Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson


It is not uncommon for me to receive letters from young aspirants, containing poems, and asking me for an opinion on their merits. Such a letter generally says that the writer feels it hardly worth while to go on writing poetry unless he or she is assured that the poems are worth something. In such cases I reply that the answer lies there! Unless it seems worth while, unless indeed poetry is the outcome of an irrepressible desire to express something, it is certainly not worth while writing. On the other hand, if the desire is there, it is just as well worth practising as any other form of artistic expression. A man who liked sketching in water-colours would not be restrained from doing so by the fear that he might not become an Academician, a person who liked picking out tunes on a piano need not desist because there is no prospect of his earning money by playing in public!

Poetry is of all forms of literary expression the least likely to bring a man credit or cash. Most intelligent people with a little gift of writing have a fair prospect of getting prose articles published. But no one wants third-rate poetry; editors fight shy of it, and volumes of it are unsaleable.

I have myself written so much poetry, have published so many volumes of verse, that I can speak sympathetically on the subject. I worked very hard indeed at poetry for seven or eight years, wrote little else, and the published volumes form only a small part of my output, which exists in many manuscript volumes. I achieved no particular success. My little books were fairly well received, and I sold a few hundred copies; I have even had a few pieces inserted in anthologies. But though I have wholly deserted the practice of poetry, and though I can by no means claim to be reckoned a poet, I do not in the least regret the years I gave to it. In the first place it was an intense pleasure to write. The cadences, the metres, the language, the rhymes, all gave me a rapturous delight. It trained minute observation-my poems were mostly nature-poems-and helped me to disentangle the salient points and beauties of landscapes, hills, trees, flowers, and even insects. Then too it is a very real training in the use of words; it teaches one what words are musical, sonorous, effective; while the necessity of having to fit words to metre increases one’s stock of words and one’s power of applying them. When I came back to writing prose, I found that I had a far larger and more flexible vocabulary than I had previously possessed; and though the language of poetry is by no means the same as that of prose-it is a pity that the two kinds of diction are so different in English, because it is not always so in other languages-yet it made the writing of ornamental and elaborate prose an easier matter; it gave one too a sense of form; a poem must have a certain balance and proportion; so that when one who has written verse comes to write prose, a subject falls easily into divisions, and takes upon itself a certain order of course and climax.

But these are only consequences and resulting advantages. The main reason for writing poetry is and must be the delight of doing it, the rapture of perceiving a beautiful subject, and the pleasure of expressing it as finely and delicately as one can. I have given it up because, as William Morris once said of himself, “to make poetry just for the sake of making it is a crime for a man of my age and experience!”

One’s feelings lose poetic flow

Soon after twenty-seven or so!

One begins to think of experience in a different sort of way, not as a series of glowing points and pictures, which outline themselves radiantly upon a duller background, but as a rich full thing, like a great tapestry, all of which is important, if it is not all beautiful. It is not that the marvel and wonder of life is less; but it is more equable, more intricate, more mysterious. It does not rise at times, like a sea, into great crested breakers, but it comes marching in evenly, roller after roller, as far as the eye can reach.

And then too poetry becomes cramped and confined for all that one desires to say. One lived life, as a young man, rather for the sake of the emotions which occasionally transfigured it, with a priestly sense of its occasional splendour; there was not time to be leisurely, humorous, gently interested. But as we grow older, we perceive that poetical emotion is but one of many forces, and our sympathy grows and extends itself in more directions. One had but little patience in the old days for quiet, prosaic, unemotional people; but now it becomes clear that a great many persons live life on very simple and direct lines;one wants to understand their point of view better, one is conscious of the merits of plainer stuff; and so the taste broadens and deepens, and becomes like a brimming river rather than a leaping crystal fount. Life receives a hundred affluents, and is tinged with many new substances; and one begins to see that if poetry is the finest and sweetest interpretation of life, it is not always the completest or even the largest.

If we examine the lives of poets, we too often see how their inspiration flagged and failed. Milton indeed wrote his noblest verse in middle-age, after a life immersed in affairs. Wordsworth went on writing to the end, but all his best poetry was written in about five early years. Tennyson went on to a patriarchal age, but there is little of his later work that bears comparison with what he wrote before he was forty. Browning produced volume after volume, but, with the exception of an occasional fine lyric, his later work is hardly more than an illustration of his faults of writing. Coleridge deserted poetry very early; Byron, Shelley, Keats, all died comparatively young.

The Letters of Keats give perhaps a more vivid and actual view of the mind and soul of a poet than any other existing document. One sees there, naively and nobly expressed, the very essence of the poetical nature, the very soil out of which poetry flowers. It is wonderful, because it is so wholly sane, simple, and unaffected. It is usual to say that the Letters give one a picture of rather a second-rate and suburban young man, with vulgar friends and banal associations, with one prodigious and matchless faculty. But it is that very background that constitutes the supreme force of the appeal. Keats accepted his circumstances, his friends, his duties with a singular modesty. He was not forever complaining that he was unappreciated and underestimated. His commonplaceness, when it appears, is not a defect of quality, but an eager human interest in the personalities among whom his lot was cast. But every now and then there swells up a poignant sense of passion and beauty, a sacred, haunting, devouring fire of inspiration, which leaps high and clear upon the homely altar.

Thus he writes: “This morning poetry has conquered-I have relapsed into those abstractions which are my only life-I feel escaped from a new, strange, and threateningsorrow. . . . There is an awful warmth about my heart, like a load of immortality.” Or again: “I feel more and more every day, as my imagination strengthens, that I do not live in this world alone, but in a thousand worlds.” And again: “I have loved the principle of beauty in all things.”

