Magazine article New Criterion

"Poetry & Truth"

Magazine article New Criterion

"Poetry & Truth"

Article excerpt

In his "Dedication" to Don Juan, Byron strikes a characteristically spicy note. After ruminating for a couple of stanzas on Milton and comparing him, with irony, to the then Laureate, Robert Southey, whom Byron hated, he concludes an ottava rima with: "Would he [Milton] adore a sultan? he obey/The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?" Not quite content with that, Byron provides an alternate couplet, which employs an inferior rhyme but an even more pointed assault: "Would he subside into a hackney Laureate--/ A scribbling, self-sold, soul-hired, scorn'd Iscariot?" Byron adds:

   I doubt if "Laureate" and "Iscariot" be good
   rhymes, but must say, as Ben Jonson did to
   Sylvester, who challenged him to rhyme with--

      "I, John Sylvester,
      Lay with your sister."

   Jonson answered,--"I, Ben Jonson, lay with your
   wife." Sylvester answered,--"That is not rhyme."--
   "No," said Ben Jonson; "but it is true"

It takes a special kind of poet to maul a rhyme for the sake of the truth, and, of course, Byron here eats his cake and has it too. In general, one does not look to poems for factual truths, lest Keats's Cortez be permanently swapped for Balboa in the history books. But if poetry proves largely unsatisfactory to Plato and Detective Sergeant Joe "Just the facts, ma'am" Friday in terms of veracity, then what kind of truth is poetry after?

I'd like to offer a few thoughts about truth not from the point of view of the philosopher but from that of the poet (receiving thereby a significant demotion in Socrates' rankings in the Pbaedrus, from first place to sixth out of nine. Poets follow such types as household managers, financiers, doctors, and prophets, and outstrip only manual laborers, sophists, and tyrants). The tension between poetry and truth gave Goethe the title of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit ("From My Life: Poetry and Truth"), written between 1811 and 1833. W. H. Auden borrowed Goethe's title in 1959 for a prose sequence on love, and, in 1977, the poet Anthony Hecht (a great admirer of both poets) took the same title for a poem in which he considers, among other things, Goethe, the Second World War, and the thorny relationship between truth and art. Hecht conveyed the truth of his war experience as a poet not as a journalist or historian.

That poetry greatly enriches our experience is not a hard case to make: the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, The Divine Comedy, Shakespeare's sonnets and plays, and Paradise Lost. It's impossible to imagine our lives--our language--without them. When we say, "His voice was stentorian," or "He is to the manner born," or "It was sheer pandemonium," we employ just a smattering of the countless words and idioms derived from these works, which are woven into the fabric of our daily talk. And, of course, these works routinely speak to one another, like cousins sharing news of distant relations at a holiday dinner. One work allusively gossips about another work, a practice to which T. S. Eliot--with his footnote-bedizened Waste Land and its references to Dante, Shakespeare, Kyd, Nerval, Baudelaire, the Upanishads, etc.--was rather a latecomer.

So keen is Shakespeare on the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, for example, that he mentions her four times in The Tempest-, twice in Titus Andronicus, and once each in The Merchant of Venice, 2 Henry VI, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, and Romeo and Juliet. Now it is likely that Shakespeare borrowed these references to the "widow Dido" in The Tempest not from the Aeneid but from Montaigne's essay "Of Diverting and Diversions," in John Florio's translation of 1603, but this is just a further example of how such references are cross-pollinated and propagated.

In fact, as Eliot knew, allusion itself is a great propagator of culture. The story of Dido for Shakespeare is a liquid bit of cultural currency, known to all, a story that plays equally well in the upper stalls and down among the oyster shells. …

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