Joyous Gard by Arthur Christopher Benson
I was reading the other day a volume of lectures delivered by Mr. Mackail at Oxford, as Professor of Poetry there. Mr. Mackail began by being a poet himself; he married the daughter of a great and poetical artist, Sir Edward Burne-Jones; he has written the Life of William Morris, which I think is one of the best biographies in the language, in its fine proportion, its seriousness, its vividness; and indeed all his writing has the true poetical quality. I hope he even contrives to communicate it to his departmental work in the Board of Education!
He says in the preface to his lectures,”Poetry is the controller of sullen care and frantic passion; it is the companion in youth of desire and love; it is the power which in later years dispels the ills of life-labour, penury, pain, disease, sorrow, death itself; it is the inspiration, from youth to age, and in all times and lands, of the noblest human motives and ardours, of glory, of generous shame, of freedom and the unconquerable mind.”
In these fine sentences it will be seen that Mr. Mackail makes a very high and majestic claim indeed for poetry: no less than the claim of art, chivalry, patriotism, love, and religion all rolled into one! If that claim could be substantiated, no one in the world could be excused for not putting everything else aside and pursuing poetry, because it would seem to be both the cure for all the ills of life, and the inspirer of all high-hearted effort. It would be indeed the one thing needful!
But what I do not think Mr. Mackail makes quite clear is whether he means by poetry the expression in verse of all these great ideas, or whether he means a spirit much larger and mightier than what is commonly called poetry;which indeed only appears in verse at a single glowing point, as the electric spark leaps bright and hot between the coils of dark and cold wire.
I think it is a little confusing that he does not state more definitely what he means by poetry. Let us take another interesting and suggestive definition. It was Coleridge who said, “The opposite of poetry is not prose but science; the opposite of prose is not poetry but verse.” That seems to me an even more fertile statement. It means that poetry is a certain sort of emotion, which may be gentle or vehement, but can be found both in verse and prose; and that its opposite is the unemotional classification of phenomena, the accurate statement of material laws; and that poetry is by no means the rhythmical and metrical expression of emotion, but emotion itself, whether it be expressed or not.
I do not wholly demur to Mr. Mackail’s statement, if it may be held to mean that poetry is the expression of a sort of rapturous emotion, evoked by beauty, whether that beauty is seen in the forms and colours of earth, its gardens, fields, woods, hills, seas, its sky-spaces and sunset glories; or in the beauty of human faces and movements; or in noble endurance or generous action. For that is the one essential quality of poetry, that the thing or thought, whatever it is, should strike the mind as beautiful, and arouse in it that strange and wistful longing which beautiful things arouse. It is hard to define that longing, but it is essentially a desire, a claim to draw near to something desirable, to possess it, to be thrilled by it, to continue in it; the same emotion which made the apostle say at the sight of his Lord transfigured in glory, “Master, it is good for us to be here!”
Indeed we know very well what beauty is, or rather we have all within us a standard by which we can instinctively test the beauty of a sight or a sound; but it is not that we all agree about the beauty of different things. Some see a great deal more than others, and some eyes and ears are delighted and pleased by what to more trained and fastidious senses seems coarse and shocking and vulgar. But that makes little difference; the point is that we have within us an apprehension of a quality which gives us a peculiar kind of delight; and even if it does not give us that delight when we are dull or anxious or miserable, we still know that the quality is there. I remember how when I had a long and dreary illness, with much mental depression, one of my greatest tortures was to be for ever seeing the beauty in things, but not to be able to enjoy it.The part of the brain that enjoyed was sick and uneasy; but I was never in any doubt that beauty was there, and had power to please the soul, if only the physical machinery were not out of gear, so that the pain of transmission overcame the sense of delight.
Poetry is then in its essence the discerning of beauty; and that beauty is not only the beauty of things heard and seen, but may dwell very deep in the mind and soul, and be stirred by visions which seem to have no connection with outside things at all.