Sentimentality and Irony 2:

More Excerpts from
John Frederick Nims' Western Wind

Detail from "The Tyger" by William Blake

We do not have to believe in the ideas of the poem to share its experience: A pacifist can enjoy
Homer; an atheist, Dante. But we have to believe in its emotions. If the poem seems to fake
anything, it is notlikely to involve us.

The poet, unlike the philosopher, is not primarily a thinker.

T. S. Eliot--The poet who thinks is merely the poet who can express the emotional
equivalent of thought.

Robert Frost--A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the
thought hasfound the words.

Emily Dickinson--If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know
that is poetry.

A. E. Housman
--Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep
watch overmy thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin
bristles so that the razor ceases to act..."

It is through the image that poetry can best convey emotion-- either through the image of
the object that arouses it, or through the image of its physical effect. Without being told
what to feel, we share thewriter's emotions.

Poems, like people, suffer from their own kinds of unbalance. Fall into general classes of
too little andthe too much. Some poems fail to involve us because they seem to feel no
passion and arouse none inus. Maybe they trade wit for passion; may be nothing more
than exercises in ingenuity.

Sentimentality, a more common malady, that of too muchness. Emotion in excess of its
object, emotion gone out of control and taking over, as cancer cells take over in the body.
Sentiment itself--opinioncolored by feeling--may be a very good thing. You can express
very noble sentiments. Sentimentality is the disease to which sentiment is subject.

Excessive grief can turn into sentimental brooding. Apathy and despair can become
self-pity. Love can be sentimental when the lover is in love with love--when he cares
more about tending to his ownemotional hothouse than about the well-being of the
person he loves. Or it can be sentimental when the object of his feelings, an animal
perhaps, deserves less than the fullness of human love.

Emotion is healthy when it is of the kind and in the amount that its object deserves:
when what we love is really lovable, when what we fear is really fearful.

It might seem better to love anything, to feel joy in anything, than to love nothing
and feel no joy. In a play of Marlowe's there is a character who sends a pot of poison
rice to a community of nuns. When they fall sick and die, he says happily, "How sweet
the bells ring, now the nuns are dead!" The joyand love he feels in his activity will
probably seem ill-conceived to most of us.

Healthy emotion is directed to something outside ourselves; sentimentality indulges
our own feelings. Sentimentalists, concerned more with cherishing their own feelings
than the objects of those feelings, are saying, in effect: "Look how tender I am! How
sensitive to beauty! How capable of deep emotions!

See only as much of reality as will coddle their own snug feelings.

Writers of sentimental poetry like to play on our stock responses, those built-in
automatic reactions we have to many things we think dear and familiar: childhood,
barefoot boys, home sweet home, the old porch swing, the old oaken bucket, old
rocking chairs, dust-covered toys, the fidelity of dogs.

The innocent happiness of childhood is particularly dear to sentimentalists. They
choose not to know about unhappy childhoods--like that of Yeats, who said, "Indeed
I remember little of childhood but its pain." One protection against sentimentality is a
sense of humor, which is a sense of proportion.Sentimental poetry demands that we
feel without thinking.

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