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Appreciation of Poetry


The Subjective Element

All criticism of poetry is bound to have a strong subjective element in it and that is the source of the violent differences we find in the appreciation of any given author by equally “eminent” critics. All is relative here, Art and Beauty also, and our view ofthings and our appreciation of them depends on the consciousness which views and appreciates. Some critics recognise this and go in frankly for a purely subjective criticism—“this is why I like this and disapprove of that, I give my own values”. Most labour to fit their personal likes and dislikes to some standard of criticism which they conceive to be objective; this need of objectivity, of the support of an impersonal truth independent of our personality or anybody else’s, is the main source of theories, canons, standards of art. But the theories, canons, standards themselves vary and are set up in one age only to be broken in another. Is there then no beauty of art independent of our varying mentalities? Is beauty a creation of our minds, a constructionof our ideas and our senses, not at all existent in itself? In that case Beauty is non-existent in Nature, it is put upon Nature by our minds through mental imposition, adhy¯aropa. But this contradicts the fact that it is in response to an object and not independently of it that the idea of beautiful or not beautiful originally rises within us. Beauty does exist in what we see, but there are two aspects of it, essential beauty and the forms it takes.
“Eternal beauty wandering on her way” does that wandering by a multitudinous variation of forms appealing to a multitudinous variation of consciousnesses. There comes in the difficulty. Each individual consciousness tries to seize the eternal beauty expressed in a form (here a particular poem or work of art), but is either assisted by the form or repelled by it, wholly attracted or wholly repelled, or partially attracted and partially repelled.
There may be errors in the poet’s or artist’s transcription of beauty which mar the reception, but even these have different effects on different people. But the more radical divergences arise from the variation in the constitution of the mind and its difference of response. Moreover there are minds, the majority indeed, who do not respond to “artistic” beauty at all—something inartistic appeals much more to what sense of beauty they have —or else they are not seeking beauty, but only vital pleasure.
A critic cannot escape altogether from these limitations.
He can try to make himself catholic and objective and find the merit or special character of all he reads or sees in poetry and art, even when they do not evoke his strongest sympathy or deepest response. I have little temperamental sympathy for much of the work of Pope and Dryden, but I can see their extraordinary perfection or force in their own field, the masterly conciseness, energy, point, metallic precision into which they cut their thought or their verse, and I can see too how that can with a little infusion of another quality be the basis of a really great poetic style, as Dryden himself has shown in his best work. But there my appreciation stops; I cannot rise to the heights of admiration of those who put them on a level with or on a higher level than Wordsworth, Keats or Shelley—I cannot escape from the feeling that their work, even though more consistently perfect within their limits and in their own manner (at least Pope’s), was less great in poetic quality. These divergences rise from a conception of beauty and a feeling for beauty which belongs to the temperament. So too Housman’s exaltation of Blake results directly from his feeling and peculiar conception of poetic beauty as an appeal to an inner sensation, an appeal marred and a beauty deflowered by bringing in a sharp coating or content of intellectual thought. But that I shall not discuss now. All this however does not mean that criticism is without any true use. The critic can help to open the mind to the kinds of beauty he himself sees and not only to discover but to appreciate at their full value certain elements that make them beautiful or give them what is most characteristic or unique in their peculiar beauty. Housman for instance may help many minds to see in Blake something which they did not see before. They may not agree with him in his comparison of Blake and Shakespeare, but they can follow him to a certain extent and seize better that element in poetic beauty which he overstresses but makes at the same time more vividly visible.

