Oread/August 1895/The Purifying Influence of Poetry

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Oread of the Mount Carroll Seminary, August 1895  (1895) 
The Purifying Influence of Poetry
By Ida Florence Bastian
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The Purifying Influence of Poetry.[edit]

"Books, we know,

Are a substantial world, both pure and good;
Round these, with tendrils strong as flesh and blood,
Our pastime and our happiness will grow."

They contain food for every mind and heart--"the bread of intellectual life." In them, may be found—-beside history, philosophy and works of fiction—-poetry, which is the highest of all literary forms. It is thought clothed in beautiful words, the over-flow of a feeling heart that cannot be silent.

The poet, soaring on pinions to heights unknown to us, by the beauty and charm of his verse carries us away with him out of ourselves, causing a thrill of appreciation to pass through us, and seeing and feeling as we had never done before, we respond with earnestness and enthusiasm. When reading a poem, we are enthralled by the magic words of the bard, who lifts us into whatever realm he will, filling the soul with burning desires and aspirations. The cold heart is warmed; the base man feels he can be noble; the despairing one grows hopeful; the sleeping soul awakes to action; aroused within the human breast is every passion ever known to man.

The merry, jingling metre of the lyric fascinates and pleases. It soothes and calms the wearied brain; it falls upon the ear like the gentle ripple of murmuring waters. The soul is pervaded by an atmosphere of innocence, purity and simplicity, so that for the time, all that is sordid and low is driven into oblivion, making life seem bright and full of cheer.

Thoughtfully read your Browning, your Emerson, your Shakespeare! "What power in language" you are led to exclaim. There is something in the poetical expression of their ideas that leaves such a deep and lasting impression upon the mind. Indeed, the thoughts are beautiful and would offer pleasant pictures to the imagination presented in any form, but how much is that pleasure enhanced when they are given to us in a melodious flow of poetical language!

The poetic genius creates no new power, brings no new force into the world, but utilizes and directs what is already here. The crude material already existent he transforms into artistic beauty and we look upon it as a new revelation. With his superior insight, the poet gives a new interpretation to life. Beneath the base surface, he sees nobleness; ignoring falsehood and deceit, he brings truth to light; by the flame of his genius he kindles lifeless words into passionate teachings.

The poet is not content to merely please the listening ear by meaningless words rythmically put together, but deep-sighted, he makes us perceive something divine and wonderful in what before seemed commonplace. Where others fail to see beauty, the poet, or "the Man of Beauty" finds it, and with adequate expression he reveals the wealth of his soul and we are enriched by it. What he receives from nature he has the power of imparting to men. To the weary disheartened traveler, struggling along life's rugged way, he proves an inspiration and a guide. To the self-satisfied man he holds up a lofty and beautiful idea of life with almost resistless skill.

The beauties of the Bible have charmed the critical of all ages. The wise have lingered over its perfect sentences, wondering at its simplicity of language and inimitable style. Sydney Smith, reading from the .Psalms, spontaneously exclaimed: " What is so beautiful as the style of the Bible ? What poetry in its language and ideas!" No wonder the Bible has been called "the Poem of God," for, as some one has said, "It contains more true sublimity, more exquisite beauty, more pure morality, more important history, and finer strains of poetry and eloquence than can be collected from all other books ever written." In Hebrew poetry nature is regarded as the middle ground between God and Man, as the garment of Deity. In the book of Job the sublimest aspects of nature are pictured to the imagination with unparalleled majesty and vividness, yet one is scarcely conscious he is looking into nature, so powerful is the Hebrew poet to make nature only instrumental in arriving at an idea of God. The prophet Isaiah in an ecstasy of adoration exclaims, "Break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest and every tree therein."

In the prophets, the Psalms and the Book of Job, nature is regarded as a transparent medium, which is consumed in the search after the divine and rolled away like a mist.

There is another kind of poetry equally purifying in which nature itself is dwelt upon and its glories are made so impressive that the soul is conscious of an unseen presence pervading it.

Whitter sings:

"The harp at Nature's advent strung

Has never ceased to play
The song the stars of morning sang

Has never died away."

It may be that the aesthetic side of our nature has been neglected and we fail to see nature as a manifestation of wisdom, truth, and beauty and cannot understand her whisperings, then we have but to turn to poetry to find an elevating and ennobling interpretation. The poet Wordsworth, who was so wonderfully susceptible to natural beauty, and who said,

"To me the meanest flower that grows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears,"

can make us sensitive to nature's influence and make us feel that by communion with the majesty and grandeur of nature our lives can be lifted to loftier and purer heights. Let such a poet as he lead us out into field and forest to gaze upon the starry sky, to listen to the song of birds, or watch the glowing sunset--ah, then we can enjoy and understand its exhaustless and wondrous significance. He can open our hearts to nature and make us see the folly of a Peter Bell to whom

"A yellow primrose by a river's brim,

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more"

and within whose breast the silent raptures of nature found no place, although he all his life had roved 'mongst vales and streams, and slept upon the grassy hill-side, covered by the soft blue sky. We can find nothing whose influence upon the mind is more inspiring and ennobling than nature, and nowhere is its meaning better interpreted than in poetry.

Beside having this power of awakening the soul to an appreciation of nature, poetry serves to quicken patriotism, to increase the mutual sympathies of man to man, and to teach wisdom.

At the time when the darkness of slavery overshadowed our land, when the freedom of "the dusky race that sat in darkness long" was so bitterly contended, then arose a Whittier with his pen to help save his countrymen from the shame and disgrace of tolerating in the land the oppression of a down-trodden race. With all the eloquence of his nature he inspires to that love of liberty which is our country's boast. We cannot help being thrilled by his songs, and they must kindle patriotism with in our breasts.

The works of Schiller, Germany's favorite poet, are the writings of one of the most noble-minded men that ever lived, who wrote for the purpose of elevating mankind and ameliorating the state of society. Himself an enthusiastic lover of liberty, Schiller endeavored, by means of William Tell, to instill into the minds of the people a desire for political freedom. The stirring speeches of some of the principal actors in this play would certainly rouse any one's hatred and indignation against a tyrant and swell the spirit of patriotism.

In all ages the poet has been one of the most powerful factors in upholding the laws of his country and silently moulding the minds of the people to stand by right and justice. America has had her Whittier; Germany her Schiller; Rome her Vergil; and ancient Greece, her Homer. Each one of these mighty men of genius, permeated by sonic idea to which dulled humanity was indifferent, poured forth a fresh and powerful song that can do naught but inspire and elevate. Our Shakespeare left us this counsel in regard to prudence in speech:

"Give thy thoughts no tongue;

Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;

Take each man's counsel, but reserve thy judgment."

Another teaches that

"Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt,
Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled."

And still another says:

"'Tis nobleness to serve;

Help them who cannot help again:

Beware from right to swerve."

And so all pure and true poetry contains some thought presented in a winning. pleasing way that leaves a deep and lasting impression and influences to action.

Thus we see the uplifting power and purifying influence of poetry, but how can we really know and feel it unless we avail ourselves of the grand opportunity to become acquainted with the thoughts of the bard by reading them and reflecting upon them? Of wealth and power there is a sufficiency in our land, but among our people there is a lack of sentiment, idealism. Now more than ever we need the poet's power to make, us see more of the higher. and less of the practical side of life. We hope and trust the day is coming when the spirit of poetry shall enter into every human relation. But the choice lies with us individually--shall we encourage or reject it?

FLORENCE BASTIAN, '95.