THE HEALING POWER OF POETRY SALIENT POINTS AND EXCERPTS FROM ADDRESSES DELIVERED AT THE SYDNEY UNITARIAN CHURCH ON 14 OCTOBER 2007 AND 4 NOVEMBER 2007 By The Rev Dr Ian Ellis-Jones Minister, Sydney Unitarian ChurchThe Power of wordsWords have power. They go forth as a vibratory force that can be felt through the wholebody of the person who speaks or hears them.The power of the written or spoken word can change lives. Yes, words, whether utteredor unexpressed, can heal, and they can also make us sick.There is hope in words - a hope about the ability to communicate something importantand powerful, a hope about the essential state of being and the potentiality for change,healing and renewal. Hope drives us to want things, and with “want power” changeoccurs, and often at a very deep and sustained level.Types of literatureThomas de Quincy (one of the most important nonfictional prose writers of the early19th cent) wrote that there are basically 2 types of literature, namely, literature ofinformation, and literature of power.Literature of powerLiterature of power is literature that moves a person. Pythagoras referred to this type ofliterature as possessing an energy that could, under certain conditions, enter into the lifeof an individual with a transforming effect.
2Joy Mills (From Inner to Outer Transformation, 1996) writes that in order for literature ofpower to achieve its purpose, we must recognize that true understanding, true wisdom -and, I would add, true healing – comes from within us, and has to be awakened.Literature of power has a “secret” and very personal language all of its own and canbring our minds to a condition of interior silence in which we become receptive and opento healing, and which can help us to see things as they really are.The nature of poetryWilliam Hazlitt, the English writer remembered for his humanistic essays and literarycriticism, wrote that the person “who has a contempt for poetry cannot have muchrespect for himself or anything else.”Poetry, which Voltaire described as “the music of the soul”, is a particularly potent formof literature of power. It is more potent than prose because it has a “dreamlike quality”(Dr Smiley Blanton, The Healing Power of Poetry, 1960) that can penetrate theunconscious mind and convey thoughts and feelings to the reader/listener on a differentchannel, so to speak, than prose, and it can more easily arouse intense personalemotion, and thus create a therapeutic “communion of feeling”.The healing power of poetryAccording to the psychiatrist Smiley Blanton poetry can be used as a “specific meansof therapy”, adding that the therapeutic value of a poem is enhanced when you havemade it your own, in a sense, by committing it to memory. What is sometimes referred toas “muscular mystical poetry” (eg that of William Blake) can be especially powerful.In what ways is poetry therapeutic?First, according to Blanton, poetry can help people find that inner peace and serenitywhich makes life worth living.Secondly, poetry can, writes Blanton, help us to see ourselves as we really are, to seethe deeper, hidden self – our real personality. By means of poetry, we can self-
3knowledge and insight – which can, in and of itself, be a form of therapy as well as ameans to therapy.Blanton quotes Robert Browning (“Paracelsus”): “…to know/Rather consists in openingout a way/ Whence the imprisoned splendour may escape,/ Than in effecting entry for alight/ Supposed to be without.” In other words, the “truth within” (Blanton) is the key tosolving our problems. Poetry can greatly assist us in making contact with that “inmostcentre in us all,/ Where truth abides in fullness” (Browning).Also, writes Blanton, the insight into ourselves gained through poetry puts us in contactwith the material that is in our “deeper unconscious mind”, enabling us to go below thesuperficial level of living. We thus acquire, and can then utilize, certain frames ofreference which are inherently healing.Dr Norman Vincent Peale agrees. He writes that poetry is “a profound form of insight”that is capable of reaching with searching and penetrating force into deeperconsciousness and answers the human need, “Oh, that someone would utter thethoughts that would arise in me” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson).Peale writes that poetry can, and often does, float inarticulate but profound thoughts tothe surface of the mind – in so doing, it can have definite curative effects. He writes ofpoetry’s “heath-giving qualities to the mind and spirit”.Further, poetry can bring about what Havelock Ellis referred to as “a complete psychicchange”, or “conversion” experience, in which the 2 psychic spheres (intellectual andemotional), previously in more-or-less constant friction, active or passive, are suddenlyunited in harmony.Finally, poetry can also assist us on our faith journey throughout life, especially at timeswhen we are more-or-less otherwise nonfunctional during periods of heightened anxiety,depression, grief and pain.
