The Popular Conception of a Poet


The Sphinx and the Poet, Heinrich Lossow, 1868

by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

June 24, 1893. March 4, 1804. In what respect Remarkable.

What seems to me chiefly remarkable in the popular conception of a Poet is its unlikeness to the truth. Misconception in this case has been flattered, I fear, by the poets themselves:—

The poet in a golden Clime was born,
With golden stars above;
Dowered with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
The love of love.
He saw thro’ life and death, thro’ good and ill;
He saw thro’ his own soul.
The marvel of the Everlasting Will,
An open scroll,
Before him lay….

I should be sorry to vex any poet’s mind with my shallow wit; but this passage always reminds me of the delusions of the respectable Glendower:—

At my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shak’d like a coward.

—and Hotspur’s interpretation (slightly petulant, to be sure), “Why, so it would have done at the time if your mother’s cat had but kittened, though you yourself had never been born.” I protest that I reverence poetry and the poets: but at the risk of being warned off the holy ground as a “dark-browed sophist,” must declare my plain opinion that the above account of the poet’s birth and native gifts does not consist with fact.

Yet it consents with the popular notion, which you may find presented or implied month by month and week by week, in the reviews; and even day by day—for it has found its way into the newspapers. Critics have observed that considerable writers fall into two classes—

Two lines of Poetic Development

(1) Those who start with their heads full of great thoughts, and are from the first occupied rather with their matter than with the manner of expressing it.

(2) Those who begin with the love of expression and intent to be artists in words, and come through expression to profound thought.

The Popular Type

Now, for some reason it is fashionable just now to account Class 1 the more respectable; a judgment to which, considering that Virgil and Shakespeare belong to Class 2, I refuse my assent. It is fashionable to construct an imaginary figure out of the characteristics of Class 1, and set him up as the Typical Poet. The poet at whose nativity Tennyson assists in the above verses of course belongs to Class 1. A babe so richly dowered can hardly help his matter overcrowding his style; at least, to start with.

But this is not all. A poet who starts with this tremendous equipment can hardly help being something too much for the generation in which he is born. Consequently, the Typical Poet is misunderstood by his contemporaries, and probably persecuted. In his own age his is a voice crying in the wilderness; in the wilderness he speeds the “viewless arrows of his thought”; which fly far, and take root as they strike earth, and blossom; and so Truth multiplies, and in the end (most likely after his death) the Typical Poet comes by his own.

Such is the popular conception of the Typical Poet, and I observe that it fascinates even educated people. I have in mind the recent unveiling of Mr. Onslow Ford’s Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford. Those who assisted at that ceremony were for the most part men and women of high culture. Excesses such as affable Members of Parliament commit when distributing school prizes or opening free public libraries were clearly out of the question. Yet even here, and almost within the shadow of Bodley’s great library, speaker after speaker assumed as axiomatic this curious fallacy—that a Poet is necessarily a thinker in advance of his age, and therefore peculiarly liable to persecution at the hands of his contemporaries.

How supported by History

But logic, I believe, still flourishes in Oxford; and induction still has its rules. Now, however many different persons Homer may have been, I cannot remember that one of him suffered martyrdom, or even discomfort, on account of his radical doctrine. I seem to remember that Æchylus enjoyed the esteem of his fellow-citizens, sided with the old aristocratic party, and lived long enough to find his own tragedies considered archaic; that Sophocles, towards the end of a very prosperous life, was charged with senile decay and consequent inability to administer his estates—two infirmities which even his accusers did not seek to connect with advanced thinking; and that Euripides, though a technical innovator, stood hardly an inch ahead of the fashionable dialectic of his day, and suffered only from the ridicule of his comic contemporaries and the disdain of his wife—misfortunes incident to the most respectable. Pindar and Virgil were court favorites, repaying their patrons in golden song. Dante, indeed, suffered banishment; but his banishment was just a move in a political (or rather a family) game. Petrarch and Ariosto were not uncomfortable in their generations. Chaucer and Shakespeare lived happy lives and sang in the very key of their own times. Puritanism waited for its hour of triumph to produce its great poet, who lived unmolested when the hour of triumph passed and that of reprisals succeeded. Racine was a royal pensioner; Goethe a chamberlain and the most admired figure of his time. Of course, if you hold that these poets one and all pale their ineffectual fires before the radiant Shelley, our argument must go a few steps farther back. I have instanced them as acknowledged kings of song.

