As Reviewed By:
Poetry, Spilt Religion, and the Poetic Imagination
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In 1935 in his essay “Religion and Literature,” T. S. Eliot described his era as one in which readers had “never heard the Christian faith spoken of as anything but an anachronism.” He further declared, “ . . . the whole of modern literature is corrupted by what I call Secularism . . . it is simply unaware of, simply cannot understand the meaning of the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life. . . . ” Seven decades after Eliot's essay, it is difficult for us even to imagine a time when readers assumed "the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life." So complete has been the victory of the natural over the supernatural that today we can barely utter the latter term except in reference to the latest horror movie. To find an era when a religious attitude was pervasive, we have to look back to the seventeenth century, to a poet like John Donne. Religious belief was so universal in Donne’s time that he could conclude Holy Sonnet X "One short sleep past, we wake eternally. / Then death will be no more. Death, thou shalt die,” without even alluding to the doctrines that enabled readers to resolve the seeming paradox.
A half century later (1682), we find John Dryden in his poem “Religio Laici: or A Layman’s Faith,” already fighting a rearguard action against the Enlightenment’s assault on revealed religion. Though armed with vast learning and wit, Dryden framed his adversary’s points so well that modern readers now take them as plain common sense. In the following passage, Dryden illustrates how the supernatural was lost to the European mind:
But stay: the Deist here will urge anew,
The Age of Discovery had
introduced Christian Europe to previously unknown people and cultures.
Surely, reasonable minds concluded, a loving God would not condemn
the innocent island people of Tahiti or the Indians of North and South
America to eternal damnation simply because they had not been exposed to
biblical Christianity. Thus, they reasoned, “No supernatural worship can
be true” because only a “general law,”--that is, one “Which must
to all, and everywhere be known” (like the law of gravity) could be
true. Since the Bible makes no “provision” for the American Indians,
its so-called revelations and the theology emerging from them were cast
into doubt. Applying reason to the Bible in similar fashion, our homegrown
philosophe Thomas Jefferson took
a pair of scissors to the New Testament and literally cut out every hint
of the supernatural from its pages, from virgin birth to resurrection,
turning Jesus, in the process, into a kind of peripatetic Rousseau.
Rejecting the Bible and the biblical myth of Adam’s fall and
Original Sin, the Enlightenment gave birth to a new myth that has governed
our imaginations ever since—the myth of the Natural Man, who, according
to John Locke, is born into the world naturally good, and equal, and free.
No longer did the serpent and human disobedience deprive the human
race of earthly perfection, but the corrupt societies into which human
goodness and innocence were born. Reason alone could free us from the
fetters of custom and make us into new men and women. To prepare us for a
world without kings or established churches or oppressive social roles,
thinkers from Rousseau to Mary Wollstonecraft and Marie de Gournay
advocated new modes of education. And
to fill the void left by God, men elevated Nature, whom Denis Diderot
called the “sovereign mistress,” and her counselor Reason to be the
final arbiters of law and morality.
In such an environment, the fusion of
intellect and religious faith achieved by the Metaphysical poets was no
longer possible. The dissociation of sensibility had set in.
As Eliot noted elsewhere in his essay, the poetic expression of
religion in more recent times has largely shrunk to a special category
called “religious” or “devotional” verse, which, according to
Eliot, is by nature a minor art because it ignores the large human
passions depicted by great literature and because in such verse poets
write consciously as believers, not unconsciously as they would in a
genuinely religious age.
The triumph of Reason proved only temporary,
however. It turned out that being governed by reason was just as
difficult—and in many ways less satisfying—than being governed by
faith. As Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels suggested with his highly reasonable but
passionless horses of Houyhnhnm-land, life under the reign of the goddess
Reason could be excruciatingly dull. One can only spend so many afternoons
discussing friendship and benevolence. And so in a spirit of rebellion,
the poets of the next century kicked Reason off her pedestal and replaced
her with Feeling.
