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THE VITAL ELEMENT IN POETRY
DUT for the barbarity of the title, this essay might have
U been called ' Vitamines in Poetry. The word is a new one but expressive. Not very long after the chemists had anatomised our food and shown—to their own satisfaction, at any rate—what are the elements upon which we live, some strange facts—tiresome to the men of science because they tended to upset their theories, but of the greatest importance to hungering, thirsting man—were discovered. Science had proclaimed with trumpet voice that man cannot live without so many grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and had shown what foods possessed these constituent parts, and what did not. But in spite of this scientific dogmatism it was apparent that there were large numbers of people in different parts of the globe who were contentedly living and thriving on foods which ought to have proved entirely insufficient for human sustenance, and that there were other people failing to live upon what ought to have been fully sufficient.
At first the food experts were perplexed and inclined to take the view that if people could not or would not live according to the table of food values, the sooner the world was relieved of their presence the better. This, however, was an unsatisfactory way of getting out of the difficulty; and ultimately a German professor, with the engaging name of Casimir Funk, found a solution of the problem. He called in a new element to redress the balance. A student of the great Funk has described the situation with a mixture of candour and ingenuity which is distinctly entertaining.
With the lapse of time the importance of "quality" as well as quantity has gradually dawned upon us, and we now know that food must contain not only proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, but certain definite kinds of these principles, together with small quantities of mineral salts, if it is to be considered satisfactory from the maintenance-of-health point of view. If the protein element, for instance, is deficient in certain amino-acids, especially in aromatic amino-acids, such as tyrosine and tryptophane, no super-abundance of other amino-acid constituents will compensate for the deficiency, and the food is unable to maintain the integrity of the living tissues.'
Then comes the heroic confession :
'The essential factors of a complete diet are therefore more numerous than was formerly suspected, and the recognition of the limitation of the synthetic powers of the living organism has suggested the possibility that other substances may be present in the food-occurring, it may be, in only small quantities—which are nevertheless absolutely indispensable, whose withdrawal from the diet would be attended with eventually fatal results.'
For these 'absolutely indispensable' but unanalysable substances the name 'vitamines' was suggested. They save the situation, by enabling us to live and to die according to scientific principles, and to borrow a phrase from Pope if we starve to starve by rules of art!
It may be suggested that there is a close analogy between the food values of the body and the food values of the mind, and that this analogy specially holds good in regard to poetry. Hitherto, like the men of science of the past generation, we have been content with an imperfect analysis of poetry. We have ignored the existence of' vitamines' in verse. In our analysis we have declared that certain poems must be good, because they conformed to certain literary standards by which the critics have ordained that poetic excellence shall be measured, although we have known all the time that they were hopelessly bad owing to lack of some indefinable quality. On the other hand we have condemned on technical literary grounds poems which were in reality alive and life-giving, thanks to this element which we cannot define or analyse. Until we recognise that there are' vitamines ' in poetry as there are in food, and until we draw the necessary conclusions, we cannot hope to understand why certain poetry which appears to be trivial may move us deeply, while certain other poetry, which on the most careful and minute analysis is in every technical respect good, 'flaunts and goes down an unregarded thing.'
Doubtless in a sense there is very little that is new in this statement. We have known the fact all along without having given it so scientific a name. All lovers of poetry have always felt in their bones, if they have not expressed it in set terms, that the poetry which has one or two atoms of the true gold in it is infinitely more valuable than all the silver verse in the world. Men have sought the true gold high and low, putting up with a great amount of copper and other alloys
and even baser admixtures, but fully satisfied if they could find some trace of the authentic treasure. If once that were discovered, the genuine lovers of true poetry have been willing to leave to the exacter critics all the ponderous excellencies of verse that lacked the vital element. “Better is a dinner of herbs
where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.' Better a rough song in which there is life, than the most stately and correct epic that suggests the stillness of death. Blessed are they who can combine with the vital element the glories of rhetoric and ornament, the felicity of phrase, and all the splendid pageantries of sound and rhythm, who can eliminate every vulgarity of thought and language, every solecism and every imperfection born of hurry and ignorance, who can be noble of mood and yet retain life and energy!
To illustrate these general propositions I propose to give in the first place examples of poetry where the subject is apparently unfitted for poetic treatment, or where the manner is tiresome or even actually bad, but where the situation is triumphantly saved by the presence of the undefinable element which gives life. Next, illustration must be given of poetry that apparently obeys all the reasonable rules of the critics as to what is good and what is bad, but remains worthless as poetry because the vital element has been left out-or, in some cases, has been polished out of existence. Of this last mentioned defect we have an exact food analogy in the case of rice. Unpolished rice is a thing upon which human beings can live and thrive ; polished rice, which has so fair an appearance, has been devitalised by the polishing to such an extent that the attempt to live upon it sends people to their graves. It has thus been discovered that the vital element in rice is stored in the dull-looking outer skin, and if that skin is removed, the rice no longer suffices as a human food.
As a first example take the case of verse applied to an apparently impossible subject, and yet remaining poetry because it possesses the vital element. Imagine a politician' orating' on Reconstruction after the War, and arguing that it will be absolutely necessary, if we are to produce sound economic conditions, to reform our road system, to rebuild our piers, to deepen our harbours, to dredge out our rivers, to remodel our bridges, protect our coasts from erosion, and reclaim land on our foreshores, Such a list of public improvements, ending with a peroration on the felicity of Peace and the true Imperialism, would be excellent material for a speech by the Chairman of the Development Commission ; but no one would venture to suggest that it was a fit subject for poetry, or could be rendered into even tolerable verse. Yet Pope has performed this miracle, though Pope is the poet who is supposed to live because he is correct.' He really lives because he has that touch of vitality which makes up for his many otherwise fatal defects in taste, grammar, and humanity. Writing in a period of war, closed by Peace, and of necessary Reconstruction, he fires with the true poetic passion the dreary catalogue of the practical politician :
* Bid Harbours open, public Ways extend,
Equally unlikely to satisfy those desires which we want satisfied when hungering for verse would seem a poem dealing with the technicalities of garden architecture. And yet so full of' vitamines 'is Pope's work that he makes even this technical subject vibrate with life and passion :
• To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
Consult the Genius of the Place in all ;
One more example from Pope to show again how out of a subject of the dullest, dryest, least inspiring kind, and moreover one which he was peculiarly unfitted to handle, real poetry can be produced. Pope fancied himself as a theologian and philosopher, but the world has long ago decided that in neither sphere was his opinion worth having. And who can doubt that the world was right? Yet, in spite of his want of true religious feeling and want of learning, his verse is alive. Take the famous passage towards the end of “The Dunciad,' wherewith little or no excuse from the scheme of his poem and at the cost of doing violence to his own views—he turns with something approaching savagery upon the latitudinarians of his day and bela bours them and the opponents of mysticism as they have never been belaboured before or since:
• Be that my task (replies a gloomy Clerk,
If anyone will take the trouble to analyse this passage, in the sort of way that Dr. Johnson on the one hand, and Matthew
VOL, 226, NO: 462.