Among the various critical essays presented in The Harvard Classics no group is more interesting than that which deals with the theory of poetry. Our consideration of the literary form or quality of the essay has already shown us that we should not expect from the essayist an exhaustive treatise, but rather a free and spirited and suggestive discussion of certain aspects of his subject.
To write adequately upon the general theme of poetry, expounding its nature, its æsthetic and social significance, and its technique, would be an enormously difficult task. But there are few poets who have not uttered at one time or another some of the secrets of this craft, or some phase of their admiration for it. Let us glance at the essays of eight English and American poets, ranging in time from the age of Elizabeth to the Victorian epoch: Sidney, Dryden, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Poe, Whitman, Arnold and Seamus Heaney. Four of this group, Dryden, Coleridge, Poe, and Arnold, are acknowledged adepts in general literary criticism; while Sidney and Shelley, Wordsworth Whitman, and Seamus Heaney have given expression to some of the most eloquent and revealing things that have ever been written about their own art of poetry.
Sir Philip Sidney
Sidney’s “Defense of Poesy,” like Shelley’s, is a reply to an attack, but neither poet is very angry, nor does either believe that his opponent has done much harm. Shelley’s antagonist was a humorously Philistine essay by his friend Peacock. Sidney is answering somewhat indirectly a fellow Puritan, Gosson, whose “School of Abuse” (1579) had attacked the moral shortcomings of ancient poetry and the license of the contemporary stage. Yet Sidney’s “pitiful defense of poor poetry,” as he playfully terms his essay, is composed in no narrowly controversial spirit, but rather in a strain of noble enthusiasm. He brings to his task a sufficient learning, a knowledge of the poetics of Plato and Aristotle, and an acquaintance with the humanistic critics of Italy and France. He knows his Homer and Virgil, his Horace and Ovid, but he does not on that account despise the “old song of Percy and Douglas.” The nobility of Sidney’s tone and his beauty of phrasing are no less notable than the clear ordering of his thought. In one close-packed paragraph after another, he praises the poet as a teacher and creator, compares poetry with history and philosophy, and finds, as Aristotle has done before him, that it is nobler than either. He discusses the various types of poetry, testing their capacities for teaching and moving the reader. Then, after a skillful refutation of the current objections against poetry, he turns, like a true Englishman, to the poetry of his own race, which was just then beginning, though Sidney did not foresee it, its most splendid epoch. He condemns, for instance, as being “neither right tragedies nor right comedies,” that type of tragi-comedy which Shakespeare was soon to make illustrious. This opinion is now reckoned, of course, a heresy, as is Sidney’s other opinion that verse is not essential to poetry. Yet no one who loves Sidney can quarrel with him over this or that opinion. His essay has proved itself, for more than three centuries, to be what he claimed for the beautiful art which he was celebrating—a permanent source of instruction and delight.
An Apology for Poetry
Sidney wrote the Apology before 1583. It is generally believed that he was at least partly motivated by Stephen Gosson, a former playwright who dedicated his attack on the English stage, The School of Abuse, to Sidney in 1579, but Sidney primarily addresses more general objections to poetry, such as those of Plato. In his essay, Sidney integrates a number of classical and Italian precepts on fiction. The essence of his defense is that poetry, by combining the liveliness of history with the ethical focus of philosophy, is more effective than either history or philosophy in rousing its readers to virtue. The work also offers important comments on Edmund Spenser and the Elizabethan stage.
Sir Philip Sidney’s influence can be seen throughout the subsequent history of English literary criticism. One of the most important examples is in the work of the poet and critic, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley’s modern argument for poetry is cast in a Romantic strain in his critical work titled A Defence of Poetry. In 1858, William Stigant, a Cambridge-educated translator, poet and essayist, writes in his essay “Sir Philip Sidney” that Shelley’s “beautifully written Defence of Poetry” is a work which “analyses the very inner essence of poetry and the reason of its existence, – its development from, and operation on, the mind of man” (Garrett). Shelley writes in Defence that while “ethical science arranges the elements which poetry has created,” and leads to a moral civil life, poetry acts in a way that “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought” (Shelley, Norton).
