Delsarte and Poetry

by Richard Hovey

The Independent, New York: August 27, 1891


       ALL good art is a growth as much as all Nature is, and every poet writes by a method that is the result of his own personal development. The natural method is his own method. But in order to use this natural method, it is necessary to have a great deal of instinctive and acquired knowledge. "A good poet," says Ben Jonson, "is made as well as born."
       A poet must have something to say, and he must know how to say it. What he has to say depends on how great a man is, and how wide and deep is his experience of life. How he says it depends on his knowledge of the laws and the possibilities of expression in the language he uses. It is true that his knowledge of these laws and his command of these possibilities must have become instinctive and unconscious before what he writes can be called poetry. But instincts are only knowledge become automatic. All that man does unconsciously he had first to do consciously. What we possess we must first conquer. There was a time when Shakespeare could not say ba-ba, not to speak of saying "Hamlet."
       The development of a babbling baby into that crown and summit of human genius, a poet, is, in the strictest sense of the word a matter of education. The great part of the education of poets (and, indeed, of everybody) has been left for the most part to chance and blind experiment. But if it could be shown that all Art rests upon necessary principles of expression, and that many of these principles are known, it would be clear that the scientific study of such principles would, to put it at its mildest, save the artist in words, as well as all other artists, from much waste of time and unnecessary groping.
       François Delsarte did analyze scientifically the facts of expression and did discover many unquestionable laws. He did not apply them himself to the criticism of poetry, tho he must have seen that such an application was inevitable; but, if the laws he discovered be, as Delsarteans believe, the true inherent laws of Art and not a system of formal rules, then it follows that, since poetry is an art, they must also be the laws of poetry.
       Any outline of these laws would lead us far beyond the limits of such an article as this. But a few illustrations may reveal a glimpse of the scope of Delsartean research in this direction. We find by analysis that every syllable contains one vowel (or diphthong), and that most syllables are made up of three parts—an initial consonant or consonant-group, a vowel or diphthong, and a final consonant or consonant-group. Further we find that in pronouncing words, by dwelling on the final consonants we make our expression passionate and physical, by dwelling on the initial consonants emotional, and by dwelling on the vowels we exaggerate the ideas of the words we use. If any one will take the word "long," for instance, and pronounce it in these three ways, he will see in an instant the truth of this statement.
       Applying the same principle to metrical feet as to syllables, we find that feet like the troches, which are accented on the first syllable, are emotional in expression, and feet like the English pseudo-anapest, which are accented on the final syllable, are physical. Now it must be remembered that meter is itself the physical part of poetry, and that therefore to use a physical meter is to express one's self by very primitive and undifferentiated means. This accounts for the ridiculous ease with which English anapests can be ground out, and for their comparative meaninglessness after the grinding. The iambus presents a little more complexity. At first sight one would say that it, too, was accented on the final time-unit of the measure, but further investigation shows that this is not so. The iambus is a short syllable followed by a long one; and if we count the long equal in value to two shorts, as it is, we perceive that the foot contains three time-units, the second and third usually coalescing. If, however, as frequently happens, a foot of three short syllables be substituted for variety in an iambic line, the accent falls on the second, as a long series of inductions demonstrates beyond question. So the iambus is a foot of triple time, accented on the middle syllable, which, in turn, usually absorbs the final syllable. Accordingly, we find that it is mental in expression.
       Passing beyond Versification, or the use of words with respect to their qualities of tone, we come to the subject of Esthetic Linguistic, or the use of words as words. Every word has, as such, three distinct qualities: First, it has its conventional meaning as set down with varying accuracy in the definitions of the dictionaries; this is the mental part of the word's significance. In addition to this, it may convey this meaning with greater or less vigor, as we say that "go" is a stronger word than "depart," "begin" than "commence," etc. Finally, words differ in what, for lack of a better word, we must call color. With the possible exception of Volapük, in which for this very reason no one but a statistician would ever think of writing poetry, there is no language in existence in which the words are merely conventional symbols of the ideas for which they stand. Every word we speak has a pedigree that goes back to Adam. It has been developing into what it now is, through uncounted accretions and curtailments and transformations, ever since man was, and, since Professor Garner's experiments with monkeys, we may suspect even a little longer; and in the course of that long, eventful history it has gathered to itself a multitude of little associations which, without presenting themselves directly to the understanding, modify, enrich and color the effect of the primary meaning, like the overtones of a musical note. Without this colorific value of words, we could express little more by speech than by the symbols of algebra. This is the chief difficulty of the translator, and one that he can never surmount.
       The third branch of the science of poetry deals with those pictures and actions which are suggested to the mind's eye by the medium of words. Unless he express his thought through these imaginations the writer is but a versifier or a rhetorician. They constitute the most distinctive feature of poetry, and so this branch of the subject may be appropriately styled Poetics proper. It deals with the methods by which words may be so used as to convey concrete sensuous images to the fantasy, with the construction of these images into a coherent unity, usually a story, and with the characterization and motiving which fuses the poet into continuity and inevitableness.
       A salient Delsartean principle which has important applications in all of these subdivisions, is that of opposition, succession and parallelism. There is no possible expression which does not use one of these modes. Parallelism, especially, is of great importance in poetry. Rhymes, alliterations and syzygies are parallelisms of sound; the grammatical agreements of person, number, etc. are parallelisms of word-forms; similes and metaphors are parallelisms of imagery. Oppositions are hardly less essential; antitheses, dramatic situations and the like all come under this head. Rhythm itself is primarily opposition. According to Mr. Herbert Spencer, whom we may trust in a matter of this kind, all rhythm is the result of the action of antagonistic forces. Antagonism by itself, however, is not rhythm. The same antagonism must be repeated, thus introducing a parallelism. Successions are too complicated to be more than referred to in this connection.
       All poetic phenomena fall under one of the three sciences mentioned: Versification, Esthetic Linguistics and Poetics. Versification subdivides into Rhythmic, which deals with the quantity of syllables as grouped by accents and pauses, Phonetic, which treats of the qualities of tone of which syllables are composed, and Synectic, which includes rhyme, alliteration, syzygy, and binding together the rhythm. Linguistic is composed of Diction, Rhetoric and Grammar. Poetics includes Dramatics, Imagery and a third sub-division which has to do with the means by which cohesion and truth is imparted to the dramatic structure and for which, since it is so intimately related to the poet's penetrative insight. I propose the name Theoria.
       A very important contribution to our knowledge of Synectic is Professor Sylvester's "Laws of Verse," from which the name Synectic and some other technical terms are adopted. The few words of Professor Sylvester upon this subject show an insight which makes it positively irritating that he should have said so little. He seems to have used several characteristically Delsartean methods in his analysis, and probably by right of his own discovery; for we have no reason to suppose that he was acquainted with the work of the great Frenchman. It may surprise some that a mathematician should write the first important book on the science of verse; but poetry is more nearly allied to mathematics than is supposed, and a poet is usually a good mathematician.
       Following Sylvester's hints we have Sidney Lanier's "Science of English Verse," which confines itself to versification and especially to rhythm. Lanier did not attempt, except incidentally, to show the precise relations between verse-forms and their expression. But his treatment of the forms themselves is, to my mind, the first and only substantial contribution to a scientific study of poetry that has yet been written. On his work all future investigation must base itself.