Glenn C. Arbery on poetry and the intelligibility of the inner life
“In an interview for Atlantic Monthly, Peter Davison asked Richard Wilbur what he was most grateful to poetry for, and Richard Wilbur replied, ‘I enjoy being able to do something with the important feelings of my life. I think that to be inarticulate can be a great suffering, and I’m glad that my loves, and my other feelings, have sometimes found their way into poems that fully express them.’ Two things struck me about this artlessly honest comment. First is that it is exactly the kind of thing most people would expect a poet to say, because poets, as everybody knows, are beings who not only operate in a finer register than most, but whose capacities with language also allow them to say ‘what often was thought, but ne’er so well expressed’; they are allowed to go around, unlike most working people, taking their feelings seriously. The second is that very few people in my experience of academic life have explicitly and seriously spoken of poetry or literature in terms of feelings, as Wilbur has here. Quite the opposite. Literature as it has usually been taught can be analyzed in all kinds of ways, but they always lead away from feelings to meanings — and for good reason. ‘The feelings,’ John Crowe Ransom writes, ‘are grossly inarticulate if we try to abstract them and take their testimony in their own language. Since it is not the intent of the critic to be inarticulate, his discriminations must be among the [literary] objects’ (‘Criticism as Pure Speculation’ 882).
“Both the poet and the critic, then, begin with feelings but must be concerned with articulation. When Wilbur says that poetry has allowed him to ‘do something with the important feelings’ of his life, he implies that they would have remained unrealized in themselves had he not found a poetic form for them. The emphasis does not lie on commemorating or preserving these feelings like pressed flowers, but on giving them wit and wakefulness. Understood in this way, feelings require expression. If, remaining inarticulate, they cause 'great suffering,’ it follows that their full expression underlies the greatest pleasures of poetry. Reading a good poem should mean being drawn by a language alive in every syllable into the significant emotion that both requires and finds such articulation. One should be brought to self-knowledge in the welcome of a large recognition. Great poetry invites its audience into the feelings of Zeus, Dido, Iago, Cordelia, Ahab, Emma Bovary, or Alyosha Karamazov, and by this generosity — I think of the host’s ‘you shall be he’ in George Herbert’s great ‘Love (III)’ — articulates, puts in context, and so forms the feelings, good and bad, recognizable to all.”
— from chapter 5, “The Intelligence of Feeling and the Habit of Art,” in Glenn C. Arbery’s Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation (ISI Books, 2001). Arbery discussed this book on Volume 50 of the Journal, focusing on the matter of how a work achieves form. Also, on Volume 103 of the Journal, he discussed the power of poetry to capture and communicate truths concerning a well-lived life.
Wendell Berry on the mediating responsibilities of poets
In a 1974 essay titled “The Specialization of Poetry,” Wendell Berry offered some observations about the then-current state of poetry, observations based on reading interviews with a number of celebrated poets. He regrets that it is all too common for contemporary poets to have made virtually “a religion of their art, a religion based not on what they have in common with other people, but on what they do that sets them apart. For poets who believe this way, a poem is not a point of clarification or connection between themselves and the world on the one hand and between themselves and their readers on the other, nor is it an adventure into any reality or mystery outside themselves. It is a seeking of self in words, the making of a word-world in which the word-self may be at home. The poets go to their poems as other people have gone to the world or to God — for a sense of their own reality. Louis Simpson, for instance, says to an interviewer: ‘I have a very funny sense of myself in the poem — I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about how the poems make a self for me.’ Later he says of himself and some of his contemporaries: ‘We had to be devoted to poetry for its own sake.’ And Mark Strand says: ‘I have the feeling that I am a metaphor for my own being.’ . . .
“The world that once was mirrored by the poet has become the poet’s mirror. This explains, I think, the emphasis upon personal terror and suffering and the fear of death in much recent poetry. When the self is one’s exclusive subject and limit, reference and measure, one has no choice but to make a world of words. And this gives to one’s own suffering and death the force of cataclysm.
