Tonight as I cleaned up after the Easter feast, listening to Choral Evensong from Canterbury Cathedral, my mind kept leaving Canterbury to John Donne, “Death, Be Not Proud” for various reasons (none having to do with any deaths in my vicinity, however). It’s an appropriate poem for Easter — “Death, thou shalt die.”
Imagine Jeremy Irons reading it in your head. I do.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me. From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be, Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow, And soonest our best men with thee do go, Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery. Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men, And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell, And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then? One short sleep past, we wake eternally And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Besides Caedmon, we also commemorate the great English language poet George Herbert in February — apologies that this commemoration is one day late. I present you his poem “Prayer (I)”, which I used as my definition of prayer in my sermon of February 16:
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage, The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r, Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear, The six-days world transposing in an hour, A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear; Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss, Exalted manna, gladness of the best, Heaven in ordinary, man well drest, The milky way, the bird of Paradise, Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, The land of spices; something understood.
Today we commemorate Caedmon, our first recorded English poet. You can read my translation of Bede’s account of Caedmon here. Since I’ve blogged about Caedmon before (here and here), my mind is moving in other directions upon this commemoration of the poet, namely “religious” poetry more widely.
Poetry is the imaginative aspect of human language, the grasping after symbol and metaphor and those moments that dance around the periphery of our vision, seeking to translate the sublime into ink and paper (or pixels on a screen — or carvings on a stone). The poetic mode is not simply verse, not simply the arrangement of human language into line and meter making use of literary devices.
It is that, of course. It is also more like … the grasping of language at the numinous? Even (especially) when it is ordinary.
When we reach for that, when we attempt to rearrange language into line and verse with metaphor and simile, symbol and personification — then even the gore of the dead, the crushing of corpses, in the plains of Ilium rises to the sublime. The horror of the Iliad, that is, is transposed to a higher mode of language through Homer’s poetry than a simple synopsis would make it out to be.
What is interesting is that poetry is not simply there at the fundaments of religion.
It is there at the fundaments of language and literature.
From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things are everywhere.
–One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, Dr. Suess
Poetry, like the “funny things” of Dr. Suess, is everywhere. Greek literature does not begin with a prose treatise on government. It begins with Iliad and Odyssey, followed quickly by Theogony, and then, soon thereafter, the Homeric Hymns. Deep in The foundational works of Greek literature are not only poems but also the foundational works of the Greek religious thought-world.
Christianity was born from Judaism, and thus born already with the Psalms, those hymns to YHWH composed and sung by the Jewish people over generations. But it was also born with the canticles in the Gospel of Luke (Magnificat, Benedictus, Nunc Dimittis), with the poetic (if not formal verse) prologue to John, with the prose hymn of Philippians 2.
Every culture that has Christians in it ends up writing poetry. In the ancient world, this means we get to enjoy, besides the Latins I tend to mention, the Greeks such as Romanus the Melodist and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Syriac authors like St Ephraim (how many times have I mentioned Ephraim the Syrian on this blog, I wonder?), Jacob of Serugh, and beyond. Medieval Armenia produces Gregory of Narek.
And so the Gospel washes ashore in England, headed for Canterbury from Rome and for Lindisfarne from Ireland. Both continental ‘Roman’ Christianity and insular Irish Christianity are versed in poetry — and the Irish in both Latin and Irish verse (I am fond of St Brigid’s and St Columba’s poetry). With such tutors as these, it comes as no surprise that the English start singing praises of their new God and King.
And our own English tongue has produced a wealth of poetry, of expressing with words something of the inexpressible, of coming close to the Uncreated Light, finding your mind so small, yet wishing, nevertheless, to praise the Holy Trinity, or to attempt to trace the outlines of your own beating heart as you catch a glimpse of Him, whether in the Holy Communion or maybe simply some daffodils.
