Illusion and Reality, Christopher Caudwell 1937


By poetry we mean modern poetry, because not only have we a special and intimate understanding of the poetry of our age and time, but we look at the poetry of all ages through the mist of our own. Modern poetry is poetry which is already separate from story and has played a special part in the relation of the consciousness of the developing bourgeois class to its surroundings.

What are the specific characteristics of this modern poetry – not of good modern poetry, but of any modern poetry? Mimesis, the characteristic of Greek poetry, is not a specific characteristic of bourgeois poetry but is common to the bourgeois story and play.

The characteristics which would make a given piece of literature poetry for the sophisticated modern are as follows:

(a) Poetry is rhythmic

The marked rhythm of poetry, superimposed upon the “natural” rhythm of any language, seems to have taken its root from two sources-

(1) It makes easier declamation in common and therefore emphasises the collective nature of poetry. It is the impress of the social mould in which poetry is generated. As a result the nature of the rhythm expresses in a subtle and sensitive way the precise balance between the instinctive or emotional content of the poem and the social relations through which emotion realises itself collectively. Thus any change in man’s self-valuation of the relation of his instincts to society is reflected in his attitude to the metre and rhythmical conventions into which he is born, and which he therefore as poet changes in one direction or another. We have already studied in outline these changes in attitude toward metrical technique during the movement of bourgeois English poetry, and it is obvious that the final movement towards “free verse” reflects the final anarchic bourgeois attempt to abandon all social relations in a blind negation of them, because man has completely lost control of his social relationships.

(2) But this brings us to a special feature of the bourgeois contradiction in poetry – the specific way in which rhythm facilitates collective declamation and emotion. The body has certain natural periodicities (pulse-beat, breath, etc.) which form a dividing line between the casual character of outside events and the ego, and make it appear as if we experience time subjectively in a special and direct manner. Any rhythmical movement or action therefore exalts the physiological component of our conscious field at the expense of the environmental. It tends to produce introversion of a special kind, which will call emotional introversion and contrast with rational introversion, such as takes place when we concentrate on a mathematical problem. There rhythm would be out of place.

Rhythm puts people at a collective festival in touch with each other in a particular way – physiologically and emotionally. They already see each other, but this is not the kind of communion that is desired. On the contrary, when they cease to see each other so clearly, when each retires darkly into his body and shares the same physiological and elemental beat, then they have a special herd commonness that is distinct from the commonness of seeing each other in the same real world of perceptual experience. It is instinctive commonness as opposed to conscious commonness; subjective unity as opposed to objective unity. In emotional introversion men return to the genotype, to the more or less common set of instincts in each man which is changed and adapted by outer reality in the course of living.

This emotional introversion is in itself a social act. Society hangs together as a coherent working whole because men all have the same equipment of instincts. The productive relations into which a man is born, the environment he enters into, mould his consciousness in a social way and also secure the cohesion of any one society. It is true that the same two genotypes, one born into primitive Australian culture and the other into modern European culture, would be different and if brought together later could not form one social complex. But a monkey and a man born into the same culture would be different too, in spite of their like surroundings, and could not form the same complex either. This contradiction between instinct and cultural environment is absolutely primary to society. Just as the specific form of it we have been analysing drives on the development of capitalist society, so this general contradiction drives on the development of all society. In language this contradiction is represented by the opposition between the rational content or objective existence expressed by words and the emotional content or subjective attitude expressed by the same words. It is impossible to separate the two completely, because they are given in the way language is generated – in man’s struggle with Nature. But science (or reality) is the special field of the former, and poetry (or illusion) the domain of the latter. Hence poetry in some form is as eternal to society as man’s struggle with Nature, a struggle of which association in economic production is the outcome.

