Poetry and Politics

147 53 20MB

English Pages [229]

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Poetry and Politics

Citation preview





DUQUESNE UNIVERSITY PRESS PITTSBURGH, PA. Editions E. Nauwelaerts, Louvain, Belgium

All rights reserved


Selected and revised chapters from a work entitled




originally published in 1937 by Longmans, Green and Co.

This revision is published by arrangement with David McKay Co., Inc.

Printed in the United States of America Ao PRESS, LTD.

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 65-16137




CHAPTER ONE Plato ....................................

CHAPTER TWO ristotle ............ ......................


CHAPTER THREE Christianity ....................... . . . .....


CHAPTER FOUR Democracy ........ . .................... . ..


CHAPTER FIVE Historical Transformations .................. 113

CHAPTER SIX Art and Prudence


NOTES ...................................... 172


Few relations are more complicated and delicate than that of a poet and society. Even the most tentative consideration of the changing nature of this relationship compels us to face anew not only some of the basic questions of art but also those which go beyond art. What is a poet? What is the purpose of poetry? What is the poet's obligation to his fellow man? Is there a way of reconciling the world of art-in which the poet workswith the world of prudence-in which the poet lives? Is art merely a cultural or social ornament, or does it proceed from the very fountainhead of the cultural life of man? And if poetry is central to human culture, what are the proper criteria for criticizing and evaluating it? All of these questions underscore the importance of the poet's place in society as well as the problems related to it. One way to begin to understand what is involved is to consider, briefly, the history of this relationship as philosophers, critics and poets themselves have described it. Such a consideration, though valuable in itself for aesthetic reasons, can have other assets since the way in which a poet is regarded, not only by his fellow poets but also by other members of his society, often influences the esteem or disrepute in which poetry itself is held. One of Dr. Adler's central assumptions in Poetry and Politics, which is a revision of a portion of his Art and Prudence published in 1937, is that such an examination can yield more than merely aesthetic conclusions and that the relationship of the poet and the polis should never be confined to aestheticism alone. VII



Primitive poets, such as the minstrels whom Homer depicted in The Odyssey, were men whose songs were primarily intended to give pleasure; no more than that was asked of or expected from them. On the other hand, the Old Testament prophets faced the need of "fountaining forth" ( as the etymology of the word-prophet-indicates) the conscience of their people -at times to the chagrin of the Israelites and thus to the prophet's occasional personal unpopularity. For Euripides and Aristophanes, despite their obvious differences as playwrights, the aim of the poetic dramatist was to better his fellow man; poetry, therefore, was meant to subserve and even buttress the moral good of the citizen of the state. Plato, who was equally concerned with preserving the moral good of the state, turned his attention to the poet's way of knowing. He claimed that poets were thrice-removed from the real world of ideas and that, at their best, they were merely instruments to relay the divine afflatus to others. Although Plato did respect the power of poetry to sway its hearers, he had to conclude that poets, being in no way responsible for the beauty and power of their utterances, should be excluded from any society of men who respected the primacy of reason. The irony of this position, as Dr. Adler suggests, is that Plato's commitment to rationalism forced him to espouse a view which his temperament and style seemed to oppose. To be sure, Plato subsequently tempered this view by expressing his willingness to admit poets into the Republic if they could prove that their poems had a use as well as a delight. Like Euripides and Aristophanes, Plato attempted to justify poetry in terms of morality, and the same argument with only minor modifications would be resuscitated by Horace, Sidney and others. Poetry's value, according to this tradition, did not derive from the unique and pleasurable knowledge which only it could afford but from its ability to serve an extrinsic good. In brief, poetry was judged primarily by criteria other than its own. It remained for Aristotle to formulate an approach to poetry by which it could be appreciated and judged according to its fidelity to the laws of its own creation. By remaining dispassionate, Aristotle was able to detect poetic vakes that Plato's



