28 JANUARY 1882, Page 17

THERE is a question taken up once and again in

these interest- ing lectures which may serve as the thread for what we have to say of the few detached criticisms which we desire to signalise in Mr. Shairp's lectures,—which are the criticisms on Shelley, Scott, Carlyle, and Cardinal Newman. That question is the relation of poetry to the verse in which it is usually embodied. In the lecture on "Criticism and Creation," we find the fol- lowing striking remarks on the relation of the imagination to modern thought, and especially its relation to modern prose and poetry :—

"So far is it from being tree that reason has pat out imagination, that perhaps there never was a time when reason so imperatively calls imagination to her aid, and when imagination entered so largely into all literary and even into scientific products. Imaginative thought, which formerly expressed itself but rarely except in verse, • Aspects qf Poetry, being Lectures delivered at Oxford. By John Campbell Shairp, LL.D. Oxford: Clarendon Preen now enters into almost every form of prose except the barely statistical. Indeed the boundary-lines between prose and poetry have become obliterated, as those between prose and verse have become more than ever rigid. Consider how wide is the range of thought over which imagination now travels, how vast is the work it is called upon to do. Even in the most rigorous sciences it is present, whenever any discoverer would pass beyond the frontiers of the known, and encroach on the unknown, by some wise question, some penetrating guess, which he labours afterwards by analysis to verify. This is what they call the scientific imagination. Again, what is it that enables the geologist, from the contortions of strata, a few scratchings on rock-surfaces, and embedded fossils here and there, to venture into ' the dark backward abysm of time,' and re- construct and repeople extinct continents ? What but a great fetch of imaginative power ? Again, history, which a former age wrote or tried to write with imagination rigorously suppressed, has of late re- discovered what Herodotus and Tacitus knew, that unless a true historic imagination is present to breathe on the facts supplied by antiquary and chronicler, a dead past cannot be made to live again. A dim and perilous way doubtless it is, leading by many a side-path down to error and illusion, but one which must be trod by the genuine historian who would make the pale shadows of the past live. It is the same with every form of modern criticism—with the in- vestigations into the origins of language, of society, and of religion. These studies are impossible without an ever-present power of imagination, both to suggest hypotheses and to vivify the facts which research has supplied. It thus has come to pass that, in the growing subdivision of mental labour, imagination is not only not discredited, but is more than ever in demand. So far from imagination receding, like the Red Indian, before the advance of criticism and civilisation, the truth is that expanding knowledge opens ever new fields for its operation. Just as we see the produce of our coal and iron mines used now-a-days for a hundred industries, to which no one dreamt of applying them a century ago, so imagination enters to-day into all our knowledge, in ways undreamt of till now. More and more it is felt that, till the fire of imagination has passed over our knowledge, and brought it into contact with heart and spirit,:it is not really living knowledge, but only dead material. You say, perhaps, if imagination is now employed in almost every field of knowledge, does any remain over to express itself in poetry or metrical language ? is any place left for what we used to know as poetry proper—thought metrically expressed ? I grant that the old limits between prose and poetry tend to disappear. If poetry be the highest, most impassioned thoughts conveyed in the most perfect melody of words, we have many prose writers who, when at their best, are truly poets. Every one will recall passages of Jeremy Taylor's writings, which are, in the truest sense, not oratory, but poetry. Again, of how many in oar time is this true ? You can all lay your finger on splendid descriptions of nature by Mr. Ruskin, which leave all sober prose behind, and flood the soul with imagery and music like the finest poetry."

That is very finely observed and expressed, and every one who thinks the matter over carefully, must quite agree with Professor Shairp that the imagination enters more deeply into very many pursuits than it used to do, and, indeed, touches not a few with a passing gleam of poetic emotion. It is not only Jeremy Taylor or Mr. Ruskin who makes us aware of this. There are passages in the public addresses of Professor Tyndall, and many in the recently-published volume of the late Mr. W. R. Greg, which, in the pathos and the awe with which they touch the dim and

dubious vision of a higher world and another life, pass in Mr. Shairp's sense the boundary-line between prose and poetry.