5 October 1934

Abiding Intuition of Poetic and Artistic Greatness

Yes, of course there is an intuition of greatness by which the great poet or artist is distinguished from those who are less great and these again from those who are not great at all. But
you are asking too much when you expect this intuition to work with a mechanical instantaneousness and universality so that all shall have the same opinion and give the same values. The greatness of Shakespeare, of Dante, of others of the same rank is unquestioned and unquestionable and the recognition of it has always been there in their own time and afterwards. Virgil and Horace stood out in their own day in the first rank among the poets and that verdict has never been reversed since. The area of a poet’s fame may vary; it may have been seen first by a few, then by many, then by all. At first there may be adverse critics and assailants, but these negative voices die away. Questionings may rise from time to time—e.g. as to whether Lucretius was not a greater poet than Virgil—but these are usually from individuals and the general verdict abides always. Even lesser poets retain their rank in spite of fluctuations of their fame. You speak of the discrediting of some and the rehabilitation of the discredited.
That happened to Pope and Dryden. Keats and his contemporaries broke their canons and trampled over their corpses to reach romantic freedom; now there is a rehabilitation. But all this is something of an illusion—for mark that even at the worst
Pope and Dryden retained a place among the great names of English poetic literature. No controversy, no depreciation could take that away from them. This proves my contention that there is an abiding intuition of poetic and artistic greatness.

The attempts at comparison of poets like Blake and Shakespeare or Dante and Shakespeare by critics like Housman and Eliot? It seems to me that these are irrelevant and otiose. Both Dante and Shakespeare stand at the summit of poetic fame, but each with so different a way of genius that comparison is unprofitable.
Shakespeare has powers which Dante cannot rival; Dante has heights which Shakespeare could not reach; but in essence they stand as mighty equals. As for Blake and Shakespeare, that opinion is more a personal fantasy than anything else. Purity and greatness are not the same thing; Blake’s may be pure poetry in
Housman’s sense and Shakespeare’s not except in a few passages; but nobody can contend that Blake’s genius had the width and volume and riches of Shakespeare’s. It can be said that Blake as a mystic poet achieved things beyond Shakespeare’s measure— for Shakespeare had not the mystic’s vision; but as a poet of the play of life Shakespeare is everywhere and Blake nowhere. These are tricks of language and idiosyncrasies of preference. One has only to put each thing in its place, without confusing issues and one can see that Housman’s praise of Blake may be justified but any exaltation of him by comparison with Shakespeare is not in accordance with the abiding intuition of these things which remains undisturbed by any individual verdict.
The errors of great poets in judging their contemporaries are personal freaks—they are failures in intuition due to the mind’s temporary movements getting in the way of the intuition. The errors of Goethe and Bankim were only an overestimation of a genius or a talent that was new and therefore attractive at the time. Richardson’s Pamela was after all the beginning of modern fiction. As I have said, the general intuition does not work at once and with a mechanical accuracy. Overestimation of a contemporary is frequent; underestimation also. But, taken on the whole, the real poet commands at first or fairly soon theverdict of the fewwhose eyes are open—and often the attacks of those whose eyes are shut—and the few grow in numbers till the general intuition affirms their verdict. There may be exceptions, for there is hardly a rule without exceptions, but this is, I think, generally true.

As for the verdict of Englishmen upon a French poet or vice versa, that is due to a difficulty in entering into the finer spirit and subtleties of a foreign language. It is difficult for a Frenchman to get a proper appreciation of Keats or Shelley or for an Englishman to judge Racine,—for this reason. But a Frenchman like Maurois who knows English as an Englishman knows it, can get the full intuition of a poet like Shelley well enough. These variations must be allowed for; the human mind is not a perfect instrument, its best intuitions are veiled by irrelevant mental formations; but in these matters the truth affirms itself and stands fairly firm and clear in essence through all changes of mental weather.

6 October 1934

Contemporary Judgment of Poetry

If you send your poems to five different poets, you are likely to get five absolutely disparate and discordant estimates of them. A poet likes only the poetry that appeals to his own temperament or taste, the rest he condemns or ignores. (My own case is different, because I am not primarily a poet and have made in criticism a practice of appreciating everything that can be appreciated, as a catholic critic would.) Contemporary poetry, besides, seldom gets its right judgment from contemporary critics.
Nothing can be more futile than for a poet to write in expectation of contemporary fame or praise, however agreeable that may be, if it comes: but it is not of any definitive value; for very poor poets have enjoyed a great contemporary fame and very great poets have been neglected in their time, their merit known only to a few and gathering very slowly a greater volume of appreciation around it. A poet has to go on his way, trying to gather hints from what people say for or against, when their criticisms are things he can profit by, but not otherwise moved (if he can manage it)—seeking mainly to sharpen his own sense of self-criticism by the help of others. Differences of estimate need not surprise him at all.

