Prose from Poetry Magazine

The Fire of Life

by Richard Rorty
In an essay called "Pragmatism and Romanticism" I tried to restate the argument of Shelley's "Defense of Poetry." At the heart of Romanticism, I said, was the claim that reason can only follow paths that the imagination has first broken. No words, no reasoning. No imagination, no new words. No such words, no moral or intellectual progress.

I ended that essay by contrasting the poet's ability to give us a richer language with the philosopher's attempt to acquire non-linguistic access to the really real. Plato's dream of such access was itself a great poetic achievement. But by Shelley's time, I argued, it had been dreamt out. We are now more able than Plato was to acknowledge our finitude — to admit that we shall never be in touch with something greater than ourselves. We hope instead that human life here on earth will become richer as the centuries go by because the language used by our remote descendants will have more resources than ours did. Our vocabulary will stand to theirs as that of our primitive ancestors stands to ours.

In that essay, as in previous writings, I used "poetry" in an extended sense. I stretched Harold Bloom's term "strong poet" to cover prose writers who had invented new language games for us to play — people like Plato, Newton, Marx, Darwin, and Freud as well as versifiers like Milton and Blake. These games might involve mathematical equations, or inductive arguments, or dramatic narratives, or (in the case of the versifiers) prosodic innovation. But the distinction between prose and verse was irrelevant to my philosophical purposes.

Shortly after finishing "Pragmatism and Romanticism," I was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. Some months after I learned the bad news, I was sitting around having coffee with my elder son and a visiting cousin. My cousin (who is a Baptist minister) asked me whether I had found my thoughts turning toward religious topics, and I said no. "Well, what about philosophy?" my son asked. "No," I replied, neither the philosophy I had written nor that which I had read seemed to have any particular bearing on my situation. I had no quarrel with Epicurus's argument that it is irrational to fear death, nor with Heidegger's suggestion that ontotheology originates in an attempt to evade our mortality. But neither ataraxia (freedom from disturbance) nor Sein zum Tode (being toward death) seemed in point.

"Hasn't anything you've read been of any use?" my son persisted. "Yes," I found myself blurting out, "poetry." "Which poems?" he asked. I quoted two old chestnuts that I had recently dredged up from memory and been oddly cheered by, the most quoted lines of Swinburne's "Garden of  Proserpine":

We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives for ever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.

and Landor's "On His Seventy-Fifth Birthday":

Nature I loved, and next to Nature, Art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life,
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

I found comfort in those slow meanders and those stuttering embers. I suspect that no comparable effect could have been produced by prose. Not just imagery, but also rhyme and rhythm were needed to do the job. In lines such as these, all three conspire to produce a degree of compression, and thus of  impact, that only verse can achieve. Compared to the shaped charges contrived by versifiers, even the best prose is scattershot.

Though various bits of verse have meant a great deal to me at particular moments in my life, I have never been able to write any myself (except for scribbling sonnets during dull faculty meetings — a form of  doodling). Nor do I keep up with the work of contemporary poets. When I do read verse, it is mostly favorites from adolescence. I suspect that my ambivalent relation to poetry, in this narrower sense, is a result of Oedipal complications produced by having had a poet for a father. (See James Rorty, Children of the Sun (Macmillan, 1926).)

However that may be, I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human — farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones; individual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses.
Originally Published: November 18, 2007


On April 24, 2008 at 10:30am wrote:
this poetry is beautiful how i bless god for his greatness to create such beautiful words

On November 6, 2008 at 8:29am Gangleri wrote:
Good old Rorty even in his last writings still babbling about dictionaries and innovative language games as if discovering something innovative and leaving a trace is the meaning that drives us to write poetry or to rummage in mathematics ... not the joy of a sentiment becoming a definite thought and taking a form.

But still I love him . Peace to his spirit.

On February 4, 2009 at 10:55am Islahudin qureshi wrote:
Hi i m from pak i bileve the fire of life in the secrate of world i search that insha ullah i found that r u know about that its real

On April 5, 2009 at 10:53pm flores wrote: Rorty said ... imagination and words will give us humanity ...

On July 12, 2009 at 9:38am Kushajata wrote:
Thank you Prof Rorty. I am only 60, I could
possibly take the hint and delve into Landor
and Swinburne while there is still time left.
But I have a question to you. Would you
give higher priority to verse? You wish that
you had spent somewhat more of your life
with verse. Assuming time was limited (I
am sure it was) would you rather spend it
on verse, or on your philosophic quest?
Would you, with the privilege of hindsight,
read poetry, socialized and made friends

On July 20, 2009 at 3:00am Pan wrote:
Isn't it clear from any of Rorty's later
writings (after and including
Contingency Irony and Solidarity) that
he abandons hope in the search for
philosophic truth as perceived by the
20th century Anglo-American academy
en masse, instead picking up hope for
human truth, as perceived by people in
love, people facing difficulty, people on
the verge of a significant breakthrough,
and so on?

Rorty may have been a wonderful
philosopher, but he was foremost a
man who experienced the richness of
life's delicacies and wonder/ful
experiences. He would no doubt not
disagree with that judgment.

In proceeding after his death, may we
take a word of his advice, and focus not
on problems of philosophers, but rather
on problems of human beings.

On November 7, 2009 at 2:50pm Richard wrote:
"...may we focus not on problems of
philosophers, but rather on problems of
human beings." - beautifully said.

On December 6, 2009 at 10:43pm Gerry Lanuza wrote:
I had read this article from an on-line journal. And I am happy that people have different reactions to it. I believe that this late reflection of Rorty expresses his entire philosophical quest. As a Christian, I admire his fortitude and courage amidst an impending death. How I wish I could have the same Stoical and poetic stance to the sublimity of death.

