Benedictine School (A History)

Hello, I am Daniel Collins. I am greatly looking forward to writing to you all here at The Catholic Dormitory. I am a poet, and you can expect some of my poetry here on this page. But right now I would like to talk a little shop.

There were two prongs to the great modernist attack on traditional poetry one hundred years ago. The first thing men like TS Eliot objected to was the outdated diction and subject matter found in the late Victorian work of Tennyson and the like. The second point of argument was the metrical structure in those same 19th Century poets. Most members of the ‘Free Verse’ school considered themselves the historical children of Dryden and Wordsworth, men who brought poetry into the modern language of the day, the feeling is best described by Keats in this sonnet:


If by dull rhymes our English must be chained,
And, like Andromeda, the Sonnet sweet
Fettered, in spite of painéd loveliness;
Let us find out, if we must be constrained,
Sandals more interwoven and complete
To fit the naked foot of poesy;
Let us inspect the lyre, and weigh the stress
Of every chord, and see what may be gained
By ear industrious, and attention meet;
Misers of sound and syllable, no less
Than Midas of his coinage, let us be
Jealous of dead leaves in the bay-wreath crown;
So, if we may not let the Muse be free,
She will be bound with garlands of her own.

John Keats here says precisely what the ‘new poets’ say. That is, that poetry should be free, not only from musty old diction, but also from musty old forms. Granted, he makes this argument in an antique form using the antique iamb, but it seems that the Moderns were justified in their supposed parentage. Keats longs for a ‘breaking out’ that he is not able to achieve.

Once the postmodern victory was complete, there was a reactionary movement away from free verse that was named the Formalist School. The movement itself died out rather quickly, but it lasted long enough to bring metrical poetry back into a respectable position in the world. Now it is quite normal for a poet to switch back and forth between free and fettered verse within the same volume. At least, it is no longer furtive and embarrassing to end your lines with rhymes.

So, is it my intention to announce in this essay my full flung support for a resurrected Formalism? Indeed not. I have little patience for the Formalists, and quite frankly I don’t like much of their poetry. You see, they fought the wrong fight. They accepted the modern’s assumption that the diction and subject of poetry needed to be popularized, that poetry needs to speak the same language as its readers. The Formalists merely thought that the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. Men like Timothy Steele saw meter and form as the end all and be all of resurgent poetry, but I feel like he was missing the point.

At the turn of the 20th century, there was a drastic need to reevaluate meter in poetry. (Not to do away with it, but to fix it.) Tennyson is a slave to his feet, and his rhymes can be awkwardly contrived at times. The poetry of the post-romantics bears all of the rigidity and stiffness of the High Victorian sentiment of the day. And so, if I set up Tennyson as the champion of his school, and Eliot the champion of his, what do we see. In Tennyson I see poetry written by a man who forgot how to be a poet. In Eliot I see a poet who forgot how to write poetry. Are these gross simplifications, and unjust to both men? Yes, but my point rises even above this squabble, so I will rise above it now.

There is one problem with the axiom that every generation of poets lowered language down to the level of their day: it is untrue. It is untrue in the most glaring, and almost obvious way. It is untrue because of Edmund Spenser. Spenser, arguably the greatest poet in the English language, certainly one of the top four, purposefully used archaic and outdated language. Compare the Faerie Queene with Shakespeare. For all of your difficultly following the whirlwind of trappings and novelties found in the Bard, Spenser uses old words already dismissed into the past with the same thoughtless abandon that Shakespeare would create a new one.

Another example of this can be seen in a far less celebrated poet. Thomas Chatterton, died by his own hand at a very young age. Had he lived, and had the poetic establishment not stifled his style, he might now be considered on the level of Spenser. His Rowley poems are of such a flagrant archaism that he was beloved by most, but hated by the established poets. Even by the time of his death, at the age of 21, the influences on Chatterton had pushed him into a more simple and conventional style.

Catholic poetry is the place for this ascension of language. The New Translation of the Roman Missal has reminded us of the importance of language that rises beyond the everyday. When we have something important to say, we should say it in a way that reveals its importance. My school of poetry is therefore called the Benedictine School, after our great Holy Father, Benedict XVI. If you are familiar with the pre-Raphealite movement in art, than you should consider this the literary equivalent. (Look for me to post about the pre-Raphealites under The Brush)

Read a Sonnet today. Make poetry part of your everyday life. Because if you do not, than all of my insane ramblings are for naught. Look for more about the Benedictine School here at The Poet. And look for me elsewhere here at the Dormitory. I am so very glad to begin writing here.

God Bless.


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