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A Defence of Poetry

Author(s): Colin Falck


Source: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Summer, 1986), pp. 393-
403
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The American Society for Aesthetics
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COLIN FALCK

A Defence of Poetry

. . . it is that which comprehendsall science, and that to is because it involves the expression of our
which all science must be referred entire range of pre- or extralinguistically
Shelley
"experienced" emotion that the bodily expres-
I.
sive-which we might also call the gestural-
aspect of languagemust be infinitely richerthan
LANGUAGE,we have traditionally been taught
anything which would be embraced by mere
by those philosophers who have addressed indicative(or exhortatory,or commendatory,or
themselves to the question, is in its primary
any other) pointing at items within an already
function the means to our expression of our established world. (Philosophersand linguistic
understandingof how things are. Since the time theorists from Kant to Wittgenstein have pro-
of Plato and Aristotle we have become accus- vided us with irrefutableargumentsagainst any
tomed to the idea of the humanmind as making kind of "word-thingcorrespondence"theory as
use of the concepts which we possess in orderto the true account of the origins of our linguistic
understand,or to represent, the true nature of
meanings.) The bodily expressive or gestural
the world which we experience and within
aspect of language, which must be the source of
which we live. The judgments which we ex- our very awareness of the distinction between
press throughour thoughtor reason (the laws of ourselves and that which is not ourselves, and
thought are also the science of logic) are the therefore of the possibility of any kind of
means by which we grasp whatever it is about experience or knowledge at all, is in fact an
the world that we can succeed in knowing; and entire dimension of language. It embraces the
truth (meaning the predicative truth of our entire dimension of our possible modes of
propositions) consists in the conformity be- expression of our prelinguistic "feelings"
tween the judgments which we make and the aboutourselves and the world we live in, and in
worldly state of affairs to which those judg- its broadest sense, taking into account all our
ments successfully relate. For some 2500 years, possible modes of prelinguisticawarenessfrom
philosophy has worked with a model of linguis- the most immediate and concrete to the most
tically-basedhumanthoughtas "mirroring," or remoteand abstract,could properlybe called its
attemptingto mirror, an "external" reality at ontological dimension. Any naturallyused lan-
which it is exploratorily directed by truth- guage must in its origins be essentially gestural,
seeking human thinkers.1 and it is the development of bodily expressive-
But language is also-as we have only more ness as such, leading to the dawning of con-
recently come to be in a position to recognize- sciousness as we come to discriminatea reality
an expression of how things are for us, and distinct from ourselves, which must mark the
must be an expression of the whole range of most decisive "experiential" and ontological
preconscious emotion, and of our sense of our step. (A particular natural language, for an
own nature and powers, which we have found infant language-learner, arises as a gradual
ourselves able to incorporateinto our language- crystallizationout of his more general gesturing
based behavior at the fully conceptual level. It and expressive noise making.) This step must
perhaps remain mysterious; but we are at any
COLINFALCKteaches modernliteraturefor Syracuse rate nearer to understanding where its true
University(LondonCentre). mystery lies if we see it in terms of a general
? 1986 The Journalof Aesthetics and Art Criticism
394 F A LC K

bodily expressiveness rather than in terms of has not yet been articulated into a referential
something which is essentially hidden in the structure which allows us to understand, or
natureof verbal sounds or of written words on therefore even to experience, a world of inde-
a page. pendent objects around us; and it follows that
we are obliged to see this preconceptuallevel of
II. linguistic expressiveness as continuing to un-
derlie the more sophisticatedand fully referen-
On one of the opening pages of his Defence tial things which we are later able to do as a
of Poetry, and without making excessively result of our possession of concepts. As we
heavy transcendentalweather of his argument apply or make use of it within our ordinary
(he was "defending" poetry against his friend lives, our language will refer in various ways to
Peacock's account of it as no more than a the "things" which combine to make up our
sentimental anachronismin the modern age of world; but it will at the same time necessarily
reason and science2), Shelley tells us that "In always continue to have an expressive dimen-
the youth of the world, men dance and sing and sion, even if not always an expressive dimen-
imitate naturalobjects, observing in these ac- sion which is in any way an interestingor (in the
tions, as in all others, a certain rhythm or most usual sense of "imaginative") a signifi-
order.'' In the same paragraphhe suggests that cantly imaginative one.
But if our ordinary language is in this way
in the infancy of society every author is necessarily a necessarily expressive, it is at the same time
poet, because language itself is poetry. ... Every also necessarily bound up with the ordinary
original language near to its source is in itself the chaos
of a cyclic poem: the copiousness of lexicography and practical activities of our daily lives, and for
the distinctionsof grammarare the works of a laterage, this reason it must be equally essential to any
and are merely the catalogue and the form of the philosophical exploration or defence of
creations of poetry. "poetry" that we should take into account the
relationships which exist between the funda-
The languageof poetry, or of poets, he tells us, mentally expressive aspects of language and the
whole patternof practicaland worldly activities
is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before which makes up the texture of our lives at the
unapprehendedrelationsof things and perpetuatestheir human level. Like the animals, we may be
apprehension, until words, which representthem, be-
come, through time, signs for portions or classes of capable of eating, sleeping, fighting, and run-
thought, instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and ning away without having to devote any con-
then, if no new poets should arise to create afresh the scious thought to it, but it can only be possible
associations which have been thus disorganized, lan- for us to plan, to cultivate, to bargain, or to
guage will be dead to all the nobler purposesof human
intercourse(PSB, p. 26). experiment when we are already in possession
of conceptual language. As language-usingbe-
Any philosophical exploration, or defence, of ings it must be more than an accidental fact
what we might unreflectivelycall "poetry," or about our lives that we should be capable of
"imaginative literature," might do well to start doing some at least of these linguistically-
from this recognitionof the intrinsicallyexpres- dependent things. When once we have found
sive nature not only of poetry or imaginative ourselves in an articulated world, we cannot
literatureitself but also of any kind of ordinarily merely experience or contemplate that world
or actually used language whatsoever. On the passively, but must also live in it, with all that
most fundamentallevel, this means the recog- this entails of intending, trying, struggling,
nition of the essentially expressive-because succeeding, or failing in a range of practical
not yet properly referential-nature of any projects. It may be true, as Shelley implies, that
"original language near to its source." "In the the development of conceptual comprehension
infancy of society," and in the infancy of the may under some conditions deliver us over to
individual human child, we are obliged to rigidified ways of thinking(what Coleridge in a
recognize the existence of a level of not-yet- related context called "fixities and definites"3)
fully-conceptualized language which is both and that this may imperil our expressive abili-
gestural and emotionally expressive, but which ties and leave us incapacitatedfor some of the
A Defence of Poetry 395

