The perils and powers of poetry

All history, all knowledge, all record-keeping, begins with poetry and song.  For all non-literate peoples, memorization by means of a blend of sounds, rhythm and pitch (mnemonics)  has always been the primary means of recording events and keeping traditions alive.  This is why the oldest records come to us as poetry.

In ages past, after writing began, when faced by a devastating threat to a culture, out of fear that the priests who had committed all the chants, hymns, eddas, or mantras to memory might die or be murdered, leaving no one to pass the culture on to future generations, some writer or writers would write them down in forms that approached as closely as possible the oral versions.  These we know today as the works of Homer, Lao Tsu, and the anonymous authors of the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, the Irish Mabignogion, and the first five books of the Hebrew Old Testament, most of them in verse.  Thus, the most ancient sacred works are always framed as poetry, and so the deepest studies for students of a nonliterate culture have always been and will always be, of poetry.

With the invention of writing, since mnemonics were no longer necessary, prose was adopted for more mundane matters because it’s much easier to write.  Even so, bound by tradition, poetry retained its role for the more important texts. It wasn’t until the Reformation with its increase of printed works in vernacular languages that polished prose began to acquire some of the glamor of poetry, while poetry (in the modern sense)  began to seem less and less necessary.  (Keep in mind that our use of the word poetry is limited to mnemonics; to the Elizabethans the word meant what fiction means today.)

As would happen later with painting when the invention of photography rendered it unnecessary for recording images, poets began to concentrate on the thing that poetry does better than prose, making personal statements that stir the emotions.  This came to be seen by a leading segment of the reform community as not only unnecessary and a waste of time, but dangerous––leading vulnerable youth on to illicit love, wanton lust, narcissism, and melancholia.  Thus the better and more effective the poet, the more dangerous to a reader’s morals.

Although early reformers like Erasmus were steeped in the humanism of the Renaissance, later generations turned away from the Renaissance focus on humanity and human life to God and the afterlife.  Humanism required a voluminous education, one in which Theology took its place beside History, Science, and the Arts.  While Erasmus and Luther attempted to bring these studies into a reformation of Catholicism, the English followed the simplifications of the Swiss Reformers by questioning––if not condemning––just  about everything but the ideals and practises of the second century Church.  This of course included pagans like Homer and Catholics like Dante.

Between a rock and a hard place

Luckily for the English culture, by the time this occured the Erasmian curriculum, based largely on humanist literature, was a done deal.  Instituted by Colet at the first of the great Reformation grammar schools, St. Paul’s in London early in the 16th century, it spread throughout the nation, partly by desire but mostly by government edict.  So long as the old chantry schools with their focus on mindlessly memorizing rituals in bad Latin were eliminated, no one (but a few right wing bishops) was going to fret over a little humanism.

The dangers of Greek

Since humanism fosters artistry, the ancient poets, the great artists of language, were studied for their use of language as well as their wisdom.  But it was often these same poets who wrote the most explicitly sexual poetry.  Ovid was the most problematic, particularly his Ars Amatoria, but so were Terence, Lucian, Catullus, the list goes on.  Thus, even from the start, it’s possible to see in the Reformation pedagogues that followed Erasmus, from Vives to Elyot to Ascham, the anxiety over teaching boys by means of reading and translating pagan poets.  For the reformers, this was a real Catch-22.  They all address it, advising how and where to edit.  But boys will be boys, and once they know how to read Latin (and, even more dangerously, Greek), they were certain to be finding and sharing the more explicit texts.

The Erasmian system involved the memorization of works of Greek and Latin antiquity, much of it in some form of poetry, and the practise of translation skills by translating poetry into English prose, then into English poetry, then back again into Latin poetry, with rewards, of course, for those who did well.  But not too well.  This was not something that was supposed to go any further than school exercises.  That such training would lead inevitably to fledgling poets growing wings with which to fly on their own was a source of considerable hand-wringing.  The equivalent of teaching young people to read and transcribe vocal music while discouraging them from actually singing, or of teaching them to build racing cars while discourging them from racing, of course it didn’t work.  Not only did this effort fail, the very resistence to poetry seemed to fuel the supernova of language arts that would erupt in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

“Stop a stream from running and it will rage”

