Knowledge is the key to immortality
Aesthetic Poetry
Prepared by Dr. Baburam Swami - Assistant Professor - English



[This essay appeared only in the 1889 edition of Appreciations. Etext was produced by Alfred J. Drake, Ph.D.]

THE “aesthetic” poetry is neither a mere reproduction of Greek or medieval poetry, nor

only an idealisation of modern life and sentiment. The atmosphere on which its effect

depends belongs to no simple form of poetry, no actual form of life. Greek poetry,

medieval or modern poetry, projects, above the realities of its time, a world in which

the forms of things are transfigured. Of that transfigured world this new poetry takes

possession, and sublimates beyond it another still fainter and more spectral, which is

literally an artificial or “earthly paradise.” It is a finer ideal, extracted from what in

relation to any actual world is already an ideal. Like some strange second flowering after

date, it renews on a more delicate type the poetry of a past age, but must not be

confounded with it. The secret of the enjoyment of it is that inversion of home-sickness

known to some, that incurable thirst for the sense of escape, which no actual form of life

[214] satisfies, no poetry even, if it be merely simple and spontaneous.

The writings of the “romantic school,” of which the aesthetic poetry is an afterthought,

mark a transition not so much from the pagan to the medieval ideal, as from a lower to a

higher degree of passion in literature. The end of the eighteenth century, swept by vast

disturbing currents, experienced an excitement of spirit of which one note was a reaction

against an outworn classicism severed not more from nature than from the genuine

motives of ancient art; and a return to true Hellenism was as much a part of this reaction

as the sudden preoccupation with things medieval. The medieval tendency is in Goethe’s

Goetz von Berlichingen, the Hellenic in his Iphigenie. At first this medievalism was

superficial, or at least external. Adventure, romance in the frankest sense, grotesque

individualism— that is one element in medieval poetry, and with it alone Scott and

Goethe dealt. Beyond them were the two other elements of the medieval spirit: its mystic

religion at its apex in Dante and Saint Louis, and its mystic passion, passing here and

there into the great romantic loves of rebellious flesh, of Lancelot and Abelard. That

stricter, imaginative medievalism which re-creates the mind of the Middle Age, so that

the form, the presentment grows outward [215] from within, came later with Victor Hugo

in France, with Heine in Germany.

In the Defence of Guenevere: and Other Poems, published by Mr. William Morris now

many years ago, the first typical specimen of aesthetic poetry, we have a refinement upon

this later, profounder medievalism. The poem which gives its name to the volume is a

thing tormented and awry with passion, like the body of Guenevere defending herself

from the charge of adultery, and the accent falls in strange, unwonted places with the

effect of a great cry. In truth these Arthurian legends, in their origin prior to Christianity,

yield all their sweetness only in a Christian atmosphere. What is characteristic in them is

the strange suggestion of a deliberate choice between Christ and a rival lover. That

religion, monastic religion at any rate, has its sensuous side, a dangerously sensuous side,

has been often seen: it is the experience of Rousseau as well as of the Christian mystics.

The Christianity of the Middle Age made way among a people whose loss was in the life

of the senses partly by its aesthetic beauty, a thing so profoundly felt by the Latin hymn-

writers, who for one moral or spiritual sentiment have a hundred sensuous images. And

so in those imaginative loves, in their highest expression, the Provencal poetry, it is a

rival religion with a [216] new rival cultus that we see. Coloured through and through

with Christian sentiment, they are rebels against it. The rejection of one worship for

another is never lost sight of. The jealousy of that other lover, for whom these words and

images and refined ways of sentiment were first devised, is the secret here of a borrowed,

perhaps factitious colour and heat. It is the mood of the cloister taking a new direction,

and winning so a later space of life it never anticipated.