"nobler purposesof humanintercourse." But a and object, and that our intuitive modes of
degree of elaborationof words into "signs for awareness, given a certain necessary openness
portions or classes of thought" must be a in our disposition, open up continually new
necessary attributeof any linguistically-based horizons within the reality which we inhabit.
culturewhateverand not merely of a creatively- Since the primal appearanceswhich "come to
deadened one: it is only when we have words us" must be primitively emotional as well as
which represent "classes of thought," i.e., primitively perceptual, we must accept as a
when we have concepts, that we can embark furthercorollary of our presubjectiverelation-
upon the process of experiencingor of thinking ship to the world that, in a special but philo-
at all, and when we embarkupon the process of sophically important sense, it is through our
experiencingor of thinking, we at the same time moods, which must underlie and surroundall
embarkupon the process of orderingthe world our conscious experience and our conceptual
in accordancewith our manipulativepurposes. formulations,that we have our most fundamen-
(It is the greaterobviousness of instrumentality tal apprehensionsof the nature of the reality
within a conceptually-sophisticated culturewhich aroundus.
makes it easy for us to forgetthe creativeorigins "Mood," in this preconsciousand preexper-
of instrumentalityitself, andwhichthereforelends iential sense, is something on a deeper level
plausibilityto "scientistic"philosophyandto the than, but must necessarily be something which
Peacockiandismissalof poetryas a primitiveand can also accompany or surround, the kind of
sentimentalanachronism.) subjective emotional states in which we may be
said to be in a mood "about" something. On
III. this preexperiential or ontological level,
"mood" carries something of the poets' over-
The possession of a fully conceptual lan- tones of "intimation," or of "apprehension"
guage entails the possession of referentiality, ("What a piece of work is a man! . . . in
and the possession of referentialityentails the apprehension, how like a god!"4), and is what
possession of instrumentalityor manipulative- Wordsworthrefers to, and begins to define,
ness. It remains true, even so, that the referen- when he speaks of "that blessed mood, / In
tial systems which we possess are themselves which the burthen of the mystery / . . . / Is
won throughto in a wide variety of expressive lightened" and "We see into the life of
and preexperientiallyexploratoryways. We de- things.'"5The special importanceof lyric poetry
velop them, or they themselves come into among our various literary genres follows di-
articulationfor us, in the course of our expres- rectly from this argument.Lyric poetry derives
sive probingswithin the obscuritiesin which we its revelatory power from the primitive unities
live, and in which, on the basis of our precon- of thought and feeling which lie at the very
scious sensings or intuitions, we continually basis of language itself. The lyric genre has
find new and previously undisclosed kinds of been identified by NorthropFrye with
experientialorder. All language has its founda-
tion in this process of pre- or extralinguistic what we think of as typically the poetic creation, which
intuition, and even when we are already in is an associative rhetoricalprocess, most of it below the
threshold of consciousness, a chaos of paronomasia,
possession of a conceptually articulated lan- sound-links, ambiguoussense-links, and memory-links
guage our particularkinds of linguistic expres- very like that of the dream. Out of this the distinctively
siveness and our ability to "say new things" lyrical union of sound and sense emerges.
must rest on our prearticulatesensing or intu-
ition of the "thing which we need to express" Frye proposes that "the lyrical is. . . the genre
and of the words in our available lang:iage which most clearly shows the hypotheticalcore
which we can most effectively call upon to try of literature ..."."6 Of this preconscious
to express it. We can now recognize, as Kant verbal creativity, Susanne K. Langer has re-
for example could not yet recognize, that our markedthat
true presubjectivity (in Kant's terminology, this power of words is really astounding. Their very
"transcendence") belongs to a level more sound can influence one's feeling about what they are
primitive than the distinction between subject known to mean. . . . The vocal stresses that
396 FALCK

