To Cloak the Emptiness of One’s Yearnings: George Santayana Reconsidered


Early in 1941, as British forces were pushing Italian tanks back into Libya and spoiling Mussolini’s dreams of becoming a full member to the Axis powers, Ezra Pound was hard at work in Rapallo, pushing dreams of his own. In a letter from January 2nd of that year, Pound wrote to the retired Spanish philosopher, George Santayana, offering his theory that Spinoza’s metaphysical monism might be equally well explained in a polytheistic fashion. True European fascism, Pound believed, must be grounded in a polytheistic paganism that would return, like the gods in Pound’s poem of that name, to renew the West after two millennia of Semitic monotheistic corruption. The Jewish and Christian desire to understand the cosmos as the creation of one Being had led to the proliferating chaos and disorder of modernity. By logic of inversion, Pound, like so many of his time, believed that a restored pantheon to theology, or a proliferation of primary substances in metaphysics, would subtend a single, strong leader and hierarchical, social order. Readers of Pound tend to dismiss his poetic and polemic condemnation of “usury” as the fingerprint of his hatred of Jewry, and yet they celebrate as inspired his “mythical method” in The Cantos and elsewhere, which suggests the gods still walk among us, as a deep structure giving form to experience. They fail to consider, however, that Pound’s flippant polytheism is the foundational creed (such as it was) for a deep hatred of the Jews and Christianity, of which the social sin of usury was but a belated symptom.

In his eccentric letter appropriating Spinoza for fascist paganism, Pound displayed his typicality as a figure of the modernist period. History had wrecked western culture on the shoals of modernity and left a chaos of rocks and waves, of industrialization and mass politics. The modernist thinker (among whom, of course, poets featured largely) made his vocation the archeology of civilization in hopes of uncovering a deep structure that would, at the least, explain our present ruins, and at most, offer a rebirth, a new order both vital and unified. Pound, with good reason, turned to George Santayana in his efforts to theorize a cultural renewal to which he, Pound, would cling tenaciously even though it cost both his sanity and his freedom.

Santayana had retired some years earlier to Rome, where he lived an elderly bachelor’s life in the Grand Hotel. He now found himself trapped in that city in wartime, and apparently made the best of it, though his antipathies to Mussolini and Hitler seem hardly to be doubted. Santayana was, from his own perspective, the consummate European. Born in Spain in 1863, he had been educated in the United States and spent many years teaching Philosophy at Harvard. In 1912, inheritance of his family’s legacy made him independently wealthy and allowed him to take up residence in different European capitals and backwaters. Neither American in manner nor Spanish by profound attachment, Santayana, much like T.S. Eliot and Pound, felt entitled to the jewels of European culture, though no particular ring or crown would ever quite suit him. This natural tendency toward expatriation was not the only attribute he shared with Pound, however. Santayana’s philosophy, particularly his writings on poetry and religion, had prepared the intellectual soil for the radical investigations of the modernists. By sublating the romantic lust for epiphany and the Victorian tendency to view all things in terms of moral philosophy (or plain “respectability”) into an aesthetic theory of history, Santayana’s writings suggested that the world had once been unified in an organic, religious society, whose morality and orderliness was the natural extension of its ritual and beauty. Santayana’s claim that religion was a higher form of poetry, and that Dante’s Divine Comedy was perhaps the perfect realization of universal order that poetic vision could comprehend, told his readers and his students (including, importantly, the young T.S. Eliot) that a world was possible, had once existed, formed entirely on aesthetic principles. Santayana intended no l’art-pour-l’art aestheticism, where beauty dispensed with the other transcendentals of truth and goodness. Rather, in Dante’s Thomist cosmos, beauty, truth, and goodness were one in the divine and ineluctable order God had created. From the view of the early twentieth-century, one could not but look back and long for a vision one did not actually possess. Modernists like Pound would make a career of claiming to see from the outside that which they desired to see, as it were, from the inside. It was Santayana, with his Catholic European pretensions, who alone could set this yearning into act.

This is not to say that Santayana was the only source of that diverse series of phenomena literary historians now call artistic modernism. One need only mention W.B. Yeats, whose birthdays are narrowly encircled by Santayana’s (Yeats lived from 1865 to 1939, and Santayana from 1863 to 1952). Readers of Yeats know he too dreamed of an aesthetic culture—though one of romantic sturm und drang rather than Dantesque order, where our peace lies in His will. More geographically relevant, of course, was Henry Adams, whose musings in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) on the architecture of medieval Europe helped him conceive a world of meaning and order nearly identical with Santayana’s. Aside from his only beginning to write such studies of medieval culture after Santayana had completed most of his (something not often noticed), a limitation we encounter with Adams is his residual American Puritanism. Though he certainly believed in no God his ancestors would have recognized, Adams wore the residual Protestantism of late-nineteenth-century Boston like a hairshirt over his sensibility. His idealization of the beauty, order, and collective spirit symbolized by medieval cathedrals was therefore, in a sense, skin-deep. A “skeptical patrician,” as Eliot would later call him, Adams admired medieval Catholic culture from an urbane distance that cannot be understood as just the span of centuries.

In contrast, Santayana, born into a Catholic Spanish family with aristocratic pretensions, cut an exotic and attractive figure in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Though the many light occasional verses he would compose for clubs at Harvard might have made him appear a bit Quixotic, Santayana presented himself convincingly as foreign to the modern, ascetic skepticism of someone like Adams. In person, but especially in his early writings, Santayana assumed the position of interpreter of Catholic Europe to the English-speaking world. He could not merely translate the spirit of its culture, he could embody it as well. And thus his so-called “aesthetic Catholicism” allowed him not only to present the spirit of medieval art as a historical artifact. He claimed to be, with one serious qualification, trained in its very sensibility, and therefore to manifest that lost civilization in the present. No wonder, then, that Pound’s letter of January 1942 should include some of his most serious reflections on theology and metaphysics. He was writing to George Santayana, the man who had laid the foundation for the Anglo-American modernist movement. If the aging retiree in Rome could not approve Pound’s quest to reestablish a culture of beauty and order in the West, then—at that moment, at the start of a great and devastating war—Pound would find himself all but alone in the fascist Italy he wanted to believe would restore that culture.

