What hath poetry to do with theory?

From George Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe:

There is a kind of sensualism or aestheticism that has decreed in our day that theory is not poetical; as if all the images and emotions that enter a cultivated mind were not saturated with theory. The prevalence of such a sensualism or aestheticism would alone suffice to explain the impotence of the arts. The life of theory is not less human or less emotional than the life of sense; it is more typically human and more keenly emotional. Philosophy is a more intense sort of experience than common life is, just as pure and subtle music, heard in retirement, is something keener and more intense than the howling of storms or the rumble of cities. For this reason philosophy, when a poet is not mindless, enters inevitably into his poetry, since it has entered into his life; or rather, the detail of things and the detail of ideas pass equally into his verse, when both alike lie in the path that has led him to his ideal. To object to theory in poetry would be like objecting to words there; for words, too, are symbols without the sensuous character of the things they stand for; and yet it is only by the net of new connections which words throw over things, in recalling them, that poetry arises at all. Poetry is an attenuation, a rehandling, an echo of crude experience; it is itself a theoretic vision of things at arm’s length. 


Fancy that feeds on the study of real things

George Santayana (1863-1952) wrote Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, which his student, T. S. Eliot, described as “a brilliant and admirable little book.” In the chapter on Dante, he writes:

To think straight, to see things as they are, or as they might naturally be, interested him more than to fancy things impossible; and in this he shows, not want of imagination, but true imaginative power and imaginative maturity. It is those of us who are too feeble to conceive and master the real world, or too cowardly to face it, that run away from it to those cheap fictions that alone seem to us fine enough for poetry or for religion. In Dante the fancy is not empty or arbitrary; it is serious, fed on the study of real things. It adopts their tendency and divines their true destiny. His art is, in the original Greek sense, an imitation or rehearsal of nature, an anticipation of fate. 

This reminds me of another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, and her claim about the vocation of a novelist:

A novelist is, first of all, a person who has been given a talent to a particular thing. Every serious novelist is trying to portray reality as it manifests itself in our concrete, sensual life, and he can’t do this unless he has been given the initial instrument, the talent, and unless he respects the talent, as such. . . . This kind of fiction wrier is always hotly in pursuit of the real.

Precisely because “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality,” as Eliot says in his poem “Four Quartets,” we need those poets and novelists who are “hostly in pursuit of the real,” otherwise we will be prone to “tidy up reality” and retreat into “cheap fictions.”

The romantic hero


Caspar David Friedrich, “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” (1819)

How shall we envision the romantic hero? I am arrested by two related descriptions in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s drama, Faust: Part I. First, consider what Faust says when he summons the Sign of the Earth Spirit in Nostradamus’ “great book of magic lore”:

How differently this sign affects me! You
Spirit of Earth, are closer to me,
Fresh strength already pulses through me, 
I glow already from wine so new!
Now, to go out into the world and bear
The earth’s whole pain and joy, all this I dare; 
To fight with tempts anywhere, 
And in the grinding shipwreck stand and not despair!

Second, consider what Faust says after signing the wager with Mephistopheles:

I tell you, the mere pleasure’s not the point!
To dizzying, painful joy I dedicate
Myself, to refreshing frustration, loving hate!
I’ve purged the lust for knowledge from my soul;
Now the full range of suffering it shall face,
And in my inner self I will embrace
The experience allotted to the whole
Race of mankind; my soul shall grasp the heights
And depths, my heart know all their sorrows and delights. 
Thus I’ll expand myself, and their self I shall be,
And perish in the end, like all humanity. 

