¡°Unacknowledged Legislators¡±: Prophetic Poets from Chaucer to Today


An Sonjae / Brother Anthony


             What is the relationship of literature to life, of fiction to reality? More particularly, does poetry have anything to say that is of real and enduring value, does poetry really matter in today¡¯s world? Is it worth reading and, almost more important, is it worth writing poetry today? What are the poet¡¯s responsibilities? Faced with such lofty questions about literature¡¯s actuality, it might seem strange to begin with words written more than six hundred years ago. Yet there are reasons for beginning there. If people have read any part of Chaucer¡¯s Canterbury Tales, it will almost always have been the General Prologue. In it Chaucer starts by describing in considerable detail a number of the pilgrims with whom he finds himself setting out on his pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. They are initially defined by the work they do and are mostly known by their job: the Knight, Monk, Miller, Cook, and so on. Only a very few are given individual names, they are mainly identified by their social role. Despite the great differences between 14th-century England and modern society, the ¡°portraits¡± feel ¡°realistic¡± to most readers because the people are described ¡°warts and all¡± as the English say. They are mostly not ¡°mere stereotypes¡± and are certainly not perfect role-models. Above all, they seem really human.


Quite early on, we begin to notice that we are being given information suggesting that this or that pilgrim is a thief, a lecher, a far from model example of a churchman, or even perhaps a murderer. Yet the voice describing them never falters, never expresses any reticence or negative judgement. The word used most often to qualify the pilgrims is ¡°worthy¡± – used thirteen times! When it is used several times to qualify the knight, we are prepared to accept that Chaucer is impressed by such a high-class professional fighter; we are rather puzzled to find it used of the Friar just when we have learned that he refuses to care for poor people and lepers. The word ¡°good¡± is also kept busy, used for example to qualify the Shipman, a ¡°good fellow¡± who steals his passengers¡¯ wine while they are asleep and throws pirates who attack him into the sea, telling them to swim home. What makes Chaucer really modern is the stress he puts on money-earning ability. His descriptions are all about the capitalistic activities by which these individuals earn wealth, by fair means or foul; his world is a dynamic and competitive one, like ours, and full of opportunities to get ahead by being dishonest.


By the end of the portraits, we have begun to feel that Chaucer, the author of this human comedy, is asking his readers a serious question: ¡°What is a less-than-perfect human being worth?¡± After all, the word ¡°worthy¡± contains the word ¡°worth¡± within it, fairly obviously. By contrast, the Chaucer-figure who is telling the story of the pilgrims seems not to be at all interested in pre-judging their relative values, although he clearly knows that everybody does that. Rather, being of an immensely kind-hearted disposition, he seems ready to admire and respond positively to each person he meets, although there is a feeling of strained sympathy, of gritted teeth, when he is trying to be kind about the Pardoner and the Summoner who come at the end and seem particularly repulsive both physically and morally.


A lot of students, and some teachers too, tend to stop reading the General Prologue at the end of the portraits. They rather skim over the rest, where Harry Bailly, the landlord (Host) of the Tabard Inn where they have come together, expresses his admiration for the pilgrims and decides to join them. He is going to suggest a way of having some fun along the road to Canterbury, suggesting a story-telling contest as a way of avoiding boredom. Each pilgrim, he suggests, will tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. He, the jovial though not highly-educated Host, will then be the judge of which of them has told the ¡°best¡± tales, ¡°Tales of best sentence and moost solaas,¡± (798). That pilgrim will be rewarded by a free supper at the end of the pilgrimage, paid for by all the rest. Such contests were a familiar part of the activities of literary groups in England and France, but there is obvious irony in the way the highly-experienced author and literary figure Geoffrey Chaucer attributes this initiative and the judging role to the very un-literary Harry Bailly, presenting himself as a rather stupid, unimaginative guy who can do nothing more than report what other people say and do.


Equally significant is the little word ¡°and¡± between ¡°best sentence¡± and ¡°moost solaas.¡± Both these terms are unfamiliar in modern English. ¡°Sentence¡± might be replaced by ¡°meaning¡± or ¡°content¡± or even ¡°significant, serious message¡± and ¡°solaas¡± by ¡°fun¡± or ¡°entertainment value.¡± Chaucer knows, and expects his readers to know that since classical times there had been a tension between the two obvious reasons for telling a story, or writing anything: to teach or to entertain. Harry Bailly informs the pilgrims that on their return he is going to be the judge as to which has told the best tales, but he shows no awareness of any need to decide first whether ¡°a good story¡± is one that teaches the audience something serious about life, or one that makes them roar with laughter. His ¡°and¡± too unthinkingly conflates instruction and pleasure. Chaucer clearly expects his readers to notice this potential confusion, for one of the most important features of the diversity of tales contained in his unfinished collection, stressed by the often stormy exchanges between pilgrims that precede and sometimes interrupt the tales, is the difference between a tale told with a didactic intention regardless of the audience¡¯s wishes or response, and one told with the goal of pleasing an audience at all costs.