2 February 1932



It is quite true that all art and poetry is largely dependent on the vital for its activity and if there is no force of vitality in the poetry then it cannot be strong or great. But it does not follow that the vital element in poetry will appeal to everybody or a great number of people; it depends on the kind of vital movement that is there. The forceful but inferior sort of vital energy that
you find in Kipling’s ballads appeals to a largemass of people,— the vital element in Milton which is very powerful affects only a few in comparison—the rest take him on trust because he is a great classic but have not the true intense enjoyment of him as of Kipling. Yet Milton’s greatness will endure—that cannot be said certainly of Kipling’s ballads. The problem therefore remains where it was. Spiritual poetry also needs the vital force for expression; mere spiritual philosophy without the uplifting poetic force in its expression (which needs the vital energy for its action) cannot appeal to anybody. But all the same in spiritual poetry the vital element adopts a turn whichmay not go home to many, unless it takes a popular religious form which has a general appeal. There I do not follow quite KhagenMitra’s position —does he contend that one ought to suit one’s poetry to the mentality of others so that it may have a general appeal, not keeping it to its natural purpose of expressing what is felt and seen by the poet according to the truth of the inspiration within him? Surely that cannot be recommended; but if it is not done, the possibility of reaching (at first, of course) only a few remains uneliminated.
It is not that a poet deliberately sets out to be appreciated by a few only—he sets out to be himself in his poetry and the rest follows. But consider a poet likeMallarm´e. In writing his strange enigmatic profound style which turned the whole structure of
French upside down he cannot have expected or cared to be read and appreciated even by that part of the general public which is interested in and appreciative of poetry. Yet there is no one who has had more influence on modern French poets—he helped to create Verlaine, Val´ery and a number of others who rank among the great ones in French literature and he himself too now ranks very high though he must still, I should think, be read only by a comparatively small though select audience; yet he has practically turned the current of French poetry. So there is something to be said for writing for oneself even if that implies writing only for the few and not for the many.
As for the actor, that is quite a different art, meant for the public, depending on its breath of applause, ineffective if its public is not moved or captured. A poet publishes, but he can take his chance; if he does not succeed in commanding widespread attention, he can still continue to write; there is something in him which maintains its energy and will to create.
If he seeks acknowledged greatness and success—though that is a secondary matter to the force that makes him write—he can still sustain himself on the hope of a future greatness with posterity—there are plenty of illustrious examples to console him. But an actor unappreciated is an actor already dead— there is nothing before him.