a priori approach simply overlooked. "Aristotl e's m ethod is essentially one of examining observed phenomena with a view to noting their qualities and characteristics," wrote David Daiches in Critical Approaches to Literature. "His concern is the ontological one of discovering what in fact literature is rather than the normative one of describing what it should be. He is describing, not legislating; yet his description is so organized as to make an account of the nature of literature involve an account of its function, and its value emerges in terms of its function." For Aristotle, therefore, poets were men who, obeying a natural instinct to imitate and an equally strong instinct for harmony and rhythm, represented men acting in fictive situations governed by laws of probability as irrevocable as the laws of possibility in life. The poetic dramatist, by imitating what could naturally and inevitably happen to a particular man in a particular circumstance, could both delight his audience and purge or purify it into what Walter Jackson Bate has called a "harmonious serenity." In brief, therefore, Aristotle's poet obeyed a basic law of his being by becoming a maker, and the plays that he made ( rooted in irony and capable of arousing the cathartic emotions of awe and pity) could create in his audience a unique pleasure as well as an insight into life that was more philosophical and universal than that found in any other form of expression. In any case, Aristotle did not commit Plato's error in judging poetry by purely extrinsic criteria. Instead he viewed it as an activity anrn,erable to its own organic laws. "Plato confused the study of art with the study of morals," R. A. Scott-James wrote in Th e Making of Literature. "Aristotle, removing the confusion, created the study of aesthetics. We find, then, that Aristotle in the Poetics takes it for granted that a work of art, whether it be a picture or a poem, is a thing of beauty; and that it affords pleasure appropriate to its kind." While Aristotle established the climate whereby poetry could be judged for its own sake, such subsequent critics as Longinus and Horace gave most of their attention to questions of style. They contributed little to a deeper understanding of the poet's role in society. Longinus' essay "On the Sublime" is a study of linguistic excellence and the various tropes by which such ex-



cellence can be achieved. Horace's "Epistle to the Pisos"itself the very embodiment of the critical principles it advocates-is essentially a collection of well-expressed views on poetry, poetic diction, propriety and various poetic genres. Horace, apart from reiterating the Platonic canon that poetry should be beneficial as well as delightful ( utile et dulce), is ultimately a critic's critic, and his synthesis of previous views of poetry anticipated and set the pattern for the style-conscious tracts of many of his critical descendents, such as Vida, Boileau and Sidney, to name only a few. Questions of style meant little to the early fathers of the Church. The critical positions of the patristic writers, as Dr. Adler considers in detail, were essentially censorial. After objecting to the late Roman poetic dramas as licentious and corrupting, the Church fathers gravitated quickly to the Platonic position of exclusion. Drama per se was suspect. St. Thomas Aquinas would later establish a philosophical accommodation for art within the Christian tradition by insisting on the moral neutrality of art as art and by indicating that the poet's way of knowledge, though not ratiocinative, was nonetheless a valid way of apprehending truth. But St. Thomas' views were lamrntably abbreviated; a fuller exploration of the Scholastic position would have to wait for neo-Thomists like Jacques Maritain and Thomas Gilby in a much later century. Despite this lag in the development of a philosophy of aesthetics, the medieval church gradually did attempt to make its peace with the dramatic medium which the patristic writers had so severely condemned. Little by little the clergy put drama to the service of religion. They originated mimetic representations of various Biblical stories for the edification of the faithful. In essence, this primitive use of art for religious purposes was simply a baptism of the older Hellenic view of art. Out of this would grow the cycles of York, Townely, Chester and Coventry, the morality plays, the interludes, early English comedies like "Gammar Gurton's Needle" and "Ralph Roister Doister," Seneca-like tragedies such as "Gorboduc" and "The Misfortunes of Arthur," and ultimately the full flowering of Renaissance poetic drama from Lyly, Peele, Greene, Kyd and



