Christopher Caudwell
Original publication:

The Birth of Poetry (1937)

57 minutes | English | Art & Propaganda

Christopher Caudwell was a British Marxist. He dropped out of school at age 15, worked a variety of jobs, and died in 1936, at the age of 29, while volunteering as a machine gunner for the anti-fascist brigades in Spain. A working-class autodidact, he wrote and theorized extensively on art and science.

This text comprises the introduction (1 section) and first chapter (4 sections) of his posthumously-published book Illusion and Reality (1937).

The subtitles of each section of this combined set were chosen by me in order to facilitate reference. — R. D.


Method: Historical Materialism

This is a book not only about poetry but also about the sources of poetry. Poetry is written in language and therefore it is a book about the sources of languages. Language is a social product, the instrument whereby men communicate and persuade each other; thus the study of poetry’s sources cannot be separated from the study of society.

It is a common assumption of literary criticism that the sources of literature are irrelevant or unimportant, and that literature can be completely criticised in terms of literature. There was for some time a similar philosophy about the study of nature — the mechanical materialism of d’Holbach, adopted unconsciously by most scientists to-day. It was supposed that matter could be completely described in terms of itself, and since man is made of matter, these terms would describe him also. This philosophy began by divesting matter of all those qualities which have a subjective or mental component — colour, solidity, taste. Mass, size, time and space were regarded as objective material qualities — matter described in terms of itself; until Einstein proved that the observer also entered into the determination of these. Einstein, however, made the same attempt to produce an absolute term, the tensor, which, in its turn, has been shown by the quantum physicists’ Principle of Indeterminacy to depend on the observer. Nothing is left absolute by modern physics but equations — and these are thoughts. Obviously this unexpected outcome of mechanical materialism is not due to the fact that it was materialistic, but to the fact that it was not materialistic enough. By giving thoughts and sensuous qualities a purely subjective and fictitious existence, excluded from the reality of matter, the mechanical materialists at once established a field of non-material reality which contradicted the basis of their procedure.

While mechanical materialism was developing the objective or contemplated aspect of matter, idealism was developing its active or subjective side. Idealism became the study of sensuousness, and sensing is an active process. The world as known to man was shown to consist only of sensory qualities — forms, concepts, ideas. At first Kant admitted an unknown thing-in-itself, but Hegel exploded this and left only the idea, not existing in man’s head but out of it — the absolute Idea. Being absolute, it was objective; being objective, it was material. Idealism had become materialism, but because from the start it had excluded objective, contemplated matter it was the rigid, ghostly materialism of Hegel’s Logic, with a self-sufficient structure determined by thought.

This had only come about because in materialism the object had been separated from the subject and regarded contemplatively, while in idealism the subject had certainly been considered actively, but active on a nothing, on mere appearance. Marx’s realisation of this led to the conception of the subject-object relation as an active one — man’s theory as the outcome of practice on the object, sensing as the sensing of something. Theory was seen to be generated by the struggle of man the subject with nature the object.

But this conception could not rest there. For, once it had become plain that the errors of philosophy were due to its abstraction of subject from object, it also became clear that the active subject-object relation was nothing but man living in nature. Not an abstract man in abstract nature, but men as they really live and behave, who must live concretely before they come to speculate abstractly, and whose abstract speculations therefore will bear the marks of their concrete living. Marx saw that the separation of subject in enjoyment and object in contemplation which had occurred in philosophy was the abstract reflection of a similar cleavage in concrete living between the conscious existence of the philosophising class and the unconscious actions of the remainder of society. Theory and practice were sundered in consciousness because they were divided in social reality.

Thus the understanding of concrete living came to appear to Marx as primary to the understanding of the products of concrete living, of which philosophy is one. There is concrete living itself, which includes both theory and practice, and there is the theory of concrete living, which attempts to reduce to theory the concrete relation of theory and practice.

Concrete living is not solid crystal. At any one time men are doing different things and therefore stand in relation to one another. The study of these human relations in a general form is sociology. This sum of human relations is not changeless in time but changes rapidly. The general laws determining the relations of human beings at a given period, and the change of these relations from period to period, form the theory of historical materialism.

Mechanical materialism and idealism are not peculiar to philosophy but are expressed in the science, aesthetics and history of men. If poetry is approached by a mechanical materialist in psychology, it will be regarded as a form of behaviour; if by one in philosophy, as nothing but the gratification of the “aesthetic” sense inherent in matter organised in a human body. The idealist position is generally regarded as a more suitable approach to poetry, which is then explained in terms of the Beautiful, the True or the Good.

It is not very difficult for anyone genuinely interested in art to repel these attacks, although they are often as insidious as they are confused. But the same cleavage of approach is also seen in the methods of those who remain entirely within the province of art and refuse to accept any but “pure” aesthetic considerations.

