Do people still have favorite poems? Is it something people rate or collect, like songs or movies, and then there are too many, so you have to say your top ten?
Last week someone tagged me in a social media challenge to list my top ten movies, and I’m still deliberating. But I know my favorite poem.
My favorite poem is “Mythopoeia,” and it’s by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s longish at 148 lines—longer than Poe said we are comfortable reading in his “Philosophy of Composition,” an essay he wrote about his process of writing “The Raven.” I love “The Raven,” but I love “Mythopoeia” more.
“Mythopoeia” is an occasional poem; that is, he seems to have written it on a particular occasion—following a discussion with C.S. Lewis, where Lewis argued that myths were lies, “though breathed through silver.” In the days and weeks following this event, Tolkien responded with poetry, as such an occasion demands.
He starts with an accusation:
You look at trees and label them just so,
(For trees are “trees,” and growing is “to grow”)
You walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
One of the many minor globes of Space:
A star’s a star, some matter in a ball
Compelled to courses mathematical
Amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
Where destined atoms are each moment slain.”
He’s taking to task all those who see the world with clinical, scientific, quantifying brains—those who assert we can classify and codify all, and that that is the best way to understand it. Tolkien accuses Lewis, essentially, of having no soul, or at least not having the ability to wonder at the mysteries and magic of the world.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, called God the Creator, but posited that humans were, or could be “sub-creators.” God did the big stuff; humans create little worlds. When he created Middle Earth and The Shire, he was sub-creating. But he did so with a healthy dose of respect and awe for God.
Chaucer’s Franklin comes to mind (doesn’t he, always?). In the Franklin’s Tale, Nature (Mother Nature) claims that she and God are like a well-matched couple. He creates cosmically, and she creates on Earth. Tolkien’s mutual roles here subdivide a little differently—God creates the physical world (no Mother necessary), and artists create little, imaginative worlds. Still symbiotic; still complementary.
I’m not Catholic. Or Christian. Pagan love for Natura comes closest to my faith, I suppose, so I see nothing wrong with these thoughts of mysteries, and I love the idea of complementary creation. Humans, in constant awe at the natural world and its cycles and stories, make new art in our own fashion.
Tolkien goes on to explain how such storytelling takes place:
He sees no stars that does not see them first
Of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent,
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth
unless the mother’s womb whence we all have birth.
Two things strike me here: first, that primitive people made mystical explanations for the natural world, and we have been singing songs to explain and perpetuate those ideas ever since. But that might seem to lend support to Lewis, as the mythic view of things may have been part of our primitive past, but now we know better.
Tolkien says no, however. That each person is “primitive” as they come to understand the world. That childhood is our individual Neolithic phase, and we can choose to keep connecting with those impulses, those feelings of awe and wonder and joy, or we can walk solemnly with Lewis on his mathematical course. I’m not a Luddite, but I am a recovering biology major and the spouse of a biochemist. I vote with science, but my heart loves myth. This speaks to me deeply.
The last lines of the poem yell the loudest, in my opinion. It’s an image of paradise for poets, and one that resonates with some of my favorite images of paradise. Borges said he imagined Paradise to be a kind of library. I do too. So, it appears, did Tolkien.
In Paradise they [poets] look no more awry;
And though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and Poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
So paradise is a place where poets are gifted with all the material they can ever use, like living in Chaucer’s House of Fame, but with flames upon their heads (like the blessed souls they are) and play their harps and sing new songs forever.
Paradise is doing what you love most, with limitless time and materials and with faultless results, and being blessed for it? You don’t have to be Catholic to love that.
It's all connected. There's treasure everywhere. Never trust a vowel. That sort of sums up my approach to the world. I am a teacher of readers, a student of languages, a parent of teenagers, and the spouse of a punster. Our world is wrought of words, and we read them and wield them as carefully and as joyfully as possible.
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