As one might expect, to perform research in nuclear physics does not necessitate that one approve when other scientists develop a nuclear bomb: to anticipate does not mean to sponsor. Pound writes of Spinoza, “I can accept ‘world as accident of divine substance’ that seems fair way of putting it; but does NOT imply that there can be only ONE substance.” He rattles on about an alternative briefly and then, as if in frustration, directs Santayana to a “diagram” included with his letter. The diagram consists of a series of circles, partitioned and impenetrably labeled with capital letters. To the reader of Pound’s poetry, they ought to seem suspiciously familiar. The author of The Cantos was to prove that “spatial form” was not merely a development in modernist writing that allowed authors to break with the conventions of traditional narrative. It frequently constituted an effort to express by collage and arrangement what might be discursively unintelligible. Santayana, who had in some sense made Pound’s endeavor of The Cantos possible, responded in the only way he could. “I can’t reply to your suggestions and diagrams,” he wrote, “because I don’t understand them.”

Santayana does not merely echo the sentiments of thousands of Pound’s readers. In this terse and appropriate dismissal of Pound’s attempt to transform the Jewish Spinoza’s theological metaphysics into something he could believe (not because Santayana had any fondness for Jews), Santayana demarcates the line where the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century intellectual world loses touch with the modernist experiment: the place where fin-de-siècle aestheticism becomes modernist aesthetic politics, and where admiration of Catholic Europe’s stunning cultural achievements becomes a radical desire to reconstruct the world with the strong arm of Il Duce. For much of the last century, this division served to justify the neglect of Santayana’s work. One could fairly say that his poetry was the product of the age immediately preceding modernism, and was therefore far less worthy of our interest than more recent poets, but much older poets as well. Too recent to display virtues of lost poetic techniques that might be recuperated for contemporary use, yet too quaintly old fashioned to seem, as it were, of our times, his poetic output was understandably relegated to a giant variorum edition produced in the 1970s and destined to fill a few inches of shelf in university libraries.

William G. Holzberger, who prepared The Complete Poems of George Santayana (1979), was correct to suggest that Santayana’s genteel style and persistence in the most common of Victorian poetic diction was the product of a young man, and significant primarily to flesh out the historical character of one of Harvard’s first major philosophical minds. It would be a vain endeavor indeed to try to convince the contemporary reader that Santayana deserves reconsideration as a lost major voice in Anglo-American poetry. Much of his occasional verse is clever and humorous but was intended, with so much of the output in such genres, to amuse one audience and fade away. His more serious work—above all his sonnets—is often riddled with poetic conventions conventionally expressed, and therefore would likely pale in comparison to the work of many more conservative contemporaries. Nevertheless, some reassessment is due. Santayana’s philosophy, especially his earliest work, was an extension of his poetry, and both, when read in tandem, are sufficiently rewarding to merit at least the passing attention given in what follows.


Santayana, like Yeats, was something of a transitional figure straddling the optimistic romanticism of the nineteenth century and the hardened, crisis-ridden variety that came to be called modernism. But whereas Yeats’s poetry has always been the bedrock on which his many other brilliant literary productions rested as he became something of a posthumous academic and cultural industry, Santayana’s legacy has been preserved primarily by historians of philosophy. In the early 1950s, the redoubtable Russell Kirk bookended his landmark study The Conservative Mind (1953) with the subtitle From Burke to Santayana. Kirk, like Santayana’s contemporaries, recognized that the Catholic atheist of Cambridge was no true conservative, but rather a materialist who saw that only a Platonic belief in the ideal could bring order to, or rather, project order onto, an entirely naturalized world. His appeal lay chiefly in his conviction that “a good society is beautiful, a bad society ugly.” Kirk, like Santayana and Burke, believed that the modern condition was one in which western society, in the interest of a confused notion of equality and a pragmatism that acknowledged only capital and the marketplace as real, had simply dispensed with beauty as an informing virtue. What was good for Ford was good for America, as one of our eminent capitalists once noted. Kirk seldom had much hope for the success of a conservative movement opposed to the demolishing forces of socialism and capitalism alike, and so must have hesitated but little to enlist Santayana’s European Catholic critique of the Yankee secular dollar as a dubious ally.

In the last decade-and-a-half, Texas A&M University has been bringing out critical editions of Santayana’s collected works, and John McCormick’s generously proportioned biography has been brought back into print. This making available of the life and writings has provided ample opportunity for a new generation to appreciate why Santayana was once so celebrated, after decades of neglect. To cite just one instance, Richard John Neuhaus’s “Santayana Lately Revisited” captures well the urbane, aphoristic perspicuity that surely earns the Spaniard a seat at the fire with the likes of Oscar Wilde, G.K. Chesterton, and W.H. Auden. To offer just one brief passage, from his brilliant dissection of Walt Whitman, Santayana speaks of the satisfactions to be discovered in the “poet of barbarism”:

In casting off with self-assurance and a sense of fresh vitality the distinctions of tradition and reason a man may feel, as he sinks back comfortably to a lower level of sense and instinct, that he is returning to Nature or escaping into the infinite. Mysticism makes us proud and happy to renounce the work of intelligence, both in thought and life, and persuades us that we become divine in remaining imperfectly human . . . He would be the congenial patron of farmers and factory hands in their crude pleasures and pieties, as Pan was the patron of the shepherds of Arcadia: for he is sure that in spite of his hairiness and animality, the gods will acknowledge him as one of themselves and smile upon him from the serenity of Olympus.