The mechanical materialists of art regard the art work as the detached object, and attempt to elicit a theory of art from which the subject or artist is excluded, a theory written in terms of the technique or forms of the art. It is supposed that when the devices, technique and “abstract” qualities of the art which can be examined independently of the artist have all been extracted and reduced to theory, art will have been described in its own terms. This is the theory of “formalism”, and it is evident that as a theory it corresponds in aesthetics to mechanical materialism in philosophy. Like these philosophers, the formalists are left at the end with merely subjective realities — with concepts, ideas, schemes and rules.

The idealists of art regard the art work as subjective, as the “feeling” in the mind of the appreciator or artist, and attempt to write a theory of art entirely on this basis. They believe that the aesthetic emotion is ultimately final and unquestionable, that it is wholly inside them, that any criticisms of art are personal and subjective. This is the theory of “emotionism”.

Not only does this theory correspond to that of the idealists of philosophy, but like theirs it ends in a phantom materialism. As Ogden’s and Richards’ theories show, ultimately the aesthetic emotion is reduced to coenaesthesia and this in turn is the excitation of certain nerves. [1] Just as formalism becomes “ideas”, emotionism becomes “physiology”.

When Hegel had brought the contradiction to the limit where it was finally resolved on a new plane by Marx, it was still possible for a bastard compromise to arise, the compromise of positivism or phenomenalism. This solved the problem of the subject-object relation by making the relation alone real. Only phenomena existed.

This solution was no solution. Since only appearances exist, there is no reality (such as the mind or matter) which can serve to organise or value appearances and all have equal validity. As the number of appearances is infinite, those organisations of appearances, known as science, theory or truth, are arbitrary and unfounded.

In fact, positivism is always dishonest and from the very start smuggles another reality (usually the mind) into the system in order to organise it and provide some standard of validity. This reality will be concealed under some such name as “convenience” or “probability”. Positivism is thus in fact generally shamefaced idealism or occasionally (in the form of agnosticism) shamefaced materialism. Positivism in philosophy marks a degradation as compared even with Hegelianism, and more so as compared with the real resolution of the problem achieved in dialectical materialism.

Positivism, therefore, also appears in aesthetics as the pure act of enjoyment of the art work, as “art for art’s sake”. Of course this would give absolutely no standard of discrimination between art works or between enjoyments of art works, and, therefore, in fact all aesthetic positivists smuggle in some organising principle, generally emotionist (integration of the personality or reality of the emotion) but occasionally formal (rhythm or “form”).

If well-known English works on aesthetics are examined, it will be found that even those writers who remain purely aesthetic in their approach adopt the emotionist standpoint in one part and then in another part use formalist criteria without any attempt to reconcile the obvious contradictions of the two viewpoints. But it is, in fact, rare to find an English writer on aesthetics who maintains a rigidly aesthetic approach. Generally he imports also, from outside the field of art, considerations which are psychological, historical or even biological in origin, and as some of the considerations may be idealist in their theory (as, for example, psycho-analysis) and others materialist (as, for example, physiology or Darwinian biology), and as these may be mixed with metaphysical theories drawn from sources as far apart and hopelessly in opposition as Descartes, Spinoza, Hegel and even Marx, the result is remarkable. Specialisation is useful; integration is essential; eclecticism, which avoids both, makes the worst of both worlds and is a characteristic feature of modern thought.

As regards this study of poetry, we reject from the outset any limitation to purely aesthetic categories. If anyone wishes to remain entirely in the province of aesthetics, then he should remain either a creator or an appreciator of art works. Only in this limited field is aesthetics “pure”.

But as soon as one passes from the enjoyment or creation of art works to the criticism of art, then it is plain that one passes outside art, that one begins to look at it from “outside”. But what is outside art? Art is the product of society, as the pearl is the product of the oyster, and to stand outside art is to stand inside society. The criticism of art differs from pure enjoyment or creation in that it contains a sociological component. In art criticism, values are ranged and integrated in a perspective or world-view which is a more general view of art from outside. It is an active view, implying an active living relation to art and not a cold contemplation of it, and implying therefore a view of art as active, with an explosive, energetic content. And it is a view of art, not of society or of the mind.

But physics, anthropology, history, biology, philosophy and psychology are also products of society, and therefore a sound sociology would enable the art critic to employ criteria drawn from those fields without falling into eclecticism or confusing art with psychology or politics. There is only one sound sociology which lays bare the general active relation of the ideological products of society with each other and with concrete living — historical materialism. Historical materialism is therefore the basis of this study.

Although the other arts are discussed in their general relation to society, it was thought better to concentrate primarily on one particular art, that of poetry, because its ancient history and somewhat obsolescent appearance to-day raises crucial problems for the student of aesthetics, while, in addition, the fact that it was the art most attractive to the writer gave him a special interest in the task.

Poetry: A Heightened Form of Ordinary Speech?

Poetry is one of the earliest aesthetic activities of the human mind. When it cannot be found existing as a separate product in the early literary art of a people, it is because it is then coincident with literature as a whole; the common vehicle for history, religion, magic and even law. Where a civilised people’s early literature is preserved, it is found to be almost entirely poetical in form — that is to say, rhythmical or metrical. The Greek, Scandinavian, Anglo-Saxon, Romance, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and Egyptian peoples are instances of this generalisation.

