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UNIVERSITY 
OF FLORIDA 
LIBRARIES 




COLLEGE LIBRARY 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 



li 



Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2011 with funding from 

LYRASIS IVIembers and Sloan Foundation 



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http://www.archive.org/details/languageofpoetryOOtate ^ 



THE LANGUAGE 
OF POETRY 

BY 

Philip Wheelwright • Cleanth Brooks 
I. A. Richards • Wallace Stevens 

£^/V^^/^^ Allen Tate 



k 



0^{ew York 

RUSSELL G? RUSSELL 

i960 



COPYRIGHT, 1942, BY PRINChTON UNIVHRSITY PRESS 

REISSUED, i960, BY RUSSELL & RUSSELL, INC. 

BY ARRANGEMENT WITH PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS 

L. C. CATALOG CARD NO! 60-6037 




PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA 




PREFACE 



HE four essays collected here under the title The 
Language of Poetry were read to audiences at Prince- 
ton University in the spring of 1941 under the 
auspices of the Creative Arts Program. The primary 
aim of the symposium was not a series of lectures 
but the present book. The contributors were invited 
to prepare essays which should not sacrifice the diffi- 
cult implications of the subject to the limited capacity 
of the ear of even the best audience. 

"Semantics" is the term popularly given at present 
to the subject of this book; yet semantics is the study 
of the relevance of terms and statements to objects 
and events, and is thus only one of the problems of 
the language of poetry. We are witnessing in America 
today an exhaustive study of poetijc language such as 
criticism has not attempted either here or in Europe in 
any previous age. Whether this means that we shall 
get better poetry or better criticism, or both, it is too 
soon to know; if we find after a generation that we 
have got neither, it will be too late to do anything 
about it. At present we may see a shift, in talking 
about poetry, from psychology to philosophy — from 
poetry as emotion and response to poetry as a kind of 
knowledge. 

It is always proper to ask Mr. Richards to join a 
critical symposium; we asked him on this occasion 

• vii • 



PREFACE 

because we may observe in his own intellectual his- 
tory the shift that I refer to; and we wished to 
acknowledge him as the pioneer of our age in this 
field of study. The symposium comes to a unanimous 
decision on one question, but it is the main question : 
that poetry, although it is not science, is not nonsense. 
It is a modest conclusion, but one which, in the recent 
state of criticism, could not be assumed or even easily 
arrived at. 

The Creative Arts Program is grateful to the con- 
tributors for their cooperation, and to the Mesures 
Fund for bringing them to Princeton. This Fund, 
which has been given to the Creative Arts Program 
by the editor of Mesures, the French quarterly now 
temporarily suspended, provides for four more sym- 
posiums on literary problems. To Mr. Henry Church, 
the donor, we owe our chief gratitude. 

Allen Tate 



CONTENTS 

PREFACE 

By Allen Tate 
• vii • 

POETRY, MYTH, AND REALITY 

By Philip Wheelwright 
•3- 

|j THE LANGUAGE OF PARADOX 

By Cleanth Brooks 
•37- 

THE INTERACTIONS OF WORDS 

By I. A. Richards 
.65- 

THE NOBLE RIDER 
AND THE SOUND OF WORDS 

By Wallace Stevens 
.91. 



( 



POETRY • MYTH • AND REALITY 
BY PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 



POETRY • MYTH • AND REALITY 

PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 



f^ oe: 



OETRY suffers today from at once too high and 
too low an appraisal. We burden Shakespeare with 
flatteries which his contemporaries would have re- 
served for royalty or for the ancients, but there is 
reason to believe that modern theater audiences are 
insensitive to much in his plays that the rowdier but 
more perceptive frequenters of the Globe Theater 
took in as an expected part of the entertainment. 
Charged language, language of associative complex- 
ity, is a rarity on the stage or in the cinema today, 
and when it occurs it is likely to embarrass by its 
artiness, its rather too evident snob appeal. We read 
poetry as a special discipline, becoming scholarly 
about it or ecstatic about it according to our pro- 
fession, temperament and mood, but we deprecate its 
intrusion into the sober business of everyday living. 
Poetry seems to most of us something to be set upon 
a pedestal and left there, like one of those chaste 
heroines of medieval romance, high and dry. 

Why is there this impoverishment of response 
toward poetry in present-day society? The question 
may be one of the most important we can ask, for it 
concerns not poetry and poetic response alone, but 
by implication the general sickness of our contempo- 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

rary world. The symptoms, though diverse, are con- 
nected; and I suspect we shall not understand why 
great poetry is no longer written in an age which 
endows innumerable lecturers to talk about poetry, 
unless we also understand why it is that we must 
let our fellow-countrymen starve in an era of pro- 
ductive plenty, and why as Americans we spent twenty 
years professing our love of peace and democracy 
while helping to finance dictatorships and throttle 
democracies on three continents, and why as Chris- 
tians we think it proper to build imposing churches 
while treating God as something out of last year's 
Sunday supplement. The question of poetry's status 
in the present-day world is interrelated with such 
questions as these, and it seems to me that we cannot 
adequately understand any one of the questions 
except in a perspective that catches at least the out- 
lines of the others. The needed perspective is to my 
mind a mytho-religious one, without any of the clap- 
trap sometimes associated with either word; for it 
involves a rediscovery of the original and essentially 
unchangeable conditions of human insight and human 
blessedness. The aim of this lecture is to indicate 
the nature of that perspective and to discover its latent 
presence in some of the great poetry of past times. 

Suppose we represent the dimensions of human ex- 
perience, very tentatively, by means of a diagram, — 
where the horizontal line E-P represents the di- 
mension of secular experience, empirical experience 
as I think we may call it without redundancy; of 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

that trafficking with things, relations and ideas that 
makes up our everyday commonsense world. It has 
two poles: outwardly there are the phenomena (P) 
that constitute our physical universe ; these are space- 

M 



^P 



like, are interrelated by causal laws, and are the 
proper object of scientific inquiry. At the other pole 
of this horizontal axis stands the ego (£) which 
knows the phenomena — partly as a spectator and 
partly no doubt as a contributor to their connection 
and significance. The major philosophical movements 
of the past three centuries owe their character and 
their limitations to the stress, I think the undue stress, 
which they have put upon the horizontal axis. Des- 
cartes made the additional mistake of hypostatizing 
E and P, establishing the thinking self and the ex- 
tended world of things over against each other as 
distinct substances ; he ''cut the universe in two with 
a hatchet,*' as Hegel said, separating it into two 
absolutely alien spheres, thought without extension 
and extension without thought : thereby settling the 
direction, perhaps the doom, of modern philosophy. 
Granted that the Cartesian bifurcation was immensely 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

fruitful for the subsequent development of natural 
science, the benefit was purely one of conceptual 
efficiency, not of interpretive fulness. The general 
result was to alienate nature from man by denuding 
it of human significance, and thereby deprive man 
of his natural sense of continuity with the environing 
world, leaving him to face the Absolute alone. To 
this stark confrontation the Cartesian man brings a 
single talisman — pure reason, which, rightly used, 
can answer all questions, solve all mysteries, illumine 
every dark cranny in the universal scheme. All truth 
becomes to the unobstructed reason as clear and in- 
dubitable as the truth of an arithmetical sum. A 
child who performs an arithmetical sum correctly — 
so Descartes declares — ^knows the utmost, with re- 
spect to that sum, that the human mind, and by im- 
plication God's mind, can ever discover. Analogously 
a physicist, by confining himself to clear and distinct 
ideas, may come to know the utmost, with respect to 
any given problem, that can possibly be known ; and 
this would be true, on Cartesian principles, even of 
a psychologist or a theologian or a student of any 
field whatever who adhered to properly rational 
methods. Athene springs full-born from the head of 
Zeus ; or to use a more modern simile, wisdom con- 
sists in a sort of klieg-light brilliance rather than in 
adjusting one's eyes to the chiaroscuro of the familiar 
world. For the familiar world — here is its essential 
defect to a rationalist like Descartes — ^has a past, it 
develops, is time-burdened, and draws much of its 

• 6 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

meaning from shared tradition; while to Descartes' 
view tradition, except so far as reason can justify it, 
is superstition, loyalties to the past are servile, and 
the philosopher should be like an architect who tears 
down the lovable old houses and crooked streets of a 
medieval town in order to erect a symmetrical city 
where no one can lose his way. Thus in this rational- 
istic philosophy of Descartes we have, close to its 
modern source, the deadliest of all heresies. It is the 
sin, or, if you prefer, the delusion, of intellectual 
pride, a reenactment of Adam's fall and of the build- 
ing of Bab-el, and it leads in our time to the fallacy of 
hoping for a future without organically remembering 
a past, the imbecility of trying to build history out 
of an unhistorical present. 

The influence of Descartes' dualistic rationalism 
has been far-flung. In subsequent philosophy, al- 
though various parts of his doctrine became modified 
or rejected, the Cartesian way of conceiving human 
experience, as an individual ego able by its own 
powers to know the world of phenomena confront- 
ing it, played a decisive role. British empiricists and 
positivists in particular, from Locke through Hume 
and Mill right down to Bertrand Russell and a ma- 
jority of professional philosophers in our own day, 
have differed from one another not in any doubt as 
to the self-sufficiency of the horizontal axis of ex- 
perience but in their particular ways of distinguishing 
or connecting or distributing the emphasis between 
the ego and its objects. Today the horizontal philos- 

• 7 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

ophy has reached its clearest and most intractable 
expression in the related doctrines of behaviorism, 
instrumentalism, and semantic positivism : behavior- 
ism, which reduces the human mind to what can be ex- 
perimentally observed of its bodily behavior; in- 
strumentalism, which reduces the meaning of any 
concept to that set of experimental operations by 
which the denotation of the concept could be ob- 
jectively shown; and semantic positivism, which 
aims at a one-to-one correspondence between units 
of language and the sets or types of objects and 
events which such language-units denote. These three 
doctrines, which may be grouped under the general 
name of positivistic materialism, have acquired great 
prestige in our time. Every honest and sane intel- 
lectual must, I believe, come to grips with them : must 
recognize both that they are the logically inescapable 
outcome and expression of our secular way of life, 
and that they are utterly disastrous. The only truth 
on this basis is experimental truth, structures built 
out of the common denominators of human experi- 
ence ; religious truth and poetic truth are dismissed 
as fictions, as misnomers. Religion ceases to have 
more than a tentative and subjective validity: it ex- 
presses the yearnings and fears and awe-struck im- 
potence of human minds with respect to events and 
sequences in the external world which up to a given 
stage of human development have eluded scientific 
explanation and experimental control. Poetry, like- 
wise, has no truth-value that is distinctive to it as 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

poetry. It contains, on the one hand, a ''subject" (in 
Matthew Arnold's sense), a "scenario," a literal 
meaning, which could be expressed without essential 
loss in the language of science ; and beyond this there 
is only the pleasurable decoration and emotional 
heightening which the form and evocative language 
of the poem bestows. The poet is not in any sense 
a seer or a prophet; he is simply, in the jargon of 
advertising, an effective layout man. Science has thus 
become the Great Dictator, to whom the spiritual 
republics of religion and poetry are yielding up their 
autonomy in bloodless defeat. There is no help for 
it within the purely horizontal perspective of human 
experience: if we see the world only as patterns of 
phenomena, our wisdom will be confined to such truths 
as phenomena can furnish. And this situation is very 
barren and very unpromising, not only for religion 
and for poetry, but for expanding love and the sense 
of radical significance which are at the root of both. 
Now my belief is that the problem as posited 
exclusively in terms of the horizontal consciousness 
is an unnatural problem, an intellectual monstrosity 
which leads away from, rather than toward, the 
greater and more enduring truths. No genuine re- 
ligious teacher, and with the lone exception of 
Lucretius no great poet, has ever sought truth in 
exclusively empirical terms; and I must say I find 
deeper truths, richer and more relevant truths, in 
the mysticism of Lao-tse and Jesus, in the dramatic 
suggestiveness of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, than 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

in the impersonal experiments of scientists or the 
voluminous literalism of scholars. How then are 
we to validate, and in what terms are we to discuss, 
the transempirical factor in truth which is presup- 
posed in all religion and in all the pro founder sort 
of poetry? 

The thing required of us, I believe, if we are to 
escape the blind alley of empirical positivism, is a 
proper understanding of myth, and of mythical con- 
sciousness. It is the habit of secular thought to dis- 
miss myth either as pure fiction, a set of fairy-tales 
with which the human race in childhood frittered 
away its time ; or else as allegory — that is, as a round- 
about and inexact way of expressing truths about 
physical and human nature which could be expressed 
just as pertinently and much more accurately by the 
language of science. On either interpretation myth 
becomes regarded as an archaism, a barren survival, 
with no function of its own which cannot be served 
more efficiently by more up-to-date language and 
methods ; a kind of fiction that should be renounced 
as completely as possible by the serious truth-seeker. 
What I want to stress is that this secular, positivistic 
attitude toward myth appears to me quite inadequate 
to explain the facts — I mean, of course, the salient, 
the really interesting aspect of the facts. It ignores 
or deprecates that haunting awareness of transcen- 
dental forces peering through the cracks of the visible 
universe, that is the very essence of myth. It blandly 
overlooks the possibility, which to Aeschylus, Dante, 

• lo • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

Shakespeare and many others was an axiom of as- 
sured faith, that myth may have a non-exchangeable 
semantic function of its own — that myth may express 
visions of truth to which the procedures of the 
scientist are grossly irrelevant; that the mythical 
consciousness, in short, (to exploit a convenient 
mathematical metaphor) may be a dimension of ex- 
perience cutting across the empirical dimension as 
an independent variable. 

In the foregoing diagram I have represented the 
mythico-religious dimension of human experience by 
a vertical line C-M cutting across the horizontal axis 
E-P. 

C represents the community mind, which is to 
myth more or less what the individual mind is to 
science; and the upper pole M represents Mystery, 
of which the community mind is darkly aware. Thus 
the semantic arrow points from C to M, as it points 
from E to P. This double relation should not be 
conceived too rigidly: scientific truth is admittedly 
established by some degree of social cooperation, and 
mythical truth is apprehended and given form by 
individuals. Nevertheless the distinction is basically 
sound. Myth is the expression of a profound sense 
of togetherness — a togetherness not merely upon the 
plane of intellect, as is primarily the case among fel- 
low-scientists, but a togetherness of feeling and of 
action and of wholeness of living. Such togetherness 
must have, moreover, a history. Community mind is 
nothing so sporadic as the mass mind of a modern 

• 11 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

lynching party or a wave of war hysteria, nor even 
is it found to any considerable degree in a trade 
union. In such manifestations as these the collective 
mind possesses little or no significant pattern, for it 
has had no time to mature. It creates not myths but 
merely ideologies — an ideology being a sort of par- 
venu myth which expresses not the interests of the 
group as a cooperative organism but the interests 
of each member of the group reflected and repeated 
in each other member : to this extent it lacks also a 
transcendental reference. A mass cannot create myths, 
for it has had no real history. Myths are the expres- 
sion of a community mind which has enjoyed long 
natural growth, so that the sense of togetherness 
becomes patterned and semantically significant. A 
patterned sense of togetherness develops its proper 
rhythms in ceremony and prayer, dance and song; 
and just as the micro-rhythms of the eye project 
themselves as a visible world of trees and stones, and 
as the micro-rhythms of the ear project themselves 
as an audible world of outer sounds, so the larger 
rhythms of community life project themselves as a 
sense of enveloping Mystery. In cultures where the 
mythico-religious consciousness has developed freely, 
this sense of mystery tinges all cognition: whether 
called mana as by the Melanesians, or wakonda as 
by the Sioux Indians, or brahma as by the early 
Aryan invaders of India, there is felt to be a mys- 
terious Other, a spirit or breath in the world, which 
is more real, more awful, and in the higher religions 

• 12 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

more reverenceable than the visible and obvious par- 
ticulars of experience, while at the same time it may 
manifest or embody itself in persons, things, words 
and acts in unforeseeable ways. Sometimes this basic 
Mystery becomes dispersed and personified into a 
polytheism of gods and daemons, sometimes concen- 
trated and exalted into a single majestic God. What- 
ever its eventual form, it appears to express on the 
one hand man's primordial way of knowing, before 
the individual has separated himself with clear critical 
awareness from the group; and on the other hand 
an indispensable element in the cognitive activity 
of every vital culture, primitive or civilized. What 
I am arguing, in short, is not merely that the con- 
sciousness which arises from group-life and group- 
memories is the original matrix of individual con- 
sciousness — that much is a sociological truism — but 
that when the consciousness of individuals separates 
itself too utterly from the sustaining warmth of the 
common myth-consciousness, the dissociated con- 
sciousness becomes in time unoriented and sterile, 
fit for neither great poetry nor great wisdom nor 
great deeds. 

What concerns the student of poetry most directly 
is the relation of myth to speech, the characteristic 
forms in which the mythical consciousness finds ut- 
terance. Shelley declared truly that *'in the infancy 
of society every author is a poet, because language 
itself is poetry" ; and, we may add, the reason why 
primitive language is poetry lies in the fact that it 
. 13 . 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

is the spontaneous expression of a consciousness so 
largely, in our sense, mythical. There are two out- 
standing respects in which primitive language, and 
especially spoken language, tends to be poetic, or at 
any rate to have a natural kinship with poetry : first, 
in its manner of utterance, its rhythms and euphonies ; 
second, in its manner of reference, in the delicacy 
and associative fulness with which it refers to various 
aspects of the all-encompassing Mystery. In short, 
primitive speech — for I am dealing here with lan- 
guage that is meant to be spoken — employs both 
rhythm and metaphor. The reasons for the possession 
of these characteristics by primitive speech are doubt- 
less clear from the foregoing description of the 
mythical consciousness. Primitive speech is a more 
direct expression of the community mind than speech 
that has grown sophisticated, and rhythm is the 
vehicle by which the sense of community is projected 
and carried through time. Rh)rthm has furthermore 
a magical function: for since the primitive com- 
munity mind is not limited to a society of actual 
living persons but embraces also the ghosts of an- 
cestors and the souls of things in the environing 
world, the rhythms of gesture and speech are felt 
to include and to exert a binding effect not only upon 
men but, when conducted under auspicious condi- 
tions, upon ghosts, gods, and nature; which is the 
essence of magic. Such language thus possesses a 
naturally evocative quality: it is felt as having a 
tendency to endow the world with the qualities which 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

it declares to be there. The metaphorical character 
of primitive language, on the other hand, consists 
in its tendency to be rather manifoldly allusive: it 
can be so, because of the varied associations with 
which communication within a closed society has 
gradually become charged; and it has a semantic 
necessity of being so, because only in language hav- 
ing multiple reference can the full, manifold, and 
paradoxical character of the primordial Mystery find 
fit expression. Owing to such referential plenitude 
the language of primitives tends to employ paradox 
freely : it makes use of statements contradicting each 
other and of statements contradicting an experien- 
tially accepted situation; for the Mystery which it 
tries to express cannot be narrowed down to logical 
categories. 

