This is only my surmise; I have no proof but only what I believe to be evidence. The contention is that poetry was an evolution which came out of casting verbal spells; that is, out of ancient peoples doing what we’d call, and probably disdain as being, magic.
I also suspect that verbal spells and incantations were the forerunners of prayer; and so this means that poetry is related to magic and to prayer; and in my view it is possible that poetry owes it origins and early development into something in its own right, to these early stages towards harnessing the power in words.
These days all things are watered down into metaphor or fancy. Beforehand to this anaemic outlook at times when a person cursed, s/he intended dreadful harm to another person. When a person then spoke an incantation, it was not as a player at The Barbican during a performance of The Scottish Play; it was with crucial engagement with actuality and with an actual problem to be solved.
I have somewhere a book of Scottish Hebridean early poetry; collected from the far north of Scotland some years back just before the earthquake of The Enlightenment hit the crofters and the moss hags and the cold rimy seas battering the remote shores.
In this book are some most touching and even pitiful rhymes-cum-charms to be spoken as a ritual by, I imagined, some sad milkmaid or sorry young girl herder in her attempt to rid herself of what was termed in that remote place ‘the rosy bloom’. The ‘rosy bloom’ was breast cancer. Folk medicine knew, it seems, all too well its death sentence, and so accepted also that it was powerless to heal this plague. Only the casting of a lucky charm into the lap of the Lord God might save her (and sometimes in this book of old rhymes the laps of older gods were invoked in certain more archaic items of petition).
The north of Scotland was and remains a refuge for Roman Catholicism. At the times these rhymes were made, and thereafter collected, the Roman Catholic rites and liturgy were strongly present; and hence are strongly present in the structure and composition of these old rhymes. In general one would have to say that Roman Catholicism with its insistence on the Real Presence and on the efficacies of exorcisms and so on, has always stood closer to outright magic in its understanding of the Divine than our more English puritanical and iconoclastic brands of Christianity have cared to come near.
And so there is a strange blended mixture of occult ritual magic, Christianity in the form of Roman Catholicism, and a simple pleasure and delight in arranging and displaying word sequences and formats as simple entertainment –that is – in the making of poetry.
Here are a few poems/charms/incantations which have much in common with the rhymes children use in school playgrounds at break times; at least they did fifty years ago when I was at school here in Britain. The rhymes’ jaunty bounce and rhythm, their simplicity, their direct untrammelled emotional appeal is very apparent. They are to be said before sleep by young women so as to conjure a dream for them in which their future beloved is revealed as a spectral image to their minds.
‘New moon, new moon, I pray thee
Tell me this night who my true love will be’
‘Good St Thomas do me right
And bring my love to me this night
That I may look him in the face
And in my arms may him embrace’
Here is a variant in which a young girl chants as she is out at planting time in spring:
‘Hemp-seed I sow, hemp-seed I sow
And he that must be my true love
Come after me and mow’
The paganism and the fertility rite of the hemp-seed sowing are evident. The astrological bent of the new moon item is clear. The intercession of the saints in the St Thomas item is apparent.
They all have a quiet, disarming, charmingness about them. Sweetness because they show so well how they carry the dearest hopes and desires of plain human people and expose these vulnerabilities to us sophisticated persons with total single candidness.
I don’t like to indulge in dismissals of others – I will say that anyone who finds these rhymes laughable, or else below themselves to take cognisance of, those persons need to rearrange their priorities and to search themselves; seeking for a better person inside.
The sheer helplessness of people in the face of sicknesses, or in their vagrant dearest hopes and desires, a people who had no ‘mod cons’ like the British National Health Service with its battery of medicines, medics, and remedies; nor any great boons like Facebook and Cellphones with which to meet, greet and learn to enjoy others and their company: this is a wakeup call to those of us who have never (yet) dreamed of such a situation; such a plight being possible.
