The Poetry of Thought: From Hellenism to Celan
by George Steiner.
New Directions, 2012. 224 pages, $25.

In an often-cited passage of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, Monsieur Jourdain explains to the Maître de Philosophie that he wants to write a love note to Dorimène and drop it at her feet—but he wants something that is neither in prose nor verse. The Maître responds:

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: It must be one or the other.


PHILOSOPHY MASTER: Because, sir, there is no other way to express oneself than with prose or verse.

MONSIEUR JOURDAIN: There is nothing but prose or verse?

PHILOSOPHY MASTER: No, sir, everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose.

The Maitre’s pragmatic distinction—and there is hardly a better one—is called into question, however, by Monsieur Jourdain’s unwittingly à propos response:

By my faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it, and I am much obliged to you for having taught me that. I would like then to put into a note to her: “Beautiful marchioness, your lovely eyes make me die of love,” but I want that put in a gallant manner and be nicely turned.

If “everything that is not prose is verse, and everything that is not verse is prose,” what is prose “nicely turned”? The distinction between prose and verse is clear enough. The problem is what to do with poetic phrases—the prophesies of Isaiah, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, Plato’s Apology, vers libre, or dramatic and comedic dialogue? The irony of Monsieur Jourdain’s remark that “For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing anything about it” encapsulates this problem nicely. Most of Molière’s plays were produced in verse, and this one finishes in it. His characters “have been speaking” not prose, but verse.

The definition of poetry has occupied philosophers from Plato to the present. Plato put it in terms of representation: philosophical prose represents ideal forms; poetry, the shadow of those forms. Aristotle claimed that artistic forms are imitations of true ideas. Alfred North Whitehead defines it in terms of concreteness. In each case, poetry is defined, at least partly, in contradistinction to prose.

In The Poetry of Thought: From Helenism to Celan, George Steiner attempts to turn the table on the philosophers by showing that all philosophy is poetic, that style shapes content, and, more tentatively, that the satisfaction produced by poetry cannot be explained. In this last instance, Steiner wonders if poetry is a testament of some metaphysical reality to which it corresponds. This is an ambitious and intriguing work that unfortunately falls short.

Steiner begins with Plato. The great enemy of poets, it turns out, wrote tragedies in his early years and shows a dramatist’s touch in his philosophical writings. The settings of his dialogues are highly symbolic and function to foreshadow the respective themes of each. Plato’s choice to use dialogue, furthermore, was a literary decision that created textsthat have a poetic “openness” and simultaneity, and no other character in literature, Steiner argues, matches Socrates for his “real presence.” “As poetry in action,” Plato’s Symposium, Steiner argues, “is transcendent.” Steiner continues. Plato exhibits “incomparable dramaturgy,” “inexhaustible […] dramaturgical resources,” and a matchless “theatre of the mind.” He is a “supreme artist,” rivaling both Shakespeare and Dante.

These remarks are interesting, but as is his wont, Steiner rarely stops to prove his argument or treat possible objections, or when he does, he does so somewhat offhandedly, with more of a virtuoso’s ear for the striking metaphor, the phrase “nicely turned,” or the subtle learned allusion than with a serious attempt to convince his reader. His reading is on parade, and while the pageantry is sometimes wonderful, it is far from satisfying. Let’s return to Plato for a moment. Plato’s dialogues are wonderfully set and constructed, but he is not a dramatic genius rivaling Shakespeare, nor is Socrates the greatest character of Western literature. Even if Plato’s dialogues did show more artistry than Shakespeare’s plays, this would not prove that thought is poetic. It would merely prove that Plato’s dialogues are—and that only if we allow that “openness” and “concreteness” are aspects of the poetic (a term, strangely enough, Steiner never defines).

