“Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.”—Aquinas
When students dip their toes into a poem, they usually wade their way through its figurative language until they wash up to some shore of meaning. The problem is the students’ eyes: they believe they’ve discovered a new continent when, in reality, they’ve hit a sandbar. The irony is that the poem’s meaning is not even on land: it is in a New Atlantis fathoms below, and you must drown a little to see it. To show you what I mean, here are a few “sandbars” my college students recently discovered:
Student 1: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” poignantly reminds readers to appreciate nature with child-like wonder.
Student 2: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” touches upon some rather deep feelings about youth, nature, and growing up.
Student 3: Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” really paints a vivid picture in the reader’s mind through the use of imagery, personification, and metaphors.
No one would disagree, and that is precisely the problem. These observations are so universal, so agreeable that they lack purpose entirely: the first two are true of nearly every Wordsworth poem, and the third describes millions of literary works. Student 1 already knows that he should appreciate nature as children do; Student 2 simply records a list of themes he found on LitCharts, neither specifying them nor explaining why they matter; and Student 3—utterly confused about the poem’s content—avoids interpreting it altogether, commenting only on stock stylistic devices. In each case, the student affirms familiar notions at the expense of new-found wisdom, at the expense of experiencing the poem’s true artistry. They would be better off if they drowned a little more in the inconvenience of wonder.
To be fair, these catch-all formulae are not without incentives: they abolish the risk of disagreement; they hasten the writing process; and most primary and secondary schools explicitly encourage them since 1) they are easy to imitate, and 2) the appearance of logic is easier to teach than actual logic. One can scarcely imagine what chaos—what anarchy!—would ensue if we removed the “funnel” of meaningless generalities that must inaugurate every introduction: e.g. “Since the dawn of time people have been quite fascinated by the beneficial influence of nature. One such person is Wordsworth…” Surely our memories would sink into oblivion if the conclusion of every two-page paper did not repeat what immediately came before it. Surely morality would dissolve if we did not tyrannize teenagers to memorize bullet-point indexes of trite platitudes. Lady Liberty herself would crumble lest we forget the laundry lists of character names, literary devices, and banal plot summaries…
The bare truth is that poetic knowledge is not so quantifiable as mainstream schools, textbooks, and Sparknotes make it seem. There is, Cleanth Brooks reminds us, a certain “heresy”1 of paraphrasing a poem: a curtailed summary, a familiar maxim, a handful of figurative devices are poor substitutes for the total aesthetic experience of reading—the “living out” of creation’s vacuity and transcendence in the composite intimacy of the soul. Imagine if a memory machine could vacuum up your childhood experiences, with all its scrapes and ice cream, and replace them with a bullet-point list of “themes.” It would be a curse nothing short of diabolical! Nor is a simple reminder “to know, love, and serve God” a fair replacement for a first-hand encounter of sanctification: the salt-tears of a frank contrition, the lisping of nuptial vows, the aroma of chrism seeping into your pores. This is the stuff of poetry—the grit and silk, the ebb and flow of meeting your own humanity face-to-face, with all its trials and transfigurations.
Of course, describing what poetic knowledge is only takes one to the edge of the precipice: poetry is an intuitive acquisition, and you must leap to really know what the plummet feels like. You cannot pin this kind of knowledge down with scientific abstractions. It is not a moth collection. It is a living, intuitive knowing grounded in a constant fluctuation of colors, pitches, odors, flavors, and textures. Reading a poem is like peeking through a kaleidoscope where contraries exchange and collide in patterns ever new, mixing the familiar with the strange, pleasure with pain, life with death, order with chaos, grief with joy.
So the canvas spins,
Never twice the same.
Only in those best of moments, the colors stop their heaping. Through this little telescope of shards and light, something beatific—what it is, who can say?—shines:
Through the stillness the glass holds
(In its frame and in our eyes)
The raiment of the morn.
For an instant, the little world pauses
As a second sun.
When the vision fades, all that is left is wonder. What did you find, you ask, through the kaleidoscope’s narrow way? You close your eyes. You look up: you are back where you were before.
And yet, a ring – new-made –
Is stamped about your brow.
Look down. You might mistake the tube
For a flute that breathes colors instead of notes
Or a pipe that endlessly drains the stain
Of every worldly thing.
But whatever your mistake,
Captured somewhere in this cylinder,
Which is as long as your vision,
Is a paraphrase of the dawn.
