some time now there have been appearing in it those
wonderful essays in comparative international criticism,
Mr. Lafcadio Hearn's studies in Japanese life and thought,
perhaps the most penetrating and careful interpretation
of one people for another since Emerson's English Traits.
Where else could such papers have found space?
the January number among other good things there is
a brief essay by Mr. Bradford Torrey on "Verbal
Magic," in which he turns again to that unsolved
and unsolvable problem, the charm of poetry. And in
his delicate treatment of the subject he follows Arnold's
method of criticism-a perilous one, it must be confessed.
For the Arnoldian touchstone for good poetry was nothing
less than Arnold himself. "This line, and this
and this," said Arnold, in effect, "are examples
of what is good in poetry," and if you ask "Why?"
the only answer is, "Because they are." And
of course that is the proper method. It presupposes
a genius for poetry, that is all. And, indeed, how else
is one to be equipped for the criticism of poetry?
then, says Mr. Torrey, "the famous lines from Wordsworth's
no one tell me what she sings?-
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.'
final couplet of this stanza is a typical example of
what is here meant of verbal magic. I am heartily of
Mr. Swinburne's mind when he says of it: 'In the whole
expanse of poetry there can hardly be two verses of
more perfect and profound and exalted beauty'-although
my own slender acquaintance with literature as a whole
would not have justified me in so sweeping a mode of
speech. The utmost that I could have ventured to say
would have been that I knew of no lines more supremely,
indescribably, perennially beautiful. Nor can I sympathize
with Mr. Courthope in his contention that the lines
are nothing in themselves, but depend for their 'high
quality' upon their association with the image of the
solitary reaper...Yet of what cheap and common materials
are they composed, and how artlessly put together. Nine
every-day words, such as an farmer might use, not a
fine word among them, following each other in the most
unstudied manner-and the result perfection!"
must say that I think Mr. Torrey in the right in saying
that the beauty resides in the lines themselves. His
all too brief paper might form the basis of an instructive
study in English poetry. And not the least suggestive
paragraph of it is the note where he advances the statement
that "really magical lines are seldom or never
to be found in the work of the more distinctively musical
poets-say in Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson and Swinburne."
is a little overstated, perhaps, yet it has enough truth
to make one pause and think. And it is true that in
Swinburne, the most musical of the four, there is less
of the sort of magic Mr. Torrey is speaking of than
in the others. It was perhaps some such conception of
poetry that was upper-most in Mr. R.H. Stoddard's mind
when he said that Mr. Swinburne "had written no
line that lingers in the memory;" though he certainly
is full of memorable cadences and musical terms. Yet
there must be magic in him too; for what is this magic
but the very life of poetry? It is as evanescent and
fleeting as that elusive something which forever eludes
the scientist in analyzing the beautiful forms of created
things-the spirit which dwells where none of us can
pry. If it were possible to say just why the line
the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore"
poetry, while the line,
honest man's the noblest work of God,"
not; if it were possible to place our finger on the
magic, it would be possible, one can almost imagine,
to say just how the mysterious thing called life resides
in beast and flower. And since life is the magical and
mysterious thing in outward creation, why should we
hesitate to declare that this magic is the very life
of poetry and art? Certainly it is the quality which
makes poetry and art fascinating and lasting. Without
some touch of it, are they not dead? And how without
the magic of life are these things, art and poetry,
these precious and belauded achievements of man, to
kindle new fires in us, arousing gentleness and righteousness
and love of beauty and enthusiasm of all sorts. Is not
their magic the one trait which lifts the soul-possessing
sonnets of Shakespeare above the brute-creation of algebra?
Until it is touched with magic, until it is heightened
and made lyrical, in short, until it becomes poetry,
is not human utterance a mere statement of fact, a scientific
enunciation of truth; it might quite as well be written
in Latin as in the vulgar tongue, and reduced to its
lowest terms it becomes a+b=c. Geometry is the skeleton
of truth; poetry is its breath of life; a magic thing.
not to wander from a definite inquiry. In which, then,
of the poets does this quality of magic most appear.
If I do not mistake Mr. Torrey's meaning (and bearing
in mind those two lines of Wordsworth's,
old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago"),
believe we should find as much magic in Arnold as in
any of the Victorians. It is surely in the line,
autumns and triumphant springs."
may tear that from its context and yet its haunting
magic quality remains. It pervades whole poems, like
"The Forsaken Merman," and something of it
possesses passages like the close of "Schrab and
Rustum," and the close of "The Scholar Gypsy,"
where the line
and shine upon the Aral sea,"
ever after describe the stars for us; while the line
on the beach undid his corded vales,"
in the memory, too, with its lovely cadence.
Torrey says that this magic does not depend on artifice
or perfection of elaborate technique. And very likely
it cannot be evoked by them; but I wonder if cadence
may not have something to do with the marvel. Most passages
which have this magic have a final and conclusive cadence
about them, like the dying fall of the wind. They are
very often passages (quite apart from their context,
of course) which you would guess to be the close of
some stately poem. They have a cadence which affects
us as a story coming to a close, a tale that is told.
that arouses the further question, whether they may
not always have the accent (these magic lines in poetry)
the very accent of the solemnity of nature. Are not
the poets in whom such passages are found, men like
Burns and Chaucer and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and
Arnold- are they not men penetrated through and through
with a sense of the plangency of life? They are, too,
poets of great simplicity of mind. They rather put us
in the mood of nature, than affect us with any special
thought of their own, in these magical passages of theirs.
To compare them with other poets quite as great as they,
though less filled with the magic cadence, is to deduce
the evidence of their peculiar quality. In Mr. Swinburne,
with his very beautiful music, the magic quality is
overlaid with the charm of sound; in Browning, it is
overborne by the stress of thought. It is in those poets
who sink into themselves, or into the core of nature,
and brood, that we will find most magic, perhaps. For
as magic is life in nature, we must give the moods of
nature free play in art, else the magic breath will
be lost, and our too alert mental activity or our too
vivid physical sense of music will be unduly protruded.
Mr. Torrey has touched on a theme of vital interest
to artists and students, and one not without interest
for all thoughtful men and women-if we believe that
art and poetry are anything more than amusements. And
I think we are apt to forget that the future of art
in America depends on every one of us. It cannot come
alone from the efforts of our artists; it must have
the support of a cultivated, open-minded and artistic
community. It must constantly keep bringing to the consideration
of artistic questions, a fresh enthusiasm for them,
and (if it can) a delicacy of taste such as this essay
in the current Atlantic shows.
must also be ready, surely, to approach the work of
new men, in the spirit in which Mr. Kipling and Mr.
James Lane Allen are treated in the same magazine.