I ask myself what I would have done had I some dreadful ailment come upon me in such an environment. Undoubtedly a charm or spell or incantation would have been very welcome; not least as moral support and encouragement to me to stay positive.
But what of poetry? Is it only an ameliorated and sallow, watered-down version of spells and verbal magic? Is it in fact a degeneracy from a more utilitarian and purposeful form of arranging words for their hoped-for effectuality? Or since we have ‘come of age’ as a race, and now feel we need no supernatural supports and soliciting, is our poetry now a more sophisticated art which has been refined of its dross of primitive beliefs? (Remember we might feel this is the case because we do have an NHS and a social welfare system, which catch us whenever we fall, and provide food, shelter, warmth, company, and much more; and as a right more or less guaranteed to any Briton.)
Left to ourselves on a South Sea Island we might well ‘go native’ and start attempting summonings of spirits and doing efficacious rites. ‘Cometh the hour; cometh the Man.’ And behold, ‘ecce homo’; The Guy who stops every buck and stops every mouth with wonder, yea, even the tongues of kings’ and princes’.
Once a person has understood, well-realised in her/his inmost self, that in despite of and contrary to the idea and modes of contemporary life, each of us, with him/herself included, are, as it were, as the poet John Donne put it ‘stranded on the shore’ and thus wholly insufficient to ourselves, it is then that a need for and a seeking out of the Divine begins to form and to arise in a person’s consciousness.
Poetry is very often used these days by suffering persons as a means of therapy; a purgative; a support and a solace; it is able to help people recover from mental wounds, bereavements, and collapses. Poetry is then perhaps one step away from outright prayer; although sometimes, often maybe, poetry is prayer. Listen in your head to this line and a bit:
‘As due by many titles I resign myself to Thee
It is the initial line of a sonnet. It is undoubtedly prayer. It is also high art. Let us look.
‘Due’ – a due is a bill, a payment outstanding. ‘Due’ is also what is appropriate, what ought to be done under the circumstances. ‘Due’ has a temporal element – ‘that train is overdue’ – hence ‘’Due’ as in timely. ‘Due’ furthermore is a requirement imposed by authority upon a person. As in ‘You have a duty to do this or that’.
‘Many titles’ are not least the titles of the God of a Thousand Names; the Eloihim, the Yahweh, of the Hebrew and Christian Bible. Titles are also ‘entitlements’ or privileges; God is a God with rights over us; with ‘entitlements’. ‘Titles’ are also multitudinous ‘reasons’ or ‘considerations’ as to why God might require us to attend to him, to do his bidding, to heed his cause or call.
‘I resign’ is clearly ‘to give-up’ to surrender oneself. It is also to quit one’s office or employment, in this case at the time set and calling of God to do so. ‘Resign’ carries in it also the idea of ‘re-signing’; of resubscribing, and so is a recommital to God and to the poet’s faith. ‘Resign’ includes also submission, even a prostration – in prayer.
‘To Thee’ – the stress of the line falls heavily upon and wholly here at its ending two words. The rhythm thus expresses the finality of the poet’s commitment and resignation to God. ‘Thee’ is a firm and accentuated word to speak out loud – it has what musicians call ‘attack’. One’s tongue forms itself carefully, precisely, in beginning to speak out this ‘Thee’ out loud; and there follows without pause a free flow of air in the ‘eee’ sound sounded thereafter, and this performs a release of a coiled tension in the line by way of one’s vocalising here.
‘O God’. This is the landing place. The base camp. The cornerstone (which the builders rejected). Bedrock certainty. Say the line again and this time feel its finality of certitude in this ‘O God’. Utter surrender, utter assuredness in that surrender. This line of poetry comes as close to being music and any I am able to name.
Poetry then at its greatest is able to continue to contain and convey (who knows how far and to Whom?) living prayer of a deep and enormous passionate kind, a quantity full of devotion. This indeed is imperishable magic.
God spoke and said:
‘Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good.’’