Somerset, NJ. Legend has it that on the field of Hastings, as the forces of the Conqueror ascended a hill to engage the exhausted army of Harold II, a certain minstrel named Taillefer went before the ranks, tossing his sword high into the air and catching it again, all the while chanting the story of Roland’s defeat in the passes of the Pyrenees, that song of “Charlemagne, and Roland, and Oliver, and those who met their death at Roncevalles,” the same story which has been transmitted to posterity in the Chanson de Roland. His purpose was obviously to inflame the hearts of the soldiers marching behind him to perform acts of courage in the imminent battle, by reciting the extraordinary acts of courage performed by those antique heroes. The manner in which he delivered his tale – the selection of material, its arrangement, his cadence and pronunciation, his gesticulations – was determined by this purpose, as the most effective means of exciting the soldiers’ passions towards emulation. The soldiers, for their part, must have shared a sympathetic mind with Taillefer, and heard in his song an ideal of honorable conduct which they hoped to match. And we can be certain that William, the king, approved of the song and its singer, in so far as it produced the evident result of making his men readier to fight with boldness and fortitude. So for Taillefer, the content, style, and critical criteria of his song were all direct consequences of the occasion upon which he sang. Keep all of this in mind.
The practice of poetical composition in the modern world is distinguished by the extraordinary social isolation in which the poet works. It seems quite unnecessary to insist upon the marginal status of poetry in our times, as it is a fact which has been often recognized, and often lamented. This peripheral condition of the art is brought home all the more poignantly by those occasional attempts, inevitably vain and insipid, to push poetry back into the current of social priority, such as declaring a national poetry month, or hanging verses on subway cars. I should point out that I am not referring to mere numerical popularity; for all I know, some contemporary poets may reach press runs exceeding those reached by Wordsworth or Tennyson in their lifetimes. But Wordsworth and Tennyson had an importance to their society that no poet in our day has, or can aspire to have. Poetry has been removed from the occasional life of our society; we do not look to our poets for joy in the general success, or consolation in face of communal misfortune. We are not even aware of anything unusual or deleterious in this indifference. As F.R. Leavis was to state the matter so concisely at the opening of New Bearings in English Poetry, “poetry matters little to the modern world.”
If this social marginality is the most salient feature of the practice of poetry in the modern world, the most obvious features of the style of poetry in the modern world seem equally incontrovertible – that is, its obscurity and disorder. Tolstoy remarked on this fact during the very earliest years of the modernist movement, noting that “obscurity is elevated into a dogma among the new poets,” and further, “it has come, finally, to this: that not only is haziness, mysteriousness, obscurity, and exclusiveness (shutting out the masses) elevated to the rank of a merit and a condition of poetic art, but even incorrectness, indefiniteness, and lack of eloquence are held in esteem.” There seems to be no good reason to disagree with this assessment, and I’m not sure if even modernism’s most ardent champions would in fact disagree with it. From Pound and Eliot to Ashberry and Graham, the distinctive thing, the essential thing, about modernism is its lack of formal rigor, its non-sequential ordering, and its esoteric purport. It is not merely this or that formal stricture that the modern poet rebels against; it is poetic strictures as such It is not this or that sort of genre which the modern poet renounces; it is the notion of genre per se. What has resulted is a poetry consistently amorphous, bizarre, baffling, and unsweet.
It would be a remarkable thing if these two very evident facts about modern poetry – its social inconsequentiality and its stylistic anarchism – were unrelated, and I do not think they are. As a matter of fact, I think the latter is a direct consequence of the former, that the social marginalization of the art of poetry inevitably causes it to decline into stylistic incoherence. To understand why this is the case, return to the story of Taillefer.
Recall that for Taillefer, it was the occasion of his song which determined its shape. Imagine the sort of reasoning – conscious or intuitive – which must have occurred in his mind: “I must choose some story which will provide the requisite template of martial courage – I know, the deeds of Roland. Certainly, I must focus on the behavior of that hero, as it is most germane to my purposes. Irony and pathos are not the attitudes appropriate to this hour; the sublime is my goal. My metaphors must be simple and emphatic, to carry across my thoughts to this unlettered audience. To capture their attention amidst the commotion, my meter should be vigorous – perhaps anapests. Better yet, ballad meter.” Every decision, concerning content or stylistic presentation, was guided by the requirements of the moment. Note too that questions regarding the justification of technique never arise for Taillefer; it would have made as much sense for him to ask, “why must I write in meter?” or “why must I write about a hero?” as for a sailor intent on gaining the harbor before nightfall to ask, “why must I lift the sails?” The end to be gained dictates the techniques to be employed, which is to say nothing else than that for Taillefer – and, so I would argue, for every poet working in a flourishing tradition – the art of poetry partakes of the general structure of practical reasoning, of matching means to ends.
