- By James Sale
Poetry and the Muses Part IV
Poetry, as we have discussed in earlier parts of this article series, depends upon the Muses and accessing the deeper self or soul within each person; this is not an easy thing to do. In the 18th century Lord Chesterfield commented on how an individual could be anything they chose to be, except a ‘great poet’. There has always been a recognition in all societies throughout history that the calling of the true poet – like the true prophet – is a rare and difficult one. But it was not always that way; there was a time when all people were naturally poets. This time, in Christian theology, we call pre-lapsarian, meaning before the Fall, the fall of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent expulsion from paradise.
One does not, in my view, need to be a Christian to accept this contention; it is just that the Christian myth explains it in a simple way. But the reality is that all peoples throughout all time have been religious and have been involved in religious practices. Why is this? Because it is apparent that the human race at some early point in its history was involved in some calamitous and aboriginal mistake. Humans were once happy, and then they weren’t. The Hindus, the Ancient Greeks, and many others speak of the Golden Age – an age in which humans were happy, lived in peace with the gods, enjoyed extraordinary longevity and health, and possessed extraordinary abilities far exceeding our own. Then – according to the Greeks – the Golden Age gave way to the Silver and so on, till finally we end up in the Iron Age of barbarism and humans acting more like animals than animals themselves.
In short, what we have here in these powerful and potent myths is a total refutation of the modern idea of progress; on the contrary, we are regressing. It seems difficult to understand this when have central heating, 3 meals a day in the West, send rockets to the moon, and threaten to blast to smithereens anybody who hacks us off; but it is not so really difficult when we consider that the technology and science that has enabled these ‘advances’ are precisely the mechanisms by which we are going to be destroyed, as the gods – God – balance the book at some point in the near future. The signs are already here. Sadly, as Geri Giebel Chavis observed, ”The tragedy we bring upon ourselves is worse than even a tragic fortune that is destined for us”.
But to return to the garden of Eden, the paradise before our expulsion, what of the poetry then? Well, it is clear: poetry was what God gave Adam and Eden – the power of language and to name – and naming to control, the real magic of all language – the animals and all things; and by ‘all things’ I mean most essentially our own minds and understanding. At this point there was no such thing as prose; those in the garden only spoke poetry, and that it was poetry is certain because the language would be entirely onomatopoeic. In other words, sense and sound would perfectly correspond with each other, would be in balance – or a better word still, in harmony. And, as we discussed in Part 3, that is what poetry is: a harmony between the inner impulse and the outward expression, and framed in such a way that it compels by its own self-evident beauty. Lying, of course, is impossible. Imagine this: a dialogue with someone whose every word induces rapture – a simultaneous manifestation of goodness, truth and beauty, so that one does not wish to interrupt even should one want to respond! Except – their poetry would be incomplete without your response …
Naturally, too, in this state – the right and left hemispheres of the brain were in perfect sync – wellness is endemic, and our own language further hypnotises us into even deeper levels of joy. Not surprisingly, the Ancients, even after the initial Fall (there was effectively a second Fall, which precipitated the Flood, an event remembered by all cultures with the possible exception of the Japanese) were all recorded as experiencing extraordinary longevity.
And at this point we need to remember that Adam, it is said, was created a ‘living soul’; also that he was created in the image of God, as was Eve. What was that likeness? As Dorothy L Sayers pointed out in her book, ‘The Mind of the Maker’: it was that human beings are creative, for that is all we know about God by chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. We are inherently creative, and when we are not, our humanity and our divinity are diminished thereby. Second, to be like God – the infinite – is, of course, to be infinite ourselves in some mysterious sense; for infinity cannot be diluted – if we are like that which is infinite, then that property too is contained within us. So where is it contained?
Here we come to the nub of that matter: Adam was created a ‘living soul’. This is our real, eternal self; it’s where the true language comes from that cannot lie – and conscience too – and gently it prompts, chides, corrects the left-side of the brain, or ego mind; at least, until the ego cauterises it. Like our subconscious it is buried within us, and more specifically, as the Ancient Egyptians and others knew, it is located in the heart. Yes, our core is in our hearts and it is from the heart, not the head, that real poetry speaks.
How does the heart speak? It beats. The living soul’s primary sound is the beat; and the new living soul, the baby, grows under its influence. First, there is nothing – absence – which we might signal with a dash –. Second, there is a beat, which we might signal with a cross, x. And so the genius of the English language becomes manifest; not all languages are stress-driven, but English is. Why is this important? Because what moves us most, what is most emotionally powerful in our lives is not sight – the image – but sound, the rhythm, and especially the metrical pattern that we call the iambic. I need hardly elaborate this, but it is why films have soundtracks, and why we invest so much time listening to music, and why music has such healing properties when properly used. And this is why over 90% of the greatest poetry in the English language is written in iambic meter.