But human nature being what it is, the religious impulse was not so easily repressed. As T. E. Hulme in his essay “Romanticism and Classicism” argued, it bubbled up and into the verse of the Romantics, often corrupting even their best poetry. Hulme argues that at the root of Romanticism lies the familiar notion “that man, the individual, is an infinite reservoir of possibilities; and if you can so rearrange society by the destruction of oppressive order then these possibilities will have a chance and you will get Progress." By contrast, Hulme argues, the classical attitude regards man as “an extraordinarily fixed and limited animal whose nature is absolutely constant." In a passage worth quoting at some length, Hulme observes how the Romantic attitude has infected modern poetry:
It would be a mistake to identify the classical view with that of materialism. On the contrary it is absolutely identical with the normal religious attitude. I should put it this way: That part of the fixed nature of man is the belief in the Deity. . . . By the perverted rhetoric of Rationalism, your natural instincts are suppressed and you are converted into an agnostic. Just as in the case of the other instincts, Nature has her revenge. The instincts that find their right and proper outlet in religion must come out in some other way. You don't believe in God, so you begin to believe that man is a god. You don't believe in Heaven, so you begin to believe in heaven on earth. In other words you get romanticism. . . . Romanticism then, and this is the best definition I can give of it, is spilt religion.
Hulme adds that whereas the classical
poet never forgets that man has limits, the Romantics believe that man is
infinite, and “ . . . the whole romantic attitude seems to crystalise in
verse round metaphors of flight. Hugo is always flying, flying over
abysses, flying up into the eternal gases. The word infinite is in every
No work of literature better illustrates
the attitude Hulme describes here than Goethe’s Faust.
The author’s life (which began in the Age of Reason and continued
well into the Romantic era) mirrored that of his famous protagonist, who
sacrificed his youthful religious faith to the demands of reason and then
fled reason for a fuller life of passion and action. In the following
passage from Part One, Faust expresses his desire to reject human limits
and soar upward, like the sun:
O that I am swept upward on no wing
Alas, that to the pinions of the mind
Faust’s mention of the lark will
spark memories in English speaking readers of Shelley and his skylark--or
the more solidly grounded Keats and his nightingale. By the early
nineteenth century, the natural life had assumed such primacy over the
supernatural that genuine religion no longer seemed possible, and so, as
Hulme suggests, the religious impulse spilled over into the natural
religion of Romantic poetry. No longer able to pray, poets in heightened
states of emotion now used apostrophe instead, imploring birds, the west
wind, or in Wordsworth’s case, the Wye River to lift or sustain them in
their troubles. Like Faust,
men began to believe that they could be “godlike.” Walt Whitman, for
example, sometimes comes perilously close to identifying himself with the
deity in “Song of Myself”:
Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am
In the flexible free-flowing shape of his
verse, Whitman added yet another dimension to the poetry of liberation. It
turns out that the traditional forms of poetry must be counted among the
fetters imposed on human innocence by a corrupt society. And so since the
time of Whitman, poets who want to fly off on the viewless wings of poesy
have often begun by jettisoning the dull forms that perplex and retard
their flight. There’s a clear link between the desire to radically alter
society and literary forms. From surrealism to futurism to the Black
Mountain poets to the Beats, Deep Imagists and Language poets, the goal of
the avant-garde has been to
radically alter the way we read, think, and even organize society. In a
recent discussion in the online journal Perihelion
on the situation of the avant-garde,
the critic Alan Golding has argued that the term “refers to some
combination of oppositional cultural (and/or literal) politics and certain
features of style regarded in their moment as ‘innovative.’” As with
their wigged and powdered intellectual forebears, the modern literary
vanguard has been convinced by Reason in its various modern guises that by
smashing the oppressive forms of the past we can live like gods in a
politically progressive utopia.
The most experimentally radical and socially ambitious movement of recent decades has been “Language Poetry.” Born of various schools of Post-Structuralist criticism, and deeply influenced by Marxism and feminism, the movement’s theorists argue that language itself is a code that contains and reproduces the larger code of society; and that more than anything else, it binds us to traditional notions of self, gender, and identity. In this view, not even poetry is immune to the corrupting influence of a capitalist culture; rather, poetry is itself a commodity, infused with something called cultural capital, and must be recognized as such in order to demystify it and destroy its seductive illusions. To aid in this process, movement theorists believe that the practice of writing should be revolutionized; closure should be avoided and meaning made indeterminate so that reading becomes more democratized as each reader learns to construct a text’s meaning for him or herself. Narrative, argument, the poetic line, grammar, syntax, and even spelling should be broken open to allow an infinite play of interpretive possibilities, as well as to expose the sinister workings of language.
