On poetic understanding

Eliot, Larkin and the Rig Veda

Sunshine in the Drawingroom III – Vilhelm Hammershøi (Wikimedia Commons – Nationalmuseum Stockholm)

Just as scientists strive to crystallize deeper truths about the world, so too do poets.  However, whereas scientists further our understanding of reality through a process of abstraction, poets develop insights that resists abstraction and stays at the level of ordinary things.  In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot uses the quotidian as a way to elicit the philosophical.  A conversation in the pub is interrupted by the bartender calling time and prompting hurried goodbyes, with a literary allusion to Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet –

“Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,

And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot—



Goodnight Bill. Goodnight Lou. Goodnight May. Goodnight.

Ta ta. Goodnight. Goodnight.

Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.”

This moment snatched from a humdrum conversation, interrupted by the urgency of the call to leave the bar, now frozen in time, seems to make time itself and how quickly things fleet away a theme of the poem.  In another passage, Eliot moves from a scene that he would have seen himself every day to a broader reflection based on an another literary allusion, this time to Dante’s Inferno.  Here again a scene is vividly captured, true to life yet also painting a despondent vision that likens the crowds to those in hell –

“Unreal City.

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many

I had not thought death had undone so many.”

In his poem, ‘Church going’, Philip Larkin likewise focuses on the mundane details of a particular visit to a church –

“Hatless, I take off

My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font…

Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few

Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce

“Here endeth” much more loudly than I’d meant.”

Yet here too this almost farcical episode is able to summon up something more ethereal –

“A serious house on serious earth it is,

In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,

Are recognised, and robed as destinies.

And that much never can be obsolete”

Indeed, the power of the poet to distil something essential from the everyday has been lauded through the ages.  I previously discussed how the poet, scop, bard or skald has been a figure of high status within all Indo-European societies.  In the classical world it was believed that muses inspire poets and other creative thinkers and speak through them.  The Iliad starts with Homer calling upon the muse of poetry to sing the entire story –

“Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles”

[The Iliad, trans. Prof. Robert Fagles, Book 1 Line 1]

A similar idea can be found in the figure of the kavi, or poet, of Vedic literature, who expresses his poetic insight at the time of the soma pressing ritual in a verse that plays on the idea of purifying soma by pressing it out of the plant and purifying speech by transmuting it into poetic expression –

“When the purifiers are filled with thousands of flows [of soma], the inspired poets purify their speech.”

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 9 Sūkta 73 verses 7ab by Ṛṣi ‘Purifier’ Āṅgirasa; my own translation]

Further, similarly to the idea of the divine muse, the gods themselves are understood to be the true poets. In this case, the crackling, indestructible Soma itself is understood to be an eternal poet speaking and the human poets the vehicles of interpretation of its profound poetic insight –

“The practical, thoughtful poets squeeze out the poet [Soma], the crackling, indestructible filament”

[Rig Veda Maṇḍala 9 Sūkta 72 verses 7ab by Ṛṣi Harimanta Āṅgirasa; my own translation]

In summary, we may say that an essential truth about language and world is revealed by poets in a way that breaks every kind of generic formula as it lies in a proper understanding of the unique and singular moments of our human experience.

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