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REALISM IN MODERN POETRY
The Realistic Revolt in Modern Poetry. By A. M. Clark. Basil Blackwell. Oxford. 2s. 6d. net.
An Anatomy of Poetry. By A. Williams-Ellis. Basil Blackwell. Oxford. 7s. 6d. net.
Tendencies in Modern American Poetry.
By Amy Lowell.
Basil Blackwell. Oxford. 12s. 6d. net.
The Poetic Mind. By F. C. Prescott. The Macmillan Company. New York. $2.00.
Naturally these four volumes approach their particular problem from widely different angles. The volume by Mr. Williams-Ellis is an informative and stimulating essay in constructive criticism; that by Miss Lowell is an illuminating critique of the work of six modernist pioneers in American poetry; while The Poetic Mind, abandoning mere aesthetic theory and broad deductive generalizations, is an attempt at positive definition of the interrelation between literary composition and dreams, reveries and subconscious states on the basis of Freudian research. Mr. Clark's ambition is less vaunting. His short essay of eighty-three pages is little more than a summary or an extended catalogue of the names of an incredible number of living poetasters and rhymsters with occasional intermediary and connective passages (which suggest class notes) appreciative of the more outstanding personalities among contemporary craftsmen. Should The Realistic Revolt in Modern Poetry attain the honour of a second edition its author will be well advised to alter his work in several important respects. He could condense with certain advantage and expand with dubious gain. Hasty composition, too, he should remember is not invariably a mark of genius and over-repetition is too often the hall mark of carelessness and determined evidence of incomplete assimilation and poverty of the content of the writing. Of the great majority of the 'modern' poets whose names are found within Mr. Clarke's pages, all that is to be said can be said in a very few lines. We know that they are invariably clever young
men; but we know, too, that they are no more than that, that they never have been more than that and that they never will be more than facile experimenters who have tried their hand at verse making while they are still young and have a taste for such dalliance. The work of very few was known beyond a very select circle and already it is either gone or forgotten. But it is good to be reminded that, if among these younger men no Tennyson, Spenser or Milton is to be found, the torch of poetry is still held high aloft in England. And after all, Mr. Clark does not exaggerate the quality of the minors and he draws a clear distinction between poets and poetasters, minor poets and minor poetry. If, in certain respects Mr. Clark is still in the pupillary stage, if at times his style is ragged and undistinguished, it is pleasant to find a work of such modest pretentiousness after the syncopated superficialities to which Mr. J. C. Squire treats us weekly in The Observer.
When Lord Balfour in his Foundations of Belief propounds the difficult and abstruse question, 'Is there any fixed and permanent element in beauty?' he is not only fringing a wide field of aesthetic speculation but giving at the same time an opening for a brief, if necessarily inadequate, evaluation of the aims and achievements of contemporary poetry and a summary estimate of its mode and manner of self-interpretation in relation to its times. In the matter of poetry and the arts there is constant and unceasing readjustment of artistic criteria. A poet, lauded to the skies in his own generation, is unhesitatingly damned or harshly ignored by the next; canons of taste toilsomely elaborated by one set of literary legislators are sharply set aside or derided by their successors. But this sharp opposition of critical judgement is not a proof that no permanent element of poetic beauty exists, or that it exists only ideally, and that no conceivable principle of taste has been formed in the minds of those who seek self-interpretation through their art or whose main task it is to aid others to an appreciation of it. If it were possible to assert that literature, the product of man's environment-intellectual or physical-is subject to modification but not to development-it would be possible to enun
ciate that art is no better at one time than at another and that there is no such thing as 'any fixed and permanent element of poetic beauty.' It is obvious, however, that not only is there a constant fluctuation in poetic taste, but that there is also good and bad poetry at one and the same time, and that critics are able to discriminate between the good and the bad, precisely because they have a very definite and positive artistic criterion, applicable either to the poetry of their own age or to poetry in general. Granted that there is a fundamental identity between aesthetic judgement and aesthetic creation, the critic will be concerned, consequently, not with the assertion that one form of art is better than another because differently expressed, but with an attempt to estimate how well or how badly art has expressed itself at the particular moment. In other words, while men will inevitably express themselves in terms of their times, they consistently hold to the conviction that an ideal of poetic beauty not only exists in the abstract but in positive relation to its times as well. Tradition and change is the law of the ages, and the critic can no more deny the constant succession of new movements than he can reject the fact that the earth moves round the sun. And it is to the past that he naturally turns for direction and guidance in the face of contemporary poetical intransigeance.
