Listening to History: The Poet's Legacy
Listening to History: The Poet's Legacy

Listening to History: The Poet's Legacy

We have misplaced an invaluable tool for shaping and refining human thought. It is time for apprenticeship in rhetoric.

September 1 st 2011
Appears in Fall 2011

Listen, my children, and you shall hear Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere . . .

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn (1863)

I entered the classroom reciting Longfellow's summons to the youth of 1863, harkening back to the patriot's "ride of Seventy-Five." But the students of 2011 were skeptical. Who are you calling kids? And what's with the poetry?

True, my course—the History of American Education—is not in the poetry aisle of today's curricular supermarket. Up to that point, we had read standard textbooks and supplemental scholars on the antebellum period, the era that gave birth to tax-supported public schools. Now we were at a crucial juncture in the timeline, and I wanted to highlight the importance of the political rhetoric and public speeches that had persuaded a nation to accept the innovation of the so-called common schools (which were anything but common prior to the mid- 19th century). But describing the reality is less effective than demonstrating it—hence, the Longfellow.

My students, however, regard reading a poem in a college-level history class as out of place, a bit like offering them milk and cookies followed by an afternoon nap. Many of them associate poetry with kindergarten lyrics or the antics of Dr. Seuss, not the intellectual activity of mature readers.

But for centuries, poetry was the essential medium of instruction to convey cultural forms from one generation to the next. Oral cultures, which have comprised the vast majority of human language groups throughout history, are dependent upon the rhythms and patterns of poetry to communicate the defining stories of a people's way of life. Varieties of poetic diction—repetition, rhyme, proverbs—have all been used to fix basic cultural values firmly in memory. As cultural historian Walter Ong explains: "Pressed by the need to manage an always fugitive noetic universe, the oral world is basically conservative . . . Everybody, or almost everybody, must repeat and repeat and repeat the truths that have come down from the ancestors."

Consider an artifact of an oral culture found in contemporary life: the Hebrew Torah was composed using one of the world's oldest written languages (of the Semitic family), yet its vitality is witnessed regularly in synagogues and yeshivas around the world, where the tradition of oral recitation and rhythmic chant reveal the poetic foundation of Hebrew culture. Nearly a third of the Old Testament (Tanakh)—from Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, the Wisdom Books, and the Prophets—incorporates the distinctive patterns of Hebrew poetry, a Biblical reminder that this essential literary form emanates from the wellspring of an oral tradition.

Cadenced histories of received tradition

Greek and Roman education depended on the epic poetry of Homer and Virgil, with their brilliant verse and built-in mnemonic device: heroic lines of dactylic hexameter that students could more easily remember. These epics, first conveyed as an oral tradition, were actionpacked, cadenced histories of a received tradition, establishing the mythic heart of a civilization, with its valiant origins and essential virtues.

What's more, the ancient poets were the premiere stylists. Their job was to perfect the language for every subject—music, politics, philosophy, and so on. Pindar's odes were the epitome of musical paeans, celebrating and commemorating the feats of great leaders. The tragic dramas of Aeschylus and Sophocles offered astute political observations for the citizens of the Attic polis. And, though Plato would exclude the poets from his utopian republic, the great philosopher was, ironically, dependent upon their craft, shamelessly using mythic metaphors to promote his ideals: the cave as a parable of ignorance, and our need for education (to experience the metaphoric sun); the various metals that typify the classes of men; the Myth of Er; and so on.

For the Hellenistic world, poetry was simply the most eloquent expression for every occasion, whether in narrative, lyric, or elegy. In that ancient context, poetry was spoken aloud, before the community, to laud the praiseworthy; stir the citizenry to action; denounce political injustice; proclaim victory over the enemy; and so on—for it was believed that great matters required great poetry.

The humanistic tradition that developed in the West relied upon the genius of the poets, ultimately believing that language was the unique faculty of homo ratio, the rational creature. As historian Bruce Kimball explains in his treatise on Orators and Philosophers, poetry was at the heart of the liberal arts, both the Greek grammatik? techn? and the Latin litteratura. The purpose of this Hellenistic pedagogy produced a unified understanding of human knowledge, where "the link between grammar, ethics, and history [was] a natural and significant one." Kimball elaborates: "After studying the structure of language, students received training in a canon of epic and hymnic poetry, which required historia. This word should be understood not in the later sense of teaching or reading the historians, but rather as an ‘inquiry' into the factual or mythical background, context, and allusions of a given text." In effect, poetry formed the essential "textbook" of antiquity, providing students with face-to-face encounters with the world's greatest literature: the astounding range of vocabulary (semiotics); the seemingly limitless variety of sentences (semantics); the profound moral implications of human choices (ethics); and various mythic models of human experience (history).

Such an education was designed to give the student the Archimedean leverage to move the world. In an age of mass media-inspired consumerism, anonymous polls and voting, with a citizenry who increasingly bowls alone, we often lose sight of the intimate nature of political life in the ancient world, but in that time and place, poetry and rhetoric were designed to inspire noble human action. As the first-century orator and pedagogue Quintilian taught, essential civic education (the only kind that mattered to the ancients) required "the art of speaking and writing, and the interpretation of the poets." In contrast to the philosopher's solitary quest to identify categorical abstractions, the orator wished to command the best language—that of the poets—to persuade his community to pursue the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. He wanted to move his neighbors closer to the Good Life by speaking of the past and calling forth a better future.

