Poetry, Spilt Religion, and the Poetic Imagination

By: Paul Lake

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:

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 other line.”

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:

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”:

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 transgression.

The ultimate consequence of this sort of writing, he says, will be to “re-envision the social contract.”

Though 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,

The 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.”

Though 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 awareness.

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 mountains.”

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.

About Paul Lake

Paul Lake is a professor of English and creative writing at Arkansas Tech University. He graduated from Stanford University with an MA in Creative Writing and English. He has published two volumes of poetry, Another Kind of Travel (Chicago), and Walking Backward (Story Line), along with a novel, Among the Immortals (Story Line), a satirical thriller about poets and vampires. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, The New Republic, The American Scholar, Yale Review, Southern Review, Paris Review, Partisan Review, and Sewanee Review.
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One Comment

  1. Hello Paul Lake. I enjoyed this a lot and share a similar stance toward things. I always thought that postmodernist poetry in general was based on the assumption that we’re socially constructed “all the way down,” and so, if there’s nothing substantial in human experience, one might as well play with symbols, and any novel organization of these symbols is as good as any other one. Of course, none of them really matter, since there really isn’t a self anyway. I think this approach is profoundly misguided. Funny how postmodernists never talk to sociobiologists, who think we’re determined totally by nature, rather than society. It’s as if they’re on two different planets. They should sit down and have coffee together sometime in the faculty lounge.

    I was a little surprised to see Blake escaping Hulme’s complaint of being “spilt religion.” Wouldn’t Hulme have considered him the arch-romantic?

    As you point out, the romanticism of Wordsworth and Whitman is an expression of a spiritual impulse. Is this really a “corruption?” At least it’s attempting a more complex relationship with the cosmos than that of, say, Larkin, who takes the materialistic framework as the first, last, and only way of looking at the world.

    There are plenty of excesses of romanticism, but I guess I’m wondering if your using the Hulme essay as a frame doesn’t distort the history of poetry somewhat. It seems you read things as classic good/romantic bad. You can link the language poets with Whitman and Wordsworth, but to my mind the link seems tenuous. Whitman and Wordsworth are have more in common with the spiritual strivings of an Eliot than with those who purport to not even believe in a self.

    These are quibbles. I enjoyed the impressive scope of your essay greatly.

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