The Technic of Poetry II

by Richard Hovey

The Independent, New York: April 21, 1892


       IN the simple speech of the primitive man (that long-suffering Ulysses of latter-day mythology) the scanty vocabulary may perhaps have had no significations other than those inherent and native in tones, as in exclamations and the cries of animals. Indeed, there are animals who make music, to which verse is so nearly akin, but none who make poetry, of which verse is only a part. Probably, the first thing added to the original animal tone-language was in the form of imitative names, imitative being the lowest of the intellectual powers, and the earliest in development. Adam in the garden (to hark back to the older and more poetical account) would be likely to name the animals by imitations of their cries, just as the modern baby calls the locomotive a "choo-choo," with the "isolating" Chinese habit that characterizes the language of the nursery.
       But, however the development began, we find in all human speech since man became historic, two quite distinguishable groups of qualities—those which inhere in sounds as such, and those which, through untold ages of accretion, have come to inhere in the specialized functions of sounds which we call words. In versification, we dealt with one only of these groups, sounds as such; for verse would remain verse to every ear, tho uttered in a language absolutely unknown. The other, the linguistic qualities, remain to be examined. If the principles of opposition, succession and parallelism be veritable esthetic laws, they will be found to apply here also.
       In the first section of this article I spoke of the influence of the parallelism of meter as an element of restraint in style, and said that for that reason what would be dangerously near bombast in prose might at the appropriate occasion be said safely in verse. At first glance there seems to be a striking contradiction of this statement in the King James Version of the Hebrew poets—if not in the Hebrew poets themselves. I cannot enter here into the question of the metrical or non-metrical nature of these poems in the original Hebrew; but in the English version, at any rate, they are prose in form. Yet they venture the most sublime audacities of thought and expression to be found in the literature of the world, and this, too with so little approach toward any blatancy of effect that they stand as a perpetual monument of what is excellent in style, in the English version even more, almost, than in the original. But in these poems the place of meter is supplied by a parallelism even more marked, a rhetorical parallelism, a repetition sometimes of the same phrase with an emphatic addition, as "better than gold, yea, than much fine gold," frequently the restatement of the same idea in a new image, as in;
       "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loosen the bands of Orion?"
       "Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name."
       "Who is this that cometh from Edom? with dyed garments from Bozrah?"
       "My soul doth magnify the Lord; and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior."
       Often the parallelism of thought is absent, but the parallelism of structure remains. Indeed, this feature of Hebrew poetry has long been recognized and discussed under the very name I am using.
       Dr. Kawozynski, in his recent essay on the "Origin of Rhythms," takes the view that from such rhetorical parallelisms meter is a development, and many of the facts undoubtedly support his opinion, altho he seems too much to overlook the innate rhythmical sense of children, savages and primitive people. But this is a question of the evolution of rhythms rather than of their expression. Mark how the pseudo-Ossian, ignorant of this principle, aims at the Hebrew grandeur and attains only grandiloquence.
       Carlylese is, perhaps, the best example of the extreme use of oppositions in style with success. Rugged and virile, it often fails of sweetness and clarity; yet no better instrument could be found to express the colossal Titanism of the French Revolution.
       But I cannot do more here than offer a hint at the realm of these laws in linguistic and rhetorical matters, a realm which I think will be found vast and far-reaching by whoever takes the trouble to follow out the suggestion. I wish to devote the few paragraphs that remain to me to a brief consideration of the application of our principles to Dramatics.
       Every one knows, since Aristotle, that the groundwork of a dramatic action is what is technically known as the collision; that is, the antagonism of two moral forces or ideas. In other words, the basis of every plot is an opposition. In the Oresteia, for example, the opposition at the start is between the love of Clytemnestra for Ægisthus, which is right subjectively, so to speak, and her marriage relation to Agamemnon, which at once makes her love for the other objectively wrong. This collision is solved by the murder of Agamemnon, which at once raises another in its place, which is the true collision of the trilogy. For now one and the same principle, love of parents, manifests itself in a self-contradiction. Orestes is bidden by filial duty to avenge his father's murder, and he is also bidden by the same duty to "contrive against his mother naught." But his father's murderer and his mother are one and the same person; and so, whatever he may do, he must necessarily destroy the very principle upon which he acts. This is a true collision of the most essential kind—fateful, necessary, inherent, inevitable.