Hereon, as before in the cloister, so now in the chateau, the reign of reverie set in. The

devotion of the cloister knew that mood thoroughly, and had sounded all its stops. For

the object of this devotion was absent or veiled, not limited to one supreme plastic form

like Zeus at Olympia or Athena in the Acropolis, but distracted, as in a fever dream, into

a thousand symbols and reflections. But then, the Church, that new Sibyl, had a thousand

secrets to make the absent near. Into this kingdom of reverie, and with it into a paradise

of ambitious refinements, the earthly love enters, and becomes a prolonged

somnambulism. Of religion it learns the art of directing towards an unseen object

sentiments whose natural direction is towards objects of sense. Hence a love defined by

the absence of the beloved, choosing to be without hope, protesting [217] against all

lower uses of love, barren, extravagant, antinomian. It is the love which is incompatible

with marriage, for the chevalier who never comes, of the serf for the chatelaine, of the

rose for the nightingale, of Rudel for the Lady of Tripoli. Another element of

extravagance came in with the feudal spirit: Provencal love is full of the very forms of

vassalage. To be the servant of love, to have offended, to taste the subtle luxury of

chastisement, of reconciliation—the religious spirit, too, knows that, and meets just there,

as in Rousseau, the delicacies of the earthly love. Here, under this strange complex of

conditions, as in some medicated air, exotic flowers of sentiment expand, among people

of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulistic, frail, androgynous, the light

almost shining through them. Surely, such loves were too fragile and adventurous to last

more than for a moment.

That monastic religion of the Middle Age was, in fact, in many of its bearings, like a

beautiful disease or disorder of the senses: and a religion which is a disorder of the senses

must always be subject to illusions. Reverie, illusion, delirium: they are the three stages

of a fatal descent both in the religion and the loves of the Middle Age. Nowhere has the

impression of this delirium been conveyed as by Victor Hugo in Notre Dame de Paris.

The [218] strangest creations of sleep seem here, by some appalling licence, to cross the

limit of the dawn. The English poet too has learned the secret. He has diffused through

King Arthur’s Tomb the maddening white glare of the sun, and tyranny of the moon, not

tender and far-off, but close down—the sorcerer’s moon, large and feverish. The

colouring is intricate and delirious, as of “scarlet lilies.” The influence of summer is like

a poison in one’s blood, with a sudden bewildered sickening of life and all things. In

Galahad: a Mystery, the frost of Christmas night on the chapel stones acts as a strong

narcotic: a sudden shrill ringing pierces through the numbness: a voice proclaims that the

Grail has gone forth through the great forest. It is in the Blue Closet that this delirium

reaches its height with a singular beauty, reserved perhaps for the enjoyment of the few.

A passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible

world comes to one with a reinforced brilliancy and relief—all redness is turned into

blood, all water into tears. Hence a wild, convulsed sensuousness in the poetry of the

Middle Age, in which the things of nature begin to play a strange delirious part. Of the

things of nature the medieval mind had a deep sense; but its sense of them was not

objective, no real escape [219] to the world without us. The aspects and motions of

nature only reinforced its prevailing mood, and were in conspiracy with one’s own brain

against one. A single sentiment invaded the world: everything was infused with a motive

drawn from the soul. The amorous poetry of Provence, making the starling and the

swallow its messengers, illustrates the whole attitude of nature in this electric

atmosphere, bent as by miracle or magic to the service of human passion.

The most popular and gracious form of Provencal poetry was the nocturn, sung by the

lover at night at the door or under the window of his mistress. These songs were of

different kinds, according to the hour at which they were intended to be sung. Some were

to be sung at midnight—songs inviting to sleep, the serena, or serenade; others at break

of day—waking songs, the aube or aubade.* This waking-song is put sometimes into the

mouth of a comrade of the lover, who plays sentinel during the night, to watch for and

announce the dawn: sometimes into the mouth of one of the lovers, who are about to

separate. A modification of it is familiar to us all in Romeo and Juliet, where the lovers

debate whether the song they hear is of the nightingale or the lark; the aubade, with the

two other great forms of love-poetry then floating in the world, the sonnet and the [220]

epithalamium, being here refined, heightened, and inwoven into the structure of the play.

