Spiritual Aesthetics: The Rebirth of Poetry (Part I)
"The ice was here, the ice was there, The ice was all around: It cracked and growled, and roared and howled, Like noises in a swound! At length did cross an Albatross, Thorough the fog it came; As if it had been a Christian soul, We hailed it in God's name It ate the food it ne'er had eat, And round and round it flew. The ice did split with a thunder-fit; The helmsman steered us through! And a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow, And every day, for food or play, Came to the mariner's hollo!". - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Homer's Muse sings the saga of the most beautiful woman and the wrath of the most fierce warrior who laid siege to the most priestly kingdom. Herein lies the birth of poetry - the Spirit's swan-dive into the world of physical forms. It marks the epilogue of priestly-kings who rule only by the power of Divine frill, and the prologue of individual heroes who act by the strength of their own will. An inner Promethean fire is now kindled within man, but still expresses itself in the mythical language of Divine wrath. It is the Rage of Achilles against the Trojan, Hector, against the King, Agamemnon, and against the Divine father of ancient Greek aesthetics, Apollo - a rage which will not go gently into that good night. That is the epic from which the search for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful begins.
Man is chained to the rock - he finds his essence fully intermingled with the world of forms through the contours of his physical body - and in that confinement he experiences the fate of the Titan who formed him from clay and led him into battle. As Prometheus is subjected to gruesome torture - the wages for his sin in the realm above - so to are his human co-conspirators in the realm below. The Olympian rule of pure ideals nears its end and man can no longer rely on the external Gods for his nourishment. Instead, he must look within himself to discover the wellspring of his encouragement. He must find the Herculean strength by which he holds the entire world of forms on his shoulders. He must bear the sins of the world and become clever; sacrificing his lower animal nature to free himself from the vulture who feasts on his inner flame.
Under the predominating influence of tragic poetry, these Homeric myths are now born anew; and this metempsychosis reveals that in the meantime the Olympian culture also has been conquered by a still deeper view of things. The insolent Titan Prometheus has announced to his Olympian tormentor that some day the greatest danger will menace his rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
In the telling of this monumental epic, man also finds his means of redemption. It is not told only once, but recited and performed many times, in every different way. Every individual experiences this myth unfolding from within the course of their own existence, although most remain unaware of the roles they must play. In the medieval era, the most exquisite Western art is commemorated for our primal myth. Not only do we see it in the music, poetry, paintings and sculptures, but also in the very design of the villages and cities where people worked and lived. The fields, the homes, the schools, the marketplace, the castles, the churches - all of these found their place in the medieval city as metered words and rhythmic verses find their place in great poems. Meister Eckhart peers in and rejoices, "in making a work of art the very inmost of a man comes into outwardness... [it] prepares all creatures to return to God." The Good aesthetic receives its Beauty from the Truth of its expression.
In the industrial age, however, the city fossilizes into an expression of rigid mechanical forces - all revolves about the mills and the storehouses; the factories and the warehouses. The German poet Holderlin looks out and dismays, "there are laborers in this world, but no men...". Modern man is splintered into mechanistic shards in his daily existence, without so much as a clue in his collective memory as to why or when. Beginning in the 18th century, the aesthetic traditions of the Western world are turned completely inside-out and are treated as mere "subjective" matters of preference and taste. This reversal is borne in the West from two equally powerful directions - the mechanization of nature by modern philosophy and science, and the narrowing of the individual personality who aims only for economic and political freedom.
The former reveals its force in thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, while the latter finds its greatest expression in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The philosophy of Rousseau is a revolutionary protest against all that came before from the spirit of religious tradition and civic life. It is a protest which senses that, "everywhere [man] is in chains", but also falls for the deception that man was "born free" in the first instance. In falling for that farce, Rousseau's philosophy fails to see that the human epic was only beginning when our ancestors were chained. He failed to see the inner law of human civilization which pushes unceasingly forward, and only saw the outer forms which confine it within a prison where it has since remained. And it is through this myopic and microscopic vision that Western man loses sight of his inner aesthetic world altogether.
