Language, Poets & the treachery of Women

my summer-vacation reading…

I’m making some time to catch up on reading and writing. Two passages from two very different books struck me. Thought I would share them. The first is from Russ McDonald’s Shakespeare’s Late Style. (I’ll write my next post about the other.) For fanciers of language, poetics and Shakespeare, this is a fascinating book. I’m having to read it twice.  Most readers would probably consider the book dry as chalk dust (McDonald isn’t exactly an engaging writer). Me? My second reading involves heavy underlining. MacDonald’s text is thick with information and ideas.

His book is primarily concerned with the “problem” of Shakespeare’s late style. Personally, I’ve never understood why Shakespeare’s late style is referred to as the problem. Shakespeare’s style changed with age. Why is that a problem? Interestingly, Shakespeare’s stylistic progression is no different, in my view, than the progression of all the great artist’s with whom I’m familiar. Consider Bach, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Frost, even Keats, and the great pianist Glenn Gould (compare his first performance of the Goldberg variations to his final performance). Or what about the Beatles? Their youthful works (such as Bach’s toccatas or the Beatles first albums) are marked by youthful enthusiasm, passionate flourishes (often in excess), and unrestrained (undisciplined) enthusiasm bordering, in some cases, on mawkishness. McDonald quotes the great Shakespearean critic A.C. Bradley:

After Hamlet the style, in the more emotional passages, is heigthened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is, therefore, not easy and lucid and in the more ordinary dialogue is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes deficient in charm. (p. 30 Shakespeare’s Late Style)

What I find so fascinating is that this criticism is almost, word for word, the same as the criticism leveled at Beethoven’s late music (as well as Bach and even Mozart). That Bradley would consider the maturation of Shakespeare’s style “deficient”, reveals the deficiencies in his own critical acumen – though his comments are typical of his age.

As all these artists aged, they seemed to prune the excess, searching for, discovering and refining the essence of their genius, voice and style, seeking compression and concentration. Compare Bach’s very early keyboard Toccatas to his late works: the Musical Offering or The Art of the Fugue. Compare Beethoven’s lavish early Piano Sonatas to his last (or his late quartets). The album Let It Be was, in large part, the outcome of John Lennon’s desire to get back to the fundamentals of his rock and roll – a pruning of excess (the Naked version supposedly being closer to Lennon’s intent).

Anyway (and to me) Shakespeare’s late style isn’t problematic. It represents the natural progression of a maturing artist – no more problematic than Bach’s Art of the Fugue or Beethoven’s late quartets.

the corrupting influence of women…

The one passage that I found particularly fascinating had little to do with Shakespeare’s late style. Rather, it was McDonald’s observation concerning women, rhetoric and medieval thought. I wanted to excerpt the passage as gist for thought. McDonald is examining Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus. I’m cherry picking passages for the sake of brevity, but hopefully the following will give you some idea of the whole. McDonald begins the sub-chapter with the heading, MEN AND WOMAN AND STYLE. He writes:

Shakespeare’s self-consciousness about the perils and opportunities of language coincides with the contemporary debate over the available forms of prose style and the philosophical implications of those positions. A brief review of the controversy reminds us that the old fashioned Ciceronian model, with its elaborate syntactical constructions symmetrical patterns of words and clauses, and devotion to ornament, came into conflict with the self-consciously modern approach, modeled on Seneca, with its obviously broken periods and asymmetrical grouping of words, a severity of of vocabulary and sound, and a Spartan disdain for decoration. (p. 61)

Interestingly, the tug of war  between aesthetic “excess” or exuberance and aesthetic “restraint” is ongoing. Consider Islam’s historical aversion to representative art – and the religion’s hyper-masculine aversion to the feminine (it’s concealment of women’s facial features and form). Representative art was surely (and remains) tied to the idea of the feminine – to ornament, excess, distraction, treachery and error. Islam is hardly alone. The same strain is to be found in other religions, including Christianity (especially Catholicism), Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. The aesthetic divide seems to be a human preoccupation that expresses itself in all matters pertaining to self-expression. Bach was ceaselessly upbraided by his ecclesiastical employers for the distracting “excesses”  of his music. His employers felt that his music should focus the churchgoers’ mind on (G)od, not music. Bach, to put it mildly, disagreed. In all cases, the root of the aesthetic difference seems to boil down to a difference in a culture’s conception of the feminine. That is what I find so interesting. (Art, much removed from the idealized conception of the war-like male, was considered a feminine pursuit throughout the history of western culture.)  McDonald continues:

This debate is self-evidently grounded in conceptions of sexual difference and related to the figuration of language as feminine and action as masculine in medieval and early modern language theory. This misogynistic tradition propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error. It originates in the classical period and receives virulent expression in the writings of some of the Church Fathers, particularly Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine. As Howard Block has demonstrated in some detail, this gendered conception is responsible for the series of identifications, still with us, of the masculine with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity; and of the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material, the duplicitous or ambiguous. In the most notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature, a familiar and loudly asserted complaint against women is their proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding — the most common laments from the molestiae nuptiarum or the tradition of anti-marriage literature, have to do with the verbal miseries inevitably attendant upon the taking of a wife. In other words, the attack on women is often a simultaneous attack on language. (p. 62)

