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Pagan poetry

Page history last edited by Yvonne 10 years, 5 months ago

by Bo Williams



I want here to examine critically some of the assumptions which are common in modern Druidry when thinking about the nature of poetry, assumptions which I find all too often to be narrow and ahistorical. This post is some prelimiary thoughts about Paganism and culture - I'll move onto the meat of what I have to say about poetry tomorrow. 


Neo-Paganism currently elevates the Dionysian at the expense of the Apollonian, distrusting institutional authority, both human or divine, and preferring roiling chaos and irrationalism. This is often highly creative, but also brings with it a general distrust of aesthetics, and an intrinsic resistance to form, clarity and structure. Paganism retains a persistent and curious ambivalence towards history, despite the work Ronald Hutton has done to expose the late-Romantic cultural and literary currents that shaped modern Paganism. A credulous and sensationalist over-concentration on the pop- and pap-History du moment (the Cathars, the Templars, conspiracy theories of all hues, ley-lines, Atlantis, you name it) distracts from the cultivation of the historical reach and broad perspectives which would ground and enrich modern Paganism. 


I suppose I shouldn't grumble. Paganism is still less that a century old, and we've already thrown off some of the more ill-advised impedimenta that we started with. Wicca's occult posturing - at once gaudy and banal - is nothing like as obvious as once it was, for example. We're still hashing out a polytheology and a concept of human nature; and for all that she's found herself the centre of a bit of a cult of personality, Emma Restall-Orr deserves great credit for sitting down and writing on these issues learnedly and with considerable intellectual force. One can only begin a process of dialectic when there is something solid, sustained and in print with which to argue. Restall-Orr’s latest, Living With Honour; A Pagan Ethics seems to have garnered a very positive blurb from the renowned moral philosopher Mary Midgley, which is in itself impressive, and a sign of the greater seriousness with which Pagan religon is being taken. Restall-Orr is, however, the only Pagan thinker with a national profile as yet, the only one who really does discuss Heidegger and John Stuart Mill.


Generating a literary criticism and a poetic might therefore, at this stage of Paganism’s development, be considered rather a luxury. But ahead, in the middle distance, I see much work to be done. I ask myself what a robust yet nuanced Pagan reading of King Learmight look like, or of the work of John Clare or Robert Graves, and sense the swirling shapes of ideas as-yet unborn. It is possible, though we don’t want some hideous Pagan version of Eliot and C. S. Lewis’ neo-Christianity applied to a helpless literature laid out upon the slab. 


To give an example of what might be possible, it can be observed that a revived archaic archetypalism is characteristic both of some of the greatest works of the 20th century, and of the new Paganism; the relationship of these two revivals badly needs analysis. By ‘archetypalism’, I mean the Greek tendency to analyse the world and human life in terms of mighty, inclusive and intangible general principles, which are reflected in real objects and events and feelings, but whose existence is in some sense anterior to and realer thanany actual object, event or feeling. This was germane to Greek thought long before Plato. Desire (for example) isn’t a sloshing around of hormones and neurochemicals, but rather the activity of dapple-throned immortal Afrodita and her son, Eros. Theos, ‘god’, wasn’t for the Greeks so much a noun as an adjective – not ‘Zeus is God’, but rather that there, in that activity, that place, that emotion, there liestheos, divinity, engoddedness. 