5 November 1936


Val´ery, whom you mention, is unintelligible to all but a very narrow coterie, and even they say that he is too intellectual and divorced from the life of the emotions. This makes his poetry admirable as a specimen of great workmanship, but it will not last.
Well, but did they not say the same thing about Mallarm´e? And what of Blake? Contemporary opinion is a poor judge of what shall live or not live. The fact remains that the impressionist movement in poetry initiated by Mallarm´e has proved to be the most powerful stream in France and its influence is not confined to that country. The whole thing is that it is a mistake to erect a mental theory and try to force into its narrow mould the infinite variety of the processes of Nature. Shakespeare may have so much vital force as to recommend himself to a large audience not so much for his poetry at first as for his dramatic vividness and power; it must be remembered that it was the
German romantics two centuries later who brought about theapotheosis of Shakespeare—before that he had a much more limited circle of admirers. Other great poets have started with a more scanty recognition. Others have had a great popularity in their lifetime and sunk afterwards to a much lower level of fame.
What is important is to preserve the right of the poet to write for himself, that is to say, for the Spirit that moves him, not to demand from him that he should write down to the level of the general or satisfy even the established taste and standard of the critics or connoisseurs of his time. For that would mean the end or decay of poetry—it would perish of its own debasement. A poet must be free to use his wings even if they carry him above the comprehension of the public of the day or of the general run of critics or lead him into lonely places. That is all that matters.
Tolstoy’s logic is out of place. Nobody says that the value of the poet must be measured by the scantiness of his audience any more than it can be measured by the extent of his contemporary popularity. So there is no room for his reductio ad absurdum.
What is contended is that it cannot be measured by either standard. It is to be measured by the power of his vision, of his speech, of his feeling, by his rendering of the world within or the world without or of any world to which he has access. It may be the outer world that he portrays like Homer and Chaucer or a vivid life-world like Shakespeare or an inmost world of experience like Blake or other mystic poets. The recognition of that power will come first from the few who recognise good poetry when they see it and from those who can enter into hisworld; afterwards it can spread to the larger number who can recognise good poetry when it is shown to them; finally, the still larger public may come in who learn to appreciate by a slow education, not by instinct and nature. There was a sound principle in the opinion always held in former times that it is time alone that can test the enduring power of a poet’s work, for contemporary opinion is not reliable.
There remains the case of the poets great or small or null who immediately command a general hearing. They have an element in them which catches at once the mind of the time: they are saying things which have a general appeal in a way that everybody can understand, in a language and rhythm that all can appreciate. As you say, there must be a vital element in the poetry of such a writer which gets him his public. The question is, has he anything else and, again what is the value of this vital element? If he has nothing else or not much of any high value, his aureole will not endure. If he has something but not of the best and highest, he will sink in the eyes of posterity, but not set out of sight. If he has in him something of the very greatest andbest, his fame will grow and grow as time goes on—some of the elements that caught him his contemporary public may fade and lose their value but the rest will shine with an increasing brightness. But even the vital and popular elements in the work may have different values—Shakespeare’s vitality has the same appeal now as then; Tennyson’s has got very much depreciated;
Longfellow’s is now recognised for the easily current copper coin that it always was. You must remember that when I speak of the vital force in a poet as something necessary, I am not speaking of something that need be low or fitted only to catch the general mind, not fit to appeal to a higher judgment, but of something that can be very valuable—from the highest point of view. When Milton writes
Fallen Cherub, to be weak is miserable,
or describes the grandeur of the fallen archangel, there is a vital force there that is of the highest quality,—so is that of Shakespeare; so is that of many pieces of Blake. This vital energy makes the soul stir within you. Nothing can be more high and sublime than the vital energy in Arjuna’s description of the Virat Purusha in the Gita.

6 November 1936


I remain convinced that fame is a fluke. Even a settled literary fame seems to be a very fluctuating affair. Who gave a thought to Blake or Donne in former times, when I was in England, for instance? But now they bid fair to be reckoned among the great poets. I see that Byron is in the depths, the quotations for Pope and Dryden are rising; it was very different in those days.

5 February 1932



Dilip says, “If you want to publish your literary work, you must see that people understand it—not the public at large but, as Virginia Woolf says, a select public.”
What is not understood or appreciated by one select circlemay be understood or appreciated by another select circle or in the future like Blake’s poetry. Nobody appreciated Blake inhis own time—now he ranks as a great poet,—more poetic than Shakespeare, says Housman. Tagore wrote he could not appreciate Dilip’s poetry because it is too “Yogic” for him. Is Tagore unselect, one of the public at large?
I don’t agree at all with not publishing because you won’t be understood. At that rate many great poets would have remained unpublished. What about the unintelligible Mallarm´e who had such a great influence on later French poetry?

