"That it is not the business of the poet to teach virtue is an absurdly modern theory," said Heathcote William Garrod, delivering the first of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures last night in the Large Fogg Lecture Room, before an audience that filled the hall to capacity.
Professor Garrod, who is the distinguished holder of the only two existent chairs devoted entirely to poetry, that at Oxford and the Norton Chair at Harvard, lectured on "Poetry and the Teaching Office"
He was introduced by John Livingston Lowes, Professor of English.
"What is poetry for? To the Greeks and Romans education was practically synonymous with the study of the poets. For myself, I find it extremely difficult to attach no significance whatever to the belief of poets that it is their office to teach.
A Man From Mars
"Were a man from Mars, or the moon, to visit the earth, and ask us what we considered the highest form of human expression, we would answer, 'Poetry'. If he were to ask then what were the highest human ideals, we would reply, 'Truth and virtue'. If he were to be informed that our highest form of human speech was not designed for expression of our best ideals he would probably return to the moon with a strange idea of our earth, where we kept our best speech for our second best thoughts."
"Poetical values are, after all, values, in a human life," he continued. "You cannot mark them off from other human values, as though the nature of man were built in bulkheads; as though there were a department of poetry hermetically sealed, a kind of padded room of aesthetic so effectively sound proof that the ravings of poesy are unable to disturb either the moral sense in us or the instinct for truth."
Resents Didactic Poetry
Poetry that teaches is not, he said, the same as didactic poetry. We ask the poet to teach only in his own fashion and mind his own lessons. We protest against didactic poetry; we resent its incompetence.
"We like poetry to hit the mark, but we do not like it to aim," he said, discussing the teaching office.
Commenting on the poetry of the twentieth century, he quoted a statement of a modern poetess, who said the "sublimity of the older poetry has gone out of fashion."
"I do not associate sublimity with Gray's 'Elegy', or even the 'Ode' of Wordsworth. If by sublimity she means reflecting magnificence of mind, sublimity has certainly vanished from the poetry of the last 30 years.
"Poetry was once married to music, and she broke off. Then she was, we thought, securely wedded to verse, but she has got away at last. Shall she be married again, as some believe, this time to the cast-off partner of religion, philosophy?"