Tuesday, August 25, 2015

James Russell Lowell on the Function of the Poet

For all of its mannerisms and 19th century zeitgeist, James Russell Lowell's 1855 lecture, "The Function of the Poet," remains an important document to American literature. It was delivered too early for him to have read or taken seriously the claims of Walt Whitman, which is a distinct advantage: he wasn't yet in the position to inadvertently soil himself by missing the brilliance of the New Yorker (a task which he accomplished later in his career). As a result, much of what he wrote resonates strongly and freely with Whitman's artistic goals.

Some of Lowell's historical ideas are admittedly off the mark, such as when he suggests that, in early times of any culture, the "poet and priest" were the same person. This isn't true, though it probably sounded good to undergraduates at the time. But all quibbles aside (quibbles have all too often buried important works) many of his points serve as prescient, and permanent, warnings to the nation. The essay as a whole reminds us that the function of poetry cannot be reduced to materialistic concerns--that art serves as more than a reminder, but also as a guide to that which is more important. More than this, he provides insight into the nature of how poetry relates the outer person to the inner person--a rather profound, and clearly stated, understanding which, when expanded, can show how damaged or incomplete one might be without the exercise of poetic thought and sensibilities.

Because he was less bombastic, in a sense, and certainly more contained in his scope than Emerson, Lowell's lectures don't have the same reach or grandiose complexity. There is a humility to them, despite his reputation, and because he is bold enough to present his ideas nakedly, both his minor errors and his more solid brilliance shine through clearly. These days, when scholars and artists are so afraid to make a mistake that every opinion is footnoted, or thought recycled, it's nice to read such risks. And in the end, if we don't all start risking our real voices, what will become of us? A nation of muted puppets, waiting for a master ventriloquist, is a macabre scene.


Significantly, Lowell's "Function of the Poet" gives us a solid basis for many underlying principles of the American Poetic. I can't think of a better introduction to certain counter-intuitive observations, many of which are still regularly overlooked. On a technical level, he prophetically implies that American speech might once again approximate an earlier poetic, wherein simpler utterance held more symbolic meaning--an idea that certainly came to fruition in much 20th century art. Perhaps even more tantalizingly, though, he asserts a truly radical philosophy which also weaves through his poetry--a nearly Franciscan approach to this world; a thrill at the notion of the unity between poetics and poverty. In a nation that idolizes wealth, and has even spawned countless delusional apostles of wealth, Lowell fires an early, loud shot in favor of an alternative--the courting of truth via poverty. It's a disposition that has often, silently, put American Poetics at odds with American Politics--entirely off the political grid, in fact--and as we are too often defined as a merely political nation, this more important vein has been often suppressed in popular histories. This, by the way, is closer to a legitimate argument for arts education, in my opinion: if we cede all of education to political and economic concerns, our succeeding generations will be raised as mere pawns to a rather shallow and ideological view of the world. Our two party system is simply not deep enough to encompass reality--and reality must be allowed to break through to our children, or we can't be said to be engaging in real education, but mere state sponsored propaganda.

Here are some important quotes from that 1855 lecture--thoughts which I think are the birthright of all Americans, and something we can take pride in as being part of our contribution to the world of art:

The peculiarity of almost all early literature is that it seems to have a double meaning, that, underneath its natural, we find ourselves continually seeing or suspecting a supernatural meaning.

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Continually the visible universe suggests the invisible.

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A great poet is something more than an interpreter between man and nature; he is also the interpreter between man and his own nature. It is he who gives us those key-words, the possession of which makes us masters of all the unsuspected treasure caverns of thought, and feeling, and beauty which open under the dusty path of daily life.

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The difference between the dry fact and the poem is as great as that between reading the shipping news and seeing the actual coming and going of the crowd of stately ships...

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It is to our true relations with the two great worlds of outward and inward nature that the poet reintroduces us.

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[T]he imagination has a deeper use than merely to give poets a power of expression. It is the everlasting preserver of the world from blank materialism.

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The imagination might be defined as the common sense of the invisible world, as the understanding is of the visible...

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When we have said that we live in a materialistic age we have said something which meant more than we intended. If we say it in the way of blame, we have said a foolish thing, for probably one age is as good as another, and , at any rate, the worst is good enough company for us.

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It is perfectly true that this is a materialistic age, and for that reason we want our poets all the more.

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They are dead men who live in the past, and men yet unborn who live in the future.

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The people who feel their own age prosaic are those who see only its costume. And that is what makes it prosaic--that we have not faith enough to think our own clothes good enough to be presented to posterity in.

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[Science] has become too grimly intellectual, has divorced itself from the moral and imaginative part of man.

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Every man is conscious that he leads two lives, the one trivial and ordinary, the other sacred and recluse; the one which he carries to the dinner-table and to his daily work, the other that which is made up of the few inspiring moments of his higher aspirations and attainment...

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Every man who meets with misfortune, who is stripped of material prosperity, finds that he has a little outlying mountain-farm of imagination, which did not appear in the schedule of his effects, on which his spirit is able to keep itself alive, though he never thought of it while he was fortunate. Job turns out to be a great poet as soon as his flocks and herds are taken away from him.

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[The] understanding in its pride and success thinks to pooh-pooh all that it considers impractical and visionary. But whatever life there is in a man, except what comes from beef and pudding, is in the visionary and unpractical, and if it be not encouraged to find its activity or its solace in the production or enjoyment of art and beauty, if it be bewildered or thwarted by an outward profession of faith covering up a practical unbelief in anything higher and holier than the world of sense, it will find vent in such wretched holes and corners as table-tippings and mediums who sell news from heaven at a quarter of a dollar the item. Imagination cannot be banished out of the world. She may be made a kitchen-drudge, a Cinderella, but there are powers that watch over her. When her two proud sisters, the intellect and understanding, think her crouching over her ashes, she startles and charms by her splendid apparition, and Prince Soul will put up with no other bride.

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The lives of the great poets teach us that they were the men of their generation who felt most deeply the meaning of the present.






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