Notes on the Purpose of Poetry

Two weks ago we and Socrates met with Ion, a rhapsode and Homer’s greatest interpreter (in his own opinion). One question we touched on was whether poetry and rhapsody are arts, to which Socrates answered “No.” Rather, it’s a form of divine inspiration, which definition Ion was happy to roll with. However, that doesn’t seem to be true, for there certainly is an element of craftsmanship and skill involved with writing and reciting poetry, despite the occasional one-hit-wonder. Furthermore, even individual works, especially long ones like epics, are of mixed quality or at least mixed goodness. The Iliad, for instance, is a work of immense skill throughout, but at times portrays the gods in an impious manner, which seems very odd if it’s the work of inspiration by the gods. (As an aside, I am aware that all this isn’t Socrates final opinion on the subject, and that at least some of what he had to say was essentially said for Ion’s sake).

If poetry and rhapsody are arts, though, then what sort of art are they, and what is their end or purpose? We need to begin by defining some terms.

First, note that when Plato says “art” he’s using it in a broad sense. I won’t get into the Greek because I’m not familiar with that language, but since I’m writing for anglophones anyway we’ll proceed in my native tongue. In English we use “art” both to refer to any application of a learned skill, even in industry, as well as to production of a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes. So, poetry is an art in that it’s an application of a learned skill (metrical writing) in a work of imagination or for aesthetic purposes.

Yes, I’m keeping it simple by defining poetry as “metrical writing.” Writers of free verse may be artists and authors of literature, but at least for our purposes they’re in a separate, though related, category. What is the purpose of poetry? I would answer that it is the creation of a work of beauty. So, what is beauty? Again, let’s keep it simple and follow this short article on St. Thomas Aquinas’s treatment of the subject. Beauty is something that “elevate[s] man to the infinite,” in other words, toward God (don’t worry, we’ll flesh this out more shortly). We can see that it’s closely related, then, to goodness and truth, and for a work to be truly beautiful it must be good and true, as well. “Goodness” in this context, of course, does not mean merely inoffensive, but uplifting in some way, which often does involve a portrayal of evil in some manner. “Truth” will not usually be literal truth, but can also be allegorical.

So, we now have an idea of what poetry is, and what its purpose is. Rhapsody is the art of reciting poetry in an effective manner. Both have as their purpose focusing man’s mind on the transcendent, the good, true, and beautiful.

Socrates, no doubt, wouldn’t let me go that easily. Since this is a one-man show, though, I’ll have to raise my own objections, and the obvious one is this: does poetry actually do these things? If so, how? There have been many claims that it does; I’ve discussed Confucius’ previously, and also touched on Ben Jonson’s in that same article. We might also point to Scripture’s inclusion of many poems, most notably the Psalms but also throughout many of its other books. As far as appeals to authority go, then, we’re looking good, but that’s not quite enough. Confucius and Jonson are fallible, and Scripture’s poems aren’t just poems, but also prayers.

Regarding that last point, the Bible’s form and content aren’t arbitrary, and given the value of plain speech, it seems to me significant that the sacred authors, inspired by the Holy Spirit, thought it most appropriate to set the Psalms, hymns, and so on in verse. Most of Scripture follows a simple style, often too simple for modern tastes, so when it uses poetry we may safely assume that this is because there’s something about poetic form that’s especially appropriate or effective on the reader that suits the author’s purpose. If poetry is the creation of a work of beauty, and beauty raises one’s mind to the transcendent, then this is as expected. The Psalms, etc., are written to do precisely that, and so they use a form that amplifies the effect of what they attempt to do.

If that’s the case, though, then shouldn’t all of Scripture, and for that matter pretty much everything else, also be written in verse? Not necessarily. The primary purpose of the historical and didactic books is to convey information. For example, the authors of the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles tell us the narrative of the kingdom of Israel, while St. Paul in his Epistles tells us how we ought to live (primarily, of course – obviously, the same book can have multiple purposes and work on more than one level). This can be done in verse, but this type of information is best related in as straightforward and easy to follow a manner as possible. Additional ornament, though it may beautify the work, may also distract from the main points. Of course, this also applies to non-Scriptural works of history, philosophy, and so on, which typically are best presented in prose.…

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Wot’s… uh, the Deal? (A Blogging Update)

Last week I said I’d continue with Ion’s discussion of poetry this week, but what I have isn’t ready for prime time, so to speak. So, it’s going on the back burner for now, possibly to appear next week, or some later date when it’s ready. Since my buffer of already finished articles has run out, that also means that I don’t have a post for this week (well, except this one). I will go ahead and take the opportunity to say a few quick things about the blog’s status, but if you’re just here for the book reviews and occasional HSO, feel free to cut class and come back in seven days. I’m not taking attendance.