The island of Fiji furnishes a particularly inter- 
esting illustration of uses to which primitive poetry 
can be put. When a Fijian dies, the legend is that his 
ghost spends three days traversing the fifty-mile 
path that leads from the principal Fijian city to the 
sacred mountain Naukavadra, situated on the western 
coast of the isle. This mountain has a ledge overlook- 
ing the sea, called Nai-thombo-thombo, "the jump- 
ing-off place," from which the departing ghost hurls 
itself down and swims to a distant paradise beyond 
the sunset, where it rejoins its ancestors. Before the 
final immersion, however, the ghost on arriving at 
the sacred mountain is received hospitably in a cave 

• 15 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

by the ghosts of ancient hero-ancestors, guardians 
of the tribe's morality and well-being. After a feast, 
partly cannibal, has been eaten in common and ancient 
tribal lays have been sung, the newcomer finds his 
spiritual eyes awakened, and realizing for the first 
time that death has befallen him he is overwhelmed 
with grief. To the accompaniment of native instru- 
ments, addressing the ancestors he chants these 
words : 

My Lords ! In evil fashion are we buried, 

Buried staring up into heaven, 

We see the scud flying over the sky, 

We are worn out with the feet tramping on us. 

Our ribs, the rafters of our house, are torn asunder. 
The eyes with which we gazed on one another are 

destroyed. 
The nose with which we kissed has fallen in. 
The breast with which we embraced is ruined, 
The mouth with which we laughed at one another 

has decayed. 
The teeth with which we bit have showered down. 
Gone is the hand that threw the tinka stick. 
The testes have rolled away. 

Hark to the lament of the mosquito ! 

It. is well that he should die and pass onward. 

But alas for my ear that he has devoured. 

Hark to the lament of the fly ! 

It is well that he should die and pass onward. 

But alas ! he has stolen the eye from which I drank. 

• 16 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

Hark to the lament of the black ant ! 

It is well that he should die and pass onward. 

But alas for my whale's-tooth* that he has devoured. 

The dead man's meeting with the ancestors takes 
place on the third day after death, and is followed 
by the leap into the sea and the passage over into the 
afterworld. Thus far we are in the realm of myth. 
Parallel to the myth-pattern is a behavior-pattern 
which is traditional with the survivors. On the third 
day they bury the now putrefying corpse, and while 
doing so they chant ceremonially the same songs that 
the dead man hears and sings in the cave at Mt. Nau- 
kavadra. Evidently the cause-effect relation involved 
is complex. Sociological analysis will regard the belief 
as a fictional projection which has the function of 
explaining and justifying the tribal burial processes; 
while to the survivors, on the other hand, the matter 
appears in reverse, their ceremonies being designed 
to annotate, and by imitative magic to assist, the dead 
one's situation. In any case the dirge I have just 
quoted serves by its strongly marked rhythms, in- 
escapable even in translation, to establish a sense of 
widened community, whereby, for the duration of 
the ceremony at least, the chanting survivors, the 
recently deceased, and the ancient ancestor-gods are 
brought into a strongly felt and tersely articulated 
togetherness. Such expressions of a widened com- 
munity-sense, paced in the tribal calendar according 

♦Whale's-tooth: the phallus; also used (in its literal sense) 
as a symbol of wealth and medium of exchange. 

• 17 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

to the occurrence of emotionally significant events 
like births and deaths, puberty, marriage, and war, 
are the most vitalizing forces in tribal cultural life. 
In ancient Egypt a similar phenomenon was cur- 
rent, although in Egyptian death chants the magical 
element is more explicit. The Pyramid Texts — ^those 
ancient inscriptions dating from the fourth millen- 
nium B.C. which are found on the inner walls of the 
pyramid tombs — are records of the royal chants by 
which bands of faithful subjects, led ceremonially by 
the high priests, helped the Pharaoh whom they were 
burying there to secure immortal divinity. Here, in 
part, is one of the noblest of these texts : 

The flier flies from earth to sky. 
Upward he soars like a heron, 
Upward he leaps like a grasshopper, 
Kissing the sky like a hawk. 

Crowned with the headdress of the sun god. 
Wearing the hawk's plumage, 
Upward he flies to join his brothers the gods. 
Joyously we behold him. 

Now we give back your heart, Osiris. 
Now we give back your feet, Osiris. 
Now we give back your arms, Osiris. 

Flying aloft like a bird, 
He settles down like a beetle 
On a seat in the ship of the sun-god. 
Now he rows your ship across the sky, O Glowing 
One! 

• 18 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

Now he brings your ship to land, O Glowing One ! 
And when again you ascend out of the horizon, 
He will be there with staff in hand, 
The navigator of your ship, O Glowing One ! 

The primordial gods, the ancient nine, are dazzled. 
The Lords of Forms are shaken with terror 
As he breaks the metallic sky asunder. 
Older than the Great One, he issues commands. 
Eternity is set before him. 
Discernment is placed at his feet, 
The horizon is given to his keeping. 

The sky is darkened, the stars rain down. 
The bones of the earth-god tremble 
When this one steps forth as a god 
Devouring his fathers and mothers. 
With the sacred serpents on his forehead. 

Men and gods he devours. 

His sky-dwelling servants prepare the cooking-pots, 

Wiping them out with the legs of their women. 

The gods are cooked for him piece by piece 

In the cooking-pots of the sky at evening. 

Cracking the backbones he eats the spinal marrow. 
He swallows the hearts and lungs of the Wise Ones. 
Their wisdom and their strength has passed into his 

belly. 
Their godhood is within him. 

The community-sense expressed in this hymn has 
a definite but again complex pattern. On the plane of 
earthly actuality the celebrants feel their union in a 
shared joy at the heavenly prowess of their dead 

• 19 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

king. On the transcendental plane, the plane of myth, 
there is another sort of union — an identification of 
the dead king with Osiris, god of periodic and per- 
petual rebirth, and with Ra the sun god. Although 
a reverent distinction is observed between the wor- 
shippers and the "Osirified One,** the exalted king- 
god whose deification they celebrate, nevertheless the 
surviving community enjoys a vicarious participa- 
tion in godhood, since the Pharaoh is felt to be still 
the worshippers' representative and the symbol of 
their communal solidarity as he had been on earth. 
That sense of mystical community, in Egypt as else- 
where, found its natural expression in a type of 
poetry characterized by marked rhythms and tran- 
scendental imagery, which are the esthetic correlates 
of the lower and upper poles of myth-consciousness. 
Thus the logic of myth proceeds on different as- 
sumptions from the logic of science and of secular 
realism, and moves by different laws. Attempts to 
deal with myth by the methods of science fall in- 
evitably short of the mark. While objective methods 
of inquiry can trace the occasions of myth, the con- 
ditions under which it may flourish, they are quite 
incapable of understanding the mythical conscious- 
ness itself. For science and myth are basically in- 
commensurate ways of experiencing, and science 
cannot * 'explain" myth without explaining it away. 
Its explanations are not interpretive but pragmati- 
cally reductive. The questions which science poses 
about myth are never quite relevant, for the ques- 

• 20 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

tions essential to myth are patterned on a different 
syntax. Always in scientific thinking there is the 
implicit assumption of an "either-or" situation. Is 
the Pharaoh identical with Osiris after death or is 
he not? If so, and if all the Pharaohs who ruled be- 
fore him share the identity, it follows (by the logic 
of science) that they must be identical with each 
other ; and in that case why are they buried and wor- 
shipped individually? Moreover, if identification with 
Osiris is the soul's final attainment, as the Pyramid 
Texts indicate, why is the corpse mummified as if to 
preserve symbolically, and perhaps magically, just 
this individual to whom the body had once belonged? 
Such questions as these do not admit of any logically 
clear answer, and it is important for the understand- 
ing both of myth and of poetry to see why they do 
not. Science seeks clarity of an outward, publicly 
recognizable kind; it can regard mysteries as but 
materials for its particular techniques of clarification. 
By scientific logic a thing is either A or B and not 
both; or, if both, its double character must mean 
either that the thing is complex and can be dissociated 
into A and B as its elements, or else that A and B 
share a common quality K which with sufficient care 
is susceptible of exact description. The tendency of 
science is always to think in terms of mechanical 
models — structures analyzable into parts which, added 
up, remake the originals. Mechanical operations do 
work in that way, but wholeness of experience does 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

not, and myth is an expression of whole experiences 
that whole men have known and felt. 

Passing from primitive poetry to the poetry of 
more civilized eras, we find that while a greater pro- 
portion of the poem is contributed by the genius of 
some individual poet, yet in those poems which carry 
the signature of greatness, myth still plays a promi- 
nent and usually a more deliberate role. Myth is in- 
valuable to the poet, furnishing as it does a back- 
ground of familiar reference by which the sensibilities 
of the poet and his readers are oriented and so 
brought into pro founder communication than would 
otherwise have been possible. The ways in which myth 
is poetically employed, and the effects gained by its 
employment, depend not only upon the artistry of 
the individual poet but also upon the general attitude 
toward myth in the age in which he has the good or 
bad luck to be born. He may be born, like Aeschylus 
or Dante, in a period when a substantial body of 
myths enjoys wide acceptance as literally true: his 
greatest poems in such case will be poetic intensifi- 
cations and elaborations of some of those myths. He 
may be born, like Virgil or Shakespeare, at a time 
when a more sophisticated attitude toward myths is 
beginning to set in but before it has made such head- 
way as to drain the myths of all vitality : the poet will 
then employ his myths thematically, breaking them up 
and redistributing their elements as may best suit 
his esthetic purpose. Or he may be born, finally, in 
an age like our own, in the late afternoon of a cul- 

• 22 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

ture, when the myths that once moved men to great 
deeds now survive as antiquarian curiosities: such 
a poet will feel himself to be living in a cultural 
wasteland, his materials Vv^ill be fragmentary and un- 
promising, and while he may prove an ingenious 
renovator of ruined monuments or a resourceful prac- 
titioner of metajournalism, his contribution as a poet 
— the contribution of a whole man who speaks pow- 
erfully to whole men — will be small. 

Aeschylus, the first great dramatic poet of the 
West, exemplifies the early condition of civilized 
poetry in its relation to myth. In his time the chorus 
of dancing priests, which probably stemmed from 
ancient religious rituals associated with Dionysus 
and the grain-goddess Demeter, had become partly 
secularized, until, although the religious background 
was still a vital part of the whole show and amply 
familiar to the playgoing Greeks, the predominant 
purpose of the great dramatic festivals had insensibly 
slipped from worship to entertainment. The specta- 
tors, who in an earlier age had no doubt participated 
in the ritualistic dance, were now become relatively 
immunized : their function is to sit still and at proper 
times to applaud and perhaps even to chant in unison 
some of the choric refrains — a practice apparently 
indicated by the closing exhortation of The Eumen- 
ides. But atavistically they are still religious cele- 
brants, being led in their observances by the band of 
rhythmically chanting priests, which has now become 
the tragic chorus; their emotions pulsate synchron- 

• 23 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

ically with those which the chorus expresses by word 
and gesture, and their acceptance of the dramatic 
situations which unfold themselves is largely gov- 
erned by this dramatic communion. 

The characteristic problem of Aeschylean drama 
is human guilt and its consequences. In the Greek 
mind two conceptions of destiny and of guilt inter- 
played: the Olympian and the chthonic. According 
to the former conception man's cardinal guilt was 
hybris, pride, which consisted in trying to overstep 
the boundary that separated man's ordained lot from 
that of the blessed and deathless gods, while virtue 
consisted in observing due measure, remaining loyal 
to one's destined station in life, and especially to 
one's condition of earthbound mortal manhood. The 
Olympian conception was thus at bottom spacelike, a 
matter of observing boundaries, limits and middle 
paths: indeed, in Hesiod's Works and Days it is 
particularized, in what may have been its original 
form, as an admonition to till one's own soil and not 
trespass on one's neighbor's. The chthonic conception, 
on the other hand, related guilt to the earth (chthon)^ 
which became infectiously polluted when innocent 
blood was spilled, and to the vengeful ancestor ghosts 
who, living within the earth, were offended by actions 
that weakened the power and prestige, or violated the 
moral code, of the tribe or nation to which they still 
in a manner belonged. Thus the ghost of King 
Darius, in The Persians, returns from the under- 
world to berate his royal son for leading the Persian 

• 24 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

host into a disastrous war; and thus too the three 
Furies (originally snakes and still wearing snaky 
locks at the beginning of The Eumenides) haunt 
Orestes for his crime of matricide; and thus again 
in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex a plague has fallen on the 
land and cannot be removed until the unwitting mur- 
der and incest have been brought to light and ex- 
piated. In all these cases the dominant motif is the 
rhythmic succession of guilt and expiation, which at 
once expresses the ingrained Greek sense of a rhyth- 
mically pulsating nature in which moral qualities like 
physical ones undergo seasonal alteration, while at 
the same time it provides a forceful and intelligible 
form into which tragic drama can be moulded. There 
is a clear sense, therefore, in which the chthonic con- 
ception of guilt tends to be timelike, a matter of 
working out the patterned destiny of an individual 
or family or city or nation. 

Clearly the chthonic conception of destiny lends 
itself to representation most readily through the 
time-charged medium of tragic drama, the Olympian 
conception through the relatively static medium of 
the epic. The distinction is a shifting one, however : in 
the sculpturally conceived Promethetis Bound the 
Olympian conception appears to predominate, while 
in that one great surviving trilogy, the Oresteia, the 
chthonic theme of guilt and retribution is intertwined 
with Olympian imagery, until in the end both elements 
are sublimated in a magnificent patriotic finale, by 
which the dramatic community-sense is explicitly 

• 25 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

secularized. Nevertheless it is worth noting that in 
the Oresteia, which without much dispute may stand 
as his greatest work, Aeschylus is more respectful 
and attaches greater dramatic and moral importance 
to chthonic than to Olympian ideas. He dismisses 
gravely the Olympian myth that the gods envy human 
prosperity, while the chthonic myth of the inheritance 
of guilt haunts him right through to the end, and 
motivates the long tortured struggle that constitutes 
the three dramas. Again, in the final play of the 
trilogy, although Apollo is strangely ridiculed, the 
Furies are treated with exaggerated respect, as powers 
who must be placated and even reverenced since they 
are the life-germ of Athenian moral and political life. 
All in all, the time-myth, as Nietzsche's The Birth of 
Tragedy explosively demonstrates, is at the core of 
Greek as of every other vital culture, and when its 
rhythms become weakened or vulgarized the culture 
grows senile. 

Magic, which has played so large and so explicit a 
role in primitive poetry, appears in Aeschylean drama 
in sublimated form. For what is magic but operation 
through a direct emotional congruence established be- 
tween the operator and his object ? The dramatist no 
longer operates like the primitive magician upon gods 
and daemons and unnamed mysterious forces of the 
outer world. His magic is turned, at least to a very 
large degree, upon the responsive feelings of his audi- 
ence. We still speak today of a dramatist's "magic," 
but the compliment is usually vapid. In Greek tragedy 

• 26 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

the word was applicable more literally, as through the 
medium of rhythmic chants with musical and choreo- 
graphic accompaniment, behind which lay the com- 
mon heritage of mythological background that found 
stylized expression in plot and imagery, the vast 
throng that packed the City Dionysia was brought for 
a few hours into significant emotional unity. Aristotle 
has noted the katharsis of pity and terror which takes 
place on such occasions, but they do not exhaust the 
emotional effect. Deeper than they and deeper than 
any conscious recognition is the communally felt, 
ceremonially induced emotion of religious awe, by 
which the Greek spectators in a miraculous bubble 
of time are caught up and momentarily identified with 
the transcendental forces that envelop them and im- 
pregnate their culture. 

Shakespeare was of course a more eclectic myth- 
ologer. As a master-dramatist he could adapt expertly 
to poetic and dramatic uses the myths that colored the 
popular consciousness of his time. And yet there is 
in Shakespeare's mythical consciousness a deep-lying 
unity, which becomes gradually visible as we trace in 
their varied expressions what I suggest are the two 
Shakespearean key-myths — the myth of love and the 
myth of divine and earthly governance. Every play 
that Shakespeare wrote shows a large concern with 
one or the other and usually both of these themes — 
if not in plot, at least in imagery and allusion. 

The love myth enjoys a varied and imagistically 
colored career in its earlier expressions — Venus and 

' 27 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

Adonis J the Sonnets, such comedies as Love's La- 
bour's Lost, and culminating in Romeo and Juliet. 
Love, as represented here, although often strikingly 
realistic — 

He wrings her nose, he strikes her on the cheeks, 
He bends her fingers, holds her pulses hard, . . . 

is much more than a transient phenomenon of human 
experience. Unlike the anarchy of lust, love is a har- 
mony, a sweet concord, a transcendently heard music ; 
and Venus' consuming passion for Adonis strikes 
the reader as sufficiently redeemed and justified by its 
harmonization with the universal passion that throbs 
through nature. Venus' desire, allied by pedigree 
with the high concerns of the gods, becomes merged 
in the poem with such natural manifestations as the 
strong-necked stallion who breaks rein on espying a 
young breeding mare : 

Imperiously he leaps, he neighs, he bounds. 
And now his woven girths he breaks asunder; 
The bearing earth with his hard hoof he wounds, 
Whose hollow womb resounds like heaven's thunder ; 
The iron bit he crusheth 'tween his teeth. 
Controlling what he was controlled with. 

His ears up-prick'd ; his braided hanging mane 
Upon his compass'd crest now stand on end ; 
His nostrils drink the air, and forth again, 
As from a furnace, vapors doth he send ; 
His eye, which scornfully glisters like fire, 
Shows his hot courage and his high desire. 

• 28 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

The sexual and procreative imagery of these stanzas 
needs no underlining. But the important thing is that 
love and procreation are joined — here by imagery as 
later, in the Sonnets, by explicit statement : 

And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence 
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence. 