In today’s utilitarian world, where the Prosperity Gospel wants to use Jesus to get rich quick, where we try to parse the mystery of the Eucharist to its last moment, where people walk out of sessions on biblical theology saying that they didn’t ‘get anything out of it’, where we want our sermons served up with a good side of ‘what should I do’, where we forget transcendence in favour of social action —–
God breaks through.
And He has some poets to help us see Him — Malcolm Guite, Luci Shaw, Scott Cairns, as well as singer-songwriters Steve Bell and John Michael Talbot all spring to mind.
Since I’ve quoted Hooker on the Eucharist at length, here’s a poem I often read in preparation for receiving the Blessed Sacrament. George Herbert’s 1633 poem ‘The Holy Communion’. Classic Anglicanism is rich and beautiful, as you can tell. He also expresses something of eucharistic soteriology, as you can see. For Herbert’s indentations done properly, go to the online edition at the CCEL.
The H. Communion.
NOt in rich furniture, or fine aray,
Nor in a wedge of gold,
Thou, who for me wast sold,
To me dost now thy self convey;
For so thou should’st without me still have been,
Leaving within me sinne:
But by the way of nourishment and strength
Thou creep’st into my breast;
Making thy way my rest,
And thy small quantities my length;
Which spread their forces into every part,
Meeting sinnes force and art.
Yet can these not get over to my soul,
Leaping the wall that parts
Our souls and fleshy hearts;
But as th’ outworks, they may controll
My rebel-flesh, and carrying thy name,
Affright both sinne and shame.
Onley thy grace, which with these elements comes,
Knoweth the ready way,
And hath the privie key,
Op’ning the souls most subtile rooms;
While those to spirits refin’d, at doore attend
Dispatches from their friend.
Give me my captive soul, or take
My bodie also thither.
Another lift like this will make
Them both to be together.
Before that sinne turn’d flesh to stone,
And all our lump to leaven;
A fervent sigh might well have blown
Our innocent earth to heaven.
For sure when Adam did not know
To sinne, or sinne to smother;
He might to heav’n from Paradise go,
As from one room t’another.
Thou hast restor’d us to this ease
By this thy heav’nly bloud;
Which I can go to, when I please,
And leave th’earth to their food.
For we who pray the Prayer Book Collects, Bible Sunday has come around again. I have no deep meditations on Scripture and its role in our lives this year, so what I do have I offer you — George Herbert:
THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
O Book! infinite sweetness! let my heart
Suck every letter, and a honey gain,
Precious for any grief in any part;
To clear the breast, to mollify any pain.
Thou art all health, health thriving, till it make
A full eternity: thou art a mass
Of strange delights, where we may wish and take.
Ladies, look here; this is the thankful glass,
That mends the looker’s eyes: this is the well
That washes what it shows. Who can endear
Thy praise too much? thou art Heaven’s Lieger here,
Working against the states of death and hell.
Thou art joy’s handsel: heaven lies flat in thee,
Subject to every mounter’s bended knee.
Oh that I knew how all thy lights combine
And the configurations of their glory!
Seeing not only how each verse doth sine,
But all the constellations of the story.
This verse marks that, and both do make a motion
Unto a third, that ten leaves off doth lie;
Then as dispersed herbs do watch a potion,
These three make up some Christian’s destiny.
Such are thy secrets, which my life makes good,
And comments on thee: for in every thing
Thy words do find me out, and parallels bring,
And in another make me understood.
Stars are poor books, and oftentimes do miss:
This book of stars lights to eternal bliss.
And, in case you need a reminder, the Collect for Advent 2:
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Early in the New Year, I finished this volume which is a beacon of hope for those of us who maintain faith in the midst of a dark night of rationalism, knowing that there is more afoot than reductionism and materialism and scientism with their false certainties provide. Yet how can we articulate that vision, having been raised in these -isms of late modernity?
Poetry is Guite’s answer. In this book, he discusses how poetry, with its fraught edges of language and human experience, its deployment of symbol and metaphor and juxtaposition, brings us into contact with the transcendent God and provides a medium for expressing those realities glimpsed at the corners of our vision that are almost inexpressible in modernist terms, realities, as I would express it, embodied in liturgy and the mystical. Here, the medium for this theological expression and outlet for realities beyond the ken of man is the poetic.
