Friday, 25 April 2014

The poetry of history

Molière's gentleman discovered that he'd been speaking prose all his life, but I think I may have discovered that I've been trying to write poetry. That, at least, is what I take from a lively paper at a conference yesterday hosted by Durham's Hearing the Voice project. Jules Evans spoke about poetry as a kind of shamanism, with reference to Ted Hughes in particular: the point being the experience that Hughes and other poets (not only poets) describe, that of entering an inner state of ecstasy, reverie or something similar, in which they can access voices or depths not normally available. These voices are not under the poet's control and are experienced as something other - an inspiration. What's more, poets, like shamans, are 'masters of both worlds': neither stuck lumpishly in this one, nor vanished so far into the inner world that they cannot come back. The poet is able not only to access these insights, visions or whatever, but also to bring them back to the everyday world and to fashion the experience into something that can be effectively communicated to others through an artistic medium. And the most accomplished wordsmith who does not travel into some inner world is not really a poet.

He concentrated on poetry, partly because of Hughes, partly because of Shelley's claim that poets are the world's unacknowledged legislators (which still sounds like sour grapes to me, but never mind). Still, at the end he asked if this poetic role was being taken by other media, film most obviously, which can invite the viewer into someone else's inner world.

I find this an appealing way to understand art defined very broadly, including the sort-of art-forms which I am involved with. The sermon can be understood in this way, I think, but I want to make a more outrageous claim: so can the best academic monographs. It made me realise that what I was trying to do in my most recent book, amongst other things, was to give voices to the dead: to converse with them and hear their critique of me and my own age, as well as to give mine of them and theirs.

No doubt I failed miserably, but I think this is part of what a good historian should be trying to do: to be master of both worlds. There is no substitute for the hard graft of scholarship: reading, deciphering, collating, checking, hunting, cross-referencing. History is after all a craft, and a rigorous one. But the history which I think is most worth reading, and the history which (however laughably) I aspire to write, is more than a craft. It genuinely hears the voice of its subjects, and draws its readers into their world - whether that world is a church, a battle, a parliament or a field.

Like all inspiration, this is not just hard to do: it can't actually be done at all. At best you can cultivate it. It happens or it doesn't; and then you make good use of it or you don't. We aren't used to thinking of scholarly achievement in those terms, and we don't train students to do so. Reverie and daydreaming don't have good presses. But I do recall as a doctoral student staring up blankly at the Bodleian Library's roof and seeing, again and again: Dominus illuminatio mea.