For the Greeks, poetry, a reasoned imitation, was the product of the creative instinct innate in man, preferring plausible impossibilities to improbable possibilities, the probable to the real; for the Romans it was a lofty art inspiring men to noble deeds and high ideals; for the classicists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was an intellectual exercise that could be self-taught from a study of the Greek and the Roman classics. The Augustans advanced from this standpoint to the extent of introducing such additional criteria as 'imagination' and 'sentiment'-the pleasures of imagination according to Addison (Spectator, No. 411) being such pleasures 'as arise from visible objects, either when we have them actually in our view, or when we call up their ideas in our minds by paintings, statues, descriptions, or any the like occasion.' The Essay on Criticism enunciated the conventionalizing and generalizing tendencies of the Neo-Classics:
First follow Nature, and your judgement frame
Those RULES of old discovered, not devis'd
'Poetical genius,' Blacklock declares, 'depends entirely on the quickness of moral feeling.' "The business of a poet,' said Imlac, 'is to examine, not the individual but the species; to remark general properties and large appearances. He does not number the streaks of the tulip, or describe the different shades in the verdure of the forest; he is to exhibit in his portraits of nature such prominent and striking features as recall the original to every mind, and must neglect the minuter discriminations, which one may have remarked, and another have neglected, for those characteristics which are alike obvious to vigilance and to carelessness.' (Rasselas, Chap. X). The Wartons, as had the unknown Author of the Tepi ous, instinctively recognized the essential difference between genius and mere talent. Now I know perfectly well,' wrote the Greek, 'that the highest natures are the least faultless. A mind bent on absolute accuracy will run the risk of littleness, and, in mighty genius, as in great wealth, there will be some things missed or slighted.... Nor, am I ignorant that, in everything human, the faults are most conspicuous, and that the memory of slips abides uneffaced, while that of beauties speedily fades.' This was similar to the recognition of the difference between that school of verse where
Manner is all in all, whate'er is writ,
The substitute for genius, taste and wit
and the high passion and spiritual essence of deep imaginative poetry which had been sadly to seek in England between 1660 and 1740. The positivism of the Wartons, their individualism, their opposition to the classical theory that would have restricted verse to the handling of didactic and ethical problems merely, their recognition of the importance of the spiritual elements of melancholy and horror are the fundamentals of the Romantic Credo. The Germans were the first to realize that art has fulfilled its function when it has ex
pressed itself. Poetry being a criticism of life, there are as many kinds of poems as there are individual poets-or as Joseph Warton saw, every work of genius is a law unto itself. Romantic criticism by laying it down that art has no other aim than expression, finally and definitely discredited the Classical manner of judging literature by 'kinds.'
Thus, fashions in poetry change like modes of dress, and the desire for mutation and novelty-not merely in the physical but in the spiritual and intellectual life as well-is inherent in mankind. Our present age of revolt against the complacency and the perplexities, the modes and the furniture, the ethical standards and the emotionalism of Victorianism will presently give place to another, and the Georgians too must take their place at the bar of history and be adjudged by their evanescent successors. Between the Age of Elizabeth and that of Victoria there are many points of comparison; between our own and that of the Great Romantics there are few. But there is one close analogy between the two last. The Elizabethan Age was preceded by a period of tentative metrical experimentation; the Victorian Age was succeeded by one. The object of the Classical versifiers was, while disciplining the language, to rid it of 'rude beggarly rhyming brought into Italy by Goths and Huns', and this is in certain measure the protest of the Georgians. Both Elizabethans and Georgians are painfully conscious of the inadequacy of their medium to express the thoughts and emotions with which they are burthened; but while the former deplore the self-conscious immaturity of their English, the latter lament that it has grown outworn and lost its original freshness with overuse. The scope of poetry has been widened until the vision of Wordsworth has been fulfilled. 'Poetry,' writes the author of Lyrical Ballads in his Preface, 'is the first and last of all knowledge it is as immortal as the heart of man. . . The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, the Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time shall ever come when these shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us