Friday, September 12, 2008

The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet: Plato and the American Renaissance (Pt. 1)

James Kibler, who teaches my Southern Literature course, has assigned William Gilmore Simms' Poetry and the Practical, a forgotten treatise by a nearly forgotten poet. When Simms is remembered at all, it's as a rabidly pro-slavery ideologue and the author of The Sword and the Distaff, one of the first novels written in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet Simms was a true antebellum Renaissance man, a trial lawyer and state congressman who wrote more than two thousand poems in the W.C. Bryant mode and many now-forgotten novels that echo Edgar Allan Poe (who once called Simms America's greatest novelist). I have not read these novels, so I can't agree or disagree with Poe, but Poetry and the Practical is at the very least an interesting and original argument.

Kibler himself wrote the introduction to the book, and in it and in class he spends a good deal of time arguing for Simms' philosophical affinities with Poe. He overstates his case, in my opinion. Poe, after all, famously says in "The Philosophy of Composition" that "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem," rejecting moral readings and anticipating Oscar Wilde, the decadents, and their off-quoted "art for art's sake." But Simms wrests Poe's work away from its author's intentions: "Their [poets'] instincts . . . peculiar to their gifts, have always made them, more or less willingly, so many moral teachers." No, Simms sounds less like Poe and more like another "P"--Plato, whom I've written about so often that even I am sick of him. (Maybe this will be the last time he comes up. Probably not.)

I've been kicking around the subject of this post for a good long time, and Simms merely provides me with an excuse to finally write it up. The bulk of Poetry and the Practical is a Sidney-esque defense of art--he actually takes the difficult position that the poet is the most practical of all men. Plato, of course, is at the very best ambivalent about art; his theory of forms will not allow him to praise mimetic art, that copy of a copy of a copy, and poetry, built as it is on emotion rather than logic, disturbs him. He excludes the poet from his Republic on the grounds that he
can use words and phrases as a medium to paint a picture of any craftsman, though he knows nothing except how to represent him, and the metre and rhythm and music will persuade people who are as ignorant as he is . . . Strip [poetry] of its poetic colouring, reduce it to plain prose, and I think you know how little it amounts to. (Republic 601A-B)
And so it baffled me for a long time as to why Simms' fellow Romantics so revere Plato. Emerson is typical in his praise: "Plato is philosophy, and philosophy, Plato,--at once the glory and the shame of mankind, since neither Saxon nor Roman have availed to add any idea to his categories." Emerson (and the other Romantics) classes Plato as a philosopher rather than a poet, but he also calls him "almost literature" and a "great artist," and he clearly believes the Greek to be on his side. But Emerson, Coleridge, and the rest would be left shivering outside the gates of the Republic. What gives?

Well, for one thing, Plato isn't as consistent in his critique/rejection of art as we might assume him to be. Socrates loves Homer--who for Greeks of the era was not only the composer of the national epic but also a religious figure. He quotes the blind sage more than he quotes anyone else, and when he does so, it's so he can appeal to his authority. Further, Plato dedicates an entire dialogue to something resembling literary criticism. In the dialogue bearing his name, we meet Ion, a rhapsode. Trevor J. Saunders explains in his introduction to the Penguin edition:
What did rhapsodes do? Gorgeously attired, they recited the works of Homer and other poets, apparently in some sort of chant, and usually without the musical accompaniment employed by earlier Homeric singers. Their performances were dramatic: they threw themselves into the part of whatever character Homer was depicting, and acted his scenes.
Additionally, their acting has an interpretative/critical element to it. Socrates classes the rhapsode with the artist, and here, at least, that's a compliment; after all, the rhapsode ends up as an intermediary between the Author and the Reader, and as such he operates by a "divine power" (533D).

Now: Saunders claims a dialogic consistency here--that is, he says that Plato uses the rhapsode to criticize the poet, rather than using the poet to define the rhapsode:
The question it poses is: "Do poets know what they are talking about?" Socrates, clearly thinks, the answer is "no"; indeed, he believes that poets are ignorant fellows who can write poetry only in a state of madness.
Strictly speaking, Saunders is correct. Socrates says that poetic inspiration can come only when the poet goes out of his head. But Saunders' tone is all wrong. I know nothing about him, but I suspect from his error that he approaches this subject through the Enlightenment, the period in which the fool stopped being holy and started being insane. (There's more to it than that, of course, and you can get it all from Foucault's seminal Madness and Civilization.) As late as the Renaissance, madness was all right; as Shakespeare says, "Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, / Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend / More than cool reason ever comprehends" (A Midsummer Night's Dream V.i.4-6).

Shakespeare, I'll allege, is of one mind with Plato, at least in the Ion. The evidence too difficult to explain away, try as Trevor Saunders might:
All good epic poets recite all that splendid poetry not by virtue of a skill, but in a state of inspiration and possession. The same is true of good lyric poets as well: just as Corybantic worshippers dance without being in control of their senses, so too it's when they are not in control of their senses that the lyric poets compose those fine lyric poems. But once launched into their rhythm and musical mode, they catch a Bacchic frenzy: they are possessed, just like Bacchic women, who when possessed and out of their senses draw milk and honey from rivers--exactly what the souls of the lyric poets do, as they say themselves . . . A poet, you see, is a light thing, and winged and holy, and cannot compose before he gets inspiration and loses control of his senses and his reason has deserted him. No man, so long as he keeps that, can prophesy or compose . . . the god relieves them of their reason, and uses them as his ministers, just as he uses soothsayers and divine prophets--so that we who listen to them may realize that it is not they who say such supremely valuable things as they do, who have not reason in them, but that it is the god himself who speaks, and addresses us through them. (533E-534D)
So it's not poetry that Plato objects to; it's uninspired poetry, poetry written by man instead of by the gods.

With this in mind, the Romantic affection for Plato comes shining through, in ways I will explain in the next edition.

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