Poetry, Poets, and Critics: C19 Quotations

by Alfred J. Drake

Adam Smith, late C18

In opulent and commercial societies to think or to reason comes to be, like every other employment, a particular business, which is carried on by a very few people, who furnish the public with all the thought and reason possessed by the vast multitudes that labour.

[Art will be] purchased, in the same manner as shoes or stockings, from those whose business it is to make up and prepare for the market that particular species of goods.

William Wordsworth, 1798

The knowledge both of the poet and the man of science is pleasure; but the knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition, slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow beings. The man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science. Emphatically may it be said of the poet, as Shakespeare hath said of man, "that he looks before and after." He is the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time . . Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge -- it is as immortal as the heart of man . . If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man. (from "Preface to the Lyrical Ballads" in Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised edition. ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt, 1992. 442. Italics mine.)

Beau Brummell, Regency Period (1820-30)

To his servant, upon being asked by a visitor about his preferences concerning the English "Lake District" made famous by William Wordsworth's poetry: "Robinson, which lake do I prefer?"

Thomas Love Peacock, 1820

While the historian and the philosopher are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age . . A poet in our times is a semibarbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward. The brighter the light diffused around him by the progress of reason, the thicker is the darkness of antiquated barbarism, in which he buries himself like a mole, to throw up the barren hillocks of his Cimmerian labors. The philosophic mental tranquillity which looks round with an equal eye on all external things, collects a store of ideas, discriminates their relative value, assigns to all their proper place, and from the materials of useful knowledge thus collected, appreciated, and arranged, forms new combinations that impress the stamp of their power and utility on the real business of life, is diametrically the reverse of that frame of mind which poetry inspires, or from which poetry can emanate. The highest inspirations of poetry are resolvable into three ingredients: the rant of unregulated passion, the whining of exaggerated feeling, and the cant of factitious sentiment . . (from "The Four Ages of Poetry" in Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised edition. ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt, 1992. 514.)

Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1821

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (from "A Defence of Poetry." Shelley's Prose. ed. David Lee Clark. New York: New Amsterdam, 1988. 297.)

Thomas Carlyle, 1841

Nay, apart from spiritualities; and considering him [i.e. Shakespeare] merely as a real, marketable, tangibly useful possession. England, before long, this Island of ours, will hold but a small fraction of the English: in America, in New Holland, east and west to the very Antipodes, there will be a Saxondom covering great spaces of the Globe. And now, what is it that can keep all these together into virtually one Nation, so that they do not fall out and fight, but live at peace, in brotherlike intercourse, helping one another? This is justly regarded as the greatest practical problem, the thing all manner of sovereignties and governments are here to accomplish: what is it that will accomplish this? Acts of Parliament, administrative prime-ministers cannot . . Here, I say, is an English King, whom no time or chance, Parliament or combination of Parliaments, can dethrone! This King Shakspeare, does not he shine, in crowned sovereignty, over us all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying-signs . . ? (from "The Hero as Poet" in On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. ed. Michael K. Goldberg. Berkeley: UC Press, 1993. 96-97.)

Matthew Arnold, 1864

Arnold on the critic, who has, in his theory, more or less replaced the poet as "prophet":

The mass of mankind will never have any ardent zeal for seeing for seeing things as they are; very inadequate ideas will always satisfy them. On these inadequate ideas reposes, and must repose, the general practice of the world. That is as much as saying that whoever sets himself to see things as they are will find himself one of a very small circle; but it is only by this small circle resolutely doing its own work that adequate ideas will ever get current at all . . I say, the critic must keep out of the region of immediate practice in the political, social, humanitarian sphere, if he wants to make a beginning for that more free speculative treatment of things, which may perhaps one day make its benefits felt even in this sphere, but in a natural and thence irresistible manner. (from "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time" in Critical Theory Since Plato. Revised edition. ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt, 1992. 599.)

Oscar Wilde, 1889

. . Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life . . Life holds the mirror up to Art, and either reproduces some strange type imagined by painter or sculptor, or realises in fact what has been dreamed in fiction. Scientifically speaking, the basis of life -- the energy of life, as Aristotle would call it -- is simply the desire for expression, and Art is always presenting various forms through which the expression can be attained . . Think of what we owe to the imitation of Christ, of what we owe to the imitation of Caesar.

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? . . The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of Art . . For what is Nature? Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life. Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us. (from "The Decay of Lying" in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. ed. Vyvyan Holland. New York: Harper, 1966. repr. 1989.)