There are two basic attitudes regarding the power of poetry. The first is summed up by Tennyson’s Ulysses who, though old, manages to convince his men to sail with him once again “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” While the use of a persona puts some distance between Tennyson and these sentiments, this statement is exactly the sort of thing one might find etched on the foot of a monument. Indeed, it is exactly that. It is the phrase etched at the foot of the monument commemorating the death of the explorer who attempted to be the first to find the South Pole. He was beat there, and on the return journey died, along with his crew, of hunger, exhaustion and cold. However, this failure hasn’t stopped well-meaning writers, politicians, and explorers from citing the last lines of “Ulysses” as the spirit’s slogan. What is more is that the gist of this attitude sounds remarkably similar to the sentiments of Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost. No politician who wanted to be re-elected would ever claim alliance with him.
The nature of Tennyson’s Ulysses’ sentiments suggests an emphasis on process. In other words, it is one’s courage that counts, and not what that courage manages to accomplish. The ends matter little. There have been many times over the course of my career as a teacher, when I have read papers written by students citing these sentiments, or ones similar. And very often, when one is facing difficulties or has suffered some loss, one is likely to receive greeting cards stamped with sentiments like this, too. It is a particularly Western attitude toward adversity and one especially embraced by the can-do American. Joseph Campbell called this the basic Greek attitude, embodied in a character like Prometheus. Though at odds with the gods and punished for having disobeyed, his attitude was to endure the punishment – his liver was pecked at daily, only to regenerate so the torture could resume – and remain defiant, proud, self-reliant. The contrary position Campbell points out is that of Job, who when meeting God’s displeasure covers his head with ashes. Job’s attitude is one of humility before that which is greater than he is. Prometheus’ attitude is that nothing whatsoever is greater than he is.
This brings me to the second attitude toward poetry’s power, which is best summed up by Dante’s treatment – some five hundred years earlier than Tennyson’s – of Ulysses. Dante places Ulysses deep down in hell with the false councilors. This Greek’s punishment for his presumption is to burn like a flaming tongue. Ulysses recounts to Dante the manner of his death in a monologue strikingly similar to Tennyson’s. The main difference is that Dante continues where Tennyson leaves off. Just as Ulysses and his crew begin to approach the Mountain of Purgatory, which is literally the end of this world and the beginning of the next, God’s hand sinks the ship. Ulysses and his crew are drowned and, when he wakes, he is in hell. There are many reasons why Dante’s attitudes toward the Greek hero would differ from Tennyson’s, and there may be room to argue that Dante’s attitude toward Ulysses is more complicated than it seems. However, what I think can be safely concluded is that Dante, whose narrative leaves Virgil behind once the pilgrim leaves the Mountain of Purgatory for the celestial realm, thinks poetry can only take one so far. After that, the poet must rely on grace or a power greater than himself, greater than all human power, to reach what might be called Union with the Divine and, finally, the ultimate conclusion, which is the universe is moved by love.
I am often frustrated by the idea that poetry is an end in itself. That poetry’s aim is poetry. This tautology suggests, for instance, that experience’s aim is experience. Talk to someone whose attitude about his life comes to this and you are talking to a boor. His arguments come to little more than the sort of thing vacation photos and postcards come to, and that is, the following statement: I was there. Perhaps this, in the end, is all the meaning, all the truth there is. I doubt it. But far too often, we conclude there is no larger meaning before we have tried to discover if this is so for ourselves. The faithless accept this attitude, then, as an article of faith. It is like one who concludes there is no God because the God of his childhood failed to provide him with an answer he needed. Instead of searching for a God that would suffice, he quits and says, like the fool in the psalms, There is no God.
Whichever attitude one assumes regarding poetry’s power or the relationship of human will to divine will doesn’t matter much. I read and admire poets of both sorts as long as they are genuine. And I’m not going to make the Pascalian argument that believing is a safer bet. There is nothing safe about poetry. And that’s just it. The argument I am prepared to make is this, then. Whether one places one’s faith in the human spirit or in God, the basic character of faith is risk. I can’t imagine a faithless poet worth reading. And I can’t imagine a poetry worth reading that doesn’t risk everything. Therefore, for the poet, there is no easy way out.