So, formally, I don’t have a posting schedule, but Tuesdays have been, de facto, when new articles go up, and I’ve managed to post at least once a week every week since last summer (well, except one week in November, but I was probably busy observing Mishima’s death day). That’s my most consistent run since late 2011 to early 2013. I plan to continue that and make time for writing when possible, but there are a few difficulties. As I mentioned at the end of last year, I’ve gone back to school, so in addition to a full time job I have classes to worry about. My priorities, then, are necessarily things I get graded on, things I get paid for, and only then things I do as a hobby. Everything is Oll Korrect! is further disadvantaged because most posts require me to read something first, and those first two categories of tasks eat up a good chunk of reading time.…

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Plato’s Dialogues: Ion

Over at Thermidor last month we talked about Homer, so it’s good timing that Plato is now giving us a chance to talk to Homer’s greatest interpreter, Ion. Who’s Ion? He’s a rhapsode and Socrates’ interlocutor in his shortest dialogue called, well, Ion. We know he’s the greatest because he says so himself, after telling Socrates about winning a contest in Epidaurus:

I judge that I, of all men, have the finest things to say on Homer, that neither Metrodorus of Lampsacus, nor Stesimbrotus of Thasos, nor Glaucon, nor anyone else who ever lived, had so many reflections, or such fine ones, to present on Homer as have I.

Well, he’s still more humble than our man Hippias, who claimed to be the best at everything, and Ion even admits that interpretation of Homer is the only thing he’s great at (with one exception, which we’ll get to shortly). Still, Ion is a likeable guy, and Socrates is amiable with him throughout the dialogue. It’s hard not to like his almost childlike enthusiasm for Homer; for instance, at one point Socrates wants to quote a few lines from the Iliad to illustrate a point, but Ion jumps in, “No, let me do it, for I know them.” He’s like a boy who just learned a new skill and wants to show it off.…

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The Pillow Book of Art Garfunkel

So, I suppose I’ll start with something of a confession: I love Boomer music.

Yeah, I know, as a Reactionary half their age, I’m supposed to despise Der Ewige Boomer, but I can’t help myself. Most of the music I listen to was recorded in the 1960s or ’70s, and though I try to make up for it by mixing in some music either much older than that or a bit newer, my favourites are what they are. I offer no excuses for my borderline-plebeian musical preferences.

That’s all just to explain why I’m interested in today’s subject in the first place. It came to my attention last year when a friend told me that Art Garfunkel would be at Southern Methodist University to talk about a new book of his, What is it All but Luminous, in the form of an interview with a columnist with the Dallas Morning News and a Q&A session afterwards (you can find an account of it here, if you’re interested). The interview had a few interesting points, while the questions from the audience varied wildly in quality, as one would expect. Each of the attendees also received a signed copy of the book, and though it’s not the most personally meaningful autograph I have (that would be ABe Yoshitoshi’s, for those wondering), it is the most famous by a wide margin.…

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The Catena Aurea on Biblical Genealogies

Looking at the state of Christianity, the lack of unity is disconcerting, as “each has a cry of his own, I am for Paul, I am for Apollo, I am for Cephas, I am for Christ.” Those in favour of ecumenism sometimes go too far, but it’s hard not to sympathise with their goal of fostering more unity among Christians, as long as it can be done without falling into indifferentism. There is, though, one thing regarding the Bible that seems to be universally agreed on, and that’s that the genealogies are the most boring part of Scripture.

Now, the ancients seem to have delighted in this sort of thing; they were probably more patient than we are, but they also had more appreciation for family than we do, and thus had a greater interest in ancestry. Nonetheless, the modern attitude isn’t totally new. St. John Chrysostom said of Christ’s genealogy in Luke 3, “because this part of the Gospel consists of a series of names, men think there is nothing valuable to be derived therefrom.” However, Scripture doesn’t record anything without reason, so he adds, “Lest then we should feel this, let us try to examine every step. For from the mere name we may extract an abundant treasure, for names are indicative of many things.”

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The Art of Dying Well

Is it time for our annual visit with St. Robert Bellarmine already? Yes it is, and this time I’d like to talk about a short book of his called The Art of Dying Well.

Now, St. Robert is best known for his apologetical work, like De Laicis and De Romano Pontifice, and I’ve also covered his catechism, which serves a similar purpose for those already in the Church. He wrote The Art of Dying Well, though, near the end of his life, when he’d largely retired from public work, and it’s a much more immediately practical book than the others. In other words, where his other works are primarily concerned with what the reader should know, here he’s concerned with what the reader should do. It is, though, still noticeably his style, as he does explain why a man should do this or that, and every page is filled with quotations from Scripture and the saints.

