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Metaphor and poetic mendacity.

On the use of metaphor and ‘pathetic fallacy’ in poetry.


THERE IS AN important question connected with the principles of poetic art which the high authority of Mr. Ruskin has been chiefly  instrumental in deciding; but notwithstanding my profound sense  of the value of Mr. Ruskin’s teaching on aesthetic matters, I venture to think that in this instance his decision has been too hastily accepted as final. I refer to the question of the use of metaphor, and what Mr. Ruskin has termed ‘pathetic fallacy’ in poetry.

Now if there be a great fundamental principle, the slow recognition of which by modern art we owe to Mr. Ruskin, it is this, that “nothing can be good or useful or ultimately pleasurable which is  untrue.”1 Yet here, he proceeds, in metaphor and pathetic fallacy, “is something pleasurable in written poetry which is nevertheless untrue.” For, according to him, these forms of thought result from the “extraordinary or false appearances of things to us, when we are under the influence of emotion or contemplative fancy—false appearances, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us”.2 Mr. Ruskin further adds, that “the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness—that it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it.” Yet he admits that “if we think over our favourite poetry we shall find it full of this kind of fallacy, and that we like it all the more for being so.”

Now there is here a contradiction which is well worthy of attentive examination. This attribution by metaphor of spiritual qualities to material objects is eminently characteristic of modern poetry—notably of Tennyson’s—and has been made a ground of serious objection to it, as fatal to any claim it might put forward to be accounted first-rate, by more than one critic following in the wake of Mr. Ruskin. And so far as such criticism has been a protest against the undiscriminating admiration for mere pretty disconnected freaks of fancy, which at one time threatened to break up our poetry into so many foam-wreaths of loose luxuriant images, the effect of it has been beneficial. There is danger, on the other hand, that this criticism may beget a blind dogmatism, very injurious to the natural and healthy development of the poetic art which may be proper to our own present age. For the intellectual and aesthetic developments of each different race and age will have a characteristic individuality of their own. And criticism ought to point us to the great models of the past, not that we may become their cold and servile imitators, but that we may nourish on them our own creative genius. The classification of artists as first, second, and third rate, must always be somewhat arbitrary; but the criticism which disposes of a quality that is essential to such poetry as Tennyson’s, by calling it a weakness and a “note” of inferiority, may itself be suspected of shallowness.

LET US FIRST take for brief examination some instances of alleged fallacy in the use of metaphorical expressions. The following Mr. Ruskin takes from Keats:—

Down whose green back the short-lived foam, all hoar,
Bursts gradual with a wayward indolence.

Now salt water cannot be either wayward or indolent; on this plain fact the charge of falsehood in the metaphor is grounded. Yet this expression is precisely the most exquisite bit in the picture. Can plain falsehood then be truly poetic and beautiful? Many people will reply, “certainly,” believing that poetry is essentially pleasing by the number of pretty falsehoods told or suggested. We believe with Mr. Ruskin that poetry is only good in proportion to its truth. Now, we must first inquire what the poet is here intending to describe. If a scientific man were to explain to us the nature of foam by telling us that it is a wayward and indolent thing, this would clearly be a falsehood. But does the poet profess to explain what the man of science would profess to explain, or something else? What are the physical laws according to which water becomes foam, and foam falls along the back of a wave—that is one question; and what impression does this condition of things produce on a mind that observes closely, and feels with exquisite delicacy of sense the beauty in the movement of the foam, and its subtle relations to other material things, as well as to certain analogues in the sphere of spirit, to functions and states of the human spirit—this is a totally different question. Now I submit that the office of the poet in this connection is to answer the latter question, and that of the scientific man to answer the former. But observe that this is not granting license of scientific ignorance or wanton inaccuracy to the poet which some critics are disposed to grant. For if the poet ignorantly or wantonly contradicts such results of scientific inquiry as are generally familiar to the cultivated minds of his age, he puts himself out of harmony with them, and does not announce truth, which can commend itself to them as such. But the poetic aspects of a circumstance do not disappear when the circumstance is regarded according to the fresh light scientific inquiry has thrown upon it. Such poetic aspects are increased as knowledge increases. Keats, in this instance, contradicts no legitimate scientific conclusion. The poet who does so wantonly, shows little of the true poet’s reverence for nature. The poet undertakes to teach what the man of science does not undertake to teach: their  provinces are different; but if they contradict one another, they are so far bunglers in their respective trades.

