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A Study of Poetry

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It is a gray day in autumn. I am sitting at my desk, wondering how to begin the first chapter of this book about poetry. Outside the window a woman is contentedly kneeling on the upturned brown earth of her tulip-bed, patting lovingly with her trowel as she covers the bulbs for next spring's blossoming. Does she know Katharine Tynan's verses about "Planting Bulbs"? Probably not. But I find myself dropping the procrastinating pen, and murmuring some of the lines:

  "Setting my bulbs a-row    In cold earth under the grasses,  Till the frost and the snow    Are gone and the Winter passes—

* * * * *

  "Turning the sods and the clay    I think on the poor sad people  Hiding their dead away    In the churchyard, under the steeple.

  "All poor women and men,    Broken-hearted and weeping,  Their dead they call on in vain,    Quietly smiling and sleeping.

  "Friends, now listen and hear,    Give over crying and grieving,  There shall come a day and a year    When the dead shall be as the living.

  "There shall come a call, a foot-fall,    And the golden trumpeters blowing  Shall stir the dead with their call,    Bid them be rising and going.

  "Then in the daffodil weather,    Lover shall run to lover;  Friends all trooping together;    Death and Winter be over.

  "Laying my bulbs in the dark,    Visions have I of hereafter.  Lip to lip, breast to breast, hark!    No more weeping, but laughter!"

Yet this is no way to start your chapter, suggests Conscience. Why do you not write an opening paragraph, for better for worse, instead of looking out of the window and quoting Katharine Tynan? And then it flashes over me, in lieu of answer, that I have just discovered one way of beginning the chapter, after all! For what I should like to do in this book is to set forth in decent prose some of the strange potencies of verse: its power, for instance, to seize upon a physical image like that of a woman planting bulbs, and transmute it into a symbol of the resurrection of the dead; its capacity for turning fact into truth and brown earth into beauty; for remoulding the broken syllables of human speech into sheer music; for lifting the mind, bowed down by wearying thought and haunting fear, into a brooding ecstasy wherein weeping is changed into laughter and autumnal premonitions of death into assurance of life, and the narrow paths of individual experience are widened into those illimitable spaces where the imagination rules. Poetry does all this, assuredly. But how? And why? That is our problem.

"The future of poetry is immense," declared Matthew Arnold, and there are few lovers of literature who doubt his triumphant assertion. But the past of poetry is immense also: impressive in its sheer bulk and in its immemorial duration. At a period earlier than any recorded history, poetry seems to have occupied the attention of men, and some of the finest spirits in every race that has attained to civilization have devoted themselves to its production, or at least given themselves freely to the enjoyment of reciting and reading verse, and of meditating upon its significance....