Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 9
Fantasy and a Real World, in the Poetry of Walter de la Mare

It is a common assumption, in many fields of human enterprise, that fantasy implies a lack of realism. For poetry, more simply than for other arts, it may be possible to resolve some of the uncertainties in the use of these two very ambiguous terms. In attempting to decide whether realism may or may not be credited to a poem called fantastic, the purpose may be better served by regarding the means through which we are enabled to appreciate certain phases of the art of writing, rather than by formulating definitions which would inevitably be very complex.

Consider what happens as soon as we come to criticise a poem whose structure or rhythm or symbolism plays a large part in the total stimulus to the reader's imagination. The case becomes interesting when this significance inherent in structure is strong compared with the significance inherent in any mere superficial meaning of the words of the poem: for this superficial meaning could have been obtained from a paraphrase of verbal equivalents which might be entirely devoid of imaginative stimulus. In extreme instances some absurdly impossible subject-matter may still exert a strong effect upon the reader through the manner and structure of the verse, just as it also might through the manner in which an imaginative picture of the same subject was painted.

When the contents of a poem thus appear to lose all contact with sense-experience, the term fantasy becomes applicable. In many poems such fantasy degenerates all too easily into mere caprice: but there are others in which a profound significance for human liberty or bondage, or terror or exaltation, may be genuinely and vividly conveyed by the form and structure, even though piecemeal analysis of each sentence might yield mere triviality. Even nonsense verses might convey through their structure, as can a piece of music, a genuine significance for human feeling, and whenever occurs the property of realism cannot be denied to such fantasy.

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