Like many of his fellow language poets a politically active
leftist, Bruce Andrews states that the ultimate purpose of such writing is
. . .
To cast doubt on each and every ‘natural’ construction of
reality. Not just by articulating the gap between sign & referent—or
theatricalizing that gap by avoiding meaning altogether—but to show off
a more systematic idea of language as a system & play of differences,
with its own rules of functioning. Radical praxis . . . here involves the
rigors of formal celebration, a playful infidelity, a certain illegibility
within the legible: an
infinitizing, a wide-open exuberance, a perpetual motion machine, a
The ultimate consequence of this
sort of writing, he says, will be to “re-envision the social
seeming an unlikely vessel for “spilt religion,” Language poetry--with its revolutionary aspirations, its “infinitizing,” and its hopes
for a utopian Marxist-feminist future--is once again rooted in the
Enlightenment myth of primal innocence and bears all the usual earmarks of
Romanticism. For all its revolutionary posturing, however, the movement
has fallen prey to what Hulme calls man’s fixed and limited nature. In
the same discussion in Perihelion,
Kent Johnson offers a critique of Language poetry’s once-utopian
politics, arguing that the movement has already been assimilated by the
larger literary culture it claimed to reject, and that it, “along with
its various second-generation satellite formations, now stands as an
experimentalist, but respectful and loyal opposition within the Parliament
of Academic poetry.” In answering the question as to why the movement has gone
from “ a vital utopian radicalism” to professionalized and
“institutional accommodation,” Johnson writes,
denouement was determined in advance by the stubborn failure of the
Language poets to practice what they preached. Polemically rejecting in
their theory the “I” and “Self” as the ground of poetry, they
enshrined it in their practice in the most nonchalant ways, framing and
exhibiting their “avant-garde” products within the functional confines
of Authorship, with all its attendant dynamics of cultural capital
acquisition and portfolio positioning.
Put more simply, the movement’s “old
anti-capitalist claims” were shed as the authors jostled for publication
by good presses, academic jobs, and lucrative grants, lectures and
readings. While claiming to
be selfless, genderless and identity-less, and while reasserting the human
claim to an earthly paradise, what the movement’s writers really wanted
all along was to follow the tried-and-true avant-garde
path to famous authorship and the plush comforts of an endowed chair.
After three centuries of the primacy of the natural over the supernatural and two centuries of poetry as “spilt religion,” perhaps the time has come to hope for the fulfillment of Hulme’s prophecy: that the period of Romanticism will be succeeded by a classical period that abjures utopian politics and instead sees things in the “light of ordinary day.” Hulme adds that this new classical spirit will recognize human limits and always remember that man “is mixed up with earth.” Most importantly, the new spirit in poetry will manifest itself in the re-emergence of “fancy” or the imagination.
One might argue that this new classical attitude has already
appeared, if somewhat sporadically, in the decades since Hulme wrote,
sometimes in the works of the great Modernists and sometimes in the poetry
of those who worked instead within poetry’s ancient formal traditions,
writing of real people and things with classical restraint.
Robert Frost surely represents one such poet.
As to the future, a classical poetry governed by “fancy” might take two very different forms: the first, an honest atheism founded on reason’s rejection of the supernatural; the second, a genuinely religious poetry in which reason and faith are reconciled. The poetry of Philip Larkin may be said to exemplify the former. “Aubade,” Larkin’s great meditation on death, clearly recognizes human limits and sees objects by the ordinary light of day. Though its conclusion is the polar opposite of Donne’s in his great sonnet, there is something thrilling, if somewhat chilling, in the stark clarity of the poem’s judgments. Death is final, absolute, and always lurking in the shadows; religion is a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die.”
stark, Larkin’s poem provides a bracing contrast to a poem on the same
subject by Dylan Thomas, “And Death Shall Have No Dominion,” whose
sonorous Romanticism Larkin explicitly rejected. There are moments in
Thomas’s poem when we feel we are back with Dr. Faust and Percy Shelley
soaring into the infinite as the dead posthumously cavort with “the man
in the wind and the west moon” or settle back amidst the eternal gases
with stars “at elbow and foot.” A flowery New Age theology pervades
the poem’s conclusion where the eco-friendly corpses or spirits of the
dead are reincarnated as “heads of the characters hammer through
daisies” and “break in the sun till the sun breaks down.”
