By David Gosselin
“To tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world”
The twentieth century has been an age fraught with discussion of new ages: the “New Age”, an “Age of Aquarius,” the “Ultimate Revolution”, a “New World Order,” a “New American Century” the age of “Modernism,” a “Post-Modern” age, a “Contemporary” age, and many more. I am of the opinion that the conception of all such ages must be transcended by a higher axiomatic system, a Musical age—an “Age of the Muses”—in which poets are king and queen. It is a world which recognizes that there is only one kind of thinking, thinking.
Regardless of whether we are Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Liberal, Conservative, male, female—anywhere on the gender spectrum—all human beings are faced with the problem of “incommensurables”: though each individual is mortal, the species is immortal; our bodies are material, but the mind is immaterial; the universe is finite, yet unbounded.
Contrary to what most might believe, thinking in fact allows human beings to hold an infinitely different and diverse set of views on an infinite array of different subjects. The only requirement of thinking is that we recognize and embrace certain immutable paradoxes about the nature of human beings and the human mind. The mind is able to wrestle with paradoxes like Plato’s “One” and the “Many”; paradoxes like the relationship between the infinite and the finite. These paradoxes may be defined as the anti-Aristotelian conception of the “coincidence of opposites” (Coincidencia Oppositurum) which was articulated by the fifteenth century philosopher Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa.
Regardless of our background and station in life, human beings are confronted with certain ontological paradoxes, what we for the purposes of this essay will term “incommensurables.”
Part I: Are You Literally Thinking?
Contrary to popular opinion, thinking is not a Muslim thing, it is not a Catholic thing, it is not an atheist thing, neither is it a liberal or conservative thing—there is only thinking. To the degree an individual is opposed to such an outlook, they are in effect refusing to think; that is, they have pre-determined conceptions which they believe require no rhyme or reason. However, believing is not thinking in the same way the meaning of poetry is not defined by the sum-total definition of the words on a page.
Whether it be one’s relationship with a Higher Power, knowledge of Beauty, knowledge of Truth, or knowledge of Love—all of the greatest human experiences are subject to reason. This is not to say that aspects of all these great experiences do not limit us in our own ability to conceive of them, but it is precisely this limit, this unknown, which itself becomes conceptualized as a concept in which we discover the truth of the unknown as “known unknown.”
The human experience is saturated with “known unknowns.” Our observation of a particle at the level of the microcosm is itself affected by the act of observing: our very perception distorts the position of an electron. In the domain of our immediate five senses, experiences as seemingly simple as observing a marble sculpture or looking at an old lady sitting involve many paradoxical perceptions: despite the seemingly still and static nature of what we are observing, there yet exists a seemingly endless number of tiny particles in motion, right before our eyes. The motion of these innumerable tiny particles appears as stillness or lack of motion, but that is not the reality.
We in all likelihood will never be able to fully explain how these particles first came into motion, or why they are in motion. Yet, to deny knowledge of unknowns is to deny knowledge of any thing. Every thing we know is derived from a combination of the “known” and “unknown.”
Nicholas of Cusa famously used the metaphor of squaring the circle to identify the kinds of limits bounding all human knowledge. He offered a new solution to the problem of squaring the circle, which was a geometric problem treated by the famed geometer Archytas over a thousand years before him. Cusa identified the fact that the circle and square represented two different species of mathematical magnitude—two different qualities: “squareness” and the “circular”. Knowledge of their fundamental difference represented a higher kind of knowledge, one that transcended knowledge of either literal square or literal circle—the knowledge of incommensurability—the ontological difference between the quality of “squareness” and the quality of “circle.”
The geometer can continuously add new sides to a polygon, transforming it into a pentagon, hexagon, octagon etc; the polygon can be made into an increasingly multi-sided and infinite-sided polygon. However, the closer the polygon approaches to the surface area of a circle, the farther removed the polygon’s identity is from a circle. The reason for this paradox is simply because a circle is a shape that has no sides—not four, not five, not six, not seven, not eight million, not eight billion, not infinite sides—no sides. Thus, Cusa identified the idea of incommensurable magnitudes, and in the case of squaring the circle, two different geometric species—or mathematical magnitudes—which never meet because they possess fundamentally different qualities. Cusa’s discovery offers great insight into the idea of qualitative, rather than quantitative forms of knowledge and reason.
