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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - CRITICAL FRAGMENTS Post by :redbear Category :Essays Author :James Russell Lowell Date :April 2012 Read :2127

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The Function Of The Poet And Other Essays - CRITICAL FRAGMENTS

CRITICAL FRAGMENTS

I. LIFE IN LITERATURE AND LANGUAGE

It is the office and function of the imagination to renew life in lights and sounds and emotions that are outworn and familiar. It calls the soul back once more under the dead ribs of nature, and makes the meanest bush burn again, as it did to Moses, with the visible presence of God. And it works the same miracle for language. The word it has touched retains the warmth of life forever. We talk about the age of superstition and fable as if they were passed away, as if no ghost could walk in the pure white light of science, yet the microscope that can distinguish between the disks that float in the blood of man and ox is helpless, a mere dead eyeball, before this mystery of Being, this wonder of Life, the sympathy which puts us in relation with all nature, before that mighty circulation of Deity in which stars and systems are but as the blood-disks in our own veins. And so long as wonder lasts, so long will imagination find thread for her loom, and sit like the Lady of Shalott weaving that magical web in which "the shows of things are accommodated to the desires of the mind."

It is precisely before this phenomenon of life in literature and language that criticism is forced to stop short. That it is there we know, but what it is we cannot precisely tell. It flits before us like the bird in the old story. When we think to grasp it, we already hear it singing just beyond us. It is the imagination which enables the poet to give away his own consciousness in dramatic poetry to his characters, in narrative to his language, so that they react upon us with the same original force as if they had life in themselves.

 

II. STYLE AND MANNER

Where Milton's style is fine it is _very fine, but it is always liable to the danger of degenerating into mannerism. Nay, where the imagination is absent and the artifice remains, as in some of the theological discussions in "Paradise Lost," it becomes mannerism of the most wearisome kind. Accordingly, he is easily parodied and easily imitated. Philips, in his "Splendid Shilling," has caught the trick exactly:

Not blacker tube nor of a shorter size
Smokes Cambrobriton (versed in pedigree,
Sprung from Cadwallader and Arthur, kings
Full famous in romantic tale) when he,
O'er many a craggy hill and barren cliff,
Upon a cargo of famed Cestrian cheese
High overshadowing rides, with a design
To vend his wares or at the Arvonian mart.
Or Maridunum, or the ancient town
Yclept Brechinia, or where Vaga's stream
Encircles Ariconium, fruitful soil.

Philips has caught, I say, Milton's trick; his real secret he could never divine, for where Milton is best, he is incomparable. But all authors in whom imagination is a secondary quality, and whose merit lies less in what they say than in the way they say it, are apt to become mannerists, and to have imitators, because manner can be easily imitated. Milton has more or less colored all blank verse since his time, and, as those who imitate never fail to exaggerate, his influence has in some respects been mischievous. Thomson was well-nigh ruined by him. In him a leaf cannot fall without a Latinism, and there is circumlocution in the crow of a cock. Cowper was only saved by mixing equal proportions of Dryden in his verse, thus hitting upon a kind of cross between prose and poetry. In judging Milton, however, we should not forget that in verse the music makes a part of the meaning, and that no one before or since has been able to give to simple pentameters the majesty and compass of the organ. He was as much composer as poet.

How is it with Shakespeare? did he have no style? I think I find the proof that he had it, and that of the very highest and subtlest kind, in the fact that I can nowhere put my finger on it, and say it is here or there.(1)

(Footnote 1: In his essay, "Shakespeare Once More" (_Works_, in, pp. 36-42), published in 1868, Mr. Lowell has treated of Shakespeare's style in a passage of extraordinary felicity and depth of critical judgment.)

