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Bv T. s.

Eliot On Poetry and Poets


*
COTTPLETE POEMS .{ND PLAYS by
aerSe
coLLEcl'!:D peEMS, 1909-19lJ6
POEi\TS \\TRITTNN IN !:ARI,Y YOU'fI{ T. S. ELIOT
FOUIT QUARTETS
T}ID CULl'IV.{TION O}. CI{RISTMAS TREES
selected ae.rse
SELNCTED POEMS
TI{8, WASTE LANI)
chiklren's aerse
OLD POSSUTI'S TOOK OI. PRACTICAL CATS
plays
COT,LECTED PI"AYS
MfIRDER IN TI{N CATHEDRAL
THN !'AMILY I]-IIUNION
TIIE COCKTAIL PARAY
.TTIE CONNIDENTIAL CLNRK
,IIIE ELDER ST'ATES}tAN

literary cri,ti,cisnt
SELECTED ESSAYS
?I{E USN OF POETRY AND THE USE OF CRITICIS}I
ON POETRY AND POET'S
INI'RODUCING JAMES JOYCE
ELI ZAR ETI,IAN DRAMATISl'S
DANTI)
}IILTON
social criticisttz
IIE IDEA Of,'A CIIRISTIAN SOCIETl'
NOTES'I.OWARDS']TtIE DET'INITION OF CI]LTtlRD
philosophy
KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERIENCE
in the phil.oso'p@ of f . I{. Bradley
selectecl prose
SELECTED PROSE

f.Irn script F'ABER AND F'ABER LINIITED


T}IE F'ILIT OT'MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL
translation 24 Russell Square
ANABASTs a paeitx by St.-John Perse London

I|fT
The Music of Paetryq
'['he critic, certainly, should be something of a scholar, and the
scirolar something of a critic. Ker, whose attention was devoted
nrainly to the liteiature of the past, and to problems oJ historical
relationship, must be put in the category of scholars; but he had
in a high d"gt"u the sense of value, the good taste, the under-
standing of ciitical canons and the abiliiy to apply thern, rvithout
The Nfusic of Poetrv' rvhich the scholar's contribution can be only indirect'
There is another, more particular respect in which the scholar's
and the practitioner's acquaintance with versilication differ. Here'
lr.epoet, when he talks or lvrites about poetly, lrns peculiar perhaps, I should be prudent to speak only ofmyseifl I have never
qualilications and peculiar limitations: if we allow for the i,""r, *blu to retain the names of feet a.nd metres, or to pay the
latter we ean better appreciate the forrner -- a caution proper respect to the accepted rules of scansion. At school, I en-
which l recomrnend to poets themselves as well as to the readers of ioyea very much reciting Homer or Virgil - in my- own Jashion'
rvhat they say about poetry. I can never re-read any of my olvn ir*rh"ps I hod rom" instinctive suspicion that nobody really knew
prose writings rvithout acute ernbarrassment: I shirk the task, and ,1rou, Gi'eek ought to be pronounced, or what interweaving of Greek

consequently may not take account of all the assertions to t,hich I ancl native rhlthms the l1oman ear might appreciate in \Iirgil;
have trt one tirne or another comrnitted rnyself; I rrray often repea.t perhaps I had only an instinct ofprotective laziness. But certainly,
what I have said before, ancl I may often contradict myself. iuhen it came to applying rules of scansion to Hnglish verse, rvith
But I believe that the critical rvritings of poets, of which in the its very diiferent stresses and variable syllabic values, I wantetl to
past there have been some very distinguished exanrples, owe a know why one line 'was good and another bad; anrl this, scansion
great deal oftheir interest to the fact that the poet, at the back of could noi tell me. The only rvay to learn to manipulate arry kind
his mindo if not as his ostensibie purpose) is always trying to of Irnglish verse seemed to be by assirniiation and irnitation, by
defend the kind of poetry he is writing, or to formulate tire kind becouring so engrossed in the worh of a particular poet that one
that he rvants to rvrite. Hspecially when he is young, and actively could produce a recognizable derivative. This is not to say that I
engaged in battling for the kind of poctry nhich he practises, lre consider the analytical study of metric, of the a,bstra,ct forms
sees the poetry of the past in relation to his own; and his gratitude r,vhich sound so extraordinarily clifferent when handled by different
to those dead poets from whom he has learned, as u,ell as his poets, to be an utter waste of time. It is only that a study of
indi{l'erence to those rvhose aims have been alien to his own, may anatomy will not teach you horv to make a hen lay eggs' I do not
be exaggerated. He is not so much a judge as an advocate. His recommencl any otlrer way of beginning the study of clreek and
knorvledge even is likely to be partial: fcrr his studies will have led l,atin verse than with the aid of those rules of scansion rvhich
