T.S. Eliot

Listen Awhile Ye Nations, And Be Dumb.


Great spirits now on earth are sojourning;
He of the cloud, the cataract, the lake,
Who on Helvellyn’s summit, wife awake,
Catches his freshness from Archangel’s wing:
He of the rose, the violet, the spring,
The social smile, the chain for Freedom’s sake:
And lo!–whose steadfastness would never take
A meaner sound than Raphael’s whispering.
And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses. Hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings?–
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb.
________

– John Keats, Addressed To Haydon, 1816

I never got poetry. When I was in elementary school my younger brother and I collected a binder full of our own attempts at poetry, but the only goal was to write simple, silly verses that rhymed. Apart from thoroughly enjoying complex rhymes, I never understood the draw of poetry. Even in school I never understood the enjoyment of poetry and the basic concepts involved didn’t make me excited. I couldn’t force iambic pentameter to mean anything on paper and I was without a passionate poet, so it bored me thoroughly. I was never really sure what to make of free verse.

Now, a decade later, I’m starting to really think there might be something I missed in this poetry stuff. I mean, I always assumed it must truly interest many people, but I wasn’t one of them. After realizing that so many people I respect were either heavily fashioned by poetry or were poets themselves, I have become somewhat determined to invest myself in understanding its enjoyment.

The three things I’ve come to understand about poetry thus far are that it is best read slowly, aloud, and indulgently.

Perhaps what I mean is that, in my experience, poetry is only enjoyable when it is paired with a slow lifestyle. When I was a child I assumed it was simply about rhyming. In school I never understood how the more complicated terminology explained any enjoyment. Now I am starting to realize that the poetry itself lies in the audible flow of the words.

I’ve always greatly appreciated prose. A witty or profound sentence full of large or interesting words is sure to be a delight. Now I’m starting to realize that poetry carries a similar intoxicant which is meant for sipping. Poetry is for re-reading, for memorization even, both skills that seems to have mostly fallen out of vogue. Memorization for pleasure rather than duty.

I have started slowly with the mostly free verse of Wendell Berry. His wonderful prose requires slow reading, and the transition to his poetry is a smooth one. From there I have begun to dabble in Keats, and I hope to eventually build up an appetite for modern poetry like Elliot and the old epic poems like La Morte D’Arthur, Spenser, and Milton.

My goal in this busy world is to slow down, so I think poetry is all the more worthy a pursuit. Like Keats says, if we slow down enough to take it all in, perhaps we will be able to stay quiet for a bit.

If you love poetry, please tell me why, and by whom.

55 Classics Review #2 – “The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton


I get a little disappointed when I think about G.K. Chesterton.

I’m disappointed because the man was a force of sheer genius in almost every approach to the written word. Sadly, he is remembered for a very small portion of his prolific work, and what’s worse is he is often thought of simply as some guy who inspired some other guys people still really like. I do not intend to demean his most reputed works, but to reveal him as a far more expansive and influential catalist in British literature. Lets take a look at what some other people had to say about him.

Chesterton was “a man of colossal genius.” – George Bernard Shaw

“I cannot think of a single comic poem by Chesterton that is not a triumphant success.”

and

“When he is really enthrall we with a subject he is brilliant, without any doubt one of the finest aphorists in English Literature.” – W. H. Auden

“There is no better critic of Dickens living than Chesterton.” – T. S. Eliot

“[Chesterton] had a genius simply for having original ideas. . . It is hardly possible to read a page of Chesterton without finding an unexpected idea, at best wise, at worst fiendishly ingenious” – Wilfred Sheed, concerning the author’s essays.

“He was spontaneously witty, but he could also be carefully epigrammatic. He thought of words not as neutral rational counters, but as confetti, bonbons, artillery.” -Anthony Burgess

“The man is exuberant, so disrespectful to the learned, so deadsure, so comic where most serious.” – Maisie Ward

“Chesterton was a brilliant philosophical journalist. . .The range of talent was almost alarming. . .[He] was simply what the word ‘genius’ meant” – Wilfrid Sheed

But I’m afraid I’ve lost the plot. Back to the book.

All of these great statements about Chesterton do serve well to help illustrate the qualities found in The Man Who Was Thursday. While the book is less than 200 pages long, it is by no means a light read. It is dense with constant wit and aphorisms and is, according to the author’s subtitle, a nightmare. It is an extremely dense nightmare.

The book can best be split into three sections. Like a dream, however, the fluidity with which these segments flow together makes it impossible to recognize where the transitions take place until after they have happened. The book starts out as a very logical, philosophical and political debate between a poet of chaos/anarchy/nihilism and a poet of order/law/God. This is set within the realm of artistic community and at the pace of a detective novel. Things are reassuringly lucid at this point. The story becomes somewhat comic in sequence from the get-go, then at some point near the middle of the novel the reader pauses, looks wonderingly at the large portion of completed text in his left hand, and wonders when the story changed so drastically into a bizarre, Kafka nightmare. Everything has gone from a jaunty, shocking little narrative to to a heavy and incomprehensible nightmare world. Just as the reader begins to mentally threaten to drop the book for sheer emotional exhaustion, the story turn more whimsical and philosophically complex that ever before and suddenly all of the original questions of politicking and law-and-order are turned on their heads to be the real questions at the center of both the universe and ever individual’s struggle against it. In the end, questions are compounded and ideas of answers are hinted at, then all is left behind like a bad (or wonderful) dream.

Throughout all this the novel is decidedly Chesterton as described further above. The more serious the subject matter at hand, the more whimsical his writing. He has all the witty epigrammatic skills attributed to the Benjamin Franklins and the Winston Churchills of the world. He seems always to be poking fun at everyone, so that his opponent may be made the more furious even as he mocks his own inconsistencies. His main character Syme is distinctly like he himself as the narrator. While the other characters may be optimists or pessimists or anarchists or madmen, both narrator and protagonist take a light and poetic view that seems always to look at the bigger picture and remain almost in the third person for their seeming lack of personal pride at their own conclusions.

The book, among other Chesterton, has been compared to Kafka. He himself has even been called the anti-Kafka. Kafka read The Man Who Was Thursday and remarked “He is so gay, one might almost believe he has found God.” This is a great insight, because Kafka and Chesterton view the world from much the same standing, coming to drastically differing conclusions. Both men view the universe as a terrible and isolating empty space full to the brim with suffocating questions, yet their opposite tones display a response that could not be more drastically different. Kafka refused to be comforted or to believe in community. His comfort is in being honest about the horrors he feels, even in embracing them. The Man Who Was Thursday shows us clearly that Chesterton believed that isolation is an illusion and the source of a large majority of our unfounded fears. His characters are always realizing, comically, that their assumed enemies are actually their disguised advocates. The Man Who Was Thursday is in no way Chesterton’s attempt to simplify or resolve the complications of the unanswered overflow, but it is a reassurance that we can remain joyfully human and rest in faith.

For Fans Of: The Castle by Franz Kafka, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, The Stranger by Albert Camus