Reclaiming Childhood Through Poetry by Anthony Esolen

Conference Talk

Reclaiming Childhood Through Poetry

Rebuilding Christian Culture Among the Ruins by Anthony Esolen

I'm going to talk about poetry today. It has occurred to me lately that in the United States, only Christians, and perhaps a few Orthodox Jews, can still understand what in the world a child is, what a wonder a child is, what a child is even for. Let me begin with the last stanza of a lyric poem by the great John Keats, the "Ode to Autumn":

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Why should a young person read a poem? Why should he read those lines from the "Ode to Autumn"? We can't answer that question without asking some more fundamental ones, simply these: What is a child? What is the child for?

The child shares life with all the other living creatures upon the earth; he eats and drinks, he moves about, he grows, he may eventually bring others of his kind into the world; all these things he shares in common with cattle and dogs and birds of the air and fish of the sea. Yet we perceive—even secular people perceive it dimly—that his life is more than food and drink and raiment; his cup runneth over. What is the life of his life?

Now, it would seem odd, even mad, if someone were to say, "I have a new and improved method of raising horses," without having first ascertained what horses are. It would hardly be sufficient if such a person, or a committee, or a bureaucracy flush with billions of dollars were to assure us that they could tell the difference between a horse and a camel, that they had once ridden a horse in a parade, that they could spell the word "horse," that they know how much horsemeat could sell for by the pound, and that they'd received bids from a glue factory for so much tonnage of equine bones. We would be even more wary and more ready to call the men from the home for the insane if they should assure us that their single, centrally directed method—whatever it may be—must be applied equally to ponies on the Shetland Islands, to wild mustangs on the American plains, and to draft horses on the steppes of Mongolia.

But what the mad men would do with or to the horse—the patient, dumb animal with the sad eyes—our ideologues of education today do with children all over America: they strap them onto the same treadmill, subject their teachers to the same overseers, and use the same conforming textbooks, computer files, data bases, and standardized tests. And they do so without troubling to ask the question I am asking: What is a child? What is the child for? What is the life of his life?

The child—and the fully realized human person to which his education should aim—is meant to be free. And freedom here I will define not as a negative; freedom is not simply a permission. Maybe we can understand better the heart of what freedom is if we turn to the German language and note that the word frei, or Freiheit, freedom, is etymologically related to Freude, joy, and Frieden, peace. These are all related: freedom is a spiritual actuality and not merely a negative. The child is meant to be free, which is to say, he is meant to behold what is good and beautiful and true, and to love it because it is so.

Consumptive Freedom

So education should lead the child into the freedom of the human person. That might appear uncontroversial: everyone, it's assumed, desires freedom. But freedom, as modern man conceives it, is strangely extrinsic to the human person. A man is free if the state gives him license to choose from among an array of admissible objects. These objects are presented to him by marketers, campaigners, and celebrities as desirable for this or that purpose, usually for fulfilling a physical or psychological appetite. Basically, I'm a bundle of appetites; I seek to satisfy these appetites.

The appetites are taken as brute givens. They are not to be evaluated, much less curbed, denied, or redirected. And, by the way, that means that modern man is not simply rebelling against the Christian church fathers and the Jewish rabbis, but even against Epicurus himself. The greatest of the Epicureans knew that we had better curb, restrain, and redirect our strong appetites, and it's uphill from the Epicureans as far as the pagan philosophers were concerned.

But we take the appetites as brute givens. At best, modern man might say that freedom demands the exercise of some minor virtue, such as self-reliance, so that you do not burden others needlessly, or tolerance, so that you do not feel that other people's rightful claims are a burden upon you. Neither the conservatives who call themselves libertarian, nor the totalitarians who call themselves liberal recognize anything that freedom is for, other than what you simply want, other than satisfying your individual appetites. It's apparently for nothing else.

Now, that is essentially an atomistic view of man. It reduces freedom to consumption. Man is cast as a consumer of products, because he is himself a product, a thing. He is a unit in the masses, an atom in a welter of human "stuff." And that "stuff," if we think now like bureaucrats, that human stuff, to be managed, must be predictable.

