Verse Lines When the Streets Are on Fire

James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor of Religion and Literature in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University, and the Poetry Editor of Modern Age magazine. Dr. Wilson is the author of eight books, including The Hanging God, and The Vision of the Soul: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in the Western Tradition, and The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking.

Several weeks ago, I was speaking with a friend of mine about the disruptions to everyday life wrought by the coronavirus pandemic. As it happens, he is a C.S. Lewis scholar and is one of those people who excites envy in me with his punctual efficiency. He’s the sort of person who can get his girls off to school in the morning, turn on a dime and for a couple hours to his work, take a break for some other duty, and then get right back to business. For those of us of a more Oblomovian character, who can only gradually rise to any effort after much contemplation, and who no less reluctantly set it down and turn to other things, such an ability to switch hats at the tolling of a bell appears almost supernatural.

And yet, several weeks into the age of quarantine, he confessed that, yes, he could still do such things as were required of him, but no more. He now found himself sitting, listless, sullen, at his desk, his mind distracted by the great vacancy in time that had opened up. It must have felt a bit baffling for him, he who had read so often before Lewis’s classic sermon “Learning in War-Time” and yet now found himself, in the breach, almost powerless to profit from it, when the time was most ripe.

I have not spoken to him since the streets were lit aflame in Minneapolis, and then across the country, including, at this hour, midtown Manhattan. I do think I have, however, come much closer to his own vexed condition. The times are an ugly, violent spectacle from which it is nearly impossible to turn away. To those who look on in grief, anger, and horror, I can only say I have joined you.

Our age has for long been suffering from a syndrome of frenetic, empty time, wherein we keep ourselves in a state that is, at once, occupation without concentration and distraction without rest. We have already grown used to a nearly perpetual scrolling-through of interesting stimuli, to none of which do we fully surrender our attention. We thus feel busy but vacuous, enthralled but disconnected. That was more or less our habit. And then came the virus. And then came the spectacular murder of George Floyd by police. And then came the riots. All of which serves in its way to justify our frenetic half-attention, because at least thereby we are bearing witness to the unraveling of our society. If there were ever a time in which we might justify playing the role of passive spectators, this must surely be it.

But this cannot be the last word. Just as Lewis insisted that the activities of human culture—the telling of jokes, the combing of one’s hair, and above all the “search for knowledge and beauty”—will carry on during wartime, and indeed should, even when the country is at war, so, now, do I propose that these things must continue in our day, even as some of us may fear we have passed beyond a state of emergency to the end of things. In fact, with Lewis, I propose that we need to do some such things even more concertedly as if the end times were already here. Disease, disorder, and riot are reminders to us of the mortality and fragility of all worldly goods and that the way to live most intensely and richly, here in the world of our history, is to live every moment as if it were a window into the immortal and the eternal.

Lewis’s sermon concludes that the dead of war are themselves a memento mori that helps us live more consciously for eternity. The empty waiting of quarantine, the chaos of policing gone wrong, and the frantic spectacles of riot ought themselves to remind us that we are only living well when doing so with conscientiousness, concentration, and attention—all of which I would gather into one word, contemplation. To contemplate is to see, or enter into, the enduring wonder and infinite depths of an object; what is a unity and so, in that sense, limited, in fact proves an unbounded fullness in which we may linger.

Disease, disorder, and riot are reminders to us of the mortality and fragility of all worldly goods and that the way to live most intensely and richly, here in the world of our history, is to live every moment as if it were a window into the immortal and the eternal.

I argued some years ago, in a book called The Fortunes of Poetry in an Age of Unmaking, for the art of poetry as the fine art of contemplation par excellence. All the fine arts propose to make something that is a good in itself and for the sake of beauty. In this they are concrete, finite reminders of our true natures. The dead of war remind us that we are mortal and so must live for eternity. Works of fine art (as opposed to applied art), because of their intrinsic goodness, which is also a specifically spiritual goodness, in an analogous way are reminders of eternal life itself.

It has been the central and most precious knowledge about human beings, since even before Plato and Aristotle gave us language to express it, that we are, in our essential nature, made for the contemplation of the eternal. This is the basis of human equality, as Simone Weil observed, and a clue to our divinity and immortality, as Blaise Pascal contended. But contemplation comes in diverse forms. The supernatural contemplation of the Christian and the natural contemplation of the philosopher, to begin with; and then, there are the more distant analogical forms of contemplation, such as the concentration of the craftsman or artist at work; the free, somewhat dreamy contemplation of a loved one across the dinner table; and, among all these, the contemplation of the work of art.

Poems stand out from these other objects of contemplation because poems have historically drawn from all of them; given them form, focus, and expression; and indeed become themselves occasion for such contemplation. The poetic is in this way unusually capacious and comprehensive. In my attempt to explain why, in The Fortunes of Poetry, I argued that poetry can essentially be defined in terms of four Ms. First, because a poem comes to be through the cooperation of an otherworldly inspiration and the technique or skill of the artist, it is our paradigm for all making. Second, because it draws together all that has been or may be known and must not be forgotten and gives it form, poetry is a mode of memory. Hesiod so well understood this that he celebrated Mnemosyne as the mother of the muses.

