There is a word, a "name of fear," which rouses terror

in the heart of the vast educated majority of the English-speaking race.

The most valiant will fly at the mere utterance of that word.

The most broad-minded will put their backs up against it.

The most rash will not dare to affront it. I myself have seen it

empty buildings that had been full; and I know that it will

scatter a crowd more quickly than a hose-pipe, hornets,

or the rumour of plague. Even to murmur it is to incur solitude,

probably disdain, and possibly starvation, as historical examples show.

That word is "poetry."

The profound objection of the average man to poetry can scarcely

be exaggerated. And when I say the average man, I do not mean

the "average sensual man"--any man who gets on to the top of the omnibus;

I mean the average lettered man, the average man who does care a little

for books and enjoys reading, and knows the classics by name

and the popular writers by having read them. I am convinced

that not one man in ten who reads, reads poetry--at any rate, knowingly.

I am convinced, further, that not one man in ten who goes so far as

knowingly to *buy* poetry ever reads it. You will find everywhere

men who read very widely in prose, but who will say quite callously,

"No, I never read poetry." If the sales of modern poetry,

distinctly labelled as such, were to cease entirely to-morrow

not a publisher would fail; scarcely a publisher would be affected;

and not a poet would die--for I do not believe that a single modern

English poet is living to-day on the current proceeds of his verse.

For a country which possesses the greatest poetical literature

in the world this condition of affairs is at least odd.

What makes it odder is that, occasionally, very occasionally,

the average lettered man will have a fit of idolatry for a fine poet,

buying his books in tens of thousands, and bestowing upon him

immense riches. As with Tennyson. And what makes it odder still

is that, after all, the average lettered man does not truly dislike poetry;

he only dislikes it when it takes a certain form. He will read poetry

and enjoy it, provided he is not aware that it is poetry.

Poetry can exist authentically either in prose or in verse.

Give him poetry concealed in prose and there is a chance that,

taken off his guard, he will appreciate it. But show him a page of verse,

and he will be ready to send for a policeman. The reason of this is that,

though poetry may come to pass either in prose or in verse,

it does actually happen far more frequently in verse than in prose;

nearly all the very greatest poetry is in verse; verse is identified

with the very greatest poetry, and the very greatest poetry can only be

understood and savoured by people who have put themselves through a

considerable mental discipline. To others it is an exasperating weariness.

Hence chiefly the fearful prejudice of the average lettered man

against the mere form of verse.

The formation of literary taste cannot be completed until

that prejudice has been conquered. My very difficult task

is to suggest a method of conquering it. I address myself exclusively

to the large class of people who, if they are honest, will declare that,

while they enjoy novels, essays, and history, they cannot "stand" verse.

The case is extremely delicate, like all nervous cases.

It is useless to employ the arts of reasoning, for the matter

has got beyond logic; it is instinctive. Perfectly futile to assure you

that verse will yield a higher percentage of pleasure than prose!

You will reply: "We believe you, but that doesn't help us."

Therefore I shall not argue. I shall venture to prescribe

a curative treatment (doctors do not argue); and I beg you

to follow it exactly, keeping your nerve and your calm.

Loss of self-control might lead to panic, and panic would be fatal.

First: Forget as completely as you can all your present notions

about the nature of verse and poetry. Take a sponge and

wipe the slate of your mind. In particular, do not harass yourself

by thoughts of metre and verse forms. Second: Read William Hazlitt's essay

"On Poetry in General." This essay is the first in the book entitled

*Lectures on the English Poets*. It can be bought in various forms.

I think the cheapest satisfactory edition is in Routledge's

"New Universal Library" (price 1s. net). I might have composed

an essay of my own on the real harmless nature of poetry in general,

but it could only have been an echo and a deterioration of Hazlitt's.

He has put the truth about poetry in a way as interesting, clear,

and reassuring as anyone is ever likely to put it. I do not expect,

however, that you will instantly gather the full message and enthusiasm

of the essay. It will probably seem to you not to "hang together."

Still, it will leave bright bits of ideas in your mind.

Third: After a week's interval read the essay again. On a second perusal

it will appear more persuasive to you.

Fourth: Open the Bible and read the fortieth chapter of Isaiah.

