The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
From the more obvious moral and intellectual meanings of wisdom, we pass now to something more esoteric.
Wisdom is, as any lazy essayist will inform us, a land of contrasts. We have discussed what the concept of wisdom can be according to synonyms thus far, beginning with knowledge and proceeding through two essentially moral meanings and one decidedly amoral one. We now turn to an idea that is harder to articulate.
5. Wisdom is vision.
We termed it poetic imagination in the first installment; it is tempting to call it poetry, though this would transgress the meaning of the word (almost as much as the vile and ridiculous phrase “prose poem”); it borders on love or mysticism, and perhaps forms an element in both. It will be easiest to approach by beginning with love—specifically, romantic love. In English literature, the tradition of romantic love is closely associated with “the Matter of Britain,” i.e. the stories of and surrounding Arthur. One of the less-known elements of the cycle is the history of King Mark of Cornwall: his wife, Iseult the Fair, was in love with Mark’s nephew, Sir Tristan, and he with her. But another knight loved Queen Iseult without requite. This was Sir Palomides,* a Saracen, whom Tristan defeated in a duel and more or less banished from the Cornish court. Palomides then spent some time on a fruitless hunt for the legendary Questing Beast, unable to lay it down until he finally accepted baptism.
Charles Williams, a lesser-known Inkling, allegorized this. He was one of the few people ever to express a theology of romantic love, except for Dante himself, and his theology is much the same as Dante’s: love is, first and foremost, the vision of the beloved in their archetypal or heavenly identity, as God meant them to be. This glimpse of untarnished reality is meant to be the beginning of the soul’s journey into God; if the lover is faithful to the vision, it will be. Williams’ poem “The Coming of Palomides” describes the Saracen knight’s brief epiphany of pure love, in which he dimly perceives the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Trinity:
In the summer-house of the Cornish king
I kneeled to Mark at a banqueting,
I saw the hand of the queen Iseult;
down her arm a ruddy bolt
fired the tinder of my brain
to measure the shape of man again …
Blessed (I sang) the Cornish queen;
for till today no eyes have seen
how curves of golden life define
the straightness of a perfect line
till the queen’s blessed arm became
a rigid bar of golden flame,
where well might Archimedes prove
the doctrine of Euclidean love …
There flames my heart, there flames my thought,
either to double points is caught;
lo, on the arm’s base for a sign,
the single equilateral trine!
But the epiphany, like most epiphanies, is brief. It fails, in fact, while Palomides is still singing; the only things left behind are the petty energy of ordinary lust, and the memory that there is something far more worth having than this lust, but not what it is. It is, for him, a personal realization of the Fall; and it is only thus that we can appreciate not just the heartbreak but the horror of the poem’s closing lines:
In the summer house of the Cornish king
suddenly I ceased to sing.
Down the arm of the queen Iseult
quivered and darkened an angry bolt;
and, as it passed, away and through
and above her hand the sign withdrew.
Fiery, small, and far aloof,
a tangled star in the cedar roof,
it hung; division stretched between
the queen’s identity and the queen.
Relation vanished, though beauty stayed;
too long my dangerous eyes delayed
at the shape on the board, but voice was mute …
and aloof in the roof, beyond the feast,
I heard the squeak of the questing beast,
where it scratched itself in the blank between
the queen’s substance and the queen.
C. S. Lewis described it as “a Beatrician experience gone wrong.” That Palomides’ wounded ego should turn to the pursuit of the Questing Beast is the most natural thing in the world: few save Dante have mastered the lesson that it is in adoration, not possession, that romantic love finds its satisfaction.
Which is where this intersects with the idea of wisdom. Romantic love, according to this theory, is essentially a way of seeing; and the vision changes the lover. The same concept can be found in mystical writings—not only purification but illumination is essential to the union of the creature with its Creator. Romantic love is an easy example to begin with, because the experience (while not universal) is widespread. But there need be no sexual element in this kind of love—there need not even be a personal element in it. In the ghastly “conditioning” scene in A Clockwork Orange, the main character, Alex, protests the way the conditioners use the music of Beethoven, crying out “It’s a sin! It’s a sin to do that to old Ludwig von!” Alex is more or less a sociopath at this point in the narrative, yet he has perceived something in Beethoven’s music, a vision that maintains its own clarity even to him.
There is also a (for lack of a better word) drawback to this sort of wisdom. The vision does not come when it is called; still less, when it is elaborately not called; it comes entirely on its own schedule. It is a gift, and it will not consent to be anything but a gift. The Dantes and the Donnes, the Wordsworths and the Williamses, exhibit its quality to those who have had their own brushes with it: they can do no more than that. To him that hath shall be given; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he seemeth to have. Which prompts our analysis of the next meaning of wisdom …
Héloïse du Paraclet, Second Letter to Abælard
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice
C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, Arthurian Torso
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
*The names of the Matter of Britain often come in multiple forms; its principal authors were mostly Frenchmen, using Welsh sources, recounting events set in England, vaguely during the Roman period—quite the linguistic smorgasbord! Tristan often appears as Tristram and Palamedes as Palomides; Iseult has a particular multitude of forms, including Yseult, Ysolt, Isolda, Isoude, Ysella, and many more. (Of course there is a different Iseult connected with this story, Iseult of the White Hands, and of course this Iseult becomes the wife of Sir Tristan, apparently just to confuse posterity.)
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this post, you might take an interest in some of our related posts on topics like beauty, poetry and its proper role in education, religion in its various forms, and the four loves (στοργή [storgē] “affection,” φιλία [philia] “friendship,” έρως [erōs] “romance,” and αγάπη [agapē] charity); alternately, you might like to take a look at those among the poets and the wise who grace the CLT Author Bank, including Ovid, The Thousand and One Nights, Thomas Malory, John Donne, Jane Austen, and Hans Christian Andersen—or even bonus authors not present on the Bank like Edmund Spenser and Emily Brontë, independently discovered by our outstanding students. Thank you for reading the Journal, don’t forget to tune in to the Anchored podcast, and have a great day!
Published on 5th October, 2023. Page image of La Belle Iseult, painted by William Morris in 1858. The name of the queen of Cornwall may come from a name in the pre-Medieval Brythonic language (the ancestor of Breton), Adsiltia, meaning “she who is looked upon.”