On January 2, 2010 at 2:53pm Michael G wrote:

A dialogue requires an opposing view: Rorty was a rebel, a man hampered by and ultimately entombed by the blindness and deafness of "great human wisdom". Which is but foolishness to God. He thought himself to be more intelligent and more creative than most men and even more real than his Creator. Because of his pride of life he defaulted in death to just one more immense ego awaiting the "Fire of Death"- eternal suffering and separation from God. Rorty was not a searcher for truth. His time on earth was wasted attempting to eliminate the notion of absolute, knowable truth. What he thought had become a life's achievement became failure in the end. Because physical death was not his end. He has now discovered and is daily experiencing that absolute undeniable denying it in life. Do not follow him! He is not denying it now. But there is no more hope for Rorty.

On January 11, 2010 at 2:50am vivek wrote:
Landor spent a lot of time in India. Swinburne was a well read guy at a time when a lot of Oriental stuf was being published.
The notion of the poet's life as a yagnya- a sacrifice- might have beeen familiar to them. The notion is that after a sacrifice- things like the Olympics were regarded thus in ancient times- the whole scaffolding and panoply of things involved in the sacrifiice must be disassembled and safely disposed off so that nothing carries forward.
It\s like the disposal of the host after Mass.
In this sense an Ars Moriendi- an art of Death- would be essential for the poet or philosopher so that nothing carries over, everything is disassembled and safely disposed off.
Vasubandhu- the ancient Buddhist philosopher spoke of the need to disassemble mental constructs and safely dispose of them so that no karmic residue remains to determine one's next state.
Alas, the evil practice of publishing prevents this. Books are the opposite of Being-for-death. Theoria, the visit to the stranger's sacrifice, is enough to preven that sacrifice cleaning up after itself.
Modern life may be termed the pollution caused by the improper sacrifice which has not yet been repeated so as to expunge its residue.
The Weberian (or Tolstoyan) complaint that life is meaningless because no vantage point or epoche exists for it any longer also refers, perhpas, to the death of sacrifice as its own cremation.

On July 11, 2010 at 1:20pm Alex wrote:
I really admire Rorty for being able to
share these insights at a time when
death's shadow loomed over him.
Poetry is one of the oldest art forms. To
me it has a primal power that prose
doesn't - like singing or dancing.

It's sad to me to see people like Michael
G trying to put him down (even after his
death). Is that Christian Love? It
always annoys me that people talk as if
they know God's viewpoint on
something. For that matter, how can
you even say that Rorty "thought himself
to be more intelligent and more creative
than most men and even more real than
his Creator"?

As an undergrad, I emailed Rorty once
trying to get a better grasp on how to
interpret his writings. Despite my
confused, simplistic understanding of his
ideas, he had the graciousness to write
me back and clarify in response to my
questions. To me his writings embodied
a willingness to really listen to people he
didn't agree with and articulate what he
did believe in. He was a true
conversation partner, and for that I will
always love and admire him. At a time
when everyone is accustomed to talking
heads on TV spewing one sided opinions
on everything, Rorty really cared to
have a conversation. I wish people
would afford him the same respect.

I mourn for a true American intellectual

On May 17, 2011 at 2:09am James Street wrote:

When truths become stable and finding them is less important that learning new ones then stating them in pleasant ways and putting them down in anthologies and even bibles, for easy reference, aesthetic pleasure and moral inspiration, becomes important. Today, we are still finding technological truths if not philosophical ones, so most of us are too busy with the climb to marvel at the colorful gems already discovered. Rorty seems to think that he discovered what he needed to know long before his old age, and it would have been pleasant to read his best thoughts in poetic form. He also mentioned that he was probably rejecting or competing with his poetic father and that had a lot to do with turning his back on poetry. I wonder if it was the same rejection that expressed itself in turning his back on the possibility of friendship and making his way, instead, in the competitive and combative world of academic philosophy? Whatever the case, friendship and poetry are not valued in our Yankee culture so his case is not unusual. I hope his life is a cautionary tale for younger men and women who are tempted to go in the same direction.

On January 13, 2012 at 1:27pm Scott wrote:
Given that this has been published in a poetry journal, it
should be emphasized that Rorty is here radically
redefining what "poetry" is and in doing so does little to
highlight the pleasures of literature. That he preferred
poetry to philosophy in his last days just amounts to his
saying that he preferred his ideas leavened with metaphor
and adjective.

On May 20, 2012 at 3:48pm Cory Spruill wrote:
Professor Rorty was easily the greatest prose stylist to
ever contribute to the philosophical tradition. And his
sophisticated command of both continental and analytical
philosophy led to breathtaking, electric ideas that
shook up the academic establishment; even those who
strongly disagree with his positions acknowledge that
his intellectual ("poetic") gifts were once in a

Poet/philosopher Richard Rorty continues to be an
inspiring "free-spirit," even though all we have left
are his words.

On July 10, 2012 at 8:41pm Tyer wrote:

Name one idea truly free from metaphor and adjective. There are none. As Nietzsche wrote, all truth is "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms--in short, a sum of human relations, which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people."

Much of Rorty's philosophy was aimed at exploring this post-Nietzschean conception of truth. Although I lack intimacy with the Rorty canon, his comments here are synonymous with his philosophic base.

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2007


Richard Rorty (1931-2007) was an American philosopher best known for revitalizing the school of American pragmatism. He served as a professor emeritus of comparative literature at Stanford and was the author of several books, including Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton University Press, 1979).

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