I WAS DELIGHTED to run across this article on the Crisis Magazine web site, a review by Kirk Kramer (originally published in 1999) of a book by James Taylor called Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education. Actually, I was amazed to find anything whatsoever in print (even the “virtual” print of an internet magazine) referring to poetic knowledge, because I thought that the deconstructionists, not to mention relativism’s current reign of terror in contemporary society, had put paid to any notion that “poetry” (i.e., “literature”) can shed any light on truth, which is what is meant by the term “poetic knowledge.” But, of course, Crisis (and undoubtedly many of its readers) is part of the Catholic counter-culture, those who continue to teach and believe that there is such a thing as truth, that it can be known, and that it can make you free.
Taylor, it should be noted, takes his term “poetic knowledge” from Thomas Aquinas’s own term poetica scientia, one of four scientiae or kinds of knowledge/knowing. This term “knowledge” could, with justice, be translated “science,” except that for English speakers these days science means only empirical science, which affirms only what it can observe and measure. Poetic knowledge, unlike “science,” has to do with experience, which comes from within and relies to a large extent on imagination, differing in this way from objective and analytical “science,” which is objective and relies largely on reason. In the middle ages, however, when Thomas lived, wrote, and taught, the Latin term scientia had not yet been reduced to its narrow, modern meaning, but meant simply “knowledge” (from the verb scio/scire, “to know”), and might refer equally well to theology (“the Queen of the Sciences”), to material science, or to poetry, which, as this term was used in Thomas’s day, comprised both what we today call fiction, as well as poetry.
Rehabilitating Poetry’s Reputation
In the Middle Ages, poetry had a bad reputation in certain quarters because it was “fictional” (made-up stories) rather than “factual” or true (like the Bible, the truest book ever written); nonetheless, it is heartening to note that Thomas Aquinas, probably the wisest person alive in those days (some would say ever!) listed it among the various ways of “knowing” (scientia) — albeit not a perfect one, as it does not appeal to reason (which was Thomas’s Big Thing). I would not say that poetry is not “true” (although that might be said, of some fictional works), but rather that it deals with truth differently than the rational sciences. It deals with truth “poetically,” i.e., analogically rather than analytically. Analogy is the basic tool of the poet — he makes us see that one thing is like another, and in seeing that we glimpse some truth about the thing that might have escaped us before. This is why Aristotle said that poetry is more “philosophical” (concerned with wisdom) than history, which is “merely” factual.
I’ve recently begun a new semester teaching a course called Medieval Epic Poetry, for the Walsingham Society of Christian Culture and Western Civilization. It’s a continuation of the Ancient Epic course, in which we studied the great classical epics of Homer and Vergil. (In fact, it was with Homer in mind that Aristotle called poetry “philosophical.”) In the Middle Ages, the Christian vision collided with the assumptions of pagan heroism, so epic per se didn’t really survive as a “living” poetic form (until Milton, anyway), but the works we’ll be studying in the present course show how the Christian imagination adapts the epic legacy to keep readers thinking about philosophical questions, such as “What is the best way to live?”, “What should we live for – glory? Or something else?” and “Whom should we admire? What makes a great leader?” While the Christian authors of the works we’ll be reading this semester – Beowulf, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost – largely agree on the answers to those big questions, they explore the questions in rich and varied ways that both delight and provoke our imaginations.
THE CULTURAL COLLAPSE OF THE WEST, particularly precipitous over these past fifty years, has many causes, but one of them surely is the abandonment of great literary works in our educational curriculum. The world is a poorer and more dangerous place these days, because our imaginations have been starved (when they haven’t been poisoned by pop culture). Catholics who wish to live well, and to celebrate the upcoming Year of Faith, would do well to acquaint (or re-acquaint) themselves with some of the great works of our Western literary tradition and to ponder, in the light of Faith, the questions they pose and the examples they present.