“But the difficulties are more than personal. For one thing, the subject of poetry is not words, it is the world, which poets have in common with other people. It has been argued that modern poets were forced to turn inward by the disposition of their materialistic societies to turn outward. But that argument ignores or discounts the traditions that have always bound poetry to the concerns and values of the spirit. This ancient allegiance gives poets the freedom, and perhaps the moral imperative, to turn outward. It is certainly no accident that Yeats, perhaps the most spiritual poet in our language in our era, was also perhaps the most political. As regards this connection between humans and the world, the specialization of poetry is exactly analogous to the specialization of religion. Putting exclusive emphasis upon a world of words has the same result as putting exclusive emphasis upon heaven; it leads to, and allows, and abets the degradation of the world. And it leads ultimately to the degradation of poetry and religion. Renunciation of the world may sustain religious or poetic fervor for a while, but sooner or later it becomes suicidal.
“This exclusive emphasis upon language leads also to the degradation of general literacy. Not so long ago it was generally thought that in order to be a writer a person needed extraordinary knowledge or experience. This, of course, frequently led to some willful absurdity in the life of a young writer. But it also suggested a connection — even a responsible connection — between art and experience or art and the world. What we have too frequently now, in the words of hundreds of poetry reviews in the time of my own coming of age, is the notion that what distinguishes a writer from a nonwriter is, first and last, a gift and a love of language. Writers, that is, are not distinguished by their knowledge or character or vision or inspiration or the stories they have to tell; they are distinguished by their specialties. This is a difference not of degree, but of kind. And the resulting absurdities are greater than before, and more dangerous. The power of such notions among the college-bred is suggested by a statement of Mr. John W Dean III: ‘I would still like to be a writer. Maybe I will write a book. I love to play with words and twist phrases. I always play Scrabble.’”
“If both writer and reader assume that the writer’s gift makes him or her a person of a radically different kind, then it seems that the relation between writer and reader must be radically reduced. Reading a book becomes merely a diversion. A writer such as Shakespeare is of course distinguished by his language, which is certainly his gift and his love. But his language is, after all, the common tongue, to which his gift is uncommon grace and power; without his commonness we could neither recognize nor value his distinction.
“One of the first obligations of poets is certainly to purify the language of the tribe — but not merely to write poems with it. The language of the tribe used by a specialist-poet to produce a poem ‘for its own sake’ can only describe the boundaries of an imprisoning and damning selfhood. Joyce Carol Oates says, writing of Sylvia Plath: ‘When the epic promise of ‘One’s-self I sing’ is mistaken as the singing of a separate self, and not the Universal self, the results can only be tragic.’ There is a sense of balance that is missing from the atmosphere that now surrounds much of the writing and much of the criticism of poetry. This sense of balance would lead and lead again to the poet’s place of responsibility between the poem’s readers and its subject — which is also the reader’s subject. It would see words as fulcrums across which intelligence must endlessly be weighed against experience.”
— from Wendell Berry, “The Specialization of Poetry, ” in Standing by Words: Essays (Shoemaker & Hoard, 1983). On Volume 148 of the Journal, Jeffrey Bilbro (Virtues of Renewal: Wendell Berry's Sustainable Forms) offered some thoughts about how — in his poems, novels, and essays — Berry fosters a sense of propriety or fittingness, a manner in which we ought to act with the world around us.
Calvin Stapert on the evolution of an ancient musical-liturgical tradition
“Bach’s Passions belong to a long musical-liturgical tradition. Musical renditions of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s final suffering and death have deep roots in Christian worship. Tangible evidence goes back as far as the fourth century, when a Spanish nun named Egeria, while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, described the chanting of the Passion story in Jerusalem during Holy Week. The practice of chanting the entire story directly from one of the Gospels spread throughout Christendom during the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, composers started to set the Passion story in simple harmonizations. Sometimes the entire story was in parts, but more usually the narrative continued to be chanted, and part-singing was reserved for the words spoken by the various groups of people and, sometimes, also for the words spoken by individuals.
“After the Reformation the Lutheran Church retained the ancient practice. Luther’s friend Johann Walter provided simple models for singing the Passion in which the narration and the words of individuals were chanted and the words of groups were sung to simple recitation formulas harmonized in four parts. This way of rendering the Passion story was still being used in Leipzig during Bach’s tenure.
