J.R.R. Tolkien, Virgil, Wilfred Owen, Dante AlighieriPoetry, Beauty and the Modern Era: Essay by James Sale The Society August 12, 2019 Beauty, Culture, Epic, Essays, Poetry 19 Comments One interesting question is ‘why poetry, specifically?’ I am currently writing an ‘epic’ called The English Cantos, and I have chosen to write my epic in terza rima. There are many forms of story-telling in the modern world, so why write poetry, when in real terms, it is such a niche interest? Surely a novel-series or a screenplay might have broader appeal? My son, in fact, has written an entire blog series on unusual epics of the modern era, from anime to television. However, I think there is still massive, in some ways untapped, value in writing poetry, and I would en-courage anyone reading this to do it! Why? Let me outline this for you based on my personal experience. It is not merely for the sake of tradition. In fact, when all is said and done, I am not a very tradi-tional person. There is the added pull that terza rima is Dante’s chosen form, my own epic being modelled on his opus: The Divine Comedy. Therefore, the English Cantos might also be read as a continuation of The Divine Comedy, just as Virgil’s Aeneid seems a continuation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Dante’s own work a continuation of The Aeneid. Each text engages with the one prior to it, and in some places re-write their ideas. Virgil, for example, portrays Odysseus (called Ulysses in the Latin) as a deceiver and traitor, rather unlike the conflicted, intelligent, but ultimately good hero of Homer’s duology. It should also be noted that terza rima is an under-utilised poetic form in English poetry, with very few attempts to write narrative using it. As I outline in the introduction to my collection Divine Comedies: ‘Perhaps the most famous example and use of terza rima being Shelley’s Triumph of Life, which interestingly is unfinished. In particular, I realised that the form provided me with the key to creating compelling narrative: blank verse is great for narrative, but Milton’s done it. Second greatest epic in the English language? Spenser’s Faerie Queene, but the Spenserian stanza for narrative purposes is clunky and slow, relatively speaking, and lends itself to gorgeous picture-making (so Keats’ Eve of St Agnes exploits the form superbly – it is a narrative but one of a rich-ly, static kind). But perhaps terza rima could supply the necessary form to sustain the long poem.’ But there is actually a deeper reason for my choice of poetry in general. That is, beauty. I would say ‘everywhere’ in our modern world, but perhaps it is fairer to say ‘almost everywhere’, we see the deconstruction of beauty. Whether it be the dismissal of spiritual values, the under-mining of real art and culture in favour of what can turn profits or sensationalise, or even just in the architecture around us. Many people, arguably, live bleaker lives now than they did in the Middle Ages, which is saying something. Depression and suicide are at an all-time high, along-side addictions and compulsive behaviours. Meanwhile, people cling to any current trend, opin-ion, or voice shouting louder than the rest, in the hope that if they follow it will give their lives meaning. We are in many ways a floundering species, and I believe it is primarily because of the false prophets of secularism. We are told we don’t need God, that we can create our own value-system, our own morality, our own purpose. The classics had a word for this: ‘hubris’. We all need ex-ternal help and guidance from time to time, whether that be from the people we love, an expert, or the contrivances of fate! To appoint ourselves as the gods of our own universe is to say we need nobody but ourselves. Ironically, that is in the first instance to go backwards and re-live the Tower of Babel myth and all its resulting confusion (and isn’t confusion a good word for the state of the contemporary world?); and secondly, it is to expose our own inadequacies as we expe-rience the fragmentation that results from everyone being their own ‘god’. Never before has there been so much transmission, and so little communication, as solipsistically we are all talk-ing to ourselves, while no-one listens. We are told, too, that technology is going to solve all of our problems, and yet after 100 years or so of technological revolution, it has only brought us closer to extinction, distanced us from the natural world, and deprived many people of meaning and fulfilment. I’m not a Luddite. I like technology and use it. But, it is the idolatrous worship of technology that I find worrying and the blind sense that we are endlessly ‘progressing’ to some utopia, somewhere. Again, the an-cients (Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, to mention three venerable cultures) thought exactly the op-posite: the world had fallen away from a Golden Age and was in or about to enter the Iron Age. Regression, therefore, not progression. Whether they are right in their predictions, I leave to you. Accompanying secularism, and the utilitarianism that is so often associated with that, is a kind of ugliness. I mentioned the architecture of modern buildings: that is a start. But it is also in the books we read; we find poetry