restricted access The Possibility of a Poetic Drama
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278 ] The Possibility of a Poetic Drama1 The questions – why there is no poetic drama to-day, how the stage has lost all hold on literary art, why so many poetic plays are written which can only be read, and read, if at all, without pleasure – have become insipid, almost academic. The usual conclusion is either that “conditions” are too much for us, or that we really prefer other types of literature, or simply that we are uninspired. As for the last alternative, it is not to be entertained; as for the second, what type do we prefer? ; and as for the first, no one has ever shown me “conditions,” except of the most superficial. The reasons for raising the question again are first that the majority, perhaps, certainly a large number, of poets hanker for the stage; and second, that a not negligible public appears to want verse plays. Surely there is some legitimate craving, not restricted to a few persons, which only the verse play can satisfy. And surely the critical attitude is to attempt to analyse the conditions and the other data. If there comes to light some conclusive obstacle, the investigation should at least help us to turn our thoughts to more profitable pursuits ; and if there isnot,wemayhope toarriveeventually atsomestatement of conditions which might be altered. Possibly we shall find that our incapacity has a deeper source: the arts have at times flourished when there was no drama; possibly we are incompetent altogether; in that case the stage will be, not the seat, but at all events a symptom, of the malady. From the point of view of literature, the drama is only one among several poetic forms. The epic, the ballad, the chanson de geste, the forms of Provence and of Tuscany, all found their perfection by serving particular societies. The forms of Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, served a society different , and in some respects more civilized, than any of these; and in the society of Ovid the drama as a form of art was comparatively insignificant.2 Nevertheless, the drama is perhaps the most permanent, is capable of greater variation and of expressing more varied types of society, than any other. It varied considerably in England alone; but when one day it was discovered lifeless, subsequent forms which had enjoyed a transitory life were dead too. I am not prepared to undertake the historical survey; but I should say that the poetic drama’s autopsy was performed as much by Charles Lamb as by anyone else. For a form is not wholly dead until it is [ 279 The Possibility of a Poetic Drama known to be; and Lamb, by exhuming the remains of dramatic life at its fullest, brought a consciousness of the immense gap between present and past.3 It was impossible to believe, after that, in a dramatic “tradition.” The relation of Byron’s English Bards and the poems of Crabbe to the work of Pope was a continuous tradition; but the relation of The Cenci to the great English drama is almost that of a reconstruction to an original.4 By losing tradition, we lose our hold on the present; but so far as there was any dramatic tradition in Shelley’s day there was nothing worth the keeping. There is all the difference between preservation and restoration. The Elizabethan Age in England was able to absorb a great quantity of new thoughts and new images, almost dispensing with tradition, because it had this great form of its own which imposed itself on everything that came to it. Consequently, the blank verse of their plays accomplished a subtlety and consciousness, even an intellectual power, that no blank verse since has developed or even repeated; elsewhere this age is crude, pedantic, or loutish in comparison with its contemporary France or Italy. The nineteenth century had a good many fresh impressions; but it had no form in which to confine them. Two men, Wordsworth and Browning, hammered out forms for themselves – personal forms, The Excursion, Sordello, The Ring and the Book, Dramatic Monologues; but no man can invent a form, create a taste for it, and perfect it too.5† Tennyson, who might unquestionably have been a consummate master of minor forms, took to turning out large patterns on a machine. As for Keats and Shelley, they were too young to be judged, and they were trying one form after another. These poets were certainly obliged to consume vast energy in this pursuit...