The Meaning And Function Of Poetry

WE have found Music, presenting its dynamic series of sound forms in time relation, strikingly contrasting in function with sculpture and painting, the arts portraying forms in space relations. We turn now to the third great type of ideal art, literature, studied in its highest aspect, poetry. There is a more bewildering wealth of material in this art than in all the others, and, as we shall see, the widest range of functions. Perhaps these can be made evident most quickly if we begin by comparing poetry with the arts previously studied, and first with sculpture.

Let it be noted that poetry can carve its marble statues, though with less power and by other methods than sculpture. ? It can express definite conceptions for the intellect, through spatial forms given for the imagination. Let us take a great example in one of Shelley’s most powerful sonnets:


“I met a traveller from an antique land Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand, Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things, The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings : Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Let us omit, for the present, the element of music in the poem, and consider only what is carved and painted for the imagination. The ruined statue is given here, no less truly than in sculpture, though for the inner vision, and with less smiting impressiveness than if one stood in the desolate sand-waste beside the legs of stone, with the shattered head lying near.

It is given, however, not by the combination of the forms in space for the eye, but through the enumeration of a series of characteristic traits in time succession. Thus the imagination of the reader must coöperate actively in fusing these traits in one, in order to see the statue and its setting with the inner vision. That is why the success of the descriptive poem depends upon the wise choice of characteristic traits and suggestive epithets and images, which enable the reader to see the picture as a whole with the imagination. Wise restraint on the poet’s part is necessary, since too many traits and images confuse and obscure the vision. Thus Shelley’s genius is evident in the in choice here : “vast” and “trunkless” “legs of stone”; a “shattered” visage, with “frown” and “wrinkled lip” and “sneer of cold command”: these most significant traits and suggestive epithets are just enough powerfully to stimulate the imagination to the vision of the ruined statue. So in portraying the setting: “boundless” and “bare,” the “lone” and “level” sands “stretch far away” : one seems really to stand in the sand waste and look out over the majestic desolation.

Poetry must therefore depend upon association and suggestion for its carrying power in description ; and one mark of a great poet is the ability to choose powerfully visualizing epithets and images. Homer’s traditional greatness, for example, results in no small measure from his preeminent possession of this quality—”ox-eyed Juno,” “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “blue-eyed Pallas,” “earth-shaking Neptune,” “swift-footed Iris,” “cloud-compelling Zeus,” “far-darting Apollo,” “golden Aphrodite” : the atmosphere of the Iliad depends much upon these wonderfully suggestive epithets.

It was this fact that poetry must present its traits of form in time succession, while sculpture and painting combine them in space relations, that Lessing hit upon in the Laokoön, though his interpretation was faulty. He concluded, from this contrast, that the business of sculpture and painting was to portray bodies in space, while poetry should present actions in time. The view is illuminating, and was especially so to that fresh awakening of German art in which Lessing was so great an inspiration ; yet the conclusion goes beyond the mark. The spatial arts can represent action, sometimes most powerfully, as in Meissonier’s great painting previously studied; but only by portraying bodies in space at a significant moment of action. So poetry can present bodies, but only through a series of suggestive traits given in time succession. Thus Lessing was right as to the main business of the two types of art; but each reaches over into the field of the other far more than he was aware ; and ‘ while description, or the portrayal of bodies in space, is not the chief function of poetry, it is a most significant element, accomplished by the method we have shown.

We experience sensuous pleasure in seeing, with the inner vision, what Shelley has carved and painted for us; but this pleasure is less direct and strong than with sculpture, where the forms and colors are given for the actual physical vision. On the other hand, just be-cause the sensuous response is more subtle and indirect, the spiritual content in poetry is less bound to sensuous associations than is the case in sculpture and painting, while the aesthetic satisfaction in the adequacy and harmony with which the conceptions are expressed, is as great certainly as in the case of the other arts.

