I. A Lasting Model?
Certain religious poets of 17th-century England, often called the “Metaphysical” poets, have gained as firm a place in the Western canon as any group of poets enjoys today. Tangibly speaking, that means that they (at least the major four or five) are ubiquitously anthologized, their work remains in print and readily available, there exists a large body of critical work on their poetry and lives, and they are regularly “taught” in post-secondary classrooms, as well as in at least some secondary classrooms. It is clear that they have some measure of significance for scholars, but what influence, if any, do they exert on literature in America today?
II. Defining Devotional Poetry
In reference to 17th-century poets, the term “Metaphysical” has come to indicate certain stylistic tendencies, such as elaborately extended metaphor or conceit, fondness for paradox, and linguistic inventiveness and ingenuity (often loosely termed “wit”). It is strange, considering the etymology of this word and its uses in other contexts, that it should have come to designate stylistic rather than philosophical or spiritual elements. The word was Latinized from Greek in the Middle Ages, and the Latin roots of the word, meta and physic, might be rendered “over/above” and “nature/the natural,” thus indicating the supernatural, the spiritual, or at least the philosophical. In fact, the Greek phrase from which the Latin was derived was used as early as the 4th century B.C. as a title for one of Aristotle’s treatises, on the subject of ontological philosophy.
However, since Samuel Johnson’s largely pejorative remarks about the aims of the “metaphysical” poets, the word has become associated with those stylistic characteristics of the verse that he found offensive or inadequate. (John Dryden had made remarks that were even more hostile in the previous century, but he did not designate the poets as “metaphysical,” though he did speak of Donne “affect[ing] the metaphysics”). We now use the terms “religious” or “devotional” when we want to indicate these poets’ spiritual practice and subject matter—though, as I hope to demonstrate, these two terms are not interchangeable, devotional poetry being a specific mode within the larger category of religious poetry.
Anthony Low has done important work in studying 17th-century devotional practice and its relation to the poetry of the time. In his book, Love’s Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-Century English Poetry, he indicates four primary types of devotional practice—vocal, meditative, affective, and contemplative—and demonstrates the ways in which these spiritual exercises influenced the verse of the poets of that age. It often seems implicit in Low’s commentary on the poems of the era that the poems are not only informed by or imitative of devotional practice, but are themselves part of that devotional practice, but he does not state this explicitly. Let us state it explicitly, and proceed to support the notion: The composition of a poem may itself be a devotional practice.
We are not likely to be able to know for certain to what extent any given poem was composed as a devotional practice, as opposed to being a re-creation of prior devotional practice or explanation of the outcomes thereof; however, the idea that a poem can be a devotional practice is significant and bears being stated and defended. In an essay in George Herbert and the Seventeenth-Century Religious Poets (ed. Mario A. di Cesare), Low says that “Metaphysical poetry is essentially private poetry, that is, poetry that examines and focuses on the inner movements of thought and feeling,” but he comes short of saying that a poem itself can be a way of thinking. “In its combination of reason, imagination, and feelings,” he goes on to say, “meditation is a close cousin of poetry,” and yet he does not acknowledge poetry as a means of meditating. The implication of statements of this kind (wittingly or no on Low’s part) is that poetry is a recorder of other, prior processes. Critics tend to speak this way because they are not thinking like writers. If they were to stop for a moment to consider their own processes in composing their essays or books, they might revise the way they speak of poems, for even an essay is not simply the writing down of fully-formed thoughts, but is a way of organizing and exploring and furthering thought, and is revised in light of the discoveries made in the process of writing.
