The title of this post amuses me. Some of my faithful readers (all three of you) will quickly pass this by, assuming the poetic art form has no relevance for an era of science, for an epoch dominated by the very real concerns of ISIS, illegal immigration, and nude pictures of celebrities. Other readers might find this post simply superfluous. They think poetry needs no defense, that it exists alone and for itself. Yet Ars gratia artis may not be a sufficient justification to read literature or to create it. Plato has long been accused of rejecting poetry for its ability to communicate falsehood—a mischaracterization if ever there was one. But everything we do needs defending; for if we do not think to justify our actions, then no self-reflective thought guides our actions.
In 1579 Sir Philip Sydney composed a response to Renaissance criticisms that English drama was a hotbed of wickedness in his apology, The Defence of Posey. Though no one during the Renaissance had ever witnessed an episode of Game of Thrones, these claims against the stage were understandable for an age that, only a few steps removed from medievalism, mistrusted any representation divorced from the control of the church.
The first of these objections Sydney addresses is that there are supposedly more important things to learn and spend our time on than poetry. Aquinas seems to agree when he asserts in the Summa that poetry is the lowest of sciences, but he redeems poetry from this irrelevance when he asserts that God has used the lowest science to communicate the highest science of theology. After all, it is true that not everyone can read the complex reasoning of the Summa, but everyone can read Narnia. Thus, if God has used literature to communicate eternal truths, it cannot wholly be a waste of time.
The second objection is that fiction is simply a lie. This is Plato’s problem with the Homeric gods, and why he is mistakenly thought to issue a wholesale condemnation of poetry. But Plato’s objection is rooted in the Grecian misunderstanding of Homeric’s verse as truth; but this does not mean he is against literature—especially since he uses literature as a vehicle for his philosophy. We should not confuse the vehicle with its passenger. (Though I have yet failed to meet one, it is possible that some very smart people drive Smart cars.) As Sydney confirms, “shall the abuse of a thing make the right use odious?” Is erotic love wrong in marriage simply because others wrongly use it outside of marriage? Is social media an evil because more people use it for evil than for good? (Yes, I’m talking to you.) Wisdom is necessary to discern between right use and wrong.
The final objection, still toted by the fundamentalist inheritors of Puritanism today, is that poetry urges us to think on evil. Through book and screen we witness injustice and corruption, we watch people be murdered, we voyeuristically participate in lovers’ passions. There is some argument to be made here, but we must distinguish between the erotic and the pornographic. The erotic displays beauty, which should point us toward the God who created beauty; the pornographic turns inward, twisting the erotic toward base impulses that only reflect and gratify the self. Sir Guyon of The Fairie Queen, for instance, sees the bathing beauties in the Bower of Blisse and longs to go to them. Jane Eyre wants desperately to marry the already-married Rochester. Both Spenser and Bronte know their readers will be seduced by the imaginative possibilities presented in their narrative and want us rooting for our heroes to give into their bestial natures. But herein lies the point. Poetry can deceive us into accepting its premises and to promote immorality. Few authors are as skilled as Spenser and Bronte to then pull the rug out from under us and reaffirm the Christian truth that we had forgotten in our unreflective consumption of literature. Poetry, therefore, is not morally bankrupt but is itself a form of moral currency to be deposited in our minds.
Perhaps the final objection demands the most attention. Yet the problem seems not to be that we don’t trust stories, as might have been the case in Sydney’s day. After all, how many people do you know who refuse to go to the movies or watch television out of some purist sense of principle? Most people, believers and pagans alike, raptly follow the compelling serials, blockbusters, and trilogies. What is needed then in our day is not a defense of poetry but a defense for good poetry. Anyone with moving brainwaves can watch film (maybe even those with flat-lined brain waves can watch), but it takes effort to watch film well. All can consume, but we must urge reflection as and after we consume.
The first obstacle to properly encountering art is, unfortunately, ourselves. We myopically value only that which we already like. Alexander Pope warns in An Essay on Criticism: “Fondly we think we honour Merit then, / When we but praise Our selves in Other Men.” Everyone thinks they have good taste, just as everyone assumes that God must see the world the way they themselves do. But taste must be cultivated, like intelligence, the muscles, or any other faculty. The more cheeseburgers we chow down, the less we will be able to distinguish between a Cabernet and a Merlot, or between different years of a Pinot. The more Modern Family or even Facing the Giants we watch, the less we will be able to read, understand, and discern the Christian powers at work in Spenser or Bronte. We become what we eat, and this is no more true for our stomach than for our minds and souls.
For the reader still unconvinced of the premises in this treatise, little may be done to compel him to pick up Keats. But for the man who searches eagerly for truth, he may yet find it in the eloquence of poetry. May we then surround ourselves with beauty and contemplate the higher things.