Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Glenn Arbery as he contemplates the importance of poetry to a well-formed soul. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Last year when Dr. Kevin Roberts and I first met with the senior class in a course we were co-teaching, Dr. Roberts asked what was on their minds, and one of them said that he had never understood why the students at Wyoming Catholic College have to memorize poems every semester in Humanities. This response was a little disconcerting. At the time, Dr. Roberts and I were both new to the college, whereas this was the fourth year for these seniors. Neither of us had any winged words for an answer, as they say in Homer, so we did what teachers do in such circumstances: We both nodded sagely.
In the year-and-a-half since then, some of the reasons for this practice distinctive to WCC have begun to unfold. At the banquet before graduation last year, the seniors got up and recited—or maybe it’s better to say, performed—a number of poems they especially loved, and almost every other student also knew those poems. It would be hard to find any other college anywhere, I suspect, where so many students know so many poems by heart, but the question of why they memorize them keeps coming up. Part of what I want to do tonight, on this feast in honor of Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom, is to answer the question literally and then use it as a way of approaching the real question, which is the place of poetry in the larger sense, including the lyric poems we memorize, in the liberal arts curriculum of a Catholic college like ours.
Literally—or perhaps I should say, historically—the practice of memorizing poetry derives from the earliest days of the college, when it was instituted by Dr. Robert Carlson, who thought that educated people should have poetry as part of who they were. The practice survives because the professors who have taught students these poems have repeatedly found it a fruitful practice. On one level, it is like knowing prayers or hymns; it allows a community to speak with one voice, and in doing so, it helps shape what the community is. For example, I know that the freshmen—probably the whole college—will remember John Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” Whole poems are instantly present, without recourse to a text, and reciting them has its own pleasures: all that great language alive in this moment, with these friends and the very air you breathe. And on another, more personal level, these poems, once they are held for a time and revived in the memory, begin to reveal why living memory is more than a hard drive. When St. Augustine writes about memory and time, one of his major examples is a psalm he knows by heart—and by heart, with all the implications of really caring about something, is how the English language teaches us to think about what we’ve memorized.
To know something by heart means that you’ve taken it deeply into the center of who you are. When you know a poem by heart, you find that you can not only recite it, but also relive it and let it unfold in new ways, line-by-line, revealing new subtleties that you might have missed in the mere recitation. But even before this meditative exercise begins, the shaping force of a memorized poem has already laid its claim. Long before I ever make a technical point about the “turn” between the octave and the sestet in a Petrarchan sonnet, or even fully discuss what a sonnet is, those who know sonnets by heart have already felt their nature. For example, in the first eight lines of “God’s Grandeur,” Hopkins describes how a world originally charged with the grandeur of God has become inaccessible to modern man because
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,
And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell. The soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
Just when plodding repetition and world-weariness seem to take over, Hopkins turns the poem in the ninth line: “And yet for all this nature is never spent./There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Having the poem memorized means that it can be thought through at leisure; lines like “The world is charged with the grandeur of God” suddenly take on new resonance. I think of recently listening to a retired doctor of my acquaintance describe what it’s like to be on the rim of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya and see a storm below you. It’s what Hopkins means.
Or think of Keats’s great sonnet, written when he was just twenty-one. Keats uses the first eight lines of the poem to describe the works of great literature as the “realms of gold,” the “goodly states and kingdoms” of a known world; let’s call it the world of classical literature or the literary canon, if you prefer. He has often heard of the “wide expanse” that “deep-browed Homer holds as his demesne;” he has even read Homer in Alexander Pope’s translation; but he has never really understood what people mean by praising Homer so highly until he reads George Chapman’s version—“Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold.” What is reading Chapman’s Homer like? Keats tries to describe it when he makes a bold turn in the ninth line: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken.” This isn’t the known classical world at all. Suddenly we’re into something new, something distinctly modern. A whole new planet swims into someone’s ken—a wonderful word, by the way; it’s difficult to find a one-word synonym, because it means one’s “range of vision” or “range of knowledge.” Who discovers new planets? Modern astronomers, in this case probably William Herschel, whose telescope allowed him in 1781 to find Uranus, the first new planet since antiquity. Keats’s point is that what Herschel must have felt in that moment, the essential wonder of it, was an emotion analogous to his own. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, which Keats had certainly read, Wordsworth describes poetry as the “impassioned expression…in the countenance of all Science,” and in that sense, Herschel’s moment of discovery was already poetry.