A straight line can be drawn from this tradition to the Pope’s modern day demand for celibacy (an institution still steeped in the medieval dye). The unspoken (or spoken) assumption is that the feminine will have a corrupting and treacherous effect on the priesthood. For an institution that identifies the “word” of God as the fundamental truth, that relies on language to communicate is doctrines, and which conceives this truth as, ultimately, a masculine expression, the feminine influence (read speech) can only be understood as diluting and corrupting. McDonald continues:

Commentators reach as far back as Eden to connect the female with the decorative, the artificial, the inessential: in the Genesis account, Eve’s verbal seduction of Adam into eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree led to the need for covering, and from that time forward there existed a contest between the natural body and the dressings invented for it. As Tertullian put it, “with the word the garment entered.” In a related treatment of the topic, St. Augustine distinguishes between numerical signs as masculine and verbal signs as feminine: “From that time forth she [Reason] found it hard to believe that the splendor and purity [of numbers] was sullied by the corporeal matter of words. And just as what the spirit sees is always present and is held to be immortal and numbers appear such, while sound, being a sensible thing, is lost into the past.” Numerals are identified with the virtues of constancy, order, and clarity, in short, with the spirit. Words connote corruption and impermanence and are linked with the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.

We might now return to Bacon’s attack on Ciceronian style as “that delicate and polished kind of learning” that “allured” the boys from Cambrdige: “delicate and polished” is a gendered phrase, pejorative adjectives denoting a sissified style. Patricia Parker summarizes this debate with a major instance from the early Tudor period:

Erasmus in his Ciceronianus (1528) speaks of seeking in vain in Ciceronian eloquence for something “masculine” and of his own desire for a “more masculine” style. Ciceronian copia in these discussions is both effeminate and the style of a more prodigal youth, to be outgrown once one had become a man: “I used to imitate Cicero.” writes Lipsius; “but I have become a man, and my tastes have changed. Asiatic feasts have ceased to please me; I prefer the Attic.”

And this bias appears also in the Renaissance view of the femininity of verse and the Puritan attack on the effeminacy of the stage, we remember Sidney’s Defense, written as a rejoinder to the attack on theatrical poetry as immoral, frivolous, and unmanly. The sentence cited at the beginning of this chapter, Thomas Howell’s “Women are wordes, Men deedes,” should remind us of Hotspur, that quintessential man of action, who proclaims his contempt for “mincing poetry” and who on the battlefield is infuriated when the King’s effeminate ambassador addresses him in “man holiday and lady terms.” This still-prevalent view that poetry or dramatics is for girls, while science and mathematics – real learning – is best left to boys, descends from this ancient derisory association of women and words. (pp. 64-65)

McDonald’s last observation, that poetry is still considered an effeminate occupation, is one that I would have made myself. Robert Frost, in his own day and referring to his beginnings, stated that one might as well wear a millstone round one’s neck as declare oneself a poet. His grandfather, who effectively bankrolled the first half of Frost’s literary career, expected more “manly” pursuits from his grandson.

  • Image above & right. Bathsheba by Jan Matsys. Image above & left. Bathsheba by Jean Leon Gerome. Do these images of feminine nudity offend you? The biblical story of Bathsheba and the story of Susannah (like the paintings), nicely captures the west’s conflicted attitude toward feminine beauty and seductiveness.  The temptations of Bathsheba’s beauty proves to be a destructive one when David sends Bathsheba’s husband to die in battle. God punishes both lovers with the death of their child. Interestingly, the paintings warn us against the seductiveness of feminine beauty while also lulling us with the same, inviting us to be just as seduced by it. The same attraction to, and distrust of, language characterizes Shakespeare’s great plays and medieval attitudes toward language in general.

Interesting too, is the strong link between religious fundamentalism, authoritarianism, intolerance and hyper-masculinity. The puritans, who detested the poetry of Elizabethan England and reviled the dramatic stage (and successfully closed it down for a period of time), were religious fundamentalists who would have found common cause with the hyper-masculine religiosity of present day (fundamentalist) Islamists (such as the Taliban). Their cultural triumph was brief, however. The puritans quickly found themselves on the receiving end of intolerance. What did they do? They fled to Plymouth Rock— not a very pleasant group of people. They are presently celebrated every Thanksgiving as benign settlers seeking freedom from intolerance.  Hardly. As the joke has it: They fled intolerance to more freely express their own intolerance. Londoners were all too glad to be rid of them.

What’s so fascinating is that these biases continue today and are as firmly rooted as they ever were. One is tempted to think there is something in human nature that would recreate this division between the masculine (positive) and feminine (negative), even if the history of such biases were erased. Consider the passage at left, the introductory words to an essay by James H. McGoldrick, published in the The English Journal, Vol. 43, No. 5 (May, 1954), pp. 257-259 .

Notice that it’s not enough to say that poetry is effeminate. Associated with the idea of femininity is the sentimental and that which wastes ones time. The implication is that the feminine, and the pursuit of anything construed as feminine, is unworthy of effort.

