Poet and Historian
By Walter Raleigh
Scene—An Academic Grove
Poet (who has been reading the ” Midsummer Night’s Dream
Ill met by moonlight, proud Historian !
Historian. I admit that in venturing out in the
am poaching on your preserves—which you share, by the way,
with the lover and the lunatic . But I am not of imagination all
compact ; I have lungs, and I came out to take the air. My
History of Israel flags.
Poet. No wonder ; the history of Israel is thoroughly
being written. I believe the first man who learned to scratch on
wax with a bamboo style began to write a history of Israel.
Suppose you were to vary the monotony by writing a Psalm of
David. I do not understand what you are driving at. Do you
hope to supersede the Bible ?
Hist. Your ignorance appals me. As a collection of
and material the Bible cannot be superseded. As a connected and
philosophical history its pretensions are slender indeed. The
nature and meaning of events, the characters of men and women,
are very imperfectly appreciated by contemporaries. I have
rehabilitated Esau, Jezebel, and Mephibosheth, among others, in
the estimation of the world. If I had occasion to go further
back, I could show that the first few chapters of Genesis are
written in a party spirit very favourable to Abel.
Poet. O Buckle, father of History, what a son hast
But I hope you will go further back. ” Universal History,” to
use the pretentious misnomer, is narrow enough at best, you are
” confined and pestered in this pinfold ” of some poor six thousand
years, and nobody grudges you the exercise you take in it, for the
most part upon crutches. The fact is that by the time a people
begins to keep a diary, and to jot down its expenses and the events
of the day, it has become respectable, the period of its experiments
and escapades is over. It has lost its zest in life and in the gifts
of life, and has sunk into office-work—a dull and formal pre
Hist. Were the Greeks dull and formal ?
Poet. They were amazingly like us. The chief
far as I can make out, between them and us lies in this, that they
did the same things better. I forgot—it is true that if you
tickled them they did not laugh, or at any rate they were very
difficult to tickle. But no nation, it seems, can have both pomp
and humour highly developed. They had pomp. What have
we ? Still, if I had my choice at this moment, I would be allowed
to look at yonder moon for five minutes through the eyes of a
cave-man rather than through the eyes of a Socrates.
Hist. And doubtless a monkey-house throws for you more
on society and institutions than, say, the Pan-Hellenic festivals ?
Poet. It does, and for a simple reason. I have been a
have sulked with Achilles in the tents, and with Ajax have taken
my last farewell of the sun. But I have never been a monkey.
Hist. Courage, my friend ! A man who despises human insti-
tutions and scorns the history of their development surely need
Poet. The greatest of human institutions is the human heart.
” Humani generis mores tibi nosse volenti
Sufficit una domus.”
What if Juvenal be right ? The heart remains triangular and
the world spherical—to use the language of the older physiologists.
If these two be constant in differing, what does your parade of
development amount to ? Human affairs run not, says Sir
Thomas Browne, upon an helix that continually enlargeth, but
upon an even circle. You spend you life in travelling laboriously
over a small arc of the circumference ; I strike for the centre,
where Shakespeare and Æschylus sit throned and immovable. And
that, I take it, is the difference between us.
Hist. It is the difference between life and death. You
mind me of the delusions of the early seekers for the North Pole.
When you reach the centre you may learn too late that Shake-
speare was an Elizabethan and that Æschylus fought at Marathon.
There is neither vegetation nor life in the realm of frozen vapour
that you seek. Long ago I noticed with regret that there are no
facts in the books you write.
Poet. Nor are there any fossil plants in my garden.
emotions, thoughts, desires, aspirations, regrets, reflections, lose
their vitality and are petrified in the stream of History they
become facts. I shall be a fact myself one day, and your grand
sons, or, at the furthest, your great-grandsons, will have to learn
me. They will get prizes for knowing all about me, including
the date and place of my birth, which I do not myself remember.
It is not live men you care for ; your histories remind me of the
Morgue, and all you supply is the squirt of cold water.
The Yellow Book—Vol. VIII. U
Hist. You deceive yourself if you think that you deal
live things. The very feelings that you pickle in your poems
must die first. “Emotion recollected in tranquillity”—if that
be poetry, history is action seen from a distance, in fair per-
spective, by a cool and unmoved observer. And I marvel how
any one can hope to see the thing truly save at a distance. The
sole use of newspapers, to my mind, is to store them in the
British Museum, that they may be used hereafter by historians.
