“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” sing the witches in Macbeth as they toss toads and newts and thumbs into the pot to make “double, double, toil and trouble.” Despite the appearance of sorcery, they do not supernaturally bewitch Macbeth. All they do is speak. Macbeth destroys himself of his own free will. It’s a subtle boast from Shakespeare: by giving the witches the ability to cause a political coup through words, he implies what Shelley would later declare:
“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
Gifted wordsmiths can change perceptions and create new worlds where right is wrong and wrong is right. Poets are dangerous.
Several years ago, in middle school, I left behind the Disney world of childhood, where evil, with warts on its nose, dons a sinister black cloak. At the time, I loved the tragic heartthrobs Shelley and Byron and I found myself in a mild crisis. I could not understand how Byron could speak of the woman of “cloudless climes and starry skies” with such beautiful simplicity, when his marriage broke up because he was sleeping with his sister. How could beauty spring from such depravity? In tenth grade, after years of struggle, I found my answer in the squinting-small font of a Constance Garnett Dostoevsky translation: “beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” Eventually, we all realize that most evil disguises itself as good. Because poets are trained to translate the chaos of experience into something ordered yet poignant, they can skillfully drape words over naked reality, folding the cloth most elegantly where there is something ugly to hide. Think of Nabokov, who managed to make a pedophile sympathetic, and of Milton, with his charming Satan. Think of Byron with his beautiful words and terrible life. Though poetry can be used to heal and help, it can also act as poison, leaking insidiously into our moral convictions and deeply influencing the way we view reality. We must be certain, always, to test beauty for truth.
To test a poet, look not to his reputation or loquacity, but his sense of earthy reality, for the key to keeping poetry good is keeping it honest. Enter Marianne Moore, Pulitzer winner and poetic pioneer, with her biting mixture of modernism and humor. In “Poetry,” she shocks us by declaring that she does not like poetry, dismissing it as “all this fiddle.” It quickly becomes clear that she is not attacking poetry per se, but the way it departs from the real world. She implores poets who make imaginary gardens to include “real toads in them.” We tout the merits of the classical here at Hillsdale; however, barring the pretentious pleasure of feeling “cultured,” does the sight of a rosy Rococo ceiling of fat, flushed cherubs do us any good? Idealization is frequently a euphemism for lying. If toads hopped about those divine scenes, we would lose a bit of awe and remember that the world is a funny place that should be laughed at and wept for, not worshiped. It is not perfect; why should we pretend it is?
If beauty is to have any power, we must not isolate it from the blights and inconsistencies of the world, using it as some sort of escape hatch. Moore ends her poem by calling artists to love “the raw material of poetry in all its rawness”—not altered, polished, nipped or tucked but raw. Perhaps the best illustration of this is Michelangelo’s David. The enormous block of marble had been abandoned after all the work of quarrying because it was considered hopelessly flawed. Several sculptors had begun to form it into the shape of a man, but after a few rough cuts, they quickly gave up. When Michelangelo was commissioned to finish it, he could have rejected the marred stone, but he accepted it. Under his coaxing hands, the smooth, natural limbs of the statue we know today slowly awoke. The marble is still low quality; no transformation occurred in the raw material, and yet the artist’s skill made it priceless. Similarly, the Mona Lisa is not a gorgeous woman, yet the way da Vinci painted her makes the image beautiful despite its plain subject. Her gaze captures your attention and refuses to relinquish it. Ugliness makes us turn away, but just as we do so, we catch a glimpse of beauty and keep looking. As we become increasingly aware of the conflict between perfection and ugliness, we grow to depend on beauty’s return to relieve us from the burden of the ugly. Beauty’s power is that of overcoming dissonance.
As Dostoevsky says, both God and the Devil wish to claim beauty as their own. As man searches to find an escape from ugliness into beauty, he may choose either to manufacture an escapist idol, or to grit his teeth for the hard but rewarding work of unfolding God’s truth from this raw, confusing place. When we engage with art, we should note whether it grapples with the world’s ugliness or glosses over the inconvenient parts. It’s a dangerous place to work, this world of words. Next time we pick up a pen or open a book, let’s be sure to remember the toads.
Amelia Rasmusen is a junior studying German and philosophy.
Photograph contributed by Elsa Lagerquist.