But then comes an even bolder comparison. Keats thinks of the explorer who first stood on a mountain peak in Panama and saw the Pacific, a whole ocean much vaster than the Atlantic, and one whose existence no European had ever even suspected. He imagines how the men “looked at each other with a wild surmise.” Historically, of course, it was Balboa, not Cortez, but this moment of wonder and sublimity, like the astronomer’s, breaks open the known European world even more than the discovery of the Americas; it extends the boundaries of the imaginable. This is a moment that distinctively epitomizes the modern spirit. But Keats is not talking about science or exploration: He’s talking about reading a 200-year-old translation of Homer. For Keats, Homer is suddenly no longer part of the guided tour of tamed and categorized literature represented by Alexander Pope’s translation. Ironically, it takes a new planet or the Pacific Ocean to describe the astonishment of feeling the poetry of Homer for the first time—Homer, the very oldest poet of the classical tradition, who now feels radically remade, radically new. To know Homer this way throws open the gates of the wonder-world at the sources of the West.
A third sonnet that our students memorize deals with very much the same theme: The idea that the economic promise of the modern world, with all its wealth and technological novelty, nevertheless lacks something that we find in the ancients. Wordsworth’s most famous sonnet begins with a lament about what the commercial and industrial preoccupations of the modern world have done to us:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.
Little we see in nature that is ours.
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.
Time no longer has any leisure in it, no sense of holiday or Sunday rest. Something is always late; something always has to be done soon. Nothing has the quality of a simple gift; everything is a matter of getting things and spending money—everything except what counts most, our hearts, which most connect us to the world. Not valuing the heart in the getting and spending of economic valuation, we have given the most important thing away for nothing, which makes the gift “a sordid boon,” like giving away our honor or our chastity.
But so what? What difference does it make? What are we actually missing as a result of our heartlessness?
The sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune.
It moves us not—
Technically, as we know from the other sonnets and from the long tradition of the Petrarchan form, the turn should come after the end of the eighth line, “we are out of tune.” But Wordsworth doggedly keeps going, continuing the thought, delaying the turn by four syllables: it moves us not, four stern, hardheaded syllables that anticipate Thomas Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times, with his emphasis on facts, nothing but facts. Why should we care how sonnets work or whether we’re in tune? “It moves us not.” We aren’t interested in all that poetic claptrap. But it is a sonnet, we do have an expectation of the turn, and because of the delay, these utilitarian words burn like a fuse. When the turn belatedly comes in the second half of the line, it explodes in exclamation and protest:
Great god! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
The speaker of the poem had rather be a pagan than live as we do, getting and spending. Does he mean a pagan instead of a Christian? Does he blame Christianity for our worldliness and our estrangement from nature? Maybe, in a sense I’ll return to later, but mostly he criticizes a rote inertia of religious practice—what Newman will later call a civil religion—when our real treasure is in everything conventional and manmade, not in the sacramental character of the natural world or the demands of the divine.
Like Keats, he sees in the ancients the kind of imagination that fills us with wonder. Proteus, the old man of the sea, the shape-shifter of the Odyssey, makes the sea, at least in some imaginable sense, ours, as does Triton, blowing his great conch shell, with the howling of the winds. What Wordsworth emphasizes is the lost beauty and sublimity of our poetic engagement with the given world, and it comes here as a direct counter to the increasingly, bureaucratized, alienated life of the factory and the office that we see throughout the rest of the nineteenth century in such works as Gogol’s Overcoat, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Dickens’ Hard Times or Bleak House, and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Later in that century, Hopkins answers Wordsworth in “God’s Grandeur,” which starts with the same two words: “The world,” but takes a different tack. Hopkins in his sestet does not turn to the ancients. After showing a world that “wears man’s smudge, and shares man’s smell,” he gives us an image of apocalyptic promise:
And yet for all this, nature is never spent.
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.
And though the last lights off the black west went O!
Morning at the brown brink eastward springs,
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods, with warm breast and with Ah! Bright wings.
