Linear Light from the Ivory Tower: a posthumous poetry collection

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Great admirer as he was of the Koran he recognized that poetry is more in accord with human nature than that work, and he quotes an authority to the effect that our being constituted of fanciful desires makes us more moved by poets than by the word of God. He finds various reasons for the power of poetry over us, the principal one being its quality of ecstasy. He sees that poetry has a mission in conveying ecstasy; that one of its uses is to arouse us to lamentation, to joy, to love, to courage and to religion.

He analyzes the tender longing caused by love poetry, though, good Moslem that he was, he is always discriminating between poetry that arouses a lawful love, and that which has mere lust as its object. His main contribution, however, to the philosophy of [Pg 35] ecstasy is his recognition of its identity with the unconscious.

He quotes some one to the effect that music and singing do not produce in the heart what is not in it but stir up what exists there.

Ecstasy to him is the result of hearing and of understanding what is heard and applying it to an idea which occurs to the hearer. It is a condition produced in the hearer's soul due to knowledge or emotion, and the condition is varied. The following passage is especially worthy of quotation: "As for the states, how many a man gets so far as to perceive in his heart, on some occasion which may appear in it, a contraction or an expansion, yet he does not know its cause!

Narrative and Representation in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

And a man sometimes thinks about a thing, and it makes an impression on his soul. Then he forgets the cause, but the impression remains upon his soul, and he feels it. And, sometimes, the condition which he feels is a joy which arose in his soul on his thinking about a cause which produces joy; or it may have been a sorrow; then he who was thinking about it forgets it, but feels in the impression its consequence.

And sometimes that condition is a strong condition which a word expressing joy or sorrow does not indicate clearly and for which he cannot come upon a suitable expression for what was intended. Al Ghazzali gives then, as the essence of ecstasy, its unconscious nature. Ecstasy is related to longing for something unknown. All people experience in their hearts states demanding things unknown to them. He compares the situation to that of the innocent and ignorant youth in puberty who is in a state unexplained to him. Al Ghazzali is one of the first of modern critics to formulate the theory of ecstasy as the end of poetry, and his argument explains the vogue of love and mystic poetry.

He recurs, it is true, to the influence of metre in poetry in inducing ecstasy, but he is always thinking of the ecstasy of love [Pg 36] of man and God as the element of poetry, and in this he is a predecessor of Tolstoy. He also gives rules as to one's behavior in the ecstatic state and does not sanction undue madness.

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A much higher form of the literature of ecstasy than the product of the immoral rites of Dionysus or the mystic poetry of Persia is the prophecy as it was known and delivered among the ancient Hebrews. Indeed, prophecy is the ideal form of the literature of ecstasy and represents the zenith of its achievement.

It is the emotional verbal utterance of the unconscious of the poet, who is usually in a state of ecstasy, and who, as passages in the Bible testify, receives his message in a vision or dream. The act of prophesying was even contagious. The early prophets were like dancing dervishes in their prophesying and influenced others to do as they did.

We recall how Saul stripped himself naked. The Hebrew word prophecy means utterance and the idea of foretelling the future was incidental to it. If the idea of futurity emanated from prophets, it was such insight as any gifted person may experience when he notes certain facts from which he can predict inevitable results.

But the ecstatic state was always associated with the idea of prophecy, the only person, according to the account of the Bible, exempt from this state being Moses. The prophetic state was not allied to divination but resulted from moral and aesthetic inspiration such as we find in modern poets. When the Bible says, God spoke to the prophet, or the hand of God touched him, it means that the prophet was in a state of ecstasy due to a highly developed moral and social viewpoint.

The true prophet's ecstasy was not accompanied by immorality or superduced by drugs or physical abuse. Music, however, was at one time used to produce the prophetic state. The aesthetic mechanism of the ancient [Pg 37] prophets was no different from that of any great poet with a message of modern times. Moses Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed analyzes the ecstatic state of prophecy and his analysis may be applied to any high form of poetic inspiration. Prophecy was, according to Maimonides, an emanation sent forth to man's rational faculty and then to his imaginative faculty; it consisted in the most perfect development of the imaginative faculty; the logical and imaginative faculties had to be balanced in the prophet; he overflowed with the frenzy of ecstasy to help his fellow-men and could not rest even at risk of personal suffering; he had courage and intuition; he reserved his message in a dream or a vision.

The psychology of the prophetic inspiration has been studied by many of the higher critics of the Bible. One of the best books on the subject is The Psychology of Prophecy by Dr. Jacob H. Kaplan, Philadelphia , Julius H.

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Greenstone who says:. The ecstasy of the wild and mad kind was seen only in the early days of Hebrew prophecy, when wine and dance and music and other external means were used for bringing about this state, but the subdued elevated ecstasy due to religious temperament and patriotic fervor, due to constant and profound contemplation, was certainly the characteristic of the later prophets. Ecstasy is usually the spring whence all the other prophetic streams flow. While the Greeks mingled reason with inspiration to produce poetry, the prophets went further, and interpenetrated their ecstasy with a high sense of social justice.

