On Certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics.

From: Literary Sketches (1888)
Author: Henry S. Salt
Published: Swan Sonnenschein Lowrey & Co. 1888 London

On Certain Lyric Poets, and their Critics.

THE poet and the critic have been at variance from time immemorial, yet I doubt if any modern poetical work has been subjected to so much mistaken criticism as the imaginative and impassioned style of poetry of which Shelley and Swinburne are perhaps the most notable representatives. It has at all times been a common complaint against such writers that they subordinate the true and natural to the unreal and mystical, and that their poetry is consequently of only secondary value. As a typical instance of this kind of criticism, I will quote the opinion of Sir Henry Taylor, as given in the Preface to Philip Van Artevelde.

  Speaking of Shelley and his followers, whom he calls the “Phantastic school,” he says:

  “Much beauty, exceeding splendour of diction and imagery, cannot but be perceived in his poetry, as well as exquisite charms of versification; and a reader of an apprehensive fancy will doubtless be entranced while he reads; but when he shall have closed the volume, and considered within himself what it has added to his stock of permanent impressions, of recurring thoughts, of pregnant recollections, he will probably find his stores in this kind no more enriched by having read Mr. Shelley’s poems, than by having gazed on so many gorgeously-coloured clouds in an evening sky.”

  Again, in another passage, he finds fault with the “new poets,” of whom Byron and Shelley were the chief, on the ground that they did not attempt to “thread the mazes of life in all its classes and under all its circumstances, common as well as romantic; “and he comes to the conclusion that such poetry, “though it may be excellent of its kind, will not long be reputed to be poetry of the highest order. It may move the feelings and charm the fancy, but failing to satisfy the understanding it will not take permanent possession of the strongholds of fame.”

  This criticism undoubtedly expresses, the views of a large class of critics and readers. And in a certain limited sense it is an undisputed fact, that Shelley, like others of the “new poets,” did not study life under all its circumstances, as Shakspere or Goethe studied it. But when Sir Henry Taylor, and those who think with him proceed to assert that such poetry is therefore a failure, or at any rate worthy only of partial and limited approval, they are arriving at a most unjust and unwarrantable conclusion; For lyric poetry is valuable, not as a philosophic study of every phase and condition of life, but as an expression of certain spiritual emotions which are none the less real because they are not universal. Poetry is a many-sided art; and it is absurd to lay down a strict rule, and define that as the only poetry, or as the only noble poetry, which takes a purely dispassionate and philosophical view of life. All this must ever be a matter of individual opinion; and therefore those who attempt to judge lyric poetry by the alien standard of practical utility or philosophic precision, must stand condemned of being naturally incapable of comprehending the very essence of the lyrical spirit. Their criticism may be perfectly true in its merely negative assertions, while all the time it entirely fails to understand the object and motive power of the poetry it assails, and furnishes us with another illustration of what Macaulay describes as “the irrational laws which bad critics have framed for the government of poets.”

  In short, there is a natural deficiency in the minds of some critics, however acute they may be in other respects. In applying the ordinary rules of literary criticism to the ethereal subtleties of lyric poetry, they are engaged in a hopeless task of beating the air. They grasp the impalpable, and complain that it is light and unsubstantial; they stare at the invisible, and pronounce it mystic and obscure; they listen diligently for the inaudible, and are mightily offended because they hear nothing. They accordingly pronounce certain styles of poetry to be unreal, shallow, meaningless; and never for a moment suspect that they themselves are in fault, owing to their own inherent inability to appreciate certain delicate emotions. When a disciple of the common-sense school finds himself, as Sir Henry Taylor says, in no way enriched by reading Shelley’s poems, we are inevitably reminded of Peter Bell and his very disparaging opinion as to the utility of wildflowers:

“A primrose by a river’s brim
A yellow primrose was to him,
And it was nothing more.”

