The Elements of Poetic Technic

by Richard Hovey

The Independent, New York: September 27, 1894


       A STRIKING resemblance between the theory of art originated by François Delsarte, and that suggestive but ill-digested little book, "The Laws of Verse," by Professor Sylvester, is the method of classification by triads. Readers of my previous articles on "Poetics" in THE INDEPENDENT must have already noticed the employment of this method, and, I doubt not, some have rebelled against it. I did, when the Delsartean theory was first brought to my attention. It seemed too much like laying out the world with square and compass. Sylvester, too, was evidently troubled at the apparent formality of his results; for he is at pains to tell us how he was forced by the facts of the subject to a triadic classification. He goes on to suggest that a principle is doubtless involved, which, if understood, might be made the basis of a general science of "Æsthetico-Technic," as he rather cumbrously called it. Now this is exactly what Delsarte had done, years before Sylvester made his fancied discovery. More than this, Delsarte gave a reason for his method which alters the whole face of the matter and substitutes for the apparent formalism a natural and necessary order.
       For formalism is system imposed from without and having no causal connection with the things it systematizes. True system develops for within, and is the logical consequence of the nature of that from which it grows. Delsarte found the basis of his trinities of expression in the fundamental trinity of human nature itself. All art, said he, has for its final object to express man, and through expression to develop the qualities expressed. It is essential in man to have three natures, physical, mental and moral. Subtract any one of these, and the result would no longer be human. These three are entirely distinct, and cannot be confused with one another. The activity of the first is life and sensation, of the second thought, of the third love or its opposite. The aim of the first is strength, of the second truth, of the third goodness. The reward of the first is pleasure, of the second wisdom, of the third freedom. Yet these three activities inhere in one and the same indivisible personality; these three aims, strength, goodness and truth, are but phases of the one divine beauty; and these three rewards, pleasure, wisdom and freedom, shall in the perfect man become one happiness.
       Such, as I interpret it, is the outline of the psychology which was taught by Delsarte. If it be true, and I cannot argue that question in this article, we have at once the point of view for the explanation of the pertinacious appearance of our triads. Art arises from the insistence of human nature to express itself. But each phase of human nature feel the same compelling necessity of expression as the others. Moreover, man's three natures usually, and in our better moments always, act together and harmoniously. Thus man's expression, which in its highest potency we call Art, comes to have a threefoldness in its manifestations, each element of man's nature calling forth its special mode of utterance. The expression must correspond to the thing expressed, otherwise it is no expression; and if there be a trinity in man, there must be a trinity in any speech that adequately reveals him. Looked at with this insight, the objectionable triads cease to seem a mechanical and meaningless formula, and are seen to be necessary and rational. So much empty mysticism has been written about the number three and its cabalistic properties, that one who uses the trinity in a proper and legitimate manner in his reasoning is in perpetual danger of being misunderstood. But in the present hypothesis there is no such mysticism at all. I am far from wishing to deny that there may be a reason in the nature of things why the constitution of man should be triune, and this reason philosophy may discover; but, so far as the present purely scientific inquiry is concerned, man might have had four or five or a dozen natures, in which case our classification would have been different. As he has three, it is what it is.
       Pushing the application of this point of view a little further, it becomes evident that each of the three primary elements of poetic technic (sounds, words and images) has a special affinity for expressing a particular phase of man's nature. The effects of sound used in poetry are produced by the physical organism and are the only phenomena of poetic technic that appeal directly to the senses. They are thus the physical part of poetic expression. It is only necessary to listen to a fine poem in some unknown tongue, well read, to become aware that a certain amount of sensuous beauty is possible through these effects alone. But in our own tongue, in which we are at ease, we cannot avoid receiving some ideas from the words; and if these ideas be commonplace, no amount of beauty of sound will save the verse from being trivial. It will be, as we say, mere verse and not poetry at all; for, it be observed, no one of the elements of poetry is of much value except when conjoined with the other two. When, however, the contrast between sonorous verse and unmeaning words is carried to extremes, when portentous metrical effects are used to introduce—nothing, the effect is frequently comic to a high degree, as where in "Alice in Wonderland,"

                   "the Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
              Came whiffling through the turleygood
              And burbled as he came."

       To reverse the illustration and show what is the result when all the other relations are present and those of sound only are eliminated, let us take and transform the opening lines of Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur":

              "So all day long the noise of battle rolled
              Among the mountains by the wintry sea;
              Until King Arthur's army, man by man,

              Had fallen in Lyonesse about their lord,
              King Arthur."

