For the past year, I have been slowly moving through my resolution to finally complete Owen Barfield’s Poetic Diction. (Barfield, Owen. Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning. Wesleyan Univ. Pr., 1973). It is a relatively short but dense account of the philosophy of poetry that deserves a lot of time and annotations. Without the impetus of grades or discussion, and with a healthy dose of forgetfulness, I usually reserve a chapter for the occasional Saturday, then forget about it till the next month. But recently, reading through my old margin notes, I was inspired by a particularly potent account that Barfield offers of the poetic experience.
When meditating on the aesthetic enjoyment he receives from Thomas Campion’s Elizabethan poetry, Barfield observes that it is not merely Campion’s poetic genius that transports him into Campion’s world, but the “Elizabethan-ness” of the language. By this, Barfield means to point out that Campion’s use of language, imagery, and symbol is affected by something beyond Campion’s conscious thought. Campion, as someone born, raised, and educated in Elizabethan England, will naturally speak in the tenor of his time. The poet does not need to force his poetry to sound “Elizabethan,” or constrain his metaphors to rest on 17th century imagery. Rather, Campion has the benefit of living in such a time, and being an Elizabethan is as natural for him as breathing. Where a more modern poet could only emulate the style of a bygone era, Campion need only walk down the street to hear schoolboys speak in “thees,” “thous,” and other archaic forms. This observation applies to all forms of poetry: Homer writes as an ancient Greek, Virgil as a Roman, and Wordsworth as an Englishman during the enlightenment. Barfield says that this is an essential element of a poet’s work, one that helps transports the reader into the poet’s consciousness. “This was a part of their work, of which they were unconscious, they were actually living it.” (Id., at 51).
The corollary to this point is that the modern writer can never truly be an Elizabethan poet, for the simple reason that he does not live in Elizabethan England. The poetry of olden times is truly inimitable. Of course, this is also true conversely; Homer could have never written “The Wasteland.” In a sense beyond the poet’s control, he is inexorably bound to his time and place. As a sonnet is bound by some metered, fourteen lines, a poet cannot escape the era and culture that formed him.
This struck me as a truism that applies to more than just poetry; it applies to any human endeavor. It reminded me in particular of our Junior year music class, in which we read articles that looked toward idyllic cultures of the past as models of true Christian culture. The close-knit culture of Medieval kingdoms and the Catholic villages of pre-enlightenment Germany presented a charming idea to our modern ears. With varying degrees of seriousness, many of us talked through the idea of imitating the lifestyle of those catholic townships. If we could only create such a community–have a Latin mass parish within walking distance; enjoy safe streets on which our kids could play sports; plan weekly bonfires near the local barn; arrange country dances on holidays; play music with the boys on a wide open porch–then we would have achieved a Catholic Utopia. (See, e.g., Sneedville T.N., Soul Butter (Record Union, 2019)). This is, of course, a slight exaggeration. Even back then, we were not so naïve as to think such a lifestyle would result in perfect bliss, but it certainly did sound preferable to the busy, distracted lifestyle of many modern suburbs and cities.
But of course, life is often more difficult than dreams would suggest. Since graduation, we have all gone our separate ways: I am finishing school with my wife and baby in Naples, Fl; some are enjoying small communities in Louisiana and Michigan; many are back home where they grew up; still others suffer under the despotism of an Austrian Covid Regime.
However, the idea of the perfect Catholic community lives on, and not just in us. From the community of Clear Creek to St. Mary’s in Kansas, many have approximated the ideal of our Junior year conversations. Since graduation, I have had many discussions with people outside the circle of WCC who yearn for the small town communities like those that we studied in that music class.
The reason why Barfield reminds me of these discussions is that his description of the poet’s boundedness illumines a hidden danger of idealizing bygone eras. The temptation Catholics face when studying idyllic, “truly Christian” times is to have a misplaced nostalgia. Nostalgia because it evokes a yearning for a better time, misplaced because the “better time” was never ours. In our circles especially, it is common to hear this in many forms. Whether it is a desire to return to the 1940s with Father O’Malley in The Bells of St. Marys, where “men dressed like men, smoked cigars, and weren’t afraid to be offensive,” or to the times of good ol’ Irish singing culture, where “people had real community and could sing and dance as God intended,” it is a longing for a time that we never knew.