He begins with the general precept “that he who lives well, will die well,” and continues:

[F]or since death is nothing more than the end of life, it is certain that all who live well to the end, die well; nor can he die ill, who hath never lived ill; as, on the other hand, he who hath never led a good life, cannot die a good death. The same thing is observable in many similar cases: for all that walk along the right path, are sure to arrive at the place of their destination; whilst, on the contrary, they who wander from it, will never arrive at their journey’s end.

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Plato’s Dialogues: Cratylus

Hey, remember this series? Honestly, I’m rather proud of having kept up this web log on a regular schedule despite starting graduate school and working a full-time job. Unfortunately, though doing fairly short posts isn’t too hard, a series that demands more attention like Plato’s dialogues is significantly more difficult. I read Cratylus about a month ago. I barely remember what it’s about at this point. I’m not 100% sure who Plato is. He might’ve been a geek?

Okay, that’s only half-serious, but this series is still on, and we are indeed talking about Cratylus today. I’ll be briefer than usual on this one, for two reasons. One is that it’s becoming clear that I’m either going to write about it quickly, or it’ll never get finished. The other is that most of the dialogue is a discussion of the etymology of Greek words. Now, the etymologies aren’t the main point, exactly, but it is tedious reading about a language one doesn’t understand, so I was more interested in the conversation that took place before and after the bulk of the work. What I’ll do, then, is go through and share a few individual points that stood out to me as I was reading (fortunately, I do annotate my books somewhat, so I can find interesting passages even when a book isn’t fresh in my mind).

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New at Thermidor: How to Read the Iliad

It’s been a while since I’ve posted twice in a day; in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. Well, if my review of the Gongyang Commentary wasn’t enough for you, my latest article for Thermidor is also up: “How to Read the Iliad.” As the title advertises, it’s a gentle introduction to one of the greatest books ever written, for those who may be reluctant to read Homer for whatever reason.

There’s a lot to say about the Iliad, of course, but I hope this is useful as a starting-point. I may write a follow-up just going over a few odds and ends about the poem that I found interesting, but aren’t really worth a post to themselves and didn’t really fit into that main article. We’ll see if I can come up with enough to justify a second article.

On a side note, I actually attempted to write about the Iliad after I first read it back in 2011. Looking back now, it’s funny how difficult it seemed for me to come up with even that short post about it. What I came up with isn’t even bad, really, it’s just boring and doesn’t have anything to say. I’ll keep the post up, but I may simply replace the link to it on the index page with this newer one.…

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The Spring and Autumn Annals and the Gongyang Commentary

The Spring and Autumn Annals is one of Confucianism’s Five Classics, and like the Book of Documents is a work of history, in this case chronicling the history of the state of Lu, Confucius’ home state, from 722-481 B.C. However, whereas the Documents is, as the title indicates, a collection of speeches, decrees, and the like, the Annals is a chronology. It should take just one excerpt to give one an idea of the book, so from the very beginning, the first year of Duke Yin’s reign (722 B.C.):

It was the year one, in the spring, during the King’s first month.
During the third month, the Duke met up with Yifu of the state of Zhu Lou and made a pact with him at Mie.
In the summer, during the fifth month, the Earl of Zheng subdued Duan at Yan.
In the autumn, during the seventh month, the Heavenly King dispatched Zai Xuan to come bearing funerary offerings for Duke Hui’s wife, Zhongzi.
During the ninth month, a pact was made with men from the state of Song at Su.
In the winter, during the twelfth month, the Earl of Zhai arrived.
Prince Yishi died.

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Tenth Friend: Henry VI, “Kingdomes are but Cares”

This poem is of interest partly because it’s good on its own terms, but also because of who wrote it. Today’s friend, you see, is none other than King Henry VI. There have been a few monarchs who’ve written poetry, but not many. At least, not in English culture; in Japan, for example, it was very common, and emperors are well-represented in classic anthologies there.

In any case, in this poem, His Majesty reflects on his own royal position:

Kingdomes are but cares;
State ys devoyd of staie;
Ryches are redy snares,
And hastene to decaie.

Plesure ys a pryvie prycke
Wich vyce doth styll provoke;
Pompe, unprompt; and fame, a flame;
Powre, a smouldryng smoke.

Who meenethe to remoofe the rocke
Owte of the slymie mudde,
Shall myre hymselfe, and hardlie scape
The swellynge of the flodde.…

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