Is it really human nature, or is it cultural? Consider the following from The Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature Vol. 2:

Nirala, in that very introduction to Parimal maintains elsewhere: ‘just as metres, being self-forgetful in a state of joy bound within the ambit of rule, dance beautifully and lull the listeners into an ecstacy along with the auditory melody, similarly free verse affords us eternal asethetics of simlutaneity in its extraordinary flow as if it were the little and large waves of the infinite ocean, rising and falling with one single unified motion. Free verse is the verse that remains free even though growing on the ground of metre; the flow of free verse itself sustains and supports it; it establishes its metres and expresses the magesty of its freedom and literature of its law’. Nirala finds the beauty of ‘unequal similarity’ in free verse. He accepts the ‘flow’ of poetry as its great quality. In his famous article ‘Pant aur Pallava’ (1927-28) he writes, ‘In free verse one cannot get the art of music, there is the art of reading; it is not concerned with vowel but with consonant; it is not the feminine tenderness of poetry but the masculine courage or poetry. It’s beauty is not in music, but in conversation.”

Free verse becomes an effort to reclaim poetry’s masculinity. Fascinating, again, are the parallels to the rhetoric of western medieval bias. Remember that the writings of St. Augustine, among others, associated the masculine with the essence – the primary. In Nirala’s rhetoric, free verse is understood as the “infinite ocean” (which is nothing if not primary) whereas meter is understood as the more obviously feminine  – a seductive dance that lulls the listener with its ephemeral beauty. (We are reminded of Bathsheba, Susannah or Salome.) In the latter description, Nirala could as easily be describing the lulling effect of pornography. And there’s no mistake in the choice of  lull, which as part of its definition includes the meaning: to give or lead to feel a false sense of safety; cause to be less alert, aware, or watchful ( Such a vision of the feminine is thoroughly in keeping with the west’s prejudices.

  • Susanna and the Old Men by Guercino. The old man, having stumbled across Susanna as she bathes, threaten to blackmail her (accuse her of an illicit affair) if she doesn’t have sex with them. She doesn’t. The elder men accuse her of fornication. Although Susanna is exonerated in the end, one is tempted to read the story not as the exoneration of an innocent woman but as a warning against the temptations of feminine seductiveness (and youthful excess). Susanna’s beguiling beauty can only end in destruction (the old men are sentenced to death once their lies are found out). Once again, Guercino invites the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the naked woman even as the narrative warns us against the lurid temptation. Message: Feminine beauty is a youthful folly and should be left to the youthful.

Ezra Pound, heralding the dawn of free verse in his manifesto “A Retrospect“, uses vocabulary no less loaded. He writes:

As to Twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to see written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppy-cock, it will be harder and saner, it will be what Mr Hewlett calls ‘nearer the bone’. It will be as much like granite as it can be, its force will lie in its truth, its interpretative power (of course, poetic force does always rest there); I mean it will not try to seem forcible by rhetorical din, and luxurious riot. We will have fewer painted adjectives impeding the shock and stroke of it. At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.

“Harder and saner” he writes. The implication is that the poetry of the Victorians, drenched in meter and rhyme, was softer (more feminine) and less sane (less rational and too emotional – read womanly). The poetry of free verse will be like “granite” – an inescapably masculine adjective. Pound goes on to describe the poetry of the previous decades as “rhetorical din, and luxurious riot”. There is little that separates such description from the “misogynistic tradition [that] propagates the identification of language and women as treacherous and unreliable, subject to extravagance, malleability, and error…” Pound’s “rhetorical din” is eerily similar to those “notorious anti-feminine passages in medieval literature” that associate the feminine with a “proclivity for loud complaint. Garrulousness, nagging, shrewishness, bickering, demanding…” As if to remove any doubt, Pound uses the adjective painted when describing the Victorians’ over reliance on adjectives. Painted recalls St. Augustine’s association of words with with the “corruption and impermanence” of “the body, specifically with the female body and its traditional ornaments – clothing, makeup, hairstyle, jewelry.” Painted, historically, has the meaning “covered with makeup, esp. to excess.” Pound’s use of the word is meant to imply that the aesthetics of the previous generation (read meter and rhyme) were effeminate, painted, and garish. The blogger Mike Chaser neatly sums up Pound’s manifesto in his post “Chick Lit?“:

In “A Retrospect” from 1918, Ezra Pound states his desire to produce a new, masculine poetry that is “harder and saner,” “nearer the bone,” and “free from [the] emotional slither” that, in his estimation, characterized the effeminate verse of the genteel nineteenth century.

Just as poetry itself is associated with the feminine, even in Shakespeare’s time, the insulting approbation, effeminate, was used by other modernist poets (including W.C. Williams) to differentiate (or elevate) their own efforts as more masculine (and therefore more respectable). The Ciceronian and Senecan divide was (and is) as alive as ever.

  • With that in mind, it’s breathtakingly ironic when self-professed feminists like Adrienne Rich proclaim their feminism by writing free verse – asserting that form in poetry (meter and rhyme) are oppressive patriarchal contrivances. Such immature and self-serving pronouncements merely reinforce the gendered biases which they are supposedly rejecting. It had been better and more honest if Rich had simply admitted that she lacked the talent to be a “good formalist”, rather than hide behind a rationalization.

