- An Empiricist Looks at a Poem
Why? Why would an empiricist look at a poem? And if he did, what could he find? We should consider David Hume’s idea for literary renewal programmatic for our culture of empirical science: “When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in hand any volume . . . ; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion” (Understanding XII.3.132). 1 Now since Hume’s philosophy is, together with the development of predicate logic and multi-variable calculus, the formal if not efficient cause of our culture of science, I here propose to take him seriously. Let us see where that gets us.
If I were a poet I would begin by noting Hume’s imagery in this scene: “when we run over libraries,” “what havoc must we make,” “com-mit it . . . to the flames.” No doubt these are remnants of his Saxon heritage, one known for its unequivocal methods of simplification, mere accidents of word choice in a language not quite abstract enough for the task at hand. Which is? . . . Well, never mind; I promised to take him seriously, so I will pass over the exceptionally bright colors of this scene in silence. We could Latinize Hume’s project and place it on a shield over a university library: Quantitas, numerus, factus esse. Set it in brass and it will not only be deeply comforting, but also respectable. So far I have myself said nothing of quantitas, numerus, factus or esse, so I had better get started before I get consigned to the flames.
So then, to the question. Does poetry contain any abstract reasoning [End Page 306] concerning quantity or number? We are at first tempted to say “No.” But Hume is less than perfectly clear that what he means by that kind of reasoning is only mathematics and geometry; he says, “as the component parts of quantity and number are entirely similar, their relations become intricate and involved; and nothing can be more curious, as well as useful, than to trace, by a variety of mediums, their equality or inequality, through their different appearances” (Understanding XII.3.131, my italics).
Now it is clear that one of the media in which the curious relations of quantity and number may be traced is sound. Consider a Bach fugue. Relations of quantity and number are exactly what the score records; and the elegance of the fugue is very like the elegance of a mathematical proof. But that is a simile and should be disregarded. The syllables and sounds of a poem are also able to be mapped out in a web of quantity and number, and frequently poets change their words in order to get them to agree with the mathematics of the feet. Clearly, if such reasoning is put into a poem by the author, we should expect to find “abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number” within both the fugue and the well-wrought poem. Ergo, we should save poetry and Bach when we overrun the library, in order to practice our abstract reasoning in another medium: the great thing about poetry is it can be scanned.
A science could be made out of giving common English names to standard verse forms. Item:
one two three pause, one two three turn one two three pause, one two three turn one two three pause, one two three done.(Heroic triplet with double enjambment and slant rhyme)
This would be curious and exacting, and could while away the hours as easily as Whist—and do so while providing a greater variety of pictures than kings, queens, and knaves of black or red.
It is more likely, however, that Hume himself—and most empiricists after him—considered that much of poetry would fall under the latter categories—factus and esse. This is rather curious to our ears since we tend to class poetry under fiction, not fact. The difficulty here is...