This couplet introduces the villain of the love-myth : 
Time, who devours like a cormorant all of this pres- 
ent breath's endeavors. Or rather, all save one. For 
through the medium of art man can rise above his 
mortal existence, and making himself the heir of all 
eternity can bate the scythe's keen edge. 

Yet do thy worst, old Time; despite thy wrong, 
My love shall in my verse ever live young. 

Poetry and music uphold the immortality of love in 
all Shakespeare's plays ; love's frailty or perversion is 
announced by jangling discordant rhythms, with the 
frequent imagistic accompaniment of tempests as 
indicative of discord in nature. 

The myth of universal governance, divine and 
earthly, has its double source in Christianity and in 
Elizabethan patriotic consciousness; like the love- 
myth it expresses a harmony that joins mankind with 
divinty and with ordered nature. 

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center 
Observe degree, priority, and place. 

. . . But when the planets 
In evil mixture to disorder wander, 
What plagues and what portents ! what mutiny ! 

• 29 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

What raging of the sea ! shaking of earth ! 
Commotion in the winds ! Frights, changes, horrors, 
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate 
The unity and married calm of states 
Quite from their fixture. 

These plagues and portents, tempests and deracina- 
tions, symbolize the inverse side of the governance- 
myth : they accompany — at first in verbal imagery, 
then later in actual stage-presentation — not only the 
regicide of a Caesar and a Duncan, but the insurrec- 
tions of man's inner state v^hich are alw^ays the most 
crucial motivation of Shakespearean tragedy. The 
myth of governance affirms ''degree, priority and 
place" at once in the political order, in nature, in the 
soul of man, and in the divine government of the 
world ; now one, now another of these aspects is given 
foremost emphasis, and at times the last of them is de- 
nied, according to the contextual requirements of the 
individual drama. But in the king-god imagery of 
Richard II, in the allegorical overtones of Measure 
for Measure and The Tempest, in the demonology 
of Macbeth, and most subtly of all in the tragic 
katharsis of King Lear, the unity is reaffirmed: 
earthly and divine government, the order of nature, 
and the nobility of man are brought again and again 
into symbolic and always somewhat incomplete identi- 
fication. 

Running through and giving form to the other 
mythical material, there is, in the greater achievements 
of Shakespeare, the myth of tragedy itself. This 

• 30 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

myth, which attains increasingly full realization in 
Shakespeare's successive experiments with tragedy up 
to and including Lear, finally receives brief explicit 
utterance in Edmund's cry : 

The wheel is come full circle ; I am here. 

We today have lost this sense of cyclical fulness and 
therewith of transcendental significance in human af- 
fairs ; accordingly we no longer produce great tragedy, 
because we no longer believe in the tragic myth. In 
its place we have substituted the shabbier myth of 
comedy, which Shakespeare utilized for a time and 
then, when it had lost its power to move him dramat- 
ically, unleashed his contempt by expressing it as the 
title of one of his worst and weakest plays, "All's Well 
That Ends Well" This wretched quarter-truth is 
exploited in most of the novels and nearly all of the 
movies of our day — no longer as healthy comedy 
merely, but decked out with false sentimentality in 
the trappings that once belonged to tragedy. Our fail- 
ure in tragic intuition, our substitution for it of 
bathos and business practicality in loose-wedded con- 
junction, is not least among the disastrous factors of 
the contemporary world. 

These considerations of the role of myth in great 
poetry of the past may throw some light upon the 
predicament of the poet and the unpromising estate 
of poetry in our non-mythological present. The poet 
of today — and by that I mean the poetic impetus in 
all of us today — is profoundly inhibited by the dearth 

• 31 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

of shared consciousness of myth. Our current moti- 
vating ideas are not myths but ideologies, lacking tran- 
scendental significance. This loss of myth-conscious- 
ness I believe to be the most devastating loss that 
humanity can suffer; for as I have argued, myth- 
consciousness is the bond that unites men both with 
one another and with the unplumbed Mystery from 
which mankind is sprung and without reference to 
which the radical significance of things goes to pot. 
Now a world bereft of radical significance is not long 
tolerated; it leaves men radically unstable, so that 
they will seize at any myth or pseudo-myth that is 
offered. There have been ages of scepticism in the 
past, and they have always succumbed in time to new 
periods of belief, sometimes of violent fanaticism. It 
appears to me historically probable that whether we 
like it or not, our own present philosophy of liberal 
democratic scepticism will be succeeded within the 
next generation, perhaps sooner, by a recrudescence of 
myth-consciousness in America, although we can 
only dimly foresee what form that consciousness will 
take. Probably it will include a strong consciousness 
of America and the American destiny, but the im- 
portant question is whether it will include something 
more — whether America will become a genuine sym- 
bol or merely a dogma. The myth of the nation must 
be shot through with a larger, transcendent myth- 
ological consciousness, or it lacks sanctity and in the 
long run will not satisfy the deeper human cravings. 
But we have to reckon with the possibility that this 

• 32 • 



PHILIP WHEELWRIGHT 

development will not take place at once. History does 
serve human needs, but not on the table d'hote plan ; 
the preparations are slow and we have to expect a 
certain amount of bungling in the kitchen. Perhaps 
our immediate prospect is one of darkness, and wait- 
ing, and wholesale liquidation of much that has 
seemed indispensable to us, spiritual as well as mate- 
rial. We do not know what is to come; we can only 
try to learn what we must do. I suspect we must be like 
starving men who keep a little from their meager 
store to plant it in the ground for a future crop. The 
poetry of our time doesn't matter much, it is a last 
echo of something important that was alive long 
ago. What matters is the myth-consciousness of the 
next generations, the spiritual seed that we plant in 
our children ; their loves and insights and incubating 
sense of significant community. On that depend the 
possibilities of future greatness — in poetry and in 
everything else. 



33 



THE LANGUAGE OF PARADOX 
BY CLEANTH BROOKS 



THE LANGUAGE OF PARADOX 
CLEANTH BROOKS 

t T^EW OF US are prepared to accept the statement 

that the language of poetry is the language of para- 
dox. Paradox is the language of sophistry, hard, 
bright, witty; it is hardly the language of the soul. 
We are willing to allow that paradox is a permissible 
weapon which a Chesterton may on occasion exploit. 
We may permit it in epigram, a special subvariety of 
poetry; and in satire, which though useful, we are 
hardly willing to allow to be poetry at all. Our preju- 
dices force us to regard paradox as intellectual rather 
than emotional, clever rather than profound, rational 
rather than divinely irrational. 

Yet there is a sense in which paradox is the lan- 
guage appropriate and inevitable to poetry. It is the 
scientist whose truth requires a language purged of 
every trace of paradox ; apparently the truth which the 
poet utters can be approached only in terms of para- 
dox. I overstate the case, to be sure ; it is possible that 
the title of this paper is itself to be treated as merely a 
paradox. Certainly, the paper itself will appear to 
many people as merely a piece of special case-making, 
specious rather than convincing. But there are reasons 
for thinking that the overstatement which I propose 

• 37 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

may light up some elements in the nature of poetry 
which tend to be overlooked. 

The case of William Wordsworth, for instance, is 
instructive on this point. His poetry would not appear 
to promise many examples of the language of para- 
dox. He usually prefers the direct attack. He insists 
on simplicity ; he distrusts whatever seems sophistical. 
And yet the typical Wordsworth poem is based upon 
a paradoxical situation. Consider his celebrated 

It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, 
The holy time is quiet as a Nun 
Breathless with adoration. . . . 

The poet is filled with worship, but the girl who walks 
beside him is not worshipping. The implication is that 
she should respond to the holy time, and become like 
the evening itself, nun-like; but she seems less wor- 
shipful than inanimate nature itself. Yet 

If thou appear untouched by solemn thought, 
Thy nature is not therefore less divine: 
Thou liest in Abraham's bosom all the year. 
And worship' st at the temple's inner shrine, 
God being with thee when we know it not. 

The underlying paradox (of which the enthusiastic 
reader may well be unconscious) is nevertheless thor- 
oughly necessary, even for that reader. Why does the 
innocent girl worship more deeply than the self-con- 
scious poet who walks beside her ? Because she is filled 
with an unconscious sympathy for all of nature, not 
merely the grandiose and solemn. One remembers the 
lines from Wordsworth's friend, Coleridge : 

.38- 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

He prayeth best, who loveth best 
All things both great and small. 

Her unconscious sympathy is the unconscious wor- 
ship. She is in communion with nature ''all the year," 
and her devotion is continual whereas that of the poet 
is sporadic and momentary. But we have not done 
with the paradox yet. It not only underlies the poem, 
but something of the paradox informs the poem, 
though, since this is Wordsworth, rather timidly. The 
comparison of the evening to the nun actually has 
more than one dimension. The calm of the evening 
obviously means "worship," even to the dull-witted 
and insensitive. It corresponds to the trappings of 
the nun, visible to everyone. Thus, it suggests not 
merely holiness, but, in the total poem, even a hint of 
Pharisaical holiness, with which the girl's careless 
innocence, itself a symbol of her continual secret wor- 
ship, stands in contrast. 

Or consider Wordsworth's sonnet, "Composed 
upon Westminster Bridge." I believe that most of us 
will agree that it is one of Wordsworth's most suc- 
cessful poems; yet most students have the greatest 
difficulty in accounting for its goodness. The attempt 
to account for it on the grounds of nobility of senti- 
ment soon breaks down. On this level, the poem 
merely says : that the city in the morning light pre- 
sents a picture which is majestic and touching to all 
but the most dull of soul; but the poem says very 
little more about the sight : the city is beautiful in the 
morning light and it is awfully still. The attempt to 

• 39 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

make a case for the poem in terms of the brilHance 
of its images also quickly breaks down : the student 
searches for graphic details in vain ; there are next to 
no realistic touches. In fact, the poet simply huddles 
the details together: 

. . . silent, bare 
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie 
Open unto the fields. . . . 

We get a blurred impression — points of roofs and 
pinnacles along the skyline, all twinkling in the morn- 
ing light. More than that, the sonnet as a whole con- 
tains some very flat writing and some well-worn com- 
parisons. 

The reader may ask : where, then, does the poem 
get its power? It gets it, it seems to me, from the 
paradoxical situation out of which the poem arises. 
Wordsworth is honestly surprised, and he manages 
to get some sense of awed surprise into the poem. It 
is odd to the poet that the city should be able to ''wear 
the beauty of the morning" at all. Mount Snowden, 
Skiddaw, Mont Blanc — these wear it by natural right, 
but surely not grimy, feverish London. This is the 
point of the almost shocked exclamation 

Never did sun more beautifully steep 

In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hilL . 

The "smokeless air" reveals a city which the poet did 
not know existed: man-made London is a part of 
nature too, is lighted by the sun of nature, and lighted 
to as beautiful effect. 

• 40 • 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

The river glideth at his own sweet will. . . 
A river is the most ''natural" thing that one can 
imagine ; it has the elasticity, the curved line of nature 
itself. The poet had never been able to regard this 
one as a real river — now, uncluttered by barges, the 
river reveals itself as a natural thing, not at all dis- 
ciplined into a rigid and mechanical pattern : it is like 
the daffodils, or the mountain brooks, artless, and 
whimsical, and ''natural" as they. The poem closes, 
you will remember, as follows : 

Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; 
And all that mighty heart is lying still ! 

The city, in the poet's insight of the morning, has 
earned its right to be considered organic, not merely 
mechanical. That is why the stale metaphor of the 
sleeping houses is strangely renewed. The most excit- 
ing thing that the poet can say about the houses is 
that they are asleep. He has been in the habit of 
counting them dead — as just mechanical and inani- 
mate; to say they are "asleep" is to say that they are 
alive, that they participate in the life of nature. In 
the same way, the tired old metaphor which sees a 
great city as a pulsating heart of empire becomes 
revivified. It is only when the poet sees the city under 
the semblance of death that he can see it as actually 
alive — quick with the only life which he can accept, 
the organic life of "nature." 

It is not my intention to exaggerate Wordsworth's 
own consciousness of the paradox involved. In this 

•41 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

poem, he prefers, as is usual with him, the frontal 
attack. But the situation is paradoxical here as in so 
many of his poems. In his preface to the second edi- 
tion of the Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth stated that 
his general purpose was "to choose incidents and 
situations from common life" but so to treat them 
that "ordinary things should be presented to the mind 
in an unusual aspect." Coleridge was to state the pur- 
pose for him later, in terms which make even more 
evident Wordsworth's exploitation of the paradoxi- 
cal : "Mr. Wordsworth . . . was to propose to himself 
as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things 
of every day, and to excite a feeling analogous to 
the supernatural, by awakening the mind's attention 
to the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the 
loveliness and the wonders of the world before us. 
..." Wordsworth in short was consciously attempt- 
ing to show his audience that the common was really 
uncommon, the prosaic was really poetic. 

Coleridge's terms, "the charm of novelty to things 
of every day," "awakening the mind," suggest the 
Romantic preoccupation with wonder — ^the surprise, 
the revelation which puts the tarnished familiar world 
in a new light. This may well be the raison d'etre of 
most Romantic paradoxes; and yet the neoclassic 
poets use paradox for much the same reason. Con- 
sider Pope's lines from "The Essay on Man" : 

In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer ; 
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err ; 

• 42 • 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

Alike in ignorance, his Reason such, 

Whether he thinks too Httle, or too much. . . . 

Created half to rise, and half to fall ; 
Great Lord of all things, yet a Prey to all ; 
Sole Judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd ; 
The Glory, Jest, and Riddle of the world ! 

Here, it is true, the paradoxes insist on the irony, 
rather than on the wonder. But Pope too might have 
claimed that he was treating the things of every day, 
man himself, and awakening his mind so that he 
would view himself in a new and blinding light. Thus, 
there is a certain awed wonder in Pope just as there 
is a certain trace of irony implicit in the Wordsworth 
sonnets. There is, of course, no reason why they 
should not occur together ; and they do. Wonder and 
irony merge in many of the lyrics of Blake; they 
merge in Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. The variations 
in emphasis are numerous. Gray's "Elegy" uses a 
typical Wordsworth "situation" with the rural scene 
and with peasants contemplated in the light of their 
"betters." But in the "Elegy" the balance is heavily 
tilted in the direction of irony, the revelation an ironic 
rather than a startling one : 

Can storied urn or animated bust 

Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath? 

Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust, 

Or Flatt'ry sooth the dull cold ear of Death? 

But I am not here interested in the possible variations ; 
I am interested rather in our seeing that the paradoxes 

• 43 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

Spring from the very nature of the poet's language : it 
is a language in which the connotations play as great 
a part as the denotations. And I do not mean that 
the connotations are important as supplying some sort 
of frill or trimming, something external to the real 
matter in hand. I mean that the poet does not use a 
notation at all — as the scientist may properly be said 
to do so. The poet, within limits, has to make up his 
language as he goes. 

T. S. Eliot somewhere refers to "that perpetual 
slight alteration of language, words perpetually juxta- 
posed in new and sudden combinations," which oc- 
curs in poetry. It is perpetual ; it cannot be kept out of 
the poem ; it can only be directed and controlled. The 
tendency of science is necessarily to stabilize terms, 
to freeze them into strict denotations; the poet's 
tendency is by contrast disruptive. His terms are 
continually modifying each other, and thus violat- 
ing their dictionary meanings. To take a very simple 
example, consider the adjectives in the first lines 
of Wordsworth's evening sonnet: beauteous^ calm, 
free, holy, quiet, breathless. The juxtapositions are 
hardly startling; and yet notice this: the evening 
is like a nun breathless with adoration. The adjec- 
tive "breathless" suggests tremendous excitement; 
and yet the evening is not only quiet but calm. 
There is no final contradiction, to be sure : it is that 
kind of calm and that kind of excitement, and the two 
states may well occur together. But the poet has no 
one term. Even if he had a polysyllabic technical term, 

• 44 • 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

the term would not provide the solution for his prob- 
lem. He must work by contradiction and qualification. 

We may approach the problem in this way: the 
poet has to work by analogies. All of the subtler states 
of emotion, as I. A. Richards has pointed out, neces- 
sarily demand metaphor for their expression. The 
poet must work by analogies, but the metaphors do 
not lie in the same plane or fit neatly edge to edge. 
There is a continual tilting of the planes; necessary 
overlappings, discrepancies, contradictions. Even the 
most direct and simple poet is forced into paradoxes 
far more often than we think, if we are sufficiently 
alive to what he is doing.* 

But in dilating on the difficulties of the poet's task, 
I do not want to leave the impression that it is a task 
which necessarily defeats him, or even that with his 

* All metaphor, of course, involves some element of paradox, 
for metaphor by its very nature cannot give a strictly point-to- 
point analogy with no element of discrepancy and contradiction 
between the items compared. Indeed, even Dr. Johnson drew the 
line in practice far short of general agreement between the items 
compared : he refused to allow that Addison's famous angel simile 
was a real simile. Marlborough directing the battle and the 
angel directing the storm were too closely parallel. The items 
compared — the tenor and the vehicle — had to "contradict" each 
other sharply, and in this contradiction lies the element of 
paradox which this paper attempts to emphasize. For the strat- 
egy of this paper, I have felt justified in making such an em- 
phasis. But it is only fair to say that I should prefer as a matter 
of general practice to approach many of the problems raised in 
this paper as problems of metaphor ; that is, I have no desire to 
force the application of the term "paradox" on every case of 
discrepancy. 

• 45 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

method he may not win to a fine precision. To use 
Shakespeare's figure, he can 

with assays of bias 
By indirections find directions out. 

Shakespeare had in mind the game of lawnbowls in 
which the bowl is distorted, a circumstance which al- 
lows the skilful player to bowl a curve. To elaborate 
the figure, science makes use of the perfect sphere and 
its attack can be direct. The method of art can, I 
believe, never be direct — is always indirect. But that 
does not mean that the master of the game cannot 
place the bowl where he wants it. The serious difficul- 
ties will occur only when he confuses his game with 
that of science and mistakes the nature of his appro- 
priate instrument. Mr. Stuart Chase a few years ago, 
with a touching naivete, urged us to take the distor- 
tion out of the bowl — to treat language like notation. 

I have said that even the apparently simple and 
straightforward poet is forced into paradoxes by the 
nature of his instrument. Seeing this, we should not 
be surprised to find poets who consciously employ it 
to gain a compression and precision otherwise unob- 
tainable. Such a method, like any other, carries with it 
its own perils. But the dangers are not overpowering ; 
the poem is not predetermined to a shallow and glit- 
tering sophistry. The method is an extension of the 
normal language of poetry, not a perversion of it. 