To some extent, a more classical poetry
of the imagination might already be said to exist in the work of Wallace
Stevens. In “To a High-Toned Old Christian
Woman,” for instance, Stevens playfully advances the idea that poetry
“is the supreme fiction” and suggests that the poetic imagination is
an adequate, if somewhat more playful, substitute for conventional piety. In
“Sunday Morning,” Stevens explicitly rejects religion’s supernatural
claims ("The tomb in Palestine / Is not the
porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he
lay."); asserts the absence of God (we are “unsponsored, free”);
and offers no future paradise but what can be experienced here on earth
with the aid of imagination. Though
rejecting the idea of a future utopia, Stevens offers something very
similar to the natural religion of Romanticism. In fact, he goes further
than writers like Wordsworth and Emerson, who rejected God but infused
nature with a “presence” or “spirit” or “Oversoul”: instead of
making his verse a mere vessel for spilt religion, Stevens would elevate
poetry itself to the status of religion.
For a better example of how the
imagination might reconcile the claims of faith and reason and create a
genuinely religious poetry, we might turn to what might seem an unlikely
source: the visionary poet William Blake. Blake once famously called
Wordsworth a pagan philosopher for substituting nature for God and the
natural for the spiritual man. Although sometimes appearing to reject
reason outright, Blake in his masterpiece of satirical irony The Marriage of Heaven and Hell tries to reconcile such apparent
opposites as reason and energy, body and soul, through the office of the
poetic imagination. His book
also challenges conventional views of heaven and hell. Most remarkably, in
the following section titled “A Memorable Fancy” (Plate 12), Blake
addresses some of the objections of the Deists:
The Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spake to them; and whether they did not think at the time, that they would be misunderstood, & so be the cause of imposition.
Isaiah answer'd. 'I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover'd the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm'd, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God, I cared not for consequences but wrote.'
Then I asked: 'does a firm perswasion
that a thing is so, make it so?'
He replied: 'All poets believe that it
does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed mountains;
but many are not capable of a firm perswasion of any thing.'
Then Ezekiel said. 'The philosophy of the
east taught the first principles of human perception: some nations held
one principle for the origin & some another; we of Israel taught that
the Poetic Genius (as you now call it) was the first principle and all the
others merely derivative, which was the cause of our despising the Priests
& Philosophers of other countries, and prophecying that all Gods would
at last be proved to originate in ours & to be the tributaries of the
Poetic Genius; it was this that our great poet King David desired so
fervently & invokes so pathetic'ly, saying by this he conquers enemies
& governs kingdoms; and we so loved our God. that we cursed in his
name all the deities of surrounding nations, and asserted that they had
rebelled; from these opinions the vulgar came to think that all nations
would at last be subject to the jews.'
'This' said he, 'like all firm
perswasions, is come to pass; for all nations believe the jews' code and
worship the jews' god, and what greater subjection can be?'
I heard this with some wonder, & must
confess my own conviction. After dinner I ask'd Isaiah to favour the world
with his lost works; he said none of equal value was lost. Ezekiel said
the same of his.
I also asked Isaiah what made him go
naked and barefoot three years? he answer'd, 'the same that made our
friend Diogenes the Grecian.'
I then asked Ezekiel why he eat dung,
& lay so long on his right & left side? he answer'd, 'the desire
of raising other men into a perception of the infinite; this the North
American tribes practise, & is he honest who resists his genius or
conscience. only for the sake of present ease or gratification?'
Though Blake’s irony is multi-layered, there’s a kernel of genuine insight within this fanciful tale. According to Blake, Isaiah’s revelations of God’s judgments were not bound by history or geography. The prophet said that he didn’t hear God “in a finite organical perception,” but rather was firmly persuaded that “the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.” Since the voice of honest indignation can be heard by anyone throughout the globe, it is potentially available to all, answering the Deists’ demand for universality. Blake even makes provisions for the Indians in “worlds discovered new” when he compares the physical austerities practiced by Ezekiel to those of “the North American tribes,” suggesting that both practices are impelled by a universal desire to alter human consciousness to experience a “perception of the infinite.” Similarly, Blake has Isaiah assert that the impulse that made him go naked and barefoot for three years was shared by the Greek Cynic Diogenes.