       But a collision by itself does not make a plot. There must be an action, and this action must be not merely the sequence but the consequence of the collision; it must reveal its necessary issue. The end must grow out of the beginning by the same natural development as the fruit out of the seed. Change there must be, else there were no movement and no action; but the change must be by development—that is, by successions—and never suddenly and without reason. This is not to say that effects of suddenness may not be used if subtly and carefully led up to and motived. The fruit matures slowly and by gradual change, but there is a moment when it falls, to all appearances, suddenly. The grub in its cocoon becomes a butterfly by degrees; but, finally, at one dramatic moment, bursts its shell. So in the tale or drama, every situation must be reached by gradations, successions, developments; but the situation itself will properly be to a greater or less extent oppositional. Every one will remember the element of contrast in most dramatic situations.
       I say in most dramatic situations, because there is a large class in which parallelism rather than opposition is the dominant characteristic. Especially is this true of comedy, for there seems to be something ludicrous oftentimes in the repetition of things in themselves indifferent. But the important and necessary part played by parallelism in the structure of an action is not in the individual situation, but in the linking together of the situations into a coherent unity.
       If, for example, there be more than one thread of action; if, as is the invariable usage of Shakespeare, there be at least one underplot in addition to the central action, the mere physical coexistence of such plots and underplots in time and space, and their chance relation through incidents, becomes a rational connection by the repetition in a different key of the motive of the plot in the underplot. That is, through parallelism of motive mere juxtaposition becomes unity. If, however, the parallelism be too exact, a sense of artificiality will be felt which will destroy the verisimilitude; for we may concede to the ultra-realists that, if it be not necessary to depict things exactly as they are, it is necessary to avoid seeming to depict them as they are not.
       Thus in "Lear" the terrible madness of the old king is repeated fugue-like in the assumed madness of Edgar and the professional weakness of the Fool, an awful diapason of unreason, bassed by the echoing physical confusion of the storm. Again, in the "Merchant of Venice," the love of Bassanio and Portia is repeated in the love of Gratiano and Nerissa, and again in that of Lorenzo and Jessica, a decorative background of lovers, against which the melancholy Antonio and Shylock the Jew stand out in dramatic relief. In this connection it is interesting to remark Shakespeare's habit of introducing his important characters in pairs—Salarino and Solario, Rosencranz and Guildenstern, etc.
       I have spoken now of the collision, which is the inception of the plot, and of the action, which is its development; there remains the outcome, the dénouement, the catastrophe. This may be of three kinds, in accordance with which the drama is classified into tragedy, comedy, and what Mr. Denton J. Snider calls the mediated drama.
       When the opposition between the colliding principles becomes greater and greater, until the story ends without solution or with the solution of death, the play is a tragedy (in the modern sense of the word).
       When the opposition is solved by the voluntary relinquishment of one of the principles, as when Lydia Languish foregoes the desire for an elopement and consents to be married in a decent but unromantic manner, altho the entire play has been based on her determination to do the opposite, the result is a comedy.
       In the mediated drama (would that some enterprising philologist would coin us the word needed here) [harmonedy? Ed.] the collision is solved by the reconciliation of both the antagonistic aims in a higher synthesis.
       In the tragedy the initial opposition maintains itself, with changing form to the end; in the comedy, it is brought to a parallelism, but with some violence, which, being taken necessarily in good part by the characters, is of an amusing nature; in the mediated drama the opposition is carried over by mediation into complete harmony, and the three elements are most completely balanced.
       The drama, being the most perfect literary form, is the best in which to study these principles of structure. But they apply equally well to the organization of epic, romance, idyl, lyric or epigram.