Much as Pound would several years later, Santayana rejected Whitman’s democratic persona by saying it is not poetry to be only primitive. In listing many other such passages, Neuhaus’s article also reminds us, by omission, that the poetry in which Santayana invested so much of his younger years (and some of his later ones) has been treated as incidental output. The aphoristic blade with which he cut his prose essays is certainly not as evident in the poetry, and so the verse seldom gets quoted in passing. Some of the great minds that have found a medium to resonate the hidden currents of truth need not depend on pith to secure a permanent audience. But once an author has been branded a wit, any volume that does not invite the pencil to underline a single sentence or the crescendo of a paragraph invites oblivion in turn.

Perhaps Santayana himself knew this. When providing his autograph, he often provided a verse as underline to the signature, “It is not wisdom to be only wise,” from the third sonnet in his sequence of fifty. Perhaps in consequence, that sonnet remains Santayana’s best known. Yes, this crib from Euripides may indeed have been his most memorable single line of verse. But why? The reason is not far to find and, in fact, suggests one reason his poetry deserves some share of our attention. At the opening of his most definitive essay, “The Elements and Function of Poetry,” he confronts a problem that the contemporary literary world is probably less prepared to answer than was his own:

If a critic, in despair of giving a serious definition of poetry, should be satisfied with saying that poetry is metrical discourse, he would no doubt be giving an inadequate account of the matter, yet not one of which he need be ashamed or which he should regard as superficial. Although a poem be not made by counting of syllables upon the fingers, yet “numbers” is the most poetical synonym we have for verse, and “measure” the most significant equivalent for beauty, for goodness, and perhaps even for truth . . . Measure is a condition of perfection, for perfection requires that order should be pervasive, that not only the whole before us should have a form, but that every part in turn should have a form of its own, and that those parts should be coördinated among themselves as the whole is coördinated with the other parts of some greater cosmos.

Santayana understood beauty in the manner of Thomas Aquinas, and so posited wholeness and proportion as constitutive of it. Without question there was more; but without these, nothing. For a poem to be suitably proportioned to the intellect it must possess in its atoms and entirety a formal measure that seems to flash behind it the creative mind. The fine arts are those whose end is to show the intellect dancing among the senses. Santayana also understood that these attributes were but two-thirds of a definition, they are the formal properties that show forth the splendor of matter, what Aquinas called claritas. This element of beauty is that which pleases us with the vision of being, the sense of a thing as created and meaningful, as intended to be understood. One may pose objections to such a tripartite notion of beauty, but more likely, when one offers exceptions (the work of art that is not proportional, or not whole, or not luminous), one has failed to realize that art and beauty are not the same thing, and what we called beauty had better have been called something else (the sublime, for instance).

The weakness of Santayana’s aesthetic theory does not begin here. Rather, it begins in his way of describing the ascent that properly follows from these prerequisites to beauty. After inscribing a form on his work, the poet must also “add” verbal play—assonance, alliteration, personification and other tropes and figures of speech—which Santayana approvingly called “euphuism.” The poet must also add fresh observations expressed in forms at a remove from the everyday, the prosaic. Finally, the greatest poets will slice through the vulgar and mechanistic logarithms of the material world to show forth, by fancy, an ideal order. The highest poetry must

repair the material of experience, seizing hold of the reality of sensation and fancy beneath the surface of conventional ideas, and then out of that living but indefinite material . . . build new structures, richer, finer, fitter to the primary tendencies of our nature, truer to the ultimate possibilities of the soul.[i]

Were we justified in reading such grandeur in a purely Thomist light, we would hardly need to take exception. The Thomist knows natural theology begins in the most primitive of sense impressions and never loses that physical experience even as it ascends toward the pure spirit of divine thought. Similarly, the Thomist-as-poet can well enough surmise that the work of art must not “repair” experience, but must testify to the unity, the continuity of our most fallen experience with the providential order: nature and grace are one. Santayana, as we shall consider at some length below, possessed the skepticism of a materialist and the morality of a Platonist.

Convinced that men must be moral, according to his lights, one must show them a transcendent ideal of which earthly beauty is scarcely even a shadow. And so, this otherwise fine hierarchy of the stages of poetic beauty has a gash struck through it, the dark aporia between the real and the ideal. On such an understanding, one is all too likely to believe that it is the inner-light, the ideal at the heart of the poem that is essential. The form, while important, can be regarded with a certain amount of indifference. Aquinas argued that we have individual souls because they are created for union with an individual body; if the soul can exist apart from the body, it nevertheless is destined eternally for it. Plato, on the other hand, frequently suggested the soul was fastened to the body like a god in his convenient machine. Although Socrates’ sincere monologue of love in Plato’s Phaedrus is among the most beautiful poetic visions one may encounter, that does not mean Platonic idealism is a sure guide to the nature of beauty itself. In Santayana’s theory, we are too much at liberty to view the line, the word, the image as so many cogs in a functional machine whose true purpose is to carry a burden quite other than itself. Such thinking also lead to one of Santayana’s most infamous pronouncements—one that firmly embeds him as an advanced pupil in the schoolhouse of Matthew Arnold. At the conclusion of his essay he declares that the highest plane of poetry

is the sphere of significant imagination, of relevant fiction, of idealism become the interpretation of reality it leaves behind. Poetry raised to its highest power is then identical with religion grasped in its inmost truth; at their point of union both reach their utmost purity and beneficence, for then poetry loses its frivolity and ceases to demoralize, while religion surrenders its illusions and ceases to deceive.

Poetry must finally leave behind the reality from which it draws form. Religion must surrender its claims to what people of Santayana’s day, and even some in our own, called “fact.” Both must rise to a plane of imaginative idealization that does not, in truth, exist. In a way incompatible with Plato, Santayana believed poetry and religion found their greatest truth in a fiction of non-being. For Plato, to get beyond being was to get, finally, to true reality—to the good. The Catholic atheist believed no such thing. One must rise on toiling wings to a reality that is not real, to a truth whose most honest purpose is the reprieve it affords from knowing what we know: the world is a mechanical beast with will but not reason.

