Philosophical Poems

"Philosophy is something reasoned and heavy; poetry something winged, flashing, inspired...It is the acme of life to understand life. The height of poetry is to speak the language of the gods."

-- George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets

It would seem that no two creatures could be more dissimilar than the poet and the philosopher. Who else but a philosopher is disturbed by the deepest questions of meaning, and wishes to make a vocation out of solving the knottiest problems of truth and knowledge, morals and logic, existence and death? And who else but a poet could declare herself exempt from the strictures of conceptual thought, free to tamper with words to achieve any musical and playful effect her mood requires? The philosopher must be mindful of method and pay careful attention to assertions, evidence, arguments, ambiguities, facts; his work must withstand the most thoroughgoing scrutiny; the "poet's" work need only be a good performance -- entertaining, soulful, humorous, clever: "a poem should not mean but be," Archibald MacLeish says in Ars Poetica.

All this sounds about right, and yet, some of the most cherished poems happen to have an unmistakably philosophical character: e.g., Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, Lucretius' De Rerum Natura, Dante's Commedia, Goethe's Faust, Milton's Paradise Lost. And some of the profoundest sages happen to have condensed their thought in poetical form, from the earliest Buddhists right up to Emerson and Santayana and Khalil Gibran. Any sharp distinction between poet and philosopher must thus be considered problematic.

It might be said that the poet walks onto the philosopher's stage when, abandoning none of her style and form, she turns her descriptive and metaphorical powers to the weightiest themes, be they considerations of the right and the good, speculation about mortality and eternity, or rough sketches of the natural world. Not having a thesis to defend or an argument to advance, she lets her imagination and her ear be her guide; and if her sentiments are irrelevant to the realm of hypotheses and paradigms, they are surely welcome as conjectures in speculative philosophy. What philosopher, for instance, could render the indescribable world of the beyond -- the realm of no-where and no-when -- anymore beautifully than Dante does in the Paradiso?

At times, too, the poetic style is a better conduit to insight than the outpourings of the voluble specialist. Consider two passages here; the first is from Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind:

The formalism which has been deprecated and despised by recent philosophy, and which has arisen once more in philosophy itself, will not disappear from science, even though its inadequacy is known and felt, till the knowledge of absolute reality has become quite clear as to what its own true nature consists in. Having in mind that the general idea of what is to be done, if it precedes the attempts to carry it out, facilitates the comprehension of this process, it is worth while to indicate here some rough idea of it, with the hope at the same time that this will give us the opportunity to set aside certain forms whose habitual presence is a hindrance in the way of speculative knowledge. (trans., J.B. Baillie)

The next lines come from the Tao Te Ching (Lau trans.):

A man is supple and weak when living, but hard
and stiff when dead. Grass and trees are pliant and fragile
when living, but dried and shrivelled when dead.
Thus the hard and the strong are the comrades of
death; the supple and the weak are the comrades of life.
Therefore a weapon that is strong will not vanquish;
A tree that is strong will suffer the axe.
The strong and big takes the lower position,
The supple and weak takes the higher position.

It is difficult to decipher Hegel when he expresses himself in that way, and the turgidity cannot be blamed on the translator; if anything, the German is harder on the eye and ear. Lao-Tzu is suppler and more limpid by contrast, and in a mere nine lines is able to illustrate the meaning of paradox quite well. The Hegel passage leaves the reader agitated in the attempt to figure it out; the poetic passage plays on the imagination and encourages a second and third thought.

The poems below address important aspects of life in an engaging way. What would be lost, in insight and meaning, by translating them into average, everyday prose, or into the "reasoned and heavy" utterings of a philosopher like Hegel?

I. Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia

II. William Wordsworth, "The World Is Too Much With Us"

III. Robert Browning, "Summum Bonum"

IV. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Brahma"

V. William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

VI. Thomas Hardy, "The Oxen"

VII. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, "Solitude"

VIII. George Santayana, "O World..."

IX. T.S. Eliot, "Burnt Norton"

Two Poems About Philosophy:

X. John Ciardi, "Philosophical Poem"

XI. Edna St Vincent Millay, "The Philosopher"