I wrote here a few days ago about Beauty and Purpose and other capital-letter topics. The idea (taken from Christine Perkell's study of Virgil) that the poet has a particular social role, as mediator between the Iron & the Golden Age - that is, between necessity and freedom, history and paradise...

Chaucer was doing something like this in the Canterbury Tales & other writings. Poetry here has a social-ethical aspect, interpreting and judging the mores of society.

There has been great resistance, since the end of the Victorian period at least, to the notion of didacticism in poetry. Poetry is either too detached (Symbolism) or revolutionary (Futurism) or autotelic (Modernism) to serve as a medium for ethical counsel or social critique.

It's not hard to think of many exceptions to this rule, of course. 20th-cent. poets from Yeats to our contemporaries have addressed social-political issues. But there is an understandable hesitation, on the poets' part anyway, to assign any ulterior purpose to art. Beauty exists for its own sake; the forms of art are self-generated and self-sustaining, growing out of the inherent dynamism of beauty and invention.

Here's how I resolve this dilemma (this morning, anyway) : the harmonious character of beauty (expressed in art) is indeed self-sustaining & self-contained, like a gyroscope floating on a string - and this is precisely what is "revolutionary" (disturbing to the world's business-as-usual) about it.

The poet as social interpreter, counselor & critic is simply the poet who has become conscious of the exile/dislocation/estrangement which is already rooted and inherent in the relation between beauty and the world's turmoil : and who takes responsibility for the consequences.


Addendum : of course, Virgil & the other ancient writers didn't leave it at that. That is, the relation between Beauty and the world's trouble (say, History) is not static and a-historical. The key, again as Perkell points out, is this dual notion of beauty (Aristotle), one part of which takes into account the object's purpose or telos. Because humankind also has a telos - a spiritual goal, adumbrated (very basically) by the perennial reality (under many guises) of Beauty/Truth/Goodness - the manifestation of Beauty in art somehow serves that spiritual telos. Suddenly we no longer have a static reality, but a world-in-development, as an expression of essential human aims (philosophers & theologians can argue about the divine vs. human vs. natural origins of those aims).

This gets me, anyway, back to Joachim of Fiore. According to the theologian formerly known as Ratzinger, 13th-cent. Joachim (revised & corrected by Bonaventure) played a pivotal role in a shift in Christian theology - away from Augustine's more static vision of the Two Cities (Earthly & Heavenly, temporal and eternal), toward a kind of quasi-prophetic perspective, which looks to the historical future for a concrete expression of spiritual harmony on earth (call it Peace, or the Kingdom of God, or the Jubilee, etc.).


The poet, then, stands midway between Iron and Gold - "representing" (making representations of) Beauty - in Mandelstam's figure, playing the flute, or the fife... showing signs of things to come... "quickening" (Eliot's term) at the sound...


An illustration (from the King James Bible, Gospel of Luke, ch. 7):

"24 And when the messengers of John were departed, he began to speak unto the people concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness for to see? A reed shaken with the wind?

25 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings' courts.

26 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet.

27 This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.

28 For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.

29 And all the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.

30 But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.

31 And the Lord said, Whereunto then shall I liken the men of this generation? and to what are they like?

32 They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.

33 For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine; and ye say, He hath a devil.

34 The Son of man is come eating and drinking; and ye say, Behold a gluttonous man, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!

35 But wisdom is justified of all her children."


- of the "fife", that is :

32 They are like unto children sitting in the marketplace, and calling one to another, and saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned to you, and ye have not wept.

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