In poetry itself this takes the form of man entering into emotional communion with his fellow men by retiring into himself. Hence when the bourgeois poet supposes that he expresses his individuality and flies from reality by entering into a world of art in his inmost soul, he is in fact merely passing from the social world of rational reality to the social world of emotional commonness. When the bourgeois poet becomes (as he thinks) anti-social and completely vowed to the world of “art for art’s sake,” his rhythm becomes increasingly marked and hypnotically drowsy, as in Mallarmé’s Après-midi d'un Faune and Apollinaire’s Alcools. Only when the bourgeois passes to the anarchistic stage where he negates all bourgeois society and deliberately chooses words with only personal associations, can rhythm vanish, for the poet now dreads even the social bond of having instincts common with other men, and therefore chooses just those words which will have a cerebral peculiarity. If he chooses words with too strong an emotional association, this, coupled with the hypnosis of a strong rhythm, will sink him into the common lair of the human instincts. Hence the surréaliste technique of selecting word combinations whose bizarre associations, though personal, are not emotional but rational. Ultimately this is only possible by departing from language and significance altogether, because all the contents of consciousness are both genetically and environmentally social in basis.

Thus, though rhythm is fundamental to poetry, it cannot be dismissed with some simple formula such as “Rhythm is hypnotic and produces hyperæsthesia” or “Metrical patterns express social norms.” The significance of rhythm is historical and at any given time depends upon the unfolding of society’s basic contradiction in language.

(b) Poetry is difficult to translate

It is recognised as one of the characteristics of poetry that translations convey little of the specific emotion aroused by that poetry in the original. This can be confirmed by anyone who, after reading a translation, has learned the language of the original. The metre may be reproduced. What is called the “sense” may be exactly translated. But the specific poetic emotion evaporates. Where translations are good poetry, like FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát or Pope’s Iliad, they are virtually re-creations. The poetic emotion they re-create rarely has much resemblance to that aroused by the original.

We have no right to attribute this to any mysterious transcendent quality in poetry. It may be so, or it may not. It is a special characteristic of puns. It is a special characteristic of poetry. No one certainly would claim that the translations of great novels like War and Peace or The Idiot give to the English reader all that is in the original. But the extraordinary power of these works even in translation, when compared to translations of, say, the Inferno or the Odyssey, warrants us in claiming that the important aesthetic qualities of the novel do survive translation in a way that those of poetry cannot. This is certainly not due to the difficulty of transferring the formal metrical pattern. On the contrary – a point often overlooked – much more of the formal metrical pattern of French poetry can be carried over into an English translation in verse than can be salvaged of the unstressed spoken rhythm of French prose in an English prose translation. Yet critics, anxious to get some faint flavour of a foreign poet, would far prefer a literal prose translation to a metrical translation.

(c) Poetry is irrational

This is not to say that poetry is incoherent or meaningless. Poetry obeys the rules of grammar, and is generally capable of paraphrase, i.e. the series of propositions of which it consists can be stated in different prose forms in the same or other languages. But whereas the philosophy of Spinoza remains the philosophy of Spinoza when explained by a disciple, and a novel of Tolstoi remains a novel of Tolstoi when translated, and a fairy tale is the same fairy tale by whomsoever it is told, a paraphrase of a poem, though still making the same statements as the original, is no longer the same poem – is probably not a poem at all. By “rational” we mean conforming with the orderings men agree upon seeing in the environment. Scientific argument is rational in this sense, poetry is not. We have already seen, however, that there is another commonness or social congruence in language distinguishable from environmental congruence. This is emotional or subjective congruence. Let us call it “congruence with inner reality.” We have also seen that this characteristic of poetry is linked with its rhythmical form. Evidently, therefore, poetry is irrational as regards its environmental congruity, because it is rational as regards its emotional congruity and there is a contradiction between these two forms of congruity. This contradiction is not exclusive: they interpenetrate in language because they interpenetrate in life. Poetry is in fact just the expression of one aspect of the contradiction between man’s emotions and his environment, which takes the very real and concrete form of man’s struggle with Nature. Because it is a product of this struggle, poetry at every stage of its historical development reflects in its own province man’s active relation to his environment.

Plato referred to this special irrationality of poetry in the quotation already made from Ion. This was what Shelley meant when he said: “Poetry is something not subject to the active powers of the mind.”

(d) Poetry is composed of words

This may seem a commonplace, but nothing is commonplace if it is, at almost all times and occasions, forgotten by those who should know it. For instance we have Matthew Arnold: “For poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.”

