The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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Public Domain Books


    “And here the singer for his Art
       Not all in vain may plead;
     The song that nerves a nation’s heart
       Is in itself a deed."

After the disastrous defeat of the Athenians before Syracuse, Plutarch tells us that the Sicilians spared those who could repeat any of the poetry of Euripides.

“Some there were,” he says, “who owed their preservation to Euripides. Of all the Grecians, his was the muse with whom the Sicilians were most in love. From the strangers who landed in their island they gleaned every small specimen or portion of his works, and communicated it with pleasure to each other. It is said that upon this occasion a number of Athenians on their return home went to Euripides, and thanked him in the most grateful manner for their obligations to his pen; some having been enfranchised for teaching their masters what they remembered of his poems, and others having procured refreshments, when they were wandering about after the battle, by singing a few of his verses.”

Nowadays we are none of us likely to owe our lives to Poetry in this sense, yet in another we many of us owe to it a similar debt. How often, when worn with overwork, sorrow, or anxiety, have we taken down Homer or Horace, Shakespeare or Milton, and felt the clouds gradually roll away, the jar of nerves subside, the consciousness of power replace physical exhaustion, and the darkness of despondency brighten once more into the light of life.

“And yet Plato,” says Jowett, “expels the poets from his Republic because they are allied to sense; because they stimulate the emotions; because they are thrice removed from the ideal truth.”

In that respect, as in some others, few would accept Plato’s Republic as being an ideal Commonwealth, and most would agree with Sir Philip Sidney that “if you cannot bear the planet-like music of poetry ... I must send you in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favor for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth, for want of an epitaph.”

Poetry has often been compared with painting and sculpture. Simonides long ago said that Poetry is a speaking picture, and painting is mute Poetry.

“Poetry,” says Cousin, “is the first of the Arts because it best represents the infinite.”

And again, “Though the arts are in some respects isolated, yet there is one which seems to profit by the resources of all, and that is Poetry. With words, Poetry can paint and sculpture; she can build edifices like an architect; she unites, to some extent, melody and music. She is, so to say, the center in which all arts unite.”

A true poem is a gallery of pictures.

It must, I think, be admitted that painting and sculpture can give us a clearer and more vivid idea of an object we have never seen than any description can convey. But when we have once seen it, then on the contrary there are many points which the poet brings before us, and which perhaps neither in the representation, nor even in nature, should we perceive for ourselves. Objects can be most vividly brought before us by the artist, actions by the poet; space is the domain of Art, time of Poetry. [1]

Take, for instance, as a typical instance, female beauty. How labored and how cold any description appears. The greatest poets recognize this; as, for instance, when Scott wishes us to realize the Lady of the Lake he does not attempt any description, but just mentions her attitude and then adds–

  “And ne’er did Grecian chisel trace
  A Nymph, a Naiad, or a Grace,
  Of finer form or lovelier face!”

A great poet indeed must be inspired; he must possess an exquisite sense of beauty, and feelings deeper than those of most men, and yet well under his control. “The Milton of poetry is the man, in his own magnificent phrase, of devout prayer to that eternal spirit that can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar, to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.” [2] And if from one point of view Poetry brings home to us the immeasurable inequalities of different minds, on the other hand it teaches us that genius is no affair of rank or wealth.

  “I think of Chatterton, the marvellous boy,
     The sleepless soul, that perish’d in his pride;
   Of Burns, that walk’d in glory and in joy
     Behind his plough upon the mountain-side.” [3]

A man may be a poet and yet write no verse, but not if he writes bad or poor ones.

                        “Mediocribus esse poetis
  Non homines, non Di, non concessere columnae.” [4]

Second-rate poets, like second-rate writers generally, fade gradually into dreamland; but the great poets remain always.

Poetry will not live unless it be alive, “that which comes from the head goes to the heart;” [5] and Milton truly said that “he who would not be frustrate of his hope to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem.”

For “he who, having no touch of the Muses’ madness in his soul, comes to the door and thinks he will get into the temple by the help of Art–he, I say, and his Poetry are not admitted.” [6]

But the work of the true poet is immortal.

“For have not the verses of Homer continued 2500 years or more without the loss of a syllable or a letter, during which time infinite palaces, temples, castles, cities, have been decayed and demolished? It is not possible to have the true pictures or statues of Cyrus, Alexander, Caesar, no, nor of the kings or great personages of much later years; for the originals cannot last, and the copies cannot but lose of the life and truth. But the images of men’s wits and knowledge remain in books, exempted from the wrong of time and capable of perpetual renovation. Neither are they fitly to be called images, because they generate still and cast their seeds in the minds of others, provoking and causing infinite actions and opinions in succeeding ages: so that if the invention of the ship was thought so noble, which carrieth riches and commodities from place to place, and consociateth the most remote regions in participation of their fruits, how much more are letters to be magnified, which, as ships, pass through the vast seas of time and make ages so distant to participate of the wisdom, illuminations, and inventions, the one of the other?” [7]

The poet requires many qualifications. “Who has traced,” says Cousin, “the plan of this poem? Reason. Who has given it life and charm? Love. And who has guided reason and love? The Will.”

 “All men have some imagination, but
  The Lover and the Poet
  Are of imagination all compact.


 “The Poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
  Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
  And as imagination bodies forth
  The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
  Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
  A local habitation and a name.” [8]

Poetry is the fruit of genius; but it cannot be produced without labor. Moore, one of the airiest of poets, tells us that he was a slow and painstaking workman.

The works of our greatest Poets are all episodes in that one great poem which the genius of man has created since the commencement of human history.