seems to be the main or even the exclusive


rhythmicize some languages, the length of vowels in
others, or the tonal pitch at which words are spoken in
purposefor which the form of languageusing in
Chinese and some less known tongues, may make one
question has come about. There are kinds of
way of wording a proposition seem gayer or sadder
language using (which belong not to the prim-
than another. This rhythmof language is a mysterious
itive level, like the events in Shelley's "infancy
trait that probably bespeaks biological unities of
thought and feeling which are entirely unexplored as
of society," or a real infant's cries, but to the
yet. level of fully conceptualcomprehension)where
The fullest exploitation of language sound and
the immediate purpose of the linguistic activity
rhythm, assonance and sensuous associations, is made
in lyric poetry.7 seems not to be in any obvious sense a con-
scious or manipulativepurpose or one which is
To the extent that it is a discernmentor disclo- determined by any preconceived or pre-
sure of the most essential forms and rhythmsof describable intentions. Where language is ex-
humanlife at the conceptuallevel of our aware- pressive in this "pure" way, we are taken
ness (the lyric genre is not so much subjective- beyond any notion of "purpose" as understood
an "I" talking to itself-as the core, or germ of in relation to preconceived ends within an
all our literary devices), lyric poetry might be already-comprehendedworld. As with expres-
thoughtof as the most essential of our modes of sive gestures, we find that in such cases there is
apprehensionof reality. little that we can say about the extralinguistic
significance of the language-use in question
IV. except in terms of its expressiveness or inex-
pressiveness of some not-previously articulated
All language, subject to the openness or intuition. The kinds of language using which
authenticityof its users' dispositions (and here seems most obviously to possess this quality-
we must be speaking of a language-using col- where it would be plausible to say that the
lectivity, ratherthan of isolated egos or individ- expressive function is preponderantover all
uals), has an inherenttendency to try to attaina instrumental functions-is the range of lan-
more truthfulor expressive articulationof real- guage-uses which we ordinarilygroup together
ity as we intuitively and extralinguistically under the heading of poetry or imaginative
sense it to be. In practice, on the other hand, literature.8Art, if we were to give this literary
and in the world in which we live, a great deal argument a wider application, could be seen
of language-using occurs semi-automatically from this point of view as a rangeof activities in
and largely intuitively, with words being used which the expressive dimension is either the
inexpressively as "portions or classes of only one which is "present," or else is, in some
thought" (PSB, p. 26) and only the most sense, the only one which is immediately rele-
minimal creativity being manifested in the ap- vant or significant. In the case of poetry or
plication of those "classes of thought" to literature, the art is made out of words; and
particularnot-yet-articulatedsituations. This is because words make reference to, and have a
linguistic creativity at its lowest level, and descriptive dimension within, the world of hu-
corresponds to a level of authenticity where man life, what a piece of literature (on this
language has almost lapsed from the condition view) is "made out of" is in a certain sense the
of being language altogether and has begun to very stuff of human life, or of human history,
resemble a closed mechanical system. In this itself. (What the other arts are made out of is,
deteriorated condition language may already, by analogy with literature, certain particular
pro tanto, have begun to be "dead to all the perceptual modes, or certain particular ab-
nobler purposes of human intercourse" (PSB, stracted aspects, of human life or of human
p. 26). history.)
But is also true, and it may be true underthe On this view of art, which might be called the
very same historical conditions, that certain expressive-contemplative view, poetry or liter-
other kinds of language using can be found ature is made out of the same "material" as
which are greatly more expressive, and that ordinaryeveryday speech or writing; it is only
among these there are forms of language using created for different, and not (in any straight-
in which expressiveness, or creative insight, forward sense) for immediately instrumental
A Defence of Poetry 397

purposes. It is not meant to be attended to as in various "mystical" Western writings be-