Still, we should be very unwilling to admit that rhythm alone, without that singleness of effect to which rhythm and rhyme are merely subordinate, constitutes the chief dis- tinction between poetry and prose. Admit, if you will, that there exists what has a right to be called genuinely poetical prose, yet we should, nevertheless, distinguish it from poetry in this,—that as it does not require the same high pressure of feeling to produce it, as it admits much superfluous remark which verse, properly so called, would exclude, it can never have the same finish, the same distinct framework, the same whole- ness of effect, which characterise true poetry. For example, Pro- fessor Shairp gives us a very fine lecture upon Shelley, the only fault of which is, perhaps, that he hardly rates high enough, though he rates extremely high, the unearthly beauty of some of Shelley's lyrics. But after paying a very genuine tribute to them, he concludes what he has to say in a strain which does justice to the wonderful workmanship of their form, even while the peculiar limitation of their substance is the subject of some- thing like complaint :—

" They are very limited in their range of influence. They cannot reach the hearts of all men. They fascinate only some of the educated, and that probably only while they are young. The time comes when these pass out of that peculiar sphere of thought, and find little interest in such poetry. Probably the rare exquisiteness of their workmanship will always preserve Shelley's lyrics, even after the world has lost, as we may hope it will lose, sympathy with their substance. But better, stronger, more vital far are those lyrics which lay hold on the permanent, unchanging emotions of man—those emo- tions which all healthy natures have felt, and always will feel, and which no new deposit of thought or of civilisation can ever bury out of sight." But is it not this "exquisite workmanship" which constitutes the distinguishing feature of a poem, as contrasted with any work in prose ? Is it not certain that the framework, the measured tread, the continuous return of the metre into itself, the resemblances and contrasts brought out by the rhyme, where rhyme is admitted, the cadences of metrical change where such cadences are the equivalents of rhyme, all combine to make a whole in the imagination which prose, however rhythmical or musical, is unable to achieve ? Take Shelley, with all his spiritual shadowiness, his "witch of Atlas"-like unreality, and notice how the reiterated throb of his lyrical feeling,—the wail of his lEolian harp,—transmutes his ideas and feelings into something separate, distinct, rememberable, where the form seems essential to their very meaning, so that no passage of prose, however harmonious, can even attempt to render the

same drift,—

" Ah, Sister, Desolation is a delicate thing ! It walks not on the earth, it floats not on the air,

But treads with killing footstep and fans with silent wing The tender hopes which in their hearts the best and gentlest bear ; Who, soothed to false repose by the fanning plumes above,

And the music-stirring motions of its soft and busy feet,

Dream visions of aerial joy, and call the monster, Love,

And wake, and find the shadow Pain, as he whom now we greet."

Compare that with Carlyle's description of Marie Antoinette in the death-agony, which Professor Shairp gives us in his fine lecture on Carlyle as a prose poet:—

"Beautiful Highborn, thou wart so foully hurled low ! For, if thy being came to thee out of old Hapsburg Dynasties, came it not also

(like my own) oat of Heaven ? Oh, is there a man's heart that thinks, without pity, of those long months and years of slow- wasting ignominy ;—of thy Birth, soft cradled in imperial Schou- brunn, the winds of heaven not to visit thy face too roughly, thy foot to light on softness, thy eye on splendour ; and then of thy Death, or hundred deaths, to which the guillotine and Fouquier- Tinville's judgment-bar was but the merciful end ? Look there, 0 man born of woman ! The bloom of that fair face is wasted, the hair is gray with care ; the brightness of those eyes is quenched, their lids hang drooping ; the face is stony, pale, as of one living in death. Mean weeds (which her own hand has mended) attire the Queen of the World. The death hurdle, where thou sittest, pule, motionless, which only curses environ, must stop : a people, drunk with vengeance, will drink it again in full draught : far as eye reaches, a multitudinous sea of maniac heads ; the air deaf with their triumph-yell ! The Living-dead must shudder with yet one other pang : her startled blood yet again suffuses with the line of agony that pale face, which she hides with her hands. There is, then, no heart to say, God pity thee ?"

Both these passages are as full of imagination of very different kinds as they can be, but the former is a poem, and the latter is only a bit of poetical prose, cut out, more or less arbitrarily, from the grand Carlylese etching of the French Revolution. And the essence of the difference is that the thoughts in Shelley's song are so harmonised and incorporated with the music, that they are thereby constituted a separate thing, as a flower in the turf, or a star in the heavens, is a separate thing ; while the passage from Carlyle has no such distinct shape or wholeness of its own, and suggests, indeed, the dark background from which it was extracted, and of which, in its uneven outline, the traces only too distinctly remain. We doubt if Professor Shairp in- sists sufficiently on the essentiality of the form to poetry. The form is to the poem what the sculpture is to the marble ; without it there could be no singleness of effect. No doubt, certain pas- sages of genuinely poetical prose remain in our memories almost as poems themselves remain ; but it is only "almost." They never gain that wholeness of effect which verse gives. There is no single pulse thrilling the whole, or even if there be, none making itself clear to us in that individuality of life-like effect, in which the unity of a true poem always makes itself visible.