24 July 1936

Housman’s Poetics

I have been waiting for a long time to take a look at A. E. Housman’s little book The Name and Nature of Poetry. It’s been with you for months now. Perhaps you could spare it for a while? How did you like it?
[A few days later] What has happened to my Housman letter? Housed, man!
[Still later] Here is the book. I kept it with the hope of noting down my own ideas on Housman’s theory, but all this time has elapsed without my being able to do it. Apart from the theory,
Housman, judging from the book, has a fine sense of true poetic quality—in others. For his own poetry, from the extracts I have seen, looks rather thin. I have read the book three or four times and always with satisfaction to my solar plexus.

22 September 1936


Read the remarks of Housman on the magnificent poem of Blake he quotes in full [“My Spectre around me night and day”] and the attempts of people to explain it. I quite agree with him there though not in his too sweeping theory of poetry. To explain that poem is to murder it and dissect the corpse. One can’t explain it,one can only feel and live the truth behind it.

3 December 1936

Spiritual Poetry and Popular Taste

In a recently published lecture on art, Tagore writes [in Bengali]: The question naturally arises, “Why has this [mathematical delight] not been made the subject of poetry?” The reason is that the experience of it is confined to very few people, it is out of the reach of the general public. The language through which it can be known is technical, it has not been made into a living material by contact with the hearts of the people.
Put “yogic poetry” in place of mathematics and you will at once understand why he cannot accept yogic poetry as poetry proper. Khagendra Mitra has echoed this identical view in his rather obscure term ��nuvAebr AjAt.
Mathematical delight be blowed! What does he mean? that you can’t write mathematics in verse? I suppose not, it was not meant to be. You can’t start offOh, two by three plus four plus seven!
To add things is to be in heaven.
But all the same, if one thinks it worth while to take the trouble, one can express the mathematician’s delight in discovery or the grammarian’s in grammatising or the engineer’s in planning a bridge or a house. What about Browning’s Grammarian’s Funeral?
The reason why these subjects do not easily get into poetry is because they do not lend themselves to poetic handling, their substance being intellectual and abstract and their language also, not as the substance and language of poetry must be, emotional and intuitive. It is not because they appeal only to a few people and not to the general run of humanity. A good dinner appeals not to a few people but to the general run of humanity, but it would all the same be a little difficult to write an epic or a lyric on the greatness of cooking and fine dishes or the joys of the palate and the belly. Spiritual subjects on the other hand can lend themselves to poetic handling because they can be expressed in the language of high emotion and radiant intuition. How many people will appreciate it is a question which is irrelevant to the merit of the poetry. More people have appreciated sincerely
Macaulay’s Lays or Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads than ever really appreciated Timon of Athens or Paradise Regained—but that does not determine the relative value or appropriateness of these things as poetry. Artistic or poetic value cannot be reckoned by the plaudits or the reactions of the greatest number. I am only just reading KhagenMitra’s AjAt—this is only a splenetic comment on your quotation from Tagore.

2 November 1936


Mystic poetry will ever remain for Tagore mystic and mysterious and occupy a second place.
That is another matter. It is a question of personal idiosyncrasy.
There are people who thrill to Pope and find Keats and Shelley empty and misty. The clear precise intellectual meanings of Pope are to them the height of poetry—the emotional and romantic suggestions of the Skylark or the Ode to the Nightingale unsatisfactory.
How the devil, they ask, can a skylark be a spirit, not a bird? What the hell has “a glow-worm golden in a dell of dew” to do with the song of the skylark? They are unable to feel these things and say Pope would never have written in that incoherent inconsequential way. Of course he wouldn’t. But that simply means they like things that are intellectually clear and can’t appreciate the imaginative connections which reveal what is deeper than the surface. You can, I suppose, catch something of these, but when you are asked to go still deeper into the concrete of concretes, you lose your breath and say “Lord! what an unintelligible mess. Give me an allegorical clue for God’s sake, something superficial, which I can mentally formulate.” Same attitude as the Popists’—in essence.

8 December 1936

Sri Aurobindo

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The only way to come a little close to him is to love him sincerely and give oneself unreservedly to his work. Thus, each one does his best and contributes as much as he can to that transformation of the world which Sri Aurobindo has predicted.

The Mother
(Vol. 12, pp. 398-99)