Last Sunday, at my poetry-reading group, I read an excerpt from G. K. Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, his epic-style poem about the ninth-century English King Alfred’s repulsion of a Viking invasion. I read what I found to be the most moving part in the entire poem: the song of the villain, the Viking King Guthrum. It begins:
He took the great harp wearily,
Even Guthrum of the Danes,
With wide eyes bright as the one long day
On the long polar plains.
For he sang of a wheel returning,
And the mire trod back to mire,
And how red hells and golden heavens
Are castles in the fire.
“It is good to sit where the good tales go,
To sit as our fathers sat;
But the hour shall come after his youth,
When a man shall know not tales but truth,
And his heart fail thereat.
“When he shall read what is written
So plain in clouds and clods,
When he shall hunger without hope
Even for evil gods.
“For this is a heavy matter,
And the truth is cold to tell;
Do we not know, have we not heard,
The soul is like a lost bird,
The body a broken shell….”
It’s a stunning expression of a pessimistic philosophy. Not that I would call myself a pessimist — and, part of the pleasure in reading this section was knowing that Alfred himself, who has come into the Viking camp anonymously as a minstrel, would soon rebut it with his own song — but, the actual rebuttal I found disappointing after imagining what a potential rebuttal might consist of; and Guthrum’s song remains my emotional high point of Chesterton’s Ballad.
It also reminds me a bit of W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.
“In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day….”
Auden’s stanzas, and many of Chesterton’s, are in the classic form of a ballad: the so-called common meter, rhyming ABCB. And there’s a reason, too, why “ballad” is a word applied to songs as well as to poems: this type of thing sticks in your head.
Here’s my point: Chesterton and Auden reach me with their pessimistic philosophy in a way that a mere exposition of such a philosophy wouldn’t. Now, this reach doesn’t actually consist of making me think pessimistically about life: instead, it’s poignant. But, the lines of their pessimistic philosophy are ones I already know by heart. Guthrum and Auden’s clocks sing a well-known song, make it beautiful, and make it ring in your head. Philosophy is the preparation: with these ballads, you live with what the philosophy is saying — encapsulated as an element in your life.
Is it too much to say the same for all poetry? Even though it often wants to introduce philosophical ideas to its audience, I don’t think poetry is nearly as good at it as philosophy itself is. In poetry, things are more relative: we have to deal not only with the meaning of the words themselves, but with the meaning of the fact that the poet is saying these particular words, which, I find, often offsets the literal meaning. If you want to take a position and mean it, you’re better off with philosophy. And, as someone who so often thinks the structure of one’s internal ideas determines one’s life, well, that’s pretty important. What does poetry have to give, instead, up against philosophy?
And, let me argue exactly this: that it makes philosophy itself stick in your head. It takes the elements of a familiar philosophy and translates them into an earworm, or, if not literally, at least a mind-worm. And, it can make the dourest of philosophies beautiful.