though it were a part of our actual (or factual) tween Plotinus and the eighteenth century. At
understandingof the world. It is not documen- the basis of the fully articulatedmodern notion
tary; nor, for the same reasons, is it moralistic of the aesthetic, on the other hand, we can
or didactic (since moralism or didacticism are perhapssee Schiller's concept of "appearance"
themselves ways of manipulativelyhandling a or "semblance" (Schein), which provides the
world which we already suppose ourselves to philosophicalbasis for a view of meaning quite
have conceptually understood). Literature is distinctfrom eitherthe practical-instrumental or
concerned with the creation of terms rather than the objective-theoretical. Schein-the "sem-
with the manipulativehandlingof them:follow- blance" createdin art (which has philosophical
ing Shelley we could say that this is because it affinities with Kant's notion of the artist's
marks or reveals the "before unapprehended "transgressing" or "going beyond" experi-
relations of thing and perpetuates their ence'1)-is something which calls for our dis-
apprehension" (PSB, p. 26). It requires us to interestedcontemplationfor its own sake, and
attendto it contemplatively,and in "suspension in abstraction from all our more practical
of disbelief"(BL, II, p. 6) because belief, of a worldly concerns. Man, says Schiller, "is only
world-representingkind, is not what is called fully human when he plays."'12There are less
for in the first place.9 Meanwhile there are also systematic expressions of this idea in Goethe,
mixed kinds of speech or writing, including and it is given an explicit ontological or reve-
instrumentalkinds which are either more or less latory dimension by Fichte, Schelling, and
poetic in their manner(any piece of speech or Hegel. For Hegel the aesthetic is a mode-
writing must have a manner) and where the though when set alongside religion and philos-
"poetry" appears only as the "style" with ophy not the highest mode-of apprehensionof
which the instrumentaljob in question is carried ultimatereality. In more narrowlyliteraryterms
out. Since the expressive dimension of lan- the "transcendental" outlook of German Ro-
guage can never be wholly eliminated, every manticism finds its way into the English tradi-
nuance, every suggestion of feeling, must be a tion throughColeridge, and there meets up with
part of the "real" meaning of any piece of the more native (but still German-influenced)
language using, and not merely of the user's mysticism of Blake and (at least in some of his
intentions in using it. In "pure" art, or art moods) of Wordsworth.Both Keats and Shelley
properlyso called, on the other hand, the style see art as visionary; Shelley says that poetry
or form with which the languageusing is carried "lays bare. . . the spirit" of the world's forms
out can properlybe thoughtof as the very point (PBS, p. 56). In the post-Romanticperiod the
of essence of the linguistic achievementitself. 10 aestheticview gains force with the "purism" of
This expressive-contemplativeview of art or the modernist literary movement: Flaubert's
literaturehas origins which can be traceda long novel "about nothing," Conrad's "the whole
way back in the history of Westernthought;but of the truthlies in the presentation," Hopkins's
it can also be seen as a conceptual aspect, or "inscape," and the not-unrelated "emotional
systematic formulation,of a distinctively mod- and intellectualcomplex" of Imagism, Joyce's
ern philosophical outlook and of a distinctively "epiphany." Modernphilosophersof art, such
modern phase of artistic theory. The notion of as Croce, Collingwood, and Santayana, have
the "aesthetic" which was crystallized in the continued to explore the Romantic conception
eighteenthcenturyestablisheda traditionwithin of art as expressive or visionary. More special-
which the contrastbetween the "aesthetic" and ist writers about the other arts have adopted
the "practical" (i.e., the instrumental)aspects similar perspectives, for example Clive Bell's
of life came to be largely accepted as beyond notion of "significant form," and Roger Fry's
question and as thereforepossessing the status identification of vision and design; behind
of something like a philosophical axiom. The much of this lies Pater's notion that "all art
notion first conceptualizedby Heraclitusof the . aspirestowardsthe conditionof music"-
One in the many (EV-vraroT) was from time to an idea of direct visionary apprehensionwhich
time, though only fragmentarilyand intermit- also goes back to Herder and Novalis. The
tently, given hints of an aesthetic interpretation intellectual core of this movement is perhaps
398 FALCK

most centrally to be found in Hegel's formula- intuitive ratherthan in an instrumentalor sub-


tions (crucially modified from those of Kant jectively-centeredway, than we are at least not
and Schiller) whereby art is indeed heuristic or debarred ex hypothesi from understandingart
world comprehending,but in the sense of being (which is after all a partof human life) expres-
ontological or revelatory of reality ratherthan sively or intuitively as well. If it can plausibly
of being descriptive or representativeof it. be maintainedthat artisticcreation is an activity
which is closely implicated in whatever is most
V. fundamental in human life rather than some-
thing which is peripheral or secondary to it,
But why, it might be asked, even in the face then to take an expressive or intuitive view of
of such a roll-call of distinguished opinion, what is most essential to human life will make
should we be obliged to accept the view of it correspondingly more plausible that we
literature,or of art in general, which is implied should also take an expressive view of what is
by all these mutually supporting and, since most essential to art.
Romanticism, certainly very familiar ideas? An expressive or intuitive view of what is
Can this expressive-contemplativetheory really most essential to human life is what we are in
be anythingmore than a piece of verbal say-so, fact, by this stage in the history of philosophy,
or at best merely a theorywhich must be seen as inescapably obliged to take. We now have no
a theory in competition with many others, so choice but to recognize-pace Kant in the
that the whole issue (the point being perhaps Critique of Pure Reason, and all his predeces-
purely verbal) may be one which still cannot be sors in the mainstreamof Western philosophy
regardedas theoreticallysettled? since Heraclitus and Parmenides-that the hu-
We could here perhaps introduce the term man mind is situated in reality, rather than
subjectistto denote all those philosophieswhich being disembodiedor detachedfrom it, and that
begin to dc.minate Western thinking with the world, or reality as we are able to apprehend
Descartes (but which have their origins in it, is an expressive creationout of our embodied
Greek thinkingas early as Socrates), which find and distinctively human preconsciousness.
their philosophical starting point in, and base Life, at the pre-human level, is a creation of
theirview of the natureof truthor reality on, the meaning in terms of biological purposiveness;
notion of the givenness of the conscious human and at the level of human existence proper, we
subject.'3 On the basis of this definition we must see our coming to a state of linguistic and
could then say that subjectisttheories of human experientialconsciousness throughour articula-
life and of the human mind must of necessity tion of reality as being at the same time, but
only be able to leave room for subjectist theo- preconsciously and presubjectively, an expres-
ries of art and of artisticexperience. When once sion of ourselves. (Reality is what we disce;n;
we have interpreted human life and human but it is also what we discern.) Given this
experience as a whole in (for example) empiri- background of philosophical necessities, the
cist or scientistic terms, it is alreadytoo late to most importantthing that we should need to
introducea theory of art which would interpret know in order to bring this mode of interpreta-
art expressively or ontologically. The most that tion of human existence in general to bear on
might be claimed about the "expressiveness" human art in particular,and thereby to provide
of art on the basis of a philosophy which takes a philosophically secure underpinningfor the
the givenness of the conscious subject as its familiar Romantic and transcendentalview of
starting point would be that art is "self- art, would be that art can be seen as closely
expressive," meaning that it expresses the self, associated with, or as having an essential affin-
or the perso.nality,or the emotions, of the artist ity with, the processes which are involved in all
who made it. Non-subjective-centeredgeneral our most fundamental and reality-discerning
philosophies of human life, on the other hand, forms of ordinaryexperiencing.
do at any ratemake it possible for us to entertain This, with the help of philosophical argu-
non-subject-centeredtheories of art and of ar- ments about the natureof perception which are
tistic experience. If human life as a whole now available to us, is something which is not
requires to be understood in an expressive or in fact very difficult to do. We are now in a
A Defence of Poetry 399