According to this “Memorable Fancy,”
the chief difference between the religion of Jews and Christians and those
of other people is that the people of Israel taught that “the Poetic
Genius” was the first principle, from which all others are derived.
Similarly, the only difference between the descendants of the
“great poet King David” and other nations is the greater emphasis the
former place on the poetic imagination.
If Blake’s claim for “the Poetic
Genius”—or imagination—in this memorable fancy seems audacious,
remember that the Bible of Jews and Christians is not a work of systematic
theology but a compendium of stories, poems, songs, proverbs, histories,
biographies, inspired oratory, and poetic drama. Yet the poetic
imagination Blake speaks of is different from that of Wallace Stevens,
which claims the office of God for itself; rather, Blake’s recognizes in
the voice of honest indignation the veritable “voice of God,” and
discerns within the admonitions of prophets the lineaments of human
morality. It discovers in the
stories of the Bible not merely “the natural life” of their human
protagonists, but the spiritual adventures of men and women who suffer sin
and tragic error, death and redemption.
Remember, too, that the young Jew who
founded Christianity was himself a poet of formidable gifts, one who
employed parables rather than reasoned argument and coined metaphors with
striking audacity. It’s easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich
man to get into heaven. First remove the log from your own eye before you
criticize the speck in your brother’s.
Mathew records that Christ’s last words as he endured the
final agonies of crucifixion were “My God, my God, why have you forsaken
me?” Though often taken as a heartfelt cry of despair, Christ was
in fact quoting a poem--the opening line of the Twenty-Second Psalm, which
depicts a suffering man who, at one point in his humiliation, sees those
around him casting lots for his clothes. With his last words, Jesus thus
entangled prophecy and poetry in a single knot, becoming author and hero
of a great time-folding tragedy.
This is not to say that Jesus was merely a poet, but rather that in
addition to his more orthodox characterizations—as second person of the
Trinity, the incarnate Logos, or what Blake called “Divine Man”—he
was also a poet. Perhaps only poetic language can make the divine
Author’s presence felt at the deepest levels of our being--which might
explain why the Latin mass or the prose poetry of the Book of Common
Prayer retains such a powerful hold on worshippers. At every stage of our
relationship with God, the poetic imagination appears to be involved, from
interpreting parables and prophecy, to composing hymns and liturgy, to
addressing God in suitably elevated language in public prayer. One might
even say that by speaking in verse or parables, the prophets, the
psalmists, and poets of more recent times are simply extending the spirit
of God, who created the world by fiat and called it good. George Herbert
brought Christian doctrine alive with his richly imagined allegories. To
depict the grandeur of God and the quirky eccentricities of his handiwork,
Gerard Manley Hopkins invented a poetic language of similar richness and
variety. Perhaps what allowed the author of Genesis to state that man was
made in God’s image was not our physical likeness, but a similar genius
for imaginative creation.
Perhaps as Blake suggests in his “Memorable Fancy,” reason and
religion are not antithetical, but can be reconciled by the poetic genius.
Perhaps poets in the future will understand that though subject to
interrogation by reason, faith does not, like a legal conviction, collapse
at the hint of a reasonable doubt. Perhaps too, as Hulme suggests, we are
finally approaching a time when the poetry of “spilt religion” will be
supplanted by a poetry of the imagination, making a genuinely religious
poetry again possible—and not religious in the narrow sense, but as
Eliot defined it, poetry unconsciously permeated by an acute moral
One promising development is that since the age of the Deist,
science has revealed a less mechanistic, more mysterious universe.
No longer the clockwork whirligig of Newton and his intellectual
progeny, the cosmos now seems more like a living organism or creative
spirit that brings order out of chaos and promotes higher levels of
complexity as it evolves. At
its finest levels, as in quantum physics or human consciousness, matter
and mind seem mysteriously intertwined; the logos and living flesh appear
indistinguishable. Perhaps as
Blake suggests, a “firm perswasion” can sometimes make a thing true.
According to Isaiah in Blake’s imagined dialogue, “All poets believe
that it does, & in ages of imagination this firm perswasion removed
In a future age, perhaps poets—instead of trying to fly over them into the eternal gases—will simply move mountains with a firm persuasion. After all, according to Jesus the parable-maker, it requires faith no bigger than a mustard seed.