Metaphysical Poets: a commentary

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folly –
folly for to –
for to –
what is the word –

That is how Samuel Beckett begins his last poem, his last “word”, as he was dying and about to pass into that realm (whatever it may be) beyond this physical world.

The brief for the latest (May 2013) session of Poetry at SMSA was “The Metaphysical Poets”. But what was meant by this exactly?

According to wikipedia,

The metaphysical poets is a term coined by the poet and critic Samuel Johnson to describe a loose group of British lyric poets of the 17th century, whose work was characterized by the inventive use of conceits, and by speculation about topics such as love or religion. These poets were not formally affiliated; most of them did not even know or read each other.

John Donne was one of the most famous metaphysical poets.

Judging from most of the initial contributions on the night, this was the main idea intended, that is, a focus on poets of a limited period and style. However, a couple of participants, myself included, decided to interpret “metaphysical” in a general way. One thought it referred to poems with supernatural references and another thought it involved a meditation on death and dying.

I chose to research the word “metaphysics” through the gateway of philosophy and via the Stanford online Encyclopedia of Philosophy which has this to say:

The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. Twentieth-century coinages like ‘meta-language’ and ‘metaphilosophy’ encourage the impression that metaphysics is a study that somehow “goes beyond” physics, a study devoted to matters that transcend the mundane concerns of Newton and Einstein and Heisenberg. This impression is mistaken. The word ‘metaphysics’ is derived from a collective title of the fourteen books by Aristotle that we currently think of as making up “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” Aristotle himself did not know the word. (He had four names for the branch of philosophy that is the subject-matter of Metaphysics: ‘first philosophy’, ‘first science’, ‘wisdom’, and ‘theology’.) At least one hundred years after Aristotle’s death, an editor of his works (in all probability, Andronicus of Rhodes) entitled those fourteen books “Ta meta ta phusika”—“the after the physicals” or “the ones after the physical ones”—, the “physical ones” being the books contained in what we now call Aristotle’s Physics. The title was probably meant to warn students of Aristotle’s philosophy that they should attempt Metaphysics only after they had mastered “the physical ones,” the books about nature or the natural world—that is to say, about change, for change is the defining feature of the natural world.

This is the probable meaning of the title because Metaphysics is about things that do not change. In one place, Aristotle identifies the subject-matter of first philosophy as “being as such,” and, in another, as “first causes.” It is a nice—and vexed—question what the connection between these two definitions is. Perhaps this is the answer: The unchanging first causes have nothing but being in common with the mutable things they cause—like us and the objects of our experience, they are, and there the resemblance ceases.

I felt that Beckett’s poem encapsulated humanity’s incessant questioning about first causes and ultimate ends, questions that remain unanswered to this day.

Campbell: functions of mythology

9780285640573In the concluding chapter of The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology, Joseph Campbell summed up the four functions of mythology thus:

1) “eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being”
2) “to render a cosmology”
3) “to support the current social order”
4) “to initiate the individual into the order of realities of his own psyche”

In a fuller description of the first and main function, he wrote:

Professor Rudolf Otto has termed this recognition of the numinous the characteristic mental state of all religions properly so called. It antecedes and defies definition. It is, on the primitive level, demonic dread; on the highest, mystical rapture; and between there are many grades. Defined, it may be talked about and taught; but talk and teaching cannot produce it. Nor can authority enforce it. Only the accident of experience and the sign symbols of a living myth can elicit and support it; but such signs cannot be invented. They are found. Whereupon they function of themselves. And those who find them are the sensitized, creative, living minds that once were known as seers, but now as poets and creative artists. More important, more effective for the future of a culture than its statesmen or its armies are these masters of the spiritual breath by which the clay of man wakes to life.

This summary and description might by useful in assessing the extent to which science is a mythology.