But Cusa did not stop there. As with all great poetic minds and metaphors, there is an abundance of rich irony and wisdom. Cusa used his metaphor of squaring the circle to define the relationship between the infinite nature of truth and the finite nature of human knowledge; the relationship between the “One” and the “Many”—the relationship between the creator and the created.
With knowledge of incommensurables, humankind is afforded knowledge of that which it cannot know per se, but which it can discover to exist, necessarily. All poetic ideas are of the same quality: they are transcendental; they cannot be grasped literally by the senses, but for just this reason, our mind is compelled to conceive of a higher reality different from the one our senses can perceive. We give this special kind of knowledge the name of paradox, irony, metaphor—the knowledge of “incommensurables.”
Whether it be the relationship between the material and immaterial universe, such as knowledge of the relationship between matter and energy—as expressed in Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2—or whether it be knowledge of the relationship between the creator and the created—defined by man and God and embodied in the conception of “The Trinity”, human beings will always find themselves in the humble position of wrestling with questions of the incommensurable in order to define the meaning of their lives, and the meaning of the universe as a whole.
Language as Metaphor
Language serves as a unique vehicle by which to generate and express an ever-expanding store of metaphors and ironies, of incommensurables. This is poetry’s essential function. These ironies and metaphors are the kind of ideas cultures and civilizations have developed across history in order to define knowledge of incommensurables in the universe. Poetry plays a unique and decisive role because the essence of poetry is the treatment of incommensurables as new conscious thought-objects.
Whether it be the gripping and rapturous verses of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho, the sublime simplicity and light-heartedness of Heinrich Heine’s quatrains, the grace and timeless wisdom of William Shakespeare’s sonnets, or the more complex and supernal quality of John Keats’ Great Odes, poetry has afforded humankind one of the richest experiences of irony and metaphor. It has given us the experience of compelling paradoxes that are resolved through beauty and resolved with the kind of serious thinking that we may carry with us for the rest of our lives. Indeed, this is the great advantage in poetry: the serious thinking that is required in the reading of great poems like Keats’ Great Odes or Shakespeare’s sonnets is the kind of serious thinking that we may apply to the most serious problems existing in the universe.
Not surprisingly, in Plato’s Phaedo dialogue—which every living mortal should have the chance of studying with great rigor and passion—Socrates recounted a vision he had in which his dream instructed him to “make music” i.e. poetry:
Tell him, Cebes, he replied, that I had no idea of rivalling him or his poems; which is the truth, for I knew that I could not do that. But I wanted to see whether I could purge away a scruple which I felt about certain dreams. In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams “that I should make music.” The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: Make and cultivate music, said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has always been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music. The dream was bidding me to do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, as the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that I should be safer if I satisfied the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, composed a few verses before I departed.
Socrates is of course being coy—it is hard to conceive of a poetry more rich in irony and metaphor than the prose spoken by the character Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. His prose is absolutely musical.
Socrates famously elaborated the metaphor of the philosopher as someone who is always seeking death. Of course, Socrates was not saying that the philosopher is someone who is suicidal and wishes to die: he was provoking the reader to envision a state in which all his/her sense perceptions have vanished, and to consider what faculties remain when no obstacle of sense exists for our minds.
In the Meno dialogue, Socrates developed the idea of recollection. Socrates called over a slave boy and challenged him to find a solution to the geometrical problem of doubling the square. Socrates only asked the slave questions, and he never gave answers. Meno’s slave, who was devoid of any formal education, succeeded in doubling the square after several prompts. Socrates was making an epistemological point: everyone can make discoveries with the right prompts and with the discovery of the right kinds of questions.
Not surprisingly, the solution to the problem of doubling the square involved the comparison of two different lengths—the incommensurable relationship between the length of a square’s side compared to the length of its diagonal. Mathematically, the length between the two sides exists as an infinite number like pie, but it can easily be constructed geometrically, with the right geometrical relationships within the square.
Whether it be incommensurables involving the question of Love—as in the Symposium—whether it be questions of the nature of mind and discovery—as in the Meno—or whether it be questions of the Truth and the Soul—as in the Phaedo—Plato’s dialogues are filled with problems of the incommensurable. They are rich in such questions because the universe is rich with these questions.
Socrates simply sought out these paradoxes.
The Age of Metaphor
Regardless of epoch, geographical location, prejudice, or race; regardless of what select groups may have attempted to co-opt poetry and art in order to serve their own purposes, poetry has always served the same vital function.
