Art, economics, science, and all that jazz




The Five Quintets, by Irish poet Micheal O'Siadhail, is a gloriously unfashionable book. In an age of lyrics it is a long, conversational poem of almost 350 pages. In an age that focuses on detail, its topic is vast: the nature of Western modernity and its future. In a secular age its perspective is unobtrusively but deeply religious. It is therefore unlikely to make the best-sellers list. But it is an important and rewarding work.

Micheal O'Siadhail, The Five Quintets, Baylor University Press, ISBN 0781481307093It is worth dwelling briefly on the challenges facing the writer of such an ambitious poem and how he meets them. The first is to find a structure that organises the argument of the poem. As the title suggests, the work is divided into five quintets, each dealing with an aspect of modernity. Named 'Making', 'Dealing', 'Steering', 'Finding' and 'Meaning', they comprise the creative arts, economics, governance, scientific discovery and philosophy.

Each quintet is divided into five cantos which represent stages in the making of modernity breaking through, exploring freedom, dead ends of individual preoccupation or of control, breaking free, and paths to the future. Finally, the cantos describe in chronological order people, usually five in number, who represent each stage.

The inspiration and model of The Five Quintets come from Dante's Divine Comedy, whose theme is also universal in its scope, and which also focuses on individuals significant in the political and cultural life of the day. The movement within each canto echoes Dante's journey from earth through hell, purgatory to heaven, and the final canto concludes with a similarly ecstatic vision.

The second challenge in such a long poem is to present large ideas and cultural trends sinuously and unselfconsciously within the disciplines of poetry. Otherwise the poem would subside into a soggy and unappetising porridge.

O'Siadhail embodies ideas and attitudes in the lives of their representatives, and develops them through imagined dialogue with himself. The style of the writing is conversational and is given variety by the different poetic forms used in each quintet. These range from the sonnets and haikus (140 of each!) of the first quintet, to distinctive forms in the others, including the unbroken iambic pentameter that washes like a tide in the fourth quintet and Dante's terza rima in the final quintet. O'Siadhail is a skilled poet, at home in all these forms.

The third and decisive challenge facing O'Siadhail in this poem is to enter the lives and minds of people who made complex contributions to Western culture while developing his own vision of the world. He does this by offering a few lines that catch the person and then entering into dialogue with them. For example, Baudelaire is introduced tartly as: 'Risk-taker maudit, / A haughty stuntman.' Later he is allowed to plead his cause: 'In each street-walking Parisian scene / Did I not show the broken and the poor? / I made their cause my own affaire d'amour – / God knows I tried to reach beyond le spleen.'


"The paths out of these dead ends lead through compassion, recognition that reality, whether disclosed through human relationships, art, science or economics is patterned but unpredictable. It is always open to exploration and conversation, and is always to be celebrated."


Through his interrogation and dialogue with significant figures of western culture O'Siadhail makes and gradually develops his judgments about whose work represented ways forward and whose led to dead ends. The most immediately interesting, of course, are those of whom he is critical: Wagner, for example, Picasso, Hitler, Friedman, Darwin and Sartre. But these, too, are allowed to plead their case. They are an integral part of the great human project.

O'Siadhail offers a masterful and penetrating account of each figure whom he presents — George Elliot, Chagall, Mahler, Bismarck, Schumpeter, Myrdal, Robespierre, Thatcher, Watt, Einstein, Descartes and Levinas, to mention only a few. He engages the reader through a dialectic of critique and response that represent character as well as ideas. He offers the reader both a fresh understanding of each person's contribution and a deep feel for the interchange between people by which culture develops.

In this interrogation of time in five chapters, O'Siadhail describes a world in which all reality is interconnected. Drawing on scientific evidence about the nature of matter, he proposes a universe that is both patterned and undetermined at every level. It can be explored but not fully known, mapped but not fully predictable, discovered in its detail but each discovery leads to paradox. Human beings are part of the world, which they come to understand through conversation and affect through living. Consequently they can never fully nail it in systematic theory.