In his essay, “The Shocking Image” (from The Metaphysical Poets, ed. Frank Kermode), A. D. Nutall says, referring to 17th-century handbooks offering instruction in devotional practice, “The handbooks taught that a man [sic] should train his imagination as an athlete trains his body. It is natural that such a system should produce certain champions, gymnasts of the imagination, whose powers should spill over into their poetry.” But Nutall misses the mark when he says that the powers of imagination merely “spill over” into poetry. It makes far more sense to understand the composition of poetry as itself an act of imagination—in other words, not only the result of imaginative training, but part of the training itself. Low and Nutall, like many critics, apparently find it difficult to think like a writer—to imagine oneself as the poet—and thus their oversight of the plain truth that the composition of a poem can itself be an act of devotion, rather than merely chronicling or imitating or being otherwise influenced by devotional practice. In order to understand this, it is vital to realize that poems are not necessarily begun as foregone conclusions, and, in fact, it would be unlikely for such a poem to prove a lasting work of literature.
Robert Frost famously said that a poem “is but a trick poem and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last,” and that, “like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting. [...] It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went” (“The Figure a Poem Makes”). Great poems are—if not invariably, at least most often—an unfolding, not only for the reader, but for the poet in the process of composing.
George Herbert, more consistently than any other 17th-century poet, gives the reader the sense that he is struggling through the poem itself, that the poem is a tool by which he does his thinking. Take this middle section from “The Search,” for instance:
Where is my God? What hidden place
Conceals thee still?
What covert dare eclipse thy face?
Is it thy will?
O let not that of any thing;
Let rather brasse,
Or steel, or mountains be thy ring,
And I will passe.
Thy will such an entrenching is,
As passeth thought:
To it all strength, all subtilties
Are things of nought.
Thy will such a strange distance is,
As that to it,
East and West touch, the poles do kisse,
And parallels meet.
Since then my grief must be as large,
As is thy space,
thy distance from me; see my charge,
Lord, see my case.
O take these barres, these lengths away,
Turn, and restore me:
Be not Almightie, let me say,
Against, but for me.
Here, Herbert is agonizing (from the Greek word agon—“contest,” or agonia—“struggle”) over the possibility that the distance he feels from God is a result not of anything that stands between himself and God, but of the very will of God. In other words, God has chosen to keep Herbert separate from her/him/it. The feeling that this may be the case causes Herbert to cry out to God to use her/his/its sovereign power for him, rather than against him, or else all hope is lost.
This is a deep kind of wrestling with God, and for the reader it occurs in the present moment of the poem—there is no foregone conclusion here. The poem is so successful in articulating the spiritual struggle that we can speculate that Herbert was actually experiencing a sense of separation from God as he composed the poem—it is at least a possibility—so that the spiritual struggle being dramatized is not simply a re-enactment. We cannot know this for certain, but the very fact that the struggle seems to be a present concern of the poet as he writes the poem and that the poem seems to be the very devotional means through which Herbert engages with his doubt and communicates with God lends power to the poem. It is doubtful (and I think that Frost would have shared my doubt) that a poem as effective as this (and Herbert has many) could have been written toward a foreknown conclusion.
It is true that some 17th-century poems seem to have been written toward a conclusion that was realized before the poem began. This sort of poem might more justly be characterized as a record or imitation of prior spiritual devotion (meditation on a theological mystery, for instance), rather than an act of devotion itself. Some of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” are good examples of this kind of poem. The conclusion of “Holy Sonnet X,” for instance, is inherent in first statement of poem. The poem begins with the imperative, “Death be not proud,” an order that could not possibly be given by the speaker apart from an already-existing realization of the concluding paradox of the poem: “death, thou shalt die.” However, it is my contention that many 17h-century poems are examples of exploratory poems—begun in uncertainty of mind and spirit, and themselves representing the devotional process (or at least part of it) through which resolution, or clarity, or simply articulation was achieved.
