Common Wisdom: The Dead Muse

One chilly evening late in February I sat reading by the fire. The house was quiet. Our son was away at school. My husband was upstairs writing a speech, and the girls were studying. I had on my lap a stack of articles to go through, must-read things I had dutifully accumulated, supposing they would enable me to keep up and in general do me some good. After a while I came to the bottom of the stack. With relief I set aside the pile, thinking to myself how, if we let it, that kind of reading can eat up our lives.

Presently, as I glanced at the table beside the sofa, my eye fell upon a book of children’s poetry that I had given the family for Christmas. So far nobody, including me, had had time to look into this book. For one thing, our children now think themselves far too old for poetry designated under the title of Family Treasury. Though I knew when I bought the book that they would look upon it as something Mom got to satisfy her own whim, I was at that moment in one of my impulsive moods to buy children’s books, and so I bought not only that book of poetry but a couple of other children’s books as well.

Every now and then I get the notion, just on general principle, to replenish our library of children’s books. In the first place, I like them myself. In the second place, I admit to the lingering question whether, despite my child-bearing capacity no doubt coming to a finale in the next few years, there might yet be some surprising young person showing up to make us laugh and demanding to be read to. And in the third place, I definitely expect someday to be the world’s jolliest and most accommodating grandmother, with a passel of little folk clamoring for my services as a reader of tales. “Wead to me, Grandma,” they will say; “Wead now.” So naturally I must keep up my tools of the trade.

Now, with the fire burning cozily, I propped up my feet and sat for some time, charmed by this book of poetry. It was such a happy couple of hours that when I finished, I wondered why I let myself get bogged down day after day in prosaic reading that sharpens the wits, perhaps, but does so little for the soul. Guiltily, too, I pondered what I have often thought has been one of my defects in child-rearing—that is, my failure to read poetry to my children much past the point where they have learned to read for themselves. As long as the children could not read, I filled in the gap by reading to them all sorts of things, poetry included. Yet after they read on their own, I gradually ceased reading to them. My excuse was that with each successive child I became busier, so that I read less to the third child than to the first. Then, too, reading to oneself is a natural feature of growing up. Yet I now realize that by ceasing to read aloud, especially poetry, I helped perpetuate in my children the tone-deaf, tune-deaf modern ear. I suffer myself from that malady; I think nearly all of us do. The literal, image-blind view of the world is a characteristic of the modern mind that can take in what it reads on paper but cannot absorb what it hears in rhyme, that is accustomed to reading directions but cannot read poetry.

It was otherwise with our ancestors. When people gathered round the fire at night, they depended upon singers and poets to recall tales of the heroes. They counted on the rhythm to carry them along in these familiar stories. They listened for the stock epithet—the “strong-greaved Achaeans” or the “gray-eyed Athena”—that signaled the re-entry of a character and saved the singer from a new description each time the character appeared.

Our ancestors, relying on their ear for rhythm and verse, absorbed their literature in a way that is natural to the human mind. We all know how the youngest baby shows evidence of an innate human response to the rhythm of language, especially when he hears it in the form of a simple rhyme and accompanied by rhythmical movement. We know now, too, that the baby in the womb is aware of and comforted by his mother’s heartbeats. There is a comfort in rhythm. There is a comfort in poetry that responds to the deep human love of order.

Modern man, however, lives by an altogether different mode from his ancestors. Prose, not poetry, is his medium. For modern man, weaned from his natural bent toward poetry nearly as soon as he has outgrown nursery rhymes, finds poetry anything but natural and indeed a laborious and esoteric exercise.

I do not mean to imply that mankind is worse off being literate, that we were better off huddled around a fire, depending on someone else to tell us stories. The potential for learning to read is God’s gift; books are a blessing. It is not reading that causes our tune-deaf-ness; people were reading for centuries and still they loved poetry. Rather, what we read is the cause of our deaf ears. The more our education has become technical, the more it has abandoned the poetic and literary. The more we have given up a liberal education for a technical one, the more we have lost our ear for poetry.

The ordinary adult, once removed from the one or two literature survey courses he was required to take as “the liberal arts part” of his curriculum, finds himself swamped with reading material all right. But it is just that—reading material, not literature. It is pages and pages of information—memos, directives, untold quantities of paper generated by the combined zeal of man and the computer to spill forth words.

Rare today is the young person or adult who will say with unabashed enthusiasm that he loves poetry. If he is lucky, he will remember a time from his childhood when he genuinely enjoyed it. If he was a Hoosier child, for example, he will recall the delight of James Whitcomb Riley, conjuring up memories of “The Raggedy Man! He works for Pa; / An’ he’s the goodest man ever you saw!” He will have recited, “Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay, / An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away.” When I was a child, we all loved especially the lines,

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,—

An’ when he went to bed at night, away up stairs,

His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,

An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!

