A Spiritual Morphology of Poetry
Edward F. Ricketts
July 1939


This near contradiction in terms is as close as I have been able to come in working toward the one-phrase abstract which all good titles comprise.

Considered evaluations of the spirit of poetry ar, so far as I know, entirely lacking - at least rare - although there have been many analyses of form. These terms may be contrasted as follows:
"spirit" is the difficult-to-define essence of breath, used in this case largely as a phase of content, and as opposed to the more physical apsects of "form." Verse form, style of presentation (ponderous, tender, facetious, etc.), diction, even th separate words themselves, are thought of merely as vehicles or as a vehicle, however, lovely, of content. What is conveyed, relates to content: how it is conveyed, to form. Spirit content is similarly considered as something which motivates or enlightens a given work, or as the motivating aspect of that which is poured into a given vehicle. A related picture is suggested by the archaic Latin origins of the word "spirit," literally "a breath," so a form receives or is acted upon by a breath of life, the spirit.

Although how is commonly considered at the expense of what, poetic content as the expression of a metaphysical (more frequently implied than stated explicitly), seems to me one of the fine features of fine poetry. Content which is conceptually significant, or which transcends concept may be unlovely in architecture and diction - although the converse is far more likely to be true. But usually, great rates great, and thought, moving "as the wind bloweth," more frequently is clothed well and carefully, even inspiredly. In any case, most of the examples chosen seem to me world-great both in form and spirit, and they usually, furthermore, either hint toward, or actually work out, definite symbolic or concrete thought patterns.



Since the emphasis is on content, form, as comprising the following, will be considered only in outline:

A. Architecture - the structural pattern by which the work is built.
B. Diction - the choice of words and the manner of putting them together.
C. Beat - conventional rhythm where present (many studies of poetry are devoted exclusively to this), or the subtle beat of Whitman.
D. Rhyme, if present.
E. Alliteration, if present - the sound of alliteration of Poe, etc. Alliteration of hebrew poetry is partly at least one of content.

Non-western poetry may have additional qualities, such as the Chinese tonal patterns (see p. 223, Vol. 6, Ency. Britt., XIII Ed., for scansion diagram which can be intoned wordlessly with no knowledge of Chinese), their probably,

The remote but compelling

There are inner coherences

Reading this, I feel tenderly

The best example I can recall

No imagin the wealth conveyed

There are other occasional

The next lines, read too quickly,

There may be still another


However, most of the significant qualities which come under content are related to what I have been considering as a spiritual morphology, thought to embrace four possible growth stages.


The first step is expressed by naive poets, and in its most primitive phase extols pastoral beauty. Their poetry involves a simple and fresh statement of the joy of existence, in the love of landscape, God, home, wife, country, friend; extols some quality such as courage; praises or supplicates for help in inward crisis, some loved object. Figuratively, they derive through the Garden of Eden before consiciousness wells up over the threshold in the guise of eating the apple. Their only philosophy is the unconscious one embodied in expressions of joy; their only consciousness is in the joy of singing. These poets unreasoningly know that this thing or that thing is "right," the "good" is right. There's no question, no thought of doubt; the separateness of "right" and "wrong" is axiomatic.

Most western poetry falls in this group, all the pastorals, prayers, hymns, love songs, song of patriotism or heroism, drinking songs, most of the ballads and simple tales. The following poems to me to be good examples. They are incidentally superb poems, whoever reads them again will be repaid amply, however worn they seem at first thought; I have just re-read them with the original moving beauty enhanced by my own intervening years; as a propos subject matter, I wish they could be included in full:

Marlowe: "The Passionate Shepherd." Pastoral, love.
Shakespeare: "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day." Love.
Johnson: "Drink to m only with thine yes." Chivalry, love.
Blake: "To spring." Pastoral.
Wordsworth: "Earth has not anything to show more fair." Pastoral.
Keats: "St. Agnes."
Shelley: "Tonight." Nostalgic pastoral.
Cardinal Newman: "Lead, kindly light." Prayer.
Yeats: "The lake isl of Innisfree." Nostalgic pastoral.
Stephens: "Deirdre." Nostalgia for another time.

and many poems quoted elsewhere in this consideration: even the beauty of sorrow (not the beauty through sorrow) is treated poignantly in Lamb's "The old familiar faces," and of (not through) brave acceptanc, in Douglas Hyde's translation of "I am Raferty."

Beyond simple ulogy,.............

To the typical poet of this category .........

The more sophisticated poets - Matthew Arnold, Swinburne, Baudelaire, etc. - are on the contrary conscious particularly of the clay feet, and each acts characteristically with honest expression of regret,..........

Examples of this are common among the more searching poetic intellcts of Victorian times, but Keats, many years before, complains magnificently in the "Ode to a nightingale." Arnold, despite occasional suggested palliatives, examines and finds wanting incident after incident:

"And they see, for a moment,
Stretching out like the desert
In its weary and unprofitable length,
Their faded ignoble lives."
(Youth of Man)

reacting often with the calm and lovely submission of a really great character faced with inevitabl tragedy, but sometimes with world [sorrow] and not ignoble repudiation as in "Dover Beach."