The above descriptions corroborate the argument that George Santayana makes in Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe, described by T. S. Eliot as “a brilliant and admirable little book”: 

Goethe is a romantic poet; he is a novelist in verse. He is a philosopher of experience as it comes to the individual; the philosopher of life, as action, memory, or soliloquy may put life before each of us in turn. Now the zest of romanticism consists in taking what you know is an independent and ancient world as if it were material for your private emotions. The savage or the animal, who should not be aware of nature or history at all, could not be romantic about them, nor about himself. He would be blandly idiotic, and take everything quite unsuspectingly for what it was in him. The romanticist, then, should be a civilized man, so that his primitiveness and egotism may have something paradoxical and conscious about them; and so that his life may contain a rich experience, and his reflection may play with all varieties of sentiment and thought. At the same time, in his inmost genius, he should be a barbarian, a child, a transcendentalist, so that his life may seem to him absolutely fresh, self-determined, unforeseen, and unforeseeable. It is part of his inspiration to believe that he creates a new heaven and a new earth with each revolution in his moods or in his purposes. He ignores, or seeks to ignore, all the conditions of life, until perhaps by living he personally discovers them. Like Faust, he flouts science, and is minded to make trial of magic, which renders a man’s will master of the universe in which he seems to live. He disowns all authority, save that mysteriously exercised over him by his deep faith in himself. He is always honest and brave; but he is always different, and absolves himself from his past as soon as he has outgrown or forgotten it. He is inclined to be wayward and foolhardy, justifying himself on the ground that all experience is interesting, that the springs of it are inexhaustible and always pure, that the future of his soul is infinite. In the romantic hero the civilized man and the barbarian must be combined; he should be the heir of all civilization, and, nevertheless, he should take life arrogantly and egotistically, as if it were an absolute personal experiment. 

The Lord’s fences begirt us round


Stone fence in Weardale, County Durham. Photograph by John Short

Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
      Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
      Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow-dogging sin,
      Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
      Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
      The sound of glory ringing in our ears,
      Without, our shame, within, our consciences,
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.
      Yet all these fences and their whole array

      One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.

George Herbert’s brilliant poem, “Sin (I)”, has two purposes: to express gratitude for the Lord’s spiritual fortification and to awaken our heart’s vigilance against the ambush of sin. Like watchmen, we are prone to falling asleep, leaving our heart unguarded. The opening line of the poem – “Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!” – sets up a catalogue of fifteen (de)fences against sin that serve us well as long as we remain alert to the enemy that hides within (“one cunning bosom-sin”). Picture sin as that wooden horse wheeled inside the fortress of our heart, promising goodwill but unleashing chaos. Here are how each of the fences offer a protective enclosure to the sinner:

  1. Parents first “season” us with moral principles that strengthen us for the pilgrimage ahead.
  2. Schoolmasters deliver us to “laws” (moral and natural) and “rules of reason” (logic) that order our universe, morality, and thought.
  3. Holy messengers (or clergy) shepherd our religious belief and practice.
  4. Pulpits (sermons) and Sundays (worship, catechism, fellowship) nourish us with the living Word in a community of faith.
  5. Sorrow “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10).
  6. Afflictions sanctify character through trial.
  7. Anguish deepens steadfastness under pain.
  8. Fine nets prevent us from a descent into debauchery or damnation while the Lord’s stratagems outwit the snares of the Enemy.
  9. Bibles reveal millions of surprises (revelations) about everything of importance in heaven, earth, and hell to make us wise up about reality.
  10. Blessings beforehand and their ties of gratefulness develop a spirit of thanksgiving that shelter us from grumbling or disputing (Phil. 2:14).
  11. The sound of glory “ringing in our ears” gives us hope about the future perfection of creation and the second advent of Christ.
  12. Shame humiliates and humbles us from further sinning.
  13. Consciences give voice to the law written on the tablets of our hearts, lest we forget (Prov. 3:3, 7:3).
  14. Angels guard us from “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12) while grace empowers us with the grit to go on when we are tempted to give up.
  15. Eternal hopes and fears about our ultimate destiny encourage obedient living today.

So, are ever safe from the threat of sin? Herbert rests in a paradoxical truth: the fences of the Lord fail us when we fail them. The force that blows “these fences . . . quite away” comes from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Therefore, we are never truly (de)fenceless unless, like the Trojans, we accept a peace offering from our Enemy.