In England, the Renaissance in Art that had swept Italy two centuries earlier was delayed a century by the Wars of the Roses and then by the Reformation.  When finally it burst into flower on English shores it was almost solely through music and literature.  While Italy produced great advances in science and in the visual arts as well as in music and literature, France soon following, these were quashed in England by the nature of its Reformation.  As Nashe put it:

As there be those that rail at all men, so there be those that rail at all Arts, as Cornelius Agrippa [in his] De vanitate scientiarum, and a Treatise that I have seen in dispraise of learning, where he saith, it is the corrupter of the simple, the schoolmaster of sin, the storehouse of treachery, the reviver of vices, and mother of cowardice, alledging many examples, how there was never man egregiously evil but he was a scholar; that when the use of letters was first invented, the Golden World ceased, Facinusque inuasit mortales: how study doth effeminate a man, dim his sight, weaken his brain, and engender a thousand diseases. . . . . .            . . . . . . . . . Piers Penniless, 1593.

Why was this?  Why was Elizabeth, so kind to her composers, so cruel to her poets?  Why did she do nothing for them, even penalizing those who dared to publish?

Unique among the nations of Europe, England experienced the Reformation before the Renaissance.  For this reason, the English Renaissance, when it finally arrived,  had to force its way through the constraints of Calvinistic fears of the Devil and disgust at all forms of sensuality.  While there could be no denying the sensuality of the visual arts as they were developing in Italy and France, sensuality in literature requires the ability to read.  The lush nudity of Titian’s Venus can’t be ignored, while a sensual narrative can be hidden within pages of little black marks on white paper, a disingenuous title and front material, a phony author, and title page claims of utility.

It wasn’t all of literature that worried the reformers, only poetry, their term for fiction, i.e., imaginative literature, the kind that seeks to arouse feelings in readers rather than instill knowledge.  This is the major reason for the form that the Renaissance took in England (however sensual, music is never explicitly sexual, or at least not until the kind that accompanies the pole dance in a strip joint) and for many of the literary anomalies that historians have failed to explain.  It is also the major reason why authors who had any hope of preferment hid their identities.

“That which nourishes me destroys me.”

The Swiss Reformation brought with it such a fear of the Devil that less cultured folk were apt to see Him at work in things we would regard today as utterly innocent,  may poles, yule logs, folk heroes like Robin Hood and Maid Marian.  So it may be that the scorn for poetry and poets in Shakespeare’s time had less to do with contempt for it as a waste of time, as they claimed, and more with fear of its power.

The ancient inhabitants of England, the Britons and the Celts, were strong believers in the power of the Word.  According to Robert Graves, the ancient Lords of Eire, the ollaves, could hold in memory the entire history of their people in meter and song, with the best memory among them respected as king, or leader (22-3).  They believed that a properly worded curse could kill, that a properly worded charm could protect an army and bring it victory.  The Bards, and the poets who came after them, continued to hold social power at the deepest level, something the English reformers who colonized Ireland condemned as devil worship.

Sir Thomas Elyot, the pedagogue most revered by those who tutored the generation that created the English Literary Renaissance, gave voice to this concern.  In his list of the useful arts that noble children should be taught (so long as they understand they’ll never be doing them as a profession) along with painting and playing a musical instrument he lists wood carving and embroidery, which we would consider crafts today.  Elyot doesn’t list poets among these artisans, because he thinks of them, as we do today, as finer and more rare than ordinary scribes.

As the revered sources of his own education, how was Elyot to distinguish between what was divine about them and what was demonic?   The motto on Christopher Marlowe’s portrait says it all, not for Marlowe alone, but for all the poets of the English Renaissance: “ce qui me nourrit me détruit”––“that which nourishes me destroys me.”  Or, as a poet from a later time would put it:

My candle burns at both ends. it will not last the night,
But ah my friends and oh my foes, it gives a lovely light.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  Edna St. Vincent Millay

2 thoughts on “The perils and powers of poetry

  1. Halfway through “No Spring Till Now.” It’s a brilliant piece of literary analysis. I recommend it not only to all your readers but especially to Stratfordian academics–professional scholars. For these it stands as s model of what they ought to try to achieve. It asks the most interesting of questions and then offers keen insights in answer.

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