Poetry, as we have discussed in earlier parts of this article series, depends upon the Muses and accessing the deeper self or soul within each person; this is not an easy thing to do. In the 18th century Lord Chesterfield commented on how an individual could be anything they chose to be, except a ‘great poet’. There has always been a recognition in all societies throughout history that the calling of the true poet – like the true prophet – is a rare and difficult one. But it was not always that way; there was a time when all people were naturally poets. This time, in Christian theology, we call pre-lapsarian, meaning before the Fall, the fall of Adam and Eve, and their subsequent expulsion from paradise.

One does not, in my view, need to be a Christian to accept this contention; it is just that the Christian myth explains it in a simple way. But the reality is that all peoples throughout all time have been religious and have been involved in religious practices. Why is this? Because it is apparent that the human race at some early point in its history was involved in some calamitous and aboriginal mistake. Humans were once happy, and then they weren’t. The Hindus, the Ancient Greeks, and many others speak of the Golden Age – an age in which humans were happy, lived in peace with the gods, enjoyed extraordinary longevity and health, and possessed extraordinary abilities far exceeding our own. Then – according to the Greeks – the Golden Age gave way to the Silver and so on, till finally we end up in the Iron Age of barbarism and humans acting more like animals than animals themselves.

In short, what we have here in these powerful and potent myths is a total refutation of the modern idea of progress; on the contrary, we are regressing. It seems difficult to understand this when have central heating, 3 meals a day in the West, send rockets to the moon, and threaten to blast to smithereens anybody who hacks us off; but it is not so really difficult when we consider that the technology and science that has enabled these ‘advances’ are precisely the mechanisms by which we are going to be destroyed, as the gods – God – balance the book at some point in the near future. The signs are already here. Sadly, as Geri Giebel Chavis observed, ”The tragedy we bring upon ourselves is worse than even a tragic fortune that is destined for us”.

But to return to the garden of Eden, the paradise before our expulsion, what of the poetry then? Well, it is clear: poetry was what God gave Adam and Eden – the power of language and to name – and naming to control, the real magic of all language – the animals and all things; and by ‘all things’ I mean most essentially our own minds and understanding. At this point there was no such thing as prose; those in the garden only spoke poetry, and that it was poetry is certain because the language would be entirely onomatopoeic. In other words, sense and sound would perfectly correspond with each other, would be in balance – or a better word still, in harmony.  And, as we discussed in Part 3, that is what poetry is: a harmony between the inner impulse and the outward expression, and framed in such a way that it compels by its own self-evident beauty. Lying, of course, is impossible. Imagine this: a dialogue with someone whose every word induces rapture – a simultaneous manifestation of goodness, truth and beauty, so that one does not wish to interrupt even should one want to respond! Except – their poetry would be incomplete without your response …

Naturally, too, in this state – the right and left hemispheres of the brain were in perfect sync – wellness is endemic, and our own language further hypnotises us into even deeper levels of joy. Not surprisingly, the Ancients, even after the initial Fall (there was effectively a second Fall, which precipitated the Flood, an event remembered by all cultures with the possible exception of the Japanese) were all recorded as experiencing extraordinary longevity.

And at this point we need to remember that Adam, it is said, was created a ‘living soul’; also that he was created in the image of God, as was Eve. What was that likeness? As Dorothy L Sayers pointed out in her book, ‘The Mind of the Maker’: it was that human beings are creative, for that is all we know about God by chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. We are inherently creative, and when we are not, our humanity and our divinity are diminished thereby. Second, to be like God – the infinite – is, of course, to be infinite ourselves in some mysterious sense; for infinity cannot be diluted – if we are like that which is infinite, then that property too is contained within us. So where is it contained?

Here we come to the nub of that matter: Adam was created a ‘living soul’. This is our real, eternal self; it’s where the true language comes from that cannot lie – and conscience too – and gently it prompts, chides, corrects the left-side of the brain, or ego mind; at least, until the ego cauterises it.  Like our subconscious it is buried within us, and more specifically, as the Ancient Egyptians and others knew, it is located in the heart. Yes, our core is in our hearts and it is from the heart, not the head, that real poetry speaks.

