Poets as Teachers

By John P. Van Mater

Poetry speaks to so many occasions: tragedy, comedy, history, nature. Poets, especially nature poets, capture moments of awareness and embody these in such a fashion that we also share in their experience. In the broadest sense poetry cannot be cabined in rhyme or meter; nevertheless, rhyme and meter are part of poetic expertise. Rhythm, on the other hand, is irreplaceable -- the flow of the words must enhance the theme. Speech and prose may also be highly poetic. Of course, the principles of great poetry apply to all the arts: great art must rise above mere description, awakening us to a world of divine and spiritual forces. We feel these forces moving in ourselves if the poet or artist is inspired.

Let us start with the universal picture. The Gospel of John opens with "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." The King James Bible has a host of wonderful poetry in it. Those translators used the English language in an exalted way. In the beginning was the Word, the Logos, sound, vibration. This living sound or breath arranged substance to form a universe or a world. Out of immeasurable, seemingly empty space a world issues forth -- and sound is the first emanation from the boundless All. Poetry makes use of sound in its artistry -- it was meant to be heard. As Welsh poet Kenneth Morris once said:

Could we but sense the sound by hearing, as we do its outward beauty of form by sight, then what symphonies should we hear from the bluebells in the woodland, and the yellow daffodils on the hills; for are they not bluebells and daffodils by virtue of the wondrous strange music, the vibrations of which shape the atoms into loving cups and bells? What vibrations of music brought this great flower, the Universe, into bloom? What flaming harmonies were sounded forth to shake these gleaming galaxies into form and life and motion?

I believe poetry originated in the dawn of civilization when the human mind was first awakened. The awakening of mind is commemorated in all the world's great scriptures, which also hold that mankind was originally taught the arts and sciences by divine instructors. Poetry was conceived and perfected untold ages before any of it was set to writing. Whereas we have glorious times in human history, we also have dark ages where parts of the world may seem barren, uncultivated. Yet often it is in these dark times, when all culture has been destroyed, that the bards and minstrels keep alive by oral traditions the songs, hymns, epics, and myths. And these great productions speak of the birth of worlds, of gods, and of an earlier mankind. They appeal by their style and content to our higher potentials. When we read some of these scriptures and epics that have come down to us, we find there is nothing primitive about them, in style or content. They speak in elevated language -- they speak in poetry.

The Rig-Veda is one of the oldest collections of poems, prayers, and invocations, brought down into India by the Hindus from their Central Asian cradleland. The "Creation Hymn" speaks of the great, unknown Darkness from which everything springs and about which we know so little:

Nor Aught nor Nought existed; yon bright sky
Was not, nor heaven's broad roof outstretched above.
What covered all? what sheltered? what concealed?
Was it the water's fathomless abyss?
There was not death -- yet there was nought immortal,
There was no confine betwixt day and night;
The only one breathed breathless by itself.
. . . -- an ocean without light --
The germ that still lay covered in the husk
Burst forth, one nature, from the fervent heat.
Who knows the secret? who proclaimed it here?
Whence, whence this manifold creation sprang?
The Gods themselves came later into being --
Who knows from whence this great creation sprang?
That, whence all this great creation came,
Whether Its will created or was mute,
The Most High Seer that is in highest heaven,
He knows it -- or perchance even He knows not. -- Rig-Veda , x, 129 (Colebrooke)

Hardly primitive poetry!

The awakening of the human mind gave us power to think, to indulge in introspection, to express and convey thoughts, even abstract ones, and these are enormous assets. The awakened mind produces situations that are peculiar to us humans: because of our self-awareness we are poised between animality and spiritual forces, vacillating between the two -- in the course of one day many times, perhaps. Our minds isolate us, as though behind a veil, and we do not perceive and feel the invisible forces and powers of nature as some of the lower creatures do. We see only what we are prepared to see, and our culture ill prepares us to see forces as living entities and the laws of nature as the activity of intelligent beings. The only things that today are considered as living are the plants, animals, and humans. The rest is looked upon as inorganic. Our earth is considered lifeless; our sun merely an astrophysical phenomenon. Even our religious outlook is often more doctrinal than perceptive; that is, we do not experience our oneness with life and with our fellow creatures, which is the heart of religion -- and also of poetry! Which is why Wordsworth in his sonnet, "The World," said:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. -- Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

You see what he is driving at: a living nature and a religion that is also living by means of which we may experience nature at all its levels.

Other peoples, reared for generations on the reality of nature forces and laws, of life existing everywhere, would be infinitely more sensitive than we are. They also would see what they are prepared to see, and what most true poets see: life everywhere. The old traditions have it that these nature forces and powers were elemental beings but not self-conscious gods, whose life and whose being are the intelligent fabric of nature, providing its harmony and law. As some of the early religions grew old they often turned to worshipping these nature powers. Quoting from H. P. Blavatsky:

The original, transcendental, and philosophical conception was one. But as systems began to reflect with every age more and more the idiosyncrasies of nations; and as the latter, after separating, settled into distinct groups, each evolving along its own national or tribal groove, the main idea gradually became veiled with the overgrowth of human fancy. While in some countries the FORCES, or rather the intelligent Powers of nature, received divine honours they were hardly entitled to, in others as now in Europe and the civilized lands -- the very thought of any such Force being endowed with intelligence seems absurd, and is proclaimed unscientific. -- The Secret Doctrine 1:424

But why single out the poet? What does he or she achieve that a clear description does not make quite plain? It is true that each age has its poetry, and that many poems should have been written in prose, for they are indeed prosaic, to say the least: they do not characterize in language and in elevation of style what we usually associate with poetry. Prose descriptions, on the other hand, are often beautiful, even poetic, as in the writings of naturalists such as Joseph Wood Krutch, Donald Culross Peatie, William Beebe, John Burroughs, and John Muir -- to name but a few individuals who come easily to mind.