We know that the last sentence distorts a real truth. But the first two are so muddled that it is difficult to pick out the actual meaning, although subsequent chapters will show that Arnold, as a good craftsman, was indicating an important aspect of poetry.

Shelley uses the same loose speech: “Language, colour, form and religious and civil habits of actions, are all the instruments and materials of poetry; they may be called poetry by that figure of speech which considers the effect as a synonym of the cause.”

Beneath the looseness is the truth that poetry is produced by man’s real existence in society.

He also says: “The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. Plato was essentially a poet. Lord Bacon was a poet.... A poem is the very image of life expressed in its external truth....”

Here he talks with a looseness which conceals nothing. Bacon was not a poet. These overstatements are attempts to justify poetry at the time when the sweeping away of “idyllic relations” by the development of bourgeois economy has started to give the poet an inferiority complex.

Mallarmé’s advice to his painter friend is well known: “Poetry is written with words, not ideas.” This adds to our own positive characteristic a negative one that we cannot endorse. Poetry certainly evokes ideas, i.e. memory images, or it would be mere sound. We confine ourselves here therefore to the proposition: “Poetry is composed of words.”

The reader will see that this characteristic is really generated by the preceding characteristic, “Poetry is difficult to translate.” For if poetry were written only with ideas, i.e. with the aim of stimulating only ideas in the hearer, it could be translated by choosing in the other language the words which would stimulate the same ideas. Since it cannot, the word as word must have some component additional to the idea it stimulates. Hence we can say poetry is written with words in a way the novel is not, without meaning that a special magic inheres in the sound-symbol or black mark that objectively is the word. In fact the word stimulates in addition to the idea an affective “glow,” of such a character that it cannot be carried over by translation.

(e) Poetry is non-symbolic

Here we shall not be accused of a commonplace. On the contrary, this is the negative of a commonplace, since the customary idealistic conception of poetry is of something vaguely symbolic. Yet it necessarily follows from the fact that poetry is irrational that it is non-symbolic.

What do we mean when we say words are symbolic, that is, symbols and nothing else? We mean that the words themselves are nothing, we are not interested in them, but in what they refer to.[1] Thus when a mathematician writes eight plus nine equals seventeen, he is not interested in the words themselves, but in the ordering of certain generalised classes encountered in empirical reality. Because the words he makes use of are symbolic; that is, emptied of personal meaning, the sentence would have precisely the same validity whatever words were used. For instance, in French, German or Italian the operations of ordering referred to would be precisely the same to a mathematician, although described in different words, because the words themselves are regarded as an arbitrary convention standing for real mathematical operations of ordering. If the phrase be translated into 8+9=17, the sentence is still just as adequate from the mathematician’s point of view. Indeed we can go farther, and if to-morrow mathematicians agreed an a convention whereby 8 was replaced by 9, 9 by 8, and 17 by 23, the plus sign by the minus and the equals by the is greater than, then the sentence 9 – 8/23 would be the precise expression of the empirical operations symbolically expressed by 8+9=17. But if to-morrow we decided to abolish all words and give every word in the English dictionary its own number, the poetic content of a speech of Hamlet would not be expressed by a series of numbers. We should have to translate them mentally back into the original words before attaining it.

The extreme translatability of the symbolic language of mathematics, which has made it possible to evolve a universal mathematical language, therefore stands in opposition to the untranslatability of non-symbolic poetry. This universal mathematical language is logistic or symbolic.[2]

In so far as some of the quality of poetry can be carried over into translation, then in so far poetry has an element of symbolism in it.

But we also saw that just as poetry, though it was deficient in rational congruence, was full of emotional congruence, so, although it lacks external symbolism – reference to external objects – it is full of internal symbolism – reference to emotional attitudes. Now every real word indicates both an external referent and a subjective attitude. Hence scientific argument contains some value-judgment; it is impossible to eliminate it. These judgments are eliminated only in logistic. And poetry contains some reference to external objects – it is impossible to eliminate them and remain poetry.

