Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Thing Ineffable

In his essay "The Study of Poetry," Matthew Arnold employs a now famous method of delineating poetic excellence. He claims that we should "have always in one's mind lines and expressions of the great masters, and...apply them as a touchstone to other poetry," and then proceeds to cite a number of lines which he considers worthy of such exemplary status. This method, no doubt unrigorous and capricious, has come in for considerable derision from subsequent critics, not entirely without justice. Yet Arnold's larger point in this passage is sound, and particularly helpful to young poets searching for guidance through the wasteland left behind by modernism.

The criterion of excellence which Arnold points to is "in an eminent degree, truth and seriousness," and it is fair to say that gravity is a characteristic which all of his examples possess. He goes on to maintain - and this is the real insight, I think - that it is just that "seriousness" which produces real stylistic excellence: "the superior character of truth and seriousness, in the matter and substance of the best poetry, is inseparable from the superiority of diction and movement marking its style and manner." Or to put it in contemporary terms, the beauty of poetic style is largely a consequence of the wisdom of its content.

Let me offer an example of a passage which illustrates this point, one which quite merits placement even among the samples offered by Arnold himself. In the fourth act of "King Lear," the old king awakes from his curative sleep to find Cordelia beside him; remembering the hasty injustice he committed against his one faithful daughter, he acknowledges her perfect right to resentment: "If you have poison for me, I will drink it./ I know you do not love me, for your sisters/ Have, as I do remember, done me wrong./ You have some cause; they have not." To which Cordelia's simple response is: "No cause, no cause." Now, it is just these four syllables which I often think must be the most gorgeous four syllables in all of English literature; they are certainly an unrivaled example of pure poetic beauty. There is an unobtrusive tropical effect in the repetition, although in this case, the artifice is hardly distinguishable from a natural speech pattern. But, of course, the beauty of the line is really a consequence of everything it expresses: the tender and humble pathos of human forgiveness. Here, as in all fine poetry, and in confirmation of Arnold's proposition, truth and beauty become one thing.

What can we say about the causes of this union? As Arnold pointed out, nothing at all; this is the ineffable thing in poetry. But as incapable as we are of understanding the roots of this identity of truth and beauty, we are perfectly capable of recognizing it as the most prominent feature of all great poetry. Many important things follow from such a recognition, but let me point to one. Aestheticism, or the creed of "art for art's sake," explicitly rejects all moral or theological content in poetry, regarding these things as obstacles to the pure pleasure of the aesthetic experience. But, considered in the light of Arnold's observation, we can see that such a notion fails entirely to account for the unique beauty of poetry, which has its essence, not its hindrance, in truth.

Aestheticism has been one of the fundamental impulses of modernism, and its rejection can help liberate us from the brutalizing strictures of the modernist program. Art is not for art's sake; nothing exists for its own sake; all things, art included, exist for the glory of God. When we commit ourselves as poets to search only for that beauty which has its life in a serious reflection upon His truth, I think we will find ourselves, and our tradition, back on the right path. Then perhaps we will begin to understand the deep significance of those long-contested words which Keats overheard from the lips of the urn, that beauty is truth, and truth indeed is beauty.

1 comment:

R. Bufton said...

Is the philosophy of "art for art's" sake really the problem with contemporary (as opposed to modernist) literature? After all, artists convey all sorts of political, social, and religious (or anti-religious) messages in their work. Okay, maybe not "all sorts"--there is certainly a tendency toward (in the spirit of your Keats quotation) "the liberal side of the question"--but the fact is that poets and novelists often use their literature as platforms for what they consider to be the moral truth.