him to concentrate on certain authors to the neglect of others. were established by gramtnarians after most of the poetry had
When he theorizes about poetic creation, he is likely to be general- been rvritten; but if we could revive those languages sufficiently to
izing one type of experience; when he ventures into aesthetics, be able to speak and hear them as the authors did, we could
he is likely to be less, rather than rnore competent than the philo- regard the rules with indifference. lve have to learn a dead lan-
sopher; and he may do best merely to report, for the inforrnatiou g.rug" by an artificial method, and we have to approach its versi-
of the philosopher, the data of his own introspecti.on. What he fication by an artificial method, and our methods of teaciring have
rvrites about poetry, in short, must be assessed in relation to the to be applied to pupils most of whom have only a moderate gift
poetry he rvrites. We ruust return to the scholar for ascertairrment for language. Even in approaching the poetry ofour own language,
of facts, and to the more detached critic for impartial judgment" we may find the classification of metres, of lines rvith <lifferent
numbers of syllables and stresses in different places, useful at a
I f'he third W. P, Ker Memorial l,ecture, delivered at Glasgow Ljniversity irr
194?, and published by Glasgow University Press in the same year.
preliminary stage' as a simpli{ied map of a complicated territory:
26 27
The Llusic of PoetrY The fuIusic of PoetrY
but it is only the str.rdy, not of poetry but of poems, that can train result can be emonq the great triumphs of English versi{ication.
our e&r. It is not from rules, or by cold-blooded imittrtion of style, Wh*t I think we have, irr l)nglish poetr]: is a kind of amalganr
that we learn to rvrite: we learn by imitation indeed, but by a of systerns of divers sources (though I do not like to use the word
deeper imitation than is achieved by analysis of style. lVhen rv<t 'syslem', for it has a sugeestion of conscious invention rather
imitated Shelley, it was not so rnuch from a desire to r'vrite as he than growth): an arnalgam like the amalgam of races, and incleed
did, as from an invasion of the adolescent self by Shelley, ivhich partll' due to racial origins. The rhythms of Anglo-Saxon,-Celtic,
made Shelley's wa/: for the time, the only way in rvhich to'write. l,{o"^otr tsrench, of N{iddle Eng'lish and Scots, have all made their
The practice of llnglish versification has, no doubt, been afl'ected mark upon English poetry, togethel with the rhythrns of Latin,
by arvareness ofthe rules ofprosody: it is a tnatter for the historical and, at various periods, of French, Italian and Spanish. As with
scholar to determine the influence of Latin upon the inrrovators human beings in a conrposite race, different strains may be domi-
Wyatt and Surrey. The great gramnrarian Otto Jespersen has na,nt in cli{l'erent individuals, e\,en in members of the sarne family,
maintained that the structure of English gr&rnmar has been rnis- so one or another eiernent in the poetic cornpound may be more
understood in our attempts to make it conibrm to the categories congenial to one or another poet or to one or another period'
of Latin ._ as in the supposed 'subjunctive'. In the history of Ttre. kind of poetry we get is determined, from time to time, by the
versi.ficntion, the question whether poets have ntisunderstood the in{luence of one or another contemporary literature in a foreign
rhythms of the language in imitating foreign rnodels does not l*rngrrag,l; or by circumstances rvhic]l tual<e one period of nur own
I
arise: lve must a,ccept tire practices of great poets of the past, past rrlore syrrrpntlietic thrn another; or by the prevailing emphasis
because they are pr:actices upon which our ear has been trained in eductrtion. Iiut there is one law of nature more powelful than
and must be trained. I believe that a numlter of fbreign influ- any o1'these vtrying currents, or infiuences from abroad or from
ences hrlve gone to enrich the range and variety of Iinglish verse. tlre past: tlre Lrw that poetry must not stray too far fro,m the
Some classical scholars hold the view __ this is a mntter beyond ordinary everyd*y l&ngurlEe rvhich we use and hear. Whether
nry compete tliat the native measure of Latin poetry was poetry is accentual or syllabic, rhymed or rhymeless, formal or
accentual rather than syllabic, that it was overlaid by the influ- iree, it cctrrnot affbrd to lose its contact with the changing languaee
ence of a very different language Greek -_ and that it reverted of comrnon interco rlrse.
