New Birth or Decadence? Sri Aurobindo – The Future Poetry

The Future Poetry

Part One

Chapter XXIV

New Birth or Decadence?

AT THIS point we stand in the evolution of English poetry. Its course, we can see, is only one line of a common evolution, and I have singled it out to follow because, for two reasons, it seems to me the most complete and suggestive. It follows most faithfully the natural ascending curve of the human spirit in this kind of rhythmic imaginative self-expression and, again, because of all the modern European languages it has the largest freest poetic energy and natural power, it responds on the whole most directly of all of them — in spite of certain serious limitations of the English mind — to the fountain motives, the essential impetus of the soul of poetry in its ascent and shows them, if not always in their greatest or most perfect, yet almost always in their most characteristic and revealing form. Poetry like everything else in man evolves. Its fundamental nature, function and law are no doubt always the same, because each thing and each activity too in our being must be faithful to the divine idea in it, to its dharma, and can try to depart from it only on peril, whatever momentarily it may seem to gain, of eventual inferiority and futility, or even of disintegration and death. But still there is an evolution within this law of its being. And evolution means a bringing out of new powers which lay concealed in the seed or the first form; the simple develops to the more complex, — more complex even in some apparent simplicity, — the superficial gives place to the more and more profound, the lesser gives place to the greater nature of the common manifestation. But poetry is a psychological phenomenon, the poetic impulse a highly charged force of expression of the mind and soul of man, and therefore in trying to follow out its line of evolution it is the development of the psychological motive and power, it is the kind of feeling, vision, mentality which is seeking in it for its word and idea and form of beauty and it is the power of the soul through which it finds expression or the level of mind from which it speaks which we must distinguish to get a right idea of the progress of poetry. All else is subsidiary, variations of rhythm, language, structure; they are the form, the vehicle; they derive subtly and get their character and meaning from the psychological power and the fundamental motive.

If poetry is a highly charged power of aesthetic expression of the soul of man, it must follow in its course of evolution the development of that soul. I put it that from this point of view the soul of man like the soul of Nature can be regarded as an unfolding of the spirit in the material world. Our unfolding has its roots in the soil of the physical life; its growth shoots up and out in many directions in the stalk and branches of the vital being; it puts forth the opulence of the buds of mind and there, nestling in the luxuriant leaves of mind and above it, out from the spirit which was concealed in the whole process must blossom the free and infinite soul of man, the hundred-petalled rose of God. Man indeed, unlike other forms of being in terrestrial Nature, though rooted in body, proceeds by the mind and all that is characteristic of him belongs to the wonderful play of mind taking up physicality and life and developing and enriching its gains till it can exceed itself and become a spiritual mind, the divine Mind in man. He turns first his view on the outward physical world and on his own life of outward action and concentrates on that or throws into its mould his life-suggestions, his thought, his religious idea, and, if he arrives at some vision of an inner spiritual truth, he puts even that into forms and figures of the physical life and physical Nature.1 Poetry at a certain stage or of a certain kind expresses this turn of the human mentality in word and in form of beauty. It can reach great heights in this kind of mental mould, can see the physical forms of the gods, lift to a certain greatness by its vision and disclose a divine quality in even the most obvious, material and outward being and action of man; and in this type we have Homer. Arrived to a greater depth of living, seeing from a vivid half outward half inward turn of mind his thought and action and self and world and Nature, man begins to feel more sensitively the passion and power of life, its joy and pain, its wonder and terror and beauty and romance, to turn everything into moved thought and sentiment and sensation of the life-soul, the desire soul in him which first forces itself on his introspection when he begins to go inward. Poetry too takes this turn, rises and deepens to a new kind of greatness; and at the summit in this kind we have Shakespeare.

