What is the poetic desire?
To be consumed with creative fire.
To put oneself, their self;
within book on a shelf.
Existing to inspire.
Waystones left behind…
Others paths follow in time. – Conor D. Ryan
Mysticism and creativity go hand-in-hand, hence the expression divine inspiration. This piece of writing will cover a wide range of theory, and illustrate its influence on western thought using examples of poetry and art from William Blake, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce and Allen Ginsberg. The focus is on spirituality in art(poetics), and engagement with ‘the soul of the world’ through engagement with symbol systems which they each used for inspiration.
What makes a poem, or work of art great? We can agree that some writings are better than other writings, some paintings more significant than others. It is not as simple as production value alone, the work of art has to find its position in history and culture. Perhaps a good place to begin is with the so-called ‘fathers of western thought’. The Greeks(Aristotle in particular) are considered to be the first to refer to Poetics in western thought, though in the Greek context this would have just meant making. Poetics, referring to dramatic musical theory with language as just one of the element, identified comedy, tragedy, satyr, lyric poetry and epic poetry. Quite importantly, these are distinguished as being imitations, or representation with different characteristics. Literary theory was concerned with concepts of how truth is applied in representation. The categorization of the different types of poetics was based on different characteristics: i) Differences between meter, rhythm and harmony,
ii) differences in the representation of goodness or morality, and iii) differences in how the narrative exists. However, this was more of an analysis of how it was achieved rather than what it was. Aristotle teacher Plato, as a member of the Pythagorean school, had previously written on the universality of human experience and the realm of forms (non-physical ideas being the most accurate reality).
In the Western world such ideas faded into obscurity for a long time during the middle ages, until a renewed interest following the Renaissance and the age of Enlightenment. Suddenly, they was popular again – particularly amongst those seeing divine inspiration outside of the hierarchy of the church. This occurred alongside renewed interest in neoplatonic thought and ideals, which increasingly began to influence western intellectual life. The idea of Anima Mundi(Latin: the soul of the world), the intrinsic connection between all living things on the planet, seemed to become increasingly captivating. The key understanding here being that this soul of the world existed over the material world, much like the soul is connected to the human body and had a connection to intelligence of humankind. It provided an explanation for a difficult question: Where do our thoughts come from? Or perhaps the logic being, what exactly are our thoughts influenced by? In the case of poets and artists, that question may have turned into: how can we get further access to this source of inspiration?
Creativity began to flourish anew in a modernizing Europe, alongside the influence of Eastern thought and mysticism. This seems to have been accompanied by a profound nostalgia for the perceived loss of a worldwide age of knowledge, learning and poetry – which led to various revival movements. These drew inspiration from the surviving fragments of older culture, and increasingly began to combine with elements of mysticism. Poetry, therefore, began to take on increasingly prophetic qualities alongside a deeper use of symbolism. There was a newfound search for a ‘truth’ through the arts, mirroring wider intellectual movements.
As Laurence Binyon points out in a 1935 publication Poems of Blake, the gifts of poets and artists need not be separated. “To him[Blake], indeed, painting was but another kind of poetry.” (xl) Blake, like many other great poets and artists, was consumed by a desire to create. He was unusually productive, seemingly finding the inspiration that many could only dream of. While his writing has been criticized for technical faults, he has lived on through his poetry and art. His style has been described as spiritual in nature, with ethereal qualities. perhaps, at least in part, this is due to his use of biblical reference and imagery in conjunction with more local settings like in Jerusalem.
“…” ( Blake, …) Like many others of the 18th and 19th centuries, Blake had significant interest in Celtic cultures and the antiquities of Britain. This was combined with intelligent use of reference points and symbol, in this example taken from the canonical Christian texts that compose the Bible. His writing and worldview influenced countless people, including Madam Blavatsky (below)
What use is Poetics? Culture, in any other context, refers to creating the conditions to facilitate growth e.g. Agriculture. This occurs within society too, as well as farms and any other means of production. Modernity was beginning. A very particular kind of Christianity had dominated western thought, and art for centuries. While undoubtedly influential, its power was waning in the context of a rapidly modernizing Europe when education was becoming more accessible. The stranglehold of monarchies and empires seemed to be weakening, the cultural amnesia that had been instilled over a thousand or so years between the 5th and 15th century was fading whilst newfound revival movements began. Culture and art began to flourish, taking on new directions. Amongst other revivalist movements, there was a movement towards spiritualism, as people began to seek alternate explanations.