to something approximating to its - early form, in poerns such as It may appear strange, that'when I profess to be talking about
the Perai,gi,li,um Venari's and the errrly Christian hymns. If so, I the'music' of poetry, I put such emphasis upon conversation. But
cannot help suspecting that to the cuntivated audience ofthe age I rvould remind you, first, that the music of poetry is not some-
of Virgil, parL of the pleasure in the poetry arose from the pre- thing rvhich exists apart from the meaning. Otherwise, we could
sence in it of two metrical schemes in a kind of counterpoint: even have poetry of great musical beauty which ma<le no sense, and I
though the audience may not necessarily have been able to analyse have never come across such poetry. The apparent exceptions
the experience. Sirnilarly, it may be possible that the beauty of only shorv a di{ference of degree: there are poelns iIr which we are
some English poetry is due to the presence of more than one moved by the music and take the serrse {br granted, just as
metrical structure in it. Deliberate attempts to devise English there are poems in which we attend to the sense and are moved
metres on Latin models are usually very frigitl. Among the most by the music without noticing it. Take an apperently extreme
successful are a few exercises by campion, in his brief but too little example *_ the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. His non-sense is
read treatise on metrics; among the most eminent failures, in my not vacuity of sense: it is a parody of sense, and that is the sense
opinion, are the experiments of Robert Bridges * I would give of it,. T'he Jumbli'es is a poem of adventure, and of nostalgia for the
uil his ingenious inventions {br his earlier and more traditional romance of foreign voyage and exploralion. The Yongy-Bongy Bo
lyrics. But when a poet has so thoroughly absorbed Latin poetry and The Dong wi'th a Lumi,nous Nose are poems of unrequited
passion rfluss' in fact. We enjoy the music, which is of a high
that its movement informs his verse rvithout deliberate artifice -
as with Milton and in some of Tennyson's poems * the order, and we enjoy the feeling of irresponsibility towards the
- 28 29
The Music of Poetry
I'he lllusic oJ Poetry
ril,rration, as well as of some private experience of his ou'n. T'he
sense. Or take a poem of another type, the Blue Closet of William
rcn<ler's interpretation may di{fer from the authoros and be equaily
Morris. It is a deliglrtful poem, though I cannot explain what it
vrllid it may even be better. T'here may be much rnore in a poent
means and I doubt, whether the author could have explained it. It -
t,lrrur the author rvas a,ware of. The different interpretations may
has an effect somelvhat like that of a rune or charm, but runes and
*ll be partial fbnnulations of one thing; the ambiguities may be
charms are very practical formulae designed to produce definite
<lrre to the fact that the poeln means more, not less, than ordinary
results, such as getting a cow out ofa bog. But its obvious inten-
spcech c&n communicate.
tion (and I think the author succeeds) is to produce the eff'ect of tr
So, rvhile poetry atternpts to convey sornething beyond what
dream. It is not necessa,ry' in order to enjoy the poern, to know
<:rrn be conveyed in prose rhythms, it remains, all the s&Inet one
what the dreanr means; but human beings have an unshakeahle
pcrson talhing to another; and this isjust as true ifyou sing it, for
belief that dreams nea,n sornething: they used to believe and
many still believe
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that dreams disclose the secrets of the future;
$ineinS is another lvay of talking. The inrmediacy of poetry to con-
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the orthodox modern faith is that they reveal the secrets -_ or at
versation is not a ruatter cln lvhich tve c&n lay down exact laws.
l')vervrevointion in poetryis apt to be, and sonretimes to announce
least the nrore horrid secrets of the past. It is a commonplace to
-
observe that the meaning of poem rnaylvholly escape paraphrase.
