The poet’s power is a power to disclose, extol, and communicate the sanctity of experience, protecting it from the ordinary disorientation of the quotidian. The poet calls attention to the ordinary patterns of human life, and is a call to contentment, that rarest of achievements. To attribute to poetry such power is to ascribe to it the power to redeem experience.
A remarkable scene unfolds roughly midway through the Tale of the Heike, the great Japanese epic of the 13th century. Tadanori, an ally of the defeated Heike clan, is compelled to flee from the capital city in order to save his life. But having ridden some miles outside the city, he turns around and, at great risk to himself, returns to visit the home of Lord Shunzei, who is compiling a new imperial anthology of poetry. “You would do me the greatest honor,” Tadanori tells Shunzei, “if you were, in your great kindness, to include just one poem of mine.” Shunzei, deeply impressed by the devotion to poetry Tadanori has shown by endangering his life for its sake, assures him that he will review the scroll of poems he has compiled. Upon hearing this, Tadanori is overjoyed, and exclaims: “Let the waves of the western ocean swallow me if they will, let my corpse lie if it must in the wilderness, in this vale of tears I will leave no regrets.” Having received a hope of poetic immortality, Tadanori departs a happy man.
The passage exemplifies the reverence towards the art of poetry that was such a prominent characteristic of classical Japanese culture. It is that very same reverence that lends such an enchanted air to the language of The Narrow Road to the Interior, the inimitable travelogue of the haiku-master Basho, transforming a perambulation through a rugged and remote corner of the poet’s country into something like a religious pilgrimage. A poem sketched in charcoal and pinned to the post of an isolated hermitage is discovered; a guide who has lead the poet through various difficult trails asks for a poem at parting—“something beautiful please;” two prostitutes are overheard in the adjacent chamber bemoaning their fate in life through the recitation of some melancholy lines. Every landmark passed—every famous cherry-tree or mist-covered mountain—conjures the memory of poems that have been written in honor of the place, or inspires the poet to inscribe his own poetic homage, as though no sight can be properly appreciated—no experience truly experienced—that goes unexpressed in verse.
This adoration for poetry is, of course, not foreign to our own tradition. One thinks of the crowning of Petrarch on the Capitoline Hill, the pageantry involved and the homage to the art of poetry it represented. Or of the “Immortal Dinner” in the parlor of Benjamin Haydon, the painter; of the “eager, inspired look” on the face of Keats, who had traveled some distance to sup with his idol Wordsworth, as he sat listening to the elder poet declaim the lines of Milton and Virgil. Or of that endearing paean to poetry that Goldsmith inserted into the end of “The Deserted Village,” where he gently remonstrates with the art as the “source of all my bliss, and all my woe, / That found’st me poor at first, and keep’st me so.”
Closer to our own times, Patrick Leigh Fermor inserts a memorable description of his own devotion to poetry in A Time of Gifts, his autobiographical account of a walking journey across Europe he undertook as a young man. He informs us of the poems he would recite to himself during the many hours of solitary rambling through strange landscapes. It turns out he had memorized a great quantity of poetry, a list stretching to over three pages (and that is just the material in English). Of the origins of this “private anthology,” Fermor writes: “At school some learning by heart was compulsory, though not irksome. But this intake was out-distanced many times, as it always is among people who need poetry, by a private anthology, both of those automatically absorbed and of poems consciously chosen and memorized as though one were stocking up for a desert island or for a stretch of solitary.”
As these passages attest—and they could be multiplied many times over—that felt need for poetry was something that captivated the hearts of our forebears with a fervor few of us can appreciate any longer. The sense that certain relentless mental desires could be quieted only through the deployments of this art—that only through its stylistic ministrations could certain forms of experience be experienced—is rarely encountered any longer in the modern world. The fact remains, though, that wherever the effects of civilized life are recorded, this sense can be discovered, acting with a depth and intensity that we need not blush to analogize to that of religion. What this suggests is that our own inability to feel that need any longer—our inability to feel our deprivation of this fervor as a privation—has sapped some vital intellectual or spiritual instinct within us.