Helena Petrova Blavatsky, an occultist and esoteric philosopher involved in the spritualist movement formed ‘The Blavatsky Lodge of the Theosophical Society’ in London in … Various writers and artists were part of her lodge including W. B Yeats, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, amongst many others such as Aleister Crowley, Rudolf Steiner and (later) even musicians like Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. Her writings remain in print, at the doing much to stimulate interest in eastern philosophy and worldviews – with particular regard to he universality of human consciousness. She was descended from a Russian noble family in decline, believing that she had magical powers from a young age. While she has been accused of fraudulent activities, Yeats attributed this to the need to perform on demand. Importantly, she was not involved in European colonial interest and did much to dispel the commonly belief that foreign nations needed the civilizing influence of Christendom.
The importance of the poet and artist to wider society should not be forgotten, though many remained unnoticed and under appreciated for the duration of their mortal life. However, some poets have managed to become synonymous with particular cultural contexts, times and places. For example, W. B. Yeats and the Irish Literary Revival during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth century. Arguably, this is due to an engagement with symbolism of a time and culture. In Yeats case, this mastery and understanding of symbol was recognized and he was placed at the head of a committee deciding the design of the Irish currency during the 1920’s alongside the formation of the Irish free state. Animals and birds were chosen for the front of coins, with the harp on the backs. Many others were involved in this design process, but nonetheless this was a great honor for the newly appointed Senator Yeats who had already secured his place in a new canon of English-language Irish literature.
Esoteric and occult thought were neither stigmatised by, or separate to the elite of society or indeed academia. The influential philosopher Henri Bergson(famous for his inception of time as cumulative, building up on the past to form the present moment) was married to one of the founders of the Golden Dawn. Yeats had been a member of various esoteric societies during his time,including the Golden Dawn which he achieved a level of … during his lifetime. ‘Magic’ was widely believed in, and even reported on in newspapers of the time – including a supposed ‘magic duel’ with Aleister Crowley. Supernatural powers were not seen as ridiculous in the 18th, 19th and even into the 20th century. Perhaps the nature of the power that these people craved was not supernatural in the fantasy sense but rather conceptual. Latent energy like the words on a page which can, in a sense, take on a life of their own through influencing the actions of others. To quote the old adage:
The pen is mightier than the sword.
W. B. Yeats Good and Evil (1903), was published after he underwent the portal ritual, included studies of Blake and Percy Blysse Shelly focusing on the mystic elements of their work. Percy Shelleys wife Mary Shelly edited his works, though she is known in her own right for Frankenstein. It is quite interesting that many classic Gothic and horror novels arose out of this time period including Bram Stokers Dracula, which has frequently been read as a commentary on British imperialism. “Because in Van Helsing’s view Dracula comes to a major European city with the set purpose of controlling the populace and assimilating them into his own identity, Stoker’s novel has often been read as a frightening symbolic rendering of British imperialism turned on its head, what Stephen Arata calls “reverse colonisation””(Galvan, 434) While admittedly there is little known about Stokers personal life, rumors of his involvement with occult societies and rituals are persistent. Perhaps more interesting again, is the fact that many of these writers came from the specific background of declining aristocracy including the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland.
With poetics, part of the function is to achieve catharsis, an emotional purging and a kind of relief through engagement with symbol on a personal level alongside the more universal interpretation of symbol. Of course, there is the act of writing. Could this be compared to a meditative exercise, such as doing the stations of the cross where one uses the crux of juxtaposition of both universal symbol(suffering, death, rebirth etc.), and personal meaning(everything that we attach to it) in relation to this. What is the poet or artist trying to achieve in creating a representation? Well, that can vary greatly. We need to take into account that it is a 2-way process of encoding and decoding. Simply put, these universal truths are open to interpretation and much debate. The underlying message is potentially lost to certain audiences looking for a literal meaning.
For millennia, humans have explained complex concepts through symbols and stories, parables, anecdotes and fables – giving examples and analogies. There have been numerous commonalities noticed between ancient cultures, their stories and concepts. As well as this, there are differences which develop even within related symbolic systems and cultures. Therefore, perhaps the symbol is best understood as unstable, but usable, for it changes over time.
But what precisely does this mean? Well, in exploring the subject we can make various choices, use different narrative forms, styles and words. However, the subject, even if its not to be taken at face value(like metaphor), must be relatable to others(i.e the true subject, even if given indirect treatment – should have a so-called ‘timeless’ insight into the human condition). The idea of writing about ”universal truths” had been much written about by various literary critics, poets and many others aspiring to find a means of explaining values in canon(selected works) and culture. This is an external truth, existing outside of us in a greater semantic chain. The real art is in how this is done, how the artist or poet achieves it. Therefore, such a universal truth is really in subjectivity.