4The healing power of poetry in actionMatthew Arnold, in his nostalgic 19th century poem “Dover Beach”, expresses regretthat belief in the supernatural world is slowly slipping away. The sea of faith iswithdrawing like the ebbing tide. Here are some excerpts from that poem: The Sea of Faith Was once, too, at the full, and round earths shore Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled. But now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, Retreating, to the breath Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear And naked shingles of the world. Ah, love, let us be true To one another! for the world, which seems To lie before us like a land of dreams, So various, so beautiful, so new, Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain; And we are here as on a darkling plain Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.Yet, there is an answer, and many Unitarians have found it deep within themslevs. It isbeautifully expressed in the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: Out of the night that covers me Black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud, Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed. Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find me, unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
5Life is a journey, and we must summon the courage to meet whatever happens with aresolute spirit. Here are some immortal words from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, from hisepic poem “Ulysses”: Some work of noble note, may yet be done, Not unbecoming men that strove with gods. The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks; The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends. Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite the sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down; It may be that we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew. Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are --- One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.Sure, as night follows day, each day is a struggle. Our journey throughout life is astruggle, and it will take the whole day long to get there, but there will be help along theway, so we must never despair. So writes Christina Rossetti in her poem “Up-hill”: Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end. Will the day’s journey take the whole long day? From morn to night, my friend. But is there for the night a resting-place? A roof for when the slow dark hours begin. May not the darkness hide it from my face? You cannot miss that inn. Shall I meet other wayfarers at night? Those who have gone before. Then must I knock, or call when just in sight? They will not keep you standing at that door. Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak? Of labor you shall find the sum. Will there be beds for me and all who seek? Yea, beds for all who come.
6The traditional Unitarian emphasis on “salvation by character” is well-articulated in thisdelightful poem from Sir Henry Wotton entitled “Character of a Happy Life”: How happy is he born and taught That serveth not anothers will; Whose armour is his honest thought And simple truth his utmost skill! Whose passions not his masters are, Whose soul is still prepared for death, Not tied unto the world with care Of public fame, or private breath; Who envies none that chance doth raise Or vice; Who never understood How deepest wounds are given by praise; Nor rules of state, but rules of good: Who hath his life from rumours freed, Whose conscience is his strong retreat; Whose state can neither flatterers feed, Nor ruin make accusers great; Who God doth late and early pray More of His grace than gifts to lend; And entertains the harmless day With a well-chosen book or friend; This man is freed from servile bands Of hope to rise, or fear to fall; Lord of himself, though not of lands; And having nothing, yet hath all.So many of our troubles are the result of self-absorption, self-centredness and self-obsession, Helping others helps to make life worthwhile. George Eliot, in her poem“Making Life Worthwhile”, has written: May every soul that touches mine --- Be it the slightest contact --- Get therefore some good; Some little grace; one kindly thought; One aspiration yet unfelt; One bit of courage For the darkening sky; One gleam of faith To brave the thickening ills of life; One glimpse of brighter skies Beyond the gathering mists --- To make this life worthwhile And heaven a surer heritage.
7And when it’s time to face or otherwise deal with death, this poem from Walter De LaMare, entitled “Farewell”, seems particularly apt, especially for Unitarians, liberalChristians and other freethinkers: When I lie where shades of darkness Shall no more assail mine eyes, Nor the rain make lamentation When the wind sighs; How will fare the world whose wonder Was the very proof of me? Memory fades, must the remembered Perishing be? Oh, when this my dust surrenders Hand, foot, lip, to dust again, May these loved and loving faces Please other men! May the rusting harvest hedgerow Still the Travellers Joy entwine, And as happy children gather Posies once mine. Look thy last on all things lovely, Every hour. Let no night Seal thy sense in deathly slumber Till to delight Thou have paid thy utmost blessing; Since that all things thou wouldst praise Beauty took from those who loved them In other days.May the One who some call God, Great Spirit, Love, Higher Power, and some do notname at all, bless you and keep you. Amen. -oo0oo-