Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
Poetry of To-morrow*
believe that the poetry of to-morrow will be greater
than the poetry of to-day, because I believe that to-day
is greater than yesterday.
do not say that we are better than our fathers or happier;
but I believe that we are greater-greater in accomplishment,
greater in aspiration. That we are greater in accomplishment
is the veriest commonplace; when we can spare a moment
from our inventions and discoveries and the conquest
of time and space, we are busy belauding ourselves for
these gigantic achievements of the manikin. That we
must be greater than our fathers in aspiration seems
to me true, since we are weighted with so much more
an intolerable burden of despair than they. As the frontiers
of thought are extended, the margin of cheerfulness
and contentment seems to diminish at a galloping ratio,
just as the margin of production is diminished with
the advance of cultivation.
knowledge was as wide as a house, when witches rode
broomsticks and the earth was flat, religion must needs
be only a comfortable fire upon the hearth, and art
no more than the telling of a tale whose beginning was
"Once upon a time," and its end "lived
happy ever after." But this house of knowledge,
this makeshift shelter from the elements, was not to
last. Those restless young Vandals, Galileo and Newton
and Columbus and Darwin, could not keep their hands
from mischief; they rose up and took off the roof, beat
down the walls, cursed the poor old grandmother with
her fireside tales, and let in the pitiless fury of
a wintry dark upon the dwelling. Can we expect to be
as comfortable as our fathers were? No; but did not
these destroyers also let in the sweet white rain and
the wholesome sun itself? The handful of fire was smothered
out, you fear, by the first wild inrush of the wind.
Even so, even in so sad a case as that, is there not
the sun with his thousand fellows to warm us and cheer?
How childish to fret about one or two solar systems
fewer or more!
ages of depression, of faint-heartedness, of despair,
are only momentary in the history of the world. They
are the unfit, and in the natural selection of eternity
they will not survive. We are here because there is
a joy in living common to the oyster and the octogenarian,
the philosopher and the frog, the elephant and the epicure,
the icthyosaurus, the iguana, and the idiot.
has sometimes been said that the greatest poet is he
who most perfectly voices the trend of emotion of his
day. And it is claimed that the greatness of Arnold
is attested most clearly in such poems as "A Summer
Night," "Dover Beach," "The Youth
of Man," and a score of other such beautiful meditations
which are full of the grievous sadness of our time.
It is said that his claim upon the future ages for remembrance
will lie in his mournful note, because the mournful
sentiment was most distinctive of his own.
this is not true. Even in the day of doubt, the dolorous
singer will not be listened to by his contemporaries
as gladly as will the sturdier hero who has set his
face against the desperate gloom all about him. And
Arnold, the gracious and wistful abjurer of strife,
has his place among the great English poets, among the
first score, by reason of such faultless creations of
beauty as "Sohrab and Rustum," "Tristam
and Iseult," "The Neckan," "The
Forsaken Merman," and "The Scholar-Gipsy."
He can be considered a minor poet only because so large
a part of his work is in the minor key. He is less than
Browning or Tennyson, not because the body of his productions
is less, but because his heroism, his assurance, his
valor, his faith, are less than theirs. In many ways
he is their equal.
for measure there is no part of the "Idyls of the
King" comparable in romantic feeling to "Tristram
and Iseult;" they are as candlelight to moonlight.
There is no pseudo-classical poem of the dead Laureate's
equal to "Sohrab and Rustum." and, bulk for
bulk, there is no portion of the "In Memoriam"
that for simplicity, for inevitableness, for sheer and
undoubted poetic quality, can compare with "The
Scholar-Gipsy." The latter poem has not a line
of prose in it; the former has whole stanzas of mere
all this does not make Arnold the equal of him who has
just been laid by Browning's side. There in front of
Chaucer's tomb they lie, the Sons of Thunder of the
Victorian age. We have honored Tennyson the more because
his speech was the easier to understand. Men will hereafter
not honor Browning the less, for in time it will seem
puerile that we could have thought him always obscure,
or have missed the forthright rush and lyric abandon
of his utterance. The songs they sang, the creations
that came from their hands, taught self-reliance, heroism,
joy. And these mark you, are qualities dear to the ages.
For the race of man, alike with the creatures of the
field, persists by self reliance, by heroism, by abiding
joy. And the great poet is he who gathers these virtues
in his heart.
was easy to be a poet in the morning times of Elizabeth,
for then heroism and joy and self-reliance were everywhere.
Conquest was in the air and triumph in every wind that
blew. And to-day is not less great in discovery; only
the discoveries are of a more intellectual, a less material,
and therefore a less suggestive sort. The Elizabethans
found new islands of the sea, and their discoveries
fed the imagination; we have made far explorations into
the region of the unknown, and our homecoming is attended
with no floating of banners, no sound of drums; for
we have hardly been able to set foot upon the sighted
shore, nor to bring back any certain report of the friendliness
and treasure of those dim Altrurian Isles.
to-morrow the Captain of the Ocean Sea will come, the
adjuster and revealer of new realms of poetry. Nor is
he likely to forget how cruelly his prototype, Columbus,
was discredited at first.
may know him in his own time, tho that is not likely.
His work will be done without conceit, yet with entire
disregard of the blame of his fellows or their wildest
approval. Just what that work will be it is not possible
to say; for he himself, when he shall arrive, will not
be able to tell the secret of his delirious vision.