Those, in whom what Rousseau calls les frayeurs nocturnes are constitutional, know what

splendour they give to the things of the morning; and how there comes something of

relief from physical pain with the first white film in the sky. The Middle Age knew those

terrors in all their forms; and these songs of the morning win hence a strange tenderness

and effect. The crown of the English poet’s book is one of these appreciations of the


“Pray but one prayer for me ‘twixt thy closed lips,

Think but one thought of me up in the stars,

The summer-night waneth, the morning light slips,

Faint and gray ‘twixt the leaves of the aspen,

betwixt the cloud-bars,

That are patiently waiting there for the dawn:

Patient and colourless, though Heaven’s gold Waits to float through them along

with the sun.

Far out in the meadows, above the young corn,

The heavy elms wait, and restless and cold The uneasy wind rises; the roses are


Through the long twilight they pray for the dawn, Round the lone house in the midst of the corn

Speak but one word to me over the corn, Over the tender, bow’d locks of the corn.”

It is the very soul of the bridegroom which goes forth to the bride:

inanimate things are longing with him: all the sweetness of the imaginative loves [221] of

the Middle Age, with a superadded spirituality of touch all its own, is in that!

The Defence of Guenevere was published in 1858; the Life and Death of Jason in 1867;

to be followed by The Earthly Paradise; and the change of manner wrought in the

interval, entire, almost a revolt, is characteristic of the aesthetic poetry. Here there is no

delirium or illusion, no experiences of mere soul while the body and the bodily senses

sleep, or wake with convulsed intensity at the prompting of imaginative love; but rather

the great primary passions under broad daylight as of the pagan Veronese. This

simplification interests us, not merely for the sake of an individual poet—full of charm as

he is—but chiefly because it explains through him a transition which, under many forms,

is one law of the life of the human spirit, and of which what we call the Renaissance is

only a supreme instance. Just so the monk in his cloister, through the “open vision,”

open only to the spirit, divined, aspired to, and at last apprehended, a better daylight, but

earthly, open only to the senses. Complex and subtle interests, which the mind spins for

itself may occupy art and poetry or our own spirits for a time; but sooner or later they

come back with a sharp rebound to the simple elementary passions—anger, desire, regret,

[222] pity, and fear: and what corresponds to them in the sensuous world—bare, abstract

fire, water, air, tears, sleep, silence, and what De Quincey has called the “glory of


This reaction from dreamlight to daylight gives, as always happens, a strange power in

dealing with morning and the things of the morning. Not less is this Hellenist of the

Middle Age master of dreams, of sleep and the desire of sleep—sleep in which no one

walks, restorer of childhood to men—dreams, not like Galahad’s or Guenevere’s, but full

of happy, childish wonder as in the earlier world. It is a world in which the centaur and

the ram with the fleece of gold are conceivable. The song sung always claims to be sung

for the first time. There are hints at a language common to birds and beasts and men.

Everywhere there is an impression of surprise, as of people first waking from the golden

age, at fire, snow, wine, the touch of water as one swims, the salt taste of the sea. And

this simplicity at first hand is a strange contrast to the sought-out simplicity of

Wordsworth. Desire here is towards the body of nature for its own sake, not because a

soul is divined through it.

And yet it is one of the charming anachronisms of a poet, who, while

he handles an ancient subject, never becomes an antiquarian, but

animates his [223] subject by keeping it always close to himself,

that betweenwhiles we have a sense of English scenery as from an eye

well practised under Wordsworth’s influence, as from “the casement

half opened on summer-nights,” with the song of the brown bird among

the willows, the

“Noise of bells, such as in moonlit lanes Rings from the grey team on the market


Nowhere but in England is there such a “paradise of birds,” the fern-owl, the water-hen,

the thrush in a hundred sweet variations, the ger-falcon, the kestrel, the starling, the pea-fowl; birds heard from the field by the townsman down in the streets at dawn; doves

everywhere, pink-footed, grey-winged, flitting about the temple, troubled by the temple

incense, trapped in the snow. The sea-touches are not less sharp and firm, surest of effect

in places where river and sea, salt and fresh waves, conflict.

In handling a subject of Greek legend, anything in the way of an actual revival must

always be impossible. Such vain antiquarianism in a waste of the poet’s power. The

composite experience of all the ages is part of each one of us: to deduct from that

experience, to obliterate any part of it, to come face to face with the people of a past age,

as if the Middle Age, the Renaissance, the eighteenth century had not been, is as

impossible as to become a little [224] child, or enter again into the womb and be born.