Although it is, of course, impossible to know, based on the text of the poem alone, to what extent a poet did or did not have the conclusion of the poem in view during the act of composition, we can say this much, at least: Some religious poems (like Herbert’s “The Search”) dramatize a mental or spiritual struggle; other religious poems (like Donne’s “Holy Sonnet X”) do not purport to dramatize a current struggle, and instead explain or explicate a struggle that happened prior to the composition of the poem. In the latter case, the entire poem functions as a conclusion; even if there is some dramatization, as there is in Donne’s poem (a speaker personifying and addressing death), there is no uncertainty in the rhetoric since the conclusion is foreknown and stated or implied from the beginning. This kind of poem engages the reader the way a sermon or an essay might. On the other hand, the rhetoric of a poem that dramatizes a struggle in the literary “present,” as Herbert’s poem does, proceeds with uncertainty and thus engages the reader the way a play might. This effect is intensified to the extent that the reader senses that the poet’s composition of the poem proceeded in uncertainty—not only of the literary or formal outcome of the nascent poem, but also the spiritual outcome of engaging the poem’s idea.
Perhaps we should now venture a definition of a devotional poem. In order to do so, we should first define devotional practice. For specifics about 17th-century devotional practice, I refer the reader to Anthony Low’s book, Love’s Architecture: Devotional Modes in Seventeenth-century English Poetry. For our purposes, it will suffice to define devotional practice as any of those practices that an individual uses to relate to God. Though 17-century English poets are of particular interest in this essay, devotional practices are not, of course, limited to 17th-century Europeans; they include all intentional ways of relating to the divine in any culture and at any time. I would suggest the following general categories of devotional practice, which are not specific to time period: confession, petition, praise, and meditation (not only in the sense of quieting one’s mind, but also in the opposite sense of mental engagement with theological concepts or mysteries, thus including struggle with uncertainty and doubt).
Having defined devotional practice in very broad terms, we can attempt a definition of a devotional poem: A devotional poem represents the devotional practice of the poet (even if it adopts a persona to do so), and is either a re-enactment of the devotional practice or is itself (in the process of its composition) part of that practice. Furthermore, theoretically speaking, a poem whose composition was itself part of the devotional practice would be the quintessential devotional poem, and a poem that re-enacts devotional practice, while remaining in the devotional mode, would fall on the periphery of the category. This distinction is more likely to be useful for poets than for critics. For critics, it may be a point of interest or speculation—for a poet, it may inform his or her actual composition.
III. Devotional Poetry Today
The Metaphysical poets have exerted a particularly strong influence on American poetry, and thus they are the focus of this essay, but so have (and perhaps increasingly so) mystic or ecstatic poets, including Eastern poets such as Rumi and Hafiz, as well as Europeans like St. John of the Cross. In fact, we would be remiss to avoid recognizing the mystical or ecstatic poem in any discussion of devotional poetry. The mystical or ecstatic poem can be seen as a sub-category of the devotional poem. However, I would suggest that mystical or ecstatic poems are rarely written by American poets today, and it is primarily in the area of stylistics (rather than mode of composition) that the influence of these poets is evident in contemporary American poetry. On the other hand, it is my contention that some American poets today still write in the broader devotional mode, and that the primary influence on their practice has been 17th-century English poets—an influence that has less to do with stylistics than with the ways in which their devotional poems engage with uncertainty.
The influence of 17th-century English poets transcends stylistics. As Metaphysical poets (if we understand the term to refer to stylistic elements), they are inhabitants of a particular time and place; as devotional poets, they inhabit human history, past and future. There are probably no Metaphysical poets today—I certainly know of none—but there are devotional poets. Some poets today occasionally write a poem with a figure that might be considered a metaphysical conceit, for instance, or deal linguistically with paradox in a way that resembles the way the Metaphysicals did, but the stylistic devices of the Metaphysicals are not a lifework for any of our poets. (However, they could be, if anyone were up to the task and inclined toward it—and perhaps, at some point, they should be, for the sake of the riches that the practice of the Metaphysical style can make available.) For some, however, poetry remains a devotional practice.