The huddle and clash of near events bewilders. It is only by the
wand of the historian that they are reduced to order, and so the
procession of the ages, moving past in solemn review, becomes the
most imposing of human spectacles.
Poet. I agree with you in finding no present interest
papers—my feeling for ” reviews,” by the way, is hardly warmer.
But who will ever want them ? The age that we inhabit and
inform is erecting for itself a paper monument at the rate of a
vanload per week of filed journals and newspapers, which are
stored and arranged in the British Museum. It was once my
fortune to meet one of these cars of Juggernaut, and I could
barely resist the temptation to fling myself under the wheels,
that so the triumph of History over Literature might be excel-
lently typified. A library is now regarded, not as a treasury of
wisdom and beauty, but as a ” dumping-ground ” for offal, a
repository of human frivolity, inanity and folly. Newspapers,
forsooth—why not collect and store the other things that wise men
throw away, cigar-ends and orange-peelings ? Some future
historian of the gutter might like to see them. No, I would
give to all these offscourings and clippings the same doom—” the
unlamented burial of an ass.” History would profit, for she has
gone after a crowd of strange gods and neglected her best
Hist. Do you know how History is written ? For the
of discrimination to have value it is essential to let the tangle of
wheat and tares grow up together. For the exhibition of the
sequence of cause and effect it is essential to destroy no link in
the chain which, however base its material, no doubt leads some-
whither. Absolute stagnation of mind would reward your well-
meant efforts ; you would fain gaze at your own reflection in a
duck-pond thick with borrowed fancies, because you cannot make
a hand-glass of the sea. But Time unrolls itself, and some day
we shall understand the script, if we are careful to save the
Poet. Time will wear out and drop off in rags, or be
away like a morning mist, and Space will be shrivelled up like
burnt paper before you understand three words of the script-
You try to read the world precisely as Mr. Ignatius Donnelly
tries to read Shakespeare. There is the beauty and wonder of the
thing plain before your eyes, and you insist on a hidden and
portentously trivial meaning. I suppose it is “progress” you are
looking for. Progress is economic, mechanical, a matter of bells
and buttons and hooks, of methods of election and painless execu-
tions ; it has nothing to do with the eternal subject-matter of the
artist, and you, if you are not an artist, are nothing. I believe,
nevertheless, that there are persons who can stand on a mountain-
top and talk of progress. In fact, I have met them. They
understood diet, which made me think that when a man says
” progress,” it is the stomach speaks. Your case, of course, is
Hist. Pray diagnose my case.
Poet. You are tied to Time and you have to explain it.
seems to me a kind of monstrous mastodon who ravages the
jungle devouring all he sees. Now you have constituted yourself
his keeper—a thankless office ! So when people get nervous at
the appalling devastations the beast makes, they come to you for
re-assurance. ” Be easy, dear Sir and dear Madam,” say you, ” he
is rapidly being trained, and will soon be quite tame. His last
meal was seventeen thousand men, twenty-three fewer, you will
observe, than the day before. There is no doubt at all that we
shall soon be able to get him into harness, and make him fetch
and carry to market.” And what you say is grimly true : he
took the Roman Empire to market, and it was cheapened and
squabbled over by every brown-skinned huckster ; he took
the Greek mythology to market, and it was torn up and made
into frills and cuffs for eighteenth-century poets ; he took the
Egyptian dynasties to market, and sold them for a little sand.
He will take you and your History of Israel to market, I fear,
and do you know what you will go for ? Literally for an old song.
As Gautier says :
” The gods die in their fanes
But shall Poetry pass ?
And outlives graven brass.”
Now and again, I admit, the beast shows good taste. It was
only the other day he took the book of Genesis to market. An
enterprising man of Science offered him a rare monkey for it.
He took the monkey, and kept the book—a far-seeing transaction.
The monkey seems healthy at present, but no doubt it will die.
Let us talk of real things—sun, moon, stars, or the plays of
Shakespeare, according to the list of realities drawn up by Keats.
I am cloyed with perishables.
