In my previous essay, I argued that the stylistic eccentricities of modernist poetry embody the most important philosophical assumptions of modernity. One clear implication of this argument, which perhaps many of my readers anticipated, is that the pre-modern or “classical” tradition of poetry—the tradition of metrical, generic, linearly narrative and discursive poetry—must embody certain philosophical assumptions of its own, assumptions that remained more or less stable from Hesiod to Housman.
On the face of it, this would appear like an unpromising thesis, considering the momentous transformations in belief and culture that have occurred over a period of nearly three millennia. But the radical nature of modernity’s challenge to customary conceptions of the human has thrown into relief a number of extremely basic premises that had been taken for granted by almost every generation of Western man prior to the twentieth century: that humans are creatures endowed with consciousness, or mind; that language conveys meaning; that human actions are the proper subject of moral evaluation.
Likewise, the radical stylistic departures of modernist poets compel us to recognize a very basic stylistic consistency that obtains in the work of the early Greeks all the way through the late Victorians, and this stylistic consistency, so I will try to argue, embodies that basic level of philosophical agreement in pre-modern thought. To put the point another way: there are certain truths about man and the world that one must assume in order to write formally structured, consecutively ordered verse, and conversely, the writing of formally structured, consecutively ordered verse attests to the presence in the mind of the author of certain truths about man and the world, and disseminates them among his audience. What, then, are those truths?
Let me begin addressing this question in somewhat oblique fashion, by calling the reader’s attention to a particularly remarkable passage in Shakespeare. I have in mind that scene in Act Four of King Lear when the convalescent king, just awakening out of his fit, finds Cordelia standing by him and tending to his infirmity. Faintly recalling the great wrong he committed against her in the play’s opening scene, he acknowledges his guilt, and Cordelia responds with what I find to be the most poignant four syllables in English poetry:
Lear: If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong.
You have some cause, they have not.
Cordelia: No cause, no cause.
Here, in one brief utterance, Shakespeare reveals to us the deep beauty of genuine love, the love that is resilient in the face of all of life’s vicissitudes, the love that “forgives wrongs blacker than death or night.” One would have to be uniquely cloddish to read this passage, or watch it performed on stage, and not be moved at such beauty, and it is in being thus moved that we understand the passage. For whatever else the play ultimately means, it means that love is a precious, fugitive thing; it does not change the trajectory of fortune, it does not preserve the purest of souls from the most reprehensible of deaths, but it is our consolation in the midst of suffering, and not one to be disdained—the something that comes from the bleak nothingness of human misery. We cannot know love in the play by its effects, for it is perfectly ineffectual. One must simply recognize, in Shakespeare’s depiction, the intrinsic loveliness of the thing, and this recognition must be felt. To be cold to this scene, to lack any apprehension of its beauty, is to be in danger of misreading the play severely. (See, for instance, Harold Bloom’s essay on King Lear in his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, where he refers to the play as “nihilistic.”) A defect of feeling is here a defect of understanding.
All truly excellent poetry works like this. All great poetry moves; this was, for Sir Philip Sidney, the distinctive potency of poetic discourse. But in moving us, it discloses to us something essential about our natures. We are stunned by the beauty of Cordelia’s affectionate clemency toward her father, and are thereby jolted into an awareness of the springs of such virtue in our own souls. We sympathize with depicted goodness because, as rational creatures, we prefer goodness; as that sympathy is elicited, that preference is raised to consciousness (and conversely, our revulsion at depicted wickedness signals to us our disgust for that). It is not too much to say that great poetry reveals us to ourselves, and what it reveals is a creature fit for moral predicates.
The first question of all sound poetic interpretation ought to be, “why was I moved?” and the answer to that question will generally bear some reference to our ethical nature. Horace famously declared that the ends of the poetic art are to “teach and delight” (aut delectare aut prodesse est); I would modify his dictum slightly, exchanging the coordinating for a subordinate conjunction. Poetry teaches because it delights; it conjures in our minds an emotional pleasure through its representations, and thereby teaches us the disposition of our native sympathies—how far they are already oriented toward our rational perfection, and how far not.
Something is obviously being assumed about human nature here, something fundamental: that there is in all of us something excellent, something worthy to be nurtured, however much overlaid with the other crudity of our natures. In some very elemental way, poetry seeks to gratify our desires—not all of them, of course, but those that tend toward the great transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Poetry, therefore, rests on the assumption that at least some portion of our desires does tend toward these things, and is therefore answerable to reason. It is an art that demands, for its proper practice, a minimal degree of admiration for the human creature, and a minimal confidence in that creature’s capacity for rational improvement. There can be no stronger contrast with the customary attitude of modernist poetry, which from the beginning was at war with human nature. “It is not an exaggeration to assert that modern paintings and sculptures betray a real loathing of living forms or forms of living beings,” wrote Jose Ortega y Gasset in his essay The De-humanization of Art, and a similar “loathing” of the human permeates modern poetry as well. A mind that loathes human nature will never attempt to delight it. Rather, as Jacques Barzun noted in The Use and Abuse of Art, the goal of the modern author is to “brutalize” his reader; modern literature “is meant to nauseate us and it succeeds.”