Let us here at once, as briefly as may be, dispose of an erroneous popular assumption which simply results from inaccurate thought. It may be conceded that we have shown how the metaphor of Keats correctly describes the effect of foam breaking up along the back of a wave on a poetic mind sensitive to its beauty; but it will probably be urged that while the scientific man investigates the nature of things in themselves, the poet, after all, only describes things as they appear to us. This is a complete mistake. The water, the foam, and the laws of their existence, which it is the object of science to investigate, are phenomena; that is, products of something external to us and of our perceiving faculty in reciprocal action. Out of deference to the constitutional objection of Englishmen to careful thought, Mr. Ruskin, while giving us some metaphysics of his own on this topic, humorously denounces the “troublesomeness of metaphysicians” who do not agree with him. It is plain matter-of-fact, however, that blueness and saltness and fluidity are effects of things on our senses and perceiving faculties,—are the appearances of things to us. The scientific man, therefore, in describing these phenomena, the fixed order of their co-existence and succession, describes certain features of their appearance to us; and the poet equally chooses certain other features of their appearance to us. The analogies of natural things to spiritual, and the beauty of these which the poet discerns, are as much facts as the more obvious facts that sea-water is salt and green, and that foam is white or grey. True indeed it is that nearly every one can see and acknowledge the latter facts to be facts, and that much fewer persons can see the wayward indolence of the foam on the back of the green wave; but colour-blind people cannot see the greenness of the wave; and to those who know nothing of science, many undoubted facts the man of science can tell will seem unintelligible. There are many truths we unhesitatingly receive as such, although some persons of less perfect and cultured faculty cannot receive them. Now, whether the faculty whereby we attain to truth be called judgment, reasoning, imagination, or fancy, can be of little consequence. One source of error in this matter is, that in the  popular use of the words, we “fancy” and “imagine” what is not  the fact.

BUT WE CAN here only afford room to refer the reader on this point to Mr. Ruskin’s own fine dissertations on the respective functions of true imagination and fancy—one of his definitions of imagination being that it is the faculty of “taking things by the heart,” and as such, certainly not a faculty of seeing things falsely. The question is, does the metaphor of Keats express the poetic truth forcibly to kindred imaginative minds, or does it not? If, as is the case with so many fine-sounding metaphorical expressions, this expression when examined should prove inaccurate, far-fetched, affected, disturbing, and degrading, not intensifying and ennobling to the pictorial effect of that which the poet intended to represent, then is the metaphor false, and because false, therefore bad as art. Indolence and foam may be interesting separately, but they may be so remotely suggestive of one another that the association of them can serve no purpose but to prove the nimbleness of the poet’s fancy. But we submit that the shredding forceless drift of old foam on the wave’s back cannot be painted more accurately than by the metaphor of Keats. It is verily analogous to—that is, partially identical with—the aimless drift of indolent thought; and I find that I know each phenomenon better by thus identifying them in conception. It may be strange that so it should be; it may even be repugnant to some pseudo-philosophical scheme which has found a lodging in our minds we do not know why or how, implying the absolute contrariety of mind and matter; but yet, if it be a fact that so it is, ought not we who reverence facts to receive it? And why should a poet be a teller of pleasant lies for pointing the fact out to us? It may indeed be urged that Keats does not merely assert the mental and material phenomena to be like, but asserts the foam to be indolent and wayward, which it is not.

Let it be remembered, however, that if the poet had introduced here an elaborate comparison, he would have diverted our sight and thought from the water itself to a distinct human sphere, with all its new and foreign associations, which would have been injurious to the harmonious progress of his poem, his object being merely to touch in the wave and its foam, as he passed onward, with as few and as telling touches as possible. Besides, in employing a metaphorical expression, you do not intend to make, and no one understands you to make, a literal assertion; you are making it metaphorically, and this because you feel that you can best express the character of one thing by ascribing to it the character of something analogous. You might multiply vague epithets for ever, and not hit it off—not transfix the core of a thing’s individuality—as you can do by a single happy metaphor. There are correspondences between spirit and matter, and it is in seizing these that we find each analogue in spirit and matter becoming suddenly luminous, intelligible, real. It would not, as is assumed, be more accurate to say,  ‘the foam falls gradually.’ These terms are too abstract: other things also fall gradually; and therefore they do not give the individuality of the phenomenon in question.

