A Note on Poetry and Belief
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18 ] A Note on Poetry and Belief The Enemy, 1 (Jan 1927) 15-17 In an essay of very great interest published in The Criterion for July, 1925, I. A. Richards did me the honour of employing one of my poems as evidence on behalf of a theory he was there expounding.1 He observed, in a footnote, that the author in question, “by effecting a complete separation between his poetry and all beliefs, and this without any weakening of the poetry, has realised what might otherwise have remained largely a speculative possibility.” This footnote is explicatory of the following sentence in the text: A sense of desolation, of uncertainty, of futility, of the baselessness of aspirations, of the vanity of endeavour, and a thirst for a life-giving water which seems suddenly to have failed, are the signs in consciousness of this necessary reorganisation of our lives. [520] I do not believe that an author is more qualified to elucidate the esoteric significance of his own work, than is any other person of training and sensibility and at least equal intelligence. I renounce any advantage over Mr. Richards in the interpretation of the poem in question. His remark interests me enormously, quite apart from its application to my own work; and I could wish indeed that he might have used for his instance some other man’s poem rather than mine, so that I might discuss the question with more freedom. For the question is new and is important and is extremely interesting.2 Even where beliefs are not made explicit, how far can any poetry be detached from the beliefs of the poet?3 I have gathered from Mr. Richards in subsequent conversations – unluckily he is abroad and I cannot appeal to him for correction before publishing this note – that he looks forward to a possible development of the human mind in which sensibility and intellect will in some way be separated, in which “belief ” will consist in the provisional assent given to tenable scientific hypotheses, and in which sensibility will no longer be hampered by the restrictions of what happens to be felt as true at any particular time. We were agreed, I believe, on one point: that in the history of literature feeling and emotion had been altered, and at certain [ 19 A Note on Poetry and Belief times diminished, by whatever at the time it was inevitable to consider real or true. Mr. Richards’s view, partly as expressed in the essay quoted, appears to be that there is now a steady and invincible march of science which will leave less and less nourishment for poetry; so that the poetic sensibility, if it is to survive at all (of which he is doubtful) will have to aliment itself from nothing.4 The point at which I disagree with Mr. Richards is this: Mr. Richards seems to me to be slightly under the sentimental influence of Matthew Arnold, whom he pertinently quotes at the head of his article; wandering betweentwoworlds,onedead,etc.5 Hespeaksasif,uptoacertainmoment, perhaps about sixty years ago, the world had lain dreaming placidly in religious faith, and had then waked suddenly (perhaps hit by the “snowball of science” of which he speaks) to find itself inadequately clad in an environment which had changed its climate.6 He speaks, that is, as if people had always believed the same things in the same way. (I am sure that I have travestied his thought, but I must stick to what he seems to mean.) But I am convinced – even from the study of the history of poetry alone – and I think that the history of Christian dogma could be made to support the view – that belief itself has been in constant mutation (not always progress, from any point of view) from the beginning of civilisation. To limit ourselves to Christian belief, there is religious verse in the 13th century, in the 17th, and in the 19th centuries.7 It would be rash to say that the belief of Christina Rossetti was not as strong as that of Crashaw,8 or that of Crashaw as strong as that of Dante; and among the propositions believed by these persons there must be a number of dogmas, expressed in substantially the same words, believed heartily by all three; nevertheless they are all as different from each other as they are from myself. As for the poem of my own in question, I cannot for the life of me...