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Critical Essays By Amy Lowell Essay, Research Paper
WHY WE SHOULD READ POETRY
WHY should one read Poetry? That seems to me a good deal like
asking: Why should one eat? One eats because one has to, to support life, but every time
one sits down to dinner one does not say, ‘I must eat this meal so that I may not
die.’ On the contrary, we eat because we are hungry, and so eating appears to us as a
pleasant and desirable thing to do.
The necessity for poetry is one of the most fundamental traits of the human race. But
naturally we do not take that into account, any more than we take into account that
dinner, and the next day again, dinner, is the condition of our remaining alive. Without
poetry the soul and heart of man starves and dies. The only difference between them is
that all men know, if they turn their minds to it, that without food they would die, and
comparatively few people know that without poetry they would die.
When trying to explain anything, I usually find that the Bible, that great collection
of magnificent and varied poetry, has said it before in the best possible way. Now the
Bible says that ‘man shall not live by bread alone.’ Which, in modern words, means–cannot
live on the purely material things. It is true, he cannot, and he never does. If he did,
every bookshop would shut, every theatre would close its doors, every florist and picture
dealer would go out of business, even the baseball grounds would close. For what is
baseball but a superb epic of man’s swiftness and sureness, and his putting forth the
utmost of the sobriety and vigour that is in him in an ecstasy of vitality and movement?
And the men who watch are carried away by this ecstasy, out of themselves and the routine
of their daily lives, into a world romantic with physical force. But you object that they
don’t think of it in this way. Of course they don’t; if they did they would be poets, and
most men are not poets. But this is really what stirs them, for without it, throwing a
little ball about a field, and trying to hit it with a stick, isn’t really very
interesting. A baseball game is a sort of moving picture of what Homer wrote in his Iliad.
I do not believe there is a boy in America who would not like Butcher and Lang’s
translation of the Odyssey, if no one had ever told him it was a schoolbook.
That is what poetry really is. It is the height and quintessence of emotion, of every
sort of emotion. But it is always somebody feeling something at white heat, and it is as
vital as the description of a battle would be, told by a soldier who had been in it.
I do not wish to be misunderstood. I do not mean that every book, or every play,
contains this true poetry. Many, most, alas! are poor imitations; some are merely sordid
and vulgar. But books and plays exist because man is groping for a life beyond himself,
for a beauty he needs, and is seeking to find. And the books and plays which live are
those which satisfy this need.
Somebody once said to me that to make goodness dull was a great crime. In poetry, those
men who have written without original and vital feeling, without a flaming imagination,
have much to answer for. It is owing to them that poetry has come to mean a stupid and
insipid sort of stuff, quite remote from people’s lives, fit only for sentimental youth
and nodding old age. That sort of poetry is what is technically called ‘derivative,’ which
means that the author copies some one else’s emotion often some one else’s words, and
commonplace verses are written about flowers, and moonlight, and love, and death, by
people who would never be moved by any of these things if sincere poets had not been
writing about them from the beginning of the world. People who like to hear the things
they are used to repeated say, I That is beautiful poetry’; simple, straightforward people
say, ‘Perhaps it is. But I don’t care for poetry.’ But once in a while there comes along a
man with knowledge and courage enough to say, ‘That is not poetry at all, but insincere
Again I do not mean that all poetry can be enjoyed by everybody. People have different
tastes and different training. A man at forty seldom cares for the books which delighted
him as a boy. People stop developing at all ages. Some men never mature beyond their
teens; others go on growing and changing until old age. Because B likes a book is no
reason why A should. And we are the inheritors of so splendid a literature that there are
plenty of books for everybody, Many people enjoy Kipling’s poems who would be confused by
Keats; others delight in Burns who would be utterly without sympathy for Blake. The people
who like Tennyson do not, as a rule, care much about Walt Whitman, and the admirers of Poe
and Coleridge may find Wordsworth unattractive, and again his disciples might feel
antagonized by Rossetti and Swinburne. It does not matter, so long as one finds one’s own
sustenance. Only, the happy men who can enjoy them all are the richest. The true test of
poetry is sincerity and vitality. It is not rhyme, or metre, or subject. It is nothing in
the world but the soul of man as it really is. Carlyle’s ‘French Revolution’ is a great
epic poem; so are Trevelyan’s three volumes on ‘Garibaldi and the Italian War of
Independence.’ That they are written in prose has nothing to do with the matter. That most
poems are written rhythmically, and that rhythm has come to be the great technical fact of
poetry, was, primarily, because men under stress of emotion tend to talk in a rhythmed
speech. Read Lincoln’s ‘Address at Gettysburg’ and ‘Second Inaugural,’ and you will see.