There is indeed some error  involved in the use of Keats’ metaphor; but this error is allowed for, and it is the most accurate expression possible of the fact; for the error of poverty and vagueness which the more abstract epithets would  involve is a far more radical error; so that they are erroneously supposed to be more scientific and exact. The commonest terms in use for expressing mental and moral qualities are derived from conditions and qualities of matter, that is, are used metaphorically; and yet we do not call them ‘fallacies.’ We talk of an ‘upright man” in the moral sense as readily as we talk of an upright man in the bodily. Our most graphic and vigorous prose must share the fate of our best poetry if metaphor be simply falsehood. How are you to avoid speaking of a tortuous, crooked policy? The splendid vigour of Mr. Ruskin’s own prose-poetry is largely due to his felicitous use of metaphor.

Mr. Ruskin, indeed, remarks justly that Homer “would never have written, never have thought of” such a metaphor as this of Keats’. He will call the waves “over-roofed,” “full-charged,” “monstrous,” “compact-black,” “wine-coloured,” and so on. These terms are as accurate, as incisive, as terms can be, but they never show the slightest feeling of anything animated in the ocean. Now this faculty of seeing and giving the external appearance of a thing precisely is eminently Homeric, and is one without which a man can hardly be a poet at all. The ideal on which poetasters pique themselves means but a feeble, insecure grasp of reality; they do not know that to find the ideal they must first hold fast and see into the common external thing which they deem so despicable. But the fellowship of the external thing with certain spiritual things is an additional though latent quality in it, the perception of which may result from a keen gaze into the external appearance. Does Keats then see more than Homer? Mr. Ruskin replies that Homer had a faith in the animation of the sea much stronger than Keats. But “all this sense of something living in it he separates in his mind into a great abstract image of a sea power. He never says the waves rage or are idle. But he says there is somewhat in, and greater than, the waves which rages and is idle, and that he calls a god”.3

WE MUST REMARK upon this that the early poets of a people have seldom displayed so great a care for the beauties of external nature in general as their later poets have done. Compare Homer and Theocritus, Chaucer and Tennyson. The earlier poetry will deal chiefly with the outward active life of man—his wars, hunting, his passion for women and other excitements, with all the intrigues and adventures to which this may give rise; and the noblest songs have been sung about these simple universally interesting themes. But the criticism which insists on the poetry of a later age being squared on the model of that of an earlier age may surely be reminded that the earlier poetry is so great and good precisely because it is spontaneous, the perfect expression of the age in which it was produced. As men come to lead more artificial quiet lives, they reflect more on themselves and on the nature around them, they stand in new relationships to external things, they acquire new habits of feeling, acting, thinking, and external nature becomes the mirror of their own more highly organised existence; so that the earlier poet cannot see those subtle meanings in the face of nature which the later poet sees. If the external features of nature remain the same, the spirit of men in relation with them changes ever. But even if we admitted with Mr. Ruskin that Homer was as sensitively alive to the delicate play of expression on the mobile countenance of nature as Keats was, only that he ascribed it to some god and that Keats did not, we should be constrained to ask, does Mr. Ruskin mean that Homer’s was a  more correct mode of embodying that animation than was the metaphorical mode of Keats? Are we to believe in the Pagan nature-divinities? Because if not, and if yet Mr. Ruskin admits the animation in question, it is hard to see why he praises Homer and deems the metaphor of Keats a pleasant falsehood and a characteristic of the vicious modern manner. Surely we owe the restoration of our faith in the glorious animation of nature very largely to Mr. Ruskin’s own teaching, which makes his inconsistent doctrine on this subject of metaphor the more to be regretted. What makes the language of our poets often incorrect, confused, affected, is that while they cannot help feeling that there is a life and a spirit in nature, they are instructed by our teachers of authority that this feeling is but a pretty superstition, allowable, indeed, in poetry, yet not to be mistaken for a true belief. Poetry, therefore, becomes an ‘elegant pastime,’ by no means the expression of our deepest and most earnest insight. The result last century was that in our poetry ‘mountains nodded drowsy heads’, and ‘flowers sweated beneath the night dew.’ For if images of this kind be delusions, with no basis in truth, the elegance of them resolves itself into a mere matter of taste. And people at that time thought those ideas very lovely and poetic indeed. Even now many of our most intelligent minds believe

Earth goes by chemic forces; Heaven’s
A mecanique celeste,
And heart and mind of human kind
A watchwork as the rest.—Clough.