There is nothing wrong with pursuing the virtues of past times. In the same way that a modern poet must study the works of Dante, Chaucer, and Homer when honing his own craft, us Catholics should look to the wisdom of the past when forming ourselves and our communities. The danger is that it can lead one to emulate these idyllic times not only in their virtues but in their accoutrements as well. In other words, we can go too far in pursuing the lifestyle of any golden age and end up merely play-acting at something we aren’t. For example, one could commendably adopt the kind yet sharp wit of G.K. Chesterton, but it is an entirely other matter to try and be the Author himself–dress up in 19th century english garb, effectuate a British accent, smoke a pipe, carry a cane, indulge in British cuisine, etc.. To take any imitation too far is to lose oneself and substitute an imposter. In Barfield’s terms, someone today can become an excellent 21st century poet by immersing himself in the great poets of history like Campion, but he could only be a poor Elizabethan imposter if he took that emulation too far.
This danger seems especially prevalent when attempting to apply the wisdom of past times to our own. It can lead Catholics to dress as if they were in the 1940s, pretend to be Irishmen when they aren’t, act as if they are the Virginian, live like Byzantine monks when they are laymen, try to be Chesterton Incarnate, form a Medieval village, take your pick. Any one of these idols possess traits worthy of imitation and reverence, but they all share a trait that should not and cannot be imitated–they are themselves.
“Why is this wrong?” some might ask. For, even a make-believe culture is better than no culture at all, or one that consists of work, TV, and Applebees on the weekend. And I think this is true, in a certain sense. But yet, I think the clearest answer to the question is that such playacting is dishonest and dishonesty is antithetical to true virtue. Don Quixote thought that he was a dashing knight rescuing a distressed dame; in his own isolated reality, he nobly exhibited the virtues of Chivalry. If his delusion were real, he would have been worthy of Sainthood, but it was a delusion and he was worthy of the asylum.
Similarly, and perhaps less dramatically, we run a similar risk if we pretend that we are not moderns in a modern world. Like Quixote, we can create an island for ourselves on which we are the heroes in exile, not like those delusional, depraved heathens in the outside world. In this sort of pursuit, we can become like Jonah, running from the time and place that God called him to be in. We can end up exhibiting an ungrateful escapism. This can not only lead to an inflated sense of one’s virtue, but it can lead to many sorrowful consequences. I can only appeal to personal experience on this next point, but I have seen many children who, after growing up in such isolation, are woefully unprepared when they encounter the world outside of their parent’s oasis and lose their faith. While admittedly only anecdotal and not universally true, these stories at the very least indicate a real danger of pretending to be seperate from the outside world.
We were born and raised in a world of modern architecture, modern sensibilities, and modern conveniences. Whether this a good or bad thing is for another discussion. The fact remains that it is where we are. We can certainly try to make it better by reviving true art, forming real culture amongst our friends, bringing back reverence into the mass, etc., but we can only do so as modern men with modern sensibilities.
How then, are we to imitate ancient wisdom? In a very general way, the answer seems obvious. We must take the virtues of those before us and live them out in as citizens of a modern world. My post is not meant to be an invective against revitalizing culture, rejecting post-modern irreverence, or forming small, close-knit Catholic communities. For all of those goals are beautiful and essential. Rather, it is meant to warn against a danger that we all can fall into by trying to be people that we are not.
To return to Barfield, he describes the genius of a poem as twofold: First, the poem reflects the poet’s learned mastery of language. Second, the poem reflects the Poet’s own self; the poet unconsciously imparts his own personality into the work, a personality formed by the world around him. Thus the poem is a product of virtue and self, craft and personality. We must similarly endeavor to live out the Christian vision. We must hone our virtue, but live it out as ourselves. We must not pretend that we can be ancients, irishmen, Inklings, or depression era Americans. In the same way that a poet is bound to his time and place, we are bound to ours.