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who without loss neglected his design? Can we think that there is not here a waste of poetical power—the richest and most varied in its generation, perhaps in its century-pitiable and grievous? Shakespeare, it was said, wanted art; how much more did Browning want it! His longer poems will escape the fate of Blackmore, but they will escape it with difficulty. Not indeed for the same cause, lack of genius, but for a fault hardly compensated by genius — surplusage. Without personality, without the gift of expression, as the eighteenth-century epic failures prove, success in the greater poetry is impossible; it is almost, if not equally, impossible without design. Art without genius is barren, but genius without art is like a blind giant, a Polyphemus, stumbling over every obstacle, hurling with magnificent strength his ineffectual missiles.
THE MOCK-HEROIC IN ENGLISH POETRY
VERSE, it is agreed, adds to the emotional force of expression. Words convey the poet's meaning, as they do that of the ordinary man, but through and by means of the rhythm something is added. That something is the intensity or enthusiasm which accompanies his thought, and without rhythm cannot be fully revealed or communicated. By verse, then, the key of speech is heightened, it is the natural utterance of passionate conviction or inspired vision. Thus with poetry seriousness is associated. We expect from it an exaltation—the exaltation of language justified and compelled by the exaltation of idea and feeling. Or may we say that metre is symbolic of new conditions, that when we pass this gateway we know ourselves to have entered a new country, the home of ideals and beauty unveiled, that we expect new experiences? Seriousness then is implied in all the definitions--when Milton speaks of poetry as “simple, sensuous, passionate," or Ruskin of its " noble grounds for noble emotion," or Wordsworth defines it as "the impassioned expression which is on the face of all science.” But what then is to be said of verse when employed not to elevate but to lower the key of feeling, for purposes of derision rather than exaltation? The Muse of Satire is “the least engaging of the nine," but is humorous verse even legitimate, is it not a contradiction in terms? Shelley, Peacock reports, “ often talked of the withering and perverting spirit of comedy," and when the language of a comedy was praised for the fineness of its expression, replied, “It is true, but the finer it is the worse it is, with such perversion of sentiment.” In satire, it may be argued, the emotion of indignation provides the necessary warrant, and the satirist may be justified in the use of verse on the ground that he is
an idealist, angry and properly angry at the shortcomings he attacks. It is a possible, and doubtless, indeed, the just view of Swift that he was a fierce kind of philanthropist. But what of the use of verse when no warrant can be found for it either in the nature of the subject or in the feeling with which the writer wishes us to regard it? It may, perhaps, be justified as playful or ironical, designed to provide innocent entertainment or to emphasise-since metre attracts the attention-by means of an inappropriate medium, some absurd quality, which might otherwise be overlooked or even wrongly admired.
The poet fulfils his mission, let us say, when he makes men aware that there is an unrealised world of beauty lying around them, but also when he makes them aware that the world in which they have hitherto found satisfaction is neither admirable nor beautiful. He may deny as well as affirm. In some such fashion the defence of verse deliberately employed for derisive purposes may be attempted. And the defence may be strengthened by reference to the existence and acceptance of humorous verse in the literature of all ages and countries. Humorous verse then, when its purpose is serious, as in Hudibras, is verse that denies, that exposes faults, deficiencies, disproportions, that turns aside from the praise of beauty, of grace, of order to note their absence or the presence of the ugly. It hales offenders before the bar of the ideal.
As comedy, at least in Athens, added point and humour to the treatment of subjects below the tragic dignity by a presentation which reproduced all the formality and elaboration of serious drama, was, in short, something of a parody, so from very early times epic elevation threw its comic shadow in
1 The defence of verse which engages our sympathies against rather than with its subject might be summarised briefly as follows (1) Indignation may make verses since satire involves an ideal, and would be pointless but for the existence of a standard from which the departure or decline is censured. (2) Verse gives epigrammatic point and force to expression, it feathers the arrow and drives it home. It is " a stimulant of the attention." (3) Since there is no thermometer of feeling, the precise temperature of emotion which warrants the use of verse cannot be determined: a low level has its rights. (4) Behind the ironical use of verse, as behind Plato's irony, there may reside the humour which is akin to pathos or paternal affection,
burlesque imitations. The trivial theme solemnly handled, the hero selected for his ineptitude rather than his prowess
Many arts he knew, and he knew them all badly," 1 the mountain in labour to bring forth the mouse, are, in their unexpectedness, sources of natural amusement. Probably that Protean spirit, Humour, always opens its attack by its suddenness, its surprise. When, so to say, mentally on guard to the front, we are assailed on flank or rear. It lurks too in the incongruous--the sublime manner, the worthless content-in the disproportion when the great is made small, the small great. Wherever, then, tragedy stalks, comedy may follow, aping its magnificent gestures; wherever there is epic dignity, behind it we may expect the mischievous imitation of the heroic gait. Sacred as was Homer he had in Greece his burlesque copies, of which the famous Batracho-myo-Machia, “ The Battle of the Frogs and Mice,” once ascribed—perhaps to heighten the absurdity-to the author of the Iliad himself, still survives. A mouse, escaping from a weasel, pauses to drink from a pond, where he is accosted by a frog of royal lineage, Physignathos, “ Puff-cheek":
“What art thou, stranger? what the line you boast ?
What chance hath cast thee panting on our coast? Having disclosed his own illustrious descent and famem
“Known to the gods, the men, the birds that fly
Through wild expanses of the midway sky,
Of brave Troxartas' line-" 3 the noble mouse accepts an invitation to King Frog's palace, whither he is to be conveyed on his friend's back. The voyage is begun, but a water-hydra suddenly rears its head, the alarmed frog dives, and the mouse is drowned. News of his untoward fate reaches his father and tribesmen, a council is called, and war is declared upon the frogs.
“ Dreadful in arms the marching mice appear.” 1 The Margites, Murray's Ancient Greek Literature, p. 52.
2 This and the following quotations are from the version by Thomas Parnell.
3 Psycarpax, a plunderer of granaries. Troxartas, a bread-eater.
The frogs heroically prepare to defend their kingdom, and devise stratagems.
“Then dress'd for war, they take th' appointed height,
Poise the long arms, and urge the promis'd fight.” At this point Jove calls a council of all the gods,
“ And asks what heavenly guardians take the list
Or who the mice, or who the frogs assist ? But Pallas is unwilling to take sides, the mice rob the lamps of her shrine of their oil, the frogs have kept her awake at night. She advises that the gods refrain from the war, and her words carry persuasion. Soon the battle is joined and great deeds of arms in single combat are done. Hypsiboas (The Far-Croaker) slays with a javelin Lychenor (The Licker); Artophagus (The Bread-Eater) strikes down Polyphonus (The Babler); Tyroglyphus (The Cheese-Scooper),
“ Prince of the mice that haunt the flowery vales,"
A stone immense of size the warrior bore,
The frog, supportless, writhes upon the ground.”
“ Then earth's inhabitants, the nibblers, shake,
And frogs, the dwellers in the waters, shake.' But still the mice advance, and the King of Heaven at length sends forth a legion of crabs. Before this new and terrible enemy the mice give way“
“ O'er the wild waste with headlong flight they go,
Or creep conceal'd in vaulted holes below.
Was fought, and ceas'd in one revolving sun.”