Introduction
"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."

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 18th, 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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  1. April 24, 2008
     Anonymous

    this poetry is beautiful how i bless god for his greatness to create such beautiful words

  2. November 6, 2008
     Gangleri

    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.

  3. February 4, 2009
     Islahudin qureshi

    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

  4. April 6, 2009
     flores

    ...like Rorty said ... imagination and words will give us humanity ...

  5. July 12, 2009
     Kushajata

    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
    AT THE EXPENSE OF PHILOSOPHY?

  6. July 20, 2009
     Pan

    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.

  7. November 8, 2009
     Richard

    "...may we focus not on problems of
    philosophers, but rather on problems of
    human beings." - beautifully said.

  8. December 7, 2009
     Gerry Lanuza

    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.

  9. January 3, 2010
     Michael G

    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 Truth...by denying it in life. Do not follow him! He is not denying it now. But there is no more hope for Rorty.

  10. January 11, 2010
     vivek

    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.

  11. July 11, 2010
     Alex

    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
    icon.

  12. May 17, 2011
     James Street

    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.

  13. January 14, 2012
     Scott

    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.

  14. May 21, 2012
     Cory Spruill

    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
    generation.

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

  15. July 11, 2012
     Tyer

    Scott,

    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.