A distinguished mathematician is said once to have inquired what was proved by Milton in his Paradise Lost; and there are no doubt still some who ask themselves, even if they shrink from putting the question to others, whether Poetry is of any use, just as if to give pleasure were not useful in itself. No true Utilitarian, however, would feel this doubt, since the greatest happiness of the greatest number is the rule of his philosophy.

“We must not estimate the works of genius merely with reference to the pleasure they afford, even when pleasure was their principal object. We must also regard the intelligence which they presuppose and exercise.” [9]

Thoroughly to enjoy Poetry we must not so limit ourselves, but must rise to a higher ideal.

“Yes; constantly in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds, and should govern our estimate of what we read.” [10]

Cicero, in his oration for Archias, well asked, “Has not this man then a right to my love, to my admiration, to all the means which I can employ in his defence? For we are instructed by all the greatest and most learned of mankind, that education, precepts, and practice, can in every other branch of learning produce excellence. But a poet is formed by the hand of nature; he is aroused by mental vigor, and inspired by what we may call the spirit of divinity itself. Therefore our Ennius has a right to give to poets the epithet of Holy, [11] because they are, as it were, lent to mankind by the indulgent bounty of the gods.”

“Poetry,” says Shelley, “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar; it reproduces all that it represents, and the impersonations clothed in its Elysian light stand thenceforward in the minds of those who have once contemplated them, as memorials of that gentle and exalted content which extends itself over all thoughts and actions with which it co-exists.”

And again, “All high Poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed. A great poem is a fountain forever overflowing with the waters of wisdom and delight.”

Or, as he has expressed himself in his Ode to a Skylark:

    “Higher still and higher
      From the earth thou springest
    Like a cloud of fire;
      The blue deep thou wingest,
  And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

    “Like a poet hidden
      In the light of thought,
    Singing hymns unbidden,
      Till the world is wrought
  To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not.

    “Like a glow-worm golden
      In a dell of dew,
    Scattering unbeholden
      Its aerial hue
  Among the flowers and grass, which screen it from the view.”

We speak now of the poet as the Maker or Creator–[Greek: poiaetaes]; the origin of the word “bard” seems doubtful.

The Hebrews well called their poets “Seers,” for they not only perceive more than others, but also help other men to see much which would otherwise be lost to us. The old Greek word was [Greek: aoidos]–the Bard or Singer.

Poetry lifts the veil from the beauty of the world which would otherwise be hidden, and throws over the most familiar objects the glow and halo of imagination. The man who has a love for Poetry can scarcely fail to derive intense pleasure from Nature, which to those who love it is all “beauty to the eye and music to the ear.”

“Yet Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet-smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too-much-loved earth more lovely.” [12]

In the smokiest city the poet will transport us, as if by enchantment, to the fresh air and bright sun, to the murmur of woods and leaves and water, to the ripple of waves upon sand, and enable us, as in some delightful dream, to cast off the cares and troubles of life.

The poet, indeed, must have more true knowledge, not only of human nature, but of all Nature, than other men are gifted with.

Crabbe Robinson tells us that when a stranger once asked permission to see Wordsworth’s study, the maid said, “This is master’s Library, but he studies in the fields.” No wonder then that Nature has been said to return the poet’s love.

  “Call it not vain;-they do not err
     Who say that, when the poet dies,
   Mute Nature mourns her worshipper,
     And celebrates his obsequies.” [13]

Swinburne says of Blake, and I feel entirely with him, though in my case the application would have been different, that “The sweetness of sky and leaf, of grass and water–the bright light life of bird, child, and beast–is, so to speak, kept fresh by some graver sense of faithful and mysterious love, explained and vivified by a conscience and purpose in the artist’s hand and mind. Such a fiery outbreak of spring, such an insurrection of fierce floral life and radiant riot of childish power and pleasure, no poet or painter ever gave before; such lustre of green leaves and flushed limbs, kindled cloud and fervent fleece, was never wrought into speech or shape.”

To appreciate Poetry we must not merely glance at it, or rush through it, or read it in order to talk or write about it. One must compose oneself into the right frame of mind. Of course for one’s own sake one will read Poetry in times of agitation, sorrow, or anxiety, but that is another matter.

The inestimable treasures of Poetry again are open to all of us. The best books are indeed the cheapest. For the price of a little beer, a little tobacco, we can buy Shakespeare or Milton–or indeed almost as many books as a man can read with profit in a year.

Nor, in considering the advantage of Poetry to man, must we limit ourselves to its past or present influence. The future of Poetry, says Mr. Matthew Arnold, and no one was more qualified to speak, “The future of Poetry is immense, because in Poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. But for Poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious Poetry. We should conceive of Poetry worthily, and more highly than it has been the custom to conceive of it. We should conceive of it as capable of higher uses, and called to higher destinies than those which in general men have assigned to it hitherto.”

Poetry has been well called the record “of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds;” it is the light of life, the very “image of life expressed in its eternal truth;” it immortalizes all that is best and most beautiful in the world; “it purges from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being;” “it is the center and circumference of knowledge;” and poets are “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity caste upon the present.”

Poetry, in effect, lengthens life; it creates for us time, if time be realized as the succession of ideas and not of minutes; it is the “breath and finer spirit of all knowledge;” it is bound neither by time nor space, but lives in the spirit of man. What greater praise can be given than the saying that life should be Poetry put into action.

[1] See Lessing’s Laocooen.

[2] Arnold.

[3] Coleridge.

[4] Horace.

[5] Wordsworth.

[6] Plato.

[7] Bacon.

[8] Shakespeare.

[9] St. Hailare.

[10] Arnold.

[11] Plato styles poets the sons and interpreters of the gods.

[12] Sydney, Defence of Poetry.

[13] Scott.



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