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RECENT TENDENCIES IN EUROPEAN POETRY
PROFESSOR C.H. HERFORD
When Matthew Arnold declared that every age receives its best interpretation in its poetry, he was making a remark hardly conceivable before the century in which it was made. Poetry in the nineteenth century was, on the whole, more charged with meaning, more rooted in the stuff of humanity and the heart of nature, less a mere province of belles-lettres than ever before. Consciously or unconsciously it reflected the main currents in the mentality of European man, and the reflection was often most clear where it was least conscious. Two of these main currents are:
(1) The vast and steady enlargement of our knowledge of the compass, the history, the potencies, of Man, Nature, the World.
(2) The growth in our sense of the worth of every part of existence.
Certain aspects of these two processes are popularly known as ’the advance of science’, and ‘the growth of democracy’. But how far ‘science’ reaches beyond the laboratory and the philosopher’s study, and ‘democracy’ beyond political freedom and the ballot-box, is precisely what poetry compels us to understand; and not least the poetry of the last sixty years with which we are to-day concerned.
How then does the history of poetry in Europe during these sixty years stand in relation to these underlying processes? On the surface, at least, it hardly resembles growth at all. In France above all—the literary focus of Europe, and its sensitive thermometer—the movement of poetry has been, on the surface, a succession of pronounced and even fanatical schools, each born in reaction from its precursor, and succumbing to the triumph of its successor. Yet a deeper scrutiny will perceive that these warring artists were, in fact, groups of successive discoverers, who each added something to the resources and the scope of poetry, and also retained and silently adopted the discoveries of the past; while the general line of advance is in the direction marked by the two main currents I have described. Nowhere else is the succession