“There is no thinker who is so unmistakably thinking about things and not being misled by the indirect influence of words…Here he differs sharply, for instance, from Saint Augustine, who was, among other things, a wit. He was also a sort of prose poet, with a power over words in their atmospheric and emotional aspect; so that his books abound with beautiful passages that rise in the memory like strains of music; the illi in vos saeviant; or the unforgettable cry, `Late I have loved thee, O Ancient Beauty!’”
For these reasons, among others, Augustine’s Confessions will always have more readers than Aquinas’ Summa. The former is a life; the latter, a manual, dense with reasoning. Chesterton continues:
“It is true that there is little or nothing of this kind in Saint Thomas; but if he was without the higher uses of the mere magic of words, he was also free from that abuse of it, by mere sentimentalists or self-centred artists, which can become merely morbid and a very black magic indeed. And truly it is by some such comparison with the purely introspective intellectual that we may find a hint about the real nature of the thing I describe, or rather fail to describe; I mean the elemental and primitive poetry that shines through all his thoughts.”
Readers and writers alike are blind to the “elemental and primitive poetry” of rigorous prose, with its attentiveness to the real. But it is a species of poetry, as is any disciplined deployment of language. Take a look at a well-written field guide or Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Explaining why he chose to begin writing in French, Samuel Beckett is supposed to have said of English: “You couldn’t help writing poetry in it.” English tempted him into self-indulgent virtuosity, as in his early books, More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy. French helped curb his virtuosity. The monolingual among us must rely on humbler disciplines.