Sidney’s influence on future writers could also be analyzed from the standpoint of his handling of the utilitarian viewpoint. The utilitarian view of rhetoric can be traced from Sophists, Joseph Justus Scaliger, Petrus Ramus and humanists to Sidney (Bear). For instance, Sidney, following Aristotle, writes that praxis (human action) is tantamount to gnosis (knowledge). Men drawn to music, astronomy, philosophy and so forth all direct themselves to “the highest end of the mistress knowledge, by the Greeks called architectonike” (literarlly, “of or for a master builder”),” which stands, according to Sidney, “in the knowledge of a man’s self, in the ethic and political consideration, with the end of well doing and not of well knowing only” (Leitch “Sidney”). Sidney’s program of literary reform concerns the connection between art and virtue (Mitsi). One of the themes of the Apology is the insufficiency of simply presenting virtue as a precept; the poet must move men to virtuous action (Craig). Poetry can lead to virtuous action. Action relates to experience. From Sidney, the utilitarian view of rhetoric can be traced to Coleridge’s criticism, and for instance, to the reaction to the Enlightenment (Bear). Coleridge’s brief treatise On Poesy or Art sets forth a theory of imitation which bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Sidney (Mack).
The contemporary impact of Sidney’s Apology is largely derivative of the humanistic precepts that inform the work, and its linkage of the rhetorical with the civic virtue of prudence. Prudence offers a middle ground between two extremes. Prudence, as a virtue, places a greater value on praxis than gnosis (Harvey). Action is thus more important than abstract knowledge. It deals with the question of how to combine stability with innovation (Jasinski).
Sidney’s influence on future critics and poets relates more closely to his view of the place of poets in society. Sidney describes poetry as creating a separate reality (Harvey). The Romantic notion, as seen in Wordsworth, is that poetry privileges perception, imagination and modes of understanding. Wordsworth seeks to go back to nature for moments recollected in tranquility. Sidney, like Shelley and Wordsworth, sees the poet as being separate from society. To Sidney the poet is not tied to any subjection. He saw art as equivalent to “skill,” a profession to be learned or developed, and nature as the objective, empirical world (Kimbrough). The poet can invent, and thus in effect grows another nature.
Sidney writes that there “is no art delivered to mankind that hath not the works of nature for his principal object” (Leitch, Sidney). The poet then does not depart from external nature. His works are “imitation” or “fiction,” made of the materials of nature, and are shaped by the artist’s vision. This vision is one that demands the reader’s awareness of the art of imitation created through the “maker,” the poet (Kimbrough). Sidney’s notion of “fore-conceit” means that a conception of the work must exist in the poet’s mind before it is written (Harvey). Free from the limitations of nature, and independent from nature, poetry is capable of “making things either better than Nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in Nature” (Leitch Sidney).
Sidney’s doctrine presents the poet as creator. The poet’s mediating role between two worlds – transcendent forms and historical actuality – corresponds to the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation. A complement to this doctrine is the concept of return or catharsis, which finds a parallel in Sidney’s contemplation of virtue, based on man’s rational desire (Craig). Apology contains only elements of Neoplatonism without adhering to the full doctrine.
Thirdly, Sidney implies a theory of metaphoric language in his work. A recurring motif in Apology is painting or “portraiture” (Leitch). Apology applies language use in a way suggestive of what is known in modern literary theory as semiotics. His central premise is that poetry is an art of imitation, that is a “representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth” not unlike a “speaking picture” (Leitch, Sidney). Sidney pays his homage to Aristotle. Yet he develops his own idea of metaphoric language, one that it is based on an analogy through universal correspondences. Sidney’s humanist poetics and his tendency to harmonize disparate extremes – to seek mediation – find expression in poetic works by John Donne (Knauss).