Professor Shairp has said some very fine things about Sir Walter Scott's imaginative prose :—

"Or I might point to another of the more modern novels, to Red- gauntlet, and Wandering Willie's Tale. Every one should remember —yet perhaps some forget—auld Steeple's visit to the nether world, and the sight he got of that set of ghastly revellers sitting round

the table there. My gade sire kend mony that had long before gene to their place, for often had he piped to the most part in the hall of Redgamatlet. There was. . . . . . And there was Claverhouse, as beautiful as when he lived, with his long, dark, curled locks, streaming down over his laced bail-coat, and his left hand always on his right spnle-blade, to hide the wound that the silver ballet had made. He sat apart from them all, and looked at them with a melancholy, haughty countenance ; while the rest hallooed, and sang, and laughed, that the room rang.' Tarn to the novel, and read the whole scene. There is nothing in the Odyssean Tartarus to equal it. If Scott is not Homeric here, he is something more. There is in that weird, ghastly vision a touch of sublime horror, to match which we must go beyond Homer, to Dante, or to Shakespeare."

Homeric enough, no doubt, but not half so Homeric, in spite of its grandeur, as the passage in which rhyme and rhythm im-

press the stamp of a single imaginative effort on such a vision as the following :—

"'But see ! look up—on Flodden bent

The Scottish foe has fired his tent.'

And sudden, as he spoke, From the sharp ridges of the hill, All downward to the banks of Till, Was wreathed in sable smoke.

Volumed and fast, and rolling far, The cloud enveloped Scotland's war, As down the hill they broke ; Nor martial shout, nor minstrel tone, Announced their march ; their tread alone, At times one warning trumpet blown, At times a stifled hum, Told England, from his mountain-throne King James did rushing come.

Scarce could they hear, or see their foes, Until at weapon-point they close.

They close, in clouds of smoke and dust, With sword-sway, and with lance's thrust ; And such a yell was there, Of sudden and portentous birth, As if men fought upon the earth, And fiends in upper air ; 0, life and death were in the shoat, Recoil and rally, charge and rout, And triumph and despair."

The vividness of a truly visionary eye may give many of the fascinations of poetry to prose, as we quite admit that in many of the passages taken from Carlyle and Cardinal Newman it has given ; but only verse, only something which, like verse, excludes all that is heterogeneous from the total effect, and in some sense assimilates all that remains, can produce the full impression of what we mean by poetry. The imagination alone is not necessarily poetic. It was a very re- markable imaginative effort made by Dickens when be pictured the death of Nancy and the wanderings of Sikes after the murder ; but the result was not a poem, even in the sense in which Hood's "Song of a Shirt" is a poem ; and still less is the account of Fagin's establishment a poem, though it is full of imagination. Indeed, we take it that humour of any kind almost always breaks in upon the highest effects of a poem, because it depends upon the bewilderment produced by con- trasts and discords, and that is why comic poetry is always regarded as in some degree spurious. And that, too, we take it, explains why Carlyle, who in essence is not only a great imaginative writer, but a true humourist, could not bear the form of verse. He liked to have darkness and chaos for his framework, and light and order only in scattered points. For a different reason, prose suits Cardinal Newman better than poetry, not because he cannot write wonderfully fine poetry, when he will, but because he is so great a realist, so anxious to point out where the little roughnesses, selfishnesses, oddities, and jars of human character chequer the surface of the divine purpose for us, that he cannot, as a rule, afford to use a- medium in which all the jars must be merged in some strain of recurrent and overpowering melody. Professor Shairp's lectures on the prose poets, as indeed on all his other subjects, are full of true poetical insight. But we cannot entirely agree with him that imaginative fire and rhythmical cadence are sufficient to constitute poetry. We think that in a true poem there must be that wholeness of effect, that complete assimila- tion of all the materials contained, into a single impression, which nothing but verse, and verse of a somewhat high order of organisation, can produce.

It is inevitable for a critic to dwell longer on points of differ- ence than on points of agreement. But if we extracted all that Professor Shairp has said, and said very finely, in which we completely agree, we should fill many pages of this journal.