Goddard on Poetry

One of the great reads on Shakespeare is Harold C. Goddard’s The Meaning of Shakespeare, Volume 1. My God, what a teacher this man must have been! (Head of the English Dept. at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in the 1930s and 40s.)

Here are a few passages on poetry from Chapter 1:

Poetry is not something that exists in printed words on the page. It is not even something that exists in nature, in sunshine or in moonlight. Nor on the other hand is it something that exists just in the human heart or mind. It is rather the spark that leaps across when something within is brought close to something without, or something without to something within. The poetry is the spark. Or, if you will, it is what the spark gives birth to, something as different from either its inner or its outer constituent as water is from the oxygen or the hydrogen that electricity combines…

Imagination is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two–as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend–the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets…

Poetry, the elemental speech, is the like the elements. Its primary function is not to convey thought, but to reflect life. It shows man his soul, as a looking glass does his face. There hangs the mirror on the wall, a definite object, the same for all. Yet whoever looks into it sees not the mirror but himself. We all live in the same world, but what different worlds we see in it and make out of it: Caesar’s, Jesus’, Machiavelli’s, Mozart’s–yours and mine…

To our age anything Delphic is anathema. We want the definite. As certainly as ours is a time of the expert and the technician, we are living under a dynasty of the intellect, and the aim of the intellect is not to wonder and love and grow wise about life, but to control it…

Art is given us to redeem us. All we are in the habit of asking or expecting of it today is that it should please or teach–whereas it ought to captivate us, carry us out of ourselves, make us over into something more nearly in its own image…

“King Lear is a miracle,” wrote a young woman who had just come under its incomparable spell. “There is nothing in the whole world that is not in this play. It says everything, and if this is the last and final judgment on the world we live in, then it is a miraculous world. This is a miracle play.”

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