Others of us believe that there is a deity indeed, but one who, having made all this, only watches it go, and occasionally interferes with the order of it to prove to us that it did not make itself, and to remind us of his own existence. But of the God of St. Paul, “in whom we (and all other things) live, move, and have our being,” we hear very little. If, however, it were permitted in so enlightened an age as the present to broach so old-world an idea, we might yet believe with Homer that there is a great sea-power, a Divinity in the sea as well as a great deal of salt-water; then we might still believe with the great modern poet, with whom it was no pretty lie but a profound faith, that—

There is a spirit in the pathless woods,
A presence that disturbs us with the joy
Of elevated thoughts, a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns.
And the round ocean, and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man
A motion and a spirit that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

I think it especially important to examine the position which Mr. Ruskin has taken in this question in his third volume of “Modern Painters,” because it tends to neutralise the noble teaching of the second volume, to which our art owes incalculable benefit. We have only to turn to the chapter on “Imagination Penetrative” (p. 163, vol. ii.) to be assured of the inconsistency of his doctrine on this subject. As an instance of what he means by Imagination Penetrative, he quotes from Milton—

Bring the rathe primrose that forsaken dies,
With cowslips wan that hang the pensive head,
And every flower that sad embroidery wears.

How can a primrose be forsaken, or cowslips hang pensive heads? According to the chapter on “Pathetic Fallacy,” only a poet of the secondary order would indulge in such pretty fallacies. He goes on, however, to quote Shakspeare’s image of “pale primroses dying unmarried, before they can behold bright Phoebus in his strength;” yet what is his comment here? “Observe how the imagination goes into the very inmost soul of every flower,” and “never stops on their spots or bodily shape,” which last remark implies a half-censure of Milton for describing “the pansy freaked with jet,” that being merely a touch of inferior fancy, that mixes with and mars the work of imagination. Again, “the imagination sees the heart and inner nature, and makes them felt, but is often obscure, mysterious, and interrupted in its giving of outer detail.” Even in the case of elaborate imaginative structures such as those of Dante and Milton, the poet’s work, we would contend, is the product of sheer insight, whose keen, long, ardent gaze into the eyes of nature, human and material, has drawn the very soul out of her. From that central point to which the seer has pierced, all parts are seen in their own relative proportion, harmony, hidden meaning, and purpose; and the several parts that are chosen and united in his work form a perfect organic structure, because they are conjoined, not according to the accidental juxtaposition in which the vulgar eye may chance to behold them at the surface, but according to the eternal affinities they have in nature for one another.

The parts of such a work are not pieced arbitrarily together; they have chemical affinity for one another; and they grow up into an organic whole in the creative mind of the poet, which process is just a reproduction in small of the grand organic evolution of the universe. We see things in isolated broken pieces ; but the poet, with unerring instinct as by a spirit magnetism, brings together the fragments that indeed belong to one another, and so forms for us living models of the universal kosmos. In this manner great artists have positively created new individualities—or at least gone to the verge of creating them. If the idea of an imaginary living creature were perfectly sufficient and self-consistent, it would actually live. But if in the course of ages mind ever came to evolve creations in the same sense as mind itself seems now to be evolved from material organisation, such creatures would probably transcend the minds we know as much as these minds transcend the  bodily organisation. Meanwhile great imaginations approach such a goal. There is the Dragon of Turner in the Jason of his Liber Studiorum; the terrible Lombard Griffin, so intensely portrayed by Ruskin; the Satan of Milton; the Caliban of Shakspeare. That creature may have actually breathed or may actually breathe some day, he seems so real, so possible.

This doctrine that all real poetry tells the most fundamental truth about things, instead of being merely a play of pretty or pathetic fallacies, an elegant relaxation for after dinner, as modern critics seem to conceive, I venture to propound as having the sanction of no mean critic—Aristotle. For Aristotle, while defining poetry “viewed generally” as μιμήσεις, yet explains that he does not mean such imitation as modern photography might represent. “Poetry,” he explains, “represents actions less ordinary and interchanged, and endows them with more rareness,” than is found in nature. The poet’s business is “not to tell events as they have actually happened, but as they might possibly happen.” “Poetry is more sublime and more philosophical than history.” We contend then for Aristotle’s definition of poetry as μιμήσις, the imitative art, as on the whole the best and most helpful. And I have merely wished here in passing to strengthen my argument by showing that the principles I apply to defend the use of metaphor are of universal application in all departments of poetry. Thus I might proceed to show that there is more essential truth in the few lines embodying Spenser’s symbolic impersonations of the vices (envy, gluttony, jealousy, &c.), than could be expressed in as many  pages of abstract dissertation.

