As I Was Saying/Essay XII

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Essay XI As I Was Saying
Essay XII
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XIII

Essay XII: About Poetry

THERE was printed recently a very reasonable and well-poised criticism on the subject of Modern Poetry. Perhaps it took some examples of Modern Poetry a little more seriously than I can manage to do; for the Moderns, who talk about irresistible temptations to love, do not always realize that they themselves torture us with irresistible temptations to laughter. But, on the whole, the critic justified himself in preserving his gravity; keeping a straight face (as the Chinese would say) in the presence of some extracts of a gravity-removing nature. He did not merely despise the past; he justified the present by appeals to the past. His thesis was broadly this: that when the particular inspiration of a poetical period is exhausted, those who begin the next period are almost bound to begin it with very bare and even bald forms of expression. He based a plausible argument on the case of Wordsworth, pointing out that the poet's first attempts to find a more natural style appeared as a very naked style--or lack of style. If we accept the assumption that it was no longer possible for a man to write in the style of Dryden, even if "he had the mind," it is certainly true in that case that a more direct and unadorned manner appeared very crude and clumsy.

It did strike Wordsworth's most cultured contemporaries as being not so much the appearance of a manner as the disappearance of manners. Wordsworth's new ballads were far less classical than the old ballads. Lines like "The more did his thick ankles swell" had not the natural dignity that belonged to most verses in "Chevy Chase" or "Sir Patrick Spens." It did seem like a change from natural dignity to natural indignity. And it is quite true, as the critic suggested, that this is very much the impression produced upon people of a more traditional culture by the ugliness of some modern verse. But it is perhaps an exaggeration to make Wordsworth a father and founder of the whole Romantic Movement, seeing that his friend Coleridge wrote a real old ballad in "The Ancient Mariner," with only one line "for which he was indebted to Mr. Wordsworth"; and seeing that Burns had already written and Byron was not far behind. And it marks something misleading in such sweeping classifications as "the Romantic School" that we have to class the jewelled casements of Keats with the blank and almost dead daylight of the first Lyrical Ballads. In short, the argument involves an ingenious suggestion, which in some aspects is really suggestive. But it is rather a gloomy and blasting prophecy to say that anybody who is to renew the life of English poetry must of necessity begin with writing such abominably bad poetry as some of the first poems of Wordsworth.

But another doubt stirred within me, after reading all such scientific analysis about the exhaustion of classic poetry in the eighteenth century, or of romantic poetry in the nineteenth century. My own early education, such as it was, dates from the very end of the nineteenth century; and it was a period in which people talked a great deal about religious doubt. Religious doubt produced a good deal of doubtful religion. We are now in a time when the world is more definitely divided into denials and affirmations, and is no longer merely enjoying its doubts. But I, for one, have found that one advantage of a man ceasing to doubt about religion is that he is much more free to doubt about everything else. All the nineteenth-century sceptics about the other world were dupes about this world. They accepted everything that was fashionable as if it were final; and the revolutionary romantics, who thought they would see the end of religion, never thought they would see the end of romance. Hence they encouraged this excessive habit of setting one style or school against another, and treated the victory of romanticism over classicism as the final victory of light over darkness. When there came in turn a victory of realism over romanticism, no people were more perplexed and irritated at the new revolution than the old revolutionists. Between them, it seems to me, they made far too much of all this grouping of literature under labels; and as they made too much of the label of Classical Poetry, and the label of Romantic Poetry, so they are now making far too much of the label of Modern Poetry.

What the world wants, what the world is waiting for, is not Modern Poetry or Classical Poetry or Neo-Classical Poetry--but Good Poetry. And the dreadful disreputable doubt, which stirs in my own sceptical mind, is a doubt about whether it would really matter much what style a poet chose to write in, in any period, so long as he wrote Good Poetry. Criticisms like that which I am criticizing always abound in phrases like "We can no longer use the romantic form," or "The atmosphere of the age forbids us to appeal to the eighteenth-century tradition," or "Modern poets, being forced to avoid the Pre-Raphaelite appeal," and so on. Now it is certainly true that we cannot write like Keats or Rossetti; at least I cannot, and it is just barely possible that you cannot. But the diabolical doubt still haunts me, about whether we would not if we could. Suppose a man were to produce, let us say, an imaginative fragment that was really as good as "Kubla Khan," and more or less in the same diction as "Kubla Khan"--is it really true that we should not admire it? Is it not even probable, on the whole, that he would admire it? Would he really say to himself: "Well, I have written these lines that seem haunting and resounding; I have created these images that seem magnetic and full of beckoning significance; I have composed something that would have made me as great as Coleridge, if I had lived in the time of Coleridge. But, of course, I shall instantly put it on the fire, because it is not obviously dated 1936-7. I should not dream of publishing it, because the atmosphere of the age forbids me to write good poetry in that particular manner. It is my duty to leave off, and begin to write bad poetry, in the hope that it may evolve into a real twentieth-century style"?

I am sorry, but the doubt still hagrides me about whether any human being would actually behave like that. Suppose somebody did write something that was melodious in the manner of "The Garden of Proserpine," or moving in the manner of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," or even pictorial in the manner of "The Lady of Shalott," would he really drop all his dreams and be deaf to all his voices, for fear somebody should call him a Pre-Raphaelite? I have a dark and horrid suspicion that most modern poets have not resisted any such temptations, because they have not had any such inspirations. But if the inspirations were real inspirations of their kind, or of any kind, would anybody who loves poetry care a curse about whether the modern poets were being sufficiently modern?

Note that I am not saying for a moment that new writers must not try new styles. I am resisting the veto that they must not try old styles. I am questioning this incessantly repeated suggestion, that certain particular images or cadences or conceptions have become impossible to any literary man, because he has the misfortune to live at this particular moment by the clock. It seems to me to exaggerate our slavery to a season or a fashion, and to be a part of that sullen fatalism which may certainly be found in much modern poetry, but which is not poetical, but only modern. It is an irony that those who would most isolate art, in the manner that used to be called art for art's sake, are generally those who are most soaked and stagnantly drugged by the philosophy of their time. After all, "Lucy Gray" is not better than "Lycidas" even now; and I suspect some classic lines by Binyon or Belloc will last till they are no longer old. What about the new verses when they are no longer new?