English poetry contains many beautiful creations that reach a high level. But when we come to Milton's Paradise Lost we see, together with Shakespeare, English poetry at its highest, for poetry is at its grandest when it serves a lofty purpose. Here we have blind old Milton, wearied from his Cromwellian duties, dictating to his daughters the text of this epic work, drawing from memory the countless classical, biblical, and other images which glorify its pages. He speaks of the war in Heaven, as all faiths do; the expulsion of divine Lucifer to Tartarus -- Lucifer whom he makes a titan like Prometheus. Although Milton calls him Satan, the enemy of God, Lucifer becomes the strongest figure in Paradise Lost.

Milton seeks divine help in this task which meant everything to him, and his opening words sound very much like the Gayatri of ancient India, the invocation of one's inner god, which G. de Purucker paraphrased thus: "O thou Golden Sun of most excellent splendor, illumine our hearts and fill our minds, so that we, recognizing our oneness with the Divinity which is the heart of the universe, may see the pathway before our feet, and tread it to those distant goals of perfection, stimulated by thine own radiant light." Here is Milton's invocation:

O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dovelike sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support,
That, to the height of this great argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men. -- Bk. 1, lines 17-26

Still, the grandest use of the poetic vision and magic, perhaps, lies in the drama, especially tragedies such as those of the Greek poets and playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes; as well as the works of Shakespeare, Marlow, and Goethe. Drama touches deep roots: the Greeks maintained that in attending the great dramas, especially the tragic dramas, a katharsis or cleansing of the soul took place.

And what about the great epics -- the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Kalevala, Eddas -- in all these poetry plays a central role. The Mahabharata, as an example, tells of the five Pandava princes who were deposed from their kingdom by the blind king Dhritarashtra and his hundred sons, and describes how the five brothers regained their kingdom once more. We need not detail the many insights this poem gives us of our divine and spiritual nature and of our human and lower aspects. But one part of the sixth book, the Bhagavad-Gita, is often issued separately. It is set on the plain of the Kurus where Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers and hero of the poem, is in his chariot between the two opposing armies with his charioteer Krishna, the earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu. Krishna urges Arjuna to fight, but Arjuna is reluctant, for he sees old friends on both sides of the conflict. This is no ordinary war between factions, although there may well have been such a war, as was the case with the Iliad and the siege of Troy.

One interpretation is that this war takes place within us. Arjuna or the individual has aspired to become something grander and wiser. Doing so, he has aroused the inertia of his own nature. To make our human nature something more truly human, translucent to the light of the inner Krishna which resides in us all, we must take up the struggle, purifying and disciplining the wayward aspects of ourselves. Thus Krishna successfully urges Arjuna to do battle. When we place the Bhagavad-Gita, with Arjuna as the human monad or self, against the larger setting of the 18 books of the Mahabharata, we are given a grander picture of human evolution as part of terrestrial and cosmic evolution, which will involve all parts of ourselves, all the Pandava princes in us, on the endless journey of monadic unfoldment which in the course of infinite time raises every living atom to become a human being, and every human to become a divinity.

This will give a small idea of the wisdom locked up in the epic poetry of the ancient world. The bard would come and recite or declaim the old stories. His hearers often knew the story very well, and they would follow the running thoughts, seeing fresh meanings, attaining wider insights. I wonder if something was not lost when, after centuries of oral tradition, some of these marvelous epics were committed to writing. I remember when my brother and I were youngsters out on the ranch, hearing the old folks reading out loud in the evening -- we were building our own structures in our imagination.

What do poets teach? They teach that we inhabit a living universe, surrounded on all sides by countless lives, great and small -- the wind brushes our faces with a million universes. We learn from poetry that we too may scale the heights. We may not be poets, but if it is a great poem and it stirs us, we do rise to the heights. We learn also that life is interrelated, a vast brotherhood, which includes ourselves: we are not merely perched here on a lifeless globe in a dead universe.

Let me close with two short extracts from Celtic poetry. Matthew Arnold claimed it has a wizardry all its own which he called "natural magic." "Ode to the North Wind" is from a poet whom Kenneth Morris considered the greatest of the medieval Welsh bards, Dafydd ab Gwilym:

Bodiless glory of the Sky,
That wingless, footless, stern and loud,
Leap'st on thy starry path on high,
And chantest mid the mountain cloud
Wind of the North! no power may chain,
No brand may scorch thy goblin wing;
Thou scatterest with thy giant mane
The leafy palaces of Spring;
And, as the naked woodlands droop or soar,
Liftest thine anthem where a thousand forests roar.

And one line from the legendary Taliesin, said to have lived in the 5th century: "I know the imagination of the oak trees."

In this spirit our earth must indeed have sacred places. The mountain, wild waters, the margin of the sea, these are alive with the forces that we feel there. They are there -- all parts of the living earth, of which we too are living parts. The awakening of mind empowered mankind to write and appreciate poetry, which often speaks to the god in us and the god in nature. But above all, poetry presents this universe as a living being: spirit immanent in nature, the poetic insight.

(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1995; copyright 1995 by Theosophical University Press)

Arts Menu