As we have seen, Santayana was an important antecedent figure to modernist writing, but as such he was indifferent to one of its great discoveries, that form may actually be the content of a work. Form and content are not distinct like the Platonic ideal and the world. They are, at least from one point of view, identical. We should not be surprised, then, to find many themes frequent in modern poetry present in his, but expressed in a conventional diction that leaves them, sometimes, hanging unnatural and insincere on the tongue. Modern disillusionment, for instance:

Now ponder we the ruins of the years,
And groan beneath the weight of boasted gain;
No unsung bacchanal can charm our ears
And lead our dances to the woodland fane,
No hope of heaven sweeten our few tears
And hush the importunity of pain.

The despondency of early and middle Yeats, the Pound of Cathay, and even the Eliot of “La Figlia Che Piange” drips from these lines, but without any of the unusual cadences. For that matter, even a poet of the 1890s, such as Ernest Dowson, was wise enough to introduce the alexandrine to poems of similar sentiment and strike thereby a formal note more adequate to such sentiment than the generic imagery and rhythms that fill out Santayana’s period. One does not have to look long to discover “bacchanals” in more recent poetry, but it generally justifies its place through juxtaposition with less conventional images than “the woodland fane.” We might think of Denis Devlin in his early surrealist phase, whose long poem “Bacchanal” is a metaphorical nightmare bursting through long lines of couplets that evoke (by chance) the sprung rhythms of Hopkins—a Bacchic form indeed. But, again, Santayana saw little reason to consider the proportion of form to content. Another sonnet in the same sequence instructs us to

Love but the formless and eternal Whole
From whose effulgence one unheeded ray
Breaks on this prism of dissolving clay
Into the flickering colours of thy soul.

We may cite such a stanza to explain, once more, the Platonic nature of his composition but, in doing so, an interesting paradox arises. Because Santayana was a Platonist of sorts, the mere fitting out of meter with his higher ideals was, after a fashion, the form most identical to the content of his poetry. Indeed, this quatrain seems perfectly executed. The image of light, as old as creation and at least as contemporary as Pound’s Cantos, directs us from the eternal, through the ephemeral, into the individual soul. Eternal light is infinitely beyond us and within us; it is the absolute as well as the singular. Just as Dante journeyed to the dark center of the cosmos only to discover it was also the point farthest to the periphery from Heaven, Santayana captures that moment where Platonic contemptus mundi crosses with the Catholic promise of a personal, loving God, beyond us but with us.

This sonnet is not the only such. His slightly less successful, “I would I might forget that I am I,” begins with an obvious, even crude, trope but at least it suggests some competent “euphuism” as the four “I”s in the line visually and verbally contract just as the poet would push them apart like Eliot’s “You and I” in “Prufrock.” This sonnet concludes with one of the great sestets in the history of the sonnet, where the proposition of the octave is logically applied to the three forms of life most frequently discussed in Scholastic theology. It is, I think, a virtue to write a sonnet that replicates the rationality of Aquinas; to such a procedure, we owe many of Shakespeare’s most puzzling and compelling exercises in the form. Santayana’s ends,

Happy the dumb beast, hungering for food,
But calling not his suffering his own;
Blessèd the angel, gazing on all good,
But knowing not he sits upon a throne;
Wretched the mortal, pondering his mood,
And doomed to know his aching heart alone.

The only major poet I can think of after Santayana to tailor the formal order of a proposition so properly and formulaically to a stanza is W.H. Auden, especially in his triumph in prosody, “The Shield of Achilles.” Yvor Winters, who admired this same virtue in the plain style of Barnaby Googe and Ben Jonson, was too enamored of the uncanny procedures of Pound’s work to hazard such an elegant synthesis. One other of Santayana’s sonnets contains an equally admirable sestet, this time on a stoic rather than Thomist theme. The protagonist, who is mostly, though not entirely consistent across the fifty sonnets, explains his retirement from the life of “holiness,” as a simple matter of providence and vocation:

For some are born to be beatified
By anguish, and by grievous penance done;
And some, to furnish forth the age’s pride,
And to be praised of men beneath the sun;
And some are born to stand perplexed aside
From so much sorrow—of whom I am one.

The caesura in the final line offers a rare dash of rhythmic control in a sequence whose use of enjambment and line often gets shoeboxed by quatrains and reduced to smoothly flowing, but repetitious, couplets in the sestets. If Robert Frost’s versification drove as deep a wedge between rhythm and meter as is possible—a feat whose ingenuity few would deny—Santayana tends to err far at the opposite extreme. This brief pause adds a gravity appropriate to a poetry that would seem to depend upon sincere vision for its worth. And yet, in both these fine sestets, we see the formal indifference of which I have spoken in multiple instances. Santayana’s rhymes are seldom forced; even the “beneath the sun” that cross rhymes with “penance done” seems a natural allusion to Ecclesiastes. But while the proponents of modern free verse seem to take delight in complaining about the “forced” or “artificial” character of proper versification, they would probably like these lines very little, even though Santayana’s language is graceful and natural (if these two adjectives may apply to the same object).

Often enough a hard, difficult rhyme, even if it seems to challenge conventional idiom, rewards the ear and the mind. And, in general, a poet ought to feel justified in deploying frequent serviceable but uninspired rhymes so that a poem does not become ensnared in its own thicket of rhymed conceits. Santayana’s rhymes, however, while almost always natural are seldom inspired. One might be tempted to say it seems as if he just pulled his choices from the options in an old rhyming dictionary, but that would be overestimating his efforts. For Santayana, a “place” always finds its “face,” as “feet” tramples on “heat.” In the above, only the conceptually opposed “beatified” and “age’s pride,” (whose brilliance I confess) suggests craft working hand-in-hand with grace.