After setting up the problem of late modernity and postmodernism’s failure to solve or address the problem with any success, he takes us into the realm of imagination, of poetry, weaving in a few poems along the way. An extended discussion of two wonderful poems ensues — ‘The Rain Stick’ by Seamus Heaney, and ‘Prayer (1)’ by George Herbert. Here we see how language plays upon us and how the created world can be a window into eternity.
Then the methodology of reading poetry is brought forth, a methodology we should all use, whether reading theologically or not. Guite cites five ways of reading:
1. Tasting the Words
2. Echo and Counterpoint
3. Images and Allusion
4. Ambiguity and Ambivalence
5. Perspective and Paradox
Re-read each poem seeking after all of these.
The main body of the book is then arranged chronologically from The Dream of the Rood, a poem which I love, to Seamus Heaney, my appreciation of whom is growing. And that’s not a backhanded compliment, but a sincere enjoyment of a modern poet (rare for me). The poets along the way are Shakespeare, Sir John Davies, John Donne, George Herbert, Henry Vaughn, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin, and Geoffrey Hill.
Not all of these men are Christians — Hardy, Larkin, and Hill are explicitly not. Guite’s treatment of them is sensitive and eloquent, showing how the honesty of these poets allows for the real life fissures in any belief, including unbelief. And not all of the poems are explicitly Christian, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.
Reflecting and refracting throughout the book is the image from ‘The Rain Stick’ of glimpsing eternity through the ear of a raindrop. And, from the arrival of Sir John Davies, an important theme of Faith, Hope and Poetry is the inner person, the microcosm (incidentally, an idea originally imaged forth by St Maximos the Confessor in the 600s), and how, for all its subtleties, physical science can never penetrate the human soul. Know yourself — but this is not achieved by science.
A third major contributor, and possibility the theorist who gave rise to so much of this, is S. T. Coleridge and his philosophy of poetry and symbol. Coleridge is important, for he is the first of these poets writing after the Enlightenment (Endarkenment). He believes that God, as Creator, is writ upon creation in a real yet subtle way. Indeed, symbols are not simply one thing standing for another. No, symbols are pathways from one thing to another. They bridge the gap between apparently divergent realities, human and animal, God and creation, nature and supernature. This, I observe, is not dissimilar from much of the theology of icons in St John of Damascus or, more recently, Pavel Florensky.
There are many great insights in this book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to come to poetry and to theology with fresh eyes.
Having just finished Malcolm Guite’s excellent book Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, I am full of thoughts about poetry, theology, imagination, art. In his chapter on George Herbert, Guite writes about the poem ‘The Agony’, and how the line ‘His garments bloody be’ draws the reader to Isaiah 63:3:
I have trodden the wine-press alone … for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments and I will stain all my raiment.
But this image, of a wrathful God coming covered in the blood of those upon whom he has taken just vengeance, was daringly and paradoxically applied to Christ by the Church Fathers, both to suggest that, in making atonement, it is his own blood which Christ spills instead of ours, and to make a symbolically profound reversal of the Old Testament metaphor. In Isaiah, the wine grushed from the grapes symbolises blood; in the radical Chrsitian reading of that passage, the garments dipped in blood presage Christ’s gift of his own blood as wine. (123)
This, of course, makes me thirst to read what the Fathers have to say about Isaiah 63. But in looking at them, at allegory and typology and the fulfilment of all things in Christ, some discussion of method is, I think, necessary. So, allow me to write a few posts on these topics — at least the following two topics:
Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathom’d the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man, so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments, bloody be.
Sin is that Press and Vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay,
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.
