Vital Signs

Erato in the Throes

"The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. . . . Our religion . . . has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion today is its unconscious poetry."

So wrote Matthew Arnold in 1880. But would he say the same today? Would he still argue that the "fact" of religion is failing, when religion stubbornly refuses to disappear, from Russia to Main Street? And would he see a "future" in poetry, as a substitute for religion, at a time when it is increasingly banished from the life of the young, carried by poets nobody reads—"laureate" though they may be—and nothing but products of racial ego and the vapidity of the Library of Congress? The poets of our time are perhaps as competent as those of Matthew Arnold's time, but in a very real sense they are irrelevant.

Struggle though she may, Erato has become a nonperson. Ezra Pound, in his The ABC of Reading, noted that music loses its validity if it departs too far from the dance. And so poetry must maintain its connection with the other arts if it is to survive. But those other arts and letters, which once gave us a parallel understanding of three meters of life, are rapidly vanishing,...

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