Presently we saw a curious thing: There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disc rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share—black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun.
Even while we whispered about it, our vision disappeared; the ball dropped and dropped until the red tip went beneath the earth. The fields below us were dark, the sky was growing pale, and that forgotten plough had sunk back to its own littleness somewhere on the prairie. —My Antonia by Willa Cather
Our sight, so much a part of utilitarian, practical life, sometimes catches a rare glimpse of something more; the phenomena moving towards us can suddenly dance, or become still and reveal something. Jim and Antonia, young people enjoying the evening of a Nebraska summer are given this image of a normally unnoticed object, an object now seen in all its meaning and fullness by a different kind of light falling on it, a stagelight of sorts which reveals it, the plough, as a phenomenon imbued with new depth, with its true connection not only to the pioneer spirit, but to the virtues and the meaning of human life. Only those who have been on the great prairies of North America can understand what the lone plough really means, what virtues of perseverance, courage, and ultimately, hope, that it helped foster. The rhythm of sowing and harvest, hope before the winter and all that can kill a pioneer family as easily as a flood pouring into an anthill.
Jim’s journey is a journey, most deeply, of sight. He is a watcher. Finally, as a middle-aged man returning from the East, he sees Antonia:
She lent herself to immemorial human attitudes which we recognize by instinct as universal and true. I had not been mistaken. She was a battered woman now, not a lovely girl; but she still had that something which fires the imagination, could still stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning in common things. She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things of her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions.
It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.
Like the sight of the plough against the final gesture of the sun, Antonia is suddenly transformed from a failure to a source of life, from the one with bad luck, plagued with the poor decisions of others, meaningless prairie dog, uprooted Bohemian foreigner, daughter of a suicide father and sister of boorish men, to something much, much more: even in, perhaps especially because of, her now diminished physical beauty. How many men, especially in our porn-plagued, shallow visual culture, or perhaps in our over-rationalized religious sense, can see a Woman? For Jim, the veil of diminished sight was lifted aside, and he could see something more, much more. Antonia becomes a source, a vision, of the eternal order of love, an order often revealed clearly to the blind through suffering, the order that the virtues point to, reflected in the cycle of nature, of life and death, like the authority of light suddenly revealed in the fact that the darkness cannot overcome it.
Is this “sight” poetic nonsense? Is poetry—including all that fires the imagination, or better still, reveals this deeper sight of the things and people that are given to us moment by moment—wishful thinking? In a utilitarian, rationalist, or emotion-driven world, it is often termed among the “Fine Arts,” said in that disdainful, weary way that people who create programs for public schools (STEM—Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) will say it—or “Liberal Arts,” the way someone in the war-technology industry might spit it out, “what a waste of time and money.”
We have lost the delight in, and thirst for, poetry, an essential, foundational element of the liberal arts, those arts that seek to perfect the human person. I don’t mean just the memorization of Robert Frost’s “On a Snowy Evening” for diction-training; I mean the understanding that encountering poetry is like snorkeling in the waters of human longing, a deeper sight born from the spring of the eternal in us, the sight, the eye of the heart. “Heart” to me is not synonymous with “emotion;” in the Scriptures, it is used synonymously with the center of, the nexus of the will, mind, emotions, and memory. In a sense it is the enfleshed soul.
We live in a culture of starving hearts. Mother Teresa knew this, when she exhorted people in wealthier societies to look for the deeper poverty of loneliness: and I would dare to add, the poverty of the sight, the inability to connect with the natural and eternal order of the cosmos, which is, truly, at the foundation, an order of love. We live amongst many people who are blind and starving; their poetic souls (which I believe every human has as an essential identity) are dying or dead.
What is poetry as expressed in human and divine terms?
Human beings have expressed it in scientific theories, like Xenophanes, who saw the thought of God, a kind of Logos, permeating the cosmos, giving it order and unity; in rational treatises, like Aristotle’s beautiful structure in the Physics and Metaphysics; in logic and story united in Plato’s dialogues and the Republic; like Euclid’s “bare beauty” (St. Vincent-Millay); like the virtuous order expressed in the beauty of Ciceronian rhetoric; like the delight in words of Shakespeare and Milton; like the ecstasy of vision of Goethe; the delicate rational, Aristotelian Jane Austen; the efficacy of even failure in The Power and The Glory of Graham Greene; the epic longing of Homer and Dante.
Human beings have also expressed it in painting, dance, drama, in marriage, death, childbearing, and in suffering evil for the sake of this vision expressed most clearly poetically.
The Divine expresses it through the human hand in the verses of Job, Jeremiah, Isaiah, in Genesis and even Numbers; the love and beyond-ness of God, and the torrent of Him who interacts with us and cares more for our heart, our poetic heart, than for our scientific or rationalist knowledge (though these are not bad). I believe even St. Thomas understood that human expression, even in the most beautiful and clear logic, is “as straw” to the reality of God, to life—though it is said that the Logos Himself told St. Thomas, “You have written well of me, Thomas.” Poetic expression, the poetic heart, can lift the veil of our poor logic in the face of reality and show our heart a vision, a mystery, transcendent and resplendent in the light of God. It is the sight of the meaning of everything, the Whole, and the infinitely swift understanding, outside of Time almost, of how the parts relate to the whole.
The Divine reached down and became, in a sense, Poetry; He became the plough on the hillside, a poor and normal object in the gaze of the higher classes, the teaching class of the Pharisee and the ruling class of the Sadducee. They could not see Him because they stood above Him, looking down off the hillside with their backs to the light (because they thought they possessed it). Only those who were, like the newly freed prisoner from Plato’s cave, looking towards the light from a humble viewpoint, could see Him in relief against the sky, against the light of His Father.
Like Antonia, his battered state revealed His heart, a connection to hope, faith, and love, and from these, a connection to the order of the cosmos, based on Love.
We find Him, in the Gospels, walking, being, speaking in a very human sense. One gets, through the poetry of those who loved Him and were with Him, the way one is with another, through the heart, poetically, a sense of Him: not given to exhibition, or hilarity, a serious man who was often frustrated with the blindness—or saddened by it; a man who knew much, a quiet Watcher, who would see out to the limits of a crowd, with an ear for those whose cries came from a place without guile; a passionate person who loved the delicate, vulnerable glory of His Father to the point of righteous rage; a man who looked most into the heart of another, not into the mind; a man who waxed eloquent most when speaking about unity in love with those the Father had given Him; a man who cared enough about the ignorant to spare them from civil war by diminishing His own rights; a man moved, in His own poetic heart, by the simple faith of even those to whom He had not yet come.
How does one gain, or re-gain, a poetic heart? Like virtue, which Socrates said cannot be taught as one teaches math, poetry must be learned by being with poets, by being opened, by being willing to receive, as Jim and Antonia receive the image of the plough, as Jim finally receives Antonia.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.