Poetry and Reality

For many ancient writers, the point of poetry is to purify human thoughts and emotions (catharsis; see Aristotle Poetics) by connecting their verbal expressions to the simple, pure rhythms of the world. The very word “verse,” standing in English for “poetry,” is from the Latin word “to turn” (versus), and signifies the turning of a plowman at the end of his furrows, or of dancers moving through their routine, the cycle of the seasons, or even the regular paths of the sun and stars in the heavens. Interestingly, the very form of verse is consciously fashioned on the pattern of the rhythm of footsteps, heartbeats, and breathing: poetic meter has feet.

A chief place where this linkage of human consciousness to the natural world’s order and symmetry is found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

But they (the Muses) went to Olympus, glorying in their sweet voice,
in ambrosial dance, and all about them the dark earth reechoed
as they sang, and a lovely beating rose beneath their footsteps
as they went to their father, who is king in the heavens,
who himself holds the thunder and the flashing lightning.

( . . . )

And if a man has anguish in his newly-troubled soul
and a heart stupefied with grief, yet, when a singer,
the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds
of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympos,
at once he forgets his anguish and remembers nothing
of his griefs; for the goddesses’ gifts soon turn him away from these. [Lines 68-98]

By linking emotions to periodicity, to regularity, poetry has a calming effect. It reminds men–who might otherwise feel overwhelmed by the seeming chaos and unpredictability of an often-violent world–of the fundamental orderliness of the world, and enables them to come to better terms with their lives.

There are, of course, differences between poetry written in different languages. Greek poetry was always sung, and so for all its beauty and suppleness it cannot attain to the likeness of living speech. It is a dance, not a conversation. On the other hand, English (Saxon) poetry has always been more like a marching footstep than a dancing footstep, and so it can get closer to living speech. If English poetry can’t have a Homer, Greek poetry can’t have a Shakespeare. Similarly, neither of those languages can have a Vergil, for Latin can incorporate both the stress accents of normal speech and the meter aspects of singing found at the end of lines.

[The bulk of this article is a summary of an unpublished article by Dr. Karl Maurer from the Classics dept. at the University of Dallas.]