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will only manage a half-expression, a second-hand and cheating expression, and directly we understand anything about poetry we are able to see through this kind of deception at once, and we know that it is useless to us, and gives us no real pleasure at all. Because what happens in this case is that the poet only gets a vague expression to match his vague experience, and he makes it vague in our minds too, which is exactly what poetry must never do.
We may now see how a great poet treats the vision he had of the autumn wind and the leaves. Shelley wrote of it thus:
"O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.” You will notice at first how wonderfully he brings into our minds a vivid idea of that “unseen presence" by making it stir into movement the dead leaves, which in turn he makes so real for us in their sharply contrasted colours — "yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red.” And then you will notice that he does more than this, which brings me to the other thing I want to tell you about the poet's way of working. He says that the leaves are scattered by the wind
“Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." This is what is called an image, and to use an image is one of the most powerful ways in which the poet can make himself clear to us. Shelley was not writing about ghosts and an enchanter, but about leaves scattered before the wind. But the cloud of leaves, driven along in commotion, brought into his mind an image of huddled ghosts crowding before the enchanter who had power to drive them forth at his will. He set this vision down very simply in words, but perfectly —
“Ghosts from an enchanter fleeing." And then, although he had already conceived the idea of the leaves driven before the wind in words that could express it quite directly - “thou from whose unseen presence the leaves dead are driven . ., yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red” — he sharpens the whole picture in our minds by taking our thoughts for a moment to that other idea of the ghosts and the enchanter, and then telling us that the thing of which he is actually writing is like that other thing of which he is not actually writing. And this using of an image to make the impression of what he sees even clearer than it would have been by direct statement, however exact and lucid, is an act of the imagination, which word you see is built upon the word image.
THE LIFE OF POETRY
If you look at the list of poets at the end of this book, you will see that while some of the
that you are reading were written by men who, like Shakespeare, were born nearly four hundred years ago, others were written by men who are living now. A
once said, “There is no new thing under the
sun,” and yet it is one of the many wonders that we learn from poetry that life, although it goes on from age to age, concerned with the same emotions and seeing the same natural beauty in the world, is always splendidly new. Shakespeare could see and hear
“Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stone, and good in everything," and then one poet after another following him could be aware of the same thing, and yet, because he did strictly perceive it for himself, he could make it as new an experience for himself, and for us when we read his poem, as though no one in the world had ever perceived it before. Thus, nearly two hundred years after Shakespeare, Wordsworth could write
"To me the meanest flower that blows, can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” and then, more than a hundred years later again we have Mr. Ralph Hodgson with —
“The everlasting pipe and flute
In wood and stone and clay.” So that you see the poet does not have to discover and express new emotions and thoughts, but rather to express any emotion and his thought about it in such a way that we are certain that the experience in his mind is newly discovered by him and not merely handed on to him ready made by some one else. A great poem might very well be written to-morrow about so simple and old a thing as the blossoming of an apple-tree.
You will have noticed that often when you feel very intensely about anything, and whether the feeling be a happy or a sad one, you try to satisfy yourself by singing some tune or another; that your emotions, in other words, try to find some sort of rhythmic expression. This is a deep law of our natures which none of the philosophers has been able rightly to explain, but it is a law which we all recognise. And the poet, too, when he feels and realises anything with sufficient intensity, finds his expression naturally taking on a rhythmic form. With each new poem this rhythm is a fresh and personal thing, and yet we find that the language which he has to use has through many hundreds of years discovered certain forms or metres for itself as being best suited to its character. And you will notice as you read these books that one poet after another does in fact use the same metrical forms, not lazily and for want of the trouble to invent new ones, but because his instinct tells him that they are the right and natural ones for his language to fall into. But the strange and wonderful thing is that each poet, while he adds to his authority by using these traditional forms, is able to impress them with his own personal sense of rhythm in such a way that they never grow stale, and are indeed new things with each new poet who uses them.
And so poetry is beautifully like life itself in seeming not to change yet always being new. Each year you see the trees covering themselves with green, the flowers in bloom, the young animals in the fields, the sun shining on the corn, the frost making its icicles
and putting lovely patterns on the window. And in a way these seem to be the same trees and flowers and seasons that have been passing before men's eyes far back through the ages, and yet each year they are all marvellously new, as truly exciting discoveries for us when we see them as though there had never been such life before. And so with the poet and his poetry. He sees the same world, feels the same emotions, and meets the same questions as did his fathers for generations before him, and in finding expression for the working of his mind he will generally accept a form that has grown up in the practice of many poets whom he follows. But he sees and feels and questions out of his individual life, until the old experience is transfigured into something radiantly new and interesting, and he breathes into the old forms of poetry his own delighted sense of rhythm, until they too become fresh and vivid as the flowers that come to us with untiring wonder year by year.
THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH POETRY
I HAVE already talked to you a little of the nature of poetry and its meaning for us, of the poet's methods, and of the way in which tradition and new life combine to give poetry its power. It may interest you to know something of the actual history of English poetry, and this again will help you to make the pleasure that you get in reading a clearer and more orderly thing in your minds. To write anything like a complete account of the progress of Eng