McDonald closes his discussion of the feminine and masculine in language with a passage from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus:

.     .    .   I prithee now, my son,
Go to them, with this bonnet in they hand,
And thus far having stretch’d it (here be with them),
Thy knee bussing the stones (for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ignorant
More learned than the ears), waving thy head,
Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling: or say to them,
Thou art their soldier, and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves, but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou hast power and person.

The immediate relevance of this passage is found in its grammatical structure, particularly the contrast with Coriolanus’s masculine style.

Even if the passage is punctuated so as to divide into two sentences, there is no break in thought. The length and the syntactical involutions suggest the association of women and copia: the paratactic, additive form of the plea, supported and extended as it is by the participles, connotes the endlessness of female speech, the ungoverned tongue familiar from the misogynist tradition; at the same time, the hypotactic intrusions and parenthesis attest to the indirections and potential waywardness of women and their words. Metrically, the expectations of regularity established by the pentameter are frustrated by the liberty and variety of the phrasing: the semantic demands and wayward rhythmic drive introduce disruptions that poke holes in the order of the line and threaten a kind of aural chaos. (…)

Coriolanus, then, presents a contest of styles, with each side sexually marked. The Baconian, phallic position informs the laconic speech of Coriolanus, who flees from words. Volumnia, on the other hand, embodies Ciceronian loquacity and indirection. (pp. 64-65)

Compare Volumnia’s statement that Coriolanus “hast not the soft way” with Ezra Pound’s emphatic demand for a poetry and language that is harder and “and that will be as much like granite as it can be”. In case the implication isn’t obvious, Pound, like Shakespeare, drives it home. The “force” of a more masculine language will “lie in its truth”. The inescapable corollary is the that feminine language is the language of deception. (It amazes me how little the terms of the debate have changed over 400 years.) To what degree the generations of free verse poets (who followed Pound) internalized Pound’s language is open to debate. But the tendency, as with Adrienne Rich, to rationalize ones aesthetics (ones likes and dislikes) in gender specific terms has never gone away. For Adrienne Rich, form, rhyme and meter are too patriarchal (read masculine).  Pound, on the other hand, considers the same tradition too effeminate. Go figure.

  • Image above right: Venturia at the feet of Coriolanus. Notice how the artist portrays the women. They kneel subserviently and obsequiously.  Coriolanus may be trying to lift the woman or push her away. His gesture is ambiguous. He is portrayed as a man of action (reinforced by the seemingly indifferent soldier who accompanies him and seems impatient to move on). The women are creatures of language – they resort to complaint and pleading.

Shakespeare’s maturity

According to McDonald, Shakespeare eventually rejects the notion of poetry as effeminate and unworthy. While Shakespeare uses Coriolanus to more or less dramatize the debate which was swirling around him,  Antony & Cleopatra, according to McDonald, represents a dramatic resolution. He writes:

The final movement, from Antony’s suicide to Caesar’s eulogy, may be considered a bridge between the tragedies and the romances because it attests to Shakespeare’s developing attitude toward fictional [feminine] language. Cleopatra seems to have occupied Shakespeare’s imagination, making a great gap in Plutarch’s tale by inserting herself into, and thereby transforming what might have been simply a tragedy of Antony. She not only memorializes Antony in a virtuosic act of poetic [feminine] construction  but also stages her own spectacular end by a creative manipulation of costume, setting, and words [the emphasis is my own].  The represented death of the historical female is for Shakespeare the birth of the fictional Cleopatra…

McDonald goes on to quote from Suffocating Mothers, p. 177

By locating Antony’s heroic manhood within Cleopatra’s vision of him, Shakespeare attempts in effect to imagine his way beyond this impasse [the impasse between masculine and feminine language].

This imaginative union of the masculine and the feminine helps to account for Shakespeare’s re-conceived attitude towards words, dramatic mode, and the theatrical enterprise itself.

Translation: The feminine fiction of Cleopatra’s poetic vision immortalizes the masculine facts of Antony’s deeds.

and the immaturity of the other 2,ooo years…

Shakespeare’s artistic equilibrium made no lasting impression on the generations that followed. Consider the following contemporary article (2007) by Douglas Wilson, entitled “The Loss of Poetry“. It begins:

The causes are not easy to identify, but poetry has fallen on hard times.
Poetry today huddles in its prescribed little ghettoes – the sentimentalism of greeting cards and cupboard poetry, the small clutch of arcane poetry journals with a circulation of thirteen, self-absorbed adolescents scribbling pages of navel-gazing free verse, nationally-ignored poet laureates, and that about covers the world of poetry.

What is the alternative to sentimentalism, self-absorption and navel-gazing? Wilson tells us:

…if we are Christians, we need to learn… [that] our understanding of revelation will continue to be truncated… until we give ourselves to the recovery of poetry.
[A] great problem has been the gradual feminization of poetry. This is not mentioned as a criticism of women with a poetic gift. Rather, rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality. An essential part of this is making a place for masculine poetry, and the fact that masculine poetry seems oxymoronic to us now illustrates the problem nicely.
The upshot is that men no longer lead through poetry; they merely put up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives. When we think of poetry we think of cowslips and dewdrops, and various forms of moon Juning. We no longer think of Beowulf among “ancient kings and the glory they cut for themselves, swinging mighty swords!” We no longer think of David, a warrior king, singing psalms of piercing strength and loveliness. We think rather of a Romantic poet, wandering lonely as a cloud.

