The synergism of intellect and imagination

Pursuing the “imagination + intellect” theme, at a less controversial level than recently, here’s a recycling of some sources I used a few years ago to show the complementary value of the two faculties through paired poetry and prose. The original use was to teach my poetically challenged Bible study group to read the Psalms as poetry, rather than as “texts”, so it has nothing to do with science as such. However, there is some danger (I’m sure not shared by any of our contributors or lurkers) that for scientists, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” as a couple of examples will show:

“Oppenheimer, they tell me you are writing poetry. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say… something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.” Paul Dirac

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure… But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry;… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.” Charles Darwin

So be warned, but also be enlightened – though I fear I may be teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, as it’s all basic humanities stuff. Forgive me if that’s so. However, here are four pairs of related quotes to “compare and contrast,” winding up at a prophetic psalm which, I hope you’ll find, adds significantly to the gospel account. What, in each case, do the two accounts contribute to knowledge of the subject? I must add that the real difference, in the original study, came when I got individuals to read the pieces out loud. You might like to find a quiet spot…

Chalk Downlands of Southern England

Chalk’s permeability means that surface water is rarely found on the downlands, although the rocks act like a giant sponge by retaining subterranean water and releasing it slowly at springs which mark the ‘water table’.

Largely due to the scarcity of water, villages are dotted along the spring-line in the valley bottoms, while flint-built farms are scattered on the downs. Impressive prehistoric earthworks and standing stones, linked by ancient trackways, such as The Ridgeway, illustrate the former importance of chalk uplands at a time when the clay vales were too marshy and forested for easy settlement.
The Sunday Times Book of the Countryside

Up on the Downs

Up on the downs the red-eyed kestrels hover,
Eyeing the grass.
The field-mouse flits like a shadow into cover
As their shadows pass.

Men are burning the gorse on the down’s shoulder;
A drift of smoke
Glitters with fire and hangs, and the skies smoulder,
And the lungs choke.

Once the tribe did thus on the downs, on these downs burning
Men in the frame,
Crying to the gods of the downs till their brains were turning
And the gods came.

And to-day on the downs, in the wind, the hawks, the grasses,
In blood and air,
Something passes me and cries as it passes,
On the chalk downland bare.
John Masefield

Military Setbacks

The British offensive at Loos was beaten back in September 1915. More damaging still, in June 1916 a new British advance on the Somme proved a calamitous failure with 60,000 men falling on the first day. British casualties here alone amounted to 420,000. The most terrible of these experiences came at Passchendaele in August-September 1917, when over 300,000 British troops were recorded as dead or wounded, many of them drowned in the mud of Flanders amidst torrential rain.
The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain

Memorial Tablet (Great War)

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby’s Scheme). I died in hell –
(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I’m there;
‘In proud and glorious memory’ … that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west …
What greater glory could a man desire?
Siegfried Sassoon

Judges 4.17-24
Sisera, however, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there were friendly relations between Jabin king of Hazor and the clan of Heber the Kenite.

Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, ‘Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.’ So he entered her tent, and she put a covering over him.

‘I’m thirsty,’ he said. ‘Please give me some water.’ She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up.

‘Stand in the doorway of the tent,’ he told her. ‘If someone asks you, “Is anyone here?” say “No.”’

But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and he died.

Barak came by in pursuit of Sisera, and Jael went out to meet him. ‘Come,’ she said, ‘I will show you the man you’re looking for.’ So he went in with her, and there lay Sisera with the tent peg through his temple – dead.

On that day God subdued Jabin, the Canaanite king, before the Israelites. And the hand of the Israelites grew stronger and stronger against Jabin, the Canaanite king, until they destroyed him.

Judges 5.24-31
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
in a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank,
he fell; there he lay.
At her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell – dead.

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother;
behind the lattice she cried out,
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?’
The wisest of her ladies answer her;
indeed, she keeps saying to herself,
‘Are they not finding and dividing the spoils:
a girl or two for each man,
colourful garments as plunder for Sisera,
colourful garments embroidered,
highly embroidered garments for my neck –
all this as plunder?’

So may all your enemies perish, O LORD!
But may they who love you be like the sun
when it rises in its strength.

Mark 15.31-36
In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.’ Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ – which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, ‘Listen, he’s calling Elijah.’

One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. ‘Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,’ he said.

Psalm 22.1-8
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.

Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
‘He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.’

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to The synergism of intellect and imagination

  1. pngarrison says:

    Two of the most excruciating episodes of high school had to do with a woman, an English teacher to be precise. She assigned us at different times to write a sonnet and a song. As one of my college chemistry profs said, students won’t do what they can do unless you require what they don’t think they can do. The sonnet and the song, alas, are now lost in the archaeological debris of my life.

    From those experiences I should have known that music and poetry would be things that I enjoy and occasionally try to imitate, but my responses would be more imitative than creative. My future lay in the prosaic stuff of philosophy and science. I have enjoyed the attempts of others to be poetic concerning philosophical matters, such as Lucretius, Dante and Milton, even in the cases where I didn’t agree with the philosophy. Of course I’m grateful to Lewis and Tolkien for transferring a little of their literary sense. I think evangelicals would be better off if they could accept some of that.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Yeah – writing poetry is one stage harder than appreciating it. Horses for courses.

      The teachers never asked us to write a song (which may be one reason why I perversely ended up doing it), but one of them did require a sonnet. All I can remember of mine was that it began:

      “Thou steel-works, as the shades of evening fall…”

      and ended,

      “O wondrous sight! How couldst one not be moved
      By thy tall shape – all Government Approved.”

      • pngarrison says:

        The lyrics to my song have disappeared, but I should confess that I set it to a tune that was on a Mason Williams album (we were allowed to do that), and I lost that LP years ago, so both music and words are lost to me. I have never subsequently written a song, so I’m impressed with anyone who has done that multiple times.

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


          It’s odd how different songwriting is from poetry. For a start, the rhythmical, and some of the “emotional” load is taken by the music.

          Then you’re more constrained with space, unless you’re some folkie doing 30 verses of a traditional ballad – I sometimes think of a song as a kind of haiku in which you have just 2 or 3 verses to build an entire conceptual world.

          The strangest thing of all is that a song has a kind of inner logic, like a pre-existing form, which is found more than it’s constructed. It’s as if there’s one right way it ought to go towards which the writer aspires to approach. Maybe the same is true for poetry, but a poet would have to say.

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