Mythopoetic thinking approaches cosmic reality first through a sure instinct that there exists a spontaneous accord between our spirit and that reality, then through the very quality which allows our spirit to grasp reality, not only from one specific and superficial viewpoint, but by means of a deep sympathy with its inner structure and its fundamental evolution.
Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought
I have a favorite poem that echoes experiences of mine. Did I have the experiences and recognize them in the poem or did I read the poem and then view my experiences through its powerful lens? Does it matter? The verses I recall are part of a reverie on death written by Conrad Aiken many years ago. I met Mr. Aiken when I was 14 or so (also many years ago) and became familiar with his story thanks to my best friend’s father, the poet Charles Philbrick. Mr Philbrick has passed some 40 years ago but many of my fondest summer memories of my youth were spent at his house on Blackfish Creek in South Wellfleet MA, growing up as the fifth boy in his family.
His son Steve had asked him to tell us the story again of Mr. Aiken and I recall his watching me as the tale unfolded. While I recall the overall narrative, the son finding his mother dead, shot by his insane father, the telling was punctuated by the words “Shot dead” and delivered in such a manner that in the stunned silence that followed there was great appreciation for the story teller who had mesmerized us with the telling. Steve was immensely proud of his Dad and I know that I had completely fallen under his powers, which tickled his fancy further. See, he seemed to be saying: This is what poets do. Some forty years ago and I can still recall the moment.
Meeting Mr. Aiken some time later was anti-climactic and finding some of his poems in my 20s was another byproduct of my youth. Tetélestai was a poem I memorized and could speak from memory. I read it at my father’s funeral, although it had little to do with us and more with my own darkness and sense of abandonment and despair.
Listen! …It says: ‘I lean by the river. The willows
Are yellowed with bud. White clouds roar up from the south
And darken the ripples; but they cannot darken my heart,
Nor the face like a star in my heart! …Rain falls on the water
And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,
The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart
Is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent.’
Listen again! …It says: ‘I have worked, I am tired,
The pencil dulls in my hand: I see through the window
Walls upon walls of windows with faces behind them,
Smoke floating up to the sky, an ascension of sea-gulls.
I am tired. I have struggled in vain, my decision was fruitless,
Why then do I wait? with darkness, so easy, at hand?
But tomorrow, perhaps… I will wait and endure till tomorrow!’…
Or again: ‘It is dark. The decision is made. I am vanquished
By terror of life. The walls mount slowly about me
In coldness. I had not the courage. I was forsaken.
I cried out, was answered by silence… Tetélestai!
I recalled it again when I read C.S. Lewis’ comments on mythopoeia: myths are ‘lies, he had thought and therefore worthless, ‘even though breathed through silver’. No,’ said Tolkien. ‘They are not lies.’ At that moment, Lewis later recalled, there was ‘a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We held our breath.’ Tolkien resumed, arguing that myths, far from being lies, were the best way of conveying truths which would otherwise be inexpressible. We have come from God, Tolkien argued, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbor, whereas materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to the abyss and to the power of evil.
Breathed through with silver… Rain falls on the water And pelts it, and rings it with silver. The willow trees glisten,The sparrows chirp under the eaves; but the face in my heart is a secret of music… I wait in the rain and am silent… At some point we realize with Lewis: “Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened: and one must be content to accept it in the same way, remembering that it is God’s myth where the others are men’s myths: i.e. the Pagan stories are God expressing Himself through the minds of poets, using such images as He found there, while Christianity is God expressing Himself through what we call ‘real things’.
Therefore it is true, not in the sense of being a ‘description’ of God (that no finite mind could take in) but in the sense of being the way in which God chooses to (or can) appear to our faculties. The ‘doctrines’ we get out of the true myth are of course less true: they are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in a language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.”
Is this not when, slowly, inevitably, we begin to read Scripture spiritually – in the sense of “in the spirit” – and then comprehend the “totality of the one Scripture,” as Benedict XVI calls it, not merely the mass of details contained in the Bible, but precisely the Gestalt-like pattern that it expresses itself in, and constitutes all such details. This pattern, in and through its details, is meant to illumine and transform our lives — as if every word of the Bible were written for us personally.
“Myth is a narrative or story, but it is no mere fable or expression of infantile consciousness. Its referents are objective reality and the innermost experience of man’s subjectivity. Myth moves in both of these ultimate directions at once as it narrates the sacred history of the origin of the world and of man. How stories can convey truth in ways that elude ordinary rational thought is a question worthy of great wonder and meditation. But if stories in general have this power, myth is characterized by stories that deliver truth in the most refined and compact narrative form. There is therefore no tension between myth and truth.
As John Paul II writes, “Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term “myth” does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content. Without any difficulty we discover that content, under the layer of the ancient narrative. It is really marvelous.”
It really comes about because human consciousness is fundamentally oriented to seeing ultimate reality as a unified whole and as essentially personal. The myth of the Fall is like this: much great imaginative literature is merely an articulation and ramification of this myth, deepening our understanding of its meaning and of ourselves as well as regards the qualities and the condensation of the truths contained in it. It took me a long while, all the way through my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50’s before I came to see that the poetry and stories I so deeply loved was the same stuff of scripture.
The new age nitwit in me had challenged scripture with some impossible to satisfy historical critical standard that held its existence as fact in abeyance while not understanding what mythopoeia actually was. When I finally linked the two, I became me, a Christian man fully alive in Christ. I think differently now. Still the same stupid brain, I guess, but one that stands alongside a bend in the river as the rain pelts my umbrella, transfixed by the face like a star in my heart.