End Notes: Sweet Reason

Man, it is said, is a rational animal, though sometimes it is difficult to see this as applying to more than oneself and a few friends — if to them. But of course for a man to act irrationally requires that he put his mind to it, which is why we hold him responsible.

This is not true of bugs and trees. Auden, in “Their Lonely Betters,” looks around his garden from a lawn chair, and becomes aware of a world of things that are not responsible for what they do. To be a mosquito is not a task for a mosquito. However it is with Hamlet, to be or not to be is no problem for the bee.

No one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

“Let them leave language to their lonely betters,” Auden adds. Man is the animal who speaks. Hovering adults urge us into speech from the dawn of our existence. There is ecstasy in the room when the first word is uttered. It is duly entered in our Baby Book. That the first of an infinite series should be an event is itself cause for wonder.

Speech is so natural to us that Auden addresses the deaf denizens of his garden who are as incapable of answering as they are of listening, which is his message to them. His use of language is poetic — with a rhythm and a rhyme. Ordinary business is not done in verse — save perhaps in Shakespeare — though one sometimes hears poetry in the random exchanges of people. Poetry calls attention to the medium in order to sharpen the message; it artfully quantifies sound and heightens the music of language. Why? Perhaps to recapture the wonder of the initial word, the one in our Baby Book.

Prosody, the technique of verse, fascinates. In his Journal Paul Claudel quotes this monosyllabic sonnet:

Fort        Quite

belle       sweet

elle         she

dort       sleeps.

Sort        Leaves

Frele!     Frail!

Quelle   Death

Mort!    Hails!

Chose    This

Rose!     Rose!

La           The

Brise      breeze

l’a           has

prise.     seized.

It may seem odd that the author of the Great Odes was taken by that narrow cascade of words. A failed poet in my next Father Dowling mystery tries his hand at this form.

Real poets in their second collections often become self-conscious about technique, try different forms, wallow in the restrictions of the canzone or villanelle. For all that, poetry is more human than mathematics or the abstract uses of language. Humanior — hence the humanities. We do not ask proofs from a poet or similes from a scientist. But poetry is discursive, taking us from here to there, by metaphor. We see things we did not see before. But if tight proof is the standard, poetry is, as Thomas calls it, infima doctrina.

The poet tugs the non-human upward, seeing it, through the lens of the human, however negatively — “No one of them was capable of lying.” But sometimes it proportions to us what is beyond our reach. The Bible is alive with images and metaphors and similes; angels wrestle and God walks in the garden with our first parents in the cool of the evening; he enters into covenants. And finally he comes among us as a man among men, like us in everything but sin. Christ is the embodiment of the divine, the ultimate metaphor. And he speaks in parables.

We need the whole range of language, from poetry to those uses in which the music of the language is as inaudible as the music of the spheres and it is only the message that we hear. Turning language into a pure medium is also an art. There is a music of the mind.

How charming is divine philosophy!
Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose,
But musical as is Apollo’s lute,
And a perpetual feast of nectared sweets.

Thus Milton in Comus. In verse. It is noteworthy that mystics when they descend from where they have been, in the body or out of the body, they know not, tell us about it in poetry. John of the Cross. But the Psalter too, the songs of David, which from time immemorial, and today as well, have provided meter and measure and sweetness to the prayers that lift from this valley of tears.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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