‘With the limitation in its power to present forms in space, as compared with sculpture, poetry has a complementary greatness in directly associating with these forms a wide range of thoughts and emotions, thus interpreting them in terms of the human spirit. Sculpture gives us the statue, and we make of it what we can. Poetry, less powerfully and directly, gives us the statue, and associates its interpretation in terms of human thought and feeling. When Shelley says of the shattered face:

“Whose frown

And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed,”

we know fully the impression made by the fallen statue on Shelley’s mind and heart, and we share his experience. So with the irony of the inscription in relation to the fallen statue and desolate sand waste: we are made to feel the tragic vanity of the great king’s arrogance in imagining that his works would be the despair of subsequent tyrants, while only the ruin of his own statue faintly records his otherwise forgotten name.

As indicated in this study of Shelley’s sonnet, poetry can paint its picture as well as carve its statue. Let us take an example of pure descriptive poetry at its best—one of Wordsworth’s finest sonnets:


Sept. 3, 1802.

“Earth has not anything to show more fair: Dull would he be of soul who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty: This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie Open unto the fields, and to the sky,— All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep In his first splendor valley, rock, or hill; Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep !

The river glideth at his own sweet will: Dear God! the very houses seem asleep; And all that mighty heart is lying still! ”

To make clear the comparison with painting, think what Corot would have done with this scene. He would have given us in one painting the whole sleeping city, with the sun-light and atmosphere over it, seen from a single view-point, in one moment of time—the different elements being combined in a unity in space relations. He would have burned the scene in on the imagination, through the physical vision, with a power greater even than Wordsworth’s 4 yet the poet succeeds in painting the picture, through the succession of forms suggested for the imagination, which must fuse these in one scene. In-deed, Wordsworth even ventures upon a catalogue—a dangerous device in poetry—even Homer nods when he attempts to catalogue the ships for Ilium; yet here the enumeration of “ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples,” gives just those big elements of the picture necessary to visualizing it as a whole.)

If less pregnant than Shelley’s in giving vital concrete traits, Wordsworth’s sonnet is wider in its use of suggestive association. Compare the city wearing “like a garment” the “beauty of the morning” ; the various aspects of the city “silent, bare” “open unto the fields, and to the sky,” “all bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” How these descriptive words and phrases carry the atmosphere of the scene and stimulate the imagination to realize it as a whole. So with the river gliding “at his own sweet will,” in implied contrast with the week days, when the river is dominated by human traffic; and the “very houses” asleep, with the “mighty heart” of the city “lying still,” in strange contrast to the usual restless activity of the city: one gets the very mood of its impression on this beautiful Sunday morning.

The beauty of the picture, painted by the poem with the coöperation of the reader’s inner vision, gives keen sensuous pleasure, as well as aesthetic delight, which springs also from the harmony in the expression of the thought and mood. More than in Shelley’s sonnet, there is here direct expression of both thought and emotion, through the interpretation of the scene in its impression on Wordsworth’s own senses, mind and heart.

“Dull would he be who could pass by A sight so touching in its majesty,”

gives the poet’s own view as to what man’s relations to such a scene should be. Then the contrast, suggested in a few brief touches, with the nature world, to which we usually turn for the beauty of calm repose; affirming the sleeping city as equally beautiful in the radiance of the sunlight, and even more peaceful, in ironic opposition to its usual mood: all this is interpretation of the given picture in terms of the human spirit.

Let me take, as a third illustration, a bit of my own work that happens to contain elements of both sculpture and painting. On the bold front of a mountain in the Franconia notch, in New Hampshire, looks out the stern profile of a human face—not a mere freak of nature, but majestic beyond what one could believe beforehand, and worthy to have been chiseled by the hand of God. It and its setting form the theme in the following:


Stern, grave and silent, majestically he broods Above the lake and forests stretched below; Not answering to the call of human voices That, shallow in laughter, or deep in awestruck tones, Sound o’er the lake and wake the echoing hills; Projecting from the mountain’s naked front, As reaching out to meet on equal terms And with a calmer strength the onrushing storms. Harsh as the granite of the mountain heights, Yet smoothed as by the flow of living waters That round the boulders on the eternal slopes ; Gigantic in the strength of even brow And long, firm nose above the hard, rude chin; Yet open lips, just parted, wonderingly, As with the eternal question, ever asked But never answered by the mind of man ; The suppressed tenderness but gathering force From the hard strength that drives all feeling back: Inexorable Nature in the pitiless calm, Human in depth and might of life reserved, As hungering to break the eternal silence In one great, wild, all-voicing human cry. Such is the face! Gaze and be silent, Man, And learn that in this mystic sculpturing Of the Almighty Hand, are fused in one The two supreme, unanswered mysteries— Nature and Man, revealed but unexplained.

