Philosophical Reflections
In which a philosopher speaks, sometimes without having been asked

Regarding Poetry

by John Ziegler

A friend of mine, a poet, insists on the primacy of what he calls Metaphor in poetic expression. I have reasoned with him over this. But what philosopher dares presume to get inside the mind of a poet?

Thomists are - need to be - well acquainted with the doctrine of Analogy in so far as it explains, as well as one can explain, the very core of metaphysical, even philosophical, even, I must say, of common-sense, insight into reality. Indeed, that is true also of the natural sciences, but with the notable exception of mathematics (because mathematics does not see into reality, merely a splendid facet of it).

Now, one versed in the philosophical doctrine of Analogy refers to the higher form of analogy as Analogy of Proportionality. And he subdivides this, into Metaphoric and Proper analogy. Of these, he regards metaphor as the inferior member of the division. And he is right, for his philosophical (or metaphysical) purpose of explanation. Thus, it is a metaphor if I refer to the wildly agitated sea as ‘angry’, because the sea is not properly speaking angry, as is a snarling dog, only ‘metaphorically’ so. On the other hand, when I say that sensation is knowledge and that understanding is knowledge, whilst there is a fundamental, indeed infinite, difference between them, they are both knowledge properly speaking. And in either of these ways, metaphorically speaking and properly speaking, analogy enables me to compare things through knowledge. And this, without the aid of that lesser form of analogy called Analogy of Attribution, according to which we call Political not only the affairs of the City, and Politics itself as a science, but man inasmuch as it is connatural to him, those men who largely engage themselves in it, their works, their wise judgments, and even scandals concerning their malfeasance.

My friend the poet hears me when I expound these things, and allows that it is all very well to analyse metaphor thus, and to place it inferior to Proper analogy; although superior to Attributive analogy, provided I am speaking philosophically. He insists, however, that in poetry Metaphor is everything. I can reply philosophically to that by saying that of course metaphors and similes — Aristotle remarks in the Rhetoric that a simile is a mitigated metaphor — are tremendously important in poetry:

My love is like a red, red, rose....
(Burns)

Where would poetry be without them? Metaphors have been done to uncanny effect:

The iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve
(Shakespeare)

wherein there is much more than metaphor: the very sound of a large bell is in the words; and more — the connotations of ‘iron’, as in expressions like ‘will of iron’, tell more yet. All this, however, I think my friend would include under ‘Metaphor’; not only the clearly metaphoric ‘iron tongue of midnight’.

There is:

Far along,
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among,
Leaps the live thunder.
(Byron)

in which there is indeed something of metaphor, but there is more than that. Or:

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
(Tennyson)

in which, too, there is something of metaphor. But there is much more, and not only the connotations. There is told something quite without metaphor in the sense in which a philosopher would analyse it. And yet — although I have not put it to him — I have no doubt at all that my friend would exclaim all the more that it is Metaphoric, and poetic because it is. What is the philosopher to make of this?

Or take this:

What sudden anger's this? How have I reap'd it?
He parted frowning from me, as if ruin
Leap'd from his eyes : so looks the chafed lion
Upon the daring huntsman that has gall'd him;
Then makes him nothing.
(Shakespeare, King Henry VIII)

Now, there is an obvious and elaborate metaphor (or simile) here, comparing the frowning, departing King to a cornered, wounded lion. But there is much more. Obliquely, and in justification of what he has done secretly, the speaker, Wolsey, is comparing himself to a ‘daring huntsman’; asking of the anger ‘how have I reaped it?’ and yet answering in the same breath by saying he has ‘galled him’. Defiance and confusion at once! And he sees his own coming doom — ‘then makes him nothing’. All of that the philosopher might include as what is conveyed under metaphor. And it conveys a great deal. Yet, still, there is even more in that example. There is a certain grandeur in its way of telling us of the human condition, of passions and intentions and confusions. It does that through no philosopher’s metaphor: and yet, to my friend, that, too, is Metaphor, I would be sure.

And is it the complex of metaphors in this, spoken by a character of Synge, that alone makes it hauntingly poetic?

A good saying well spit out is a Christmas fire to my withered heart.

Maritain speaks often of the ‘intuition of being’ as fundamental to the metaphysician. It is not, one might say, immediately clear what Maritain means, either: and one says this as a philosopher listening to a philosopher.

Our intellectual knowledge is contained in concepts. By them we grasp — albeit we barely grasp — essences. And yet we do not grasp. It is a telling criticism of a philosophy to accuse it of being ‘essentialist’; because however well we know essences they are, as it were, static. Knowledge of them in-forms us of what things are; and ignorant we would be without it. But knowing essences, however well, does not tell us whether they are. I may know how to define ‘golden mountain’, but its existence may still elude me. After all, Being is ordered to Be.