Nothing is more foolish than to say that only such and such forms are proper to poetry.
Every form is proper to poetry, so long as it is the sincere expression of a man’s
thought. That insincere men try bizarre forms of verse to gain a personal notoriety is
true, but it seems not very difficult to distinguish them from the real artists. And so
long as men feel, and think, and have the need of expressing themselves, so long will
their modes of expression change. For expression tends to become hackneyed and
devitalized, and new methods must be found for keeping the sense of palpitant vigour.
There are signs that we are living at the beginning of a great poetic renaissance. Only
three weeks ago the ‘New York Times’ printed some remarks of Mr. Brett, the head of The
Macmillan Company, in which he said that poetry was pushing itself into the best-seller
class. And the other day a London publisher, Mr. Heinemann, announced that he should not
publish so many novels, as they were a drug on the market. England has several magazines
devoted exclusively to poetry and poetic drama. Masefield is paid enormous sums for his
work, and a little book entitled ‘The Georgian Book of Poetry,’ containing the work of
some of the younger men, which has been out barely two years, is already in its ninth
edition. Here, in America, we have ‘The Poetry Journal,’ published in Boston, and
‘Poetry,’ published in Chicago. England counts among her poets W. B. Yeats, Robert
Bridges, John Masefield, Wilfred Wilson Gibson, D. H. Lawrence, F. L. Flint, James
Stevens, Rudyard Kipling, and, although on a somewhat more popular level, Alfred Noyes.
England also boasts, as partly her own, the Bengal poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who has just
been awarded the Nobel Prize, and Ezra Pound, who, although an American by birth and
happily therefore ours to claim, lives in London. In America we have Josephine Preston
Peabody, Bliss Carman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Anna Hempstead Branch, Hermann Hagedorn,
Grace Fallow Norton, Fanny Stearns Davis, and Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. These lists
represent poets with many differing thoughts and modes of thought, but they point to the
great vitality of poetry at the moment.
Have I answered the question? I think I have. We should read poetry because only in
that way can we know man in all his moods — in the most beautiful thoughts of his heart,
in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his love, in the nakedness
and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.
Poetry and history are the textbooks to the heart of man, and poetry is at once the
most intimate and the most enduring.
from Amy Lowell, Poetry and Poets: Essays (New York: Houghton Mifflin
Company, 1930) 3-9. Previously published in Boston American, May 3, 1914.
POETRY, IMAGINATION, AND EDUCATION
PERHAPS there never was a time when education received so much general attention as it
does today. The world is deluged with books, pamphlets, and reviews on the subject, new
systems are continually jostling the old out of place, new methods are constantly being
applied, the very end and aim of education itself seems to change from time to time.
That the object of education should be to fit the child for life is such a trite and
well-worn saying that people smile at its commonplaceness even while they agree with its
obvious common sense. But the many ways of fitting the child, and the very various and
diverse lives that have to be fitted for, are so perplexing that it is small wonder that
curriculums multiply and still, multiply their subjects in order to keep up with the
complexity of modern existence.
