There is no province of honorable human endeavor, no clean inlet opened by the senses or the intellect or the feelings, into which from that vast, deep, oceanic spring, the human soul, the beautiful does not send its fructifying tides. There is no height in history but is illuminated by its gleam. Only through the beautiful can truth attain its full stature; only through the beautiful can the heart be perfectly purified; only with vision purged by the beautiful can anything be seen in its totality. All other faculties it makes prolific; it is the mental generator. It helps to unveil, and then welds, the link between the visible and the invisible. It inspires feeling (which is ever the source of deepest insight) to discover excellence; it quickens the mind to creative activity; it is forever striving upward. Without the spiritual fervor of the beautiful, your religion is narrow and superstitious, your science cramped and mortal, your life unripened. In the mind it kindles a flame that discloses the divinity there is in all things. Lightning bares to the awed vision the night-shrouded earth; more vivid than lightning, the flash of the beautiful reveals to the soul the presence of God.
What is poetry?
The better to meet the question, What is poetry? we begin by putting before it another, and ask, Where is poetry? Poetry is in the mind. Landscapes, rainbows, sunsets, constellations, these exist not to the stag, the hare, the elephant. To them nature has no aspects, no appearances modified by feeling. Furnished with neither combining intellect nor transmuting sensibility, they have no vision for aught but the proximate and immediate and the animally necessary. Corporeal life is all their life. Within the life of mind poetry is born, and in the best and deepest part of that life.
The whole world outside of man, and, added to this, the wider world of his inward motions, whether these motions interact on one another or be started and modified by what is without them, all this—that is, all human life, in its endless forms, varieties, degrees, all that can come within the scope of man—is the domain of poetry; only, to enjoy, to behold, to move about in, even to enter this domain, the individual man must bear within him a light that shall transfigure whatever it falls on, a light of such subtle quality, of such spiritual virtue, that wherever it strikes it reveals something of the very mystery of being.
In many men, in whole tribes, this light is so feebly nourished that it gives no illumination. To them the two vast worlds, the inner and the outer, are made up of opaque facts, cognizable, available, by the understanding, and by it handled grossly and directly. Things, conditions, impressions, feelings, are not taken lovingly into the mind, to be made there prolific through higher contacts. They are not dandled joyfully in the arms of the imagination. Imagination! Before proceeding a step further,—nay, in order that we be able to proceed safely,—we must make clear to ourselves what means this great word, imagination.