« PreviousContinue »
And Holmes assures us that
There breathes no being, but has some pretence
--A Metrical Essay.
If statements like these, which could be multiplied indefinitely, be true, then it is both important and possible for men of all classes and conditions to have the character and methods of this art-the only one accessible to the members of every household—so explained to them that they shall be able to appreciate it, and to judge intelligently of its products, and hence to enjoy it, and to profit by it. It is with this belief that the present work has been undertaken, in which it will be maintained throughout that there are absolute standards of poetic excellence; that these can be ascertained; and that upon them can be founded a system of criticism as simple as it is scientific.
At the threshold of our undertaking, the first thing for us, of course, is to become thoroughly acquainted with the facts of the case, and the fact of primary importance for us here will be ascertained when, in some form, we have answered the question, What is poetry?
Poetry is acknowledged to be an art, ranking, like music, with the fine arts,-painting, sculpture, and architecture. It is acknowledged, also, that the peculiar characteristic of all these arts is that they have what is termed form (from the Latin forma, an external appearance). This form, moreover, is æsthetic (from the Greek aio Ontós, perceived by the senses); and it is presented in such a way as to address the senses through the agency of an artist, who, in order to attain his end, re-presents the sounds or sights of nature. All these arts, therefore, in a broad sense of the term, are representative. What they repre
sent is partly the phenomena of nature and partly the thoughts of man; partly that which is imitated from things perceived in the world without, and partly that which is conceived in the mind of him who, in order to express his conception, produces the imitation. Both of these factors are present in all artistic forms, and cause them to be what they are. That painting and sculpture represent, is recognized by all; that music and architecture do the same, needs to be proved to most men. As for poetry, with which we are now to deal, all perceive that it contains certain representative elements; but few are aware to what an extent these determine every thing in it that is distinctive and excellent.
The medium used in poetry is language, of which it is simply an artistic development. To understand the one, we should begin by trying to understand the other. Let us consider, then, for a little, what language is. Only a moment's thought will show, that, like the arts of which I have spoken, it, too, is representative. Through outward and perceptible sounds or symbols it makes known our inward thoughts, which, without the representation, others could not know. If, in any way, we can ascertain how it does this, we may gain a clew by which to find how poetry can do the same.
How, then, does language represent thought through the agency of sound? The best way to find an answer to this is to trace, as far as possible, the course of a few thoughts from their inception in the mind outward to the full expression of them in words. For this purpose we might imagine ourselves to be living in some early, or, at least, uncultivated age; we might ask what would be done by the members of a race with a limited number of words and desirous of expressing ideas for which they had no
terms in their vocabulary. But, without taxing our imagination thus, we can accomplish our purpose by watching the children of our own time. We can note the different stages in the development of their efforts to tell us what they think; and then we can argue from analogy that there would be a similar order of development in language during the childhood of the race. Let us pursue this course. As we do so, we shall find ourselves, instinctively, making two divisions of our subject : the first dealing with the methods of originating sounds so as to represent thought; the second, with the use of them after they have been originated so as to represent different thoughts. It is best to begin by considering the former of these, and then, immediately in connection with it, its bearings on poetic forms; not because, in its relations either to language or to poetry, it occupies the more important position, but because it comes the earlier in the order of time.
The first sounds made by the babe are instinctive, and seem to be accepted as words in fulfilment mainly of the principle of association. By instinctive, as used in this book, is meant an expression allied in its nature to instinct; due, even in a rational being, to the operation less of conscious rationality than of natural forces vitalizing all sentient existence. The child cries and crows while the mother hums and chuckles, and both understand each other. They communicate through what may be termed ejaculations or interjections. This kind of language is little above the level of that of the brutes; in fact, it is of the same nature as theirs. The sounds seem to have a purely muscular or nervous origin; and for this reason may be supposed to have no necessary connection with particular thoughts or psychic states intended to be expressed by
them. Nevertheless, we all understand the meanings of them when produced by the lower animals, as well as when made by man. Everywhere, certain ejaculations are recognized to be expressive of the general tenor of certain feelings, like those of pleasure and pain, desire and aversion, surprise and fright. This fact shows that in a true sense these ejaculations are representative; and to recognize it, is all that is necessary for our present purpose. To show why they are so, to explain how the various qualities and movements of sounds can be made to picture in one sphere the qualities and movements of thoughts which can exist only in another sphere, would require a thorough unfolding of the principles of elocution and music; and to introduce this just here would take us away from the line of thought immediately before us.
Waiving all questions with reference to any comparison or likeness that there may be between these ejaculations and the particular sensations that they express, we can all recognize how men, after they have heard the same utterance used many times with the same emotion, should come to ally or associate the two. “Expression," says Farrar, in his “ Language and Languages,” “is the natural and spontaneous result of impression; and, however merely animal in their nature the earliest exclamations may have been, they were probably the very first to acquire the dignity and significance of reasonable speech, because in their case, more naturally than in any other, the mere repetition of the sound would, by the association of ideas, involuntarily recall the sensation of which the sound was so energetic and instantaneous an exponent. In the discovery of this simple law, which a very few instances would reveal to the mind of man, lay the discovery of the Idea of Speech. The divine secret of language--the
secret of the possibility of perfectly expressing the unseen and immaterial by an articulation of air which seemed to have no analogy with it—the secret of accepting sounds as the exponents and signs of every thing in the choir of heaven and furniture of earth'-lay completely revealed in the use of two or three despised interjections. To borrow a simile from the eloquent pages of Herder, they were the sparks of Promethean fire which kindled language into life."
The principle of association in connection with the use of natural exclamations, accounts probably for the origin not only of actual interjections, but of other sounds also, like the sibilants, aspirates, and gutturals, giving their peculiar qualities to the meanings of syllables like those in hush, hist, and kick. Some, too, think that it accounts for the origin of words like is, me, and that, cognate with the Sanskrit as, ma, and ta; the first meaning to breathe, and indicating the act of breathing; the second closing the lips to shut off outside influence, and thus to refer to self; and the third opening the lips to refer to others. In the same way, too, because the organs of speech are so formed that the earliest articulated sound made by a babe is usually either mama or papa, and the earliest persons to whom each is addressed are the mother and father, people of many different races have come to associate mama, which, as a rule, is uttered first, with an appeal to the mother, and papa with an appeal to the father.
In order, however, that utterances springing from sounds like these may be used in language, it is evident that men must begin to imitate them. The principle of imitation, therefore, as well as that of ejaculation, must have been closely connected with the formation of the earliest words. Ejaculations, as has been said, are instinc