Hist. By all means. Perhaps you will allow me to say
first amongi realities I place History, sometimes it seems to me
the only reality. ” True it is,” says my historian of the world,
” that among many other benefits for which it hath been honoured,
in this one it triumpheth over all human knowledge, that it hath
given us life in our understanding, since the world itself had life
and beginning even to this day ; yea, it hath triumphed over time,
which besides it nothing but eternity hath triumphed over.” You
poets and philosophers are often like alchemists : you seek for the
absolute, and believe that you can get a poem, or a philosophy, or
some other chemic stuff, to hold the immortality about which you
keep such a clutter. But in the end all goes into the crucible of
History, and the residue, after refining, is pure historical value.
A poet is popular to-day ; the popularity is stripped off him to-
morrow, and what is left ? Nothing but his historical value. A
religion perishes, or rather it does not perish, it sheds its followers,
and leads a new and more assured existence in the pages of History.
What a granite-like calm stability it has then compared with its
fume and fret while it believed itself the absolute ! Listen to the
noisy declamations of a latter-day Protestant against the Romish-
ness of Rome and the Papistry of the Pope, and then read the
tremendous history of the Papacy. Which is the greater reality ?
Believe me, there is nothing but History in the world. A know
ledge of History is the panacea for ignorance and prejudice ; it
checks the utterance of a thousand foolishnesses, and paralyses
hundreds of idle tongues. Even our conversation, I venture to
think, might have been some sentences shorter if you had studied
History. But like it or not, to this favour you must come. It is
the history of Poetry that will interest the men of the future.
They will have tunes of their own to tinkle in their idle hours.
Poet. See the avarice of knowledge. No single art ever
another, ” Stand aside, I can do your work.” I do not stop the
brass-beater with an offer to describe the shield he is making.
But the men lof learning are never satisfied till they annex the
world. Still, if you are willing to extend yet further your con-
ception of History, and to give up your besetting sin of politics for
a time, I think we may come to terms, for I agree with something
of what you say. If all other branches of knowledge, all the arts
and all the sciences, all the religions and all the philosophies, are
chiefly important as food for history, do not exclude your own
pursuit. Write a History of History. Then we shall see how
much of your vaunted stability you really can claim. We shall
see whether Herodotus, Josephus, Matthew of Paris, and Gibbon
were really employed at the same work, or whether it would not
be better for History to drop the pretence of being a branch of
exact learning, and to speak frankly of a Livy or a Michelet just
as the picture dealer speaks of a Correggio or a Greuze. As for
the philosophies, I make you a present of them ; and the sciences,
although no doubt they are useful, have not been long enough
admitted within the circle of polite learning to have worn off their
insolence and dulness—they are sadly underbred. I quite agree
with you that books upon the origin of” species ought to be
included in a public library, chiefly that the curious of future
generations may ascertain, if they are so minded, what the nine
teenth century thought upon that question. But what do you
say to my proposal ? Will you write a History of History ?
Hist. I will do so on one condition only. Will you
history of Metaphor ?
Poet. Certainly not. Why ?
Hist. The object of your proposal seems to be to
compel me to
take the sting out of my own pursuit, or, like the scorpion, to
turn on myself with it and commit suicide. Am I right ?
Poet. More or less. But suicide is the wrong word. I should
be sorry—no one sorrier—to be the death of a species of writing
that has given me so much pleasure. Every man must have
relaxation ; often when wearied by the austerities of my mistress
Poetry I take refuge in the amiable and charming companionship
of my gossip History. No, I would not kill her. What I want
rather is to put an end to the courtship of History by the more
boastful of the Sciences, the hectoring kill-cow Biology, for
instance, or the talkative and muddle-headed pedagogue Sociology.
Let her come back to her father Herodotus and dutifully accept
the mate he gave her—Literature. Love and a palace ; she will
find nothing but bickerings and a hut with any of the Sciences.
But why should I write a history of Metaphor ?
Hist. I will tell you in a minute. First, let me
no sane historian could accept your view. History is, no doubt,
a composite of many things, but the views and renderings of
individual writers are only superimposed on a basis of hard fact.
Fate draws the outlines of the picture, the historian is left to do
the colouring, no more.