I would like to see a connection between these two aspects of Chaucer¡¯s work. The portraits of the individual pilgrims in the General Prologue often suggest imperfections, sometimes serious moral failings, yet keep reminding us that we do not always feel the strongest affection for the most perfect people. Chaucer is so positive about everyone. Perhaps because our own humanity is also flawed, we are easily taken in by and respond positively to people we know to be wretches, rascals, or rogues. ¡°He¡¯s a good fellow!¡± and ¡°That was a good story!¡± come together to indicate our usual unwillingness to think clearly enough about the word ¡°good.¡± ¡°That¡¯s a good story / fellow because I like it / him / her.¡± In the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the two exclamations come together because we can often sense strongly that each portrait is the condensation of an otherwise untold tale.


Chaucer was doing something in writing those portraits that has perhaps never been bettered, his art is amazing. Everyone notices a sense of ¡°realism¡± in the way each portrait follows a different pattern. The pilgrims come alive in a way that has often been considered to look forward to the ¡°characters¡± much more recent novel. In reaction, in recent decates scholars have talked about ¡°estates satire¡± and the ways in which other medieval writers wrote to pinpoint failings and encourage reform in the practice of social exchanges. This can be valuable, but in the end, it seems clear that Chaucer is not interested in mere satire. The way Chaucer writes the portaits includes the use of ¡°indirect reported speech.¡± At several points we seem to hear the voice of the pilgrim talking, telling self-justifying tales about himself or herself. In the Monk¡¯s portrait, we read lines in which he can be heard defending his very un-monastic life-style: ¡°He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,¡± (177) and the sense of hearing his actual words is only strengthened by echoes of Chaucer¡¯s response: ¡°And I seyde his opinion was good.¡± (183). Often, the portraits are presented as if they were based on the way each person has spoken of himself. Now there are very few people who speak negatively of themselves to a sympathetic stranger; yet through what people say, we may often get a picture other than the one they want to give. A complete fool may reveal himself to us as such while believing that he is displaying great wisdom. It is very important to practice discernment while listening to the things people say about themselves. It may sound very convincing and plausible; it may all be quite untrue. Especially when the words are written as fiction by a very clever author.


This is the basis of what is often known as ¡°Lucianic Satire¡± from the name of the writer who composed the finest classical examples, and the most important work in English literature inspired by him is Book 2 of More¡¯s Utopia. Here, we have an intensely positive account of life in Utopia. Generations of readers have done as More feared they would, and assumed that they were expected by the author, the great Sir Thomas More, to share the narrator¡¯s admiration for the manner of living being described, forgetting that the person speaking this account is not Henry VIII¡¯s Lord High Chancellor and Catholic martyr-saint Thomas More, but an uneducated though well-intentioned sailor, Raphael Hythloday, whose given name may be that of a truth-telling archangel, while his family name means ¡°speaker of nonsense.¡± The companion work to More¡¯s Utopia, Erasmus¡¯s Praise of Folly, works on much the same principle, with Folly being not only the topic of the praise but also the speaker of it; both men had taken delight in translating from the Greek works by the said Lucian, which employ the same technique, that of the often unconsciously unreliable ¡°speaking¡± narrator.


Chaucer, who surely had never heard of Lucian, was to employ the same technique in his two great ¡°dramatic monologues,¡± the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue and the Pardoner¡¯s Prologue. The idea for those extended ¡®self-tales¡¯ is an obvious extension of what begins in the General Prologue¡¯s portraits, though in the first case there is also some influence from a similarly self-admiring speaker, La Vieille in the Romance of the Rose. In all these cases, the subtle and invisible author¡¯s work can only be read as he hopes if he finds ¡°fit readers,¡± people with the wit, the intelligence to see beyond appearances and discern, judge, evaluate what is being said in terms other than those of the potentially self-deluded speaking persona. If the reader is not thinking, challenging, bringing other perspectives, he will end up like the reporting pilgrim Chaucer, who is so taken in by the Monk¡¯s self-justifying narrative that he can be heard confirming his options, (which are fundamentally incompatible with the demands of the monastic life):


And I seyde his opinion was good.

What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood,

Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure,

Or swynken with his handes, and laboure, 

As Austyn bit? how shal the world be served? (184-7)


He seems completely to be forgetting that ¡°serving the world¡± is not something that a monk should be doing, even if he is from a high-class family. ¡°Fit readers¡± must not be so indulgent. Yet few ¡°normal¡± people automatically feel sympathy for aescesis, discipline and self-denial, when the alternative is to have a good time and enjoy yourself to the full. Chaucer¡¯s repsonse to the Monk is that of the majority; yet that does not make it right.


Now Chaucer¡¯s (unspoken) wish for fit, discerning and intelligent readers, should be set alongside the work which most closely resembles the Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio¡¯s Decameron. It seems inconceivable that Chaucer was not influenced by it, but there is no evidence that he knew it. Perhaps someone in Italy told him about it, describing the framing structure and the story-telling competition. That would have been enough. The most important point is not the similarity but the difference. For in Boccaccio¡¯s work, there is no sense of a tension or contradiction between ¡°sentence¡± and ¡°solaas.¡± The only thing all the gay young folk gathered to escape the plague and death seem to want is fun, entertainment, laughter, ¡°solaas¡±. The famous tales that explain why the Decameron is still popular are all naughty ones, inspired by the fabliau tradition, about sex and successful trickery.


