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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Elements of True Poetry

By William Hayes Ward (1835–1916)

[Born in Abington, Mass., 1835. Died in South Berwick, Me., 1916. Literature and Religion.—Address before the N. Y. Congregational Club. 1886.]

WHAT, then, is poetry? It is the verbal expression of thought under the paramount control of the principle of beauty. The thought must be as beautiful as possible; the expression must be as beautiful as possible. Essential beauty and formal beauty must be wedded, and the union is poetry. Other principles than beauty may govern a literary production. The purpose may be, first, absolute clearness. That will not make poetry. It may make a good mathematical demonstration; it may make a good news item; but not poetry. The predominant sentiment may be ethical. That may give us a sermon, but it will not give a poem. A poem is first of all beautiful, beautiful in its content of thought, and beautiful in its expression through words. A writer fails of producing a poem if he puts anything before beauty in the thought, or anything before beauty in its expression. The beauty of thought is first and most important; in it rests the chief genius. But the beauty of expression, being formal, is more quickly grasped and easily analyzed, and is, to the popular notion, the chief element in a poem. It is essential, but it is not the chief essential. A prose poem is no poem, but a prosy poem is neither poetry nor prose.

The first and chief element in a poem is beauty of thought, and that beauty may relate to any department, material, mental, or spiritual, in which beauty can reside. Such poetry may describe a misty desert, a flowery mead, a feminine form, a ruddy sky, a rhythmic waterfall, a blue-bird’s flutings, receding thunder, a violet’s scent, the spicy tang of apples, the thrill of clasped arms and a lover’s kiss. Or it may rise higher, and rest in the relations of things, in similes and metaphors; it may infuse longing and love and passion; it may descant fair reason and meditative musing. Or, in highest flight, beauty may range over the summits of lofty purpose, inspiring patriotism, devotion, sacrifice, till it becomes one with the love of man and the love of God, even as the fading outline of a mountain melts into the blue sky which envelops it. All this will make the substance of poetry.

Not that the thought of a poem, in all its parts, must be beautiful. It must be beautiful as far as possible in its parts, and unfailingly beautiful in its total effect. There may be level plains between the mountains. There may even be ugly crags. But all this is only the foil to the jewels, the discord which enhances the harmony. The symphony is beautiful notwithstanding the discord; the poem is beautiful, for the lily is whiter and sweeter if we catch a glimpse of the dirt at its roots; a coarse face hints there is something higher than human in the beauty of fair women; and we must catch a glimpse of the blood of horrid war if we wish to know how dear is peace, and how sweet is home, and how grand it is to die for liberty and native land.

But this must be remembered, that beauty does not always lie along a single level. In seeking one beauty the poet must not contradict another. He must not pursue his beauty when it flies into a sandy waste or a noisome fen. Physical beauty embraced in the arms of vapid thought or sickly sentiment, or evil purpose, becomes ugly and adulterate. Dominant over all other beauty is moral beauty. All highest flights of poetry must range in the empyrean. God is king everywhere, and his laws are supreme in beauty as in duty. You can no more contradict God’s law in the construction of a poem than in the course of a planet.

The principles I have enunciated throw out not a few so-called poems. Cædmon’s verse is not poetry, but a sermon of versified Scripture. Its object was not beauty, but memorized instruction. Pope’s “Essay on Man” is not a poem. To be sure it is in rhyme and couplets, all measured and hewed to a given length. But its prime object is not to express beauty, but wisdom—not wisdom as beauty—for wisdom is beautiful; but wisdom as wisdom, keen, experienced, put into sharp, epigrammatic form. I hardly venture to say that Swinburne’s “Dolores” or “Before Dawn” is not poetry, for it does seek a certain kind of beauty. It runs purposely athwart all ethic beauty. The school led by him have given us a lesson in form, but they cannot be remembered long. Their reed has a short gamut. It plays but two notes, Mors and Eros. There is nothing but hopeless death and the love of harlots.

The chief beauty of a poem is in its thought. On that I do not dwell. But the beauty of expression, its formal beauty, is more obtrusive, and many imagine that it is this alone which makes a poem. Let it scan and rhyme, or scan alone, and they incontinently imagine it to have been breathed from Parnassus. But rhyme and scansion are not even all the formal elements in poetry. The books do not tell us, and few suspect, what are the other fine recurrences of consonant or vowel, in the beginning or the middle of words, that make a line sweet to the ear and delicious to the tongue.