I should like to refer you to a concrete case. Donne's 
"Canonization" ought to provide a sufficiently ex- 
treme instance. 

•46- 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

For Godsake hold your tongue, and let me love, 

Or chide my palsie, or my gout, 
My five gray haires, or ruin'd fortune flout, 
With vi^ealth your state, your minde with Arts 
improve, 

Take you a course, get you a place. 

Observe his honour, or his grace. 
Or the Kings reall, or his stamped face 

Contemplate, what you will, approve, 

So you will let me love. 

Alas, alas, who's injur'd by my love? 

What merchants ships have my sighs drown 'd : 
Who saies my teares have overflow'd his ground ? 
When did my colds a forward spring remove ? 

When did the heats which my veines fill 

Adde one more to the plaguie Bill ? 
Soldiers finde warres, and Lawyers finde out still 

Litigious men, which quarrels move, 

Though she and I do love. 

Call us what you will, wee are made such by love ; 
Call her one, mee another flye, 
We'are Tapers too, and at our owne cost die, 
And wee in us finde the'Eagle and the Dove. 
The Phoenix ridle hath more wit 
By us, we two being one, are it. 
So to one neutrall thing both sexes fit, 
We dye and rise the same, and prove 
Mysterious by this love. 

Wee can dye by it, if not live by love, 

And if unfit for tombes and hearse 
Our legend bee, it will be fit for verse; 
And if no peece of Chronicle wee prove, 

• 47 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

We'll build in sonnets pretty roomes ; 
As well a well wrought urne becomes 
The greatest ashes, as halfe-acre tombes, 
And by these hymnes, all shall approve 
Us Canoniz'd for Love: 

And thus invoke us ; You whom reverend love 

Made one anothers hermitage ; 
You, to whom love was peace, that now is rage ; 
Who did the whole worlds soule contract, and 
drove 
Into the glasses of your eyes 
(So made such mirrors, and such spies. 
That they did all to you epitomize,) 

Countries, Townes, Courts : Beg from above 
A patteme of your love ! 

The basic metaphor which underlies the poem (and 
which is reflected in the title) involves a sort of para- 
dox. For the poet daringly treats profane love as if it 
were divine love. The canonization is not that of a 
pair of holy anchorites who have renounced the world 
and the flesh. The hermitage of each is the other's 
body; but they do renounce the v/orld, and so their 
title to sainthood is cunningly argued. The poem then 
is a parody of Christian sainthood; but it is an in- 
tensely serious parody of a sort that modern man, 
habituated as he is to an easy yes or no, can hardly 
understand. He refuses to accept the paradox as a 
serious rhetorical device ; and since he is able to accept 
it only as a cheap trick, he is forced into this dilemma. 
Either : Donne does not take love seriously ; here he 
is merely sharpening his wit as a sort of mechanical 

•48- 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

exercise. Or: Donne does not take sainthood seri- 
ously; here he is merely indulging in a cynical and 
bawdy parody. 

Neither account is true ; a reading of the poem will 
show that Donne takes both love and religion seri- 
ously; it will show, further, that the paradox is here 
his inevitable instrument. But to see this plainly will 
require a closer reading than most of us give to poetry. 

The poem opens dramatically on a note of exaspera- 
tion. The ''you" whom the speaker addresses is not 
identified. We can imagine that it is a person, perhaps 
a friend, who is objecting to the speaker's love affair. 
At any rate, the person represents the practical world 
which regards love as a silly affectation. To use the 
metaphor on which the poem is built, the friend repre- 
sents the secular world which the lovers have re- 
nounced. 

Donne begins to suggest this metaphor in the first 
stanza by the contemptuous alternatives which he sug- 
gests to the f r4end 

. . . chide my palsy, or my gout, 
My five gray haires, or ruin'd fortune flout . . . 

The implications are : ( i ) All right, consider my love 
as an infirmity, as a disease, if you will, but confine 
yourself to my other infirmities, my palsy, my ap- 
proaching old age, my ruined fortune. You stand a 
better chance of curing those ; in chiding me for this 
one, you are simply wasting your time as well as mine. 
(2) Why don't you pay attention to your own welfare 

•49 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

— go on and get wealth and honor for yourself. What 
should you care if I do give these up in pursuing my 
love? 

The two main categories of secular success are 
neatly, and contemptuously epitomized in the line 
Or the Kings reall, or his stamped face. 

Cultivate the court and gaze at the king's face there, 
or, if you prefer, get into business and look at his face 
stamped on coins. But let me alone. 

This conflict between the ''real" world and the 
lover absorbed in the world of love runs through the 
poem ; it dominates the second stanza in which the tor- 
ments of love, so vivid to the lover, affect the real 
world not at all — 

What merchants ships have my sighs drown'd? 
It is touched on in the fourth stanza in the contrast 
between the word "Chronicle" which suggests secular 
history with its pomp and magnificence, the history of 
kings and princes, and the word "sonnets" with its 
suggestions of trivial and precious intricacy. The con- 
flict appears again in the last stanza, only to be re- 
solved when the unworldly lovers, love's saints who 
have given up the world, paradoxically achieve a more 
intense world. But here the paradox is still contained 
in, and supported by, the dominant metaphor : so does 
the holy anchorite win a better world by giving up 
this one. 

But before going on to discuss this development 
of the theme, it is important to see what else the 

• 50 • 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

second stanza does. For it is in this second stanza and 
the third, that the poet shifts the tone of the poem, 
modulating from the note of irritation with which 
the poem opens into the quite different tone with 
which it closes. 

Donne accomplishes the modulation of tone by 
what may be called an analysis of love-metaphor. 
Here, as in many of his poems, he shows that he is 
thoroughly self-conscious about what he is doing. This 
second stanza he fills with the conventionalized figures 
of the Petrarchan tradition : the wind of lovers' sighs, 
the floods of lovers' tears, etc. — extravagant figures 
with which the contemptuous secular friend might be 
expected to tease the lover. The implication is that the 
poet himself recognizes the absurdity of the Petrar- 
chan love metaphors. But what of it? The very ab- 
surdity of the jargon which lovers are expected to 
talk makes for his argument: their love, however 
absurd it may appear to the world, does no harm to 
the world. The practical friend need have no fears : 
there will still be wars to fight and lawsuits to argue. 

The opening of the third stanza suggests that this 
vein of irony is to be maintained. The poet points out 
to his friend the infinite fund of such absurdities 
which can be applied to lovers : 

Call her one, mee another flye, 
We'are Tapers too, and at our owne cost die . . . 

For that matter, the lovers can conjure up for them- 
selves plenty of such fantastic comparisons : they 

• 51 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

know what the world thinks of them. But these fig- 
ures of the third stanza are no longer the threadbare 
Petrarchan conventionalities ; they have sharpness and 
bite. The last one, the likening of the lovers to the 
phoenix, is fully serious, and with it, the tone has 
shifted from ironic banter into a defiant but controlled 
tenderness. 

The effect of this implied awareness of the lovers* 
apparent madness is to cleanse and revivify metaphor ; 
to indicate the sense in which the poet accepts it, and 
thus to prepare us for accepting seriously the fine and 
seriously intended metaphors which dominate the 
last two stanzas of the poem. 

The opening line of the fourth stanza. 
Wee can dye by it, if not live by love, 

achieves an effect of tenderness and deliberate reso- 
lution. The lovers are ready to die to the world ; they 
are committed; they are not callow but confident. 
(The basic metaphor of the saint, one notices, is 
being carried on ; the lovers in their renunciation of 
the world, have something of the confident resolution 
of the saint. By the bye, the word "legend" — 

... if unfit for tombes and hearse 
Our legend bee — 

in Donne's time meant "the life of a saint.") The 
lovers are willing to forego the ponderous and stately 
chronicle and to accept the trifling and insubstantial 
"sonnet" instead; but then if the urn be well-wrought 
it provides a finer memorial for one's ashes than does 

• 52 • 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

the pompous and grotesque monument. With the 
finely contemptuous, yet quiet phrase, "half -acre 
tombes," the world which the lovers reject expands 
into something gross and vulgar. But the figure works 
further ; the pretty sonnets will not merely hold their 
ashes as a decent earthly memorial. Their legend, 
their story, will gain them canonization; and ap- 
proved as love's saints, other lovers will invoke them. 
In this last stanza, the theme receives a final com- 
plication. The lovers in rejecting life actually win to 
the most intense life. This paradox has been hinted at 
earlier in the phoenix metaphor. Here it receives a 
powerful dramatization. The lovers in becoming her- 
mits, find that they have not lost the world, but have 
gained ithe world in each other, now a more intense, 
more meaningful world. Donne is not content to treat 
the lovers' discovery as something which comes to 
them passively, but rather as something which they 
actively achieve. They are like the saint, God's athlete : 

Who did the whole worlds soule contract, and drove 
Into the glasses of your eyes. . . . 

The image is that of a violent squeezing as of a 
powerful hand. And what do the lovers "drive" into 
each other's eyes? The "Countries, Townes," and 
"Courts," which they renounced in the first stanza 
of the poem. The unworldly lovers thus become the 
most "worldly" of all. 

The tone with which the poem closes is one of tri- 
umphant achievement, but the tone is a development 

• 53 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

contributed to by various earlier elements. One of 
the more important elements which works toward our 
acceptance of the final paradox is the figure of the 
phoenix, which will bear a little further analysis. 

The comparison of the lovers to the phoenix is very 
skilfully related to the two earlier comparisons, that 
in which the lovers are like burning tapers, and that 
in which they are like the eagle and the dove. The 
phoenix comparison gathers up both : the phoenix is 
a bird, and like the tapers, it burns. We have a selected 
series of items : the phoenix figure seems to come in a 
natural stream of association. ''Call us what you will," 
the lover says, and rattles off in his desperation the 
first comparisons that occur to him. The comparison 
to the phoenix seems thus merely another outlandish 
one, the most outrageous of all. But it is this most 
fantastic one, stumbled over apparently in his haste, 
that the poet goes on to develop. It really describes 
the lovers best and justifies their renunciation. For the 
phoenix is not two but one, "we two being one, are it" ; 
and it burns, not like the taper at its own cost, but to 
live again. Its death is life: "Wee dye and rise the 
same. ..." The poet literally justifies the fantastic 
assertion. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries 
to "die" means to experience the consummation of 
the act of love. The lovers after the act are the same. 
Their love is not exhausted in mere lust. This is their 
title to canonization. Their love is like the phoenix. 

I hope that I do not seem to juggle the meaning of 
die. The meaning that I have cited can be abundantly 

•54- 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

justified in the literature of the period; Shakespeare 
uses *'die" in this sense ; so does Dryden. Moreover, I 
do not think that I give it undue emphasis. The word 
is in a crucial position. On it is pivoted the transition 
to the next stanza, 

Wee can dye by it, if not live by love, 
And if unfit for tombes. . . . 

Most important of all, the sexual submeaning of *'die" 
does not contradict the other meanings : the poet is 
saying: ''Our death is really a more intense life"; 
'*We can afford to trade hfe (the world) for death 
(love), for that death is the consummation of life"; 
''After all, one does not expect to live hy love, one 
expects, and wants, to die hy it." But in the total 
passage he is also saying "Because our love is not 
mundane, we can give up the world" ; "because our 
love is not merely lust, we can give up the other lusts, 
the lust for wealth and power" ; "because," and this 
is said with a little vein of irony as by one who knows 
the world too well, "because our love can outlast its 
consummation, we are a minor miracle ; we are love's 
saints." This passage with its ironical tenderness and 
its realism feeds and supports the brilliant paradox 
with which the poem closes. 

There is one more factor in developing and sustain- 
ing the final effect. The poem is an instance of the 
doctrine which it asserts ; it is both the assertion and 
the realization of the assertion. The poet has actually 
before our eyes built within the song the "pretty 

• 55 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

room" with which he says the lovers can be content. 
The poem itself is the well-wrought urn which can 
hold the lovers' ashes and which will not suffer in 
comparison with the prince's ''half -acre tomb." 

And how necessary are the paradoxes? Donne 
might have said directly, "Love in a cottage is 
enough." 'The Canonization" contains this admirable 
thesis, but it contains a great deal more. He might 
have been as forthright as a later lyricist who wrote, 
"We'll build a sweet little nest, / Somewhere out in 
the West, / And let the rest of the world go by." He 
might even have imitated that more metaphysical 
lyric, which maintains, "You're the cream in my 
coffee." "The Canonization" touches on all these 
observations, but it goes beyond them, not merely 
in dignity, but in precision. 

I submit that the only way by which the poet could 
say what "The Canonization" says is by paradox. 
More direct methods may be tempting, but all of them 
enfeeble and distort what is to be said. This statement 
may seem the less surprising when we reflect on how 
many of the important things which the poet has to 
say have to be said by means of paradox : — most of 
the language of lovers is such ; "The Canonization" 
is a good example ; most of the language of religion : 
"He who would save his life, must lose it"; "The 
last shall be first." Indeed, almost any insight im- 
portant enough to warrant a great poem apparently 
has to be stated in such terms. Deprived of the char- 
acter of paradox with its twin concomitants of 

•56- 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

irony and wonder, the matter of Donne's poem un- 
ravels into "facts," biological, sociological, and eco- 
nomic. What happens to Donne's lovers if v^e con- 
sider them * 'scientifically," v^ithout benefit of the 
supernaturalism v^hich the poet confers upon them?* 
Well, what happens to Shakespeare's lovers, for 

* In this paper I have not attempted to distinguish between 
kinds of paradoxes. Obviously, they do not stand on the same 
level : for example, there are doctrinal paradoxes such as the 
Christian mystery of the Trinity; there are philosophical para- 
doxes such as are found in Kant's antinomies ; there are rhetori- 
cal paradoxes, themselves of innumerable kinds. An elaborate 
classification of types would be out of place in a paper of this 
sort ; nor have I cared to take up here the problem of the relation 
of poetry to philosophy and religion. But the statement that the 
poet confers upon facts a "supernaturalism" does call for further 
comment. Perhaps something like "super-positivism" should be 
substituted for "supernaturalism." The point that I have in mind 
is related to the discussion of positivism in Mr. Allen Tate's re- 
cent Reason in Madness: "There are 'two doctrines,' [I. A. Rich- 
ards] says, which have tended to flourish independently — " and 
yet, neither is intelligible apart from Imagination. 

"The two doctrines can be stated as follows : 

"i. The mind of the poet at moments . . . gains an insight into 
reality, reads Nature as a symbol of something behind or within 
Nature not ordinarily perceived. 

"2. The mind of the poet creates a Nature into which his own 
feelings, his aspirations and apprehensions, are projected." 
"Now," continues Mr. Tate, "the positivist sciences have denied 
all validity to the first doctrine." The poet is left, consequently, 
to "project" his fancies. They have no objective validity. Yet 
the world in which we live (not to be confused with the abstrac- 
tions from it made by the various sciences) requires both the 
first and second doctrine. It is a concrete world in which man 
requires the "complete knowledge" which Mr. Tate holds that 
poetry gives. And yet the two doctrines constitute a pair of 
antinomies which can be reconciled only in the doctrine of the 
Imagination to which Richards refers. The whole passage in 
Reason and Madness and the chapter of Richards' Coleridge on 
Imagination there discussed should be read in this connection. 

• 57 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

Shakespeare uses the basic metaphor of "The Can- 
onization" in his Romeo and Juliet f In their first 
conversation, you remember, the lovers play with the 
analogy between the lover and the pilgrim to the Holy 
Land. JuHet says: 

For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch 
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss. 

Considered scientifically, the lovers become Mr. Al- 
dous Huxley's animals, ''quietly sweating, palm to 
palm." 

For us today, Donne's imagination seems obsessed 
with the problem of unity: the sense in which the 
lovers become one — ^the sense in which the soul is 
imited with God. Frequently, as we have seen, one 
type of union becomes a metaphor for the other. It 
may not be too far-fetched to see both as instances of, 
and metaphors for, the union which the creative 
imagination itself effects. For that fusion is not 
logical; it apparently violates science and common- 
sense; it welds together the discordant and the con- 
tradictory. Coleridge has of course given us the 
classic description of its nature and power. It ''reveals 
itself in the balance or reconcilement of opposite or 
discordant qualities : of sameness, with difference ; of 
the general, with the concrete; the idea, with the 
image; the individual, with the representative; the 
sense of novelty and freshness, with old and familiar 
objects; a more than usual state of emotion, with 
more than usual order. . . ." It is a great and illuminat- 

•58- 



CLE A NTH BROOKS 

ing Statement, but it is a series of paradoxes. Appar- 
ently Coleridge could describe the effect of the imag- 
ination in no other way. 

Shakespeare, in one of his poems, has given a 
description that oddly parallels that of Coleridge. 

Reason in itself confounded. 
Saw Division grow together, 
To themselves yet either neither, 
Simple were so well compounded. 

I do not know what his "The Phoenix and the Turtle" 

celebrates. Perhaps it zcas written to honor the mar- 
riage of Sir John Salisbury and Ursula Stanley ; or 
perhaps the phoenix is Lucy, Countess of Bedford ; or 
perhaps the poem is merely an essay on Platonic love. 
But the scholars themselves are so uncertain, that I 
think we will do little violence to established habits of 
thinking, if we boldly preempt the poem for our own 
purposes. Certainly the poem is an instance of that 
magic power which Coleridge sought to describe. I 
propose that we take it for a moment as a poem about 
that power : 

So they loved as love in twaine, 
Had the essence but in one, 
Two distincts, Di\'ision none. 
Number there in love was slaine. 

Hearts remote, yet not asunder : 
Distance and no space was seene. 
Twixt tlie Turtle and his Queene ; 
But in them it were a wonder. . . . 

• 59 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

Propertie was thus appalled, 
That the self e was not the same ; 
Single Natures double name, 
Neither two nor one was called. 

Precisely ! The nature is single, one, unified. But the 
name is double, and today with our multiplication of 
sciences, it is multiple. If the poet is to be true to his 
poetry, he must call it neither two nor one : the para- 
dox is his only solution. The difficulty has intensified 
since Shakespeare's day: the timid poet, when con- 
fronted with the problem of "Single Natures double 
name," has too often funked it. A history of poetry 
from Dryden's time to our own might bear as its 
subtitle 'The Half-Hearted Phoenix." 