Sense contacts existence. That is why it is no surprise that a sensist philosophy, that in current fashion, should supplant an essentialist one, in fashion barely past living memory. But sensist philosophy tries to achieve an impossibility: to know existence, yes, but by repudiating essences. From one extreme of ignorance to another and worse. For so inadequate is it to understanding that it is not, strictly speaking, even capable of articulating its own doctrine.

Sense contacts existence in that experience we name ‘intuition’. Now, we will never appreciate existence intellectually unless we have a certain intellectual experience of it. For to form a concept of it is to essentialise it. But it is necessary, to the exigencies of our intellect, thus to essentialise existence: for otherwise we could not reason about it. But to essentialise it is not to grasp it sufficiently. Existence is the very dynamic of reality, and thus to have a concept of it, a static concept, to essentialise it, is to miss its ‘essential’ character. We can experience, exercise, this dynamic character, but not conceive it. Having a concept is akin to having sight, and we are blind indeed without it: but through judgment we attain existence with the intellect; judgment is like touch, and without it we are indeed ‘out of touch’. It is a certain intellectual quasi-experience of existence while also conceiving essence that Maritain means when he speaks of the ‘intuition of being’. And rightly, he insists that no metaphysician can function without it. For no metaphysician can be ignorant of all the causes, and the causes bear precisely on Be. It is only the mathematician who deals exclusively with the cause that bears directly on essence.


The fine arts are named so, because they are not about means, but ends. Their end is beauty, and beauty as the product of art: something beautiful made. And I say this, despite fashions for the useful and the ugly in the name of fine art. Men have always known it, even though some forget, or worse.

St. Thomas notes that the perception of the beautiful is “by reason of a certain connaturality”. It is not that it is known without a concept, but it is not known entirely through a concept. It requires a certain con-geniality, a certain sharing of self. What belongs to it, what is proper to it, is not precisely conceptual, but a certain experience. It is intuitive.


Consider:

Little flower in the crannied wall,
If I could know you, roots and all
And all in all,
I would know what God and man are.
(Tennyson)

We are here in the perception and the expression of the beautiful. There is something unspeakably lovely said in those lines. We are beyond the philosophical notion of metaphor. We are all but beyond what is even expressible by language. Yet it is expressed by language.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
and the hunter home from the hill.

In those, I think, my friend would say that in a high degree, we have what he would call Metaphor. And yet, I think that he is as powerless to ‘explain’ it as I.


The perception of the beautiful is intuitive and not precisely conceptual. However, poetry is indubitably done with words, whose business is to manifest concepts. That is, poetry, as with all speech, uses concepts. Yet what it expresses is beauty, and that is not expressed in concepts. Paradox!

It is no good claiming that, because of the paradox, poetry never succeeds in expressing the beautiful. Concepts being inadequate, runs this opinion, the poet is never successful. Balderdash! Poetry is used as the ‘standard’ of comparison for the other fine arts: we say that such and such a painting or piece of music is ‘pure poetry’; and to maintain that opinion, then, one would have to maintain that the other fine arts never succeed, either.

The poet succeeds indeed. The opinion that he does not mistakes the material for the formal, the concepts which it uses for the expression itself of the beautiful.

It is not too much, I think, to claim that poetry uses the sayable to utter the unsayable; but what is that but to claim that poetry uses words to express beauty? Poetry is, if you like, beauty said, and beauty said by conceptual speech, for all that might entail a paradox. Language is used, as my friend might say, as a Metaphor for beauty. For poetry is a paradox. Language is inadequate.


Language is indeed inadequate, as becomes clear in translations, translations being notoriously inadequate:

0 salutaris hostia,
Quae caeli pandis ostium,
Bella premunt hostilia.
Da robur, fer auxilium.

Uni trinoque Domino
Sit sempiterna gloria,
Qui vitam sine termino
Nobis donet in patria.
(Aquinas)

It is not possible fully to translate at once the contrast and likeness between ‘hostia’ and ‘hostilia’: ‘sacrificial victim’ and ‘hostile, seeking to victimize’, nor the agreement between ‘gloria’ and ‘patria’, nor the contrast between ‘sempiterna’ and ‘vitam sine termino’: ‘changeless and without limit, as befits God’ and ‘life without a limit, as befits us’. Taken together, ‘robur’ and ‘auxilium’ have a military connotation:

Saving sacrificial victim,
opening widely heaven’s gate,
wars press closely, victim-hungry;
give stalwart aid, bring help to fight.