“Designs executed in a controlled rapture”

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:28-31)

This evening I led a seminar on John Updike’s brilliant short story, “Pigeon Feathers,” described here by The New Yorker:

In moving from Olinger to Firetown, David Kern, fourteen, tries to work off some of his disorientation by arranging books. In “An Outline of History,” by H. G. Wells, he slips into Wells’ account of Jesus. That night David is visited by an exact vision of death. The definition Webster’s Dictionary gives for soul, “Usually held to be separable in existence” is at first comforting, but when the assurance leaves him he asks Reverend Dobson at the catechetical class of the Lutheran church about Heaven. Dobson’s answer, “That Heaven is like Abraham Lincoln’s goodness living after him,” is not enough for David. He talks to his mother & afterwards realizes that he has hurt her with his worries about death. For his birthday he receives a Remington .22. His grandmother asks him to kill the pigeons in the barn. As he shoots them, he has the sensations of a creator.

As David buries the birds, he suddenly becomes arrested by the beauty of pigeon feathers. There he finds “the hint, the nod, he needed to build his fortress against death.” With verbal virtuosity, Updike’s final paragraph contains a design argument for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. I am awed by how Updike writes.

He dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

R. S. Thomas: “a great articulator of uneasy faith”

Since I have a deep respect for Rowan Williams, who is a first-rate theologian and accomplished poet, I am inclined to explore the poetry of fellow Welshman and Anglican R. S. Thomas on his recommendation alone. Here is an introductory video on the poet.

From David E. Anderson’s “The Things of This World” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

In the twentieth century, one of the greatest poets of the dialectical imagination was the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called him “as influential as T.S. Eliot in religious circles,” and one critic designated Thomas “a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness.” His powerful poem “The Porch” needs little explication:

      Do you want to know his name?
      It is forgotten. Would you learn
      what he was like? He was like
      anyone else, a man with ears
      and eyes. Be it sufficient
      that in a church porch on an evening
      in winter, the moon rising, the frost
      sharp, he was driven to his knees and for no reason
      he knew. The cold came at him;
      his breath was carved angularly
      as the tombstones; an owl screamed.

      He had no power to pray.
      His back turned on the interior
      he looked out on a universe
      that was without knowledge
      of him and kept his place
      there for an hour on that lean
      threshold, neither outside nor in.

God’s absence, wrote Thomas, was for him like a presence “that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.”

From David E. Anderson, “R. S. Thomas: Poet of the Cross” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

Thomas is mostly interested in God’s silence or absence, the deus absconditus or hidden God, and what that means for forging an identity in the modern world. What language might be used to address such a God in a meaningful way? As Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written, R.S. Thomas was—like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegaard—a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”


Rowan Williams, in his essay “R.S. Thomas and Kierkegaard” in the collection Echoes to the Amen: Essays after R.S. Thomas, argues that a kind of complex love begins to address, not resolve, this paradox [of absence and presence]. He cites a passage from The Echoes Return Slow:

But love answers it
in its turn: I am old now and have died
many times, but my rebirth is surer
than the truth embalming itself
in the second law of your Thermo-Dynamics.

The lines point a slow coming to a kind of faith, a faith in the poet’s own resurrection of some sort that he posits, at least momentarily, is as certain as the dead laws of science and technology. There is in the poem something of the dying to self in order to be born again. Williams concludes that “God, for Thomas, is both the frustration of every expectation and the only exit from despair. And that God is encountered only in the embrace of finitude.”


Two kinds of religious imagination

I read an article that invoked a fascinating distinction between two kinds of religious imagination from Mary Catherine Hilkert’s book, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination:

The Sacramental Imagination

  • emphasizes the presence of the God who is self-communicating love
  • the creation of human beings in the image of God (restless hearts seeking the divine)
  • the mystery of the incarnation
  • grace as divinizing as well as forgiving
  • the mediating role of the church as sacrament of salvation in the world
  • the “foretaste” of the reign of God that is present in human community wherever God’s reign of justice, peace, and love is fostered.

The Dialectical Imagination

  • stresses the distance between God and humanity
  • the hiddenness and absence of God
  • the sinfulness of human beings
  • the paradox of the cross
  • the need for grace as redemption and reconciliation
  • the limits and necessity for critique of any human project or institution, including the church
  • the not-yet character of the promised reign of God.

The author of the article then singled out great religious poets of the sacramental imagination (John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur) and dialectical imagination (William Cowper, R. S. Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop).

SOURCE: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: David E. Anderson, The Things of This World