John Keats once said that poetry should be “A friend to lift the thoughts and soothe the cares of man.” But poetry is also much more: poetry is the lifeblood of culture and thinking. To the degree that a population loses the ability to think poetically, it not only loses a friend, it loses the ability to think as only humans can. The result is usually a descent into extreme forms of group think and literalism where very few nuanced discussions or ideas are permitted; most of the dialogues among nations and peoples become rife with dogmas, pre-determined beliefs and fixed narratives.
Whether it be a question of the correct way to pray, the right way to raise a family, or the right way to run an economy, before any of these topics are to be seriously discussed, we must first be able to think. Regardless of what our background is, all human beings are confronted with the same problem of incommensurables—incommensurables which persist whether we are Muslims, Jews, Christians, Buddhists, shamans, priests, conservatives, liberals or anyone in between.
Part II: What, Then, Is Poetry?
Depending on a multitude of factors including, religious creed, ideological background, culture, family background, geographical location, individuals will observe different traditions, speak different languages and adopt different value systems, but what must not vary is the approach taken to the nature of the human mind, and one’s ability to think in non-literal ways i.e. metaphorical thinking. Language may change, different languages have a different music, but the essence that a language seeks to capture and distill into concepts and ideas remains the same—even if its music is different.
Whether it be a dichotomy between East and West, Catholicism and Protestantism, Islam and Christianity, Conservatism and Liberalism, the arts and the sciences, it has become popular to trace dichotomies between perceived differences in thinking among different ethnic, cultural, religious and civilizational groups. The fact remains that there is in essence only one kind of thinking… thinking.
In this respect, there is perhaps no better way to investigate the nature of the human mind and to resolve the natural paradoxes of the human condition than through a rigorous investigation of poetry and poetics.
One of the basic units in poetry is called a “strophe”. The nature of the strophe is as follows:
The strophe provides a repeated, yet varied structure for the poem as a whole. The change of vowels and consonants, in contrast of one strophe to each of the others, provides a degree of contrapuntal irony to the repeated common aspect of the successive strophes. The imagery of ideas in the verse as such, provides another degree of contrapuntal irony. It is the juxtaposition of these ironies, which generates paradoxes. The form known as the classical strophic poem, provides the poet, thus, a medium whose potential is a nest of paradoxes: within the stanza, among the stanzas, and in the poem taken as a unit-whole.
– Lyndon LaRouche’s “How Thomas Hobbes’ Mathematics Misshaped Modern History”
Poetry is chiefly concerned with drawing the human mind to that which lies beyond the immediate senses, but which ironically, is only attainable by virtue of sense perception. The investigation of poetry is akin to the scientific investigation of empirical observations: the observations are necessary to make discoveries, but insight into the meaning of given empirical observations varies infinitely; knowledge of the causes underlying our observations only comes gradually as we explore new questions and discover new paradoxes about the empirical world.
Poetry rouses the mind by awakening or “quickening” our senses. Poetry achieves such a “quickening” through the use of imagery and musicality. It achieves the former through metaphor and irony, exemplified by the tradition of strophic poetry that has existed in cultures as diverse as that of the ancient Vedas; the ancient Greeks (including Sappho of Lesbos and Ibykus of Reghium), the classical Chinese poets (especially from the Tang and Song dynasties); the Arab and Sufis poets and their Andalusian heirs; the Italian of Dante and Petrarch; the English of Shakespeare, Keats and Shelley; and the German of Schiller, Goethe and Heine, just to name a few.
Once we have adequately defined the pertinent questions involved in an investigation of poetry and poetics, we shall look at concrete examples of poems written across history and see how this universal method of poetics, or “metapoetics” applies to the universe generally.
As stated before: each individual is mortal, but the species is immortal; man has a material body, but the mind is immaterial; the universe is finite, but unbounded. At every step, we are confronted with questions of the incommensurable. These questions require a quality of thinking which allows the human mind to resolve the natural paradoxes inherent in our sense perceptions.
The resolution of incommensurables requires a specific quality of thought intrinsic to the nature of the human mind. It is here that poetry assumes its most important function, not as simply friend to humankind, but more importantly, as teacher and creator.