The task which his fancy shall so cunningly contrive
in an idle noonday rest, his handicraft may finish before
sunset; yet it will give no hint of the sudden revelation
that may be awaiting for him in the doors of the following
there are some traits of his work that we may be sure
of. That it will be large and glad and valiant and joyful,
we have seen; for these qualities inhere in the heart
of man, not to be thrust out by the overthrow of empires,
or the founding of republics, or any trifles of history
whatsoever. These are the things that help the race
along; and anything that does not so help will speedily
be forgotten as a hindrance. But, above all things,
the poetry of to-morrow will not be commonly understood;
it will appeal only to the children of to-morrow-of
its own morrow. And this, not because it will be poor
art, but because the artist, the true artist, speaks
from within by authority; and his new word, so potent
to himself, is a sealed book to his troubled fellows.
If he is great, he will be gently obstinate about his
work; yet none will be a more willing learner than he,
gladly considering even the crudest criticism.
the beautiful outer world, is all there was found to
say before man's time came upon the earth. Art is the
constant slow insistence of God to express himself through
the heart of man. Poetry is what the world would say
if it could speak. Art, then, is far above Nature; and
the man who thinks the highest achievement in art is
to be attained by the most perfect copying of what he
has seen, may be a photographer or a scientist; but
he is not an artist, he is not a poet. For the painter
and the novelist and the musician, as well as the poet,
must speak from within.
is the fallacy of our modern school of realists (as
they are called), that school which has for its most
distinguished leader in this country, a man so gentle
and fair and kindly, so full of all that is best in
human nature, as quite to disarm criticism of the theories
he supports. How delighted those who know him would
be if they could ever find in his novels a character
as ennobling and stimulating as his own!
the end of art were to please alone, then, indeed, the
realists would not be altogether wrong. But art has
something else to do. It must please, in order that
it may teach; but its first and last business is to
teach. It will not teach by the polished wit of "The
Essay on Man"; it will teach by imposing a dominant
beauty upon life. It will lead and stimulate and suggest.
It will content itself with the creation of the utterly
beautiful, knowing that there lies the easiest and the
shortest road to the conquest of evil, to the ennobling
of the race, to the bettering of the world. Its influence
will be as generous as the sun and as impassive as the
dew, as abundant as the wind or the sea, and as subtile
and sure as the touch of environment upon the unborn
Arnold said that poetry is a criticism of life, he did
not mean that as a definition of poetry. It is true
as far as he meant it, as far as it goes; but poetry
is much more than a criticism of life; it is the aspiration
of a new life, the persistent and blind cry of the soul,
a flickering shadow of ourselves cast huge against the
is the function of art, of poetry and music and the
plastic arts, to show us a better and more beautiful
life than that we daily know. It marches like a ragged
child, proud and glad and unconscious, with the drums
of the vanguard. Only the place of the artisan, the
charlatan and the purveyor of amusement is with the
camp followers in the rear.
the poetry of to-morrow will be so like the poetry of
to-day that few will be able to tell the difference;
for the elements of poetry are abiding and not fluctuating;
they are based on the eternal needs of the soul, and
are forged according to changeless laws of Nature. Englishmen
seem to think that America must produce something absolutely
new in art; but America is only man taking a new start.
The conditions are the same. At best it is only Eden
over again-or a little better. This accounts for the
tremendous vogue of Whitman in England. But we must
not be deceived here. Whitman was the compiler of a
large poetic notebook, little more. The need for rhythm
and form in art is deeper than he knew; the need of
self-effacement and humility in the artist is greater
than his egotism would permit him to perceive. Whitman's
work will die and not live, because it is not beautiful.
The preacher who rants, cuts his own throat; the poet
who proses, breaks his own pen.
poetry of to-morrow will be closely akin to all the
best poetry of the world-to Homer, to Isaiah, to Omar,
to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton and Browning. For these
never grow old; they are so simple that Time takes them
always for children. A man may always do a new thing
in art, and he may do it in a new way; but he must still
work by the old elemental rules. These he must find
and follow, for they are as changeless as the law of
gravitation. To transgress, then, is to die, to violate,
then, is to commit suicide. Yet the most fatuous kind
of criticism is that which has a few perfect standards
and brings all new work into comparison with these.
it may happen that after this Victorian Age, the to-morrow
of poetry may be postponed for a hundred years. So it
was after Chaucer's death. But that is no reason for
discouragement. The ages are not in a hurry, it is only
Chicago and London that are in a hurry. The greater
than Shakespeare will come. It is foolish to suppose
that the Word which was in the beginning, and which
has been spoken from the lips of men so often in these
brief centuries, will leave itself without more perfect
utterance at the last. Meanwhile, while all things are
under discussion and philosophy has no sure answer to
any question the immediate business of poetry is to
be heroic. Indifferentism is but a sorry creed; yet
indifferentism which covers the heroic heart will not
be altogether idle. Omar has lived not because of his
doubt, but because of his heroism; he is dear to us
for that to-day.
have said nothing of the probable technical qualities
of poetry in the future; but there will be a greater
simplicity and directness of structure, and more perfect
articulation. Every line, every stanza, every poem,
will be as simple and direct as if it were prose. Inversion
for the sake of rhyme or meter will be impossible. In
this regard, Browning will for some years to come be
our best teacher. In articulation we may still learn
from Tennyson, with his
lin-lan-lone of evening bells."
to speak of the poetry of to-morrow within the compass
of two thousand words, is as if one should send a mosquito
against the armies of Israel.
of Tomorrow," Independent, Nov. 3, 1892