So we see in politics an obsession with the poll, which is essentially a machine for the manipulation of psychic "things," silencing any deep concern for truth, even in the simple sense of a man's clear and forthright statement of his intent. Technique is all. Is it true? Is it good? Is it beautiful? No one asks. Rather, the question is, Will it work upon the electoral mass for gaining this immediate end?

So it is that consumption leads to compulsions. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel puts the issue to us as a challenge to revive the very possibility of human civilization. He says—this is in the middle of the last century, too—

The more techniques advance, the more reflection is thrust into the background. And I believe this cannot be a matter of mere chance. The progress and, above all, the extreme diffusion of techniques (techne) tends to create a spiritual and intellectual atmosphere—or more precisely, an anti-intellectual and anti-spiritual atmosphere—as unfavorable as possible to the exercise of reflection.

We might add contemplation to that, too, or prayer. For "techniques," read "skills," or formulaic habits—not reflection, but reflex actions, like the predictable responses of a machine.

"This observation may prepare us," Marcel continues, "to understand why, today, the idea of the universal can be affirmed only outside the mass world and against that world." Think about it: Marcel is saying that to affirm something as essentially human, to appeal to the universal human, can only be done now by someone who stands outside the mass world and against it.

What he means by the universal is not a deadening formula applied to everyone indiscriminately, for "the universal is spirit or mind"—he does not mean the gnostic disembodied mind—"and spirit or mind is love." Marcel is a Catholic philosopher; he's thinking about caritas here.

Freedom Won by Leisure

In other words, if we want to talk about human freedom, we have to talk about what resists reduction or the statistical tactics of marketers and bureaucrats. We must raise up children outside the mass world and against that world. We must put substance back into our notion of freedom. The body needs blood. The mind and heart and soul need love, and love cannot be compelled. If we are talking about freedom but are not talking about love and beauty, then we have reduced freedom to a political license defined by what the authorities cannot tell us we cannot have.

Such a freedom, by definition, cannot be the goal of education. It has no content. It has no meaning. But a freedom for what is good and beautiful does have content and meaning. Such freedom is won, not by labor or techne, or the acquisition of marketable skills, but by a habit of mind that the philosopher Josef Pieper calls "leisure":

Compared with the exclusive ideal of work as activity, leisure implies, in the first place, an attitude of non-activity, of inward calm, of silence. It means not being busy, but letting things happen. Leisure is a form of silence, of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality. Only the silent hear. And those who do not remain silent do not hear.

Keats could not have written the "Ode to Autumn" unless he had listened to its silence and heard, with the ear and the heart and the mind, the sad and lovely songs of autumn. The poem is not a text to be manipulated by various techniques, so that the student may say clever things about it to win admission to a prestigious school, or for the satisfaction of physical and psychological lusts, followed by death. The poem is too free for that. Even a horse is too free for that, and resists all of our reductions, such as the scientific reductions that Dickens satirized in Hard Times. If you know that a horse is a graminivorous quadruped, that may be very nice, but you still may know nothing about horses.

Is such freedom—the inner freedom of the human soul, not the extrinsic license to indulge yourself in compulsions—really what school is for? Pieper insists that it's above all what school is for.

One of the foundations of Western culture, he says, is leisure. The history of the word attests the fact: "leisure" in Greek is schole, and in Latin schola, the English school; the word used to designate the place where we educate and teach is derived from a word which means "leisure." "School" does not, properly speaking, mean "school," but "leisure."

School should be a haven for knowing, not just knowing about in order to, but sheer and beautiful knowing. The aim of a liberal education is not skill, for, as Pieper says, "the functionary is trained." Maybe that's why bureaucrats like to talk about marketable skills, because they are trained functionaries, and training is concerned with "some one side or aspect of man, for some utility to be gained." We train electricians and carpenters, but only as electricians and carpenters, not as human beings.

But if we believe that human beings are meant to be free, and that a free soul aims to know what is true and good, and to love it, then we will see that the use of the liberal or free arts is precisely that they transcend the category of the useful. Or to put it in a negative way, it's a self-refutation to say that you're a utilitarian, because utilitarianism itself is a disutility. You hurt yourself to the degree that you believe that utilitarianism is the way to go.