Such tales are found in the Canterbury Tales too, of course, and are equally popular among lovers of humour. Indeed, the Miller¡¯s Tale is widely recognized as one of the world¡¯s greatest comic masterpieces. But the Canterbury Tales equally includes the Nun¡¯s Tale relating the life and martyrdom of St. Cecilia, an officially canonized saint, and ends with the Parson¡¯s Tale, a solemn theological treatise on sin and forgiveness delivered after the Parson has fiercely refused to tell any kind of entertaining story at all. A lot of Chaucer¡¯s intentions are uncertain, because he never completed the work, but left it in a broken, fragmentary form, tales without links or clearly identified tellers, pilgrims with tales barely begun or no tales at all.


Only one thing seems clear. By introducing the ¡°literary contest¡± with the two conflicting categories of ¡°sentence¡± and ¡°solaas¡± at the start, he is encouraging his readers to be constantly evaluating the tale they are reading, and comparing it to others in those terms. In particular, by the subtle connection between teller and tale, and the dramatized tensions between different pilgrims, he reminds us of the techniques by which speakers attempt to influence their audience. Sincerity and Truth, we know, are often less important than success, especially in election campaigns and literary contests. Telling people what they want to hear, rather than what they ought to hear is usually the key to popularity. After all, they poisoned Socrates and crucified Jesus for their refusal to do just that.


In its present shape, the Canterbury Tales ends with the Parson¡¯s Tale, there is no sign of a return to London, Harry Bailey¡¯s judgement and a joyful, drunken banquet. Instead, the Parson¡¯s Tale is directly followed by a short note, known as the Retractions, in which Chaucer surveys his total work in the light of Eternity and distinguishes between the solaas-tending works, ¡°translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke¡± (he appends a list, including Troilus and the Canterbury Tales, or at least ¡°Thilke that sownen into synne¡±) but he is proud of his serious, sentence-inclined writing ¡°of the translacion of Boece De Consolacione, and othere bookes of legendes of seintes, and omelies and moralitee, and devocioun./ that thanke I oure Lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful mooder, and alle the seintes of hevene.¡±


In other words, Harry Bailly¡¯s plan is inspired by a secular view of time and life, a pilgrimage being to him nothing but a journey out and back, the after being much the same as the before, a system in which judgement is simply a matter of ¡°knowing what I like.¡± By contrast, the structure of the Canterbury Tales that Chaucer has left us, with the Parson¡¯s Tale at the unexpected end, stands to remind readers that in the Christian view, each human life is a never-ending pilgrimage, one that only reaches its goal when death comes, usually before we are fully prepared. Judgement and reward in this case are not the affair of Harry Baily with cakes and ale for all, but the affair of God after we die, with Heaven and Hell the extreme alternatives.


This is stressed by the presence of so many religious figures among the pilgrims, and the many references to Christianity in the Tales. Apart from the Parson and his Plowman brother, who are indeed shining examples of Christian living, the Church-related figures are all less than perfect models of their Christian calling. The Prioress is mostly interested in behaving like a seductive courtly lady, the Friar in making money, the Monk in hunting, all three of them are too fond of good food and drink, while the Summoner and the Pardoner are a corrupt, monstrous pair about whom even good pilgrim Chaucer finds it hard to be kind. We are constantly being reminded that human life is in need of God¡¯s saving Grace, that people are most of the time busy doing the things they ought not to do but very much want do, and trying to forget the commandments of God. It is surely no accident that at the very climax of the Miller¡¯s Tale, when the lusty young wife of old John the Carpenter is busy in bed with Hende Nicolas the student lodger, while her husband is lying asleep exhausted in a tub hung high up in the roof, expecting to survive a new Noah¡¯s Flood, the narrator introduces an unexpected reference to the prayers of the friars in a convent outside the walls of the house:


And thus lith Alison and Nicholas,

In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas,

Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge,

And freres in the chaunsel gonne synge. (3653 –6)


The celebration of God¡¯s salvation coincides with a moment of human depravity. Chaucer¡¯s depiction of various humanity is in many ways not so unlike that found in the later Enlish Augustan poets, full of the most amazing contradictions, as Pope says at the start of Book 2 of the Essay on Man:


Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused, or disabused;

Created half to rise, and half to fall;

Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (13 – 18)


But Chaucer is less simply a moral satirist inclined to scoff at human foibles than Pope was. We can come closer to Chaucer¡¯s way of seeing human life by examining his references to other works of literature. We saw that the simply aesthetic criteria of the contest in Boccaccio¡¯s Decameron do not correspond to the moral and religious dimensions of the Canterbury Tales. This might be because Chaucer¡¯s imagination is being informed by memories of another work he had read.


The portraits of the pilgrims, with their brief echoes of self-inculpating autobiographical tales, might be thought to have some relation to the much longer series of encounters, equally containing portraits with brief evocations of complex human stories, comprising Dante¡¯s journey through Inferno and Purgatory to Paradise in the Commedia. We know that Chaucer had a deep understanding of Dante¡¯s work by the way he uses it as an ironic subtext to his Troilus. Chaucer, however, goes in the opposite direction to Dante, and refuses to condemn or judge anyone. Here it is worth stressing the greatest difference between the two: everyone that Dante meets on his great journey is already dead and judged. All the figures whom Chaucer memorializes in the Canterbury Tales are alive, and remain alive for ever by the power of the literary text, still today engaged in the human adventure of making choices and advancing through the pilgrimage of human life as best they can. Their words and deeds will ultimately be subject to judgement by God, and they ought to know that, but instead of God, Chaucer entrusts that necessary evaluation and discernment to each individual reader. Chaucer¡¯s is a poetry of life.


