The illustration above is from a 12th-century manuscript called the Hortus Deliciarum (“Garden of Delights”), compiled by nuns as a sort of encyclopedia for novices. It contained over 300 illustrations of philosophy, history, theological, and morals. This particular illustration depicts Philosophy and the Seven Liberal Arts which flow from her like rivers from a spring. Astronomy, Grammar, Geometry, and the like all have their pride of place. However, outside the realm of Philosophy we see four figures—at first reminiscent of the Four Evangelists, but we quickly see that the spirits whispering in their ears are black as pitch and look like fiendishly misshapen birds. These are the Magicians and Poets, whose arts are taught by demons.
Plato dreamed of founding a republic without poets—without those smarmy, blasphemous spinners of tales, those avaricious movers of men’s passions, those excessively-vocabularied hipsters. The proper ordering of the passions was a high priority for the philosophers in the School of Socrates, and whereas music could be properly used for curing the disorder of men’s souls, the poetical songs of professional storytellers were often in opposition to this psychological betterment. Homer sang of a philandering Zeus, Hesiod of gods who wantonly committed patricide, and Aristophanes of philosophers who had their heads in the clouds. Clearly the poets lacked the virtue of piety and had a mind to debase higher things.
And yet, the poets have never quite been banished. Because of his troublesome nature, the poet is potentially as much of a gadfly to society as Socrates was to the Athenian ruling party. Aeschylus might be writing plays for the established religious ceremonies, but that doesn’t mean he won’t insert some commentary about improving the social order. Dante might write a Catholic poem that reflects orthodox teaching on morals and the afterlife, but that doesn’t mean he won’t put a few popes in Hell. And yet, Aeschylus repeatedly won first prize at the Dionysia and Dante eventually got the support of a papal encyclical. For all the trouble they cause, nobody wants to be totally rid of the literati.
The Catholic poet today—and by that term of course I include all fictionists and dramatists—is at a strange crossroads. The ecclesiastical hierarchy no longer cares to exercise its power of censorship on the arts, so the Catholic artist (the only artist who would even potentially care about the hierarchy’s rules) stands largely free of suppressive influence. The poet of old Christendom might have taken advantage of this freedom to satirize the loose morals and hypocrisy of clergy and religious. We laity seem to lack the moral formation necessary to see even the sins of our rulers clearly, much less their virtues. Perhaps multiple centuries of clericalism has built up too much momentum to exhaust itself within one generation of the Council that empowered the laity.
Instead, the Catholic poet appears to be caught up in the general malaise of our times, the so-called “quiet desperation” that permeates the rich and poor alike. If we cannot see more clearly than the atheist and pagan, if we cannot walk more straight than the harlot and lecher, then what do we have to offer? Are we not the blind leading the blind? Poets today are inspired by the dark grackles of agnosticism and anxiety. Evelyn Waugh vivisected the culture of contraception with biting clarity. Likewise, the mere thought of doubting the Real Presence brought Flannery O’Connor to the border of apoplexy. Their example and art helped others order their passions in the right direction, but how many among us can get even slightly worked up at such things?
The old schools of poetry are as dead as the old system of the Seven Liberal Arts, as dead as the old Catholic catechetical programs. Those who wish to learn any of these must do so as an autodidact. There is something a little perverse about receiving a tradition, sacred or otherwise, according to one’s own initiative and arrangement, but the alternative can only result in perpetual melancholy. We need not be slaves to our age. In the land of the blind, even the one-eyed autodidact can be king.
Never leave your reader comfortable: “make your vision apparent by shock,” and then you will have begun to flex those ancient poetic muscles. Please, instruct, and entertain, but never pander. The Muse helps those who help themselves, not those who merely daydream about her gifts.