‘In The Silent Hour of Inward Thought’

……………..O be wiser, thou !

Instructed that true knowledge leads to love;
True dignity abides with him alone
Who, in the silent hour of inward thought,
Can still suspect, and still revere himself,
In lowliness of heart.

(William Wordsworth, (1770–1850)).

For Wordsworth, ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility’, a reflection of Aristotle’s, (384 B.C. — 322 B.C.), notion of catharsis, in which, through art, ‘it is the human soul that is purged of its excessive passions’. Poetry is a release from passion, and poetic beauty can express truth concerning virtue and moral goodness. ‘“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’, as John Keats, (1795–1821), said.

But there are different kinds of truths, and one of the appeals of poetic beauty for me is the insight it can give into philosophical truth.

Socrates, (470/469 B.C. — 399 B.C.), did not agree, however. Poets are not to be admitted into his properly run state (not that they would mind, Plato’s, (428/427 B.C. — 424/423 B.C.), republic, like all utopias, would be a horrible place to live in). The poet, said Socrates, finds it ‘easy to represent a character that is unstable and refractory’, whereas instead, and if I may so put it into common, and perhaps sexist, parlance, Socrates thought we need to man up.

‘We must learn not to hold our hurts and waste our time crying’, said Socrates, ‘like children who’ve bumped themselves, but to train our mind to cure our ills and rectify our lapses as soon as it can, banishing sorrow by healing it’. But the poet ‘wakens and encourages and strengthens the lower elements in the mind to the detriment of reason, which is like giving power and political control to the worst elements in a state and ruining the better elements’. Not only is it not cathartic then, but poetry, far from expressing truth, is ‘creating images far from the truth’.

‘Poetry’, Socrates continues (without giving much in the way of examples to support his view), ‘has the same effect on us when it represents sex and anger, and the other desires and feelings of pleasure and pain which accompany all our actions. It waters them when they ought to be left to wither, and makes them control us when we ought, in the interests of our own greater welfare and happiness, to control them’.

John Donne, (1572–1631), a very learned poet who no doubt was familiar with Socrates’ opinion of poets, seemingly acknowledges Socrates’ worst fears about poets, in his poem ‘The Triple Fool’:

I am two fools, I know,

For loving, and for saying so

In whining poetry;

But where’s that wiseman, that would not be I,

If she would not deny?

Then as th’ earth’s inward narrow crooked lanes

Do purge sea water’s fretful salt away,

I thought, if I could draw my pains

Through rhyme’s vexation, I should them allay.

Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,

For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.

But when I have done so,

Some man, his art and voice to show,

Doth set and sing my pain;

And, by delighting many, frees again

Grief, which verse did restrain.

To love and grief tribute of verse belongs,

But not of such as pleases when ’tis read.

Both are increased by such songs,

For both their triumphs so are published,

And I, which was two fools, do so grow three;

Who are a little wise, the best fools be.

As Socrates fears, the poet is human, all too human; putting himself or herself into a receptive mood by calling on the muses to come and take charge of their work, works that are expressing youthful impetuosity, emotional turmoil, love’s folly, the weakness of old age, all limiting the poet from ever attaining the ideal poem:

Girls, you be ardent for the fragrant-blossomed

Muses’ lovely gifts, for the clear melodious lyre:
But now old age has seized my tender body,

Now my hair is white, and no longer dark.
My heart’s heavy, my legs won’t support me,
That once were fleet as fawns, in the dance.
I grieve often for my state; what can I do?
Being human, there’s no way not to grow old.

Rosy-armed Dawn, they say, love-smitten,

Once carried Tithonus off to the world’s end:
Handsome and young he was then, yet at last

Grey age caught that spouse of an immortal wife.

(Sappho, (circa. 630/612 B.C. — 570 B.C.)).

And it gets worse, for Socrates, in that poetry is merely clever nonsense, lacking in perceptive discernment, and in which almost anything can happen:

I grow old … I grow old …

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves

Combing the white hair of the waves blown back

When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea

By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown

Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

(T. S. Eliot, (1888–1965)).

So what does all that mean? What is so daring about eating a peach? (I have heard it suggested that the peach represents here the organ of ingress, but I doubt it; T. S. Eliot, former banker, Lloyds bank at that, very unlikely). Could Eliot himself explain it to us? Socrates was in despair to find that putting questions to poets concerning the messages they are trying to convey resulted in confusion on their part. They become emotional, they are unable to explain passages from their own writings. They may have a modicum of inspiration, but there are people in the audience, Socrates found, that were more able to talk about the poetry than the poets themselves. Poets, with their unsteady vision, are certainly not qualified to be teachers of Athenian youth.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), however, comes to the rescue of the reputation of poets, to a degree at least, seeing poetry as the universal art, the synthesis of all the others. The poetic medium is the wholly internal and subjective mental image or representation, and it retains, like music, sound; but it is more than just the embodiment of sound, the sound is the means of communication from mind to mind, for the sound is not the essential end, as it is in music, the sound is the word; and through the word, though the word in itself is an arbitrary sign for an idea or representation, this idea or representation is the true form or embodiment in poetry. Mental imagery, inward subjectivity, is the poetic content. The poem is immersed in individuality, adorned with sensuous imagery.

