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THE FUNCTION OF POETRY JosEPH WARREN BEACH MY subject is imaginative literature. Criticism I do not here propose. That is another question, a later step, beset with difficulties innumerable. The question I now wish to raise in regard to literature is, very simply, this: What is it for? Why write books and read them? What does it do for us? In short, what function does it┬Ěserve? . The word function may have a rather forbidding sound in this connection. But I know of no other word that expresses so exactly what we liave in mind. The function of any bodily organ is the sort of operation it is fitted to perform. Now what sort of operation , psychologically speaking, is it that literature performs in us as readers? Psycholog)cally speaking. It is important to have in mind that we are discussing a question in psychology. We must consider that literature is not a matter of the head alone; it has a broader and deeper basis in the human organism, the human personality taken as a whole. There is a close and intimate connection between thought and action in all the operations of the psyche. Behaviour, conduct- the functioning of us as human beings geared to action. That notion is essential to any theory of literature that is not to be shallow. Literature is a stiff word; so is creative writing. Suppose we use the word poetry, which suggests a more vivid and fundamental activity than mere literature. But if I say poetry, I mean the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen, the novels of Hardy and Thomas Mann, as well as the poems of Byron and Poe. And the question is: What does poetry do for us-what is its function in our psychology? The most famous account of the function of poetry is that of Aristotle, which has the advantage of being frankly psychological. Aristotle, it will be remembered, attributes the making of poetry to two primary impulses: the impulse to melody and rhythm, and the impulse we have to imitate. To gratify these impulses gives pleasure; and this pleasure is evidently for Aristotle enough to justify the practice of the poetic art. The English critics have agreed that pleasure is one of the main objects of poetry; but with their practical and moralistic bias, they generally add some reference 483 484 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY to profit or truth as another object. So that poetry often would seem to be with them a branch of morality or a branch of science. The shallowness of the eighteenth-century critics in their treatment of this subject seems to stem from two tactical errors of Aristotle-his choice of the word pleasure, and his limiting of poetic activity to the imitation of nature. In both cases he probably meant something more in keeping with modern psychology; that is indicated in the theory of catharsis. But his phrases are open to misunderstanding. Imitation of nature. One might suppose that the sole business of the poet was to make a faithful copy of what he finds outside of himself, as if he did not participate actively in the creative process. The emphasis falls on what we might call the scientific aspect of the transaction, the recording of facts, and not enough on the psychological aspect-the poet's personal reaction to whatever facts present themselves. Such a personal reaction does occur in the making of a good poem-a movement in which the whole of the poet's emotional being is involved. It is more than an imitation of something outside; it is an expression of the personality of the human being who makes the poem, and of him who reads it with appreciation. Thus the making and reading of poetry-as of any art-may be conceived of as a form of experience. This conception has been developed by thinkers in our time, like Richards and Dewey. Both of these men assume that the artistic activity is of one nature with human behaviour in general. It is grounded, therefore, in the impulses to action which, taken together, make up the human personality. Ordinary behaviour is of course not the same as the...


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pp. 483-490
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