In Shakespeare's poem, you will remember that at 
the union of the phoenix and the turtle. Reason is "in 
itself e confounded" ; but it recovers to admit its own 
bankruptcy. 

Love hath Reason, Reason none, 
If what parts, can so remaine. . . . 

and it is Reason which goes on to utter the beautiful 
threnos with which the poem concludes : 

Beautie, Truth, and Raritie, 

Grace in all simplicitie. 

Here enclosede, in cinders lie. . . . 

Truth may seem, but cannot be; 
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she; 
Truth and beauty buried be. 

To this urne let those repaire, 

That are either true or faire. 

For these dead Birds, sigh a prayer. 

• 60 • 



CLEANTH BROOKS 

Having preempted the poem for our own purposes, 
it may not be too outrageous to go on to deduce one 
further observation. The urn to which we are sum- 
moned, the urn which holds the ashes of the phoenix, 
is like the well-wrought urn of Donne's ''Canoniza- 
tion" which holds the phoenix-lovers' ashes ; it is the 
poem itself. One is reminded of still another urn, 
Keats's Grecian urn, which contained for Keats, 
Truth and Beauty as Shakespeare's urn encloses 
''Beautie, Truth, and Raritie." But there is a sense in 
which all such well-wrought urns contain the ashes of 
a phoenix. The urns are not meant for memorial pur- 
poses only, though that often seems to be their chief 
significance to the professors of literature. The 
phoenix rises from its ashes ; or ought to rise ; but it 
will not arise merely for our sifting and measuring 
the ashes, or testing them for their chemical content. 
We must be prepared to accept the paradox of the 
imagination itself; else ''Beautie, Truth, and Raritie" 
remain enclosed in their cinders and we shall end with 
essential cinders, for all our pains. 



61 



THE INTERACTIONS OF WORDS 
BY I. A. RICHARDS 



THE INTERACTIONS OF WORDS 

I. A. RICHARDS 



(5r 




HERE SHOULD BE an ancient saying, "If you talk 
too much about words, your tongue will become a 
stone." More than once in this lecture you will see 
why. I have been minded again and again to change 
my title or dodge the topic ''Whereof we cannot speak, 
thereof we must be silent," remarked Ludwig Witt- 
genstein some twenty years ago, but men have gone 
on inventing languages in which to talk about that 
silence. 

What are these words we talk with and talk so 
much about? Taking poetry to be an affair of the 
interaction of words, how far will we get in a dis- 
cussion of poetry if we are in real doubt about what 
words are and do? 

This essay threatens thus to become an attempt to 
define ''a word." I am extremely loath to inflict that 
upon you. The definition of ''a word" has been a task 
from which the best authorities have rightly shrunk, 
an obligation which had made even psychologists into 
mystics and left the adepts in linguistics at a loss. 
But when the subject has been tactlessly raised, how 
are we to avoid it ? How are we to conceive the inter- 
actions of words without forming as clear a concep- 
tion as we can of the words themselves ? 

• 65 ■ 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

"As clear a conception as we can !" But what are 
these conceptions and how can they be clear? The 
impHcations of this word ''conception," if we take it 
Uterally and thereby awaken it to full metaphoric live- 
liness, are a philosophy of poetic language — as Plato 
pointed out, in the Phaedriis {2jy). It is true he calls 
them "scientific words" there, but he was concerned 
with "the dialectic art" which I arbitrarily take here 
to have been the practice of a supreme sort of poetry 
— the sort which was to replace the poetry he banished 
from the Republic. Here is the passage. "Noble it 
may be to tell stories about justice and virtue; but 
far nobler is a man's work, when finding a congenial 
soul he avails himself of the dialectic art to sow and 
plant therein scientific words, which are competent to 
defend themselves, and him who planted them, and 
are not unfruitful, but bear seed in their turn, from 
which other words springing up in other minds are 
capable of preserving this precious seed ever undecay- 
ing, and making their possessor ever happy, so far as 
happiness is possible to man." Plato is fond of this 
sort of language. If you look for it you will find it 
everywhere in the Rep-uhlic, used with a frankness 
which embarrassed his Victorian translators. 

What are these conceptions through which words, 
by uniting, bring new beings into the world, or new 
worlds into being? A truly philosophic definition of 
"a word" would be, I suppose, an all-purposes defini- 
tion. I am hoping for no such thing — only for a 
definition useful for our purpose: the study of the 

• 66 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

language of poetry. But limits to that are not easily 
set. However, I can escape some of the most dreadful 
parts of the undertaking by assuming frankly that 
our purposes are not those of psychology or of lin- 
guistics. Their troubles come in part from the uses 
for which they require their definitions of "a word." 
Poetics has a different set of purposes and needs a 
different sort of definition. If so, I can work at it 
without the tedious attempt to relate it to the other 
definitions that other studies need. Philosophically 
speaking, this leaves Poetics ''up in the air" ; but that 
is perhaps where, in the present state of philosophy, 
it will be safest. 

But very likely someone will already be saying, 
''Wait a moment. Are these troubles real or only 
philosophic ? Do we really need any definition poetic 
or otherwise ? Are not most of us in fact clear enough 
about what poetry and words in general are and do ? 
This marvellous, this miracuk)us thing we call our 
language works somehow for us and within us ; the 
better, it may well be, for our not knowing too much 
about it. Our digestions, to take a humble parallel, do 
not depend, fortunately, on our knowledge of physi- 
ology. Don't our poetic difficulties also arise with par- 
ticular instances only? Isn't this pretence that we 
never understand what we are saying or how we say 
it rather like witchcraft — an epidemic invented to give 
employment to specialists in its treatment?" 

"I would meet you upon this honestly." Such ques- 
tionings can be barren. To ask "What is a word and 

.67 . 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

how does it work?" may do us no good. On the other 
hand, there is a sense in which this question is the very 
foundation, the source, the origin, the apxri (to use 
Plato's word), the starting point and final cause of 
the intellectual life. But I do not know how, in words, 
to distinguish the idle from the vital question here. 

In the philosophy of poetry this vital question is 
not a question of fact but one of choice or decision. 
In that, it is like the fundamental definitions of mathe- 
matics. Facts, by themselves, do not, in any simple 
direct way, settle what we should define '*a word" to 
be. Facts, which we are aware of and can compare 
only through words, come later. None the less our 
definition must let the facts be facts. We do well to 
be humble here ; this ''What is a word?" is one of the 
founding questions — along with ''What am I?" 
"What is a fact?" and "What is God?"— on which all 
other questions balance and turn. The art of entertain- 
ing such questions, and of distinguishing them from 
other questions which we might ask with the same 
sounds, is the dialectic study of poetry. And the 
founding questions — ^those that establish and main- 
tain our state as men — are themselves poetic. But that 
might mean so many false things that I tremble as I 
say it. 

Still, the other ways of saying it, and ways of 
guarding it, suffer equal danger. If I add, for ex- 
ample, that this poetic basis of ours is no matter of 
mere make-believe, well, we have the varying possible 
ways of understanding that richly mysterious phrase, 

• 68 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

''make-believe," before us. ''Mere make-believe." 
Here is a notable example of the interaction of words. 
Just where do its disparaging or mocking implications 
come from? Are beliefs not to be made (i.e. forced) ? 
Is that the point ? Or is it the poor quality of the belief 
so made? Are beliefs which we make not genuine? 
Must the world, something not ourselves, make them 
for us? And if so, which world will we trust to do 
that? The world of tradition, of theology, of current 
public opinion, of science, or one of the worlds of 
poetry? Which will give us the beliefs we need? Is 
that the question, or is it the inferior quality of such 
beliefs which is being mocked, the immature crafts- 
manship, the inexperience which knows too little 
about either the materials or the purpose of the belief ? 

All this and more is to be considered in asking 
seriously if the poetic basis of our world is make- 
believe. This phrase, make-believe, like a good watch 
dog, warns us off sternly — if we have no proper bus- 
iness with these premises. But if we were their master, 
it would be silent. There is another possibility of 
course. In the Chinese story the stone-deaf visitor 
remarked, "Why do you keep your dog up so late? 
He did nothing but yawn at me as I came through 
the gate." 

However, if we know what we are doing, and whai 
the phrase "make-believe" is doing — and it has sev- 
eral senses which should alarm us for one which is 
safe because true — we may say that our world rests 
on make-belief or — to use a more venerable word — 

. 69 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

on faith. But it is our world, mind you, which so rests, 
our world in which we live as men, so different from 
the bullet's world, in which it travels. And yet our 
world includes the bullet. 

I have been trying with all this to revive for you 
the sense of the word "maker," in which a poet may 
be seriously said to be a maker. This is the sense in 
which poetry matters because it is creative — not the 
sense in which we say it is "creative" because we feel 
it matters. The poet is a maker of beliefs — ^but do not 
give here to "belief" the first meaning that comes to 
mind, for it is as true that for other senses of "belief" 
poetry has nothing to do with them. What does the 
poet make and what does his work create? Himself 
and his world first, and thereby other worlds and 
other men. He makes through shaping and molding, 
through giving form. But if we ask what he shapes 
or molds or gives form to, we must answer with 
Aristotle that we can say nothing about that which 
has no form. There are always prior forms upon 
which the poet works, and how he takes these forms 
is part of his making. He apprehends them by taking 
them into forms of more comprehensive order. To 
the poet as poet, his world is the world, and the world 
is his world. But the poet is not always poet. All but 
the greatest poets in the most favorable societies seem 
to have to pay for being poets. Of recent poets, Yeats 
has put this best : 

The intellect of man is forced to choose 
Perfection of the life or of the work, 

• 70 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

And if it take the second must refuse 

A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark. 

When all that story's finished, what's the news? 

In luck or out, the toil has left its mark : 

That old perplexity, an empty purse 

Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse. 

The work of the poet is the maintenance and 
enlargement of the human spirit through remaking it 
under changing circumstances ; through molding and 
remolding the ever-varying flux. The molds are sets 
of words, interacting in manifold ways within a lan- 
guage. At first sight this old Platonic image of the 
mold looks crude. What could be less like a mold than 
a word — which endlessly changes its work with its 
company as we all may note if we care to look? But 
the mold metaphor — the dominant metaphor of the 
Greek invention of education — is there to shock us 
into thought. The poetic problem is precisely the main- 
tenance of stability within minds and correspondence 
between them. It is not how to get the flux into molds 
supposed somehow to be fixed already; but how to 
recreate perpetually those constancies (as of sets of 
molds) upon which depend any order, any growth, 
any development — any changes, in fact, other than the 
chance-ridden changes of chaos. 

It is through the interactions of words within a 
language that a poet works. In a sense all literary men 
are inquiring concretely into the detail of this in all 
their work, but let us try to take a more general and 
comprehensive view before going on to contrast two 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

types of verbal interactions. If I can show you how I 
conceive words, the rest will be easier. First I spoke 
of the question, "What is a word ?", not of any answer 
to it, as one of the founding forces, and as thereby 
poetic. Answers to it of many sorts can be contrived 
and offered. Linguistics and psychology in their dif- 
ferent divisions have many very different answers and 
the debate between them, as studies aspiring to be- 
come sciences (in various senses of ''science'') must 
be a long one. But these answers would answer differ- 
ent questions from my poetic ''What is a word?" 
That question is nourished by awareness of them, but 
it is not reducible to them. It is not answered by an 
exhaustive dictionary or encyclopedia article on the 
word Word. That would answer only the set of his- 
torical, factual, linguistic, psychological, religious, 
metaphysical and other questions which I am trying 
— by these very odd means — to distinguish from the 
poetic question. With any of these questions, it would 
be shocking — would it not? — to suggest that its 
answer is one and the same with itself. But the poetic 
question has to be its own answer — as virtue is its 
own reward, to cite the wider rule of which this is an 
example. As an answer it is aware that it is a bundle 
of possibilities dependent on other possibilities which 
in turn it in part determines ; as a question it is at- 
tempting through its influence on them to become 
more completely itself. It is growing as a cell grows 

• 72 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

with other cells. It is a conception. It is being ''divided 
at the joints" and recombined. ''Attempting" and 
"growing" are not metaphors here. A word, a ques- 
tion or its answer, does all that we do, since we do 
all that in the word. Words are alive as our other 
acts are alive — ^though apart from the minds which 
use them they are nothing but agitations of the air 
or stains on paper. 

A word then by this sort of definition is a perma- 
nent set of possibilities of understanding, much 
as John Stuart Mill's table was a permanent pos- 
sibility of sensation. And as the sensations the 
table yields depend on the angle you look from, 
the other things you see it with, the air, your glasses, 
your eyes and the light ... so how a word is under-1 
stood depends on the other words you hear it with, 
and the other frames you have heard it in, on the 
whole setting present and past in which it has de- 
veloped as a part of your mind. But the interactions 
of words with one another and with other things are 
far more complex than can be paralleled from the 
case of the table — complex enough as those are. In- 
deed they are not paralleled anywhere except by such 
things as pictures, music or the expressions of faces 
which are other modes of language. Language, as 
understood, is the mind itself at work and these 
interactions of words are inter dependencies of our 
own being. -^ 

• 73 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

I conceive then a word, as poetry is concerned with 
it, and as separated from the mere physical or sensory 
occasion, toifce a component of an act of the mind 
so subtly dependent on the other components of this 
act and of other acts that it can be distinguished 
from these interactions only as a convenience of dis- 
course.' It sounds nonsense to say that a word is its 
interactions with other words ; but that is a short way 
of saying the thing which Poetics is in most danger 
always of overlooking. Words only work together. 
We understand no word except in and through its 
interactions with other words. ' 

Let me now come down to detail. I invite you to 
compare two very different types of the interactions 
of words in poetry : I will read the first twelve lines 
of Donne's First Anniversary. 

AN ANATOMY OF THE WORLD 
The First Anniversary 

Wherein 

By reason of the untimely death of Mistress 

Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and the decay 

of this whole world is represented. 

When that rich Soule which to her heaven is gone, 
Whom all do celebrate, who know they have one, 
(For who is sure he hath a Soule, unlesse 
It see, and judge, and follow worthinesse. 
And by Deedes praise it ? hee who doth not this, 
May lodge an In-mate soule, but 'tis not his.) 

• 74 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

When that Queene ended here her progresse time, 
And, as t'her standing house to heaven did climbe. 
Where loath to make the Saints attend her long. 
She's now a part both of the Quire, and Song, 
This world, in that great earthquake languished; 
For in a common bath of teares it bled. 

Let us compare with that the first stanza of Dryden's 
Ode: To the Pious Memory of the accomplished 
young lady, Mrs, Anne Killigrew, excellent 
in the two sister arts of Poesy and Painting 

Thou youngest virgin-daughter of the skies. 

Made in the last promotion of the blest ; 

Whose palms, new pluck'd from Paradise, 

In spreading branches more sublimely rise. 

Rich with immortal green above the rest : 

Whether, adopted to some neighboring star, 

Thou roirst above us, in thy wandering race, 

Or, in procession fixt and regular, 

Mov'd with the heaven's majestic pace; 

Or, call'd to more superior bliss. 

Thou tread'st with seraphims the vast abyss : 

Whatever happy region is thy place, 

Cease thy celestial song a little space; 

Thou wilt have time enough for hymns divine. 

Since Heaven's eternal year is thine. 

Hear, then, a mortal Muse thy praise rehearse, 

In no ignoble verse ; 
But such as thy own voice did practice here, 
When thy first-fruits of Poesy were given. 
To make thyself a welcome inmate there; 
While yet a young probationer, 

And candidate of Heaven. 

• 75 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

In the Donne, I suggest, there is a prodigious ac- 
tivity between the words as we read them. Following, 
exploring, realizing, becoming that activity is, I sug- 
gest, the essential thing in reading the poem. Under- 
standing it is not a preparation for reading the poem. 
It is itself the poem. And it is a constructive, hazard- 
ous, free creative process, a process of conception 
through which a new being is growing in the mind. 
The Dryden, I suggest, is quite otherwise. No doubt 
there are interactions between the words but they are 
on a different level. The words are in routine conven- 
tional relations like peaceful diplomatic communica- 
tions between nations. They do not induce revolutions 
in one another and are not thereby attempting to 
form a new order. Any mutual adjustments they have 
to make are preparatory, and they are no important 
part of the poetic activity. In brief Dryden's poem 
comes before our minds as a mature creation. But we 
seem to create Donne's poem. 

Donne's poem is called The First Anniversary be- 
cause he wrote it a year after the death of Elizabeth 
Drury. He was going to write a similar poem every 
year but only wrote one other. His latest editor, Mr. 
John Hayward (in the Nonesuch Edition) says this 
"concluded the series of preposterous eulogies." 
Whether Mr. Hayward thinks them preposterous, 
whether they are eulogies, and whether, if we took 
them as such, they would be preposterous — are ques- 
tions I leave till later. 

•76- 



I. A. RICHARDS 

Opinion about them has always been mixed. Ben 
Jonson is reported to have said that ''they were pro- 
phane and full of blasphemies ; that he told Mr. Donne 
if it had been written of the Virgin Marie it had 
been something; to which he answered that he de- 
scribed the Idea of a Woman, and not as she was." 
That is a helpful hint. It points to the Platonism in 
the poem. But Mr. Hayward comments : ''However 
this may be, the subject of the two poems was a real 
woman, a child rather, who died in 1610 at the age 
of fifteen." Two things are worth a word here. 
Doubtless, in one sense, Elizabeth Drury is the 
subject; but in a more important sense, the subject 
of the poem, what it is about, is something which 
only a good reading will discover. That discovery 
here is the poetic process. Secondly, when Mr. Hay- 
ward says "a child rather," he is being twentieth 
century, not seventeenth century. A fifteen year old 
girl was a woman for the seventeenth century. In 
Donne's poem Upon the Annunciation and the Pas- 
sion he writes of the Virgin Mary : 

Sad and rejoyc'd shee's seen at once, and seen 
At almost fiftie and at scarce fifteene. 

For Donne the Annunciation came to Mary when 
she was "scarce fifteene." Elizabeth's youth is of 
course no bar — rather the reverse — to Donne's taking 
her very seriously as a symbol. 

Dryden's Ode has long been an anthology piece. 
Dr. Johnson called it "the noblest Ode that our 
. 77 . 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

Language produced'* and "the richest complex of 
sounds in our language." A modern critic has called 
this "a judgment then bold but now scarcely intel- 
ligible." There are seventy-five years between the 
poems. 