Marlowe to Chapman, Dekker, Heywood, Ben Jonson and, at the apogee, Shakespeare himself. Although the early church dramas were the seed out of which the great dramas of the Renaissance grew, the rudimentary views of Aquinas on the nature of art and poetic knowledge did not spawn a similar aesthetic evolution. Among Renaissance critical documents, for example, Sir Philip Sidney's "Apology for Poetry" recast the old notion of the poet as a moral teacher as a defense against the dismissive attacks of such early humanists as Roger Ascham and Stephen Gosson. The echoes in Sidney are Platonic, Aristotelian and Horatian rather than Thomistic, and most of the other Renaissance critics wrote in a similar vein. Following the profuse but often repetitive Renaissance speculations on poetry and poetic diction and aside from the subsequent judiciousness of a Dr. Samuel Johnson or the critical flexibility of John Dryden, no new and formidable insights into the relation of the poet and society appeared in English letters until the end of the eighteenth century. It began when William Wordsworth wrote that a true poet was a man speaking to other men and that there was a moral dignity derivable from the pleasure of poetry. Other romantic apologists went further. For Coleridge-and, a few years afterward, for Shelley as well-the poet was not only a maker or a man speaking to other men but a seer, a visionary. Coleridge called artistic creation "a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am." Shelley would subsequently identify poets as "the unacknowledged legislators of the world," implying that men in possession of the divinizing power of the imagination were the true and ultimate spokesmen and shapers of their societies-not in a geographical, partisan or social sense, but spiritually. Similarly, when Keats championed a life of "sensations" rather than of "thoughts," he was extolling every romantic poet's way of seeing the world. Aubrey De Selencourt put the matter tersely by stressing that poetry for Keats and his fellow romantics "was a way of penetrating to the ultimate mystery of human life-not a garland to adorn it, but a power to mold it." Such a view, rather than condemning the poet as a pariah or tolerating his poems as



sugarcoated presentations of religion, ethics or civics, placed him at the very center of the life of soci ety. Moreover, for Coleridge and the other romantics, poetry was not merely what issu ed in belles lc tlres; rath er it was th e so urce of all vital manifestations of culture and civilization, i.e., architecture, music, government, philosophy, literature and so forth. As the nineteenth century progressed, Matthew Arnold, who advocated a similar view of poetry as both the soul and leaven of social life, looked to poets to reveal life's "high seriousness," and he urged critics to educate the rapidly burgeoning English middle class to the beauty of poetry which, more than religion, could raise the level of social life. This was not an echo of Plato's insistence in the Laws that poetry serve a utilitarian purpose in order to be admitted into the Republic; this was an affirmation of poetry's redemptive and educative possibilities in, of and by itself. To put it in other words, as T. S. Eliot did in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, " poetry is not religion, but it is a capital substitute for religion." The effect of this was that the experience of poetry, according to Arnold, was essentially the very means by which gradually urbanizing societies could insure and maintain their civilization. In America, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman espoused the same view; their writings were more overtly influenced by transcendental and romantic thought, but the social role ascribed to the poet in a democratic society was not far different in its ultimate effect from the Arnoldian vision. In our own time the dialectic continues. I. A. Richards has perpetuated some of Arnold's theories and embellished them with h:s affective, semantic and psychological dicta. T. S. Eliot, who in 1928 in The Sacred J,V ood called poetry a "superior amusement," had for years insisted upon a reading of poetry with closer attention to words, techniques, metrics and so forth in order that the total experience of the poem might result in a "development of sensibility." For Eliot the poet is primarily an artist, and the poem's value emanates from the reader's experience of it per se and in the context of a poetic tradition that it is meant to further. John Dewey, whom Dr. Adler considers at some length in Chapter IV, took the position that poetry is a means of "social education," and this inevi-