This poetry is not “pure” poetry in any modern sense. We may describe it as a heightened form of ordinary speech, without committing ourselves to this as an adequate definition of poetry. This heightening is shown by a formal structure — metre, rhyme, alliteration, lines of equal syllabic length, regular stress or quantity, assonance — devices that distinguish it from ordinary speech and give it a mysterious, perhaps magical emphasis. There are repetitions, metaphors and antitheses which, because of their formality, we regard as essentially poetic.

This generalisation is commonly accepted, and there is no need to give more than a few instances. Hesiod thought it natural to use a poetical framework for a theological work and a farmers’ guide. Solon cast his political and legislative maxims into metre as a matter of course. The metaphysical speculations of the Aryan race in India were versified. Egyptian astronomy and cosmogony were poetical in form. Religion spoke always in rhythm or metre, and just as the epic grew out of a poetic theogony glorifying aristocratic history, so the early agricultural ritual, cast in metrical form, became the Athenian tragedy and comedy, and finally, after various vicissitudes, survives as poetical drama to-day in the opera and the Christmas pantomime.

Ethnological researches have further shown how any words worth preserving — weather saws, farmers’ wisdom, magical spells or the more refined subtleties of ritual and religion — tend among all races, in all ages, to a heightened language. This heightened language, as the people becomes self-consciously literary, is eventually set on one side as the specific vehicle of a department of literature known as Poetry, and distinguished to varying extents in different ages from the other uses of writing and speech. The form peculiar to poetry in a civilised age is the primitive form of all literature. A consideration of poetry must therefore be fundamental for a consideration of literary art.

Among primitives we usually meet with a heightening of language on formal occasions which disappears when the phrases are written down. This heightening is effected by accompanying the words with music or rude rhythm — by chanting them. It is tempting to assume, though by no means certain, that rhythmical or metrical language, before the invention of writing, was always accompanied by some rude music. Indeed one could make out a case for the supposition that music itself was generated at the same time as primitive poetry and that an aboriginal physical rhythm, expressed in gestures and leaps, in shouted words and meaningless ejaculations, and in artificial noises made by beating sticks and stones, was the common parent of dance, poetry and music. Much evidence for this theory could be found in Africa. Significant, for instance, are the Ashanti talking drums described by Rattray, which transmit messages — not by code, an abstraction impossible to a primitive people lacking letters, but by mimicking the rhythm and pitch of speech on drums, so that the drums literally talk.

However, it would be dangerous to build our foundations on a hypothesis of this sort, which, however attractive, is too sweeping to be capable of rigorous proof. All that is assumed, therefore, is the general evolution of a written civilised literature from a special form of heightened language. At first monopolising nearly all traditional literature, this heightened language, as civilisation progresses, becomes confined to a niche of its own.

In its early stages this heightened language is usually in association with music and the dance. Even such a self-conscious literature as that of Periclean Athens does not seem to have seen any real distinction between poetry and music. Every form of Greek poetry had its appropriate musical, and in the case of dramatic poetry, its choreographic, accompaniment. This liaison persists in a shadowy form to-day. Music and poetry have long existed in their own right, but the frontiers overlap in the region of song and dance music.

This differentiation and specialisation of language with increasing civilisation is of course characteristic of all civilised functions. The development of civilisation consists of a continually differentiating division of labour, which is not opposed to but is the cause of a continually integrating web of social economy. Just as the human body, because of the specialisation of its parts, is more highly integrated by an elaborate nervous system than a jelly-fish, from which parts can be severed which will continue to live, so the productive basis of society grows in elaborateness and differentiation at the same time as it becomes more and more unified. This is seen in any civilisation taken as a whole, which, as its economic basis elaborates and interpenetrates, becomes increasingly differentiated in all its cultural superstructure. Poetry, maid-of-all-work in a simple tribal economy, becomes in the rich elaboration of a modern culture an activity which exists side by side with the novel, history and the drama. This development will give us the clue, not merely to the meaning of poetry, but also, if we follow the successive trails as they open up, to the significance in man’s life of all art and science. As man’s society develops, we must expect his art to show a corresponding development, and therefore to reveal with increasing clarity the implicit qualities of man, society and culture which made this development possible.

Economic Stages, Individuality, and Differentiation

How are we to judge whether a given society is more highly developed than another? Is it a question of biological evolution? Fisher has pointed out that there can be only one definition of “fitness” justified by biological considerations, and that is increase of numbers at the expense of the environment, including other species. In man this increase must depend on the level of economic production — the more advanced this is, the more man will dominate his environment.