Modern authors, since the 18th century, have mostly decided that readers should not be allowed too much freedom, and have filled their narratives with words and devices designed to do the work of evaluating and judging for them. Chaucer is amazingly modern in the way he gives equal weight and value to multiple voices without ever suggesting that all actions and every way of living or speaking are of equal value and validity. There are good deeds and bad deeds, good people and bad people, he agrees, just as there are good stories and not-so-good stories. Only the decision as to which is which belongs to the generality of his readers, whose qualities of judgement and discrimination need to be honed by a touchstonethat no mere author can offer. Each person must decide in their own heart what are the values by which he or she lives, and reads.


Chaucer was aware that Christians should never be idealists since humanity is known to be sinful, but it is redeemed by grace and love, and may not be not condemned out of hand on the basis of inflexible, impossible moral laws. Dryden was speaking of that breadth of heart and vision when he said of Chaucer that ¡°in him was God¡¯s plenty.¡± It is possible to suggest that Chaucer¡¯s readers, by becoming ¡°fit readers¡± become better human beings at the same time, so long as they apply the same criteria of judgement to themselves as they do to the books they read and the people they meet there. It may be that depth of compassionate understanding, rather than his depictions of corruption in the Church, that explains why in the 16th century Chaucer was considered to have been a ¡°prophetic poet,¡± a label later applied to Edmund Spenser and John Milton. The Christian prophet is, after all, not so much a fortune-teller as a ¡°seer,¡± one who sees the real value of each person clearly and well in the light of God¡¯s truth, speaking it out among all the confusions of human reality and public opinion. To be a poet, according to that, is a high vocation indeed.


Three key words stand out in this context, and will be our guide for the remaining discussion: poet, prophet, portrait.


Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration, the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present, the words which express what they understand not, the trumpets which sing to battle and feel not what they inspire: the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World.


             Those are the words with which Percy Bysshe Shelley ended the first part of his Defence of Poetry. Early in Part One, he had anticipated the same theme by reference to the past:


Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared were called in the earlier epochs of the world legislators or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the forms of the flower and the fruit of latest time.


What Shelley saw was that immensely serious vocation of the poet; what he failed to recall, it seems, is the humiliation, suffering, rejection and inglorious fate suffered by most of the Old Testament prophets, and not only those. The great writer Osip Mandelstam once boasted that it was only in the Soviet Union that ¡°they really respect poetry—they kill because of it. More people die for poetry here than anywhere else.¡± (quoted in Clare Cavanagh, 175) and we might wish to refer to Czeslaw Milosz¡¯s The Captive Mind (1953) in which he wrote: ¡°In Central and Eastern Europe, the word ¡®poet¡¯ has a somewhat different meaning from what it has in the West. There a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ¡®bard,¡¯ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.¡± The poet as prophet, indeed.


However, a contemporary ¡°prophetic¡± poet, the British poet Christopher Hill, has argued (See: Hill, ¡°Language, Suffering, and Silence¡± 252-3) that Milosz is proposing a fundamentally flawed view of poetry, one first formulated by Schiller in the words ¡°The right art is that alone, which creates the highest enjoyment.¡± We find ourselves back at the tension between ¡°sentence¡± and ¡°solaas.¡± Matthew Arnold was persuaded by Schiller¡¯s essentially ¡°aesthetic valuation¡± of the finality of poetry to omit from the 1853 edition of his Poems his lyrical drama Empedocles on Etna on the grounds (stated in the ¡°Preface¡±) that the work deals with a situation ¡°in which the suffering finds no vent in action; . . . in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done¡± and concluding that this was not ¡°a representation from which men can derive enjoyment.¡± It should therefore not be republished.


             Hill recalls how W. B. Yeats, editing The Oxford Book of Modern Verse: 1892-1935 in 1936, excluded virtually all the poets of the First World War and justified that by quoting Arnold¡¯s decision, which he expounded in his own words: ¡°passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.¡± Famously, W. H. Auden tried to supply an answer to that in the second section of his elegy ¡°In Memory of W. B. Yeats¡±:


             You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:

       The parish of rich women, physical decay,

       Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

       Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,

       For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

       In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

       A way of happening, a mouth.


Hill writes: ¡°Auden perhaps meant to say that the achieved work of art is its own sufficient act of witness. If that is what he meant, I agree with him . . .¡± (254) Hill refers to his project ¡°to propose a theology of language¡± and he quotes a sermon by G. M. Hopkins:


To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hands, a woman with a sloppail, give him glory too, He is so great that all things give him glory if you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live


Hill concludes: ¡°Hopkins, with Victorian aesthetics at his fingertips, sometime pupil of Walter Pater, leans away from the aesthetics equation, takes the weight of the more awkward stresses of a world which, in justice, contains aesthetics as a good, but is not to be either ruled or saved by them.¡± (255)


Returning to Shelley¡¯s ¡°unacknowledged legislator,¡± we find him drawn into the first poem in Part Two of Seamus Heaney¡¯s 1975 collection North in a rather strange way. The prose poem¡¯s title is ¡°The Unacknowledged Legislator¡¯s Dream¡± and it evokes images of the poet as revolutionary and political prisoner, but also as a combination of Archimedes and Tarzan:


I sink my crowbar in a chink I know under the masonry of state and statute, I swing on a creeper of secrets into the Bastille. My wronged people cheer from their cages. The guard-dogs are unmuzzled, a soldier pivots a muzzle at the butt of my ear, I am stood blindfolded with my hands above my head until I seem to be swinging from a strappado


The problem is that this is only a dream; yet the poem was written at a time when very similar events were happening in fact in many countries, as Osip Mandelstam and Czeslaw Milosz had pointed out.


