restricted access Poetry and Propaganda
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20 ] Poetry and Propaganda1 The Bookman (New York), 70 (Feb 1930) 595-602 The text for this paper is taken from Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World, page 127:2 The literature of the nineteenth century, especially its English poetic literature, is a witness to the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science. Shelley brings vividly before us the elusiveness of the eternal objects of sense as they haunt the change which infects underlying organisms. Wordsworth is the poet of nature as being the field of enduring permanences carrying within themselves a message of tremendous significance. The eternal objects are also there for him, “The light that never was, on sea or land.”3 Both Shelley and Wordsworth emphatically bear witness that nature cannot be divorced from its aesthetic values; and that these values arise from thecumulation,insomesense,ofthebroodingpresenceofthewholeonto its various parts. Thus we gain from the poets the doctrine that a philosophy of nature must concern itself at least with these six notions: change, value, eternal objects, endurance, organism, interfusion. So far Professor Whitehead. Now I must insist clearly at the beginning that what I have to say has nothing to do with this book as a whole, or with Mr. Whitehead’s theory as a whole: I am not here judging or valuing his theory or his method or his results. I am concerned only with this one chapter, which is called “The Romantic Reaction,” and only with this one passage in that chapter. And only, therefore with two specific questions: can poetry be cited to prove anything? and to what extent can it even be cited to illustrate anything? It appears to me that Mr. Whitehead is here summoning Shelley and Wordsworth to prove something in connection with what he calls a “philosophy of nature”; that is what his words thus we gain from the poets the doctrine that, seem to me to mean; even if the author did not mean that, it is at least what many of his readers must have taken it to mean. [ 21 Poetry and Propaganda When so distinguished a scientist and philosopher makes this use of poetry, a great many people will follow him, in the belief that anyone who can understand symbolic logic must certainly understand anything so simple as poetry. And indeed I must say that in the earlier part of his book Mr. Whitehead does prepare us to consent to any use of literature he may choose to make: his knowledge and appreciation of history and literature are so great, and his summaries and reviews of historical processes and periods so very skilful, his allusions so apt, that we are charmed into assent. Nevertheless, I believe that the passage I have just read is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. Consider first how really remarkable it is that we should gain from the poets the doctrine that a philosophy of nature must concern itself at least with these six notions: change, value, eternal objects, endurance, organism, interfusion. There are, to begin with, two steps in Whitehead’s legerdemain. He has quoted, and discussed generally, two poets of one period, Shelley and Wordsworth. These two then become “the poets”; would any beginner in scientific enquiry ever exhibit such a perfect example of imperfect induction? And then the poets are said to demonstrate that a philosophy of nature must be concerned at least with the six concepts mentioned. Let us take the first sentence: The literature of the nineteenth century, especially its English poetic literature, is a witness to the discord between the aesthetic intuitions of mankind and the mechanism of science. To call the whole of English poetry of the nineteenth century to witness such a generality is certainly rash, and the meaning of the sentence is not clear. It might mean that the great English poets were all aware of this discord between intuitions and mechanism. In this form the statement might be true of the author of In Memoriam.4 But how far is it true of Browning or Swinburne, and as far as it may be true how significant is it in their respective views of life?5 But perhaps Mr. Whitehead means merely that poets, by affirming the reality of values, are denying by implication the sufficiency of a mechanistic philosophy. But in this form the statement is too comprehensive, for it applies to all artists at every time, as they all have affirmed the validity of esthetic intuitions...


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