The Poet as Prophet
James Russell Lowell
Poets are the forerunners and prophets of changes in the moral world. Driven by their fine nature to search into and reverently contemplate the universal laws of the soul, they find some fragment of the broken tables of God’s law, and interpret it, half-conscious of its mighty import. While philosophers are wrangling, and politicians playing at snapdragon with, the destinies of millions, the poet, in the silent deeps of his soul, listens to those mysterious pulses which, from one central heart, send life and beauty through the finest veins of the universe, and utters truths to be sneered at, perchance, by contemporaries, but which become religion to posterity. Not unwisely ordered is that eternal destiny which renders the seer despised of men, since thereby he is but the more surely taught to lay his head meekly upon the mother-breast of Nature, and harken to the musical soft beating of her bounteous heart.
That Poesy, save as she can soar nearer to the blissful throne of the Supreme Beauty, is of no more use than all other beautiful things are, we are fain to grant. That she does not add to the outward wealth of the body, and that she is only so much more excellent than any bodily gift as spirit is more excellent than matter, we must also yield. But, inasmuch as all beautiful things are direct messages and revelations of himself, given us by our Father, and as Poesy is the searcher out and interpreter of all these, tracing by her inborn sympathy the invisible nerves which bind them harmoniously together, she is to be revered and cherished. The poet has a fresher memory of Eden, and of the path leading back thereto, than other men; so that we might almost deem him to have been conceived, at least, if not borne and nursed, beneath the ambrosial shadow of those dimly remembered bowers, and to have had his infant ears filled with the divine converse of angels, who then talked face to face with his sires, as with beloved younger brethren, and of whose golden words only the music remained to him, vibrating forever in his soul, and making him yearn to have all sounds of earth harmonize therewith.
In the poet’s lofty heart Truth hangs her aerie, and there Love flowers, scattering thence her winged seeds over all the earth with every wind of heaven. In all ages the poet’s fiery words have goaded men to remember and regain their ancient freedom, and, when they had regained it, have tempered it with a love of beauty, so as that it should accord with the freedom of nature, and be as unmovably eternal as that. The dreams of poets are morning dreams, coming to them in the early dawn and daybreaking of great truths, and are surely fulfilled at last. They repeat them, as children do, and all Christendom, if it be not too busy with quarreling about the meaning of creeds, which have no meaning at all, listens with a shrug of the shoulders and a smile of pitying incredulity; for reformers are always madmen in their own age, and infallible saints in the next.
We love to go back to the writings of our old poets, for we find in them the tender germs of many a thought which now stands like a huge oak in the inward world, an ornament and a shelter. We can not help reading with awful interest what has been written or rudely scrawled upon the walls of this our earthly prison house, by former dwellers therein. From that which centuries have established, too, we may draw true principles of judgment for the poetry of our own day. A right knowledge and apprehension of the past teaches humbleness and self-sustainment to the present. Showing us what has been, it also reveals what can be done. Progress is Janus-faced, looking to the bygone as well as to the coming; and radicalism should not so much busy itself with lopping off the dead or seeming dead limbs, as with clearing away that poisonous rottenness around the roots, from which the tree has drawn the principle of death into its sap. A love of the beautiful and harmonious, which must be the guide and forerunner to every onward movement of humanity, is created and cherished more surely by pointing out what beauty dwells in anything, even the most deformed (for there is something in that also, else it could not even be), than by searching out and railing at all the foulnesses in nature.
Not till we have patiently studied beauty can we safely venture to look at defects, for not till then can we do it in that spirit of earnest love, which gives more than it takes away. Exultingly as we hail all signs of progress, we venerate the past also. The tendrils of the heart, like those of ivy, cling but the more closely to what they have clung to long, and even when that which they entwine crumbles beneath them, they still run greenly over the ruin, and beautify those defects which they can not hide. The past as well as the present, molds the future, and the features of some remote progenitor will revive again freshly in the latest offspring of the womb of time. Our earth hangs well-nigh silent now, amid the chorus of her sister orbs, and not till past and present move harmoniously together will music once more vibrate on this long silent chord in the symphony of the universe.