There is a story about Kant, who was a great pedant, and took his daily walk so punctually that the inhabitants of Königsberg could set their clocks by him. But there was one occasion when to the astonishment of the inhabitants the philosopher did not appear for some days: he had been reading Rousseau, whose writings had gripped him so hard that he had forgotten his daily walk. -Rudolf Steiner, Schiller and Our Times (Lectures, 1933)
Kant, under the hypnotic spell of Rousseau, delivered a devastating blow to the inner world of man with his epistemology separating the world of appearances from the world of "things-in-themselves". All claims to an objective Reality behind the inspiration of Art were then rendered hopelessly anachronistic. Kant himself made such claims, but they were merely abstract and therefore made hollow by way of his own philosophy. The aesthetic commemoration we see in the medieval era, which permeated all aspects of its culture just a few centuries before, was felt to be a distant, fuzzy and cold oration; a mere muttering echo of the place it once occupied in our collective human imagination. By the time of Steiner who was lecturing in the 1930s, "Tolstoy, who has created masterpieces in the sphere of art, deserts his art and looks for other means of speaking to the sensibility of his contemporaries".
The seeds sown by figures like Descartes and Bacon, Rousseau and Kant, reap humanity's rebellion against the Gods in such a measure that their pantheon is fatally wounded. When the fog of war is lifted, their activity is nowhere to be found in Nature. The monotheistic Church which brought forth the aesthetic splendor of medieval artwork and Gothic architecture also suffers a mortal wound during this modern age. Spiritual participation expressed through rituals, rites and sacraments was deemed to be the work of old pagan idols acting out their childish fantasies on the earthly stage. The deep harmony between inward religious tradition and outward spiritual faith was abruptly cleaved into the disharmony of creeds and dogmas of the day - "sola scriptura!" and "sola fide!" became the new revolutionary slogans which one and all must obey.
What is most important for man today, however, is to avoid making the same mistake Rousseau made when formulating the narrative he would tell - to keep close to heart Dante's vision that, "the path to paradise begins in hell". We must bear witness to the inner impulses which weave our differentiated personal and cultural histories into the exquisite tapestry of a Cosmic story. There is no epoch, no philosophy, no science, and no personality who does not fit into this Cosmic puzzle. So we will not dwell on our mistakes a moment too long, because they mark only the end of the not-so-humble beginning to our poetic song. We will only recover from those mistakes the tools needed to remember our Promethean proclamation, and begin our inward journey on a path to Self-determination.
Carl Jung now reminds us, before we set foot on this path, not to prematurely declare victory. We should not think ourselves free from the Gods because, "we are still as much possessed today by autonomous psychic contents as if they were Olympians... ". In ousting them from their heavenly thrones, "the gods have become diseases...". Jung discerned, "Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus... and produces disorders in the brains of politicians and journalists who unwittingly let loose psychic epidemics on the world." What fails to find its outlet in our daily expression, when artificially walled off from our experience of the world, makes its mark in our darkest impulses and does so in ever-greater succession. The Gods neither can nor will ever be completely silenced, so instead they must be sown into the fabric of our fully conscious activity.
We turn our attention, then, to the aesthetic enjoyment of poetry, which is one such powerful means of conscious integration. It will not be the sort of enjoyment one gets from merely reading a great poem, or the enjoyment one gets from merely feeling its loving embrace. Nor will it be the enjoyment that an onlooker finds from watching a fireworks display nor the naturalist from strolling amidst the tall green trees, but rather it will be the enjoyment the cabinetmaker takes in his craft or the scientist takes in the curing of a disease. We seek a deep understanding of the core spiritual imagination residing within the poetic word and its content. That is the imaginative knowledge - the illuminating power - which possesses the strength to loosen the shackles which bind man to his Earthly rock.
Imagination is not a simple flight of fancy - rather it is a pedagogical method of learning about the world. When we merely read a poem, we draw a measure of warmth and joy from its beauty. When we are connecting to the poem on an intuitive level, we experience a shift of consciousness in the direction of its primordial perspective on the world. Yet, it is only by employing our intuition and imagination in the service of knowledge that we come to know how our meaningful experience of a poem connects itself to the meaningful content of all other poems, and how that network of poetic content connects its meaning to the entire realm of Art, and how that entire realm of Art connects its meaning to the field of all human wisdom, and how that field then implants our soul deep within the interior perspective of the whole Cosmic prism.