An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby hole, an’ press,

An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’wheres, I guess;

But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’ roundabout:—

An’ the Gobble-uns’ll git you

Ef you




Since all children love to hear tales of rascality about other children, Riley was as much a favorite with our children as he was with my brother and me. But it is a long distance from Riley to Shakespeare or Milton. Something happens in the interim to make poetry hard. Something happens to close the ears, to dry up the imagination, to dull the senses to music and imagery. Even though poetry is taught in school, the little time devoted to it in “our poetry unit” is hardly enough to engender in a young person the inspiration that once made poetry the lifeblood of our language. Thousands of words may pass in front of his eyes every day; yet those words are mostly what we would call data. They aim at the segment of his mind that merely takes in information and stores or discards it. Those words have almost no imagery that would fire the imagination of his intellect and move his will to seek great heights. For the most part the imagery that is the daily diet of modern man is banal and infantile. The inane imagery of television is hardly suited to prepare the mind of either young person or adult to be fertile ground for understanding poetry.

The modern world in general lacks imagery to stir the soul. Who, for example, can take inspiration from a shopping mall, that typical symbol of modern life? Yet poetry, in order to live, requires that people be constantly steeped in imagery that means something, not just peripherally, but to the innermost core of their being. Further, they must be constantly exposed to the Biblical and classical allusions that are part and parcel of Western poetry. Because so many of us have not read enough of the Bible or of classical literature, we do not understand the allusions. Because we do not understand the allusions, the poetry that incorporates them becomes impossible without a thick set of footnotes.

Much of our world is out of order. Our potential for understanding poetry is likewise out of order. But our human nature has not changed. Our natural bent toward poetry still lies within us. What has changed, however, is the time at which this natural potentiality is ready to bear fruit. In our ancestors it came first, with mother’s milk. In us it comes first, with mother’s milk, but then it hastily dries up. It reappears only years later, I think, in full maturity. It may not even reappear until old age. Poetry for our ancestors was the very first thing they learned. Poetry for us is the very last thing. Education is learning to read; it takes a lifetime to learn to read some things—philosophy, perhaps—but poetry is even harder. Only when one’s experience has caught up to the imagery of poetry does one begin to understand a poem that once was completely opaque to him. In my book of children’s poetry there is a funny little poem called “Betty at the Party”:

“When I was at the party,”

Said Betty, aged just four,

“A little girl fell off her chair

Right down upon the floor;

And all the other little girls

Began to laugh, but me—

I didn’t laugh a single bit,”

Said Betty seriously.

“Why not?” her mother asked her,

Full of delight to find

That Betty—bless her little heart!—

Had been so sweetly kind.

“Why didn’t you laugh, my darling?

Or don’t you like to tell?”

“I didn’t laugh,” said Betty,

“Cause it was me that fell.”

A four-year-old girl, hearing her mother read that poem, will enjoy sitting on her mother’s lap and will like the vigorous rhythm and the sound of Betty and party rolling off her tongue. But she will not really understand the humor of the poem. She will laugh because her mother laughs. When she is a ten-year-old, however, she likely will think the poem is quite funny. By then she will have had the experience of seeing the embarrassing things that can happen to little girls at parties. She will be able to put herself in the scene. In a more sophisticated sense the same is true for adults’ understanding of poetry. Yeats wrote a beautiful poem called “The Wild Swans at Coole.” The first two stanzas run:

The trees are in their autumn beauty,

The woodland paths are dry,

Under the October twilight the water

Mirrors a still sky;

Upon the brimming water among the stones

Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon us

Since I first made my count;

I saw, before I had well finished,

All suddenly mount

And scatter wheeling in great broken rings

Upon their clamorous wings.

In order to fathom these lines one has to have lived through a good many autumns and trod a good many crackling dry paths through the woods. One has to have seen swans fly—or, more likely in the American Midwest, geese. One has to have felt the exhilaration of witnessing a great band of dignified geese taking off together, honking to each other their mysterious coded messages. In order to feel the full beauty of the poem, one must have marked a good many autumns by listening and watching for the geese.

I look upon the experience of my father as a prime exhibit of the appreciation of poetry and literature that maturity can offer. Always a reader, my father decided when he retired that from now on he would have no time for serious reading of anything but the classics. He began with the Greeks—Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, a little Aristotle, and then moved forward to Virgil, Augustine, Thomas, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton. He has re-read the Psalms with new wisdom, re-read Longfellow with the richness of new eyes. Though he laments that he did not discover many of these joys in his youth, I think it is better this way. The mind of experience, that has wandered over the ruins of Greece, seen the huge stones at Mycenae, touched upon the shores of Ilium, labored under the same agonies of decision that heroes face, can come to the noble lines of the Iliad with full preparation to engage heart and soul in the poem. That youth can never do. In the modern world poetry is saved for maturity.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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