The poet was well aware, even at the turn of the century, that he wrote in old-fashioned styles, and that was one of the virtues of his conservatism. Innovation was barbaric, and barbarian hoards like the United States were obsessed by novelty. Such was the inevitable vice of Protestantism. Santayana, as we have noted, viewed himself as a Catholic in the tradition of Dante, and studiously observed the conventions that would credit his membership. His failing, here, was a tendency to deploy conventions in the most conventional manner imaginable, so that, on average, his sonnets do not seem like individual sonnets so much as models from which a true poet might depart. It was not ever thus, however. He continued to write poems occasionally, well after his successful publishing career as a poet had mostly ended (and it was successful indeed, especially by contemporary standards, with his three volumes of poems being reprinted several times and even reaching multiple editions). In these late forays, he showed he was quite capable of trying on different voices, different idioms, in keeping with the budding practices of modernism. He also showed, or suggested, that he did not take such practices very seriously. The one great example of this play with modern vernacular is his paraphrase of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, a clunky, elegant piece of work:

When times are hard and old friends fall away
And all alone I lose my hope and pluck,
Doubting if God can hear me when I pray,
And brood upon myself and curse my luck,
Envying some stranger for his handsome face,
His wit, his wealth, his chances, or his friends,
Desiring this man’s brains or that man’s place,
And vexed with all I have that makes amends,
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,–
By chance I think of you; and then my mind,
Like music from deep sullen murmurs rising
To peals and raptures, leaves the earth behind:
For if you care for me, what need I care
To own the world or be a millionaire?

“Place” faces “face” once more, but here the cliché rhyme mocks itself. Horatio Alger floats before us as “pluck” and “luck” round out the first quatrain, as if one of Shakespeare’s most impressive interrogations of the divine and natural orders could be Americanized down to a question of monetary success and “know-how.” The final question of the couplet invites another: in Santayana’s “millionaire” can we not hear the echoes of the scathing moniker “Bradford millionaire” in Eliot’s poetry? And Eliot, who mocked himself while quoting Shakespeare in Ash-Wednesday, with “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope,” may have been outdone here. Santayana’s “this man’s brains” offers a sneer at the Yankee culture he so loathed in its own words. The sonnet does not succeed as pastiche alone, however. The almost colloquial “Like music from deep sullen murmurs rising / To peals and raptures, leaves the earth behind,” with its varied cadence girded across the meter, and its subtle alliteration on “m” and “r” that speeds and slows when read aloud, preserves enough of the emotional power of the older sonnet to help Santayana’s stand on its own.

During roughly the same period, while Santayana was living in England and the First World War was raging on the Continent, he attempted an arduous and grim sonnet that matches the vivid and laconic poems of Pound’s from the same period, as well as those of the principal poets of the Great War. It begins:

Darkling and groping, thin of blood, we wage
Mechanic war: one vast crepuscular day
Broods o’er the world; our very grief is grey;
We wear no weeds; we loathe to tread the stage.

I presume Santayana was trying to capture the bleak vision of Thomas Hardy’s “Darkling Thrush,” harnessing its vast millennial dread to capture the visceral nightmare of life in the trenches. With only the Shakespeare pastiche for exception, this would seem to be Santayana’s most colloquial poem. And yet only its heavy caesuras, which give the perfect iambic pentameter some of the halting heaviness of imagist free verse, seems particularly new. Aside from the nod to Hardy, the brilliant “Mechanic” owes more to the language of Shakespeare than that of Wilfred Owen. One of the lamentable losses to poetry from the sixteenth to the twentieth century that has come through the standardization of language is an unwillingness to allow modification of spelling to suit occasion. Most frequently, this modification was the contraction of adverbs to adjectives (“likely” becomes “like”), but others were possible. This rigidity counts as a loss because almost no one likes adverbs and most of our great poets (Yeats is the chief example) avoid them altogether. Santayana’s clipping the wing of “mechanical” down to “mechanic” is not at all colloquial, and of course does not change the part of speech, but by deleting the final vowel sound gives a harsh, consonantal edge to the line picked up nicely by “crepuscular.” By the end of the quatrain, of course, with “weeds” we are already back in Shakespearean dress—and for no good reason.



As we have seen, Santayana generally does have a reason of sorts for the “old fashioned” diction that persists in his poems. It captures as an affectation the Platonic origin of his poetic practice. In his gorgeous essay, “Platonic Love in Some Italian Poets,” he gives his reading of the European sonnet tradition, consciously distinguishing it from that of Shakespeare. Platonic love is the principle that subtends his understanding of both religion and poetry. The young Dante, as everyone knows, had fallen in love with Beatrice, and continued loving her long after her death until she becomes, in The Comedy, his mediatrix and guide to the eternal love of God:

Yet, while his love of Beatrice was thus constant and religious, it was by no means exclusive. Dante took a wife as Beatrice herself had taken a husband; the temptations of youth, as well as the affection of married life, seem to have existed beneath this ideal love, not unrebuked by it, indeed, but certainly not disturbing it. Should we be surprised at this species of infidelity? Should we regard it as proof of the artificiality and hollowness of that so transcendental passion, and smile, as people have done in the case of Plato himself, at the thin disguise of philosophy that covers the most vulgar frailties of human nature? Or, should we say, with others, that Beatrice is a merely allegorical figure, and the love she is said to inspire nothing but a symbol for attachment to wisdom and virtue?

Santayana answers against the scoffers, but refuses to reduce Beatrice to pure allegory. The poet falls in love with an individual, who is an image of perfection, of the absolute beauty of heaven. He may have other loves in his life, but those will remind him with a pang of that first love, and both together goad and pain the poet as the image of the unattainable. Nevertheless, he does not abandon the individual for the formless absolute:

. . .if the inmost heart still remains unsatisfied, as it must in all profound or imaginative natures, the name and memory of that vague early love may well subsist as a symbol for the perfect good yet unattained. It is intelligible that as time goes on that image, grown thus consciously symbolic, should become interchangeable with the abstract method of pursuing perfection—that Beatrice, that is, should become the same as sacred theology. Having recognized that she was to his childish fancy what the ideals of religion were to his mature imagination, Dante intentionally fused the two, as every poet intentionally fuses the general and the particular, the universal and the personal. Beatrice thereforth appeared, as Plato wished that our loves should, as a manifestation of absolute beauty and as an avenue of divine grace.