philosophical position to claim both that reality usually thoughtto involve creative imagination,
is ontologically revealed to us in our most whatever else it may also involve or not in-
ordinaryexperience-for if it is not revealed to volve) from the same kind of participationin
us there, it is not revealed to us anywhere- reality. (Coleridge made a well-known and
rather thah (for example) by "rationalistic" much commentedupon distinction between the
argumentwhich bypasses ordinaryexperience; "primary" and the "secondary" imagination
and also thatthereis a kind of "imagination" at -between the imagination inherent in "all
work in our most ordinaryperception which is human perception" and the imaginationof the
continuous with, and not self-declaringly dis- artist which "dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in
tinguishable from, the kind of "imagination" order to re-create" [BL, I, p. 304]-but the
which is at work in our more innovative or distinctionis in the fact philosophicallyground-
"creative" perceptionsof form or significance. less. Coleridgehad his own reasonsfor wanting
On the basis of an analysis of such ordinarily to hold on to his doctrinally-underwrittenno-
used terms as "image," "imagine," and tions of virtue and true religion-which in his
"imagination," P. F. Strawsonhas arguedthat case meantChristianity-and for not wantingto
the creativityor inventiveness of imaginationis allow the human creative imagination to be-
involved in all of our most ordinaryperception come our only arbiterof what can count as real.)
of objects around us; that when we perceive It is argumentsof this kind about the neces-
something as a certain object (whether as a sary expressiveness, or probingnessinto obscu-
particularindividualobject, or as an object of a rity, of humanlife as a whole which we are now
particulartype), our recognition of that object in a position to bring to bear on all our more
involves a relationshipwith certainotherpast or specialized discussions of art and of artistic
possible perceptions in such a way that, if we experience.Recent theoriesof art and of artistic
are to be true to the real nature of our experi- experience themselves, meanwhile-sometimes,
ence, these perceptions must be said to enter but not always, derivingfrom Romanticphiloso-
directly (even though in what Kant might have phy-have intensifiedthe older and more myste-
called a "concealed" way14) into our actual riousassumptionsaboutthe inspiration-dependent
perception of the object before us. The linking and obscurity-probing qualitiesof art and artists
or combining of different transientperceptions (fromancienttimes the poet or the artisthas often
is one of the very things which it is the function enoughbeen seen as a divinely inspiredmadman
of our "concept of objects" to achieve; it is or priest). What was once only an aspect of our
only because pastness and possibility are intrin- ideas about art, perhaps with a good deal of
sically involved in presentnessthat there can be self-mystifyingsupportfrom amongartiststhem-
any connection at all between perception and selves, has now become the mainstreamof our
understanding, or therefore anything like the aestheticthinkingand has prevailedover almost
kind of experience of the world which we do in every otherkindof artistictheory.(Whereliterary
fact have. 5 (Wittgenstein offers a more enig- artitself is concerned,the world-rejectingdream-
matic version of this argument when he sug- iness of the "Symbolist"movement-Rimbaud's
gests that "seeing" something "as" something "systematicderangementof the senses," Villiers'
is like " 'the echo of a thought in sight'-one Axel's "as for living, our servantscan do thatfor
would like to say." 16)No particularconcepts or us," Rilke's "Earthhas no refugebut to become
frameworkof understandingis forced upon us, invisible"-might best be seen as a late heresy,
we might say, which is anotherway of saying ratherthan as the original formulationof this
that no particularset of objects must inescap- hieraticconceptionof poetryor imaginativeliter-
ably be perceived by us (there is no "given" ature.'8)Given the convergenceof modem lines
reality "external" to the human mind which of thinkingaboutordinarylife andmodemlii.^sof
our minds must "mirror" or conform to). If we thinking about art, it must begin to seem a
once accept this necessity of creative imagina- persuasivephilosophicaloptionto fall in with the
tion, or of obscurity-probinginsight into onto- notionof artas a "pure" noninstrumental creation
logical truth, as part of all our most ordinary of art-objectsor artworkfor contemplationwhich
experience,17then it must begin to seem rather is also eo ipso a purerevelationor pureexpression
implausible to try to exclude art (which is of ontologicaltruth.(How far we are willingto do
400 FA L CCK

so mayperhapsdependon the view whichwe take particularlines or phrases or qualities in what