The life and writings of Sir Philip Sidney remain a legacy. In 1819, Thomas Campbell concludes that Sidney’s life was “poetry in action,” and then in 1858 William Stigant wrote that “Sidney’s real poem was his life, and his teaching was his example” (quoted in Garrett, Sidney). Sidney, the man, is apparent everywhere in his works: a study of Sidney’s works is a study of the man (Kimbrough, “Preface”).
An Apology for Poetry is the most important contribution to Renaissance literary theory. Sidney advocates a place for poetry within the framework of an aristocratic state, while showing concern for both literary and national identity (Griffiths). Sidney responds in Apology to an emerging antipathy to poetry as expressed in Stephen Gosson’s The Schoole of Abuse (1579). Gosson offers what is in essence a puritan attack on imaginative literature (Griffiths). What is at stake in Sidney’s argument is a defense of poetry’s nobility. The significance of the nobility of poetry is its power to move readers to virtuous action (Robertson). True poets must teach and delight – a view that dates back to Horace.
In an era of antipathy to poetry and puritanical belief in the corruption engendered by literature, Sidney’s defense was a significant contribution to the genre of literary criticism. It was England’s first philosophical defense in which he describes poetry’s ancient and indispensable place in society, its mimetic nature, and its ethical function (Harvey). Among Sidney’s gifts to his contemporaries were his respect for tradition and willingness to experiment (Robertson). An example of the latter is his approach to Plato. He reconfigures Plato’s argument against poets by saying poets are “the least liar” (Leitch). Poets never claim to know the truth, nor “make circles around your imagination,” nor rely on authority (Letich). As an expression of a cultural attitude descending from Aristotle, Sidney, when stating that the poet “never affirmeth,” makes the claim that all statements in literature are hypothetical or pseudo-statements (Frye). Sidney, as a traditionalist, however, gives attention to drama in contradistinction to poetry. Drama, writes Sidney, is “observing neither rules of honest civility nor of skillful poetry” and thus cannot do justice to this genre (Leitch).
In Sidney’s day anti-theatricality, an aesthetic and ideological concern, flourished among Sidney’s circle at court (Acheson). Theatre became a contentious issue in part because of the culmination of a growing contempt for the values of the emergent consumer culture. An expanding money economy encouraged social mobility. Europe, at this time, had its first encounter with inflation (Davies). London’s theatres at that time grew in popularity so much that by 1605, despite the introduction of charges, London commercial theatres could accommodate up to eight thousand men and women (Hale). Sidney had his own views on drama. In Apology, he shows opposition to the current of his day that pays little attention to unity of place in drama (Bear), but more specifically, his concern is with the “manner” that the “matter” is conveyed (Leitch Sidney). He explains that tragedy is not bound to history or the narrative but to “laws of poesy,” having “liberty, either to feign a quite new matter, or to frame the history to the most most tragical conveniency”.
Sidney employs a number of strategies to assert the proper place of poetry. For instance, he argues against the way in which poetry was misaligned with youth, the effeminate and the timorous. He does so by introducing the idea that “poetry is the companion of camps” and by invoking the heroes of ages past (Leitch). Sidney’s reverence for the poet as soldier is significant because he himself was a soldier at one time. Poetry, in Apology, becomes an art that requires the noble stirring of courage (Pask).
Sidney writes An Apology for Poetry in the form of a judicial oration for the defense, and thus it is like a trial in structure. Crucial to his defense is the descriptive discourse and the idea that poetry creates a separate reality (Harvey). Sidney employs forensic rhetoric as a tool to make the argument that poetry not only conveys a separate reality, but that it has a long and venerable history, and it does not lie. It is defensible in its own right as a means to move readers to virtuous action.