How does the heart speak? It beats. The living soul’s primary sound is the beat; and the new living soul, the baby, grows under its influence. First, there is nothing – absence – which we might signal with a dash –. Second, there is a beat, which we might signal with a cross, x. And so the genius of the English language becomes manifest; not all languages are stress-driven, but English is. Why is this important? Because what moves us most, what is most emotionally powerful in our lives is not sight – the image – but sound, the rhythm, and especially the metrical pattern that we call the iambic. I need hardly elaborate this, but it is why films have soundtracks, and why we invest so much time listening to music, and why music has such healing properties when properly used. And this is why over 90% of the greatest poetry in the English language is written in iambic meter.

And here’s the really incredible thing: so much is written in this meter not because poets are deliberately attempting to reproduce the heart-beat and engineer emotion in a formulaic way; but because the English language is naturally iambic in how it is structured. Writing iambic verse is going with the grain of the language; writing in other meters is far trickier, and there are not that many extended long poems that one could name that are not in iambic; at least that are still readable. Of course, writing in free verse is invariably – with honourable exceptions – a complete abdication of the task of poetry.

So where do we see this structure in the language? At the most basic, and so most common levels. First, in the requirement of our language to precede most nouns with the definite or an indefinite article, together with the fact we have a riches of monosyllabic nouns. Thus, we have ‘the pen’, ‘a book’, ‘some cheese’ and so on; the iambic pattern is there. Plus, and second, we have the requirement of our verbs to be preceded by pronouns. Again, ‘I walk’, ‘you run, ‘they talk’ and so on; hundreds and thousands of combinations of strong and common words (indeed, many of the monosyllabic verbs are what we call ‘strong’ verbs). Finally, with the plethora of monosyllabic prepositions and conjunctions, we create iambic patterns all the time without even thinking about it: ‘of love’, ‘on top’, ‘but no’, ‘or go’, and so on.

What this all means is that the English language, perhaps pre-eminently (as its poetry – worldwide – can be considered its crowning artistic glory, as, say, music could be considered the Germans’ crowning artistic achievement), is expressive of the heart, of emotion, of the soul – and the eternal soul is beautiful. And this is important, for as Alan Watts said, “Wonder, and its expression in poetry and the arts, are among the most important things which seem to distinguish men from other animals, and intelligent and sensitive people from morons”.
Thus, as I reach the end of this article it should be apparent that the writing of poetry is of primary concern to each and every one of us, and of our civilisation as a whole, because of its divine origin, its healing power, and because as Norman O. Brown put it, “Art and poetry have always been altering our ways of sensing and feeling – that is to say, altering the human body and the human mind” and this leads Derek Steinberg to observe that “Even elaborate psychodynamic theories have their limitations; many would agree that literature and poetry soar way beyond them”. Wow – what a claim! All that money, effort and time poured into ‘research’ and ‘science of psychodynamic theories’ and poetry – and the Muses and the myths – can fly above them, which means to go in at a deeper level – if one may reverse the metaphor; for the journey of the soul – where poetry resides – is always downwards, which is why Orpheus – and Dante subsequently – first had to go down.

And we are reminded that in the beginning the invocation of the Muse was an indication that the speaker was working inside the poetic tradition, according to the established formulae. How important this is, is shown in Christopher Bryant’s comment when he said, “The most powerful ally in resisting the debunking spirit of modern reductionism is poetry”. Poetry is of and from the Muses, and for all the reasons I have given and explored when we abandon that tradition – the Muses – we are not writing poetry at all, but the spirit of self-deception is in us, and the spirit of pride as we insist the pantheon of poets gives way to our petty ego and its will-driven works.

