Monday, February 17, 2014

Chesterton on Poetry

In A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Made to Live, author Emily Freeman quotes G.K. Chesterton on the difference between poetry and reason.

“Poetry is sane,” Chesterton says, “because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

The first time I read that, I thought two things: first, it sounded just like Chesterton. And second, it appeared to be a salvo in the religion versus science debate. But on reflection, I don’t think it’s that at all. In fact, it makes perfectly good sense.

I just finished reading The Adam Quest by Tim Stafford, in which he profiles 11 scientists exploring human origins who also happen to be Christians. The 11 cross the range of understanding, from ardent creationists to equally ardent evolutionists. But whether it was Stafford’s unstated intention or not, they all sounded more like poets than they did what we think of as scientists. None of them sounded like someone seeking “to get the heavens into his head” (and not all were male, I should note).

What I think Chesterton is actually contrasting here is faith and reason, and he is putting the poets, and poetry, on the faith side of the ledger. The fact is that we, as the general mass of humanity, will never actually be able to “know everything.” Poets understand this, have made peace with it, and are comfortable floating in that “infinite sea.”

Those Chesterton calls logicians are not comfortable with this. They reject the notion of the infinite, replacing it with the “finite if not yet known.” They are confident all can be and will be made known.

It occurs to me that this may be another way of saying that logicians seek to understand and control, while poets seek to understand and accept. This is not an argument against science; far from it. But it is an argument against a certain kind of philosophy and belief, one that often shows up in the workplace. It includes the notion that we can control everything that happens in our work environment.

Freeman considers this idea of Chesterton’s, and recognizes there’s more to it than a surface reading (and I’ve only touched upon it here). She suggests we become comfortable with the idea of floating upon the infinite sea, and “show up within your limits.” Know yourself. Show up human. Show up authentic because, ultimately, it is our only choice.

“Showing up where you are with what you have is all you can do,” Freeman says.

The rest is pretense, and possibly self-deception.

Over at The High Calling, we’re discussing A Million Little Ways. Today’s post will be live at 2 p.m. Central time. Please visit to see what others are saying about the chapters on showing up, waiting, and offering.


Maureen said...

Have you read Krista Tippett's interviews with scientists? It's titled "Einstein's God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit". I think you might enjoy it, Glynn.

Megan Willome said...

Glynn, I needed this today as I'm in poetry research mode!

And Maureen's right on Krista Tippett.

Michael Dodaro said...

Great! Thanks, Glynn

Anonymous said...

that float by
with no end
in sight