All I Survey/Essay XVII

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Essay XVI All I Survey
Essay XVII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Essay XVII: On Sense and Sound

ON re-reading something I wrote about the most modern poetry, especially touching the ancient riddle of Sense and Sound, I am not sure that I made myself clear. And, as I am not now writing the most modern poetry, I may be allowed to be clear. Clarity will be permissible, or at least pardonable. By the way (if I may mention it in parenthesis) does anybody know why it is now the fashion to be very extravagant in poetry and very sober in prose? There are individuals, of course, like Mr. James Joyce or Miss Gertrude Stein, whose prose may be said to be of doubtful sobriety. But some of the ablest of the rising, or recently risen, authors seem to have something like a dual personality in prose and verse. The prose-writing of Mr. Osbert Sitwell is not especially Sitwellian, as the term is applied to his poetry. It is well written, but rather on the old principle that a book well written should be as unobtrusive as a man well dressed. It is in the Sitwellian poesy that the average reader is apt to be startled by strange sights; by woolly roses or hairy clouds. Mr. T. S. Eliot's wildest verses do, indeed, have rhythm, too much rhythm; really (as the phrase goes) making the head go round, and suggesting a cosy life in the hollow heart of a cyclone or a whirlpool. But there is nothing of this in his essays; which are rather contained and reticent than otherwise. Indeed, when he does make an epigram (and a very good one) he is so ashamed of it that he hides it at the end of a minute footnote, for fear some critic or other should accuse him of brilliancy.

The same is largely true even of Mr. Aldous Huxley, so far as essay-writing is concerned. His diaries of real travel are quite sensible and unpretentious; while some of his poems are like imaginary travels in the Tropics, almost negro in their barbaric dance of death. The Victorians, who are accused of primness, had much more all-round extravagance. George Meredith was as perverse and fanciful in prose as in verse; indeed, more so. Diana of the Crossways seemed to sit not so much at the cross-roads as in the heart of the labyrinth; and the Egoist juggled much more deceptively than Juggling Jerry. Some of Browning's friends complained that he was cryptic, not only in prose but in private correspondence. I am not complaining of this new method of making extremes meet. There may be a great deal to be said for it; but perhaps it means some decay of the Victorian naturalness, which was much more typical than the Victorian decorum. There is something to be said for Browning and Meredith, if only that they could not help writing like Meredith and Browning.

But this (as I say) is all in brackets. The matter I meant to raise concerns sense and sound in poetry. And their relation is much more subtle than even the most insanely subtle of the critics seem to understand. I took the familiar example of a famous line in Milton, which has always had that inexplicable fascination so often found in the purely classical style. Oddly enough, it is in the rational lines of Virgil or Milton, much more than in the extra-rational lines either of the Merediths or the Sitwells, that we feel the final mystery of song; the something that instantly gives delight and escapes from definition; the thing of which we say: "I cannot tell, for the life of me, why that is so good as it is." I cannot tell, for the life of me, why the line "Like Teneriffe or Atlas unremoved" is as good as it is. Yet it is perfectly straightforward; it merely mentions a cape and a mountain, and adds the somewhat superfluous information that they are not removed. The only thing I am quite sure about is that the sense depends on the sound and the sound depends on the sense. It actually would not sound the same, if another meaning were expressed by the same sound. It actually would not mean as much, if other words expressed the same meaning. It would be easy enough to try the experiment in a rough and ready way. It is obvious that, if we wrote "Like Beachy Head or Snowdon unremoved," it would not be within a thousand miles of the thing; though Beachy Head is a cape and Snowdon is a mountain. What is not quite so obvious is that the converse is also true. It might be too lightly inferred that the mere noise of the names is alone majestic. It might be even suggested that the down-rushing dactyl of "Teneriffe" has some faint echo of words like "terrible" or "towering," and that the sound is the secret. But it is not so, though the alternative experiment might be a little more elaborate to construct. Let us have a stab at it, as Mr. P. G. Wodehouse's young man said when asked if he would be a reasonable being.

Thackeray mentions somewhere, in one of his essays, that in some old cookery-book or book of etiquette he had come on the fact that men in the eighteenth century drank a wine called Teneriffe, apparently an alternative to port or Madeira. Thackeray says, I think, that it sounds like having to swallow the Matterhorn. But if it were something quite familiar, like port wine, it would sound like any other detail of the dinner-table. As for the word "Atlas," we have only to knock out the capital letter, and it means a commonplace work of reference, an ordinary book of maps. Now, suppose somebody were writing a very mild and jog-trot domestic poem in decasyllabics, rather like those poems in which Cowper celebrated the tea-urn or the cat. And suppose the particular passage explained how somebody's after-dinner table was left in a litter by negligent servants; books and wine and everything in a hugger-mugger--

   His pipe and napkin, like his spectacles,
   Like snuff and toast and pen and ink or books,
   Like teneriffe or atlas, unremoved.

It would not make the same noise. It actually would not sound in the ear, as a matter of mere acoustics, the same. The fact of talking only about two trivial objects would, in fact, alter the actual impact of the sound upon the ear and the nerves. Nobody would be looking for a great sonorous effect, and nobody would find it. The fact that the two objects are mountains, mysterious and remote and legendary mountains, does enter irrevocably into the merely physical process; and it is the largeness of those mountains that fills the lungs and the ear.

This being so, I think there are much deeper difficulties than are now generally understood about breaking with the traditions of rhythm. I do not say it should not be done, but I do say that it is doubtful whether those who do it know what they are doing. If my own original use of this quotation was obscure, I am well aware that the whole problem is one of the deepest obscurity. But this is more or less what I meant; that I do not think we have got to anything like the bottom of the psychology-- we might even say the physiology--of poetical effects; and that the old conventions of verse rested upon instincts which are perhaps indestructible, but which at least cannot be casually destroyed. It would seem that one growth can grow into another, even if they did originally have separate roots, in such a fashion as to form a single life and a new creation; and that new creation is none the less unique because it is now old. It is really beside the mark to talk about experiments which are only explosions; for, though explosions ought to be expansions, it is certain at least that they are disruptions. I do not object to experiments as such. I willingly agree that Mr. Sitwell has as much right to talk about a hairy cloud as an old poet to talk about a fleecy cloud; as much right to do what he can with the hair of a cloud as the other with the hair of a comet. But something much deeper and more mysterious is involved. The old poets had a power of mixing with their fleecy clouds and hairy comets some ancestral magic of the nature of music; by which even the quaintest of Cavalier conceits, or the most newly coined of Renaissance Latinisms, came weighted with harmonies and a historic richness that prevented them from being crude, even when they were new. It seems to me that the new poets do not try to recover that ancient wedding of sound and sense. Some of them seem to have only passed from the old Swinburnian phase of sound without sense to the later phase of nonsense without sound. But even the best of them seem to be seeking a divorce rather than a wedding.