Liberal arts are useful because they go beyond what is useful, because, to put it baldly, they are not useful. We don't read poetry so we can write better office memos later on. That gets things exactly backwards. We must never reduce human art to laboratory objects, or to tips for writing essays on standardized tests or in college courses, for extending the compulsions or feeding the cancer. We want instead fully realized human beings who will read poetry because it is beautiful and because it brings us knowledge of what is true, even if it is knowledge that can no more be used than a sunset or a kiss can be used.

Destroying & Preserving Books

We want human beings who will read good and great books, not burn them or grind them to intellectual pulp. But there is more than one way to destroy a book.

Everybody remembers Ray Bradbury as the man who was against censorship, which is not true. Ray Bradbury, in that wonderful dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451 (which is the temperature at which paper burns), gives us a society in which books and the houses that hide them are burned by firemen; the purpose was to set fires to places that housed books while the masses indulged in the inanities of television and fun parks and incessant music on the radio.

Bradbury always insisted that his novel was not about censorship. Once, when he was supposed to talk to a group of college students, they kept saying, "Your book is about censorship; your book is about censorship." He said, basically, "No, my book is about the abandonment of the classical heritage of literature. My book is about you."

The book does not so much predict that, in the future, the Bible and Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson and Keats, will not be read, as it notices that right now (sixty years ago) they are not being read. The liberal arts are dismissed as troublesome, since they cannot be reduced to scientific consensus and are economically useless.

And what are we seeing now? Now, I say to my freshmen students, and this includes our honors students, "I'm going to give you the names of great English poets, and I want you to tell me if you recognize the names. John Milton." And three-quarters of my freshman class this year did not recognize the name of John Milton. That's what you are paying through the nose for. Public education: Don't read John Milton, but here are all kinds of moral poison instead.

It's no accident that in Fahrenheit 451 the first person who brings the hero Montag out from the unreal world of machines and television is a girl who resists the all-devouring claims of cradle-to-adulthood schooling:

They want to know what I do with all my time. I tell them that sometimes I just sit and think. But I won't tell them what. I've got them running. And sometimes I tell them I like to put my head back, like this, and let the rain fall in my mouth. Tastes just like wine. Have you ever tried it?

The girl thinks as she pleases, away from group projects and extracurricular activities and the staggering demands of work. We are never told for certain that she reads books. But Bradbury presents her as very like people who read books. Montag will seek out an old professor who reads books and who tells him that one of the three things necessary for true reading is leisure, which is not time off. It's a spiritual habit; it's a freedom of the soul. It's essentially spiritual conditioning; it keeps the real things of the world in their rightful place of honor.

The hobos whom Montag meets at the end of the novel preserve books by committing chapters of them to memory (something else, I may note, that is scorned by our schools. God forbid that we should actually have children who carry about with them, in their minds, songs from Keats and Whittier and Shelley): "There was a silence gathered all about that fire [of the hobos]. And the silence was in the men's faces, and time was there, time enough to sit by this rusting track under the trees, and look at the world, and turn it over with the eyes."

We want to raise children fully human, whose hearts will be stirred by the heroism and the sanity of the true readers of books and cherishers of the world. They alone will be able to do what the formulas of the technocrat can never capture. They need not wade through a thousand digitalized articles on the poetry of Keats. The poetry of Keats is not a thing about which they gather information, as one would investigate the action of carotene in October leaves, or the effect of the earth's tilt upon weather patterns in the north Atlantic. Those may be perfectly wonderful things to investigate, but not for the poetry of Keats. They have, first, the autumn itself and then the poem. These are the mysterious things they cherish. They will have been educated to repeat Gabriel Marcel's words, "outside the mass world and against that world."