At its best, poetry is a seeing of the divine: a “peering through the lattices” (Song of Songs 2:9). It wipes the dust off our eyes so we can get a better glint of how the world is “apparelled in celestial light.”2
Of course, poetry is sublunary as well. The angelic inevitably encounters the bestial as high meets low, as the extraordinary greets the ordinary. A poem could be as casual as a stubbed toe or as set-apart as the marbled eyes of a new-breathing babe. A poem is a zip-line through the Alps, or a waltz in the rain, or the crest of a tsunami, or a hornet’s sting, or the puzzlement of a perfectly aggravating riddle. Over daffodiled hills, through wasted plains, you laboriously plod or skate with graceful ease. You skim and dive and sometimes drown. You seek, you sometimes find and often yield, but whatever is lost or found you return always to the meter’s drumming, the ink’s humming, the lyre’s strum. Always the heartstrings tug: a sad mirth here, or there a pleasing pain—and the gut cries that you have imagined more than you will know. The lights dim, the curtains close, and the world keeps its habit of going on. Yet the memories whirl in the cosmic space between your ears—the music of spheres, Dante’s rings, and the elliptical planets on peacock tails.3
Of course, peacocks do not trail literal solar systems behind them, and most educators would hardly believe that even a feather has a cosmic purpose, or that every little ornament of nature tends toward time’s ultimate end. Poetic fancy, they presume, is only meaningful when it teaches students “innovation” or when it fools them into learning quantifiable facts and catch-all platitudes. A castle in the sky, under terms of common sense, becomes an O-so-fun! opportunity to learn about meteorology, or to teach a lesson about cloud pollution, or yet another random occasion to remind children to “just be nice.” How easily we demote the fine arts by performing them like servile arts, as if poetry were just like hiring a mechanic or prescribing the right medication. If we believe the only point of a castle in the sky is to “get the job done,” then we miss the opportunity of actually looking at it, of admiring its Edenic glory. What fool would say that God made roses beautiful only so that we could make money selling them or only so that children would have another noun to memorize? The purpose of their beauty is desirability: we are drawn to them for their own sake since, in themselves, they are a foretaste of the divine. For “the beauty of anything created is nothing else than a similitude of divine beauty,” so that to gaze upon a rose is to touch, in a simple way, God’s transcendental desirability, to peer at our very likeness of God, and to ennoble the soul with an encounter of its origins: indeed “divine beauty is the cause of… all that is (Ex divina pulchritudine esse omnium derivatur).”4 How much more useful beauty would be to us if we used it a little less and instead listened to its sparrow’s song, touched its hem, smelled its incense, tasted its savor, and watched it ebb and soar.
Still, to the angel-eyed, there is an indulgent taint to the aesthetic encounter: stopping to smell the roses, even in the phantasmic theater of the imagination, feels so material, so mutable, so vain. Surely infatuation with art pales in comparison to the eternal realm of immaterial concepts and universal essences. As high-witted as this view may seem, Thomas Gilby assures us it is snobbery: “We must distrust the philosophical journalese that … imagines the mind as a cold impersonal being lodged in us somehow, but quite apart from the rhythm, the color, the scent of life, from the untidiness and infinite variety of individual wholes.”5 Roses are undeniably corruptible, contingent, not an ultimate end in themselves, yet their concrete presence, their individuality, their transience are the very reasons we coil them in the palms of our hands:
“oh, the very reason why
I clasp them, is because they die.”—William Johnson Corey
There is a simple and immediate contact with the real when we contemplate the particular existence of beauty, not with the bestial appetite of a Netflix binger, but with the all-encircling body-mind union of a lover.
Certainly abstract concepts have some share in this encounter. Dogs cannot comprehend what a rose is, so they cannot understand a sonnet about one. Yet, universals do not beget or attract except in so far as they are in particular 6 and He who is drawn to something desirable does not desire to have it as a thought but as a thing.7 Contemplating what a rose is universally is not the same as contemplating this rose. In the words of Gilby, “Though the contemplative reason must rest in types rather than in things for the present, the mind still aspires to a closer imitation of the divine knowledge, which regards first the individual distinctions of things, not their common denominators.”8 To put it more simply, “Beatitude is not in principles but in things.”9
Mendelssohn, when pressed to explain the meaning of his Song Without Words, simply played the piece over again. In a brief instant, he found that ineffable crossroad between the senses, reason, and love.
Loving draws us to things more than knowing does.10
A thing may be loved more than it is known.11
A thing can be immediately loved though mediately known.12
Yet, for all art’s beauty, students have no time to look, no time to rest in the cross-eyed vision. They are too busy working, and teachers are too busy pouring the “imperial gallons of facts” into the “vessels” of the student’s brains: the catch-all generalities of PowerPoints slides and Sparknotes webpages; the pre-packaged summaries of Youtube, Google, and Reddit; the mass-produced trends of television and social media. Plug in the formula, type your answer in the search bar: at the touch of your fingertips a screen or an arbitrary stranger can hand you the facts, and “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”13 Why even read the poem when you can skip to “what it means”?
The “liberal” in “liberal arts” insinuates freedom: freedom from the flux of a groupthink mentality, freedom to exercise the higher dials of the body-soul union. Ironically, what English students need is less support and fewer answers. They need to sit in a silent place, blink at nature, gape at art with senses wide open. They need to listen to their own breath, trace their palms’ cracks, touch the million pore-holes that prick about their skin. They need to sing stories from their throat’s vessel, versify them, illumine them, scratch them on pulp. They need to drown a little more in the world around so that they can breathe a little more in the Atlantis it has always been.
1 Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1947), 193.
2 William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 10th ed. (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2018), 347.
3 Cf. Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds.”
4 Jacques Maritain, Art and Scholasticism and the Frontiers of Poetry, trans. Joseph W. Evans (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1974), 31. Quotations from Aquinas’ Commentary (lect. 5).
5 Thomas Gilby, Poetic Experience: an Introduction to Thomistic Aesthetic (New York: Sheed & Ward Inc., 1934), 34.
6 Thomas Aquinas, Comm. In I Meta. Lect. I. 1a: V: 3, ad 4.
7 XXII de Veritate, 3, ad 4.
8 III Contra Gentes, 63, 1a: XLVII: I.
9 Thomas Gilby, Poetic Experience: an Introduction to Thomistic Aesthetic (New York: Sheed & Ward Inc., 1934), 9.
10 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a-2ae: XXII: 2.
11 Summa Theologica, 1a-2ae: XXVII: 2, ad 2.
12 Q. de Caritate, 2, ad II.
13 Charles Dickens, Hard Times (London: Chapman and Hall, 1905), 3.
TITLE IMAGE: Sunset over a Mountain Lake, Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902).