It is the chapter which begins, "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,"

and ends, "They shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk

and not faint." This chapter will doubtless be more or less

familiar to you. It cannot fail (whatever your particular *ism*)

to impress you, to generate in your mind sensations which you recognise

to be of a lofty and unusual order, and which you will admit

to be pleasurable. You will probably agree that the result

of reading this chapter (even if your particular *ism*

is opposed to its authority) is finer than the result of reading

a short story in a magazine or even an essay by Charles Lamb.

Now the pleasurable sensations induced by the fortieth chapter

of Isaiah are among the sensations usually induced by high-class poetry.

The writer of it was a very great poet, and what he wrote

is a very great poem. Fifth: After having read it, go back to Hazlitt,

and see if you can find anything in Hazlitt's lecture which throws light

on the psychology of your own emotions upon reading Isaiah.

Sixth: The next step is into unmistakable verse. It is to read

one of Wordsworth's short narrative poems, *The Brothers*.

There are editions of Wordsworth at a shilling, but I should advise

the "Golden Treasury" Wordsworth (2s. 6d. net), because it contains

the famous essay by Matthew Arnold, who made the selection.

I want you to read this poem aloud. You will probably have to hide

yourself somewhere in order to do so, for, of course, you would not,

as yet, care to be overheard spouting poetry. Be good enough

to forget that *The Brothers* is poetry. *The Brothers* is a short story,

with a plain, clear plot. Read it as such. Read it simply for the story.

It is very important at this critical stage that you should not

embarrass your mind with preoccupations as to the *form* in which

Wordsworth has told his story. Wordsworth's object was to tell

a story as well as he could: just that. In reading aloud do not pay

any more attention to the metre than you feel naturally inclined to pay.

After a few lines the metre will present itself to you. Do not worry

as to what kind of metre it is. When you have finished the perusal,

examine your sensations....

Your sensations after reading this poem, and perhaps one or two

other narrative poems of Wordsworth, such as *Michael*, will be

different from the sensations produced in you by reading an ordinary,

or even a very extraordinary, short story in prose. They may not be

so sharp, so clear and piquant, but they will probably be,

in their mysteriousness and their vagueness, more impressive.

I do not say that they will be diverting. I do not go so far

as to say that they will strike you as pleasing sensations.

(Be it remembered that I am addressing myself to an imaginary

tyro in poetry.) I would qualify them as being "disturbing."

Well, to disturb the spirit is one of the greatest aims of art.

And a disturbance of spirit is one of the finest pleasures

that a highly-organised man can enjoy. But this truth can only be

really learnt by the repetitions of experience. As an aid

to the more exhaustive examination of your feelings under Wordsworth,

in order that you may better understand what he was trying

to effect in you, and the means which he employed, I must direct you

to Wordsworth himself. Wordsworth, in addition to being a poet,

was unsurpassed as a critic of poetry. What Hazlitt does for poetry

in the way of creating enthusiasm Wordsworth does in the way

of philosophic explanation. And Wordsworth's explanations of the theory

and practice of poetry are written for the plain man.

They pass the comprehension of nobody, and their direct, unassuming,

and calm simplicity is extremely persuasive. Wordsworth's chief essays

in throwing light on himself are the "Advertisement," "Preface,"

and "Appendix" to *Lyrical Ballads*; the letters to Lady Beaumont

and "the Friend" and the "Preface" to the Poems dated 1815.

All this matter is strangely interesting and of immense

educational value. It is the first-class expert talking at ease

about his subject. The essays relating to *Lyrical Ballads* will be

the most useful for you. You will discover these precious documents

in a volume entitled *Wordsworth's Literary Criticism* (published by

Henry Frowde, 2s. 6d.), edited by that distinguished Wordsworthian

Mr. Nowell C. Smith. It is essential that the student of poetry

should become possessed, honestly or dishonestly, either of this volume

or of the matter which it contains. There is, by the way, a volume of

Wordsworth's prose in the Scott Library (1s.). Those who have not read

Wordsworth on poetry can have no idea of the naïve charm

and the helpful radiance of his expounding. I feel that I cannot

too strongly press Wordsworth's criticism upon you.

Between Wordsworth and Hazlitt you will learn all that it behoves you

to know of the nature, the aims, and the results of poetry.

It is no part of my scheme to dot the "i's" and cross the "t's"

of Wordsworth and Hazlitt. I best fulfil my purpose in urgently

referring you to them. I have only a single point of my own to make--

a psychological detail. One of the main obstacles to

the cultivation of poetry in the average sensible man

is an absurdly inflated notion of the ridiculous. At the bottom

of that man's mind is the idea that poetry is "silly."