This way of seeing and creating, in which thought is involved in life and the view is that of the life-spirit feeling, thinking, imagining, carried forward in its own surge of self, cannot permanently hold the greater activities of the mental being. He ceases to identify himself entirely with the passion, the emotion, the thought-suggestions of life; for he needs to know from a freer height what it is and what he is, to get a clear detached idea of its workings, to dominate his emotions and vital intuitions and see with the calm eye of his reason, to probe, analyse, get at the law and cause and general and particular rule of himself and Nature. He does this at first on large and comparatively bare lines dwelling only on the salient details for a first strong and provisionally adequate view. Poetry following this movement takes on the lucid, restrained, intellectual and ideal classic form, in which high or strong ideas govern and develop the presentation of life and thought in an atmosphere of clear beauty and the vision of the satisfied intelligence; that is the greatness of the Greek and Latin poets. But afterwards the intelligence sets more comprehensively to work, opens itself to all manner of the possibilities of truth and to a crowding stream and mass of interests, a never satisfied minuteness of detail, an endless succession of pregnant generalisations. This is the type of modern intellectualism.

The poetry which arises from this mentality is full of a teeming many-sided poetic ideation which takes up the external and life motives not for their own sake, but to make them food for the poetic intelligence, blends the classical and romantic motives, adds to them the realistic, aesthetic, impressionist, idealistic ways of seeing and thinking, makes many experiments and combinations, passes through many phases. The true classic form is then no longer possible; if it is tried, it is not quite genuine, for what informs it is no longer the classic spirit; it is too crowded with subtle thought-matter, too brooding, sensitive, responsive to many things; no new Parthenon can be built whether in the white marble subdued to the hand or in the pure and lucid spacings of the idea and the word: the mind of man has become too full, complex, pregnant with subtle and not easily expressible things to be capable of that earlier type of perfection. The romantic strain is a part of this wider intelligence, but the pure and genuine romanticism of the life-spirit which cares nothing for thought except as it enriches its own being, is also no longer possible. If it tries to get back to that, it falls into an affectation, an intellectual pose and, whatever genius may be expended upon it, this kind cannot remain long alive. That is the secret of the failure of modern romanticism in Germany and France. In Germany, Goethe and Heine alone got away from this falsity and were able to use this strain in its proper way as one enriching chord serving the complex harmonic purpose of the intelligence; the rest of German literary creation of the time is interesting and suggestive in its way, but very little of it is intimately alive and true, and afterwards Germany failed to keep up a sustained poetic impulse; she turned aside to music on the one side and on the other to philosophy and science for her field. The French mind got away very soon from romanticism and, though greatly enriched by its outbreak into that phase, went on to a more genuine intellectual and intellectually aesthetic form of creation. In England with the greater spontaneity of its poetic spirit the mistake never went so far. The poetry of the time of Wordsworth and Shelley is sometimes called romantic poetry, but it was not so in its essence, but only in certain of its moods and motives. It lives really by its greater and more characteristic element, by its half spiritual turn, by Wordsworth’s force of ethical thought and communion with Nature, by Shelley’s imaginative transcendentalism, Keats’ worship of Beauty, Byron’s Titanism and force of personality, Coleridge’s supernaturalism or, as it should more properly be called, his eye for other nature, Blake’s command of the inner psychic realms. Only in drama was there, owing to the prestige of Shakespeare, an attempt at pure romanticism, and therefore in this domain nothing great and living could be done, but only a record of failures. Realism is a more native turn of this kind of intelligence, and it invades poetry too to a certain extent, but if it dominates, then poetry must decline and cease. The poetry of an age of many-sided intellectualism can live only by its many-sidedness and by making everything as it comes a new material for the aesthetic creations of the observing, thinking, constructing intelligence.

But then comes the now vital question in this cultural evolution, — in what is this intellectualism to culminate? For if it leads to nothing beyond itself, it must end, however brilliant its work, in a poetic decadence, and that must come nearer, the more intellect dominates the other powers of our being. The intellect moves naturally between two limits, the abstractions or solving analyses of the reason and the domain of positive and practical reality; its great achievements are in these two fields or in a mediation between them, and it can do most and go farthest, can achieve its most native and characteristic and therefore its greatest and completest work either in philosophy or in Science. The age of developed intellectualism in Greece killed poetry; it ended in the comedy of Menander, the intellectual artificialities of Alexandrianism, the last flush of beauty in the aesthetic pseudo-naturalism of the Sicilian pastoral poetry; philosophy occupied the field. In the more rich and complex modern mind this result could not so easily come and has not yet come. At the same time the really great, perfect and securely characteristic work of the age has not been in the field of art and poetry, but in critical thought and science. Criticism and science, by a triumphant force of abstraction and analysis turned on the world of positive fact, have in this period been able to become enormously effective for life. They have been able to reign sovereignly, not so much by their contributions to pure knowledge, but by their practical, revolutionary and constructive force. If modern thought with its immense scientific achievement has not enriched life at its base or given it a higher and purer action, — it has only created a yet unrealised possibility in that direction by its idealistic side, — it has wonderfully equipped it with powerful machinery and an imposing paraphernalia and wrought conspicuous and unprecedented changes in its superstructure. But poetry in this atmosphere has kept itself alive not by any native and spontaneous power born of agreement between its own essential spirit and the spirit of the age, but by a great effort of the imagination and aesthetic intelligence labouring for the most part to make the best of what material it could get in the shape of new thought and new view-points for the poetic criticism or the thoughtful presentation of life. It has been an aesthetic byplay rather than a leading or sometimes even premier force in the cultural life of the race such as it was in the ancient ages and even, with a certain limited action, in more recent times.