Through his definition of masculine poetry (or language), we can tease out his definition of feminine poetry and language (which is necessarily defined as the opposite); and his definition is almost identical to the attitudes of the medieval Christian writers. Wilson (like Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Augustine) defines masculine poetry as a human phenomena, a  poetry concerned  “with the primary, with essence, with form, with unity”. And like the early Christian theologians, he defines “the feminine with the secondary, the accidental, the material”. Feminine poetry doesn’t reflect “broad reality“.

Masculine poetry leads. Feminine poetry “puts up with the various forms of poetry that may briefly touch their lives”. Feminine poetry lulls and beguiles with images of the material and ephemeral “cowslips and dewdrops”, while masculine poetry contends with (what Wilson considers) the universal and lasting – ancient kings (status), glory (reputation), mighty swords (conquest), and the psalms of piercing strength (Wilson was surely  aware of the sexual suggestiveness in his choice of words – the insinuation of masculine sexual conquest).

Wilson’s exhortation could have been written 2,000 years ago or it could have been written during Shakespeare’s day. In either case, it would have been warmly received.

And it’s not that the division of masculine and feminine isn’t a useful division or that these terms don’t represent real and natural differences between the two halves of the human population, but that the feminine is so often construed as the negative (or the lesser of the two). But the masculine voice is just as replete with negatives (if that’s the focus) — empty bombast, vanity, boorishness, pretentiousness, and all the attendant preoccupations with station, rank and reputation. Propagandist poetry could be considered masculine poetry – the poetry of nationalism, colonialism, and chauvinism.

My own observation is so obvious as to be trite: The greatest poets, whether male or female, seem to synthesize what is best in both the masculine and feminine tradition. It’s a wonder that it bears repeating.

29 responses

  1. Patrick,

    Excellent article as usual. Intriguing stuff. This is my first exposure to these ideas and I am trying to make sense of it all. I am especially intrigued by your critique of Douglas Wilson. I read his article and found it lacking. His explanations seemed incomplete. But I couldn’t understand why you said that Wilson “defines masculine poetry as a human phenomenon” when he actually said, “rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality.” Isn’t his statement similar to what you are saying in your final paragraph about the synthesis of the masculine and feminine traditions?

    After reading your article, I am not convinced by Wilson’s statement that “a great problem has been the gradual feminization of poetry. But what is the nature of his failure to understand the problem? I’m not sure that his article is detailed enough to make that evident. It did seem like you were trying to decipher his meaning via implications of what he stated and I agree that what is not said is also important. For instance, Wilson fails to mention that poetry is able to get at the paradoxes of human existence, that it can hold feminine and masculine in tension.

    It is difficult to tell (from what he has written here) if he is more concerned about the state of poetry or the state of the Christian man’s perception of poetry. They are, of course, not the same thing. And I agree with you that his own perception may be tilted to see the feminine as somehow less than the masculine. Perhaps I could appreciate his points about poetry better if he had simply noted the ways popular “greeting card” poetry diminishes the culture without making it an issue of femininity versus masculinity.

    As a Christian, I want to give Wilson the benefit if I can. I think his concern about the failures of Christian men to lead is legitimate. Christianity calls men to lead by serving. The main place they are to do this is in the home and with their wives. They ought to be comfortable enough in their own male skin that they can use their strength to embrace and serve the femininity of their wives. And they ought to recognize where their wives have strengths that surpass their own. They ought to love their wives in such a way as to help empower them to manifest their feminine gifts and abilities. Their roles are different, but they are of equal value in God’s sight.

    Poets ought to reflect this valuing in their poetry. “It’s a wonder that it bears repeating” only because it is a wonder how dull we continue to be in terms of understanding ourselves and the world we live in. That it needs to be repeated often, there is no doubt. Thank you for doing so.


    • I couldn’t understand why you said that Wilson “defines masculine poetry as a human phenomenon” when he actually said, “rightly understood, poetry is a human phenomenon and should reflect that broad reality.”

      (I was making an assumption which might not be correct.) The gist of his article concerns how poetry should be “rightly” written. He frames “rightly” as more masculine. So… I’m assuming that “rightly understood” means “rightly written” (which means more masculine). So, if poetry, rightly understood, wants to reflect the broad reality of the human phenomena, it needs to be more masculine and less feminine. That, at least, is how I understood his argument. :-)


    • It is difficult to tell (from what he has written here) if he is more concerned about the state of poetry or the state of the Christian man’s perception of poetry.

      I forgot to respond to this….

      Another possibility is that he is describing how a Christian man should write poetry. Christianity is was turned into a patriarchal religion early in the first milleneum (occurring after the destruction of the Gnostics according to what I’ve read). What interested me was how Wilson’s rhetoric was virtually unchanged from the rhetoric of Christian men writing hundreds of years ago. I’m not sure he is even aware of it. Is it just part of being male? – this idea that masculine is positive, feminine is negative? Or is it also something Christian men absorb from the religion? I can’t claim to know.


  2. There also seems to be a general division in the West between masculine virtue (from the Latin virtu, meaning “manly”, derived from vir, “man”) and the feminine aesthetic. Goethe makes an interesting inversion of this in the last lines of Faust II.