And here’s the really incredible thing: so much is written in this meter not because poets are deliberately attempting to reproduce the heart-beat and engineer emotion in a formulaic way; but because the English language is naturally iambic in how it is structured. Writing iambic verse is going with the grain of the language; writing in other meters is far trickier, and there are not that many extended long poems that one could name that are not in iambic; at least that are still readable. Of course, writing in free verse is invariably – with honourable exceptions – a complete abdication of the task of poetry.
So where do we see this structure in the language? At the most basic, and so most common levels. First, in the requirement of our language to precede most nouns with the definite or an indefinite article, together with the fact we have a riches of monosyllabic nouns. Thus, we have ‘the pen’, ‘a book’, ‘some cheese’ and so on; the iambic pattern is there. Plus, and second, we have the requirement of our verbs to be preceded by pronouns. Again, ‘I walk’, ‘you run, ‘they talk’ and so on; hundreds and thousands of combinations of strong and common words (indeed, many of the monosyllabic verbs are what we call ‘strong’ verbs). Finally, with the plethora of monosyllabic prepositions and conjunctions, we create iambic patterns all the time without even thinking about it: ‘of love’, ‘on top’, ‘but no’, ‘or go’, and so on.
What this all means is that the English language, perhaps pre-eminently (as its poetry – worldwide – can be considered its crowning artistic glory, as, say, music could be considered the Germans’ crowning artistic achievement), is expressive of the heart, of emotion, of the soul – and the eternal soul is beautiful. And this is important, for as Alan Watts said, “Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons”.
Thus, as I reach the end of this article it should be apparent that the writing of poetry is of primary concern to each and every one of us, and of our civilisation as a whole, because of its divine origin, its healing power, and because as Norman O. Brown put it, “Art and poetry have always been altering our ways of sensing and feeling – that is to say, altering the human body and the human mind” and this leads Derek Steinberg to observe that “Even elaborate psychodynamic theories have their limitations; many would agree that literature and poetry soar way beyond them”. Wow – what a claim! All that money, effort and time poured into ‘research’ and ‘science of psychodynamic theories’ and poetry – and the Muses and the myths – can fly above them, which means to go in at a deeper level – if one may reverse the metaphor; for the journey of the soul – where poetry resides – is always downwards, which is why Orpheus – and Dante subsequently – first had to go down.
And we are reminded that in the beginning the invocation of the Muse was an indication that the speaker was working inside the poetic tradition, according to the established formulae. How important this is, is shown in Christopher Bryant’s comment when he said, “The most powerful ally in resisting the debunking spirit of modern reductionism is poetry”. Poetry is of and from the Muses, and for all the reasons I have given and explored when we abandon that tradition – the Muses – we are not writing poetry at all, but the spirit of self-deception is in us, and the spirit of pride as we insist the pantheon of poets gives way to our petty ego and its will-driven works.
In our world now this is largely something we recognise as being post-modernist – wholly invaded by secularism and by a deep atheism that seeks to remove wonder, mystery, truth, goodness and beauty from our world. In form, it is invariably, but not always, in free verse; that absence of structure that proudly struts around proclaiming a false freedom – from the shackles – the forms – of those greater than ourselves. But whether they abjure form (as normally they do) or accept it (usually to corrupt it), we can always spot their work. We only need to return to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous and true definition of poetry: “Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” Yes, not metrical necessarily, but rhythmical, and critically the creation of beauty. The beauty that is balm to our souls; that enlightens us, spiritually, emotionally, mentally; and so casts a healing glow over our lives. It is this that we want, that we must insist on. No-one says it is easy to create; indeed, this article, I think, has intimated just how difficult the enterprise of poetry – of invoking the Muse – is. But difficulty is no reason not to do it; on the contrary, it is the spur. As Yeats put it, ‘The fascination of what’s difficult’.
If we cannot be exactly like Orpheus, then I suggest we must become just like Odysseus – each one setting out on his or her journey from the ruins of Troy and trying to find his or her way home to one’s true love, Penelope. Penelope, for women, of course will be a male, since in the subconscious we are reversed. But here’s the important thing to grasp: the journey home to find our true love is a symbol, for our true love is our own soul – which we said before is essential, eternal and … beautiful.
Originally published by The Society for Classical Poets
James Sale is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 50 years and has eight collections of poems published, including most recently, The Lyre Speaks True, his metaphor for the paradoxes of being a poet. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and regularly writes reviews for the Society