Religion and poetry both cannot abandon the notion of incarnation, but we are not to confuse incarnation with actual realization. That which we most desire is beyond our grasp, and in the anguish stirs the poem. Shakespeare, who owed much to the Italian sonnet tradition that Santayana takes as normative, lacked this vision because his interests generally remain earthly; the winning of his beloved would satiate his longing. Santayana’s sonnets, to his mind, offered the first true instance of Platonic love in English—or rather, as he well knew, the first to be offered without a snicker or a jail sentence:

‘T is love that moveth the celestial spheres
In endless yearning for the Changeless One,
And the stars sing together, as they run
To number the innumerable years.
‘T is love that lifteth through their dewy tears
The roses’ beauty to the heedless sun,
And with no hope, nor any guerdon won,
Love leads me on, nor end of love appears.
For the same breath that did awake the flowers,
Making them happy with a joy unknown,
Kindled my light and fixed my spirit’s goal;
And the same hand that reined the flying hours
And chained the whirling earth to Phoebus’ throne,
In love’s eternal orbit keeps the soul.

Santayana had set himself the task of raising our desires above the earthly. He loathed the anthropocentric drivel of Whitman and Robert Browning, which he saw as a religion of man, content to mistake every impulse of the nerve for an epiphany. But these two, and their ancestor, Shakespeare, had a remarkable power to capture the pulse of sensuous experience. Rather than take their virtue and shun their vice, Santayana, whether by impotence or principle, created his Platonic antidote with a decided lack of sub-lunar imagery. This sonnet, the second of thirty describing the yearnings of Platonic love, is more abstract than most. And yet that which precedes it and is intended to set forth the attractions of “the myriad voices of the Spring” is hardly more vivid.

In this instance, we should not count this absence a failure. The lines proceed with an austerity redolent of Dante and Cavalcanti without being entirely derivative. The rising stress of each of the early syllables of the third line (“And the stars sing together”) guides the voice upward with the trajectory of the poem. The octave’s conclusion (“Love leads me on, nor end of love appears”) suggests, with the openness won by inverting the syntax of object and verb, a desperate endlessness even as the masculine rather than feminine rhyme preserves phonetically the upward spiritual flight of love. Neither the cliché of “dewy tears”—on roses no less—nor the accurate but banal “Changeless One” can disturb the well constructed cosmos Santayana has set on its course. The series of sonnets in its entirety deserves our attention perhaps more than any of Santayana’s other verse productions; though, it must be confessed, some of their interest derives from the way they enact the ideal he set forth in his essays on Italian poets.

Reading through them in the context of his many writings on religion, one cannot help but ask a question Eliot would consider apropos Dante. Santayana was an idealist in two related senses. We have seen that his sympathies ran deep with Plato and with the Platonic elements in Aquinas and the medieval poets. The world is but a shadow of the ideal for which we yearn, and our lives must be shaped by that elusive transcendent vision. He was an idealist in a modern sense as well, believing as he did that the world is not intrinsically meaningful, but that the imposition of our subjective ideas make it so. Citing approvingly Jean Lahor, he wrote that it is the work of human intelligence that performs “what is commonly believed to be the work of God. The universe, apart from us, is a chaos, but it may be made a cosmos by our efforts and in our minds. The laws of events, apart from us, are inhuman and irrational, but in the sphere of human activity they may be dominated by reason.”

To repeat an observation that has threaded through this essay, Santayana’s Platonism posited an ideal he did not believe existed. Eliot had denied the importance of belief in Dante. The Tuscan had simply used what was available to construct the best poetry possible for his time. But in Dante’s case, at the very least, The Inferno is so vivid and filled with creaturely images that one is asked to believe very little, because we are, most of us, well acquainted with suffering. Even Hans Urs von Balthasar, for whom Dante serves as an exemplary figure of theological aesthetics, thought the latter parts of the poem, where theology takes over, a bit dry, serving better as elegant preaching than fine poetry. I disagree with the great Swiss theologian on that judgment, but grant the point in principle, and so must ask, can a poetry like Santayana’s interest those who do not believe in the reality of an unmoved mover? In a poetry so lacking in the startling or shocking brushstrokes of the keen observer, can one who does not believe the universe ordered by divine love and kept in being by it find matter for meditation in Santayana’s chatter of celestial spheres?

I cannot answer that question, but I find it remarkable that the poet sustained his contradictory idealism throughout his long life. Quite literally. On his deathbed he was translating Michelangelo, one of the Italian Catholic poets to whom he was most devoted. At the same time, he attempted to arrange burial in a non-consecrated track of a Catholic cemetery, so insistent in his disbelief that he did not wish to awake very near the pious when the apocalypse finally came. In a time when mantras like “religion without religion” are current among academics and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic, the case of George Santayana’s Platonism should serve, if not as a warning (of what would he warn us?), but as an item for long contemplation.

To pose the matter another way, it is clear that—for those of us who believe Dante’s poetic achievement is partially measured by his representing in a convincing and awesome manner the truths to be found in Catholic theology—some sense of belief is requisite for great poetry. Santayana’s sonnets offer one mode of Christian Platonism to which the believing may naturally respond. He himself must have known this, given that he depended on the sincere faith of millions of Catholics to justify a worldview to which he could only emotionally give assent. In a poetry of ideas, which his may justly be called, the loss of commitment to those ideas inevitably will lessen the interest of the poems. Because his essays and poems succeed in expressing with power the chivalric idea of love central to Thomist theology, they may remain important at least to those who still embrace that idea.