Dryden as Critic
One hundred years after Sidney’s untimely death, the prince of English criticism was John Dryden. He made no pretense of actual government: he “follows the Rules afar off.” He is full of contradictions, reflecting the changing hues of contemporary taste, compromising between the classic and the romantic, changing his views as often as he likes, always readable and personal, always, in the best sense, “impressionistic,” always, as Professor Ker has said of him, “sceptical, tentative, disengaged.” His early essay “Of Dramatic Poesy” is full of youthful zest for Shakespeare and romance. Then he turns conformist, aiming “to delight the age in which I live” and to justify its prevalent neo-classic taste; but presently he comes back to his “incomparable Shakespeare,” praises Longinus, and abandons rhyme. In his next period he turns rationalist, and exalts “good sense” and “propriety.” In the last dozen years of his life his enthusiasm for highly imaginative literature returns; he translates Juvenal and Virgil, and modernizes Chaucer; he is “lost in admiration over Virgil,” though at heart he “prefers Homer.” It is in this final stage of his career as a critic that he writes the charming praise of Chaucer, which is reprinted in The Harvard Classics. It is the perfection of essay writing. “Here is God’s plenty,” as he exclaims of the elder poet, in whom he finds a soul congenial to his own. Dryden did not, it is true, quite understand Chaucer’s verse, else he could never have found it “not harmonious,” yet he makes royal amends by admitting that “there is the rude sweetness of a Scotch tune in it, which is natural and pleasing, though not perfect.” In his earlier “Apology for Heroic Poetry” (1677) he salutes “the deceased author of ‘Paradise Lost,”’ then three years dead, and calls Milton’s masterpiece “one of the greatest, most noble, and most sublime poems which either this age or nation has produced.”
Wordsworth and Coleridge
Dryden’s best pages of criticism tempt one, in brief, to agree with him in declaring that “Poets themselves are the most proper, though I conclude not the only critics.” The critical writings of Wordsworth and Coleridge confirm us in that opinion. Wordsworth is less facile than Dryden, and he does not range so far. Coleridge, by natural endowment one of the greatest of literary critics, is desultory and indolent. But the two men, when focusing their masterly powers upon the defense and interpretation of that mode of Romantic poetry in which their own creative energies were for a time absorbed, produced criticism which has affected the whole subsequent development of English literature. Coleridge’s lecture on “Poesy or Art,” for instance, is full of those flashes of penetrative insight which reveal the born critic: Art “is the power of humanizing nature”; “passion itself imitates order”; “beauty is the union of the shapely with the vital”; “the subjects chosen for works of art should be such as really are capable of being expressed and conveyed within the limits of those arts.” Wordsworth’s “Preface” to his epoch-making early poems should be read in connection with Coleridge’s comments in the “Biographia Literaria,” and in the light of the well-known fact as to the proposed division of labor between the two young poets in the composition of the “Lyrical Ballads.” Coleridge intended to treat supernatural objects as if they really existed. Wordsworth wished to find in natural objects elements of novelty and surprise, that is, the romance of everyday experience. The two methods blended of course, like the colors at the extreme edges of the spectrum. Wordsworth’s successive statements of his purpose emphasize now his use of “the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes,” as if it were mainly a question of poetic diction; then he stresses the necessity of truth to “the primary laws of our nature,” and debates the æsthetic question of “the association of ideas in a state of excitement”; finally, he qualifies his first utterances by pointing out that the diction should be a “selection of language really used by men,” and that the incidents and situations treated by the poet should have “a certain colouring of the imagination.” Such criticism as this, if accompanied by close study of the verbal alterations which Wordsworth made in the text of his poems as his theories changed, is in the highest degree stimulating and profitable.
Percy Bysshe Shelley
The influence of Coleridge is traceable throughout Shelley’s “Defence of Poetry” (1821). Shelley rides into the lists with as high a heart as Sidney, to repel the attack, not of the “moralists” but of the utilitarians. He is not conscious, like Sidney, Dryden, and Arnold, of the history of criticism. He has steeped himself, it is true, in Plato, but he writes with the enthusiasm of a new and personal vision. Poetry, to him, is primarily the expression of the imagination: “it redeems from decay the visitations of the divinity in man”; “it is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds”; “a poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth”; poetry “acts in a divine but unapprehended manner, beyond and above consciousness”; “a poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.” Though the student of poetical theory can easily claim that such sentences as these are post-Coleridgean, they are really timeless, like the glorious spirit of Shelley itself.
