… It is their power to create not only atmosphere, but a world, which, while it lasts, seems more real and solid than this daily existence …
This is from the essay ‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’ by E.M. Forster found in The Hogarth Essays (1928):
Do you know who a book’s by?
The question is more profound and even more literary than may appear. A poem for example: do we gain more or less pleasure from it when we know the name of the poet? The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens, for example. No one knows who wrote Sir Patrick Spens. It comes to us out of the northern void like a breath of ice. Set beside it another ballad whose author is known — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
[line break added] That, too, contains a tragic voyage and the breath of ice, but it is signed Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and we know a certain amount about this Coleridge. Coleridge signed other poems and knew other poets; he ran away from Cambridge; he enlisted as a Dragoon under the name of Trooper Comerback, but fell so constantly from his horse that it had to be withdrawn from beneath him permanently; he was employed instead upon matters relating to sanitation; he married Southey’s sister, and gave lectures ; he became stout, pious, and dishonest, took opium and died.
[line break added] With such information in our heads, we speak of the Ancient Mariner as “a poem by Coleridge,” but of Sir Patrick Spens as “a poem.” What difference, if any, does this difference between them make upon our minds? And in the case of novels, and plays — does ignorance or knowledge of their authorship signify?
… Books are composed of words, ,and words have two functions to perform: they give information or they create an atmosphere. Often they do both, for the two functions are not incompatible, but our enquiry shall keep them distinct. Let us turn for our next example to Public Notices. There is a word that is sometimes hung up at the edge of a tramline: the word “Stop.”
[line break added] Written on a metal label by the side of the line, it means that a train should stop here presently. It is an example of pure information. It creates no atmosphere — at least, not in my mind. I stand close to the label and wait and wait for the tram. If the tram comes, the information is correct; if it doesn’t come, the information is incorrect; but in either case it remains information, and the notice is an excellent instance of one of the uses of words.
Compare it with another public notice which is sometimes exhibited in the darker cities of England: “Beware of pickpockets, male and female.” Here, again, there is information. A pickpocket may come along presently, just like a tram, and we take our measures accordingly. But there is something else besides. Atmosphere is created. Who can see those words without a slight sinking feeling at the heart? All the people around look so honest and nice, but they are not, some of them are pickpockets, male or female.
[ … ]
… What is this element in words that is not information? I have called it “atmosphere,” but it requires stricter definition than that. It resides not in any particular word, but in the order in which words are arranged — that is to say, in style. It is the power that words have to raise our emotions or quicken our blood. It is also something else, and to define that other thing would be to explain the secret of the universe. This “something else” in words in undefinable.
[line break added] It is their power to create not only atmosphere, but a world, which, while it lasts, seems more real and solid than this daily existence of pickpockets and trams. Before we begin to read the Ancient Mariner we know that the Polar Seas are not inhabited by spirits, and that if a man shoots an albatross he is not a criminal but a sportsman, and that if he stuffs the albatross afterwards he becomes a naturalist also. All this is common knowledge.
[line break added] But when we are reading the Ancient Mariner, or remembering it intensely, common knowledge disappears and uncommon knowledge takes its place. We have entered a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it is accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself. Information is relative. A poem is absolute.
[line break added] The world created by words exists neither in space nor time though it has semblances to both, it is eternal and indestructible, and yet its action is no stronger than a flower: it is adamant, yet it is also what one of its practitioners thought it to be, namely, the shadow of a shadow. We can best define it by negations. It is not this world, its laws are not the laws of science or logic, its conclusions not those of common sense. And it causes us to suspend our ordinary judgments.
Now comes the crucial point. While we are reading the Ancient Mariner we forget our astronomy and geography and daily ethics. Do we not also forget the author? Does not Samuel Taylor Coleridge, lecturer, opium eater, and dragoon, disappear with the rest of the world of information? We remember him before we begin the poem and after we finish it, but during the poem nothing exists but the poem. Consequently while we read the Ancient Mariner a change takes place in it. It becomes anonymous, like the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.
… Just as words have two functions — information and creation — so each human mind has two personalities, one on the surface, one deeper down. The upper personality has a name. It is called S.T. Coleridge, or William Shakespeare, or Mrs. Humphrey Ward. It is conscious and alert, it does things like dining out, answering letters, etc., and it differs vividly and amusingly from other personalities. The lower personality is a very queer affair. In many ways it is a perfect fool, but without it there is no literature, because, unless a man dips a bucket down into it occasionally he cannot produce a first-class work. There is something general about it. Although it is inside S.T. Coleridge, it cannot be labeled with his name.
… The poet wrote the poem no doubt, but he forgot himself while he wrote it, and we forget him while we read. What is so wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse. Lost in the beauty where he was lost, we find more than we ever threw away, we reach what seems to be our spiritual home, and remember that it was not the speaker who was in the beginning but the Word.
… I am not asking for reverence. Reverence is fatal to literature. My plea is for something more vital: imagination. Imagination is as the immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption of mortal passion (Shelley). Imagination is our only guide into the world created by words.
[line break added] Whether those words are signed or unsigned becomes, as soon as the imagination redeems us, a matter of no importance, because we have approximated to the state in which they were written, and there are no names down there, no personality as we understand personality, no marrying or giving in marriage. What there is down there — ah, that is another enquiry, and may the clergyman and the scientist pursue it more successfully in the future than they have in the past.
My most recent previous post from this book is here.