    Of late I have been writing formal verse, including formal verse plays (blank verse and, mostly, heroic couplets). Is this an embracing of the feminine? What would one make of the fact that many of these plays (and poems) have a strong religious element — something absent in my free verse juvenalia?


    • Thanks for the comment Troy. I had forgotten about the root of virtu and probably would have mentioned it.

      What would one make of the fact that many of these plays (and poems) have a strong religious element — something absent in my free verse juvenalia?

      A sexual identity crisis? :-)


  3. Literally nobody who knows me would ever think such a thing of me. :-) I’m so comfortably heterosexual that there’s not a homophobic bone in my body. Which may explain too why I’m comfortable with integrating masculine-feminine/virtue-aesthetics.

    I do wonder why there seems to be such a strong connection between formalism and religion, while free verse seems more secular. Milan Kundera says he doesn’t like lyrical poetry because the regular rhythm reminds him of his heart beat, which reminds him of death. May that have something to do with the connection?


    • I do wonder why there seems to be such a strong connection between formalism and religion, while free verse seems more secular.

      The reason is straightforward. It’s the same reason so much classical music and art is associated with religion. Religion was far, far more culturally pervasive prior to the 20th century (and a primary benefactor of art & music) – when formal poetry was the dominant verse form. If free verse had been predominant during these centuries, then free verse would be associated with religion and Milan Kundera would be twittering that he didn’t like free verse because the lack of rhythm reminded him of a missing heartbeat, which reminded him of death.


    • Not sure I buy that answer. I think there are good reasons why formal poetry the world over preceded free verse. Those reasons are likely to be biological than directly connected to religion, but the ancient naturalness of both seem to be connected to each other.

      On the other hand, free verse and the non(anti)-formalist verse that followed seem to be distinctly secular in man made-and-therefore-unnatural fashion. The anti-formalists all argued (absurdly) that formal verse was antidemocratic, indeed, elitist — while their verse (which the masses hated, loving formal verse) was democratic and anti-elitist. Of course, the opposite was in fact true. People prefer lyrical rock, country, and rap songs to surrealist, LANGUAGE, and postmodern poetry. With the addition of such music especially, formal verse seems to tap into a deep Dionysian element that 20th century free verse and other anti-formalist poetry discards completely. Formal verse seems to tap into the very rhythms of the universe — including our mental/neural universe — which makes it deeply religious in its experience. This is something free verse, etc. cannot create, whatever other interesting elements they may have. In this sense non-formalist poetry is deeply secular insofar as it cannot connect us to those deep rhythms which we describe as religious.

      In other words, it would have been impossible for Kundera to make that comment. :-)


    • I think there are good reasons why formal poetry the world over preceeded free verse. Those reasons are likely to be biological than directly connected to religion…

      I think you may have misread my answer. I wouldn’t suggest that the reason formal verse preceded free verse was directly connected to religion. The development of meter and rhyme, to judge by what remains, preceded religion. The earliest record of meter and rhyme comes from Egyptian and, later, Chinese poetry. The poems are gloriously secular and they were meant to be sung to (probably) popular songs (hence, the meter and rhyme). Poetry gradually severed its ties with music. That is, poetry went from being song lyrics to literary works. However, poets retained the meter and rhyme ground in the rhythm and repetition of music. I wrote a couple of posts on the subject: But is it Poetry? & The Art of Rhyme & Meter. The first post is basically drawn from the second. My point is that traditional poetry traces its roots to music (in that sense, perhaps, you could call it biological). The roots of free verse are in prose and the printed page – a genre and technology that exploded during the 20th century.

      With that in mind, you rightly (in your answer to me and your post at your own site – Secular Free Verse vs. Religious Formal Verse) recognize the link between traditional verse and music (lyrical rock, country and rap). Language Poetry (which does have its fans) is an almost entirely literary creation. Language Poetry is, as I have written elsewhere, a completely different genre.

      As to traditional poetry and religion, my only point was that because religion was so pervasive prior to the 20th century, that pervasiveness was inevitably reflected in the various arts of the day. For that reason, perhaps, modern readers make a false association between traditional verse and religion. Similarly, nearly all of Bach’s music is sacred, but the roots of his musical style are rooted in the dance forms of secular music (which didn’t go unnoticed by his annoyed ecclesiastical employers).

      P.S. Your fingers tripped over “preceded”, “therefore” “lyrical rock”, “country” and some other words. If you would like me to correct, let me know (and check your post). :-)


  4. Yes, please, fix. This is what happens when you try to post when working night audit at a hotel.

    While I certainly agree that poetry has its origins in song (The Iliad and The Odyssey were sung, after all), it seems likely that songs were connected to religion as well. Of course, if you want to get right down to it, songs and dancing were both likely connected to mating calls and sexual demonstrations (as they still do now). At the same time, I am convinced that the emergence of language gave rise to the simultaneous emergence of religion. Which may be why the earliest narratives are religious texts. This double origin of poetry — in sexual music and language-giving-rise-to-religion is probably why there is so much tension with religion and sex in poetry.


