The Power of Poetry

As part of my research, I’ve been looking at arts and defences of poetry in other languages and countries written during the late Middle Ages in order to get a sense of the bigger picture and to see what other cultures valued in their poetry.   This week, here are some excerpts from two perhaps lesser-known celebrations of poetry which I have come across.

The first group of quotations are from De laudibus elegie spiritualis, a short Latin poem by Jean Gerson (1363–1429), a French academic and theologian, written during the last years of his life in retirement in Lyon.  I quote from the translation given by G. Matteo Roccati in a recent Traditio article.  Gerson is here thinking of Latin verse on sacred subjects and many of his arguments reiterate traditional defences of such poetry.  Poetry for Gerson is defined by order, harmony, compression, and focus.  Such harmony and order produces memorable, forceful, condensed language and ideas.

“Verses discipline the mind so that it will not wander, channel several
[matters] into a few [words], and stay in the memory better.” (15-16)

“If you dedicate yourself to studying them, verses become more
meaningful, clearer; their order makes them more powerful.” (17-18)

“Writings in verse form are preserved more accurately and
more concisely.” (19-20)

“The voice that is channeled through narrow gaps has more force
than [the one] that goes unhindered.” (21-22)

“In the same way, a thought compressed into harmonious meters
sounds more forceful; it strikes and pierces.”

The second pair are from a fourteenth-century Welsh grammar written by a cleric named Einion, a priest in Llanrug in Caernarvonshire.  I have been reading about him and his grammar in Gruffydd Aled William’s article in The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: Volume 2, The Middle Ages (from where I take these quotations in translation).  I realised recently that probably the first medieval poetry I ever read must have been in Welsh, when I was at Llandrindod High School studying for a GSCE in that lovely language.  I think we read Dafydd ap Gwilym (who may have been acquainted with Einion), perhaps modernised?   I remember being very intrigued by how ‘un-medieval’ it seemed to be.  Thank you, Dr Hawkins and Rev Tweed – it has stuck in my memory.

“Three things which strengthen a poem: depth of meaning, and
copiousness of Welsh, and splendid imagination.”

“Three things which dignify a poem: clear declamation, and
refined workmanship, and the authority of the poet.”

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