Vol. XXV No. 8 — August 1947

The Poetry of Ritual

No completely satisfactory definition of poetry has as yet been phrased; the word still means different things to different men. To some uncritical minds any two lines which rhyme are poetry and no prose is ever poetry; to others, poetry and verse are distinct. These consider poetry and science, not poetry and prose, as opposites; and verse and prose as opposites.

The artist who paints pictures in oils has many pigments at his disposal; these are earths or chemicals of different hues, suspended in oil to make a paste, which the artist puts on his canvas with brushes.

It is to be noted that the mere possession of the paints, brushes and canvas does not make an artist; a child may daub the colors on the canvas but not produce a picture.

The “pigments” used by the poet to paint his verbal pictures are words in certain relations; it is to be noted also that the mere use of these “words in certain relations” does not produce poetry, any more than the mere use of paint produces a picture. The paint must be rightly used, with a design in mind, a sense of composition, a knowledge of color. The “words in certain relations” must be rightly used to produce poetry, by a workman who has an effect in mind, a sense of beauty, a knowledge of human emotions.

The “pigments” of poetry include metaphor and its correlatives; simile, metonymy, personification, allegory, hyperbole, trope, potentry. There are others, but these are sufficient here to consider.

A simile is a direct comparison: “He was like a lion in the fight.” Metaphors use one thing or idea for another: “He was a lion in the fight.”

Metonymy substitutes a related word or idea for the actual word or idea meant: “Heaven help him,” meaning “God help him.”

Personification is a metaphor which attributes thought and speech to that which neither thinks or speaks: “Hope spoke in his heart.”

An allegory is an extended simile with the comparison words omitted.

Hyperbole is exaggerated statement, not intended to be believed, but to indicate extent: “His voice was heard across the whole country” — “The waves ran mountain high.”

Trope is any figure of speech in general.

Potentry is the power of the sound of the phrase to add to and color the thought. Of it Hudson Maxim wrote: “There is no English word, and I know of no word in any language, to cover that property of speech which renders it more than usually powerful, sonorous, impressive or sublime, a property not dependent for its power on trope, the basic principle of poetry; a property which, the including rhythm, may be entirely independent of both poetry and verse, yet constituting one of the most important elements in effective expression at our command, which, when coupled with poetic figures in verse, adds greatly to the strength and vigor of language. Such a word is needed, and I have, therefore, taken the liberty of coining one. I have chosen the word potentry, derived from the Latin word potens, meaning powerful, from which root our words potent, potential, potentiality, and the like, are derived.

Potentry, then, is the art of amplifying the impressiveness of thought-expression by correspondingly differentiating and amplifying the sounds symbolizing the thought. This will do as a broad definition of potentry. Potentry like verse, is a phenomenon of sound, and verse itself is but a branch of potentry. Potentry, being concerned only with impressiveness of sounds, consists in the art of making language more vigorous, sonorous, impressive or sublime, by effectively disposing and amplifying the number and volume of sounds, and the periods of dwelling upon sounds, used as symbols of the thought. To this end, potentry is replete with modifying and qualifying words and with repetitions far beyond the manner of ordinary prose.

An example: “God hurled him from the sky to hell” is a flat statement. Compare with Miltons:

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition.

Which is not only poetry, but poetry made the more impressive by potentry. “Massive, austere, unconquerable,” spoken of Mt. Everest is potentry; “A big mountain you can’t climb” is equally true but has no potentry.

Masonic ritual is filled with potentry, and particularly that variety which is also so much found in the Bible, of repetition of word to impress ideas; “to help, aid and assist” — “as the waters fail from the sea and the flood decayeth and drieth up” — “the more noble and glorious purpose; etc.”

The Great Light in Masonry (itself a poetic expression) is filled with magnificent poetry. “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” — compare with: “Remember God while you are young.” “Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell” is poetic; “She dies and goes to hell” is flat statement.

The Masonic ritual is so permeated with true poetry that it may almost be said to be one long poem. In it you will find simile, metaphor, metonymy, allegory, hyperbole, personification, imagery. Here you will discover, if you explore, potentry which is sonorous, musical, uplifting; here is to be found not only the inspiration of the thing taught but beauty in the method of teaching. Every great truth that is impressed upon an initiate could be expressed in words of one syllable, with no figures of speech. The truth would be the same. But the method would be without beauty, and by so much, without impressiveness.

Here is an opportunity we all have of doing some Masonic research without the necessity of books, of study, of midnight hours! With the thought of the reality of the poetic content of our ritual in mind, and the simple materials of which poetry is made, sit through a degree with an ear attentive to the “colors,” the building blocks, of which poetry is constructed and see how many can be recognized.

It is not a process which can be much anticipated in print. Only the exoteric work, which is printed in the monitor or manual may here be examined, for obvious reasons. But the very fact that the analysis suggested cannot be wholly set down in print is a part of its fascination!

What may be done here is to suggest a few examples from the printed, (non-secret) work of the degrees, in the hope that these will inspire readers to apply the same process to the rest of the ritual for the pure pleasure of discovering the “frolic of invention, the dance of words, the harmony of sounds” (Reynolds).

An initiate is told prior, to the ceremony: “Our ancient and honorable fraternity welcomes to her doors and admits to her privileges . . . she insists that all men shall stand upon an exact equality.”

Here is personification; fraternity is made to express a welcome. Here is metaphor — that men stand upon an exact equality. Obviously the candidate is standing upon a floor, or his feet, whichever you will, but he is told that he is to stand upon (the word level or platform or foundation is understood) “an exact equality.”