IT IS UNFORTUNATE that Wordsworth, in the course of those few discussions of his on the principles of Poetry which are worth their weight in gold (considering how little scientific standard criticism our language can boast in comparison with the portentous amount of smart, conceited, futile Babel-utterances with which the weekly press teems to our bewilderment)—it is unfortunate that Wordsworth himself should have used some unguarded language relative to the question we are here discussing. He says that imagination “confers additional properties on an object, or abstracts from it some of those which it actually possesses.” (Preface to Edit. of 1815 of Poet. Works.) He gives several instances of this, which it may be well for us to examine. First from Milton—

As when far off at sea a fleet descried
Hangs in the clouds.

No fleet hangs in the clouds. But the poet, professing to describe the appearance of a fleet far out at sea, describes it exactly by these terms, and adds nothing to the picture that does not belong to the actual appearance. Wordsworth next quotes from his own perfect descriptive poetry, “Over his own sweet voice the stock-dove broods.” The word “broods,” Wordsworth himself remarks, conveys the manner in which the bird reiterates and prolongs the soft note, as if participating in a still and quiet satisfaction like that which may be supposed inseparable from the continuous process of incubation. Now it is probably true, scientifically as well as poetically, that the bird delights in, and broods over its own note, while his mate is sitting near upon their eggs. Again—

O cuckoo, shall I call thee bird,
Or but a wandering voice?

If the poet, looking up at the grey cuckoo in the tree, were to address it as a voice rather than a bird, the thought would not be pleasing, but absurd, because untrue and affected. But we may conceive him wandering meditatively about Rydal, as was his wont, lying upon the fresh green grass, and listening, to that beloved voice of the spring, with all its old, sweet, sad associations. Has not that cuckoo-voice become part of ourselves, a link of our hearts to some long and lovely past? Has not that quiet happy voice, falling into the hearts of lovers, beating very close to one another, thrilled them into a yet dearer fusion? And when such lovers have been parted, has not this gentle voice united them in spirit again as they listened? Is not the cuckoo voice indeed all this, the very spirit of our English spring, quite as much, nay, how very much more, than it is the love-call of one individual male cuckoo? The poet has told us one truth, and the naturalist may tell us another. The one “lies” and “alters nature” quite as little as the other. Wordsworth’s genius steals like moonlight, silent and unaware, into many a hidden nook that seemed barren and formless before, but now teems with shy and rare loveliness as of herb and flower; yet the moonlight only reveals what is already latent there.

Creative, indeed, are these isolated images and metaphors, having a vital truth and coherence of their own, quite as real as that of the vaster completed works of high art; and while in the highest work these subordinate features will have their meaning in strict subordination to the whole, yet criticism is wrong to ignore and decry beauty of detail, which, if genuine, is itself the offspring of the same quickening, creative spark, fusing diverse elements into one. Though Keats was no weakling of the Kirke White stamp, to be “snuffed out by an article,” one pain more might have been spared him on his consumptive deathbed, if his critic could have been less malignant, and intelligent enough to comprehend that if unity of plan be all in all, and the character of the details of no importance, then a symmetrical periwig, or a smart review, or a sensation story, would be nobler than Endymion,—which  is absurd.

WE NOW PASS to some instance of what Mr. Ruskin terms “pathetic fallacy” proper. Mr. Ruskin takes one from Mr. Kingsley’s pathetic ballad, “Sands of Dee.” Of Mary, who was drowned in calling the cattle home across the sands of Dee, he sings—

They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam.

