Good poetry holds its truth and relevance throughout the ages. It may retail the facts and thinking of its own era, but part of it will always express what is eternally true and recognizable. In a jotting in one of his notebooks Thomas Hardy put the matter simply: “A poet should express the emotion of all the ages and the thought of his own.” John Livingston Lowes in his book Convention and Revolt in Poetry, published in 1919, wrote the following:
“The old themes are perennial. Love is as dazzling a miracle to every lover who loves today as if unnumbered millions hadn’t loved since time began. Death isn’t trite to you and me because it’s been the common lot since life first was; nor have the moon and stars grown old because uncounted centuries ago, besides the rivers of Babylon and Egypt, or among the hills and pasturelands of Israel, or in the wide stillness of Arabia, men saw them and brooded, and wondered, and dreamed. The oldest things in the world are the things that also have been new as many times as human beings have been born.”
There is something infinitely valuable, but as infinitely hard to express exactly, in what good poetry provides in mankind’s long voyage from and to who knows where. Rilke tells a story in which it is the sea and the distance that becomes the image of the poet’s reality. A rowing-boat sets out on a difficult passage. The oarsmen labour in exact rhythm. There is no sign yet of the destination. Suddenly a man, seemingly idle, breaks out into a song. And if the labour of the oarsmen meaninglessly defeats the real resistance of the real waves it is the idle singer who magically conquers the despair of apparent aimlessness. While the people next to him try to come to grips with the element that is next to them, his voice seems to bind the boat to the farthest distance so that the farthest distance draws the boat towards itself. ‘I don’t know why and how’, is Rilke’s conclusion, ‘but suddenly I understood the situation of the poet, his place and function in this age.’….