The initiate hears a prayer which begins “Vouchsafe thine aid, Almighty Father of the Universe, to this our present convention.” Here is potentry at its best. Suppose the petition was phrased “Help, God, for this meeting” which says the same thing but without potentry or poetry!

In the 133rd Psalm, familiar to those receiving their first degree, “brethren dwell together in unity.” Men live in houses, or tents, or trailers, or apartments. When they “dwell together in unity” the thought of “living together” is expressed poetically.

The apron is the badge of a Mason; old; honorable; a greater distinction than any which can be conferred. But would the candidate receive it, as so many do, with a chill up the back, a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye, if it was so presented? Compare: more ancient than the Golden Fleece or Roman Eagle; more honorable than the Star and Garter, or any other order that can be conferred . . . at this or any future period, by king, prince, potentate, or any other person except he be a Mason. . ..”

The flat statement makes no impression; the phrases of potentry, the similes, give the force and fire of true poetry to this prose.

The Entered Apprentice is shown a twenty-four inch gauge. He is told for what purpose the operative Mason used it; then is instructed that Masons use it “for the more noble and glorious purpose of dividing our time.”

Can you divide time with a gauge? Can you mark sun rise and sunset with a foot rule? Can you compute the time of full moon by a measure of length? Of course not. But could we tell an apprentice “The operative Mason uses the gauge to measure his work; you must divide your time into three parts, etc.” and expect to impress him? Equally, of course not. The old Masters who created our ritual knew in their hearts, if not consciously in their minds, that the poetic word, the phrase of imagery, carried a pictured conviction to the hearer.

We speak of the “Celestial lodge Above,” meaning Heaven, and “the Supreme Architect of the Universe,” or “The Great Architect,” meaning God. It would have been simpler to say only “Heaven” and “God,” but the imagery would be gone and therefore the poetic content of the thought would not have been manifest.

Alas, too few give much thought to the lectures which follow the degrees, and thereby miss much which is beautifully poetic. The covering of a lodge is not just “the sky.” It is the “clouded canopy or starry-decked heaven” thereby reminding all who hear it of the changing phases of nature, of the variety and the beauty which the Creator has put into the world for us all.

As for Jacob’s ladder, which his vision saw as extending from earth to heaven, with its rounds symbolizing faith and hope and charity, it does not require the often poorly drawn picture on a chart, or the inartistic lantern slide to convey an idea of vastness and comfort to the hearer — the vastness of the height, the comfort of the thought that it may be climbed.

The word charity in the Bible has been translated love in revised editions of the King James Version. If it is so defined mentally, the final phrases in this paragraph take on a new meaning: “for our faith maybe lost in sight; hope ends in fruition, but love extends beyond the grave through the boundless realms of eternity.”

Is this not another and much more beautiful way of saying that faith is not needed when we see the fact; that when what we hope comes true hope is no longer necessary; but that love never dies?

“The manifold blessings and comforts which constantly surround us — erect our spiritual building in accordance with the rules laid down — in the great books of nature and revelation — Masons, who are linked together by an indissoluble chain of sincere affection — the heart and tongue join in promoting each others’ welfare — this virtue is equally distant from rashness and cowardice — justice is the very cement and support of civil society all are poetic expressions, involving imagery of one kind or another, potentry of expression, possessing a spirit beyond the literal meanings of the words.

This Bulletin might easily run to too many pages if as much detail of the ritual of the second and third degree were here considered as has been set forth of that of the Entered Apprentice Degree in the preceding paragraphs. But a few expressions must, if only for their beauty, be mentioned — and the reader is not to forget that these are all taken from the exoteric work, which of its very nature is less poetic than that which is transmitted only “to the attentive ear by the instructive tongue.”

The plumb admonishes us to walk uprightly in our several stations before God and man, squaring our actions by the square of virtue, and remembering that we are travelling upon the level of time to that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns.

Not even in the esoteric work will you find more poetry in the same number of words. “The plumb admonishes” — “the square of virtue” — “the level of time” and the final phrase with its connotations of a long journey to an unknown destination.

As for the description of the moral advantages of geometry, too long to quote here, surely its writer or writers must have known much of the gentle art of touching the emotions with singing words. “Nature’s various windings and concealed recesses” — “The proportions which connect this vast machine” — “Numberless worlds, all framed by the same Divine artist” — “which roll through the vast expanse” — “the lapse of time, the ruthless hand of ignorance, and the devastation of war” — “safely lodged in the repository of faithful breasts” — “imprint on the mind wise and serious truths” all express beautifully by trope and imagery what otherwise might easily be dull and lifeless.

Of all the degrees the Master’s makes most music for the hearing ear. From the prayer the candidate hears at the beginning through the sonorous excerpts from the twelfth Chapter of Ecclesiastes and the Master’s Prayer, (so much of it from Job) to the ever-living sprig of acacia at the close, phrase after phrase, word after word, harmonious syllable after syllable play a symphony.

Enough has been said to indicate the intention of these pages to intrigue brethren to examine their rituals and pick out as the rolling and often thundrous phrases are heard, the hundreds of poetic expressions; the similes, metaphores, allegories, metonymies, tropes, potentry.

It is a greater pleasure than appears. It is a form of Masonic study which requires no preparation or facilities except a visit to lodge while a degree is being conferred and, as attested by many who have tried it, is a mental exercise of intense interest and a means of making the old, old words the dearer as they are found to have not only their own meanings, but the beauty of the mental and emotional pictures they paint for the seeing eye.

The Masonic Service Association of North America