The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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Aesthetic Realism and History

Facts and Poetry

By Eli Siegel

The relation of wildness and causality in history is like the relation of freedom and order or structure in a poem. When I say that history is the poem of time and space and self, I don’t mean to be looked on as making a portentous statement. One can see, in history, poetry occurring. The only difference is that in poetry there is such an arrangement, through words, that music occurs.

I take now a fairly popular history—I remember it was popular many years ago when I got it from a Baltimore library. It’s The Story of Russia, by W.R. Morfill (London, 1890). On page 3 we have the following:

Russia has the command of abundance of waterpower. Her lakes ... are intersected by rivers and canals. Ládoga, the largest lake in Europe, contains many islands. The great rivers are the Dniester, which empties itself into the Black Sea;...

A river like the Dniester emptying itself into the Black Sea! It looks romantic. It is romantic. “... the Dnieper, which enters the same sea by Ochákov and Kinburn; the Don, which flows by Vorónezh; and the Volga, the largest river of Europe, which empties itself by seventy mouths into the Caspian.” What an organization!

Napoleon crossed this river in 1812 to invade Russia. Its basin is occupied by the Lithuanians....Siberian rivers are the Obi, the Tom, the Irtysk, the Yenisei, and the Lena....

There’s a mighty jumble here of lakes and rivers, the Don, 70 mouths, Lithuanians, what Napoleon did, the date 1812; and here it looks pretty simple. As these names, which are compounded of known and unknown, reach one, the poetic thing happens; because whenever the unknown is dealt with solidly, or the known is dealt with as if it were freely running into unknown places, we have poetry. If it is affirmed, and known to be affirmed, there is the music which is in poetry.

Take another little collection of facts:

For some time the Russians were confined to Archangel on the White Sea....Ivan the Terrible made many efforts to extend Russia to the Baltic, but this plan was not realized till the days of Peter the Great. The latter monarch took Azov, thus getting an outlet to the Black Sea; but his possession of the town was only temporary. [P. 2]

So from the point of view of 1890, we can look at what happened to rivers, towns, kings, peoples, and single people, and out of it all can come an arrangement in sentences. The arrangement, of course, is not just imposed on what happened: it is found to be in it. In art, the creator doesn’t plaster on something: he, as creator, also finds what was there. His creation consists of finding.

If we look at this pretty carefully, something like poetry comes through. And it is like the poetry which has been acclaimed as poetry quite often. Milton, for example, uses names. Some of the greatest things in Paradise Lost are collections of names that are somewhat historic yet have the redolence of the unseen, unperceived, unknown. These names are aromatic with pleasant misunderstanding. I read now from the first book of Paradise Lost:

... and what resounds

In fable or romance of Uther’s son,

Begirt with British and Armoric knights;

And all who since, baptized or infidel,

Jousted in Aspramont, or Montalban,

Damasco, or Marocco, or Trebisond,

Or whom Biserta sent from Afric shore

When Charlemain with all his peerage fell

By Fontarabbia.

Those names get you. Very few people really could say what Aspramont is, or Montalban, or even Trebisond. It is all spatial and definite, and it seems to be running through time and giving forth the incense of the years.

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