Poetry and Life

Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson


Now I will try to say how poetry enters into life for most of us; and this is not an easy thing to express, because one can only look into the treasure of one’s own experience, wander through the corridors and halls of memory, and see the faded tapestries, the pictures, and, above all, the portraits which hang upon the walls. I suppose that there are many people into whose spirits poetry only enters in the form of love, when they suddenly see a face that they have beheld perhaps often before, and have vaguely liked, and realise that it has suddenly put on some new and delicate charm, some curve of cheek or floating tress; or there is something in the glance that was surely never there before, some consciousness of a secret that may be shared, some signal of half-alarmed interest, something that shows that the two lives, the two hearts, have some joyful significance for each other; and then there grows up that marvellous mood which men call love, which loses itself in hopes of meeting, in fears of coldness, in desperate desires to please, to impress; and there arise too all sorts of tremulous affectations, which seem so petty, so absurd, and even so irritating, to the spectators of the awakening passion; desires to punish for the pleasure of forgiving, to withdraw for the joy of being recalled; a wild elated drama in which the whole world recedes into the background, and all life is merged for the lover in the half-sweet, half-fearful consciousness of one other soul,

Whose lightest whisper moves him more

Than all the ranged reasons of the world.

And in this mood it is curious to note how inadequate common speech and ordinary language appear, to meet the needs of expression.Even young people with no literary turn, no gift of style, find, their memory supplying for them all sorts of broken echoes and rhetorical phrases, picked out of half-forgotten romances; speech must be soigneux now, must be dignified, to meet so uplifting an experience. How oddly like a book the young lover talks, using so naturally the loud inflated phrases that seem so divorced from common-sense land experience! How common it is to see in law-reports, in cases which deal with broken engagements of marriage, to find in the excited letters which are read and quoted an irresistible tendency to drop into doggerel verse! It all seems to the sane reader such a grotesque kind of intoxication. Yet it is as natural as the airs and graces of the singing canary, the unfurling of the peacock’s fan, the held breath and hampered strut of the turkey-a tendency to assume a greatness and a nobility that one does not possess, to seem impressive, tremendous, desirable. Ordinary talk will not do; it must rhyme, it must march, it must glitter, it must be stuck full of gems; accomplishments must be paraded, powers must be hinted at. The victor must advance to triumph with blown trumpets and beaten drums; and in solitude there must follow the reaction of despair, the fear that one has disgraced oneself, seemed clumsy and dull, done ignobly, Every sensitive emotion isawake; and even the most serene and modest natures, in the grip of passion, can become suspicious and self-absorbed, because the passion which consumes them is so fierce that it shrivels all social restraints, and leaves the soul naked, and bent upon the most uncontrolled self-emphasis.

But apart from this urgent passion, there are many quieter ways in which the same spirit, the same emotion, which is nothing but a sense of self-significance, comes into the soul. Some are so inspired by music, the combinations of melodies, the intricate conspiracy of chords and ordered vibrations, when the orchestra is atwork, the great droning horns with their hollow reluctant voices sustaining the shiver and ripple of the strings; or by sweeter, simpler cadences played at evening, when the garden scents wafted out of the fragrant dusk, the shaded lamps, the listening figures, all weave themselves together into a mysterious tapestry of the sense, till we wonder what strange and beautiful scene is being enacted, and wherever we turn, catch hints and echoes of some bewildering and gracious secret, just not revealed!

Some find it in pictures and statues, the mellow liquid pageant of some old master-hand, a stretch of windspent moor, with its leaning grasses and rifted crags, a dark water among glimmering trees at twilight, a rich plain running to the foot of haze-hung mountains, the sharp-cut billows of a racing sea; or a statue with itsshapely limbs and its veiled smile, or of the suspended strength of some struggling Titan: all these hold the same inexplicable appeal to the senses, indicating the efforts of spirits who have seen, and loved, and admired, and hoped, and desired, striving to leave some record of the joy that thrilled and haunted, and almost tortured them; and to many people the emotion comes most directly through the words and songs of poetry, that tell of joys lived through, and sorrows endured, of hopes that could not be satisfied, of desires that could not know fulfilment; pictures, painted in words, of scenes such as we ourselves have moved through in old moods of delight, scenes from which the marvellous alchemy of memory has abstracted all the base and dark elements, leaving only the pure gold of remembered happiness-the wide upland with the far-off plain, the garden flooded with sun, the grasses crisped with frost, the snow-laden trees, the flaming autumn woods, the sombre forest at shut of day, when the dusk creeps stealthily along the glimmering aisles, the stream passing clear among large-leaved water-plants and spires of bloom; and the mood goes deeper still, for it echoes the marching music of the heart, its glowing hopes, its longing for strength and purity and peace, its delight in the nearness of other hearts, its wisdom, its nobility.

But the end and aim of all these various influences is the same; their power lies in the fact that they quicken in the spirit the sense of the energy, the delight, the greatness of life, the share that we can claim in them, the largeness of our own individual hope and destiny; and that is the real work of all the thoughts that may be roughly called poetical; that they reveal to us something permanent and strong and beautiful, something which has an irrepressible energy,and which outlines itself clearly upon the dark background of days, a spirit with which we can join hands and hold deep communication, which we instinctively feel is the greatest reality of the world. In such moments we perceive that the times when we descend into the meaner and duller and drearier businesses of life are interludes in our real being, into which we have to descend, not because of the actual worth of the baser tasks, but that we may practise the courage and the hope we ought to bring away from the heavenly vision. The more that men have this thirst for beauty, for serene energy, for fulness of life, the higher they are in the scale, and the less will they quarrel with the obscurity and humility of their lives, because they are confidently waiting for a purer, higher, more untroubled life, to which we are all on our way, whether we realise it or not.

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