A Lyric Virtue
Despite a volley of rhetoric over the last three centuries, our lives still stretch into dark places. What I mean to say is that our lives are still shrouded in mystery, that the demands of living as a human — as opposed to say a mere animal or thing — cannot be reduced to mere calculus. Reductive descriptions of life can and do happen, but they continually fail to comprehend and include the whole. Such mystery can arrest us with terror, for mystery implies freedom and necessity of choice. These terrifying choices constitute a part of what we call living, what we call being human.
For those who reject reductive accounts of the world, some way must be found to meet mystery and calmly make those choices which can overwhelm us. Some choose the various forms of religion; some choose the idealized character of heroism. Both postures can be gestured at by the things that we call poems, and in particular the lyric poems. Lyric poems, unlike the much longer dramatic or epics poems, condense a speaker’s experience to a brief moment, often a moment of decision. By its brevity, the lyric manifests the compressed complexity of any given moment and it suggests to us that minute and often painstaking care may and should be given to that moment. I am suggesting that working through a short, dense lyric poem requires an analogous virtue as the complex (and often terrifying) choices which we face within the mystery of human life. Poems teach us a necessary patience. The patience which they teach, I hope to show, can be used towards two ends: first, using an inherited form to participate in life, like religion does, or secondly, joining into the unknown with all the fortitude of one’s own resources, like the heroes of our myths.
As an example of the first pathway that a lyric poem might take us, I will examine the sonnet — perhaps the most ubiquitous rigid form of poetry in English. One sonnet in particular suggests its capacity by virtue of its self-reference, Wordsworth’s “Nuns Fret Not…” Here, Wordsworth subverts the notion of unimpeded freedom (a notion of his inheritor Shelley) by demonstrating that just as we readily submit ourselves to limitations of physical space, so we often find that limiting ourselves to intellectual, spiritual and linguistic spaces brings us into “brief solace” from the “weight of too much liberty.” Wordsworth’s sonnet employs a form at first familiar but simultaneously inventive. The poem at first appears to be a Petrarchan sonnet with two quatrains rhymed abba then abbba. In the final sestet, he defies any familiar arrangement by rhyming cddccd. The effect, which formally connects the sestet to the octave, is that the sestet can be dissected into two perfectly enveloped quatrains: either cddc or dccd. In his ingenious invention, Wordsworth forces us to pay close attention to the experience of the poem’s form which illuminates and sustains in a more elegant way the bare prose sense of the poem. Formal poems like this Wordsworthian sonnet teach us that patient attention to inherited forms can lead to “brief solace.” Like the room-like quatrains of the poem, form can house us from the expansive spaces of the mysterious.
But of course, not all poems have a definite form. As the chief poet of the free-verse form, I will turn to Walt Whitman. In a short lyric — comprising ten lines — Whitman draws an extended metaphor from an encounter with a spider. This “noiseless patient spider” in order to “explore the vacant vast surroundings / …launch’d forth filament, filament, filament out of itself.” As the poet observes the spider, he recognizes that he likewise stands in a vast intellectual, spiritual, and linguistic space; his Soul is “surrounded, detached in measureless oceans of space…” Just as the spider sends out its filaments, the Soul is “ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them.” But while the spider’s action serves the end of mere exploration, the Soul’s launching forth fulfills a need: “Till the bridge you need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold, / Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, Oh my Soul.” The telos of the Soul’s action is finding; it must anchor itself to something. It is this anchoring that fulfills the need created by a life lived in “measureless oceans of space.” As the open form of the poem (its lack of rhyme or consistent syllabic or metrical count) shows, one way of meeting the mystery of life is this open venturing forth from the locus of one’s own repository of strength, the Soul. Such a venture is surely heroic; it makes an adventure of the mysterious spaces which surround us.
Poetry, then, teaches us patience, either to learn the inherited forms of our predecessors or to venture out on our own strength. I cannot recommend either path as correct, for they both seem to me to fulfill the function of poetry which Eliot proposes in “East Coker”: “…And so each adventure / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion. (172–82)”
Both kinds of lyric poems teach us to participate in this “raid” with patience. We, perhaps unfortunately, are not the Soul of Yeats’ “Dialogue of Self and Soul,” for we cannot ascend the winding staircase to gain the metaphysical perspective of the dead. Instead, we must with Self learn from poetry the patience to “measure the lot. Forgive [ourselves] the lot!” Such grace as forgiveness is necessary in a world shrouded with mystery. In such a world, poems teach us to use a patient grace; they teach us to give more than we take.