An Apology for Poetry, Part 2

An Apology for Poetry: an Aristotelean View

What follows is Part 2 of 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 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 . 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.

Part 2

The trial to which God subjected the angels and by which they should either merit the Beatific Vision of Heaven or bring down upon themselves eternal punishment was instantaneous and possibly occurred the instant after their creation. One can hardly speak of their lives before they reached eternity as spans. Now, we spirits who exist in time are given to describing human life as a journey. The Christian knows that he was conceived in Original Sin (the sin of Adam), but that through Baptism and the consequent infusion of sanctifying grace (obtained through the sacraments of the Church, especially the Holy Eucharist) he is enabled to live a strenuous life of virtue. He takes Christ as the model of perfect man and imitates Him. Generally, the perfecting of this imitation takes a lifetime. The Christian who perseveres receives a reward that is really the fulfillment of his Christ-like life: a participation as an adopted son in the life of the Holy Trinity.

Now, if art is to be engaged in discovering to us in a concrete way the peace-conferring abiding unity in human nature and if this unity in men exists as the fruit of the specifically temporal human activity of conforming oneself to the Divine Will, then the main and highest function of poetry must be to represent sequential human action that in its purposefulness shows changeable, unstable humanity taking on universal form, which in its fullness is Christ Himself. In The Classical Tradition in Poetry, Gilbert Murray writes that in poetic imitation, or mimesis, which is most perfectly embodied in Greek drama and is most perfectly defined by Aristotle, the poet ceases to be himself; he takes on the persona of a god or hero (cf., a Catholic priest acting in persona Christi in the traditional Sacrifice of the Mass) and in an ecstasy, or rising out of self, imaginatively becomes like the person or thing he most reveres and so partakes of a divine or magic life. How superior this noble super-rational ecstasy is to the merely sub-rational self-expression most art (including poetry; also, cf., a Catholic priest saying the vulgarized new [Novus Ordo] Mass facing the people) since the eighteenth century!

I will make bold and say that the life of Christ, culminating in what might be called the tragedy of the Crucifixion and the glory of the Resurrection, provides the paradigm of all art. His life was a journey to Jerusalem, at once the altar of sacrifice and the type of Heaven or beatitude. The tragic poets of Greece in the few centuries before the Incarnation were effectively groping their way to an ideal art that was perfectly suggested by the God-Man in a divinely chosen nation some hundreds of miles away.

In the same book, Gilbert Murray writes thus: “Tragedy . . . hides or adorns ‘the coming bulk of death,’ magnifies the glory of courage, the power of endurance, the splendour of self-sacrifice and self-forgetfulness, so as to make us feel, at least for the fleeting moment, that nothing is here for tears, and that death is conquered.” Of comedy, he says, “In the Comos [a revel; also the Greek god of comedy], it [the drama] provides not merely the suggestion that love will endure: that it may quite possibly be true; but the more thrilling illusion that the intense joy of the moment when love is won will continue as a permanent element of life.”

Murray points out that the tragic hero in Greek drama embodies the Vegetation spirit “torn and scattered, and at the same time the evil Old Year cast out. In the Bacchic ritual there is confusion about who is torn and devoured. Is it the god himself who is torn and devoured, or is it the god’s enemy? To avoid the horror of murdering your god, you can say that the figure you tear is the enemy Pentheus and not the god Dionysus; but you know in your heart that it is only the life of Dionysus himself that will have any magical effect, and you show your knowledge of this by arranging that the image which you call Pentheus shall be shaped and dressed in every detail so as to be like Dionysus. In later ages we have distinguished the hero and the villain, but there are no villains in Greek tragedy, and the villain’s fate is normally suffered by the hero . . . [I]t seems that historically the tragic hero is derived from the Life Spirit . . . who comes to save the community with the fruits of the new year, and from the polluted Old Year, the Pharmakos or Scapegoat, who is cast out to die or to wander in the wilderness, bearing with him the sins of the community.” Oedipus is the savior of Thebes, but also the abomination that must be cast out.

Because Original Sin has made us subject to death, our lives have become joined with the mortal cycle of the year, and our hope for regeneration is symbolized in the promise of the scattered seed. The confusion and embarrassment of the ancient Greeks are obviated in the life of Jesus Christ. He had no tragic flaw to lead Him into hubris and the retribution of nemesis. He willingly and in complete innocence became the spotless Lamb and Scapegoat, bearing our sins in His Body on the wood of the Cross. Murray points out that the Greek tragic hero always suffers and dies to save others.

As I said above, serious art is a product of the Moral Imagination, which may be defined as intuition of the super-rational (not to be confused with the “surreal”). Now, the products of what Irving Babbitt calls the Idyllic Imagination, which may be defined as intuition of the sub-rational (including the “surreal”), are legitimate when without pretension they provide recreation, a refreshing respite from the serious responsibilities of life and the inevitable chain of cause and effect. Trouble comes when, out of moral indolence, men decide to forsake responsibility and set recreation up as wisdom and a substitute for religion—to replace awe with wonder. The Many is emphasized to the detriment of the One. sub-rational Idealism is born, a wishful thinking—feeling, rather—cut off from the reality of human nature (e.g., the poetry of Wordsworth [who denigrated reason (“the false secondary power by which we multiply distinctions”), Keats [Oh, for a life of sensations!”], and Goethe [Gefühl ist alles. (Feeling is all.)]).

In a curious way, men who give themselves to this predilection become strange counterfeits of the angels. They would live intuitively and without the stern, prosaic interference of reason or good sense. They shrink from time as the unfolding of cause and effect, which continually offers itself as a kind of textbook of use in living a strenuous life of either moral or utilitarian action, that is to say, action with a purpose. They much prefer to live in “distinct and disconnected” instants of sub-rational “intuition,” perhaps the quintessence of which may be found in Symbolist or Imagist poetry. Because they were never infused with innate ideas of things, that is, are not really angels, and owing to their moral lassitude and recoil from analytical reason, the experience to which they address themselves and would dignify with the aura of wisdom and infinity is mere strangeness and wonder (i.e, frankly, sensationalism or nervous inebriation). A man such as these may in a wide sense be called a Romanticist.

(To be continued in Part 3.)

David Lane

I am the author of two published plays, The Tragedy of King Lewis the Sixteenth and Dido: The Tragedy of a Woman, in both of which I used regular traditional metrics (blank verse) and the traditional language of poetry, all but universal from the Trojan War to the First World War. I am a retired editor and a veteran of the Vietnam War. For nearly twenty years, I have served as Chairman of Una Voce New York, an organization dedicated to restoring traditional Roman Catholicism, especially the ancient Latin Rite superseded by the heavily revised vernacular liturgy born of the Second Vatican Council, an event that introduced sweeping changes into the Catholic Church and ignited fierce controversy that rages to this day.

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