a
itseif to be a return to corl)Inon speech. 1l'hat is the revolution which
Wordsworth announced in his pref'aces, and he rvas right: but the
It is not quite so commonplace to observe that the mearring of a sture revolutiorr had been carried out a century before by Oldlram,
poem rn&y be sornetliing larger tlian its author's conscious purpose'
\Vu,llt-'ro l)enham and Dryden; anrl t,l-re sante revolution was due
antl something remote f'ronr its origins. One of the more obscure of
rrgain sonrething over a, centttty later. 1[e Ibllowers of n revolutiort
modern poets rvas the French u.riter Stdphane Llallarm6, of lvhorn
develoJr the nerv poetic idiom in one directiorl or another; they
the French sontetimes say that his language is so peculiar that it
polish or: perfect it; meanrvhile the spoken language goes on
can be understood only by foreigners. The Jate Roger F'ry, and
charrging, and the poetic idiorn goes out of date. Perhaps we do
his friend Charles Nlauron, published an English translation with
not realize how naturtrl the speech of Dryden mtlst have sounded
notes to unriddle the meanings: when I learn that a difiicult sonnet
to the most sensitive of his contemporaries. No poetry, of cour$e,
was inspired by seeing a painting on the ceiling reflected on the
is ever exactly the same speech that the poet talks and hears: but
polished top of a tabie, or by seeing the light reflected frorn the
foam on a glass of beer, I can oniy say that this may be a correct
it has to be in such n relation to the speech of his time that the
listener or reader c{rn say 'that is }row I should talk if I could talk
embryology, [:ut it is not the meaning" If we are moved by a poem,
poetryn. This is the reason rvhy the best contemporary poetrY can
it has nreant, something, perhaps something important, to us; if we give us a feeling of excitement and & sense of fulfilnrent di{'erent
are not rnoved, then it is, as poetry, meaningless. We can be deeply
{'rom any sentintent arousetl try even rrerv nlrtch greater poetry of a
stirred by hearing the recitation ofa poern in a language ofrvhich
past age.
we understand no word; but if 'rve are then told that the poer:rr is
'Ilhe nrusic of poetr,v, then' rnust be a music latent irr the com-
gibberish and has no meaning, we shall consider that we have been
nron speech of its time. And that nre&ns also that it must be latent
deluded _- this wa$ no poem, it was rnerely arr imitation of instru-
in the common speech of the poet's place. lt rvould not be to my
mental music. If, as we are aware' only a part of the meaning can
present purpose to inveigh against the ubiquity of standardized,
be conveyed by paraphrase, that is because the poet is occupied
or 'B.B.C.' English. If rve all cante to talk alike there would no
with frontiers of consciousness beyorrd which words fail, though
ionger be any point in our not writing alike: but until that time
meanings still exist, A poern may appear to mean very diflerent
corues and I hope it may be long postponed * it is the poet's
things to different readers, arrd all of these meanings may be -
business to use the speech which he finds about him, that with
different from what the author thought he meant. For instance,
rvhich he is most familiar. I shall alwa;'s remenrber the impression
the author may have been rvriting some peculiar personal experi-
of W. B. Yeats reading poetry aloud. To hear him read his own
ence, which he saw quite unrelated to anything outside; yet for
works was to be made to recognize how much the Irish way of
the reader the poeur may become the expression of a general
g0 31
The Music oJ Poetry The Musi,c of Poetry
speech is needed to bring out the beauties oflrish poetry: to hear r,,lrrl,iun, tliat of its immediate rneaning in that context to all the
Yeats reading trVilliam tslake \ras an expericncc of rr di{f'erent kind, ,)llr.r nrurnings which it has had in other contexts, to its greater
more astonishing than satisfying. Of collrse) we do not rvatrt the ,,r lr,ss wcnlth of association. Not all words, obviously, are equally
poet merely to reproduce exactly the conversational idiom of liim- riclr rrrrd well-connected: it is part of the business of the poet to
seif, his family, liis friends and his particular district: but what rlrs;;rose the richer &mong the poorer, at the right points, and we
he {inds there is the material out of rvhich he must make his poetry. crr rrr)t aflbrd to load a poem too heavily rvith the former for it is
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rr