To the one and three-one Master,
glory changeless, ever more;
may he grant us living, boundless
in the land where we belong.


How does poetry speak? Beauty, according to St. Thomas, is the “splendour of form”, its abundant excellence; so that in a corporeal thing it is the superabundance of form over its matter.

With a beautiful natural thing, such as a mountain view, I am led by what I see to recognise this superabundance, so that at the same time as I view it I contemplate that abundance. Now, the human form is one superabundant over matter, so that there is a certain natural con-geniality between man and what is beautiful. And this leads to a certain benevolent love and that in turn to corresponding emotion. Soon, then, I am engaged sense, emotion, will, and intellect with that one beautiful thing.

With a beautiful artefact, it is similar. I am led to contemplate and experience that superabundance. Nor is it necessary that the artefact remind me of something natural, as does an accurate photograph. Art does not ‘imitate nature’ in that sense, despite what some have theorised. Beauty is simply the resplendence of the form. And as resplendence is inexhaustible, as representations of it are inexhaustible, because being is inexhaustible, then a certain adventurousness and novelty is natural to fine art.

But artefacts (and natural things) appeal differently to different powers. Thus, music gains my aesthetic attention surely first through the emotions, as the plastic arts do through sight. These are their routes to that state of thrall mentioned above, wherein I am more or less fully ‘engaged’. But the route of poetry is via the mind.

Poetry, then, appeals first through the intellect, which is why it uses conceptual speech. I have emphasised ‘conceptual’ speech. For the notion of speech is had analogically not just through the communication of a concept, but in communication, to the mind. In the case of poetry, communication by conceptual speech leads to my perceiving what is not strictly conceived, but together experienced. But then, speech is not confined to the conceptual, either.

What of rhythms, sounds, emotional associations of words? Poetry can make use of other fine arts, even as it makes use of grammar whilst it rules it, or rules while being ruled by regularities such as rhyme. Would it be possible to produce a work of art consisting of the sounds alone of words, divorced from meanings? I think so, just as one can grasp something from a poem in a foreign language, only then it is to the hearer something other than poetry. When such things dominate poetry, then we have the work of another art, much as usually happens when a poem is set to music; although there seems to be no reason, except its difficulty, why a work of multiple art should not be made, as happens with some drama, and to which opera aspires. The point of this is, that while ever such things sub-serve the aim of poetry to appeal through intellect first (as its route to that thraldom) then we have poetry. All this, of course, is on condition that the proper business of fine art, beauty, is indeed expressed, and expressed first to the mind. And it is on account of such moments in other arts that they sometimes earn the name ‘poetic’. For it is then that they ‘speak’.

And that is why poetry is first among the fine arts, why poetry is used as a sort of standard of comparison for them. For other arts express beauty, too. But the intellect has first place among our powers, and it is ultimately to intellect that we appeal in anything; so the fine art which is most con-genial to intellect is first. And that is why such things as ‘music of the words’, or for that matter their connotations except as these appeal to the mind, do not of themselves make poetry — in their own right they belong to other arts — although indeed they help it and adorn it and in season ‘speak’ as it speaks — and it is then that they belong to it. And that too is why metaphors and similes play such a large part, in so far as they aid the understanding. But I do not think, as some have thought, that metaphor is essential to poetry, though it may indeed be indispensable. What is essential is what my friend calls Metaphor, or as I have put it, beauty said, expressed by language that is conceptual, so that what is said is more than what is said in words.


If I am right about the nature of poetry, then we have a standard whereby to judge poetry. We can judge

The Lord is my shepherd.
I shall not want.
Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose ...
Though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
no evil shall I fear.

against Ps 23 in the Jerusalem Bible, where scholarship has given us much, except poetry:

Yahweh is my shepherd,
I lack nothing.
In meadows of green grass he lets me lie....
Though I pass through a gloomy valley,
I fear no harm.

Then again, the old Douai-Rheims Bible has:

Who is she that cometh forth
as the morning rising,
fair as the moon,
bright as the sun,
terrible as an army set in array?
(Canticle of Canticles, 6:9)

for which the Jerusalem Bible gives:

Who is this arising like the dawn,
fair as the moon,
resplendent as the sun,
terrible as an army with banners?
(Song of Songs)


There is a connection between the intuition of the metaphysician and the intuition of the beautiful. As the metaphysician insists for his part, the beautiful is Being seen another way. No doubt that is why the highest principles expressing Being have a certain sublime and ‘poetic’ character: Without a reason of be, no thing is.

Every agent
acts unto its like.
(JZ)

John Ziegler


John Ziegler is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.

This article posted December 1997. It was published in Universitas, Vol 1 (1997), No. 2.
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