An ecstatic state, with a keen intellect, a high moral outlook, and a noble social ideal characterized the prophet. His state of ecstasy was due to this highly developed [Pg 38] social conscience.


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He was not so much concerned with religious rites as with the decline of the nation's ideals of justice. The prophet of that day fulminated against the economic evils of society.


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  • He was possessed of an exalted type of aesthetic soul, the ecstasy to social justice. No literature gives us such types of men who rebuke unjust kings as we find in the stories of Nathan and David, Elijah and Ahab, Jeremiah and Hezekiah. No literature shows us such courageous types as Amos and Isaiah.

    They were not flatterers, these men who risked their lives in shouting back to eastern autocratic monarchs their iniquities. They did not say what society or public opinion wanted them to say but what they felt was their duty. They overflowed not with the immoral and insane ecstasy of the rites of Dionysius, but the ecstasy of the man who loves his neighbor as himself, of the man who would not have the rich crush the poor, of the man who sought kindness for the stranger, the oppressed, the widow, the fatherless.

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    And the prophets, in spite of their virulency, produced the highest forms of artistic beauty. Not all the revolutions of opinions and changes in religious beliefs have made them obsolete. Shaw once said, substitute the word ideals for the word idols, in the Bible, and you have messages that are still true. So the prophets instead of being miracle performers, foretellers of the future, preachers of theology, are really poets of ecstasy, with a social message revealed in a dream.

    ‘A Tune Beyond Us, Yet Ourselves’

    The old word of God, in the form of a high social ideal, to-day is still making prophets. Shelley, Ibsen and Ruskin have done work that is akin to the prophets of old; they have given us works of art inspired by a state of ecstasy springing from the possession of social ideals. Santayana rightly regards the prophet, one who portrays the ideals [Pg 39] of experience and destiny, as the greatest poet. See Poetry and Religion.

    Nor did the prophets of old sing their messages in artificial form. They did not count their syllables and give us metre, though they indulged in parallelisms. They wrote in rhythmical prose. The prophets had a true conception of what constituted a high form of poetry, an ecstatic production in prose with a social ideal behind it. Ecstasy was the first condition of their poetry but it was not pathological as with monks who tortured their bodies, or decadent poets who resorted to drugs.

    If there is a high form of the literature of ecstasy it surely is that in which the ecstasy of humanitarianism is described.

    THE LITERATURE OF ECSTASY

    It is that which shows a man with a highly developed sense of social justice, who is making sacrifices because he observes the misery of many due to the privileged few. Don Quixote is one of the greatest poems because the knight wants to help mankind, even though he is insane and never recks his own bruises, but persists and is laughed at by all. In speaking of the literature of ecstasy, something should be said about De Quincey's famous distinction of the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. He defined the former as that which teaches and the latter as that which moves.

    In the literature of power he included also that which taught by means of passions, desires and emotions and that which had its field of action in relation to the great moral capacities of man. The literature of power, according to De Quincey, includes that [Pg 40] which appeals to the reason and understanding through the affections. It restores "to man's mind the ideals of justice, of hope, of truth, of mercy, of retribution. The question is, what relation is there between De Quincey's idea of the literature of power and that of the literature of ecstasy.

    Of course he included under the literature of power his masterly prose poems; also all his imaginative writings. Now, the Confessions of an Opium Eater , for instance, belongs only in parts to the literature of ecstasy, noticeably in the dream phantasies. By the literature of power De Quincey meant all literature except science. The only illustration of the literature of knowledge he gives is Newton's Principia , and the marked characteristics he finds in this as in all literature of knowledge is that it may be and usually is superseded by later discoveries.

    The literature of power in his opinion is permanent; this statement is not true when we think of the many imaginative works of the past that have no longer any message or appeal to us. The point is that De Quincey's literature of power includes not only poetry in verse and prose, but the entire field of general literature which hovers on poetry, or in which the poetry is diffused so that we call it prose literature. The literature of ecstasy then is the more emotional literature of power, that section of it where the ecstasy is concentrated.

    It would include chiefly the impassioned prose and prose phantasies of De Quincey's own work. De Quincey was no art-for-art's-sake man, and he recognized the importance of the rational and the moral element in the sphere of the literature of power. There remains a distinction between power and ecstasy. He does not contend that the emotion should be concentrated and hold complete sway over the author. His literature of power would include, for example, all good novels or histories in their entirety. To us only those portions of such novels and histories where the passion is concentrated belong to the literature of ecstasy or poetry.

    Literature of ecstasy is always poetry, literature of power is not, being rather the equivalent of belles lettres , reaching the heights of poetry only at times.