It is the object of the following pages neither to defend poetry nor to account for it, but simply to study it as a social institution. Questions of its importance, of the place which it has held, or ought to have held, in the esteem of men, and of the part which it is yet to play, are interesting but not vital to one who is bent upon the investigation of it as an element in human life. A defence is doubtless needed now and then by way of answer to the pessimist like Peacock, or to the moralist, the founder of states ideal or real, like Plato and Mahomet. Scattered about the Koran are hints that verse-making folk, like the shepherd’s turncock, are booked for an unpleasant future, although it is well known that the prophet in earlier days had been very fond of poetry; while Plato himself, if one may believe his editors, began as a poet, but took to prose because the older art was declining; with the change he turned puritan as well, and saw no room for poets in his ideal state. Attacks of this sort, however, are as old as poetry itself, which, like “the service, sir,” has been going to the dogs time out of mind, and very early formed the habit of looking back to better days. For mediæval relations these remembered arguments of Plato, backed by a band of Christian writers, had put the art to its shifts; but Aristotle’s fragment served the renaissance as adequate answer, and it is interesting to note that the champion of poetry in Aristotle long outlived the philosopher. Petrarch, taking the laurel, was moved to defend poetry against her foes, and yet found, as critics find now, that she had come by some of her worst wounds at the hands of her votaries; for who, in any age, as Goethe asked and answered in his Divan, “Who is driving poetry off the face of the earth?—The poets.” Certainly not the philosophers and men of science, though that is the common belief. Lefebvre, in 1697, thought that he had given poetry its mortal blow when he attacked it in the name of morals and of science; and his onslaught is worth the notice if only to show how little Renan and others urge to-day which has not been urged at any time since Petrarch. Selden, Newton, Bentham, have been among the scoffers; so, too, Pascal. As to Newton, “A friend once said to him, ‘Sir Isaac, what is your opinion of poetry?’ His answer was, ‘I’ll tell you that of Barrow; he said that poetry was a kind of ingenious nonsense.’” All this is no more than disrespectful allusion to the equator, jocose moments of the learned; yet it is quoted very seriously by those who think to preach a funeral sermon over the poetic art. So that when Renan expects to see poetry swallowed up by science, and when it is said that Goethe, born a century later, would throw poetry to the winds and give full play to his scientific genius, that Voltaire would live altogether for mathematics, and that Shakspere himself, “the great psychologist,” would “leave the drama of humanity for the drama of the world,” abjure wings, and settle to the collar with psychical research folk and societies for child-study,—even then the friends of poetry need feel no great alarm; all this, allowing for conditions of the time, was said long ago, and has been repeated in the dialect of each generation. As for the past of poetry, kings have been its nursing fathers and queens its nursing mothers; and for its future, one may well be content with the words of the late M. Guyau, a man of scientific training and instincts, who has looked carefully and temperately at the whole question and concludes that “poetry will continue to be the natural language of all great and lasting emotion.”
Vindication apart, there is the art of poetry, the technique, the Horatian view; and with this treatment of the subject the present work has as little to do as with defence and praise. From Vida even to Boileau writers on poetry were mainly concerned to teach the art, and seemed to assume that every bright boy ought to be trained as a poet. With this idea went the conception of poetry as sum and substance of right living and embodiment of all learning, sacred and profane,—witness not only the famous lines of Milton, but a part of the epitaph which Boccaccio composed for his own tomb: studium fuit alma poesis. J. C. Scaliger, when that early enthusiasm of the renaissance had begun to wane, turned from art to science; his son and Casaubon and the rest took up the work of research and let the art of poetry languish. On this scientific ground, where, in spite of the overthrow of Aristotelian authority, in spite of changes in method and a new range of material, one may still learn much from these pioneers, there are now three ways by which one can come to poetry from the outside, and regard it not technically but in the spirit of research: there is the theory of poetic impulses and processes in general; there is the criticism of poems and poetry as an objective study; and there are the recording, the classifying, and the comparing of the poetic product at large. The present work belongs to this third division, and in its method must keep mainly within historical and comparative bounds. It is not concerned in any way with the poetic impulse, or with the poem as object of critical study; it regards the whole poetic product as a result of human activity working in a definite field. This must be clearly understood. At the outset of an attempt to throw some light upon the beginnings of poetry, it is well to bear in mind that by poetry is meant, not the poetic impulse, but the product of that impulse, and that by beginnings are meant the earliest actual appearances of poetry as an element in the social life of man, and not the origins or ultimate causes, biologically or psychologically considered, of poetic expression. What the origin of poetry may have been, and to what causes, however remote, in the body and life of man must be attributed the earliest conceivable rhythmic utterance, are questions for a tribunal where metaphysics and psychology on the one hand, and biology on the other hand, have entered conflicting claims. As for biology, until one has found the source of life itself, it is useless to follow brain dissections in an effort to discover the ultimate origins of poetry. To be sure, psychology has a legitimate field of inquiry in discussing the source of æsthetic manifestations; and going deeper into things, it would be pleasant if one could lay hold of what philosophers call “the germinal power of whatever comes to be,” the keimkraft des seienden; but times are hardly ripe for such a feat. Even Weismann concedes a “soul,” a capacity not yet explainable, for appreciating music, and, by implication, poetry. It is better in the present state of things to assume poetry as an element in human life, and to come as close as possible to its primitive stages, its actual beginnings. What these beginnings of poetry were, in what form it first made a place for itself among human institutions, and over what paths it wandered during the processes of growth and differentiation even in prehistoric times, are questions belonging to the answerable part of that catechism about his own life which man has been making and unmaking and making again ever since he began to remember and to forecast. We have here no concern with the perplexing question why æsthetic activity was first evolved; it is quite another matter when we undertake to learn how æsthetic activity made itself seen and felt. In brief, to seek the origins of poetry would be to seek the cause of its existence as a phenomenon, to hunt that elusive keimkraft des seienden; to inquire into the beginnings of poetry is to seek conditions and not causes.