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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

The Poet’s Art

By George Willis Cooke (1848–1923)

[Born in Comstock, Mich., 1848. Died in Revere, Mass., 1923. Poets and Problems. 1886.]


POETRY cannot be made by rule. The more the rules are thought of the less is the result in poetry. It is true enough that there must be a groundwork of rule, and compliance with the fixed requirements of form; but the poet who is obliged to keep these in his mind, and to work conscious of them, is sure never to produce anything worthy of the name of true art. The poet who counts his syllables to see if the lines are of the right length is no poet worthy of the name. He must know as by instinct, even more surely than if he counted, that they are right, or there is no hope for him. The musician gives much time to the study of the technique of his art, and he recognizes that it rests on a basis of rigid mathematical rule; but with this there must be a soul for music, an ear that tells if it is right, and a heart that catches up in an instant all the pathos and loveliness of it. The passion and the instinct for music absent, the most perfect knowledge of the rules and laws is utterly incapable of producing it. These given, music will result, even if there is no technical knowledge.

So it is in poetry; the soul must have a touch of heavenly beauty in it, or no poetry can grow out of it. Rules will not put it in or take it out. This the rules will do, however: dry it up, and turn the pure stream of that water of life from a babbling brook full of delight, as it pours down the mountainside, into a mere ditch, very regular, but wanting all charm and beauty. Not that there can be genuine poetry without rules and form, for these are always necessary in their place; but they are, and must be kept, subordinate; and they are not to be enforced against the poet who chooses to create some other way for himself than that which is in common use.

Life is not manifested in customs and costumes, but in spontaneity and spirit. The more man lives by conventional rule the more he lives on the surface of his nature, and the more he fails to reach the deepest springs of original and noble purpose. If he lives to conform he lives feebly, and he can never be himself in a life-giving manner. So in poetry; it must come to life and expression, not out of the conventional and traditional, but out of what the poet has seen for himself, and experienced with his own soul. If it has this latter quality, it can in some measure dispense with the merely technical requirements. All true poetry is lived; is music, harmony, and grandeur in the soul first, and then puts itself into words in that way which will best produce upon others the same effects which have been produced upon the poet, or which will kindle in other hearts the living fire of truth and beauty which were first in his heart. If this power is carried swiftly and surely from one to the other, and the poet has the gift of making others see what he has seen, feel what he has felt, and believe what he has believed, the form little matters. It is this power of kindling the fires of truth and beauty in other souls which is the real power and charm of the poet; and if this is wanting, all else that is of much value is also absent. It is not enough to please, if pleasing is all, though that has its place and its value as truly as other things have theirs; but genuine poetry is the outgrowth of what is otherwise intrinsically good, and for other reasons. Nothing genuinely pleases which does not do more than gratify for the moment. True pleasure grows out of roots of beauty, truth, and right; and it must always have ends other than its own.

The poet must be either a teacher or an artist; or, what is better, he may be both in one. Therefore, he can never stop at form or at what delights and charms merely. He must go on to the expression of something of deep and real abidingness of thought or beauty. This comes at last to be the real thing for which he works, which he seeks to bring into expression with such power and grandeur in it as he can produce, and which he wills to send forth for the sake of this higher impression on the world.

Poetry is the interpretation of life in response to emotion and imagination. Its object is the satisfaction of ideal desire. It gives pleasure by means of its artistic form, the human mind naturally seeking to express its more elevated thoughts and emotions in rhythmic language. This is the artistic meaning of poetry; but the soul of it is the life of man uplifted and transformed by the world of the ideal. There is nothing of poetry in the bare realism of nature and life. Nature is lovely only when a poet’s eye looks upon it. Fishermen toiling with their nets or peasants bowing at the sound of a bell calling them to prayer are objects of artistic pleasure because of the human sentiments associated with them. A man exists before a poet is possible; and it is the man’s soul which gives to poetry all there is in it that delights other men.


Whenever there is a growth of idealism, literature feels the new life which it creates. Most of the great literary periods have been associated with a revival of this philosophy in some one of its many forms. There are an impulse, an energy, and a largeness of conception in what it has to teach, and in the life; it produces, which are conducive to literary creation. Whatever its limitations, it affects the imagination and the emotions, gives the largest conceptions of nature and man, and kindles the soul with the fire of renewing life.

Idealism is the philosophy of hope and of the future. It clings not to the low earth, but embraces the circle of the heavens. Thought it raises to the place of supreme arbiter in the realm of human experience. It gives the imagination objects worthy of its creative vision, and it lifts the whole mind with an exalted sense of its relations to Absolute Being.

It is not fancy, but reality, in which idealism finds its life and its reason for being. It creates a love of nature, it awakens the spirit of humanity, and it draws man into ardent sympathy with the world about him. Wherever the idealist goes there are voices to be heard chanting the glory and the beauty of creation. He finds everywhere a life responsive to his own, that reveals to him truth and accords to him peace.

The idealist is the only true realist. He it is who takes the world as an actuality, and who stands before it with reverence and awe, because of the life made known in every leaf and star and man. He reads nature with the whole of his mind, and all the pages of her book are bound together into one work for his delight. He does not accept this and reject that, but he peruses all her truths in search of the light which he is sure they contain for him.

Literature has gained from the idealist its joy, its beauty, and its fragrance. When it glows with eternal freshness and vigor there his hand is seen and the throbbing of his heart is felt. He it is who interprets the ideas after which the creative process proceeds, making it live anew in poem, essay, or romance.

, The revival of idealism in Germany, in the middle of the eighteenth century, had a remarkable influence on English literature. It gave us Wordsworth and Coleridge in the place of Pope and Gray. It brought nature, imagination, feeling, and the real world into literature. It gave to the real world a capacity to touch men with its freshness, beauty, and living significance. There came with it a conviction that, if we come into true sympathy with the natural world, we stand face to face with what is real. All worlds are in fact one. They are unified by an immeasurable and inexhaustible life flowing through them all. They therefore reflect, and supplement, and interpret one another. The world of matter is a vision of the world of mind. When we have solved the problem of human thought we have discovered the nature of God.