The proper human response to the world is a shared one of wonder, celebration and compassion. The closed roads to hell are marked by individual self-absorption and greed or by ideological control with the joyless, closed minds and hearts that generate death.  In an imagined conversation about the exercise of power, Stalin is made to say:  'Though no orator, / Machiavelli's Prince I have absorbed / And Ivan the Terrible's my saint. / Party-secretary, I acquire / Power as in the long grass I'll await / Sweet revenge on all who once mocked me.'

The paths out of these dead ends lead through compassion, recognition that reality, whether disclosed through human relationships, art, science or economics is patterned but unpredictable. It is always open to exploration and conversation, and is always to be celebrated.

The metaphor that O'Siadhail consistently uses to describe the proper conversational nature of human response to the world and the patterned but ultimately not fully knowable nature of reality is jazz. In jazz players have no fixed score but improvise in a way both free and disciplined as they listen to each other in an ecstatically celebratory performance. The Five Quintets begins and ends by addressing Madam Jazz.

The final Canto of the poem takes the poet into a conversation with Bonhoeffer, Arendt, Said Nursi and Jean Vanier. The conversations are hosted in turn by his late wife Brid, Mohamad's wife Aisha, the Shulamite of the Song of Songs, Beatrice and Mary the mother of Jesus. They lead him to and exhort him to stay with the vision of the world he has been offered as one to be wondered at, celebrated and to be drawn beyond in hope. Madam Jazz has the last word:


O suitor never holding us in thrall

but trusting to the ragtime of our ways


as in our brokenness we only fall

to rise where all who've come have come by choice;

let's dance across creation's dancing hall.


In shadows of your wing will I rejoice.

Sound now the bird of jazz's trumpet call!

'O Micheal, Micheal', cries a lover's voice,


'Yes, here I am, my Madam All in All.'



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Micheal O'Siadhail, The Five Quintets



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Existing comments

As it happens, I'm reading a book about Dante Alighieri and his monumental work. "Prone to bouts of self-delusion, prideful and overweening, Dante was a conflictedly human soul." (Ian Thomson, "Dante's Divine Comedy: A Journey Without End"). That description so apt for each of us. If Madam Jazz has the last word in O'Siadhail's work then it's well worth perusing I'd say.

Pam | 04 February 2019  

A vision. A sum of the last 400 years? A must read!

AO | 04 February 2019  

I am going to order this book this afternoon!

john frawley | 05 February 2019  

My (late-blooming) career has been in physics. I still practice it in retirement. "The shock of the new", in the positive, affective sense of Hughes' phrase, was and remains my motivation, tempered with time by the hope of adding, even infinitesimally, to knowledge of our reality and so to the fulfilment of our stewardship. But knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom comes from the resonance of one's own ambitions, personal or civic, with those of the fellowship that makes art, philosophy and science possible. Thanks for alerting us to this work, Andrew. I close by echoing Jacob Bronowski: "Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts. Above all, it is a responsibility for the integrity of what we are, primarily of what we are as ethical creatures".

Fred Green | 06 February 2019  

'The proper human response to the world is a shared one of wonder, celebration and compassion.' Just beautiful. The poet Mary Oliver espouses this in her work. Thank you Andrew. I will be looking for this work.

Jorie Ryan | 06 February 2019  

I'm not sufficiently literate in music, religion, philosophy or literature to grasp this book. I also can't afford it. But I must have it! So many moments of sheer joy in reading Andrew's piece, and especially Madam Jazz's final word. Out with the piggy bank!

Joan Seymour | 06 February 2019  

Wonderful review Andy - insightful and informative. I am really looking forward to reading this work.

micheal Loughnane | 06 February 2019  

So beautifully put, Fr. Hamilton. Reading this fills me with Hope to carry on enjoying the Gift of Life . I look forward to getting my hands on the book.

Susan Vasnaik | 06 February 2019  

Thank you so much for reviewing this poetry. I'll have to have a copy.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 07 February 2019  

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