Third, because a poem also gives concrete, finite expression to truths that may be otherwise ineffable, it has, in its essence, the element of metaphor. Every poem, in its metaphoric aspect, reminds us of a great truth about reality as a whole: everything is multiple and self-transcending. Everything bears within itself a myriad of meanings, irreducible and ordered among themselves, so as to be, as Dante once observed, polysemous. And, fourth and finally, because it is the measuring-out as verse that makes it memorable (mnemonic) and because that ordering of language metaphorically expresses, at the microcosmic level, a sense of the greater order of the world, the macrocosm as a whole, poetry is essentially understood in terms of meter.

This kind of making, composed of memory, metaphor, and meter, is a human and finite thing. It is a thing made to be good in itself. But, in contemplating that good-in-itself, we cannot help but sense that aspects of reality that infinitely transcend it are darting in and out of its shadow. Furthermore, while it is a material and made thing, we sense immediately that it is only in virtue of the life of the spirit. By words, as Aristotle once said, one mind communicates the fullness of its life to another. The poem discloses not only the richness of the world in small compass but also the way in which even material things serve our lives as great adventures of mind, spirit, and communion.

A poem is therefore a limited and specific reality that rewards our extended concentration. To read a poem is not to engage in the highest form of contemplation, but such reading does prepare the soul for it and, moreover, does so in a way that reminds us that contemplation is a thing of leisure, an activity whose foundation is expressed in the modest phrase “It is good that this thing should exist and that I am here to see it.”

The poem discloses not only the richness of the world in small compass but also the way in which even material things serve our lives as great adventures of mind, spirit, and communion.

In Lewis’s sermon, he felt obliged not to confuse the contemplation of scholastic learning with the awed devotion of the saint. Matthew Arnold’s substitution of the stuff of “culture” for actual religion was a fresh and dangerous memory. In our time, however, we need the experience of poetry to remind us of our natures; this mode of contemplation is distinct from, but also preparatory for and complementary of, the highest contemplation to which our souls are called for their fulfillment. The lyric poem that exists in itself and for its own sake prepares us by way of analogy to know the one who exists as the good of all and solely by his own aseity. This is not to reduce poetry to a useful good, a mere exercise in service of the genuine article; it is merely to say that its proper goodness reflects and resonates with the most important activity of our lives and that this mystery is one we err to pass by or overlook.

Let me discuss just three poems that help us understand the role poetry plays as a finite good that manifests, and draws us toward, the infinite: one by Czeslaw Milosz, one by Christina Rossetti, and, finally, a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney.

When I read Czeslaw Milosz’s earliest poems, I see a minor and undirected talent. As he came into maturity in the Warsaw of the 1930s, however, the shock of the Nazi invasion and, after the Second World War, the Communist takeover of Poland forced him—against his own instincts—to become a poet of the national conscience. One exemplary poem, “A Book in the Ruins,” from 1941, admirably suggests what that entailed. The poet describes entering a library “caved in by a recent blast”:

And above, through the jagged tiers of plaster,

A patch of blue. Pages of books lying

Scattered at your feet are like fern-leaves hiding

A moldy skeleton, or else fossils

Whitened by the secrets of Jurassic shells.

Curiosity about what has been destroyed “compels” the poet to enter, just as found shells would excite the paleontologist to study. But to pick up one of the books is to discover a lost world, “distant” and “sleepy,” yet elegant, one in which a woman slips out of the ball to meet a lover in an overgrown bower. Other worlds with their sententious wisdom “erupt” from other pages, such that the “immortality” of books seems to instruct and even exist for “the present.” Still another book, telling of Daphnis and Chloe, has been shredded by an exploded grenade; the poet addresses Chloe herself, whose “breasts / Are pierced by shrapnel.” We turn away from her eternal beauty wounded by history to see workers at noontime, who have stacked heavy tomes amid the ruins as a makeshift table for their lunch.

Milosz suggests that we need old books especially in wartime. We need to know there is another world beyond the flux of devastation, and to feel its visitation upon us even as we stand in rubble. The poem takes this need as its subject, however, and this may tempt us to think that only an emergency could justify poetry, as if it must be one more tool of which we make use as we pass through the wreckage of history. For this reason, I would have us turn to a less explicitly occasional poem.

Christina Rossetti’s “A Pause in Thought,” even by its title, hints that what is most important is what stands outside the normal, quotidian train of our activities. The poem describes the search for some elusive good—“that which is not, nor can be”—and the heartsick agony of hope frustrated. In the first two of its five quatrains, the poet doubts and waits. In the third, she imagines resignation and peace only to cut it off abruptly with the contradictory, metrically short line that ends each stanza: “Yet never gave it o’er.”

The agitation grows, until the fourth stanza casts us into the fundamental choice every person confronts in life: to live in the “peace” of complacency with the present, or to suffer on in yearning:

Sometimes I said: It is an empty name

    I long for; to a name why should I give

    The peace of all the days I have to live?—

      Yet gave it all the same.