Other poems in Santayana’s mammoth Collected are worth passing mention. His “King’s College Chapel” attempts a continuation of sorts to Grey’s “Elegy Written in an English Churchyard.” Where Grey had meditated on the lives that might have been for the deceased, had fortune born them into a higher lot in life, Santayana meditates on the religious devotion that has been, but is no longer, in secular England’s increasingly secular academy. Given what I have just said about his belief, it is curious to observe the poet lambasting Cambridge students for having forgotten the creeds, and the symbolic and ritual accouterments of them, that once made education a profoundly Christian act. “Midnight,” another lyric poem, offers a particularly vivid account of disbelief, shame and melancholy blending together like smoke in a dark chamber:

My parrot lips, when I was young,
To prove and to disprove were bold.
The mighty world has tied my tongue,
And in dull custom growing old
I leave the burning truth untold
And the heart’s anguish all unsung.

Youth dies in man’s benumbèd soul,
Maid bows to woman’s broken life,
A thousand leagues of silence roll
Between the husband and the wife.
The spirit faints with inward strife
And lonely gazing at the pole.

But how should reptiles pine for wings
Or a parched desert know its dearth?
Immortal is the soul that sings
The sorrow of her mortal birth.

Perhaps this poem, which contains the most beautiful of his verses, provides as much of an answer as we can hope for regarding Santayana’s religious belief, for he certainly sang in dismay of his mortal birth; but since he did not take his doctrines literally, we probably should not either. As stock as so many of its images are, they remain vivid and effective in the way that the broad lines of medieval art and architecture always are. Auden would write many similar poems, and though they never fail in surprising imagery (whereas Santayana never surprises), it is not that alone which makes them so appealing. Both poets were repeatedly successful at setting forth the vivid, didactic tableau in a couple of lines.

There are other poems of interest, particularly the dramatic poems, “A Hermit of Carmel” and “The Knight’s Return.” These blank verse exercises demonstrate an element of Santayana’s Platonism to which we have not yet had chance to turn. Plato, of course, had set The Good above being. It did not exist, because it was too real merely to exist. Perhaps in consequence of Plato, perhaps in consequence of his being raised in a culture of Victorian respectability, Santayana himself (in a curious way) set the good above all other things. He denied the reality of aesthetics as a discipline of philosophy, considering it a mere sub-branch of ethics (“morals”). These dramatic poems, which are dull from line to line, at least have the virtue of demonstrating Santayana’s interest in art as a vehicle for moral instruction. The poems offer brief instruction in Christian asceticism and chivalry—two codes of living that Santayana seems to have followed in life and sincerely desired to teach the debased, that is to say, the modern American world. There are others as well, less substantial, but often more entertaining, inflected as they are with the humor of his occasional verse. Nevertheless, with the exception of “Midnight,” it is to the sonnets we shall have to look if we want to think of Santayana as a poet. They are the locus where his compelling philosophical mind most frequently managed to squeeze itself into verse.



The sonnets are not the only place where Santayana’s poetic legacy survives, however. If an author becomes his admirers, Santayana effectively became two of the twentieth century’s great modern poets. I noted above some echoes of the Harvard professor in his student T.S. Eliot’s work. Decades ago, three different scholars observed several other connections between the two, including the probable origin of Eliot’s troubling dictum, the objective correlative. The connections do not end there. Devotees of Eliot’s criticism will find that Santayana’s understanding of mysticism informed Eliot. His essay on Whitman and Browning, “The Poetry of Barbarism,” seems to have established Eliot’s own opinion of the Victorian sage—that, despite the apparent personae of his dramatic monologues, all Browning really did was express his personal, subjective emotions. Browning severely wanted the negative capability of Shakespeare, and so was but a self-expressive poet as primitive as Whitman. Given the prominence of both Browning and Eliot’s poetry to the tradition of the dramatic monologue, this critical opinion is of great significance to the literary historian.

More importantly, it was Santayana with his aesthetic Catholicism who suggested to Eliot replacing Shakespeare with Dante as the central poet in the western tradition. Santayana’s “The Absence of Religion in Shakespeare” argued that the Bard’s poetic vision was entirely humanist and despairing, was more expressive of what we now call existential crisis than any Christian humanism. Eliot would ratify these positions, admiring Shakespeare’s projective gifts, but critiquing the lack of formal unity and religious vision in the plays. Many scholars would now argue that Shakespeare’s works are informed by Christianity in their very marrow, but what cannot be denied is the formal chaos of the Elizabethan play in comparison with Dante’s perfectly numbered Comedy. For Eliot and Santayana, formal measure and classical unity were the test of beauty and religion both. This critique led Eliot to believe, with Santayana, that Orthodoxy, even for the non-believer, must be Catholic. The reductive heresies of Protestantism were a kind of trans-historical decay that set in at different historical moments. Protestantism per se was not Christianity, but the reemergence of suppressed cultural tendencies among the Teutonic race, and to be Germanic was to be Philistine. Whether speaking of Christianity or the old religions of pagan Greece against which Xenophanes and other heretics reacted, Santayana sided with orthodoxy, and so would Eliot:

To a person sufficiently removed by time or by philosophy from the controversies of sects orthodoxy must always appear right and heresy wrong; for he sees in orthodoxy the product of the creative mind, of faith and constructive logic, but in heresy only the rebellion of some partial interest or partial insight against the corollaries of a formative principle imperfectly grasped and obeyed with hesitation. At a distance, the criticism that disintegrates any great product of art or mind must always appear short-sighted and unamiable.

