For a couple of years during my twenties I carried a certain book with me nearly everywhere I went: The Orphic Voice by Elizabeth Sewell. I have no idea how I came to have it (I am an inveterate browser and believer in the serendipity of bookstores, especially sprawling used bookstores, and even then I am always drawn to the piles of books on tables that the staff has not yet had time to shelve) but it seemed to bless me. It seemed to say to me, as I read slowly, often only a paragraph or two at a time, that poetry was as important as I felt it to be, that making poems was tapping into something, a deep knowledge that, with skill, could be accessed, embodied and communicated, and that as a mode of discovery, it was as valuable as its more privileged sibling, science.
In fact, that’s not really what Sewell has to say in The Orphic Voice. Tracing the split between Science and Poetry to Francis Bacon, she argues that they are the same inquiry, carried out by the same human consciousness. We are in error if we fall into the “two cultures” trap. She traces that error to the fact that Bacon, as she writes, “was a poet who did not trust poetry.” Early in the book she cites an experiment in which scientists were asked to describe what poets do, and poets to describe what scientists are after. Of course neither recognized itself in the description of the other, although both thrilled to a common description of the work of discovering how the world might be ordered, how that order might be represented, and how that system of representation is itself a process of ordering. Orpheus sings the creation into a dynamic order. Linnaeus the first taxonomer writes his book in verse. The world is the product of similarities and differences, resemblances, metaphor. So is language, its mirror and mythology.
I can only scratch the surface here, and I only mean to recommend the book to anyone who suspects that poetry has an existential, organic function in the workings of consciousness.
Interestingly enough, Sewell herself was a political poet, and not only on occasion. She was active in the civil rights movement and wrote a powerful elegy for murdered activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. I was an undergraduate at Fordham University when she was there presiding over Bensalem, the Experimental College, founded in 1967, but I had no idea about her at all. Bensalem was in an apartment building across the street from the Rose Hill campus, and I often went there for political meetings or to drink red wine and get high. I was two or three years out of college when I came upon her book, and I don’t think I even made the connection to the bent and somewhat frail woman I sometimes saw on campus.
But enough: here are some excerpts from The Orphic Voice (long out of print, but still possible to track down at your local used bookstore perhaps, or else at a good academic library):
It is of the nature of mind and language together, that they form an instrument capable of an indefinite number of developments. It matters very little whether the particular devisors or users of the instrument saw, at the point in time when they flourished, its full implications.
We always say more than we know. This is one of the reasons for language’s apparent imprecision. It is no reason for refusing language our confidence.
Modern thought supposes that human beings are capable of two sorts of thinking, the logical and the imaginative. We are endowed with the faculties of intellect and imagination — allied, since both are mental, but distinct in their methods and fields of operation. The intellect is the “mind,” properly so-called, and its essential function is abstract and logical thought. The imagination is more closely knit with the body (witness its habit, in myth, of expressing all concepts in terms of bodies, of embodying its ideas, in fact, and the close connection of myth with rite or bodily action), and it operates in the more primitive forms of dreams, myth, ritual, and art.
Science and poetry, mathematics and words, intellect and imagination, mind and body: they are old, they are perfected and tidy, they are mistaken. If we can dispose of these recurring antitheses which the last 400 years have, with the best of intentions, bequeathed us, we can turn to bequests made on our behalf by other ancestors, for they are there and ready to help. We have given ourselves credit, as human beings, for rather more and rather less than we possess. The human organism, that body which has the gift of thought, does not have the choice of two kinds of thinking. It has only one, in which the organism as a whole is engaged all along the line. There has been no progression in history from one type of thought to another. We are merely learning to use what we have been given, which is all of a piece. This means too that we have to admit and affirm our solidarity with the thinking of the child and the savage. All thinking is of the same kind, and it is this we have to try to understand and to exercise.
In its beginnings, language is acknowledged by scholars to have been essentially figurative, imaginative, synthesizing, and mythological rather than analytical and logical. Schelling, for instance, says, “Is it not evident that there is poetry in the actual material formation of languages?” and other writers have said the same. Myth and metaphor, living instruments of a lively speech, are not ornaments and artifices tacked on to language but something in the stuff of language and hence of the mind itself. Language is poetry, and a poem is only the resources of language used to the full.