The “dearest freshness deep down things” comes with morning. I’m reminded of another poem by Wordsworth, this one about seeing London, usually noisy and filthy, early in the morning as he crossed Westminster Bridge:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theaters, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
But Hopkins adds to this morning renewal the metaphor of the brooding bird, drawing on the image of the Holy Spirit descending as a dove: “the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods.” Notice the violent emphasis on the word “bent”—violent because the adjective modifying world receives the whole stress of the rhyme—spent, went, bent—but unlike those earlier words, which end a clause and have a kind of finality, bent does not; in itself, “over the bent” means nothing and concludes nothing, since it needs the word world and its verb at the start of the next line. The strain on the word bent bends the feel of the poem; the next line starts off-balance with a heavy spondee: “World broods.” The bent world. We do not so much picture as feel the heavy, off-kilter world on its axis. The enlivening presence of the Holy Ghost makes this bent world stir from within, and we know it because a poetic pleasure stirs within us; it promises to bring forth the freshness deep down things—but more than that, an apocalyptic newness. Hopkins’ poem is not only about the renewal of morning, in other words, but the promise that in time the world itself will break open with God’s grandeur.
In short, the turn in each of these sonnets we have taken to heart is about a poetic renewal of the world. In each case, it is a claim about poetry itself, the necessity of poetic imagination for fullness of life; in each case, it’s about what I’m calling the witness of poetry to the inner richness of the world. At the beginning of his book Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, Jacques Maritain explains what he means by his title. “By Art I mean the creative or producing, work-making activity of the human mind. By Poetry I mean, not the particular art which consists in writing verses, but a process both more general and more primary: that intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self which is a kind of divination”(3).
Just to take up Maritain’s distinction for a moment, we would think about the art of Keats or Hopkins or Wordsworth as the “work-making activity” of writing a fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet—learning to employ the ten-syllable iambic pentameter line, for example, and answering the particular demands of a rhyme scheme; following the logical structure of the two quatrains of the octave, the eight-line exposition of a problem or situation; then fitting the answer to the problem into the six lines of the sestet. Meeting the requirements of this conscious art requires a great deal of thought and attention, especially at first, like learning to ski, or ride a horse. Poetry in Maritain’s extended sense is something deeper than art per se, precisely the kind of divination that both Hopkins and Wordsworth call for—that intercommunication between things and us. At first, we might wonder what Maritain means by the “inner being of things.” The “innerness” raises the question. In fact, if he had said “the being of things and the inner being of the human Self ” we would have less of a question.
But as an example of what he might mean, let me use two passages from Homer. The first comes in Book IV of the Iliad, when the Greeks and the Trojans have just declared a truce with the potential to end the war and spare many lives. Menelaos and Paris are fighting to see who gets Helen. But Aphrodite intervenes and spirits Paris out of the battle. Athena then takes the form of a Trojan warrior, approaches a man named Pandaros, and convinces him to use his famous skill as an archer to shoot Menelaos. Homer gives six lines to a description of the bow and how it was made from the horns of a goat before turning to the shot itself:
He stripped away the lid of the quiver, and took out an arrow
Feathered, and never shot before, transmitter of dark pain.
Swiftly he arranged the bitter arrow along the bowstring,
And made his prayer to Apollo the light-born, the glorious archer…
He drew, holding at once the grooves and the ox-hide bowstring
And brought the string against his nipple, iron to the bow stave.
But when he had pulled the great weapon until it made a circle,
The bow groaned, and the string sang high, and the arrow, sharp-pointed,
Leapt away, furious, to fly through the throng before it.
The American poet and critic John Crowe Ransom borrows a term from the German, Dinglichkeit, the materiality or thingliness of something, to describe the vividness of a poetic evocation. On the level of art, Homer uses the figure of personification: the bow groans, the string sings, the arrow leaps and flies with fury. But on the level of poetry, he divines the “inner being” of these things by finding in them a communication with our inner being through the imagination. In distinguishing between fancy and imagination, Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes that objects, as objects, are merely fixed and dead—but this bow and this arrow, these things are by no means dead. They gather us into the very act of being what they are in the moment of their fulfilled purpose: This is what a bow and arrow are for, this is what they do, and here they reveal their inner being to the imagination. After almost 3000 years, there’s a distinct now in what we’re seeing as that arrow flies furiously through the throng toward Menelaos. It comes to us live.