I-Ie nrtrst, iike the sculptor, be faithful to the material in which he orrl_y irt certain moments that a word can be made to insinuate the
works; it is out of sounds that he has heard that he must make his rr lr,rlc history of a language and a civilization. Tiris is an 'allusive-
melody and harmony. r',,ss' which is not the fashion or eccentricity of a peculiar type of
It would be a mistake, Itolvever, to assume that all poetry ought 1r,rr,l.ry; but an allusiveness which is in the nature of words, and
to be melodious, or that melody is mot'e than one of the compon- rvlrich is equally the concern of every kind of poet. My purpose
ents of the rnusic of words. S<xte poetry is rneant to be sung; n-rost lrr:re is to insist that a 'musical poem' is a poem rvhich has a
poetry, in modern tirnes, is meant to be spokep a1fl there are rrrtrsical pattern of sound and a musical pattern of the secondary
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nrany other things to be spoken of besides the murmtrr of innumer- rrrcanings of the words which compose it, and that these two
able bees or the moan of doves in imrnernorial elnrs. I)issonanceo pntterns are indissoluble and one. And if you object that it is only
even cocophonlr has its place: just as, in a poern of any length, the pure sound, apart from the sense, to wirich the adjective
there nrust be transitions betrveen p&ssages of greater and less 'rnusical' can be rightly applied, I can only reafiirnr nty previous
intensity, to give n rhytirm of flucturrting ernotion essential to tire &ssertion that the sound ofa poem is as ntuch an abstraction from
musical structure of the whole; and tire passages of less intensity the poem as is the sense.
rvill be, in relation to the level on u'hich the total poem operates, l'he history ofblank verse illustrates trvo interesting and related
prosaic so that, in tire sense implied by that context, it rnay points: the dependence upon speech and the striking di{ference,
-
be said thrat no poet, can write a poem of arnplitude unlcss he is a in what is prosodically the same form, between dramatic blank
master of the prosaic.l verse and blank verse employed for epicai, philosophictrl, medita-
What matters, in short, is the lvhole poem: and if the whole tive and idyllic purposes. The dependence of verse upon speech is
poem need not be, and often should not be, wholly melodious, it much more direct in dramatic poetry than in any other. In rnost
foliows that a poern is not made only out of 'beautiful u'ords'. I kinds of poetry, the necessity for its renrinding us of contempor{rry
doubt whethero from the point of vierv of sound alone, any 'rvord is speech is reduced by the latitude allowetl for personal icliosyn-
- within its own
more or less beautiful than another language, f<rr crasy: a poem by Gerard Hopkins, for instance, may soun(l pretty
the question whether some languages are not rnore beautiful than remote from the way in which you and I express 6111sslvgs 61
others is quite anotlier question. llhe ugly words are the words not rather, from the way in which our fathers and grandfathers -
fitted for the company in which they find themselves; there are expressed themselves: but Hopkins does give the impression that
rvords which are ugly because of rawness or because ofantiquation; his poetry has the necessary fidelity to his way of thinking and
tirere are rvords which are ugly because of foreignness or ill-breeding talking to himself. But in dramatic verse the poet is speaking in
(e.g. teleai'si,oz.): but I do not believe that any word well-established one character after another, through the medium of a company of'
in its owrr language is either beautiful or ugly. l'he music of a actors trained by a producer, and of difl'erent actors and diflerent
rvord is, so to speak, at a point of intersection: it arises from its producers at different times: his idiom must be comprehensive of
relation first to the rvords immediateiy preceding and following all the voices, but present at a deeper level than is necessary when
it, arrd indefinitely to the rest of its context; and from another the poet speaks only for himself. Some of Shakespeare's later verse
is very elaborate and peculiar: but it rernains the language, not of
I This is the complementaly doctrine to that of the 'touchstone' line or passage
one person, but ofa world ofpersons. It is based upon the speech
of N,Iatthew Arnold: this test of the greatnes.s of a poct is the rvay he writes his less
intcnse. but structurally vital, matter. of three hundred years &go, yet when we liear it well rendered we
92 g8 E.P.P.