A memorable dramatization of this hunger for poetry is found in Robert Herrick’s His Age. The poem is a loose imitation of Horace that opens with a conventional lament for life’s fleeting nature, and an equally conventional invocation of the carpe diem theme as a prescription for that fleetingness. The poem’s original departure occurs when the search for the frenzied oblivion of pleasure moderates to an acceptance of the consolations afforded by poetry, even in the midst of senescence. The poet imagines himself slumped in his chair with age, listening as his son recites the erotic poetry he had composed as a young man, until, in “a fit of fresh concupiscence,” he rears his enervated body upwards, crying, “no lust there’s like to poetry.” The past and its passions live again in the recitation, nearly maddening the old man with their arousal:
Thus, frantic, crazy man, God wot,
I’ll call to mind things half-forgot,
And oft between
Repeat the times that I have seen !
Thus ripe with tears,
And twisting my Iülus’ hairs ;
Doting, I’ll weep and say, in truth,
Baucis, these were my sins of youth.
The poem preserves and commemorates the experience, and the emotions intrinsic to it, through their measured articulation. It becomes a structure of language and thought through which the experience is transfigured; through which the formal properties of that structure ameliorate whatever is demoralizing or disfiguring in those first feelings. The poem thus bestows a kind of absolution for the defilement at risk in all experience. It is a “moment’s monument,” blessing both the duration it immortalizes, and the duration in which it is performed; a “spot of time” consecrated in the act of honoring some other and more distant “spot of time.” That is why, by the end of His Age, the poet’s madness modulates to a serene acceptance of the benediction poetry has bestowed upon his recollections, a gentle resignation to the passage of “all those times / Which gave me honor for my rhymes.” The poet transforms his passions to art, and that art in turn transforms his passions, and those of his listeners.
To attribute to verse such power is to ascribe to it the power to redeem experience. It is a power to disclose, extol, and communicate the sanctity of experience, protecting it from the ordinary disorientation of the quotidian. We know the priest or the shaman in various religious traditions is the one who goes about inscribing lines upon the ground, delineating the space in which the god has revealed himself, and tracing barriers around the place to ward away the profane forces besetting his right worship. We might think of the poet as the one who engraves remembrance around experience, summoning our mental genuflection towards the traces of divinity flickering in the midst of our despair, our rage, our longing and exhilaration. The poet is the one who calls attention to what is always there already, what has been given in the ordinary patterns of human life, and swears, “here is enough for us to live by.” His art is a call to contentment; an exhortation to that rarest of achievements, the feat of being satisfied. The lyrics of Wordsworth are particularly exemplary of this tendency: a courteous greeting as the poet travels westward on the moor; a chance encounter, while in a dejected mood, with a resolute old man, become occasions of transfiguration, moments in which the “heavenly destiny” of human souls flashes forth in the adequate phrase. This notion of the poem as a locus of contentment reappears in Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry,” where it is described as the “finding of a satisfaction.” To speak appropriately of the moment; to discover the words that will communicate what it is like to inhabit the moment, “in an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one,” is to do proper honor to the moment, to “find what will suffice.”
Poetry as an art always entails a cultivation of mental repose. This was why Keats regarded the sine qua non of poetic genius to be a certain kind of aptitude for intellectual contentment, a “negative capability,” reflected in a willingness to remain “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” He chastised Coleridge for his shortcomings in this regard, his inability to remain “content with half-knowledge.” The form of knowledge bequeathed by a poem—extolled by Vico as a knowledge of “what all men think and feel”—is always provisional, always resistant to finalization. It is realized in the idiom that reverberates in the heart, in the word that unites two emotions as one, and not in the reduction of that communion to a singular assertion. Strange as it may sound, the fact that one is moved by the lines of a poem is sufficient attestation to their truthfulness. The fanaticism for systematizing that is such an epidemic of our own age; the mania for investing abstract representations of experience with the significance of the experience itself; is simply anathema to the person of poetic instincts. The lover of poetry and the ideologue can never be one person; poetry is, in fact, the irreconcilable enemy of ideology.