Now let us consider the lines in detail and especially 
this question, "How closely should we be examining 
them in our reading?" I will take Dry den first. You 
may guess perhaps that even in taking him first here 
I am expressing a judgment between them. 

How near should we come to the Odel The only 
way to find out is by experimenting. Public declama- 
tion — the style of reading which the Ode suggests 
as right — does not invite close attention to the mean- 
ing. The facade of a public building is not to be 
studied with a handglass. Gulliver, you remember, 
thought nothing of the complexions of the Brob- 
dingnagian ladies. Let us try looking a little closer. 

Thou youngest virgin-daughter of the skies 

Why "youngest virgin-daughter"? "Youngest" 
may here mean "new-born"; but then, why virgin"^ 
New-borns are necessarily virgins. And why, then, 
"daughter of the skies" ? Do we need especially to be 
reminded that daughters of the skies — in Christian 
mythology — as denizens of Paradise, are virgins? 
On earth she was a virgin, it is true. In Heaven, 
there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage. 
And there is no special relation to the Virgin. We 
gain nothing by such ponderings here. 

• 78 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

Again : 

Whose palms, new plucked from Paradise 
In spreading branches more sublimely rise 
Rich with immortal green above the rest. 

Why from. Paradise? Has she left it? Why not in 
Paradise ? The answer might be in terms of resonance 
of the line. 

But why should these palms of hers more sub- 
limely rise? or be "rich with immortal green above 
the rest"? Do Paradisaic palms wilt and fade like 
florist's goods here on earth? Or does the row of 
palms get greener and greener, richer and richer, 
loftier and loftier, as we get further along the line 
from the first saints ? 

Clearly these questions and all others of the sort 
are quite irrelevant and out of place. We are looking 
too close, looking for a kind of poetic structure, an 
interaction of the words which is not there and is 
not needed for the proper purpose of the poem. 

The same thing would appear if we questioned 
similarly Dryden's suggestions about what she is 
doing and where she is : on a planet, "in thy wander- 
ing race" or on a fixed star "in procession fixt and 
regular." Or if we wondered whether "the vast abyss" 
so described seems a happy region. Or again if we 
ask whether she need really stop singing to listen to 
Dryden. Or again whether Dryden really, for a mo- 
ment, considers her earthly verses to have been such 
as his own voice is practicing here? Of course, he 

• 79 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

doesn't. Or again, if we ask whether her verses could 
possibly make her welcome in Paradise? Or if they 
would advance her as a "candidate for heaven" ? Or 
lastly if we asked why she is called an '^inmate"? We 
shall see later that the same word in the Donne is 
packed with implications. 

The outcome of all such close questioning is the 
same. Dryden's words have no such implications and 
we shall be misreading him if we hunt for them. In 
brief, this is not a poetry of Wit — in the technical 
sense of the word in which Donne's verses are, as 
Coleridge called them, 

Wit's fire and fireblast, meaning's press and screw. 

On this question of wit, let us listen to Dr. John- 
son a moment. He is talking about conversation and 
has been comparing styles of conversation with 
beverages. He says, 

"Spirit alone is too powerful to use. It will pro- 
duce madness rather than merriment; and instead 
of quenching thirst, will inflame the blood. Thus 
wit, too copiously poured out, agitates the hearer 
with emotions rather violent than pleasing ; everyone 
shrinks from the force of its oppression, the company 
sits entranced and overpowered; all are astonished, 
but nobody is pleased." One might retort, "Please, 
why should we please?" Or, when he says, "It will 
produce madness rather than merriment," we might 
recall the link between poetry and madness that has 
been noted from Plato's time to Shakespeare's. Dr. 

• 80- 



I. A. RICHARDS 

Johnson had deep personal reasons for distrusting 
this connection. He would have replied that he was 
talking about conversation, social intercourse. "In- 
stead of quenching thirst," he says, ''wit will inflame 
the blood." Quenching thirst? "Do you converse, 
Sir, in order to have had enough of it?" But Dr. 
Johnson's prose here no more requires us to pursue 
such implications and interactions than Dryden's 
verses. 

Turn now to the Donne. Let us see what minute 
reading brings out of that. 

When that rich Soule which to her heaven is gone, 

rich : in two senses — possessing much (a rich man) ; 
giving much (a rich mine). Compare Coleridge: 

Oh lady, we receive but what we give 
And in our life alone does Nature live. 

or Croce : "Intuition is Expression" : we have only 

that which we can give out. 

her heaven : again the double force ; she possesses it 

and it possesses her, as with "her country," or "her 

place." 

Whom all do celebrate, who know they have one; 
celebrate : a new word then in the sense of "praise, 
extol, or publish the fame of." This would be its 
first occurrence in that sense. Prior to 1611 it means 
"commemorate or perform publicly and in due form 
(with a ritual — as in a celebration of the Eucharist) 
or solemnize." There is a very serious suggestion of 

• 81 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

participation or partaking or ritual imitation. Thus, 
all who know they have a soul partake of that rich 
Soule, in knowing that (i.e. in having a soul). Then 
follows Donne's gloss : 

For who is sure he hath a Soule, unlesse 
It see, and judge, and follow worthiness; 

sure is more than ''confident, without doubts about 
it" ; it means "safe, firm, immovable," because seeing, 
judging and following worthiness are themselves the 
very possession of a soul, not merely signs of having 
one. To see and judge and follow worthiness is to 
have a soul. 

worthiness: excellence in the highest of all senses. 
That use was going out in Donne's time ( 1617). 

And by Deedes praise it 

No verbal praise, but imitation of or participation 
in actual works ; 

He who doth not this. 
May lodge an In-mate soule, but 'tis not his. 

in-mate: a word of very ill suggestions. We keep 
some of them in *'an inmate of a penitentiary or an 
asylum." For Donne it suggests a lodger or a for- 
eigner. Compare Milton : 

So spake the Enemie of Mankind, enclos'd 
In Serpent, Inmate bad, (P.L. ix, 495) 

Who does not see and follow worthiness hasn't a 
soul but is possessed by something not truly him. 
As so often with Donne, what seems a most far- 

• 82 ' 



I. A. RICHARDS 

fetched conceit is no more than the result of taking 
a commonplace of language seriously. We say daily 
that a man is "not himself" or "beside himself" or 
"not his true self," and we do the same thing when 
we say he is "alienated" or call a psychopathologist 
an "alienist." Donne is just expanding such expres- 
sions, making their implications explicit, increasing 
their interaction, as heat increases chemical inter- 
action. That is the technique of most "metaphysical 
poetry." 

When that Queene ended here her progresse time 
And, as t'her standing house to heaven did climb, 

Here Donne's metaphor takes seriously the doctrine 
of the Divinity of Kings. The Ruler is to the body 
politic as the soul is toithe body. Sickness or departure 
of the Ruler is sickness or death to the state. In fact 
he is just reversing the metaphor which created the 
doctrine of Divine Right. He adds a pun. A Queen 
made royal progresses through her dominions so that 
her subjects might come together and realize them- 
selves as a State in her. But the soul, as in Bunyan, 
also makes a pilgrim's progress. Her "standing 
house" is where she rests at the end of her progress. 
Compare Augustine : "Thou has made us for Thyself 
and our souls are restless until they find their rest 
in Thee." 

Where loath to make the Saints attend her long. 
She's now a part both of the Quire, and Song, 

•83- 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

A soul SO conceived need not delay in joining the 
company of the Saints. Quire: How deep we could 
take this word you can see from Ruskin's note in 
Munera Ptdveris. But the main point of the line is 
that the Soul becomes both a singer and the song. 
That goes to the heart of Aristotelianism — where the 
Divine thinking is one with the object of its thought. 
(Metaphysics 1075 a). It is itself that thought (or 
intellect) thinks, on account of its participation in 
the object of thought : for it becomes its own object 
in the act of apprehending it : so that thought (intel- 
lect) and what is thought of are one and the same. 
We come back here to our founding questions where 
the distinction between matter and activity vanishes — 
as it does for the modern physicist when his ultimate 
particles become merely what they do. 

But to elucidate Donne's line it is better perhaps 
just to quote another poet: from the last verse of 
W. B. Yeats's "Among School Children" in The 
Tower : 

O Chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, 

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole ? 

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, 

How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

or this from T. S. Eliot's Burnt Norton : 

At the still point of the turning world . . . 

at the still point, there the dance is, 
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call 
it fixity . . . 

Except for the point, the still point, 

• 84- 



I. A. RICHARDS 

There would be no dance, and there is only the 
dance. 

Donne's next line contains the word upon which, 
with the word Soule — as on two poles — ^the entire 
interpretation of this poem turns, as for that matter 
all philosophy must, the word world. 

This world, in that great earthquake languished ; 

world: not of course this planet, the earth, but this 
present life as opposed to the other, the realm of de- 
parted spirits. Or more narrowly **the pursuits and 
interests of the earthly life," as the Oxford Diction- 
ary puts it, with the note, "especially in religious use, 
the least worthy of these." Donne was extremely fond 
of playing with the word ''world." It is one of the 
chief of his wonder workers. Compare A Valediction 
of Weeping : 

On a round ball 
A workman that hath copies by, can lay 
An Europe, Afrique, and an Asia, 
And quickly make that which was nothing, All, 

So doth each teare. 

Which thee doth weare, 
A globe, yea world by that impression grow, 
Till thy tears mixt with mine doe overflow 
This world, by waters sent from thee, my heavep. 
dissolved so. "^ 

That is metaphysical metaphor at its height. 
Philosophically it is the age-old recognition that, as 
Blake put it, 'The eye altering, alters all." Donne, of 
course, plays throughout his poem on shifts between 

•85- 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

the private solipsistic world and the general public 
world of mundane interests. It is his general theme 
that both these worlds die, corrupt and disintegrate 
in the absence of the Soule — as defined in the paren- 
thesis of lines 3 to 6. 

Is this extravagance? Is the poem a ''preposterous 
eulogy" ? Is it not rather that Donne is saying some- 
thing which if said in our everyday style would seem 
so commonplace that we would not notice what we 
were saying ? If so, what was he saying ? To put it with 
our usual crude and unilluminating briefness, he was 
saying that Elizabeth Drury was an example, an 
inspiration, and would have been to all who knew her. 
That looks little enough to say, if so said. It took a 
Donne to expand the implications of those two words 
''example'* and "inspiration" into the poem. But the 
more we look into the poem, the more we will discover 
that the understanding of those two words is an 
understanding of the whole Platonic Aristotelian 
account of the fabric of things. These words take 
their meaning, by participation, directly from the 
founding questions. The best witness will be the clos- 
ing lines of The Second Anniversary : 

nor would' st thou be content, 
To take this, for my second yeares true Rent, 
Did this Coine beare any other stampe, than his, 
That gave thee power to doe, me, to say this. 
Since his will is, that to posteritie. 
Thou should'st for life, and death, a patterne bee, 
And that the world should notice have of this : 

• 86 • 



I. A. RICHARDS 

The purpose, and th'authoritie is his ; 

Thou art the Proclamation; and I am 

The Trumpet, at whose voyce the people came. 

To read the poem rightly would be to hear and 
come. 



87 



THE NOBLE RIDER AND THE SOUND 
OF WORDS 

BY WALLACE STEVENS 



THE NOBLE RIDER AND THE SOUND 
OF WORDS 



WALLACE STEVENS 



of 



N THE Phaedrus, Plato speaks of the soul in a 
figure. He says : ''Let our figure be of a composite 
nature — a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. 
Now the winged horses and the charioteer of the 
gods are all of them noble, and of noble breed, while 
ours are mixed ; and we have a charioteer who drives 
them in a pair, and one of them is noble and of noble 
origin, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble origin; 
and, as might be expected, there is a great deal of 
trouble in managing them. I will endeavor to explain 
to you in what way the mortal differs from the im- 
mortal creature. The soul or animate being has the 
care of the inanimate, and traverses the whole heaven 
in divers forms appearing; — when perfect and fully 
winged she soars upward, and is the ruler of the 
universe; while the imperfect soul loses her feathers, 
and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid 
ground." 

We recognize at once, in this figure, Plato's pure 
poetry; and at the same time we recognize what 
Coleridge called Plato's dear, gorgeous nonsense. The 
truth is that we have scarcely read the passage before 
we have identified ourselves with the charioteer, have, 

• 91 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

in fact, taken his place and, driving his winged 
horses, are traversing the whole heaven. Then sud- 
denly we remember, it may be, that the soul no longer 
exists and we droop in our flight and at last settle 
on the solid ground. The figure becomes antiquated 
and rustic. 



What really happens in this brief experience? Why 
does this figure, potent for so long, become merely 
the emblem of a mythology, the rustic memorial of 
a belief in the soul and in a distinction between good 
and evil? The answer to these questions is, I think, 
a simple one. 

I said that suddenly we remember that the soul 
no longer exists and we droop in our flight. For that 
matter, neither charioteers nor chariots any longer 
exist. Consequently, the figure does not become unreal 
because we are troubled about the soul. Besides, un- 
real things have a reality of their own, in poetry as 
elsewhere. We do not hesitate, in poetry, to yield our- 
selves to the unreal, when it is possible to yield our- 
selves. The existence of the soul, of charioteers and 
chariots and of winged horses is immaterial. They did 
not exist for Plato, not even the charioteer and 
chariot ; for certainly a charioteer driving his chariot 
across the whole heaven was for Plato precisely what 
he is for us. He was unreal for Plato as he is for 
us. Plato, however, could yield himself, was free to 

• 92 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

yield himself, to this gorgeous nonsense. We cannot 
yield ourselves. We are not free to yield ourselves. 
Just as the difficulty is not a difficulty about 
unreal things, since the imagination accepts them, 
and since the poetry of the passage is, for us, 
wholly the poetry of the unreal, so it is not an emo- 
tional difficulty. Something else than the imagination 
is moved by the statement that the horses of the gods 
are all of them noble, and of noble breed or origin. 
The statement is a moving statement and is intended 
to be so. It is insistent and its insistence moves us. 
Its insistence is the insistence of a speaker, in this 
case Socrates, who, for the moment, feels delight, 
even if a casual delight, in the nobility and noble 
breed. Those images of nobility instantly become 
nobility itself and determine the emotional level at 
which the next page or two are to be read. The 
figure does not lose its vitality because of any failure 
of feeling on Plato's part. He does not communicate 
nobility coldly. His horses are not marble horses, the 
reference to their breed saves them from being that. 
The fact that the horses are not marble horses helps, 
moreover, to save the charioteer from being, say, a 
creature of cloud. The result is that we recognize, 
even if we cannot realize, the feelings of the robust 
poet clearly and fluently noting the images in his 
mind and by means of his robustness, clearness and 
fluency communicating much more than the images 
themselves. Yet we do not quite yield. We cannot. 
We do not feel free. 

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THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

In trying to find out what it is that stands between 
Plato's figure and ourselves, we have to accept the 
idea that, however legendary it appears to be, it has 
had its vicissitudes. The history of a figure of speech 
or the history of an idea, such as the idea of nobility, 
cannot be very different from the history of any- 
thing else. It is the episodes that are of interest, and 
here the episode is that of our diffidence. By us and 
ourselves, I mean you and me ; and yet not you and 
me as individuals but as representatives of a state 
of mind. Adams in his work on Vico makes the 
remark that the true history of the human race is a 
history of its progressive mental states. It is a remark 
of interest in this relation. We may assume that in 
the history of Plato's figure there have been incessant 
changes of response; that these changes have been 
psychological changes, and that our own diffidence 
is simply one more state of mind due to such a change. 

The specific question is partly as to the nature of 
the change and partly as to the cause of it. In nature, 
the change is as follows : The imagination loses 
vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real. When 
it adheres to the unreal and intensifies what is unreal, 
while its first effect may be extraordinary, that effect 
is the maximum effect that it will ever have. In Plato's 
figure, his imagination does not adhere to what is 
real. On the contrary, having created something un- 
real, it adheres to it and intensifies its unreality. Its 
first effect, its effect at first reading, is its maximum 

• 94 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

effect, when the imagination, being moved, puts us 
in the place of the charioteer, before the reason checks 
us. The case is, then, that we concede that the figure 
is all imagination. At the same time, we say that it 
has not the slightest meaning for us, except for its 
nobility. As to that, while we are moved by it, we 
are moved as observers. We recognize it perfectly. 
We do not realize it. We understand the feeling of 
it, the robust feeling, clearly and fluently communi- 
cated. Yet we understand it rather than participate 
in it. 

As to the cause of the change, it is the loss of the 
figure's vitality. The reason why this particular figure 
has lost its vitality is that, in it, the imagination 
adheres to what is unreal. What happened, as we 
were traversing the whole heaven, is that the imagina- 
tion lost its power to sustain us. It has the strength 
of reality or none at all. 

II 

What has just been said demonstrates that there 
are degrees of the imagination, as, for example, de- 
grees of vitality and, therefore, of intensity. It is 
an implication that there are degrees of reality. The 
discourse about the two elements seems endless. For 
my own part, I intend merely to follow, in a very 
hasty way, the fortunes of the idea of nobility as a 
characteristic of the imagination, and even as its 
symbol or alter ego, through several of the episodes 
in its history, in order to determine, if possible, what 

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THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

its fate has been and what has determined its fate. 
This can be done only on the basis of the relation 
between the imagination and reality. What has been 
said in respect to the figure of the charioteer illustrates 
this. 

I should like now to go on to other illustrations of 
the relation between the imagination and reality and 
particularly to illustrations that constitute episodes 
in the history of the idea of nobility. It would be 
agreeable to pass directly from the charioteer and 
his winged horses to Don Quixote. It would be like 
a return from what Plato calls "the back of heaven" 
to one's own spot. Nevertheless, there is Verrochio 
(as one among others) with his statue of Bartol- 
ommeo Colleoni, in Venice, standing in the way. I 
have not selected him as a Neo-Platonist to relate 
us back from a modern time to Plato's time, although 
he does in fact so relate us, just as through Leonardo, 
his pupil, he strengthens the relationship. I have se- 
lected him because there, on the edge of the world in 
which we live today, he established a form of such 
nobility that it has never ceased to magnify us in our 
own eyes. It is like the form of an invincible man, 
who has come, slowly and boldly, through every war- 
like opposition of the past and who moves in our 
midst without dropping the bridle of the powerful 
horse from his hand, without taking off his helmet 
and without relaxing the attitude of a warrior of 
noble origin. What man on whose side the horseman 
fought could ever be anything but fearless, anything 

■96- 



WALLACE STEVENS 

but indomitable? One feels the passion of rhetoric 
begin to stir and even to grow furious; and one 
thinks that, after all, the noble style, in whatever it 
creates, merely perpetuates the noble style. In this 
statue, the apposition between the imagination and 
reality is too favorable to the imagination. Our 
difficulty is not primarily with any detail. It is 
primarily with the whole. The point is not so much 
to analyze the difficulty as to determine whether we 
share it, to find out whether it exists, whether we 
regard this specimen of the genius of Verrochio and 
of the Renaissance as a bit of uncommon panache, 
no longer quite the appropriate thing outdoors, or 
whether we regard it, in the language of Dr. Rich- 
ards, as something inexhaustible to meditation or, 
to speak for myself, as a thing of a nobility responsive 
to the most minute demand. It seems, nowadays, what 
it may very well not have seemed a few years ago, a 
little overpowering, a little magnificent. 