Literature in the 20th century revived this way of experiencing the world, spurred not only by Frazer’s The Golden Bough but also by the equally archetypal mythologies of Freudian psychoanalysis and Jungian analytical psychology, in which mother and father are always Mother and Father. We should thus not be surprised that the goddess and god of Wicca (and much non-Wiccan Paganism) are great male and female cosmic principles, arkhai, and all creation is an instantiation of one or other of them. ‘Every woman is Isis’, intoned the occultist Dion Fortune (née Violet Firth), and ‘All goddesses are one Goddess, and all gods are one God, and there is one Initiator.’ The relationship of this kind of thinking to Robert Graves ‘Triple Goddess’, a vision which sustained and gave meaning to his tormented love-life, is clear. But it also lies behind Joyce’s labyrinthine, unreadable Finnegans Wake, in which all human history and culture are collapsed into a polymorphous ‘nightmaze’, a composite dream-vision in a portmanteu dream-language. Every human being, real or imagined, is seen as an aspect of ‘H.C.E’, earth-father, or of ‘A.L.P.’, river-mother, or of cloud-daughter Issy, or warring sons Shem and Shaun. But the sons combine into the father, and the daughter is reabsorbed into the mother, so, ultimately, only two archetypes are eternal: ‘Gammer and gaffer we're all their gangsters…’ The warring sons, one victor, one vanquished, eternally changing into each other but both subsumed into the one All-father, closely approximate the wretched ‘Oak King’ and ‘Holly King’ aspects of the Wiccan male deity. The death and resurrection of the archetypal father (the double meaning of the Wake in the title) is a comic, oneiric version of the dying-and-resurrecting god, which, with Wicca, became re-embodied in cult. (I use 'cult' in the ancient sense, not the pejorative modern one.) Even the book itself is a circle, that most neo-Pagan of symbols, ending halfway through a sentence, which then flows ceaselessly on again into the opening words of the novel.

So ideas that Joyce was using to structure the most advanced piece of Modernist literature ever written were at much the same time forming themselves, with thudding literalism, into a new religion. Hutton considers that the roots of neo-Paganism are ultimately to be found in the Romantic movement (itself highly complex, contradictory and multifaceted), and this is undoubtedly so. But what is equally true yet less often observed is that the new Paganism has a great deal to do with some of the most important concepts of high Modernism. (For example, the return to the prehistoric world of the cave-painting is common to both Paganism and Picasso; this shared archetypalism and circularity we have mentioned above; and a penchant for collage and the juxtaposition of eloquent fragments characterises Pound and Eliot, but also Wiccan liturgy. The very difficulty of Modernist poetry is akin to the secrecy associated with early Wicca. Both are like a protective gorgoneion enclosing a clique or cabal whose members are engaged in throwing off bourgeois taboos, but who scarcely trust a new idea unless it is an old one - and who as a result disconcertingly place the very contemporary cheek-by-jowl with the most primitive and archaic. 



I argued that the growth of neo-Paganism in the 20th century depended on some of the same ideas which were being embodied in the avant-garde literature of the time. These included 'the return to the Archaic', the discordant superimposition of the contemporary and the primoridial, a penchant for circularity and archetypalism, a concern with sexuality, the Unconscious and the relations of men and women, and a certain hermetic obscurity. My point in doing this was to emphasise (as Ronald Hutton has done) that neo-Paganism is not an inexplicable outcrop, marginal and capricious. Rather it is a movement influenced, even animated, by some of the deepest and most important intellectual currents at work in the cultural life of the last century. 


If this is so, and I think it is, the state of poetry in neo-Pagan discourse is rather puzzling. Pagans – and Druids in particular - probably take more notice of poetry that the population at large. But the lack of historical consciousness noted above means that Pagan thinking about poetry tends to be curiously hidebound. We think, and feel; but on the whole we do not yet step back in order to consider ourselves thinking and feeling. In other words, the basic assumptions common in neo-Pagan discourse about what poetry is aren’t yet even recognised as being assumptions. 


For the majority of druids, at least, poetry is conceived of high Romantic terms, as a mysterious Muse-borne wind, blowing in from the Infinite and Absolute. It is awen, a very old Welsh term for poetic inspiration as divine afflatus. This is a perfectly reasonable, time-honoured way of thinking about poetry. A fine book, John Press's The Fire and the Fountain: An Essay on Poetry, captures this conceptualisation: that is, inspiration as mystic communion with the Eternal, drawn from the Castalian spring or some Pentecostal 'Muse of fire'. Poetry, according to this view, is a semi-divine current that flows into the rapt human being, through the emotions, granting access to a higher truth. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth famously called it ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’.* For the Romantics, the essence of poetry was thus fundamentally bound up with the human imaginative capacity, or ‘Fancy’, that part of us which is in touch with the hidden and irrational. Shakespeare’s Theseus (one of the two, in fact) says, very famously, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:


Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,

Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend

More than cool reason ever comprehends.

