the end of poetry? 2

“In an enlightened age there will be much intelligence, much science, much philosophy, abundance of just classification and subtle analysis, abundance of wit and eloquence, abundance of verses, and even of good ones; but little poetry. Men will judge and compare; but they will not create. They will talk about the old poets, and comment on them, and to a certain degree enjoy them. But they will scarcely be able to conceive the effect which poetry produced on their ruder ancestors, the agony, the ecstasy, the plenitude of belief. The Greek Rhapsodists, according to Plato, could scarce recite Homer without falling into convulsions. The Mohawk hardly feels the scalping  knife while he shouts his death-song. The power which the ancient bards of Wales and Germany exercised over their auditors seems to modern readers almost miraculous. Such feelings are very rare in a civilised community, and most rare among those who participate most in its improvements. They linger longest among the peasantry.”

Macaulay was born in 1800, and he could easily be presented, in a history-as-coloring-book way, as a transition between the Romantics and the Victorians. But such historical accounts assume the same condescension, the same class-based view, the same cultural absolutism, as Macaulay himself is dabbling in, here.

Of course, these are the early writings of a man who had a tremendous influence, later, on the British policy in India. Rejecting the Indian-ist Enlightenment ideology of such pioneer colonizers as William Jones, the great advocate of Sanskrit literature, Macaulay wrote a famous note on Indian education that urged the worthlessness of Indian literature, in comparison with the power and science of Western literature.

Yet this public view seems to clash violently with his private tastes. Here’s the pin that hooks our moral entrepreneur.

Now, I want to locate Macaulay, but I don’t want to reduce his argument to this location. For the argument winds its way through modernism itself – with that mood of gathering “fragments against our ruin”. Hegel, with whose writings Macaulay was probably not acquainted, was coincidentally writing the vast obituary of art in his lectures between 1823 and 1826. Hegel also (like Macaulay) thinks that the end of art is the end of the power of art – of some power that lay in the past, and that is uncomfortable with, and ultimately incongruous with, an “enlightened” society. Hegel, too, takes it that the enlightened society is a critical one – and that art survives its death by becoming the criticism of art.

Which is a pretty rapid summing up of Hegel, for which I don’t want to be held liable in a court of law. What I want to do is remark on this moment – the shared characteristics between Macaulay and Hegel - and both its truth as a sociological observation and its effect on poetry.

This is an issue that, among critics who are concerned with poetry alone, has been poked rather gingerly of late, with the emphasis being on the “appreciation of poetry” as a marketing problem. Just put a buncha breathless recitations on NPR and voila, we are saved.

But I think that the problem is not even approached in this way. Macaulay and Hegel are both talking of the “space” of the poem. In connecting the Mohawk with the peasant, Macaulay is trying to make a point about levels of “civilization.” One doesn’t have to accept this bourgeois point in order to wonder about the spaces of the poem, where it is read, or spoken, or listened to, how it migrates through media (since I have a very broad view that popular song is poetry too – good or bad), how it lingers in chapbooks and little magazines, I find the question of how a society run on the basis of our society can afford poetry to be an essential one.

Which I’ll approach next.