onight I want to talk to you about the Tau in Sigma Tau Delta, the letter that stands for Truth in this English honors society. I think the topic worth our consideration, especially since, from the earliest days, poets have been accused of being liars. Many of you are English or Writing majors, and your decision to study literature has probably been challenged at one time or another by concerned parents and other well-meaning detractors: “What do you want to do with English? Why study a bunch of made-up stories?”
Poets are Liars. Stories are Dumb.
Well, I’m sure you all can give your own responses to these allegations, and probably have already done so. I’m sure you’re capable of giving your own version of this speech, but with your permission I’d like to say a few words about my own understanding of poetry and truth, of stories that speak.
Many of you probably know that the Greek letter Tau is a symbol of resurrection. You probably know that the cross of St. Francis is in the shape of a Tau, and so this cross might bring to mind the Franciscan emphases on simplicity, on nature, on creation— things often intimately related to poetry. The connection between the Tau as a cross and the Tau as a sign of truth may remind HBU students of the seal of our university, with a cross and reference to Christ’s words in the gospel of John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Perhaps we feel as if we already have a good hold on the truth, and are tempted to dismiss new inquiry, but I think that the topic of truth-seeking in poetry deserves our special attention and humility. And because I know no better way, I’d like to talk about some aspects of truth in fiction using three stories: one from Hesiod, one from Homer, and (since you must have expected it from me, I must not disappoint) one from Milton.
Hesiod and Homer are the earliest poets of the Greco-Roman literary tradition. In the Theogony, an ancient Greek account of the generation of the gods, Hesiod tells of an experience he had as a shepherd on Mount Helicon. The Muses, patronesses of the arts, visit him and have these words to say:
“Shepherds that camp in the wild, disgraces, merest bellies,
we know to tell many lies that sound like the truth,
but we know to sing reality, when we will.”
The gift of poetry can indeed bring us both honeycomb lies and splendid truths. And as Hesiod soon experiences and relates, those whom the Muses love are fortunate in the holy gifts they receive.
The second story comes from book three of The Odyssey. In this, King Menelaus is talking to Odysseus’ son Telemachus, telling him about his journey home after the war in Troy. Menelaus speaks of how he received help from Eidothea, a sea nymph who instructs him to seek advice from her father, The Old Man of the Sea. The sea god’s other name is Proteus, and he is a shape-shifter. He can change into anything, but, once you get him to talk, he will always tell the truth. Menelaus goes through quite a process to hear from the Old Man of the Sea. He has to hide patiently under a seal carcass, waiting for the right moment to confront the god. The wandering war hero needs divine help; Eidothea smears ambrosia under his nose to mask the stink of decaying flesh. And when he tackles Proteus, he has to hold on tightly as the god changes shape. Proteus becomes a lion. He becomes a serpent. He turns to water, trickling through Menelaus’ fingers. He can become fire, and burns. He becomes a tall tree, and Menelaus must cling to him, dangling from the topmost branches. Finally, the Old Man of the Sea returns to his original form and asks Menelaus what he wants to know. The One Who Does Not Tell Lies reveals the truth, including the way to get home.
Menelaus’ encounter with Proteus is like a good reader tackling good literature. A work may not immediately reveal itself to us. We need tenacity. We need to grasp the work from different angles. I think Dr. Markos’ favorite metaphor for this kind reading is wrestling—we must grapple with the text. A good poem deserves to be read again and again; its meaning may change for us when our perspective changes, when we approach the poem at different times in our life. We trust that if we hold on long enough, the encounter with a great work of literature will show us something true. It will show us the way home.
The third story comes from Areopagitica, Milton’s tract against pre-publication censorship, written in the 1640s. In it, Milton compares the search for Truth to the myth of Isis and Osiris. You probably know the story of how Osiris was murdered, and how his body was dismembered, shattered, splintered. How the pieces were hidden and disbursed, and how Isis, his consort, searches all corners of the world for those pieces, so that she can put Osiris back together. What motivates her? Love.
So, the analogy goes, are we called to search for pieces of Truth. Truth, in a golden age, was once whole, complete, found in one body. But now splinters of Truth are to be found in nooks and crannies of the world, and we are to search for them, putting what we find into a whole. The only difference between Isis’s enterprise and our own is that we will never complete this project in our lifetime, on this side of the grave. We will never have access to all pieces of truth, and so our search requires humility as well as tenacity.
To summarize, these three stories lead me to a few recommendations based on the role of truth in imaginative literature.
First: Revere and value truth. Not anything goes. Not all interpretations work. Know that the muses can tell beautiful lies as well as truths.
Second: Be humble. Recognize that truth can be found in surprising places. Not all pieces of truth will be accumulated and assembled in your lifetime.
Third: Be tenacious. Great works of literature and of poetry deserve to be read more than once. Books can be shape-shifters, and sometimes the process of learning from them is unpleasant, even stinky. Hold on tightly.
Finally, anticipate the connections between beauty and truth. Truth is in myth, and in the well-wrought work of art. Do not make the mistake of assuming that myths are only lies, or that beauty is only good for pleasure. And as you continue your search for truth and beauty in this world and in the printed word, let your quest be motivated by, and at the service of, Love.