The Consolation of Boethius as Poetic Liturgy
by Stephen Blackwood
oxford university press, 243 pages
This is a book about how poetry can save you. More specifically, it is a book about how poetic rhythm can reset the harmony of your body and soul. In his powerful and original reading of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, Stephen Blackwood uncovers a sustained musical therapy during which the imprisoned poet moves from baffled despair at the world’s injustice to contemplative joy over providential order. Blackwood’s book charts Boethius’s journey, outlining and explicating the metrical patterns that echo his initial anguish and lead toward final resolution.
Those poetic feet might at first appear alarming. Though no doubt familiar to Greek and Latin scholars, “limping iambic trimeter or choliambs” might sound to the uninitiated more like a worrisome medical diagnosis than an invitation to pleasurable reading. Blackwood, however, helps his lay readers with a clear introduction. It is worth lingering over Boethius’s pulsing patterns, poetry’s varied heartbeats, because—as Blackwood argues at length—poetry passes through the senses to the mind. The soul’s harmony is achieved only through the body’s rhythms.
I confess that I am biased in favor of this viewpoint. Meter is essential to poetry; subtract it, and you are left with prose. The whole auditory drama of verse centers on the repetition and variation of an expected pattern. Take a poem that starts out in iambic pentameter, let us say Pope's Essay on Criticism, which opens, “‘Tis hard to say if greater want of skill.” Will that pattern repeat till the end or waver into a dying fall? Will the walking iambs (di-dum) trip into dancing trochees (dum-di) or stamp into spondees (dum dum)? Or gallop into swift dactyls (dum-di-di) and frisky anapests (di-di-dum)? Poetry lives in the tension of such anticipations and surprises (and Pope's verse goes on to have virtuosic fun with them).
Boethius knew that emotional and spiritual stress correlates with metrical stress. In the 39 poems interspersed through the Consolation’s five books, it is poetic meter that echoes and guides the journey from frustration to renewed desire, confusion to tranquility. Blackwood’s painstaking scholarship aims at raising these rhythms from the dead, calling up a symphony which fell silent a millennia and a half ago. It’s impossible, of course, for us to appreciate Latin with the ease with which we understand English, and after the printing press we are more accustomed to mental scanning than to reading aloud. Still, Blackwood does as much as anybody could to resuscitate Boethius’s meters, rendering their complex antique stresses afresh.
The Consolation is structured around symmetrical echoes, six basic meters that appear early and then are repeated in one or more later poems (a handy appendix summarizes the interwoven schema). Blackwood points out that these repetitions are deliberate and highly meaningful. Elegiac couplets, for example, first heard in a poem lamenting fortune’s power (1.1), are later picked up in a poem discounting chance (5.1). The same rhythm that undoes the desire for riches (2.5) is used to undermine the desire for power (3.5). The first time around, the rhythm is felt in the senses (hearing), but in subsequent recurrences it echoes also in the mind (memory). Through this dialectic, Philosophy draws together Boethius’s past and present, her poetry knitting together the parts of his fragmented self.
Boethius wrote the Consolation as the original self-help book. Its rhythms are supposed to heal private and particular memories by reconnecting them with the forgotten regularity of the universe. For Boethius, rhythm is physiological as well as astronomical, personal as well as objective. The repetitions link the orbits of the planets and the circle of the seasons to the beating of the child’s heart and the repeated sight of its mother’s face. In the midst of this scholarly book, the author thus unexpectedly but touchingly interjects his own intimate reminiscences, the song of a bird first heard on boyhood camping trips to Prince Edward Island.
Even in a book as scrupulous as this one, a certain amount of subjectivity is unavoidable. Not everyone, for instance, will find all of Blackwood’s rhythmic interpretations convincing. Are we really so sure that an interrupting downbeat reflects Boethius’s sadness? Are we certain that a Sapphic adonic (dum-di-di dum-dum) signals the guiding pressure of Philosophy’s hand? The reader who remains doubtful is invited to test these rhythms against his own pulse, thus joining the prisoner on his strenuous journey to mental freedom.
The Consolation adheres to the classical premise that we liberate ourselves only through subjection to objective order. Imprisoned on the whim of a barbarian king whose lackeys would eventually bludgeon him to death, Boethius knew that only a divine order could transcend the unjust exercise of political power. The crisis at the end of his book is provoked by the fear that divine providence will itself prove autocratic, a foreknowledge so absolute that no space is left for human freedom. Lady Philosophy, who has successfully coached her student up until this point, steps in with an answer to the dilemma at which St. Paul stopped short and Luther stumbled. When we move from the repetitions of time to God’s eternity, she explains, we enter a moment with no before or after, a moment in which God sees all that there is and in which all free human choices are conserved intact.
Blackwood’s originality lies in recognizing Philosophy’s famous resolution as a poetic liturgy. The last of the Consolation’s poems recapitulates all of the foregoing rhythms of the book, summing up its message in a climactic experience both bodily and spiritual. As the Eucharist recapitulates Christ’s passion and joins the present to eternity, so the Consolation’s summation of its own patterns offers a moving image of God’s eternity. Such is the dazzling climax to this worthy book. It is one of the more illuminating studies of the Consolation, a book that consistently—and metrically—consoles.
Luke Taylor is an assistant professor of Renaissance literature at Baylor University.