The Operations of the Human Mind
Percy Bysshe Shelley, in the preface to his Prometheus Unbound wrote:
The imagery which I have employed will be found, in many instances, to have been drawn from the operations of the human mind, or from those external actions by which they are expressed. This is unusual in modern poetry, although Dante and Shakespeare are full of instances of the same kind; Dante indeed more than any other poet, and with greater success. But the Greek poets, as writers to whom no resource of awakening the sympathy of their contemporaries was unknown, were in the habitual use of this power; and it is the study of their works (since a higher merit would probably be denied me) to which I am willing that my readers should impute this singularity.
-Percy Bysshe Shelley (Preface to Prometheus Unbound)
A great poem challenges us to conceive of that which we have never conceived of before, it challenges our idea of the universe, but it does so by using images familiar to the senses, such that poetic images become not literal depictions of the objects of our five senses, but rather depictions of the operations of the human mind—images become the shadows of ideas. This process, rightly understood, may be adequately termed metaphorical thinking.
Words and language are not the essence of poetry, they are its servants; the words and text on a page are the footprints of some soon-to-be known ideas— a “known unknown”.
Poetry allows individuals to deal with the drama of the human experience and universe through an investigation of the ironies and paradoxes confronting all human beings. They are paradoxes like the suffering of Prometheus or Dr. Faustus’ pact with the Devil—paradoxes which come full circle when we take a serious look at the question economics, politics, and statecraft.
Classical poetry achieves all this by compelling human beings to think without relying on logic, formulas, a priori pre-deterministic thinking and pre-established systems of belief. It works on the faculty of imagination, which is not fancy or fantasy, but that agency of creative reason by which the we conceive and discover that which has never been conceived or discovered before—like the birth of a new child, for which there has never been and will never be another quite the same.
What Is Poetry?
We will now begin to look at a few concrete examples in order to define our metapoetic method which can then be turned towards a more general investigation of human nature and the universe as a whole.
1) A Corn Field
William Empson used the famous lines below from a classical Chinese poet in his book-length essay entitled Seven Types of Ambiguity. The lines are from a classical Chinese poem written by Tao Qian (c. 365-427):
Swiftly the years, beyond recall
Seldom the stillness of this solemn morning.
In his analysis, Empson observed the different time-scales involved in each line. An arc of many years appears somehow slower and less rich in experience than a single solemn morning.
How can this be?
What could the speaker be thinking about on that solemn morning such that the thoughts of many years seem dwarfed? What kinds of ideas are we talking about?
The first line has a swift quality to it while the second line has a more reflective tone. Our minds are challenged to grapple with not only different images and different time scales, but also with the difference between two qualities of ideas—the paradoxical juxtaposition of two different time scales. The counterpoint between different worlds compels a new kind of thought, one not represented by either world or either time scale.
We will wrestle with that paradox for the rest of our lives.
2) The Fisher Girl
The German word for poetry, “dichtung,” literally means “condensed.” Poetry is a condensed form of language which affords the human race an ability to communicate that which literal speech, however technical, cannot achieve because it lacks nuance.
Nuance is the domain of poetry. Poetry creates an economy which allows us to cut through the irksome obstacles of literal prose speech in order to express the inexpressible—the same kind of inexpressible quality found when we attempt to multiply the sides of a polygon and discover that we are only being drawn further away from our goal. Inversely, it can be said that prose approaches poetry to the degree it shuns the literal and claws its way towards the metaphorical.
Take an example Heinrich Heine’s German:
Come you lovely fisher girl,
Come and bring your boat to land;
Join me on the golden shore,
We’ll cuddle hand in hand.
Lay your head on my breast
And let all your fears set sail,
You’ve trusted the deep sea
So often with you fate.
My heart is like the sea,
Has storm and ebb and flow
And many lovely pearls
Lie in the depths below.
Translation © David B. Gosselin
How can a heart be like the sea? What does this mean?
While it is a simple poem which may not ostensibly demonstrate the treatment of an ontological paradox, the mind is compelled to make a leap—it is a leap so subtle many might not notice that they have been tricked into thinking.
The heart is a small mass of blood and flesh weighing less than a pound; the sea is a seemingly endless stretch of water, minerals, sharks, coral, mammals, waves and sea weed.
So how can a heart be like the sea?
In “The Fisher Girl,” Heine explores degrees of complexity not available in literal forms of speech. The language is richly nuanced such that a few simple lines of German describing the waxing and waning of the seas manages to convey a great level of complexity about the relationships between mortal human beings, fate, love and life itself. The more richness and nuance the poet can imbue his strophes and stanzas with, the greater we may regard the poet’s poetic insight.
