Volume 7, Issue 3: Poetics
To the Spring Let Us Go
Poetry, protested the last installment of this column, has for millennia played
an important role in education, in the recreation of imagination, in the transmission
of cultural wisdom. In the modern age, ranted the column, it has become peripheral
because of faith in "science." These propositions, it fulminated, along with poetry's
role in Scripture, suggest that we take poetry more seriously. Now, as that column
recedes, gesturing heatedly, into the distance, let us take up the thread more
We should take it more seriously. While we enjoy poetry as children and when
we're reading it to them, when they are in school we emphasize the importance
of math and science as "serious" subjects, the necessary ones for success, and
we make it clear that poetry is not a masculine subject, so that the young men
whom we expect biblically to be leaders in culture will not be attracted to this
one area of learning.
We have made poetry feminine by believing that poetry is about emotion. Since
the Romantic Age much poetry has indeed been about emotion, and at present, when
many secular writers do not believe in truth, what is left to write about but
their own emotions? But this is not what poetry has always been.
"Poetry," said Sir Philip Sidney, "is the companion of camps." After all, what are
the great epic poems about? "Honest King Arthur, will never displease a soldier
. . . Alexander left his schoolmaster, living Aristotle, behind him, but took
dead Homer with him." While it is true that ancient and Renaissance poets wrote
lyric poetry, it is also true that in all ages the highest form of poetry was
the epic, and the epic always dealt with adventure, usually of the martial kind.
And so we take Sidney as an antidote not only to the philosophers, but also to
the misomuses whose antagonism is fueled by the delusion that the blood of poetry
is but watery sap.
If we are to begin reading poetry, what can we find that is serious but interesting,
masculine but perceptive poetry that does not chloroform the senses or drip insipidity,
poetry with a good story? The answer matches wonderfully with what, for other
reasons, also is the best place to beginthe beginning.
Read Homer. If you are daunted by the name, consider C. S. Lewis's words about
reading the great, ancient books: "the great man, just because of his greatness,
is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will
be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said;
but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism." Homer is no
more difficult than reading the Old Testament, a modern novel, or any high-school
level textbook, and he is worth far more than the last two.
Read Homer in a good, modern translation, the best of which (for fidelity both
to the Greek words and to the "feel" of the Greek meter) is by Richmond Lattimore.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are both divided into twenty-four "books" (the amountabout
a chapterthat a papyrus or parchment scroll, or "book," could hold). Read an entire
"book" or as much as you can in a sitting, because the great thing in reading an
epic poem is to feel the sweep of the story, without lollygagging over the finesse
of the individual lines, as we justifiably do in lyric poetryin the same way
that we best appreciate a symphony of Mozart or Beethovennot by listening repeatedly
to brief excerpts but by sitting down with plenty of time and listening to the
whole thing. Or a landscape: we do not focus exclusively on one tree or hill,
but we take in as much of the whole as we can with a sweep of our eyes. That
is how to read epic poetry.
Do not be boggled by all the names (Lattimore's version has an extremely helpful
glossary); plunge ahead, and the important things will come right. Do not "try" to
read it as a poemit already is one. Just read it!
Remember that Homer's are the first poemsin fact, the first complete written
works of any kindin Western (Greco-Roman) civilization. Remember that he formed
the model toward which all epics and much other poetry have looked ever since.
Remember that Homer was the formative influence on the mainline, pagan, Greek
religious worldview which was the dominant one in the infancy of Christianity
and therefore a familiarity with his worldview is valuable in understanding the
missionary efforts of Paul and the other apostles. Remember that he heavily
influenced Greek and Roman culture; theirs influenced ours, and so he has influenced
us. Remember that his storiesthe Trojan War, the wanderings of Odysseus, the
myths of the gods and heroeshave formed the basis for much of our Western literary
culture and that therefore acquaintance with the "grammar" of Homer is critically
important to acquaintance with the "grammar" of Western culture, an acquaintance
that Christians must have if they are to redeem it.
And, after all that, remember that people have always found Homer a delight
simply to read.