In our world now this is largely something we recognise as being post-modernist – wholly invaded by secularism and by a deep atheism that seeks to remove wonder, mystery, truth, goodness and beauty from our world. In form, it is invariably, but not always, in free verse; that absence of structure that proudly struts around proclaiming a false freedom – from the shackles – the forms – of those greater than ourselves. But whether they abjure form (as normally they do) or accept it (usually to corrupt it), we can always spot their work. We only need to return to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous and true definition of poetry: “Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.” Yes, not metrical necessarily, but rhythmical, and critically the creation of beauty. The beauty that is balm to our souls; that enlightens us, spiritually, emotionally, mentally; and so casts a healing glow over our lives. It is this that we want, that we must insist on. No-one says it is easy to create; indeed, this article, I think, has intimated just how difficult the enterprise of poetry – of invoking the Muse – is. But difficulty is no reason not to do it; on the contrary, it is the spur. As Yeats put it, ‘The fascination of what’s difficult’.

If we cannot be exactly like Orpheus, then I suggest we must become just like Odysseus – each one setting out on his or her journey from the ruins of Troy and trying to find his or her way home to one’s true love, Penelope. Penelope, for women, of course will be a male, since in the subconscious we are reversed. But here’s the important thing to grasp: the journey home to find our true love is a symbol, for our true love is our own soul – which we said before is essential, eternal and … beautiful.


James Sale, FRSA is a leading expert on motivation, and the creator and licensor of Motivational Maps worldwide. James has been writing poetry for over 40 years and has seven collections of poems published, including most recently, Inside the Whale, his metaphor for being in hospital and surviving cancer, which afflicted him in 2011. He can be found at www.jamessale.co.uk and contacted at james@motivational maps.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition.

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19 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    This is a fine foundation for discussion and I am grateful that Mr. Sale has taken his invaluable time to help.

    In order to express my agreement with the truths Mr. Sale offers us, I must first put forward Dante’s consideration of Mr. Sale’s final suggestion of “becoming just like Odysseus.”

    Ulysses finds himself in Canto XXVI of the Inferno. While his sins of trickery, ambush, deception, and the placing of his own interests above that of civilization are well known, Dante focuses most remarkably on his Ulysses’s wanderlust.

    For, in truth, the end of the Odyssey informs us that its hero would not live happily ever after, but rather that he would die on the sea. Indeed, Ulysses engulfed by the flames of his misdirected ardor to travel, recounts his death, an event taking place outside of and subsequent to Homer’s verses, reminding us of Homer’s foreseeing and perhaps admonishing us to read the last books of the Odyssey more carefully.

    There is a problem with Odysseus, and it is the same problem Mr. Sale has perfectly exposed in his essay.

    The problem is only heightened by Dante’s quasi-mirroring of Ulysses’s sin of curiosity and servitude to an eternal quest for whatever lies beyond. Dante is also the hero of an epic, Odysseus had also visited hell, albeit in the form of Hades. It would seem the two have much in common.

    But the difference between the Christian and the pagan epic consists in one having a definite term in God, while the mere comforts of domestic life can never suffice for the other, because these also lack finality in God.

    Odysseus is a modern. The intellectual quest for him is its own false end, ordained, if ordained at all, to his selfish wants and needs. He is the destroyer of a city, not a man of civilization. Penelope’s tapestry is never truly complete, as her husband’s homecoming must undone by his future wandering.

    I can only speak from my own experience in this sense. My verses are not a quest, or a journey. While I write as a pilgrim, “in via,” my “patria” has been revealed in the flesh of Him whose journey, the Via Crucis, is my model.

    And perhaps this is Dante’s gracious admonition as he sees his beloved Florence increasingly taken with the trappings of pagan culture, namely, that we must be very careful in our choice of heroes.

    For, I have noted the heroes of left and right, of liberals and conservatives, of Nationalists Black and White. I find theirs are all misguided, all imperfect, all but fallible men: Not one possesses a divinely guided doctrine or presents an outstanding example of holiness or even virtue, as virtue is not a noble fraction of fortitude or an egregious percentage of prudence—it is all the moral and theological virtues operating in harmony at once.

    The best heroes of this world are all unknown.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Joseph – yes, the reference to Odysseus was a little casual in that the perspectives on him have varied so widely, and of course Dante did condemn him to hell. I guess my use of his name in the article was less thinking of that eventuality, and more of his reputation as the archetypal explorer; of course, anything taken to extremes is fraught with spiritual danger.

