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“To discover the laws of operative power in literary works, though it claims no small respect under the name of Criticism, is not commonly considered the work of a science.” These are the words of Dr Whewell in his lecture on the Great Exhibition of last year, and it must be allowed that they are true words. We have critical opinions in great abundance, and often of great value, but we have no critical system. The critics feel their way, do not see it; we walk by faith, not by sight; our judgments too often show instinct without understanding. Hence it happens that now, when literary criticism cuts deeper than it ever cut before, it is all the more a labyrinth of confusion, confusion worse confounded, -as vague indeed as it can well be. But, chaos though it be, it is a chaos pregnant with meaning, and richly deserving scientific arrangement. Towards the accomplishment of a work so very important and so very much needed; to the placing of criticism upon something like a scientific footing; in brief, towards a science of poetry and of poetic expression, I desire to contribute a mite.
Many are the definitions of poetry that have been given to the world ; many more the reviews of poetry in its other bearings, theoretic, practical, historic and individual; yet never one too many; for, much and long as the ground has been travelled over, it is, although trodden somewhat hard, still not only far from being exhausted, but even very fertile, if you get under the surface. Therefore, and because, after all that has been said about poetry, few seem to have any, and very few to agree in the same, well-defined idea of its nature; and since, even by failing, any definition may be at least as useful as the unlucky ship that grounded at the battle of Aboukir and did for a waymark to them that followed; I hope that I shall not be deemed guilty of overweening boldness in attempting a new analysis. I have the greater confidence, however, in laying the present theory before the reader, inasmuch as glimpses and tokens of it are found in the pages of many of the best writers; and I believe that it will thus stand the test given by Leibnitz to ascertain the soundness of any body of thought, that it should gather into one united household, not by heaping and jumbling together, but by reconciling, proving to be kindred, and causing to embrace, opinions the most widely sundered and apparently the most hostile.
First of all, we must know the kind of definition wanted; what is its breadth, and what is its depth.
Now, with regard to breadth, it ought here in the very outset to be laid down as an axiom, that any definition of poet and poetry which may apply to a chosen few, but will not also take in the whole bulk of mankind as poets, is narrow and naught. Poetry is human; the poet is but a man. It is maintained, however, by some, that between the so-called poet and his fellow-man, or, in the phrase of Coleridge, between the man of genius and the man of talent, there is a difference not merely of degree, but even of kind. This opinion is beset with doubt and difficulty, and is in fact an unfounded opinion. But those who deny it are placed in the very awkward position of gainsaying that of which confessedly they know nothing. If you cannot understand the difference between touch and sight, you must have been born blind: if you do not see the essential difference between genius and talent, it may be said that you have not been born a genius. When he, therefore, who lays claim to no other feelings and none other powers than those common to his brethren, dares give his opinion, he may be told that in so doing he has begged the whole question, and that his methinketh must go for nothing, as not professing to be founded on a peculiar experience. The shortest way then of settling the point is by recalling the fact that men of undoubted genius, such as Johnson, when speaking of Cowley, of Pope, and of Reynolds ; Reynolds himself; Thomas Gray, when he allows the possibility of a mute inglorious Milton; and, in our own times, Thomas Carlyle-uphold that genius is but mind of greater strength and larger growth than ordinary, carried hither or thither—to poetry, to philosophy, or to action—with a fair wind, and the tide of the age and a thousand chance currents, all more or less unknown and unknowable, but all under the eye and governance of that Almighty Wisdom which from the beginning foresees the end. Mind of such an order soon becomes alive to the powers with which it has been gifted; and fearlessly trusting in the same, shaking off, not indeed the guidance, but the yoke of authority, and going forward in its own indwelling strength, utters and fulfils itself in works quickened and bedewed with that freshness commonly called originality. We may therefore conclude, with Wordsworth, that among those qualities which go to form a poet “is nothing differing in kind from other men, but only in degree.”
While the breadth, or in logical phrase the extension, of the definition should thus embrace all men, and not simply the well-starred few on whom have been bestowed, and justly bestowed, the most dazzling names, its depth or intension ought to reach from the very highest to the very lowest forms of poetry. We want not the knowledge of that which sometimes or even very often waits upon poetry as a kind of handmaiden, but the discovery of what is essential to poetic feeling, and that in all its stages, high, and low, and middling. It is remarkable that two of the world's greatest thinkers, Aristotle and Bacon, have defined poetry not in
itself, but by its accidents; the former laying stress on the fact that it is imitative and truthful, the latter on the fact that it is creative or feigned. And yet how thoroughly these are accidental is herein shown, that while Plato, in his Banquet, and by the mouth of Socrates himself reporting the words of an inspired prophetess, declares poetry to be a creation, nevertheless his grand objection to it in another work is, that it is but an imitation at third-hand. Circumstances equally accidental enter into other definitions. Were a man to explain anger by saying that it is a box on the ear, his description would be as good and of the same kind as many of the definitions of poetry. Simonides among the Greeks, for instance, and Darwin among ourselves, make poetry word-painting. Now, although wordpainting be very often the means of awakening poetic feeling, it is no more essential to that end than a blow, far less a blow on any particular spot, is needed for anger; and as one man waxes wroth when another in the same strait is unmoved, so what is poetry to one mind is not to another. Therefore we are not to ask what are the things that give birth to poetic feeling, which would be as idle as to reckon up all the things that make one angry; but we have to determine that state or mood of the mind called poetic. The definition must put no school beyond its pale; it must ban neither the Greek, nor the Gothic, nor the Asiatic; it must open its arms to all poetries alike, dramatic, epic, lyrical ;