“About the middle of the seventeenth century, musical settings of the Passion began to change both textually and musically. The words no longer came directly from the Bible. Instead the story was retold in newly written poetic verse called ‘madrigal’ texts. Under the influence of opera, chanting and simple part-singing were replaced by recitatives, arias, and choruses accompanied by instruments. They no longer maintained the ancient liturgical mooring in the exact words of the Bible; instead they were devotional concert music. Especially popular was a text by Barthold Heinrich Brockes that was set to music by Handel, Telemann, Matheson, and others.
“Bach’s Passions, however, were liturgical. They are more aptly called ‘oratorio Passions.’ Despite including madrigalian text, they retain the key ingredient of the ancient liturgical tradition: singing the words of the Passion narrative verbatim from one of the Gospels. In addition to the biblical text and madrigal poetry, they include chorales. The familiar texts and melodies of these congregational songs add to their liturgical fittingness. Both types of non-biblical text function as responses to the various scenes in the story. The madrigal poetry, sung as recitatives and arias by soloists, represents individual responses; the chorales, sung by the choir, represent communal responses. In both cases they draw the contemporary worshiper into the ancient story.
“In Leipzig the old style Passions, for example those of Johann Walter, were still sung in Bach’s time in the Good Friday morning Eucharist service. The elaborate new style Passions were performed in the Good Friday Vespers service, which began at 1:30 in the afternoon with the singing of a Passion chorale, ‘Da Jesu an den Kreuze stand’ (‘When Jesus hung on the cross’). The Passion and sermon followed. The Passion, divided into two parts like the larger cantatas, framed the sermon. The service concluded with a motet, the verse and a prayer called the collect, the benediction, and a final chorale.”
— from Calvin R. Stapert, J. S. Bach (Lion, 2009). Stapert has been a guest several times on the Journal, most recently on Volume 127 talking about the life and work of Joseph Haydn.
Richard Viladesau on the invention of the Passion oratorio
“The composer and scholar Johann Mattheson defines oratorio: ‘An oratorio is nothing other than sung poetry that represents a certain action or edifying occurrence in a dramatic way . . . an oratorio is a spiritual opera.’ Mattheson was one of the foremost music theoreticians of his time. His lengthy treatise Der vollkommene Capellmeister (‘The Perfect Music-Master’), published in 1739, remained influential into the early classical period. He writes that oratorio is a performance that ‘brings beautiful thoughts and events to light, not in bare speech, or in narrative alone, but in moving scenes of all kinds; spirits are raised to meditation and holy fear, as well as to compassion and other impulses, but primarily to the praise of God and to spiritual joy, through chorales, choruses, fugues, arias, recitatives, and the employment of the most skillful diversity, all with various instruments, as the occasion demands, cleverly and unpretentiously providing accompaniment.’ The primary example of oratorio, for Mattheson, is the performance of the Passion of Christ. (Although he notes that in some major churches, because of opposition of the clergy, the Passion genre is curtailed; in other churches it is performed ‘in true oratorio fashion.’)
“The first true Passion oratorio in Mattheson’s sense is considered to be Der blutige und sterbende Jesus (‘The Bloodied and Dying Jesus’) by the celebrated poet Christian Friedrich Hunold (known under the pen name ‘Menantes’), set to music by Reinhard Keiser in 1704. For the first time the role of the evangelist is eliminated. The scriptural texts are replaced by Hunold’s poetry, drawn freely from all four Gospels, and the characters address each other as though in an opera or a play, without a narrator. However, Hunold adds an allegorical figure, the ‘Daughter of Sion,’ to react emotionally to the events — somewhat in the manner of the ‘chorus’ in Greek drama. Hunold later explained that he did not use any ‘high poetic language’ in his writing, but had followed the spirit of the plain word of God; and in fact there are echoes of Luther’s translations of the Gospels in his text. Nevertheless, we know from a handwritten marginal note on the manuscript of the libretto in the Acta Hamburgensis that ‘many took offence or were even scandalized by it’ at the first performance in Hamburg. (Where it is likely that the young Handel was present as a violinist or clever symbolists.) . . .