One sees in these passages that there not only is a difference of force and passion, but an added quality of some kind in the mind of a poet, a combination of fine perception and emotion, which instantaneously and instinctively translates itself into words.

For it must never be forgotten how essential a part of the poet is the knack of words. I do not doubt that there are hundreds of people who are haunted and penetrated by a lively sense of beauty, whose emotions are fiery and sweet, but who have not just the intellectual store of words, which must drip like honey from an overflowing jar. It is a gift as definite as that of the sculptor or the musician, an exuberant fertility and swiftness of brain, that does not slowly and painfully fit a word into its place, but which breathes thought direct into music.

The most subtle account of this that I know is given in a passage in Shelley’s Defence of Poetry. He says: “A man cannot say ‘I will compose poetry’-the greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is like a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakes to transitorybrightness. The power arises from within, like the colour of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our nature are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. When composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline.”

That I believe is as true as it is beautiful. The best poetry is written in a sudden rapture, and probably needs but little reconsideration or retouching. One knows for instance how the Ode to the Nightingale was scribbled by Keats on a spring morning, in an orchard at Hampstead, and so little regarded that it was rescued by a friend from the volume into which he had crammed the slips of manuscript. Of course poets vary greatly in their method; but one may be sure of this, that no poem which was not a great poem in its first transcript, ever becomes a great poem by subsequent handling. There are poets indeed like Rossetti and FitzGerald who made a worse poem out of a better by scrupulous correction; and the first drafts of great poems are generally the finest poems of all. A poem has sometimes been improved by excision, notably in the case of Tennyson, whose abandoned stanzas, printed in his Life, show how strong his instinct was for what was best and purest. A great poet, for instance, never, like a lesser poet, keeps an unsatisfactory stanza for the sake of a good line. Tennyson, in a fine homely image, said that a poem must have a certain curve of its own, like the curve of the rind of a pared apple thrown on the floor. It must have a perfect evolution and progress, and this can sometimes be best arrived at by the omission of stanzas in which the inconstant or flagging mind turned aside from its design.

But it is certain that if the poet gets so much into the habit of writing poetry, that even when he has no sense of inspiration he must still write to satisfy a craving, the result will be worthless, as it too often was in the case of Wordsworth. Because such poems become literary instead of poetical; and literary poetry has no justification.

If we take a book like Rossetti’s House of Life, we shall find that certain sonnets stand out with a peculiar freshness and brightness, as in the golden sunlight of an autumn morning; while many of the sonnets give us the sense of slow and gorgeous evolution, as if contrived by some poetical machine. I was interested to find, in studying the House of Life carefully, that all the finest poems are early work; and when I came to look at the manuscripts, I was rather horrified to see what an immense amount of alternatives had been produced. There would be, for instance, no less than eight or nine of those great slowly moving words, like ‘incommunicable’ or ‘importunate’ written down, not so much to express an inevitable idea as to fill an inevitable space; and thus the poems seem to lose their pungency by the slow absorption of painfully sought agglutinations of syllables, with a stately music of their own, of course, but garnered rather than engendered. Rossetti’s great dictum about the prime necessity for poetry being ‘fundamental brainwork’ led him here into error. The brainwork must be fundamental and instinctive; it must all have been done before the poem is conceived; and very often a poet acquires his power through sacrificing elaborate compositions which have taught him certainty of touch, but are not in themselves great poetry. Subsequent brainwork often merely clouds the effect, and it was that on which Rossetti spent himself in vain.

The view which Keats took of his own Endymion is a far larger and bolder one. “I will write independently,” he said. “I have written independently without judgment I may write independently and with judgment hereafter. The genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man. It cannot be matured by law and precept, but by sensation and watchfulness in itself.”

Of course, fine craftsmanship is an absolute necessity; but it is craftsmanship which is not only acquired by practice, but which is actually there from the first, just as Mozart, as a child of eight, could play passages which would tax the skill of the most accomplished virtuoso. It was not learnt by practice, that swift correspondence of eye and hand, any more than the little swallow learns to fly; it knows it all already, and is merely finding out what it knows.

And therefore there is no doubt that a man cannot become a poet by taking thought. He can perhaps compose impressive verse, but that is all. Poetry is, as Plato says, a divine sort of experience, some strange blending of inherited characteristics, perhaps the fierce emotion of some dumb ancestress combining with the verbal skill of some unpoetical forefather. The receipt is unknown, not necessarily unknowable.

Of course if one has poetry in one’s soul, it is a tremendous temptation to desire its expression, because the human race, with its poignant desire for transfiguring visions, strews the path of the great poet with bays, and remembers him as it remembers no other human beings. What would one not give to interpret life thus, to flash the loveliness of perception into desirous minds, to set love and hope and yearning to music, to inspire anxious hearts with the sense that there is something immensely large, tender, and significant behind it all! That is what we need to be assured of-our own significance, our own share in the inheritance of joy; and a poet can teach us to wait, to expect, to arise, to adore, when the circumstances of our lives are wrapped in mist and soaked with dripping rain.Perhaps that is the greatest thing which poetry does for us, to reassure us, to enlighten us, to send us singing on our way, to bid us trust in God even though He is concealed behind calamity and disaster, behind grief and heaviness, misinterpreted to us by philosophers and priests, and horribly belied by the wrongful dealings of men.

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