  2. Sally Cook

    Hello, James Sale —

    What you are saying is exactly what I’m always griping about – the perversion of the natural rhythm of life which we experience in our bodies and in all we do and observe. In order for any written thought proclaiming to be poetry, this rhythm must be what we use as bedrock. That, plus rhyme (which is a rhythm in itself) combine with another sort, which is a vertical rhythm comprised of depth of meaning. All these and more must make up the larger part of what a poem is, otherwise it is not a poem.

    This is precisely why almost all so-called “free” verse is not free. It’s like going back to the beginning of the universe and trying to create a better one without any tools.

    God isn’t stupid; He had a plan. We were made in his image – do we honestly think we can do better?

    When you are building a poem, you might be constructing a verbal Taj Mahal or a birdhouse; either way it must be built correctly.

    You always hit on one or more salient points. I congratulate you on your natural talent for going straight to them.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Your comment, Ms. Cook, makes me realize that modernism, in all its aspects, let alone poetry, is essentially unnatural. This is where I, too, am grateful for the discussion opened by Mr. Sale.

    • James Sale

      Thanks Sally – I like your analogy of “going back to the beginning of the universe and trying to create a better one without any tools.” – exactly!

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    The notion of a prelapsarian perfect language, wherein sound and sense corresponded perfectly, is only suggested obliquely in the Book of Genesis, when Adam is asked to name all the various creatures there. But the notion has nevertheless had a great many champions through the ages, each of them coming up with some sort of Ur-language that was the divinely intended perfect tongue. Classical Hebrew was frequently the choice. Less historically trained persons have suggested French, or Danish.

    But the idea is undermined by the subsequent story of Babel and the confusion of tongues. There the multiplicity of languages is seen as a divine punishment for human presumption. Like hard work, pain in childbirth, and death, it is the consequence of our sins. The prelapsarian perfect language is gone, and we now only have a welter of disparate dialects.

    For poetry, this postlapsarian circumstance means that a poet must know his particular native language like the back of his hand, be be aware of the resources of other languages. He will of course be devoted to his personal religious belief or ideology or philosophic worldview, but that in itself will not guarantee the making of excellent poems. It never has. Command of linguistic skill is primary.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      “Love’s common speech razed Babel’s tower of clay / And made men brethren of a single tongue…” (Sonnet 14 “Pentecost” from Sonnets for Christ the King https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpO4Kwb7EF8)

      Dr. Salemi has given us much to ponder in the discussion of the linguistic consequences of sin: the welter of dialects, the confusion of tongues, if not the very perversion of meaning we see taking place among the proponents of “politically correct” speech—truly a punishment for 500 years of apostasy in which the very name of Christ is now considered a scandal in our art.

    • James Sale

      Yes, I agree Joseph Salemi. Hard work, pain, death are all part of the human mix, which means too that poetry is never going to be easy – nothing really worth doing is. And I agree too that command of linguistic skill is primary, but there is usually too a trinity of ‘things’ that are in a dynamic tension; so, alongside the linguistic skill as you have mentioned, there is also the philosophy/theology or depth of thinking without which with all the linguistic skill in the world we’d only ever be writing genius limericks! But the third leg is what I am calling the Muse in my article: this inspirational source that requires an openness, and a certain ambivalence, to reality, is highly necessary and not per se correlated with linguistic skill. This is why you sometimes find wonderful poems written by uneducated people using simple language that somehow strikes home. But we all agree, that the highest endeavours combine all three elements in a dynamic interchange.

  4. Michael R. Burch

    Very interesting, except that the fossil record makes this so much mumbo-jumbo! There never was a “perfect” garden of Eden, or a “fall.” Trillions of animals suffered and died before human beings evolved to think and talk. If there was an “original sin,” it was obviously on the part of the Creator, if such a being exists. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, if there is a God, he vastly overestimated his powers when he created human beings. The idea that Adam was created out of the blue, spouting poetry, is beyond absurd.