Surely, a splendid and full-voiced exordium. Now, we cannot entirely subtract all effects of sound from these voices, for even in reading silently with the eye we imagine for the ear. But by a very slight shifting of the phrases we can, without altering one of the words or injuring the naturalness of their order, destroy the whole set of sound-relations which the poet has created. Thus: "So the noise of battle rolled all day long by the wintry sea among the mountains; until King Arthur's army had fallen man by man about their lord, King Arthur, in Lyonesse." Not a word has been altered—the phrases are the same, the grammatical structure is unimpaired, the categorical statements are still there, and even the mental picture, the image, is unmarred; and yet the life is gone out of it. Not only has the sensuous beauty disappeared, but the vitality, the effectiveness are no longer there; and these, mark you, are all physical qualities. How, then, can we avoid the conclusion that these were expressed by those relations of sound, which alone were removed by our changes?
       Words, strictly in their functions as such, are the most mental of all our means of expression. They stand for ideas, not for things. The word "tree," for example, does not mean this or that particular tree; it does not correspond to any tree that exists physically anywhere; it denotes the general notion or concept of a tree, which has no physical existence but which applies equally well to all the innumerable trees that have. And it is not only mental in signification but in origin. For noting such a general concept—and all words except proper names, of which more hereafter, do denote general concepts) without previously analyzing, abstracting, comparing and classifying the impression which we receive from particular trees. And these processes of abstraction and generalization are purely mental. It is natural, then, that that part of poetic technic which deals with the nature and arrangement of words as such, which are thus shown to be mental in origin and mental in meaning, should be used by man to express more particularly the mental phase of his personality.
       Antithesis and all those figures of speech which do not involve imagery belong in this category. Their effect is to give sharpness of outline and intellectual sparkle to our discourse. Pope and the other overmentalized poets are full of them. Pope's

              "Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
              And, without sneering, teach the rest to sneer,"

and Dryden's

              "So over violent, or over civil,
              That every man with him was god or devil.
              In squandering wealth was his peculiar art;
              Nothing went unrewarded but desert.
              Beggared by fools, whom still he found too late,
              He had his jest, and they had his estate,"

are good examples. We can hardly imagine such writing as this moving the heart or the passions; it pleases the mind only. It has a natural tendency to become wit; and wit is the intellectual species of comicality, as burlesque or fun is the physical, and humor the emotional. Naturally, we find Pope the wittiest of poets.

              "The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
              And wretches hang that jurymen may dine."

           "Here thou, great Anna, whom three realms obey,
           Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea."

And so on through innumerable instances. Punning also comes under this head, which, as sound bears some part in it, may be called the physical branch of wit.
       In this same general division must be classed those apt words and happy phrases, those precise and accurate verbal felicities, which form the chief charm of beautiful diction. In Homer's άυήριθμου γελάσμα—"the innumerable laughter of the Sea"—the adjective "innumerable" is such a felicity. The same quality inheres in the phrase "a sad sincerity," in Emerson's "Problem":

              "The hand that rounded Peter's dome,
              And groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
              Wrought in a sad sincerity.
              Himself from God he could not free."

This verbal nicety may take the form of a contrast between words of adjacent shades of meaning;

       "Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar";

but such balancing of subtle discriminations has been carried to absurd lengths by some writers, like Dr. Johnson and Macaulay. Witness Sidney Smith's happy burlesque of the mannerism:

"Of whom Dr. Parr might be happy to say, that they have profundity without obscurity, perspicuity without prolixity, ornament without glare, terseness without barrenness, penetration without subtlety, comprehensiveness without depression, and a great number of other things without a great number of other things."

       At its finest, however, this exactness of diction gives the reader keen intellectual delight and seizes upon the memory for continual quotation. So Pope is the most quotable of poets, after Shakespeare. Perhaps this quality was never better defined than in an anecdote which Mr. Howells tells of the late George Pellew:

"I remember how we talked over some phrases which I did not like, in one of his sonnets, and which he changed where he could. Where he found it difficult or impossible, he acknowledged the imperfection, as in the line,

              'Or, knowing, did not choose to keep them sound.'

'Sound isn't the best word, of course,' he said, 'but it is justifiable. All you can say is that it isn't a close fit'; and then he laughed out his joy in the phrase which was a close fit."

       After all, mere mind, without vitality and without love, is a poor thing enough; and so if these mental beauties preponderate too largely in our expression, even their wit becomes tiresome. The antitheses begin to seem acrobatic, and the "close-fit" phrases tailor-made. It is the language of diplomacy. There is too much finesse and not enough feeling. The patness becomes an impertinence; and we incline at last to quarrel with the author for his very cleverness.