What’s in a Medium?

Why use two forms of writing within the same narrative? What meaning does it add to the text?

With regards to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, representing information through different mediums leads to:

  1. Different modes of artistic appreciation
  2. Different ways of interpreting the same information
    1. The worth of the narrative can change in the eyes of the reader depending on the medium employed.
  3. Contrasting/opposing viewpoints
  4. One medium providing clarity on the other
  5. One medium lending new meaning to the other
  6. An emphasis on themes between the two mediums that complement each other
  7. A commentary on the ways and situations in which people choose to employ mediums
    1. Why use prose in a certain case and not poetry?
    2. When is it appropriate to use poetry instead of prose, and vice versa?
    3. Does the way in which you use poetry (or prose) matter?

The list above is not exhaustive: you could add more items or combine them.

While reading Consolation of Philosophy, these topics come up as the reader progresses through the text. A back and forth dialogue occurs between the poetry and prose, and the reader must continuously question their perception of the themes that Boethius explores in each book. Ultimately, artistic expression and the consumption of knowledge go hand in hand.

Within the narrative characters question how mediums should be utilized. For example, in Book I Philosophy demonstrates a very strong opposing viewpoint toward poetry when she shoos away the Muses. She claims that poetry will only worsen Boethius’s depressive state. However, the author clearly views poetry positively. This is particularly noted through the juxtaposition between insults.

The narrator refers to the form of poetry as being “curiously anodyne” (2). Anodyne in this case can mean bland, unremarkable. Boethius concedes that poetry is a bit more mild, and less concrete and serious. This gives the reader an initially negative view on poetry.

The first use of the word “anodyne” stands in contrast to its second use, when Philosophy employs poetry (despite her initial disapproval of the medium). She decides that they must begin with “something milder, anodyne” in order to soothe the senses and ease Boethius into a hard-to-approach topic (22). Here, anodyne refers to a medicine, a possible cure that will strengthen him. The word “anodyne” initially characterized poetry as weak, but is eventually used to mean “mild” to suppose the poem’s beauty. The different meanings of “anodyne” change depending on whether poetry is appropriate to use in that present moment.

In Book IV Philosophy believes that Boethius needs “some relief in the charms of poetry,” referring to it as a “refreshing drink” that will enable him to concentrate as they continue their reasoning (139). Philosophy seemingly believes that poetry has occasional worth as long as it is accompanied with prose and reason. In other words, poetry must remain in conversation with prose, and this goes both ways. Though the contrast between the two mediums seemingly leads to conflict, it can also help to form a conversation between them.


Image: The Consolations of Philosophy, from BBC Radio 4

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Medium?

  1. I really like the list of effects of combining mediums that you identified, and especially your reading of poetry as a medicine whose effectiveness varies depending on its moment of employment. I also really agree that the inclusion of meter could further the consolation aspect of the text. Not only does the language of meter (even if in translation) seem to “flow” more naturally, but I have the impression that the passages in meter contain more natural imagery. I agree that there’s perhaps a recognition of the beauty of poetry; the employment of natural imagery not only makes the meter passages seem more serene (especially in comparison to the more “real world” information we learn about Boethius, like that he’s been convicted of a political crime), but it perhaps also abstracts out the emotional components of Boethius’s troubles into a format that can be better processed by his internal thoughts and emotions. I imagine this sort of system where first, Boethius externally experiences a hardship, then his emotions concerning this experience are internalized in the form of meter, where these internalized emotions exist in a sort of world that’s rather characterized by natural imagery. This internal world for emotions may act as a space where Boethius can “heal his soul” or come to reckon with/become more comfortable with more fearful or tumultuous emotions regarding his current situation of being convicted of a crime and potentially having his world change drastically (he will no longer live with his family, etc.) through interactions with Lady Philosophy. But, much of the text is also written in prose, which to me seemed to be a space where Lady Philosophy led Boethius to think more logically through his situation, making me think that there exists a sort of balance or mix between these two different approaches to consolation (as you’ve mentioned). I also feel that over the course of the text, there’s a sort of transition from a consideration of more lofty concepts (such as love) to rather concrete modes of thinking that sound more like logical proofs of concepts (such as the compatibility of providence with free will). Such a transition in topic perhaps reflects a transition in what consolation looks like as Boethius works through especially his situation; Lady Philosophy “prescribes” him perhaps more potent “medicines”, or weans him off of heavy reliance on poetry and onto more concrete or realistic understandings of his situation, over the course of his healing process. Writing this now, a slightly unrelated question that I have is: to what extent is a consolation simply dealing with or pacifying emotions?

  2. This is a compelling framework for starting a conversation on this question about the relationship between Boethius’s prose and verse.

    In the interest of keeping this conversation in one place, I’m copying here RADIUM_GORL_2’s post on this subject:

    “Boundaries of Poetry and Prose in Boethius”
    The juxtaposition between the prose and poetry is quite interesting, and I wonder what boundaries it sets in terms of the subject matter. What’s particularly interesting is the incongruity between Lady Philosophy’s words at the beginning–the muses “will only make [Boethius’s] condition worse”–with Boethius’s continued interest in poetic forms (4). Do the boundaries between the poetry and the prose change throughout the text as Boethius explores different forms of consolation? How do they tie into his conception of the world around him based on the female forms of ideas that he interacts with?

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