I do not mean that things in themselves artificial may not be highly agreeable. We learn by degrees to take a pleasure in the mannerism of Gibbon and Johnson. It is something like reading Latin as a living language. But in both these cases the man is only present by his thought. It is the force of that, and only that, which distinguishes them from their imitators, who easily possess themselves of everything else. But with Burke, who has true style, we have a very different experience. If we _go along with Johnson or Gibbon, we are _carried along by Burke. Take the finest specimen of him, for example, "The Letter to a Noble Lord." The sentences throb with the very pulse of the writer. As he kindles, the phrase glows and dilates, and we feel ourselves sharing in that warmth and expansion. At last we no longer read, we seem to hear him, so livingly is the whole man in what he writes; and when the spell is over, we can scarce believe that those dull types could have held such ravishing discourse. And yet we are told that when Burke spoke in Parliament he always emptied the house.

I know very well what the charm of mere words is. I know very well that our nerves of sensation adapt themselves, as the wood of the violin is said to do, to certain modulations, so that we receive them with a readier sympathy at every repetition. This is a part of the sweet charm of the classics. We are pleased with things in Horace which we should not find especially enlivening in Mr. Tupper. Cowper, in one of his letters, after turning a clever sentence, says, "There! if that had been written in Latin seventeen centuries ago by Mr. Flaccus, you would have thought it rather neat." How fully any particular rhythm gets possession of us we can convince ourselves by our dissatisfaction with any emendation made by a contemporary poet in his verses. Posterity may think he has improved them, but we are jarred by any change in the old tune. Even without any habitual association, we cannot help recognizing a certain power over our fancy in mere words. In verse almost every ear is caught with the sweetness of alliteration. I remember a line in Thomson's "Castle of Indolence" which owes much of its fascination to three _m's_, where he speaks of the Hebrid Isles

Far placed amid the melancholy main.

I remember a passage in Prichard's "Races of Man" which had for me all the moving quality of a poem. It was something about the Arctic regions, and I could never read it without the same thrill. Dr. Prichard was certainly far from being an inspired or inspiring author, yet there was something in those words, or in their collocation, that affected me as only genius can. It was probably some dimly felt association, something like that strange power there is in certain odors, which, in themselves the most evanescent and impalpable of all impressions on the senses, have yet a wondrous magic in recalling, and making present to us, some forgotten experience.

Milton understood the secret of memory perfectly well, and his poems are full of those little pitfalls for the fancy. Whatever you have read, whether in the classics, or in medieval romance, all is there to stir you with an emotion not always the less strong because indefinable. Gray makes use of the same artifice, and with the same success.

There is a charm in the arrangement of words also, and that not only in verse, but in prose. The finest prose is subject to the laws of metrical proportion. For example, in the song of Deborah and Barak: "Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! Arise, Barak, and lead thy captivity captive, thou son of Abinoam!" Or again, "At her feet he bowed; he fell, he lay down; at her feet he bowed, he fell; where he bowed, there he fell down dead."

Setting aside, then, all charm of association, all the influence to which we are unconsciously subjected by melody, by harmony, or even by the mere sound of words, we may say that style is distinguished from manner by the author's power of projecting his own emotion into what he writes. The stylist is occupied with the impression which certain things have made upon him; the mannerist is wholly concerned with the impression he shall make on others.

 


