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THE LITERATURE OF ECSTASY

CHAPTER I

INTRODUCTION

FROM time immemorial it has been assumed that poetry is something which is caviare to the general public. A "poem" even to-day is supposed to be a literary composition that is in artificial language arranged in a metrical pattern, often conveying a trite idea or enshrining an ineffective image. Thousands of volumes and essays have been written on poetry, and instead of fathoming a true conception of its nature, they have dealt with the trappings and garments which clothe it; these indeed have often been confused with poetry itself. As a result, there has grown around the pathway leading to poetry an endless maze of shrubbery. The reader who has no knowledge of rules and laws relating to verse, who is ignorant of technical requirements and established uses, labors under the delusion that he does not like poetry. Though he reads many works in prose that stir a deep emotional appeal within him, he does not regard himself as one of those lovers who haunt the foot of Parnassus Hill.

I wish in this volume to present a conception of poetry freed from academic and conventional standards. I wish to restore to the term poetry its primary and fundamental significance as a verbal composition in which the predominating feature is ecstasy. Poetry is an emotional

atmosphere that pervades all literature in its finest parts; it characterizes any purely personal expression of the creative imagination. As the reader perceives, my definition of poetry includes prose literature in which ecstasy is present. I do not think of poetry as a branch of literature couched in a metrical form, following regular rules of rhythm, diction, figures of speech or rhyme. My conception of poetry then, is not that of a department of literature which is opposed to prose, but of an emotional spirit hovering over any kind of writing, whether in verse or prose, which conveys ecstasy.

I shall try to show especially that the prose literature of ecstasy fulfils all the intrinsic conditions which have been associated with poetry. I shall consider the question of how much, or rather how little, the element of rhythm, or any other pattern is essential in determining the nature of poetry. In fact, I shall even maintain that prose irregularly rhythmical or even unrhythmical,* just as the exigencies of the emotion require, is the natural language of the emotions, that it was so at the very beginnings of literary history, and has in fact never ceased being used as such a vehicle. I shall further take the position that the set forms of verse which have grown up among all nations as a vesture for emotional writing, have been more or less pervaded with artificiality. The final judgment as to the nature of poetry resides in the appeal to the emotions. The test of poetry is not in the form which the writer uses, or in compliance with rules of prosody, but in the soul of the reader or hearer. If two emotional passages, one in a set pattern and one in

*All prose has rhythm. I use the word "unrhythmical" merely to designate such prose where the rhythm is not marked. There is no sharp dividing line between rhythmical and unrhythmical prose.

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