, Research Paper
Author of "The Man with the Hoe, and Other Poems," etc.,
THE POET AS A TEACHER.
Q. It has often been said that poetry must decrease as science and civilization
advance. Lord Macaulay in his essay on Milton cites this fact as indicating the greatness
of Milton’s achievement, and other thinkers also have contended that the writing of a
great imaginative poem was far more difficult in a scientific, intellectual, and
utilitarian age like the present than in the period in which Homer lived, when an air of
mystery rested over the world; when gods were supposed to hold revels on the mountains;
when the forests were filled with nymphs and dryads; when every voice of Nature was
supposed to be the voice of some incarnate being; when, in a word, the imagination held
mastery over the intellect. Do you believe that contention well founded? Has the march of
mind, the dispelling of mystery, and the ascendency of science dwarfed the imagination and
robbed the world of the mystic charm of poetry ?
A. No; science will never obliterate poetry, for there is no collision between them,
any more than there is a collision between the light and heat that make up the sunbeam.
Each is necessary in any complete, interpretation of life and its mystery .There is a
world of poetry, and it is a real one. There is a world of science, and it is a real one.
Both worlds—the poet’s world and the proseman’s world—are here under this sky;
and both worlds are real to the ultimate atom. Neither of these worlds is fancy-born; they
are merely different.
Science classifies and coordinates laws and objects, seeking for a principle of unity
in the universe. Poetry, however, neglects mere definition, mere catalogue, and seizes
eagerly upon that mysterious something that constitutes the deep individuality of things.
Science proceeds by the plodding steps of the understanding. Poetry sweeps onward by the
swift flight of the imagination. To the scientist a tree has a trunk to be measured, has
leaves to be classified, has sap to be analyzed. To the poet, the tree becomes the symbol
of his joy and his grief, a medium of his sentiments, his emotions.
Now, these two modes of approaching the world will continue forever—as long as men
have minds to be enlightened and hearts to be awakened. It is true that the poetic
imagination needs mystery for a background, but mystery will always remain. The unknown
will surround us, however deep we may delve into the universe. Science only increases the
mystery of life: every new pioneering opens up a new frontier.
Q. The nineteenth century, though preeminently marked by its utilitarianism, and
intellectually probably the most revolutionary century of the ages,–the period that
marked the rise of physical science and the domination of modern critical methods of
research,—also produced such marvelous sons of poetry and imagination as Richard
Wagner and Victor Hugo. Are not these phenomena in themselves an answer to the wail of the
pessimist that the age of poetry is past ?
A. They certainly are. Indeed, the outfit of imaginative literature in this age was
never surpassed perhaps by any other epoch. The present era finds its only rivals in the
age of Elizabeth and the age of Pericles. Surely at no other time in history were there so
many alert minds devoting their energies to poetry and other forms of creative literature.
Browning holds wide the door to the heart that Shakespeare opened; Tennyson speaks the
wonder of the inflexible law, as Eschylus spoke the sternness of inexorable Fate. The age
that gives us the combined harvester also gives us the alluring and intricate strains of
Swinburne and the Orphic verses of Emerson. The age that gives us the ocean greyhound and
the iron horse is, also, giving us the fine poetic chiselings of Thomas Bailey Aldrich and
the lyrical cloud-beauty of Joaquin Miller. On every hand we hear the sound of dollars on
the exchanger’s counter, yet through all the carnal noises come the prophet chants of an
Ernest Crosby and the free outdoor raptures of a Bliss Carman.
Q. To me it seems that poetry was never more needed than at the present time and never
a more potential factor in the enrichment of the mind and the stimulation of the best in
our natures. Do you not think that one of the greatest heart cries of the age is for
Beauty—Beauty in thought and expression; in a word, something to feed the imagination
and touch the deepest wellsprings of our being: something to lift us above sordid
gain-seeking, to exalt our ideals and bring us near to the throbbing Heart of the Universe
A. Never was more needed—you are right. There is a deep need for something to
temper the hard materialism of the hour. "Where there is no vision the people
perish," said the prophet of old time. No truer word was ever spoken within the
hearing of this world. The poet—the revealer of Beauty—is a precious possession
for any people. For he comes with power to open paths for our feet into the lofty places
of the ideal—paths of escape from the hard monotone of our daily lives, from the iron
despotism of the actual. And the ideal is not a vapor, a house of cloud: it is the most
vital reality known to men—more precious than Ophir, more enduring than Pentelicus.
It is that sacred beauty that draws our eyes away from the dust and mire—that makes
us stand erect and look upon the stars.
Q. If our views are correct, then the new wonder-world revealed by science and
invention, and the increase of our knowledge of nations, races, and civilizations past and
present, ought to broaden and enrich the imagination of the poet as well as stir to nobler
expressions the new and splendid spiritual ideals that haunt the prophet brain of the age.
The concepts of being have never been so august as now. The realization of the solidarity
of life, the dream of brotherhood, and the finding of God’s new Bible, writ in the strata
of the rocks during countless ages and proving that the key-note of life from that
far-away night-time when the spirit of God brooded over the waters has been
Ascent—these things, it seems to me, should appeal to the imagination of the poet
with a power not known to the men who lived in the childhood period of our race. Am I not
A. You are right in every word. All things are working together for good to the client
of the Muses. Science opens a new mystery for the poet’s wonder; history discloses new
dramas for his instruction; democracy reveals new ground for his hope and his prophecy.
The world was never before so rich in all the precious seed of poesy. All that is needed
for a new poetic age is that the poets shall appear—the men with the far-seeing eye,
the passionate heart, and the power to compel words to their loftier uses.
from The Arena, New York, December 1902