By Christopher Hall
Wonder is the beginning of wisdom. - Socrates The reason why the philosopher is compared to the poet is that both are concerned with wonders. For the myths with which the poets deal are composed of wonders, and the philosophers themselves were moved to philosophize as a result of wonder. – St. Thomas Aquinas
We want the boys at Western Academy to be wise, and in order for them to be wise they must first conceive of the world as miraculous and wondrous, and poetry helps them do this. By “miraculous” I don’t mean full of fairy dust and arbitrary pseudo-explanations. I mean a sense that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God,” to quote Gerard Manley Hopkins; the world is not just a concatenation of brute facts, but a marvel and wonder to behold. No one who wanted to write poem about a mountain would settle with a list of the stones and minerals of which it is made, because there’s more than that making the mountain, and that is, ultimately, the idea of the mountain in the mind of God.
The boys’ experience of wonder and the miraculous incites them to knowledge, but this knowledge does not simply explain the phenomena of the world, which it relates to the boy who knows. Rather, true knowledge occurs when the boy interiorizes the reality of the sensed phenomena. A fact, on its own, cannot properly be interiorized, because it cannot be related to. It’s just there. But truth is relatable; the boy can be there with it. Poetry interiorizes, as well, and poetry is its own kind of knowledge, what St. Thomas called poetica scientia.
Personally, when I write poetry, a good part of it comes from a desire to participate more fully in the world around me, by getting myself into the things about which I write, and by getting those things into myself. Keats said that when he writes about a sparrow, he becomes the sparrow. To memorize a poem is to internalize it, and its truth, in a special way. It is not to “explain” the poem, though it is to know it better, and this goes a long way for providing the ground for explanation, should such be desired. We have the boys memorize poems because we want them to interiorize them, their beauty and truth.
One poem that has haunted me ever since I first read it is Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”, which ends with the couplet, “A poem should not mean / but be.” Now, MacLeish isn’t saying a poem ought to be gibberish or incomprehensible. Meaning is an odd thing, when you think about it. For starters, what does meaning mean? Socrates and Aquinas would not have talked about meaning in the somewhat worried way we moderns do. I doubt there is any word that precisely captures the contemporary conception of meaning. For them, being was a kind of meaning: existence has meaning already, you don’t have to invest it with such.
Existence is purposeful by definition. This truth is bound up with the transcendentals, watchwords at Western Academy. I don’t think we often enough stop to reflect on the proposition of the transcendentals, though. The proposition, briefly, is this: whatever is shines forth as a unity, as good, as true, and as beautiful, precisely because it is. That mountain I mentioned before is a whole unto itself, even if it is composed, and this is why a list of the stones and minerals out of which it is composed would be entirely inadequate as a poem about it. A poem is its own unity, and its being is its goodness, its truth, and its beauty. Memorizing a poem allows a boy to hold its being and reality in his intellect and in his heart, and increases his capacity for poetica scientia, that intuitive sense of the miraculous things of the world, in which wisdom begins, and with which it is shot through.