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or one that has so direct and obvious a significance
* To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Signifying nothing.' In either case we are aware, unless we are fundamentally insensible to the challenge of poetry, of a strange and lovely imaginative ardour within us, responding eagerly to the energy from which the poet's word has sprung. And of such ardour, and of such alone, comes all sanity.
A FOOTNOTE TO
DR. STRACHAN's name should perhaps be more familiar to us than it is, and his book, ‘The Soul of Modern Poetry,'has very little recommendation in the way of a title. And yet it is not only in many ways the most important statement on the subject that has yet been made, but it is difficult to think of any better piece of philosophical criticism since Mr. Bradley's Oxford Lectures,' even if one does not have to go further back and name Matthew Arnold. In the midst of much current criticism that is mere dilettante æstheticism, Dr. Strachan's book comes as a refreshment and a challenge. It is a book that is much needed and it should be widely read. Its great value lies in the fact that it approaches poetry again not as a doctrinaire art but as a part of life, of daily life, and as standing or falling ultimately not only by the poets' art but by the moral and philosophic texture out of which that art has sprung. This is not to suggest that Dr. Strachan ever for a moment allows his own personal conclusions to interfere with his judgment of poetry as such. On the contrary, he states clearly and often that any such demand on the part of the world is to destroy the poet who listens to it. But he does forcibly remind a generation that needs it that unless a poet holds opinions about something passionately he can contrive no admirable art. It is not the opinions in themselves that matter, but the passionate holding of them. In experience we know that if they are thus passionately held they are certain of their own virtue. Nothing is idler than the contention that virtuosity sometimes makes, that it is not really quite the thing for a poet to take his own philosophic and moral opinions very seriously.
Of the actual technique and craft of poetry Dr. Strachan has little to say, though the general quality of his book shows that he could speak on these to much purpose
if he chose. With certain of his individual judgments, as occasionally with his theory, we are not in agreement. He seems to us to share a common but demonstrable fallacy about Mr. Bernard Shaw. Also, we should dispute his proposition that art has communication as its fundamental intention, or, at least, one of its fundamental intentions, though he is in this with Mr. Lascelles Abercrombie's recent remarkable essay." But these occasional differences do not even qualify our admiration for the book as a whole. In his deductions Dr. Strachan no doubt often knows more than the poets themselves of whom he is writing, but that is the way of good constructive criticism. He has a wide and exact knowledge of contemporary poetry, enforced by an equal understanding of the great tradition. There is hardly a page but contains something memorable. 'No words are used in the same sense twice' is a phrase well elaborated a little later; thus:
* See The Poet and Communication.
Words, too, are more than sounds; they are garners stored with history and the experience of generations of their users. Languages, also, have their distinctive characters, and forms of expression and metre suited to one language do violence to another. Even words seem to welcome the emotion, the rhythm which the poet brings, and respond to his touch. This joyous welcome is the sign of creation. It is poetry.
This is as good for its philosophy as is the following for its human insight: ! The most teachable among ‘spectators' are not those who have blithely solved the riddle of this ‘unintelligible world,' or have accepted ready-made solutions; but those who have worn or, however feebly, attempt to wear their suffering, as men might wear a decoration.
Beside these might be set as a piece of individual criticism the following of Mr. Thomas Hardy:
One cannot escape the impression that Mr. Hardy himself is not really unhappy. His is a happiness like the happiness of the Greek, of which he did not speak for fear of jealous gods. The delight of Mr. Hardy in funeral, and those dirges in marriage may, after all, be but instinctive personations of misery, 'the protective
device,' as Sir Walter Raleigh calls it, of ‘a timid happiness.
Finally, one more passage to show how rich a mind is at work in this book in its general meditation upon life:
The essential nobility of this selflessness, in the interest of Beauty, or Truth, or the Race is not to be denied. To
for ever out of and beyond one's self is the secret of all great art and, it may be added also, of all great living. 'He that loseth his life shall save it.' Nevertheless, this heroic surrender or rather immolation of personal existence in the interests of a life in general, of a city we shall never see, implies a judgment on the 'worth' of individual life, which marks a distinctly downward progress in our conception of the nature of life. Not only is the general worth of life diminished when we refuse to regard it as in its nature personal, but the character of the omnipotent and all-devouring Divinity whose ends we thus serve is not thereby enhanced. If it is the Race we serve, there is no assurance that even the total life of all the equally fleeting generations of men yet to be, is an end vast enough, or valuable enough, for the sacrifice of even one individual life. Our work will last, and it may be so; but the unbearable tragedy of Death is not that it destroys the work, but that it destroys the worker, not the poem but the poet. The chief tragedy to the modern disbelief in, or sceptical attitude towards immortality is that the poem should be destroyed. This ‘god' is inferior to his worshipper, and in character is scarcely to be distinguished from the sovereign God of the ultra-Calvinist, who decreed that a certain number of elect souls should be damned for His own glory and the higher good.