A Special Appeal for Youth

There's a wonderful old textbook I recommend to all homeschoolers, called Doorways to Poetry, by a poet and raconteur named Louis Untermeyer. You can go on YouTube (one of the good things a computer can do) and watch complete episodes from the first two seasons of What's My Line, with Untermeyer as one of the four panelists, and it will feel as if you've walked into a different galaxy. But there he is, a poet and a writer about poetry, on What's My Line.

In this textbook he writes to young people in praise of that most exalted of human arts. He says that from the beginning of mankind to the present day, "the pulse of poetry has never left us. It beats as strongly in the modern child as in the European caveman." (These words are true, except that they are not true of our children now.) "Long before they were written down," he says, "songs had the power to stir the senses of the listeners, and when today the lines leap from the printed page, our hearts are stirred and our pulses quicken with the same elemental excitement."

A strange predicament: modern man with all his machinery is less free for poetry than was the man who foraged for his food every day, and is poorer than our own country poet, Whittier, who cobbled shoes for pennies, and wandered the flinty hills of New England, and wrote that a barefoot boy in those hills enjoyed a royal freedom. Says Whittier, "Prince thou art; the grown-up man / Only is republican."

But is such freedom fit for children? Don't children have to be warehoused and worked over until they're ready for the real world of wage-earning, political noise, and sexual release? On the contrary, children are the only human beings remaining who stand a chance of enjoying that freedom. It is especially for them. Here's what Untermeyer has to say:

Poetry has a special appeal for youth. This is so chiefly because life is new, and the world's wonders are fresh and vivid when we are young. Poetry and youth are made for each other. Although poets are caricatured in the comic papers, poetry is not written by queer creatures who know nothing about life and by retired scholars who remain in hiding behind their books and their beards. Youth is the time when ideas and emotions rise quickly to the surface. In spring, every boy and every girl becomes a poet.

Not any more, not with all kinds of degradations just a click or two away, but think about that: "In spring, every boy and every girl becomes a poet." When Untermeyer sees a child, he sees a free human being, free to love the wonders about him. He sees a poet, for "no one is without imagination, emotion, taste, and a response to the world's beauties and terrors, its actualities and its dreams." When he sees a poet, he sees someone who has kept that youthful fire especially lively and bright.

Singing is what the lover does, says St. Augustine, the lover who beholds a thing of beauty. In all systems that reduce man to a proletarian, beauty must be reduced to decoration, which only the rich can afford. Beauty is not serious. Its appreciation is not rigorous. Poetry won't earn you a job; therefore, it is dispensable. Josef Pieper again lays bare the spiritual disease of such utilitarians:

The inmost significance of the exaggerated value which is set upon hard work appears to be this: man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy with a good conscience what he has acquired with toil and trouble. He refuses to have anything as a gift.

Pieper again: "In the beginning, there is always the gift." We refuse even now to accept as a gift the masculine natures we are born with if we are boys, and the feminine natures we are born with if we are girls. In fact, we have to call upon very expensive and very drastic surgical measures to get what we want—great toil and trouble.

To put it another way, beauty is the splendor of an inner goodness or truth, and it must be so received, or it is not received at all. But the man who is a mere producer and consumer, whose body is only a utilitarian tool for the procuring of treasures, that man knows no such gift. He thinks of quantity only, of consumer demand; his masters are merely those at the top of a hierarchy of consumption.

Beauty for the Poor

I sometimes hear the objection that poetry is for the well-to-do, not ordinary people. Ordinary people have to sweat and strain to make a living. Poetry is frill, it's a luxury; but the global economy, that lumbering colossus, looms, and poetry will not help the prematurely graying college graduate make his way on the exchange, or climb up the greased pole of managerial ambition. So much less will it assist the plumber or the miner (they should never tell someone like me this sort of thing; the grandson of coal miners is not going to be impressed by this sort of reverse snobbery). And that's why it's basically been drummed out of the new idea from the factory below, the Common Core.

The objection bespeaks an utter loss of hope and youth. It's tantamount to saying that we are not free. We must race to the top—the top of what is never specified—or we'll be cast adrift by the tides of some inexorable historical movement. In the midst of our princely wealth, we race away from freedom and towards compulsions. And we assuage our consciences by telling ourselves we have no choice. But poetry, like music or like peaceful reflection, has always been for everyone. It has been mankind's common heritage of song. It unites the old and the young; it binds across the centuries.

