After the Exile: Poetry and the Death of Culture

 
 

We are a people now illiterate in a way that is unprecedented for the human race. We can decipher linguistic signs on a page, but we have no songs and immemorial stories in our hearts.

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In February 1893, shortly after the death of Lord Alfred Tennyson, Henry van Dyke published a tribute to the great poet in The Century magazine. He wrote:

For this generation, at least, the poetry of Tennyson, which has interpreted so faithfully our aspirations and hopes and ideals, which has responded so directly and so strongly to the unspoken questions of men and women born into an age of transition and doubt, must continue to be a vital influence. It has woven itself into the dreams of our youth. It has helped us in the conflicts of our days of storm and stress. Our closest bonds of friendship and love have been formed to the music of “Enoch Arden” and “The Princess,” “Maud” and the “Idylls of the King.” And when those bonds have been broken by death, we have turned to the pages of “In Memoriam” for that human consolation which is only less than the divine. I suppose that there is only one Book which, for these last forty years, has done more to comfort sorrow. Men do not forget such a debt as that. They cannot. It has become a part of life, and the evidence of it is written on all the things that are seen and heard.

I have lately begun to wonder whether a good gauge of what I and other professors in arts and letters accomplish might be this: to raise up a few students every year who could read my old issues of magazines like The Century and understand half of what is there.

Academe has largely become an institution devoted to the destruction of cultural memory. Most of my best freshmen Honors students have never heard of Tennyson, much less had their imaginations formed by his eminently humane and approachable poetry. That is no reflection on Tennyson in particular. They have also never heard of Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, and any number of the great artists in what is supposedly their mother tongue. “Who the heck is Spenser?” asked a friend of one of my old students now pursuing a Master’s degree in English at an elite university. That friend was studying for the same Master’s exam along with others who had never heard of Spenser or never read a thing he wrote.

We are a people now illiterate in a way that is unprecedented for the human race. We can decipher linguistic signs on a page, but we have no songs and immemorial stories in our hearts. The pagan Germanic warrior could not read, and where were the books for it anyway? But he had centuries of song in his mind, and he well knew of that specially gifted man, the scop, who could sing by heart many thousands of verses about the old heroes and their adventures, and could even compose new songs of his own: wordum wrixlan, weaving patterns of words that were as intricate as the vermiculate embellishments upon the hilt of a warrior’s sword.

Where Has the Poetry Gone?

I have sometimes been accused of wishing that the culture roundabout me were truly Catholic, or truly Christian, or truly something or other, but my principal objection to it is that it is no longer, properly speaking, a culture at all. The deep roots have been severed. There is no agriculture in a dust bowl of tumbleweeds, and no human culture among people who derive their mental landscape from the ephemeral and quasi-lingual utterances of the mass media and, God help us, from the new and improved inanities of mass education. The author of the words above—Henry van Dyke, himself a prolific author, a professor of English at Princeton, a statesman, and a Presbyterian minister—was in that crucial respect closer to the illiterate pagan than he is to us. Or perhaps I should say that the pagan was closer to van Dyke and Tennyson than we are. They have poetry, and we do not.

Of course, I do not mean that there are no people bustling about who call themselves poets, and who write sometimes very interesting things in verse. I mean that none of it is part of a shared experience. What van Dyke says about how the poetry of Tennyson formed the imaginations of young people in his time is incomprehensible to us, but the pagan would understand it well enough. The pagan thinks of bravery, perhaps, and recalls the stories of Sigemund and Beowulf. When the young man of van Dyke’s time thought of deep and abiding friendship, he might recall Enoch Arden, Tennyson’s poetic tale of the man believed drowned at sea who returns to England after an Odyssean length of years to find his beloved wife now married to his best friend—a friend who had, even before their marriage, been a protector of the supposed widow and a dear father to her orphaned children. The tale is steeped in all that Tennyson had ever experienced in his own person, as he had an immense capacity for friendship, but also in his deep meditations upon the Gospels, and in the fund of art and thought that he inherited as a man of letters. The pagan swung the sword with Weland. Tennyson walked with Plato and Cicero, and spoke with Augustine and Shakespeare.

Notice that van Dyke does not say that Tennyson’s influence extended only to those very few people who had attended a university. A whole generation of men and women, he says, owe to that gentle soul a debt they can never repay. But what does the ordinary educated person now have that is comparable? You can, if you wish, read Tennyson’s poetry. No one is going to stop you. But without the cultural tilling, how can you understand it? And with whom will you share it? With whom will a conversation about In Memoriam be as natural or as common a thing as a conversation about the next installation in a series of fantasy films with computer-generated images and actors and actresses who are, tumbling along their own region of the dust bowl, closer to trained puppies than they are to Edwin Booth or Sarah Bernhardt?

To Have Cultural Diversity, You Need Culture

It seems to me then that arguments about cultural diversity in our colleges, arguments that have embroiled me in some controversy, are strangely detached from reality. It is as if farmers were to argue about whether it is better to plant corn or wheat, when they have lost any real sense of what those fine things are, and when all of the enriching soil has been depleted, and has blown away. What culture, please tell me? Where is it? And as for diversity, one patch of barren land is going to look a lot like another, no matter what flags you fly over them.

The first order of business is to bring back to life culture, the thing itself. But academics, as tossed about by the wind as anyone, do not see the dust around them. For example, my school, Providence College, has instituted a “Continuing Improvement Program,” implying that we are already in a state of good health. We do not admit that cultural destruction surrounds us and that we are charged with the patient and thankless task of preserving what we can from the ruins and rebuilding what has been lost or is beyond reform or repair.

The first thing you do with a man who is coughing up blood is not to give him a new exercise regimen. It is to bring him to a place where his lungs can heal, so that he can breathe like a human being once again. The “continuing improvement” that he requires first of all is a halt to his rapid and continuing degeneration.

After the Exile

If van Dyke’s words above are hard for us to understand, even though we can recognize the squiggles on the page, the words that end his tribute will pierce the heart of anyone who is stunned by the magnitude of our losses.

Van Dyke wonders about the future of poetry, and whether singers will merely “please a degenerate race with the short-lived melodies of earthly delight and the wild chants of withering passion”—oh for melodies now of any kind, short-lived or not!—or whether poetry will again rise to the height of its inherent nobility. Here is his prediction, here are his final words:

After the revolution there shall be a counter-revolution, and after the exile a return. Then shall the great poet who dared to link his influence to faith in God, and the soul, and the future life, appear to men as the Hebrew prophet who redeemed his ancestral fields in Judea at their full value in silver, in the very hour when the Babylonian armies encompassed the walls of Jerusalem. Then shall the interval of decadent and trivial song seem like a brief space lost out of the history of English poetry; it will be forgotten as though it had never been; and out of a new age of belief, a new race of men and women, a new race of true poets, will listen with delight to the voice of Tennyson, as he listened to the voices of Wordsworth, of Milton, of Shakespeare.

You were wrong about that, my friend. Alas, how very wrong.

Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of FaithHe has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

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