I recently remarked to a couple of Master’s students groaning about reading Homer that if they’re interested in Late Antiquity, Homer’s not totally irrelevant, given that Gregory of Nazianzus wrote poetry in Homeric verse. A (very pleasant and overall thoughtful) young convert to Eastern Orthodoxy remarked that he really liked Gregory’s theological poetry. I said that I liked his poems, too. Then this fellow said that you don’t find theological poetry in western theology, and that a reading group of which he is a member had been reading the Second Theological Oration and he loved some of the poetry in it.
I asked if the ‘poetry’ was written in verse.
No, it was just very beautiful.
I said that that’s actually rhetoric, and that that’s the Fathers for you. They have rhetorical training, and such beauty comes through in their theology, that people like Gregory, Augustine and Ambrose didn’t study rhetoric for it to have no effect on their style of writing.
Our conversation moved on, because I’m bad at confronting people face to face when they say stuff like that.
In the above exchange, there was one category error and (at least) one misrepresentation of western theology. Now, I’m not going to say that Gregory of Nazianzus at his high-flying, rhetorical, ‘poetic’ best isn’t magnificent and stunning. He is. And his theology is good, too. And other eastern Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa or Basil of Caesarea or Athanasius or, in Syriac, Ephraim the Syrian (literal poetry, in his case), have all displayed to me the stylistic beauty of their writings over the years.
But to say that anything beautiful is poetry is not to know what poetry is. And to say that western theology has no poetry is not to know the western heritage.
Sometimes I think a lot of people leave the western churches for Eastern Orthodoxy because we’ve been holding back our own riches of a variety that Eastern Orthodoxy spreads out lavishly. I do not imagine that my acquaintance has read beautiful, ‘poetic’, rhetorical western theology and failed to recognise what it is. I imagine that he has not read it.
So, first: Western theology has poetry. Literally. This should go without saying on this blog, given the series of holy week poems I posted this year, including ones by Theodulph of Orléans (9th c), Ambrose of Milan (4th c), Venantius Fortunatus (6th-7th c), Thomas Aquinas (13th c), and a couple of anonymous ones. I have also discussed Ambrose of Milan’s hymnography. It is worth observing that two of the greatest theological minds of the western tradition, Sts Ambrose of Milan and Thomas Aquinas, were both, literally speaking, poets. So were Peter Abelard and Bonaventure, one a controversial theologian, the other a mystical theologian. Others who are famous as poets also wrote theologically, such as Prudentius and Sedulius. Also, Dante has more than a little theology in his poetry, and of the moderns, we need look no further than the Holy Sonnets of Donne, or the theological work of Spenser, or the world of Francis Thompson or Gerard Manley Hopkins to find westerners (Anglican & Roman Catholic) writing theological poetry.
And, second: Western theology can be poetic. In prose. So, figuratively? Today, when a lot of people say ‘western theology’, they actually mean either something that looks like mediaeval scholasticism (which is both a way of thinking as well as a style/genre of approach) or something that looks like the Enlightenment. That all western theology is about precision and order and sets itself out in Aristotelian syllogisms and spends its time being obsessed with the rational and forgets the mystical and so on and so forth.
This is largely a caricature, and it is entirely inappropriate for western, Latin theology before some time in the Middle Ages, and not always inappropriate thereafter. Not only do western theologians produce a good supply of poetic, beautiful, rhetorical work, eastern theologians use their fair share of logic and reason (so John of Damascus, most of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit, much of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, Cyril of Alexandria, and so forth). The style of theology we are caricatured as doing exclusively is not our exclusive domain. And the style we are imagined as not engaging in is part of our territory, too.