Poet. ” Hard fact ! ” And how has fact been hardened
the days of Sir Philip Sidney ? Will you allow him to introduce
you to yourself? “The Historian . . . loden with mouse-eaten
records, authorising himself for the most part upon other histories,
whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of
hearsay, having much ado to accord differing writers, and to pick
truth out of partiality, better acquainted with a thousand years ago
than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world
goeth than how his own wit runneth ; curious for antiquities and
inquisitive of novelties, a wonder to young folks, and a tyrant in
table-talk, denieth in a great chafe that any man for teaching of
vertuous actions is comparable to him.”
Hist. We have long ago given up the pretension of
virtue ; so that shaft misses its aim. And no doubt it is hard to
establish fact, and hard to preserve it. Nevertheless, the thing is
done, and ’tis the dearest interest of knowledge.
Poet. Nay, but examine the process. Take the city hard
Yesterday there happened in it many millions of events, great and
small. To-day there appears a sheet recording a few hundred of
these. Who made the selection, and why ? Are the most
important events recorded ? They are generally not even known.
You have spoken of newspapers as ” material,” but, long before
you get a newspaper, Art and Selection have been at work.
Plainly the events selected have not been chosen for their value to
the historian, too often he may wander through wildernesses of
newspapers in search of the particular facts that come to have a
meaning for him. A certain rough principle of selection I
suppose there must be, but it is hard to divine. A shop-window
is broken, or a Mayor lunches, and straightway the world knows
it. Could anything be more wantonly whimsical ? So that my
objection to your newspapers, after all, is not that they are history,
but that they are art, and very bad art—the worst of things. But
if selection and rendering count for so much in the history of a
day and a single town, what must they not count for in the
history of centuries and a whole people ?
Hist. The affair is not so hopeless as you make out.
help, no doubt, and wars, and parliaments. Who is it that says,
” Every beggarly corporation affords the State a mayor or two
bailiffs yearly, a king or a poet is not born every year ? ” And I
am willing to confess that great men often owe more than
a little of their greatness to the laziness of historians, who
are glad to simplify their task or recreate themselves with
rhetoric. But the predilection for politics, which you deride,
furnishes a guiding clue through the facts. Without some
such clue history of course would be vain. That is why a
great many histories must be written—and among them your
History of Metaphor.
Poet. Why ?
Hist. As an antidote to the bad effects of poetry. You
me of pretending to feed people on solid fact, while in reality I
give them husks and chaff. But your deceits are more dangerous.
You pretend to pour out the sparkling water of truth while in
reality you give them the intoxicating heady wine of metaphor.
I have seen men on the streets drunk with a single metaphor.
Poet. Then my history would be a dangerous thing, for
it would contain many metaphors.
Hist. Yes, but deprived of their power to work evil.
comes under the calm light of history without being purified.
You would record the first known occurrence of a metaphor, do
all needful honour to its inventor, criticise its later employments,
and thus diminish the danger of its being taken by the ignorant
for an argument, or, still worse, for a fact. As it is, intoxication
Poet. That is the fault of the victims. Good wine is a
thing, though it be occasionally misused.
Hist. But its misuse is not so disastrous as the
metaphor. Take the metaphor of an army. How many miser-
able beings, suffocating in the atmosphere of party quarrels, derive
a momentary elation from its misuse. ” The Liberals have won
the battle all along the line ; ” or, ” The fighting has been severe,
but the Conservatives have rallied round the ancient standard and
carried the day nobly.” Here, it is plain, the essence of the com
parison is lacking. If opposing armies had been wont to count
heads and announce that the victory lay with the larger, no heroic
associations would have gathered around war. More than that,
you must suppose that the counting of heads is secret, that any
soldier may return himself as on either side, and that it is a crime
for one of his fellows to reveal his decision. That is one way of
settling a dispute, but where is the possibility of heroism ? It is
not heroic to try to make other men think as you do, every one
does that as a measure of self-preservation and self-support. No,
the ass is in the lion’s skin, the wire-puller has stolen the soldier’s
coat, and conceals his theft in a metaphor. I do not know if you
are acquainted with that other misappropriation of the same figure
by a nomad sect of fanatics who make senseless catchwords of the
boldest and most beautiful of New Testament metaphors ?
Poet. Do not nauseate me ; I know.