Edgar Allan Poe
Poe’s essay on “The Poetic Principle,” 6 written to serve as a lecture during the last year (1849) of his brief life, illustrates his conviction that “the truly imaginative mind is never otherwise than analytic.” As applied to Shelley, this dictum is far from true, but it expresses Poe’s idealization of his own extraordinary gift for logical analysis. He was a craftsman who was never weary of explaining the trade secrets of his art, and though his criticism is uneven in quality and uniformed by deep and accurate scholarship, he expounded certain critical principles with incomparable clearness.
In “The Poetic Principle,” together with some popularization of Coleridge, and some admixture no doubt of that “fudge” which Lowell thought so inextricably compounded with Poe’s “genius,” there will be found the famous definition of the “Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” Poetry, according to Poe, excites, by elevating the soul. But as all excitements, by psychological necessity, are transient, it is only short poems that are truly poems at all. Such brief and indeterminate glimpses of the supernal loveliness, “the creation of supernal beauty,” is the poet’s struggle—and despair. If Poe’s formulation of the task and method of poetry lacks, as it doubtless does, universal validity, it is nevertheless a key to the understanding of his own exquisitely musical fragments of lyric verse.
Whitman on America and Poetry
Walt Whitman, like Poe and Coleridge, is mystic and transcendental in his theory of poetry. Unlike them, he is an arch-rebel in poetic practice. The Preface to “Leaves of Grass” (1855) is not so much a critical essay as a manifesto. It is vociferous, impassioned, inconsecutive. Some paragraphs of it were later turned into verse, so rich was it in emotion. The central theme is the opportunity which the immediate age in American offers to the poet. The past has had its fit poetical expression, but the new world of democracy and science now demands a different type of bard. The qualifications are obdurately clear: he must love the earth and animals and common people; he must be in his own flesh a poem, at one with the universe of things; his soul must be great and unconstrained. He must perceive that everything is miraculous and divine. The poet is to be the priest of the new age, and of all the coming ages. Whitman does not enter, in the Preface, upon the discussion of the technique of his own unmetrical, rhapsodic verse. Yet this verse, which has challenged the attention of two generations, and which is slowly making its way toward general recognition, is scarcely to be understood without a knowledge of the theory of poetry which underlies it. The Preface states that theory, confusedly, if one tries to parse and weigh it sentence by sentence, but adequately, if one watches simply, as Whitman bids, the “drift” of it.
“I do not contest Mr. Walt Whitman’s powers and originality,” wrote Matthew Arnold in 1866, but he adds this warning: “No one can afford in literature to trade merely on his own bottom and to take no account of what the other ages and nations have acquired: a great original literature America will never get in this way, and her intellect must inevitably consent to come, in a considerable measure, into the European movement.” It is not the least useful service of Arnold’s own essay on “The Study of Poetry” that it takes us at once into this European movement. The essay was written as a preface to a collection of English verse—“one great contributory stream to the world river of poetry.” Arnold insists throughout, in characteristic fashion, upon the necessity of developing a sense for the best, for the really excellent. He points out the fallacies involved in the purely historical and the purely personal estimates. He uses lines and expressions of the great masters as “touchstones” for detecting the presence or absence of high poetic quality. He takes Aristotle’s remark about the “higher truth” and “higher seriousness” of poetry as compared to history, and tests therewith the “classic” matter and manner of English poets.
There are pitfalls, without question, lurking in the path of Arnold’s apparently sure-footed and adroit method, but the temper of his performance needs no praise. He brings us steadily and serenely back to “the European movement,” to the laws and standards that endure. But he also teaches that life and art are inexhaustible in their resources. “The future of poetry is immense”; that is the first sentence of Arnold’s essay; and it will be also the confirmed final truth of any reader who has taken pains to acquaint himself with the utterance of poets about poetry. Walter Bagehot wrote long ago: “The bare idea that poetry is a deep thing, a teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown… . All about and around us a faith in poetry struggles to be extricated, but it is not extricated. Some day, at the touch of the true word, the whole confusion will by magic cease; the broken and shapeless notions will cohere and crystallize into a bright and true theory.” We are still waiting, no doubt, for that true and final word, but if it is ever spoken, it is likely to be uttered by one of the poets.
