The words above come from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke called “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” and reading this poem the other day alongside some others reminded me of a part of Richard Attenborough maiden speech in the House of Lords. Not surprisingly he spoke of the Arts.
“The Arts are not a luxury. They are as crucial to our wellbeing as eating and breathing.”
At nineteen I was listening to all things “Pop.” Then my older sister introduced me to the last movement of Beethoven’s “Ninth” and “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations” – and I was hooked. It was the beginning of a an idiosyncratic journey of discovery that I made and am still making. Friends introduced me to music they enjoyed and if I liked the pieces I would buy my own copy. I discovered the music my mother had always loved and played but which I hadn’t been ready for. It was a delight to come upon compositions that were so familiar and now moved me.
In my thirties my husband introduced me to paintings. I took him to the theatre and he, in turn, introduced me to what he loved. We went to art galleries. At first I felt intimidated. I felt as though there were things I should like and that the fact that some pictures or sculptures left me entirely unmoved was due to my lacking something. Then one day a painting spoke to me so deeply that my whole idea of God was challenged and I received something so precious that it has never left me. A little while later I realised that we had now been to so many exhibitions that I knew something about the subject. I knew, moreover, that I had to wait on a painting, give it time to speak to me. I knew what I liked, was open to learning from artist new to me and didn’t worry when something wasn’t for me.
Like most young people growing up in the fifties and sixties I did poetry at school. I am glad to say I still quote with relish poems I learnt from the age of ten, eleven and twelve. Others are not so easily remembered, and apart from falling for T S Eliot madly in my early twenties (a passion that has never left me) I didn’t really read much poetry until a few years ago. Advent and Lent books with a poem a day to consider alongside some thoughts about the poem have enriched the experience hugely. I have realised what so many have seen before me: there are some things so much too deep for words (as in logical, reasoned, and discursive) that only the words of poetry (paradoxical, imaginative, affective, mysterious and of the heart) can begin to touch them. We find our own complex experiences illuminated, penetrated and examined. Sometimes it makes me sad because in the reading of poetry I realise how much of my life I have not lived, not been engaged with – what I have allowed to pass me by.
The Arts do many things for us but one of the things they do is to “see” us. On occasions they reflect us to ourselves. We see our own limitations. Sometimes they help us make a step that we would never have made otherwise – I can remember plays that have changed my outlook on life. Always, they invite us to live life more fully, to be more deeply engaged with our own life in all its minutiae.