But though it is not possible to repress a single phase of that humanity, which, because

we live and move and have our being in the life of humanity, makes us what we are, it is

possible to isolate such a phase, to throw it into relief, to be divided against ourselves in

zeal for it; as we may hark back to some choice space of our own individual life. We

cannot truly conceive the age: we can conceive the element it has contributed to our

culture: we can treat the subjects of the age bringing that into relief. Such an attitude

towards Greece, aspiring to but never actually reaching its way of conceiving life, is what

is possible for art.

The modern poet or artist who treats in this way a classical story comes very near, if not

to the Hellenism of Homer, yet to the Hellenism of Chaucer, the Hellenism of the Middle

Age, or rather of that exquisite first period of the Renaissance within it. Afterwards the

Renaissance takes its side, becomes, perhaps, exaggerated or facile. But the choice life of

the human spirit is always under mixed lights, and in mixed situations, when it is not too

sure of itself, is still expectant, girt up to leap forward to the promise. Such a situation

there was in that earliest return from the overwrought spiritualities of the Middle Age to

the earlier, more ancient life of the senses; and for us the most attractive form of [225]

classical story is the monk’s conception of it, when he escapes from the sombre

atmosphere of his cloister to natural light. The fruits of this mood, which, divining more

than it understands, infuses into the scenery and figures of Christian history some subtle

reminiscence of older gods, or into the story of Cupid and Psyche that passionate stress of

spirit which the world owes to Christianity, constitute a peculiar vein of interest in the art

of the fifteenth century.

And so, before we leave Jason and The Earthly Paradise, a word must be said about their

medievalisms, delicate inconsistencies, which, coming in a poem of Greek subject, bring

into this white dawn thoughts of the delirious night just over and make one’s sense of

relief deeper. The opening of the fourth book of Jason describes the embarkation of the

Argonauts: as in a dream, the scene shifts and we go down from Iolchos to the sea

through a pageant of the Middle Age in some French or Italian town. The gilded vanes

on the spires, the bells ringing in the towers, the trellis of roses at the window, the close

planted with apple-trees, the grotesque undercroft with its close-set pillars, change by a

single touch the air of these Greek cities and we are at Glastonbury by the tomb of

Arthur. The nymph in furred raiment who seduces Hylas is conceived frankly in the

spirit of Teutonic romance; her song is of a garden [226] enclosed, such as that with

which the old church glass-stainer surrounds the mystic bride of the song of songs.

Medea herself has a hundred touches of the medieval sorceress, the sorceress of the Streckelberg or the Blocksberg: her mystic changes are Christabel’s. It is precisely this

effect, this grace of Hellenism relieved against the sorrow of the Middle Age, which

forms the chief motives of The Earthly Paradise: with an exquisite dexterity the two

threads of sentiment are here interwoven and contrasted. A band of adventurers sets out

from Norway, most northerly of northern lands, where the plague is raging—the bell

continually ringing as they carry the Sacrament to the sick. Even in Mr. Morris’s earliest

poems snatches of the sweet French tongue had always come with something of Hellenic

blitheness and grace. And now it is below the very coast of France, through the fleet of

Edward the Third, among the gaily painted medieval sails, that we pass to a reserved

fragment of Greece, which by some divine good fortune lingers on in the western sea into

the Middle Age. There the stories of The Earthly Paradise are told, Greek story and

romantic alternating; and for the crew of the Rose Garland, coming across the sins of the

earlier world with the sign of the cross, and drinking Rhine-wine in Greece, the two

worlds of sentiment are confronted.

One characteristic of the pagan spirit the aesthetic poetry has, which is on its

surface—the continual suggestion, pensive or passionate, of the shortness of life. This is

contrasted with the bloom of the world, and gives new seduction to it—the sense of death

and the desire of beauty: the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death. But that

complexion of sentiment is at its height in another “aesthetic” poet of whom I have to

speak next, Dante Gabriel Rossett.

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