LIFE IN POETRY.
[To THE EDITOR OP THE " SPECTATOR"] SIR,—Will you allow me to offer a few lines of respectful criticism on your interesting article, " Life in Poetry," in the Spectator of June 20th? Professor Courthope (following Aristotle) defines poetry as "an imitation of human action, thought, and passions in metrical language ; " but the word "imitation" seems badly chosen. It is only on the stage that we see an imitation, in the strict sense of the word, of life and action ; painting and sculpture are a representation of them, poetry a description. But prose literature—history or romance, for instance—is also a description of life and action, so that the only differentia, according to Professor Courthope, between prose and poetry consists in the " metrical language" in which the latter is couched, that is, in the vehicle, not the subject. This definition you call inadequate and limiting ; but does not your own definition err equally in that it embraces only the subject of poetry, not the vehicle ? You say that poetry (meaning, no doubt, the highest poetry) must be an emancipation of life, a stroke for freedom ; but the thoughts which make for such emancipation might be couched equally well in prose, and you lay down no canon by which to distinguish poetry from such prose, nor do you point out that the life and fame of a poet depends not merely on what he has to say, but almost as much on how he says it. You agree with Professor Courthope that the subject not only must snit the singer, but also must snit his audience,—in other words, that he must find a voice to express the deepest and most passionate thoughts which his generation is struggling to utter. Some poets find expression for thoughts which are peculiar to their generation only (you mention Spenser, Clough, and Matthew Arnold in this class, and even Shelley, whose charm surely is permanent and universal), and when that generation lam
passed away they are neglected and cease to interest the world. Others embody the thoughts which are common to all generations, and, if the embodiment is adequate, they reign for ever in the hearts of men. But what I venture to urge is that in scrutinising the nature of their empire, we must not disregard their gift of expressing those thoughts in perfect and melodious form. There are passages in Carlyle, in Ruskin, which contain as lofty aspirations after freedom, as passionate love of beauty, as ever poet uttered, but they have not chosen the highest vehicle, and cannot stir the pulse or " enrich the blood of the world " as Wordsworth or Tennyson or Browning can. To take a simple instance, most lovers of Ruskin would rank among his noblest passages the description of the pine, with "its dark energy of delicate life and monotony of enchanted pride ; " yet these words do not haunt the memory like Mr. Myers's simple and melodious lines :— " Silence the sombre armies kept The vanguard of the pine."
What the secret of the metrical charm is, why rhythm and rhyme hold such a power over the mind and memory that noble thoughts embodied in this vehicle live, and without it pass away, is a mystery which well deserves consideration at
the hands of the Spectator.—I am, Sir, &c., C. A. E.
[Of course, the musical beauty of the form aide immensely the power of the utterance. Professor Courthope had laid that down, and we intended to accept his assumption on that point as final.—ED. Spectator.]