. Now, constant reaction is a law of art. When one impulse is exhausted, the artistic undercurrents turn to another. Finding it impossible to outdistance the pioneers on their own ground, the next generation veered off at a tangent and sought other grounds of its own. But a reaction, to be effective, must produce poets of something like the calibre of the poets reacted from. Without attempting to answer this question one way or the other, we can, at least, peer a little more closely at the type of poetry coming on the stage to-day.
The younger group appears to be composed of two entirely distinct companies. Unlike the pioneers, who had among them the tie of a concerted effort, these two sections are completely at variance with one another. To name them: one calls itself the Secessionists; the other we may christen, for purposes of differentiation, the Lyrists. It is not a very good name, for all poets write lyrics, but as these poets write practically nothing else, it will serve. Of these two groups, the lyrists are unquestionably doing the better work. They proclaim no tenets, but confine themselves to writing poetry, and doing it uncommonly well. Their expertness is really amazing. They have profited by the larger movement in finding an audience readymade to their hands, a number of magazines eager to welcome them, and a considerable body Of critical writing bearing on the poetical problems of the Momentaids to achievement which the older group entirely lacked. Through the practice of the elders, the younger group has learnt to in slough off the worst faults of the nineties, and, in the matter of versification, there is scarcely a fault to be found with their work. I refer, of course, to that of the leaders. The strange thing here, however, the crux of the reactionary situation, is its aim. For where the older generation aimed at a major expression, these younger poets are directly forcing themselves to adhere to a minor one. The terms major and minor in poetry have nothing to do with good and bad; a minor poet is often meticulously careful and exceedingly fine. Major and minor refer to outlook, and it is a fact that this younger group deliberately seeks the narrow, personal note. It is a symptom, I suppose, a weariness of far horizons, a breath-taking before a final leap.
Where emotion is the chief stock in trade, we should not expect a high degree of intellectual content, yet in one member of the group we find it. Elinor Wylie, who, unlike Edna St. Vincent Millay, that delightfully clever exponent of the perennial theme of love, is one of the most intellectual and well equipped of American poets. These two are the acknowledged chiefs of the company. For, while the older movement was innately masculine, the new one is all feminine. It is, indeed, a feminine movement, and remains such even in the work of its men.
The Secessionists are quite apart. Their object is science rather than art; or perhaps it is fairer to say that to them art is akin to mathematics. They are much intrigued by structure, in a sense quite other than that in which it is usually employed in poetry. They have a host of theories, and are most interesting when stating them, but the doubt arises whether a movement which concerns itself more with statements about poetry than with the making of poetry itself is ever going to produce works of art of a quality to justify the space taken up by prominciamentos.
The outcome of all this is somewhat hazy. It is a fact that, side by side with the youths, the elders are still writing. Whether the younger group will sweep aside the older, it is too soon to see. That the far easier poetry of the lyrists will be, and is, immensely popular, is only natural. The question is, how long can it maintain itself in the face of its wilfully restricted limits? Whether the future will bring a period of silence preceding another vigorous dash forward, or whether the present feminine mood will lead directly into the next advance, who shall say? Not I, at any rate. Both possibilities are in order, and for the present I think we may be satisfied. The time has been short, and considerable has been done in a variety of ways by the two generations at the moment writing. As Whitman said, here is 'a lapful of seed, and this is a fine country.'
from Amy Lowell, Poetry and Poets: Essays (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1930), 111-122. Previously published in New Republic 37(1923):1-3.
Return to Amy Lowell