THE WORLD'S BEST POETRY, Volume IX: Of Tragedy: Of Humor
IN TEN VOLUMES, ILLUSTRATED
Editor-in-Chief- BLISS CARMAN
I Home: Friendship VI Fancy: Sentiment
II Love VII Descriptive: Narrative
III Sorrow and Consolation VIII National Spirit
IV The Higher Life IX Tragedy: Humor
V Nature X Poetical Quotations
The Old Case of Poetry In a New Court
Although hailed as queen of the arts and hedged about by a kind of divinity, Poetry seems to sit on an always tottering throne. In nearly every age known to human records, some one has chronicled his forebodings that the days of Poetry were numbered; and again the critic, or the Poet himself, has plucked up his courage and uttered a fairly hopeful defence. Yet even this hope has been absent from periods which now seem poetic in the highest degree. Michael Drayton could find scant consolation for his art, dedicating certain poems to gentlemen who "in these declining times.... love and cherish neglected poesy." The enemies of poetry are always alert, and often come disguised as friends. When, at the end of the Middle Ages, moralists ceased to attack the poets, there appeared the man of science, a far more formidable person; and, under cover of the dust and smoke in strong battle waged between these open foes, poetry has been spoiled of one cherished possession after another at the hands of a professedly ardent ally. Horace Walpole's alternative neatly implied [Pg x] the whole question under debate: "Poetry," he complained, "is gone to bed, or into our prose,"—an odd speech for one who helped to ring the romantic rising-bell. Bulwer, writing ponderously "On Certain Principles of Art in Works of the Imagination," was sure that Prose had come to be the only medium of artistic narrative. Malicious people point even now to a language which never had any prose, and yet has lost its splendid heritage of verse: barring Grillparzer, silent long before his death, Germany has not seen a poet for the last fifty years. But, answers the optimist, who knows what ambulando argument for poetry is not now preparing somewhere in the fatherland? And as for Bulwer, his ink was hardly dry when Tennyson began those charming and miscalled Idylls of the King. If epic poetry seems dead just now, it seemed quite as dead four hundred years ago in France. So this harmless war is waged. What comes of it all? What has been done? What progress? Other causes come up, find a hearing on the evidence, get a verdict more or less in agreement with facts, and go upon record; this case lies hopeless in chancery. Why must it wait there, along with all the old metaphysical questions, for a decision that never can be handed down? If one may do nothing else, one may at least take the case to a different court, demand fresh evidence, and appeal to another code of laws.
Before all things, it behooves both parties to this argument to come at the facts in the case.
Barring a threat or so of historical treatment, as in Macaulay's famous essay on Milton, writers who handle this matter of the decline of poetry invariably pass either into critical discussion of more or less value in itself, or else into amiable hysterics. To speak brutal truth, hysterics are preferred, and little else is recognized. It is all very well to say that the study of poetry has been put on a scientific basis; the mass of readers who are interested in poetry, the mass of reviewers,—and one finds this true in quite unexpected quarters,—care for no scientific basis at all. In other words, they exclude from their study of poetry a good half of the facts of poetry.
In any living science one begins by finding and grouping all the facts, high and low alike; and one then proceeds to establish the relations of these facts on lines of record and comparison.