Lift up your eyes to the light itself, and fix them upon it if you can. For so you will see how the birth of the Word of God differs from the procession of the Gift of God, on account of which the only-begotten Son did not say that the Holy Spirit is begotten of the Father, otherwise He would be His brother, but that He proceeds from Him. Whence, since the Spirit of both is a kind of consubstantial communion of Father and Son, He is not called, far be it from us to say so, the Son of both. But you can not fix your sight there, so as to discern this lucidly and clearly; I know you can not. I say the truth, I say to myself, I know what I cannot do; yet that light itself shows to you these three things in yourself, wherein you may recognize an image of the highest Trinity itself, which you can not yet contemplate with steady eye. Itself shows to you that there is in you a true word, when it is born of your knowledge, i.e. when we say what we know: although we neither utter nor think of any articulate word that is significant in any tongue of any nation, but our thought is formed by that which we know; and there is in the mind’s eye of the thinker an image resembling that thought which the memory contained, will or love as a third combining these two as parent and offspring. (De Trin. 15.50)
Not necessarily theology at its most poetic/rhetorical/beautiful. But not lacking in what a Romantic eschewing verse might call ‘poetry’. If you’ve spent your time with Latin Christianity through the medium of text books or of dry dogmatics, refresh your understanding of it. Grab One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas by P G Walsh and Christopher Husch, or St Bernard of Clairvaux, or Lady Julian of Norwich, or any of a multitude of western theologians and poets, and reacquaint yourself with the tradition we all seem to have forgotten and then scorned.
In this case, it is not familiarity that has bred contempt.
This week of mediaeval (plus Ambrose) poetry began with Theodulf of Orleans’ triumphal eighth-century hymn in J M Neale’s wonderful Victorian rendering, ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour.’
But the earthly triumph of Palm Sunday so quickly turns to Good Friday, to ignominy and death.
In Holy Saturday, Christ’s body rests in the tomb, cold and dead.
The scattered disciples are probably in hiding.
We, however, have a different perspective because of tomorrow, when all the promises of God are fulfilled in Our Lord’s Resurrection. Western Christian hymnody and devotional poetry demonstrate this perspective, that the cross — a historical action filled with shame and defeat — is, in fact, the true triumph of God in his upside-down kingdom.
This is the hour that brought an end
to that long-standing grievous sin,
demolished then the realm of death,
and rid the world of ancient guilt.
Christ trampled down death by death on the Cross. He destroyed the power of sin and the devil. God entered into the fullness of human experience in Christ. It is victorious, as Fortunatus demonstrated to us on Tuesday, where the juxtaposition of the ‘standards of the King’ and the ‘mystery of the cross’ remind us of this victory over the forces of evil wrought for us on the tree.
And then on Thursday, I diverged from the passion hymns. I gave us a Eucharistic hymn by St Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian of the Middle Ages and liturgist of the feast of Corpus Christi. Whether we believe in the doctrine of Transubstantiation enshrined by Innocent III in 1226 or not, I believe that faithful Christians can stand behind Aquinas in ‘Pange, Lingua’ — Christ is present to us in the Eucharist; ‘This is my body’. And so, we turn from his body broken, bleeding, sorrowing, sighing, dying, on the Cross to his body present to us in the bread and the wine:
Fac me cruce inebriari. Et cruore Filii. -Innocent III
Make me drunk with the cross and the blood of the Son.
And then, Good Friday, when at the Third Hour the King of Glory ascended his throne, his sole earthly crown an instrument of torture, came the poem that inspired me to put together this assembly, the Middle English devotional poem, ‘Man and woman, look on me.’ This poem is a graphic reminder that Christ’s blood washes away our sins.
And as we meditated on Christ in our hearts, I provided art to look upon literally. All save the Giotto on Palm Sunday were photos I took in the churches and museums of continental Europe. The devotional life of mediaeval Europe was powerfully, mightily crucicentric. Maybe, sometimes, too much.
Yet on that Cross, the saviour died. God bled out.
One of the Holy Trinity suffered and died for us.
And so we have the ivory carvings, Gothic retables, stone crosses, frescoes, and manuscript illuminations of European devotion. So our physical eyes can behold what our spirits feast upon — the efficacious sacrifice of the Saviour.
If we enter into the blood and the gore and the sorrow and the pain of Good Friday, into the crown of thorns, the nail-pierced limbs, the spear in the side, how much more may we enter into the joy of glorious Easter and the empty tomb, the resurrected Saviour and the conquest of death.