III. KALEVALA

But there are also two kinds of imagination, or rather two ways in which imagination may display itself--as an active power or as a passive quality of the mind. The former reshapes the impressions it receives from nature to give them expression in more ideal forms; the latter reproduces them simply and freshly without any adulteration by conventional phrase, without any deliberate manipulation of them by the conscious fancy. Imagination as an active power concerns itself with expression, whether it be in giving that unity of form which we call art, or in that intenser phrase where word and thing leap together in a vivid flash of sympathy, so that we almost doubt whether the poet was conscious of his own magic, and whether we ourselves have not communicated the very charm we feel. A few such utterances have come down to us to which every generation adds some new significance out of its own store, till they do for the imagination what proverbs do for the understanding, and, passing into the common currency of speech, become the property of every man and no man. On the other hand, wonder, which is the raw material in which imagination finds food for her loom, is the property of primitive peoples and primitive poets. There is always here a certain intimacy with nature, and a consequent simplicity of phrases and images, that please us all the more as the artificial conditions remove us farther from it. When a man happens to be born with that happy combination of qualities which enables him to renew this simple and natural relation with the world about him, however little or however much, we call him a poet, and surrender ourselves gladly to his gracious and incommunicable gift. But the renewal of these conditions becomes with the advance of every generation in literary culture and social refinement more difficult. Ballads, for example, are never produced among cultivated people. Like the mayflower, they love the woods, and will not be naturalized in the garden. Now, the advantage of that primitive kind of poetry of which I was just speaking is that it finds its imaginative components ready made to its hand. But an illustration is worth more than any amount of discourse. Let me read you a few passages from a poem which grew up under the true conditions of natural and primitive literature--remoteness, primitiveness of manners, and dependence on native traditions. I mean the epic of Finland--Kalevala.(1)

(Footnote 1: This translation is Mr. Lowell's, and, so far as I know, has not been printed.--C.E. NORTON.)

I am driven by my longing,
Of my thought I hear the summons
That to singing I betake me,
That I give myself to speaking,
That our race's lay I utter,
Song for ages handed downward.
Words upon my lips are melting,
And the eager tones escaping
Will my very tongue outhasten,
Will my teeth, despite me, open.

Golden friend, beloved brother,
Dear one that grew up beside me,
Join thee with me now in singing,
Join thee with me now in speaking,
Since we here have come together,
Journeying by divers pathways;
Seldom do we come together,
One comes seldom to the other,
In the barren fields far-lying,
On the hard breast of the Northland.

Hand in hand together clasping,
Finger fast with finger clasping,
Gladly we our song will utter,
Of our lays will give the choicest--
So that friends may understand it.
And the kindly ones may hear it.
In their youth which now is waxing,
Climbing upward into manhood:
These our words of old tradition,
These our lays that we have borrowed
From the belt of Wainamoinen,
From the forge of Ilmarinen,
From the sword of Kaukomeli,
From the bow of Jonkahainen,
From the borders of the ice-fields,
From the plains of Kalevala.

These my father sang before me,
As the axe's helve he fashioned;
These were taught me by my mother,
As she sat and twirled her spindle,
While I on the floor was lying,
At her feet, a child was rolling;
Never songs of Sampo failed her.
Magic songs of Lonhi never;
Sampo in her song grew aged,
Lonhi with her magic vanished,
In her singing died Wipunen,
As I played, died Lunminkainen.
Other words there are a many,
Magic words that I have taught me,
Which I picked up from the pathway,
Which I gathered from the forest,
Which I snapped from wayside bushes,
Which I gleaned from slender grass-blades,
Which I found upon the foot-bridge.
When I wandered as a herd-boy.
As a child into the pastures,
To the meadows rich in honey,
To the sun-begoldened hilltops,
Following the black Maurikki
By the side of brindled Kimmo.

Lays the winter gave me also,
Song was given me by the rain-storm,
Other lays the wind-gusts blew me,
And the waves of ocean brought them;
Words I borrowed of the song-birds,
And wise sayings from the tree-tops.

Then into a skein I wound them,
Bound them fast into a bundle,
Laid upon my ledge the burthen,
Bore them with me to my dwelling,
On the garret beams I stored them,
In the great chest bound with copper.