The Re-birth of Metaphor
With the degeneration of metaphor in language, we have witnessed the minds and dialogues of society degenerate into extreme forms of literalism, forms of “one- size fits all” knowledge which require no thinking on the part of believers. The problem exists in both art and science and everything in between.
In our modern age, the degeneration is perhaps most typified in the phenomena of “political correctness.” Nuance—the mind—is not permitted: one is not judged based on the content of their ideas or the content of their character so much as by whether they use the correct words and correct language in the prescribed manner, with the assumption that there is only one prescribed meaning possible.
In this literal world, civil discourse becomes mired in precipitous and polarizing ideological language which leaves no room for authentic thinking. In a no-nuance discussion anchored in pre-established definitions and fixed beliefs, the mind is forbidden from considering that the universe may in fact be much more complex. Without such a perspective, too many social, cultural, political, religious and historical issues are simply framed by popular narratives and the forces strong enough to shape and control those narratives.
On the other hand, poetry is all nuance. Even if a reader knows the complete definition of every word used in a poem, they may still have little idea concerning its content. There is a hidden meaning, an unspeakable idea which lies beyond the domain of literal words, and yet is knowable as a “known unknown.”
In this regard, poetry may be thought of as a Rosetta Stone of literal vs. nuanced thinking as it pertains to all fields of knowledge.
Part III: Metapoetics
The true subject of a great classical poem is never revealed directly i.e. literally, it must be discovered—like any great truth or any great lesson in life. Regardless of whether one is a Christian, Muslim, Jew, Liberal, Conservative, nihilist et al. everything needed to “grok” the higher meaning of a great classical poem exists within the poem. No predetermined ideas are necessary, only a thinking mind.
To “grok” the higher meaning of a poem, an individual must investigate a poem for themselves. There is no use in trying to tell someone what a poem is about—at least not without trying to re-produce its ironies—a literal telling of what the poem is about always appears vapid, empty and devoid of genuine meaning. A person who attempts to literally explicate a poem is resorting back to the flesh-blind belief that they can square the circle.
Let us take another sublime poetic example, from another age. This time, it is the riveting verses of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho—the “tenth Muse” according to Plato.
Sappho, fragment 16 (Lobel-Page 16) Loose translated by Michael Burch
Warriors on rearing chargers,
columns of infantry,
fleets of warships:
some say these are the dark earth’s redeeming visions.
But I say—
the one I desire.
And this makes sense
because she who so vastly surpassed all mortals in beauty
seduced by Aphrodite, led astray by desire,
set sail for distant Troy,
abandoning her celebrated husband,
leaving behind her parents and child!
Her story reminds me of Anactoria,
who has also departed,
and whose lively dancing and lovely face
I would rather see than all the horsemen and war-chariots of the Lydians,
or all their infantry parading in flashing armor.
Earth-shaking conquests, powerful empires and glittering seas—a sublime sensuousness characterizes Sappho’s verse. The contrast between myriad images of war and the singular image of the beloved creates an overwhelming sense of awe; a sense of longing and desire takes us over: we are made to contemplate the qualitative difference between the idea of worldly desire and power-lust with the idea of something qualitatively different.
Even the most awe-inspiring images of worldly power are made to appear puny in comparison to the singular thought of our beloved. A seeming inversion of the magnitude of expected emotions has been created. Sappho demonstrates the incommensurable difference between the power of love over even the greatest of worldly ambitions.
She is ravished, and so are we.
And these are merely the fragments of a more extent poem which has been lost on the tides of time.
Dead White European Males?
Unfortunately, many contemporary thinkers are under the impression that poets like Homer, Dante and Shakespeare are “Dead White European Males.” That is, they are not as relevant and talented as once thought.
Their talent and relevance was simply exaggerated because these poets happened to belong to a ‘historically dominant gender and ethnic group’. However, discerning minds not overly invested in pre-established narratives will notice that the “Dead White European Male” argument conspicuously avoids taking on the content of someone like Shakespeare’s ideas. And if it does, it is usually in a very selective manner which only includes passages that support one’s pre-existing beliefs.
The truth is that Shakespeare’s ideas address some of the most fundamental questions concerning the nature of the human condition.