Anthony Low says, “True religious poetry is the product of radical transformation” (Love’s Architecture). This gets at what T. S. Eliot identified as the fundamental and vital element in George Herbert’s poetry—authenticity:
When I claim a place for Herbert among those poets whose work every lover of English poetry should read and every student of English poetry should study, irrespective of religious belief or unbelief, I am not thinking primarily of the exquisite craftmanship, the extraordinary metrical virtuosity, or the verbal felicities, but of the content of the poems which make up The Temple. These poems form a record of spiritual struggle which should touch the feeling, and enlarge the understanding of those readers also who hold no religious belief and find themselves unmoved by religious emotion. (“George Herbert as Religious Poet”)
If there could be only one criterion for devotional poetry, it would be authenticity of personal religious or spiritual expression. A devotional poem cannot co-opt religion for non-religious, non-devotional purposes—the poem cannot be ironic in this sense. A devotional poem must be a genuine religious expression or practice, otherwise it will simply be a commentary on religion from outside of religious experience. Devotional poetry operates from the inside. Furthermore, a devotional poet cannot write out of mere nostalgia for childhood religion or out of the influence of scriptural and ecclesiastical language, pure and simple. Rather, for a poet to be considered devotional, she or he must be an active practitioner of her or his faith—that is to say, the poet must actually believe in the God her or his poems address. The poet must literally be devoted (the etymology indicates “set apart by a vow”) to God.
A further distinction is necessary, because a devout poet does not necessarily write devotional poetry. Devotional poetry is a distinct category or mode within the larger categories of “religious” and “spiritual” poetry. As I have mentioned in the first section, devotional poetry represents the devotional practice of the poet. A poem may have God or religion as its subject without representing the poet’s devotional practice, so that there are religious poets who are not devotional poets. Czeslaw Milosz is an excellent example; he is primarily (i.e., most often) a religious poet. Devotional poetry must itself be a means of relating personally with God, rather than simply being a place where theological ideas are engaged, and I think Milosz’s poetry is usually the latter.
A few of Milosz’s poems, however, can be considered devotional poems. “An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven,” for instance, from This (To), is addressed directly to God, and it is easy to imagine that the persona of the poem represents the poet himself:
I pray to you, for I do not know how not to pray.
Because my heart desires you,
Though I do not believe you would cure me.
And so it must be, that those who suffer will continue to suffer,
Praising your name.
Uncertainty seems inherent in the above address to God, though it may seem for the reader one step removed from the poet’s own uncertainty due to the fact that a persona is speaking. “Prayer,” however, from the same collection, seems more clearly in the poet’s own voice:
Now You are closing down my five senses, slowly,
And I am an old man lying in darkness.
Liberate me from guilt, real and imagined.
Give me certainty that I toiled for Your glory.
In the hour of the agony of my death, help me with Your suffering
Which cannot save the world from pain.
The poet (writing this, I believe, in his eighties) is here describing his (ongoing) encounter with real uncertainty, and we might speculate that the poem was composed in uncertainty as well, which situates it more fully in the devotional mode. Often, however, even when we seem to hear Milosz’s own voice, it is primarily an appeal to his fellow humans, rather than directly to God, as in “If There Is No God,” from the last collection published before his death:
If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.
Much of Milosz’s poetry throughout his life was focused on social, historical, and theological issues, almost always religious to one degree or another, but rarely devotional.
Perhaps the best example of a contemporary devotional poet writing in America is Franz Wright. There is a host of recent and living poets who speak about God sporadically or in vague terms, but Franz Wright’s persistence in addressing God directly and specifically in his poems is unique, certainly among poets honored by the establishment (Wright was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2004).
In “Letter,” from his collection Walking to Martha’s Vineyard, Wright writes (in the present tense, you will notice) about a recent religious experience in a church, and then continues the meditation as he recalls walking outside, remarkably changed in attitude:
When I step outside the ugliness is so shattering
it has become dear to me, like a retarded
child, precious to me.
If only I could tell someone.
The humiliation I go through
when I think of my past
can only be described as grace.
We are created by being destroyed.