Long time in the cold they lay there,
Under lock and key a long time;
From the cold shall I forth bring them?
Bring my lays from out the frost there
'Neath this roof so wide-renownèd?
Here my song-chest shall I open,
Chest with runic lays o'errunning?
Shall I here untie my bundle,
And begin my skein unwinding?
* * * * *
Now my lips at last must close them
And my tongue at last be fettered;
I must leave my lay unfinished,
And must cease from cheerful singing;
Even the horses must repose them
When all day they have been running;
Even the iron's self grows weary
Mowing down the summer grasses;
Even the water sinks to quiet
From its rushing in the river;
Even the fire seeks rest in ashes
That all night hath roared and crackled;
Wherefore should not music also,
Song itself, at last grow weary
After the long eve's contentment
And the fading of the twilight?
I have also heard say often,
Heard it many times repeated,
That the cataract swift-rushing
Not in one gush spends its waters,
And in like sort cunning singers
Do not spend their utmost secret,
Yea, to end betimes is better
Than to break the thread abruptly.

Ending, then, as I began them,
Closing thus and thus completing,
I fold up my pack of ballads,
Roll them closely in a bundle,
Lay them safely in the storeroom,
In the strong bone-castle's chamber,
That they never thence be stolen,
Never in all time be lost thence,
Though the castle's wall be broken,
Though the bones be rent asunder,
Though the teeth may be pried open,
And the tongue be set in motion.

How, then, were it sang I always
Till my songs grew poor and poorer,
Till the dells alone would hear me,
Only the deaf fir-trees listen?
Not in life is she, my mother,
She no longer is aboveground;
She, the golden, cannot hear me,
'T is the fir-trees now that hear me,
'T is the pine-tops understand me,
And the birch-crowns full of goodness,
And the ash-trees now that love me!
Small and weak my mother left me,
Like a lark upon the cliff-top,
Like a young thrush 'mid the flintstones
In the guardianship of strangers,
In the keeping of the stepdame.
She would drive the little orphan.
Drive the child with none to love him,
To the cold side of the chimney,
To the north side of the cottage.
Where the wind that felt no pity,
Bit the boy with none to shield him.
Larklike, then, I forth betook me,
Like a little bird to wander.
Silent, o'er the country straying
Yon and hither, full of sadness.
With the winds I made acquaintance
Felt the will of every tempest.
Learned of bitter frost to shiver,
Learned too well to weep of winter.

Yet there be full many people
Who with evil voice assail me,
And with tongue of poison sting me,
Saying that my lips are skilless,
That the ways of song I know not,
Nor the ballad's pleasant turnings.
Ah, you should not, kindly people,
Therein seek a cause to blame me,
That, a child, I sang too often,
That, unfledged, I twittered only.
I have never had a teacher,
Never heard the speech of great men,
Never learned a word unhomely,
Nor fine phrases of the stranger.
Others to the school were going,
I alone at home must keep me,
Could not leave my mother's elbow,
In the wide world had her only;
In the house had I my schooling,
From the rafters of the chamber.
From the spindle of my mother,
From the axehelve of my father,
In the early days of childhood;
But for this it does not matter,
I have shown the way to singers,
Shown the way, and blazed the tree-bark,
Snapped the twigs, and marked the footpath;
Here shall be the way in future,
Here the track at last be opened
For the singers better-gifted,
For the songs more rich than mine are,
Of the youth that now are waxing,
In the good time that is coming!

Like Virgil's husbandman, our minstrel did not know how well off he was to have been without schooling. This, I think, every one feels at once to be poetry that sings itself. It makes its own tune, and the heart beats in time to its measure. By and by poets will begin to say, like Goethe, "I sing as the bird sings"; but this poet sings in that fashion without thinking of it or knowing it. And it is the very music of his race and country which speaks through him with such simple pathos. Finland is the mother and Russia is the stepdame, and the listeners to the old national lays grow fewer every day. Before long the Fins will be writing songs in the manner of Heine, and dramas in imitation of "Faust." Doubtless the material of original poetry lies in all of us, but in proportion as the mind is conventionalized by literature, it is apt to look about it for models, instead of looking inward for that native force which makes models, but does not follow them. This rose of originality which we long for, this bloom of imagination whose perfume enchants us--we can seldom find it when it is near us, when it is part of our daily lives.

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