tably places him in a tradition that begins with Aristotle and continues to Arnold and Eliot, although Dewey can never be considered as profound a critic as they. Concerning the poet's role in society, there is a rich literature in several traditions. Dr. Adler, who writes more as a political philosopher than a literary critic, has prudently concentrated on those dominant traditions around which the key opinions have pola~ized. If he has chosen to examine the political and social implications of a problem that many literary critics have slighted in favor of aesthetic considerations, these same critics should consider his inquiries as beneficial supplements to their own. Certainly, poetry's social echoes are as unmistakable now as they have been in the past. Many of the supra-aesthetic problems raised by Greek and Shakespearian tragedy are again raised by the poetry of today as it is manifested in verse, fiction or the contemporary film. Dr. Adler has proceeded where most literary critics would, with aesthetic justification, stop, but, by proceeding, he has shown that all the questions that should be asked of and about poetry need not be exclusively aesthetic. SAMUEL HAzO



1-t is a mark of wisdom in Greek political thought that the form and content of education receive primary consideration from chose who are concerned with the nature and the welfare of the state. Education is, of course, broadly conceived; it is not limited to the problems of a school system, to the administration of official pedagogues and the curriculum of instruction. \Vhatever can be taught is educational matter; anything that shapes the body, forms character or gives knowledge or discipline to the mind, is an agency of education, whether or not its human medium is a person having the social status of a teacher, whether or not the environment in which it occurs is a school. Thus Plato, early in the Republic, and preliminary to the discussion of how a just state is constituted, turns to the question of the education of the guardians, those to whom the administration of the state will be entrusted. The field of elementary education divides easily into gymnastic for the body and music for the soul. Music includes all the arts whose patrons are the muses, and among these, literature or poetry is distinguished because, employing words, it can express ideas. The issue, therefore, arises for the statesman or him who is planning the perfect city, whether there should be any control of the tales which the poets tell children. Plato asks : "Shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have



when they are grown up ?" It should be noted that what ideas the future guardians sbould have is not here debated, as Plato answers at once that it will be necessary "co establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors recei\·e any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad." 2 Mothers and nurses are co tell their children the authorized ones only. The trouble with the poets who ha\·e ever been the great story-tellers of mankind, the great ones such as Homer and Hesiod as well as the lesser ones, is that they tell lies, and unfortunate ones. It may be the poet's defense that his tale is not a lie if it be understood allegorically; but, says Plato, "a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal ; anything that he receives into his mind at that age is likely to become indelible and unalterable ; and therefore, it is important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of virtuous thought." 3 To tell children the story of how Cronos punished his father Uranus, and how in turn his son retaliated upon him will set them a bad example ; the young are likely co think that in chastising their elders, and particularly their parents, for wrong-doing, they are following the example of the first and greatest among the CTOds. It must be rememgered that in Greek heroic poetry, the gods and demi-gods were frequently the leading characters. Lying about the gods is the most serious charge that Plato can bring against the poets. They do not represent divinity as it truly is. The misrepresentation of divinity is so important that Plato goes further in his censorship ; the old as well as the young should not be pem1itted to hear the fictions of a changing and changeable God and of God as the source of human misery, the author of both evil and good. The poet who tells such stories should not be given a chorus, which, translated into the com·entions of our day, means that he will be denied the privileges of a public performance in the theatre. Plato is not opposed to lying in itself. The intentional lie may be a justifiable political expedient. But if anyone is to have the privilege of lying, it should be the rulers of the state and not the poets. Either in dealing with enemies or in ruling their own citizens, the leaders may be allowed to lie for the public good. Plato himself gives us an excellent example of such a necessary 1

J Republic, 377 B. 2 3

Republic, 377 C. Republic, 378 E.



falsehood, a royal Jie which aims to keep the members of the various classes of society at rest in their respective positions. Furthermore, the myths which Plato so frequently n:1rratcs arc admittedly fictions, dangerously misleading unless understood allegorically; only then do they yield the moral point for which they arc devised. Arc the poets, then, objectionable as liars because they are politically and morally irresponsible, because they tell a story for its own sake and not for the good of the state or the moral maxim to be illustrated? Poetry or story-telling is not in itself bad, but it should be the politician rather than the poet who tells the stories [ 1 1- \ Ve shall later fin