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Thursday, January 26, 2012

"The Problem of Minor Poetry"

The Problem of Minor Poetry
The Speaker, March 30, 1901

At The Gates Of Song. By Lloyd Mifflin
Deirdre Wed. By Mr. Trench

The difficulty of dealing with the poetry which is produced yearly and daily is seriously increasing. The problem of minor poetry does not arise from the fact that the mass of it is bad; it arises from the dark, bewildering and sinister fact that the mass of it is good. The fact is, as it appears to us, that writing in verse is becoming as universal an accomplishment as writing at all. Moliere makes the ignorant man exult in the discovery that he has been speaking prose all his life; the ignorant man of a future satirist will probably exult in the fact that he has been speaking poetry. We see no reason why the power of expressing all our wants in rhyme and rhythm should not be attained by any one in the future. There is no reason why a man wishing his neighbour to pass the potatoes should not say quite naturally:-
"Pass me those goblins, in the earth that grew,
Those hells whose heaven is a blossom blue,"
whereupon the most prosaic of his companions would pass the potatoes immediately. A man who suspected another of having stolen his umbrella would exclaim with righteous indignation-
"Methinks thou cowerest in that dusky dome
Wherein I also dared the floods to come:"
whereupon a person of the most impervious moral nature would immediately return the umbrella.

Such is the general impression produced on the mind by the horrible facility which a large number of modern men exhibit in the matter of verse. Owing to some inexperience of critical effects we are unable to say whether it would be considered a tribute to any class of poets to say that they express in language which no one can impugn sentiments which no one can help having. But this is assuredly the case with an enormous number of modern minor writers of verse. Sometimes, undoubtedly, the matter is somewhat simpler. One poet among those whose books lie before us at present exclaims in opening an address to the ocean-
"My feeble powers, O mighty sea,
I cannot strain to sing to thee"
which seems an excellent, manly and lucid excuse for not writing a poem to the sea, but not a very good excuse for writing one. The majority of modern poets, however, are not so conveniently disposed of. They have, in spite of generalisations, protests and criticisms, a decidedly indefensible habit of writing very good poetry, poetry at least adorned with a degree of style, dignity and judgment which would not have been possible in every age. We can only explain it as we say, by the theory that talking in rhyme is becoming an universal accomplishment, like signing one's own name. We have no doubt that when language first existed, those persons who could emit certain screams and grunts expressive of the most simple necessities went about with long curled hair and a hyper-elegant demeanour to celebrate their poetic superiority.

An example of how well the thing can be done may be found in the book called At the Gates of Song, by Mr. Lloyd Mifflin. Mr. Lloyd Mifflin is, we conceive, an American. His very name is a poem. And his sonnets are decidedly good sonnets; yet, such is the perversity of human judgment, we feel that after the first five every good sonnet decreases our opinion of the poet. About things turned out with such multiplicity and precision there is a strange smell of the factory. One of Mr. Lloyd Mifflin's sonnets, if we found it alone, we should feel to possess all the pallid severity of the Parthenon. But twenty Parthenons in a row would be as commonplace as twenty Brixton villas.

If we may take Mr. Lloyd Mifflin as the type of the thoroughly polished and dignified craftsman, the author of Amor Amoris may be said to represent the opposite type, the type of the man with a personality, slight or recondite perhaps, but of delicate and individual colour. The poet is a sentimentalist, perhaps: indeed, Amor Amoris, the love of love, is surely the very definition of sentimentalism. But he has escaped the real hell of sentimentalism, the hell of least resistance, the hell of an unfathomable softness. He is not doomed, like so many aesthetes, to go mad in the merciless comfort of a padded cell. He knows how to show beauty bright against a black background.
"Her hair is clustered bloom
Makes fair this borderland of death"
is a fine phrase, illuminating like an aureole suddenly lighted round a woman's head. The author is always at his best when he brings the soft and the severe into this sudden and ringing contact, like two knights at a tournament.

Mr. Trench, in his volume Deirdre Wed follows the most mysterious section of the Celtic School. We are not ungrateful for the information conveyed in the title, for it is as well to know, at least, on sound external evidence, that whatever else happened to Deirdre she was really wed at some stage of her affairs. The poem, though dim and strange, or rather, because dim and strange, is genuinely fine. Yet we cannot help vaguely resenting the excessive gloom which hangs over all the poems of the renaissance of Celtic mythology. Ireland may have been as melancholy as this in the far-off days when she was a centre of civilisation; but she has certainly improved in spirits under her misfortunes. Amid all the Regency bombast of Tom Moore, there was far more sound analysis of the spirit that has kept his country alive:-
"Bid her not shed one tear of sorrow
To sully a heart so gallant and light."
In this connection we may mention another book of poems- The Love Letters of a Fenian- which is a continuation of the more romantic tradition of Ireland. Extravagant and pompous as it is, its gloom is more young and generous than the light of Deirdre Wed. It is said that there is an Irish legend in which a woman was turned into a harp. We prefer her when the transformation is not quite complete.

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