Poetry as the Conscience of Society

By Jessup, Frances | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Poetry as the Conscience of Society


Jessup, Frances, Contemporary Review


A SUNDAY service from Manchester on BBC Radio reawakened the old debate of the rivalry between religion and politics in making the world a better place. The role of poetry was alluded to in that service, for what are hymns, if not religious poems, and what are poems if not disguised cries for help, as in 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life' and 'O God our help in ages past'!

You could say it is a dramatic situation we are in--for our planet is overburdened by clever humans, as never before, and our global activities and greed are progressive, and yet our souls are still as vulnerable as ever, quivering like raindrops on thorns, and untouched, reflecting our view of the world, and God.

If you believe in the Bible, and other religious texts, God is Light and Truth--and everything we know, or rather don't know; for God, by definition is, in my mind at any rate, the explanation of all and the whole of creation is through Him and Him alone; or through the 'Great Unknown', if you are an agnostic or an atheist. Yet whatever our spiritual beliefs, we must protect and preserve our planet, as life depends on it.

Francis of Assisi found his way to the truth through renouncing his inherited wealth. A lover of all creation, Saint Francis, in his Canticle of the Sun, praises the Creator and extols the excellence of all His creation:

    Most High, Omnipotent ...
    May You be praised, my Lord, with all Your creatures
    especially brother sun,
    of whom is the day, and You enlighten us through him.
    And he is beautiful and radiant with a great splendour,
    of You, Most High, does he convey the meaning.

    May You be praised, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars,
    in heaven You have made them clear and precious and beautiful.

    May You be praised, my Lord, for brother wind,
    and for the air and the cloudy and the clear weather and every
      weather,
    through which to all Your creatures You give sustenance.

    May You be praised, my Lord, for sister water,
    who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste.

    May You be praised, my lord, for brother fire,
    through whom You illumine the night,
    and he is handsome and jocund and robust and strong.

    May You be praised, my Lord, for our sister, mother earth,
    who sustains us and governs,
    and produces various fruits with coloured flowers and green plants

The Canticle of the Sun appears first in the historical record in a reference made by Thomas of Celano in his Vita Prima in AD1228. In recognition of this early 'environmental' prayer and poem, St Francis was designated Patron Saint of Ecology in 1980.

But what of the other half--politics? Politics is very important in achieving mankind's goal, the dream, the vision, presented to us by the Bible and all religions: peace on earth and justice for all? Victor Hugo, a poet prodigy, in his early poems also identified nature with truth, and could not help but make political statements in his poems.

Victor Hugo writes in one of his most powerful early poems, Un Chant de Fete De Neron, Ode Quinzieme, about the burning of Rome, for six days and seven nights, so that a better Rome could be built. But Nero is ravished by 'la beaute de la flamme'. He has become cruel, sadistic, and cynical because of boredom, and he sings dressed up in the costume of a character in the Fall of Troy, a poem he has made-up, while his city burns.

    Venez, Rome a vos yeux va bruler--Rome entiere!
    J'ai fait sur cette tour apporter ma litiere

    Pour contempler la flame en bravant ses torrents.
    Que sont les vains combats des tigres at de l'homme?
    Les sept monts aujoud'hui sont un grand circque, ou Rome
    Lutte avec les feux devourante.

And the last verse:

    J' ai detruit Rome, afin de la fonder plus belle.
    Mais que sa chute, au moins, brise la croix rebelle!
    Plus de cretiennes! … 

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