“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
I recently shared some Instagram stories where I mused on the meaning of the adjective “poetic”. It sparked a personal reflection about the nature of the poetic language, on which I would like to expand now. I hope these scattered thoughts will be a starting point for a more articulated series of articles on the subject.
As I mentioned on Instagram, I think people often take “poetic” to mean “beautiful”, flowery” or “lyrical”. It is also often linked to the expression of feelings, moods and other abstract emotions.
While these definitions are all true to some extent, I think it goes a little further than that. For me, the aim of poetry is to capture the true essence of things. But Truth is difficult to catch, understand and explain. Truth is hard to embrace in one sweep.
So one must go tangentially, and turn around Truth with a laser beam. One must shed light on each face of Truth like this, with words. And little by little, from this literary exploration, an approximation of Truth emerges.
That’s what poetry does.
It reveals faces and sides of the truth by going around it, removing the soot that hides it with a fine brush. This way, touch after touch, Truth takes shape.
“True wit is nature to advantage dress’d,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d,
Something, whose truth convinc’d at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind”
Thus these two qualities of the poetic language : it’s tangential and elliptic.
The poet has the ability to look at things obliquely and in this manner catches the edges of a Truth that would otherwise be bright enough to blind anyone: that’s the tangent.
But he also masters the art of the unsaid. He leaves loud and evident blanks that we can’t help but notice. By this game of light and shadow, he forces the reader to explore what we usually neglect or avoid. Almost against our will, we fill the blanks the poet purposefully left: that’s the ellipsis. It can manifest in subtle similes and metaphors, or unusual associations that require us to retrace the thread that wove them.
That brings another question. These ellipses allow space for imagination. We fill them differently, influenced by our mood and personal experience. How can *the* Truth emerge from such diverging interpretations?
I think it brings us back to the idea of the multiple facets of Truth. We can postulate that there is a unique core of Truth, that some may call God, or Greater Good or Raison or Logic or Purpose or Power. This core may be either black and expanding, like a menacing black hole; or blindingly bright like a burning sun. Either way, none of us can confront it and survive to tell the tale. But we can all experience some of its effects.
By practicing poetry, the poet tries to put to paper what he experiences of the effects of this Truth, in a way that remains faithful to it. The poet strips reality out of its tawdry rags, lays it bare for us to contemplate. By removing some of the layers that obfuscate Truth, the poet brings us a little closer to it. Because the poet is a little more daring, or has a sight a little clearer, he or she can reveal hidden clues to help us decipher the world in and out of us.
Let’s try to refine a bit our definition of Truth : it is probably something like the universal thread that forms the fabric of the world. It is what gives it meaning and value. It talks to us by tugging at our heartstrings to make us aspire for more, for something bigger than us but of a same nature as us. Something present both at the center of our soul and all around us.
And further, I think Beauty = Truth. When you read lines that shed light on some hardcore truths you have been chasing forever, when rays of Truth hit like lightning and everything appears clear and sharp in their flash, you experience Beauty.
« Je suis belle, ô mortels ! comme un rêve de pierre,
Et mon sein, où chacun s’est meurtri tour à tour,
Est fait pour inspirer au poète un amour
Eternel et muet ainsi que la matière. » ~ Charles Baudelaire
(tr. by Lewis Piaget Shanks, 1931: “fair as a dream in stone I loom afar
— mortals! — with dazzling breast where, bruised in turn
all poets fall in silence, doomed to burn
with love eternal as the atoms are“.
It shakes you, pierces your heart and moves you to tears. It is probably why Beauty is often deemed terrible and dangerous by the poet. It is grand and abysmal, threatens to swallow us whole.
“Je ne prétends pas que la Joie ne puisse pas s’associer avec la Beauté, mais je dis que la Joie est un des ornements les plus vulgaires, tandis que la Mélancolie en est pour ainsi dire l’illustre compagne, à ce point que je ne conçois guère (mon cerveau serait-il un miroir ensorcelé ?) un type de Beauté où il n’y ait du Malheur.” ~ Charles Baudelaire
( tr. from the Boni and Liveright 1919 edition: “I do not claim that Joy cannot be associated with Beauty, but I do say that Joy is one of its most vulgar ornaments, while Melancholy is, as it were, its illustrious companion, to such a degree that I can scarcely conceive (is my brain an enchanted mirror?) a type of beauty in which is no Misfortune.”)
Note : Baudelaire follows this by associating beauty and evil, and I think this will require some further discussion.
The poetic revelation is nerve-shattering and speaks to a deep, hidden part of us. It fills us with longing, and sets a veil of melancholy on our shoulders.
“Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s’ouvraient tous les cœurs, où tous les vins coulaient.
Un soir, j’ai assis la Beauté sur mes genoux. − Et je l’ai trouvée amère. − Et je l’ai injuriée.” A. Rimbaud
(tr. : Once, if I remember well, my life was a feast where all hearts bloomed, and all wines flowed.
One evening I sat Beauty on my lap – And I found her sour – And I reviled her.”)
Chasing Beauty is risky but rewarding. The whiffs of its perfume that taunt you in the distance are heady, intoxicating. It’s invigorating.
“Il faut être toujours ivre. Tout est là : c’est l’unique question. Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve. Mais de quoi ? De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous.” Baudelaire
(tr. by Michael Hamburger : “One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters; that’s our one imperative need. So as not to feel Time’s horrible burden that breaks your shoulders and bows you down, you must get drunk without ceasing.But what with? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you choose. But get drunk”)
We could further explore how Truth revealed through poetry can be a mean used by religion or if poetry represents a direct competition to religion, but I think that’s enough musings for today.
Next posts will discuss in more details (but not necessarily in this order) : the definitions of truth, poetry and religion, beauty and joy, beauty and melancholy.
In the meantime, hit me up in the comment section! Are you a reader or a writer of poetry? Both? What is the purpose of poetry for you? Share your poetic musings with me, I’ll be happy to read them 🙂