What is Afflatus? An Image Gloss…

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 The Aeolian harp became the symbol of afflatus in Romantic Poetry.

Whitman writes, “Through me the afflatus surges and surges. . . . through me the current and index” (Whitman 50).  But what is the afflatus? Merriam Webster’s Dictionary Online defines it as follows:

  • Main Entry: af·fla·tus
  • Pronunciation: \ə-ˈflā-təs, a-\
  • Function: noun
  • Etymology: Latin, act of blowing or breathing on, from afflare to blow on, from ad- + flare to blow — more at blow
  • Date: 1660

: a divine imparting of knowledge or power : inspiration (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/afflatus)

The term afflatus was coined by Cicero and is most frequently translated as inspiration, but Cicero wanted to make the concept of inspiration, the gathering of an idea, tactile; he likened a poet’s collecting of ideas to a gust of wind.  Author T. V. F Brogan in the New Princeton Encyclopedia  of Poetry and Poetics writes:

Literally, “inspiration,” like “afflatus,” means “to be blown into” by a divine wind. As “inspiration” came to mean simply the gathering of a new idea, Cicero reiterated the idea of a rush of unexpected breath, a powerful force that would render the poet helpless and unaware of its origin. In English, “afflatus” is used for this literal form of inspiration. It generally refers not to the usual sudden originality, but to the staggering and stunning blow of a new idea, an idea that the recipient may be unable to explain. In Romantic literature and criticism, in particular, the usage of “afflatus” was revived for the mystical form of poetic inspiration tied to “genius”. . . (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afflatus) When I first saw that this post meant divine inspiration I immediately thought of the Romantics, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and apparently I was right to think of them as fans of afflatus because the rest of the wiki post confirmed my thoughts.

To me, when Whitman talks of the afflatus surging through him I think of it as energy flowing through him bodily and then through his knowledge base (what he calls his index )and finally the physical and mental paths converge and form the words of his poems. The thoughts of energies joining and forming something new also remind me of T.S. Eliot’s catalyst in ” Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Finally, in other news afflatus is also the name of two bands one from Canada and one from India. I know nothing about them, but have posted a link to each of their ebsites for your viewing and maybe (if they’re good) musical pleasure. :) http://www.myspace.com/afflatusrocks and http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/Afflatus. Enjoy!

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2 Responses to “What is Afflatus? An Image Gloss…”

  1. adaml Says:
    Avatar of adaml

    Wow that is a much more appropriate metaphor than I had thought – now knowing the word’s conceptual definition of “inspiration,” it makes much more sense why Whitman would make this choice. I wonder where he might have come across one of these instruments.

  2. erinm Says:
    Avatar of erinm

    Hey Adam,

    yeah it is a cool metaphor and i saw another website that interpreted afflatus as “divine breath” which i thought was nice also. As for whether or not whitman came across the aeolian harp or not I don’t know. I’ll see what I can dig up and let you know if I find anything, but I used the Aeolian harp because I mentioned that the Romantics believed in afflatus as well as Whitman and the harp was their symbol for it, since I mentioned them I wanted to tie them in and it’s hard to find a picture of inspiration itself :) Thanks for commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

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