If my argument is accepted thus far, the significance of form in classical poetry should be evident: it is there to gratify, and thereby cultivate, the better portion of our nature. Clarity of meaning, regularity of syntax, consecutiveness of thought each become regulative principles of the art for the very simple reason that they are what our rational natures hunger after, and such a desire ought to be satisfied. Obscurity in all of its varieties—dislocation of syntax, arbitrariness in image or idea—is to be eschewed for the very simple reason that it frustrates the expectations of our rational natures. Formal, structured poetry satisfies our desire for the true and the beautiful, and, in doing so, reveals that we are truth-craving, beauty-craving creatures. I am, of course, supposing a basic philosophical realism, and I think that poetry, as an art, supposes such realism too. Poetry supposes that human experience, and concepts such as truth and beauty that are necessary for the direct interpretation of human experience, are more real than any system of concepts that has been abstracted too far from such experience, a point magnificently expressed by Chesterton in his brief book on Robert Browning:
Poetry deals entirely with those great eternal and mainly forgotten wishes which are the ultimate despots of existence. Poetry presents things as they are to our emotions, not as they are to any theory, however plausible, or any argument, however conclusive . . . If bereavement is a bitter and continually aching thing, poetry will say that it is so, and no philosophers will persuade poetry to say that it is an evolutionary stage of great biological value. And here comes in the whole value and object of poetry, that it is perpetually challenging all systems with the test of a terrible sincerity. The practical value of poetry is that it is realistic upon a point upon which nothing else can be realistic, the point of the actual desires of man.
All classical poets are moral and metaphysical realists in just this way, in the belief that among the elemental desires of a human being are the desires for truth and beauty, and that these are desires for real things. And this is why, at a certain point, radical skepticism simply precludes the possibility of writing and enjoying poetry.
This endeavor to gratify our better natures is reflected even in the sensual presentation of language in classical poetry. Meter, rhyme, and stanzaic structure please through their creation of patterned sound. Such pleasure is not merely bio-mechanical, however, for the mind hears too and is pleased in its apprehension of order. But order is a rational principle. Contrast such purposes with those of that arch-modernist, Rimbaud, who wrote that “the poet should make himself a seer by a long, immense, deliberate disorder of all the senses.” Here, again, is the credo of a mind at war with human nature. The classical poet, finding the senses in a native state of order—attracted toward order, and therefore in harmony with our rational nature—only seeks to preserve that order, to cultivate it, to direct it toward greater and more encompassing realities. In doing so, the poet reveals again his conviction that something is there in human nature to be redeemed, something that extends all the way down to our sensual nature, since we are attracted to objects in nature that are proportional and lovely, and where we do not find these things outside of ourselves, we conjure them from within ourselves and usher them into the world.
In brief, the practice of classical poetry assumes, and simultaneously nurtures, the intuitive belief that human beings, for all of our undeniable imperfection, are marked in our essential natures by certain commendable desires, the gratification of which is edifying, that these are the desire for truth, goodness, and beauty, and that these are real things. I maintain that the art of poetry flourished in the West because, throughout its history, such beliefs were more or less normative, and that in the twentieth century, the beliefs and the art died together.
I will go further. I maintain that authentically civil life is impossible in the absence of such beliefs, which is almost as much to say that civil life is impossible in the absence of poetry. This was the meaning of the old fable of Amphion, who moved the stones into their place in the walls of Thebes when he sang to the music of his lyre. Poetry establishes the polis, the ordered community, because only poetry teaches men their “actual desires,” the desires that must be accommodated in any lasting and beneficial order. The community must be organized in accordance with human nature; all other disciplines render a theory of human nature, but only poetry reveals to us the real thing.
For these reasons, I cannot end without lamenting the failure of modern Christians—and clergy and theologians, in particular—to take the art of poetry seriously. I myself am no theologian, and I comment on religious topics only with the greatest diffidence, but it seems evident to me that Christian doctrine presupposes the same general conception of human nature I have delineated. We live in an age of skeptical “theory,” and that theory now appears more real to most of our contemporaries than their own experience. It will do no good, then, to go on preaching a doctrine presupposing that experience to an age so utterly seduced with theory. We must regain our natures before we can regain super-nature.
I sincerely wish all modern Christians would consider how far modern unbelief is involved in false and distortive theories of human nature, and consequently, how far a revival of the poetic art might be a true antidote to the prevalence of unbelief. I think of those ancient Christians who responded with vehement indignation to a decree of Julian the Apostate that forbade them from teaching the pagan poets to their children. They understood what I hope their spiritual descendants in our times will soon understand, that we must first be men, and only after that the children of God.
This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first here.