What does poetry become if all external reference is eliminated, in the way that all value-judgments are eliminated from a scientific argument to make it become logistic? Poetry becomes “meaningless” sound, but sound full of emotional reference – in other words, music; and music, like logistic, is translatable and universal. Thus we see that the mingling of reference and emotion, which is characteristic of poetry, is not an adulteration, but expresses a dialectic relation between the opposite poles of instinct and environment, a relation which is rooted in real concrete social life —French or Athenian. Poetry is clotted social history, the emotional sweat of man’s struggle with Nature.

(f) Poetry is concrete

This is a positive that matches the previous negative statement. But concreteness is not the automatic converse of symbolism. For instance, a symbolic language may approach nearer to the concrete by rejecting the general for the particular. Arithmetic is more concrete than algebra, because its symbols are less generalised. A mathematic symbolism in which the symbol two stood only for two bricks, and other symbols were needed for two horses, two men, etc., would plainly be more concrete than existing mathematical symbolism, but it would not be symbolic, for it would be still as conventional and susceptible to arbitrary sign substitution. But it would be plain that as symbolic language becomes more concrete, it becomes more and more cumbersome. Since no two men are the same, different symbols would be needed for each possible pairing of men in a perfectly concrete symbolic language.

The generality of mathematics is a generality of external reality; hence the particularity of mathematics would also be a particularity of external reality, and since the number of objects in external reality is infinite, mathematics must be generalised. It is the most flexible tool for dealing with outer reality because it is the most generalised. Since it is dealing with orderings only, i.e. with classes, it can subdue the infinite particularity of the universe. It is no accident that infinity appears so often in mathematics.

Compare poetry. Its province is subjective attitudes. Now the conscious field consists of real objects and subjective attitudes towards them. By ordering these real objects in the most general way, mathematics arrives at infinity, a single symbol which puts all external reality in its grasp. But if poetry orders all these subjective attitudes in the most general way, it arrives at the ego, a single symbol which puts all subjective reality in its grasp.

In fact it is music, not poetry, which is as abstract and generalised in regard to subjective reality as mathematics is to external reality. In music the environment sinks away, the ego inflates, and all the drama takes place within its walls. Mathematics is externally abstract and generalised; music internally so.

But poetry is like scientific argument, it is “impure.” Its emotions are attached to real objects and this gives them a certain peculiarity. Reality hovers in the ego’s vision. This means that poetry is concrete and particularised, just as scientific argument is concrete and particularised, although of course in each case the concretion and generality refers to different spheres of reality.

For example, when the poet says
My love is like a red, red rose,

the language is non-symbolic, for no conventional acceptation will make the paraphrase, “my fiancée is a flower of the genus rosacea var. red,” a statement containing the poetic emotion expressed in the original statement. The line is non-symbolic. It is not therefore to be supposed that it must be concrete. But if it were not concrete, the statement would be in its present form quite generally true. That is to say, if it were abstract, it would not be a specific case, a statement appropriate to the poet, to a particular love, to one mood, to one time, to one poem, but a quite general statement, so that wherever the speaker is in a position to make the statement “my love is” he must inevitably have in mind, as an already given fact, that she is “like a red, red rose.”

But since poetry is not abstract, but a concrete non-symbolic language, we are entitled, in the next poem we write, to say

My love is a white, white rose,


If flowers be blossoms, my love is no rose.

But with an abstract non-symbolic language we would only be entitled to make this statement in a body of poetry other than the one in which we made the first, that is to say, in another language. A misunderstanding of this point makes Plato regard all poets as liars: and an understanding of it makes Sidney able to answer him by explaining that the poet “is no lyar, for he nothing affirms.”

Thus this concrete character of poetry’s subjective generalisation is just what makes it necessary to give poetry the half-assent of illusion – to accept its statements while we are in its world but not to demand that all the statements of all novels and poems should form one world in which the principles of exclusion and contradiction would apply, as they do in the real material world. This does not mean that no integration is necessary as between novels and poems. That integration is the very province of aesthetics. It is the essential task of aesthetics to rank Herrick below Milton, and Shakespeare above either, and explain in rich and complex detail why and how they differ. But such an act implies a standard, an integrated world view, which is not scientific – i.e. rational – but aesthetic. This is the logic of art.