    • it seems likely that songs were connected to religion as well

      Why does it “seem likely”? That is a little different than saying something is actually true. As it stands, the historical records disagree with you. Here’s what National Geographic has to say about the recently discovered Egyptian poems:

      A group of love poems have been found in an excavated workers’ village on the outskirts of the Valley of Kings, where many pharaohs are entombed. The verses allow poetry lovers and Egyptophiles alike to tap into the emotional side of Egyptian daily life. “People tend to assume all ancient Egyptian writing is religious, so the secular nature of these songs and of much other poetry continue to surprise readers,” Parkinson said.

      The same is true for the earliest Chinese poems. They are not religious. None of the classical Roman or Greek poems are “religious”. Homer and Virgil’s great epics aren’t religious (and are said to be drawn from much older tales). When Ovid wasn’t writing the Metamorphosis (about Gods he didn’t believe in) he was writing erotica. Beowulf isn’t religious. Chaucer’s tales are not religious but are drawn, in part, from the erotic tales of Boccaccio.

      The greatest poetry of the Bible, The Song of Solomon, is not, in fact, religious. It’s a ravishingly erotic love song and it’s a wonder that it survived the literary purges of Constantine. What history tells us is that the earliest songs were not connected to religion. I don’t know why. Maybe because of the iconoclastic and ascetic strain that runs through so many early religions?

      At the same time, I am convinced that the emergence of language gave rise to the simultaneous emergence of religion.

      I’m not sure why you would be “convinced”. The emergence of language is lost to history. Forever. Such an assertion must remain sheer conjecture at best, and wishful thinking at worst.

      Which may be why the earliest narratives are religious texts.

      The earliest narratives are not, in fact, religious texts. They are essentially pour-quoi tales. All creation myths are essentially pour-quoi tales. The surviving narratives of the American Indians (and of all aboriginal cultures) seek to explain the world’s existence and mysteries. But these shouldn’t be confused with “religious” narratives. Most, if not all, religious texts (such as the Bible) are really collections of much older fables and tales.

      At the very least, the term “religious” means something quite unique in Western culture. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it:

      The religious category is not transhistorical or universal; rather, Daniel Dubuisson writes that “what the West and the history of religions in its wake have objectified under the name religion is … something quite unique, which could be appropriate only to itself and its own history.”[8] Other languages, even though they may have terms which overlap with “religion”, often use them to mean different things. For example, the word used to translate “religion” into modern Indo-Aryan languages is dharma, which means “law”. Throughout classical South Asia, the study of law consisted of concepts such as penance through piety and ceremonial as well as practical traditions. Medieval Japan at first had a similar union between “imperial law” and universal or “Buddha law”, but these later became independent sources of power.[9] The use of other terms, such as obedience to God or islam in the “religion” given that name, are likewise grounded in particular histories and vocabularies.

      Poetry and the oral tradition vastly predate “religion” as it is understood in the West. This, at least, is what history shows us.

      If one is content to drop the word religion and instead search for links between song, spirituality and mysticism, that might be a more promising avenue.


    • I would call that an incredibly narrow view of religion. A very Western take on it, if you will. If you take a comparative religion class, what are you going to learn about? The supernatural belief systems of various peoples, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, the Aztec religion, Taoism, Hinduism, tribal religions, etc. There are various traditions within these religions, which include rationalist, spiritual, and mystical traditions — but these are all subsumed under religion. This would, of course, include creation myths which, until recently, have been a significant part of every religion. To the extent those have been separated out, that is indeed a recent, Western phenomenon recognized by noone else.

      Now, as for the connection between the emergence of language and religion, of course that is conjecture. But I think it is a supportable conjectsure, as I discussed in my dissertation. The section in which I discuss this can be found here:

      As for the Iliad, the Odyssey, etc., everything I have read supports those being religious texts. Certainly Plato seemed to think they were (eveen if he didn’t particularly care for them). The Song of Solomon supports by contention that there has always been an uneasy connection between the sexual and religious elements of poetry (and language origins).

      Beowulf and Chaucer are much later examples of poetry, with the latter coming up on the Renaissance. But I would disagree that Beowulf isn’t religious. To me it’s clearly an attempt by someone on the transition between German paganism and Christianity trying to deal with that transition and to make sense of older pagan traditions in light of Christianity.

      Like I said, ancient poems were either religious or about love — or both, simultaneously. Love rituals are made religious in every culture — with marriage being the most obvious example. The source of poetry/song is in the mating call and the origins of grammatical/narrative language leading to a foundations/teleological view of the world and, thus, to the need to explain origins and ends well beyond our personal lives.

      We also forget that we make separations — religious and secular — that other cultures, especially in the past, did not make. This division itself is a Western creation, and shouldn’t be imposed on other cultures, who do not see the world so divided up.


    • I would call that an incredibly narrow view of religion.

      I don’t see that as a negative but as a positive.

      The modern usage of the word religion only began to develop around 500 years ago. Applying the term to practices before that time, especially a thousand or two thousand years ago, is universally done but misleading. At the very least, the word should be used with numerous qualifications and provisos (and among scholars, it is). So when you say that my view is particularly western, I would counter that it is not me but, in fact, you. You are applying an anachronistic western concept to cultures who didn’t have a word for the concept. So, for instance, when you write that “Plato seemed to think” the Iliad and Odyssey were religious texts, I would have to ask: Says who? The word “religious”, (or the concept as we understand it) didn’t even exist in Plato’s day.

