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VERBAL MAGIC

A MUSIC-LOVER and devoted concert-goer of my acquaintance — “uninstructed, but sensitive,” to characterize him in his own words — is accustomed to say that he distinguishes several kinds of enjoyable music. One kind is interesting: here he puts the work of composers so unlike as Berlioz and Brahms. Another kind is exciting; under which head he ranks the greater part of Wagner and the Bach fugues! And still another kind is charming. Whenever he uses this last epithet, he adds an explanation, the word being now so worn by indiscriminate handling as hardly to pass by itself at its full face value. He means that the music thus described — heavenly music, he sometimes calls it (of which his typical example seems to be Schubert’s unfinished symphony) — has upon him an indescribable ravishing effect, as if it really and literally charmed him. Exactly why this should be, he does not profess to decide. All such compositions are highly melodious and in some good degree simple; but then there is plenty of other excellent music to which the same terms seem to be equally applicable, which nevertheless lays him under no such spell. “I don’t undertake to explain it,” he says; “so far as I am concerned, it is all a matter of feeling.”

Analogous to this is my own experience — and, I suppose, that of readers in general — with certain fragments of poetry, which have for me an ineffable and apparently inexhaustible charm. Other poetry is beautiful, enjoyable, stimulating, everything that poetry ought to be, except that it lacks this final something which, not to leave it absolutely without a name, we may call magic. Whatever it be called, it pertains not to any poet’s work as a whole, nor in strictness, I think, to any poem as a whole, but to single verses or couplets. And to draw the line still closer, verse of this magical quality — though here, to be sure, I may be disclosing nothing but my own intellectual limitations — is discoverable only in the work of a certain few poets.

The secret of the charm is past finding out: so I like to believe, at all events. Magic is magic; if it could be explained, it would be something else; to use the word is to confess the thing beyond us. Such verses were never written to order or by force of will, since genius and our old friend — or enemy — “an infinite capacity for taking pains,” so far from being one, are not even distantly related. The poet himself could never tell how such perfection was wrought or whence it came; nor is its natural history to be made out by any critic. The best we can do with it is to enjoy it, thankful to have our souls refreshed and our taste purified by its “heavenly alchemy;” as the best that our musical friend can do with the unfinished symphony is to surrender himself to its fascination, and be carried by it, as I have heard him more than once express himself, up to “heaven’s gate.”

And yet it is not in human nature to forego the asking of questions. The mind will have its inquisitive moods, and sometimes it loves to play, in a kind of make-believe, with mysteries which it has no thought of solving, — a harmless and perhaps not unprofitable exercise, if entered upon modestly and pursued without illusions. We may wonder over things that interest us, and even go so far as to talk about them, though we have no expectation of saying anything either new or final.

Take, then, the famous lines from Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper:”

“Will no one tell me what she sings? —
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.”

The final couplet of this stanza is a typical example of what is here meant by verbal magic. I am heartily of Mr. Swinburne’s mind when he says of it, “In the whole expanse of poetry there can hardly be two verses of more perfect and profound and exalted beauty;” although my own slender acquaintance with literature as a whole would not have justified me in so sweeping a mode of speech. The utmost that I could have ventured to say would have been that I knew of no lines more supremely, indescribably, perennially beautiful. Nor can I sympathize with Mr. Courthope in his contention that the lines are nothing in themselves, but depend for their “high quality” upon their association with the image of the solitary reaper. On such a point the human consciousness may possibly not be infallible; but at all events, it is the best ground we have to go on, and unless I am strangely deluded, my own delight is in the verses themselves, and not merely nor mainly in their setting. Yet of what cheap and common materials they are composed, and how artlessly they are put together! Nine every-day words, such as any farmer might use, not a fine word among them, following each other in the most unstudied manner — and the result perfection!

By the side of this example let us put another, equally familiar, from Shakespeare:   

                                    “We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Here, too, all the elements are of the plainest and commonest; and yet these few short, homely words, every one in its natural prose order, and not over-musical, — “such stuff” and “little life” being almost cacophonous, — have a magical force, if I may presume for once to speak in Mr. Swinburne’s tone, unsurpassable in the whole range of literature. We hear them, if we do hear them, and all things earthly seem to melt and vanish.

Not unlike them in their sudden effectiveness is a casual expression of Burke’s. Por in prose also, and even in a political pamphlet, if the pamphleteer have a genius for words, an inspired and unexpected phrase (and inspired phrases are always unexpected, that being one mark of their divinity) may take the spirit captive. Thus, while Burke is talking about the troubles of the time, being now in the opposition, and blaming the government as in duty bound, suddenly he lets fall the words, “Rank, and office, and title, and all the solemn plausibilities of the world;” and for me, I know not whether others may be similarly affected, politics and government are gone, an “insubstantial pageant faded.” “All the solemn plausibilities of the world,” I say to myself, and for the present, though I am hardly beyond the first page of the pamphlet, I care not to read further; like Emerson at the play, who had ears for nothing more after Hamlet’s question to the ghost: 

                               “What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon?”