Now, how can foam be cruel? Mr. Ruskin admits there is a dramatic propriety in the expression; I mean, that the feeling with which a spectator would regard the foam in these circumstances is correctly expressed; but he contends that the reason in this condition is unhinged by grief: foam is not cruel, whether we fancy it so or not. He admits that a person feeling it so will probably be higher in nature than one who should feel nothing of the kind, but contends that there is a third order of natures higher than either—natures which control such fallacious feelings by the force of their intellects. Such men know and feel too much of the past and future, and all things beside and around that which immediately affects them, to be shaken by it. Thus the high creative poet might be thought impassive (shallow people think Dante stern) because he has a great centre of reflection and knowledge in which he stands serene, and watches the feeling, as it were, from far off. We must admit that there is much truth in this fine criticism; yet we must remark upon it that it is one thing to be washed away from our anchorage of reason—which, however, as Mr. Ruskin admits, there are circumstances wherein we should not think it a proof of men’s nobleness not to be—and another to be tossed up and down on the strong billows of feelings, holding yet fast to the anchor of reason. I mean that the influence of feeling on our intellects need not necessarily be a distorting influence; feeling may teach us what we could not learn without it. Love, e.g., may often blind us to the defects of a beloved person, and so far confuse our judgment; yet since love puts us en rapport, in sympathy with, that person, it imparts insight, and gives wider and more essential data for the exercise of the understanding. The man to whom a primrose is “a yellow primrose and nothing more,” by no means knows it correctly because he does not feel any love for it or interest in it. He knows nothing at all about it except the name. A dispassionate judgment means too often a blind undiscriminating judgment formed by men who want those fine inner organs of sensibility without which the data for a true judgment are necessarily wanting; and the stupid judgment of a cynic is infinitely more mischievous than that of a warm partisan, because it has the credit of exceptional impartiality and freedom from “prejudice.”

Let us examine this special instance of pathetic fallacy from Kingsley. What and whence is this impression of cruelty in the foam? Is it not the appropriate expression of a sense that comes over us in such-like terrible circumstances that there is on the outside of our weak wills and impotent understandings some mysterious destiny manifesting itself especially in that fixed and iron-bound order of Nature so pitiless towards us when, in our often innocent ignorance, we happen to be caught into the blind whirl of its relentless machinery? For then it whirls on and crushes not only the living flesh and blood itself has wrought so cunningly, but too often, alas! as it seems, our very human reason—the tenderest and holiest of human sensibilities. In the coolest blood regarding such a spectacle, I ask how shall we express the facts of it? The ancients had their cruel gods and their blind fate. Our faith, on the other hand, if faith we have at all, is in a Supreme Being whose nature we can best conceive by naming Him Love. And yet he who does not feel the weary burden and the mystery of all this unintelligible world—he who does not confess what a feeble glimmer is all our boasted light—that he is an  infant crying in the dark, and with no language but a cry—he has not had the data upon which to form a real philosophy. What, then, is it worth? As men, as wise men, we must feel these terrible realities in the core of our beings. If we still retain our faith, after this, well and good. But how shall we express the bewildered anguish of the spirit in such seasons of calamity? To me it seems as inevitable, and therefore as proper as it is natural, that we should upbraid the instrument—the second cause—the cruel crawling sea-foam that swallowed up the innocent one we loved. Let the philosopher at least furnish us with correcter formulae for the expression of the feeling due from us as human beings on such occasions as this.

Mr. Ruskin again quotes a very affecting ballad from Casimir de la Vigne, as an instance of what he thinks the highest manner where the poet refuses to let himself be carried away by the horror of the incident he relates, and simply pictures the dreadful, naked, physical fact of it without any comment, impressing us far more than if he had indulged in any pathetic fancies of his own about it. There is to be a ball at the French ambassador’s, and a fair young girl is dressing for it. All the little nothings she babbles to her maid while beautifying herself—she is to meet her lover—are told just as she would say them, when a spark catches her dress, and she is burnt to death. What is the result? The poet only tells us—

On disait, pauvre Constance!
Et on dansait jusq’au jour
Chez l’ambassadeur de France.

Now we do not believe with Mr. Ruskin that dark fallacious thoughts occurred to the poet here, and that he resolutely put them by because he philosophically held them to be false. We do not believe that the highest poet is “unparticipating in the passions” he depicts, as Coleridge affirms of Shakspeare; he is by turns in the situations of the characters he represents; and here the emotion is so genuine, that the poet’s philosophy would have been torn to tatters by it, for indeed such a philosophy would only have waited the rending of reality.