  But, before we go farther, it may be well here to inquire what is this hidden charm in the spirit of lyrical poetry, so vague and unreal to some, yet so true and ever-present to others. We can scarcely hope to define it successfully, for it is well-nigh indefinable: we can only appeal to the intuitive perception of those who have felt it, and who can bear witness what a reality it has been to them. It is the charm of expressing by language something far more than what is conveyed by the mere meaning or the mere sound; the power of evoking an echo from the spiritual world, such as music can often give us, or the clash of distant bells. It is the miracle of kindling by words that divine sympathy with the inarticulate voice of the elements, which we feel in the presence of the wind, the sea, the mountains. It is that communion with the spirit of nature of which Shelley writes, as none other could have written:

“Fair are others; none beholds thee;
But thy voice sounds low and tender
Like the fairest, for it folds thee
From the sight, that liquid splendour;
And all feel, yet see thee never,—
As I feel now, lost for ever!”

Such sympathy is instinctive, heaven-sent, unattainable by human diligence or philosophic speculation; those who feel it not will for ever fail to comprehend it, and those who have once felt it will value it above all mortal possessions. It is of such as these that Swinburne speaks:

“For these have the toil and the guerdon1
That the wind has eternally; these
Have part in the boon and the burden
Of the sleepless unsatisfied breeze,
That finds not, but seeking rejoices
That possession can work him no wrong:
And the voice at the heart of their voice is
The sense of his song.

For the wind’s is their doom and their blessing
To desire, and have always above
A possession beyond their possessing,
A love beyond reach of their love,
Green earth has her sons and her daughters,
And these have their guerdons; but we
Are the wind’s and the sun’s and the water’s,
Elect of the sea.”

  While speaking on this subject I could hardly have quoted from a more appropriate source than from the writings of the poet who, next to Shelley, has been endowed with the largest share of impassioned lyric inspiration; and who has certainly been not less misconstrued and misunderstood than was his great predecessor. Critics are never weary of harping on the so-called aberrations and extravagances of Mr. Swinburne’s genius; but those who have an ear for the subtler harmonies of lyric poetry, know well that in all Mr. Swinburne’s writings, in spite of obvious mannerisms, and minor blemishes, there is an intense reality of sublime spiritual feeling, which alone is sufficient to mark him as one of our greatest poets. If we compare his poems with those of his chief contemporaries, we shall find that although he may be inferior to them in many respects, and especially in those points on which our orthodox critics mostly insist, yet he has one poetical quality which is peculiarly and eminently his own. He does not possess Mr. Browning’s great dramatic insight and wide scope of intellectual vision, nor Lord Tennyson’s idyllic composure and exquisite felicity of expression; but in place of these he has in an eminent degree a gift which they do not possess-the spirit of deep and passionate sympathy with all that is natural, elemental, primeval, and the power of expressing this spirit in words which themselves seem to be absolutely spontaneous and unpremeditated.

  It would not be difficult to multiply instances of this lyric faculty; but it will be sufficient here to allude to two or three other most striking examples. It is to this same passionate inspiration that Mrs. Browning’s poetry owes its unspeakable charm; it is this same spirit that at times exalts the Bronte novels (for prose has its lyrics as well as poetry) to heights untouched by other English novelists. No deep learning, no wide experience, no patient observation, no mere artistic skill, could have availed to produce such poems as Lady Geraldine’s Courtship, Cowper’s Grave, Bianca among the Nightingales, and a host of others which I need not here enumerate. The following lines, taken from Bianca among the Nightingales, will give a powerful instance of that divine afflatus with which all true lyric poetry is animated:

“The cypress stood up like a church,
That night we felt our love would hold,
And saintly moonlight seemed to search
And wash the whole world clean as gold;
The olives crystallised the vales,
Broad slopes until the hills grew strong:
The fireflies and the nightingales
Throbbed each to either, flame and song.
The nightingales, the nightingales.
.   .   .   .   .   .
We paled with love, we shook with love,
We kissed so close we could not vow;
Till Giulio whispered, ‘Sweet, above
God’s Ever guarantees this Now.’
And through his words the nightingales
Drove straight and full their long clear call,
Like arrows through heroic mails,
And love was awful in it all.
The nightingales, the nightingales.”