In Korea, Ko Un had by 1975 begun his involuntary visits to police cells and interrogation rooms. Seamus Heaney was never in prison. Neither was Geoffrey Hill, and for Hill that constitutes one element in a seemingly endless problem. In the article we have been quoting, he writes ¡°the art and literature of the late twentieth century require a memorializing, a memorizing of the dead¡±. There can be no doubt that Hill¡¯s poetry has pursued that task, for which he feels an almost obsessive responsibility. The dead whom Hill most frequently memorializes are the Jewish dead of the Shoah, or the Germans who tried to assassinate Hitler; there are other poems in which he is looking further back, to the dead of the Renaissance or the Middle Ages.


Since the theme of poets in prison has emerged, there would be some point in quoting Hill¡¯s ¡°Four Poems Regarding the Endurance of Poets,¡± the first being ¡°Men are a Mockery of Angels¡± in memory of ¡°Tommaso Campanella, priest and poet¡±:


Some days a shadow through

The high window shares my

Prison. I watch a slug

Scale the glinting pit-side

Of its own slime The cries

As they come are mine; then

God¡¯s: my justice, wounds, love,

Derisive light, bread, filth.


To lie here in my strange

Flesh while glutted Torment

Sleeps, stained with its prompt food,

Is a joy past all care

Of the world, for a time.

But we are commanded

To rise, when, in silence,

I would compose my voice.


Here Hill makes no pretence of being himself in prison, but affirms his duty to evoke others who were, by application of the imagination. Likewise in ¡°Christmas Trees¡±:


Bonhoeffer in his skylit cell

bleached by the flares¡¯ candescent fall,

pacing out his own citadel,


restores the broken themes of praise,

encourages our borrowed days,

by logic of his sacrifice.


Against wild reasons of the state

his words are quiet but not too quiet.

We hear too late or not too late.


The difficulty of speech is inherent in prophecy, since the prophet must say what cannot be expressed. It is impossible to separate the prophet from the message, and the message from its (often flawed) reception. The prophet never articulates majority opinions, yet the office of the prophet is to speak truth, the demands of justice. The social dimension thus arises, since prophecy is never private but communal and ethical, if not always explicitly religious.


             In his volume Canaan (1996), Hill includes a series of freely structured sonnets under the title De Jure Belli ac Pacis, originally the title of a proposal by the Dutch statesman and jurist Hugo Grotius (1583 – 1645) for maintaining peace in Europe. This sequence commemorates Hans-Bernd von Haeften who was executed in 1944 for his involvement in the Hitler assassination plot. He was a lawyer and diplomat, as well as a Christian who, when asked why he had wanted to kill Hitler, replied: ¡°Becuase I consider the Führer the executor of evil in history¡± (quoted by Jeffrey Wainwright in his article ¡®History as Poetry¡¯ , in Agenda 34.2. 60). In the fourth poem, the poet evokes a vist to the execution shed in the prison:


In Plötzensee where you were hanged

                                                     they now hang

tokens of reparation and in good faith

compound with Cicero¡¯s maxims, Schiller¡¯s chant,

your silenced verities.

                                        To the high-minded

base-metal forger of this common Europe,

community of parody, you stand ec-

centric as a prophet. There is no better

vision that I can summon: you were upheld

on the strong wings of the Psalms before you died.

Evil is not good¡¯s absence but gravity¡¯s

everlasting bedrock and its fatal chains

inert, violent, the suffrage of our days.


Hill has inherited the Modernist love of indirection, of difficulty, of obscure and learned reference. The prophet is here not the poet but the subject, von Haeften; he is ¡°ec-centric¡± because like all prophets he does not go with the crowd, he is ¡°marginal¡± and non-conformist but essentially right and ¡°centered¡± in his vision of what is right – the prophet is the unacceptable ¡°sooth-sayer / truth-speaker¡±. Von Haeften had been trying to formulate, like Grotius, ways in which the various countries of Europe might be able to live together in enduring peace after the war. For Hill, today¡¯s European ¡°Community,¡± with money (not values) its ultimate concern, is a source of anger and contempt. Hill clearly sees a reflection of himself in the prophetic figure he writes about.


             Hill has published much more poetry recently, with The Triumph of Love and Speech! Speech! only confirming his reputation as a ¡°difficult¡± poet. It is hard to know if critics are justified in sometimes turning against him, since a poet can by definition only write the poems that seem right. Hill expressed the problem very neatly near the beginning of Canaan, in a poem with a challengingly long title:


That Man as a Rational Animal Desires The Knowledge Which Is His Perfection


Abiding provenance I would have said

the question stands

               even in adoration

clause upon clause

               with or without assent

reason and desire on the same loop --

I imagine singing I imagine


getting it right -- the knowledge

of sensuous intelligence

         entering into the work --

spontaneous happiness as it was once

given our sleeping nature to awake by

                          and know

innocence of first inscription


There is certainly a constant, deep anxiety underlying Hill¡¯s work, about the poet¡¯s reponsibility to try to ¡°get it right¡± and Hill is often put in the company of England¡¯s ¡°prophetic poets¡± – Milton and Blake being the leading figures. With them, it becomes easier to see why Shelley¡¯s ¡°unrecognized legislators¡± is an unhelpful term for the poet. Our recognized legislators are the members of an elected house; persons chosen by the majority of adults in society are elected to be Members of Parliament. In the first, twenty-seventh, and final poems of Canaan (1996) Hill denounced the corruptions and compromises of the modern Parliament in darkly veiled but bitter tones, in three poems with the same title: ¡°To the High Court of Parliament.¡±


The prophetic poet (of whom there are few) seems destined to inherit Cassandra¡¯s curse; a ¡°popular prophet¡± would be a contradiction in terms. The truth may set us free, that freedom is mostly ¡°caviar for the general¡±. It would be dangerous to be misled by the elevated position of Milton and Blake in the current literary canon of England. They are by now safely dead and silent; they cannot proclaim disquieting views on today¡¯s issues unless we permit them to do so by indirect influence. Both stand in accepted memory as strong dissenters, and ultimately unheard messengers. Both passed through prison and even danger of death on account of things they had said and written.


The Korean word ¿¹¾ðÀÚ is a less than satisfying translation for ¡°prophet¡±. True, it has some relationship with Shelley¡¯s ¡°mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present¡± but that is not to say that the prophet is mainly concerned to predict the future. For that we go to the astrologer and fortune-teller. A ¡°prophetic poet¡± is not one who claims to know and describe what the coming times hold. Neither is it enough to denounce, vehemently or indirectly, the failings of the present, for that is the task of the satirist and social critic. The Old Testament prophets to whom the English terminology looks back are men (women had no voice at that time in that society, it seems) whose words were found, in retrospect, to have spoken God¡¯s truth at a time marked by official lies, to have warned of a coming judgement with the corresponding need for repentance, and to have indicated the need for memory of God¡¯s unchanging ways to men whose lives were marked by fickleness and forgetfulness. The prophets¡¯ words and their lives were one, not least because of the persecution and rejection they had to endure on account of their unwelcome message, against which they themselves at times struggled.


             It is time for Ko Un to come into the picture. He comes in first of all by way of his prison cell, evoked in the poem ¡°Sunlight¡± from the collection ¡°Homeland Stars¡± of 1984:




It's absolutely inevitable!

So just take a deep breath

and accept this adversity.

But look!

A distinguished visitor deigns to visit

my tiny north-facing cell.

Not the chief making his rounds, no,

but a ray of sunlight as evening falls,

a gleam no bigger than a crumpled stamp.

A sweetheart fit to go crazy about.

It settles there on the palm of a hand,

warms the toes of a shyly bared foot.

Then as I kneel and, undevoutly,

offer it a dry, parched face to kiss,

in a moment that scrap of sunlight slips away.

After the guest has departed through the bars,

the room feels several times colder and darker.

This military prison special cell

is a photographer's darkroom.

Without any sunlight I laughed like a fool.

One day it was a coffin holding a corpse.

One day it was altogether the sea.

A wonderful thing!

A few people survive here.


Being alive is a sea

without a single sail in sight.


             With this poem by this poet, we are able to make an important distinction among our poets. Shelley, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill were never seriously in danger of ending their lives in a prison cell, perhaps not even of entering one. For them, the prisoners, like the prophets, are other people, whom they feel called to ¡°memorialize¡± in their poetic ministry of memory. The figure of the East European poets evoked by Milosz and Mandelstam, united with millions of non-poets in their potential anihilation, stands far closer to the often-imprisoned Ko Un of the 1970s and early 1980s than any modern British or Irish poet. Perhaps conscientious objection will again become a necessary course in the America of Bush; in that case, as during the Vietnam War, we may hope to see poets serving as the speakers of unwelcome truth and accused of verbal terrorism on that account. But that is the future.


The theorists and critics begin to shift uneasily at this point. The true qualities of a poem, they murmur, have surely got nothing to do with the poet¡¯s biography or political opinions? Having been in prison does not make a poet a better poet. That can hardly be denied in theory, and yet it does make a difference, in that such poets¡¯ writings become part of a historic witness to truth. That is something we cannot forget, just as the fact that Geoffrey Hill has left the United Kingdom for what is obviously a well-paid job at Boston University is bound to affect our reponse to those of his poems in which he claims to be concerned about corruption and bribery in British politics. In Korea, critical orthodoxy remains strongly ideological and often vindictive; it is no secret that Korean responses to the poetry of Ko Un are often deeply affected by personal considerations that have nothing to do with his writing.


Is it possible to view Ko Un as a ¡°prophet¡± or as an ¡°unacknowledged legislator¡±? In the senses outlined previously, I would have thought so. Shelley¡¯s poets / prophets are ¡°mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present;¡± many poets are not, they write in celebration of the immediate present, of experiences within the current order of reality, or in many cases draw on experiences now far back in the past – we might recall the excessive number of poems by Seamus Heaney recalling his not very interesting childhood. Certainly. Ko Un has written many such poems, too. Many poets do.