Seamus Heaney’s Art and Concept of Poetry
Poetry is an art form in which there is no room for manoeuvre, by which I mean the kind of manoeuvring that allows works of art to be given relative rather than absolute praise.
Heaney has the Wordsworthian quality of speaking in an apparently natural, relaxed, even prosaic voice that in fact lifts you off the earth like almost nothing else in modern literature. We feel more alive for reading him.
Heaney’s concern is with the production not of the emptiness of the hole itself, but of the creation from that emptiness that is poetry. He claims ancestral rights not to this hole, but to this process.
The writing of poetry, for Heaney is the act of digging, the act of creating a space, of removing the accretions of time and decay, the erosions of the hard ground and grounding of present experience. What is formed within this space is not a piling, but pure language, with its inherent images and effects.
Heaney’s reconstructive abilities, his cultural and personal memory, are like the soil that must be constructed, shaped, into something useful and this is what he proves in Redress of Poetry.
Seamus Heaney and the responsibilities of a Poet
One of the most revealing questions you can ask about any poet has to do with his sense of responsibility. To whom or what does he hold himself responsible in his writing? The poet who replies “Nothing”—who believes that the concept of responsibility is foreign to the totally free realm of art—is likely to be a bad poet. If there is nothing—no reader real or imaginary, no idea, value, or principle—with the right to hold the writer to account, then there is no way for her to know when she is writing better or worse, when she is getting closer to her ideal or straying from it.
That is why a genuine artist almost always wants to feel answerable to something. Not necessarily a person or a group, because any concrete audience is all too likely to constrict the imagination, to encourage flattery or evasion. But there is liberation in feeling responsible to an ideal reader—the best poets of the past, perhaps, or the unbiased readers of the future; or to an ethical principle—speaking truthfully, bearing witness, offering sympathy; or to an aesthetic ideal—the radiance of beauty, the genius of the language. Not until you know what a poet feels responsible toward can you know how he wants and deserves to be read.
The strength and the challenge of Seamus Heaney’s poetry lie in its willingness to admit all these kinds of responsibility at once. To get a sense of Heaney’s temperament, just look at the titles of the major essays and lectures about poetry that he has produced over his long career: “The Government of the Tongue,” “The Redress of Poetry,” and “Crediting Poetry,” the lecture he delivered in Stockholm after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995. These are unapologetically ethical terms, and they suggest a poet deeply concerned with the correct use of his gifts. Indeed, few poets have ever interrogated themselves more strenuously than Heaney; again and again in his poetry, we find him confronting himself, or being confronted by a neighbor or reader, with his responsibilities as a man and a poet.
Conclusion: Heaney – The Critic
Yet all this talk of obligations, of redress and government and credit, would be misleading if it suggested that artist is merely a didactic, moralizing poet. That the drama of the poet’s moral responsibilities is one of the major themes of his work cannot be denied, and a reader who is indifferent to it will not love the poets who, with Heaney, have in our time done most to define and defend the significance of poetry. But Heaney is also, and primarily, a poet of pleasure. If he is like Wordsworth in his love of nature and his wise seriousness, he has also written that “When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called ‘the grand elementary principle of pleasure,’ and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things.” What makes an artist a lovable poet, rather than just an admirable one, is that his sense of responsibility extends to pleasure itself. The poet, he knows, must delight and instruct; and without the delight, the instruction is worse than useless.
Heaney wants us to hear the echo, in these lines, of the famous speech from act III of Measure for Measure, in which the Duke advises the condemned Claudio: “Be absolute for death; either death or life/Shall thereby be the sweeter.” And Heaney’s delighted re-echoing of the blackbird’s song, in this tattoo of clicking “k” sounds, shows that he has proved Shakespeare right: by embracing the bird and all it represents, he has infused a new sweetness into his own verse. It is just the latest, and surely not the last, of the reconciliations Seamus Heaney has spent almost half a century effecting—between public and private, history and spirit, art and life.