The Music of Poetry The Music oJ Poetry
can forget the distance of time as is brought home to us most ,'r,,1'tlrirrg elseto make it impossible for the drama: though \rye may
patently in one of those plays, of- which Hamlet is the chief, which ,,1',o lrr:licve that dramatic blank verse had exhausted its resources,
can be fittingly produced in rnodern dress. By the time of Otway ,rr',1 lrr(l no future in any event. Indeed, lVlilton ahnost made
dramatic blank verse has beconre artificial and at best rerniniscent; l'l r r k vc'rse impossible for any purpose for a couple of generations.
r r

and when we get to the verse plays bv nineteenth-century poets, of lt rvrrs the precursors of lVordsworth Thompson, Young,
which the greatest is probably 'I'he Cenc,i, it is difricult to pre- ('i)n,l)cr- lvho made the first efforts -to rescue it frorn the
serve any illusion of renlity. Nearly all the greater poets of the last rl'',1r1i{olion to which the eighteenth-century imitators of Milton
century tried their hands at verse plays. 'I'hese plavs, rvhich few l,rrrl rcduced it. There is much, and varied, fine blank verse in
people read nrore than once, are treated with respect as fine I lrl rrineteenth century: the nearest to colloquial speech is that
poetry; and their insipidity is usually attributed to the fact that ,rl' Ilrowning but, significantly, in his monologues rather than in
the authors, though great poets, were amateurs in the theatre. lris Jrlays. -
But even if the poets had had greater natr,rral gifts for the theatre, 'l'o make a generalization like this is not to imply any judg-
or had toiled to acquire the craft, their plays would have been rrrt:rrt of the relative stature of poets. It merely calls attention to
jtrst as inefi'ective, unless their theatrical talent and experience llrc profound difference between drarnatic and all other kinds of
had shown them the necessity lbr a di{f'erent kind of versification. \,{rrse: a difference in the music, which is a difference in the relation
It is not prirnarily lack of plot, or lack of action and suspense, or Io tlie current spoken language. It leads to my next point: whictr
inrperfect realization of character, or lack of anythirrg of rvhat is is that the task of the poet will differ, not only according to his
called 'theatre', that rnakes these pla.ys so iifeless: it is primarily lrcrsnnal constitution, but accoriling to the period in which he
that their rhythm ofspeech is sornething that rve cannot associate finds himseH. At some periods, the task is to explore the nrusical
with any human being except a poetry reciter. lrossibilities of an established convention of the relation of the
Even under the powerf'ul manipulation of Dryden drarnatic idiorn of verse to that of speech; at other periods, the task is to
blank verse shorvs a grave deterioration. 'fhere are splendid <:rtch up rvith the changes in colloquial speech, which are funda-
passages in All for Loae: yet l)rvden's characters talk more ruentally changes in thought and sensibility. This cyclical move-
naturally at times in the heroic plays which he wrote in rhyured rnent also has a very great influence upon our clitical judgment.
couplets, than they do in what would seem the more natural fbrm At a time like ours, when a refreshment of poetic diction similar to
of blank verse though less naturally than do the characters of that brought about by Wordsworth had been called for (whether it
-
Corneille and Racine in French. l'lre causes for the rise and de- lias been satisfactorily accomplished or not) we are inclined, in our
cline of any form of art ale alrvays complex, and we can trace a
.]udgments upon the past, to exaggerate the importance of the
number of contributory causes, rvhile there seems to remain some innovators at the expense of the reputation of the developers.
deeper cause incapable of formulation: I should rrot cnre to ad- I have said enough, I think, to make clear that I do not believe
vance &ny one reason why prose came to supersede verse i:n the that the task of the poet is primarily and always to effect a revolu-
theatre. But I feel sure that one reason rviry blank verse cannot tion in language. It would not be desirable, even if it were possibleo
be employed rrow in the drama is that so much non dramatic to live in a state ofperpetual revolution: the craving for continual
poetry: and great non-dramatic poetryr has been written in it in novelty of diction and metric is as unwholesome as an obstinate
the last three hundred years. Our minds are saturated in these adherence to the idiom of our grandfathers. There are times for
non-dramatic rvorks in t'hat is lbrmally the same kind of verse. exploration and times forthe development oftheterritory acquired.