In the words of Washington Irving:
It is owing to that very man [Shakespeare] that the literature of his period has experienced a duration beyond the ordinary term of English literature. There rise authors now and then, who seem proof against the mutability of language, because they have rooted themselves in the unchanging principles of human nature. They are like gigantic trees that we sometimes see on the banks of a stream; which, by their vast and deep roots, penetrating through the mere surface, and laying hold on the very foundations of the earth, preserve the soil around them from being swept away by the ever-flowing current, and hold up many a neighboring plant, and perhaps worthless weed, to perpetuity. Such is the case with Shakespeare, whom we behold defying the encroachments of time, retaining in modern use the language and literature of his day, and giving duration to many an indifferent author, merely from having flourished in his vicinity. But even he, I grieve to say, is gradually assuming the tint of age, and his whole form is overrun by a profusion of commentators, who, like clambering vines and creepers, almost bury the noble plant that upholds them.”
The notion of “Dead White European Males” renders itself useless and irrelevant by virtue of the fact that its partisans wish to treat the recent decades of modernist, post-modernist and contemporary thinking—spanning mere seconds on the scale of human history—as some isolated phenomena detached from the entirety of the historical continuity out of which it unfolded.
Were the “Dead White European Males” partisans to compare these mere seconds with the greater arc of universal history of creative ideas, they would quickly discover the relevancy of a Shakespeare. They would discover that Shakespeare is merely one among many who embodied a humanistic outlook that has parallels in many rich cultures including, the ancient Vedic tradition, the Confucian tradition, the classical Greek tradition of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Plato, to the rich philosophical tradition of Ibn Sina and the humanist renaissance in Moorish Spain. Shakespeare was but one (albeit illustrious) example among a great number of universal thinkers throughout history.
To get a sense of Shakespeare’s universal approach, let us take a look at the first sonnet of his celebrated cycle:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel:
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament,
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content,
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding:
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.
Shakespeare opens by saying we are all attracted to beauty and long for it: we desire “increase” i.e. to reproduce. Yet even in the first two lines, Shakespeare states that beauty fades; even the fairest of creatures is no match for Time.
Shakespeare says all skin-deep beauty fades. Then we might ask, “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, whose action is no stronger than a flower?” Shakespeare accepts that all such beauty fades, but the death of one idea gives birth to a new qualitatively higher idea: the power to generate new beauty.
What does a world look like, where each individual is acting with the conscious idea that they are responsible for the re-creation and continued development of the human species; that they are not mere individuals but are defined and in turn define themselves by this eternal process of human development—a process of which they are a mediating part.
What does such a world look like vs. a world in which someone has a child because they made a mistake or someone who does not want children because it is thought to take too much time, resources and/or energy?
What image of beauty are these particular individuals after?
Many have not considered the paradox of their mortality, and many more likely refuse to face it; they prefer to hang on to the ever fleeting images of earthly beauty which so entices the senses, but ultimately, “Eats itself by the grave and thee.”
I would like to end with one of the greatest examples of metaphorical power, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark.”
The reader should be cautioned: “To a Skylark” is one great nest of paradoxes. Its English is shaped around the creation of paradoxical images, and yet, as this series of dancing vowels, ineffable images and rapturous musical turns of phrases unfolds, we find an unspoken musical idea persists—there is a presence in the lines—something lurks beneath the poem’s measured rhythmic ebbing and flowing.
Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert,
That from Heaven, or near it,
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.
In the golden lightning
Of the sunken sun,
O’er which clouds are bright’ning,
Thou dost float and run;
Like an unbodied joy whose race is just begun.
The pale purple even
Melts around thy flight;
Like a star of Heaven,
In the broad day-light
Thou art unseen, but yet I hear thy shrill delight,
Shelley titled his work “To a Skylark” which has lead many literary critics, English teachers, and bread-fed scholars to speak about the poem as if it were literally describing a skylark. However, Shelley is a poet of the highest order; he is not describing some concrete image and literal thing; he is using his images to communicate something non-literal, something for which the image of a soaring singing skylark serves as a useful predicate. In fact, Shelley literally tells us it is not a bird in second line of the first stanza.
So what is Shelley describing?
What thou art we know not;
What is most like thee?
From rainbow clouds there flow not
Drops so bright to see
As from thy presence showers a rain of melody.
