An Apology for Poetry, Part 1
Dear Reader, this inaugural post and the two that will immediately follow it (“An Apology for Poetry,” Parts 1-3) will serve to introduce the many posts that will follow them. I intend these first three as an orientation, a kind of container or point of reference, by which all those that follow them might be ordered in the mind. The “Apology” is a commentary on my long poem, “The Young Poet’s Elegy to the Court of God,” in which several years ago I was bold enough (or presumptuous enough) to set forth a theory of poetry and what I rather briskly considered deviations from the recommended path. It is upon the foundation of this theory that I based my plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman (both available on Amazon.com). The “Elegy” will be found in the book including and entitled, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth (published by Tate). This “Apology” is offered as an introduction to this blog (my apologies for using an unlovely word). I hope that readers who do not share my Catholic faith, which is herein implicit, may yet feel that they derive some benefit or stimulation from my thoughts. The discourse on Thomistic angelology, for example, may serve to shed light on the nature of man and the consequent nature of poetry.
Although it is certainly true that much excellent poetry—the poetry of adventure, wonder, and feeling—has been produced to cater for the universal need for recreation and temporary escape, serious poetry—if there is to be any—must address itself to the serious content of life, which is, to put it simply, the striving for peace and lasting happiness. The serious poet must, therefore, thoroughly involve himself in the question of what Plato calls the One and the Many; by means of his imagination, he tries to sort out of the multiplicity or flux of human life a unity that abides, for peace is born of what abides. A thirst for the flux of change and novelty can in the long run only breed restlessness and final misery. Such a thirst is quenchless and therefore hopeless.
A man finds peace by restraining his instinctive impulses and desires, which have traditionally been classified into three: (1) the lust for sensation (libido sentiendi), (2) the lust for knowledge (libido sciendi), and (3) the lust for power (libido dominandi). In the arts, it is the lust for sensation or feeling that most tempts artist and audience.
A philosopher, especially one in the ancient and mediaeval traditions, seeks to define the abiding unity of human life by the use of discursive and abstractive reason; the poet (or any other artist), in particular the classical poet, has this advantage over the philosopher: the poet effectively clothes the essences or (if I may say) the skeletal abstractions of philosophy with the flesh of actual experience, even if fictional. He confers immediacy and concreteness on what to men of flesh and blood is often cold, recondite abstraction. “The reason never did anything illustrious,” as Rousseau said (no classicist he). The poet worth his salt is one who through the mysterious powers of the imagination makes illustrious the truths arrived at by reason. He synthesizes fictions or portrayals of life so selectively arranged as to permit one to perceive a deep and abiding truth about life in the flux of circumstance. He shows the Many taking on and disclosing the One or the Universal. From another point of vantage one may say that the poet shows the One in the process of informing the Many. Indeed, as Irving Babbitt points out, even the work of the reason, which only has value as an instrument, requires an element of insight or imagination if it is to avoid the cold, suffocating smugness of the Enlightenment, that insufferable brat of Descartes and Locke. Mere logic and ratiocination cannot “lock up life in some set of formulae, “as Babbitt puts it.
To apprehend truth in the immediate and ecstatic way that poetry permits us is to enjoy something of the angelic mode of knowing, which is intuition, a faculty with which, strictly speaking, only they are endowed. I suggest that an understanding of the angels and their mode of knowing (intellection), a subject I addressed in my long poem, “The Young Poet’s Elegy to the Court of God,” provides one with an insight into the nature of poetry, indeed of all artistic endeavor, and arms one in the face of the abuses of poetry and the aberrations of certain poets. (For angels, see St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica Ia, The First Part, Questions: 50-64 and Questions: 106-114.) Being pure spirits angels are unconfined by space and time. In an excellent book entitled, What Is an Angel?, by Fr. Pie-Raymond Régamey, we read, “Since angels live by acts of intelligence and love, which are successive and distinct, and to which they commit themselves fully, their duration is not continuous but is made up of instants, which are quite distinct and disconnected, like flashes of light.” Because we human beings are in the flesh, we receive impressions of things in a temporal stream that enters us through the senses. We only come to understand or see—by analogy, intuit—after a temporal process of discursive reasoning—of analysis and synthesis—of trial and error. Our lives are a story of cause and effect in which at certain culminations we may dimly perceive the light of transcendent truth. Now, at the creation of the pure spirits, God infused into them the ideas of all that they would have to know. This is to say that angels have their knowledge through the causes of things. When these spirits advert to their innate ideas, they instantly and unerringly apprehend created things in both their principles and conclusions. An angel knows particular, material things because they are subsumed in the idea of material, an idea that was infused into it at its creation. It knows the universal and the particular at a single and instantaneous glance.
For us human beings, existing in the flesh and thus unable to know things in this marvelous way, art—including poetry—can accord us quasi-angelic instants of transcendent truth unabstracted from the particulars in which it is embodied. But, because we are nevertheless spirit in flesh, we dare not forsake our discriminating guide discursive reason, for more often than not what men have imagined through the centuries has been false and vain. One is tempted to say that God has nevertheless given to men the faculty of the creative imagination (what Coleridge calls the esemplastic, or unifying, imagination) as a consoling substitute for the innate ideas He conferred on the pure created spirits: His innumerable angels. For by this faculty—one the angels do not possess, as they do not need it—we lesser spirits sunk deep in the flesh are able somewhat to fathom the transcendent as it is manifested in human nature. What we who are privileged to enjoy this faculty must remember is that the creations that spring from it are fictions—not unerring apprehensions of innate ideas breathed into us by the Almighty. It is up to us to put our other, instrumental faculty of the reason to use in judging whether the fictions that occur to us are consonant with reality—that they are products of what Edmund Burke calls the ethical imagination and therefore shadow forth or adumbrate the ethical Oneness that informs the Many. We all know that many are the artistic fictions that ask to be taken seriously as embodiments of truth, but only proceed from the idyllic imagination (the kind that caters for the lusts of sensation, knowledge, and power) and are at bottom mendacious. In short, inspirations can come from Hell, as well as from Heaven. God has given us the rational power of discrimination that with the overarching help of divine grace will keep us steady on our course to salvation.
(To be continued in Part 2.)