The philosophical backgrounds of George Santayana's poetry
Fill, Ruth Madelyn
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Santayana's poems abound in mystery, in alien philosophy, and yet reflect the sentiments of the orthodox reader. His poems are indicative of his philosophy which was first expressed by them. His often quoted third sonnet is an expression of rational pessimism dispraising rather than praising faith. To understand his poesy we must understand him, his "Platonic" philosophy, and his aesthetic theory. His poems he calls an expression of the humors of winter hooted by an owl from his place in the heart of a black wood. His work may be divided into three periods, expressing his rational pessimism, his transcendentalism, his indifference. Santayana is a divided self, believing that art and poetry are in the realm of essence, that essence is real, matter unreal, that essence or spirit, lasts only as long as matter -- there being, therefore, no immortality and no God -- and that the intelligent lovers of truth and beauty should understand, transcend and rule the world. Of and from infinite variations, through animal faith, Santayana forms single essences which he believes to be superior to Plato's eternal and Absolute Idea which is imperfectly recollected and perceived in multiple imitation. Santayana scorns the Poetic intuition of Plato, to him an adumbration of divine attributes or Ideas not including pain, pleasure and hunger; and he judges with his own ideal of the common natural element of harmony: Plato preferred freeing his mind of physical aspects before attempting an intuition of wisdom. To establish Plato's Beauty as practical fitness does an injustice to its elements of eternal simplicity, good and harmony. Santayana accuses Protagorus of making man's nature his own arbiter of values, which leads to humanism and moral anarchy, he believes; Plato's noble character, though a lover of truth, may deceive his state for its own good. Is there nothing better to be said for Plato's truth? Santayana is right in calling Plato's Good harmony, wrong in calling it Plato's God. Plato's One and Many are related and bound into one system, Santayana's different approach to the essence, and animal faith, and his scepticism, keep him from understanding how matter could be created from the divine Ideas of Plato. Heaven is blameless for the life a man chooses. A middle ground is best between Plato's scorn of sensation and Santayana's scorn of what is not sensation. Santayana 's upside-down method of approaching ideas causes his philosophy to be less like Plato's and hardly a variant of it as he claims. Santayana has no theory of aesthetics, but he defines art, aesthetics, beauty, and ethics. Art is tradition, knack, pure intuition of essence, and pleasure. Aesthetics is harmony, intuitive contemplation, and disillusion, including all pleasures and pains, all perceptions of values, but not mere sensations (by perception elements appear as qualities). Beauty is a value of positive good. Intrinsic and objectified, Ethics is avoidance of evil and pursuit of good —- yet his moral and aesthetic values are the same. Aesthetic judgments are based on immediate experience; moral judgments on benefits involved: aesthetic sensativeness is more powerful for good in society than laborious virtue. There are three methods in ethics and aesthetics: didactic, historical, and psychological. Sight and hearing are the most important faculties in the perception of aesthetic values, vanity and proprietorship are concerned. Agreement on aesthetic matters is based on similarity of origin, nature and circumstances among men. An aesthetic value is not self-justified simply because it is aesthetic; usefulness should be present, too. Suspension of belief, which rises out of skepticism, is necessary to the artist —- he must see with an "arrested eye" if he is to portray the aesthetic object faithfully. The great danger in democracy is in its levelling of all to the average this levelling will soon kill all the aesthetic and beautiful, Santayana believes. The true expression of beautyis in life itself. Santayana's poems are written in almost all traditional forms, the Petrarchian sonnet being his favorite. They are often mysterious, obscure, and easily misinterpreted. They are rich in imagery and color and more Anglo-Saxon in style than his equally poetic but baroque prose. His altissima poetà combines Lucretius, Dante and Goethe, investigating truth and attempting to express it in the presence of all his own personal experience, and writing with more winged inspiration in verse than in heavy, reasoned, philosophical prose. Though few, if any, great but brief poems have been written, Santayana believes the long poem possible and greatest when it expresses all the poets affinity to the universe, saluting his ultimate destiny. The poet is a philosopher and the philosopher a poet. Again he says poetry is primitive and the descent to prose a progress. He does not approve of l'art pour l'art. He believes that literature should turn events into action. Platonic Love would vie for honors with Good as Santayana's supposedly Platonic God —- at least in Santayana's creative works. Perhaps he believed all Platonic Absolute Ideas to have one root -- this is an undeterminal concent, but comes close to a realization of the Divine Being. We do not have to agree with a poet to appreciate the beauty of his pursuit of truth. Santayana's poetry may outlive his prose, for it will remain of interest as a personal expression when his philosophy has been superceded if not disproved and forgotten. His poetry measures up to the critical standards of Poe, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Mathew Arnold, and is approved by lesser critics like Phillip Blair Rice and George Howgate. His linguistic style may be stilted, traditional, classical and over-descriptive, but it is his own and thereby exonerated.
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