“Both texts and music of the oratorio bespeak an effort to produce ‘compassion,’ not only for Jesus, but also for Mary, who has a lengthy lament. . . . [T]his was typical of Catholic spirituality; but it was something that Luther had said should be avoided in meditation on the cross. Like the change in musical form to a more emotional, subjective, and operatic form, it expresses the new devotional feelings that were arising in some Lutheran circles. Dialogues of the sinful and lamenting soul with God or with Jesus formed a significant part of the Neue Frömmigkeit (‘new piety’) that took hold in the Lutheran tradition during the seventeenth century, even outside the bounds of Pietism. The genre of colloquies between the soul and God often with the words on each side provided by scriptural texts, became common in German Lutheran devotional books and songs from the 1620s onward, and flourished in the mid-century. . . .
“Luther’s idea of true meditation on the passion centered on sin and its forgiveness. He favored a didactic portrayal of the crucifixion, in which the cross is shown primarily as the means of God’s triumph. We have also noted that the Pietist movement, while keeping this perspective, also reintroduced a strong affective devotion to the suffering Jesus, and complemented Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith with a new stress on the personal transformation that should be its result.”
— from Richard Viladesau, The Pathos of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts—The Baroque Era (Oxford University Press, 2014). Viladesau was interviewed on Volume 123 of the Journal.
Richard Viladesau on art, meditation, and the affections
“Sacred art . . . both reflects theology and is reflected by it. But the aesthetic medium also has criteria of its own, and these affect the message. Because of the way visual art presents data, it is necessarily more concrete than conceptual thought, since the artist must necessarily choose specific spatiotemporal objects to portray, and must locate them in a visual field. But in interpretation, visual art is less specific. This becomes increasingly true as art attempts to reproduce empirical experience, rather than serving as a symbolic medium for conveying ideas. This is of course exactly one of the transitions in the meaning of art that took place in the Renaissance. To the extent that a picture presents empirical data, the message that its viewer receives depends on what “interpretative baggage” the viewer brings to it. Of course, Renaissance art, as we have seen, is far from attempting photographic realism. The artist is still conveying ideas and messages, and still attempts to portray or to evoke of a level of beauty that is seldom encountered in concrete everyday experience. But the conceptual element is necessarily more vague as the naturalistic and decorative elements become more important. Moreover, Renaissance art explicitly appeals to the emotions; hence, as compared with medieval sacred art, it is more visual and visceral than conceptual.
“Another tension that increasingly comes to the fore in Renaissance sacred art and music concerns the purposes of art. Medieval sacred art already had a decorative purpose, and consciously sought beauty of form. Savonarola’s complaints about excessive artistry getting in the way of the message were not entirely new. Yet a number of factors in the Renaissance exacerbated the tension. We might mention a few: advances in technique; the use of pagan models and themes; the change in patronage from clerical to secular; the increasing presence of sacred art in private dwellings rather than churches, due to the wealth of princes and the bourgeoisie; the growing importance of purely secular art and music; a new empirical spirit of observation and depiction of nature. All of these factors led to the beginning of what Hans Belting has called ‘the era of art,’ that is, the modern situation in which the arts exist for their own sake, rather than simply as the conveyer of a religious message or as a medium of encounter with a supernatural presence.
“One might ask what effect the new tendencies in painting and sculpture toward naturalism and toward independent aesthetic values had on the religious message in sacred art. From one point of view, one might say that there was generally no discernable effect on the message, at least as far as content. Renaissance preachers took moral lessons from events in the Scriptures; Renaissance religious art did the same. We can recognize in the message of much Renaissance religious art the theological characteristics of the late Middle Ages, particularly of the devotio moderna: mistrust of intellect, and emphasis on emotion; stress on good works, including the feeling of compassion for the sufferings of Christ. The naturalistic portrayal of the events of the passion and of the grief of Mary, or the portrait-like representation of Christ, might more effectively evoke such a compassionate emotional response, leading to a corresponding response in the affects and will and ultimately in behavior. For many medieval thinkers, this was the very purpose of meditation on the passion. On the other hand, the humanistic and Platonic tendencies in some art might implicitly convey different messages: about the value of the world and the beauty and goodness of the human body; about ways of seeing, and the nature of representation itself; about society and its attitudes and values.”
— from Richard Viladesau’s The Triumph of the Cross: The Passion of Christian Theology and the Arts, from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2008). Viladesau was interviewed on Volume 123 of the Journal.