An Apology for Poetry, Part 3

An Apology for Poetry: an Aristotelean View

What follows is Part 3, the concluding part, 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.

The Three Romanticisms

The romanticist prefers the wonderful to the probable (i.e., relating to normal human experience). He finds the normal sequence of cause and effect to be oppressive and would be off on adventures—an endless quest for the strange, the unexpected, the intense, the unique, the extreme. Irving Babbitt, a master of Socratic definition, distinguished three varieties of Romanticism: (1) the romanticism of action, (2) the romanticism of intellect, and (3) the romanticism of feeling.

The romanticism of action may be seen in mediaeval romances, which are largely series of fantastic episodes linked with little regard for probability or necessity. Where the story should lead is a secondary concern; what matters is to surprise the reader with wonderful enchantments along the way. Such works are largely harmless; they do not pretend to be more than they are: simple entertainment. And, after all, they do glorify heroic deeds and more or less noble loves.

The romanticism of the intellect, nowadays usually goes by the name Mannerism, which flourished between the High Renaissance and the triumph of the Baroque in the seventeenth century; it was extensively studied in the last century by the art historian, Arnold Hauser, who wrote a monumental study of it, entitled Mannerism. For the mannerist, “Nothing is what it seems to be. All is illusion, and there is no hope of escaping from it.” The movement is the expression of a restless anxiety born of an overriding doubt that truth is attainable. There is neither conviction of truth nor falsehood; all is doubt. Those enmeshed in it tend to a kind of scrupulosity that reveals itself in the tortured dialectics of “antitheses, pros and cons without resolution, and paradox.” Emotional life was repressed, and intellectual complexity was indulged. Mannerism can be seen in the the work of the “metaphysical” poets of the Renaissance (e.g., John Donne, Andrew Marvell, Luis de Góngora, Giambattista Marino). It may be found in men as various as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Michelangelo in his later years, Montaigne, Maurice Scève, Tasso, Machiavelli, and Andrew Marvell. It may also be found the Imagist school of poetry, typified by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, who flourished in the twentieth century. Hauser speaks of “the accumulation of comparisons, metaphors, conceits, antitheses, plays on words, and jeu d’esprits of all sorts. . . .” There is a “juxtaposition of relatively independent motives.” In describing the work of the Italian poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625), Hauser says “everything is a pretext for piling image on image, metaphor on metaphor, conceit on conceit. The impressionistic effects, the musical cadences of the language, the sound and colour of the words, the fireworks of wit and paradox, are momentary in impact, and the structure is always atomized. The poems consist of a hardly harmonisable mosaic of particles. . . .”

Finally, the romanticism of feeling has provided a very extensive and overall melancholy prospect of itself over the past two centuries. In revolt against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the narrowness of the contemporaneous neo-classicism, men simply enthralled themselves to “the despotism of mood,” as Babbitt puts it—made themselves the passive playthings of temperament and fate. (In music, there is a preoccupation with Fate from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky.) The French philosophe, Diderot, a precursor of this kind of romanticism, described himself as living at the mercy of his diaphragm. The atomistic impressionism here is one of sensation, rather than wit. “Gefühl ist alles”—feeling is all—as Goethe said in the romantic period of his life. Wordsworth defines poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and decries reason as “the false secondary power by which we multiply distinctions.” His predecessor, Rousseau, the great headwater of sensuous romanticism, says in a famous phrase, “The man who thinks is a depraved animal.” “I threw reason overboard,” he says, “and consulted nature.” To him, as to his innumerable followers, outer nature became an object of worship, not as a thing apart, but as a projection of one’s own primitive and spontaneous instincts.

The poet romantic in this way sings the delights of revery. If he tells a story he is not so much interested in the culmination or purpose of the story and linking the events that lead up to it as he is in the “incidents and delights of the journey,” as Babbitt says. “Poetry thus understood is less a progress toward a specific goal than a somewhat disconnected series of beautiful words and beautiful moments . . . ” [The New Laocoön]. The early nineteenth-century German poet, Friedrich Novalis, an extreme exponent of sensuous romanticism and a precursor of late nineteenth-century Symbolism, writes thus: “One can imagine tales without more coherence than the different stages of a dream, poems which are melodious and full of beautiful words but destitute of meaning or connection; at most comprehensible here and there, like fragments of perfectly unrelated things. This poetry can of course have only a symbolic significance and an indirect effect like music.” [The New Laocoön] Eventually, the ideal experience aspired to was synaesthesia (“A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of color.“—Collins English Dictionary), glorified by the French founder of Symbolism, Charles Beaudelaire as follows: “O mystic metamorphosis!/My senses into one sense flow—/ Her voice [of a visiting “demon”] makes perfume when she speaks,/ Her breath is music faint and low!” “Always be drunk,” he writes in his appropriately entitled poem, “Drunk.” Anna Balakian in her book, The Symbolist Moment, says that synaesthesia was a state to which the transcendentalist romantic thought he could only aspire—a state only to be enjoyed in the life to come. It was a heady brew that he might write about conceptually and emotionally, but that he could only hope to sip in the hereafter.

Thus, the Transcendentalist generally contented himself with finding correspondences between outer nature and abstract qualities. He wrote in direct discourse and represented simple emotions, exaggerated or violent as they might be. It was for Beaudelaire to stumble upon the technique of achieving an earth-bound synesthesia of the here and now. He effectively provided a key to the trap door leading to the bottomless pit of the Symbolist decadence. In the spontaneous association of ideas typical in stream-of-consciousness writing, in which, to quote P. E. More, “[r]ational selection and spiritual authority have been repudiated.” More continues, “Sheer ugliness and morbid perversions prevail in this stream from the bottom of man’s being. With Proust this meant that the ultimate reality of human experience is reached in the horrors of sadism and masochism. In [James Joyce’s] Ulysses, perhaps owing to the hang-over from a more religious training, perhaps to other causes, these vices are not conspicuous; but the root of ugliness is there and constantly recurring hints of sexual abnormality of another, if less cruel, sort.”

Passion, a being acted upon, replaces action; men fall under the “despotism of mood.” The engagement of one man with another in society is gradually abandoned; and the artist eventually retires to the tower of ivory, whence he warbles the state of his nerves to others like himself. The horror of ennui forces him to pursue an endless quest for novelty; the inner experience he tries to convey becomes more and more strange and evanescent. But, finally, in this rake’s progress all attempts at communication must fail, since what is purely individual and peculiar is by nature incommunicable. Poetry must become what the English literary critic Graham Hough wrote in Image and Experience (1960): “it is hard to believe that poetry in the future can make any further progress in the Imagist-Symbolist direction. If it were to remain in that mode it would lead a fading invalidish life and then die altogether, or become an esoteric plaything.” Certainly it has become an esoteric plaything in the obscurities of the Post-Modern Language poets, who invite the reader to bring meaning out of their works—no easy task. Like the Mannerists of the seventeenth century, Post-Modernists, in their rejection of Modernism, call objective reality into question, many of them setting about to “deconstruct” it. Like them, they are given to punning and other wordplay. However, like the mainstream poets and thinkers dating from the mid‑eighteenth century, the Post-Modernists are self-willed radical individualists, impatient of any restraint. Of note, for all that, are the New Formalists, who since the 1980s have returned to metrical, rhymed, and narrative verse.

To recapitulate, for us human beings, existing in the flesh and thus unable to know things in this marvelous way [by angelic intuition], 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.

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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