So the idea that poetry, or any of the arts, was the prerogative of the wealthy alone is historical nonsense. Visit any antique store; you'll see that ordinary people used to surround themselves with objects of beauty. Their chairs, bed warmers, butter churns, stirrups—all were touched by the playful spirit of poetic creation. The people who built my town were poor Irish coal miners—get me to talk some day about the church they built in 1880. (They had to hire an Italian to paint it, of course. Just imagine an Irishman painting a church.)

Farmers, herdsmen, quarrymen—they did not build flat gray boxes to live in. The flat gray box was visited upon the urban poor by their betters, modernist architects. Poor fishermen, lumbermen, and trappers did not build hulking containers for children; they built schools that are sweet to behold, that look something like chapels, or meeting halls, or homes. The hulking containers were visited upon us by our betters, modernist educational bureaucrats, supposedly to save money. And one lone parent has as much chance of weighing in on what transpires in those containers as a dry leaf against a brick wall—though perhaps I'm being a little pessimistic there. Maybe the very loud parent who throws furniture will have more influence than a dry leaf against a brick wall.

The aim of a liberal public education used to be to bring beauty even to the poor. That was not so difficult. Many of the poets, too, had been poor. Herman Melville wrote in the person of Ishmael that the whaling vessels were his Yale College and Harvard. And the poor man, like his rich cousin, played a musical instrument, by training or by ear, or knew plenty of people who did so. He knew a hundred songs by heart, and he no more relished ugliness or brutality for its own sake than he would daub his own kitchen with filth.

We might turn the question around, and ask why we should be so hard-hearted as to deny the poor their best chance—maybe their only chance—of encountering the beauty of poetry. Man is that peculiar creature who needs most what, as a brute animal, he does not need at all. Man needs what he cannot use. He needs beauty.

Waiting on Beauty

Beauty is not the result of mass production, nor is an appreciation of beauty the result of formulas on a pedagogical assembly line. You can't turn a poem over to a committee of students doing group work and expect anything so private, even so shy, as appreciation of it. To approach a poem is more like courtship; you don't have group courtship projects. It cannot be forced; it cannot be commanded. It has to be waited on. Its quiet utterance must be heard.

Such hearing, not labored at or screwed out of the human brain by educational technology, is well illustrated by a charming anecdote that Untermeyer tells of a senior whose turn came around to recite to the class a poem that he had committed to memory. He recited Gray's "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," where Thomas Gray, eighteenth-century English poet, is looking at a bunch of boys playing ball in a field. So, Untermeyer:

Finally, a lad, a football player, took the stage and with real feeling and much poise recited the first eight stanzas of Gray's elegy. When the boy took his seat, the teacher called for criticism. She asked one boy in particular, a boy who happened to be the third baseman on the school team and who had inclined to be rather a smart-aleck. This time he was strangely silent. When the teacher pressed him, he became embarrassed, and then he stammered, "I can't criticize him. I think it was fine. That's my truly favorite poem. I can't say anything about it; I like it too well."

It is the great poem in which Gray thinks, "What will these children encounter when they're older?" It's mainly a life of hardship and disappointment. Hence the famous last lines of the poem: "Where ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise."

The usually garrulous boy's reverent silence before the thing of beauty, Gray's poem, is at once childlike and mature. It is wholly opposed to the noise of our vast educational machine. Note that he didn't merely reply that he had nothing to say. He replied that he could not possibly have anything to say because he loved the poem too much to sully it with commentary.

Untermeyer did not write his textbook simply to help students understand poetry. That was one object, but there was more. He wrote it so they would learn to love poetry because it was beautiful and true, and worthy of their love. That's not sentimentality; it's a fully human response. And in our world of mass phenomena, with ugliness, banality, uniformity, and slovenliness everywhere, it is a response that teachers have a duty to foster, never to embitter or squelch.

