Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter XX.


[1]AND what is poetry? I know nothing about it at present, but I maintain that in all the words that a true poet uses, the eye finds a certain phosphorescence, the taste a certain nectar, the mind an ambrosia, which are not in other words.

[2]The inarticulate accents of the passions are not more natural to man than poetry.

[3]The intellect contributes nothing to true poetry; it is a gift implanted in us by Heaven; it rises only from the soul; it comes to us in reverie; but do what we may, thought will never find it. The mind, however, prepares it by offering to the soul things which thought, so to speak, digs out. Emotion is the cause, knowledge is the matter of poetry. The matter without cause avails nothing; it would be better to have the cause without the matter. He who has a fine gift, even if it lie idle, is conscious of it and made happy by it.

[4]In eager minds, where reasoning ends, poetry begins.

[5]The harmony of nature, contemplated by a mind in harmony, is the groundwork, the foundation, the essence of poetic beauty.

[6]Nothing that does not carry us away is poetry. The lyre is, in some sort, a winged instrument.

[7]The poet must not only play the Phidias and the Dœdalus to his own verse, but also the Prometheus, and endow it, not only with form and movement, but also with soul and life.

[8]The highest poetry is pure and holy in its essence—let us say even, by its position; for the natural dwelling-place of poetry keeps it high above the earth, and on the borders of Heaven. Thence, like the immortal spirits, it sees souls and thoughts, and but little of bodies.

[9]He who has never been touched by the spirit of devotion will never become a poet. Even the example of Voltaire does not belie this assertion. He had been a child, and the proof that he had once been subject to religious impressions is that he passed his life in recalling, decrying, and combating them.

[10]Do you wish to know the mechanism of thought, and its power? Read the poets. Do you wish to know ethics and politics? Read the poets. Fathom the meaning of what delights you in them; that is the truth. The poets should be the great study of the philosopher who wishes to know mankind.

[11]The poet questions himself; the philosopher contemplates himself.

[12]Poets have a hundred times more sense than philosophers. In their search after beauty, they light upon more truths than philosophers find in their search after truth.

[13]The true poet has words that show his thoughts; thoughts that reveal; and a soul that mirrors all things. He has a mind full of distinct images; whilst ours are only full of confused indications.

[14]Other writers set their thoughts before us; poets engrave them on our memory. They have a language, supremely dear to memory, less by virtue of its forms than of its spiritual character. Visions spring from their words; and images from the things they have touched.

[15]There must be in a poem, not only the poetry of images, but also the poetry of ideas.

[16]Fine verse is breathed forth like perfume or sound.

[17]A poet’s every word rings with so clear a sound, has so distinct a meaning, that the attention which lingers on it enchanted can also easily leave it to pass on to the words that follow, where moreover another pleasure awaits it, the surprise of seeing, all of a sudden, common words grown beautiful, obscure words flooded with light, and well-worn phrases restored to their first freshness.

[18]Fine poetry, whether epic, dramatic, or lyric, is nothing but the waking dreams of a wise man.

[19]In the ode, a poet must be allowed, as a repose and relaxation, the pleasure of talking of himself.

[20]A poet should not traverse at a walk an interval that he can clear at a leap.

[21]There is some poetry that people call swift when it is only restless; it moves more than it advances; it has no wings, but claws and feet—you can see the joints work. Serious verse should have a stately step, and must not tramp. When the poet wishes to paint swiftness, let him give it the march of the Homeric Gods, ‘Il fait un pas et il arrive.’

[22]In ordinary language words call up the reality, but when language is truly poetic, the reality calls up the words.

[23]In poetic style each word resounds like the tone of a well-strung lyre, and leaves behind it waves of sound.

[24]Singing is the natural voice of the imagination. History is related, but fables are sung; reason speaks, but imagination hums a tune. If maxims and laws have a certain rhythm, it is because memory loves a cadence, and recollection takes pleasure in symmetries.

[25]Every work of genius, be it epic or didactic, is too long if it cannot be read in one day.

[26]For the success of an epic poem, half the ideas and half the story should be already known to its readers. The poet then has to deal with a public which is anxious to hear what he himself is anxious to tell. So both author and readers are in an epic vein—a coincidence which is really indispensable.

[27]He who has no poetry in himself will find poetry in nothing.

[28]Words light up, when the poet’s finger touches them with its phosphorus.

[29]As the nectary of the bee changes flower-dust to honey, or like the liquid that transmutes lead to gold, so the poet with his breath lightens, inflates, and colours words. He knows wherein consists the charm of words, by what art to build with them enchanted castles.