How Poetry Stretches Your Mind
By Dame Edith Sitwell
FROM TIME to time, mainly in England, an outcry arises on the subject of the use of the arts in general, and of poetry in particular. This strikes me as very odd. Why should everything in the world, necessarily be “of use”? And yet, although poetry has the beauty of the lily, it is as unseeing to ask what is the use of poetry as it would be to ask what is the use of religion.
The uses of poetry are many. The poet should stand beside the priest in his work of restoring to mankind faith in God and in the heart of Man, in this terrible age when the only faith seems to belong to the gray and murderous creeds.
Emerson said of Plato: “He, from the sun like centrality and reach of his vision, had a faith without cloud. “This is true of the great poet. It was true in the past it is true now, in this age when so many, because of the outer circumstances of the world and their lives, suffer from a tragic weakening or total loss of faith. Poetry will help to keep us immovably centered.
Seeing the immense design of the world, one image of wonder mirrored by another image of wonder-the pattern of fern and of feather echoed by the frost on the window pane the six rays of the snowflake mirrored by the rock-crystal’s six-rayed eternity-I ask myself, “Were those shapes molded by blindness? Who, then, shall teach me doubt?”
The poet speaks to all men of that other life of theirs which they have smothered and forgotten. The poet helps his brother men to be more merciful to each other remembering the words, “Little children, love one another.” To Shakespeare, for instance, even the meanest thing that lives is worthy of the light of the sun.
Poetry has many uses. It is the deification of reality. Such poetry as Wordsworth’s, for instance, teaches us that God is in everything, in a stone in a straw. Reason and tranquility were the companion angels of Wordsworth as he walked through an everyday world made splendid by the light of a genius which illuminated but did not transform. Common speech and common experience were here, but all made radiant and unforgettable by inspiration. For Wordsworth had the warmth of the earth and of the human heart, and that genius which was of the heart rather than of the soul had taken all the chill from Reason.
The earth and every common sight
To me did seem
Appareled in celestial light.
Poetry ennobles the heart and the eyes, and unveils the meaning of all things upon which the heart and the eyes dwell. It discovers the secret rays of the universe, and restores to us forgotten paradises.
As Walt Whitman said, “All truths lie waiting in all things… They unfold themselves ore fragrant than… roses from living buds, whenever you fetch the spring sunshine moistened with summer rain. But it must be in yourself. It shall be love.”
I wish that everyone could share the rapture of the poet. In some ways-I say this with all humility-the experience of the poet in creation is akin to the experience of the saint. I do not believe that anybody who loved poetry could have an ugly soul. Human faults, yes. But the soul. Human faults, yes. But the soul would still have radiance.
Foolish people say that the poems made simply for the love of beauty are useless, they are butterflies. They are spivs. (Perhaps “spiv” is a word not used in America. It is a slang term used by the English to describe a useless person-a being who will not work.) and yet I cannot but remember that when the great 17th-century naturalist, John Ray, was asked, “What is the use of butterflies?” he replied, “To adorn the world and delight the eyes of men, to brighten the countryside, serving like so many golden spangles to decorate the fields.” And he added, of those butterflies made by the hand of God: “who can contemplate their exquisite beauty and not acknowledge and adore the traces of divine art upon them?” At least the poems of which I speak, those butterflies made by the hand of man, have the traces of human art upon their wings.
I must at this point considera question that will be asked y many: Why do not more people care for modern poetry?
I have two answers to that question. The first is that a great deal of dull rubbish is being written at this time, and is encouraged recklessly by reviewers. The unfortunate reader brought face to face with this feels a lethal boredom, and says to himself “If this is poetry, I will have none of it,” so he never comes to the poetry that is real, and will make the world more beautiful to him.
Another reason is that many people have an inherited way of seeing and hearing, and have, too, a certain deafness as to rhythm.
In my youth, I and my young fellow poets derived a considerable amount of amusement from the writings of our un-instructed elders on the use of rhyme. “Why,” they inquired, “could not the young poets rhyme like Tennyson?” if we asked what particular poem of Tennyson they would wish us to emulate they replied, almost invariably, “Tears, idle tears, idle tears”-in which no rhyme occurs.
They judged us by hearsay only, without reading us. All skillful unrhymed verse runs so smoothly that, in the case of familiar poem it is almost always taken by the uninstructed for rhymed verse. Consider these lines from a modern poem:
Such are the clouds-
They float with while coolness and sunny shade
Sometimes preening their flightless feathers.
Float, proud swans, on the calm lake
And wave your clipped wings in the azure air,
Then arch your neck, and look into the deep for pearls.
Now can you drink dew from tall trees and sloping fields of Heaven.
Gather new coolness for tomorrow’s heat,
And sleep through the soft night with folded wing.
Is not that as melodious as any rhymed verse?
Rhythm, as I said in the preface to my Collected poems, is one of the principal translators between dream and reality. Rhythm might be described as, to the world of sound, what light is to the visible world. It shapes and gives new meaning. Rhythm was described by Schopenhauer as “melody deprived of its pitch.” “Every great poet,” said Shelley, “must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification.”
There is a great deal of opposition to the revivifications of rhythmic patterns. But then, even the greatest of all rhythmic patterns, those not made by the hand, have been mis-apprehended. Dr. Thomas Burnet, who died in 1715, was so disturbed by the unsymmetrical arrangement of the stars that he rebuked the Creator for His lack of technique. “what a beautiful hemisphere they would have made,” he said, “if they had all been disposed in regular figures… all finished and made up into one fair piece, or great composition, according to the rules of art and symmetry.”
When a certain kind of person is not grumbling about lack of symmetry, he is grumbling about symmetry. One English critic, for instance, F.R. Leavis, has decided that there is little, if anything, to be said for Milton. The sound of a great deal of Milton’s verse affects hi much as the sound of a motor bicycle affects my less sensitive nervous system. “We find ourselves,” he declares “flinching from the foreseen thud.”
My ardent hope is that readers will go out and find poetry for themselves, and will not be dismayed by certain critics who tell the reader he must not ask for delight in poetry, but for instruction and who read into every poem something that is not there. A good deal of clean, healthy fun without the slightest trace of vulgarity can be gained, however, from reading these critics, if we do not take them seriously, or allow their self-complacency to irritate us beyond endurance.
F.W. Bateson, an English critic, declared that Gray’s “An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a “plea for decentralization.” The same gentleman wrote that Tennyson suffered from schizophrenia. And, also that we should not “insist on the presence of delight” in poetry “To insist on its delighting us…is a kind of perversity.”
Luckily, delight in beauty has not yet been made a crime in law!
One of the purposes of poetry is to show the dimensions of man that are as Sir Arthur Eddington said, “midway in scale between the atom and the star,” and to make all the days of our life, each moment of our life, holy to us.
In an apocryphal letter published originally in a Moscow paper, Picasso is supposed to have said, “There are painters who transform the sun into a yellow spot, but there are others who, with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into a sun,” Which is the greater and more important work? Yet many are angered when the yellow spot is transformed into a sun. It is deception. We are told. The artist is not using a great subject. Why ennoble the common place? Why show our common life as if it had some purpose beyond the grave?
Poetry is the light of the Great MorningWherein the beings whom we see passing in the street are transformed for us into the epitome of all beauty, or of all joy, or of all sorrow.