We would do well, therefore, to think of the creative process as a living thing implanted in the human psyche... But works that are openly symbolic do not require this subtle approach; their pregnant language cries out at us that they mean more than they say. We can put our finger on the symbol at once, even though we may not be able to unriddle its meaning to our entire satisfaction. A symbol remains a perpetual challenge to our thoughts and feelings. That probably explains why a symbolic work is so stimulating, why it grips us so intensely, but also why it seldom affords us a purely aesthetic enjoyment. ... But in the case of a symbolic work we should remember the dictum of Gerhard Hauptmann: “Poetry evokes out of words the resonance of the primordial word..." Great poetry draws its strength from the life of mankind, and we completely miss its meaning if we try to derive it from personal factors... A work of art is produced that may truthfully be called a message to generations of men. So Faust touches something in the soul of every German... so also Dante’s fame is immortal, and the Shepherd of Hermas was very nearly included in the New Testament canon. - Carl Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art, and Literature
"And I had done a hellish thing, And it would work 'em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird That made the breeze to blow. Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow! Nor dim nor red, like God's own head, The glorious Sun uprist: Then all averred, I had killed the bird That brought the fog and mist. 'Twas right, said they, such birds to slay, That bring the fog and mist. ... And every tongue, through utter drought, Was withered at the root; We could not speak, no more than if We had been choked with soot. Ah! well a-day! what evil looks Had I from old and young! Instead of the cross, the Albatross About my neck was hung."
This rebellion of man cannot remain at the stage of mere abstract symbols if it hopes to unriddle its way into the fortress of Cosmic meaning. It must take its start from the appearances of language which present themselves in the sounds, images and patterns of lyrical and dramatic speech, but it must also press on much further to rediscover, as inner experience, all of that content which lives in the outer images of the monumental world epics, and to see clearly that man's imagination never exceeds his infinite reach. All the drama of heroes and villains, saints and sages, beasts and dragons, landscapes and seascapes, legends and quests, adventures and play - all the feelings of courage and dread, joy and sadness, triumph and failure, satisfaction and longing, hope and dismay - all of these should be lived out in the soul of each person through the aesthetics of poetry.
We have to feel our way towards it, step by step, listening, responding, continually wrestling, never relenting, until we burst out of our intellectual constraints... Anyone who is “happy discovering earthworms” will never succeed in getting beyond himself, will not make the discovery that he is also a being of air who can master the physical man, and make use of him without being chained to him... Borne on the wings of the word, he can endeavour to seek out his way along these paths. He has a presentiment of them whenever he gives himself over to the primordial powers of the word. The “I” – the vital breath – the divine centre: along such a path may the word lead one back to the beginning. Marie Steiner, Poetry and the Art of Speech (1921)
Rudolf Steiner, his second wife Marie Steiner, and Owen Barfield tower above other modern "experts" on poetry in this regard - they fully embrace the poem's ideal content as it is intimately shaped through the aesthetic structure of speech. For them, great poetry is itself a means and mode of thought which reveals to us the extra-dimensional architecture of higher realms. For them, a poem with marvelous aesthetics and little spiritual meaning is just as impossible as a peacock with beautiful feathers which serve no natural evolutionary purpose. We can rightly say the purpose of both natural and human aesthetics is the same - physical and spiritual survival in its broadest yet also immanent sense. One works through genes, cells, and proteins, and the other through verbs spoken in past, present, and future tense.
These 20th century aesthetic philosophers are picking up the baton which was dropped more than two plus millennia before. It was not merely dropped but almost nearly forgotten. Steiner points out, "Aristotle had written on Poetics, but for centuries these views [on the science of aesthetics] remained stationary". Only in the 18th century did the science of aesthetics get moving again with the philosopher poets such as Goethe and Schiller. The core aim of their poetry was "to reconcile the senses and morality" which, contra Kant, they saw as an immanently real possibility when humanity's passions are "so cleansed that [they] could become identical with [humanity's] duty". That is how the Promethean torch is handed off to its Faustian successor by the disciplined mind and inner Wisdom of each individual possessor.