      As to separations between religious and secular. Again, it’s not me, but you who imposes this concept on other cultures, current and ancient, simply by your usage of the term “religious”. The word cannot exist without the implication that there is also something which is “non-religious” or secular. Again, when speaking of non-Western and ancient cultures, I prefer the use of other terms. So, I don’t necessarily disagree with some of your broader assertions, just your choice of terminology.


  5. It seems the term goes back a few thousand years:

    Click to access on_rel.pdf

    Plato would of course have referred to “muthos”, or “myth.” Specifically a myth of the gods.

    Just because we have become dualists in the West, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is. We make contrasts others do — and others make contrasts we don’t.


    • It seems the term goes back a few thousand years

      No it doesn’t. Inasmuch as the root of the word can be traced to Latin, and inasmuch as any word has roots that can be traced back 1000, 2000, and (rarely) 3000 years, that’s not the same as saying “the term” goes back a “few” thousand years. A “term” is defined as “a word or expression used for some particular thing”. In the case of religion, as you are using it, that “term” only goes back about 500 years. The root word for “religion” meant something different 2000 years ago and would not have been understood in the modern sense or usage. And yes, Plato would have referred to muthos (I don’t know the exact word) but it doesn’t stand to reason that he would have used the modern word religion or religious when describing contemporaneous works of literature (or would have agreed to that usage).

      As to dualities. My point is that it is you using the word, and since you are a Westerner, you are making a distinction between something which is religious as opposed to not-religious. This reflects a duality which the given culture might not share. It’s for this reason that I prefer other terms (or words) when describing literature like the Iliad.


    • You are correct — I should not have used the word “term”, as that is incorrect. The term only goes back a few hundred years. But the fact that the word “religion” goes back to a word that means “bound by law” speficially, “bound by law to (the) god(s),” to use the term “religion” is still valid according to the quote you gave.

      I used the word “religion” in the dualistic sense only because we now make that distinction in Western culture. But when we talk about other cultures, especially from other times, we need to be careful not to necessarily make that distinction. I was observing that increasing secularization has seemed to result in increasing use of prose vs. verse (I would call most free verse prose with line breaks — Whitman being an exception). I wonder how coincidental that is.


    • I was observing that increasing secularization has seemed to result in increasing use of prose vs. verse (I would call most free verse prose with line breaks — Whitman being an exception). I wonder how coincidental that is.

      This isn’t something I’ve ever explored with any thoroughness, but my first response would be skeptical: correlation does not imply causation.

      I was thinking about my previous comment on the pervasiveness of religion. I’m not sure ‘pervasive’ is the right word. In certain ways, religion has only become more strident as its authority has waned. I suspect that if one were to survey modern poetry (which is more or less free verse), one would find just as much religious subject matter as in prior centuries. What’s changed, perhaps, is the willingness of publishers to publish the stuff.


  6. Certainly correlation does not necessarily imply causation. But it does imply that it ought to be looked into. The correlation may be coincidental (such as the bogus connection between autism and vaccines — autism first becomes obvious at around the time the vaccines in question are given, but it turns out that autism rates aren’t actually going up, but are going up at the same rate as “mental retardation” rates are going down, meaning we are getting things redefined is all), but it behooves one to look into it to find out if it is mere coincidence. Could be an interesting dissertation topic for someone.

    You are right that religion becomes more strident as its authority wanes. We saw it during the Renaissance, and we are seeing it now with Islam.

    I have noticed that contemporary published formalist verse is much more religious than is the free verse — or, “spiritual,” if you will (though I greatly perfer not to use the term “spiritual” as it too often implies mostly made up contemporary nonsense deisgned to replace the hole left in many people by the absence of religion).


    • I have noticed that contemporary published formalist verse is much more religious than is the free verse

      What verse? Published where? I subscribe to Measure and can’t say that the verse is more religious. I would have to see some evidence, a survey of some kind, before accepting any link between religiosity and formal verse.

      As to the term spiritual: I suspect some readers might respond that the term “religious” too often implies all that contemporary nonsense lacking spirituality. :-)


  7. I get Measure too, and there’s a lot of religious poetry there — and poeople who have written and published a lot (if you look at their bios in the back).

    Nevertheless, that’s why I said that it might be a good dissertation project. :-)


    • If you find out that your surmise is correct (through the work of your graduate students of course) then let me know.

      I’ll always go where the evidence goes.

      Beyond that, our conversation encourages me to write a post on the subject of religious poetry. How would you define religious poetry?


    • Wish I had the time top investigate everything I’d like to investigate. That’s just not that high on my list. Who knows, though — might get to it one day.

      I would define religious poetry as any poetry that expresses reverence.


  8. Pingback: Poets, Poetry & the Perfection of Women « PoemShape

  9. “Feminine beauty is a youthful folly”
    Singular point of view.
    I appreciate the research that you have put into this article, Mr Gillespie.
    As an aside, Milan Kundera feels rhythm and metre remind him of heartbeat and so death. But isn’t it the heartbeat that is keeping you alive? If there was no heartbeat, then, you are dead!
    And is it not death that we are trying to overcome metaphorically with literature?


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