It's grown to be a long and tiresome habit, our assuming that the duty of educators is to arm their students against appeals to beauty. I suspect that laziness and ennui—related to the Italian word noia, which is deeply expressive of a kind of spiritual pain—have more to do with this habit than people would care to admit. Scorn is easier than devotion. Flippancy, the cadaver of mirth, is easier still. But that's to betray our charge as teachers and parents. C. S. Lewis says, in The Abolition of Man:

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility, there are three [now I would say there are thirty] who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils, we only make them easier prey to the propagandist, when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged, and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

Lewis's words are truer than ever. If a study of literature is only labor for acquiring certain linguistic skills, then, far from irrigating deserts, the teacher will be choking up with sand what few trickling streams of humanity remain.

Love Is the Key

And again we ask, What is a child? Why should a child read a poem? What in the poem is true and presented in beauty, is worthy of our reverence and love? Love is the key. Love will show us what is not a good reason for reading a poem.

Suppose a child has a grandfather who lives a good bicycle ride away. Grandfather has scattered about his old house flags from the Civil War, old coins, part of a harpoon, and a thousand books tumbled together by a principle of organization that only he knows. Seahawk is next to The City of God. If you go there, he might be dozing in the sun, he might be playing cribbage with a neighbor, he might be scribbling poetry, he might be turning a spindle on a lathe—with Grandfather, you never know—or he might be doing nothing at all, which he reserves for the best of times, when he is most alert and most content.

Why should the child visit his grandfather? That question makes no sense. If you ask that question, you should know that you have drifted into madness and compulsions.

Now, suppose the child's father, with the soul of a bureaucrat, wishing to stuff his son's resume, says, "Son, here's a pad and pen. Go to Grandpa's house and take inventory of the shelves, one at a time. Organize the books according to the following method, adapted from Dewey." Or, "Son, here's a quarter. Go visit your Grandpa and engage him in meaningful conversation about a topic of current public import so that you can write a report on it, comparing what he has to say with the statements of various sources you will locate in print or digitally, organizing the whole into an exhibition of wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement. And be back before supper or you'll catch it."

I lifted that sentence wholesale from the Common Core. The point is not simply that it would be rude to Grandpa, might hurt his feelings; it's that you can't visit the old man that way; you will have made him into an object for analysis and dissection. The encounter will be functional, not human. You may rake up plenty of informational debris from it; you may jot down the dates of all his coins; but you will gain no knowledge. Genuine human knowledge is to information as information is to chaos or nothingness. You will surely gain no wisdom, which soars far beyond knowledge. It would be better not to visit the grandfather at all than to reduce yourself to a toiler in the traces and grandfather to an object to be worked.

It would be better—because it wouldn't destroy the possibility of love—for our students in public schools to read no literature at all than to have to read it in the way they do read it. It would be better to play the truant, to turn aside to check on the wild grapes down at the dead-end street. It would be better for children never to read a poem than to read it on the treadmill as a thing to be ground up by formula, for acquiring some skill to put on a resume. It would be better to do nothing than to betray what ought to be loved.

Learning to Read

Sure enough, you do have to learn how to read a poem. The old textbooks are full of helpful pointers for doing that. Untermeyer spends more than four hundred pages coaching his youthful readers in the art, but he does not overburden them with technical terms. He wants the reader to be still, to observe the art with the same heightened feeling and imagination with which the poet observes the world. He gives us an example: Tennyson's famous little poem called "The Eagle":

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

"We see not only an eagle," says Untermeyer,

grasping the sheer rock of a high cliff, a lone black speck between the immense sweep of sky and ocean, but we see the world through his eyes: the sun is close and of terrible brilliance, the entire universe is of an intense blue, and the tumultuous waves below him are slow-moving ripples—therefore, the wave-lined ocean is a "wrinkled sea." And when he shoots from his heights to strike at his prey, he falls, "like a thunderbolt."

Untermeyer has the order right: you learn about poetic techniques the better to read poems, and you read poems for their own sake, that is, because they are beautiful and wise. Tennyson's lyric shows us something about the eagle that is true, and it excites us; it captivates the imagination because his art presents that truth to us with the splendor of a great and noble music.

