« PrejšnjaNaprej »
THE POET'S POET
THE EGOCENTRIC CIRCLE
OST of us, mere men that we are, find our
selves caught in some entanglement of our mortal coil even before we have fairly embarked upon the enterprise of thinking our case through. The art of self-reflection which appeals to us as so eminent and so human, is it after all much more than a vaporous vanity? We name its subject "human nature"; we give it a raiment of timeless generalities; but in the end the show of thought discloses little beyond the obstreperous bit of a “me” which has blown all the fume. The "psychologist's fallacy,” or again the "egocentric predicament” of the philosopher of the Absolute, these are but tagged examples of a type of futile self-return (we name it “discovery" to save our faces) which comes more or less to men of all kinds when they take honest-eyed measure of the consequences of their own valuations of themselves. We pose for the portrait; we admire the Lion; but we have only to turn our heads to catch-glimpse Punch with thumb to nose. And then, of course, we mock our own
humiliation, which is another kind of vanity; and, having done this penance, pursue again our selfreturning fate. The theme is, after all, one we cannot drop; it is the mortal coil.
In the moment of our revulsion from the inevitable return upon itself of the human reason, many of us have clung with the greater desperation to the hope offered by poetry. By the way of intuition poets promise to carry us beyond the boundary of the vicious circle. When the ceaseless round of the real world has come to nauseate us, they assure us that by simply relaxing our hold upon actuality we may escape from the squirrel-cage. By consenting to the prohibition, "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss!" we may enter the realm of ideality, where our dizzy brains grow steady, and our pulses are calmed, as we gaze upon the quietude of transcendent beauty
But what are we to say when, on opening almost any book of comparatively recent verse, we find, not the self-forgetfulness attendant upon an ineffable vision, but advertisement of the author's importance? His argument we find running somewhat as follows: “I am superior to you because I write poetry. What do I write poetry about? Why, about my superiority, of course!" Must we not conclude that the poet, with the rest of us, is speeding around the hippodrome of his own self-centered consciousness?
Indeed the poet's circle is likely to appear to us even more vicious than that of other men. To be sure, we remember Sir Philip Sidney's contention, supported by his anecdote of the loquacious horseman, that men of all callings are equally disposed to vaunt themselves. If the poet seems especially voluble about his merits, this may be owing to the fact that, words being the tools of his trade, he is more apt than other men in giving expression to his selfimportance. But our specific objection to the poet is not met by this explanation. Even the horseman does not expect panegyrics of his profession to take the place of horseshoes. The inventor does not issue an autobiography in lieu of a new invention. The public would seem justified in reminding the poet that, having a reasonable amount of curiosity about human nature, it will eagerly devour the poet's biography, properly labeled, but only after he has forgotten himself long enough to write a poem that will prove his genius, and so lend worth to the perusal of his idiosyncratic records, and his judgments on poetic composition.
The first impulse of our revulsion from the selfinfatuated poet is to confute him with the potent name of Aristotle, and show him his doom foreCordained in the book of poetic Revelations. “The poet should speak as little as possible in his own person,” we read, "for it is not this that makes him an imitator." i One cannot too much admire Aristotle's canniness in thus nipping the poet's egotism in the bud, for he must have seen clearly that if the poet began to talk in his own person, he would soon lead the conversation around to himself, and that,
*Poetics, 1460 a.
once launched on that inexhaustible subject, he would never be ready to return to his original theme.
We may regret that we have not Aristotle's sanction for condemning also extra-poetical advertisements of the poet's personality, as a hindrance to our seeing the ideal world through his poetry. In certain moods one feels it a blessing that we possess no romantic traditions of Homer, to get in the way of our passing impartial judgment upon his works. Our intimate knowledge of nineteenth century poets has been of doubtful benefit to us. Wordsworth has shaken into what promises to be his permanent place among the English poets much more expeditiously than has Byron. Is this not because in Wordsworth's case the reader is not conscious of a magnetic personality drawing his judgment away from purely æsthetic standards? Again, consider the case of Keats. For us the facts of his life must color almost every line he wrote. How are we to determine whether his sonnet, When I Have Fears, is great poetry or not, so long as it fills our minds insistently with the pity of his love for Fanny Brawne, and his epitaph in the Roman graveyard ?
Christopher North has been much upbraided by a hero-worshiping generation, but one may go too far in condemning the Scotch sense in his contention :
Mr. Keats we have often heard spoken of in terms of great kindness, and we have no doubt that his manners and feelings are calculated to make his friends love him. But what has all this to do with our opinion of their poetry? What, in the name of wonder, does it
concern us, whether these men sit among themselves with mild or with sulky faces, eating their mutton steaks, and drinking their porter ? 1
If we are reluctant to sponsor words printed in Blackwoods, we may be more at ease in agreeing with the same sentiments as expressed by Keats himself. After a too protracted dinner party with Wordsworth and Hunt, Keats gave vent to his feelings as follows:
Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing that enters into one's soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself, but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! How they would lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, “Admire me, I am a violet! Dote upon me, I am a primrose!" ... I will cut all this—I will have no more of Wordsworth or Hunt in particular. ... I don't mean to deny Wordsworth's grandeur and Hunt's merit, but I mean to say that we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.2
If acquaintance with a poet prevents his contemporaries from fixing their attention exclusively upon the merits of his verse, in how much better case is posterity, if the poet's personality makes its way into the heart of his poetry? We have Browning's dictum on Shakespeare's sonnets,
With this key Shakespeare unlocked his heart. Once more Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he. Sidney Colvin, John Keats, p. 478. *Ibid., p. 253. •House.