bereft of any form or beauty, but then praised as being ‘stark’, ‘clear’, ‘unflinching’, ‘bold’, ‘honest’ and such like—as if the mere act of regurgitating negativity is in itself laudable. Ugliness and horror have their place in literature and art, but they must be assimilated as part of a greater whole. To use a word Clive Barker loved: they must be reconciled. The same story is true in so many realms. In popular ‘music’ we find a single bar of electronic beats looped for a song’s duration, where once there would have been artfully crafted percussion. I should add that I do not wish to sound like an old man grumbling. There are of course excep-tions to these observations; in music, for example, young bands or musicians who are branching out. I listened to Mumford & Sons’ recent album Delta, and there is a track on it called ‘Dark-ness Visible’ which extensively quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the title itself being part of it). It is blissfully inventive music. In the realm of independent publishing, I read a story by Da-vid Hartley (published in a short story collection Shallow Creek) written in iambic pentameter! It depicts a disturbed lighthouse keeper talking via radio to a person he believes to be William Shakespeare; gloriously creative, and beautifully written. Like I said, there are exceptions, but one has to notice the overwhelming trends, the tendencies, and what people in authority are, more and more, advocating and supporting. And when we say, advocating and supporting, we mean where the money and the ‘reputation’ goes. But poetry is a counter to all of this, particularly poetry which has shape, form, metre, rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry is about beauty, creating it even from tremendous pain. Perhaps one of the best examples one could give of this is Wilfred Owen. Despite the horrors of war he faced, his lyricism is beautiful. Tolkien might also be cited as an example of this. He fought in the Somme, one of the worst battles in human history, and yet he emerged from it with profound spirituality, courage, optimism, and beauty in his work. We must remember Tolkien was as much a poet as a prose-author. Intriguingly the ‘modernists’ who have defined so much of modern writing: the T. S. Eliots, the Virginia Wolfes, the Ezra Pounds, did not have any frontline experience of the war! Instead, they had a lot of opinions. To put this at its strongest: Owen and Tolkien faced the pro-foundest horrors of this life and produced literature for the soul and deep beauty; Eliot, Woolf and Pound were all armchair critics who simply faced domestic ‘terrors’ and most of their work is – in varying degrees here – highly negative. One of the arguments against traditional or ‘formal’ poetry is that it is too restrictive, but as is always the case, the greatest creativity and best inventions come from restriction. In America, the short story is highly valued specifically for this reason, and in some ways the ability to write a good 2,000–3,000-word short story is considered a higher art form than a novel! The sonnet is a case in point, too. In the British tradition, the sonnet was once considered the sine qua non of a good poet. Could you write a 14-liner that would move the soul? Poetry is one of the most pro-found ways to create beauty, precisely because of the restrictions it places on the writer. Like music, there are only so many chords, and only so many chords that work in combination, and only so many rhythms, but how can we then generate something new within these frameworks? One might even stretch the point to make a commentary on society here. We want unrestricted lives: to see as many people as we like, travel as far as we want, eat as much as we like, watch as much TV as we like, binge, binge, binge. None of this is truly healthy, or, indeed, beautiful. In-variably, the greatest beauty derives from restraint, and the deepest emotion comes from holding back. We should abandon our modern impulse to operate ‘freely’ (which is not ‘free’ at all but actually chaos), and instead focus on making beauty with disciplined control. By harnessing true poetic techniques and the deep spirituality, we might yet create wonders. 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 email@example.com. He is the winner of First Prize in the Society’s 2017 Competition and Second Prize in the Society’s 2015 Competition. Views expressed by individual poets and writers on this website and by commenters do not represent the views of the entire Society. The comments section on regular posts is meant to be a place for civil and fruitful discussion. Pseudonyms are discouraged. The individual poet or writer featured in a post has the ability to remove any or all comments by emailing submissions@ classicalpoets.org with the details and under the subject title “Remove Comment.” Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window) Related 19 Responses Leo Zoutewelle August 12, 2019 James, Although I am in no position to offer a critique of your work, I can confidently say that reading your essay was utterly satisfying and enjoyable to me. Thank you for writing it! Reply James Sale August 12, 2019 Thank you so much Leo, I appreciate your taking the time to read it. For some odd reason some words seem to have developed a weird form of hyphenation midway through their short life form – why, I don’t know but I apologise for the manifest errors of ‘pro-found’ and ‘Da-vid’ and such like!!! But hopefully the sense is clear. Reply Joe Tessitore August 12, 2019 “Poetry is about beauty, creating it even from tremendous pain.” This is a remarkable essay that resonates very deeply with me. Thank you, James. Reply James Sale August 12, 2019 Thanks Joe. Yes, there is no easy way down, and as Dante himself found – following the ancients – in order to go up you have to go down first. This is something that the modern world doesn’t like. But as Ayn Rand observed, correctly, ‘you can evade reality, but you cannot evade the consequences of reality’. Keep up the good work Joe. Reply Kathleen Farrell August 12, 2019 Thank you greatly for this essay which I will read carefully and savor much. Reply James Sale August 12, 2019 Thank you very much Kathleen – I hope that these kind of expositions give our much beleaguered type of classical poets hope and confidence in their own works; for it is difficult to go on sometimes when the world’s values continually undermine your own certainty about the importance of poetry, art and beauty. Reply Joseph S. Salemi August 12, 2019 This is an excellent essay, Jim Sale! It hits the nail squarely on the head concerning the many distempers and disorders of our current situation. What you say about the lust for “ugliness” and the urge to “deconstruct beauty” sends a shiver down my spine, since I have seen these horrid impulses become more and more potent and ubiquitous over the years. And their growth is a terrifying symptom of cultural debasement and degradation. A significant percentage of our population loathes anything genuinely beautiful, and wants to smash it. Modernism in literature is only one small symptom. However, at the risk of starting a long argument, let me say that the virus of beauty-hatred has had a very long life in the history of human civilization. There has always been a minor but influential strain in all cultures that despises and hates external loveliness and gratifying design, and that fights to banish these graces from human existence. Among the Hebrews, it was their rage against “idols” or any kind of decoration. Among fanatical Moslems, it was the same thing (and which limited much Moslem art to geometric designs and patterns). Among the Eastern Orthodox Christians, it was the insane Byzantine iconoclasm of the ninth and tenth centuries. Among Low-Church Protestants in the tradition of Calvin and Zwingli, it manifested itself in the wanton destruction of high altars, statuary, chalices, stained glass, or any other beautiful objects that adorned churches. You can still find this mentality among the Amish and Mennonite communities in the United States, where there is a complete eschewal of all decoration, ornament, cosmetics, and stylish clothing, in favor of the plain and the drab. You can also see this anti-beauty virus, alive and kicking, in the last of the “Twelve Conclusions” of the fourteenth-century Wycliffite Lollards in England: “Christians are devoting too much of their energy and attentions to the making of beautiful objects of art and craft.” How could anyone living in the magnificent and intricate beauty of medieval European civilization, with its countless multiplicity of artworks, say such a thing? Reply James Sale August 14, 2019 Thanks Joe for your kind comments and interesting remarks. And to add one thing: the kind of religious puritanism and iconoclasm that you detail in religious movements is not, of course, confined to religions as the secular movements in the late C19th and onwards show. Communism itself is a ‘puritanical’ philosophy that saps the joy and the true ‘diversity’ out of life – one only needs look at the art and architecture of the erstwhile Soviet Union. There is a madness and an ugliness about their thinking and their activities. That said, however, religions – Christianity in particular – do sometimes need to go through periods of renewal because images and art itself has become a source of idolatry (as opposed to aids to worship, which truly they are) and the spirit in mankind cannot be fobbed off for long with ersatz products that whilst aesthetically pleasing provide no spiritual nourishment. Reply David Watt August 13, 2019 James, your essay struck a chord with me. Indeed, beauty is so often undervalued these days, whether it be in poetry, or in other human endeavors. I like your inspirational point that even from the worst of horrors beauty may still arise. Reply James Sale August 14, 2019 Thanks David – yes, it is an act of faith to believe so; that the cosmos is ultimately and profoundly good despite all appearances and experiences to the contrary. The alternative can only lead to despair and desolation. Reply James A. Tweedie August 13, 2019 Not too long ago I hosted a group of 15 college age young adults. As an ice-breaker I showed 30 pictures of various things on a large flat-screen TV. There were pictures of great art and architecture along with inner-city slums, broken glass, land fills, tangled electrical wires, dead animals, sunsets, redwood groves, and the like. To start the