Schiller remarks that a man's "inclination must be developed so far that he acts virtuously of himself." What he describes is the spiritual freedom which all aesthetic endeavors must seek today - the freedom to actually desire what we otherwise do in the name of virtue - so we now seek it ourselves through a much deeper-than-normal understanding in our poetic foray. We begin with a useful tip from Steiner - "if, in poetry or reciting, we find ourselves having to exert our intellect to grasp the merely word-for-word content, then the artistic is at that point disrupted". This difference between intellectual and imaginative knowing cannot be stressed enough in the wake of modernity - the former is how we naturally confront a text with ideal content but the latter is how we must confront such a text to begin revealing its poetic Spirit.
The insights discussed below should help us in our transition from intellectual to imaginative knowing of this prosaic-turned-poetic meaning. It will remain an ongoing struggle for most of us until we have made it second-nature by much patience and even more practice. Barfield relates a key insight for us in this endeavor - "In speech we distinguish first and foremost between the vowels and the consonants, the vowels expressing the inwardness, the feelings of man, while the consonants seek to represent... the forms which create and uphold the outer world." These are not our own personal feelings that the vowels and consonants convey, but the transpersonal meanings residing within the vast expanse of the Cosmic display. It is through this meaning that each person discerns what lives in him from the eternal Spirit - that is, his Self-Knowledge in its highest possible sense.
We do not need to take anything written here on faith - the observations can all be tested against our experience. With the vowel-consonant distinction, we see immediately why it would be a problem to look at poems originally written in a language we are not familiar with - the manner in which those distinctions manifest vary widely from language to language. Here we are only dealing with the English language, so we will only be enjoying English poems as we proceed. Steiner and Barfield also enjoyed the knowledge of poems in their ancient Greek and German refrains. Readers who are familiar with these can test our observations against poems in those languages at their own pleasure to see how they maintain. Testing everything against inward experience and holding fast what is good - that is how the spiritual aesthetic method should be understood.
So the poet who wants to bring inner qualities of being to the surface will be naturally drawn, by instinct and intuition, to the accumulation of vowels. When he wants to give form to the outer world of perception, in contrast, he will be naturally drawn to the accumulation of consonants. In this manner, a great poet will naturally reclaim the rhythm which has been lost in the modern age; that rhythm of inward and outward being, of 'spirit' and 'matter', which constitute each other by working against each other on the Cosmic stage. That is a basic foundation from which the poet's aesthetic flow proceeds. It bears repeating, however, that we are not injecting our own personal feelings into the letter-sounds by "subjective" decree, but instead we are discerning the soul quality which naturally rises to our consciousness from beholding the sound in its objective purity.
The lyrical, as I said, inclines toward the vowel-sounds; but we must not forget that every consonant also has in it a vowel-element. In every consonant there lies a disposition toward a vowel and every vowel has a tendency toward a consonant. Consequently through art, just as in other spheres where something similar is effected, the opposition between subjective and objective will be completely overcome. The whole inner being of man will be able to live in the outer world and the outer world will be brought to expression in its full strength through the inner being of man. Rudolf Steiner, Poetry and the Art of Speech
"Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer's lease hath all too short a date: Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm'd; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature's changing course untrimm'd; But thy eternal summer shall not fade Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest; Nor shall Death brag thou wander'st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou growest: So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this and this gives life to thee." - Shakespeare, Sonnet XVIII
The strophes of a great sonnet will express the polarities of our experience, as the first stanza forms a wave and the second forms a counter-wave. We find the polar tension arising specifically between the qualities of our inner thought playing against the qualities of our outward willing and feeling. Whereas the modern man takes that tension and manufactures a division between his thoughts, his will and his feelings, so as to leave the essence of all three obscured from view, the poetic man confronts it with his Spirit and weaves the tension into all of his own activity, so as to make it an integral thread running through. That confrontation through one's Spirit is the re-cognizing of the principles which underlie all particular manifestations of Art. These are the principles of polarity which inform every experience of Unity and Multiplicity, the Universal and the Particular, Permanence and Change.