But there is only one species of man — Homo sapiens — and his level of economic production is unequal at different points and develops in self-contained systems of various sizes. This inter-specific difference in mankind is just what separates humanity from other species, and makes biological standards no longer the most important in the very department in which we are interested — that of culture. The non-biological change of man, superimposed upon his relatively constant biological make-up during historic times, is the subject of literary history. This development is non-biological just because it is economic. It is the story of man’s struggle with Nature, in which his increasing mastery of her and himself is due, not to any improvement in his inborn qualities but to improvements in systems of production, including tools, the technique of using them, language, social systems, houses, and other transmissible external structures and relations. This inheritance is the vast concrete accumulation of “human qualities” which are not transmitted somatically but socially. Mother wit is needed for their use, but it is a plastic force which inflates these developing and transmitted forms. Looked at in this way, culture cannot be separated from economic production or poetry from social organisation. They stand together in sharp opposition to the ordinary biological properties of species.

Poetry is to be regarded then, not as anything racial, national, genetic or specific in its essence, but as something economic. We expect cultural and therefore poetical development to increase with the complexity of the division of labour on which it is based. As yet no aesthetic standards have been introduced. Complexity is not an aesthetic criterion. It is a quality associated only with division and organisation of labour. Among primitives — peoples with whom economic production has not passed its early stage of food-gathering or hunting and fishing — there is less differentiation in function than among more historically-developed peoples. The only differences of importance are sexes, age-grades and marriage classes or totemic groups. Each member of the tribe can perform the social, magical and economic offices proper to his sex, age or totem, providing of course that he is not ceremonially impure or outcast. Hence it is not surprising that their formal language and their art are equally undifferentiated, and that poetry, or heightened language, is the common medium of collective wisdom.

As to the exact process of differentiation, there is difference of opinion among anthropologists. Even the Australian aborigines possess a culture obviously resulting from a considerable period of historical development. Indeed the diffusionists see in it traces of indirect Egyptian influence. Frazer visualises the process as one by which the clever primitive appropriates to himself magical offices, and by this means becomes a priest or god-king. This view is confused, for individual cleverness could not create permanent classes, unless they played some part in the mechanism of social production. This in fact the god-king did, being an important class in agricultural organisation, but Frazer does not mention this.

Extrapolating into the past, Durkheim sees the primitive tribe as a homogeneous unit with a group consciousness, and Lévy-Bruhl regards this group consciousness as “prelogical”. Durkheim imagines such a primitive tribe to be almost entirely undifferentiated, so that one can consider the members as without character or individuality except the common impress of the tribe’s collective representations, which are coercive and overcome the individual’s free thoughts.

This is an abstract conception, since no such homogeneous tribe can be found to-day. Abstractions of this kind are limits to which society never fully attains. If this school had a clearer idea of the connection between economic function and genetic make-up in creating characters or “types”, they would not confuse, as do so many other anthropologists, differentiation with individuation. Individual differences are genetic, the result of a particular pack of genes. Biologically speaking, they are “variations”. But social differentiation means that an individual plays a particular role in social production. This differentiation may be the very antithesis of individuation, for by it the individual may be pressed into a mould — whether that of miner, bank clerk, lawyer or parson — which is bound to suppress some part of his native individuality. He becomes a type instead of an individual. An inherited character is forced into an acquired mould. The greater the differentiation, the more specialised will be the mould and the more painful the adjustment. Psychologically, as Jung has shown, the process takes place by the exaltation of one psychic function — that most marked genetically, and therefore most likely to prove economically remunerative. The hypertrophy of this function and its accommodation to the purposes of the chosen professional type result in the wilting of the other psychic functions, which eventually become largely unconscious, and in the unconscious exercise an opposing force to the conscious personality. Hence the typical “modern” unease and neuroses. Twentieth-century civilisation, the creation of a gospel of unadulterated economic individualism, has thus finally become anti-individualistic. It opposes the full development of genetic possibilities by forcing the individual to mould a favoured function along the lines of a type whose services possess exchange-value; so that for a refreshing contrast we turn (like T. E. Lawrence) to a nomad civilisation such as that of the Bedouins. Here genetic individuality, the character of a man, is most respected and most highly developed; and yet it is just here that economic differentiation is at a minimum.

Does this mean that biological individuality is opposed to economic differentiation, and that civilisation fetters the “free” instincts — as the followers of Freud, Adler, Jung and D. H. Lawrence by implication claim? No, it is precisely economic differentiation, by the possibility of specialisation that it affords, which gives opportunity for the most elaborate development of the peculiarities or “variations” constituting the “difference” of a biological individual. But this opportunity presupposes a free choice by any individual of the complete range of economic functions. There is no such free choice in modern civilisation, because of its class structure. Not only is an individual heavily weighted in the direction of following an occupation approximately equivalent in income and cost of training to that of his parents, but also a marked bent for a slightly remunerative occupation (such as poetry) will be sacrificed to a slight bent for a markedly remunerative occupation (such as company promoting), while the career of being unemployed, the involuntary function of so many millions to-day, muffles all useful variations.