I am writing simply as a lover of poetry, “uninstructed, but sensitive,” not as a critic, having no semblance of claim to that exalted title, — among the very highest, to my thinking, as the men who wear it worthily are among the rarest; great critics, to this date, having been fewer even than great poets; but I believe, or think I believe, in the saying of one of the brightest of modern Frenchmen: “Le bon critique est celui qui raconte les aventures de son âme au milieu des chefs-d’œuvre.” So I delight in this adventure of Emerson’s mind in the midst of “Hamlet,” as I do also in a similar one of Wordsworth’s, who was wont to say, as reported by Hazlitt, that he could read Milton’s description of Satan —

                                            “Nor appeared
Less than Archangel ruined, and the excess
Of glory obscured’ —

till he felt “a certain faintness come over his mind from a sense of beauty and grandeur.”

One thing, surely, we may say about verse of this miraculous quality: it does not appeal first or principally to the ear; it is almost never rich in melodic beauty, as such beauty is commonly estimated. It is musical, no doubt, but after a secret manner of its own. Alliteration, assonance, a pleasing alternation and interchange of vowel sounds, all such crafty niceties are hidden, if not absent altogether, — so completely hidden that the reader never thinks of them as either present or absent.1 The appeal is to the imagination, not to the ear, and more is suggested than said. Such lines, along with their simplicity of language, may well have something of mysteriousness. Yet they must not puzzle the mind. The mystery must not be of the smaller sort, that provokes questions. If the curiosity is teased in the slightest to discover what the words mean, the spell is broken. There is no enchantment in a riddle.

Neither is there charm in an epigram, be it never so happy, nor in any conceit or play upon words.

“I could not love thee, Dear! so much,
 Loved I not Honor more,” —

nothing of this kind, perfect as it is, will answer the test. Mere cleverness might compass a thing like that. Indeed, the very cleverness of it, its courtly gracefulness, its manner (one seems to see the bodily inflection and the wave of the hand that go with the phrase), the spice of smartness in it, are enough to remove it instantly out of the magic circle. Magical verse is neither pretty nor clever. It speaks not of itself. If you think of it, the charm has failed.

In my own case, in lines that are magical to me, the suggestion or picture is generally of something remote from the present, a calling up of deeds long done and men long vanished, or else a foreboding of that future day when all things will be past; a suggestion or picture that brings an instant soberness, — reverie, melancholy, what you will, — that is the most delicious fruit of recollection. It suits with this idea that the verse has mostly a slow, meditative movement, produced, if the reader chooses to pick it to pieces, by long vowels and natural pauses, or by final and initial consonants standing opposite each other, and, between them, holding the words apart; such a movement as that of the Wordsworth couplet first quoted,

 “For old, unhappy, far-off things,
  And battles long ago,” —

or as that of the still more familiar slow-running line from the sonnets of Shakespeare, 

“Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang,”

a movement that not merely harmonizes with the complexion of the thought, but heightens it to an extraordinary degree. Not that the poet wrote with that end consciously in view, or altered a syllable to secure it. Wordsworth’s lines, it is safe guessing, were for this time given to him, and dropped upon the paper as they are, faultless beyond even his too meddlesome desire to alter and amend. Indeed, in this as in all the best verse, it is not the metrical structure that produces the imaginative result, but exactly the opposite.

And here, as I think, we may gather a hint as to the impassable gulf that separates inspired poetry from the very highest verse of the next lower order. Take such a dainty bit of musical craftiness as this, the first that offers itself for the purpose: —

“The splendor falls on castle walls
     And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
     And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.”

Admirable after its kind, a kind of which it might seem unfair to say that less is meant than meets the ear; but set it beside the Wordsworth couplet, so easy, so simple, 

“Without all ornament, itself and true,” —

so inevitable and yet so impossible. One is cheap in its materials, but divine in its birth and in its effect; the other is made of rare and costly stuffs, but when all is done it is made. Though it sound old-fashioned to say so, there is no art like inspiration.

The supreme achievement of poetic genius is not the writing of beautiful passages, but the conception and evolution of great poems, — the whole, even in a work of the imagination, being greater than any of its parts; but poetic inspiration reaches its highest jet, if we may so speak, its ultimate bloom, in occasional lines of transcendent and, as human judgment goes, perfect loveliness. I should like to see a rigorously sifted collection of such fragments, an anthology of magical verse, nothing less than magic being admitted. It would be a small volume,

“Infinite riches in a little room;”

but it would need an inspired reader to make it.
____________________________

1 Is there a possible connection between this fact and the further one that really magical lines are seldom or never to be found in the work of the more distinctively musical poets, — say in Coleridge, Shelley, Tennyson, and Swinburne?


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