evening I asked them to rank them in order of what they considered to be more or less beautiful. Not one of them was willing or able to do this insofar as there was a consensus opinion that beauty was subjective and that since anything might be considered beautiful in the eyes of someone or other they considered the question invalid to the degree that they refused to express personal subjective opinions of their own. “That would be too judgmental,” was how one put it. All were white, middle class, from a semi-rural upbringing and with educational backgrounds that varied from high school only to four year college degrees. Such is the world today and the people who will lead us into the future. Reply Joseph S. Salemi August 13, 2019 They were not even willing to express their own PERSONAL opinion on what was beautiful and what was not? This means that they are also totally detached from any judgments concerning morality, politics, religion, sexual relationships, economic systems, or aesthetic and scientific endeavor. This is relativism gone berserk, and it is typical of Millennials, the most brain-dead generation in history. Don’t take any airplane trips when these buffoons become pilots. Reply James A. Tweedie August 13, 2019 The key words for these young people are “tolerance,” “diversity,” “I feel,” and “I like.” They will say, “I like this picture best (or this piece of music or this poem)” because it is a subjective, non-judgmental opinion that has no relevance to anyone but themselves. So they do have opinions, but not in the sense of imputing objective value to something as in, “this is more beautiful than that” or “Socialism is better (or worse) than capitalism”—and then providing objective evidence to support their position. Their mantra is, “If everybody in the world thought this way all would be wonderful.” This is, of course, absurd for two reasons: 1. The world would not be a wonderful place if everybody thought this way, and 2. Those who don’t think this way and who set out to impose their own views on society will run over these young people like a steam roller. As James’ essay makes clear, the concept of beauty is one of the first values to be sacrificed. James Sale August 14, 2019 Thanks James for this revealing anecdote. Naturally, they fail to realise that the very expression ‘that would be too judgmental’ is a judgement-call itself. There is no way in life to avoid judgement on every single thing about our life and our role in it. As Ayn Rand observed: ‘We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of reality’, and this is what will come back to haunt them as they live lives of failure, for such a philosophy is to have failed before you start. Reply James Sale August 14, 2019 Yes, we have to ask who are the teachers of these ‘buffoons’, as Joe puts it. Teachers at all levels have a special responsibility and clearly there is an ongoing failure to discriminate one idea from another, to have a basic understanding of concepts and their relative merits; and alongside this, a complete lack of historical perspective. But these pages are pressing back against this lamentable state of affairs! Reply Joseph S. Salemi August 14, 2019 A problem in the lower grades (what we call the “K-12 sequence” here in the United States) is a complete failure to focus on formal logic, which is rooted in the propositional statement. Hell, the schools don’t even focus on the simple sentence, composed of a subject and a verb! Most of my students don’t have the slightest concept of what grammar is, or why it is important. The proposition is a judgment about reality. It may be true or false, but it is a clear verbal commitment made by the speaker about extramental existence. The proposition can be denied or debated, or it can be used to create syllogistic structures of argument. But it basically says that WE exist, WE have minds, the WORLD exists, and we can use our minds to make objective and verifiable statements about this world. A massive and highly influential philosophical school in the West today denies all of the above. And they run the educational system. Reply James Sale August 15, 2019 Thanks Joe. The centrality of grammar in our very capacity to think at all – at least in the discursive way that we associate with reality (given that St Thomas Aquinas gave up thinking in that way after he experienced his higher vision) – cannot be emphasised enough; and of course its lack in so much ‘free verse’ accounts for its poverty of true expressiveness and depth. Gregory Spicer August 14, 2019 Dear James Sale, You close the article on a note regarding freedom, which has me wondering what you think about the poetry of Emma Lazarus. Reply James Sale August 15, 2019 Hello Gregory. I hope my comments on freedom appeal to you. I cannot adequately comment on Emma Lazarus’ poetry since I barely know it – only the famous sonnet on the Statue of Liberty, but one poem hardly constitutes thinking about her poetry. So, with your indulgence, I will refrain from commentary at this point. However, I am working on some reviews of the poetry of a couple of poets well-known on this website and hope to submit them soon. Therefore, more of my ‘thinking’ will be forthcoming! Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.