The reader hardly need be reminded that the images not only of poetry and love but also of religion and patriotism, when effective, are apprehended with actual physical responses: tears, sighs, interior aches, spontaneous groans, cries, bursts of laughter, wrath, and impulsive deeds. Human experience and human art, that is to say, have succeeded in creating for the human species an environment of sign stimuli that release physical responses and direct them to ends no less effectively than do the signs of nature the instincts of the beasts. The biology, psychology, sociology, and history of these sign stimuli may be said to constitute the field of our subject, the science of Comparative Mythology. And although no one has yet devised an effective method for distinguishing between the innate and the acquired, the natural and the culturally conditioned, the "elementary" and the "ethnic" aspects of such human-cultural catalysts and their evoked responses, the radical distinction here made by the poet Housman between images that act upon our nervous structure as energy releasers and those that serve, rather, for the transmission of thought, supplies an excellent criterion for the testing of our themes.
"I cannot satisfy myself," he writes, "that there are any such things as poetical ideas. No truth, it seems to me, is too precious, no observation too profound, and no sentiment too exalted to be42 PRIMITIVE MYTHOLOGY
expressed in prose. The utmost that I could admit is that some ideas do, while others do not, lend themselves kindly to poetical expression; and that these receive from poetry an enhancement which glorifies and almost transfigures them, and which is not perceived to be a separate thing except by analysis."
When Housman writes that "poetry is not the thing said but a way of saying it," and when he states again "that the intellect is not the fount of poetry, that it may actually hinder its production, and that it cannot even be trusted to recognize poetry when it is produced," he is no more than reaffirming and lucidly formulating the first axiom of all creative art--whether it be in poetry, music, dance, architecture, painting, or sculpture--which is, namely, that art is not, like science, a logic of references but a release from reference and rendition of immediate experience: a presentation of forms, images, or ideas in such a way that they will communicate, not primarily a thought or even a feeling, but an impact.
[Joseph Campbell. (1968). Masks of God: Primitive Mythology, pp.40-42. New York: Penguin.]
[Originally published September 21, 2008 in Harper's]
When the noisy day of mortal men grows still
With illusory nocturnal shadows.
And sleep, the harvest of a day’s exertion,
Sinks down upon the silent city streets
This is my hour of the night, when silent hours
Drag by in painful attentiveness:
During the indolent night the wound of my heart’s serpent
Rises up in me more powerfully;
Imagination surges: my mind, numbed by yearning,
Entertains a parade of tortured thoughts;
Before my eyes, quiet remembrance
Unfurls its lengthy parchment;
Thus set back, I rehearse the course of my life,
I quake and I curse,
I shed bitter tears and complain painfully,
But alas the dismal lines cannot be purged.
–Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, Remembrance (Воспоминание) (1827)(S.H. transl.)