More and more of late years has the old education by means of the humanities been
broken down, and instead of it we see substituted a sort of vocational training. Children
are now taught to do, where, in the older systems, they were taught to think. It is as if
we had learnt to distrust what we cannot see, to demand an immediate tangible result for
the outlay of preparation. This is perhaps largely due to our national temper. We are
always in a hurry. But does this constant haste produce the results desired? ‘Evolution,
not revolution, is the order of development,’ says Mr. Hughes, in his book on comparative
education, and education is a process requiring much time. Nature cannot be hurried; there
is no such thing as cramming possible to her methods. A congested curriculum results in
the proper assimilation of no one subject, and what can we think of a primary school,
boasting only one teacher, in which children were taught seventeen subjects, with fifteen
minutes given to each subject, as was the case some years ago in a school which came under
No educator is so insensate as to approve of such a method, and it is just in the hope
of simplifying education that this idea of dropping the humanities has been evolved. But,
in considering the means as the end, to what are we led? What is the result of an
over-insistence upon fact, and an under-emphasis upon the development of faculties? It is
a result little realized for the most part; one which may fit in with the views of the
more extreme socialists, perhaps, but hardly in accord with those rights of the individual
which have always been America’s brightest ideal. For it is precisely the humanities which
develop individuality. A knowledge of facts does not make us men; it is the active use of
brains which does that. Whatever tends to make the brain supple and self-reliant is a
direct help to personality.
Perhaps the two qualities which more than any others go to the making of a strong
personality are character and imagination. Character means courage, and there is a great
difference between the collective courage of a mass of people all thinking the same way
and the courage of a man who cares not at all for public opinion but follows his own
chosen path unswervingly. Our national ideal as to the moral attitude is high; what the
people understand, and what they all agree about, that they will do; but it is not
so easy to find men who are willing to think and act at variance with the opinions of
their neighbours. We see this trait constantly in those people who live beyond their
Incomes; who must have this and that because their friends have it. This weakness gnaws at
the foundation of our national existence like an insidious disease. For, with all our talk
of individualism, we are among the least individual of nations. The era of machine-made
articles has swept over the land, and nowhere is its product more deteriorating than in
the machine-made types which our schools turn out.
I do not wish to be misunderstood; I do not mean that these types are poor or bad types
– on the contrary, machines work with a wonderful precision -but these types are ran in a
mould, or rather several moulds. The result is a high state of mediocrity. But there is a
danger here which we do not quite foresee. Machines are controlled by the men who make and
work them. Upon the few with the brains to create and guide, the destinies of the others
therefore depend. There has never been such a machine-made people as the Germans; and we
can see clearly to-day, as we could not some years ago, what happens to such a people when
the guiding powers are unscrupulous and wrought upon by an overweening ambition.
A democracy can only succeed through an enlightened proletariat. If character and
imagination are the essentials to a strong personality, one capable of directing itself
and not at the mercy of demagogues and fanatics, then we should leave no stones unturned
to gain this end. I think I make no unwise statement when I say that it is only in those
minds possessing but a modicum of imagination that the value of the humanities as an
educational factor is denied.
It is clearly not my purpose, in this paper, to speak of character building,
neither have I space to go into all the ways in which the faculty of imagination might be
stimulated, but there is one, and I think the most important one, the value of which is
only imperfectly understood. I mean literature, and more especially poetry, and more
especially still, contemporary poetry.
We all agree that the aim of education is to fit the child for life. But the
differences of opinion as to how that fitting is to be done are almost as many as there
are men to hold them. Again, we all agree as to the necessity of building up a strong
character, but here again we are at variance as to how this is to be done. Still, upon
these points the world is in accord; the point on which it differs radically is precisely
that of imagination. Fully a of our pedagogues cannot see that imagination is the root of
all civilization. Like love, it may very fairly be said to ‘make the world go round.’
But as it works out of sight, it is given very little credit for what it performs.
Pedagogy is being treated as a science, which would seem a start in the right
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