For it goes without saying that to a certain degree he is master
of it, since otherwise he would be actually a madman. For such
observations, however, ingenuity in a high degree is requisite,
–Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go.
Poetry is not inspiration. Poetry is neither reasonable, irrational, or a result of some sort of mania. Poetry is language through which the writer affects and as a result the reader is affected. Within this, one finds a cause and effect relationship. Plato, in Ion, refers to the poet as, “a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of this senses, and reason is longer in him”. In contrast, Aristotle contends that, “poetry implies either a happy gift of nature or a strain of madness. In one case a man can take the mould of any character; in the other, he is lifted out of his proper self” (Poetics, XVII. 2). Longinus adds that, “Truly beautiful words are the very light of thought” (On The Sublime, XXX. 63), and “literary composition…sets in motion manifold ideas of words, thoughts, actions, beauty, and melody, all of them produced and nourished within us…the emotion of the speaker is introduced into the spirits of those who listen and…at once charm us and dispose us for the majestic…But it appears madness to raise a question on matters thus agreed on, for experience seems a sufficient test” (On The Sublime, XXXIX. 83). Reason and madness in poetry are relative to the listener. I will examine the responses of Plato, Aristotle, and Longinus to poetry and its relation to reason and the irrational. In addition, I will relate some of my own views on the topic.
Plato takes a very strong position against poetry. He deprecates the worth of poets to be taken seriously by attributing their creation of words to madness, or the irrational. As Plato states clearly in the Ion, “no man, while he retains that faculty [reason], has the oracular gift of poetry”. Plato seems to imply that one is naturally in his “right mind”. However, under the influence of some divine power, poets “are only the interpreters of the gods by whom they are severally possessed” (Ion, ll.519-20). Poets are human beings deficient in reason; that is why they do not deserve a place in Plato’s Republic. According to Plato, to be inspired by and towards poetry is to be irrational, or “under the influence of Dionysus”. On the other hand, reason qualifies as a lack of inspiration. The merit of reason lies on a parallel plane with other virtues such as beauty, good, and justice. Ironically, Plato is a philosopher because he is a poet. Plato speaks eloquently at times and he always finds listeners. True philosophy is poetry, virtue at its acme.
Aristotle, interested only in observation and rational analysis, contents himself by asserting that a true poet must either have a high degree of natural ability to adapt himself to other characters or else be able of entering a state of ecstatic madness. “But once the irrational has been introduced and an air of likelihood imparted to it, we must accept it in spite of the absurdity” (Poetics, XXIV. 10). By proposing that poetry is “more philosophical and a higher thing than history”, Aristotle introduces the idea that poetry could potentially be more provocative for the mind than Plato had previously thought. Tragedy assumes a more authoritative position than comedy; tragedy makes sense because of its seriousness and profundity. Therefore, the “tragic plot should not be composed of irrational parts” (Poetics, XXIV. 10) and a poet may recreate the actual, but he must avoid the chaotic, the imaginary, and the impossible. Aristotle states that poetic truth passes the bounds of reason but it refrains from breaking those rules which make the real world rational.
Longinus declares that the effect of poetry can strongly excite the emotions of the listener. In the same way, he believes, the varying melodies and rhythms of poetry and oratory convey the emotions of a poet or orator right into the souls of his listeners. Consequently, the listeners are possessed by a sense of splendour, dignity, and sublimity, when the poetry is of that nature.
Genius does not merely persuade an audience but lifts it to ecstacy. The astonishing is always of greater force than the persuasive or the pleasing; it is within our own powers whether to be persuaded or not, but that is truly effective which comes with such mighty and irresistible force as to overpower the hearer (Ch. I. 2).
Longinus explains that a poet requires a character of high intelligence to produce feelings of an audience. A reasonable listener would understand that a poem is only words on paper, devoid of emotion, existing merely to ?please’. Excellence is present in poetry because poetry, “seems to issue from a sort of divine rapture and enthusiasm and fills the words with inspiration” (Ch. VIII. 16). Genius is excellence and every now and then, genius is looked upon as madness. Excellence is quality and, “surely great words are spoken only by those who think great thoughts” (Ch. IX. 17). Longinus, discussing imagination and images proclaims, “It will not escape you that imagination is defined in one way by the orator and in another by the poet…” (Ch. XV. 36). Clearly, one can see that the reason in poetry lies in its occasionally unreasonable properties. This is not irrational; it is merely an element that Longinus refers to as the ?sublime’.
The madman is narcissistic and vain. He considers his actions and desires to be the measure of all things. He does not correct his impressions or compare them with those of others. There is no connection with external fact. A man is considered sane when his ideas not only form a coherent whole in themselves but conform to the laws and facts of the outer world and with the universal human reason. Longinus writes that even Plato, regarded as a reasonable man, ?…is carried away as in some frenzy of diction into violent and intemperate metaphors and allegorical bombast’. Inspiration is so powerful that not even Plato can escape it.
Plato is unaccepting of poetry. That seems unsuitable for an individual who referred to Socrates as a ?gadfly on the wall’. Also, Plato’s conception of irrationality quite possibly stemmed from his own inability to relate to poetry. He states in The Republic, Book X, that ?imitative poet …aims…to please or to affect the rational principle in the soul…for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater or less…’. There is a monumental gap between Plato’s universal truth and Plato’s poet, much like the difference between hot and cold.
Aristotle is slightly more open-minded. He does not require a republic of his own and if he did, poets would have a position–although not an authoritative position. Aristotle’s theory of poetry functions as representation of the universal. Plato explains that ?poetry feeds and waters the passions instead of starving them’ (The Republic, Book X). Is it reasonable to deprive oneself of satisfaction? Aristotle holds that it is not desirable to kill or to starve the emotional part of the soul, and that the controlled gratification of the feelings serves to maintain the balance of our nature (Poetics, IX). Denial of passion is irrational because of its power over human beings. Nature presents us with a multitude of opposites and contradictions. We either choose to accept or deny these circumstances. Within poetry, Plato sees the faults, Aristotle investigates the reason of the irrational, and Longinus esteems the excellence of expression.
The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly…with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life…This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco…(The Poet, 563)
There is a general consensus among Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, and Emerson that poetry is born of inspiration. Following the initial thought, their theories diverge. However, I must add that I believe poetry to be that which should not be explained. If poetry is madness, then let it be so. If Plato had found a poem of rational significance, would he have reconsidered the population of his republic? When I stated earlier that nature is a condition of opposites, I was attempting to clarify that reason and madness are only some properties of poetry that the listener or critic may find. I think that a “theory of poetry” debases poetry itself. From a different perspective, would one choose to live the “theory of life” or live life itself? The latter choice seems reasonable. Therefore, I conclude that although critics of poetry write real pretty, I explore their words with reason and uncover madness. Poetry is…poetry and nothing else.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Poet. Introduction to Poetics Course Kit.
Longinus. On The Sublime. Introduction to Poetics Course Kit.
Plato. The Republic and Ion. Introduction to Poetics Course Kit.