Undoubtedly, Don Quixote could be Bartolommeo 
Colleoni in Spain. The tradition of Italy is the tra- 
dition of the imagination. The tradition of Spain is 
the tradition of reality. There is no apparent reason 
why the reverse should not be true. If this is a just 
observation, it indicates that the relation between 
the imagination and reality is a question, more or 
less, of precise equilibrium. Thus it is not a question 
of the diflFerence between grotesque extremes. My 
purpose is not to contrast Colleoni with Don Quixote. 
It is to say that one passed into the other, that one 

• 97 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

became, and was, the other. The difference between 
them is that Verrochio beUeved in one kind of nobility 
and Cervantes, if he beUeved in any, beUeved in 
another kind. With Verrochio it was an affair of the 
noble style, whatever his prepossession respecting the 
nobility of man as a real animal may have been. With 
Cervantes, nobility was not a thing of the imagina- 
tion. It was a part of reality, it was something that 
exists in life, something so true to us that it is in 
danger of ceasing to exist, if we isolate it, some- 
thing in the mind of a precarious tenure. These 
may be words. Certainly, however, Cervantes sought 
to set right the balance between the imagination and 
reality. As we come closer to our own times in Don 
Quixote and as we are drawn together by the intel- 
ligence common to the two periods, we may derive 
so much satisfaction from the restoration of reality 
as to become wholly prejudiced against the imagina- 
tion. This is to reach a conclusion prematurely, let 
alone that it may be to reach a conclusion in respect 
to something as to which no conclusion is possible 
or desirable. 

There is in Washington, in Lafayette Square, 
which is the square on which the White House faces, 
a statue of Andrew Jackson, riding a horse with one 
of the most beautiful tails in the world. General 
Jackson is raising his hat in a gay gesture, saluting 
the ladies of his generation. One looks at this work 
of Clark Mills and thinks of the remark of Bertrand 
Russell that to acquire immunity to eloquence is of 

•98- 



WALLACE STEVENS 

the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. 
We are bound to think that Colleoni, as a mercenary, 
was a much less formidable man than General Jack- 
son, that he meant less to fewer people and that, if 
Verrochio could have applied his prodigious poetry 
to Jackson, the whole American outlook today might 
be imperial. This work is a work of fancy. Dr. 
Richards cites Coleridge's theory of fancy as opposed 
to imagination. Fancy is an activity of the mind which 
puts things together of choice, not the will, as a prin- 
ciple of the mind's being, striving to realize itself 
in knowing itself. Fancy, then, is an exercise of 
selection from among objects already supplied by 
association, a selection made for purposes which are 
not then and therein being shaped but have been 
already fixed. We are concerned then with an object 
occupying a position as remarkable as any that can 
be found in the United States in which there is not 
the slightest trace of the imagination. Treating this 
work as typical, it is obvious that the American will 
as a principle of the mind's being is easily satisfied 
in its efforts to realize itself in knowing itself. The 
statue may be dismissed, not without speaking of it 
again as a thing that at least makes us conscious of 
ourselves as we were, if not as we are. To that extent, 
it helps us to know ourselves. It helps us to know 
ourselves as we were and that helps us to know our- 
selves as we are. The statue is neither of the imagina- 
tion nor of reality. That it is a work of fancy pre- 
cludes it from being a work of the imagination. A 

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THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

glance at it shows it to be unreal. The bearing of this 
is that there can be works, and this includes poems, 
in which neither the imagination nor reality is present. 
The other day I was reading a note about an 
American artist who was said to have ''turned his 
back on the esthetic whims and theories of the day, 
and established headquarters in lower Manhattan." 
Accompanying this note was a reproduction of a 
painting called ''Wooden Horses." It is a painting 
of a merry-go-round, possibly of several of them. 
One of the horses seems to be prancing. The others 
are going lickety-split, each one struggling to get the 
bit in his teeth. The horse in the center of the picture, 
painted yellow, has two riders, one a man, dressed 
in a carnival costume, who is seated in the saddle, 
the other a blonde, who is seated well up the horse's 
neck. The man has his arms under the girl's arms. 
He holds himself stiffly in order to keep his cigar 
out of the girl's hair. Her feet are in a second and 
shorter set of stirrups. She has the legs of a hammer- 
thrower. It is clear that the couple are accustomed 
to wooden horses and like them. A little behind them 
is a younger girl riding alone. She has a strong body 
and streaming hair. She wears a short-sleeved, red 
waist, a white skirt and an emphatic bracelet of pink 
coral. She has her eyes on the man's arms. Still 
farther behind, there is another girl. One does not 
see much more of her than her head. Her lips are 
painted bright red. It seems that it would be better 
if some one were to hold her on her horse. We, here, 

. 100 . 



WALLACE STEVENS 

are not interested in any aspect of this picture except 
that it is a picture of ribald and hilarious reality. It 
is a picture wholly favorable to what is real. It is 
not without imagination and it is far from being 
without esthetic theory. 

Ill 

These illustrations of the relation between the 
imagination and reality are an outline on the basis 
of which to indicate a tendency. Their usefulness is 
this : that they help to make clear, what no one may 
ever have doubted, that just as in this or that work 
the degrees of the imagination and of reality may 
vary, so this variation may exist as between the 
works of one age and the works of another. What 
I have said up to this point amounts to this : that the 
idea of nobility exists in art today only in degenerate 
forms or in a much diminished state, if, in fact, it 
exists at all or otherwise than on sufferance; that 
this is due to failure in the relation between the 
imagination and reality. I should now like to add 
that this failure is due, in turn, to the pressure of 
reality. 

A variation between the sound of words in one 
age and the sound of words in another age is an 
instance of the pressure of reality. Take the state- 
ment by Bateson that a language, considered seman- 
tically, evolves through a series of conflicts between 
the denotative and the connotative forces in words; 
between an asceticism tending to kill language by 

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THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

stripping words of all association and a hedonism 
tending to kill language by dissipating their sense 
in a multiplicity of associations. These conflicts are 
nothing more than changes in the relation between 
the imagination and reality. Bateson describes the 
seventeenth century in England as predominately a 
connotative period. The use of words in connotative 
senses was denounced by Locke and Hobbes, who 
desired a mathematical plainness, in short, perspicu- 
ous words. There followed in the eighteenth century 
an era of poetic diction. This was not the language 
of the age but a language of poetry peculiar to itself. 
In time, Wordsworth came to write the preface to 
the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800) in 
which he said that the first volume had been pub- 
lished, *'as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be 
of some use to ascertain how far, by fitting to metrical 
arrangement a selection of the real language of man 
in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and 
that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a 
Poet may rationally endeavor to impart." 

As the nineteenth century progressed, language 
once more became connotative. While there have 
been intermediate reactions, this tendency toward the 
connotative is the tendency today. The interest in 
semantics is evidence of this. In the case of some 
of our prose writers, as, for example, Joyce, the 
language, in quite different ways, is wholly connota- 
tive. When we say that Locke and Hobbes denounced 
the connotative use of words as an abuse, and when 

• 102 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

we speak of reactions and reforms, we are speaking, 
on the one hand, of a failure of the imagination to 
adhere to reality, and, on the other, of a use of 
language favorable to reality. The statement that the 
tendency toward the connotative is the tendency to- 
day is disputable. The general movement in the arts, 
that is to say, in painting and in music, has been the 
other way. It is hard to say that the tendency is 
toward the connotative in the use of words without 
also saying that the tendency is toward the imagina- 
tion in other directions. The interest in the sub- 
conscious and in surrealism shows the tendency to- 
ward the imaginative. Boileau's remark that Des- 
cartes had cut poetry's throat is a remark that could 
have been made respecting a great many people 
during the last hundred years, and of no one more 
aptly than of Freud, who, as it happens, was familiar 
with it and repeats it in his Future of an Illusion, The 
object of that essay was to suggest a surrender to 
reality. His premise was that it is the unmistakable 
character of the present situation not that the prom- 
ises of religion have become smaller but that they 
appear less credible to people. He notes the decline 
of religious belief and disagrees with the argument 
that man cannot in general do without the consola- 
tion of what he calls the religious illusion and that 
without it he would not endure the cruelty of reality. 
His conclusion is that man must venture at last 
into the hostile world and that this may be called 
education to reality. There is much more in that 

• 103 . 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

essay inimical to poetry and not least the observation 
in one of the final pages that, ''The voice of the 
intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest until it 
has gained a hearing." This, I fear, is intended to 
be the voice of the realist. 

A tendency in language toward the connotative 
might very well parallel a tendency in other arts 
toward the denotative. We have just seen that that is 
in fact the situation. I suppose that the present always 
appears to be an illogical complication. The language 
of Joyce goes along with the dilapidations of Braque 
and Picasso and the music of the Austrians. To the 
extent that this painting and this music are the work 
of men who regard it as part of the science of paint- 
ing and the science of music it is the work of realists. 
Actually its effect is that of the imagination, just as 
the effect of abstract painting is so often that of the 
imagination, although that may be different. Busoni 
said, in a letter to his wife, 'T have made the painful 
discovery that nobody loves and feels music." Very 
likely, the reason there is a tendency in language 
toward the connotative today is that there are many 
who love it and feel it. It may be that Braque and 
Picasso love and feel painting and that Schonberg 
loves and feels music, although it seems that what 
they love and feel is something else. 

A tendency toward the connotative, whether in 
language or elsewhere, cannot continue against the 
pressure of reality. If it is the pressure of reality that 
controls poetry, then the immediacy of various theo- 

• 104 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

ries of poetry is not what it was. For instance, when 
Rostrevor Hamilton says, 'The object of contempla- 
tion is the highly complex and unified content of 
consciousness, which comes into being through the 
developing subjective attitude of the percipient," he 
has in mind no such "content of consciousness" as 
every newspaper reader experiences today. 

By way of further illustration, let me quote from 
Croce's Oxford lecture of 1933. He said: 'If . . . 
poetry is intuition and expression, the fusion of sound 
and imagery, what is the material which takes on the 
form of sound and imagery? It is the whole man : the 
man who thinks and wills, and loves, and hates ; who 
is strong and weak, sublime and pathetic, good and 
wicked; man in the exultation and agony of living; 
and together with the man, integral with him, it is 
all nature in its perpetual labour of evolution. . . . 
Poetry ... is the triumph of contemplation . . . 
Poetic genius chooses a strait path in which passion 
is calmed and calm is passionate." 

Croce cannot have been thinking of a world in 
which all normal life is at least in suspense, or, if 
you like, under blockade. He was thinking of normal 
human experience. 

Quite apart from the abnormal aspect of everyday 
life today, there is the normal aspect of it. The spirit 
of negation has been so active, so confident and so 
intolerant that the commonplaces about the romantic 
provoke us to wonder if our salvation, if the way 
out, is not the romantic. All the great things have 

• 105 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

been denied and we live in an intricacy of new and 
local mythologies, political, economic, poetic, which 
are asserted with an ever-enlarging incoherence. This 
is accompanied by an absence of any authority except 
force, operative or imminent. What has been called 
the disparagement of reason is an instance of the ab- 
sence of authority. We pick up the radio and find 
that comedians regard the public use of words of 
more than two syllables as funny. We read of the 
opening of the National Gallery at Washington and 
we are convinced, in the end, that the pictures are 
counterfeit, that museums are impositions and that 
Mr. Mellon was a monster. We turn to a recent 
translation of Kierkegaard and we find him saying : 
"A great deal has been said about poetry reconciling 
one with existence; rather it might be said that it 
arouses one against existence; for poetry is unjust 
to men ... it has use only for the elect, but that is 
a poor sort of reconciliation. I will take the case of 
sickness. Esthetics replies proudly and quite con- 
sistently, 'That cannot be employed, poetry must 
not become a hospital.' Esthetics culminates ... by 
regarding sickness in accordance with the principle 
enunciated by Friederick Schlegel : *Nur Gesundheit 
ist liebenswurdig.' (Health alone is lovable.)" 

The enormous influence of education in giving 
everyone a little learning, and in giving large groups 
considerably more : something of history, something 
of philosophy, something of literature ; the expansion 
of the middle class with its common preference for 

• 106 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

realistic satisfactions; the penetration of the masses 
of people by the ideas of liberal thinkers, even when 
that penetration is indirect, as by the reporting of the 
reasons why people oppose the ideas that they oppose, 
— these are normal aspects of everyday life. The way 
we live and the way we work alike cast us out on 
reality. If fifty private houses were to be built in 
New York this year, it would be a phenomenon. We 
no longer live in homes but in housing projects and 
this is so whether the project is literally a project 
or a club, a dormitory, a camp or an apartment in 
River House. It is not only that there are more of us 
and that we are actually close together. We are close 
together in every way. We lie in bed and listen to a 
broadcast from Cairo, and so on. There is no distance. 
We are intimate with people we have never seen and, 
unhappily, they are intimate with us. Democritus 
plucked his eye out because he could not look at a 
woman without thinking of her as a woman. If he 
had read a few of our novels, he would have torn 
himself to pieces. Dr. Richards has noted, "the wide- 
spread increase in the aptitude of the average mind 
for self -dissolving introspection, the generally height- 
ened awareness of the goings-on of our own minds, 
merely as goings-ony This is nothing to the generally 
heightened awareness of the goings-on of other peo- 
ple's minds, merely as goings-on. The way we work 
is a good deal more difficult for the imagination than 
the highly civilized revolution that is occurring in 
respect to work indicates. It is, in the main, a revolu- 

• 107 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

tion for more pay. We have been assured, by every 
visitor, that the American businessman is absorbed 
in his business and there is nothing to be gained by 
disputing it. As for the workers, it is enough to say 
that the word has grown to be Hterary. They have 
become, at their work, in the face of the machines, 
something approximating an abstraction, an energy. 
The time must be coming when, as they leave the 
factories, they will be passed through an air-chamber 
or a bar to revive them for riot and reading. I am 
sorry to have to add that to one that thinks, as Dr. 
Richards thinks, that poetry is the supreme use of 
language, some of the foreign universities in rela- 
tion to our own, appear to be, so far as the things of 
the imagination are concerned, as Verrocchio is to the 
sculptor of the statue of General Jackson. 

These, nevertheless, are not the things that I had 
in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality. 
These constitute the drift of incidents, to which we 
accustom ourselves as to the weather. Materialism is 
an old story and an indifferent one. Robert Wolseley 
said: "True genius . . . will enter into the hardest 
and dryest thing, enrich the most barren Soyl, and 
inform the meanest and most uncomely matter . . . 
the baser, the emptier, the obscurer, the fouler, and 
the less susceptible of Ornament the subject appears 
to be, the more is the Poet's Praise . . . who, as 
Horace says of Homer, can fetch Light out of 
Smoak, Roses out of Dunghills, and give a kind of 
Life to the Inanimate . . ." (Preface to Rochester's 

• 108 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

Valentinian, 1685, Eng. Assoc. St. 1939). By the 
pressure of reality, I mean the pressure of an ex- 
ternal event or events on the consciousness to the 
exclusion of any power of contemplation. The defini- 
tion ought to be exact and, as it is, may be merely 
pretentious. But when one is trying to think of a 
whole generation and of a world at war, and trying 
at the same time to see what is happening to the 
imagination, particularly if one believes that that 
is what matters most, the plainest statement of what 
is happening can easily appear to be an affectation. 

For more than ten years now, there has been an 
extraordinary pressure of news, let us say, news in- 
comparably more pretentious than any description 
of it, news, at first, of the collapse of our system, or, 
call it, of life ; then of news of a new world, but of a 
new world so uncertain that one did not know any- 
thing whatever of its nature, and does not know now, 
and could not tell whether it was to be all-English, 
all-German, all-Russian, all-Japanese, or all-Amer- 
ican, and cannot tell now ; and finally news of a war, 
which was a renewal of what, if it was not the great- 
est war, became such by this continuation. And for 
more than ten years, the consciousness of the world 
has concentrated on events which have made the 
ordinary movement of life seem to be the movement 
of people in the intervals of a storm. The disclosures 
of the impermanence of the past suggested, and sug- 
gest, an impermanence of the future. Little of what 
we have believed has been true. Only the prophecies 

• 109 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

are true. The present is an opportunity to repent. This 
is familiar enough. The war is only a part of a war- 
like whole. It is not possible to look backward and 
to see that the same thing was true in the past. It is 
a question of pressure, and pressure is incalculable 
and eludes the historian. The Napoleonic era is re- 
garded as having had little or no effect on the poets 
and the novelists who lived in it. But Coleridge and 
Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen 
did not have to put up with Napoleon and Marx and 
Europe, Asia and Africa all at one time. It seems 
possible to say that they knew of the events of their 
day much as we know of the bombings in the interior 
of China and not at all as we know of the bombings 
of London, or, rather, as we should know of the 
bombings of Toronto or Montreal. Another part of 
the war-like whole to which we do not respond quite 
as we do to the news of war is the income tax. The 
blanks are specimens of mathematical prose. They 
titillate the instinct of self-preservation in a class in 
which that instinct has been forgotten. Virginia 
Woolf thought that the income tax, if it continued, 
would benefit poets by enlarging their vocabularies 
and I dare say that she was right. 