That a certain decline, not of the activity of the poetic mind, but of its natural vigour, importance and effective power has been felt, if not quite clearly appreciated in its causes, we can see from various significant indications. Throughout the later nineteenth century one observes a constant apprehension of approaching aesthetic decadence, a tendency to be on the look-out for it and to find the signs of it in innovations and new turns in art and poetry. The attempt to break the whole mould of poetry and make a new thing of it so that it may be easier to handle and may shape itself to all the turns, the high and low, noble and common, fair or unseemly movements of the modern mind and its varied interest in life, is itself due to a sense of some difficulty, limitation and unease, some want of equation between the fine but severely self-limiting character of this kind of creative power and the spirit of the age. At one time indeed it was hardily predicted that since the modern mind is increasingly scientific and less and less poetically and aesthetically imaginative, poetry must necessarily decline and give place to science, — for much the same reason, in fact, for which philosophy replaced poetry in Greece. On the opposite side it was sometimes suggested that the poetic mind might become more positive and make use of the materials of science or might undertake a more intellectual though always poetic criticism of life and might fill the place of philosophy and religion which were supposed for a time to be dead or dying powers in human nature; but this came to the same thing, for it meant a deviation from the true law of aesthetic creation and only a more protracted decadence.

And behind these uneasy suggestions lay the one fact that for causes already indicated an age of reason dominated by the critical, scientific or philosophic intelligence is ordinarily unfavourable and, even when it is most catholic and ample, cannot be quite favourable to great poetic creation. The pure intellect cannot create poetry. The inspired or the imaginative reason does indeed play an important, sometimes a leading part, but even that can only be a support or an influence; the thinking mind may help to give a final shape, a great and large form, sammahem˙aman¯ıs¯.aya¯, as the Vedic poets said of the Mantra, but the word must start first from a more intimate sense in the heart of the inner being,; it is the spirit at as within and not the mind without that is the fount of poetry. Poetry too is an interpreter of truth, but in the forms of an innate beauty, and not so much of intellectual truth, the truths offered by the critical mind, as of the intimate truth of being. It deals not so much with things thought as with things seen, not with the authenticities of the analytic mind, but with the authenticities of the synthetic vision and the seeing spirit. The abstractions, generalisations, minute precisions of our ordinary intellectual cerebration are no part of its essence or texture; but it has others, more luminous, more subtle, those which come to us after passing through the medium and getting drenched in the light of the intuitive and revealing mind. And therefore when the general activity of thought runs predominantly into the former kind, the works of the latter are apt to proceed under rather anaemic conditions, they are affected by the pervading atmosphere; poetry either ceases or falls into a minor strain or takes refuge in virtuosities of its outer instruments and aids or, if it still does any considerable work, lacks the supreme spontaneity, the natural perfection, the sense of abundant ease or else of sovereign mastery which the touch of the spirit manifests even amidst the fullest or austerest labour of its creation.