The Case of Tennyson

Tennyson was not persecuted. He was not (and more honor to him for his clearness) even misunderstood. I have never met with the contention that he stood an inch ahead of the thought of his time. As for seeing through death and life and his own soul, and having the marvel of the everlasting will spread before him like an open scroll,—well, to begin with, I doubt if these things ever happened to any man. Heaven surely has been, and is, more reticent than the verse implies. But if they ever happened, Tennyson most certainly was not the man they happened to. What Tennyson actually sang, till he taught himself to sing better, was:—

Airy, fairy Lilian,
Flitting fairy Lilian,
When I ask her if she love me,
Claps her tiny hands above me,
Laughing all she can;
She’ll not tell me if she love me,
Cruel little Lilian.

There is not much of the scorn of scorn, or the love of love, or the open scroll of the everlasting will, about Cruel Little Lilian. But there is a distinct striving after style—a striving that, as everyone knows, ended in mastery: and through style Tennyson reached such heights of thought as he was capable of. To the end his thought remained inferior to his style: and to the end the two in him were separable, whereas in poets of the very first rank they are inseparable. But that towards the end his style lifted his thought to heights of which even In Memoriam gave no promise cannot, I think, be questioned by any student of his collected works.

Tennyson belongs, if ever poet belonged, to Class 2: and it is the prettiest irony of fate that, having unreasonably belauded Class 1, he is now being found fault with for not conforming to the supposed requirements of that Class. He, who spoke of the poet as of a seër “through life and death,” is now charged with seeing but a short way beyond his own nose. The Rev. Stopford Brooke finds that he had little sympathy with the aspirations of the struggling poor; that he bore himself coldly towards the burning questions of the hour; that, in short, he stood anywhere but in advance of his age. As if plenty of people were not interested in these things! Why, I cannot step out into the street without running against somebody who is in advance of the times on some point or another.

Of Virgil and Shakespeare

Virgil and Shakespeare were neither martyrs nor preachers despised in their generation. I have said that as poets they also belong to Class 2. Will a champion of the Typical Poet (new style) dispute this, and argue that Virgil and Shakespeare, though they escaped persecution, yet began with matter that overweighted their style—with deep stuttered thoughts—in fine, with a Message to their Time? I think that view can hardly be maintained. We have the Eclogues before the Æneid; and The Comedy of Errors before As You Like It. Expression comes first; and through expression, thought. These are the greatest names, or of the greatest: and they belong to Class 2.

Of Milton

Again, no English poetry is more thoroughly informed with thought than Milton’s. Did he find big thoughts hustling within him for utterance? And did he at an early age stutter in numbers till his oppressed soul found relief? And was it thus that he attained the glorious manner of

Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of even or morn….

—and so on. No, to be short, it was not. At the age of twenty-four, or thereabouts, he deliberately proposed to himself to be a great poet. To this end he practised and studied, and travelled unweariedly until his thirty-first year. Then he tried to make up his mind what to write about. He took some sheets of paper—they are to be seen at this day in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge—and set down no less than ninety-nine subjects for his proposed magnum opus, before he could decide upon Paradise Lost. To be sure, when the magnum opus was written it fetched £5 only. But even this does not prove that Milton was before his age. Perhaps he was behind it. Paradise Lost appeared in 1667: in 1657 it might have fetched considerably more than £5.

If the Typical Poet have few points in common with Shakespeare or Milton, I fear that the Typical Poet begins to be in a bad way.

Of Coleridge

Shall we try Coleridge? He had “great thoughts”—thousands of them. On the other hand, he never had the slightest difficulty in uttering them, in prose. His great achievements in verse—his Genevieve, hisChristabel, his Kubla Khan, his Ancient Mariner—are achievements of expression. When they appeal from the senses to the intellect their appeal is usually quite simple.

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small.

No, I am afraid Coleridge is not the Typical Poet.

On the whole I suspect the Typical Poet to be a hasty generalization from Shelley.

About the Author:

Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch (21 November 1863 – 12 May 1944) was an English writer and critic.