I confess that I cannot see much prospect of metaphysical poetry issuing from the liberal or radical political cosmologies of the immediate future. A philosophy which lays under cultivation only the more social emotions and virtues, and which leaves the more private emotions to flourish or languish as weeds, could at best provoke the mental stress and tension of some more tortured Laforgue (ie TSE himself), but could not produce the harmony of the philosophical, the religious and the personal emotion which we find in Dante. TSE The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry p295
In the modern world our outlook begins with the individual perspective, the subjective or the psychological. In the medieval and classical world it began with the objective, external reality, God. This is reflected in philosophy. Descartes may be said to have begun, or marked the beginning of, this new perspective with his cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”. But in fact it had already begun in theology, with the protestant reformation, in which knowledge of God, of reality, began with the individual and his or her response to Scripture. It is worth noting that this individual response on the part of the ordinary believer would have been impossible before the invention of printing: what looks like a philosophical or theological revolution is in fact a technological one. In the Middle Ages knowledge began with God: the knowledge of God and the knowledge which is from God, which he has chosen to reveal to us, both through Scripture and through the gift of reason.
The consequence of this is the perfection that we find in Dante and his contemporaries, including Chaucer and later Shakespeare. This is not a perfection that we find in modern literature. So, what does that perfection consist of? It is the harmony between the inner, personal, subjective emotion and experience, and the intellectual, objective, external truth. In the modern world this harmony is progressively destroyed. The good news is that it has in fact already been restored, but the bad news is that knowledge of this restoration has yet to find its way into wider culture, for understandable reasons. For this restoration is achieved in something called the “Theology of the Body” of Pope John Paul the Second. This was expounded at length and in detail during the first five years of his papacy, during his Wednesday addresses to the faithful gathered at St. Peters.
The Theology of the Body is a revolution in our understanding of ourselves and the universe, as great as that effected in the sixteenth century, although it may take as long for its consequences to be worked through. For the consequences of the reformation and renaissance, the elevation of the individual to absolute authority, has led finally in our times to the sexual revolution and the marginalization of Christianity. The Theology of the Body is Christianity’s reply. It is a direct response to the recent transformation in ideas about human relationships and sexuality, and also in our general understanding of the human body, through developments in biology, medical science and psychology. We might imagine this changed relationship as it is seen in the changing artistic portrayals of the human body, from the classical and medieval, through the renaissance to the modern period, especially Picasso.
This is the intellectual background of literature today. Now, there is a certain type of poetry which relates our sensations, feelings and emotions, the usual subject matter of poetry, to ideas. These ideas may come from theology, philosophy or other spheres, such as the philosophy of love or psychology, but in general they form the intellectual background against which poetry is written. According to T.S. Eliot, this is one of two distinct types of poetry: one which accurately perceives and records the world of sense and feeling, and this one which actually enlarges that world, by bringing ideas into it and finding their sensual or emotional equivalent. This he calls Metaphysical Poetry. Its three great moments are the poetry of the thirteenth century in Italy, led by Dante, the dolcestilnovisti; the seventeenth century in England, led by Donne, the Metaphysical Poets; and the nineteenth century in France, led by Baudelaire, the Symbolists. We might add to this Eliot himself in the twentieth century in London, whose main poetic inspiration came from these groups, especially Jules Laforgue, a follower of Baudelaire, whose poetry is uncannily like Eliot’s own.
In the work of these poets we find the sensual or emotional representation of the intellectual background of their times. In Dante it is a mixture of Thomism, Courtly Love, and the mysticism of St. Bernard and the Victorines. In Donne we find, the intellectual turmoil and confusion of the renaissance and reformation, a very modern idea of love as the union of souls, and the Carmelite mysticism of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. In Baudelaire and Eliot we find the nihilism, debauchery and apostasy of the modern world, together with the beginnings of faith, through the recognition of Sin and Damnation, the necessary prelude to Salvation. In the intellectual background to today’s poetry we find little such drama. But I would like to suggest that we might find it in the Theology of the Body, so potent and poetic are the ideas which we find there. They deal with the deepest desires and needs of human beings, made up as they are of the soul, the intelligent and eternal part of man, and its physical incarnation in the temporal body.
What Metaphysical poetry does is to reveal the harmony or discord between these deepest parts of ourselves, our inner emotional and spiritual life, and the philosophical or other beliefs which we entertain. What the Theology of the Body does is to restore that harmony after so many centuries of discord. And it does so via a metaphor, an erotic metaphor. The love between a man and a woman, the fact that they are made for one another, that the one does not make sense without the other, that their bodies and personalities, their essential identities suggest or require the existence of the other, is likened to the relationship between God and the soul. The pure self-giving love of the Creator is continually on offer to the soul, all it has to do is to respond in kind, with the gift of self in return, and it will enter into the divine life of holiness, joy and peace for ever. In this sense the love of God is erotic, and so is like the love between a man and a woman. And this is no accident, for this is the way that we were made, in the earthly paradise, which is still available to us now, through the atonement.
The fact that our bodies are made for one another is the best way we have of understanding that our souls were made for God. This is made clear in the Bible in the Song of Songs, in St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on that book, and in the poetry of St. John of the Cross, where it made its impression on John Paul. It had also made its impression on Dante. Indeed the very motion of his life’s work, from the Vita Nuova, a series of poems connected by prose about the New Life said to have begun when he fell in love with Beatrice, to the Divine Comedy, where Beatrice now symbolizing Theology, and Virgil symbolized Philosophy, leads him to the ultimate good and happiness, the vision of God, where he is escorted the final steps of the way by St. Bernard himself, representing Contemplation. For St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that “The essence of happiness consists in an act of the intellect” which is the contemplation of the whole truth, objective reality as disclosed by divine and earthly knowledge. And it is Dante’s love for a woman which leads him to this.