Poets on Their Own Art


Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth

by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

May 11, 1895. A Prelude to Poetry

“To those who love the poets most, who care most for their ideals, this little book ought to be the one indispensable book of devotion, the credo of the poetic faith.” “This little book” is the volume with which Mr. Ernest Rhys prefaces the pretty series of Lyrical Poets which he is editing for Messrs. Dent & Co. He calls it The Prelude to Poetry, and in it he has brought together the most famous arguments stated from time to time by the English poets in defence and praise of their own art. Sidney’s magnificent “Apologie” is here, of course, and two passages from Ben Jonson’s “Discoveries,” Wordsworth’s preface to the second edition of “Lyrical Ballads,” the fourteenth chapter of the “Biographia Literaria,” and Shelley’s “Defence.”

Poets as Prose-writers

What admirable prose these poets write! Southey, to be sure, is not represented in this volume. Had he written at length upon his art—in spite of his confession that, when writing prose, “of what is now called style not a thought enters my head at any time”—we may be sure the reflection would have been even more obvious than it is. But without him this small collection makes out a splendid case against all that has been said in disparagement of the prose style of poets. Let us pass what Hazlitt said of Coleridge’s prose; or rather let us quote it once again for its vivacity, and so pass on—

One of his (Coleridge’s) sentences winds its ‘forlorn way obscure’ over the page like a patriarchal procession with camels laden, wreathed turbans, household wealth, the whole riches of the author’s mind poured out upon the barren waste of his subject. The palm tree spreads its sterile branches overhead, and the land of promise is seen in the distance.

All this is very neatly malicious, and particularly the last co-ordinate sentence. But in the chapter chosen by Mr. Rhys from the “Biographia Literaria” Coleridge’s prose is seen at its best—obedient, pertinent, at once imaginative and restrained—as in the conclusion—

Finally, good sense is the body of poetic genius, fancy its drapery, motion its life, and imagination the soul that is everywhere, and in each; and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole.

The prose of Sidney’s Apologie is Sidney’s best; and when that has been said, nothing remains but to economize in quoting. I will take three specimens only. First then, for beauty:—

Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapistry, as divers Poets have done, neither with plesant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers: nor whatsoever else may make the too much loved earth more lovely. Her world is brasen, the Poets only deliver a golden: but let those things alone and goe to man, for whom as the other things are, so it seemeth in him her uttermost cunning is imployed, and know whether shee have brought forth so true a lover as Theagines, so constant a friende as Pilades, so valiant a man as Orlando, so right a Prince as Xenophon’s Cyrus; so excellent a man every way as Virgil’s Aeneas….

Next for wit—roguishness, if you like the term better:—

And therefore, if Cato misliked Fulvius, for carrying Ennius with him to the field, it may be answered, that if Cato misliked it, the noble Fulvius liked it, or else he had not done it.

And lastly for beauty and wit combined:—

For he (the Poet) doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweete a prospect into the way, as will intice any man to enter into it. Nay he doth, as if your journey should lye through a fayre Vineyard, at the first give you a cluster of Grapes: that full of that taste, you may long to passe further. He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse: but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with or prepared for the well inchanting skill of Musicke: and with a tale forsooth he cometh unto you: with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.

“Is not this a glorious way to talk?” demanded the Rev. T.E. Brown of this last passage, when he talked about Sidney, the other day, in Mr. Henley’s New Review. “No one can fail,” said Mr. Brown, amiably assuming the fineness of his own ear to be common to all mankind—”no one can fail to observe the sweetness and the strength, the outspokenness, the downrightness, and, at the same time, the nervous delicacy of pausation, the rhythm all ripple and suspended fall, the dainty but, the daintier and forsooth, as though the pouting of a proud reserve curved the fine lip of him, and had to be atoned for by the homeliness of the chimney-corner.”

Everybody admires Sidney’s prose. But how of this?—

Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science. Emphatically it may be said of the Poet, as Shakespeare has said of man, ‘that he looks before and after.’ He is the rock of defence of human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs, in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed, the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

It is Wordsworth who speaks—too rhetorically, perhaps. At any rate, the prose will not compare with Sidney’s. But it is good prose, nevertheless; and the phrase I have ventured to italicise is superb.

Their high claims for Poesy

As might be expected, the poets in this volume agree in pride of their calling. We have just listened to Wordsworth. Shelley quotes Tasso’s proud sentence—”Non c’è in mondo chi merita nome di creatore, se non Iddio ed il Poeta”: and himself says, “The jury which sits in judgment upon a poet, belonging as he does to all time, must be composed of his peers: it must be impanelled by Time from the selectest of the wise of many generations.” Sidney exalts the poet above the historian and the philosopher; and Coleridge asserts that “no man was ever yet a great poet without being at the same time a profound philosopher.” Ben Jonson puts it characteristically: “Every beggarly corporation affords the State a mayor or two bailiffs yearly; but Solus rex, aut poeta, non quotannis nascitur.” The longer one lives, the more cause one finds to rejoice that different men have different ways of saying the same thing.

Inspiration not Improvisation

The agreement of all these poets on some other matters is more remarkable. Most of them claim inspiration for the great practitioners of their art; but wonderful is the unanimity with which they dissociate this from improvisation. They are sticklers for the rules of the game. The Poet does not pour his full heart

In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

On the contrary, his rapture is the sudden result of long premeditation. The first and most conspicuous lesson of this volume seems to be that Poetry is an art, and therefore has rules. Next after this, one is struck with the carefulness with which these practitioners, when it comes to theory, stick to their Aristotle.

Poetry not mere Metrical Composition

For instance, they are practically unanimous in accepting Aristotle’s contention that it is not the metrical form that makes the poem. “Verse,” says Sidney, “is an ornament and no cause to poetry, since there have been many most excellent poets that never versified, and now swarm many versifiers that need never answer to the name of poets.” Wordsworth apologizes for using the word “Poetry” as synonymous with metrical composition. “Much confusion,” he says, “has been introduced into criticism by this contradistinction of Poetry and Prose, instead of the more philosophical one of Poetry and Matter of Fact or Science. The only strict antithesis to Prose is Metre: nor is this, in truth, a strict antithesis, because lines and passages of metre so naturally occur in writing prose that it would be scarcely possible to avoid them, even were it desirable.” And Shelley—”It is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the harmony, which is its spirit, be observed…. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error.” Shelley goes on to instance Plato and Bacon as true poets, though they wrote in prose. “The popular division into prose and verse,” he repeats, “is inadmissible in accurate philosophy.”

Its philosophic function

Then again, upon what Wordsworth calls “the more philosophical distinction” between Poetry and Matter of Fact—quoting, of course, the famous Φιλοσοφώτερον καὶ σπουδαιότερον passage in the Poetics—it is wonderful with what hearty consent our poets pounce upon this passage, and paraphrase it, and expand it, as the great justification of their art: which indeed it is. Sidney gives the passage at length. Wordsworth writes, “Aristotle, I have been told, hath said that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writings: it is so.” Coleridge quotes Sir John Davies, who wrote of Poesy (surely with an eye on the Poetics):

From their gross matter she abstracts their forms,
And draws a kind of quintessence from things;
Which to her proper nature she transforms
To bear them light on her celestial wings.

Thus does she, when from individual states
She doth abstract the universal kinds;
Which then reclothed in divers names and fates
Steal access through our senses to our minds.

And Shelley has a remarkable paraphrase, ending, “The story of particular facts is as a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful: poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”

In fine, this book goes far to prove of poetry, as it has been proved over and over again of other arts, that it is the men big enough to break the rules who accept and observe them most cheerfully.


Review first published in 1896.

About the Author:

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