It is not civilisation as such which by its differentiation stifles genetic individuality; on the contrary, its complexity gives added scope for its development and increases the sum of “standard deviation”. One incident of civilisation — the development of classes in society and the increasing restriction of choice of function for the individual — holds back the very development of individuality which the existing productive forces could allow in a more fluid system of social relations. Capitalism, by making all talents and gifts a commodity subject to the inexorable and iron laws of the “free” market, now restrains that free development of the individual which its vast productive forces could easily permit, if released. This gives rise to the complaints of the instincts tortured by civilisation which are investigated by Freud, Jung and Adler.

It is not surprising that a civilisation in which this rigidity has become pathological and individuality has almost vanished — as in the declining Egyptian and Roman Empires — collapses before “barbarians” at a lower stage of economic production in which, however, individuality has a freer rein. This class rigidity is itself the reflection of a complete disintegration of the economic foundations of a culture, in which the productive forces, like men’s imprisoned characters, are wasting themselves in a sterile quarrel with the iron fetters of obsolete social relations.

Durkheim’s conception of a tribe whose consciousness is solid crystal and undifferentiated, corresponding to its undifferentiated economy, in its absoluteness misses the significance of genetic individuality as the basis of economic differentiation, just as the conception of the instincts of civilised man fighting the constraints of society ignores the importance of economic differentiation as a fruitful outlet for individuality. Biologists will notice here a significant parallel to the famous dispute on their own science over “acquired” and “innate” characters.

Durkheim distinguishes the collective representations of the tribe which constitute its collective mind, from individual representations which constitute the individual mind, because of the coercive character of the former. This error is only the fundamental error of contemporary philosophy which, by its false conception of the nature of freedom, continually generates the same stale antithesis. The consciousness made possible by the development of society is not by its nature coercive; on the contrary this consciousness, expressed in science and art, is the means whereby man attains freedom. Social consciousness, like social labour, of which it is the product and auxiliary, is the instrument of man s freedom. And it is not the instincts unadapted by society which are of their essence free; on the contrary the unmodified instincts deliver man into the slavery of blind necessity and unconscious compulsion.

Yet social consciousness is sometimes felt by men as coercive — why is this? Because it is a consciousness which no longer represents social truth; because it is no longer generated freely in the whole process of social co-operation. Such a consciousness is the product of a class antagonism; it is the consciousness of a class which by the development of the division of labour and absolute property-right has become isolated from economic production, and is therefore maimed and obsolete. This consciousness now becomes the bulwark of privilege instead of the spontaneous expression of social fact, and must therefore be coercively enforced on the rest of society. Durkheim does not see that this coercive type of group consciousness is least common with a primitive people, and most common with a sophisticated civilisation. [2]

We cannot help noticing already the connection of early poetry — poetry which is also tribal wisdom and rude chronology — with a state of society in which economic differentiation due to division of labour hardly exists. In primitive society man’s genetic individuality realises itself simply like a physical trait — a wide forehead or a splay foot. Remembering that there seems in all ages something simple and direct about poetry, that good poetry can be written by the comparatively immature, that it has a more personal and emotional core than other forms of literary art, we may already guess that poetry expresses in a special manner the genetic instinctive part of the individual, as opposed, say, to the novel, which expresses the individual as an adapted type, as a social character, as the man realised in society. Such an art form as the novel could therefore only arise in a society where economic differentiation gives such scope for the realisation of individual differences that it is useful and valuable to tackle man, the individual, from this angle. There is no essential difference; it is a difference of aspect. But it is an important difference, and one to which we will return again and again. In this sense poetry is the child of Nature, just as the developed novel is the child of the sophistication of modern culture.

We must repeat the warning against mechanically separating genetic individuality from social differentiation. One is a means of realising the other. In tragedy, in dramatic verse, and in the epic they unite, because these flourish at a time of rapidly-changing society, a society in which older class-distinctions are cracking and man’s genetic individuality, his passions, his instincts, his blind desires, are the means by which new economic functions, new differentiations, new standard types, are being idealised and realised. Odysseus, Oedipus and Hamlet are such figures of a social poetry, and the problems these epics and tragedies resolve are the problems peculiar to such a period of change.

All such problems are problems concerning the nature of freedom, and hence tragedy poses with overwhelming poignancy the question of necessity, although in each culture the necessity wears a different aspect, for in each culture necessity presses on men through different channels. The necessity that drives on Oedipus is wholly different from that which torments Hamlet, and this difference expresses the difference between Athenian and Elizabethan cultures. The same necessity, but posed in a metaphysical way and with its solution postponed to another world, is the constant theme of religion — the problem it has set itself immediately it begins to talk of good and evil, A religion expresses by its definition of “sin” the stage of development of the society which generated it.

Rhythmical and Non-Rhythmical Languages

All peoples present, to ethnologists who live among them, distinct individualities, as indeed do animals. Among the Australian aborigines, as Gillen and Spencer have observed, men acquire reputations for special types of socially useful dexterity and exercise it to an extent which shows that differentiation already exists. Some division of labour has appeared but it is still mainly genetic. It is not produced by a complex which moulds each generation, and leads to the formation of a class.

