Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
The greatest explanation of why poetry matters is Sir Philip Sidney’s magnificent “Defense of Poesy.” Sidney defends poetry against those who could see no place in the curriculum for “lies.” The end of learning, he says, is virtuous action. The Philosopher writes about the ideal, but does it so abstractly, is so “misty to be conceived,’ that “a man may wade in him until he be old before he find sufficient reason to be honest.” The Historian, by contrast, writes concretely and tells a story we can relate to—but he is limited to what actually has been. He cannot talk about what ought to be, the ideal, without departing from his expertise as a Historian. “But now doth the peerless poet perform both”: Like the Historian he speaks concretely and tells a story, but like the philosopher he is not limited to what has been but is free to talk about the ideal. Here I try to add the Theologian to Sidney’s framework.
Tending to Show that Theology
Is Indeed the Queen of the Sciences
Philosopher: a man who tries to shave
With Ockham’s Razor by the flickering light
That shines behind his back in Plato’s Cave.
He’ll know that’s what he’s doing if he’s bright;
He may take Pascal’s Wager if he’s brave
(Fides quaerens intellectum), and he might
Thus feel his chains fall off and leave that place
And know the sunlight full upon his face.
Historian: He deals in documents,
And what he cannot find there he invents.
As long as it fits in with and makes sense
Of what we have of solid evidence,
It’s called “interpretation,” and he prints
It up. In this there is no vain pretence
As long as we can tell the difference.
The Poet is a wielder of that Word
Which clothes the unformed thought and makes it seen,
Which sings the silent thought and makes it heard,
Which tells us how to say the thing we mean.
Sir Philip Sidney said it long ago
In his divine Defense of Poesy:
Philosophy’s business is to seek to know
Not just what is, but that which ought to be,
Truth in its very essence, plain and bare
(Though he may leave it hanging in the air);
History can tell us how, below,
The truth has fared and still is apt to fare;
The Poet’s language teaches us to care.
The Theologian has to be all three:
The logos, the divine philosophy
Which was incarnate in our history
Must still be fleshed with words to make men see.
The Theologian simply has to be
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, due out Sept. 1, 2016, from Square Halo Books!
Donald T. Williams, PhD