Laughing, crying, tumbling, mumbling,
Gotta do more, gotta be more.
Chaos screaming, chaos dreaming,
Gotta be more, gotta do more.
So waxes poetic Charles Dalton, or Nuwanda, in the forbidden poetic caves of The Dead Poet Society. Poetry as a clue to meaning in life? Science has settled everything, or so we have been led to believe, but the poets make their claims:
DEAD POETS SOCIETY, Robin Williams, 1989
Or, to answer Tina Turner’s question What’s love got to do with it? the deeper yearnings of the human soul still cry out.
The Medievals understood all of this, anticipating these modern questions, and did so with a poetic flair.
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”
Hamlet chides Horatio in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Considering Hamlet’s claim in the modern world leads us to wonder just what we may have lost (or gained) with our own view of the world. In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis, noted Christian apologist and Oxford Professor of English Literature, and later Cambridge Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, describes how the Medieval era had its own unique model of thought.
Dante Alighieri (Dante; 1265-1321, Italian), author of the Divine Comedy, a trilogy of journeys through Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio) and Paradise (Paradiso), built his morality play largely on the Medieval model that Lewis describes, using the concepts and imagery so well-known to the Medievals of his time.
The Heavens Declare the Glory of God, and the Sky above Proclaims His Handiwork – Psalms 19:1
Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know
concludes Romantic poet John Keats in the final lines of his renowned Ode to a Grecian Urn. The role of beauty in the world, as in the philosophical triumvirate “the good, the true and the beautiful” introduced by Plato and the Greeks, and discussed by many a philosopher since – what exactly is it good for?
The role of beauty in fact plays a significant role in medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas’s cosmological argument for the existence of God …
Poetry conveys truth in a way that is different form, and complementary to, truth as presented in rational argument. Consider these lines from Tegner’s Drapa:
“I heard a voice that cried,
Balder the beautiful
Is dead, is dead”
which moved the young C.S. Lewis, though “I knew nothing about Balder” the older Lewis admits. “But instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky, I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described” Lewis reminisced. Such was the power of imaginative literature for the Oxford Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Studies who would become perhaps the premier writer on the Christian faith in the twentieth century. It was poetry and story, with their imagery and allegory, through which Lewis so strongly felt the call of Christian truth. ‘Reason’ and arguments play their role, but not in isolation. It is vital to realize that the life-transforming power of the gospel, the Christian faith, demands to be communicated not just rationally but imaginatively: through argumentation and the arts, logic and story, proof and poem.
A carved oak table,
Tells a tale
Of times when kings and queens sipped wine from goblets gold,
And the brave would lead their ladies from out of the room
to arbours cool.
A time of valour, and legends born
A time when honour meant much more to a man than life
And the days knew only strife to tell right from wrong
Through lance and sword.
“What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” asked Alcuin of early Anglo-Saxon Christian converts, pitting the familiar tales of heroic but pagan lore against the newfound Christian religion. “The house is narrow and has no room for both” Alcuin continued, concluding that “the Heavenly King does not wish to have communion with pagan and forgotten kings.” But is it really so easy for a mind or culture to completely switch gears? Or is there some way to redeem non- or pre- Christian traditions in which Christian truths can be found? In Beowulf we see how the likely ninth or tenth century Christian poet recasts a sixth century pagan Anglo-Saxon tale in a way that made Christian sense of that culture.