These problems crop up throughout the book. In examining Descartes’s Discours de la méthode, for example, Steiner argues that Descartes’s decision to write in French was a literary one that “echoes Dante’s adoption of the vulgate for his Commedia and Galileo’s for his dialogues.” The text itself contains “deft ironies,” elegant “cadence,” and an argumentative circularity that ironically produces a sort of literary openness. Steiner “alludes,” finds “echoes,” points of contact, and so forth, between this and that philosopher or poet, and again, his wide reading is on display, but Descartes’s decision to write Discours in French hardly makes it literary. While it is poetic at points, at best this makes Discours—not thought—poetic.

Sensing, perhaps, this flaw, Steiner turns to that butcher of Germanic prose, Hegel. “Is there any great philosopher,” Steiner asks, “seemingly less stylish, more averse to ‘spirited language’ and elegance?” Indeed. Here Steiner coyly hedges his argument. Yes, it seems Hegel’s prose puts paid to the thesis that thought is inherently poetic. Yet, Steiner wonders, “Is intelligibility a deliberately withheld category of Hegelian theory, a potentiality held in suspense as is the verb in German syntax, an open-ended promise which the reader can only intuit?” The suggestion here is that Hegel’s convoluted style determines or represents his own dialectic suspension between thesis and anti-thesis and that its inaccessibility creates an openness that is literary. The “spell” of Hegel’s inaccessibility, Steiner writes, “is borne out by the volume and distinction of commentary.” Both Mallarmé and the surrealists read Hegel, Steiner reminds us.

Here we might ask if, according to Steiner, there is any text that is not poetic. If Hegel’s prose is literary because of its cumbersome syntax and difficult vocabulary, and because it has produced a lot of commentary, why not scientific articles, cited and discussed by thousands, or particular legal documents?

While Steiner’s argument by association can be interesting or absurd, as the case may be, it can also tend to the mundane. Steiner goes on to discuss Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud, among many others. But do we really need him to tell us that Nietzsche was the most literary of philosophers or that part of the attraction of Marx’s writing is the author’s “voice”? Probably not. Of course, Steiner presents The Poetry of Thought as a “suggestion.” That’s all fine and good, but it is a suggestion that has been made before, and Steiner offers us precious little more than Molière all those years ago.

He comes closest to newer territory (or, perhaps more accurately, forgotten territory) when he suggests that the pleasure produced by literary devices is inexplicable. Explaining such pleasure in purely causal terms is all the fad at the moment, but such explanations almost always reduce the literary device under examination to the “firing” of this or that synapse, which is sort of like explaining why someone committed suicide by providing a diagram of the gun they used. In The Poetry of Thought, Steiner suggests that the move from conflict to (partial) resolution, rhythm and rhyme, self-similarity, a certain “openness” all produce pleasure that is irreducible in the same way that a number is irreducible. “Do the theorems, the interplay of higher mathematics, of number-theory in particular, derive from, refer to realities ‘out there’ even if as yet undiscovered?” Steiner asks. If so, perhaps “a smile”—a response to comedy—is derived from realities “out there” as well.

There is an argument to be made here, but Steiner simply chooses not to make it. Gerard Manley Hopkins noted that the goal of the poet is to name the “inscape” of objects—that which distinguishes them from all other objects—thus naming “being.” Walker Percy expanded on this, noting that the more metaphors name, not describe, the objects of perception, the more pleasing they are. Naming in this respect, Percy suggests, is testament of the immaterial “being” not only of objects of the world but human souls. The French poet Yves Bonnefoy has suggested that ambiguity—possible meanings that transcend the merely literal significance of certain word combinations—mirrors a metaphysical reality that transcends our merely physical existence. And this is to say nothing of the seemingly innate pleasure we receive from “closure,” metered and rhymed language and so forth, none of which can be explained by simply looking at the brain.

Steiner’s thoughts may be poetic, but The Poetry of Thought lacks the prosaic argumentative rigor needed to persuade that all thought possesses the literary characteristics of his own.  

Micah Mattix is the author of Frank O’Hara and the Poetics of Saying “I” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).