of other, at one time more unquestioninglyhon- we otherwise feel to be bad or unsuccessful
ored, candidates,such as religion or philosophy, pieces of writing. Does this mean, then, thatwe
for this privilegedontologicalstatus.) are in danger of having to say that any artistic
We have reliable enough philosophical muddle can reveal truth to us if only we can
grounds for claiming that art has a dimension manage to discern the truth which it reveals?
which is transcendental, since these are the The realistic answer can only be that it must
same groundsthatwe have for claiming thatour depend on whetherand how far such a detailed
ordinaryeveryday experience has a dimension process of critical discernment or discrimina-
which is transcendental.Can we go furtherthan tion turnsout to be worth the effort. Art (and in
this, and claim that art is by definition truth the context of the presentargument,particularly
revealing? Or are we only justified in saying literature)we might say, is what we in the end
that art takes place within the dimension of find it worth our while to attend to for its
transcendencebut that it may just as easily lead expressive qualities alone.22In our responses to
us to untruthor illusion as it may lead us to truth individual artworks, or to our artistic tradition
or reality?One thing which seems certainis that in its entirety, we may sometimes be temptedto
it must always be open to us to misread the see the orderof art as revealing a greaterdegree
natureof such truthas any work of art (and the of orderin the world than is really '"'there''to be
same must be trueof any experience in ordinary revealed. We may thereforebe tempted to turn
life) authentically can reveal to us. What we our traditionalart into a false consolation about
grasp as being revealed, both in art and in life, the nature of reality or-which is the same
may in itself be genuine enough, but it may at thing-about the kinds of meaning which are to
the same time be susceptible to misinterpreta- be found in our ordinaryhumanlife as a whole.
tion in various ways with regardto the relation- In the same spirit, we may be tempted in our
ship in which it stands to the rest of reality. A own times to create the kind of art which lends
naturalisticstory or novel in which some of the itself to being used in this falsely reassuring
more essential realities of life are not allowed to way. It must always be an obligation on us to
intervene may properly be considered to be read the reality which is to be found in a
artistically false, but it may still contain valu- particularartworkor a particularlife situation
able elements of truth if only we are able to and to test these revelations intuitively against
discern these for what they are. Dr. Johnson the comprehensionof reality which we already
was perhaps right to say of "metaphysical" possess. There will of course often be artworks,
poetry that its writers "fail to give delight, by just as there will often be life situations, which
their desire of exciting admiration,"'9 or in our experiencingof them greatly outreachthe
Coleridge to see Pope's poetic manner and range of comprehension which we have up to
diction as "characterizednot so much by poetic that time achieved; these works or situations
thoughts as by thought translated into the lan- read us, we might say, more significantly than
guage of poetry" (BL, I, p. 19), or T. S. Eliot we are yet in a position to read them. (Owen
to complain that "even in his most mature Barfield, elaborating on Wilde's dictum that
work, Milton does not infuse new life into the men are made by books rather than books by
word, as Shakespearedoes,"20 or F. R. Leavis men, remarksthat "there is a very real sense,
to object to Shelley's "notable inability to humiliatingas it may seem, in which what we
grasp anything-to present any situation, any generally venture to call our feelings are really
observed or imagined actuality, or any experi- Shakespeare's 'meaning'.''23) Our coming to
ence, as an object existing . . . in its own terms with art or with life must nevertheless
right"; 21 but this does not mean that thereis no always be a two way process: no works of art,
way in which the writings which gave rise to and no sequences of naturalor historicalevents,
these famous adverse judgements can authenti- can ever entirely transcendthe various readings
cally modify or extend our apprehension of or interpretationswhich particularhistorically
reality. One of our most ordinary, and seem- and culturallysituatedhuman beings are cumu-
ingly most necessary, literary-criticalresponses latively and collectively able to make of them.24
is our habit of singling out for admiration
A Defence of Poetry 401

