(Published in The London Magazine, February-March 2016)
Once in a while you read a book that sets off an electric charge inside you. Usually it coheres with your unconscious ideas, a feeling quite distinct from reading a thriller whose pages you devour with unfocused gusto. This you ingest in measured spoonfuls, allowing its content to echo in your pallet. Fittingly perhaps, I spent much of that encounter with Kathleen Raine’s Defending Ancient Springs bedding down in an unelectrified apartment in Lisbon’s Bairro Alfama.
Prior to reading Raine I had been cultivating a friendship with W.B. Yeats, drawing solace from his struggles with spurned affection and aging. I was driven to sing the words of this supremely lyrical poet. But his taste for the occult sat a little uncomfortably with me considering its capacity for delusional evil.
Nonetheless my affection for Yeats had groomed me to receive the clarity of Raine’s aesthetic principles in the book. I did not agree with it all but it has a timeless quality that makes it a selfishly-guarded treasure for those who own a copy.
At the heart of a narrative that contains essays on her preferred Romantic poets and on themes such as beauty, myth and symbol is the conviction that ‘a revival of the learning of the works of Plato and the neo-Platonists, has been the inspiration not only of the Florentine renaissance and all that followed (in England as elsewhere) but of every subsequent renaissance.’ The suggestion that this is an essential source for great poetry may sound far-fetched but the neo-Platonist influence on the pantheon of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and Yeats is well attested to.
Neo-Platonist believe in an essential order to the universe that our true selves recognise. Plotinus d. c. 270CE wrote that: ‘we ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being; our ugliness is going over to another order’. He adds that: ‘the soul itself acts immediately, affirming the Beautiful where it finds something accordant with the ideal from within itself … But let the soul fall in with the ugly and at once it shrinks within itself, denies the thing, turns away from it, not accordant, resenting it.’
According to Raine this explains a sense of homecoming when we encounter cities ‘where in architecture, sculpture and painting, the needs of the spirit are met.’ She attributes the growing alienation in the Britain of her day to environments, such as ‘the wastes of suburbia’ where that aesthetic sensibility is ignored.
Leaving aside the metaphysics of the soul, it strikes me that there is some common ground between neo-Platonic philosophy and those who assert objective truth in science. A shared conviction that mathematical configuration is a form of truth might ford what can seem an unbridgeable disconnect between science and the arts. From that I draw a measure of reassurance in a zeitgeist of disorder and acute over-specialisation.
According to Raine: ‘Music is considered by the Platonic philosophers to be the highest of the arts because the nearest to the harmonious innate order of number, reflected in all the arts and in nature itself.’ But Nobel Laureate Rabindarath Tagore disagreed concluding that ‘it is nonsense that music is a universal language’; he despaired at the capacity of even his own compatriots really to understand his songs; and felt the West could not be expected to without serious study of Indian music. He regarded pictorial art as a superior medium for cross-cultural exchange.
But though Indian music diverges from the Pythagorean intervals that underpin Western music it is still capable of evoking emotion in the uninitiated. Laurens van der Post writes movingly in his biography Yet Being Someone Other about his first encounter with Indian music: ‘It was sensitive and aquiver with an undertone of something akin to pain. Even the most resolved melodies sounded as if they might have come not from man-made strings but from the living nerves and tissues of the music itself.’ Musical forms of European origin may express a universally comprehensible language but other cultures also seem to have discovered propitious symmetries. Inter-cultural appreciation hinges perhaps on the openness of the individual to an encounter.
Raine devotes one chapter to the role of mythology but errs I believe when she claims: ‘The myths of all races are ageless, since their symbolic language is based upon the permanent and unchanging elements of the world we inhabit.’ National myths can be destructive forces and breed murderous politics. Laurens van der Post writes: ‘Of all the mythology that I had come to know by then, German mythology seemed to me the darkest, the most undifferentiated, archaic, turgid and dangerous … German mythology was the only one I know where the forces of darkness defeated the gods themselves.’
“Ageless” myths were appropriated by Nazi ideologues and Yeat’s sympathy for Fascism or at least fellow-travelling was linked to his attachment to archaic notions about nobility and race. Raine fails to acknowledge the danger of the dead weight of history or point to the possibility of mythical renewal, such as Germany’s absorption into Europe perhaps.
But I heartily agree with Raine’s contention that psychologists are parvenus to formative symbolisms that poets have long recognised. Moreover poetic synthesis ‘brings together, creating always wholes and harmonies’, often yielding greater insight than philosophical analysis. Yet, paradoxically: ‘With the greatest poetry the mystery only increases with our knowledge.’
In poetry she writes: ‘Lyric form is itself the supreme embodiment of archetypal order, the nearest to music and number; it is beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary’. Raine does not view these configuration of words as a plodding exercise of measured syllables and rhyming sequences but akin to a universal grammar. She asserts that the essence of poetry informed by a higher sensibility. Following Blake, she sees a poet as the equivalent of a prophet or medium ‘and it cannot, as Plato wrote in the Ion, be achieved by the poet writing from his mundane consciousness but only in that divine madness in which he is possessed by the ‘other’ mind.’
