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Augusta Webster and the Universal Poet

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In the essay “Poets and Personal Pronouns,” Augusta Webster discusses the amount of personal expression that a poet inserts into his or her own work. She delves into the differences between a novelist and poet and elaborates on the importance of creative imagination; she even analyzes a poet’s usage of personal pronouns and what each pronoun may indicate to the reader. Throughout the essay, she constantly asserts the importance of realizing that an individual poet is separate from the self he presents in his own work.

To open the essay, Webster begins with a comparison of a novelist and poet. A novelist, she asserts, must not follow the same rules as a poet. From a novelist, we expect “a definiteness and possibility for each personage, a suitability of conduct and language, and sentiment, to the epoch and theatre of events chosen, which shall make the story read as true” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). When perusing a novel, the reader expects that all events are plausible. The reader is meant to believe the events in the story as true in order to fully immerse himself in the novel. As Webster shortly after points out, this is very unlike the purpose of a poet.

Webster asserts that we expect very different things from a poet. We ask of a poet “that his personages shall not be sharply definite, shall not even in drama be definite with the minute definiteness of the novel, while it shall seem impossible for them not to be, or to be other than they are; and we ask a suitability not so much to a given epoch and theatre as to always and everywhere, not matter under what disguise of date and story” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). It is much more important for the poet to assert the universality of his work; his characters and emotions should not be limited to a singular person. It is the purpose of the poet to be relatable through time and different circumstances.

However, this is not to say that the poet cannot draw from past experiences or people. Webster further explains of the poet, “He need not, of course, create in the sense that the personage or the events he is interpreting shall not have pre-existed in fact or fiction; on the contrary, the highest powers of creative imagination have usually found their fittest exercise in intensified pourtrayal of the men and women and events of history or legends and tales” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). The poet must develop a subtler skill than creating from with the “limitlessness of free invention”. Webster describes this skill: “The poet creates as a sculptor does; he need not make the stone as well as the statue. His function is not, like the novelist’s, to devise new stories, but to make old stories new” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). However, the men and women that the poet portrays must not simply be an imitation of those people he knows in reality; they must be born from his own creative imagination.

While the poet certainly should draw from past experiences, it would not be suiting if the poet drew on a very specific person or even very specific event. The whole singularity of a poet is to be universal and to allow the reader to experience the events and emotions in the same way that he would himself. As Webster states: Nobody wants the poet so to draw characters that each shall seem the presentment of some special person known in the flesh; that is an aim to be let to the novelist…. We look to the poet for feelings, thoughts, actions if need be, represented in a way which shall affect us as the manifest expression of what our very selves must have felt and thought and done if we had been those he puts before us and in their cases. (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”)

It is the purpose of the poet to incite the reader to imagine their own actions and emotions in similar circumstances; even further, the poet should evoke in the reader what no actual circumstance could even evoke. Poets should evoke murderers out of incapacitated, temperate readers; they should arouse blissful love in the most stone-hearted; they should allow the reader to experience cultures outside of their own, as if they themselves grew up in such an environment. However, this very embodiment of emotions and circumstances trigger many misconceptions about the origination of a poet’s work.

Since the poet’s work often evokes such strong emotions in the reader and paints such vivid scenarios, it is difficult for the reader to believe that these poems are not in fact based in some reality. Webster states, “And yet, with the very nature of the poet’s delineation to show that he cannot effect it in reference to individual models, it is the poet especially whom the general public are wont to assume to have filled his canvases with direct studies from living lay figures” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). If the poet inserts a girl character into his poem, then the reader assumes that it must be based on a girl that he knows in reality; if a poem mentions a grandmother, then the reader considers whether it the character was based on the poet’s paternal or maternal grandmother. The reader constantly tries to make connections between the poet’s work and everyday life, even in the most ludicrous ways. Personal descriptions can even be stretched to accommodate almost anyone; the brown-haired girl in the poem must represent the brown-haired girl that neighbors the poet, and so on.

However common it may be for the readers to find the poet’s acquaintances in his work, it is even more common for readers to look for the poet himself. The readers are often misguided with the idea that a poet’s work represents the poet. Webster states, “But more especially still is the poet believed to be his own lay figure. He is taken as offering his readers the presentment of himself, his hopes, his loves, his sorrows, his guilts and remorses, his history and psychology generally” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). The poet is believed to be an embodiment of his poems; the reader does not understand that in order to fully appreciate the universality of the poem, it must be removed from the author. Or rather, the reader must allow the poet to remove himself from his work.

