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O measure a cloud, to gauge the skies, to mathematically
compute the length and breadth of space itself, may be possible ; for we have analysed sunbeams, and from the basis of a window-sill can calculate the diameter of a star. There is a question, however, that appears more hopelessly beyond answer than any problem of science, though it deals, not with unresponsive nature, but with the mind of man the questioner alone. It may be said to be as old as the first human emotion, this problem-What is Poetry? Psychologists and logicians can give us no account of it; and poets themselves are in ignorance of what it is. The author of one of the recent big books on Kant remarks that the mission of philosophy is not so much to solve the problem of life as to widen and deepen it. Perhaps the mission of the poet is to extend the realms of thought, not to trace their boundaries. He is the true explorer ; science comes after him and draws its charts.
Such partial definitions of poetry as have come from our great writers only seem to show how limitless and manysided the subject is. One of the oldest of them is Aristotle's definition, which simply calls it “one of the mimetic arts.” This is probably the feeblest analytical effort ever formulated by that great man of science. Plato ventures on no more exact a statement regarding the matter than that “poets are the pioneers of wisdom;" and Cicero calls poetry the “praeclara emendatrix vitae.” Shakespeare is all for absolute invention as the characteristic of poetry
“ As imagination bodies forth
Johnson gets but a little way into the question: "Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason.” On such a theory Newton's notion of gravitation would have been poetry while it remained an unproved hypothesis. And there are some who hold that in their origin science and poetry are equally imaginative; but this notion is radically opposed to Coleridge's dictum. “Good sense is the body of poetic genius, fancy its drapery, motive its life, and imagination the soul that is everywhere and in each, and forms all into one graceful and intelligent whole. A poem is a species of composition opposed to science, as having intellectual pleasure for its object, and as attaining its end by the use of language natural to us in the state of excitement, but distinguished from other species of composition (not excluded by the former criterion) by permitting a pleasure from the whole, consistent with a consciousness of pleasure from the component parts--the perfection of which is to communicate from each part the greatest pleasure compatible with the largest sum on the whole.” This rigmarole—which embodies in a tolerably comprehensive manner several shorter definitions from the same pen-is useful so far as it breaks down the arbitrary distinction between prose and poetry. Many a one, according to Coleridge's doctrine, would find more poetry in a novel of Miss Braddon’s than in any essay by Elia or any sermon by Jeremy Taylor. Yet it is possible that Coleridge's hint about the use of "language natural to us in a state of excitement” may have helped Wordsworth