VI. ling reason, after all, why we cannot learn to


attendto anything, whetherman-madeor natu-
By any ordinary linguistic criteria we are ral, in a contemplative and reality-revealing
perhaps in a position where we can settle the way.26
question of whether or not to tie art de- To accept the option of connecting art with
finitionally to the revelation of truth in which- truth or reality (the two concepts are as yet
ever direction we choose. It may be worth- undifferentiatedin the early Greek notion of
while, even so, to recognize that the modern ('Ar-Leta) does in fact correspondto some of
tendency towards an increasingly "aesthetic" our most central and familiar modes of critical
view of art is tied to genuine discoveries in thinking, since the category of "failed" art
philosophy as well as to various less systematic alreadyexists, and is heavily relied upon, in our
insights which have been generated by the modern critical language. Since the time of
artistic process (as well as by modern life) Romanticismwe have been inclined to markoff
itself. Insights of an essentially Romantic-tran- a category of artistic failure (which may be
scendental kind are expressed in the increas- where the art falls back into accident or contin-
ingly truth- or authenticity-relatedcritical lan- gency, or into autobiography,or into the ines-
guage which we rely on in most of our ordinary sential in whatever fashion), which seems on
talk about art and about life, as when we say of the face of it to be defined by criteriaof merely
art works (as we say of people's behavior or formal failure. (It was with the "holistic"
utterances) that they are "authentic" or notions of Coleridge that such habits first
"genuine" or "coherent," or that they are gained their foothold within English criticism.)
"spurious" or "false" or "pretentious." The formal failure is a failure, and furthermore
These truth- or authenticity-dependentidioms matters, we tend to argue, because it fails to
are not ones which we can ignore or dismiss as secure any coherent creation of meaning or
being merely transiently fashionable, and it comprehensionof truthwithin what purportsto
seems philosophically almost certain that to be the order of a single artistic work.27 Such
insist on the transcendentalnatureof art and on notions as "poetic truth," or "the truthof the
the connection between art and truth would be imagination,"28 have long been familiar to
to consolidate a resettling of values in Western literary critics as ways of talking about litera-
culturewhich has been underwayfor centuries, ture; but they have also been assumed to be
but which has also been acceleratedand brought merely "poetic" or metaphorical in them-
to greater consciousness by the philosophical selves, and not to be concerned with truth or
insights of Romanticism. There may be good reality in any sense which could be of interestto
reasons, not all of them yet obvious or explicit, philosophers or to ordinary worldly-minded
why it may be metaphysicallydemandedof us, people. (This is the practical-rationalisticspirit
and a great gain in the reordering of our which underlies Peacock's "rattle and play-
problems, to regardthe connection between art thing" criticism of poetry [PSB, p. 18].) These
and ontological truthas a necessary and defini- notions of artistic truth, despite the efforts of
tional one. (The historically-established key Romantic philosophers such as Schelling and
terms which we possess in fact let us down in Hegel, have so far made little impression on
this area, not least because of their traditional philosophers as affecting their-or what they
and philosophically-sanctifiedemphasis on the take to be our-notions of truthin general and
distinction between art and natural beauty. It outside of any artisticor literarycontexts.29But
may be that we do not in fact need to make any there is really no way in which we can go on
very clear distinction between art and natural making art subservientto, or else irrelevantto,
beauty, and that the man-madeness of art such supposedly more fundamentalideas as we
should not be thought of as among its most may have about truth if we are unable to give
essential characteristics.25)The distinction be- any convincing account of what those suppos-
tween art and beauty seems to be largely a edly more fundamental routes to truth can
productof Westernmonotheisticreligion, and is authenticallybe believed to be. The claims of
certainlynot very prominentwithin early Greek rationalistmetaphysics or of empirical science
or Orientalthinking. There is no very compel- to be our "real" access to truth-our true
402 F A L CK

5 "Tintern Abbey," 11.37-49.


"mirroring" of reality-can now be rejected;
and it may be that the claims of doctrinaire 6 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton
University Press, 1957), pp. 271-72.
religion will need to be rejectedalso unless they 7 Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (London,
can be given a more convincing basis in intui- 1953), p. 258.
tive life, which will also mean in art, than they 8 It might be culturally more circumspect to say that,

were given during the centuries when their where our more formal or seriously-aspiring kinds of
doctrineswere unquestioninglyacceptedand art literatureare concerned, it is language uses of this kind
which are commonly held to constitute literature in the
was obliged to maintaina subsidiaryexistence estimation of a wide range of people who have taken a
in their shadow. Art, which has spent so many special interest in literature,including the writing of it, or
centuries being outshone by more solemn or who have had any considerable direct experience of it. To
ceremonious apparellingsof truth(which have talk in this way is really no more question-begging than to
now taken on some of the lack of credibility of say (as with T. S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend,and others) that
it is only physicists who can make statements within
the Emperor's clothes) and has been pressed physics. The important questions are the questions about
into various philosophical molds which it could the place of these various activities within human life as a
not fit, has itself meanwhile pressed steadily, whole.
9 The naturalisticmannerof much literaturemay easily
both in the seriousness of its practiceand in the lead us to misunderstandits true nature. But a part of the
theories which have grown up about it among reason for literature'snaturalisticmannermay be the history
artists and critics, its claims to the highest of its evolution along with other more descriptive or
ontological status. The time may perhapsat last representational kinds of story-telling. A reason for
have come for those claims to be recognized literature'scontinuinguse of the naturalisticmanner,on the
other hand, could be that such a mannermay help to make
and properlyallowed. If we decide to recognize literature more comprehensible to our practically-engaged
and allow them, we shall have created a situa- minds; even perhaps that it may help literatureto "feed
tion in which art, insteadof being rejectedby or back" into the practicalworld and to modify those minds as
ignored by or made a mere handmaid to reli- we make use of them in our ordinarylives.
10 Coleridge says of poetry that "whatever lines can be
gion, will in the future(if there is to be anything
translatedinto other words of the same language, without
in the future which can be distinctively identi- diminution of their significance, either in sense or associa-
fied as religion at all), need to be seen as, and tion, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their
effectively to become, the reality-inscribing diction" (BL, I, p. 23).
n Immanuel Kant,
heartand soul of it. Poets in particular(and we Critique of Asthetic Judgement,
trans. J. C. Meredith(Oxford, 1928), I, sec. 49.
are all, potentially, poets: "every [authentic 12 Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of
person] is necessarily a poet, because [authen- Man, ed. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby
tic] language itself is poetry" [cf. PSB, p. 26]) (Oxford, 1967), Fifteenth Letter, para. 9.
13 I have borrowedthe term "subjectist" from William
would in this metaphysically-transformedsitu-
J. Richardson SJ, who uses it in his exposition of
ation necessarily be, and even perhaps eventu-
Heidegger's relationshipto the Western philosophical tra-
ally be recognized to be, "the hierophantsof an dition. See his Heidegger: Through Phenomenology to
unapprehendedinspiration" (PSB, p. 59); or, Thought (The Hague, 1974).
through their obscure, continuous, and unac- 14 Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman

