The Spike or Victoria College Review October 1929
Poetry In Modern Life
Poetry In Modern Life
An English critic has been worrying over the status of poetry in the life of the world to-day. He is inclined to think that the twentieth century shows less aptitude for the enjoyment of poetry than any previous age, and he wants to know the reason for such indifference. After a little consideration most of us will agree that there is an excuse for this pessimism, in spite of the fact that there is probably more experimentation in poetry and more verse is being written in our times than ever before. The rich harvest of English poetry overflows our literary barns; scholars and critics abound to help in separating the wheat from the chaff; but where is the multitude eager to partake of the nourishment thus provided? Even as I write I see before me a great pile of copies of the " Old Clay Patch," and such a state of affairs should not exist in a University of over 700 students pursuing loftier studies. How many students this year have bought a copy of this book of verses which contains some of the best lines written in the Southern Hemisphere?
It would appear that at no time in our history has the teaching of the poets inspired and informed action less than it does to-day. No longer are they the "unacknowledged legislators of the world."
A reference to poetry is viewed with suspicion, almost with resentment, and even established orators—excepting in the Plunket Medal contests—betray a certain shyness when they bring a useful tag from the classics to cap their periods. The varied activities of modern life have crowded out the poets, and the clangour of the machine age, with its radios and "talkies," has made ears less sensitive to the music of verse. Never have circumstances been more ominous for the poet or his reader. On the one hand, the world and its life have become harder to express, the material of poetry is more complex and intractable; on the other hand, modern sensibilities are jaded and dulled by forced contact with a triumphant materialism. Time was when poetry was not a criticism but life itself. A song lurked behind the language, causing that vital union of words or music that is the glory of Shakespeare's lyrics. To-day the old human dance and song that were unity with speech are gone, and mankind has sunk into self-consciousness, Philistinism and, often enough, mere verse.
All this is very perturbing. It would be more so if one lacked altogether the assurance that in many homes Shakespeare is still a well-thumbed volume and Allan Wilkie can still draw good houses by giving concessions to schools. Certainly there are occasions when Keats and Tennyson are the companions of sentient youth, especially when Spring breaks upon the world, but the pity is that the valuation of poetry throughout the world of modern society stands so low that we long for a new Sir Philip Sydney who will tell us why " poor Poetry, from almost the highest estimation of learning, is fallen to be the laughing stock of the children." It may be our post-war scepticism that has something to do with it. These are the days of higher criticism in real earnest, and critic-realists are not inclined to accept with docility a bare generalisation as to the quality of mercy, nor page 37 yet the doctrine—in spite of Professor Hunter—that the child is father to the man. They must pause awhile to probe and dissect with cynicism, until the fine fabric of the verse is reduced to tatters and the critic is left farther off than ever from the truth which he seeks. Such scepticism is the penalty of living in a scientific age, but it is wrong-headed to feel that it must necessarity affect an allegiance to poetry. One may at times grow restive under the measured beat of classic verse, but to forsake it entirely is to invite the extinction of the Hellenic spirit. Custom, habit and routine lie upon us, which only poetry, that frail agency, can lift.
Many have done nothing to sharpen their poetic appetites since they learned patches of Wordsworth and Shelley and lines from Shakespeare by rote. For them the return to Parnassus will be unconscionably hard. It is proper to ask of poetry pleasure; but poetry quite properly demands of us pains. One has to go into mental training for Shelley in the same way as athletes train for a big event, and it is useless to read Milton with one's feet on the mantelpiece. Wordsworth divided readers of poetry into four classes. There are those with whom it is a mere passion or appetite; those who embrace it as a casual recreation; those for whom it is a refuge; and, lastly, the disinterested students. None, not even the second, is really despicable, for better a little poetry as a spurious mark of elegance than none at all. But it is to the disinterested man who exercises a trained and braced imagination, purged of the false sentiment of every-day life, that poetry will give her best. The effort entailed in sweeping from the mind the accumulated rubbish caught up in the daily round will be great, but no effort could have a more handsome reward. The poets provide the best of all ways of escape from mundane distractions, and their words " awaken the mind's attention from the lethargy of custom, and direct it to the wonders of the world before us."