But in cases of sudden intense emotion, metaphor, which implies some degree of reflection on the circumstance, is for the most part out of place. Thought is overwhelmed by feeling,—the bare fearful fact, that alone we see and know, we can but relate that. The poet here feels and relates just as a witness fresh from the incident would do. This bare relation is the most appropriate to the incident related. But when reflection upon an afflicting circumstance is possible and natural, then metaphor and brief comment may be most appropriate to the fullest impression derivable from the circumstance. Wordsworth, therefore, comments a good deal on what he relates (sometimes unduly, but usually with effect), because he does not love violent passion, rapid action, stirring overwhelming situations. We will only add on this branch of the subject how fully we coincide in all Mr. Ruskin’s remarks on the false, affected, confused employment of metaphor and so-called “poetic language,” characteristic of inferior versification. “Simply bad writing may almost always be known by its adoption of these fanciful metaphorical expressions as a sort of current coin.”

ONE MORE STRIKING instance where what seems to be pathetic fallacy may be argued to be philosophically true—though to the poet himself the revelation was made rather through feeling and imagination than through reasoning—we may take from Keats. Instead of treating our true poets as amusing liars, I would often rather go to them for solid intellectual food than to the professed dealers in that article. In the Endymion, Keats says—

For I have ever thought that (love) might bless
The world with benefits unknowingly.

And again,

——————————————–Who of men can tell
That flowers would bloom, or that green fruit would swell
To melting pulp, that fish would have bright mail,
The earth its dower of river, wood, and vale,
The meadows runnels, runnels pebble-stones,
The seed its harvest, or the lute its tones,
Tones ravishment, or ravishment its sweet,
If human souls did never kiss and greet?

Now we will only briefly indicate the principle that it is our human love, our power of loving, that gives these beautiful things a being as we know them, for their being, though partly external to us, is also partly engendered by contact with human minds and hearts. Are not the forces which seem to constitute material things, with all their strength, healthfulness, and beauty, forces cognate to Love, which is the affinity and attraction of diverse spirits for one another? Physical attraction, which implies also difference and repulsion, is love in its lowest stage of development. And what is the order, the law, according to which the highest human love is developed? We pass upward from cohesion to chemical affinities, but it is in the first faint fringes of the organic world that love dawns in her own proper form. There are sexes in plants, and often the pistil of one flower needs to be fertilised by the pollen from another before it can become  productive; in animals, the lower love is literally present, till in man it becomes transfigured into its own proper spiritual and heavenly being; and without this for an end and aim, where would cohesion and all the lower forces be? The poet says this in a different way. Looking at things as they are in life, in the concrete, his quick sympathetic insight has discerned this essential truth. Philosophical analysis may reach it in a different way. When, therefore, we attribute to nature a sympathy with our moods, whether of joy or sorrow, we are not under an amiable delusion; the intuition is true, although the shape it assumes may not always be scientifically correct. Nature, like man, has her bright, rich, joyous, and her desolate, decaying phases; in joy we feel the former most, in sorrow we feel and discern more especially the latter. We may indulge these feelings to a morbid degree and see things too brightly or too gloomily; but the sense of a sympathy in nature has its basis in fact.

IN CONCLUDING, WE must touch for a moment on Mr. Ruskin’s assertion that metaphor and pathetic fallacy are characteristic rather of the secondary than of the primary order of poets—an assertion which we do not think the facts of the case will bear out. We have already given a reason for the rarity of such forms of thought in very early poetry; but for their rarity in classical poetry another reason may be given. In Oriental poetry they are very usual, because such forms of thought are much more appropriate to the Oriental genius. Look at the profound and mystic symbolism of Egyptian, Persian, Phoenician, or Indian mythology; to those races the material ever appeared as a film floating upon the deeps of spirit—a film not merely transparent, but itself very spirit, only cooled as it were, solidified, and become gross. The bold hyperbole of Hebrew, Arabic, Persian love and war poetry is essential to the genius of the Oriental nature.

But in the classical spirit there is little sense of the infinite, vague, mysterious: the different subject-matters on which intelligence can be exercised are viewed apart, not in their occult relationships: all delight is in the sunny present life, in that which is pleasant, symmetrical, clear, definite. What palpable, complete, satisfying symmetry; what bright beauty of material and structure in those consummate temples, fragments though they be, on and about the Acropolis at Athens! How full is the sunlight blaze upon their golden peristyles under the blue sky overlooking the blue sea! how black and sharp-cut the shadows beside them! There is sorrow and fate with the Greeks as with others; but it stands by itself, quite apart from the joy. In a Gothic cathedral all is dusk, sublime, mysterious, teeming with vague symbol—at once secretion and food of the imagination. Light and shadow are married and mingled; the light is dim and religious; derives a spiritual glory from its very fellowship with darkness; while the gloom becomes half luminous and opalescent from its fellowship with the light. “Our sweetest songs,” the modern poet sings, “are those that tell of saddest thought.”

