Poetry is the gay science. The trait and test of the poet is that he builds, adds, and affirms. The critic destroys: the poet says nothing but what helps somebody; let others be distracted with cares, he is exempt. All their pleasures are tinged with pain. All his pains are edged with pleasure. The gladness he imparts he shares. As one of the old Minnesingers sung,
Oft have I heard, and now believe it true, Whom man delights in, God delights in too.’
Poetry is the consolation of mortal men. They live cabined, cribbed, confined, in a narrow and trivial lot, in wants, pains, anxieties, and superstitions, in profligate politics, in personal animosities, in mean employments, and victims of these; and the nobler powers untried, unknown. A poet comes, who lifts the veil; gives them glimpses of the laws of the universe; shows them the circumstance as illusion; shows that nature is only a language to express the laws, which are grand and beautiful, and lets them, by his songs, into some of the realities. Socrates; the Indian teachers of the Maia; the Bibles of the nations; Shakspeare, Milton, Hafiz,
Ossian, the Welsh Bards, these all deal with nature and history as means and symbols, and not as ends. With such guides they begin to see that what they had called pictures are realities, and the mean life is pictures. And this is achieved by words; for it is a few oracles spoken by perceiving men that are the texts on which religions and states are founded. And this perception has at once its moral sequence. Ben Jonson said, `The principal end of poetry is to inform men in the just reason of living.’
Nothing so marks a man as imaginative expressions. A figurative statement arrests attention, and is remembered and repeated. How often has a phrase of this kind made a reputation. Pythagoras’s Golden Sayings were such, and Socrates’, and Mirabeau’s, and Burke’s, and Bonaparte’s.
Great design belongs to a poem, and is better than any skill of execution, but how rare! I find it in the poems of Wordsworth, Laodamia, and the Ode to Dion, and the plan of The Recluse. We want design, and do not forgive the bards if they have only the art of enameling. We want an architect, and they bring us an upholsterer.
If your subject does not appear to you the flower of the world at this moment, you have not rightly chosen it.
You shall not read newspapers, nor politics, nor novels, nor Montaigne, nor the newest French book. You may read Plutarch, Plato, Plotinus, Hindoo mythology, and ethics. You may read Chaucer, Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, Milton, and Milton’s prose as his verse; read Collins and Gray; read Hafiz and the Trouveurs; nay, Welsh and British mythology of Arthur, and (in your ear) Ossian; fact-books, which all geniuses prize as raw material, and as antidote to verbiage and false poetry. Fact-books, if the facts be well and thoroughly told, are much more nearly allied to poetry than many books are that are written in rhyme…. Every book is good to read which sets the reader in a working mood. The deep book, no matter how remote the subject, helps us best.
The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself, and all things.
I have found my advantage in going to a hotel with a task which could not prosper at home. I secured so a more absolute solitude…. At home, the day is cut up into short strips. In the hotel, I forget rain, wind, cold, and heat. At home, I remember in my library the wants of the farm, and have all too much sympathy. I envy the abstraction of some scholars I have known…. All the conditions must be right for my success, slight as that is. What untunes is as bad as what cripples or stuns me.
Therefore, I extol the prudence of Carlyle, who, for years, projected a library at the top of his house, high above the orbit of all housemaids, and out of earshot of doorbells. Could that be once secured, a whole floor, room for books, and a good bolt, he could hope for six years of history, and he kept it in view till it was done….