She condemns how: ‘[a]t the present time much that is called poetry is little more than the autobiography of the artist; it is the critical fashion to discount the imagination and to make ‘sincere’ feeling or ‘realistic’ description the test of merit.’ Poetry is thus cast in a sacred light, beyond the mundane exigencies of the quotidian, offering a guide, a light, to the concerns of the time – whether dark Satanic mills or diabolic Trident missiles – and demanding form that channels higher knowledge.
The prizing of sincerity above other considerations that Raine decries is expressed by the main character François, an academic critic, in Michel Houellebecq’s last novel Submission. He says: ‘an author is above all a human being, present in his books, and whether he writes very well or very badly hardly matters – as long as he gets the books written and is, indeed, present in them.’ In Houellebecq’s dystopian vision of a future France what counts, critically, is this biographic authenticity. Absent is concern for the imaginative possibilities of a divinely inspired order that animates great poetry.
But is this vision or inspiration accessible to all who engage with and embody the neo-Platonist philosophy? Not according to Raine: ‘It remains true that genius is not democratic, and the distinction between (for example) the self-expression of patients under analysis and the art of genius is by no means a matter of craftsmanship, but much of the quality and kind of imagination.’
But I believe societies should inculcate the creative application required for genius to flourish such as Yeats glimpsed in the Holy City of Byzantium. If we all can identify that which is beautiful, as we know it in ourselves, then we are capable with sufficient application of reproducing it in a particular domain whether as craftsman, poet or musician. Hard labour in a chosen domain will bring its own rewards and it is for posterity to judge where genius lies.
Theodore Zeldin recently wrote in The Secret Pleasures of Life that: ‘there is a very ancient tradition that everybody who wishes to live fully needs to be a practising artist.’ He observes that: ‘In China the very act of writing, using a brush, made one aware that every brushstroke could be a thing of beauty. Literacy and artistry were one.’ Not all of us are prophets but we might agree with Soren Kierkegaard’s assessment that ‘the possibility of the highest is in everyone, one must follow it.’
Raine also discusses the lofty style that distinguishes poetry from everyday speech. She notes how Carl Jung, who generally disliked high-flown speech, found that when what he called ‘mana, daemons, gods or the unconscious speaks in words its utterances are in a high style, hieratic, often archaic, grandiose, removed as it is possible to be from the speech of that common man the everyday self’. This she identifies this with the primal poetic impulse: ‘The singing of the ballad was by no means in common speech. It was extremely slow, dignified and highly mannered’. She concludes that: ‘It is a mark of imaginative inspiration and content to write in a high and mannered style, removed from common speech; as it of the absence of imaginative participation to write either in a conversational tone or to write in a deliberately vulgar idiom.’ She believes that: ‘What was written for the sake of easy comprehension is precisely that part of poetry which becomes incomprehensible within a few years.’ We need only consider how quickly popular songs become dated.
I believe this insight may be useful to any poet: to honour their inner voice and not play to a gallery that will quickly grow tired of a performance. This is the vertical audience that the poet Eavan Boland identified in a recent lecture in contrast to the horizontal audience of popular acclaim. Poets should contain their revelation within an order that is a part of that mystery: ‘Irish poets learn your trade / Sing whatever is well made’ as Yeats put it.
In a powerful passage Raine despairs at what was occurring in the scholarship of her era influenced in particular by T. S. Eliot:
‘What we did not know thirty years ago was how extreme would be the isolation of those who hold to tradition. It then seemed that there were at least some values which were agreed upon between the profane positivist world and the world of the ‘ancient spring’. Now we know that this is not so, perhaps was never so. At all events, we can no longer deceive ourselves. It seems that there now no longer exists any common terms or common values; beyond a certain point of divergence communication becomes impossible. Relative ignorance may still recognise and aspire towards knowledge, absolute ignorance is perfectly complacent. Tradition, which recognises a difference between knowledge and ignorance, cannot come to terms with a world in which there are no longer any standards by which truth and falsehood may be measured.’
The question is whether this process has accelerated, whether contemporary criticism is stricken by a post-modern doubt that conforms to the dystopian vision adumbrated by Houellebeq: in which authenticity is raised to a value above others, and the prophetic vision cherished by the great poets is accorded no importance. At least one contemporary scholar Edward Clarke shows commitment to the ideal of eternal beauty in his recent book The Vagabond Spirit of Poetry.
Poetry will continue to flow, for some it is a need and a vocation, but without spiritual insight will it flounder, becoming a form of therapy for the unwell or the wild-eyed expression of political discontent? For it to retain its timeless wisdom I concur with Raine that it requires renewed commitment to form: “beauty itself informing words in themselves ordinary”, and continued engagement with underlying metaphysical structures.