So – what is poetic truth? Is this an example?
My love is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June
My love is like a melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
Robert Burns: A Red, Red Rose
It isn’t easy to take this as literal truth. Mr Burns’ love was, I assume, either an emotion or a female member of the species homo sapiens. If the former, it was a mental event – which surely does not resemble a physical object such as a red, red rose. If his love was a woman, she would have resembled a rose (red, red or otherwise) in being not only a physical object, but also a living thing. However, roses and women are not very similar – belonging to separate kingdoms of the living world (plant and animal respectively). From the point of view of literal truth, he would surely have been more nearly correct had he written:
My love is like a wild wart hog
A wart hog is, after all, not only a member of the animal kingdom but a mammal – getting pretty close to human considered in the context of all of creation. Of course, my wart hog line – while it may be closer to literal truth – actually conveys the reverse of what Mr Burns intended. It is evident that he wished to convey something of the beauty and delicacy of his love – qualities for which the wart hog is not usually celebrated.
It would be easy to dismiss A Red, Red Rose as the sort of soupy thing that girls like. (Although real girls, in my experience, are a lot less soupy than some might suppose – the acceptability of the sentiments would very much depend on who was uttering them!) It is, I suppose, in essence a simile – and, as such, may need no special pleading as poetic truth.
Something rather different seems to be going on in this:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert –
That from heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.
Percy Bysshe Shelley: Ode to a Skylark
Bird thou never wert? Taken as a literal assertion, a bird is exactly what a skylark wert, is and will continue to be. This does not seem to be susceptible to an explanation in terms of metaphor or simile. Nor can I believe that Mr Shelley was ignorant as to which class of creature a skylark belongs. If there is a way in which a skylark is not a bird, this is considerably closer to multi-valued logic. The idea seems to pre-suppose at least two distinct sets of assertions (separate realms of discourse) – biological, in which a skylark is a bird; and poetic, in which a skylark may not be a bird. Indeed, there very probably exists a poem in which a skylark is cited as being bird. If so – in poetic discourse – a skylark both is and is not a bird.
A possible construction upon Mr Shelley’s words is that the skylark represents divinity at work in the world, rather than being no more than a creature in its own right (a bird). (In an earlier version of this text, I wrote its just being a creature – but this seemed to me to under-value animals, and I’ve attempted to reword the sentence. I continue to feel dissatisfied.)
For some people, mythology is much the same as poetic truth, for others it is not. I am not sure that the question of whether it is or is not poetic truth really makes much difference to anything of consequence. If not poetic as such, myth has in common with poetic truth that it lies in a separate realm of discourse from literal or everyday truth. Like poetic truth, contradictory assertions can each be true in their own contexts.
In fact, I think that contradictory assertions can each be true in their own contexts, even in the realm of literal truth. Take the following example:
When the sun rose yesterday, the sky was a vivid blue. As the sun climbed higher, it revealed banks of peach-coloured cloud.
It is a literal description of something I’d seen yesterday, when first composing this part of the text. (I did not cite that day’s dawn because it was grey and a lot less interesting – were I departing from literal truth, I would probably have written today rather than yesterday.) From a scientific point of view, however, I have misstated what I observed. The sun did not rise; the celestial movement I observed was of the earth, rather than the sun. Literal truth for science is not always (or even usually?) the same as literal truth for ordinary discourse. Truth of all kinds is relative, complex and multi-layered. Whether we recognise it or not, we commonly work with multi-valued logic – as when we see the sun rise, although we know that what we perceive is the earth moving.
That much established, we may return to the divine realm of discourse, aware that its truths are not necessarily the same as (or readily compatible with) those of such other realms as the everyday, science or poetry. We will be aware, too, of this failing to render the truths any less valid.