We have come to believe, however, that there is another kind of language, not figurative but literal or logical. It is widely accepted that with advancing civilization comes a progress from imaginative and mythological and poetic turns of speech toward the logical, precise, nonfigurative. Within our own culture, philosophers, logicians, and scientists seem to have striven for this for nearly 400 years, anxious to purify language, in the name of precision, from this very element of unclearness we have glimpsed already, from myth, metaphor, and poetry. Analytical thinking — logic and mathematics, in unison — has been set up as the model to which word-thought was to conform. Recent endeavors to develop languages which are mathematical structures of propositions are the outcome. This is a language-as-science, in its more or less extreme form.
The nature of language has been much studied. So has its history. We’re after something else: not nature or history but something nearer what we mean by natural history, a dynamic inquiry into process, a natural history of mind and language. Language is to be conceived of not as an entity but as an activity; not in itself, for one must always avoid the metaphor of saying that language is alive, but in conjunction with a mind, with numbers and series of minds in time. Language utterances become events in this kind of thinking. Every poem and recounted myth and scientific hypothesis and theological statement and theory of politics or history and every philosophy become records of happenings at particular times, all of which, if they have any life in them at all, have the capacity to be taken further, in varying degrees, by other minds present and to come. This means giving up the right to abstract language into timeless pattern, and making the effort to grasp it not as a fixed phenomenon but as a moving event, language plus mind, subject to time and process and change — to try to think in biological terms, perhaps.
To further whet your appetite, here is the book’s Contents page:
Part I Introduction
Part II Bacon and Shakespeare: Postlogical Thinking
Part III Erasmus Darwin and Goethe: Linnaean and Ovidian Taxonomy
Part IV Wordsworth and Rilke: Toward a Biology of Thinking
Part V Working Poems for The Orphic Voice
And so. Read The Orphic Voice. Go slowly. Think. Reflect. You may find there an old well-spring satisfying to your thirst.
Here is a link to some of Sewell’s poems:
And here is a reminiscence of Sewell which was published as an obituary. There’s a lot of mention of the philosopher Michael Polanyi in it. The Orphic Voice is dedicated to him:
On Reuniting Poetry and Science: A Memoir of Elizabeth Sewell, 1919-2001
David Schenck and Phil Mullins
(This essay is an obituary notice for Elizabeth Sewell, a long-time friend of Michael Polanyi and a well-known poet, novelist and critic.)
Elizabeth Sewell, internationally known poet, critic, novelist, and friend of Michael Polanyi died January 12, 2001, in Greensboro NC. She was 81. Sewell was born in India in 1919 of English parents and educated in England, taking her B.A. in Modern Languages from Cambridge University in 1942. She performed war service in the Ministry of Education in London from 1942-45, and then returned to Cambridge to complete her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees, also in Modern Languages. Sewell received from her family background and classical education a familiaritywith English literature, history, liturgy, and style that marked her entire life’s work. She came to the UnitedStates in 1949, just after completing her graduate work. After many years of trans-Atlantic commuting, she became an American citizen in 1973.
Some readers will recall that Sewell was a participant in the 1991 Kent State Polanyi Centennial Conference where she enchanted the audience by reading a lengthy poem. She was delighted by the Kent State meeting where she renewed old friendships (some other earlier Polanyi-related conferences at Bowdoin and Dayton that she attended she reported were not so pleasant). After this 1991 gathering, she prepared and deposited in the University of Chicago Polanyi archives a 44 page memoir that comments on the ways in which Michael Polanyi’s friendship contributed to her work as a poet. Becoming acquainted with Polanyi was altogether serendipity: Sewell met Magda Polanyi in thesummer of 1954 at an international conference at Alpback in Austria, where she was running a seminar on the modern European novel. Magda and John Polanyi showed up the first day in her seminar; although Mrs. Polanyi did not take the seminar, she one day invited Sewell to join her for conversation in a local cafe. Sewell described herself to Mrs. Polanyi as a poet who had woven together mathematics, logic, physics and poetry; she was now beginning to explore the connection between poetry and natural history and was soon to depart for a year at Fordham University. By chance, Sewell reports that she made a comment that ultimately led to her coming to Manchester University on a fellowship from 1955-57 and to her friendship with Michael Polanyi: “But as I look back I have a funny sense that I uttered a key word somewhere along the line,and that word was crystallography. Magda in response uttered two key words, keys to my life though neither of us knew that at the time. She said, “You must meet my husband,” and “You must apply for a Simon Fellowship at Manchester University.”