The other Homeric example is from Book V of the Odyssey when the god Poseidon sees Odysseus on his way home after escaping from Kalypso’s island and goes after him. (By the way, several men of the freshman class could not see why Odysseus was so eager to escape Kalypso’s island at all.) In any case, Poseidon hates Odysseus for blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemos, and he rouses a great storm, stirring up the waves and the winds to smash Odysseus’ raft into splinters. In a recent book on Homer, Adam Nicolson, a lifelong sailor, quotes the passages about the storm and then draws upon his own experience at sea: “If there is one fact that a storm seems to impose,” he writes, “it is the sea’s mysterious dominance from below. A storm-driven sea appears to acquire a vitality and viciousness, a desire to do damage, which has nothing to do with the wind but comes from inside its own enraged, destroying body. If you ever have that sensation, it is when you are meeting Poseidon.” For Nicolson, Homer’s poetry is not a matter of mere personification, but a compelling description of this real encounter with another will, another body, with its inner “vitality and viciousness,” its “desire to do damage.” In other words, Homer divines the inner being of the sea more profoundly than any account of cross-currents and wind could do.
What does it mean to have lost this experience of the sea? That seems to me exactly what Wordsworth asks as well. The poetry lies in this apprehension of what the thing is for us, with respect to us, not in terms of its utility, but in a way that ennobles us imaginatively. Take Wordsworth’s line in the second quatrain of his sonnet as an example. “The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon.” As a rhetorical figure, it is a personification of the sea as a woman. Behind it might be a recollection of Hecuba on the walls of Troy, desperately baring her breast to her son Hektor to remind him of his former helplessness and the helplessness Troy will feel if he dies at the hands of Achilles. In other words, this gesture of the Sea would have something pleading in it, a last hope for rescue.
But perhaps we do not need to go so far; as an image, it is about her gesture, which can be read as less desperate than bold, passionate, erotic; as an idea, it is surely about the waters of the earth responding to the gravitation of the moon. If we take the idea as the point, we disenchant the image, but if we discount the idea entirely, we fail to see the whole import of this personification. As poetry, it is a way of making the Sea ours, not as our possession, not as a means of human commerce, but as alive and knowable through ourselves and our emotions.
Of course, we can no longer unself-consciously personify the world as the ancients did; for us a forest is more likely to be what Martin Heidegger calls “standing reserve,” either for the timber industry or for tourism, than to be full of dryads or sacred groves. For us, rivers may be beautiful, clear, good for trout fishing, but the Popo Agie or the Wind River will never be—for most of us—a person, a god, as it would be in Homer. When Odysseus swims for land after Poseidon’s devastating storm, he sees a river and prays to it to smooth his way out of the surf, and the river accommodates him. In the Iliad, the river Skamandros gets furious with Achilles for cramming his water-courses with the dead bodies of Trojans, and he comes out of his banks and chases Achilles across the plain until Hephaistos intervenes. Later, Achilles apologizes to a river back in his homeland, Spercheios, for cutting the lock of hair he had been growing for him, apparently a common practice for the ancient Greeks. Since Achilles now knows that he will die in Troy, he puts the lock instead on the pyre of Patroklos, and in doing so he brings a whole river of grief to bear on the gesture. No wonder the pyre will not light at first. Everywhere in Homer, the things and forces of the world are animated with intelligences that have to be acknowledged and placated. It is never simply man as the only thinking subject versus the rest of the world as unthinking object, but man in a world of presences that know him and most often exceed him.
In an excellent recent article in The New Atlantis called “Fantasy and the Buffered Self,” Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor, quotes a passage from the philosopher Charles Taylor that speaks directly to this point. As Taylor writes, “we live in a much less ‘enchanted’ world. We might think of this as our having ‘lost’ a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. Now, we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are ‘buffered’ selves.”
Taylor is surely right. Already by the time of Shakespeare, the “porous self” feels like something remembered rather than experienced—for example, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Perhaps The Tempest is both homage and farewell. Elsewhere, Iago seems to voice the spirit of the age: “Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.” By contrast, as Jacobs comments, “To be a pre-modern person, in Taylor’s account, is to be constantly in danger of being invaded or overcome by demons or fairies or nameless terrors of the dark”—or, though he is speaking of the Middle Ages more than the ancients, by Aphrodite or a deluding Athena. As Jacobs says, “It is easy, then, to imagine why a person—or a whole culture—might, if it could, exchange this model of a self with highly permeable boundaries for one in which the self feels better protected, defended—impermeable, or nearly so. The problem with this apparently straightforward transaction is that the porous self is open to the divine as well as to the demonic, while the buffered self is closed to both alike.” Taylor and Jacobs argue that this disenchantment took on greater force with the Reformation, which reinforced the Biblical injunctions against divinizing the forces of nature, and combined with modern science to “disenchant” our understanding of phenomena.