The question of what makes great literature, poetry and art has captivated many minds – without a clear answer. However, there has been a process of editing, revision and selection as works have been compiled, taught and almost put up on a pedestal.Language has long been recognized as having different functions, for example Rhetoric(The language of persuasion). Poetics, the decorative use of language, seems to have another important function – the power to communicate so-called ‘universal truths’. This is the power of good literature. This is quite different from a ‘literal’ truth.
So what is this “universal truth”, and how precisely does it relate to the ‘subject’? This is indeed a difficult question to answer. The universality must be defined, as it is quite wide ranging, but it is implied that not all ‘truths’ are quite universal. But at least some touch upon a much greater understanding, and perhaps consequently, a type of knowledge. Ultimately, this is achieved in how this is done; through approaching subject matter with language or symbol, using a variety of techniques. One can achieve this through metaphor, indirect treatment or through implicit statement. This occurs as you are trying to further an understanding or communicate a feeling. But importantly, this does so with in a container (the form and structure of the work).
A universal truth can be moral, it can relate to complexities of the human condition, but these qualities alone may not quite make a universal truth. It must be inspired, and represented.
An apt point is that the world of a carpenter differs from the world of a policeman, or woman. This is very different from a deep sea divers lived experience, or a trucker. However, we all use symbol systems to communicate. Just as we exist in a wider society. Together, the individuals become a collective. The experience of one individual must therefore be part of a greater experience. This idea has been echoed throughout the ages, referred to under different names but it seems to come down to the universality of human experience.
Culture is a form of literacy, sometimes we need to understand how to ‘decode’ a work in order to appreciate it. This is an intellectual undertaking, and so often a labour of love. Often, some learning is needed to appreciate a lot of ‘high’ culture which functions through reference points touching off history, philosophy and more. ‘Low’ culture, by contrast, is all too often associated with less engagement with ideas and ideals. Though it nonetheless engages with value systems and belief, and part of its power may be that it is unquestioned.
In order to truly understand a symbol, we need something to compare it to. Based on associated similarities and distinct characteristics as part of a greater semantic chain. Systems of symbol can be created and communicated easily – provided that there is a conscious effort of representation alongside an understanding of a concept. Literal meanings are beside the point -conceptual communication is key. Sometimes this requires two extremes to be represented, for example embodying good and bad – but this necessitate a complex moral system underpinnings the work. The universal truth differs from a literal truth in many regards, but it seems key that it is conveyed rather than said.
This is something that we see in mythology, religious texts, poetry, literature, art and most forms of representation. The idea of the poet-philosopher is quite interesting when you think about it – even in more modern poetry this is relevant. Such ideas are communicated by the likes of W.B Yeats, Blake, Allen Ginsberg and so many more.
The position of the poet and artist is hard to gauge. Taking inspiration from TS Eliot’s likening of the poet to the catalyst in alchemical processes I would propose that this position, in a sense, exists outside of them. In many regards, this position is a function. The extension of their self to a realm of symbol. This requires a mixture of medium, imagery, “the symbolic”, connotations of truth and metaphor. What we can observe from such writers and artists is the making of connections, using the work of art to build a bridge between ideas and human emotion. So to speak.
One idea, relating to the modernist movements and experimentation with technique in particular, comes from an observation: namely the similarities between certain features like ‘stream-of-consciousness’ technique and automatic writing. Their ‘radical experimentation’ with narrative may have an additional meditative purpose, perhaps linked to certain structuralist ideas including the use of symbol in language. Thus we see the ‘layering’ of symbols, to create deeper, more referential meanings.
In the case of each poet listed above, their search for enlightenment extended to a search for a sort of mythological well of symbol to draw from.
In each case this may be understood as being, at least in part, a reaction to increasing rationalism and reductionism in western thought. Perhaps alongside a movement towards Alchemy to understand the affects of perception on the individual and the creation of their experiences. As a profoundly intellectual exercise, there is a very real art in what these people achieved in their creative pursuits. Of course, a particular depth of emotion and lived experience is characteristic in each example. However, we can also see an attempt to reference and structure symbol as the artist/poet begins to equip themselves for expression and understanding. This is similar to a philosopher defining terms. In the case of the artists of a swiftly modernising world, inspiration needed to come from undercurrents in western thought alongside a flowing inspiration requiring, simultaneously, critical thought and spontaneity. This requires a lifetime of learning, and self-direction in intellectual pursuits. A apt misquote being:
The ego can only see what the mind perceives.
This sentiment has echoed through the ages. We refer time and time again to the classics, great thinkers and philosophers. And indeed, mythologies.
