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The Poet and the Universe of Thought

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The poet relies upon on a shared understanding that gives his imagination the oxygen to sustain it. The world lacks certitude about its direction, and we want most of all to awaken the poetic powers urgently necessary for the long rebuilding that lies ahead.

For the past month or so, I have been doing daily recordings of various poems—whatever strikes me that day—and my comments have been largely unpremeditated responses to the poems. Some of the poems have been decidedly minor, others just as decidedly great. Lately, in reading poems by T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Wallace Stevens, I have been impressed by how deeply the great poets of a century ago sensed their responsibility to deal with the cultural cataclysm in which we still live. Late in the 19th century, Nietzsche called this phenomenon the “death of God,” by which he meant that Western civilization had shifted its ground from religious faith to scientific verifiability, gradually abandoning the synthesis of biblical narrative and philosophy by which it had known itself for almost two millennia. A greater knowledge of how things work in the natural world supplanted confidence in the intentionality of existence and the presence of divine meaning in the world itself.

This loss had immense cultural consequences. World War I laid waste to the last survivals of the organic order of Christendom, which the Reformation had already begun to erode centuries before. In The Waste Land, published in 1922, Eliot writes in a prophetic voice that “you know only / A heap of broken images.” What had once existed whole now lay in fragments. “Things fall apart,” W.B. Yeats wrote at the same time. “The center cannot hold.” The intelligible and coherent cosmos of previous ages had become, as Stevens puts it, “a souvenir.” The poet attempting to write for the modern reader a century ago had no coherent system of thought about the world to draw upon, nothing of the sort that made possible Dante’s Divine Comedy or that sustained the generations of builders in the long decades required for constructing the cathedrals of Chartres or Notre Dame in Paris. He or she did not know what to assume.

“Brightness falls from the air,” wrote Thomas Nashe during a recurrence of black plague in London in 1593. “Queens have died young and fair; / Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.” At least twenty centuries of cultural inheritance go into those two words, “Helen’s eye,” and Nashe knows it. But suppose that the modern poet, like the modern teacher, cannot assume any such understanding of who Helen is. A professor going into a class with seniors at Wyoming Catholic College can take for granted a massive weave of references from the Western tradition—Helen gazing out at the Greek army from the walls of Troy while the old men wonder at her beauty, Achilleus dragging the body of Hector, the Allegory of the Cave, Dido’s suicide, Dante’s meeting with Beatrice in the Purgatorio, the proofs in Euclid, the proportions of Vitruvius, and so on.

The same teacher going into a senior class at a public university could take nothing of that for granted. It would be a mistake, possibly even one construed as arrogant, to assume that a single student in the class had read the Iliad or Plato’s Republic or the Bible.

Dana Gioia writes of an “intimate patois” that develops between husband and wife in marriage, a “lexicon” that “defies translation into common speech,” and a similar patois (if not so intimate) develops in vital cultures. The poet, like any good teacher, needs to be able to draw confidently upon whole lexicons of cultural reference to express the joyful subtleties of an unfolding thought. “What matters to poetry in a close and direct manner,” writes Jacques Maritain in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, “are certain extremely simple but basic presences or existential certainties, assured by the universe of thought which constitutes the vital environment of poetic intuition.” In other words, the poet relies upon on a shared understanding that gives his imagination the oxygen to sustain it. What Maritain says about this “universe of thought” also describes beautifully, exactly, and with characteristic density of expression why Wyoming Catholic College exists.

Maritain says that four certitudes are the necessary conditions for strong poetic life:

a certitude both of the mysterious irrefragable existence and the exigency of intelligibility involved in things; a certitude of the interiority of the human being, and of its importance; a certitude that between man and the world there is an invisible relationship deeper than any material interconnection; a certitude that the impact of his freedom on his destiny gives his life a movement which is oriented, and not lost in the void, and which has to do, in one way or another, with the whole fabric of being.

Irrefragable sent me to the dictionary, but I can hardly conceive of a more cogent statement of the universe of thought we try to give our students. First, we introduce them to the natural world around us, which is real and urgently intelligible, mysteriously but indisputably given its existence. Second, we understand the students themselves—and they understand each other—not as mere behaviors to be manipulated but as immortal embodied souls with profound interior depth. Third, we demonstrate, from instruction in horsemanship to the highest reaches of metaphysics, that we have a connatural relationship to the world that allows us to understand ourselves better through knowing it and to understand it better by knowing ourselves. And lastly, we know that our action in the world is free and consequential, oriented toward God and responsible to “the whole fabric of being.”

When we speak of Wyoming Catholic as “poetic education,” we mean an education whose ends are to find the fresh air of hope. The world lacks certitude about its direction, and we want most of all to awaken the poetic powers urgently necessary for the long rebuilding that lies ahead.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.

This essay was first published here in May 2020.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.

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Dr. Glenn C. Arbery served as President (2016-2023) of Wyoming Catholic College, where he previously served as Dean and Associate Professor of Humanities. He has taught at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, the University of Dallas, and at Assumption College where he was d’Alzon Professor of Liberal Arts. He is the author of Why Literature Matters (2001) and the editor of two volumes, The Tragic Abyss (2004), and The Southern Critics: An Anthology (2010).

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