« PreviousContinue »
easy while sawing the tree to imagine the distant worlds to which the ship can carry. Sawdust is dry stuff. Now what is language ? All outward expression of thought is language. Language is spirit or mind taking shape and becoming a new living power. The very world we live in is a language; for, as far as they go, we know the mind of God by the things He has created. Tree and flower, and field, and stars and sky, hill, river and sea, being each and all outward forms by which Spirit speaks and is made intelligible to us.
Next, man speaks to his fellow-man. Painting and sculpture form a language; colour and stone communicate thoughts. And architecture is another language. Every building, besides its actual use, is embodied thought, the mind of man petrified, as it were, telling of his meaning, whether the idea be great or vile. Music also is a language expressing feeling in a very vivid way. And last of all, words are the most subtle and perfect of all languages, not appealing to the eye like painting and architecture, but passing direct into the inner man; the strangest mixture of body and spirit, going straight to head and heart through the ear; spirit speaking to spirit on the waves of air. And this is not merely a curious statement. Word-language is the subtlest, the most perfect, the most enduring form taken by thought. Thousands of years in time are as nothing against its power. Over all lands by degrees the great world-wave of undying thought rolls on, filling the earth 'as the waters cover the sea.' Language may seem at first a little unlovely pond; go on, and you will find a rivulet; pass along the rivulet, it is a river ; follow the river, it is a sea; embark on the sea, and the whole world is open. To attain a mastery over language, then, is no mean thing; and to do this it is necessary first to master the grammatical secrets of the great wielders of language; and this must be done by constant analysis of their writings: and secondly, to understand somewhat the secret powers of thought and expression which make their writings precious. To learn to read the writings of great men with judgment and discrimination goes far towards making a good writer or speaker. And to read with discrimination implies a knowledge of the principles on which the writings were written. Language written or spoken, then, is obviously divided into Poetry and Prose. But it is by no means so obvious on examination what this means, for there is much good and bad poetry in prose, and bad and good prose in poetry so called. A short definition will not be out of place here. The main distinction between prose and poetry is that the business of prose is to impart fresh knowledge, of poetry to illuminate, to kindle, to suggest, and to touch the heart and feelings. This is the broad distinction between the two. Again, if we are to understand rightly what poetry ought to do, and what we are to expect in it, the subject must be divided into poetry of the feelings and poetry of the imagination, though few compositions entirely belong to one or the other of these distinct classes. Feeling and imagination intermingle in almost every poem, and the composition is said to belong to this or that class because one predominates, not because the other is absent. Yet they are wonderfully distinct in principle. Poetry of the feelings has to move the heart, and draw out the emotions in it. The heart is like a musical instrument, full of silent music, only wanting a skilful touch. The music is there. All that is required is to touch the right string, to finger the living chords and bring out their power, not to put anything in. Therefore the finer, the more delicate the touch, the sweeter will be the strain. If spirit could touch spirit without anything coming between, that, in matters of feeling, would be perfection. The ancients played their harps with a quill or plectrum of ivory, we with fingers. It is clear that the dead instrument, however jewelled or golden, must have been inferior immeasurably to the living fingers, and their music so far worse than ours. Now the heart is played on by words; so the most subtly simple diction, the least encumbered, the most spiritual, must get nearer the heart, must touch the heart-strings more delicately, glide in amongst them closer, give and take the thrill better, than words all jewelled and golden. For the bright and gorgeous words are out of place; they get in the way
between heart and heart, attract attention to themselves, and cannot draw out the gentlest, softest notes. Therefore in poetry of the feelings all depends on the truth of simple words going straight from heart to heart. All ornament in words takes away from the directness of the touch. Simplicity and truth must be looked for. Poetry of the imagination starts from a different point, and goes on different principles. Descriptive poetry is not already in the hearer, as the feelings are. A picture has to be presented, and the poet has to supply it all. Now a picture requires colours, and skill to blend them into an harmonious whole. Something new has to be imparted which was not present before, and yet not bare knowledge ; the flat, broad side of a fact is no more poetry than a botanical specimen is a flower. It must be pictorial, vivid, suggestive. Any word or line of imaginative poetry is not one word or line, but many; so condensed in analogy and spirit-power, so suggestive, as to fill the mind with images. Take this description of time as it appears to hope deferred:
'How like death-worms the wingless moments crawl!' The line is a sort of garden plot, full of seed-pods that burst open and scatter images of truth and life in a receptive mind. And this kind of vivid truth having to be put into the mind, great variety of glorious words, many bright and dark colours, as it were, must be used to produce the picture. Colour-power, so to say, not simplicity, is the characteristic of poetry of the imagination, as a new picture has to be put before the mind.