And language can express anything whatever that can form the content of human consciousness. Poetry is not therefore restricted, pace Socrates; the entire wealth of human experience is within its range. Like music it can utter the most profound emotion. Like painting it can express the peculiarities of the individual, and the most ephemeral appearances of mood, while yet not being confined to a single moment of time. It is truly universal, existing in all periods, in all countries, and whatever the human mind is capable of thinking can be the subject of a poem. Anything can be rendered poetical. A poem is wholly liberated and self-determined, infused and controlled by a single idea.

And to prove the point, though this will not be the kind of thing Hegel had in mind, I submit as evidence an ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog’, by Mrs. Leo Hunter, a lady poetaster who features in Charles Dickens’, (1812–1870), ‘The Pickwick Papers’, she who ‘doats on poetry… her whole soul and mind are wound up, and entwined with it’, and whose poetry is so terrible, it’s great:

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild halloo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!

Without a doubt, here that which is abstract becomes beautifully sensuous and concrete, the limpid imagery ascends before our mind’s vision, the abstractly prosaic is rendered sensuously concrete.

But, for Hegel, poetry is still merely an elegant but rough preliminary to philosophy itself, a revelation of a reality to be expressed more completely through philosophy. And it gets worse for poetry in the twentieth century, with the advent of the logical positivists, for whom the attribution of beauty to a given object, or to any objects, can never be empirically verified. And anything that cannot be empirically verified, and is not a tautology, for the logical positivist is thereby meaningless:

O my Luve’s like a red, red, rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

(Robert Burns, (1759–1796)).

None of that is empirically justifiable, and is therefore meaningless, at least to a logical positivist, like A. J. Ayer, (1910–1989), who does however concede that people may believe that some objects really are beautiful. But then, Burns succeeds, quite successfully, in conveying to us that he believes his love is like a red, red rose, so how can the sentences he uses be meaningless? Or ‘pseudo-statements’, or ‘mere interjections’, as Ayer calls them. For that matter, how could Ayer himself become aware of what Burns believes about his love, (assuming he knows the poem, but who doesn’t?), if Burns’ sentences have no meaning?

The fact is that Ayer has made the decision to use the word ‘meaning’ in a way different from the rest of us, that is to say, improperly, that is to say, wrongly.

There is a lesson to be learnt here, if we recall Alice’s conversation with Humpty Dumpty, in Lewis Carroll’s, (1832–1898), ‘Through The Looking Glass’:

‘When use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less’.
‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you make words mean so many different things’.
‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all’.

Defining our terms is one thing, defining them in such a way that they become totally divorced from what they actually mean is quite another.

But poetic statements may be, not nonsensical, but untrue, in their expressiveness, for ‘the limits of language (of that language which alone I understand) mean the limits of my world’, as Ludwig Wittgenstein, (1889–1951), said. And poetry is forever engaged in a struggle against the limits of language, performing syntactic violence, against the compulsions inherent in ordinary language, through lax and easy cliché, to falsify experience. But then for the philosopher, the epistemologist, though he or she cannot ignore the poets’ claims to visionary moments, if poetic utterances are untrue, how is he or she to distinguish the visionary from the illusory?

‘No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher’, said Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (1772–1834). But maybe ‘Kubla Khan’ is really much ado about nothing:

A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid

And on her dulcimer she played,

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me

Her symphony and song,

To such a deep delight ’twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air,

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

What we have here is, one might say, an example of the ontological parity which, it is claimed, by Justus Buchler, (1914–1991), to be present in the subject matter of poetry. As Buchler puts it: ‘All appearances are realities for the poet’. But that just takes us back to Socrates; poetry, far from expressing truth, is ‘creating images far from the truth’.

Or perhaps, given the reliance of a poem’s meaning, and its effect, on the precise words, and on the order of the words, so that any attempt to paraphrase the poem necessarily expresses something else, we should think of a poem as a thing, with its own thing-like integrity, like a non-linguistic artefact, a tune, a painting. ‘A poem should not mean but be’, said Archibald MacLeish, (1892–1982). But then, surely we cannot just dispense with the meaning of the poem altogether. The sound of the words alone can hardly be made to work without any regard for their meaning.

Having achieved my customary philosophically aporetic state, (I hate it when that happens, but I should be used to it by now), I will finish with some lines, (Sonnet 121), from my favourite poet, William Shakespeare, (1564–1616, the 400th anniversary of his death is soon upon us!), which I present for no other reason than the pleasure they give, (though, to be honest, he is challenging the notion of poetic beauty expressing moral goodness and virtue (see above), i.e., it is better to be bad than merely thought bad, etc.):

’Tis better to be vile, than vile esteemed,
When not to be, receives reproach of being,
And the just pleasure lost which is so deemed
Not by our feeling, but by others’ seeing:
For why should others’ false adulterate eyes
Give salutation to my sportive blood?
Or on my frailties why are frailer spies,
Which in their wills count bad what I think good?
No; — I am that I am, and they that level
At my abuses reckon up their own:
I may be straight, though they themselves be bevel;
By their rank thoughts my deeds must not be shown;
Unless this general evil they maintain,
All men are bad, and in their badness reign.

(‘I am that I am’, a tautology, the logical positivists will be ok with that; it is at least meaningful to them).



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David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.