lf rve can imaginc, as rr flight of fhncy, Milton corning be{bre The poet who did most for the English language is Shakespeare:
Shakespeare, Shakespeare .vould have had to discover quite a and he carried out, in one short lifetime, the task of two poets. I
different mediurn from that rvhich he used and perfected. Milton can only say here, briefly, that the development of Shakespearels
handled blank verse in a way which no one has ever approached yerse can be roughly divided into two periods. During the first, he
or ever will approsch; and in so doing did more than anyone or rvas slowly adapting his form to colloquial speech: so that by the
g* 85
The Music of Poetry The Music af Poetrg
tirrre lre wrote Antony anrl Cleopatra he had devised a medium in prirte to some periods than to others. At one stage the stanza is a
which everything that any dramatic character might have to say, rislrt and natural formalization of speech into pattern. But the
whether high or low, 'poetical' or 'prosaic', could be said with qlrrnira and the more elaborate it is, the more rules to be ob-
naturalness and beauty. Having got to this point, he began to ,',,rved -in its proper execution, the more surely this happens
elalrorate. The first period of the poet who began wilh Venus ltnds to become ffxed to the idiom of the moment of its perfection. -
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and Ad,oni,s, but who had already, in Loae's Labour's losf, begun I h quickly loses contact u'ith the changing colloquial speech, being
to see what he had to do is from artiliciality to simplicity, from possessed by the mental outlook of a past generation; it becomes
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stiffness to suppleness. The later plays move from simplicity to- rliscredited when employed solely by those rvriters who, having no
wards elaboration. The late Shakespeare is occupied with the irnpulse to form within them, have recourse to pouring their liquid
other task of the poet that of experimenting to see how elabo- sentiment into a ready-macle mould in which they vainly hope that
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rate, how conrplicated, the music could be made without losing it will set. In a perfect sonnet, what you admire is not so much the
touch with colloquial speech altogether, and without his charac- author's skill in adapting himself to the pattern as the skill and
ters ceasing to be human beings. This is the poet of Cymbeli'ne, polver with which he makes the pattern comply with rvhat he has
The lVi,nter's Tale, Peri,cles, *nd The TemTtest. Of those whose to say. Without this fitness, which is contingent uporr period as
exploration took them in this one direction only, Milton is the well as individual genius, the rest is at best virtuosity: and where
greatest rrraster. We may think that Milton, in exploring the the musical element is the only element, that also vanishes.
orchestral music of language, sometimes ceases to talk a social lllaborate forms return: but there have to be periods during which
idiom at all; we may think that Wordsworth, in attempting to they are laid aside.
recover the social idiom, sorletitnes oversteps the rnark an<l be- As for 'free verse', I expressed my view twenty-five years ago
comes pedestrian: but it is often true that only by going too far by saying that no verse is free for the man who wants to do a good
can we find out how far we can go; though one has to be a very job. No one has better cause to know than I, that a great deal of
great poet tojustify such perilous adventures. bad prose has been written under the name of free yerse; though
So far, I have spoken only of versification and not of poetic rvhether its authors lvrote bad prose or bad verse, or bad verse in
structure; anrl it is time for a reminder that the music of verse is one style or in another, seenls to me a mat[er of indifference. But
not a line by iine matter, but a question of the whole poem. Only only a bad poct could welcome free verse &s a liberation from form.
with this in mind can we approach the vexed question of formal It was a revolt against dead form, and a preparation for nerv form
pattern and free verse. In the plays of Shakespeare a musical or for the renewal of the old; it was an insistence upon the inner
design can be discovered in particuiar scenes' and in his more per- unity which is unique to every poem, against the outer unity which
fect plays as wholes.It is a music of imagery as weil as sound: Mr. is typical. The poenr comes before the form, in the sense that a
Wilson Knight has shown in his examination of several of the form grows out of the attempt of somebody to say something; just
plays, how much the use of recurrent imagery and dominant as a system of prosody is only a formulation of the identities in the
imagery, throughout one play, has to do with the total effect. A rhythms ofa succession ofpoets influenced by each other.
play of Shakespeare is a very complex musical structure; the more Forms have to be broken and remade: but I believe that, any
easily grasped structure is that of forms such as the sonnet, the languaE5e, so iong as it remains the same language, imposes its
formal ode, the ballade, the villaneile, rondeau or sestina. It is laws and restrictions and permits its own licence, dictates its own
sometimes assumed that modern poetry has done away with forms speech rhythms and sound patterns. And a language is always
like these. I have seen signs of a return to them; and indeed I changing; its developments in vocabulary, in syntax, pronuncia-
believe that the tendency to return to set, and even elaborate tion and intonation even) in the long run, its deterioration
patterns is permanent, as permanent as the need for a refrain or a must be accepted by -the poet and made the best of. He in turn has
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chorus to a popular song. Some forms are more appropriate to the privilege of contributing to the development and maintaining
some languages than to others, and any form may be more a,ppro- the quality, the capacity ofthe language to express a wide range,
wi g7
The Music of Poetrg
and subtle gradation, of feeling and emotion; his task is both to
respond to change and make it conscious, and to battle against
degradation below the standards which he has learnt from the past.
