The critics have been more than usually busy of late, asking the world, What is poetry? But however much interest we may find in this debate, it does not really bring us nearer to answer ing the question, any more than the discussions of the physiologists have enabled them to answer that other question, What is life?
It is hard, indeed, to grasp the subtle essence that we call poetry, and to bind it into any set form of abstract words; but, none the less, we know poetry when we meet with it, and the best definition would neither help toward the production nor heighten the enjoyment of it.
Whether poetry can truly be called a “criticism of life” seems open enough to doubt; but there can be no doubt that it is an expression of life, or of some sides of it, in language which is imaginative, musical, beautiful.
And of life, those sides of it, or those sentiments springing out of it, which are the deepest and the purest and the most permanent, supply poetry with its finest material?noble sentiments, intensely conceived, adequately and musically rendered.
This has given to the world its finest lyrics ; and the pure lyric is poetry in its purest essence. If there be any part of life which poetry may call peculiarly its own, it is the whole range of the affec tions. Indeed these, it may be truly said, have no other so fitting and natural language.
When any emotion has kindled to a certain heat, prose?the calm language of the judgment? is no fitting vehicle for it.
The more intense the emotion, the more foolish it would look in such a garb.
There are many reasons for this. Emotion is in itself rhythmical, and can only be fittingly uttered in the most rhythmical form of words.
Again, it is shy and retiring, and needs something to stand between it and the rude gaze of the world. And this the very formality of meter does. It furnishes a veil to the modesty and tenderness of deep emotion. This is one great service of poetry.