James Joyce for example, wrote Ulysses(Latin: the Oddessy) drawing a grander comparison of father/son struggles and an epic quest, in a cinematically approached city novel. What is being done here? We have intertextuality(references to external narratives and symbol systems), in the line of poetry – or rather poetics. This is used to underscore a concept throughout the text, through the layering and structuring of meaning. In this case, the writer is playing with a genre(the city novel being common at the time), and projecting comparison between texts by the means of a well known symbol system that can be likened to a sort of mythological well to draw inspiration from. This would not have seemed obscure, as such classics were the basis of curriculum at the time – highlighting the target audience of the text to be the well educated.
This intertwines wider language systems(bearing in mind the oddessy was written in ancient greek), with the language used itself. But it also depends on the listener/reader, and their perspective. There are two sides to the process. Of course, the systems of symbols used are external, pre-existing us. For example, we are born but we learn to use the English language. This equips us to understand the world, it gives us perspective while simultaneously limiting our perspective. However, the universal aspects of language and symbols used pre-exist that i.e. concepts and even stories existed beforehand, and the English language is being used to describe them. This is achieved through the creation of ‘external representations'(for example, stories that have the same essential characteristics can be translated to different languages, retold etc. However, they still exist independently of language) These are greater concepts, with a long history and longevity, and in a sense – a legacy.
Aristotle(amongst other things, considered the first western literary critic), believed that the elements in various combinations, composed the earth. This is unacceptable in today’s scientific dogma, but may be a useful way of understanding much of worldview. Worldview is not necessarily independent of knowledge. In fact, the idea of separating these would have seemed alien to those of the ancient world.
The power of mythologies to the individual seems attested by Aristotle’s most famous pupil: Alexander the Great whose conquering of the Ancient world was unprecedented. Throughout his life, Alexander the great compared his conquests to the mythologies that informed his perspective, the Oddessy and the Iliad in particular.
During the renaissance, there was renewed interest in the ancient world. Classical antiquity in particular. While the period in question between the 14th and 17th century, in truth this process is still ongoing. The word renaissance means “rebirth” in old French, referring to the rebirth of culture from the dark ages and the beginnings of modernity. This was the revival of culture and learning, a newfound belief in the power of humankind to excel. Art and ideas are of particular importance.
Galileo, and many others have had ideas considered unacceptable in their cultural context. Though today we accept that the sun is at the centre of our solar system, this went against the dogma of authorities. It was rationalised that he must be wrong. Similarly, many others have suffered for these ideas, and even been martyred. Thus, we also have the profoundly romantic idea of the artist that has to suffer for their art. Part of them has to die, in order to be reborn.
Today still, many ideas are considered eccentric, or downright silly in the face of staunch rationalism. However, rationalism and empiricism cease to capture the complex processes of human emotion. Simply put, objectivity is an illusion to a certain extent.
Blake and WB Yeats shared a couple of similar beliefs and opinions, lamenting the loss of a once worldwide ‘true’ religion and a forgotten time of prosperity and knowledge. They, like Ginsberg, were searching for something in their poetry. An alternative spirituality was explored in the poems written by the above, combining vivid imagery with localised placenames and themes. To these writers, society was consuming the hearts of humankind, what Ginsberg described as a Moloch. They were aware of the narrative spin put on history by the authorities and institution, that there was a lot left out. Some of it unknowable.
What do Blake, Yeats, Joyce and Ginsberg have in common?
Each looked at the world around them as the subject of their writing, and acted as a voice for undercurrents in intellectual movements of their times. Their interests were esoteric and spiritual in nature – searching for alternative to the hegemony(dominant ideology). They were interested in emotional truth, the universality of human experience. Taking inspiration from the Ancient world and applying it to the treatment of their chosen subject(s) – they used Judaic and Biblical imagery, eastern philosophy(hinduism, buddhism etc.) Celtic and Greek Mythology as a symbolic basis for communicating worldview and a deeper meaning in their texts. This was achieved by layering symbolic content, both structurally and by drawing parallels between situations, places and ideas. In doing so, these writers managed to achieve a synthesis of subjectivity (Lived experience, emotion and the interior world of characters) and a believable objectivity of the cultural contexts of their times. In doing so, highlighting flaws in both the dominant ideology of their time(through imperialism, rulers or society more generally at the time), and the control of information and culture. Each successfully conveyed the ‘magic’ of lived experience that rationalism fails to explain, and in doing so teach the reader a valuable lesson about the human condition.
Eliot, T. S.
Yeats, William Butler
Bram Stoker. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/stoker/bio.html
Galvan, Jill. “Occult Networks and the Legacy of the Indian Rebellion in Bram Stoker’s Dracula” Hiatory of Religions 54: 4. (2015) https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/680178
Madam Blavatsky. newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/helena-blavatsky