Hist. They are commonly said to rescue from drunkenness ;
the drunkenness they induce and encourage seems to me infinitely
worse. But the English people have always thought highly of
physical health, and are willing cynically to condone mental
intoxication for the sake of bodily sobriety. That is what I
cannot understand. Robert Burns, now, was not notoriously
abstemious, and yet—but I am digressing, you must surely be
convinced by this time that the world is waiting for your History
Poet. I am not at all sure that you would like it when
For although I agree with you that a metaphor is neither an argu-
ment nor a fact, I do not see how that diminishes its importance
in thought. No doubt the mixing of metaphors, like the mixing
of wines, is a bad thing ; no doubt, when incarnate stupidity gets
hold of the metaphors of incarnate genius it will put them to very
odd uses. I knew a case myself of one who taught biology on
week-days and Calvinism on Sundays. Whether the boastfulness
of biology imposed on him, by impressing on him that it was the
science of living things, and therefore of life, and therefore of
thought, or whether he simply got muddled from inability to cope
with two subjects, I do not know. But he mixed his Calvinism
and his biology, and began talking of shells and crystals and
function and structure and protective mimicry on Sundays, to
the equal horror of sound theologians and sound biologists. Yet,
in spite of these admissions and experiences, you may be surprised
when I tell you that I think metaphor, well and fitly employed,
the nearest approach to absolute truth of which the human mind
is capable. Now do you think I had better write your history ?
Hist. You certainly amaze me. I did not think that a
an artist could be so easily gulled by the mere tools of his craft.
Of course I know that men of science who stray into the realm
of poetic imagination are the dupes of many a fine figure and
specious similitude. But for a poet, who works the marionettes,
to believe that they are alive ! It is incredible—much as if a
painter should expect the fortune of Pygmalion.
Poet. A man of science who wanders into poetry is
looking for arguments or facts, and these, as I have admitted, he
will not find. Sooner a leg of mutton in a gin-shop, as Shelley
remarked. But for the poet himself poetry, and especially metaphor,
is the nearest approach to truth. Have you never heard a painter
maintain that a good portrait is better than the sitter ?
Hist. A passable after-dinner remark. Some one must
the hare ; that hare would soon be run down. This much is
clear to me, Poetry is truth clothed in the vesture of beauty. You
must first find your truth, and then choose the best possible way of
Poet. That is the way in which Hume or Buckle would
write poetry. In something the same way George Eliot actually
did write verse. She was a clever woman, and the imitation
deceived good judges. But poetry has never been written in that
way, and it never will. For to a poet the thought and the figure
in which it is clad—nay, the very words in which it is conveyed
—are really inseparable. Body and soul, form and substance,
thought and expression, sacred and profane, fun and earnest—
these and many others are familiar antitheses, indispensable in
certain connections, but conventional and scholastic with no deep
foundation in reality. Did a painter ever exalt the soul at the
expense of the body, or a poet ever say that thought is everything
and expression nothing, or a saint ever find the necessary business
of life profane, or a great humourist ever assure you that he was
only joking ? A poet proceeds not by argument, but by vision.
He does not clothe a soul with flesh, but informs a body with life.
A body that has thus had a soul breathed into it is sometimes
called a metaphor. Before that, it was probably a mere fact. Or
it may have been a falsehood. It will live on if it find a soul.
Witness our old friends the phoenix and upas-tree.
Hist. If you prove anything, which I am far from
you prove that History and Literature can never join hands.
Poet. History can never be written in metaphor. It is
densely populated with facts, moreover, that it would be the
height of unreason to suppose that they all have, or ever can have,
souls. But whether they have souls or not, they can at least be
attired in wedding garments. They are too often a ragged
regiment, dissipated and lame, impressing only by their multitude
and their idle clamour.
Hist. Truly we are little likely to agree. The
I have made in the History of Israel are pointed in precisely the
opposite direction. I have been anxious that the bare facts should
not be falsified by the impress of style, and that no emotional
excitement should blur the impartiality of my readers.
Poet. A philosophical history, I suppose. But would
have set about it if there had been no Jewish religion ? History
may discard figure, religion never can ; if it does, it is rapidly
becoming philosophy, it will no longer move men. And a very
comic figure it cuts during the transition. One shoe off and one
shoe on, like my son John of the legend. It is as great an offence
in these cases to take off the second shoe as it is not to take off
the first. But in the end you must go one way or the other, you
must either think or see.
