Of Sacred Poets and Sacredness

Years ago, Isaac Asimov wrote one of his columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction on the subject of the role of “sacred poets” — the idea that poetry immortalizes and dramatizes in a way no other aspect of human culture does. He actually took the term “sacred poet” from the Latin poet Horace, who had used it in pointing out that there were other heroes besides those immortalized in Homer’s Iliad, but they had lapsed into nothingness because they lacked a “sacred poet.” Asimov also made the point that even bad poetry has resulted in creating immortality, while often creating a false impression of history, such as in the case of Longfellow’s poem about Paul Revere’s ride, which leaves the impression that Revere was the hero who warned the Massachusetts colonists about the British, when in actuality Revere never completed the ride and the colonists in Concord were actually warned by Samuel Prescott. Yet most Americans who know anything about this part of American history remember Revere, not Prescott.

Rhythmic words, especially when coupled with music, indeed can have a powerful effect, but such “sacred” songs also require something beyond well-chosen rhymed words and music. They require knowledge and understanding of the events portrayed by the words and music. The more popular religion-based sacred songs rest on scripture and doctrine, but the more secular “sacred” songs [a juxtaposition that seems strange, but accurate in the sense described by Horace and Asimov] are based on history.

Thus, the Iliad is merely a long epic poem to those American students who even know anything about it, while it was effectively a “sacred poem” to the Athenians of Greece in the fourth century B.C. “The Star Spangled Banner” is a sacred song to most Americans, in addition to being the national anthem of the United States, but what is often forgotten is that it did not actually become the official national anthem until 1931, more than 117 years after it was composed during the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. It became the national anthem because it was a “sacred” song that linked history to the national emblem — the flag — not a “sacred” song because it was the national anthem.

Because the continued impact of sacred songs and texts depend on not only words and possibly music, but upon knowledge, they may fade into obscurity when the knowledge is lost, or disregarded, or minimalized by later generations. Songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “One Tin Soldier” were close to “sacred” songs for the young people of the Vietnam era, but they quickly faded. Today, it appears that there aren’t any replacements, not even of that nature.

What is also interesting is that the Iliad, as a sacred poem, was essentially book length. Such “sacred” songs as “America the Beautiful,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are far shorter. The lyrics of the Vietnam-era songs were about the same in length, but were simpler and more repetitive. What people seem to remember — as a group, not as individuals — today seems to be confined to slogans, advertising slogans in particular.

Could it be that the death of “sacred” songs, texts, and poets will lie in the inability of people to listen to anything of length or complexity? Or will it lie in a cynicism that suggests that there’s little worth in “sacred” texts, regardless of the fusion of text, rhythm, and music? Or will such poems, songs, and texts just be replaced by consumeristic slogans?