This concretion and particularity applies also to the sphere of scientific argument, which, like poetry, is impure but is nearer the opposite pole. Everyone knows that biology, physics, sociology and psychology are spheres in each of which different laws apply, although there is a connecting principle which unites that the law applicable to the more generalised sphere must not be contradicted in any less generalised sphere, e.g. the laws of sociology must not contradict those of physics. In the same way poetry must have this congruence, that its experiences always happen to the same “I,” in whatever phantastic world, and novels must have this congruence, that they always have their scene laid in the same real world of human society whatever the “I” (character) may be; and the structure of this emotional “I” or real world determines the aesthetic judgment. This ego is in fact the “world-view” in which a logic of art is already given.

Does this “impurity” mean that neither science nor poetry are “really” true? On the contrary. Because truth can only apply to reality, to real concrete life, and because real concrete life is neither wholly subjective nor wholly objective but a dialectic active relation between the two (man’s struggle with Nature), it is only these “impure” products of the struggle to which we can at all apply the criterion “true.” Truth always has a social human reference – it means “true” in relation to man. Hence the criterion of mathematics, as Russell has pointed out, is never “truth,” it is consistency. In the same way the criterion of music is “beauty.” The fact that language in all its products contains a blend of both is because man in his real life is always actively striving to fulfil Keats’ forecasts:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty;

he is always struggling to make environment conform to instinct, consistency to beauty, and necessity to desire – in a word, to be free. Language is the product of that struggle because it is the struggle not of one man but of men in association and language is the instrument of associated struggle; hence language is stamped everywhere with humanity as well as with man’s environment. Just as science is near the environmental pole, so poetry is near the instinctive. Consistency is the virtue of science, beauty of poetry – neither can ever become pure beauty or pure consistency, and yet it is their struggle to achieve this which drives on their development. Science yearns always towards mathematics, poetry towards music.

(g) Poetry is characterised by condensed effects

These effects are the effects proper to it, that is to say, aesthetic effects. A telegram, “Your wife died yesterday,” may impart extraordinarily condensed effects to the reader of it, but these are not of course aesthetic effects. Here the language is used symbolically, and if the unhappy husband who received this telegram had previously known that his wife was in danger and (being of a parsimonious turn of mind) had arranged for the code word “Kippers” to be despatched to him as an indication of his wife’s death, the effects accompanying the shorter message would be just as strong. This would be just as true even if the telegram were formally poetic. The scraps of doggerel in The Times obituary column have the formal characteristics of poetry and carry strong effects for those who insert them; but these effects are not aesthetic effects.

Now in both these cases another test could be applied. To other persons not bereaved, the words could not carry the same effects. The non-aesthetic affects are individual not collective, and depend on particular not social experiences. Therefore it is not enough that poetry should be charged with emotional significance if this emotion results from a particular personal experience unrealisable or unrealised in a social form. The emotion must be generated by the experience of associated men, and we now see of what the generality of the poetic “I” consists. It is not the “I” of one individual in civil society, any more than the infinity of mathematics is the infinity of one person’s perceptual world. The infinity of mathematics is the infinity of the material world – of the world common to all men’s perceptual worlds. And the “I” of poetry is the “I” common to all associated men’s emotional worlds. How could bourgeois criticism, which never rises above the point of view of the “individual in civil society,” solve the problem of what differentiates aesthetic objects and emotions from others? Aesthetic objects are aesthetic in so far as they arouse emotions peculiar not to individual man but to associated men. From this arises the disinterested, suspended and objective character of aesthetic emotion.

To summarise: poetry is rhythmical, not translatable, irrational, non-symbolic, concrete, and characterised by condensed aesthetic effects.

These characteristics will suffice to detach the body of poetry from literature as a whole, and we can now proceed to a closer examination of its method, its technique, its function and its future,

1. There is a good discussion of this referential character of words in Ogden and Richards, Meaning of Meaning.

2. Invented by Peano and developed by Russell and Whitehead. See Principia Mathematica. It has not fulfilled the hopes of its inventors.