Tag Archives: imagination

The poetry of a wise man might crack your shell.

Many people seem to think that politics will save us, that if we could just get the right people, or “our people” in office, they would begin to set things right, however we envision that. Anthony Esolen in the article Listening Up, in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of Touchstone magazine, discusses some reasons for this idea, and its often corresponding impulse to judge our human forefathers for their sins, judgment not “by eternal verities, but by the cheap modern substitute, the ‘political.'”

He believes we lack historical imagination, and he sets out to consider the different ways one might make better use of stories and history in general, giving examples first from antiquity:

So to attempt to transpose Xenophon or Cyrus to the current day, and to grill him with “political” questions, is not to think politically at all, but to replace reality with a caricature. You will learn nothing from Xenophon that way. You may instead be out to teach him a lesson, him, that is, being the cartoon Xenophon you have made. At no time do you allow yourself to be still and to learn, so that the poetry of a wise man might penetrate your shell, crack it open, and show you the stars.

Once you enter the world of history, you encounter the maddening complexity of human affairs, not to mention that labyrinth called the human heart. With hindsight we can say, with some confidence, that the young Octavius was far better suited for governing the Roman world than was the elder and more experienced Antony. We cannot be so sure of ourselves, though, when it comes to the noble-minded Brutus, and the ambitious and capable Julius Caesar, whom he assassinated.

Esolen goes on to mention American leaders of note, and of complex history and character, such as William Tecumseh Sherman, and Stonewall Jackson, “a genuinely kindly owner of slaves.” And then he comes to his “three broad categories of modern man, each of them characterized by the stories they listen to and tell”: The Man of Faith, The Man of Wistful Unbelief, and the Man of Superstition.

I found his categories to be very helpful in understanding differences between people in the first two groups especially, and their stories that nourish our hearts. Oh, if only the third group would quiet down and listen to some true stories! But they don’t like the stories of the other two groups, and have their own ever-changing and doubtful heroes.

“History is too dark and tangled a forest for them, sacred Scripture too high a mountain to climb. Therefore they fall into worship of the biggest or most prominent things near them: sex, themselves, the State.”

“They are not brave enough to enter the dark caverns of the human heart…. they cannot forgive what men and women really are. They have no sense of sin, which afflicts everyone, including themselves, but they grasp at being among the elect, by having the most up-to-date pseudo-political opinions.”

You can read the whole article here: “Listening Up.”

People who make history know nothing about history.
You can see that in the sort of history they make.
-G.K. Chesterton

 

Moles fly, and sparrows sweep the sky.

IMG_3260Preface:  I drafted this post yesterday, not expecting to publish it this soon, but today, the occasion of a statewide election day, I was pained to see public pleas and even poems put forth drawing attention to the needs of “art” and “artists” for money and support. I am all for supporting artists whom I admire, but I am also realizing that in the minds of some professional artists, art has become just another “spiritual practice” to support and be supported by that new religion of modernity, politics. So I decided to share this poem, and my short response, on behalf of all you creative people out there, who may or may not know that you are. Art will never not be, and that is a gift.

PRAISE in SUMMER

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savor’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it? To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?

-Richard Wilbur

This poem was part of Wilbur’s first collection published when he was 26, just returned from World War II. I read it in Poem A Day Volume 3, where it is accompanied by comments from Wilbur himself:

“Aristototle once said, ‘The making of metaphor is the peculiar gift of the poet, the mark of poetic genius.’ This early poem of mine — a Spenserian sonnet, by the way — begins as an impatient attack on metaphor, but by the close has capitulated and become helplessly metaphorical. That’s as it should be, because the likening of all things, the implication that all things are connatural, is of poetry’s essence.”

I like that in the poem, he refers to “uncreation,” i.e., the One who has made “all things visible and invisible,” and from which Source they also come by their likeness one to another. God is the supreme metaphorical Poet from whom we all receive this gift of making metaphors, and most of us think and speak in metaphors all day long. When in the poem we read, “summer calls,” is that not likening summer to a being that can beckon with a hand or voice? To think of our senses as “stale” links them in our mind to flat beer or dry bread. It’s part of the gift of imagination which has the same Source, and another way that we are made in the image of God. Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

 

Slipping from the tedious plane.

I was telling Mr. Greenjeans about how An American Childhood by Annie Dillard encouraged me in my writing. He comes from the author’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the backdrop for her growing-up adventures told from her vividly revealing point of view. I took the book off the shelf to put aside for him, and turned the pages a while, seeing passages I’d marked long ago.

Hers is a unique point of view, of course, as each of us is an unrepeatable individual looking out on our world. Whether it is her perspective that is unusual as well, or only her ability to convey it in words, I don’t know. I do know that few children today have the liberty of youth that Dillard describes as regularly offering periods of time so deep and distraction-free that you can “lose yourself.” In a chapter on her love of books and reading, she tells how she felt:

The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or to escape back home to any concentration–fanciful, mental, or physical–where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

-Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood

Kinds of Poetry – Tolkien vs. Jackson

Jackson apparently thinks the characters Tolkien gives us are too simply good to be fully believable to modern audiences, and so he feels obligated to “complicate” them, to give them internal conflicts other than the ones they actually have, in the hopes that we will better be able to relate to them.

I’m quoting from this article in the Nov/Dec 2013 Touchstone Magazine, in which Donald T. Williams explains how literature, while delighting us with its art, is more powerful than history or philosophy to nurture our moral vision, or to corrupt us with false images.

With the help of quotes from Sir Philip Sidney, who wrote Apology for Poetry in the sixteenth century, he shows how “Tolkien was very consciously and deliberately following the literary tradition that flows down to us from Sidney through Dr. Johnson and C. S. Lewis.”

Peter Jackson the filmmaker seems to be flowing in a different stream. But he is an artist, and of course will impart his own soul to his work. I wouldn’t expect him to give us The Rings, because that has already been done, and he is not J.R.R. Tolkien. But it is unfortunate that he has changed things to the degree and in the directions he has. Williams points out specific ways in which the characters who inspired us in the books disappoint us in the movies, and makes these general remarks:

By this process of negative moral transformation, in other words, we reach the place where beloved characters are unrecognizable to Tolkien’s fans, and those fans feel betrayed. And they are right to feel so, though mostly they do not understand why. It is because the difference between the books and the movies is not just one of necessary adaptation to a different medium. It is that the author consciously followed the Sidneyan tradition while the adaptor is either ignorant of it or doesn’t understand it or has rejected it.

Read the whole article here.