We find here a source for Eliot’s criticism and sensibility at least as profound and enduring as any. Especially those who wish to comprehend Eliot’s love of Dante and his consequent aesthetic “classicism,” political conservatism, and religious “orthodoxy,” all of which in fact antedate his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism, would be wise to begin by reading Santayana’s essay. For, while Eliot only pronounced his loyalties, Santayana explained and confessed them with an eloquent and self-critical honesty. Indeed, one is amazed to discover how sharply Santayana understood his own apparent contradictions. As a last point, we should note that Eliot may also have found in Santayana’s poems material he would greatly modify through the influence of Laforgue. J. Alfred Prufrock, with his inclination for the company of women and his frightened passivity, is a close cousin to the figure Santayana himself presented in turn-of-the-century Cambridge. Prufrock’s cosmic aspirations and inevitable defeat seems but an ironic development of the protagonist of Santayana’s sonnets. And so, might we not be just in hearing a source for Prufrock’s hypothetical rejection at the hands of a Boston debutant—“That wasn’t what I meant at all”—in this sonnet?

We were together, and I longed to tell
How drop by silent drop my bosom bled.
I took some verses full of you, and read,
Waiting for God to work some miracle.
They told how love had plunged in burning hell
One half my soul, while the other half had fled
Upon love’s wings to heaven; and you said:
“I like the verses; they are written well.”
If I had knelt confessing “It is you,
You are my torment and my rapture too,”
I should have seen you rise in flushed disdain:
“For shame to say so, be it false or true!”
And the sharp sword that ran me through and through,
On your white bosom two had left a stain.

A wonderful little poem, in any case. But that Santayana and Prufrock both end up sprawling on a pin, rejects of greatness and women alike, seems not incidental to our understanding of how Eliot worked his Cambridge years into the charter document of modernist poetry.

The reader may find it curious that we have not until now mentioned the name of Wallace Stevens. Without question, Santayana’s influence is most patent and most enduring in Stevens’ works. As the poet and theologian Kevin Hart long ago considered, Santayana’s aesthetic Catholicism, which I have described at length, fitted out Stevens with his entire poetic practice. The Christian Platonism Santayana expressed in his prose and verse afforded Stevens opportunity to create a more generic and personal theory of poetry and life, which we now know as the Supreme Fiction. However, Santayana’s philosophy highlighted the social and cultural structures that religion and ritual provided. Though we have not had occasion to discuss it at length here, his Catholicism specifically resisted the subjective individualism Protestant thought had inflicted on the West, and the ugliness of modernity he largely attributed to the failure of the beautiful structure of religion to unite communities in a proper moral and political order. Stevens’ Supreme Fiction, while not without its social dimension certainly, like his poetry, concerns itself almost entirely with the power of the private imagination as it encounters reality. One rarely finds more than one character in a Stevens poem, whereas Santayana’s ideal Platonic lovers are always exemplary as the knights of medieval romance are exemplary. Stevens acknowledged his debt to the Spaniard in his late poem, “To an Old Philosopher in Rome.” The loose blank verse five-line stanzas capture eloquently Santayana, the Platonist at the end of his days, as he prepares to slip the bonds of individuality and be united with the ideal he had spent his life contemplating:

On the threshold of heaven, the figures in the street
Become the figures of heaven, the majestic movement
Of men growing small in the distances of space,
Singing, with smaller and still smaller sound,
Unintelligible absolution and an end—

How well the poem expresses Santayana’s contemplative solitude, whose dignity is compromised only by the pathos of aging, the repetitiousness of daily routines (including those of caregiving nuns). Perhaps Stevens sensed it more acutely than Santayana, for the younger poet would convert to Catholicism on his deathbed—a final act Santayana took steps to ensure would never happen to himself.

The imagination as creator of an ideal that deserves reverence and imitation but not belief is not the only debt Stevens owes Santayana. He seems to have understood the implications of calling religion the highest mode of poetry, and accordingly to have ignored the debates over prosody otherwise central in the modernist period. While Stevens’ The Necessary Angel (1951) offers a substantial meditation on the function of poetry, like Santayana and Plato before him, Stevens identified poetry primarily with a kind of imaginative activity. Form does not merit discussion. And so Stevens’ famously “suave” free and blank verse, his general exclusion of rhyme, does to a degree resemble the indifferently conventional lyric and dramatic forms Santayana deployed. The difference in versification does not seem significant. Rather, Stevens’ gift for the startling image, the curious formulation, the self-deflating comic tableaux that embody powerful theories of the imagination, are what make his verse seem always fresh and inviting even when its meaning escapes. What he had mastered, actually, was one of the middle degrees of poetry that Santayana described in his essay on the elements of poetry. Stevens, like the older poet, was conventional in versification and idealist (in the dual sense) at his poetic core, but unlike Santayana, he had mastered “euphuism.” He had found a means to make his obscure lyrics amusing and even intoxicating. In this respect, he is not simply Santayana’s heir, he is his fulfillment.

Santayana, who lived nearly a century, was always a man of his times and yet an exile in his times. He was a man without a country who nonetheless could justly speak as a representative of Catholic Europe to the respectably Protestant middle classes of America. The critique he offered helped incite the modernist movement, by awakening poets like Eliot and Stevens to an ideal imaginative order supremely manifest in Dante’s Catholic poetry. And yet his work is destined to remain in some ways unintelligible and unappealing to contemporary readers because of a historical gap that made, as we saw, the modernist ravings of Ezra Pound unintelligible to him. Because his writings were so formative of the modernist movement, at least his prose works must continue to be read if we are to understand properly how our culture has become what it has become. Their aphoristic brilliance, too, makes them worthy of attention from anyone who craves elegant prose in an age of efficient banalities. And because a handful of his poems express a still intriguing Christian Platonism, these few at least might be read for their own sake, as expressing a sensibility not quite our own, but rational and decorous as only the best verse ever is.

[i] Ibid. 161.

About James Matthew Wilson

James Matthew Wilson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. His poems, essays, and reviews appear regularly in a wide range of books and journals, including, most recently, The Dark Horse, Pleiades, and Modern Age.
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