Because the poem, as an art of language, unites an assertion and a rhythm—because it both teaches and delights—it germinates, at a very basic level of consciousness, the intellectual expectation that what is true must also be beautiful; that any interpretative schemata entirely at odds with our aesthetic intuitions is not to be given credence. It nourishes the instinct, written of by Matthew Arnold, to refer all forms of knowledge to our sense of beauty. The ideologue belligerently insists upon its truthfulness of his doctrine, and then goes on to insist that this truthfulness entails all sorts of inhumanity and violence. But the soul formed by poetry can never admit the truthfulness of thoughts that manifest in ugliness. A poem is not the imposition of some philosophical apparatus, alien and aloof from the contours of the moment, but a summons to attention towards the goodness already latent in the moment.
The ideologue is always at odds with human nature; always finds something repellant in its given patterns, standing in need of expulsion or suppression. The poet, in his incorrigible habits of wonder, can never forget the aboriginal contingency of those patterns. Consequently, he can feel no emotion towards human life unmixed with foundational sentiments of gratitude. There is something paradigmatic of the poetic mindset articulated by the speaker of Thomas Traherne’s “Salutation,” who marvels at the very joints and limbs that incarnate him, proclaiming, “I that so long / Was nothing from eternity, / Did little think such joys as ear or tongue / To celebrate or see.” The vestiges of our first glance at the world, illumined by the amazement of its apprehensions—what Mencius refers to as “the original heart”—endure wherever the poet attains his authentic voice. Such a voice can summon consolation or compassion in the face of the ills of life—but renunciation, never.
The spirit of poetry diverts entirely from all forms of stoicism or ascetism, which are always emanations of the self’s mistrust of itself—of its native passions and reflexes, in their original tenor, and not in their extremity or disfiguration. Poetry trains to moderate, not to abstain. The ascetic, frustrated by desire’s dominion over his own will, strains to drive it from his heart. The poet only strives to articulate that longing in his singular manner, by accommodating it to rhythms that precede its agonies, in this way mollifying, tempering—to a certain extent, even—mastering it, so that it can remain portion of that store of instructive experience we call wisdom. The native integrity of personality is preserved; the trauma of emotional excision avoided; and the thinking reed—turned singing reed—remains not only nobler but happier than that which afflicts him. The ruinous power of experience lies in its mysteriousness, in the way the dark and cryptic emotions it conjures transmute to phantoms, that overwhelm the mind and leave the heart the spellbound captive of its own emanations. But poetry demystifies those phantoms, robs them of the uncanniness that is their power, and so liberates the heart once more from their worse effects.
The poetic perspective is thus marked by an openness to feeling and experience that other perspectives do not encompass. Yvor Winters described the task of the poet this way: “the poet tries to understand his experience in rational terms, to state his understanding, and simultaneously to state, by means of the feelings which we attach to words, the kind and degree of emotion that should properly be motivated by this understanding.” The poem invites an integrated response to life; it ensures that the whole man moves, and only aims to quell what is destructive or debilitating in those movements. Wordsworth intimates a conviction that a life well-lived is one marked by a certain affective continuity, by the preservation of “those first affections, those shadowy recollections which. . . . are the fountain light of all our seeing.” The duty of guarding over those affections—of serving as their “rock of defense”—he assigns to the poet.
The adequacy of the poem to a moment has nothing to do with its cultivation of a stoic imperviousness. It does not harden or withdraw the mind against the effects of the moment. To the contrary, it enkindles the mind into a state of grateful readiness, so that it can receive all that the moment has to offer. The lover of poetry is resolved to walk the via positiva. The art he adores represents a primal manifestation of what Ernst Cassirer termed “the will to formation,” that elemental drive to express our inner conceptions in public forms. It is paradigmatic of all true human self-understanding insofar as it exemplifies, most emphatically, the principle that all thought about our own nature is acculturating; that no assertions can be made about human life that do not have some formative power over us. Through the expression of this drive an adverse universe is transformed into a dwelling-place for men. The poet sings his soul into the moment with elation, and finds the moment echoing back to him with comfort. There is nothing reticent or resigned about the practice. That expansiveness of character that Burckhardt catalogs in his famous history of the Renaissance is not adventitious to the rise, over that same period, of a humanism that placed poetry at the core of its acculturative program. To the same cause we must trace a phenomenon observed by Jacques Barzun, which is that the modern world takes its shape in large part from an abnegation of ascetism. We do not give sufficient consideration to the consequences of the simple fact that, for better or worse, for some four hundred years, the educated classes sought their principal intellectual formation in the discipline of poetry, not prayer.
