In Dorothy Sayer’s 1937 novel Busman’s Honeymoon, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane finally tie the knot and decide to spend their honeymoon in the country neighborhood of Harriet’s childhood home. Peter buys a house called Talboys and, and the couple move in to start their wedded life. This being not just any couple, but the first lord and lady of detective fiction, they find that the previous owner has not vacated the premises, but instead lies dead in the basement. The local police are called in, and Peter finds not only a fellow detective, but a fellow poetry lover:
“So,” said Peter, “Galahad will sit down in Merlin’s seat.”
Mr. Kirk, on the point of lowering his solid fifteen stone into the chair, jerked up abruptly.
“Alfred,” said he. “Lord Tennyson.”
“Got it in one,” said Peter, mildly surprised. “You’re a bit of a student, aren’t you, Superintendent?”
“I like to do a bit o’ reading in my off-duty,” admitted Mr. Kirk, bashfully. “It mellows the mind.” He sat down, “I often think as the rowtine of police dooty may tend to narrow a man and make him a bit hard, if you take my meaning. When I find that happening, I say to myself, what you need, Sam Kirk is contact with a Great Mind or so, after supper. Reading maketh a full man—”
“Conference a ready man,” said Harriet.
“And writing an exact man,” said the Superintendent. “Ah well, I suppose we’ll have to get down to business.”
“As another great mind so happily put it, ‘However entrancing it is to wander through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance?’”
“What’s that?” said the Superintendent. “That’s a new one on me. ‘Garden of bright images,’ eh? That’s pretty, that is.”
“Kai-Lung,” said Harriet.
“Golden Hours of,” said Peter. “Ernest Bramah.”
“‘Bright images’—That’s just what you get in poetry, isn’t it? Pictures, as you might say. And in a garden too—what you’d call flowers of fancy, I dessay.”
Kirk and the Wimseys spend the rest of the book solving the mystery and trading lines of poetry. What does Superintendent Kirk, country bumpkin policeman and uneducated yokel, understand that many Harvard MBAs, media moguls, and world leaders not understand? The importance of taking the time to meet with a Great Mind, and the idea of poetry as bright images in words. Moreover, Sayers believed that her readers would enjoy listening to Wimsey’s exchanges with Kirk, maybe even pitting their own poetic knowledge against those of the characters, as many of them also understood the value of spending time with Great Minds.
Would such dialogue work in a novel today? Unlikely. So what? Life today is fast and complicated. Who has time to memorize poetry? What’s the loss? It would be difficult to find someone who would count an inability to quote Tennyson a loss; yet it is a great loss. It is unplugging our culture from Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead,” the treasury of knowledge and beauty and wisdom, the tradition, that created Western Civilization and kept it running until the present.
Plato understood the power of poets and poetry. That’s why he wrote of banning poets from his Republic. Dante spends most of the Divine Comedy grappling with the fact that it was not only virtue and the renunciation of sin that would get him to Paradise, but also taking his responsibility as a poet seriously and using his talents and power to glorify God and not himself.
The problem with poetry is that it takes time. Reading poetry is a relationship. The reader must take in the words, the context, and all the associations those words may have. That means the reader must have a grounding in the tradition of the poet so that meeting of minds can take place. Multiple readings of a poem at different times of life bring new meaning to the work. Inspector Kirk was right: all work and no play does narrow a man and make him hard. But since we live in a world that glorifies specialization and competition, narrowness and hardness have become the goal of the education establishment and poetry is tossed away as being of no use or too hard for the modern mind. Losing access to that garden of bright images closes us off from our heritage and creates, as a great poet once said, hollow men.