[Text: Edgar Allan Poe, "The Poetic Principle," Home Journal, August 31, 1850]
Selections from "The Poetic Principle"
I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. After the lapse of half an hour, at the very utmost, it flags -- fails -- a revulsion ensues -- and then the poem is, in effect, and in fact, no longer such.
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. . . . It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a morals and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea, and we Bostonians very especially have developed it in full. We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem's sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force:--but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem's sake.
With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the bosom of man, I would nevertheless limit, in some measure, its modes of inculcation. I would limit to enforce them. I would not enfeeble them by dissipation. The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical. He must be blind indeed who does not perceive the radical and chasmal difference between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.
Dividing the world of mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which in the mind it occupies. It holds intimate relations with either extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful, while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: -- waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity -- her disproportion -- her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious -- in a word, to Beauty.
An immortal instinct deep within the spirit of man is thus plainly a sense of the Beautiful. This it is which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odors and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments a duplicate source of de" light. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments which greet him in common with all mankind -- he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us, but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements perhaps appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry, or when by Music, the most entrancing of the poetic moods, we find ourselves melted into tears, we weep then, not as the Abbate Gravina supposes, through excess of pleasure, but through a certain petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys of which through' the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.
The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness -- this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted -- has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.
The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes --in Painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance -- very especially in Music -- and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the com position of the Landscape Garden. Our present theme, however, has regard only to its manifestation in words. And here let me speak briefly on the topic of rhythm. Contenting myself with the certainty that Music, in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected -- is so vitally important an adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance, I will not now pause to maintain its absolute essentiality. It is in Music perhaps that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles -- the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel, with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development. The old Bards and Minnesingers had advantages which we do not possess -- and Thomas Moore, singing his own songs, was, in the most legitimate manner, perfecting them as poems.
To recapitulate then: -- I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.
A few words, however, in explanation. That pleasure
which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense,
is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the
contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable
elevation, or excitement of the soul, which we recognise as the
Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which
is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from Passion, which is the excitement
of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore--using the word as inclusive of
the sublime -- I make Beauty the province of the poem, simply because
it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as
directly as possible from their causes: -- no one as yet having been weak
enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most
readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows, however, that
the incitements of Passion' or the precepts of Duty, or even the lessons
of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they
may subserve incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the
work: but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper
subjection to that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the real
essence of the poem.
We shall reach, however, more immediately a distinct conception of what the true Poetry is, by mere reference to a few of the simple elements which induce in the Poet himself the poetical effect He recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven--in the volutes of the flower--in the clustering of low shrubberies--in the waving of the grain-fields--in the slanting of tall eastern trees -- in the blue distance of mountains -- in the grouping of clouds-- in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks--in the gleaming of silver rivers --in the repose of sequestered lakes--in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells. He perceives it in the songs of birds--in the harp of Bolos --in the sighing of the night-wind--in the repining voice of the forest-- in the surf that complains to the shore--in the fresh breath of the woods --in the scent of the violet--in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth--in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts--in all unworldly motives--in all holy impulses--in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds. He feels it in the beauty of woman--in the grace of her step--in the lustre of her eye--in the melody of her voice--in her soft laughter, in her sigh--in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments--in her burning enthusiasms--in her gentle charities--in her meek and devotional endurances--but above all--ah, far above all, he kneels to it--he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty--of her love.
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