The liberties that he may take are for the sake of order.
At what stage contemporary verse now finds itself, I must leave
you tojudge for yourselves. I suppose that it will be agreed that if
lhe work of the last twenty years is worthy of being classifled at lVhat is Minor Poetry?'
all, it is as belonging to a period of search for a proper modern
colloquial idiom. We have still a good way to go in the invention of
rret* medium for the theatre, a medium in which we shall be able do not propose to offer, either at the beginning or at the
"to hear the speech of contemporary human beings, in rvhich drama- end, a definition of 'minor poetry'. The danger of such a
tic characters can express the purest poetry without high-falutin definition 'rvould be, that it might lead us to expect that we
and in which they can convey the most commonplace message could settle, once for all, rvho are the 'nrajor' and who are the
without absurdity. But when rve reach a point at rvhich the poetic 'nrinorn poets. l'hen, if we tried to make out tu'o lists, one of major
idiom can be stabilized, then a period of musical elaboration can nnd one of rninor poets in English literature, we should find that
rve agreed about a few poets for each list, that there rvould be tnore
foilow. I think that a poet may gain rnuch from the study of music:
how much technical knorvledge of musical form is desirable I do about whom rve should differ, and that no two people would pro-
not know, for I have not that technical knowledge myself' But I cluce quite the same lists: and rvhat then would be the use of our
believe that the properties in which music concerns the poet most definition? What I think we c&n do, however, is to take notice of
ominor', we mean different
nearly, are the sense ofrhythm and the sense ofstructure. I think the lact that when we speak of a poet as
that it might be possible for a poet to work too closely to musical things at different times; rve can make our minds a little clearer
analogies: the result might be an effect of artificiality; but I know about lvhat these different meanings are, and so avoid confusion
that a poem, or B, pa,ssage of a poem, may tend to realize itself first and nrisunderstanding. We shall certainly go on meaning several
as a particular rhythm before it reaches expression in words, and diff'erent things by the ternt, so we must, as lvith many other wordso
that this rhythm may bring to birth the idea and the image; and I make the best of it, and not attempt to squeeze everything into
do not believe that this is an experience peculiar to myself. The one definition. What f ant concerned to dispel is any derogatory
use of recurrent themes is as natural to poetry as to music. There association conrrected rvith the term'trrinor poetry", together rvith
are possibilities for verse which bear some analogy to the develop- the suggestion that minor poetry is easier to read, or less rvorth
ment of a theme by different groups of instruments; there are while to read, than'major poetry'. The question is simply, rvhat
possibilities of transitions in a poem comparable to the_ different kinds of minor poetry are there, and why should we read it?
inovements of a symphony or a quartet; there are possibilities of The most direct approach, I thinko is by considering the several
contrapuntal arrangement of subject-matter. It is in the concert kinds ofanthologies ofpoetry: because one association ofthe term
room, rather than in the opera house, that the germ ofa Poem may 'minor poetry' mal<es it rnean 'the kind of poems that w'e only read
be quickened. NIore than this I cannot say, but must leave the,mat in anthologies'. And, incidentally, I atn glad of an opportunity to
ter here to those who have had a musical education. But I would re- say something about the uses ofanthologies, because, ifrve under-
mind you again of the two tasks of poetry, the two directions irr stand their uses, we can also be guarded against their dangers
for there are poetry-lovers who can be called anthology-addicts,
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which-language must at different times be worked: so that however
far it may go in musical elaboration, we must expect a time to come and cannot read poetry in any other way. Of course the primary
when poetry will have again to be recalled to speech. The same pro- I ,\n address deliverecl btft-rre the r{ssociation of l}oolcrtten of Swansea and \\Iest
blems arise, and always in new forms; and poetry has always before Wales at Swansea in Septetnber 1944. Subsequently published in ?ia Sewanae
it, as F. S. Oliver said of politics, an oendless adventure'. Retiew.
38 s9