The prophet–poet emerges, not by self-appointment or by writing a certain kind of poetry, but by recognition. Prophets do not aspire to or claim the title, it is cast upon them in response to something within their work, a quality that is not of their own choice or making. In the case of Ko Un and Korea, this recognition is complicated by shadows cast by memories of a younger Ko Un. He admits freely to a long period in his personal life in relationship with others as well as in his writing, when he showed a side that might best be qualified as ¡°diabolical.¡± It is important not to eliminate that truth, either. But the experience of imprisonment evoked in the poem just quoted has to be seen in its full perspective. This was no simple arrest after a demonstration. Included in the lists of hundreds of people to be taken away at the start of Chun Doo-Hwan¡¯s coup in May 1980, Ko Un was condemned to life imprisonment after an initial period of such isolation and insecurity that he became convinced that he might be taken out and shot without warning at any moment.


That experience, although much less radical than that of Dostoievsky who was actually brought out to the firing-squad in a psychodrama of unimaginable cruelty, marks an equally or even more radical turn in Ko Un¡¯s life and work. When he was liberated in August 1982, he brought out with him the concept for the Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives) series. In prison, confronting the possibility of imminent death, he had become aware of himself as a locus of historic, social and national memory. Buddhism contains suggestions of the immense and lasting significance of every human contact, be it the mere passing touch of a sleeve, within the structures of relationship known as karma. At the same time, Ko Un was strongly aware of the need to affirm that Korea¡¯s history must not be seen as a succession of brutal dictators and incompetent administrations; Korea (like any land) is the sum total of its population, and the nameless, voiceless masses are only nameless and voiceless to the elite who fear them. A host of names and voices remained alive in the memories that Ko Un began to recover in the solitude of his cell. He felt it was his human duty to ensure that each of those names and voices should be recorded in the only way open to him, within poems, raised beyond the merely anecdotal by the nature of the poetic achievement.


A second major transformation effected in the prison cell remains more controversial but, for Ko Un, equally essential. Looking back on the poetry he had written since 1960, he became convinced that many of his poems contained elements that should be purged, that somehow compromised the artistic and moral integrity of his work. In 1983, therefore, he published a complete collection of his previous poetic works, radically revised, with many poems rewritten, shortened, transformed or deleted entirely. In future, he demanded, this should be the only form of his poems in use, earlier versions should not be republished or quoted. He himself no longer possesses copies of previous editions.


             A third event in his post-prison life, of a different order and more private but also significant in the light of his previous extremely disordered, immoral, and destructive life-style, was his marriage in May 1983, his move away from the noise and pollutions of Seoul to the calm of a rural village, and this was crowned in 1985 by the birth of a daughter.


             Ko Un is perceptibly deaf. Many prophets, like Tiresias, have been blind seers; Ko Un is a deaf witness to voices heard clearly by the heart through a whole lifetime. His deafness has two separate causes; the hearing in one ear he destroyed himself, when he poured poison into it while attempting suicide early in the Korean War. The suffering he had experienced, the cruelty and violence he witnessed, provoked an invicible despair. His wounded psyche was to some degree restored through the silence of Zen meditation during his ten years as a monk. His other ear was severely damaged by blows inflicted after his arrest in 1979, for being involved in social protests. Thanks to skillful surgery an artificial eardrum restored some degree of hearing but for a time Ko Un, like Beethoven and Goya, was enclosed in a wall of silence.


             The theme of intolerable suffering has raised its fearful head; Hill is perhaps being specially honest in his highly indirect and almost abstract discussion of suffering and poetry, for it is a realm not easily approached from the comforts of Boston University, or of today¡¯s England that is no longer home to ¡°satanic mills¡±. The biography of Ko Un, speaking of his late teenage years, relates: ¡°He witnessed rape and murder by the Communists, then the South Korean Army exe¡©cuted those it suspected of being Communist collaborators, including Ko Un¡¯s family mem¡©bers, neighbors, friends, and his first love. He was or¡©dered to transport corpses, carrying them on his back for many nights.¡± Truth and justice unite in the face of this to demand that the poet¡¯s life be seen as integral to his poetry. That life is the vesture of whatever prophetic function Ko Un may be called to exercise. Schiller, Arnold and Yeats have nothing to say to someone who has been in such places and survived to write poetry.


The tale continues to its second turning-point. In the early autumn of 1970, Ko Un quietly set about his fourth attempt at suicide, in the hills north of Seoul. He was found by chance, already unconscious, by a group of soldiers and, by even greater chance, was found to have some money, more precisly a publisher¡¯s cheque in his wallet, a result of his writing, which permitted his admission to hospital. Equal chance had written the telephone number of his publishers on the back of cheque. So when he recovered consciousness 40 hours later, friends were sitting beside him. His first words to them were a joke.


The last months of 1970 were truly a turning point for Ko Un. Soon after his suicide attempt, his publishers received a telegramme asking them to tell Ko Un that his father had died. He had last seen him and the rest of his family in 1952, when he became a monk. He had never said anything about his origins or family to anyone after that. Returning to Seoul from a visit to his mother, he now began for the first time to speak to his friends of his family and childhood. The third event of major importance followed almost at once. In mid-November 1970, a young worker in the garment industry workshops around Seoul¡¯s Tongdae-mun, Chong T¡¯ae-il, committed suicide by self-immolation, demanding respect for workers¡¯ rights. Ko Un happened, by chance, to pick up and read a newspaper reporting his gesture. He had gone back to his life of wild drinking, sleeping anywhere, little interested in the wider world. He found himself deeply touched by the fact that that young worker had died when he, Ko Un, was still alive after trying four times to kill himself. Why? he asked himself. This marked the beginning of a profound change in Ko Un¡¯s life, the end of his desire to kill himself and the start of his concern with social questions that found its full direction with the declaration of the Yushin Reforms a year later, in December 1972. Ko Un¡¯s years as leading dissident spokesman that followed this were the direct reason for his arrest and condemnation in May 1980.