Wright often deals with guilt arising from his long struggle with depression and drug and alcohol abuse, as he does here. In this poem, his experience of guilt has finally been understood as the work of God’s grace, and it seems likely that the composition of the poem was itself part of the process of coming to that understanding. Wright is drawn to this kind of paradox, in which something seemingly antagonistic to his faith actually becomes the instrument through which he experiences God, time and again in his meditations. In “Cloudless Snowfall,” he says, “thank You for / keeping Your face hidden, I / can hardly bear the beauty of this world.” In “Year One,” he writes, “Moonlit winter clouds the color of the desperation of wolves. // Proof / of Your existence? There is nothing / but.” Wright addresses this paradox in an interview with Ernest Hilbert:
I think what [George] Herbert is getting at ([Gerard Manley] Hopkins is marvelous at this, too) is that our suffering is the terrible and only teacher—[Søren] Kierkegaard said famously suffering is the characteristic of God’s love—and I think everyone senses that failure and brokenness and loneliness cause us to perceive us as God might, as naked and ignorant and blind. Our suffering may be the real form love takes, but we also know that at the end of it waits infinite peace and radiance, that has been my experience anyway. Why things are arranged this way, who knows—pretty soon we are all going to find out.
Wright believes in the grace of God being mediated through suffering to such an extent that he is able to write, “Fill me with love for the truly afflicted / that hopeless love, if need be / make me one of them again” (“Why is the Winter Light,” from God’s Silence). And similarly, in “The Process” (God’s Silence), he writes about his experience of unpredictable and inexplicable joy, as well as its inverse—unpredictable and inexplicable agony. The movement of the poem is into an attitude of submission to and acceptance of God’s will, even if it requires his relapse into “the long black killing years” that “can always come again // according to Your will.” He concludes, “this time / I will not whine, I will obey // and be / (forever) / still.”
In his interview with Ernest Hilbert, Wright seems to indicate that the composition of his poems is very much a devotional process. He says, “I would say that the one and only reward of writing is the experience of writing—if you take it seriously, technically and spiritually—the experience, that secret glory, itself.” And in another interview, with Ilya Kaminski and Katherine Towler, he says, “Writing is listening. Religious experience is silent listening and waiting. I have always been able to tell whether something I am writing is genuinely an expression of revelation or if it’s just me exercising my intellect. I can feel the difference, see it and taste it, but I don’t know how I can do that” (“A Conversation with Franz Wright,” Image #51). In “Kyrie,” a poem from Wright’s collection Wheeling Motel, he writes, “he was legibly told what to say and he wrote // with mounting excitement and pleasure….” The “he” of this poem is certainly the poet, discovering what it is he will write as he writes it—as it is dictated to him from outside. This is the “listening” and “revelation” Wright spoke of in his interview.
In Wright’s poem, “The Only Animal,” he writes,
I stood once again
in this world, the garden
ark and vacant
tomb of what
I can’t imagine,
between twin eternities,
some sort of wings,
more or less equidistantly
exiled from both,
hovering in the dreaming called
being awake, where
You gave me
in secret one thing
to perceive, the
tall blue starry
strangeness of being
here at all.
The “strangeness of being” is an enduring uncertainty about which the poet meditates, presumably both in moments like the one described in the poem and through the very composition of this and other poems. In Wright’s poetry, uncertainty often, as in “The Only Animal,” is the impetus for the writing, and the writing is a means of engaging the uncertainty in an act of devotion (a meditation, often explicitly addressed to God). These are the poems of Wright’s that are most fully devotional. He does, however, have many poems that seem to record devotional experiences rather than enact them in their composition; these poems remain in the devotional mode, though more peripherally than poems like “The Only Animal.”
Wright’s poetry is devotional in the truest sense of the word—not only does it record religious experience and devotional practice, but it is often itself part of that devotional practice, which for Wright involves “listening” and “revelation.” Wright is not a Metaphysical poet, but he is a devotional one in the long tradition of Old Testament psalmists, medieval mystical poets, 17th-century English poets (especially George Herbert), and later devotional poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins (see especially what are known as his “terrible sonnets”). Stylistics are constantly changing in poetry, but devotion itself endures, with the power to, in Eliot’s phrase, “touch the feeling, and enlarge the understanding.”