The face is chiseled, but less directly and impressively than in sculpture. The environing nature world is pictured, but less powerfully than in painting. Instead of giving the different forms fused in space relations, in one moment of time, the poem must carve the face and paint the picture by a succession of forms given in time relation. The descriptive epithets and phrases not only aid the imagination to visualize the objects portrayed, but add the association of human thought and emotion. Finally, the poem gives the direct interpretation of the face and its surroundings in terms of the spirit of man.

Turning again for a moment to Lessing’s view of the relation of poetry to sculpture and painting, we should now be able to see clearly at once its value and faults. In sculpture and painting the aim is, as Lessing saw, to portray objective forms and colors directly for the eye, and through these to give concepts for the intellect; while (though in larger measure than Lessing realized) action and the development of a story can be represented only by choosing a significant moment of the action. In poetry the description of objects is not an end, and so far Lessing was right ; it is, however, a legitimate means, the aim being to give and interpret the object or scene, in terms of human thought and feeling, and by the less direct method of a succession of traits and associations given in time relation. Thus without in any degree taking the place of sculpture and painting, or fulfilling their specific functions, poetry does reach over into the field of those arts, combining something of their functions with purposes of its own.

Let us compare the treatment of the same theme in the two contrasting types of art. In the modern gallery at Florence is a painting by .Castagnola representing Fra Lippo Lippi making love to the novice, Lucrezia Buti, who served as his model for the frescoes at Prato. The girl, in convent garb, is seated in a chair. The painter has turned toward her from his easel and half-finished picture. She draws back half-frightened, yet fascinated; in her face is portrayed the struggle between the old life, with its vows, habits and training, and the flood of new life that surges up into consciousness and takes possession of her above her will. No poem could give that one psychological moment, with all it carries of past and future, so powerfully as does this painting.

Browning’s dramatic monologue of Fra Lippo Lippi cannot bring home the one situation to the physical vision, and through it to the intellect, with the same reality; yet in the poem, the painter, surprised by the night watch as he is sneaking home from some merry rendezvous to the hospitable prison of the Medicean palace, tells the whole story of his life. He narrates the main incidents of his career from childhood onward, giving his relation to the cloister, his view of art, a suggestive description of certain of his paintings, and the heart of his character and attitude toward life. Thus, with far less smiting power in giving directly for the physical sense, and through it for the intellect, one moment of the painter’s life, the poem gives a vastly wider view of Fra Lippo, of his epoch and his relation to art and life in all time.

In the Metropolitan gallery in New York, among other beautiful landscape paintings, is an October Afternoon by J. Francis Murphy. It is all in soft yellows. The trees are still; the leaves are golden upon them and upon the ground. The moment chosen is the one when Nature flames forth in her loveliest garment before the gray white sleep of the winter time. One dreams of the summer that is gone and anticipates the chill that is soon coming. That moment, with the conceptions it involves, is given perfectly in the painting, and the mood one brings is naturally associated.

Compare with this the following sonnet of Shakespeare’s—to my mind the most beautiful ever written in the freer English form:

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang:

In me thou see’st the twilight of such day As after sunset fadeth in the west, Which by and by black night cloth take away, Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest :

In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire, That on the ashes of his youth doth lie As the death-bed whereon it must expire, Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by:

—This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong, To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

Three pictures are painted in the three quatrains severally. Each is beautiful, clear to the inner vision, done through a few most skillfully suggested traits. How far short each of these pictures falls of the actual painting for the outer eye; yet the traits given carry a definite thought and mood, and interpret what they give to the imagination. Finally, the last two lines interpret the autumn, the twilight, the dying fire upon the hearth, in terms of the deepest experiences of the human heart, thus making the three pictures a symbolic language for life and love.