When Wordsworth says more than 200 years ago, “Little we see in nature that is ours,” he already sees the problem. We are so buffered that nothing moves us. The answer he proposes is not a return to animism, but—again—a recourse to the witness of poetry. Maritain’s definition of poetry helps us understand what the word ours might mean in Wordsworth’s line: ours through “a kind of divination,” an “intercommunication between the inner being of things and the inner being of the human Self.” An “intercommunication” means that we do not simply impose human characteristics on things; rather, they communicate to us what they are as we communicate ourselves to their inner being. The point is precisely that the world outside us is not alien. Maritain calls this kind of communication knowledge through “connaturality.” In this kind of knowing, as he puts it, “the intellect is at play not alone, but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will, and is guided and directed by them.” In other words, an emotion such as love or pity or awe might guide us to what we know. “It is not rational knowledge,” says Maritain, “but it is really and genuinely knowledge, though obscure and perhaps incapable of giving an account of itself, or of being translated into words.” For example, we might know what courage is in someone when we see it without being able to satisfy Socrates with an adequate definition.
The other day my wife and I came around the bend from Baldwin Creek Road to Squaw Creek Road, and as we started east we saw a whole herd of horses galloping at full speed out on the meadows between the road and the mountains. The very look and manner of them communicated the exhilaration of what they were to us. How do you begin to say what that knowledge is, except that we share something of the same nature, at least by analogy? When connatural knowledge is translated into words, however, it is poetic language. Homer compares both Paris and Hektor to
some stalled horse who has been corn-fed at the manger
[who] breaking free of his rope gallops over the plain in thunder
to his accustomed bathing place in a sweet-running river
and in the pride of his strength holds high his head, and the mane floats
over his shoulders; sure of his glorious strength, the quick knees
carry him to the loved places and the pasture of horses.
It’s almost like students getting out of class.
Maritain bravely tries to explain where poetry comes from. He writes that connatural poetic knowledge “comes about…through the instrumentality of emotion, which, received in the preconscious life of the intellect, becomes intentional and intuitive, and causes the intellect obscurely to grasp some existential reality as one with the Self it has moved, and by the same stroke all that which this reality, emotionally grasped, calls forth in the manner of a sign.” If this sentence is not immediately comprehensible, you might sympathize with what Byron quips about Coleridge, who had begun “Explaining Metaphysics to the nation./I wish” says Byron, “he would explain his explanation.”
Let me explore Maritain’s insight by using Keats’s great “Ode to a Nightingale.” In May of 1819, Keats was twenty-three years old. He had lost his beloved brother Tom at nineteen to tuberculosis the previous December, and it may be that Keats already noticed some of the early symptoms of the same disease in himself; he would die of it less than two years later. On this May night, the speaker of the poem hears a nightingale singing. In Maritain’s terms, “the instrumentality of emotion…becomes intentional and intuitive.” The speaker’s imagination fixes enraptured upon this bird singing in the dark, so much so that his own body sinks into oblivion “as though of hemlock [he] had drunk” or “emptied some dull opiate to the drains.” He imagines this “light-winged dryad of the trees” out in “some melodious plot/Of beechen green, and shadows numberless” where the bird is singing “of summer in full-throated ease.” Impelled by his underlying sorrow, the speaker obscurely grasps the “existential reality” of the nightingale—the real bird he hears—as “one with the Self it has moved”—that is, with himself. Bird and poet become one: The bird “pouring forth his soul abroad” is the poet grasping the very being of the nightingale emotionally and revealing this reality through stanza after stanza as the way of disclosing his own inner self. The poem moves us through the oneness Keats feels with the nightingale—“in embalmèd darkness,” passionate lyric escape, and, in the end, through return to the “sole self ” with which he began—as did we.