knowledged activity of recreating the very Kemp Smith (New York, 1965), B. 180-81.
15 See "Imaginationand Perception," in Freedomand
terms by which we live our daily lives, "the Resentment (London, 1974), pp. 52-57. The present half-
unacknowledgedlegislators of the world." page or so of my argument has been used in a slightly
different version in my article "The Process of Meaning-
Creation": A TranscendentalArgument," The Review of
l The "mirroring" view of mind and reality has been Metaphysics 38 (1985): 503-28.
documented and criticized by RichardRorty in Philosophy 16 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
and the Mirror of Nature (University of Minnesota Press, (Oxford, 1958), II, sec. xi.
1980). 17 An early formulationof this view is to be seen in
2 See Peacock's Four Ages of Poetry, Shelley's De- Schiller's notion of the aesthetic as the basis underlyingall
fence of Poetry, Browning's Essay on Shelley, ed. H.F.B. our comprehension, including morality and reason as well
Brett-Smith(Oxford, 1967); hereafterabbreviated"PSB." as art itself.
3 See Biographia Literaria, in The Collected Worksof 18 This
heresy perhaps has its real origin with the
SamuelTaylor Coleridge, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson German Fruhromantiker.
Bate (Princeton University Press, 1983), vol. I, p. 305; 19 Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (Oxford
hereafterabbreviated"BL." University Press, 1968), p. 28.
4 Hamlet, II, ii, 11.299-304. 20 Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode
A Defence of Poetry 403

(London, 1975), p. 260. embrace us still, even though his views of women, or of
21 F. R. Leavis, 'heLiving Principle (London, 1975), man's insignificance, or of the meaningof death, may not);
p. 80. but i: can also be "used" as a substitute for religious
22 This will of course be true mutatis mutandisof our devotion, or as a tranquilizingdrug, or in various other not
contemplation of natural beauty also; and it may in fact particularlyontological ways. Vivaldi gives us a certain
sometimes be less essential to art that it should be a human outlook on or aspect of things, but he can also (for that
productthan that it should be revelatoryof truthor reality reason)be especially useful for helping to clear a hangover.
(there is also "found" art). How do we know thai we are Art which was authenticin its own time cannot be authentic
creating or attending to something "for its expressive in the same way for us now, or it would still be possible for
qualities alone"? There is no simple answer. A. E. us to create the same kind of art today.
Housmanbelieved that "most readers,when they think that '"-still a very new concept-is so
25 The '"aesthetic'

they are admirtingpoetry . . . are really admiring, not the far the only nction we have for markingout this particular
poetry of the passage before them, but somethingelse in it, experientialor preexperientialregion. What we really need
which they like betterthan poetry" (The Name and Nature is a concept of something which is insightful or revelatory,
of Poetry [CambridgeUniversity Press, 1933], p. 34). or a disclosure; but we in fact have no adequate word for
23 Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction (Wesleyan Univer- this. (Beauty sounds too uplifting; art sounds too man-
sity Press, 1973), p. 136. It was the Danish storywriter made.)
Hans Anderson who first spoke of literatureas "reading 26 Zen Buddhism, for example, has tried to show us

us." how.
24 The historyof Westernartcould from one viewpoint 27 We must take care not to construe "failure" too

perhaps be seen as the history of our gradual coming to narrowly here, since there may be many disparate things
terms with the degree of chaos which, within the total which a single artworkmay be doing. "Holistic" theories
meaningfulnessof life as a whole (the Camusiannotion of and the search for unitarymeaningscan sometimes seem to
life itself as meaningless is in fact quite incoherent), reality be oversimple weapons in the face of the deliberate com-
"really" comprises. (Nietzsche of course argues in The plexities of modem, or modernist, artworks
Birth of Tragedythat the pre-Christianart of Greek tragedy 28 See for example The Letters of John Keats
measuredup to this very demand and that our vision only 1814-1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins (Harvar* University
deterioratedinto self-delusion with the post-Socratic and Press, 1958), letter to Benjamin Bailey of 22 November
Christianages.) Shall we (if we pursuethis line of argument 1817.
to its conclusion) have to say that The Divine Comedy, or 29 The notion of ontological truth, which has for the
the art of Michelangelo, or the music of Mozart, are most part been banished from official Westernphilosophy,
inauthenticfor us? The real question must be what we are
has in fact maintained a largely undergroundexi.tence
doing when we allow ourselves to read or to experience
within the tradition of artistic criticism for almost two
these older works. Mozart expresses (perfectly) a more
ordered,but iess all-embracing,vision thanwe can now feel centuries.
life to demand of us, as the music of Beethoven very soon
came along to make clear. Older, or "classical," artmay be I am grateful to Jerry Valberg for reading earlier
valuable for the enduring insights which, with all its versions of this argument and for making valuable
overformality,it can still give us (Shakespearemay seem to suggestions.