That narrative is a necessary background to any understanding of the image of the prophetic poet in prison at the start of the 1980s. It locates Ko Un¡¯s life (and particularly the suffering undergone in that life) within a wider national history at critical moments. The loss of almost all sense of this kind of collective involvement in a national or social identity and history is one of the hallmarks of what can only be termed the fragmented individualism of modern England. It could be argued that Irish, Scottish and Welsh writers are likely to feel far more part of their nations¡¯ history and collective identity.


A prophetic voice speaks out of, in and through a suffering that is not a matter of mere individual misfortune. When Korea¡¯s Shin Kyong-Nim wrote the poems of his first collection Nongmu (Farmers¡¯ Dance) he used a collective ¡°we¡± in many poems. This provoked critical debate, for surely the poetic voice is precisely not to be identified with the ordinary voice of all the poor and oppressed? The poet, crafting poems, becomes the individuated voice of the many who can only remain (almost) voiceless. The poetic voice is created by a ¡°maker¡± whose art it is. What makes a prophetic voice prophetic is perhaps not any prior resolve in the poet to be prophetic. Particular poems and certain elements in the life of certain poets are rather recognized by readers as having that ¡°prophetic¡± quality, the energy of truth and justice. There would, however, also have to be a more or less conscious choice on the part of the poet to take responsibility for something more than himself, to identify with a national destiny, to seek for a union between the individual and the collective suffering. Ko Un does not have to employ Shin Kyong-Nim¡¯s collective ¡°we¡± because he has been so much further along the paths of national pain than almost any other Korean poet.


Milosz has been quoted earlier: ¡°There (in Eastern Europe) a poet does not merely arrange words in beautiful order. Tradition demands that he be a ¡®bard,¡¯ that his songs linger on many lips, that he speak in his poems of subjects of interest to all the citizens.¡± He was talking of eastern Europe in the early 1950s. Today, in Eastern Europe as in Korea, much has changed and it is possible that the poet¡¯s prophetic function has lost its power there. The only subject ¡°of interest to all the citizens¡± is likely to be materialistic gratification, not human values, justice, or truth. In Korea, Ko Un has become a senior poet, an institution, a familiar face on the TV screen. Nothing ever stays the same, but the great barrier dividing Korea from Korea, illusions from realities, lies from truth, still stands and no Joshua has yet appeared to bring those walls tumbling, though Ko Un has crossed the divide more often than most.


In the foreword to the collection Haegŭmgang (Sea Diamond Mountain), Ko Un says of his sense of poetic creation: ¡°If someone opens my grave a few years after my death, they will find it full, not of my bones, but of poems written in that tomb¡¯s darkness¡¦.¡± Now past his seventieth year, Ko Un has spoken and written many words. If any are prophetic, they will fulfill their task in due time. Only history can show what that task was. Ours is to listen with unsealed ears, compassionate hearts, to the voice of the poets, past and present, close at hand and far away – memorializing lives marked by pain and joy, prophets of truth and hope, the true seers of what it might mean to be truly human. That is why poetry really matters.


To conclude, I feel I must quote at least one last poem in full. There is a word that has not been used and it is unforgiveable: Beauty. True, we have spoken of God, and goodness, and truth, and we all know, if only thanks to Keats, that those are synonyms for beauty. A Korean poet, Ch¡¯on Sang-Pyong, whose life was marked by pain and poverty, who maintained the spirit of a child through it all, wrote a most extraordinary ¡°prophetic¡± poem in 1970, after he had been tortured and when he thought he was dying, prostrate with malnutrition and exhaustion. It is very simple, it does not need any explanation; it is a perfect poem about the way the cruel and sinful things in life are not by definition obstacles to grace, not devoid of ultimate meaning; fallen humanity too can be beautiful:


Back to Heaven


I'll go back to heaven again.

Hand in hand with the dew

that melts at a touch of the dawning day,


I'll go back to heaven again.

With the dusk, together, just we two,

at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes


I'll go back to heaven again.

At the end of my outing to this beautiful world

I'll go back and say: It was beautiful. . . .




Works Cited


Clare Cavanagh. ¡°Poetry and Ideology: The Example of Wislawa Szymborska¡± in Literary Imagination Vol. 1, No. 2. Fall 1999. 175


Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer. Third Edition. General Editor Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1987..


Chŏn Sang-Pyŏng. Back to Heaven. Poems translated by Brother Anthony, of Taizé. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series 77. 1995.


Seamus Heaney. North. London: Faber. 1975.


Geoffrey Hill. Collected Poems. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1985.


Geoffrey Hill. Canaan. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. 1996.


Geoffrey Hill. ¡°Language, Suffering and Silence¡± in Literary Imagination, Vol.1, No. 2. Fall 1999. 240


Ko Un. The Sound of My Waves: Selected Poems. Translated by Brother Anthony, of Taizé. Ithaca: Cornell East Asia Series 68. 1993.