Poetry and Meaning of Life
Poetry – either in its most common form, or in prose – often comprises an existentialist or philosophical content or trace. Much poetry glosses over life and its joys, fate, destiny, our place in the Universe, illusion, pain without reason and the cruel element of life. The specific themes vary, but to sing, to cry or to speculate - in a philosophical form - about the meaning of life is part of the repertoire of dozens of great writers.
What did Cervantes do when he wrote:
«Blessings light on him who invented sleep, the cloak that covers all human thoughts, the meat that satisfies hunger, the drink for the thirst, the heat that warms cold, the cold that moderates heat, and, lastly, the common coin that purchases all the pleasures of the world cheap, the balance and weight that equalizes the king and the shepherd, the fool and the sage»?
Isn’t it existential philosophy, as much as poetry?
What did the emperor Hadrian do when he wrote his epitaph, on the very eve of his death:
«Small errant soul, guest and companion of the body, where are you go now, pale, rigid and naked, without being able to play as before?»
And how should we classify some of the most beautiful biblical verses present in the Book of Ecclesiastes? How should we classify the verses:
«Live joyfully with the wife whom you love
All the days of your life of vanity
God has given you under the sun,
For that is your portion in life,
Among the labour days you have to support under the sun»?
They are obviously philosophy, as much as poetry. They are existentialist poetry and they are existentialist philosophy. And to give a major modern example, we can appeal to Fernando Pessoa. Poems such as Tobacco Kiosk are not only sublime and major examples of human poetic genius. They are also major examples of existentialist philosophy. Much of the poetry of Pessoa is also philosophy.
Listen to him:
«We have conquered the whole world before leaving our beds.
But we were awakened and it was dark,
We rose and all was strange to us.»
It’s obviously philosophy. Even when he rejects it, and says:
«I savour in the cigarette the liberation of thought.
I follow the smoke like a personal itinerary
And enjoy, in a moment sensitive and capable,
The freedom of speculation
And the consciousness that metaphysic is only a result of illness.»
Or when he says:
«Eat your chocolates, little one!
Eat your chocolates!
Know there are no metaphysics in the world but chocolates.»
Declaredly, there is more philosophy in some poetry than in many assumed philosophical arguments.
We may object: but isn’t Pessoa’s philosophical theme - and all the other cited cases - too repetitive? Isn’t the poetry about the meaning of life too limited, too restricted for the transmission of banal philosophical equations? Is it possible to philosophise, in its higher sense, through poetry, without true arguments?
In a theme such as the purpose and meaning of life, yes. In this case, to understand life, to give it a meaning or to refuse it depends deeply on our feelings, perhaps more than on our reason...
Profundity can be intimately connected to beauty, to art, to novelty, to the ability of the writer to touch our souls, our joy, our sadness, our astonishment, or his ability to open new horizons of awareness, rather than just abstract reasoning and argument. That’s why poetry and literature can be major vehicles of philosophising.