Thus, as a rough type of the matrix in which poetry was born, we take the average food-gathering or hunting tribe of to-day where poetry is charm, prayer and history. This undifferentiated group shares social functions and therefore thoughts in common, and is bound by that “primitive passive sympathy” which Köhler has observed in anthropoid apes, and which McDougall considers a specific human instinct. With this group appears a heightened language, the common vehicle of all that seems worthy of preservation in the experience of men.

We must think of this language, not as it looks recorded in arid script, but as it was originally born, and as from age to age it lived its group life, accompanied by the rhythmic bearing of drums, by dance and gesture, by the violent emotions of the group festival, a fountain of tradition in which not only the living group participated, but also all the ghosts of dead ancestors which are a tribe’s chief strength. From this undifferentiated society the class-types proper to the priest, lawyer, administrator and soldier arise by division of labour, and, in the same way, the heightened language of the primitive corroboree splits into science, history, theology, law, economics and other appropriate divisions of cultural capital. In doing so each department evolves a special phraseology and method of literary attack which not only differs from those of other departments but also from those of spoken speech. But the departments are not watertight compartments. Their development affects each other and also spoken speech, mutually and continuously, because all are rooted in the one developing complex of real social life.

For the sake of convenience we talk of heightened language. But at this stage the adjective should not be allowed to carry any tincture of a value-judgment. For any given people at any given stage of evolution the precise heightening adopted can be defined in objective terms of prosody, musical or choreographic accompaniment, or the use of special words not permitted for profane purpose. As yet we have found no reason why an imposed rhythm should improve a language. The reading of almost any manual of prosody will give grounds for supposing that poetry is inferior to unhampered speech as a vehicle of expression, but we claim as yet neither superiority nor inferiority for prosody, only a qualitative difference, and if it be asked why the language should be made different, if it was not intended to make it better, an answer can be given. The function of rhythm may be purely mnemonic. This is evidently the case in rhymed wisdom such as:

Red at night,
The shepherd’s delight.
Red in the morning,
The shepherd’s warning.


Ne’er cast a clout
Till May is out.

It was at one time supposed that the “faculty of attention” was weak in primitive peoples, and that the rhythmic pattern held their wandering attention. Few modern anthropologists would accept this view. Attention is not a “faculty” but an instinctive component of psychic life, and if anything is more powerful where intelligence is less. A cat stalking a bird, or an Eskimo watching a seal blow-hole, show at least as much attention as a modern scientist watching an experiment. On any matter that interests them — a ritual, dramatic performance or a hunt — primitive peoples show greater capacity for sustained attention than more civilised groups. Rivers has recorded how, during his researches among the Melanesians, he found that an interrogation which left him exhausted and mentally dispersed, found his source of information still fresh and ready to keep up the supply. Yet as between two civilised people, it is almost invariably the interrogated, rather than the interrogator, who tires first.

We call the primitive’s heightened language, which is as it were speech in ceremonial dress, poetry, and we saw how in the course of evolution it became prosaic and branched into history, philosophy, theology, the story and drama. This raises a question whether poetry was ever anything but a reflection of the undifferentiated economy in which it was born, and whether poetry in its own right has now any real justification for existence. The fact that it still continues to exist is no complete answer, since evolution is full of vestigial organs, and poetry may be one of these. Poetry has an increasingly small “public”. Alone in literature, it clings tenaciously to heightened language. This might be merely the stigma of degeneration, as if poetry, like a mental deficient, still babbled in a childish tongue outgrown by the rest of the family, which has had to earn its living in an adult world.

We know there is a certain accident in the survival of poetry. Men speak, tell ancient tales, repeat bits of wisdom, and this vanishes. Poetry in its heightened language survives, and therefore we think of it as “literature”, making too artificial a separation from the rest of social speech. This in turn may lead us to overlook why poetry has a heightened language, why it survives, why it has a relative changelessness and eternity.

Primitive poetry is not so much the matrix of subsequent “literature”, as one pole of it. Because of its collective and traditional nature, it is the one which survives, and leads us, who see in it the sole literature of a primitive people, to imagine a kind of golden age in which even the oracles speak the language of epics.

What is the nature of this other pole? A modern mind, surveying the primitive scene, and noticing all the vague aspirations, religious phantasies, mythological cosmologies and collective emotions collecting at the pole of rhythmical language, would be disposed to think of the other pole as the scientific pole. This would be the pole of pure statement, of collections of facts uncoloured by emotion: pedigrees, astronomical calculations, censuses and all other literary productions which aim at a strong grasp of simple reality.

But science is not likely to seem the opposite of poetry to the primitive mind. He does not know of science as a branch of literature. He knows science only as a practice, a technique, a way of building boats and planting trees which can best and most easily be learned through a kind of dumb imitation, because the practice is common to all the members of a tribe. The idea of a statement devoid of prejudice and intended only to be the cold vehicle of sheer reality is quite alien to that mind. Words represent power, almost magical power, and the cold statement seems to divest them of this power and substitute a mirror-image of external reality. But what difference, save of inferiority, is there between the real object and its mirror-image? The image of reality which the primitive seeks in words is of a different kind: it is a magic puppet image, such as one makes of one’s enemies. By operating on it, one operates on reality.