Some readers even go so far as to hold the poet true to the opinions stated in his work, even though they are not meant to be a profession of his own beliefs. Webster verbalizes an example, “Some people so thoroughly believe this to be the proper view of the poet’s position towards the public that they will despise a man as a hypocrite because, after having written and printed, ‘I am the bridegroom of Despair,’ or some such unsociable sentiment, he goes out to dinners and behaves like anybody else” (Webster, Poets and Personal Pronouns”). Readers seem to want to hold the poet true to every belief, emotion, experience, or idea that he expresses in his work; as the poet is meant to be a medium for all emotions and experiences, this would be quite overwhelming.

It is in fact a very good thing that poets do not feel or experience all that they write. Webster explains: One even hears it adduced as a fault in the moral character of poets generally that they do not feel all they write – meaning that they do not feel it in their own persons, part of their own experience. It is heartily hoped of most of them that they do not. Turn over the pages of any dozen poets now living, mean and women, and take all their utterance for their own in their own persons; suppose the first personal pronoun not artistically vicarious but standing for the writer’s substantive self; what an appalling dozen of persons! (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”)

The first personal pronoun represents a multitude of persons; it is not a direct indication of the poet himself. The pronoun “I” in a poem is universal. As Webster incredulously points out, imagine the many love affairs that a poet might have had if the “I” always meant himself. In fact, the poet’s existence would simply be one tragic or euphoric emotion after another; they would exist simply as a multitude of beings, not truly living. Webster asserts, “We have only to try to imagine what, if I meant I, must be the mental state of these writers of many emotions, to see, in the fact of their being able to correct their proofs and get their books through press, consoling evidence that, as a rule, I does not mean I” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). It should be generally assumed, then, when reading a poem that when the poet employs the first personal pronoun, that he does not mean to indicate himself. However, there are, as always, exceptions to the rule, as Webster enumerates.

The exception to the rule is found in confessional poetry. There are times when poets do express their own emotions and personality through their work. However, even in supposedly confession poetry, it is not always real. Many times the poet has only adopted these emotions when the poem was introduced to the public; or, the poet could have written the poem beforehand and only allowed it to be published when it seemed appropriate. For example, a tragic elegy could have been withheld from the printers until a sufficient death would render the poem plausible. Some poets tend to adopt the personality that they project. Webster remarks, “Byron’s most Byronic heroes were certainly less a portrait of him than he of them; he made them and then he imitated them. Where a poet falls into the popular fallacy and takes it that the public have a right to form a theory of his life from his writings and to expect him to be consistent to it, he is quite likely to become, with conscious hypocrisy a claimant to virtues which are too hard for him…” (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns). Some poets feel that they must fulfill some pubic duty to project his work in everyday life, and be consistent in what he writes. Thus, he knowingly becomes an embodiment of his work, furthering the idea that a poet is inseparable from his writings.

It is especially difficult for the public to separate a poet from his work due to the frequent employment of personal pronouns. As stated earlier, I does not mean I. But this is commonly misunderstood. If the poet attempted to alter his pronoun usage to a more general figure such as “we” or “one”, the impact of the poem would be changed and further misunderstandings could occur. The “I” in a poem is an indicator of self, not of the poet, and to reduce that to a more general, less impactful “we” or “one” would be a disservice to the poem itself. Still, Webster recommends: “On the whole the editorial pronoun, the “We” and the “Our” and the “Us,” is what can most safely be recommended to poets for their future protection”. (Webster, “Poets and Personal Pronouns”). And while her recommendation it true, that poets could safely use the alternative pronouns and safe from the danger of invoking themselves, it is also important that poets remember that their work is meant to invoke bold, unabashed emotions, to allow readers to experience things they could not in their own physical bodies, and to be universal.

Webster’s essay “Poets and Personal Pronouns” goes into depth about the portrayal of a poet in his own work, the public’s interpretation of a poet’s work and of the poet himself, and what this all indicates about poet’s purpose. The poet himself is not an embodiment of his work; vice versa, a poet’s work is not a representation of a poet’s own values, beliefs, emotions, experiences, and so on. A poet is meant to be a medium through which all feelings, thoughts, and ideas can flow through and manifest themselves beautifully and precisely on the page. This is the main element of a poet: his own universality.

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