Hist. I prefer to think. You will allow me, I hope, a
low place in the rank of writers ?
Poet. Have you read the pseudo-Dionysius on the
Hierarchy ? There are nine orders of angels ; with the highest,
the Seraphim, knowledge springs from love ; with the second
order, the Cherubim, love springs from knowledge. If writers were
arranged in like manner, I am afraid you would have to be content
with being a cherub. But be easy, there are seven orders below you.
Hist. And who is above me ?
Poet. Accept my apologies, I am.
Hist. Because you do not speak without a parable ?
Poet. Because everything I say has a meaning ; I do
logue the non-existent. Nothing in the world is of import save
as it is interpreted and new-created by passion and thought, and
lofty thought and intense feeling will see more in the facts than
the facts themselves. So Plato saw in a shadow on the wall an
explanation of the appearances of life. So Shakespeare saw in the
spring and the autumn the symbols of the beauty and the bounty
of his friend. Astrology, they tell me, is dead, but in the song
of Deborah the stars in their courses still fight against Sisera.
Wherever profound truth is to be expressed you must have
recourse to figure. You men of fact assail the truth too bluntly,
she is not to be won so ; when you can say all that you mean
directly, be assured it is perfectly trivial.
Hist. You ought to have been a teacher of heraldry to
noblemen’s sons in a medival university. I do not want to
startle you when I say that the Renaissance came four hundred
years ago and brought in the reign of positive knowledge. Since
that time the very artists have given up symbolism except as a
game. Listen to a contemporary critic upon Michel Angelo :
” Darkness and imperfection are infinite, indeterminate, confused,
unknown, and can never be understood ; light and perfection are
finite, determinate, distinct, easily known and seized upon by the
intelligence of man.” In your anxiety to avoid the clearness of
the perfect you would plunge back into a morass of superstition
and mysticism ; you care for no picture but a hieroglyph, and
value a bunch of spring flowers only as a lexicon whence you may
compose your vague messages of sentimental inanity. Queen
Anne, they say, is dead. Everything in due time, I have the
happiness to inform you that she was born.
Poet. Your choice of queens betrays you. The
century is gone, and has taken its historians and encyclopaedists
along with it. It has left a few poets—William Blake for one,
who questioned not his corporeal eye any more than he would
have questioned a window concerning a sight. He looked
through it and not with it. It is this looking through the eye
that constitutes metaphor. But it does not draw vagueness in its
train. The same Blake remarks that only an idiot has a general
knowledge, the knowledge of wise men is of particulars—and so
Hist. It is late ; and I must lose the ten tribes by
My publisher will not wait. The moonbeams are playing on
your head— which statement I reach by inference, not by vision.
Next time we meet let us talk about something we can agree
Poet. By all means. The uselessness of useful
Let there not be wrath between us, let us talk about technical
Hist. And you will write your history ? It is better
twisting the kaleidoscope of the vocabulary to get new patterns
of verbiage. Moreover, you might disarm the hostility with
which wise men have often regarded your calling. Plato, you
know, would have hunted you out of his Republic.
Poet. If Plato were alive, I would banish him out of
commonwealth of England, or rather it would have been done
by the mob the day after he published his Republic. The crowd
worships great poets (of whom Plato himself is one), not chiefly
because they are poets but because they are dead. When there is
no Byron-bait or Shelley-hunt on hand, they wile away the time
by professing to admire Milton. He died a believer in polygamy,
but at least he died. As for your History of Metaphor, you may
write it yourself. But beware how you handle your dangerous
material ; I never knew any one who could not be trapped by the
right metaphor. “The Stream of History,” or anything else
equally cold and slow, will be quite enough to take you off your
feet. But never mind, you will reach the sea. And there all of
you that is susceptible of promotion will become vapour, and,
who knows, you may drop upon Mount Helicon. I am going
there on foot. So, for the present, good-bye.
Raleigh, Walter. “Poet and Historian: A Dialogue.” The Yellow Book, vol. 8, January 1896, pp. 349-365. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://1890s.ca/YBV8_raleigh_dialogue/