What makes Maritain’s understanding of poetry compelling is that it puts the emphasis on a kind of wedding between the deepest, preconscious life of the intellect—that darkness out of which thought emerges—and the existential reality of things, their actuality, their limitation to what they are. He writes that “it is essentially an obscure revelation both of the subjectivity of the poet and of some flash of reality coming together out of sleep in one single awakening.” The limited particular keeps yielding more insight than one might imagine it could possibly contain, as we discovered in Trivium class the other day in thinking about Richard Wilbur’s “Two Voices in a Meadow,” a poem personifying a milkweed and a stone. The mode of poetry is through what Fr. William Lynch calls “the generative finite” in Christ and Apollo, a book that Flannery O’Connor loved almost as much as Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism. Stressing the “universal limitation, or particularity” of the real world we inhabit and the real people we meet, he writes that “the heart, substance, and center of the human imagination, as of human life, must lie in the particular and limited image or thing.” This limitation is the source of the power of poetry. As Lynch puts it, “with every plunge through, or down into, the real contours of being, the imagination also shoots up into insight.” In other words, poetry engenders insight by concentrating its focus, not on clear concepts, which it then illustrates, but on the particularities of image or character or action—not on grief but on a particular nightingale; not on ambition but on Macbeth; not on war per se but on the trajectory of Achilles’ wrath. As Maritain puts it in Art and Scholasticism, the artist achieves radiance of form, “an ontological splendor which is in one way or another revealed to our mind, not a conceptual clarity.”
In an essay on Dante shortly after his conversion to Catholicism, Allen Tate calls this mode the “Poetic Way.” He writes that “Despite the timeless orders of both rational discourse and intuitive contemplation, it is the business of the symbolic poet to return to the order of temporal sequence—to action. His purpose is to show men experiencing whatever they may be capable of, with as much meaning as he may be able to see in it.” It is the way of the poet “who has go to do his work with the body of this world, whatever that body may look like to him, in his time and place….If the poet is able to put into this moving body, or to find in it, a coherent chain of analogies, he will inform an intuitive act with symbolism; his will be in one degree or another the symbolic imagination.”
May I say, in honor of the occasion, that the very mode of revelation in our tradition corresponds to the way of the poet—that is, the entrance into the “body of this world” in a particular time and place? Near the beginning of his book, Fr. Lynch writes that he will be “stressing the great fact of Christology, that Christ moved down into all the realities of man to get to His Father.” Movement down through the particular might even be a kind of martyrdom for the poet who might prefer to circumvent particularity and fly directly to essences. In other words, poetry might witness in another sense as well.
Let me close by musing briefly on a poem by Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” whose very title seems to make the point of Tate and Fr. Lynch. I always imagine the scene of this poem as a second-story room on one of those narrow Roman streets in the Trastevere or somewhere near the Campo di Fiori, maybe a little street called Via Poetica, on a morning when the Roman housewife has hung her laundry on a line from her window to an opposite one across the way, cranking it out item-by-item by pulling the rope through its pulleys. The speaker wakes up—or almost wakes up—and her laundry is his first vision of the morning.
The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;
Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessèd day,
‘Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.’
Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,
‘Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits, keeping their difficult balance.’
Just a few last comments. It’s a poem about laundry, but it’s also a poem about an almost Dantean experience of the ascent of the soul into the angelic orders. The laundry remains laundry, but for the moment of the soul’s ecstasy, as it “hangs bodiless and simple,” the angels fill the clothes on the line with “the deep joy of their impersonal breathing:” the wind whipping through the clothes becomes for an instant “the terrible speed of their omnipresence.” When they fall still, the soul “shrinks/From all that it is about to remember.” The soul “descends once more in bitter love/To accept the waking body.” Why bitter love? Because it has experienced a moment of heaven and it longs for nothing but that purity and holiness.
But the way of the poet is not like that. On the Via Poetica, love calls us to the things of this world. What the poet can do is give this dirty and sinful place a reminder of the dearest freshness, deep down things. Where will those garments worn by the angels go now? Onto the backs of thieves and lovers and nuns. Wilbur’s last image of nuns is comic—not just nuns, but “the heaviest nuns” who walk “in a pure floating/Of dark habits,” with that wonderful play on the word habits. The “difficult balance” is the thing: between metaphor and existential reality, between animism and Incarnation, between image and idea, between Heaven and Lander.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in August 2015. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Integritas (Issue 1.8).