These poets are minutely conscious in an individual sense, they are however still not conscious of the blinding beauty of possible succeeding stages, although they catch glimpses. Swinburne alone occasionally comes through this test of fire, as will be considered later. Even stricken Arnold, in the rather spotty "Youth of Man," hints that:

" . . . fruit
Grows from sorrow such as theirs."

But on the whole, their only appreciation of anything beyond what the naive poets see is in a negative sense. The naive understanding are their postulatles - the things that "set thm off" on their journey of frustration.

The scarcity of fine poets in this stage .....

In any case, these poets know only that "it's all wrong," ...


Through specific vehicles of pain and tragedy, a comparatively few mellow poets, also banished from the garden, but by now acclimated to their lot, catch glimpses of a new promised land, a heaven far greater than the Eden which is all its inhabitants can know.

In their heightened consciousness, the realization of a "beyond" quality has arisen particularly through the assimilation of the very clay feet of bitter grief, war, and death, which the sophisticated poets excoriated or morbidly embraced. Their "right" dervies chiefly through what is conventionallly "wrong"; they have gone through the "right-wrong" confusion of the sophisticated level and have come to accept as holy the very traits rejected by tradition - the ston which the builders refuse thsu has becom in such a way the cornerstone of the new structure. As indicated in a previous essay, it seems to be easier for individuals to achieve toward "The Tower beyond Tragedgy" under the sting of grief, than in the ordinary placid course of life. Primitive people know this out of unconscious knowledge and accept freely whatever "is"; folklore has its proverbs referring to the essentiality of the test of fire.

Poets in this group are led (sometimes falling over themselves awkwardly, in the zeal of their discovery) to extol th traditionally terrible "come sweet death" vehicle, as in Whitman's "Out of tht cradle endlessly rocking," and "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd." Jeffers pays homage symbolically to silence and darkness in "Night," and entirely relinquishes human life at its ordinary level, in his explicit statement starting "What is humanity in this cosmos" (Roan Stallion), but in favor of a very real although undefinable "beyond" quality, as contrasted to the romantic substitutions of the sophisticated group. Swinburne, although rarely belonging here, seems to get through pretty definitely in Hertha, and comes very close in the "Hymn to Proserpine." I suspect Baudelaire of having occasionally glimpsed this plac, but he make few entirely conscious statements, and one can only infer it from such lines as:

"... Always, behind the tedium
Of finite semblances, beyond the accustomed zone
Of time and spac, I see distinctly another world - "
(p.71, Dillon-Millay transl.)

Though who upon the scaffold dost give that calm and proud
Demeanour to the felon, which condemns the crowd,"
(p.117, do)

" ... Harlots and
Hunted have pleasures of their own to give
The vulgar her can never understand."
(Epilogue, transl. Arthur Symons)

Most chinese poetry speaks from this plane - the enforced separation of freinds being the common vehicle (Li Po, Tu Fu, and osme of the older poets in translations of Waley, Lowell-Ayscough, Hart, Obata, Ezra Pound and Powys Mather). The theme of a most deep sexual love, heightened by separation and imminent death, of the Sanskirt "Black Marigolds," is a fine example not well known, actually one of the greates poetic expressions, even in translation, that I have ever encountered. But, most consciously of all, Jeffers expresses it again and again in the "humanity is the start of the race" theme of "Roan Stallion" and "The Women at Point Sur," and as symbolized in the flight of the eagle in "Cawdor."

The typical poet of this group extols ugliness, tragedy, even the clay feet not for themselves, but because they are vehicles of that beyond quality, th significance of which they have come to realize, but which Jeffers alone specifically mentions as such. These poets "know it's wrong," but they have something to offer, and although they may be unable to state what it is, even at their best (maybe no one can express this conceptually or articulately), it's just "beyond."


The all-vehicle mellow poet, not yet emerged at least in this culture, would be in, and speaking out of, the heaven glimpsed by his predecessors, the heaven-beyond-the-world-beyond-the-garden. No great poetic mind has yet spoken from this plane, partly because of the elimination barriers ("Many are called but few are chosen"), which weed out great percentages . . .

As a side glance: repudiation actually hurts one's relation to the thing....

" ... the darkness of the caves itself turns into enlightenment ....

Although no great poet has yet stated this clearly and consciously, there have been hints. Blake, rarely a great poet although frequently a great mystic, came near when he said, in "Visions of the Daughters of Albion," "All that lives is holy." He could have said, more deeply, "All that is, is holy." Whitman trembled on the brink when he said, "Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them" ("Out of the Cradle"), and Whitman is a very great poet. But consider most of all Jeffer's "Signpost," the most conscious statement I know of yet from this emergent country:

". . . At length
You will look back along the stars' rays and see that even
The doll humanity has a place under heaven.
. . . but now you are free, even to become human,
But born of the rock and the air, not of a woman."

and compare with his previous "what is humanity in this cosmos" idea.

