The Religious Significance Of Recent English Verse -- By: Edward Mortimer Chapman

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 055:218 (Apr 1898)
Article: The Religious Significance Of Recent English Verse
Author: Edward Mortimer Chapman


The Religious Significance Of Recent English Verse

Edward Mortimer Chapman

“A still small voice spake unto me:
‘Thou art so full of misery,
Were it not better not to be?’”

“The Lord let the house of a brute to the soul of a man;
And the man said, ‘Am I your debtor?’

And the Lord, — ‘Not yet: but make it as clean as you can, And then I will let you a better,’”

The late Principal Shairp defined the province of poetry as follows: “… the whole range of existence, or any part of it, when imaginatively apprehended, seized on the side of its human interest, may be transfigured into poetry. There is nothing that exists except things ignoble and mean, in which the true poet may not find himself at home.” It was an attempt at definition which Mr. R. H. Hutton has very properly criticized because of its too radical exclusion of the ignoble and the mean. The poet, like the preacher, must recognize the cogency of the old dictum, Humani nihil alienum.

“And the shamed listeners knew the spell
That still enchants the years,
When the world’s commonplaces fell
In music on their ears.”

It has been so from the beginning. It will be so until the end. And it is unfortunately true that the ignoble and the mean form a part of life’s commonplace. When Words worth sang of “the still sad music of humanity,” he recog-

nized the fact that the poet must take account of the ignoble and the mean if he would interpret life, and for that very reason he must write much of his music in a minor key.

But it is one thing to take account of the commonplace with especial reference, if you please, to the ignoble and the mean, and it is a very different thing to deal with it exclusively, or to treat it as though it were out of all real relation to the ideal. Such a course, if consistently pursued, is likely to keep a man in the category of the minor poets all his days, in spite of the fact that his art may reach a high stage of development. The world demands that the poet, like the preacher, shall reflect life, including life’s commonplace; but it will withhold the meed of greatness from both unless they are able to show how this commonplace may be brought into harmonious relation to the ideal. It knows instinctively that neither poet nor preacher can be great except he be something of a prophet.

It was the lack of this prophetic spirit among English poets that Jowett used to lament, not without some exaggeration. “They have,” he somewhere wrote, “art and sentiment and imagination, but no moral force. Our dear friend Clough had a...

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