  5. Joseph S. Salemi

    Once again, Michael R. Burch shows his complete ignorance of mythopoeic structures, allegory, and figurative language. But this is what we have all come to expect from a software salesman in the boondocks who pretends to be a literary critic.

    • James Sale

      Thank you Joseph for your comments. There are two terrifying things in this world: one, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God; two, it is a terrifying thing to be so literal as to have no poetic imagination at all – for there can be no real poetry in such a mind.

  6. David Watt

    Mr. Sale eloquently states that true poetry, like life, follows a pattern and structure designed for a purpose. Much of modern poetry steers wide of this course, to the detriment of the reader and society as a whole.

    • James Sale

      Thank you David – yes, purpose is a key word, and you are right in thinking that its absence is to the detriment of us all.

    • James Sale

      Thank you David Hollywood – I noticed that you were recently confused with David Watt, and now your comments follow on from each other!!! We must be clear: you are the film star; he is the power surge!!! Got it!

  7. Satyananda Sarangi

    James Sir, greetings!

    This fourth essay sums up the connection between the Muse and poetry so well. Having enjoyed all the four of them, I am convinced as you’ve stated earlier that one can choose anything except to be a poet. It is indeed quite interesting as to how the muse entrusts only a few with this very wondrous task of healing the world through poetry.

    The point where it is mentioned that post modernists annihilate the beauty, the truth, the veiled treasures and forces that bind us to this mystic universe, is spot on. There is this wave of pseudo awareness creeping into young minds that liberation ( a false one which desires to make one feel extraordinary if they break away from forms and norms) is the foremost virtue. It is like a plague because those who practice the opposite (commit themselves to form & structure in poetry) are labelled as lunatics. And thus, the latter are closely associated with the muse, as they, with strange powers, craft art far above the straying multitude.

    This scenario reminds me of poems by James Elroy Flecker and John Heath Stubbs :

    To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence
    by James Elroy Flecker

    I who am dead a thousand years,
    And wrote this sweet archaic song,
    Send you my words for messengers
    The way I shall not pass along.

    I care not if you bridge the seas,
    Or ride secure the cruel sky,
    Or build consummate palaces
    Of metal or of masonry.

    But have you wine and music still,
    And statues and a bright-eyed love,
    And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
    And prayers to them who sit above?

    How shall we conquer? Like a wind
    That falls at eve our fancies blow,
    And old Maeonides the blind
    Said it three thousand years ago.

    O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
    Student of our sweet English tongue,
    Read out my words at night, alone:
    I was a poet, I was young.

    Since I can never see your face,
    And never shake you by the hand,
    I send my soul through time and space
    To greet you. You will understand.

    To A Poet A Thousand Years Hence
    by John Heath Stubbs

    I who am dead a thousand years
    And wrote this crabbed post-classic screed
    Transmit it to you – though with doubts
    That you possess the skill to read,

    Who, with your pink, mutated eyes,
    Crouched in the radioactive swamp,
    Beneath a leaking shelter, scan
    These lines beside a flickering lamp;

    Or in some plastic paradise
    Of pointless gadgets, if you dwell,
    And finding all your wants supplied
    Do not suspect it may be Hell.

    But does our art of words survive –
    Do bards within that swamp rehearse
    Tales of the twentieth century,
    Nostalgic, in rude epic verse?

    Or do computers churn it out –
    In lieu of songs of War and Love,
    Neat slogans by the State endorsed
    And prayers to Them, who sit above?

    How shall we conquer? – all our pride
    Fades like a summer sunset’s glow:
    Who will read me when I am gone –
    For who reads Elroy Flecker now?

    It was indeed a great pleasure to discover more about poetry through this series of essays.


    • James Sale

      Thanks Satyananda – love the poems you have unearthed too. I remember reading the Elroy Flecker when I was very young! But the Heath-Stubb is new to me. He was a big poet in the 60s and 70s in the UK, but he seems little considered today; it was good of you to find his work and bring it to light again.

  8. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    “How does the heart speak? It beats!” This is one of the most important statements ever made about out art.

    Indeed, I intend to make this my motto the next time I direct any actor to recite a sonnet. We must also remember that the first element of poetry is the human voice.


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