All of the poetic dynamisms we are considering are working together to bring about deep comprehension. They do this work by playing off of one another - dampening and amplifying - intensifying and relaxing - their specific tension. We will explore that more in a subsequent installment, but now it will suffice to say, the peculiar post-modern notion that speech must abandon all detailed structure and conventions to consider itself poetic should be ignored. With that in mind, we move to consider a third dynamic of poetry which exists between the human rhythms of breath and blood - this relation is perhaps the most important of all. We are speaking of literal blood circulation and breath respiration, but we must also remember the literal essence of these processes is what we now call the "inner", "psychological", or "spiritual" meaning of them. The mechanical physiology we now envision with our intellect is but a faint shadow of that essence.
In this fundamental breath-blood relation, "we see Apollo, the god of light, carried on the billows of air in the breathing-process, and in his lyre the actual functioning of the blood-circulation." By taking in the living element of oxygen from the Cosmos and then giving back to it the metamorphosed gas of carbon-dioxide, we are connecting ourselves to the Cosmic form through respiration. Our blood works upon our inner breath to imbue it with our individual soul before it is released back into the inner world at large. It is the ratio between the breath and the pulse-beats of the blood which is expressed in the meter and syllable-quantities of poetic speech. The hexameter of four pulse-beats to one breath, which is the natural ratio for humans, reveals this particular rhythm on rhythm most clearly.
"I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made; Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade. And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow, And evening full of the linnet’s wings. I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core." - William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree (1888)
The blood rhythm which plays on the breath rhythm moving four times slower expresses the individual crafting of Cosmic experience which is then 'exhaled' back into the world through Art. It is the blood, which circulates the force of human strength and passion, forming and stirring the breath, which respires the force of imaginative and intuitive thought back into the world. For most people this crafting unconsciously operates in the blind spot of their experience, as an automatic physiological process, but modern science also reveals these processes can be experienced directly and even adjusted. Once they are re-cognized in fully conscious embrace, this instinctive process becomes the free Spirit who fuels our innate aesthetic capacity as it reaches escape velocity and soars into limitless space.
We have now seen how the sounds, tones, structures and rhythms of words imbue the lyrical poem with life. The content of the poem, including its characters and events, its personalities and images, is only mere prose until this transfiguration occurs. All poetry exists for the redemption and renewal of prose. All languages, as is well documented through their histories, were born in the rhythm and aesthetic imagery of poetry and only later degraded into the arrhythmia of mere prose. As late as Dante's works in the 14th century, Western language was still predominated by its poetic essence. He was still pleading with man to awaken, because "the man who lies asleep will never waken fame, and his desire and all his life drift past him like a dream, and the traces of his memory fade from time like smoke in air, or ripples on a stream."
And faded like ripples on a stream they did, very rapidly in the decades and centuries following. By the time of Milton, man was beginning to admit, “long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” Yet in the 21st century we can now also proclaim with Milton in confidence, “he who reigns within himself, and rules passions, desires, and fears, is more a king.” It is now our informed spiritual activity which is responsible for the failure or success of our ascension to the right hand of the Throne which rules over our passions; the Throne which can decree the rebirth of poetry as a living force of salvation in each and every soul won. Our speech now unchained, the Spirit coursing through our veins, who descended so far from her Fall, takes lifeless prose back into the realm of the Divine, making it the poetry we can rightly start to call, "Paradise Regained".
"Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water-snakes: They moved in tracks of shining white, And when they reared, the elfish light Fell off in hoary flakes. Within the shadow of the ship I watched their rich attire: Blue, glossy green, and velvet black, They coiled and swam; and every track Was a flash of golden fire. O happy living things! no tongue Their beauty might declare: A spring of love gushed from my heart, And I blessed them unaware: Sure my kind saint took pity on me, And I blessed them unaware. The self-same moment I could pray; And from my neck so free The Albatross fell off, and sank Like lead into the sea."