In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor describes the modern mindset as having an “immanent frame.” He means this primarily in terms of what we acknowledge as true or knowable, but it has a moral dimension as well. Rossetti, a pious Anglo-Catholic in an increasingly “pagan” and secular literary society, must have had her faith and her hope routinely called into question simply by the patronizing expressions of those around her. The only thing resisting her own conforming to that world of immanence was the stubborn discontent of unfulfilled faith itself, which left her “alike unfit / For healthy joy and salutary pain.”

What seems most important about her poem, however, is not the summary of a spiritual predicament it carries to us, but the way her lines shape and give form to it. In each stanza, three pentameter lines narrate her condition, before the fourth, trimeter line unravels all that thinking, as with, to quote again, “Yet I gave it all the same.” The form of the poem expresses the immanent drama, but with a stable structure that speaks not merely of her own tenacity, but of the permanence of the impossible hope to which she clings. Every poem is a manifestation of such permanence precisely in and through its form. Because its form is dramatic, and leads us from thought to thought, it thrusts us into the spiritual drama of living in a world of change and doing so in dynamic response to a truth beyond all change.

Rossetti’s poem, like Milosz’s, contrast the lively flux of the present with the everlasting of the literary and the divine, and propose to us, almost as explicitly as I just have, that poetic form brings the permanent into our evanescent lives so that we may contemplate it, be nourished by it, be transformed, and so live in some sense more wisely and fully. But the real test of such a claim, it seems to me, lies in whether poetry can do such a thing purely in virtue of what is essential to it, that is to say, its metrical form. And for this reason, I want to conclude with Sonnet 31 from Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.

Poetic form brings the permanent into our evanescent lives so that we may contemplate it, be nourished by it, be transformed, and so live in some sense more wisely and fully.

The poet and critic Yvor Winters once dismissed Sidney as a technically accomplished but superficial poet. When Sidney writes of poetic inspiration, he seems himself to be a secular character, on Taylor’s terms. In many of his poems and in the Defense of Poetry, he eliminates the nine divine muses as the source of poetic inspiration and relocates it in the “immanent frame” of a woman’s beauty. But is there not something of the eternal present even in the form of this otherwise worldly poet?

The sonnet begins with a fell conceit: the moon appears sad, as the poet is sad, and so he queries whether the moon has been pricked by Cupid’s arrow for a lady and then refused her love, just as Sidney has been:

With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies;

    How silently, and with how wan a face.

    What, may it be that even in heav’nly place

That busy archer his sharp arrow tries?

Sidney is trifling here. In the next quatrain he explains that the only basis he has to judge the moon thus is his own “long-with-love-acquainted eyes.” He asks the moon if there, as on earth, to be constant is deemed mere stupidity, or rather, “want of wit.” But wit has several senses. Raw intelligence, to begin with, and, in our day, a humorous cleverness. In between these two is the classic English meaning: the whole poetic faculty that can draw the disparate things of experience and put it in striking, surprising order—to give it form.

Consider the wit here, where, in the first line, the heaviness of Sidney’s accent climbs syllable by syllable, from the weak “With” rising to “sad steps,” dipping a bit in calling to the moon, before finishing on the strong sentence stresses on the verb, “climb’st,” and direct object, “skies.” There is a different kind of “dip” in the second line, as Sidney pauses to find one, then another, expression to describe the moon’s climb. And, then, the exasperated ejaculation of “What”! before plunging into a long question whose anguish is rung more loudly by the question’s own improbability. Have you been pricked by Love, too, moon?! Three decades later, King Lear would ask a storm raging over England if it was upset because it had ungrateful daughters. Shakespeare may have found the source of his apostrophe here, in Sidney.

The poem ends with a rather worldly-wise and sardonic question: up in heaven, do they call “ungratefulness,” by which he means his beloved’s refusal of his love (what some might call chastity), “virtue”? But what merits contemplation in this poem is no aspect of its content, but the form by which it manifests that content. The use of meter to bend the voice and give a shape to the whole. It is the meter, the subtle rise of accent across the first line and the other modulations beyond it, that leads us upward, not so much the explicit invocation of the moon.

It is through form that the poem becomes an object befitting our contemplation. In staring into it, as one might stare into an icon, we find a stasis that nonetheless reveals depths—syllable by syllable, figure by figure, layer by layer—over which we may linger and ourselves fall still. That this finite object has meaning and implications that extend beyond itself to many things is in itself a great source of interest and delight, but what I am trying to convey is that the poem itself merits remaining the focus of our attention.

To puzzle over a poem, to see how it fits together, there on the page before you, or spoken in the air about you, is to discover a finite analogue of the infinite, a small intrinsic good that, again, reminds us, in its formal perfection, in its little self-sufficiency, of the aseity of the divine. Even when a man has been killed, when order has with its heavy boot unleashed disorder, even when the streets are on fire, the humble poem is a reminder that there is a peace that transcends this world. Even when there is an emptiness all around us, it discloses a certain plenitude sufficient for the day, not because of what it says, but because of the very act of its saying.


James Matthew Wilson has in part spent his quarantine publishing a series of poems.
Read Part 1 of his “Quarantine Notebook” here.