Sewell applied for the Simon Fellowship after her year in New York and, with strong support from Michael Polanyi, received the award, although a poet had never previously been awarded this fellowship. She came toManchester, a city that she grew to love, in 1955, and eventually became a frequent guest at the Polanyi household. She was formally attached to the Philosophy Department and this was an uneasy marriage that contributed to her link to the Polanyi family. In Manchester, Sewell began work on The Orphic Voice, a work that was dedicated to Michael Polanyi and her most popular book in North America. Clearly, Sewell found in Polanyi’s interests and his writing a kindred spirit. She describes her joy in first reading Science, Faith and Society: at finding “an unimpeachable scientific voice so friendly, as it seemed to me, to what I wasgroping after in this second attempt on my part to reunite the disciplines of science and poetry as I had tried to do with my first book, The Structure of Poetry, originally my dissertation which had aroused so much antagonism, at college and university level, atCambridge, that amnesiac place since poetry and science are its two great glories which it now determines to keep in total separation each from each.”
Sewell was in Manchester in the years just prior to the publication of Personal Knowledge. She is identified in the “Acknowledgments” as one of four people who read the whole manuscript and suggested improvements. In her memoir, she describes the process of reading and responding to several chapters of the manuscript. She was particularly appreciative of “Intellectual Passions,” which she found aptly described her work as a poet: “Intellectual Passion was Michael’s subject-matter but also that which he embodied superbly and communicated to us, and when my own work suddenly and decisively found its own method and metaphor, that kind of passion, known to me since my first such experience at Cambridge and then resting awhile as one pursued other paths, returned with vehemence, indeed almost one might say, obsession.”
Sewell was a visiting writer or professor at many colleges and universities in the United States including, in addition to Fordham, Vassar, Princeton, Bennett, California State, Tugaloo, Central Washington State, Hunter, California at Irvine, Trent, Notre Dame, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, LehighUniversity, Converse College, and University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She received honorarydegrees from many colleges and universities including Fordham University (1968) and the University ofNotre Dame (1984). In addition to the Simon Fellowship at Manchester University (1955-57), Sewell also held the Howard Research Fellowship at Ohio State University (1949-50), and was an Ashley Fellow at Trent University (1979), and a Presidential Scholar at Mercer University (1982). Sewell’s major works include criticism —The Structure of Poetry (1951, l963), Paul Valéry: TheMind in the Mirror (1952), The Field of Nonsense (1952), The Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History(1960, 1972), and The Human Metaphor (1964); novels —The Dividing of Time (1952), The Singular Hope (1955), Now Bless Thyself (1962), and The Unlooked-For (1995); poetry-Poems, 1947-1961 (1962), Signs and Cities (1968), and Acquist (1984); essays — To Be a True Poem (1979); and a memoir — An Idea(1983).
In addition to these volumes, Sewell published dozens of short stories, essays, articles and poems in periodicals in the United States, Canada, England, France, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Russia. At her death, she left completed manuscripts on William Blake, and on the French reception of Lewis Carroll. Left incomplete was a translation and commentary project on Giordano Bruno and the Renaissance tradition of high magic. Her papers are on deposit with the Department of Special Collections of the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University.
Phil Mullins (email@example.com) has been the editor of Tradition and Discovery since 1991. He tried on more than one occasion to get Elizabeth Sewell to publish something in TAD.
David Schenck was a friend of Elizabeth Sewell. He studied with Ruel Tyson and did a dissertation directed by Bill Poteat.
And then I checked my email and this poem arrived from Poetry International, a poem that speaks to this very subject (if it is a “subject”) — I told you I believe in serendipity!
THE FIRST NOISE
No, it is not the intonation
It is not the rhythm
Not even the meaning.
It is the word by itself
And who would ever care about
What the poet says?
What matters is the ritual
The metaphor of what we’ve always been
The memory of the first vocal sound
“the secret language of the birds
of the first day”
Today’s man is out of tune
He has forgotten the words.
Someone stammers something
And everyone arrives, it’s the ritual
The endless metaphor
What strange analogy is man?
The poet says nothing
But a living being comes out of his throat
Invisible, having only sound
And an ancient music.
We remember then the original sound
The first sound in the world
When the word became blood
And collective food.
With time came verses
But the birds no longer cared about it
The poet speaks, sings or prays
And wants to name the world
In all forms.
He invokes the spirits
And calls the other
“I will people myself with voices,” he says,
and turns to his metaphor which is of fire.
But the word keeps silent
The word is the grandfather of the species
The word is sense
It is power and walking stick.
© Álvaro Marín
© Translation: 2007, Nicolás Suescún
Poem of the Week:
Álvaro Marín’s page:
Thanks very much for your words on the Orphic voice; which I had seen referenced by Owen Barfield in 'Poetic Diction' and was curious about.