A youth reads Dante's line describing Beatrice's first appearance to Virgil in The Inferno: "Her eyes were shining brighter than a star" ("lucevan gli occhi suoi piu che la stella").  What is he to make of that?

If he's taught, "It's a traditional metaphor," he might as well never read a poem again. (Can you imagine going up to a girl and saying, "Your eyes to me are like the stars," and her saying, "Oh, that's a traditional metaphor." "Uh, I'm sorry, okay? I'll turn my attention back to the football game.") It's only by the exercise of his imagination, an exercise that is less like labor than like play, that is blessedly impractical, that receives as a gift both the beauty of a woman and the beauty of Dante's poetry, that he can enter into the spirit of the line and say, "Yes, that is true; I have seen it!"

Should someone then inquire whether seeing heavenly virtue in the eyes of a virtuous young woman would assist the youth in competing in the global economy or deliberating over tax rates, he must reply that Dante himself implicitly answers that question by sending those who ask it down to their proper place several grades of the infernal funnel below. 

Receiving the Gift

With our glance toward Dante we arrive at the real danger that poetry (and, I think, worship) poses to the secular worshiper of work for work's sake and to the vast, totalizing, secular system that such work props up. It's this: poetry and devotion spring from the same fount. Poetry at its most sublime—the epics of Homer, Virgil, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Wordsworth's Prelude—is a record of man's encounter with the divine. A deep harmony unites love with celebration, and unites celebration in all its boisterous energy with the effortless enjoyment of what is beautiful and true for its own sake.

To reduce all things to utility is to banish the feast. No one can ask what use can be made of a feast without destroying the festivity, without being a killjoy. There can be no feast unless the soul is ushered into the precincts of the divine. As Pieper puts it, thinking of all the cultures that have ever graced the earth,

There is no such thing as a festival without gods, whether it be a carnival or a marriage. That is not a demand or a requirement; nor is it a statement of how things ought to be; rather, it is a simple statement of fact. However dim the recollection of the association may have become in men's minds, a feast without gods and unrelated to worship is quite simply unknown.

Poetry, and all of the arts, properly approached, are like what Pieper describes as a temple, whose space is "not used, is withdrawn from all merely utilitarian ends." It's why the one book that Bradbury's hero commits to memory is Ecclesiastes, full of the sad poetry of the Preacher, along with chapters from the exalted visions of the Apostle John in Revelation.

And again we turn to Keats:

A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

"We murder to dissect," says Wordsworth. You can no more teach poetry by poetry-dissolving means than you can devise a strategy for joy or can force inspiration or demand love, for the Spirit blows where it will, and one can only rejoice in gratitude when it comes and follow where it leads.

"He who would save his life must lose it," says the Lord, and that is a law of being itself. It's the law of the dangerous life of beauty and love. The arts can entice us into that life and out of the dead mechanism of modern work for work's sake. We can make no safe bet on where reading Paradise Lost will lead you. If you read it in the spirit of the feast, receiving it as a gift you cannot earn, its beauty, ever gratuitous and overflowing beyond the cramped world of utility, may change you forever. If you enter that temple, you may learn to take the shoes from off your feet, to shuck the bridle from your back. You may see things your masters do not want you to see, because then they would be your masters no more. You may incline your ear and heart to a music they have tried to drown out. You may even catch a fleeting intimation, like a still, small voice on a mountaintop, of the Love that moves the sun and the other stars. 

This talk is a version of a contribution made to the Pioneer Institute's white paper, The Dying of the Light: How the Common Core Damages Poetry Instruction.

Anthony Esolen is Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Thales College and the author of over 30 books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House) and, with his wife Debra, publishes the web magazine Word and Song ( He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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more on poetry from the online archives

more from the online archives

6.1—Winter 1993

Civilization Without Religion?

by Russell Kirk

22.5—June 2009

A Law for All Seasons

C. S. Lewis on Civilization & the Natural Order by Timothy L. Hall

32.4—July/August 2019

The Two Faces of Modern Misandry

2018 Conference Talk by S. M. Hutchens

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