A Catholic View of Poetry and Civilization

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Poetry is at the heart of human nature and civilization. When one looks back over the history of civilization, it is often accompanied by, or begins with, poetry. The very apogee of the civilization in question inevitably converges with the age of poetic acme. Indeed, the very ascent of civilization and the spiritual vitality that accompanies civilization always stands alongside the poetry which inspired grand visions and the eloquence of language which the soul ascends to. 

The rise of Hellenic civilization began not with Socrates, Plato, or Aristotle, but with Hesiod, Homer, and Sappho. What of the glory of Rome? Though not a poet, per se, Cicero’s language stands unrivaled and makes him a spiritual poet, or a politician and philosopher of poetic verse one could say. Nevertheless, it is often to the poets Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Statius where people point to when considering the grandeur of that city which once took the world captive. The “golden age” of Rome was preceded by the Golden Age of Latin literature, just as the golden age of Greece was preceded by the ingenuity of the Greek poets and playwrights. 

Likewise, the rise of the splendor of English civilization is found in Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton instead of Hobbes, Locke, or Mill. The revival of English high culture and civilization from the ruins of the late Enlightenment and Napoleonic Wars began with the explosion of romantic and Gothic literature and poetry by such names as Jane Austen, Lord Byron, and Charles Dickens, not to mention Wordsworth and Coleridge, among others. Their gifts are for the whole world and continue to move the soul long after their deaths.

Poetry is about love, the heavens, and the burning passion of the human heart that thirsts after Love itself. The Psalmist encapsulated the pulsating soul of poetry and the biblical drama long before the great poets of the Western tradition took to song: “O God, thou art my God; early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; To see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen thee in the sanctuary” (Psalm 63). Even upon the eve of the incarnation of Christ, the great flourishing of poetic biblical literature preceded it: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Wisdom, and Sirach, as if to help announce to the world the coming of Love made flesh. 

Consider, also, the formation of Germany and German culture. Though not yet a united political entity, the German Renaissance and the movement to a definitive German nation was preceded by the poetry of Novalis, Goethe, Hölderlin, and Schlegel. 

The Russia of memory and consciousness, the Russia that is a gift to the world, was formed by torchbearers like Alexander Sumarokov, Vasily Zhukovsky, and Alexander Pushkin, who laid the groundwork for Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and their gifts to the world which inspired Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Literature, but especially poetry, can foster spiritual birth or resuscitation as is the universal case seen throughout history. 

Before the rise of Christianity, the Mediterranean world moved with a flurry of love poetry which prepared it for Christianity: Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Horace, and Statius. The project of the Roman literati, even those outside of poetry, was to rekindle the spirit of pietas—what we call piety, which had been lost in the decadence of the republic and the civil wars and paved the way for the Gospel in Roman lands. The spiritual heights of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance were preceded by Beowulf, The Song of Roland, The Poem of the Cid, the Troubadours, and, of course, Dante and The Divine Comedy.

Humans are language animals; this is why poetry has always had the power to move the very core of humans from its inception to today. As Dante so brilliantly wrote, “Here let death’s poetry arise to life, O Muses sacrosanct whose liege I am! And let Calliope rise up and play her sweet accompaniment in the same strain that pierced the wretched magpies with the truth of unforgivable presumptuousness.” But every culture, every civilization, and every great monument that enchants the soul has love at its heart and can move the heart to the Good, True, and Beautiful. 

The eternality of permanent things, from buildings, to literature, to the very lives of the saints, are rooted in their dedication to Love. For it was Love that Dante abandoned that led him to the “dark wilderness” and Love which set him back on “the straight and true” and prepped him “to climb unto the stars.” And it has long been the desire for Love that has moved the poets to capture the universal yearning of the human heart. Throughout The Divine Comedy, Dante asserts that poetry—properly and purely understood—directs us to God.

Language that does not have love pulsating through its heart is a language that dissipates and is forgotten. The unforgettable words of Genesis, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” are immortal because those words were spoken from the mouth of Love itself. The great works of literature, even from those of now dead languages, poetically live on because of the love which moved those words to the heavens. As such, they shall never die because they are the words that imitate the Word who is Love itself. It is precisely for this reason why Dante can be directed to the stars of Heaven by the poets of love which reveal to us, though in imperfect ways, glimpses of the beauty and love of God.

If there will be a spiritual resurrection, which is the true cure for the ailments of modernity and our current civilizational malaise, it will be accompanied and preceded by a linguistic and literary resurrection. This has been the pattern of history. This is the timeless and eternal truth that undergirds human nature itself. 

Poetry and language awaken the soul because the true essence of poetry and language is love. God created through a poetic spoken word. As Johann Hamann said, “poetry is the mother tongue of humans.” And the tongue which thirsts after Love can only be satisfied by drinking from the well of Love itself. Throughout history, we find that a poetic civilization aimed at Love flourishes; it is our task as Catholics to reclaim this profound truth about poetry and civilization for the future of our culture and civilization. We might also find that it is a catalyst for a new spiritual revitalization as well.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

By

Paul Krause a teacher, writer, and campus minister. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love: A Christian Guide to the Great Books (Wipf and Stock, 2021).

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