The lunatic, the lover, and the poet

Are of imagination all compact.

The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, 

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; 

And as imagination bodies forth 

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to aery nothing 

A local habitation and a name.


This passage, much anthologised, was beloved by the Romantics, despite the fact that the sentiments are in the mouth of one of Shakespeare's less likeable characters, who immediately goes on to argue for a ploddingly unimaginative empiricism. ('If it's unlikely and against past experience, it can't be true.')


This, I think, is the general understanding of poetry among most modern Pagans, and, given the roots of neo-Paganism in the Romantic movement, this isn’t much of a surprise. But this conception of poetry hasn't been universal over the ages. The problem is what you make of a poet like Pope, or Larkin, or bits of Horace; that is to say, what you make of poetry as an essentially civilised art for the careful, urbane and ironic expression of ideas and observations, without all the Sturm und Drang of Romantic titanism and muse-thralldom. I can’t imagine poems as important as, say, Piers Plowman, Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella sequence, or The Rape of the Lock making much impact on Pagan poetic consciousness. They are simply below the radar.


If we look at neo-Pagan poetry today (see, for example, the Druid Network's 'Bardic Voices' site here, which includes some of my own pseudopoetic ravings) several things are noticeable. The first is - and this is an observation, not a complaint – that on the whole, this is poetry by people who don’t read poetry. (If you look at the section marked 'Inspirational Poetry', you'll find precisely two poems have been submitted - one by Yeats and one by Shelley. No surprises there, given the above.) This poetry is clearly written for personal pleasure, and much of it is directly, unmediatedly inspired by spirituality and nature. It is thus nature poetry in the vein that Schiller termed ‘naïve’ - as opposed to ‘sentimental’ poetry, which was the term he used for poetry as the product of reflection and reminiscence. Neither ‘naïve’ nor ‘sentimental’, according to the Schillerian usage, are terms of opprobrium, by the way. Much of this Pagan poetry aspires to the limpid primordialism of, say, Native American chants in English translation, combining rhythm and repetition with a touching simplicity. Thus 'Dryac''s 'Willow':


I am Saille, 

My touch can bring enlightenment 

My energy can heal 

Come be one within my aura. 


I am Willow, 

My being is not for evil 

My wands are used for magic 

Come flow with the wind and me…


The basic standard is that of a Parish Magazine, some very good, much not so good. Some people write with a whiff of the schoolroom inkhorn - rhyming couplets filled with 'o'er's and 'ere's and 'thees' and 'thous' for example, in a way that no professional poet would attempt today, except by way of pastiche. The degree of confidence also wavers considerably between individuals. Some poems read as though their writers are astonished that they've written anything at all, and good for them. On the other hand, a very few bold individuals are clearly experimenting, quite successfully, with adapted medieval Welsh and Norse metres:


In the wildwoods of the mind, 

Strange beasts rut, conceive new words 

that sing in branches high above, 

At the festival of birds. 


(Robin Herne, 'The Honey Tongued')


But, with exceptions, on the whole this seems to me to be poetry that is not trying to be good, but merely to exist. And why should druids write poetry at all? The answer is bound up with the Classical accounts of the druids and their twenty-year process of training, which may be reflected in some of the archaic traditions attached to poets and poetry in the medieval Celtic world. Tomorrow, I'll move on to discussing these, and will suggest that awen-crazed neo-druids have allowed themselves to see only one of the two sides of poetry in the Celtic literary traditions.


* ‘Wet dreams, wet dreams, in libraries congealing’, added the American poet Thom Gunn, making a memorably rueful couplet.

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