Of course, such a claim implies some potential relationship between the study of poetry and the cultivation of character, and no suggestion could be more unfashionable than that. It has become a mandatory rite of contemporary literary study to disclaim the conviction that, as Lessing once put it, “all species of poetry are intended to improve.” Of course, this dogmatic insistence upon the inefficacy of poetry is so broadly proclaimed amid a generation that has made no real contributions to the art—that has, in fact, allowed it to decrepitate under its watch—and I do not think the two phenomena are unrelated. Nonetheless, the connections between poetry and morality are too tenuous and too variable to assert with straightforward rigor. There are too many rakish poets, too many vain aficionados, who could be called to witness against such a case. It seems clear, in fact, that in certain situations, the pronounced sensitivity to life inculcated by the long study of poetry can be detrimental to moral conduct in cases where a stolid defiance of circumstance—the proverbial “stiff upper lip”—are required.
The effect of poetry on character is more a matter of temperament than moral action. There is a special mix of vibrancy and gentleness emanating from one whose days have been spent in intimacy with verse. It is that quality that Arnold referred to as “sweetness and light;” that mildness of thought and bearing captured in the Confucian concept of ren. Nowhere is the special sweetness of the poetic temperament better epitomized than in that passage of the Analects when the Master inquires of his students how they would behave if accorded a position of responsibility in a great state. Three of his pupils boast of the power and wealth they would augment, but Jian, the last, puts aside the zithern he is playing, and answers with deference: “in late spring, when the spring robes have been made. . . . I would bathe in the Yi, feel the breeze at the dancing sacrifice, and return home chanting.” The Master sighs deeply, and replies: “I am on the side of Jian.” Here is what it means to find sufficiency in the good things of life, and what it means to have been bred to such a capacity. We see the same temperament revealed in the legend told of Dante about how whole parades of debauchery could march past his window without distracting him from his page. Or when Fermor, catching a line of Horace murmured by the dejected general in his captivity, completes the recitation of the ode, and for a fleeting moment the two enemies recapture something of the civilization being obliterated all about them.
The impressions poetry leaves on the mind are less often observable by the world than by those who feel and cherish them. Only the lover of poetry knows how much bitterness of his heart has been assuaged by the art; how many disappointments consoled; how much longing subdued. Such a one can but scoff to hear that “poetry makes nothing happen.” He has received from the art a capacity for satisfaction that he did not possess before, and this is enough for him. He dwells in some secluded cottage, like Basho or Petrarch. He lives like that man Pascal thought impossible, who can sit serenely alone in his room, content. He drinks water from a wooden bowl, and courts the “cherub Contemplation,” like the poet in Il Penseroso, wherever “calm peace and quiet” are to be found. He does homage to the hour by its proper articulation. He speaks truth rapturously. He has enough.
There are more sources of our disenchantment than just the loss of religion. There are more vacancies in our minds than those chambers formerly inhabited by the gods. Our habit of blaming the deracination of modern life on “secularism” alone blinds us to the panoply of soul-making disciplines we habitually neglect, and especially to that discipline of language through which countless numbers of our forebears first discovered the enchantment of their world. But our hunger remains, and the occluded sanctity of things still awaits our attention, and the power of poetry to summon that attention endures even now, for as Friedrich Holderlin wrote, now and as ever, “what is needful, only the poets provide.”
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The featured image is “Poetry” (1898) by Alphonse Mucha (1860 – 1939) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.