Like a Poet hidden
In the light of thought,
Singing hymns unbidden,
Till the world is wrought
To sympathy with hopes and fears it heeded not:
It is a useful exercise to first imagine Shelley literally describing the flight and song of a skylark, and then to re-read the poem and imagine he is not. Above and beyond the question of the name of Shelley’s subject, the question becomes what is the nature of this subject, what does it do? Where is it found? A name does not provide us any more knowledge about something if we don’t already know what that something is; nominalism is useless for providing higher knowledge of any thing in the same way that being given someone’s name, or a discussion of this unknown person does not actually allow us to “know” the person. As per a nominalist, he only way we can know a person is to actually meet them and develop a relationship.
In the same way, before Shelley attempts to give his subject a name, he is trying to establish a relationship between us, the readers, and his subject.
Teach us, Sprite or Bird,
What sweet thoughts are thine:
I have never heard
Praise of love or wine
That panted forth a flood of rapture so divine.
Is it a bird, a plane, a star, the wind, a spirit, a ghost?
Or triumphal chant,
Match’d with thine would be all
But an empty vaunt,
A thing wherein we feel there is some hidden want.
What objects are the fountains
Of thy happy strain?
What fields, or waves, or mountains?
What shapes of sky or plain?
What love of thine own kind? what ignorance of pain?
With thy clear keen joyance
Languor cannot be:
Shadow of annoyance
Never came near thee:
Thou lovest: but ne’er knew love’s sad satiety.
Waking or asleep,
Thou of death must deem
Things more true and deep
Than we mortals dream,
Or how could thy notes flow in such a crystal stream?
As the poem progress, it becomes increasingly clear that the poet’s imaginative descriptions of a singing soaring skylark and the magical scenes surrounding it are not actually giving us a better idea of Shelley’s subject.
Shelley continues to add increasingly more complex and nuanced descriptions of his subject; he makes it increasingly difficult for a discerning reader to believe that a simple singing bird has managed to wrestle with the paradox of the finite and infinite, with mortality, with the unseen principles of nature and the pursuit of happiness.
Shelley’s meaning is much too rich and deep to be about a bird per se.
We are forced to abandon our initial hypothesis.
Then what is the skylark a predicate for? What does this thing Shelley is describing actually do? Where can it found?
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.
Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.
New questions emerge as each new stanza takes shape in our mind. We are compelled to wonder what Shelley wants us readers to know about this “sprite or bird.” Shelley’s language and descriptions are illusive, seemingly real and unreal at the same time. But that seems to be part of the poet’s purpose. Shelley is attempting to avoid stating his subject directly because he knows our mind has to make a leap on its own.
How can, then, can we know Shelley’s true subject? He tells us:
“The world should listen then, as I am listening now. “
Conclusion: A “Musical Age”
“It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition... My discovery was the result of musical perception.
An inward investigation of the paradoxes encountered in human life may be expressed as “art”; an outward directed investigation of the universe may be termed “science.” Regardless, poetic thinking lies at the heart of both; the only difference is the object of study.
Albert Einstein famously spoke of turning to his violin for inspiration when trying to work out some problem that he had been struggling with. His violin carried him into the realm of irony and metaphor which helped release him from his pre-determined notions about the universe. The result: his thoughts were allowed to swim freely among the sea of phenomena known as “the universe.”
If man is to create a society built upon and expressly designed to serve and develop the divine spark of creativity found in each human individual, human beings must be able to reach beyond the universe of their immediate sense-experience and seize the principles lurking beneath the myriad images we experience as the unfolding of our universe.
We must greet the flurry of images that assail us in daily life and search for the “One” which unites the “Many” of our experience in the same way our minds must seize the idea of a poem, which is expressed as a series of juxtaposed ironical strophes and stanzas.
Each generation is free to discover anew the immutable conceptions found in the greatest poetry upon which civilizations have been built throughout human history; they are afforded an example of how the creative mind forms new ideas and conceives of that which has never been conceived before. In doing so, they become able to deal with the paradoxes of nature, humankind and the universe as a whole—the paradoxes from which all truly great art and science emerge.
This thinking is the kind of thinking that we may carry and take with us wherever we may be in the universe. Forever, wherever we may go, the universe will speak our language, poetry.
Then, all the universe becomes a stage.
 « Corn Field. » Translated by Arthur Waley
David Gosselin is a poet, translator, and linguist based in Montreal. He is the founder of The Chained Muse poetry website, which is dedicated to publishing and promoting 21st-century classical poetry.