It can be said of the hypothetical poet in this class: he praises all things. These poets would know "it's right, it's alright": the "good," the "bad," whatever is. Whatever is necessary is so, so long only as it is, and that includes all things, even errors and illusions.


Poetry is a discipline of sensitivity and articulateness, the necessary expression of which is a rhythmed diction Since the fruits of deep participation are what we have come to expect of poets, inclusion in that society presupposes utter honesty in abandonment to their art in what they honestly sense. Poets of the type we have been considering are ready, and have the courage, to face with their utmost capacity whatever "is" (for them, and this of course includes any errors into which they may have been caught, until, if ever, they come clear). There can be no evasion, nothing can be held back. They must "go along-with" whatever they discover, even if it leads through or to disappointment, despair, intellectual or emotional lonliness, social ostracism-unlikeley contingencies, however, if they can achieve "world-rightness," the aim of all published work, while at the same time being true to themselves. And they must express whatever they find equally honestly, with whatever directness they can command.

Naive poets have only to work out their best possible statements of pure nconscious joy in extolling the particular vehicle - love, religious ecstacy, nostalgia, etc., which transported them over into their certainty of beauty. To them, there is no "tragedy," everyting is "beauty," "right" is right. Those sophisticated have the sad task of expressing courageously the statement of regret, complaint, noble repudiation or submission which they consider necessary with reference to teh clay feet they particularly find or espouse, sometimes suggesting a romantic substitution. To them, everything is "tragedy," there is no real beauty, "right" is surely wrong. But in these clay feet, poets of the next emergent-plane find a vehicle to something "beyond." They recognize andt extol these often horrible things, but only as vehicles. But in doing so, they achieve a reputation for being gloomy or morbid psychopaths, muck rakers, evaders, or quietists (which they are only insomuch as they fail in their work or in its expression), by readers who miss their deep message but who are open to their beauty of word and power of thought. To them, only "tragedy" is not tragedy, the only real beauty is in "tragedy," "wrong" is right. But to the fourth group, there is no "tragedy" at all; all is beauty, everything, including "wrong" and "right," is right. So that, finally, an idea not yet expressed in world-great poetry, the truly mellow ones must find that all things, "good" as well as "bad," are vehicles; coming back after long journeys, enriched and experienced, beyond Whitman's "All things please the soul, but these things please the soul well," past Blake's "All that lives is holy," to the "latter silences" of the second birth, all the former beauty still below, part of the rooty foundation on which they stand.

"My robe is all worn out after so many year's usage,
And parts of it in shreds loosely hanging have been
blown away to the clouds."

Reflections & Observations
Robert 'Roy' J van de Hoek
Field Biologist & Geographer
Wetlands Action Network, Director of Research and Restoration
December 21, 2001

November 19, 2002 (revised)

In December 2001, my observations and reflections consisted of one sentence as follows: "Here is the proof of Edward Ricketts being a renaissance man because of his interest in poetry, philosophy, and the science of marine biology." Now, nearly one year later, I have edited and compiled a little bit more of Edward Ricketts' 1939 poetry essay. More than ever, the term, "renaissance," seems to apply to this gifted marine biologist, naturalist, and ecologist. In fact, a new book about Ed Ricketts has now been published that is entitled: Renaissance Man of Monterey: Edward Flanders Ricketts. That book, edited by Kathy Rodger, is the result of a Master thesis at San Jose State University, and is a collection of some of Edward Ricketts' letters to various friends, family, and professional colleagues. That book gives insight into a brilliant mind of an interesting man. I have gravitated to one letter about the "sardine." I have edited and compiled three of Ed Ricketts' essays of the mid-1940s, that were about the sardine and published in the Monterey Herald. I now have further insight into what he was trying to say about conservation, over-fishing, ecology, and the Departement of Fish and Game. Another letter by Edward Ricketts, that is included in this new book, is to the Department of Fish and Game. It gives insight into the concept of "permits" for the possesion of frogs. It has a connection to the novel by John Steinbeck, Cannery Row, but alludes to the silliness, frustration, bureacracy, and even mis-management by an increasingly "broken" state agency. Whether it be frogs or sardines, I see only one solution, which Edward Ricketts, very subtley suggests, is a new approach to the management of our fellow travelers and citizens on this planet (or spaceship, so to speak) that is revolving and rotating around our star that we call the "sun." All nature is sacred, which includes the frog, sardine, rock, soil, moon, and sun. And that is also going to be what the "all-vehicle mellow poet" will ultimately compose. Is the poem-ballad-song by John Lennon, called "Imagine," that poem? Somehow, the association to man and our pollution to the earth will need to be drawn into the poem.