The primitive would defend in this way his lack of interest in the “photographic” scientific statement. It is a late abstraction in the history of thought, a limit to which all sciences work, but only fully achieve in their mathematic content, perhaps not even then, except in so far as it is translated into the logistic of Principia Mathematica.

This colourless statement is alien to a mind shaped by primitive culture, and the primitive does not understand language without a purpose. The purpose of rhythmical language is obvious — to give him that feeling of internal strength, of communication with the gods, that keeps him in good heart. The purpose of non-rhythmical language is equally obvious. There is no question of finding a function for it. The function itself, as in all biological development, created the organ and was shaped by it. The need to extend his personality, to bring it to bear on his neighbours, to bend their volitions into harmony with his, whether in flight, immobility or attack, would have given birth to the gestures and then the grunts which finally became articulate speech. Indeed Sir Richard Paget’s plausible theory of the origin of human speech is based on the assumption that man, with tongue and other movable portions of his vocal organs, attempted to imitate in gesture the images he wished to impose on his fellows’ minds.

The function of non-rhythmical language, then, was to persuade. Born as a personal function, an extension of one individual volition, it can be contrasted with the collective spirit of rhythmical language, which draws in primitive society all its power from its collective appearance. Poetry’s very rhythm makes its group celebration more easy, as for example in an infants’ class, which imposes prosody upon the multiplication table it recites, making mathematics poetical.

As with all polar opposites the two interpenetrate, but on the whole the non-rhythmical language, based on everyday speech, is the language of private persuasion, and rhythmical language, the language of collective speech, is the language of public emotion. This is the most important difference in language at the level of primitive culture.

The Tribe’s Relation to the Harvest Song

Poetry is characteristically song, and song is characteristically something which, because of its rhythm, is sung in unison is capable of being the egression of a collective emotion. This is one of the secrets of “heightened” language.

But why should the tribe need a collective emotion? The approach of a tiger, of a foe, of rain, of an earthquake will instinctively elicit a conditioned and collective response. All will be menaced, all will fear. Any instrument to produce such a collective emotion is therefore unnecessary in such situations. The tribe responds dumbly, like a frightened herd of deer.

But such an instrument is socially necessary when no visible or tangible cause exists, and yet such a cause is potential. This is how poetry grows out of the economic life of a tribe, and how illusion grows out of reality.

Unlike the life of beasts, the life of the simplest tribe requires a series of efforts which are not instinctive, but which are demanded by the necessities of a non-biological economic aim — for example a harvest. Hence the instincts must be harnessed to the needs of the harvest by a social mechanism. An important part of this mechanism is the group festival, the matrix of poetry, which frees the stores of emotion and canalises them in a collective channel. The real object, the tangible aim — a harvest — becomes in the festival a phantastic object. The real object is not here now. The phantastic object is here now — in phantasy. As man by the violence of the dance, the screams of the music and the hypnotic rhythm of the verse is alienated from present reality, which does not contain the unsown harvest, so he is projected into the phantastic world in which these things phantastically exist. That world becomes more real, and even when the music dies away the ungrown harvest has a greater reality for him, spurring him on to the labours necessary for its accomplishment.

Thus poetry, combined with dance, ritual, and music, becomes the great switchboard of the instinctive energy of the tribe, directing it into trains of collective actions whose immediate causes or gratifications are not in the visual field and which are not automatically decided by instinct.

It is necessary to prepare the ground for harvest. It is necessary to set out on an expedition of war. It is necessary to retrench and retract in the long scarcity of winter. These collective obligations demand from man the service of his instinctive energy, yet there is no instinct which tells him to give them. Ants and bees store instinctively; but man does not. Beavers construct instinctively; not man. It is necessary to harness man’s instincts to the mill of labour, to collect his emotions and direct them into the useful, the economic channel. Just because it is economic, i.e. non-instinctive, this instinct must be directed. The instrument which directs them is therefore economic in origin.

How can these emotions be collected? Words, in ordinary social life, have acquired emotional associations for each man. These words are carefully selected, and the rhythmical arrangement makes it possible to chant them in unison, and release their emotional associations in all the vividness of collective existence. Music and the dance co-operate to produce an alienation from reality which drives on the whole machine of society. Between the moments when the emotion is generated and raised to a level where it can produce “work”, it does not disappear. The tribal individual is changed by having participated in the collective illusion. He is educated — i.e. adapted to tribal life. The feasts or corroborees are crises of adaptation — some general and intended to last throughout life, such as the initiation or marriage ceremonies, others regularly renewed or directed to special ends, such as the harvest and war festivals or mid-winter Saturnalias.

But this collective emotion organised by art at the tribal festival, because it sweetens work and is generated by the needs of labour, goes out again into labour to lighten it. The primitive conducts such collective tasks as hoeing, paddling, ploughing, reaping and hauling to a rhythmic chant which has an artistic content related to the needs of the task, and expressing the collective emotion behind the task.