And yet, with respect to Homer, does not even Homer take the heart-broken old man, when he leaves the tent of Agamemnon empty-handed, back by the shore of the πολυϕλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης? Has this magnificent epithet for the sea no reference to the lonely, stormful, sorrowful spirit of the old man as he walked by the long, lone surges of it? This surely is not a purely physically-descriptive epithet, like οἶνοπα πόντον. But go on to Æschylus, and what will Mr. Ruskin say to his ἀνήριθμον γέλασμα, “the innumerable smile or laugh of the sea?” In Theocritus, again, assuredly metaphor and pathetic fallacy may be found (notably in the first idyl). The pathetic fallacy in Shakspeare’s exquisite poem, “Venus and Adonis,” “No grass, herb, leaf, or weed but stole his blood and seemed with him to bleed; this solemn sympathy poor Venus noteth,” &c., is adapted directly from the Sicilian poet Bion’s “Lament for Adonis.” Again, that beautiful poem of Moschus—the Epitaph of Bion—(3rd idyl) abounds in similar pathetic fallacy. Do not Virgil and Catullus (no mean poets, surely) abound in graphic and appropriate poetic metaphors? Mr. Tennyson’s “dividing the swift mind in act to throw,” in “Morte d’ Arthur,” is of course from Virgil. Let us pass to Christian poetry. We have shown that we shall be more likely to find these forms of thought in modern than in classical poetry, and that by no means because modern taste is more vicious, but because the very conditions of life and thought are changed. In the early mediaeval poets, indeed, we have more allegory and elaborate symbolism than metaphor and pathetic fallacy—our science and our popular theology setting themselves alike in opposition to our poetic insight and aspirations—so that our poets, striving to link the two spheres of the universe together, do it in a confused, halting manner, like children stealing a forbidden pleasure when the eye of the governing intellect is for a moment turned away. But the colossal poem of Dante forms, we may say, one grand sustained metaphor. And  realistic Chaucer too, has he not written “The House of Fame,” “The Flower and the Leaf,” “The Romaunt of the Rose?” But Petrarch is full of metaphor and pathetic fallacy proper, as, had we space, we might prove. Coming on to Shakspeare, in him these tendencies of thought and feeling already assume their modern expression. Confining ourselves to his sonnets and poems, we open them almost at random; and in “The Rape of Lucrece” we find “a voice dammed up with woe;” “sorrow ebbs, being blown with wind of words;” and the line which we regard as one of the intensest in poetry, “Stone him with hardened hearts, harder than stones,” which, moreover, will remind the intelligent of a very modern and very metaphorical great poet, Shelley. In the description of the hare-hunt in “Venus and Adonis,”—as incisive, as clear-cut in its workmanship as any gem intaglio,—the phrase  occurs, “Each envious briar.” In the sonnets we have “The earth doth weep the sun being set.” Endless instances might be quoted from Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Drayton, Drummond, and the lesser Elizabethan writers. But in some of these, legitimate outgrowth of metaphor degenerates into parasitic conceit, as it did too often in our own so-called “spasmodic” poets; and yet in neither case did our literature touch the base and frigid affectations of such writers as are lashed in the “Dunciad” of Pope.

It seems, however, as if our criticism had of late too much confounded legitimate and genuine metaphor, illustrative of the poet’s main design, with mere disconnected conceits of a nimble ingenious fancy. But we have only to compare two poems, alike sensuous and rich in imagery, to feel the difference, viz., the “Venus and Adonis” of Shakspeare, and the “Hero and Leander” of Marlowe.

Roden Noel was a British poet and essayist. This article first appeared in The Fortnightly Review, Vol.5, 1 August 1866, pp 670-684. It is republished, with John Ruskin’s Of the Pathetic Fallacy, in the New Series to accompany The Janus Face of Metaphor by Alan Wall.


  1. Modern Painters, vol. iii. p. 160. (Chapter 12, ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy‘.)
  2. p.159
  3. vol. iii. p.174

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