Today, classical categories like Truth and Goodness—and their poetic forms—have fallen on hard times. The modern period has increasingly forsaken its humanistic origins in favour of what it supposes to be a more scientific approach to knowledge.

That's a mistake.

Eighty years ago, when Robert Frost claimed that poetry was "the only art in the colleges of arts," he seemed to be whistling in the twilight, trying to make much of a diminished thing. But, in fact, he was recollecting an attribute of poetry long forgotten by his contemporaries:

Unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values: you don't know the metaphor in its strength and its weakness. You don't know how far you may expect to ride it and when it may break down with you. You are not safe in science; you are not safe in history . . . In all this I have only been saying that the devil can quote Scripture, which simply means that the good words you have lying around the devil can use for his purposes as well as anybody else.

Consider the thoroughly metaphoric nature of language. Words are almost entirely bound up with metaphoric imagery rooted in the incarnate experiences of human beings. The philosopher- poet Owen Barfield illustrates:

If we trace the meanings of a great many words—or those of the elements of which they are composed—about as far back as etymology can take us, we are at once made to realize that an overwhelming proportion, if not all, of them referred in earlier days to one of these two things—a solid sensible object, or some animal (probably human) activity. Examples abound on every page of the dictionary. Thus, an apparently objective scientific term like elasticity, on the one hand, and the metaphysical abstract, on the other, are both traceable to verbs meaning "draw" or "drag." Centrifugal and centripetal are composed of a noun meaning "a goad" and verbs signifying "to flee" and "to seek" respectively; epithet, theme, thesis, anathema, hypothesis, etc. go back to a Greek verb "to put," and even right and wrong, it seems, once had the meaning of "stretched" and so "straight" and "wringing" or "sour."

Along with Frost's contention that "education by poetry is education by metaphor," Barfield's observation compels us to reevaluate the role of poetry in training the mind to think. If training in "figurative values" involves apprenticeship in the art of rhetoric, then we have misplaced an invaluable tool for shaping and refining human thought. It would seem that modern education lost its metaphoric purpose when it put its faith in a pseudo-scientific approach to pedagogy that sought to eliminate the inherent difficulties and ambiguities of mastering what Matthew Arnold called "the best that's been thought and said."

If modern sensibilities and reading habits have turned away from poetry, poets must bear part of the blame. Published verse has proliferated, but its quality has declined precipitously. The institutionalization of poetry in creative writing programs has domesticated what Frost (who never completed his degree at Harvard) called "the wild free ways of wit and art." Once poetry abandons the public square, it becomes little more than an arcane idiosyncrasy of the ivory tower. Dana Gioia, who served as president of the National Endowment for the Arts, aptly summarized the situation: "One might even say that outside the classroom—where society demands that the two groups interact— poets and the common reader are no longer on speaking terms."

While poetry isn't a cultural cure-all, it just might be the tonic that American civilization needs. Indeed, as a culture-making activity, attending to poetry and honouring the Western poetic tradition would be a charitable, counter-cultural movement for 21st century Christians who hope to bless their neighbors by restoring a shared language and encouraging civic participation.

So, I was doing my part by presenting some verse to that classroom of unsuspecting college students. As I explained, "Paul Revere's Ride," published in the December 1861 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, was the work of an intensely private but deeply principled Harvard professor of modern languages (who wrote six foreign language textbooks). His best friend, Charles Sumner, was the fiery abolitionist nearly beaten to death by a South Carolina representative for his famous "Crime against Kansas" speech in the Senate. As historian Jill Lepore recounts, Longfellow wrote to Sumner in 1857, describing the Dred Scott decision as "heart-breaking, and wishing he could find a way to write about it: ‘I long to say some vibrant word, that should have vitality in it, and force. Be sure if it comes to me I will not be slow in uttering it.'"

More than two years later, within months of John Brown's hanging, Longfellow found the poetic force needed to express his deepest convictions concerning slavery, capturing the essence of a "new Revolution" by constructing a myth from the American Founding. With the rhythm of galloping triplets (anapestic tetrameter), the poet's lines urge the reader forward, ostensibly recounting historic events. The poem leaves the subliminal impression that the "cry of defiance" in the cause of liberty remains subversive, an active force confronting unjust powers that would steal mankind's God-given rights. Just as the colonial hero's "cry of alarm" prompted revolutionary action in his historic moment, the abolitionists' call to arms sought to raise the dead (those in slavery) by stirring complacent Northerners to "waken and listen to hear" the midnight message of freedom's cry.

At the end of my class one young man commented: "I'd never heard that poem before—or the explanation—but it makes sense, the way Longfellow played it. Very cool. And, I can see what he was doing . . . inventing the myth of Paul Revere. He was making history by listening to history."

The poets have always understood their role as that of active listening, attending to the inspiration of the Spirit and bearing witness to the deepest truths of creation. But their art conceals their subject's depth from those unprepared, for poets must, in the words of Emily Dickinson, "tell all the Truth but tell it slant." Listening to history is the poet's legacy, providing those who have ears to hear "a voice in the darkness, a knock at the door . . . and a word that shall echo for evermore!"

Robert Jackson
Robert Jackson

Robert Jackson is an associate professor of English and education at The King's College (New York), where he developed a minor that explores the 2500-year tradition of the liberal arts. His research focuses on the debates in the early twentieth century between progressives and classicists over the direction of public schools. He also works on the integration of poetry and the arts across the liberal arts curriculum. When he's not pushing poetry on the street-corner, he's probably hawking history to his four kids, à la the home-school dad.


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