He also finds it exaggerated and artificial; but these two accusations

against poetry can be satisfactorily answered. The charge of silliness,

of being ridiculous, however, cannot be refuted by argument.

There is no logical answer to a guffaw. This sense of the ridiculous

is merely a bad, infantile habit, in itself grotesquely ridiculous.

You may see it particularly in the theatre. Not the greatest dramatist,

not the greatest composer, not the greatest actor can prevent an audience

from laughing uproariously at a tragic moment if a cat walks across

the stage. But why ruin the scene by laughter? Simply because

the majority of any audience is artistically childish. This sense

of the ridiculous can only be crushed by the exercise of moral force.

It can only be cowed. If you are inclined to laugh when a poet

expresses himself more powerfully than you express yourself,

when a poet talks about feelings which are not usually mentioned

in daily papers, when a poet uses words and images which lie

outside your vocabulary and range of thought, then you had better

take yourself in hand. You have to decide whether you will be on the side

of the angels or on the side of the nincompoops. There is no surer

sign of imperfect development than the impulse to snigger

at what is unusual, naïve, or exuberant. And if you choose to do so,

you can detect the cat walking across the stage in the sublimest

passages of literature. But more advanced souls will grieve for you.

The study of Wordsworth's criticism makes the seventh step

in my course of treatment. The eighth is to return to those poems

of Wordsworth's which you have already perused, and read them again

in the full light of the author's defence and explanation.

Read as much Wordsworth as you find you can assimilate,

but do not attempt either of his long poems. The time, however,

is now come for a long poem. I began by advising narrative poetry

for the neophyte, and I shall persevere with the prescription.

I mean narrative poetry in the restricted sense; for epic poetry

is narrative. *Paradise Lost* is narrative; so is *The Prelude*.

I suggest neither of these great works. My choice falls on

Elizabeth Browning's *Aurora Leigh*. If you once work yourself

"into" this poem, interesting yourself primarily (as with Wordsworth)

in the events of the story, and not allowing yourself to be obsessed

by the fact that what you are reading is "poetry"--if you do this,

you are not likely to leave it unfinished. And before you reach the end

you will have encountered *en route* pretty nearly all the moods of poetry

that exist: tragic, humorous, ironic, elegiac, lyric--everything.

You will have a comprehensive acquaintance with a poet's mind.

I guarantee that you will come safely through if you treat the work

as a novel. For a novel it effectively is, and a better one than any

written by Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot. In reading, it would be well

to mark, or take note of, the passages which give you the most pleasure,

and then to compare these passages with the passages selected for praise

by some authoritative critic. *Aurora Leigh* can be got

in the "Temple Classics" (1s. 6d.), or in the "Canterbury Poets" (1s.).

The indispensable biographical information about Mrs. Browning

can be obtained from Mr. J. H. Ingram's short Life of her

in the "Eminent Women" Series (1s. 6d.), or from *Robert Browning*,

by William Sharp ("Great Writers" Series, 1s.).

This accomplished, you may begin to choose your poets.

Going back to Hazlitt, you will see that he deals with, among others,

Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Chatterton,

Burns, and the Lake School. You might select one of these,

and read under his guidance. Said Wordsworth: "I was impressed

by the conviction that there were four English poets whom I must

have continually before me as examples--Chaucer, Shakespeare,

Spenser, and Milton." (A word to the wise!) Wordsworth makes a fifth

to these four. Concurrently with the careful, enthusiastic study

of one of the undisputed classics, modern verse should be read.

(I beg you to accept the following statement: that if the study

of classical poetry inspires you with a distaste for modern poetry,

then there is something seriously wrong in the method of your development.)

You may at this stage (and not before) commence an inquiry into

questions of rhythm, verse-structure, and rhyme. There is, I believe,

no good, concise, cheap handbook to English prosody; yet such a manual

is greatly needed. The only one with which I am acquainted is

Tom Hood the younger's *Rules of Rhyme: A Guide to English Versification*.

Again, the introduction to Walker's *Rhyming Dictionary* gives

a fairly clear elementary account of the subject. Ruskin also

has written an excellent essay on verse-rhythms. With a manual

in front of you, you can acquire in a couple of hours

a knowledge of the formal principles in which the music of English verse

is rooted. The business is trifling. But the business of appreciating

the inmost spirit of the greatest verse is tremendous and lifelong.

It is not something that can be "got up."

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