All I Survey/Essay XII

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Essay XI All I Survey
Essay XII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XIII



Essay XII: On Bad Poetry

I WAS recently enjoying a book published some little time ago, under the name of _The Stuffed Owl; an Anthology of Bad Verse._ The specimens were selected, I think, by Mr. D. B. Wyndham Lewis and Mr. Lee; but I am not reviewing the work, which must have been reviewed everywhere long ago, and has, I trust, received the admiration it certainly deserves. For the moment it has merely sent my wits wandering in the wide and rich and many-coloured fields of inferior literature. Much have the editors of the anthology travelled in these realms of gold; and I do not dream of competing with their deep scholarship touching the monumental classics of bad writing, or their exquisite and delicate artistic instinct for the finest and freshest shades of imbecility. If I may reverently adapt Matthew Arnold's definition of culture, they do indeed know the worst that has been said and thought in the history of humanity. Of course, any critic can complain of any anthology that some of his own favourites have been left out. He may sometimes even claim that some that are not on the high level of the anthology have been put in. As the critic skims an ordinary anthology to find an item which he can condemn as a blemish, so here the critic may pounce upon something that is not sufficiently half-witted to satisfy his high standard, and sternly point to several passages that are not so bad as they should be. Glimmerings of almost human intelligence, gleams of more than merely bestial reason, spasms of something almost resembling speech, relieve the monotony of the Imperial poems of Alfred Austin or the pagan passions of the more fearless, not to say shameless, imitators of Swinburne. Every now and then, after wading through a hubbub of hundreds of words, we find a word that seems to have gone right by accident. We must not complain; nothing in this mortal life is perfect; not even bad poetry.

Of course, there is one real difficulty in the classification of such classics. They necessarily divide themselves into at least two distinct types, which have really a rather different status and value. They raise two questions, which are hardly of equal intellectual importance. The first is: "Why do people who are not poets try to write poetry?" The second is: "Why do people who are poets fail to write poetry?" It is the second question which is the more difficult to answer and therefore the more worth answering. The first class consists of any number of accidents of ignorance and inexperience and vanity and egotistical self-deception; but beyond that there is nothing very extraordinary about it. A mysterious proverb declares that little birds who can sing and won't sing must be made to sing; though I never could imagine how. But evidently nobody ever had the courage to suggest what should be done with little birds who can't sing and do sing. There seems no suggestion possible, except that they should be shot; against which, in the name of St. Francis, the patron of all birds, poets, and other minor nuisances, I warmly protest. Of this sort of merely provincial limitation, the poetry of the Village Bard who looks dreadfully like the Village Idiot, the sort of thing that Oliver Wendell Holmes playfully satirized in the character of Gifted Hopkins, there is, of course, a great deal in such an anthology as this. There is a lot of it in the book; but there is also such a lot of it in the world that the examples must almost necessarily be accidents. Each one of us has probably found his own favourite piece of folly, in an advertisement or an epitaph or a corner of a newspaper; and the thing has remained almost as private as a family joke. To keep a record of all these individual discoveries would need not an anthology but a library of lunacy; a Bodleian of Bad Verse.

I cannot resist the temptation of telling Mr. D. B. Wyndham Lewis, and all other true lovers of bad poetry, of one poet to whom I know they would not refuse the laurel. He was so famous a person as the Rev. Patrick Brontë, the father of the great Brontë sisters; and his verses are actually printed along with theirs at the end of one edition of their works. He has often been called harsh and inhuman; but he deserves a place in literature since he invented a metre that is an instrument of torture. It consists of a rhyming verse finally ending on a word which ought to rhyme and does not. He is describing, if I remember right, the ideal virtues of the Village Maiden, and one verse runs--

   To novels and plays not inclined
   Nor aught that can sully her mind;
       Temptations may shower,
       Unmoved as a tower
   She quenches the fiery arrows.

It is long since I have sat at the feet of this minstrel; and I quote from memory; but I think another verse of the same poem thus illustrated the same paraprosdokian, or concluding jerk of disappointment--

   Religion makes beauty enchanting;
   And even where beauty is wanting,
       The temper and mind
       Religion-refined
   Will shine through the veil with sweet lustre.

If you read much of it, you will reach a state of mind in which, even though you know the jolt is coming, you can hardly forbear to scream. We have read much of the gloomy life of the Brontë sisters in their dark and narrow house, on their sombre and savage moor-lands. We have heard a great deal of how their souls were attuned to the storm, whether of wild winds or of stern words. But I can imagine no storm so paralysing as the noise of a reverend gentleman reading that poem; no torture so savage as the ruthless repetition of that metre; no inhuman cry so awful or so freezing to the blood, even out of the very heart of the hell of _Wuthering Heights._ In spite of all the educationists, it is a kindness to children to teach them nursery rhymes. But a man ought to be imprisoned for Cruelty to Children, if he recited to them rhymes that do not rhyme.

But the problem is much more interesting if we leave the bad poetry written by bad poets, and come to the bad poetry written by good poets. It is an old story; it was Horace, I think, who said that Homer sometimes nods; and Horace, though a wide-awake sort of person, sometimes indulged in a wink. The Swan of Avon, the Nightingale of Burford, the Skylark for whom we can name no habitation but the sky, all these famous birds occasionally threatened to stiffen into the Stuffed Owl. Even Milton, who lived for the grand style, had lapses of good taste; at least, I, for one, never liked Satan inventing gunpowder or spreading an extra special champagne supper, in the style of the Ritz-Carlton, to stay the hunger of the human Christ for bread. It is, therefore, no disrespect to great poets to make them figure in this book of bad poetry; for there is hardly a single good poet who has not at some time been a bad poet. I am not sure of the meaning of this, but I am fairly sure, for practical purposes, of the moral of it. First of all, it is wholesome to note that the poet generally came a cropper when he was moving most smoothly on the butter-slide of praise and progress and the prevailing fashion. It is when the classical poet is most classical that he strikes us as pompous and vapid. It is when the romantic poet is most romantic that he strikes us as sloppy and sentimental. And it will be when the modern poet is most modern, when he is most arrestingly in the modern style, that he will strike posterity as merely dowdy and dull. The only two really bad lines in Swinburne are the most Swinburnian; that couplet about lilies and languors and raptures and roses. By being in a sense perfect Swinburnian, it shows up Swinburne as imperfect. And the other moral is that poets are men; and that men can no longer be worshipped as gods. Carlyle did his worst work when he resurrected the pagan term of Hero-Worship. The Pagans, indeed, put up a statue to Achilles; but they did not whitewash the statue. They had an objective way with them, which needed no moral self-deception. But Carlyle could not be a Pagan; he could only be a bad Christian; or, as some say, a Puritan. And he did whitewash Cromwell and Frederick, as nobody whitewashed Achilles. Shakspere and Shelley were better than Cromwell and Frederick; but they also were men and not statues. Even their bad poetry may be productive of good philosophy.