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Poetry, Fiction And The Future

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#« Poetry, Fiction and the Future », 1927.

It is an age clearly when we are not fast anchored where we are ; things are moving round us ; we are moving ourselves. Is it not the critic’s duty to tell us, or to guess at least where we are going ?

Nobody indeed can read much modern literature without being aware that some dissatisfaction, some difficulty, is lying in our way. On all sides writers are attempting what they cannot achieve, are forcing the form they use to contain a meaning which is strange to it.[...] One reason is the failure of poetry to serve us as it has served so many generations of our fathers.The great channel of expression which has carried away so much energy, so much genius seems to have narrowed itself or to have turned aside.

Yet this is true only within certain limits of course ; our age is rich in lyric poetry. But for our generation which is coming the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair which is so intense, so personal and so limited is not enough. The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unmanageable emotions. That the age of the earth is 3,000,OOO,OOO years ; that human life lasts but a second ; that the capacity of the human mind is nevertheless boundless ; that life is infinitely beautiful and repulsive ; that one’s fellow creatures are adorable but disgusting ;that science and religion between them destroyed belief ; that all bonds of union seem broken, yet some control must exist- it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create, and the fine fabric of a lyric is no more fitted to contain this point of view than a rose to envelop the rugged immensity of a rock.

But when we ask ourselves what has in the past served to express such an attitude as this[...] we must reply that there was a form once...it was the form of the poetic drama of the Elizabethan age.

[...] Our first thought when we open a modern poetic play – and this applies to much modern poetry – is that the writer is not at his ease. he is afraid, he is forced, he is self-conscious. [...] Our modern poetic playwrights seek the veil of the past because they are afraid of the present. they are aware that if they tried to express the thoughts, the visions, the sympathies and the antipathies which are actually turning and tumbling in their brains in this year of grace 1927 they could only stammer and stumble...

What has changed, what has put the writer at such anb angle that he cannot pour his mind straight into the old channels of English poetry ? [...] In the modern mind beauty is not accompanied by its shadow but by its opposite. The modern poet talks of he nightingale who « sings jug jug to dirty ears ». There trips along by the side of our modern beauty some mocking spirit which sneers at beauty for being beautiful ; which turns the looking glass and shows us tha the other side of her cheek is pitted and deformed. It is as if the modern mind, wishing always to verify its emotions had lost the power of accepting anything simply for what it is.

For of course poetry has always been overwhelmingly on the side of beauty. She has always insisted on certain rights, such as rhyme, metre, poetic diction. She has never been used for the common purpose of life. prose has taken all the dirty work on to her own shoulders ; has answered the letters, paid bills, written articles, made speeches, served he needs of businessmen, shpkeepers, lawyers, soldiers, peasants.

It may be possible that prose is going to take over – has, indeed, already take over – some of the duties which were once discharged by poetry.[...] That cannibal, the novel, which has devoured so many forms of art will then have devoured even more.We shall be forced to invent new names for the different books which masquerade under this one heading.

It will be written in prose, but in prose that has so many of the characteristics of beauty. It will have something of the exaltation of poetry, but much of the ordariness of prose. it will be dramatic and not a play.It will be read and not acted.

One may guess that it will differ from the novel as we know it now chiefly in that it will stand further back from life. It will give, as poetry does, the outline rather than the detail. It will make little use of the marvellous fact-recording power, which is one of the attributes of fiction. It will tell us very little about the houses, incomes, occupations of its characters. It will resemble poetry in this that it will give not only or mainly peopel’s relations to each other, as the novel has to hitherto done, but it will give the relation of the mind to general ideas and its soliloquy in solitude.[...]

We long to escape from the incessant, the remorseless analysis of falling into love and out of love...We long for some more impersonal relationship. We long for ideas, for dreams, for imaginations, for poetry.

It will take on some of the attributes of poetry. It will give the relations of man to nature, to fate ; his imagination, his dreams. But it will also give the sneer, the contrast, the question, the closeness and the cmplexity of life. It will take the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongrous things –the modern mind.Therefore it will clasp to its breast the precious prerogatives of the democratic art of prose ; its freedom, its fearlesness, its flexibility.

But can prose, we may ask, adequate though it is to deal with the common and the complex, can prose say the simple things which are so tremendous. Can it chant the elegy, or hymn the love, or shriek in terror, or praise the rose, the beauty of the night ? Can it leap at the heart of its subject as the poet does ? That is the penalty it pays for having dispensed with the incantation and the mystery, with rhyme and meter.

“Impassioned Prose »

Of all writers the novelist has his hands fullest of facts. Smith gets up, shaves, has his breakfast, taps his eggs, reads The Times. How can we ask the perspiring, the industrious scribe with all this on his hands to modulate beautifully off into rhapsodies about Time and Death and what the hunters are doing at the Antipodes ? It would upset the proportions of his day.

And therefore all that side of the mind which is exposed in solitude they ignore. They ignore its thoughts, its rhapsodies, its dreams with the result that the people of fiction bursting with energy on one side are atrophied on the other, while prose itself, so long in service to this drastic master, has suffered the same deformity...

(about De Quincey) : In what form was he to express that his visions were the most real part of his own existence ? There was none ready made to hand. He invented, as he claimed, « modes of impassioned prose ». With immense elaboration and art he formed a style in which to express

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