Again, if the writings of Charlotte Brontë be compared with those of George Eliot, we shall see very clearly the marked contrast between the lyrical and philosophical spirit. There is probably more thoughtful judgment and mature wisdom in a single page of Middlemarch than in all the works of Charlotte Brontë; yet we might look in vain through all George Eliot’s writings for a passage such as the following, taken from the last pages of Villette:

  “The skies hang full and dark—a rack sails from the west; the clouds cast themselves into strange forms—arches and broad radiations; there rise resplendent mornings-glorious, royal, purple as monarch in his state; the heavens are one flame; so wild are they, they rival battle at its thickest-so bloody, they shame Victory in her pride. I know some signs of the sky; I have noted them ever since childhood. God watch that sail! Oh! guard it!

  “The wind shifts to the west. Peace, peace, ‘Banshee’—keening at every window! It will rise—it will swell—it shrieks out long: wander as I may through the house this night, I cannot lull the blast. The advancing hours make it strong; by midnight all sleepless watchers hear and fear a wild south-west storm.”

  To appreciate at their true value such words as these, one has need of much more than a sound intellect and good poetical “taste.” The lyric spirit is possessed, as it were, of a new sense; and its independence of eye and ear may most aptly be illustrated by what naturalists tell us of the formation of a bat’s wing, the nerves of which are of such fine and exquisite sensibility, as to enable it to avoid all objects in its nocturnal flight, though it receives no assistance from the sight or hearing.

  But here many persons will doubtless assert that this lyrical faculty, even if we grant its existence, is by no means so valuable a gift to a writer as that of calm philosophical observation and dispassionate judgment; common sense, they say, must come first, and inspiration afterwards. I am not now concerned to disprove this assertion; my present object has been merely to show that there exists in lyric poetry something beside and beyond the ordinary poetic qualities, and totally different in kind. It is therefore idle to attempt to bind down this spirit by any critical rules, or to assert that such poetry, because it does not satisfy some arbitrary standard of criticism, is therefore inferior or valueless. Critics always perform a useful task when they point out literary defects, and so purge away the dross, more or less of which is to be found in every poetical work; but they must not forget that a still higher and more important task is to discover the gold: the good and not the bad should be the main object of our search. It is certainly a serious error to overlook the faults of a poem which we admire; but to fail to discern the excellencies of a poem we dislike is a far graver and more irreparable blunder. For this reason the sincerest admirers are on the whole the truest critics; they alone can fully appreciate and sympathise with the spirit of the author.

  In speaking of this lyrical spirit as vague and impalpable, I have not meant to imply that it is necessarily purposeless and aimless. On the contrary, it has many times been enlisted in a noble cause; seldom in any that is not noble. It is seen in its most glorious aspect when it is united with lofty and unselfish philanthropy, as in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, or with ardent love of liberty, as in Swinburne’s Songs before Sunrise. But in many cases it is like the wind, that bloweth where it listeth: and a wise critic will then allow free scope to what he cannot control, and, if he himself cannot appreciate or understand, will at least recognise the fact that others may be able to do so. At present it constantly happens that poems are ridiculed and disparaged for no better reason than that the critic has not the power of comprehending the subject on which he writes. Whenever I hear a critic harping on the “weakness” of Shelley’s style, or the “poverty of thought” in Swinburne, or the various “fatal shortcomings” of other great poets, I am irresistibly tempted to draw his attention to that suggestive passage in Pickwick in which Mr. Winkle criticises so severely the quality of his skates:

  “‘These are very awkward skates; ain’t they Sam?’ inquired Mr. Winkle, staggering.

  “I’m afeerd there’s an orkard gen’l’man in ‘em, sir,’ replied Sam.”

1 By the North Sea.

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