Since poetry is an art of language, its purposes must be social purposes, because language is intrinsically social. Like most speech, it presupposes an occasion – a speaker, an audience, and some context for their meeting. Like most speech, it will be shaped by that occasion. It will only make sense as a practice in some communal context. Absent that context, the importance of the art will become unclear – it becomes a thing “that matters little”– and the rules of the art will increasingly seem arbitrary In the same way that the language of one speaking to himself, in his own mind, is fractured, obscure, and sloppy, the language of a poet who is removed from the vital life of his society – who, in effect, is speaking to himself – will similarly grow fractured, obscure, and sloppy. At some point in the development of the modern world, the poet went from considering himself a “man speaking to men,” in Wordsworth’s formulation, to thinking of himself as one not heard but overheard, as J.S. Mill would have it. The result has been the pursuit of that most chimerical of things, an unsocial language, and the result of that pursuit has been the gradual decadence of western poetry into near perfect quiescence. Language without a situation is language without a purpose, and there can be no fine poetry – there can be no flourishing human endeavor – without some purpose to it. Take Taillefer out of the field, set him to singing in a cave or a hovel, and watch him grow increasingly hesitant about what to sing, and how. Deprive the modern poet of any serious role in his society, and watch his art become steadily more strange, more ungoverned by rational form, and more difficult to comprehend.
Much of the finest poetry that has come down to us emerged out of a very specific social context, from the odes of Pindar, which celebrated the athletic victories of his patrons, to the love poetry of the Occitan poets, which comprised one ritual in that elaborate culture of courtly romance, so widespread during the late medieval and Renaissance periods. Nonetheless, the greater portion of poetry which we treasure was not written in circumstances remotely resembling Taillefer’s at all. To the contrary, it was composed by men working alone in their rooms, impelled to write by no particular social occasion, but rather by some internal necessity of their imagination. In a sense, their works were their own occasion for their presentation. And this would seem to weigh heavily against the argument that I am advancing.
But whether caught up in the affairs of his day, or secluded in mental and physical isolation from his fellow man, the pre-modern poet participated in an artistic tradition which unmistakably defined poetry as a form of public speech. We forget now that, for the greater portion of western history, poetry was regarded as a sister art to – even a branch of – rhetoric, and rhetoric, whatever else it is, is the art of public speaking. While too close an identification of rhetoric and poetry can cause us to assign to the latter the generally utilitarian persuasive goals of the former, and thus bend poetry to improper uses, we ought to recognize that the association of these two arts by our predecessors was not the consequence of superficiality. Specifically, we ought to recognize that both arts endeavored to discover the most appropriate and most effective techniques to affect the sensibilities of an audience, and since language was the instrument employed by both, the range of techniques available to both arts is quite similar. So a poet working in the pre-modern tradition of western poetry was inheriting an art which, by definition, was situated in the public sphere.
Moreover, that tradition included a variety of genres which, in one way or another, capture a sort of abstracted or generalized social context. Consider, for instance, the elegy. If one were to examine the major elegies in the English language – and I am referring here to Milton’s Lycidas, Shelley’s Adonais, Tennyson’s In Memoriam, Arnold’s Thyrsis, and Swinburne’s Ave Atque Vale – one would notice a similar pattern among these otherwise quite disparate works. Each poem contains a passage of lamentation for the deceased; each poem contains a passage in praise of the virtues of the deceased; and each poem contains a passage of consolation for the death of the deceased, and, more generally, for the fact of death itself as it besets the human race. Each poem, that is to say, precisely recreates the forms of speech which are actually used by people on the occasions of bereavement; each elegy is, in a sense, a poeticized funeral. The genre of the elegy incorporates something of this social context into its very form, such that it is impossible to work in this genre without assuming a sort of social role – rarified and unspecific, to be sure, but a social context all the same. So let a poet remain as isolated from his times and his society as he wishes; if he writes in the elegiac form, he must assume a role in the timeless society of man.
And the elegy is not the only poetic form which displays this characteristic; the form of the epic, for instance, recounts stories that are central to the history and identities of certain peoples, and so it is impossible to work in the epic form without in some sense addressing those peoples who value the subject of one’s narrative. The genre implies a social context. Much has been written about the decline of the epic in the modern world, but in fact, the decline of the epic is just one example of the more general decline of genre in the modern world – the disappearance of recognizably social forms of poetry. Friedrich Schiller, writing in his essay On the Art of Tragedy, asserted that “the combination of means through which a literary genre achieves its purpose is called its form…Since every literary genre pursues a purpose peculiar to it, it will distinguish itself precisely for this reason from the rest by virtue of a distinctive form, since the form is the means by which it achieves its purpose.” If every genre of literature pursues some distinctive purpose, and if these must be social purposes (as the purpose of language must be), then every form must imply some idealized social situation.
This is an immensely important fact, because as the poet has been pushed further and further into the periphery of modern society by an indifferent public, he might have preserved the integrity of his art by clinging all the more tenaciously to his traditions. Those traditions preserved certain forms of poetic composition which, by their very natures, assured the poet a kind of social purpose, and thus a coherence to his work. But, as we all know, what happened was quite otherwise; the modern poet revolted against his traditions, declared himself free from their allegedly suffocating precedents, and thus, deprived of interest from his contemporaries, or guidance from his predecessors, set out on his exile into the wasteland, from which he has never returned.
But if these were the errors of the moderns, they need not be our own. If it was their folly to cast off the one means of preserving the poetic art amidst the decadence of our times, it can be our merit to return to that tradition with humility. Specifically, by adopting the forms employed by our predecessors, we can recover the social situatedness that makes poetry possible. The underlying forms of man’s social life are perpetual – the desires and the disappointments, the ideals and the failures, the laws and the outrages – and so long as the poet understands his art as emerging from these forms, he will possess no insignificant place in the perpetual community of man. Whether or not his own community attends to his productions will not then be material to the thriving of his art.
First published at Front Porch Republic.