But this incompatibility is not the last word of the matter. The truth which poetry expresses takes two forms, the truth of life and the truth of that which works in life, the truth of the inner spirit. It may take its stand on the outer life and work in an intimate identity, relation or close dwelling upon it, and then what it does is to bring some light of intuitive things, some power of revelation of the beauty that is truth and the truth that is beauty into the outer things of life, even into those that are most common, obvious, of daily occurrence. But also it may get back into the truth of the inner spirit and work in an intimate identity, relation or close dwelling upon it, and then what it will do is to give a new revelation of our being and life and thought and Nature and the material and the psychical and spiritual worlds. That is the effort to which it seems to be turning now in its most characteristic, effective and beautiful manifestations. But it cannot fully develop in this sense unless the general mind of the age takes that turn. There are signs that this will indeed be the outcome of the new direction taken by the modern mind, not an intellectual petrifaction or a long spinning in the grooves of a critical intellectualism, but a higher and more authentic thinking and living. The human intelligence seems on the verge of an attempt to rise through the intellectual into an intuitive mentality; it is no longer content to regard the intellect and the world of positive fact as all or the intellectual reason as a sufficient mediator between life and the spirit, but is beginning to perceive that there is a spiritual mind which can admit us to a greater and more comprehensive vision. This does not mean any sacrifice of the gains of the past, but a raising and extending of them not only by a seeking of the inner as well as the outer truth of things, but also of all that binds them together and a bringing of them into true relation and oneness. A first opening out to this new way of seeing is the sense of the work of Whitman and Carpenter and some of the recent French poets, of Tagore and Yeats and A. E., of Meredith and some others of the English poets. There are critics who regard this tendency as only another sign of decadence; they see in it a morbid brilliance, a phosphorescence of decay or the phosphorescence which we observe on the sea when the sun has gone down and night occupies the waters. But this is to suppose that poetry can only repeat what it has done in the past and can accomplish no new and great thing and that a clear, strong or brilliant dealing with the outer mind and world is its last word and the one condition of its healthy creativeness. There is much that is morbid, perverse or unsound in some recent poetry; but this comes from an artificial prolongation of the past or a temporary mixed straining, it does not belong to that element in the new poetry which escapes from it and turns firmly to the things of the future. Decadence arrives when in the decline of a culture there is nothing more to be lived or seen or said, or when the poetic mind settles irretrievably into a clumsy and artificial repetition of past forms and conventions or can only escape from them into scholastic or aesthetic prettinesses or extravagance. But an age which brings in large and new vital and spiritual truths, truths of our being, truths of the self of man and the inner self of Nature and opens vast untrod ranges to sight and imagination, is not likely to be an age of decadence, and a poetry which voices these things, — unless its creative power has been fatally atrophied by long conventionalism, and that is not at present our case, — is not likely to be a poetry of decadence.

The more perfectly intuitive poetry of the future, supposing it to emerge successfully from its present incubation, find itself and develop all its possibilities, will not be a mystic poetry recondite in expression or quite remote from the earthly life of man. Some element of the kind may be there; for always when we open into these fields, mysteries more than the Orphic or the Eleusinian revive and some of them are beyond our means of expression; but mysticism in its unfavourable or lesser sense comes when either we glimpse but do not intimately realise the now secret things of the spirit or, realising, yet cannot find their direct language, their intrinsic way of utterance, and have to use obscurely luminous hints or a thick drapery of symbol, when we have the revelation, but not the inspiration, the sight but not the word. And remoteness comes when we cannot relate the spirit with life or bring the power of the spirit to transmute the other members of our being. But the new age is one which is climbing from a full intellectuality towards some possibility of an equal fullness of the intuitive mind, and the full intuitive mind, not that of glimpses, but of a luminous totality, opens to the mind of revelation and inspiration. The aesthetic mind, whether it take form in the word of the poet or in the word of the illumined thinker, the prophet or the seer, can be one of the main gateways. And what the age will aim at is neither materialism nor an intuitive vitalism nor a remote detached spirituality, but a harmonious and luminous totality of man’s being. Therefore to this poetry the whole field of existence will be open for its subject, God and Nature and man and all the worlds, the field of the finite and the infinite. It is not a close, even a high close and ending in this or any field that the future offers to us, but a new and higher evolution, a second and greater birth of all man’s powers and his being and action and creation.


