Review: Malcolm Guite, Faith, Hope and Poetry

Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic ImaginationFaith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination by Malcolm Guite
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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Blood: Allegory & Agony 1: Herbert

Masaccio, Christ in Gethsemane (1424/5)

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.

Writes Guite:

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:

  1. Christological exegesis
  2. Isaiah 63

In the meantime, George Herbert (from this website):

THE AGONY

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.

The False East-West Dichotomy and Poetic Theology

Poussin, The Inspiration of the Poet (1630)

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.

A bit of a sawdusty, Victorian translation of the final book of St Augustine’s On the Trinity has some beauty to it. St. Augustine’s own mystical vision ends in the beatific vision — yet the light is too dazzling for mortal eye:

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.