If it is not possible to assert that the Napoleonic 
era was the end of one era in the history of the im- 
agination and the beginning of another, one comes 
closer to the truth by making that assertion in respect 
to the French Revolution. The defeat or triumph of 

• 110 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

Hitler are parts of a war-like whole but the fate of 
an individual is different from the fate of a society. 
Rightly or wrongly, we feel that the fate of a society 
is involved in the orderly disorders of the present 
time. We are confronting, therefore, a set of events, 
not only beyond our power to tranquillize them in 
the mind, beyond our power to reduce them and meta- 
morphose them, but events that stir the emotions to 
violence, that engage us in what is direct and imme- 
diate and real, and events that involve the concepts 
and sanctions that are the order of our lives and may 
involve our very lives ; and these events are occurring 
persistently, with increasing omen, in what may be 
called our presence. These are the things that I had 
in mind when I spoke of the pressure of reality, a 
pressure great enough and prolonged enough to bring 
about the end of one era in the history of the imagi- 
nation and, if so, then great enough to bring about 
the beginning of another. It is one of the peculiarities 
of the imagination that it is always at the end of 
an era. What happens is that it is always attaching 
itself to a new reality, and adhering to it. It is not 
that there is a new imagination but that there is a 
new reality. The pressure of reality may, of course, 
be less than the general pressure that I have described. 
It exists for individuals according to the circum- 
stances of their lives or according to the character- 
istics of their minds. To sum it up, the pressure of 
reality is, I think, the determining factor in the 
artistic character of an era and, as well, the determin- 

• HI • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

ing factor in the artistic character of an individual. 
The resistance to this pressure or its evasion in the 
case of individuals of extraordinary imagination 
cancels the pressure so far as those individuals are 
concerned. 

IV 

Suppose we try, now, to construct the figure of a 
poet, a possible poet. He cannot be a charioteer trav- 
ersing vacant space, however ethereal. He must have 
lived all of the last two thousand years, and longer, 
and he must have instructed himself, as best he could, 
as he went along. He will have thought that Virgil, 
Dante, Shakespeare, Milton placed themselves in 
remote lands and in remote ages ; that their men and 
women were the dead — and not the dead lying in the 
earth, but the dead still living in their remote lands and 
in their remote ages, and living in the earth or under 
it, or in the heavens — and he will wonder at those huge 
imaginations, in which what is remote becomes near, 
and what is dead lives with an intensity beyond any 
experience of life. He will consider that although he 
has himself witnessed, during the long period of his 
life, a general transition to reality, his own measure 
as a poet, in spite of all the passions of all the lovers 
of the truth, is the measure of his power to abstract 
himself, and to withdraw with him into his abstrac- 
tion, the reality on which the lovers of truth insist. 
He must be able to abstract himself and also to ab- 
stract reality, which he does by placing it in his 

• 112 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

imagination. He knows perfectly that he cannot be 
too noble a rider, that he cannot rise up loftily in 
helmet and armor on a horse of imposing bronze. He 
will think again of Milton and of what was said about 
him : that ''the necessity of writing for one's living 
blunts the appreciation of writing when it bears the 
mark of perfection. Its quality disconcerts our hasty 
writers; they are ready to condemn it as preciosity 
and affectation. And if to them the musical and 
creative powers of words convey little pleasure, how 
out of date and irrelevant they must find the . . . 
music of Milton's verse." Don Quixote will make it 
imperative for him to make a choice, to come to a 
decision regarding the imagination and reality; and 
he will find that it is not a choice of one over the 
other and not a decision that divides them, but some- 
thing subtler, a recognition that here, too, as between 
these poles, the universal interdependence exists, and 
hence his choice and his decision must be that they 
are equal and inseparable. To take a single instance : 
When Horatio says. 

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince. 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest ! 

are not the imagination and reality equal and insepar- 
able? Above all, he will not forget General Jackson 
or the picture of the ''Wooden Horses." 

I said of the picture that it was a work in which 
everything was favorable to reality. I hope that the 
use of that bare word has been enough. But without 

• 113 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

regard to its range of meaning in thought, it includes 
all its natural images and its connotations are without 
limit. Bergson describes the visual perception of a 
motionless object as the most stable of internal states. 
He says, ''The object may remain the same, I may 
look at it from the same side, at the same angle, in 
the same light; nevertheless, the vision I now have 
of it differs from that which I have just had, even 
if only because the one is an instant later than the 
other. My memory is there, which conveys something 
of the past into the present." 

Dr. Joad's comment on this is, "Similarly with 
external things. Every body, every quality of a body 
resolves itself into an enormous number of vibrations, 
movements, changes. What is it that vibrates, moves, 
is changed ? There is no answer. Philosophy has long 
dismissed the notion of substance and modern physics 
has endorsed the dismissal. . . . How, then, does the 
world come to appear to us as a collection of solid, 
static objects extended in space? Because of the in- 
tellect, which presents us with a false view of it." 

The poet has his own meaning for reality, and the 
painter has, and the musician has ; and besides what 
it means to the intelligence and to the senses, it means 
something to everyone, so to speak. Notwithstanding 
this, the word in its general sense, which is the sense 
in which I have used it, adapts itself instantly. The 
subject-matter of poetry is not that ''collection of 
solid, static objects extended in space" but the life 
that is lived in the scene that it composes; and so 

• 114 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

reality is not that external scene but the life that is 
lived in it. Reality is things as they are. The general 
sense of the word proliferates its special senses. It is 
a jungle in itself. As in the case of a jungle, every- 
thing that makes it up is pretty much of one color. 
First, then, there is the reality that is taken for 
granted, that is latent and, on the whole, ignored. It 
is the comfortable American state of life of the 
'eighties, the 'nineties and the first ten years of the 
present century. Next, there is the reality that has 
ceased to be indifferent, the years when the Victorians 
had been disposed of and intellectual minorities and 
social minorities began to take their place and to 
convert our state of life to something that might 
not be final. This much more vital reality made the 
life that had preceded it look like a volume of Acker- 
mann's colored plates or one of Topfer's books of 
sketches in Switzerland. I am trying to give the feel 
of it. It was the reality of twenty or thirty years ago. 
I say that it was a vital reality. The phrase gives a 
false impression. It was vital in the sense of being 
tense, of being instinct with the fatal or with what 
might be the fatal. The minorities began to convince 
us that the Victorians had left nothing behind. The 
Russians followed the Victorians and the Germans, 
in their way, followed the Russians. The British 
Empire, directly or indirectly, was what was left and 
as to that one could not be sure whether it was a 
shield or a target. Reality then became violent and 
so remains. This much ought to be said to make it a 

• 115 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

little clearer that in speaking of the pressure of 
reality, I am thinking of life in a state of violence, 
not physically violent, as yet, for us in America, but 
physically violent for millions of our friends and for 
still more millions of our enemies and spiritually 
violent, it may be said, for everyone alive. 

A possible poet must be a poet capable of resisting 
or evading the pressure of the reality of this last 
degree, with the knowledge that the degree of today 
may become a deadlier degree tomorrow. There is, 
however, no point to dramatizing the future in ad- 
vance of the fact. I confine myself to the outline of a 
possible poet, with only the slightest sketch of his 
background. 



Here I am, well-advanced in my paper, with every- 
thing of interest that I started out to say remaining 
to be said. I am interested in the nature of poetry and 
I have stated its nature, from one of the many points 
of view from which it is possible to state it. It is an 
interdependence of the imagination and reality as 
equals. This is not a definition, since it is incomplete. 
But it states the nature of poetry. Then I am inter- 
ested in the role of the poet and this is paramount. In 
this area of my subject I might be expected to speak 
of the social, that is to say sociological or political, 
obligation of the poet. He has none. That he must be 
contemporaneous is as old as Longinus and I dare say 
older. But that he is contemporaneous is almost in- 

• 116 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

evitable. How contemporaneous in the direct sense 
in which being contemporaneous is intended were the 
four great poets of whom I spoke a moment ago? 
I do not think that a poet owes any more as a social 
obligation than he owes as a moral obligation, and 
if there is anything concerning poetry about which 
people agree it is that the role of the poet is not to be 
found in morals. I cannot say what that wide agree- 
ment amounts to because the agreement (in which I 
do not join) that the poet is under a social obligation 
is equally wide. Reality is life and life is society and 
the imagination and reality, that is to say, the imag- 
ination and society are inseparable. That is preemin- 
ently true in the case of the poetic drama. The poetic 
drama needs a terrible genius before it is anything 
more than a literary relic. Besides the theater has 
forgotten that it could ever be terrible. It is not one 
of the instruments of fate, decidedly. Yes : the all- 
commanding subject-matter of poetry is life, the 
never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation. 
One does not love and go back to one's ancient mother 
as a social obligation. One goes back out of a suasion 
not to be denied. Unquestionably if a social movement 
moved one deeply enough, its moving poems would 
follow. No politician can command the imagination, 
directing it to do this or that. Stalin might grind his 
teeth the whole of a Russian winter and yet all the 
poets in the Soviets might remain silent the following 
spring. He might excite their imaginations by some- 
thing he said or did. He would not command them. 

• 117 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

He is singularly free from that "cult of pomp," which 
is the comic side of the European disaster; and that 
means as much as anything to us. The truth is that 
the social obligation so closely urged is a phase of the 
pressure of reality which a poet (in the absence of 
dramatic poets) is bound to resist or evade today. 
Dante in Purgatory and Paradise was still the voice 
of the Middle Ages but not through fulfilling any 
social obligation. Since that is the role most fre- 
quently urged, if that role is eliminated, and if a 
possible poet is left facing life without any categorical 
exactions upon him, what then ? What is his function ? 
Certainly it is not to lead people out of the confusion 
in which they find themselves. Nor is it, I think, to 
comfort them while they follow their leaders to and 
fro. I think that his function is to make his imagina- 
tion theirs and that he fulfils himself only as he sees 
his imagination become the light in the minds of 
others. His role, in short, is to help people to live their 
lives. Time and time again it has been said that he 
may not address himself to an elite. I think he may. 
There is not a poet whom we prize living today that 
does not address himself to an elite. The poet will 
continue to do this : to address himself to an elite 
even in a classless society, unless, perhaps, this ex- 
poses him to imprisonment or exile. In that event he 
is likely not to address himself to anyone at all. He 
may, like Shostakovitch, content himself with pre- 
tence. He will, nevertheless, still be addressing him- 
self to an elite, for all poets address themselves to 

• 118 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and 
it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be to 
an elite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair 
of a pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to 
a gallery of one^s own, if there are enough of one's 
own to fill a gallery. And that elite, if it responds, not 
out of complaisance, but because the poet has quick- 
ened it, because he has educed from it that for which 
it was searching in itself and in the life around it and 
which it had not yet quite found, will thereafter do 
for the poet what he cannot do for himself, that is 
to say : receive his poetry. 

I repeat that his role is to help people to live their 
lives. He has had immensely to do with giving life 
whatever savor it possesses. He has had to do with 
whatever the imagination and the senses have made 
of the world. He has, in fact, had to do with life 
except as the intellect has had to do with it and, as 
to that, no one is needed to tell us that poetry and 
philosophy are akin. I want to repeat for two reasons 
a number of observations made by Charles Mauron. 
The first reason is that these observations tell us what 
it is that a poet does to help people to live their lives 
and the second is that they prepare the way for a word 
concerning escapism. They are : that the artist trans- 
forms us into epicures; that he has to discover the 
possible work of art in the real world, then to extract 
it, when he does not himself compose it entirely; that 
he is un amoureux perpetuel of the world that he 
contemplates and thereby enriches; that art sets out 

• 119 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

to express the human soul ; and finally that everything 
like a firm grasp of reality is eliminated from the 
esthetic field. With these aphorisms in mind, how is it 
possible to condemn escapism? The poetic process is 
psychologically an escapist process. The chatter about 
escapism is, to my way of thinking, merely common 
cant. My own remarks about resisting or evading the 
pressure of reality mean escapism, if analyzed. Escap- 
ism has a pejorative sense, which it cannot be sup- 
posed that I include in the sense in which I use the 
word. The pejorative sense applies where the poet is 
not attached to reality, where the imagination does not 
adhere to reality, which, for my part, I regard as fun- 
damental. If we go back to the collection of solid, 
static objects extended in space, which Dr. Joad 
posited, and if we sa}^ that the space is blank space, 
nowhere, without color, and that the objects, though 
solid, have no shadows and, though static, exert a 
mournful power, and, without elaborating this com- 
plete poverty, if suddenly we hear a different and 
familiar description of the place : 

This City now doth, like a garment, wear 

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, 

Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie 

Open unto the fields, and to the sky; 

All bright and glittering in the smokeless air; 

if we have this experience, we know how poets help 
people to live their lives. This illustration must serve 
for all the rest. There is, in fact, a world of poetry 
indistinguishable from the world in which we live, 

• 120 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

or, I ought to say, no doubt, from the world in which 
we shall come to live, since what makes the poet the 
potent figure that he is, or was, or ought to be, is that 
he creates the world to which we turn incessantly and 
without knowing it and that he gives to life the su- 
preme fictions without which we are unable to con- 
ceive of it. 

And what about the sound of words? What about 
nobility, of which the fortunes were to be a kind of 
test of the value of the poet? I do not know of any- 
thing that will appear to have suffered more from the 
passage of time than the music of poetry and that has 
suffered less. The deepening need for words to ex- 
press our thoughts and feelings which, we are sure, 
are all the truth that we shall ever experience, having 
no illusions, makes us listen to words when we hear 
them, loving them and feeling them, makes us search 
the sound of them, for a finality, a perfection, an un- 
alterable vibration, which it is only within the power 
of the acutest poet to give them. Those of us who may 
have been thinking of the path of poetry, those who 
understand that words are thoughts and not only our 
own thoughts but the thoughts of men and women 
ignorant of what it is that they are thinking, must be 
conscious of this : that, above everything else, poetry 
is words ; and that words, above everything else, are, 
in poetry, sounds. This being so, my time and yours 
might have been better spent if I had been less inter- 
ested in trying to give our possible poet an identity and 

• 121 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

less interested in trying to appoint him to his place. 
But unless I had done these things, it might have been 
thought that I was rhetorical, when I was speaking 
in the simplest way about things of such importance 
that nothing is more so. A poet's words are of things 
that do not exist without the words. Thus, the image 
of the charioteer and of the winged horses, which has 
been held to be precious for all of time that matters, 
was created by words of things that never existed 
without the words. A description of Verrocchio's 
statue could be the integration of an illusion equal to 
the statue itself. Poetry is a revelation in words by 
means of the words. Croce was not speaking of poetry 
in particular when he said that language is perpetual 
creation. About nobility, I cannot be sure that the 
decline, not to say the disappearance of nobility is 
anything more than a maladjustment between the 
imagination and reality. We have been a little insane 
about the truth. We have had an obsession. In its 
ultimate extension, the truth about which we have 
been insane will lead us to look beyond the truth to 
something in which the imagination will be the dom- 
inant complement. It is not only that the imagination 
adheres to reality, but, also, that reality adheres to the 
imagination and that the interdependence is essential. 
We may emerge from our hassesse and, if we do, how 
would it happen if not by the intervention of some 
fortune of the mind? And what would that fortune of 
the mind happen to be ? It might be only commonsense 

• 122 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

but even that, a commonsense beyond the truth, would 
be a nobility of long descent. 

The poet refuses to allow his task to be set for him. 
He denies that he has a task and considers that the 
organization of materia poetica is a contradiction in 
terms. Yet the imagination gives to everything that it 
touches a peculiarity, and it seems to me that the 
peculiarity of the imagination is nobility, of which 
there are many degrees. This inherent nobility is the 
natural source of another, which our extremely head- 
strong generation regards as false and decadent. I 
mean that nobility which is our spiritual height and 
depth ; and while I know how difficult it is to express 
it, nevertheless I am bound to give a sense of it. 
Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Noth- 
ing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. 
There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite 
presentations a horror of it. But there it is. The fact 
that it is there is what makes it possible to invite to 
the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence 
and desire for life. I am not thinking of the ethical 
or the sonorous or at all of the manner of it. The 
manner of it is, in fact, its difficulty, which each man 
must feel each day differently, for himself. I am not 
thinking of the solemn, the portentous or demoded. 
On the other hand, I am evading a definition. If it is 
defined, it will be fixed and it must not be fixed. As in 
the case of an external thing, nobility resolves itself 
into an enormous number of vibrations, movements, 

• 123 • 



THE LANGUAGE OF POETRY 

changes. To fix it is to put an end to it. Let me show 
it to you unfixed. 

Late last year Epstein exhibited some of his flower 
paintings at The Leicester Galleries in London. A 
commentator in Apollo said, ''How with this rage can 
beauty hold a plea . . . The quotation from Shake- 
speare's 65th sonnet prefaces the catalogue ... It 
would be apropos to any other flower paintings than 
Mr. Epstein's. His make no pretence to fragility. 
They shout, explode all over the picture space and 
generally oppose the rage of the world with such a 
rage of form and colour as no flower in nature or 
pigment has done since Van Gogh." 

What ferocious beauty the line from Shakespeare 
puts on when used under such circumstances ! While 
it has its modulation of despair, it holds its plea and 
its plea is noble. There is no element more conspicu- 
ously absent from contemporary poetry than nobility. 
There is no element that poets have sought after, more 
curiously and more piously, certain of its obscure 
existence. Its voice is one of the inarticulate voices 
which it is their business to overhear and to record. 
The nobility of rhetoric is, of course, a lifeless no- 
bility. Pareto's epigram that history is a cemetery of 
aristocracies easily becomes another: that poetry is 
a cemetery of nobilities. For the sensitive poet, con- 
scious of negations, nothing is more difficult than the 
affirmations of nobility and yet there is nothing that 
he requires of himself more persistently, since in 
them and in their kind, alone, are to be found those 

• 124 • 



WALLACE STEVENS 

sanctions that are the reasons for his being and for 
that occasional ecstasy, or ecstatic freedom of the 
mind, which is his special privilege. 

It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than 
nobility. Looked at plainly it seems false and dead 
and ugly. To look at it at all makes us realize sharply 
that in our present, in the presence of our reality, the 
past looks false and is, therefore, dead and is, there- 
fore, ugly ; and we turn away from it as from some- 
thing repulsive and particularly from the character- 
istic that it has a way of assuming : something that 
was noble in its day, grandeur that was, the rhetorical 
once. But as a wave is a force and not the water of 
which it is composed, which is never the same, so 
nobility is a force and not the manifestations of which 
it is composed, which are never the same. Possibly 
this description of it as a force will do more than any- 
thing else I can have said about it to reconcile you to 
it. It is not an artifice that the mind has added to 
human nature. The mind has added nothing to human 
nature. It is a violence from within that protects us 
from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing 
back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the 
last analysis, to have something to do with our self- 
preservation ; and that, no doubt, is why the expres- 
sion of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live 
our lives. 



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