Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

The Ascending Effort—1910
Much good paper has been lamentably wasted to prove that science has
destroyed, that it is destroying, or, some day, may destroy poetry. Meantime,
unblushing, unseen, and often unheard, the guileless poets have gone on singing
in a sweet strain. How they dare do the impossible and virtually forbidden thing is
a cause for wonder but not for legislation. Not yet. We are at present too busy
reforming the silent burglar and planning concerts to soothe the savage breast of
the yelling hooligan. As somebody--perhaps a publisher--said lately: "Poetry is of
no account now-a-days."
But it is not totally neglected. Those persons with gold-rimmed spectacles whose
usual occupation is to spy upon the obvious have remarked audibly (on several
occasions) that poetry has so far not given to science any acknowledgment
worthy of its distinguished position in the popular mind. Except that Tennyson
looked down the throat of a foxglove, that Erasmus Darwin wrote THE LOVES
OF THE PLANTS and a scoffer THE LOVES OF THE TRIANGLES, poets have
been supposed to be indecorously blind to the progress of science. What tribute,
for instance, has poetry paid to electricity? All I can remember on the spur of the
moment is Mr. Arthur Symons' line about arc lamps: "Hung with the globes of
some unnatural fruit."
Commerce and Manufacture praise on every hand in their not mute but
inarticulate way the glories of science. Poetry does not play its part. Behold John
Keats, skilful with the surgeon's knife; but when he writes poetry his inspiration is
not from the operating table. Here I am reminded, though, of a modern instance
to the contrary in prose. Mr. H. G. Wells, who, as far as I know, has never written
a line of verse, was inspired a few years ago to write a short story, UNDER THE
KNIFE. Out of a clock-dial, a brass rod, and a whiff of chloroform, he has
conjured for us a sensation of space and eternity, evoked the face of the
Unknowable, and an awesome, august voice, like the voice of the Judgment Day;
a great voice, perhaps the voice of science itself, uttering the words: "There shall
be no more pain!" I advise you to look up that story, so human and so intimate,
because Mr. Wells, the writer of prose whose amazing inventiveness we all
know, remains a poet even in his most perverse moments of scorn for things as
they are. His poetic imagination is sometimes even greater than his
inventiveness, I am not afraid to say. But, indeed, imaginative faculty would make
any man a poet--were he born without tongue for speech and without hands to
seize his fancy and fasten her down to a wretched piece of paper.
The book {6} which in the course of the last few days I have opened and shut
several times is not imaginative. But, on the other hand, it is not a dumb book, as
some are. It has even a sort of sober and serious eloquence, reminding us that
not poetry alone is at fault in this matter. Mr. Bourne begins his ASCENDING
EFFORT with a remark by Sir Francis Galton upon Eugenics that "if the
principles he was advocating were to become effective they must be introduced
into the national conscience, like a new religion." "Introduced" suggests
compulsory vaccination. Mr. Bourne, who is not a theologian, wishes to league