One thought on “New Birth or Decadence? Sri Aurobindo – The Future Poetry

  1. r says:

    I went to the MOMA today to see an exhibit called the birth of abstraction which dates from a period which began about 100 years ago in which the object of representation was discarded in an attempt to get at the truth of its underlying form, motion, time, color, being or what have you, One of the most important text was Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art. It is apparent to me every time I walk in MOMA and especially from viewing the works from the early period of Modernism that I am experiencing what Sri Aurobindo at the time called the Coming of the Subjective Age

    In non representational art and its counterpart in early 20th century poetry that Sri Aurobindo is referring to in this chapter of Future Poetry one encounters both the sublime as well as profane. What occurred to me today however is that this distinction that SA makes here between either a Rebirth or Decadence is untenable when viewed from our contemporary perspective.

    (Although to be fare to SA here he seems to regard decadence as a prolongation of past forms and convention, but in other places however he speaks of Picasso as producing monstrosities and relegates
    T. S. Eliot – who turned out to be one of the major poets of the 20th century- to the status of a minor poet so he does seem to also be making both aesthetic and moral judgement base on the conventions and forms he personally understood)

    To think in terms of the sublime and the decadent in Art in fact seems to me today like the false dualism present in so many of history’s all too human judgements. (Although I do think there is a huge gulf between good or bad art, which is another matter) In fact, often the same artist who produces the most grotesque work often produces the most exquisite. (Kandinsky,Picasso, Dali,)

    What seems a monstrosity may really be the moment of transformation prior to the rapture and the encounter with the beatific in which both the demonic and the angelic are part of the same co-dependent emergence. So to present a future (as is done in this chapter of Future Poetry) as being a choice between a sublime new birth or a profane decadence seems to me now to be a false choice based on the historically and culturally conditioned human perceptions of the age.

    It would seem that SA view of this matter is consistent with the time he was writing which was backgrounded in representational art and a poetry that privileged meter, metaphysical universalism and romanticism. (to continue with those forms would have been decadent in the sense of a prolongation of the past) It is one in which the critical gaze seems not yet able to be able to peer over the epistemic horizon to detect that both movements (the decadent and the meritorious) may in fact be leading toward not either one type of new humanity or another but toward the very same new humanity, one in which this dichotomy is the creative tension that propels its evolution. One not reducible to a mere choice between angelic or demonic.

    Then I read this and it served to kinda confirm my suspicions:

    “this topic draws from two bodies of work that grapple with theories of mechanic being and technological selves: nineteenth-century French Decadent texts, and twentieth-century science fiction. The French writers loosely grouped together under the heading of Decadence revel in artifice to counter Romantic idealizations of nature. The Decadent imagination provides an unexpected site for posthumanist visions to flourish. In these texts, the human body, stripped of its pretensions to “natural” essence, organicism and even gender, is replaced by shifting assemblages of human-machine, life-nonlife, man-woman. Poised on the brink of modernity, the fin-de-siècle is preoccupied with questions of technology, confronting a transition from the artifice of a unique objet d’art to an industrialized culture of mass entertainment and mechanical reproduction (Garelick 5). Decadence thus serves as a privileged literary moment to examine the intersection of technics, media, and human subjectivity.

    and further:

    The critical task is to move from the posthuman (as a particular kind of being) to posthumanism (as a mode of questioning and subverting human sovereignty).These texts imagine other potentials of being human, puncturing the boundaries between human and inhuman, organic and technical, life and nonlife. There are risks involved in this line of thinking, for the posthuman has no predictable politics or ethics. Its utopian potential can easily give rise to fantasies of disembodied superhumanity that point uncomfortably toward discourses of fascism. And contemporary technoculture legitimizes a fear that the more human bodies, subjectivities, and cultures are theorized to run programmatically, the more they will be subject to techniques of domination and control.

    The response this topic offers to such fears is not to cling to the integrity and virtue of an imagined “humanity,” but rather to construct an ethics that transcends that category, admitting the ways in which humans cannot live up to the stories they tell about themselves, and considering how best to proceed in a world of technologically produced agencies, bodies and beings. Exceeding boundaries and refusing totalities, the cyborg is a figure of extraordinary possibility: “Cyborg imagery can suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves. This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia” (Haraway 223). Understanding humanity as fundamentally technical means remaining open to new forms of being, subjectivity, embodiment, and agency, not (only) to increase the thrills of being human, but to address the ethical and ontological challenges that emerge from the precarious interface between the human and its beyond.

Leave a Reply