The increasing division of labour, which includes also its increasing organisation, seems to produce a movement of poetry away from concrete living, so that art appears to be in opposition to work, a creation of leisure. The poet is typically now the solitary individual; his expression, the lyric. The division of labour has led to a class society, in which consciousness has gathered at the pole of the ruling class, whose rule eventually produces the conditions for idleness. Hence art ultimately is completely separated from work, with disastrous results to both, which can only be healed by the ending of classes. But meanwhile the movement has given rise to a rich development of technique.

These emotions, generated collectively, persist in solitude so that one man, alone, singing a song, still feels his emotion stirred by collective images. He is already exhibiting that paradox of art — man withdrawing from his fellows into the world of art, only to enter more closely into communion with humanity. Once made fluid, this collective emotion of poetic art can pervade the most individual and private transactions. Sexual love, spring, a sunset, the song of the nightingale and the ancient freshness of the rose are enriched by all the complex history of emotions and experience shared in common by a thousand generations. None of these reactions is instinctive, therefore none is personal. To the monkey, or the man reared like Mowgli by a wolfish foster-mother, the rose would be something perhaps edible, a bright colour. To the poet it is the rose of Keats, of Anacreon, of Hafiz, of Ovid and of Jules Laforgue. For this world of art is the world of social emotion — of words and images which have gathered, as a result of the life experiences of all, emotional associations common to all, and its increasing complexity reflects the increasing elaboration of social life.

The emotions common to all change with the development of society. The primitive food-gathering or hunting tribe projects himself into Nature to find there his own desires. He changes himself socially to conform with Nature. Hence his art is naturalistic and perceptive. It is the vivid drawings of Palaeolithic man or the bird- and animal-mimicking dances and songs of the Australian aborigine. Its sign is the totem — the man really Nature. Its religion is mana.

The crop-raising and herd-rearing tribe is an advance on this. It takes Nature into itself and changes Nature to conform with its own desires by domestication and taming. Its art is conventional and conative. It is the arbitrary decoration of Neolithic man or the elaborate rituals of African or Polynesian tribes. Its sign is the corn-god or the beast-god — Nature really man. Its religion is one of fetishes and spirits.

The introduction of Nature into the tribe leads to a division of labour and so to the formation of chiefs, priests and ruling classes. The choreagus detaches himself from the ritual and becomes an actor — an individual. The art depicts noble persons as well as gods. The chorus becomes an epic — a collective tale about individuals — and, finally, the lyric — an individual utterance. Man, already conscious, first of his difference, and then of his unity with Nature, now becomes conscious of his internal differences, because for the first time conditions exist for their realisation.

Thus the developing complex of society, in its struggle with the environment, secretes poetry as it secretes the technique of harvest, as part of its non-biological and specifically human adaptation to existence. The tool adapts the hand to a new function, without changing the inherited shape of the hands of humanity. The poem adapts the heart to a new purpose, without changing the eternal desires of men’s hearts. It does so by projecting man into a world of phantasy which is superior to his present reality precisely because it is a world of superior reality — a world of more important reality not yet revised, whose realisation demands the very poetry which phantastically anticipates it. Here is room for every error, for the poem proposes something whose very reason for poetical treatment is that we cannot touch, smell or taste it yet. But only by means of this illusion can be brought into being a reality which would not otherwise exist. Without the ceremony phantastically portraying the granaries bursting with grain, the pleasures and delights of harvest, men would not face the hard labour necessary to bring it into being. Sweetened with a harvest song, the work goes well. Just because poetry is what it is, it exhibits a reality beyond the reality it brings to birth and nominally portrays, a reality which though secondary is yet higher and more complex. For poetry describes and expresses not so much the grain in its concreteness, the harvest in its factual essence — which it helps to realise and which are the conditions for its own existence — but the emotional, social and collective complex which is that tribe’s relation to the harvest. It expresses a whole new world of truth — its emotion, its comradeship, its sweat, its long-drawn-out wait and happy consummation — which has been brought into being by the fact that man’s relation to the harvest is not instinctive and blind but economic and conscious. Not poetry’s abstract statement — its content of facts — but its dynamic role in society — its content of collective emotion — is therefore poetry’s truth.

[1] Cf. Ogden and Richards, Meaning of Meaning, and Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism

[2] French sociologist Marcel Granet, a follower of Durkheim, authored a semi-translation of the Classic of Poetry entitled Festivals and Songs of Ancient China. Despite it being an indirect Chinese-to-French-to-English translation, it’s widely considered the best of its kind. Granet’s thesis ignored the traditional Confucian gloss on the Classic of Poetry, and read them instead as folk songs and harvest songs and courting songs of the common folk. This resonance might help explain why sensitive figures in Chinese literature such as Jia Baoyu in Dream of the Red Chamber are partly characterized by their affinity for the Classic of Poetry over more doctrinaire Confucian works. — S. F.