Suffering and Hope in the Enchanting Garb of Poetry

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John Wiley & Sons, Inc


“Poetry is called religion when it intervenes in life, and religion, when it merely supervenes upon life, is seen to be nothing but poetry.”1 What does philosopher George Santayana mean by this statement, and how may his words, written in 1900, be significant for us today? To start with, we should keep in mind that, for Santayana, the meaning of poetry and religion has everything to do with their use and function. In certain cases, religion and poetry may prove humdrum, outmoded, or inconsequential. Even if one goes to church regularly or reads poetry frequently, these practices may, in the greater scheme of things, end up being of little consequence in one's life. They may merely “supervene upon life” in ancillary ways.

That being said, poetry and religion may have quite significant and far-reaching consequences in our life. Rather than merely “supervene” upon life, they may decisively “intervene” in it, giving us a deep sense of orientation and purpose in the world. This is poetry and religion at their best. For Santayana, then, there are at least two kinds of religion, just as there are at least two kinds of poetry. Both may penetrate our lives in deep-seated ways, or they may prove secondary or insignificant. Seen in this light, the question is not so much “What is poetry or religion?” but rather, “How do poetry and religion qualitatively function in our lives?”