According to legend, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, imposed a crippling tax on his subjects. Godiva, his 17-year-old wife, took pity on the poor people struggling to pay. She pleaded with Leofric to lift the tax. In his poem “Godiva,” Alfred Lord Tennyson describes the scene like this:
“Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed.
“’You would not let your little finger ache
“For such as these?’ — ‘But I would die,’ said she.
“He laugh’d, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
“Then fillip’d at the diamond in her ear;
“’Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!’ — ‘Alas!’ she said,
“’But prove me what I would not do.’
“And from a heart as rough as Esau’s hand,
“He answer’d, ‘Ride you naked thro’ the town,
“And I repeal it;’ and nodding, as in scorn,
“He parted, with great strides among his dogs.”
We could charge off in all directions here; taxation, oppression, the trials of matrimony, feminine tenderness, the sacrifice of modesty, offenses against public decency, chivalry, women’s rights and cruelty to animals. But let’s talk about poetry.
Take a look at the passage above; simple, short, clear and believable. Filled with nuance, it illustrates T.S. Eliot’s comment, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.” Even before the invention of writing, poetry was shoring up some of society’s most important pillars: genealogy, history, law and tradition. Poets held places of honor in each family, community and kingdom. I have heard that the High Kings of Ireland would yield the place of honor if a notable poet appeared on the scene.
The story of Lady Godiva has inspired and enthralled young and old for centuries and it probably would have been lost forever but for the attention of restless poets. I might not go so far as Baudelaire when he says, “Any healthy man can go without food for two days — but not without poetry.” But I do believe that poetry is a critical component of a deepening appreciation of the world and people around us.
So what happened? When did poetry disappear from its place in the daily life of western man (and woman)? I will suggest there are two causes. First, our poets have betrayed us. They have poisoned us with inane, confusing, meaningless drivel. Naturally we are repelled and step around the stuff whenever we get the chance. And then these wounded pseudo-poets scratch their heads and bemoan the fact that no one reads poetry anymore. They might surprise us all and find a new audience if they would dive into the vibrant heart of western tradition. There are captivating stories and ideas waiting to be explored by the restless poet who is willing to use the axe of imagination to break into the treasury.
But incompetent poets won’t explain everything. Our friends the Scots, to this day, regard their national poet as the greatest of Scotsmen. Each year, on Jan. 25, Scots all across the world celebrate Burns Night in honor of The Ploughman Poet, Robert Burns. They take this opportunity to honor the man and his craft. Burns wrote in the 1700s but his countrymen see to it that his legacy is remembered by each generation. We should take a lesson from the Scots. If there are no poets of stature in this generation (and there may be unknown geniuses whose work is buried in a sea of mediocrity) there are plenty of wonderful works by Americans and others.
Take a look at popular poets like Robert Service, James Dickey, Robert Bly and Robert Frost. (What’s with all these Roberts?) A few minutes a day with these and others would add a level of depth to your life no matter how deep you think you are already. And here’s a bonus. Memorizing a little poetry from time to time increases brain power, reduces stress, reduces the risk of senility and makes you more interesting.
So, you remember how the Godiva story ends. The lady subordinates her natural modesty in the interests of equity for her husband’s subjects. She attempts to conceal her nakedness with her long hair (a technicality her vile husband failed to foresee) and rides through Coventry. Out of respect for her sacrifice, the townspeople remain indoors and refuse to look. All, that is, but Tom the tailor who is struck blind for peeping. What a story! What a poem!
Oh, by the way, July 21 is the 214th anniversary of the death of Robert Burns. As he would say “May old acquaintance be forgot….”
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.