Prose, on the other hand, is designed to impart knowledge and not to suggest images, and if to move the mind to move it by facts; and it differs from poetry not in the metre or rhyme, which are mere accessories to heighten the effect and put the mind into a new state, but in the manner of putting the subject. Poetry suggests, prose states. Where a writing makes a great demand on the imagination of the reader; requires him to invest lifeless things with life, as in the line last quoted; and, again, to ascribe to life the fixity of lifeless things, as in these lines :
• My soul seemed-
Left on the shore, that hears all night
Their moonled waters white'
that is poetry. Poetry makes rapid comparisons, catches remote points of resemblance and makes them flash fire at a touch, and discovers and lights up hidden analogies. But when clearness of expression, forcible statement of facts, imparting of knowledge and instruction, is the object, that is prose, whether clothed in metre or not. The fact-statements in poetry will be as brief as possible; in prose they form the staple. The difference, as far as language goes, lies in the rapidity of the thoughts and condensed suggestive expression, rather than in any set rules.
The same principles of composition in their degree apply to both; and there is this advantage in poetry as a training subject, that the useless word, or clumsy statement, or unworthy treatment of the question, are more easily seen and convicted, are more ridiculous, than in the wider and more crowded field of prose. The following production, for instance, on the battle of Blenheim, out of metre would be simply dull; as' aping poetry in its dress it becomes amusing :
* Think of two thousand gentlemen at least,
sunk and bobbed their souls.'
The difference, then, between prose and poetry lies in the narrower range of prose; which, as far as it is different from poetry, confines itself to well - selected facts, well described. But most prose and poetry have much in common. In both the first thing to be cultivated is perfection of truth.
By this is meant no enumeration of obvious outside facts, but the great realities, whether outside or in, which are the life-marks of the thing proposed for the writer's work. Many writings remind one of stuffed animals; there is the skin, and something inside it, and a sort of face and body, and a sort of position, but it is after all only skin, and everybody sees, or ought to see, it is only skin. Truth is not there. A writer must have a keen perception of the main idea to be represented; and next, a keen insight into all the differences and special life-marks of the thing treated of; and he must combine his knowledge and feeling into an harmonious
whole. An oak, for instance, is a tree; but so is a fir; and if a writer in describing an oak only uses words which equally describe a fir, the description is poor stuff, like a child's drawing, a few scrawls with 'oak' written under it. But it is also poor stuff if, in describing an oak, terms are used which belong to all oaks in all places, at all seasons, under all circumstances, and every humour and feeling of the writer. It ought to be impossible to mistake a description. But this vivid inner truth will depend much on the point of view taken, and every word and image must tend to illustrate and increase the main idea. For instance, rain after drought is a very pleasant sound. Hear Shelley :
Sound of vernal showers
On the twinkling grass,
All that ever was
Thy music doth surpass.'
‘And ghastly through the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.' And again :
• Risest thou thus, dim dawn, again,
And howlest issuing out of night,
With blasts that blow the poplar white,
And lash with storm the streaming pane.' But the actual sound to the ear in both cases is the same. The difference consists in the associations and other accompanying circumstances dependent on the point of view. In prose this will be shown by the selection of facts; the keeping out of sight anything which would mar the effect; the skilful way in which one idea is presented in many lights, and made the centre point round which all the rest is grouped in order. For prose as well as poetry is a picture, and a picture does not mean that fifty photographs are stuck on one frame; they would still be fifty pictures, not one; but that all the parts are so skilfully combined as to produce one main impression as one whole, however