"One of the functions of poetry is just this, to discover the life that lies concealed in what are called commonplaces . . . to take a platitude and make of it an aphorism: to rub off the accumulated rust of time and familiarity which prevents our seeing the fresh and vital truth underneath: to speak of a mother's love, or of the sadness of autumn, in such a way that we may feel them as we may suppose them to have been felt by those who first put such feelings into words, words which for them were as fresh and forcible as the feelings, but have now for us become stale and lifeless."
John Bailey, Poetry and Commonplace (Warton Lecture on English Poetry X) (Oxford University Press 1919), page 3. The lecture is also reprinted in Bailey's The Continuity of Letters (Oxford University Press 1923).
Some of you may say: "Well, that's obvious." My response is: "I'm thick-headed and I need to be reminded of these things." Others may say: "What about the avant-garde, and the overthrowing of long-established, stale traditions? Isn't that the function of art?" My response (yawning) is: "Nothing is more hackneyed, conformist, and unimaginative than the latest iteration of the avant-garde." Finally, some may say: "What about 'the poetry of witness,' poetry that addresses the burning issues of the day?" My response (again, yawning) is (and you have heard this here before): "Political poetry is an oxymoron."
Stanhope Forbes, "On Paul Hill" (1922)
Bailey gives this as an example of a poem that transforms an ostensibly "trivial" moment into something else entirely.
At the corner of Wood Street, when daylight appears,
There's a thrush that sings loud, it has sung for three years:
Poor Susan has passed by the spot, and has heard
In the silence of morning the song of the bird.
'Tis a note of enchantment; what ails her? She sees
A mountain ascending, a vision of trees;
Bright volumes of vapour through Lothbury glide,
And a river flows on through the vale of Cheapside.
Green pastures she views in the midst of the dale,
Down which she so often has tripped with her pail;
And a single small cottage, a nest like a dove's,
The one only dwelling on earth that she loves.
She looks, and her heart is in Heaven: but they fade,
The mist and the river, the hill and the shade;
The stream will not flow, and the hill will not rise,
And the colours have all passed away from her eyes.
William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems (1802).
Bailey writes of Wordsworth:
"The essential business of Wordsworth was to make a primrose by a river's brim [a reference to "Peter Bell"] more than that to every one who reads: to bring out the strangeness of the common, the interestingness and newness and significance of the commonplace."
Poetry and Commonplace, page 10.
Stanhope Forbes, "The Harbour Window" (1910)
Given his confident (is grandiose too strong a word?) view of himself, and his interest in big (and often eccentric) ideas, one would not expect W. B. Yeats to dwell upon the commonplace in his poetry. But, if "Poor Susan" is about the commonplace, what are we to make of this lovely echo?
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
W. B. Yeats, The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1893).
Please rest assured that I am not out to make sport of Yeats (although his personal quiddities are entertaining): he is a great poet. And I have previously written fondly of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." I am merely suggesting (following Bailey's cue) that both Yeats and Wordsworth are at their best when they transform the commonplace, rather than travelling off, untethered, into the upper air (as they were both wont to do).
Stanhope Forbes, "A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach" (1885)
"Poetry has, it would rather seem, two functions with regard to truth: its discovery and its re-discovery. The great poet, that is, is sometimes creating and inventing, giving us new thoughts or pictures; and sometimes restating old ones in such a way that it appears as if we were hearing them for the first time. His originality is of this double kind; an originality of substance and an originality of form. The one originates something new, the other re-creates something old."
John Bailey, Poetry and Commonplace, page 3.
I'm old-fashioned: I like it when "truth" is mentioned in connection with poetry.
"Village Rendezvous, Copperhouse Creek, Near Hayle" (1938)